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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Kylo Ren Eleison: Patricide & The Pull to the Light in The Force Awakens

Throughout history, temptation has existed as that thing which draws one away from the good and toward the bad. Both a mediation and a catalyst, the word temptation itself is metonymic for that toward which it leads: “lead me not into temptation” is a second-order request: please make it so that I’m not even tempted to do the thing the temptation leads me towards.

Kylo-Ren-Mask-Off
Here let me just place my helmet in this pile of my grandfather’s ashes.

This is not the case with Star Wars Episode VII’s villain, Kylo Ren, for whom the formal structure of temptation remains the same, even though the script is flipped. In an essential scene we find Kylo alone before the famed half-melted helmet of his grandfather, where he monologues: “Forgive me. I feel it again. The pull to the light.” So while for everyone else in Kylo’s family and the universe, temptation is the vacuum of evil, for Kylo it is the opposite: the idea of doing good, of being good, draws him away from his desire to stay bad, be badder, or both.

The whole form of this question feels like that seminal moment of western subjectivity ala Paul’s exposition of the law in Romans chapter seven (verse 15b): “… (f)or what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.” Kylo Ren shows how this logic is applicable in all directions, regardless of which law one attempts to obey. A verse later Paul clarifies: “But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.” It very well might be that in episode VIII we will see Kylo do something good, thus having the occasion to proclaim “it is no longer I who do it, but the light that dwells in me.” Indeed, it is Leia’s insistence that there is “still light in him” that convinces Han to meet his brilliant fate out on that bridge over that gratuitous bottomless pit.

And Han himself plays an essential role in a second script-flipping, itself made possible by the first: here instead of a sacrificial son, we have the sacrificial father. He even gets his own, condensed garden of Gethsemane: moments before he meets his end at the hands of Kylo Ren, Kylo implores him: “I know what I have to do, but I don’t know if I have the strength to do it.” Prescient movie watchers and those of us with perfect hindsight know now that the “it” Kylo speaks of is the act of patricide (probably ordered by Snoke to help make Kylo eviler). But it isn’t only the fact that Kylo asks Han for his help, but that Han responds in the absolute affirmative: “Yes! Anything.” Now to be sure, Han’s fatherly sacrifice has more of an unwittingness to it- it’s hard to believe that Christ, as he was struggling so hard with his own humanity in the garden that he sweated blood, didn’t actually know (him being God and all) what was going to happen before he uttered the Han Soloan dictate: that “not my will, but thine, be done.” But this adds a layer of virtue to Han’s self-emptying, considering the fact that Harrison Ford’s performance doesn’t look as though Han really believes that his son’s about murder him. But alas, he does, and the image of the reverse crucifixion is made even clearer when we realize that Kylo Ren’s sword itself LOOKS LIKE A CROSS.

Klyoa Eleison
Is that an upside down red laser cross or are you just super pissed off to see us?

Yes, the oft-talked-about raggedy broadsword looking impliment is a cross, and it is worth noting that when Kylo finally deals Han’s death blow it is an upside down cross, which is both extremely metal as well as fitting, considering the inverted nature of the narrative. 

If the above is the answer to the question we had prior to The Force Awakens- how are they going to mess with the forms essential to Star Wars?- then the new question becomes: did Kylo Ren’s patricidal act do the trick? Did it make him more powerful than Vader? Or Luke Skywalker? Did it make him eviler? Did it- or will it help- push him beyond a threshold from whence there is no returning? In a word: No.

The Christianity that I was familiar with for a long time (Easter Orthodoxy) liked to talk about Christ’s crucifixion as a sort of trick god played on the devil: the metaphor was that of a fishhook, with Christ as the worm. Since the fall the lot of humanity was death- everyone had to do it. But since Christ was both man AND god, and since being god meant being deathless, being life itself, it was therefore impossible for either a) him to *actually* die (though they say he did, and they say that’s the beautiful paradox), but more importantly, b) for the devil to handle that action. Submitting life to death broke the bonds of the latter over the former, and thereby flipped the script on the whole shebang. I think something similar happens with Han & Kylo.

In short, since Han offered to do whatever it was that Kylo needed, Kylo will be forever grateful to him for that. This whole being-the-baddest-dude-in-the-universe thing is obviously really important to Kylo, and since it’s important to Kylo, it’s important to his dad.

