Archive for horror

Horror after history: Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 27 September 2013 by Ben

Text of a talk I gave at the 2013 &NOW Conference. Warning: rough edges.

There is a moment in the life of concepts when they lose their immediate intelligibility and can then, like all empty terms, be overburdened with contradictory meanings.

—Agamben, Homo Sacer

This paper is about horror—both what we feel and the genre known as such—and history. The intersection of these two terms in this paper involves the claim that horror—both the feeling and the genre—has a history and that history in one of its most prevalent senses—that being the sense that history is progressive—horrifies. I will not come to a strong conclusion.

The Last Werewolf is potboiler full of sex and violence (although, truth be told, in both quality and quantity not so much, contra the breathless reviews). Glen Duncan, like so many who have written genre fiction, appears in this context to be, as Melville once said satirically of Hawthorne, a man who means no meanings. Of course to be a man who means no meanings at the end of history, is simply to be a man. Or an animal, as to be a man means to mean meanings and to mean meanings means to be a man. After the end of history, after meaning has ceased, one can no longer be a man properly so-called. Nor can one be beast. Such distinctions are part and parcel of history and the meaning, the technology or the means of meaning which it affords. After history, the genres such distinctions create and maintain—genres which must be created and maintained because they have no inherent reality—disappear. No more human and animal. No more horror, sf, fantasy. No more potboilers and no more literature.

In The Open, Agamben discusses a messianic and a modern account of the reconciliation of the human to the animal, each of which involves the end times or the end of history. In the messianic account, what survives the last judgment is the purely human, the human exclusive of its embodiment, its physicality, its animality. In the modern account, which comes out of Hegel on Kojeve’s reading and very much determines popular and populist notions of history to the present insofar as it’s underpinned by “progres”, the end of history involves the “disappearance of Man properly so-called,” the end of “Action negating the given, and Error, or, in general, the Subject opposed to the Object.” At the conclusion of History, “Man remains alive as animal in harmony with Nature or Given being.” In other words, at the end of history the human loses what makes it human; the animalization of the human takes place through the exclusion of humanity.

Later, in Homo Sacer, in a chapter entitled “The Ban and the Wolf,” Agamben returns to his discussion of animality in the context of the political conditions of modernity. He notes that the werewolf, in its origin, is closely related to the figure of homo sacer, or sacred man, who, in contradiction to his title, can be killed but not sacrificed. He notes that Germanic and Anglo-Saxon sources define the bandit (who is excluded from the polis and the laws that protect the demos such that anyone may kill him) as a wolf-man. “What had to remain in the collective unconscious as a monstrous hybrid of human and animal, divided between the forest and the city—the werewolf—is, therefore, in its origin the figure of the man who has been banned from the city.” Notably, for all of its etymological inquiries, for all of genealogical tracings of an obscure figure of ancient law, Homo Sacer concerns itself first and foremost with what Agamben calls “the nomos of the modern,” under which the state of exception (which can be traced back first to sacred man and then to the werewolf) becomes permanent.

Agamben notes that, as a term, “homo sacer” makes almost no sense, burdened as it is with so many contradictory meanings. For example, if the man in question is sacred—that is, if he belongs to the gods—why may he be killed by anyone? To come to some understanding of the term, although this definition does not account for its complexity entirely, we might articulate it with a concept of history and say that homo sacer is excluded from all humanity, including that which we call history. Homo sacer, in other words, cannot be made meaningful, cannot be included in the city, in the purview of “Man properly so-called.” In some sense, homo sacer is already removed from such profanity, from human use and is therefore already sacred, but cannot partake in a becoming sacred that meaning requires. If this point seems contradictory, it is. That meaning is human is part and parcel of Hegel’s notion of history, but at the same time this meaning, history itself, requires spirit, something fundamentally non-human, in order to mean.

Glen Duncan’s title refers literally to Jacob Marlowe, the last of his kind. However, I can’t hear it or read it without thinking of Fukuyama’s the last man who comes at the end of history or of Nietzsche’s last man who heralds the arrival of what comes after the human. However, this echo raises the question of whether Marlowe is the last wer and the last wolf, the last human (or at least the last man) as well as the last beast or if he is the last werewolf, the last intersection of the two? That is, with his conclusion does the distinction between human and animal cease or is it completed? Whatever the case, he is both human and beast, an animal in an urban world, a creature whose fleshly (dare I say natural?) appetites—which include well-aged scotch and constant sexual intercourse—can only be satiated by the conveniences of modern culture. He lives always in a human world, but apart from humanity. He is integrated in the system of culture through his investments, but has few friends and a life that has no value whatsoever. he may be captured and tortured without consequence, killed by those who hate and fear him without anyone knowing or caring.

