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Posts Tagged ‘adam roberts’

“One reason Tolkien’s imaginary realm has proved so successful is precisely its structural non-specificity. What I mean is: Tolkien treats material that has deep roots in, and deep appeal to, various cultural traditions; but he does so in a way—as fictionalised worldbuilding rather than denominated myth—that drains away much of the poisonous nationalist, racist and belligerent associations those traditions have accumulated over the centuries. A thumbnail history would go like this: in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, Wagner’s Ring melodramas spoke to a great many people about a particular northern-European cultural identity; about a group of linked, potent emotional attachments to history, landscape, to the numinous and the divine, to matters of heroism and everyday life. I am trying not to sound sneery as I say this (I mean melodrama in the strict sense of the word), because these things did, and do, matter intensely and genuinely to many people. But there is a reason, a room-filling elephant of a reason, why Der Ring des Nibelungen no longer has this general resonance. It is because the cultural reservoir from which it draws much of its power also supplied cultural capital to the worst regime ever to take charge in Germany, and therefore lubricated the most catastrophically destructive war ever to be waged in the world.

In saying this I am not, of course, blaming Wagner for the Nazis. Indeed, the endless debates about Wagner’s own ideological ‘purity’ (‘was Wagner an anti-Semite?’ Short answer: yes. Long answer: yes, like just about every other gentile in 19th-century Europe) seem to me to miss the point. The restless churning through this question happens because we’re desperate to acquit Wagner so that we can enjoy his music with a clean conscience. We ask the question, get the uncomfortable answer, and ask it again. In our guts resides the queasy comprehension that Wagner can’t be acquitted. Politics can’t be neatly separated out from the Ring cycle, leaving only a washed-and-scrubbed sequence of pretty orchestral tone poems behind. I love the Ring cycle, and listen to it regularly; but I would never try to deny that it is political all the way through, down to its very marrow. It is, to be precise, about the notion that history and myth are in some sense the same thing—a very dangerous notion indeed.

Tolkien’s story is not the same as the Ring cycle; his ‘ring’ (as he crossly reminded correspondents) not the same as Alberich’s ring. But a considerable amount of the heft and force of Lord of the Rings derives from the way Tolkien draws on the same broader cultural, mythic, northern-European heritage. What saves Lord of the Rings is that it is not about Germany, or about England; or to be more precise, that it is about England and Germany only secondarily, in an eloquently oblique (a cynic might say: in a plausibly deniable) manner. Tolkien found a way of articulating the same deep-rooted cultural concerns in a way that avoids being poisoned by the cultural specificity of European Fascism. This doesn’t let Tolkien off the hook, as far as racial and ideological content goes, of course. Indeed, I offer my thoughts here not as a value judgement of his fiction, so much as an explanation for why Lord of the Rings has done so extraordinarily well—resonated so powerfully with so many people—in the postwar period. It rushed in to fill the gap that more culturally-specific art had supplied before that kind of art was discredited by the 1940s.”

– Adam Roberts, “From Wagner to Tolkien.A Mechanical Art. August 1, 2018.

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“One defence for all this Sadean excess might be the same one a couple of late-20th-century philosophers advanced with respect to de Sade himself: not that he was a nice person (since he very clearly wasn’t) but that his fantasy, by manifesting the oppressive logic concealed in all sexual interchanges under patriarchy, can be recruited to revolutionary ends.

In The Sadean Woman (1978) Angela Carter argued that de Sade was ‘a terrorist of the imagination’ whose works ‘turn the unacknowledged truths of the encounters of sexuality into a cruel festival at which women are prime sacrificial victims’ (‘the pornographer as terrorist may not think of himself as a friend of women…but he will always be our unconscious ally because he begins to approach some kind of emblematic truth, whereas the lackey pornographer, like the devious fellows who write love stories for women’s magazines, that softest of all forms of pornography, can only do harm’). For Carter de Sade functions as a sort of way-station on the road from oppressive-repressive sex to a more inclusively pornotopian vision of ‘a world of absolute sexual licence for all the genders’. Not everyone was convinced: Andrea Dworkin threw shade on Carter’s book by calling it merely ‘pseudofeminist’. For Dworkin, Sade’s rape fantasy was all about the rape and not even a fantasy, because for her there is nothing hidden or, as it were, aspirational about male rape. It’s all front and centre all around us all the time; it’s written in letters of fire on the forehead of the patriarchy.

