Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Some thoughts in response to a fragment of a dream

A number of months ago, I found myself woken from sleep early in the morning at perhaps five or six in the morning, possibly by a disagreeable dream, possibly by something else.  In either case, I found myself recalling a fairly familiar passage in Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” the often quoted ninth section of the essay, in that hazy space that creates a sort of barrier between sleep and wakefulness.

“A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating.  His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.  This is how one pictures the angel of history.  His face is turned toward the past.  Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.  The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.  But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught under his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.  This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.  This storm is what we call progress.” (Benjamin 258)

It was perhaps less than surprising that I would think of this passage.  After all, I had read the essay that it was contained in numerous times, have read even more references to the passage in other works, and even have written about the various sections of the essay.  But in that hazy semi-conscious space, the more immediate connection was made to the sense of disconnection that seems to define my present moment as I pass my second year out of graduate school and the interconnected ethical communities of which I was a part.  In their absence, I’ve felt a sort of void, a lack of what Hegel would call “Sittlichkeit” or the connection to the ethical life or community that is created by being embedded in a meaningful community life.  That isn’t to say that the past two years have been without meaning or social life, or that my time in graduate school wasn’t without its significant frustrations, but those frustrations were always linked to a communal life, even if it was marked by tensions, contradictions, and problems.  The temporariness of adjunct lecturing, which operates as a sort of waiting room between one’s life as a student and some potential future career, doesn’t help this sense of disconnection.

Through that process, I’ve found myself thinking about various moments in my past, whether in my roles in the anti-sanctions campaign, the anti-globalization movement, the anti-war movement, and the efforts to reform our local union or in my personal life.  I’ve found myself thinking back to dozens of moments where I wish I had handled a decision, a process, or how engaged with people differently.  At a basic level, I find myself being much more skeptical of my motivations in those past conflicts, and of the positions that I took in those conflicts.  But like the angel, I can’t go back to resolve those catastrophes, to avoid conflicts, to respond more generously, to fix what has been smashed.  To turn directly to the passage, the memories that make up that ‘pile of debris’ are a tied to a series of incomplete and failed activist projects, a variety of temporary successes, to projects that continue without me, often without even a substantial memory that I had participated in them.  The memory of those moments wind up lingering in my thoughts, perhaps haunting me, for the lack of a better word, particularly in that space between consciousness and unconsciousness.  They are, for the most part, unresolvable, not because of their significance, but frequently because of their insignificance, or because the people are out of my life, sometimes for reasons to do with the conflict, often for a reason that is completely unconnected.

To be honest, I don’t know what to do with this often unresolvable assemblage of memories.  After all, like the Angel, I find myself being blown into the future, one that remains occluded.  But it felt like it made sense to perhaps write it down, to express it, even if perhaps its own value is only of marginal and therapeutic value.

Friday, May 15, 2015

a short set of thoughts on fan criticism, and recent academic science fiction criticism

       In the years that I have studied science fiction, I have read a fairly large amount of criticism produced either by fans of the genre, or authors who regularly engage with fans.  It's not surprising.  After all, some of the first literary criticism of the genre arises from fanzine publications and other texts produced within the subculture of fandom.  I've read the work of Damon Knight, Judith Merril, H.P. Lovecraft, and various fanzines such as Khatru, to name a few sources. 

      Through that engagement, I've found that fan criticism most often produces taxonomic criticism, that is, it creates categories to group texts together in order to see thematic and occasionally formal connections between texts in the genre.  I've always had a mixed response to these critical texts.  One one hand, I find myself wanting the sort of rigorous, formal engagement that one gets out of academic literary criticism produced after the structuralist moment, and on the other hand, I always enjoy the interesting thematic connections that these authors produce, and, just as significantly, frequently find myself using these critical endeavors to expand what I read. 
     To be honest, it's a set of benefits that I really didn't give much thought to until recently.  I took it as an inadvertent result of reading the comments of a thoughtful and well read person who is engaged in the genre.  But I've been rethinking that unthought assumption as I work through Farah Mendlesohn's relatively recent book, Rhetorics of Fantasy.  It would be a mistake to understand Mendlesohn's text as simply operating within the same critical framework as those texts.  It brings in a critical vocabulary from the structuralist literary criticism of Todorov, amongst others, and brings in art criticism, as well.  At the same time, it produces a similar chain of associations and connections through rhetorical categories that you find in those texts. 

