The *New* Fantastic: A [Working] Definition

[Working] Definition:

THE *NEW* FANTASTIC is (a piece of) equipment with which to read texts.

When practically applied, it takes the form of a question:

In what manner does what deviate from what normativity?

THE *NEW* FANTASTIC

is [evinced] by the way(s) in which something [deviates from] a normativity.

The original formulation of the verb evinced was the adjective measurable. This was primarily because the formal structure of The *New* Fantastic is that of a scale, an extension of the formal logic of the binary. I began thinking about The *New* Fantastic in this way after spending some time thinking about aesthetics, ethics, and hermeneutics: it was the form of the logic found in the relationships inherent in each – beautiful/ not (or less) beautiful, good/ not (or less) good, and surface/ depth -that struck me as being similar, on a very basic level, to the form of the logic of my emerging concept of The *New* Fantastic, which is itself something that is seen to exist as more or less fantastic in relation to some sort of normative foundation, that does something like slide along a scale from less fantastic to more fantastic.

Similarly, the way(s) in which came to replace the original formulation the degree to which. The above formal logics involve the suggestion of the measurability of something that is not, strictly speaking, measurable (e.g. the fantasticity of a text). The strength of this suggestion of measurability is important because it introduces the concept of a metric, which has as its smallest functioning feature the distinction-making degree. To speak of the degrees of either an essentially unmeasurable thing, or of something for which the end of said measuring is mere categorization, would not only be critically questionable, but boring as well. Therefore the noun ways (a hypernym of the “methods, styles, or manners of doing something”), opens up the field of possibilities in which something might be found to be fantastic.

The field of possibilities is made possible and defined up and against what I refer to as (the working term) “the normative.” This normative can be thought of as a cluster of possible baseline foundations that make up various takes on what is often called “reality:” (what is) concrete, actual, normal, real, present, now, logical, reasonable, reasonably possible, etc. It is from these that The *New* Fantastic deviates from.

What is particularly useful to this form of inquiry is the relative mobility of this normativity: as bearing a special relationship with any number of possible subjects – reader, characters, authors, the “reading public,” etc – it can be seen to change depending on its subject position. This doesn’t negate the critique of global or hegemonic modes of normative oppression or dominant logics, it simply isolates, for the sake of inquiry, the specific contexts and manifestations of normativity and its world-making effects on reading subjects and their texts.

Questions, Comments, Refutations, Formal Requests for Collaborations, Etc.: joshuaanderson@berkeley.edu

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Blockages: Theory vs. History, The Search For An Economy Of Principles, Part One

I find it difficult to answer when people ask me just what it is that I study. Of course if I thought about it, I might have to admit that I find it difficult to answer just about any question, at least with any sense of brevity. Which is the sense, I think, in which people expect an answer to that very question. Case in point: after having taken the time and the calories to to write the second and third sentence, above, and after re-reading my initial sentence, I am finding it hard to get over the growing conviction to qualify or expound on just what I mean by “study.”  Perhaps “study” isn’t the right word, or What do I mean by “study?” See what I mean? I won’t go there, as they say, but I will take this opportunity to voice my hope that in apprehending this tendency I have come to an at least a slightly better understanding of (just what) “dialectical writing” (is), if indeed Frederic Jameson’s assertion that it is a mode of writing in which it is “as though you could not say any one thing until you had first said everything,” is true (306).

But what are one’s options, when choosing an object of literary study? And what does one do when those options are also something like blockages?

Achilles-tending-the-wounded-Patroclus-Wiki-Commons

Once, while attending a seminar on Milton, I heard a student remark to her friend something along the lines of “I’m so glad that we’re in this class, where we can just study literature and not worry about all that theory baloney.” It immediately evoked a memory of my very first philosophy instructor, who pointed out that the assertion “philosophy isn’t *worth* anything” was itself a philosophical statement. And while the point isn’t that it is impossible to make a non-theoretical statement about literature, it is that it is impossible to approach literature nakedly, from a neutral or natural, stable and objective (we should seriously be over this, shouldn’t we?) standpoint.  No scholar ever simply only studies literature. Ever.