A more nuanced defence of de Sade is Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘Must We Burn Sade?’ (1952), which argues that de Sade ‘posed the problem of the Other in its most extreme terms’. Beauvoir has interesting speculations about the extent to which cruelty establishes the relationship between the self and the other (‘cruelty reveals us to each other in the particularities and ambiguities of our conscious and fleshed existence. The tyrant and victim are a genuine couple. They are united by the bonds of the flesh and freedom’). She does concede that de Sade fails to work through this dynamic, becoming snared in his own erotic self-absorption and moral myopia, but refuses to give up on, or censor (‘burn’) him. I’m not so sure.

And actually, to be quite frank, I could care less about de Sade, who has always struck me as plain dull (other people’s monomaniacal obsessions are almost always boring, of course). But I am interested in, and I do care about, the Sadean turn in modern culture. Because although I take the force of Beauvoir’s attempt to renovate his reputation as a radical thinker of Otherness, the fact remains that his mode of fantasy is of an interaction with the Other that cannot comprehend the Other as anything other than a reversion of the subject’s erotically intensified cruelty of affect. It’s not that de Beauvoir is wrong to suggest that ‘Sade is trying to communicate an experience whose distinguishing characteristic is, nevertheless its will to remain incommunicable’; it’s just that his incommunicable is never God—the least compelling and most adolescent elements in de Sade’s writing is his febrile fist-shaking at God—and always only the Other as projection. It’s not even, really, that de Sade hates women; you can’t really hate something that barely impinges on your egoism. De Sade desires to do certain things to, never with, women (and men) but de Sade cannot comprehend women and men, and so not only his erotic energy but his whole universe reverts into an close-walled existential echo-chamber. His works are masturbatory not just in the instrumental sense that they have been used as handbooks for that harmless human activity, though I’m sure they have, but in the formal sense that they construe an aggressively hostile withdrawal from the Other as such.

That’s the worrying aspect of the modern Sadean Fantasy. De Beauvoir is quite right to identify something cruel about the Other, or more specifically something cruel about the ethical and practical demands the Other necessarily places upon us, whether we like it or not. The pain of the other—the weeping child torn from her mother and placed in a camp, say—cannot make allowances for your convenience or ease. But de Beauvoir is not suggesting that cruelty is the whole theatre in which our encounter with the Other takes place. Grimdark, in effect, is suggesting that. This, it seems to me, doesn’t critique the contemporary political turn to the right so much as translate it into the representational logic of fantastika. The one thing that unites today’s Brexit agitators, and Trumps, and Viktor Orbáns, the basic Brexitrumpbán premise, is that the world is dark and full of horrors, and that the polity must pull up the drawbridge and arm the cannons in the face of these things. Hobbes is very much back in fashion nowadays. And TV SFF, the Game of Thrones and Westworld and True Blood and Altered Carbon vibe (something also true of recent rape-and-sandals hit epics like Spartacus and Rome) embroiders a fundamentally Sadean-Hobbesian world: nasty, brutish and sure-to-include-female-nudity.”

– Adam Roberts,

Some Thoughts on Fantasy and Violence.” A Mechanical Art. June 21, 2018.                                                                                        

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“…The thing to bear in mind is: the fact that physical violence is simpler to represent visually than other kinds of violence doesn’t make physical violence the truth of violence as such, especially in the 21st-century world. I’m not of course denying that actual physical violence happens in the world: not denying that men beat women, that people injure and kill people. But I am suggesting that, outside actual warzones, other forms of violence are more pervasive and intrusive. A punch to the gut hurts for a while; growing up female, or gay, or Black in a sexist, homophobic and racist society presses violently upon your very soul the whole time. Some rape involves the sort of additional physical violence that leaves bruises on the skin or bones broken. Most rape does not do this. But only a fool would suggest that a rape victim who emerges from the trauma without bruises and broken bones has not suffered. On the contrary, such a person is likely as badly, or even more severely, traumatised by the experience because the violence of rape is not essentially the violence of broken bones but of broken spirits: domination, violation of personal space, invasion of personal integrity, degradation and breaking of peace of mind.

