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Empires of Disbelief: ICFA 35 proposal

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, papers, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 30 October 2013 by Ben

I’m working in this general area right now for Here at the end of all things. I actually used the voice recorder on my phone to take notes on this subject as I walked to school yesterday. First time I have ever done that. I would do it again.

Empires of Disbelief

This paper begins with the remarkable coincidence of several historical events (“historical”, here, in a Foucauldian sense). First, John Clute argues in Pardon this Intrusion that fantastika can be traced to the early nineteenth century; the genres of fantastika “are intimately connected with the becoming visible of the engine of history, round about 1800, when the future began.” Second, we have Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, first published in 1807 and a singular influence on Western notions of history as progressive and significant. Third, Foucault traces the advent of disciplinary power to roughly the same period. As the human being entered History (Hegel) as an individual who is the same as all other individuals (Foucault), it began to narrativize its position within that history through forms that could face the end whether that end was understood to be apocalyptic or Paradisaical. These accounts dovetail, I argue, with the project of Western Empires to at once offer a sort of carrot to individuals in the form of a promise of meaning for their lives (the completion of humanity, the Rapture—what Clute would call Healing or Return) as well as the the constant denial of such an end in order to maintain their existence (humanity is never complete, history never actually ends in its perfection, the Rapture never occurs). Over the course of the past two centuries, individuals in the West (a term I use advisedly not to refer to a given unity but to a construction) have been denied what they have been promised so often that rather than believing in the future, they find themselves in a state of what Bernard Stiegler calls “disbelief.”

With reference to key fantasy texts from the last several decades—such as Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains, China Miéville’s The Scar and Iron Council, Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World, Patricia McKillip’s In the Forests of Serre—as well as secondary/theoretical texts from Clute, Foucault, Deleuze, and Stiegler, this paper investigates how the Story that fantasy “wishes to tell” (of Healing, in Clute’s sense of the term) has, despite constant retellings, become impossible. Of course, Healing has always been impossible, but I argue that Empire now no longer even requires it as a carrot. Whereas the West formerly relied on coherent individuals (in Foucault’s sense) who desire insertion into the History (or Story) or Empire as individuals , it now maintains itself despite the fact that people (as what Deleuze calls “dividuals”) no longer believe in such metanrratives of progress and freedom. With seemingly no possible way out of this situation, we can turn to the impossibilities of fantasies such as those listed here (among others) as models for ways of thinking that resist and overcome our disbelief.

Primary sources

Gilman, Felix. The Half-made World. New York: Tor, 2011. Print.

McKillip, Patricia A. In the Forests of Serre. New York: Ace Books, 2003. Print.

Miéville, China. Iron Council: a Novel. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 2005. Print.

—. The Scar. New York: Ballantine Books, 2004. Print.

Morgan, Richard K. The Steel Remains. Del Ray trade pbk. ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 2010. Print.

Secondary sources

Clute, John. Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm. N. p. Print.

Clute, John, and John Grant. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge ; and the Discourse on Language. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982. Print.

Kojève, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1980. Print. Agora Paperback Editions.

Stiegler, Bernard. Taking Care of Youth and the Generations. Trans. Stephen Barker. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2010. Print. Meridian : Crossing Aesthetics.

—. Uncontrollable Societies of Disaffected Individuals. Trans. Daniel Ross. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012. Print. Disbelief and Discredit 2.

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CFP: Edited collection: Late Capitalism and Mere Genre

Posted in The Generic, The Profession, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 5 October 2013 by Ben

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I seek proposals for essays that explore the relationship between late capitalist culture/economics and texts which, in one manner or another, are “merely” generic. According to Fredric Jameson and others, late capitalism is characterized by new forms of business and financial organization, developments in media and the relationships amongst media, and planned obsolescence. By “merely generic,” I refer to those texts in any medium that seem less interested in pushing generic boundaries than in maintaining or perhaps hyperbolizing them (such as books by Robert Jordan and David Eddings) and/or belong to an obvious genre, but turn away from that broader genre in order to develop their own environments and/or conventions on massive scales (such as the expanded Stars Wars Universe). These texts may be: swiftly produced, developed in explicit and careful relation to others in their series or world, targeted at an existing audience already familiar with the genre, and crafted for easy consumption and quick obsolescence.

How do such merely generic texts define the cultural landscape of the postmodern/contemporary world? How does this cultural landscape condition them?