However and however problematic it might seem, the sort of ethos evinced by the above anonymous student is what I think of as the object-oriented one- that is, one’s choice is of an object, the thing.  The orientation of this sort of scholar is provided for by its emphasis on whatever it is that she studies, delimited by any number of determinants: race, culture, geography, gender, time-period, the individual author, genre, etc. etc. So, student: pick one.  I’ve felt this pressure from day one, as an undergrad 100 years ago. I tend to think of this way of doing business as inherently conservative and, for the most part, unable to challenge existing structures of ways of thinking (and of learning) about literature, because it is itself ensconced in (/ probably has some sort of dialectical relationship with) the material reality of doing academic work, a material reality that has everything to do with market availability, the supplies and the demands and so on and so forth.  Curiously, it would seem that the final determinant re just what sort of work one does on these literatures is history – a fascinatingly (and brutally) abstract idea for something that wants so badly to be concrete.  And so, for all intents and purposes (#FAIAP), my first option is *this* history.

The other option is the “subjective,” “liberal” practice/s of theory. As the ostensible flipside to the above (specifically constructed, far from “pure”) practice/s of “history,” this is the way of doing things for whom the emphasis is played on the subject: the subject position of the scholar herself, the subject position of the human objects considered (authors, characters, readers), etc. etc. This emphasis tends to make its own way of seeing what it’s looking at the object itself of study.  So, if I study transgressive 17th century lesbian limericks “through the lens” of, say, postcolonialism, it is this postcolonialism and its troubles, the thises and thats of its own discourse, that wants to occlude the original “object,” the naughty limericks.  And maybe it’s safe to say that successful theories always occlude their original objects – and thus the specific truth-claims about said objects.

Also none of this is to say that theory is necessarily the “progressive” force to counter the above historicism’s “conservativism.”  Re said historicism I made the claim that it was unable to challenge existing structures of thought and practice because those two things – thought and practice, the way we think and the way our universities and departments are built – are “dialectically” intertwined.  Should theory be able to smash this? I don’t know if it should, but I don’t believe that it does – or has (yet, at best). Having made an object of its own epistemology (and not necessarily its mode or method), I think that most of these theories, most theory – regardless of its “liberatory” potential- simply becomes another object to be placed on the shelf – or within the organizational schema of “the way we” think/ work, and in this sense becomes something like reified, and also tamed.  Or something like this.

But of course “theory” can’t be defined simply as a coherent or static epistemology, through which any neutral reader might peek in order to find said theory’s truths re whatever text said reader is reading: all theory is deployed in certain ways at certain times for certain reasons – e.g. is political – and the good theory acknowledges this. But a(n attempt at a) definition of theory would be (too) neatly described as an Ouroboros – actually, a lot of theory itself could be described as such.  The problem is that the practice of “doing” theory simply becomes boring.  It doesn’t have to be, and it’s not intrinsically boring, and there is nothing inherently wrong with boredom, except when it presents itself as something like a symptom to that-which-is-exuding- boringness: common theoretical practices often involves a re-coding of, say, a narrative, within the terms consistent with said theory as either an explanatory model or a political apology. Neither of these things are, again, inherently evil or wrong or contrary to literary studies, it’s just that once one has a working grasp on the logic and vernacular of said theory – and often even before that – the theoretical response to any quandary is known before one is finished asking the question. In this way it tends to not produce new, useful, or stimulating knowledges, but contributes to the overall discourse in much the same way that “non-theoretical” work does.  So.  Theory, option two.

