On Urban Fantasy

(This is probably the quickest update to this blog in, like, ever, man. It’s not going to be a habit…)

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I’ve been recently reading, whenever I needed to read something that felt less taxing than, say, Teju Cole’s boring Open City, one of the many, many urban fantasy novels that have appeared over the last two decades or so. I guess that much of it started with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series (it’s almost always series): books in which a Chicago private investigator-slash-wizard named Harry Dresden solves the problems left in their wake by various supernatural forces, all of which are arrayed as something like a substratum of our “real” reality, an entire alternative society of various kinds of vampires and fairies, assorted monsters, wizards, obviously, and other kinds of magical and supernatural beings.

There’s numerous such series out there, and I’ve read only a few of them: Ben Aaronvitch’s PC Peter Grant series, in which a magically-abled London police constable discovers the unreality of his own city; Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series, set in Los Angeles (and Hell); Charles Stross’s Lovecraft-inflected Laundry Files, about a supersecret British supernatural spy agency defending Britain from the apocalypse that lurks just around the corner; and Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police series, in which a less magically-enabled London police unit finds itself faced with the unreality of their own London (it’s very frequently London!). And we might also include David Wong’s trilogy of novels, starting with John Dies at the End, here, even though it’s less centered on an urban agglomeration.

severedstreetsThere are echoes here of China Miéville’s Kraken, Neil Gaiman’s late-90s novel Neverwhere, of course, and no doubt also echoes of other, older fictions, such as C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, which, after all, can be reached by stepping through a pretty mundane wardrobe. Yet, for the purposes of this post, which after all aren’t wholly scholarly, I’m going to suggest two things: first, that this has become a more commonplace motive than the mere proliferation of any kind of fantasy would suggest. That is to say, we might be inclined to say that given the increase in the volume of fantasy writing since Lewis, or indeed Gaiman, this might just be a reasonably simply expansion of the subset of fantasy that is concerned with urban magic, but that’s not what I think is happening. And second, it’s a shift in the focus of fantasy that is symptomatic: it bespeaks something about our relationship to the world, it suggests a broader desire to identify things beyond, beneath, besides mundane reality, not as a (negatively connoted) means of escape, but rather as a symbolic resolution of the contradictions of the contemporary cultural moment.

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I put this here because this isn’t a very well argued point yet, but one which I stumble over every time I read one of those books. But it seems to me that there is a reasonable claim to be made here for a symptomatic reading of urban fantasy. In such a reading, we might see the central trope at work in all of these novels, namely the existence of a largely hidden, non-mundane, magical, but also frequently threatening world very frequently described as “below” or “beneath” the surface reality of our (non-fictional) everyday lives as a means of working through and counteracting a generalized sense of a restricted space of action in the “real;” or, conversely (and this is one of the hitches I keep hitting), a means of expressing the limited scope of action in the real world through recourse to restrictions originating outside it, inaccessible to most of us, left to the manipulations of a (here, magical) elite. This “elite” status is not encoded here on a class basis, of course: David Wong’s slacker, dead-beat twentysomething heroes, who are able to see and actively work against the supernatural threats they encounter thanks to having imbibed a mysterious black substance they call the Soy Sauce, are pretty much par for the course here. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden is perpetually strapped for cash; the policemen of Aaronovitch and Cornell’s series are just that, regularly employed police officers, and Charles Stross’s secret agents likewise are simply public servants themselves.

Each of these cases would probably warrant closer exploration as to its politics, and I’ll work through two examples very briefly here. In Charles Stross’s series, the initially somewhat uncomplicated way in which the security state is expanded to include a (unsupervised, non-democratically legitimized) agency charged with supernatural defenses, in which this supernatural security state is implicitly championed in its attempts to defend humanity, is later broken by the recognition that this apparatus itself has increasingly become autonomous of regulating forces, increasingly fights for its own survival more than that of its charges. The series’ recognition that the bureaucratic apparatus, no matter its ostensible public service, will easily mutate into an almost entirely self-serving entity without any kind of public, democratic supervision, also suggests that urban fantasy is ill-read as always a (negatively) escapist form of fantasy.

In Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police (spoilers ahead, skip the paragraph if you’d rather not know), we discover in volume three that an earlier supernatural police force of sorts, the Continuing Projects Team, failed five years earlier and was wiped out by the evil that is now encroaching upon London. The twist: the CPT consisted, and had consisted for some time, of five representatives of the upper echelons of British society: knighted architects, successful film producers, well-heeled barristers, a senior civil servant, the chaplain of King’s College. As one of the new team of cops—two of them black, one gay, one the daughter of a criminal—notes, this earlier group was amateurish: a nod, and a decidedly negative one, to the upper class genteel amateurism beloved of much British genre fiction, at least. What’s important here, I think, is the way the representatives of the upper class fail to stop the encroaching danger, fail to uphold to already tenuous balance of the world, and end up replaced by a group recruited from a different social stratum, now tasked with picking up the pieces.