To the extent visible, somatic modes of violence come to stand-in, as a representational convention, for the larger and more malign trauma of internalised, systemic and invisible violence, they run the risk of actually supplanting violence as such in the popular imagination—so as it might be, people end up making the (false) distinction between ‘rape’ and ‘real rape’, reserving the latter category for instances where physical violence has been added to the fundamental violence of the traumatising invasiveness of the act as such. Sometime post-facto justifications are added to this prejudice, such that bruises show a victim ‘fought back’ or ‘resisted’, a datum treated as justifying our compassion as the expensive of implying that a victim who does not garner such addition, visible markers of violence somehow doesn’t deserve our pity. Germaine Greer’s recently comments about the need to reform our rape laws were vehemently criticized by many. It seems to me, for what it’s worth, that her actual proposals have something to recommend them (‘rape trials are foundering and not ending in convictions as lawyers argue over the issue of consent; why not believe the woman and lower the penalty?’) but I wonder if there is a one-dimensionality in the way she uses the term violence: so that when she says ‘most rapes don’t involve any injury whatsoever’ she is consicously or unconciously conflating externally-evident physical injury (where her statement is probably true) with internal less-evident injury (where her statement is, clearly, simply wrong).

It all speaks to what is, I think, a widespread belief that physical violence is more ‘real’ (more important, more terrible, more worthy of representation) than psychological or conceptual violence. This, though, is the wrong way about. Physical violence is horrible, but psychological violence tends to be both more profoundly traumatising and longer-lasting. A gunshot wound may heal in weeks, where PTSDs last years, even decades. The domestic goods stolen by a burglar can be replaced on the insurance, but the sense that a malign stranger has been in your house lingers, and makes you feel unsafe and unhappy for a long time. That’s a psychological reaction (though no less devastating for that), but I wonder if it is conceptual violence—by which I mean, whatever does violence to the principles, assumptions and mental models by which we navigate this complicating and alarming universe—that is the most radically destabilising.

In either case, there is a bias against the invisible. It’s not true that bodily illness is more real than psychological illness, or that conceptual violence is a mere chimera.  It’s just that people’s responses are more easily recruited by the somatic. Trans activists I know tend to stress the physical dangers trans men and women often face: the risks of being actually beaten-up and murdered. Those risks are real, and undeniably higher for trans people than the general population, and that is not something to brush under the carpet. But might it not be that the conceptual violence people endure when their sense of self is denied by the communities to which they belong is, because it is continual, vastly more pervasive, and internalised in ways that are psychologically violating, more significant? I’ve always thought ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me’ is exactly the wrong way around. It is terrible to be beaten-up for being gay, but being beaten up will send you to the hospital for a poultice, where decades of verbal taunts, societal invalidation, disdain and rejection can send you to suicide. It’s not that sticks and stones won’t break your bones; it’s that it’s the stuff that gets inside your head that kills you.

Nor is this state of affairs ideologically neutral. Indeed, I’d suggest it is on the contrary precisely how ideology as such works. There may be a temptation to think of ideology as a sort of add-on, in some sense less importat than the brute existential facts of living, finding food and shelter and all that. But, again, I think this gets things the wrong way about. ‘Ideology’ is a shorthand term for those structures of belief, those attitudes to mind and habits of living, by which we orient ourselves in our social world. These beliefs can sustain us, and motivate us to acts of great kindness or courage; but they can also prompt us to atrocity, and can even overwhelm such basic biological drives as self-preservation, as the anorexic starves herself to death or the suicide-bomber blows himself up. Given this, something we see all the time around us in small as well as large ways, it strikes me as foolish to treat ‘ideology’ as a kind of afterthought, or as somehow secondary to the biological, somatic fundamentals of life.

I’m not, of course, the first to say so. A lot of Žižek’s oeuvre is more-or-less disposable Extruded Lacanian Product, but I quite like his 2008 book Violence.