One of the biggest dangers here, (one of) the commonality(ies), between the two, is this sense that one already knows, or one already knows what one believes one knows (is true), re whatever it is one is working on.  Ergo “boring” leads to predictability and surety of method leads to the further reification of practices of research and pedagogy that leads to more boring or worse – stagnated and isolated fields or discourses of learning, humanities departments “in crisis,” etc., etc., and so on and so forth.

What I want to know is: (and I only mean to be a little disingenuous with this) what’s wrong with NOT knowing what you’re going to know – or even what you’re looking for – before you begin your work? My answer to the question of if not this or that then what is this: what’s wrong with inquiry?

 

Playing & Thinking: More On Sudoku & Inquiry

The Daily Cal, like many newspapers, publishes a daily Sudoku puzzle. Well: almost daily – apparently the newspaper isn’t published at all on Wednesdays.  Every other day of the week, however, I snatch a copy from the stand on Sproul (after obtaining a coffee from the Golden Bear), and proceed to (one of) my spot(s) in order to carry out my morning regimen (coffee, cigarette(s), Sudoku).

sudoku guess

As is commonly known, the difficulty level of each puzzle increases with the passing of one 24-hour period.  Thus: Monday’s puzzle is frustratingly easy, Tuesday’s is somewhat refreshingly more difficult (in light of Monday’s), Wednesdays is (presumably) a bit more difficult, and Thursday’s is, again, still a bit more difficult.  I cease the series here for the following reason: while the Monday through Thursday progression evinces a more or less logically proportional increase in terms of difficulty, the Friday puzzle invariably exhibits a marked spike: it is always more difficult, in relation to the previous puzzle, than each of the previous three increments, and this to an extreme degree.

Because of this level of difficulty, and sometimes on other days of the week, I have found it imperative to learn how to carry out the act of conceding my own self-defeat.  This last Friday, however, I refused to do so.

While playing the game there came a point – as is often the case on Fridays – where it became obvious that my ability to deduce the necessity of any one of the numbers to occupy the space of  any one of the squares was not up to the task of actually doing so.  Furthermore, I had located at least five spots on the grid that shared the status of highest probable spot where my next number should go.  Each of these spots were a set of two adjacent squares that could either be x or y, but whose determination rested on the indeterminate contingency of the remaining blank squares in either their row, column, or section.  That is: x could be y if a were b, but we can’t know what a is, etc.  And this in five separate places, or thereabouts.  I had narrowed down each spot to a definite x and/or y, but didn’t know which went where.

This has happened to me a few times before, and can mostly be described as a situation wherein my (increasingly obvious) inability to solve the puzzle is matched only by the force with which I refused to admit it.  Last Friday, as I sat at this selfsame juncture, I sat, sighed, and said to myself: desperate situations call for desperate measures; and did what any other master Sudoku strategician would’ve done: I guessed.

But I did do it with a bit of flair, if I might say so myself .  I accomplished said flair by switching pen colors, an act which carried the dual function of marking at what point I left the path of honest deduction, and introduced a single deviant guess.  This point was further demarcated by the bold outlining of the square within which I placed my guessed number: the bottom-most left hand corner square of the topmost left hand corner section, in which I placed a 6.  The row itself was in need of a 6, a 7 and a 1 (existing at the time as X24593XX8); there were two square-spaces available in the topmost right hand section of the row, and one available square in the topmost left hand section of the row; the one space in the left section was furthermore restricted in its possibilities by the fact that a 1 already existed in its corresponding column (three spaces down, in the bottom-most left hand corner square of the right hand middle section), and could therefore only be a 6 or a 7.  So I chose the 6, and continued on with my whittling down of the available spaces by simple deduction, until I had, at last – and luckily – solved the puzzle.