      What I've finally realized is that this chain of texts is consciously designed to put its readers in touch with a chain of texts that the reader might find similarly interesting, to open up the reader to new worlds of reading through this critical apparatus.  In effect, it's a structure that is not that dissimilar from the book reviews that are also published in such publications, although they offer a broader evaluation of the genre.  At the same time, it points to a criticism that goes beyond that form, through the production of a critical archive, and the production of a series of connections that can be developed further.  But in both cases, the central focus of the engagement is the pleasure of the text.  The works are deeply normative, in this regard, asking what texts might be enjoyable to its readers, as well as why they might enjoy these texts.  Writers such as James Blish and Damon Knight go further as to identify what qualities might produce better fiction. 

      Through that engagement, they remain much more connected to the genre, refusing the separation of critic and writer that is produced by post-structuralist critics such as Pierre Macherey.  Instead, the critic operates more as guide to consumption, a critical archivist, rather than producer of knowledge.  However, we're seeing a synthesis of this older form of criticism with academic criticism recently.  We can see this with Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fiction, along with Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr's The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, and the Parabolas of Science Fiction collection edited by Brian Attebery and Victoria Hollinger. Each of the texts take a pluralistic approach to the reading, while simultaneously engaging in a pluralistic disciplinary approach, combining the structuralist tendencies of Todorov, Suvin, and Delany with the taxonomic approaches that one traditionally finds in the fan and authorial critical writing of any number of writers. It's an interesting approach.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Opening Post

     So, I have decided to start another blog to get back to writing on a more regular basis.  I found myself writing less and less for the last blog, Work Resumed on the Tower, largely, because I had found myself at the end of two major projects that animated my writing during that period, my work as a graduate student, and my work within the reform movement of the graduate student union, Academic Workers for a Democratic Union.  With those projects finished, it made increasingly less sense to continue working on the blog.  I was also in a position where I was fairly substantially underemployed, and at a loss what I would do next with my life without those projects.  I initially considered creating a blog that would focus on my work on science fiction, but I don't feel focused enough to create that blog, and I'm not entirely convinced that I want to get involved in the fights of science fiction fan community.  Perhaps, I will come up with a way to engage with the genre that will avoid the kerfuffles and focus on the formal structures of the genre, but that will have to wait.

     Instead, I'm going to put together a blog that will let me write about any particular topic that comes to mind.  Not surprisingly, I'm probably going to cover a lot of the same things that I covered in the earlier blog, politics, culture, and theory.  You're not going to get the same sort of inside baseball coverage of the union, and the activist and academic politics of the University of California-Irvine, but those were issues that were of interest to a very small group of readers, in any case. On the other hand, I'm not sure what is going to be the focus of the blog because, despite getting some relatively stable employment, I'm not entirely sure what I'm going to be doing with my life.  I'm still in the process of trying to find a tenure track job, but that search is not terribly promising given the state of the humanities.  Additionally, I'm interested in getting involved in political activism again, hopefully outside the subcultural activism that I was previously involved in, but I'm not sure what direction that might take.  In any case, the structure of the blog remains open.

     The title of the blog is taken from a brief inter-title within Jean-Luc Godard's film, Masculin/Feminin, where Godard notes that, if he were to rename this film, hew would call it The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.  The name always appealed to me because it gestured towards the dual influence of radical politics and popular commodity culture on the new left and counter-culture, which largely still influence the radical politics of the United States today, even if that social formation lies in ruins.  It also allows me to recognize two streams within my work, the first being the substantial influence of Marxist theory and practice on my work as both an intellectual and an activist, and the second being my interest in popular culture in a variety of forms, most notably in the form of science fiction, but also music and film.  In any case, the title provides quite a bit of latitude in what I can discuss in the forum, while remaining within the rubric of the title.  Let's see where we go from here...