It’s not, obviously, that urban fantasy has recently replaced the more traditional sword-and-sorcery, neither broadly nor in the upper levels of recognition—it’s really only necessary to mention G.R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, or Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series—but rather that it’s an interesting bell weather of sorts, one which may permit us insights into the way, more generally, we see genre fiction work through the central issues of the contemporary moment. And this may bear more working on, or not—we’ll see. But with the zombie book done, maybe I’ve got some spare time?

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On Grant Hamilton: The World of Broken Machines

failingmachinesI’ve been interested for a while now, in relation to a book project, in the contemporary philosophical “school” of speculative realism. One of the things I wanted to do in the project was to link literary reading and writing to this philosophy, something that had not been done extensively at the time I began the project. Since then, Graham Harman, one of the foremost representatives of the new school, published an essay on the topic in New Literary History, entitled “The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer” (more about this text below), and now Grant Hamilton, a professor of English at Hong Kong Chinese University, has published The World of Failed Machines: Speculative Realism and Literature with Zero Books. It’s this book that’s finally dragging this blog kicking and screaming to its true (literary theoretical) purpose: it’s what I want to talk about in the next few paragraphs. This is a off-the-cuff critique, and re-reading the book may soften it. But for now, I’m more baffled than enlightened.

Hamilton sets out to briefly recapitulate the major tenets of speculative realism (and one of the striking effects of his commendable brevity is to make the philosophy seem curiously limited, reduced to a number of fairly simple propositions of which “we cannot know the (real, noumenal) world” is the most crucial). From these insights, Hamilton sets out to argue the literature therefore cannot have a “meaning,” which for him appears to signify a single, transcendent truth about a text. This having been placed out of reach, Hamilton argues, we should conceive of literary criticism as a speculative venture: one that acknowledges its previous object—meaning—is in fact out of reach, and therefore should return to the text-as-object, something, Hamilton alleges, “literary theorists have actively been engaged in doing away with thinking about” (52). He borrows from Levi Bryant the idea that we should conceive of being as a world of machines (developed in Bryant’s Onto-Cartography), and would like us to see that the text-as-machine and the (literary critic) reader-as-machine come together in a reading machine. This reading machine, Hamilton suggests, produces an “output” (an act of reading) which is heavily influenced by the individual state of the reader and the text: it is never the same between different reading machines, that is, different states of text and reader. In other words, because a text will only ever produce an output as part of a reading machine, and the reading machine is dependent on an ever-changing reader, it is impossible to arrive at any sense of the text beyond its immediate impressions: “any residual sense one may carry of a universal or transcendental meaning embedded in the text finally evaporates” (112). The conclusion of an object-oriented literary criticism then is, as Hamilton avers, is to reorient one’s approach: “One simply asks of a text, ‘Does it work for me?’” (111). He advocates the “death of judgment as a universal or transcendental schema” and the “proliferation of passion and private engagement” (120). He offers a more thorough list of possible things the literary critic can do (Clear Space! Begin (Anew)! Begin Again! Persist! Create and Innovate!), but this appears to be the thrust of his argument: because object-oriented ontology insists of the impossibility of obtaining access to the world as it really is, we must deny the existence of transcendental meaning, and instead understand our reading processes as necessarily bound to a highly singular act of reading in which nothing more than the individual, private reactions to literature can be investigated; and these should be investigated by a recourse to your personal interactions with the text. This, Hamilton says, is the art lost to the critic (though presumably open to the lay reader), and it is what he should recover.

Maybe. Because Hamilton does appear to lack the courage of his own convictions. His afterword proposes his reading method merely as “another class of approach”, one which can stand with all the kinds of interpretive and universalizing readings he has spent the book dismissing. Yet this is curious: if the philosophical grounding of his argument is (for given values) “true”, then these other modes of reading have lost their validity: if a book must be conceived as merely part of a necessary reading-machine, then the “relationships within which a literary work takes place” and the “constitutive features of the text in hand” (124-5) appear to be impossible to grasp outside it, and so much become subsumed to the reading machine. But perhaps the more problematical, if logical, result of his deductions is that the “object-oriented literary criticism” he suggests could be practiced is so…unthinking. “Do I like this novel? Am I affected by this poem? What do I connect with or identify with in this short story?” (125) sounds far more like a high-school exercise than an engagement with a literary (!) text—and it does not so much concern the text-as-object so much as it concerns readerly, and avowedly individual and even solipsistic, reactions to the text-as-text. What exceeds the object in this reading, what we cannot know about the noumenal book, remains unclear.