Possible topics include:

  • The audience for merely generic texts. Can anyone enjoy them, or are they only consumable by those who have an established, if not hypertrophied, relationship to the broader genre in question?
  • The development of groups of texts that predate the advent of late capitalism, but transform in some way afterwards or otherwise provide antecedents for more contemporary works, such as The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew Mysteries.
  • Proprietary universes—such as the Stars Wars, Star Trek, or Dragonlance universes—and questions of authorship.
  • Fan fiction and other non-canonical or heterodox narratives set within established universes.
  • Problems of continuity in the mega-text.
  • The relationship between such merely generic texts and gaming, whether tabletop RPGs, first-person shooters, MMORGs, or other types of gaming.
  • The economic or cultural conditions that govern the production of merely generic texts, such as the nigh-injunction that, after Tolkien, works of heroic fantasy should be published as trilogies.
  • Mass-produced series of books for children, such as Goosebumps and Animorphs. How do these texts prepare youngsters for subsequent late capitalist consumption?
  • The shift, especially in film, from generic concerns to the logic of the tentpole and/or the franchise.
  • The development of the massive multimedia text in which the same storylines develop in print, in films, on television, etc. simultaneously.
  • The residue of genre in a post-generic world. With increased specializiation and fragmentation in daily life, does genre make any sense as a cultural form? Does genre become, or return to being, one niche product amongst others?

Obviously, numerous other avenues of inquiry exist and many of those mentioned here dovetail with one another. Please inquire at the email address below with suggestions or ideas.

Although I will consider a range of approaches, I am especially interested in essays that situate groups of texts or series in an historical moment or cultural frame. I am less interested in thematic and formal readings of individual texts.

Please send proposals of approximately 500 words as attachments (.doc, .docx, .pdf, .rtf, or .odt) to benjamin.j.robertson@colorado.edu by 15 January 2014. Again, also feel free to contact me with questions or other concerns.

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.

Attebery on Tolkien, or Lord of the Rings as the returning king

Posted in The Generic with tags , , , , , , , on 28 June 2013 by Ben

Brian Attebery, in The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature, writes: “J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings, compared to others, is an achievement of such magnitude and assurance that it seems to reshape all definitions of fantasy to fit itself. Indeed, no important work of fantasy written After [sic] Tolkien is free of his influence, and many are merely halting imitations of his style and substance.” Later, in a chapter entitled “After Tolkien,” Attebery continues this line of thought, stating how the publication of LotR

changed the position of fantasy in this country. Even before it became a bestseller and the object of a cult, Tolkien’s story was noted by critics sympathetic to the genre as the workd they had been waiting for, the first extensive exploration of the possibilities of modern fantasy. It seemed on the one hand to sum up the whole Western tradition of the marvelous, with its echoes of Homer, Dantae, and Wagner and its outright borrowings from the Kalevala, the Scandinavian Eddas, Beowulf, the Mabinogion, George MacDonald, and William Morris. On the other hand, the trilogy was an integrated story with a perception and a point of view that many readers found appropriate to the contemporary world: that is, it was not only a culminating work but also a seminal one, a challenge to the reader to go out and create something equally grand and equally magical.

Attebury writes here without irony and without any apparent thought with regard to the way that the reception of Tolkien in the US (and perhaps elsewhere) mirrors the very conventions of the quest fantasy that Lord of the Rings more established singlehandedly. That is,insanely enough, the reception of LotR, as a sort of prophecied chosen one, fits with the quest narrative that it establishes: the “return” of the king who promises a new reign of justice and peace (but who cannot, perhaps given the merely generic nature of what follows [looking at you Terry Brooks], of course, live forever and sets the stage for the disappointment that is his offspring). I don’t mean to fault Attebery here, as he is working on a much different issue than what I am thinking about. I just find it interesting.

Reading and writing in and after grad school

Posted in The Profession with tags , , , , on 23 April 2013 by Ben

Last night on Twitter, several people discussed writing the dissertation and how helpful it was to have writing partners (one or several) during the process. This conversation evolved into a discussion about post-project malaise–the inability to write after concluding something, which many of have experienced after the diss and people report feeling after finishing the tenure book. Here are a few entirely anecdotal thoughts on these matters.

A good friend from grad school described the year spent preparing for oral exams as “when they insert the microchip.” What he meant was that during this year all you do is work, to an even greater extent than you had in the first two years of the PhD. The quantity of work and quality of it are so very different than whatever you had experienced before that you come to understand yourself as some kind of reading machine. No activity is thereafter excluded from your hermeneutic gaze. Read a blog? Example of whatever theory you are reading. See a movie? New dissertation chapter. Have a conversation? Become aware of how little work you are actually doing.