Žižek argues that we fixate on ‘subjective violence’ (assault, murder, terror and war) at the expense of other, more important modes of violence: Z. is particularly interested in what he calls ‘objective’ violence (‘the symbolic violence embodied in language and its forms’) and ‘systemic violence’ (the ‘often catastrophic consequences of the functioning of our economic and political systems’). This isn’t quite the distinction I’m trying to make in this post, actually, but Z and I are at least in the same ball-park. So, for instance, despite the professed conviction that it’s actual violence that is the traumatic and destructive kind, Žižek is surely right to note that Western society remains absolutely unruffled by the actual violence of its armies and police forces (in reality and as reflected in our hyper-violent popular culture-texts) whilst at the same time being highly agitated by the merely conceptual violence offered to hetrosexual norms by (say) gays in the military. The people unfazed by the 270 million firearms sloshing around the civilian population of the USA and 30,000+ deaths annually these weapons facilitate—actual violence, by any measure—are often the same people genuinely rattled by the purely conceptual violence offered to the dominant social (ideological) logics of heteronormativity, gender fixity and racial homogeneity by the mere existence of gay, trans and non-white segments of the population.

Now: it ought, I think, to be possible to think and talk about the pervasiveness and damage of conceptual violence without in effect crowding-out the concrete horribleness of actual violence. Women are beaten and murdered around the world in horrifying numbers every day. The thing is: some women are victimised by this kind of crime, but all women live under the conceptual coercion of fear of it—all women have to curtail their freedom of movement and hobble their peace of mind, live existences constrained within the procustean bed of this conceptual space.

That said there is, I think, a correlative here. If we take conceptual violence seriously, then we need to take it seriously across the board. There is, of course, an asymmetry to the way marginalised groups suffer, and the inertia of history and privilege determine a steep gradiant of oppression from privilege downward. But being born into a privileged group is not the same thing as being born wicked. We can certainly say that the pervasive social and cultural pressure telling gay or trans people that they are disgusting, unnatural, shameful and so on enacts a violence upon those people worse, because it is both ubiquitous and liable to be internalised by the victim, than bruised skin and broken bones. But we might also want to ask ourselves: is there anything to learn from people whose atttudes are shaped by conscious or unconscious homophobic or transphobic views? Maybe your answer to this question is: no, these are bad people, worth only our contempt. Most people aren’t bad, though; and cleaving to a different set of life-values is not in itself an index of moral turpitude.

Imagine somebody for whom fixity of gender was one of the conceptual props that helps them navigate the various shoals and whirlpools of everyday life, perhaps as a function of a larger religious faith supporting and maintaining the stability of their life. Lets’s say the performance of gender fluidity by others enacts a degree of conceptual violence upon these assumptions, and makes the person unhappy and upset and unnerved. You may think: good, they deserve it. You may go further (fuck their feelings, this is right-and-wrong and they’re wrong. It’s possible they think the same of you). Maybe that’s justified. But it’s hardly an approach calculated to end hostilities. How might negotiation look, in this particular situation? How to defuse a stand-off in which both sides’ strategies boil down to loud declarations of fuck your feelings? To say ‘their feelings don’t matter, only mine do’ is self-evidently unsatisfactory, even given the asymmetry of the social status quo. My point is, retreating to ‘what I’m doing is not really violence, it’s not as though I’m literally punching them in the face’ also isn’t a load-bearing position in this context. Which backs us, rather, into the situation of believing something along the lines of: ‘though it would be bad if it happened to me, it’s good for them to have their values challenged’. I find this really difficult to process, I’ll be honest. It seems to me ‘it’s good for them, but not me, to be on the receiving end of violence’ both ethically untenable and not a probable position from which a mutually satisfactory compromise could be negotiated. Of course, it may be that neither side is interested in compromise. “

– Adam Roberts,

Some Thoughts on Fantasy and Violence.” A Mechanical Art. June 21, 2018.

