WHAT IF D-O-G SPELLED “CAT:” TOWARD A SPECULATIVE CRITICISM

luke leia han

PART ONE: English 80k

One of the more brilliant aspects of a class I’ve been fortunate enough to assist with (twice) here at Berkeley- Children’s Literature, taught by Professor Joseph Lavery- is the Do-Your-Own-Final project. For this project, students are asked to do two things:

1) think up and execute a “a project of [one’s] own design.”

The idea is that the “range of possibilities” in terms of the form one chooses to give one’s project is “in principle, limitless.” It “may include creative, experimental, autobiographical, digital, archival, or anthological projects” as opposed to “critical or essayistic work (which will,of course, also be allowed).”* And

2) construct your own grading rubric re your own project.

That is: decide what it is that you feel you need to accomplish in order to a receive an A, a B, or a C, and so on and so forth.

Together these two components amount to an experiment in self-referentiality re e/valuating both aesthetic and intellectual work, as well as the critical significances and possibilities of creative work itself.

This project has produced a large archive of very interesting projects, from a series of cakes baked according to a matrix of signifiers whereby the characteristics of four separate aethetic categories are translated into their respective decorative sweet desserts, to mix tapes, to short films, to paintings, to all sorts of stuff, you name it.

There is a lot going on here with this project, but I wanted to comment on an aspect of it that I find particularly interesting: it’s speculative nature. In one sense, this project is undertaken by simply asking the question “What if I translated this particular concept into this more or less unified set of signifiers?” What if our four aesthetic categories were actually cakes? What if this scene from a novel were actually a painting? What if J. M. Barrie’s 1912 play were actually a mid-century young children’s board book? Etc.

What is thrown into high relief once one begins imagining putting this into form is the fact that every single action or decision one takes or makes carries with it an implicit comment or critique on that which they are translating something into and that from which they are translating from**. The work is inherently either or both a critique or a commentary.

What is interesting about this is, after sitting down with more than quite a few students, is the fact they find that these instincts- when they get an idea- to render this or that into this or that other form, open up to them the possibilities of apprehending, understanding, and articulating that thing they’re giving new form too. They thought their idea was simply interesting, they thought they were just “having fun,” when in fact they were carrying out de facto critical work, and learning from it.

So why can’t critical work be “fun?” Why can’t critical cognition begin with something as simple as a “fun idea?”

emperor on his throne
It’s beautiful how literature sustains us (the emperor of mankind on his throne). 

PART TWO: Star WarsHammer 40k

One of the crackpot research ideas I’ve been throwing around is something I like to call Speculative Criticism. Simply put: I want to ask any number of “what if” questions of a text. I want to speculate about what isn’t apparently the case and, in a sense, I think work backwards along the lines of critical methods and assumptions, the first of which being that critical work isn’t fun.

For the record: I hate the term “speculative fiction” as some sort of catch-all for science fiction or fantasy or whatever they’re grouping under whatever these days. I hate the work of umbrella-ing anything under some sort of “useful” file tree for the purposes of who knows what. Personally, I want to destroy that way of seeing literature and the way of thinking that makes it that way. But that’s not my point here.

Secondly, this sort of work seems to, at least in the case of my first speculation here, to involve a couple of old school assumptions: a) that in considering the significance of texts, one is obliged to talk not just about culture and society, but about history, in sort of broad strokes, and b) that the relationship between a text and its culture/ history/ whatever is dialectical: that the possibility of a text even existing is predicated on the historical(ly unfolding) set of material conditions which give birth to it, as it were, and that the history that is birthed along with it is itself significantly created somehow more or less anew because of that text. History and texts, in this schema, cause each other, in a sense, which is why folks tend to get annoyed with historical dialectics, but why I’m starting to fall back in love with it: apropos of my contention that fun should be a significant element to one’s methodology, I’m thinking that it’s the odd sort of non-totality of dialectical considerations- all the shit that gets missed when things “change,” or revolutions don’t happen- that the dialectic itself- with all its intent to help tell the future- contributes to, or even makes possible: the surprises, the new(ish) things, the fantastic.

So my first question has to do with Star Wars. Not how or why it’s so popular, or how it’s managed, as a franchise or whatever it is, to entrench itself to such a degree- how it is that we’ve gone from waiting decades to months between movies, the significance of its insistence on continuity and canonicity while at the same time multiplying itself out like a multi-media rhizome. Ok it’s not those questions, and really it’s not even a question about Star Wars. It’s:

What if, instead of Star Wars, the somewhat well(?)-known gaming franchise Warhammer 40k had somehow managed to reach the close-to-sublime-level of saturation into our globalizing mass popular culture? I have had the feeling that I will very soon get tired of the preeminence of Star Wars, even if only in my various social media feeds; sitting here now I’m starting to fear its cultural hegemony- and not really for its content (though I’m sure that too), but the fact that something can get so soaked into our fabric. I don’t think any pop culture phenomenon has reached this level before. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.

What would a world- the world, this actual, *IRL* one- look like where instead of Star Wars, we had Warhammer 40k? What sort of world could birth that- could ours have actually birthed it? What might’ve happened to culture after that? After its prequels, it’s purchase by Disney- what would the theme parks look like? What sort of violence would be ok?

For the woefully uninitiated, and as a reading assignment for next week’s part two to this post, this bit of text does a good job of giving one the gist of what Warhammer 40k is all about:

It is the 41st Millennium. For more than a hundred centuries The Emperor has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the Master of Mankind by the will of the gods, and master of a million worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the Imperium for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day, so that he may never truly die.

Yet even in his deathless state, the Emperor continues his eternal vigilance. Mighty battlefleets cross the daemon-infested miasma of the Warp, the only route between distant stars, their way lit by the Astronomican, the psychic manifestation of the Emperor’s will. Vast armies give battle in his name on uncounted worlds. Greatest amongst his soldiers are the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines, bio-engineered super-warriors. Their comrades in arms are legion: the Imperial Guard and countless planetary defence forces, the ever vigilant Inquisition and the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus to name only a few. But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat from aliens, heretics, mutants – and worse.

To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.

All this and more in next week’s installment of fantaaaastic criticism!

Well maybe not all, but some stuff.

*English 80k, Children’s Literature, Syllabus, Spring 2017

** Really “translating” is just a working term/ fill-in here

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