This disciplining is useful for producing people who can finish the dissertation as that task requires an ability to suspend all other life functions for indefinite periods of time. von Uexkull’s tick climbs, waits, drops, and feeds. Dissertation writers read, write, eat, and sleep–in widely ranging amounts.

And despite my discipline, I floundered during my fourth year. As the summer ended going into my fifth year, I attended the department’s welcome back party and found myself in conversation with someone of my cohort I did not know very well at all. I always found her to be extremely smart, perhaps intimidatingly so. In any case, we did not hang out together often. Nonetheless, as we talked she told me that she was also floundering a bit. We decided to work with one another and push each other to finish.

What ensued was perhaps one of the five most intense relationships of my life–less so than with my spouse, but more so than with many of those I would call my best friends. It was a limited relationship, in that it focused entirely on our work and our department’s politics, but it was exactly the relationship I needed at the time. I believe she felt the same way. As a bonus, I learned more about Gertrude Stein through her than I ever thought possible to know.

The problem here for many, no doubt, is finding this person, someone you can trust with your bad ideas and self-doubts. Because make no mistake: that’s what this was. We shared ALL of our writing. You had to turn something in every week, no matter how poorly conceived. You had to admit when you were having difficulties, when you did not know what comes next. That was valuable and nearly impossible at the same time. In the end, I learned a great deal about how to write and about how to read writing for someone else with a critical and gentle eye simultaneously. Long story short: it worked, and although I still did not finish as quickly as I would have liked, this relationship go me through the diss.

I left Buffalo before defending to take up a Brittain postdoc and Georgia Tech. I defended shortly after arriving there. And then the malaise set in. I was flat broke after six years of the PhD and had to work a second job (teaching MWF, the other job literally every other day of the week–I got to sleep until 10 am on Sunday, which was like a day off). Surely this had something to do with the malaise, but whatever caused me to feel this way, feel this way I did. I did not read anything that was not for teaching. I did not write anything but comments on papers. I did nothing at all that would qualify as research. It lasted for the better part of a year.

As someone who grew up reading all of the time (as I expect many English types did), this inability to do what my identity told me I was disturbed me greatly. I wondered if I would be able to remain in the field if I could not at least read new texts for teaching or produce a minimal amount of scholarship. What if the microchip was broken? I was not sure I wanted to feel like I was working all of the time, but I wanted to work some of the time (or at least I wanted to want to work some of the time).

It took a while, but I did come back to reading after about a year. I knew that the reading I was doing was different than what I had done before grad school It was pleasurable, but work lurked at the periphery of my vision at all times. This confluence of work and pleasure eventually became the pleasure itself and I no longer worry about distinguishing between them in terms of reading or going to the movies. On one hand, this confluence has enriched my professional life immensely as I am constantly producing new ideas, some of which I pursue and others of which I don’t. It has also enriched the rest of my life by forcing me to engage in leisure activities that truly take me away from work. I think that the time off my brain and body demanded produced, in the end, a more well-adjusted and well-rounded person. I don’t mean to suggest that I have no problems. Far from it. Nonetheless, I without doubt deal with these problems better now than I ever have in the past. (And let me say that, by virtue of my very good job that I was lucky to get and am lucky to keep I am subsequently lucky to be able to deal with my issues. Not everyone can do this, I understand, for one reason or another. I don’t mean for this story to have a moral dimension or come off as a “by one’s bootstraps” tale. I am lucky to have supportive friends, family, and colleagues who helped me through these periods of my life.)

Writing took a bit longer. It took perhaps a year and a half following my defense before I was up to producing anything like the academic essay. Everything I had hear about writing without a deadline or any direct need was true. It was very hard for me to conceive of an idea and pursue it without some impetus. CFPs helped, as they provided a starting point, but writing remained difficult even as I was doing it. It remains so today, but (whatever my demeanor as I do it–ask my wife) I find the difficulty rewarding in the end , when all of the ideas come together and I realize that I have said something, however small (and saying something, even if relatively minor and without world-shattering consequences, is enough as Liz Grosz once told a seminar at Buffalo; most people will never have a truly new thought, and this includes academics; we should struggle to produce minor ideas, in the several senses of “minor”).

These rough notes are merely anecdotal. They are part of what I went through, without the gory details. After the conversation of last night, and hearing from a few dissertating PhD students and several recently minted PhDs about their own struggles, I thought I would share them. Cheers.