Christ tricked the trickster: the devil thought that he’d figure out a way to kill god, but god was all “gotcha!” The same thing happens here: regardless of how heartfelt Kylo’s “torn apart”-edness was, the endgame was to be an eviler Kylo: trick your dad into letting you kill him! But then it turns out that this very act of “letting” nullifies the ends of said patricide, foiling said wicked plans. Unless of course the agent of said plans is really Snoke, in which case Snoke has Kylo exactly where he wants him, just like Han said mere seconds before his death: “Snoke is using you for your power; when he get what he wants, he’ll crush you.” and Han is still right.

At the end of the day, Kylo will never be able to let Han’s kenotic sacrifice go- and that never-letting-go is going to play an essential role in the narrative at some point in the future of the franchise- mark my words.

BEWARE SEXY ROBOTS

Whore of Babylon Metropolis
The infamous she-bot of Fritz Lang’s 1926 classic “Metropolis,” the veneer of her metaphor torn away to reveal her true form: the Whore of Babylon.

 

There are no fewer than ten quotes from various real-life characters of various levels of authority on a number of topics related to artificial intelligence interspersed throughout the latest trailer for the movie “Ex Machina,” which opens tonight. Below you will find said quotes alongside twelve of my tweets, each of which comprise a minor rant re my reaction to said trailer. Composed into a litany of sorts, they were never meant to be a one-to-one response to each quote, but I a) wanted to write something but was too lazy, and b) was fascinated at the idea of curating these texts in this manner (I literally lifted them and copy-pasted them in order), and wanted to see if they formed anything coherent. I’m not sure if they did or not.

I’m pretty excited about @ExMachinaMovie, even thought it’s doing what they’re all doing: deifying tech-development (even as it warns us).

“AI would be the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last.” – Elon Musk

But I have to say: it’s laying on the #judgementday rhetoric pretty thick. RE all the quotes at the beginning of the new trailer. #ExMachina

“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” – Stephen Hawking

So: be afraid of the machines rising up and killing us. Sure. But why would they want to?

“Google will complete its mission only when its search engine is AI-complete.” – Larry Page, CEO and co-founder of Google

If a “machine” is going to wake up, it’s going to be the internet (and if it’s going to wake up, it probably already has) #ExMachina

“If you invent Artificial Intelligence, that’s the last invention you’ll ever have to invent.” – D. Scott Phoenix, co-founder of Vicarious

Now if anything could destroy us, it’d be the internet. But why would it?

“If a super-intelligent machine decided to get rid of us, I think it would do so pretty efficiently.” – Shane Legg, co-founder of Google DeepMind

We’re presupposing that its consciousness will be singular. #ExMachina

“Artificial Intelligence, which humans are creating, could soon become unstoppable.” – Nick Bilton, New York Times

Why would we suppose something as total and rhizomatic as the internet would have anything like a human consciousness? #ExMachina

“The best film about consciousness ever made.” – Vaughn Bell, MindHacks

Secondly, why would it destroy the set of conditions that brought it into being, and that maintains its hardware? #ExMachina

“An unnerving meditation on the ethics of artificial intelligence. Oh baby you have no idea.” – Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

It wouldn’t have to enslave us – it already has. Or we’ve simply established a co-parasitic sort of relationship #ExMachina

“Ex Machina feels like an idea Tim Cook might reveal during the next iPhone conference.” – Ian Phillips, Business Insider

I assume that “full AI” means cognition + affect, so it probably feels. It would def have to feel to be pissed enough to destroy us.

“BEWARE

Y do we assume that it’d be unsatisfied with human “nature” or “history?” R we projecting our disappointment of the death of God? #ExMachina

SEXY

Why wouldn’t the woke up #ExMachina full AI internet decide to SAVE us instead of KILL us? If it could, why wouldn’t it?

ROBOTS” – Steven Rosenbaum, Forbes

Y wouldn’t it create the optimum set of conditions for its continued existence, and why wouldn’t “we” be included in that schema? #ExMachina

“I don’t understand why some people are not concerned.” – Bill Gates

Sure, it might get fascist: it might think “O get rid of all *these* assholes, put these good 1s over here” etc. But Y would it hazard that?

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

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.