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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GOODNIGHT NOBODY: Children’s Literature & The *New* Fantastic

What follows: the rough draft of an abstract for a paper for a panel entitled “Keep Children’s Literature Weird:”*

In 1973 Tzvetan Todorov defined the fantastic as occupying “the duration of the uncertainty” produced by those fictive situations in which a crucial question must be answered: do the physics of the diegetic world presented in a text contain the demand for a “natural” explanation, or something extra, other than, “supernatural?” More than fifty years earlier, Freud had identified the same conceptual binary in his consideration of “the uncanny,” wherein the “distinction between imagination and reality is effaced.” Inasmuch as they both comprise the historical and conceptual foundation for our understanding of fantastic fiction, they have also engendered their own limitations – as well as the demand to exceed said limitations.

One limitation of the fantastic, or fantastic literature, understood as such, is located precisely in the somewhat circular practice of providing a schema of understanding what is understood to be a genre to the end of defining it as a genre. It is this sense of tautology that leads to a particular crisis for both Todorov and Freud: what – other than being able to say this is that, or that is this – is at stake? In the endeavor to establish the uncanny and/ or the fantastic, what – other than being able to insert a text into its correct category – is the point? Todorov begins his book not with the definition of the fantastic, but with an exposition of genre; and inasmuch as Freud seeks to pay lip service to the sort of problematized subject-position his inquiry assumes, in the end it is the articulation of a particular category. The limits of the fantastic, then, are the borders created by and inherent in genre itself, and the irony is that the fantastic is precisely that which seeks to puncture or surpass, by its very nature, all limits and borders. Fantastic criticism, then, in an age when we’re not sure how to know the fantastic when we see it, should commit the selfsame act of transgression, and seek not to name the fantastic in the world, but to inquire into the fantasticity of the world- or at least, in our case, of literature.

The *New* Fantastic, then, is equipment for inquiry into this fantasticity. A concept-tool adopted from Paul Rabinow’s Anthropological Research on the Contemporary, equipment is “a set of truth claims, affects, and ethical orientations, designed and composed into a practice.” When applied practically in the reading of texts, it takes the form of a question:

In what way does what deviate from what normativity?

It therefore retains the conceptual foundation of both Freud’s “uncanny” and Todorov’s “Fantastic,” while modifying it significantly: it is neither a theoretical foundation, nor  is it concerned with the establishment of a proper object of study: its function is to “enable[] practical responses to changing conditions brought about by specific problems.”

This paper argues that Children’s Literature is fantastic literature- except for the fact that it also claims that there is no longer any such thing as fantastic literature – and it does so by taking up the case of Margaret Wise Brown’s legendary Goodnight Moon, as an example (of sorts) of the multiple vectors along which various modes of fantasticity, both inside and outside the text, are wont to slide. These vectors will include, but are not limited to: reading and writing practices, sign-play, diegesis, literariness or canonicity, aesthetics and its historical moment.

By providing an initial register of these metrics – by asking, of each, the question: in what way is what deviating from what normativity? – it hopes to articulate the contours of the work’s heretofore difficult to apprehend fantasticity, and to suggest an extension of the same to that group of texts within which we have always apprehended it: children’s literature.

 

 

*Sans citations because it’s a rough draft.

MY FIST IS A BOOK OF ETHICS Now Available At Needles & Pens, Modern Times Bookstore & Another Adventure

Night-Sky-Pine-2010
Ryan McGinley, “Night Sky (Pine)” 2010

Yesterday I took another walk/ day trip to The Mission in San Francisco, this time by myself, and here is what happened:

I stumbled across Aldea Ninos, where I picked up a copy of a book called “The Fox and The Hare,” a Russian folk tale retold by Vladimir Dal and illustrated by Francesca Yarbusova, illustrator and wife of acclaimed animator Yuri Norstein. The illustrations, I learned, are the- extremely vibrant and engaging- “sketches” for Norstein’s 1975 animated film of the story. Rovakada Publishing, based out of San Francisco, has published two other books that feature Yarbusova’s illustrations, one of which follows the same format- sketches for the narrative of her husband’s acclaimed work of the same title, “Hedgehog in the Fog,” and a poem by Korney Chukofsky called “Mishmash… about a funny mix-up that happened among the animals.”

photo
The Hero of “The Fox and The Hare” is a Rooster, of course.

Next I stopped at Needles and Pens where I intended, and subsequently succeeded in, selling five copies of my collection of poems, MY FIST IS A BOOK OF ETHICS. I also managed to pick up a copy of MONO.KULTURE #27(Spring 2011), which features the work of famed photographer Ryan McGinley. I was particularly taken by the proliferation of nakednesses and colors, best exemplified by the photograph below, but was disappointed by the short review at the beginning of the zine, wherein I learned that the “division” between “art and commerce,” which McGinley is apparently exceedingly adept at traversing, is “antiquated.” In an apparent allusion to something along the lines of an enlightened postmodern nihilism, MONO.KULTURE was not willing, or able, to level any sort of critique against their inadvertent claim that there is no difference between a piece of art and a Levi’s advertisement. And wherein I don’t think I am personally under any illusions about anything like the revolutionary potential of art- indeed, I find it interesting that the fine art object has become the capitalist object par excellence- it was still a bit of a downer to find any and all road bumps removed in the consideration itself. And to top it off, they brought home their lack of critique with a good old fashioned grammatical faux pas: “… anything goes in a world where boundaries are blurring and the world is becoming increasingly intertwined,” which totally ignores the fact that the verb intertwined applies only to situations of two or more things.