What’s even more unclear, though, is what this form of reading gets us. Now, I’m not fully qualified to speak to the philosophical grounding on which Hamilton builds. But it does look like object-oriented literary criticism, done the way Hamilton proposes, is not literary criticism at all. How do you trace the “private products of a particular reading machine” (111)? Or, more particularly, if all you trace is the private product of your reading—writing up what moved you, and why, if such a thing is even possible (if you can identify the hows and whys of such an emotional or affective reaction)—then how is literary criticism distinct from everyday reading, or the kind of reading practiced by reading groups, or on Goodreads? And if it is not distinct, why should it be done? And if it is distinct (Hamilton’s five suggestions on reading seem to vaguely suggest ways in which it might be distinct from just plopping down with a good book on a park bench somewhere, but don’t spell that out), what is its purpose?

The book, in all its cheerful shortness, would have been better if it had paid this more attention, if it had spend as much time working out a method as it does working out the philosophical rationale, or if had spent more time arguing its criticism of contemporary literary criticism—a field where Hamilton sometimes has quite baffling commentary. I’m going to restrict myself to one observation here, which is about Hamilton’s conception of meaning. In a long early section on Mallarme (whose purpose it appears to be to say how similar his poetry is to the tenets of speculative realism), Hamilton suggests “knowing the world”, “gaining access to it,” and “creating meaning” (39) are (to Mallarme, but by extension to the speculative realist critic) the same thing, and that language is not fit for these purposes. But while I agree that language will not permit us to “know” the world in the sense that speculative realists use the idea of “world” (by definition, almost), meaning, certainly in the literary critical realm, is much more fluid than that, and (again, almost by definition) that language is here to do: language gives meaning to a world otherwise inaccessible. Literary meaning, therefore, is not like the web of relations an object enters into, many of which remain outside our capacity to fathom: literary meaning exists only when we put it into words.

Why does literature need to be considered an object or a machine in this? It’s not clear. In simple words: Hamilton’s spirited attempt to develop a first object-oriented literary criticism is reminiscent of the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, only in lieu of sheer nakedness, Hamilton has dressed the emperor up in assemblage of older literary theories (with at least one shocking, perhaps willful, misreading of Pascale Casanova, who most certainly does not claim that literature “exists other to this world in which we live”! (115) even in the very quote Hamilton uses to justify this point). More so than giving us a handle on how speculative realism may serve as the foundation of literary criticism, it appears to give us a handle on the limits of the reach of speculative realism.

There are also other curiosities. Without trying to (broken?) hammer Hamilton too much, it seems passing strange that he does not cite Graham Harman’s fascinating Weird Realism, in which Harman outlines the affinities between H.P. Lovecraft’s writing and his philosophy. Neither does he cite Alain Badiou. This is strange not because Badiou is a sympathizer of speculative realism, but because he is an avid reader of the same Stephane Mallarmé whom Hamilton believes to be a prime example of a poet whose works reflect the concerns of speculative realism. Which, in turn, leads to a methodological problem. Like Harman with Lovecraft, Hamilton’s selection of the Symbolists seems to rest not on an act of literary criticism (in this case, an employment of the methods which Hamilton believes we should draw from speculative realism), but on a prior affinity of these writers’ work with speculative realism: a speculative realism avant la lettre, as it were. If, as Hamilton seems to imply, a speculative realist method would require us to speculate ourselves, his parsing of the Symbolists has none of that necessity, since they already are speculative (realists) themselves. In fact, Hamilton’s reading of the Symbolists is the exact opposite of what his initial theoretical excursus seems to desire: in it, “Baudelaire creates” (36) something that we might call cheekily the Ideal of speculative realist literary method, and gives us direct access to it. For a critic as insistent as Hamilton on the insufficiency of language, the claim that Baudelaire makes his points “perfectly clear” (37) seems vaguely troubling. I might quibble with minor points of Hamilton’s readings, too: his apparent surprise at a line in Baudelaire (“Sweet as oboes, green as meadows,” on which he comments “sweet as oboes?!”) which is thoroughly conventional (in that the oboe has been traditionally described as “sweet-sounding, while the meadows bit is almost painfully trite), for example, but is presented by him as something specific to Baudelaire.

What’s perhaps most interesting to me personally (aside from suggesting that an intersubjectively valid speculative realist literary criticism appears to be getting further and further away from us) is the way Hamilton’s insistence on the personal and private, the aesthetic and involved reading coincides with other recent attempts to decenter critical reading in literary studies in favor of affective and affirmative reading, such as in Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique. I hope to be able to say something about that in a while.