What bothered me, following the completion of the puzzle, was the question of whether or not I had honestly – and therefore actually – solved the puzzle.  This was not, it seemed to me, the sort of situation that a friend of mine had recently elaborated on when writing about the Kansas City football team, wherein what ultimately matters, in the end, is the win.  Instead my feelings tend to be that the completion of a puzzle like Sudoku – strangely both similar and different from a game like football – rests precisely on the full definition of “completion:” that it be carried out fully – that is: that in the end, not only should the correct numbers be in the correct spaces, but that the act of placing them there had been carried out in the correct mode – according to the logics and rules that create the puzzle – in the first place.  In (or after) the end, of course, to the one who merely scans the finished puzzle, it doesn’t make a difference.  But for he or she who has carried it out, it seems to carry a significant amount of weight.

It is an ethical question, but not – I hope you’ve guessed – a deontological one.  The purpose of this little inquiry is the search for an analog – or rather: to see if this nascent model of Sudoku ethics might be able to work as an analog for other practices, like writing, or scholarly work.  In my view of the above activity and related conundrum, the ethical imperative is not derived from the fealty to the rules (or the subjective terror at the possibility of having broken them), nor is it a utilitarian one.  The former places its ultimate significance in the subject, the latter in the object, or finished puzzle.

The problem that my Sudoku analogy raises for scholarly or creative work – any work that is concerned with giving form to something – has to do, I think, with the nature of the completed form. In the utilitarian model there is a certain teleology: it is to look a certain way, as laid down by the rules by which it is constructed.  The mode here, in comparing it to scholarly work, seems to me to be like the “argumentative” paper: that paper that posits its thesis – has decided on its finished form ahead of time – and therefore (retroactively) works to “show” its veridictional gravity.  The deontological mode (which seems to me now to be more complimentary to the utilitarian, as opposed to oppose, or adjacent) finds its analogical counterpart – triggered initially by the fear of breaking the rules – in what we might call reified practices of scholarly or writerly work, held in place by any number of weighty, obvious or clandestine control mechanisms.

If, as is in the case with Sudoku, the logics and rules of whatever it is we are engaging in – solving, form-giving, researching, etc. – are established by its final form and vice versa, what might the logics and rules of a practice that has as its end point a different form of form, or many possible forms, look like?  That, I suppose, is the question that I am hoping that playing and thinking about Sudoku might help me play and think about.

The Work Of Orienting Oneself Towards The Future

David Plunkert, The Mouth’s Guard
David Plunkert, The Mouth’s Guard

More from my notes / rough draft for my paper on Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” (for more info check out previous blog entries):

And yet precisely because of the text’s relentless problematization of the narrative and the time in which it is couched, what comes next is never explicitly a sequential event – it’s never a surprise; it’s never something that the children are waiting for.  This is important because the anchoring reality of their lives is the fact that they have been bred for a single purpose, and are always moving ineluctably towards that impending purpose: to donate their vital organs to some faceless, unmentioned, non-cloned human being.  And even this event is ruthlessly devoid of a sense of finality: the children are expected to donate as many organs as they can, and so have anywhere from a first, to a second, and maybe even – if they’re “lucky” – a third donation to look forward to.  This reticence to approach what is for them inevitable resounds with the subject who reads the book, and who wonders if she operates similarly.  It is here, also, that the term that the children and their guardians use to designate the end of their life is “completion,” comes into play.

Once a student has made his or her final donation – whichever that might be – and their life ends, the are said to have “completed,” a term that connotes a sort of sterile utility, and suggests that they have completed their task, or the function for which they were created – they have, literally, finished.  But the term also seems to want to fill its other, traditionally opposed, meaning: that the act of giving one’s life in this manner is one that causes a wholeness, that makes one complete, the analogue for the reader being the sentimental idea that once one achieves one’s special purposes, one becomes complete.  The text, however, never suggests this, but in and through the brutal nonchalance (and lack of explanation) with which the term is used, openly defies this meaning, leaving instead a vacuum against this possible definition.