Caviar20_Ryan_McGinley_icon_grande

Afterwards I took my first walk down 24th Street, where I took my time doing the usual tourist-mural routine.  I was particularly taken by two pieces, a couple of blocks apart, that I was pleased to find were products of the same artist, Laura Campos. Be sure to surf the hashtag #lauracampos on the linked-to-Instagram photo below to find more of her work.

Finally, I stopped by Modern Times Bookstore Collective, a San Francisco landmark. It was my first time visiting, and I had a wonderful time checking out both their poetry and criticism sections, each of which carried a wide range of really crucial texts, from Mahmoud Darwish to Dante in the former, Susan Sontag to Fredric Jameson in the latter.  Also on display was a mountain of essential Black literature: Cornel West, James Baldwin, Assata Shakur and others. I highly recommend going, and keeping track of their busy schedule for all sorts of events of persuasions literary, political and both.

photo 2
Detail, “Spiritual Connection,” by Laura Campos, 24th & Treat, The Mission, SF

What Do We Do?!

toy-story-best

It wasn’t Lotso’s betrayal of Woody and the gang (that was pretty much expected); nor was it that they were saved (in a move of pure, elated genius) by “the claw” itself, commandeered as it was by the Potato Head’s adopted alien children; it wasn’t even the moment when they finally realized that there was nothing more to be done, nothing more that they could do -that this was the end of [T]he (Toy) [S]tory. It was the moment when I realized – fully realized: when what I was feeling became overwhelmingly congruent with what I was just then realizing I had known all along – that the toys had spent their entire lives, in one way or another, postponing this very moment.  The whole narrative of their lives – the form that their particular lives took, as toys – was shot through with the reality that they would very probably been forgotten or broken, and more than likely be thrown away.  At best, they had the limbo of the attic to look forward to, but even that future simply mediated the self-same inevitable demise.

It might be the guilt inherent in a reality in which my toys not only come to life when I’m not looking, but who also love – and want to be loved by – me, that has always, if only mildly, plagued my viewing of the Toy Story movies.  On one hand, there are the metaphysical implications of the toys themselves, who find purpose and meaning in their kid and their calling to always be there for him (when Buzz and the rest of the toys decide to stay at Sunnyside, Woody tells them they’re being “selfish,” an accusation which visibly bothers them all).  On the other hand, and from the child’s perspective, there is the imperative to never forget, never break, never throw away your toys – your toys who know and love you so well.  This is the commodity fetish par excellence, the thing that literally takes on a life of its own and what’s more, deploys not a little bit of Foucault’s “pastoral” power – the power that gets inside of your ‘soul’ and whereby, in this case, the commodity fetish wants to control you (see: guilt).

What is most interesting, however, and this from the toys’ point of view, is that there is a dual, or split, desire that powers the narrative.  On one hand, there is the imperative to always “be there” for Andy, their kid; on the other: the growing feeling that this might also be true of and for each other, that they need to stay together, to “be there” for each other.  In the same way the toys’ metaphysics is confused: they are called to love their kid, but they also desire the love from said kid in return – the same kid who is going to inevitably stop loving them, lose them, break them, or simply throw them away.  And while it would be unreasonable to expect the biggest jewel in the Pixar crown to take this logic to its inexorable end, it should be noted that in the end, Woody chooses the latter: his friends over his kid.

It wasn’t just the above realization – that these toys had been living in a certain form of active nihility denial* – however, that really gets me in the above scene; it’s this plus the way that the toys react to what has just then made itself known as inevitable.  In every other instance- and there had been quite a few, some of them quite chilling and even horrible (as in the case at the beginning of the movie when Woody watches the trash truck, in which he thinks his friends are, compress slowly), over the course of three movies (and fifteen years – the course of a childhood), the toys had looked for, and found, a way out.  The child watching the film always knew that they would, and in a way – or because of this – it seemed as though the toys themselves knew it, too.  This is what gives Jessi’s question its gravitas: “Buzz!” she cries, “What do we do?!”  She’s scared, and this is the sort of thing one might say in this sort of mortal situation, but it’s also asked from the standpoint of one who still expects a favourable answer, and this not even in a naive sense. Always Buzz or Woody or the whole gang working together would have an answer to this question, but finally they do not.  So we get to realize, together, in the intensely compressed temporality of one’s last moments, that this is it.

There is no use in either rejecting or confirming anything, and neutrality is a misnomer as one unwittingly finds oneself in the position of the passive verb.  But what is there to be said about what they are able to do?  They are lucky that they’re together, that they are friends; and it is admirable, for lack of a better word, that they are able to look and see their world for what it is. But in the end the logic of their actions, the syntax of their relationship with the world, is not something other than the logic that any normal kid (without toys who come to life) is familiar with in her everyday life: in the end they hold each others’ hands, look forward for as long as possible and, finally, close their eyes.

 

* I totally made this term up.