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Some thoughts on magic in Peake’s Gormenghast

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 31 August 2013 by Ben

One of the questions that preoccupies criticism of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels is whether they are generic fantasy. Of course, they were written and published at a time when there was no such thing–or no such thing in the sense that we mean today. That they are often referred to as a trilogy–despite numerous facts that run contrary to such a designation–implies a desire on the part of critics, reviewers, and capitalists to recuperate Peake under a generic, and therefore valorzing heading that will thus allow for further commodification. “Like Tolkien? You’ll LOVE Titus Groan! Please ignore all of the ways in which it is different… mumble… mumble… look over there! Yoink!” [Steals money, runs away.]

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Stefan Ekman on polders

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , , , on 14 August 2013 by Ben

A polder is, simply put, a space in fantasy literature protected from the outside (think Lothlórien, for example).

Following from Clute, who writes, “Polders change only when they are being devoured from without”, Stefan Ekman argues (in Here Be Dragons):

In other words, for a polder, the internal and external realities are set up as opposing forces, and as long as the polder is successfully maintained, it does not change. The world outside does, however, and its change widens the temporal gap between the two realities. The polder becomes a maintained anachronism–that is, an anachronism opposed to the time of the surrounding world, actively if not consciously (because it begs the question: whose consciousness?). The external time is, and must be, the wrong time, since, in a polder, any time but its own is wrong. Hence a polder must not only be maintained but also defended from external influence. (100)

It is always interesting to me the way in which theoretical discussions of genre mirror debates about the legitimacy of generic fiction. For example, we might consider Literature a polder, artificially protected from the ravages of genre and history, frozen (as if by one of the three rings for eleven kings) in place and rendered incorruptible–except that Literature is presented as the world and generic fiction as something foreign to that world, which seems to me opposite how the polder tends to work (at least in Tolkien). This is the Generic at work.

Knowing in Middle-earth

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , on 26 July 2013 by Ben

In Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, Brian Rosebury writes:

“By this point it should be clear that a theme is emerging from the analysis. If The Lord of the Rings stands at a tangent to the novel as a genre, it is not because of a general abstention from realism or archaism of style–neither of which can really be attributed to it–but because of a highly specific feature for which precedents are hardly to be found in the novel tradition: the complex, and to an extent, systemic, elaboration of an imaginary world” (25)

He goes on to say that even SF does not go so far in such world building, and I think that  it is likely true that no other fantasy goes this far either. However, it is precisely this point that is deceiving because we do noy, in fact, know everything about Middle-earth. If we do, we have to admit that there is actually very little to know, because we in fact know so little of, for example, the common people. If we do know everything, the world is not actually all that complex. If we don’t know everything, then we are deceived into believing we do. The issue here involves the idea that everything in Middle-earth can be known, is knowable, which is not even true of our own world (or planet, as it were, in Eugene Thacker’s terms).  What Middle-earth lacks is horror, the discovery of what should not be, what cannot be knowable according to prevailing ways of knowing.

Paper Proposal for 2013 &Now Conference

Posted in Conferences, Writing with tags , , , , , , on 2 April 2013 by Ben

Second proposal of the night. If it weren’t for the last second and all that. This one is for the 2013 &Now Conference, this September in Boulder. I wish this proposal was a bit more fleshed out, but that’s the way it is.

Horror after History: Glenn Duncan’s The Last Werewolf

Proposal for &Now 7

Benjamin J. Robertson

Jake Marlowe is, as the title of Glenn Duncan’s 2011 novel suggests, The Last Werewolf—and he dreams of suicide. Jake’s life, perhaps never meaningful, has become unbearable in its absurdity. Despite the pleas of his single friend, he prepares to end his centuries-long existence in the knowledge that his death will be as meaningless as his life.

According to Kojève, following Hegel, at culmination of modernity, the end of history, the human, having achieved its perfection and without the possibility of art and therefore meaning, will revert to animality. Similar to Marlowe’s understanding of his imminent death, the disappearance of the human has little consequence for the universe: “The disappearance of Man at the end of history is not a catastrophe: the natural World remains what it has been from all eternity. And it is not a biological catastrophe either: Man remains live as animal in harmony with Nature or given Being. What disappears is Man properly so-called.”