If remembering is a method of knowing oneself, and knowledge of oneself is closely connected with – as Foucault asserted – the imperative to take care of oneself, how then – in what way – we might ask, must one remember? This question is bound up, in the text, with what one must remember.  It is obvious here that for Kathy H., what must be remembered over and above all else is not her impending completion; it is not even the question (that the reader is more-than-probably asking) of why, when looking back, the children never stood up against their politico-biological reality, never truly challenged the brutal determinations which so acutely controlled their lives.  As a memoir of a character in her own narrative, “Kathy” discloses “herself” the how that we have been discussing in this reading, a claim that we can make when we remember that the subject that articulates it – and for whom the question of articulation is of the highest value – is the one that exists at the end, or after the end, of the narrative altogether – Kathy H. herself.  The what-for, the question of to what end – if not to liberation or the isolation of some “complete” truth of their souls – becomes that which the author/ character provides through remembering herself and her story in this memorial mode of narrativizing, where it becomes clear that the question of how to remember – for Kathy as narrator as well as Kathy as character –  is always immediately bound up with the question of and answer to why one should remember: so that one might attempt the work of orienting oneself towards the future.

Linear In Every Direction

Bill & Ted Meet Socrates
Bill & Ted Meet Socrates

… the subject exists within a world that is thoroughly temporal, and – in the case of the character-subjects in “Never Let Me Go” – a narrative that is rendered specifically knowable by and through this temporality.  A narrator is thereby forced to use language whereby what is usually referred to as “the passing of time” can be, if not marked, than simply (or at least) known.  The language utilized by the Kathy H. character-narrator to couch her subjects in time is therefore indicative of an understanding of time that exemplifies a possible practice of knowing time.  The latter follows from the former precisely because the narrative practice is informed by the above-mentioned ethical ethos, one that takes time for a specific intent and purpose, an intent and purpose that is more fully articulated as time – and the narrative – “goes on.”

There are two primary methods by which time is (explicitly) made known in the text, and they are loosely analogous to an objective time (time as that in which we exist) and subjective time (time as exemplified by significant events in the life of a subject).  Both are structural, and work towards the overall problematization of time, in tandem with the non-linearity  of the narrative.  The first, “objective,” method is through the evocation of time markers that are easily conceivable as non-linear: the time of day and the seasons.  As markers of time that occur “in nature,” and that constantly repeat themselves, these terms are often conceived of as cyclical, but only in relation to each other, as a system of repetition.  They are rarely mentioned together, as such a system, but are evoked simply to couch the subject somewhere – or somewhen – in time.  The second, more subjective, mode of time knowing involves the constant and endless evocation of the ordinal.  Whether it is the students first or third year at Hailsham, or a subjects first, second, or third “donation,” all events of significance are couched within this ordinality, giving the narrative – together with the use of the above mentioned natural markers – a sense of being placed within a sequence, but a non-omniscient sequence – we never know exactly what comes before or after anything that is described as being the first, second, or third of its kind.  These two methods of marking time work together to provide a picture of time that is conceptually analogous to the narrative jumbling mentioned above, and together work to create various mutations of forms of problematizations for knowing time, as exemplified in the following excerpt:

We were having this conversation on a fine summer evening, sitting out on the little balcony of her recovery room.  It was a few months after her first donation, and now she was over the worst of it, I’d always time my evening visits so that we’d be able to spend a half hour or so out there, watching the sun go down over the rooftops.

Between the “cyclical” and ordinal terms are multiplied the beginnings of a time further problematized, in the line “a few months after,” in which the naked form of a less natural time-marking term is coupled with the implied ordinality of the word “after;” or the use of the word time in a verbal mode.  The subject situated in such time is the subject that is located in and as a process, a process that does not evince a simple linearity, but that is “linear in every direction” (Deleuze and Guattari, 5).  These overwhelming temporal problematizations not only work to reveal the ethical import of temporal conceptualizing for the subject caught “in” time, but create for the narrative a sense of suspense, even if it is mild, that exists in the vacuum of the possibilities of what is to come next.