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“Listen for a moment to me! Consider what you are. Consider what we are. Consider what a man is before you marvel at his ineptitudes of will. Face the accepted facts. Here is a creature not ten thousand generations from the ape, his ancestor. Not ten thousand. And that ape again, not a score of thousands from the monkey, his forebear. A man’s body, his bodily powers, are just the body and powers of an ape, a little improved, a little adapted to novel needs. That brings me to my point. CAN HIS MIND AND WILL BE ANYTHING BETTER? For a few generations, a few hundreds at most, knowledge and wide thought have flared out on the darknesses of life…. But the substance of man is ape still. He may carry a light in his brain, but his instincts move in the darkness. Out of that darkness he draws his motives.”

“Or fails to draw them,” said Sir Richmond.

“Or fails…. And that is where these new methods of treatment come in. We explore that failure. Together. What the psychoanalyst does-and I will confess that I owe much to the psychoanalyst—what he does is to direct thwarted, disappointed and perplexed people to the realities of their own nature. Which they have been accustomed to ignore and forget. They come to us with high ambitions or lovely illusions about themselves, torn, shredded, spoilt. They are morally denuded. Dreams they hate pursue them; abhorrent desires draw them; they are the prey of irresistible yet uncongenial impulses; they succumb to black despairs. The first thing we ask them is this: ‘What else could you expect?’”

“What else could I expect?” Sir Richmond repeated, looking down on him. “H’m!”

“The wonder is not that you are sluggish, reluctantly unselfish, inattentive, spasmodic. The wonder is that you are ever anything else…. Do you realize that a few million generations ago, everything that stirs in us, everything that exalts human life, self-devotions, heroisms, the utmost triumphs of art, the love—for love it is—that makes you and me care indeed for the fate and welfare of all this round world, was latent in the body of some little lurking beast that crawled and hid among the branches of vanished and forgotten Mesozoic trees? A petty egg-laying, bristle-covered beast it was, with no more of the rudiments of a soul than bare hunger, weak lust and fear…. People always seem to regard that as a curious fact of no practical importance. It isn’t: it’s a vital fact of the utmost practical importance. That is what you are made of. Why should you expect—because a war and a revolution have shocked you—that you should suddenly be able to reach up and touch the sky?”

“H’m!” said Sir Richmond. “Have I been touching the sky!”

“You are trying to play the part of an honest rich man.”

“I don’t care to see the whole system go smash.”

“Exactly,” said the doctor, before he could prevent himself.

“But is it any good to tell a man that the job he is attempting is above him—that he is just a hairy reptile twice removed—and all that sort of thing?”

“Well, it saves him from hoping too much and being too greatly disappointed. It recalls him to the proportions of the job. He gets something done by not attempting everything. … And it clears him up. We get him to look into himself, to see directly and in measurable terms what it is that puts him wrong and holds him back. He’s no longer vaguely incapacitated. He knows.”

“That’s diagnosis. That’s not treatment.”

“Treatment by diagnosis. To analyze a mental knot is to untie it.”

“You propose that I shall spend my time, until the Commission meets, in thinking about myself. I wanted to forget myself.”

“Like a man who tries to forget that his petrol is running short and a cylinder missing fire…. No. Come back to the question of what you are,” said the doctor. “A creature of the darkness with new lights. Lit and half-blinded by science and the possibilities of controlling the world that it opens out. In that light your will is all for service; you care more for mankind than for yourself. You begin to understand something of the self beyond your self. But it is a partial and a shaded light as yet; a little area about you it makes clear, the rest is still the old darkness—of millions of intense and narrow animal generations…. You are like someone who awakens out of an immemorial sleep to find himself in a vast chamber, in a great and ancient house, a great and ancient house high amidst frozen and lifeless mountains—in a sunless universe. You are not alone in it. You are not lord of all you survey. Your leadership is disputed. The darkness even of the room you are in is full of ancient and discarded but quite unsubjugated powers and purposes…. They thrust ambiguous limbs and claws suddenly out of the darkness into the light of your attention. They snatch things out of your hand, they trip your feet and jog your elbow. They crowd and cluster behind you. Wherever your shadow falls, they creep right up to you, creep upon you and struggle to take possession of you. The souls of apes, monkeys, reptiles and creeping things haunt the passages and attics and cellars of this living house in which your consciousness has awakened….””

– H. G. Wells, The Secret Places of the Heart. The Macmillan Company, 1922. 1.4. 