This paper investigates, through a consideration of The Last Werewolf, the horror genre in relation to questions of history, knowledge, and human being. Far from returning the human to a state of nature, in The Last Werewolf, the animal ‘inside’ the human takes the human out of sync with itself and undermines the notion of history’s end by undermining the notion of history itself in the manner that Kojève pace Hegel understood it, Specifically, I consider Marlowe’s statements, made with regard to his soon-to-be werewolf lover Talulla: “Thus she’s discovered the Conradian truth: The first horror is there’s horror. The second is you accommodate it. […] You do what you do because it’s that or death.” This short passage moves the horror genre beyond the knowledge practices of modernity, in which horror derives from a challenge to positive knowledge and rationality, a challenge to our deepest epistemological assumptions. Here, horror becomes the groundless ground of being, an ontological “truth” that renders all meaning impossible, including the meaning of one’s life and the meaning of one’s death.


Everything looks worse in black and white: Graphic Violence in From Hell: My Proposal for ROMOCOCO:

Posted in papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , on 1 March 2013 by Ben

It’s not quite BI-MON-SCI-FI-CON (“Be there and be square!”), but ROMOCOCO (The Rocky Mountain Comic Convention) has a great name. and now it has this proposal to consider.

Everything looks worse in black and white: Graphic Violence in From Hell

Benjamin J. Robertson

In the early 1970s, I recall looking through HBO’s monthly guide and discovering that among the reasons a film might be rated R was something called “graphic violence.” My parents explained that graphic violence involved a lot of blood. For years I understood the word graphic to mean something like “gratuitous and visual.”

From Hell is an unquestionably violent text and a certain amount of this violence seems to be graphic in the manner of those movies on HBO after the kids are sent to bed. Absent, of course, in From Hell’s black-and-white artwork, are the red of the blood and the sheen of the guts of Sir William Gull’s victims. And while HBO’s definition of “graphic” applies to this text, its another form of “graphic violence” that is all the more notable in it.

This paper investigates the manner in which From Hell’s black-and-white artwork interacts with, underscores, and augments the text’s themes of violence and history. The most violent aspect of the text is not its portrayal of the relentlessness of William Gull but the relentlessness of its representational strategy. Moore and Campbell offer no respite from the onslaught of rough black-and-white images, images which assault the reader with their sameness and with their inability to render any clarity. Far from offering the simplicity or morality that “black and white” implies (following from, for example, the nostalgia we feel for the image of the 1950s given us in the television reruns from that era), From Hell instead offers the past as an elaborate sketch. Indeed, From Hell appears to the reader as more of a study for some as yet incompletely imagined work than it does a finished product.

some thoughts on sf, horror, fantasy, genre, technology, magic, and other made up stuff

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 9 January 2013 by Ben

No time to write today as I have been prepping for the coming term, taking notes on The Natural and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Thinking about the latter in the context of my class on the Nigh Fantastic brought me back to some thoughts I have had on the connections amongst the genres of SF, fantasy, and horror. I had been discussing these connections with a colleague last year and wrote up the following explanation. I don’t pretend that these are perfect definitions–all definitions of genre are fraught with inconsistencies. They are just speculations, useful for my current project on genre, media, and history in which I am thinking about the ways that these three genres allow us to imagine the future. Specifically, I am thinking about Stiegler’s notions of disbelief and discredit and how sf creates each and how fantasy might, if read according to terms other than those that derive from sf, foster belief rather than merely suspending its opposite. In any case, in lieu of actual writing for the day, here are some thoughts. I was specifically addressing my colleague’s concerns about the unreality of magic and therefore the problematic and unuseful nature of fantasy.

Bataille cites Breton (this is in The Accursed Share vol 2) on the need of some men to create an authentic humanity that overcomes the inauthentic humanity that precedes it. keep this in mind.

so, my thinking on these three genres (which i won’t claim to be perfect, nor is it total given how slippery genre is) goes like this:

  • sf is about what cannot happen in the reader’s world but plausibly could (with the recognition that this plausibility derives from a certain episteme, probably related to a Hegelian notion of progress).
  • fantasy is about what cannot happen in the reader’s world and doesn’t. that is, the reader *knows* it cannot happen (again, where this knowledge is conditioned by an epistemological ground).
  • horror is about what cannot happen in the reader’s world and shouldn’t. i think for this reason we see more slasher/torture porn now than Lovecraft-style horror. the latter does not frighten us because we have no strong understanding of knowledge and it’s practices, thus we cannot be frightened by the revelation that we know nothing (which is the primary horror of At the Mountains of Madness). thus what “should not* happen in the reader’s world is reduced to the gruesome, rather than the existential. this may be why Prometheus fails–too much of the former with little of the latter. the existential fear is what is great about the first and even the second Alien film.

the three are thus connected by this “cannot happen” and disconnected by way of our understanding of possibility. further, we can also consider the genres with regard to the attitudes of characters in the narratives. in sf, characters tend to accept the existence of whatever technology (which we accept with them as possible, if not actual). in fantasy, characters tend to accept the reality of magic (although often this acceptance is not primary; in many fantasy texts, magic has only reappeared for the main characters, who then struggle with this reappearance). in horror, characters do not accept what happens in much the manner that we do not accept it as possible in our world, for the simple fact that it *should not* be possible. i can’t push much harder here without these neat distinctions falling apart, but i will mention a couple of things.

  • first, fantasy and sf have a connection insofar as characters accept as real what is for us impossible, although there are differences in how long this acceptance takes.
  • horror and fantasy connect insofar as they both deal with things that cannot happen for us. the difference between them seems to be in the way they deal with the past. whereas fantasy has the wizard, who may be a crank but tends to be respected, horror has the gypsy or similar character, who is not so much a crank as shunned altogether. both characters warn the present about the supernatural (Gandalf warns Middle Earth about Sauron, the gypsy about the werewolf or whatever). more on this in a second.
  • horror and sf connect in that they both posit a rational world to begin with. sf deals with an extrapolation of the rational into a superrational, whereas horror deals with the revelation that the rational was only ever a mask for something else. the stripping away of the rational is horror.

so this all leads to a few more points that might begin to address concerns about magic, in the context of the Breton above. all three genres, it seems to me, deal in some way with questions of knowledge, history, and humanity–which are terms that are, in some sense, closely connected with one another. so try on this alternative explanation of what the three genres do:

  • sf deals with the forward movement of history and the possibility of an authentic humanity in the future. the path to this humanity is knowledge. of course, much sf finds that knowledge is problematic and that too much an lead to decadence or destruction or something equally bad.
  • in fantasy, the authentic humanity is in the past. much fantasy takes as its starting point a present that can no longer accomplish the great works of the past (Gondor cannot do magic to counter Sauron, whereas 3000 years earlier the Last Alliance of Men and Elves could defeat him in open battle; Aragorn is the descendant of Men, but is perhaps the last of them; etc.). the past is a time when magic was understood, when it was useful and could do things. in the present, magic, if there is magic, is poorly understood, or understood only by anomalous mystics who seem to be utterly ahistorical. thus magic becomes magic through decadence. in this way, fantasy can be understood as the *future* of science fiction, a time in the future after the decadence that sf posits as the outcome of rationality in which technology is no longer understood and therefore becomes magic.
  • horror, finally, is about the present. authentic humanity has been achieved and the rational world rules all. however, that authenticity is then challenged by a discovery (as in At the Mountains of Madness or, for that matter, Prometheus) that reveals rationality for a facade. whereas sf would deal with the same sort of thing as the outcome of a rational project (even if that project leads towards irrationality at some point), horror posits something completely unexpected, to the point of being impossible. that discovery is not subject to falsifiability, is not a failed experiment so much as something that happens outside of the context of failure/success (a binary of science, both terms of which are equally scientific and rational).

so, sf is about the future becoming a kind of past–insofar as knowledge can lead to decadence. fantasy is about the past becoming a sort of future–in which rationality is lost due to exactly that sort of decadence. horror is about the present opening onto both a past (the return of the repressed, what rationality had to always ignore and obfuscate) and a future (in which what might be repressed is humanity itself). it seems then, to me, that magic and technology are not so far away from one another. in sf tech might become magic; in fantasy, tech *has* become magic (and note here that for Mieville tech and magic are very close to one another insofar as he situates them both within political economy, rather than positing magic as a force that is always outside and forever unexplained). horror might not deal with this binary at all, but rather might be about a challenge to knowledge in any form. for a world more comfortable with sf, horror is the disruption of rational knowledge, the introduction of that which cannot be known into knowledge. for a magical world, horror is less this epistemological problem than an ontological one. the character in fantasy knows that what we would call the supernatural exists, but that knowledge is hardly comforting as all it provides is the knowledge of what might happen to that character (she could lose her soul, be enslaved, etc.). these sorts of horror do bleed over (fear of the bomb in sf; coming to know of a darker magic heretofore unknown in fantasy).

so, in short, magic is the past and future of technology and thus fantasy is the past and future of sf. horror is the generic element necessary to introduce this pastness or futurity.

to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke: any insufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.