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“He stands by one of the guns of the submarine in an attack upon some wretched ocean tramp. He realizes that the war he wages is no heroic attack on pride or predominance, but a mere murdering of traffic. He sees the little ship shelled, the wretched men killed and wounded, no tyrants of the seas but sailormen like himself; he sees their boats smashed to pieces. Mostly such sinkings are done at dawn or sundown, under a level light which displays a world of black lines and black silhouettes asway with the slow heaving and falling of coldly shining water.”

– H. G. Wells, The Undying Fire. Cassell & Co, 1919. 5.4.

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“The chess they play is not the little ingenious game that originated in India; it is on an altogether different scale. The Ruler of the Universe creates the board, the pieces, and the rules; he makes all the moves; he may make as many moves as he likes whenever he likes; his antagonist, however, is permitted to introduce a slight inexplicable inaccuracy into each move, which necessitates further moves in correction. The Creator determines and conceals the aim of the game, and it is never clear whether the purpose of the adversary is to defeat or assist him in his unfathomable project. Apparently the adversary cannot win, but also he cannot lose so long as he can keep the game going. But he is concerned, it would seem, in preventing the development of any reasoned scheme in the game.”

– H. G. Wells, The Undying Fire. Cassells & Co., 1919. 1.1.   

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““Let us thresh the matter out,” said Chaffery, crossing his legs; “let us thresh the matter out. Now”—he drew at his pipe—“I don’t think you fully appreciate the importance of Illusion in life, the Essential Nature of Lies and Deception of the body politic. You are inclined to discredit one particular form of Imposture, because it is not generally admitted—carries a certain discredit, and—witness the heel edges of my trouser legs, witness yonder viands—small rewards. … Now I am prepared to maintain,” said Chaffery, proceeding with his proposition, “that Honesty is essentially an anarchistic and disintegrating force in society, that communities are held together and the progress of civilisation made possible only by vigorous and sometimes even, violent Lying; that the Social Contract is nothing more or less than a vast conspiracy of human beings to lie to and humbug themselves and one another for the general Good. Lies are the mortar that bind the savage Individual man into the social masonry. There is the general thesis upon which I base my justification. My mediumship, I can assure you, is a particular instance of the general assertion …”

“But how are you going to prove it?”

“Prove It! It simply needs pointing out. Even now there are men—Bernard Shaw, Ibsen, and such like—who have seen bits of it in a new-gospel-grubbing sort of fashion. What Is man? Lust and greed tempered by fear and an irrational vanity … But about this matter of Lies—let us look at the fabric of society, let us compare the savage. You will discover the only essential difference between savage and civilised is this: The former hasn’t learnt to shirk the truth of things, and the latter has. Take the most obvious difference—the clothing of the civilised man, his invention of decency. What is clothing? The concealment of essential facts. What is decorum? Suppression! I don’t argue against decency and decorum, mind you, but there they are—essentials to civilisation and essentially ‘suppressio veri.’ And in the pockets of his clothes our citizen carries money. The pure savage has no money. To him a lump of metal is a lump of metal—possibly ornamental—no more. That’s right. To any lucid-minded man it’s the same or different only through the gross folly of his fellows. But to the common civilised man the universal exchangeability of this gold is a sacred and fundamental fact. Think of it! Why should it be? There isn’t a why! I live in perpetual amazement at the gullibility of my fellow-creatures. Of a morning sometimes, I can assure you, I lie in bed fancying that people may have found out this swindle in the night, expect to hear a tumult downstairs and see your mother-in-law come rushing into the room with a rejected shilling from the milkman. ‘What’s this?’ says he. ‘This Muck for milk?’ But it never happens. Never. If it did, if people suddenly cleared their minds of this cant of money, what would happen? The true nature of man would appear. … But why go on? You of all men should know that life is a struggle for existence, a fight for food. Money is just the lie that mitigates our fury … What a lie and sham all civility is, all good breeding, all culture and refinement, while one poor ragged wretch drags hungry on the earth!””

– H. G. Wells, Love and Mr Lewisham. London: Harper Brothers, 1900.  Quoted by Adam Roberts here.

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