Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Archive for the ‘Look at what I put on the Internet’ Category

Canavan vs. Endgame, Dawn of Thinkpiece

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I’ve got a short piece up about Endgame up at Frieze, if you’re interested: Why Avengers: Endgame Doesn’t Have to Make Sense. And a bonus after-the-credits observation here, for the true fans…

Big link post coming soon! Just didn’t want this one to die on the vine in the meantime.

Spring 2019 Syllabi! “Classics of Science Fiction” and Game Studies

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I’m teaching three courses this semester: a graduate level course titled “Classics of Science Fiction,” a first-year seminar on game studies, and the second half of our yearlong “methods of inquiry” sequence (also for first-years). You can see the full syllabi in all their glory at my website:

ENGL 6700: Classics of Science Fiction

Main texts: Jack Finney, Invasion of the Body Snatchers; Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed; Octavia E. Butler, Kindred; William Gibson, Neuromancer; Octavia E. Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories; Kim Stanley Robinson, The Lucky Strike; Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen; Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), 2001, Blade Runner, and Star Trek: The Next Generation; “That Only a Mother,” “The Evitable Conflict,” “All You Zombies,” “The Heat-Death of the Universe”; “Houston, Houston, Do You Read” and “The Screwfly Solution,” “The Gernsback Continuum,” “Game Night at the Fox and Goose”; “The Space Traders”; criticism from Suvin, Sontag, Jameson, Freedman, Delany, Csiscery-Ronay, Rieder, and even Gerry Canavan himself

HONORS 1955H: Game Studies

Main texts: Ian Bogost, How to Do Things with Video Games; Alexander Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture; Frans Märyä, An Introduction to Game Studies; The Stanley Parable, Doom, Journey, Bandersnatch, Tetris, Candy Crush, Civilization, SimCity, The King of Kong, Braid, FIFA 19

CORE 1929H: Methods of Inquiry: The Mind

WEEK ONE—HISTORY: George Rousseau, “Depression’s Forgotten Geneaology: Notes Towards a History of Depression”

WEEK TWO—STRUCTURE: Luigi Esposito and Fernando M. Perez, “Neoliberalism and the Commodification of Mental Health”

WEEK THREE—PERSONAL NARRATIVE: Leslie Kendall Dye, “It Isn’t That Shocking”

That last one is a 1.5 credit course that’s mostly devoted to independent research in the second half, but it did allow me the chance to formalize something like a definition of the difference between the physical sciences and the academic humanities as I see them operating, at least at the level of the very extreme generalization, for better or worse:

Last semester we were working at the intersection of the sciences and the humanities, exploring the ways each of these two “cultures” engage questions of knowledge production and dissemination. In contrasting the humanities to the sciences, I suggested that contemporary humanities approaches—speaking of course extremely generally—tend to extend from a few assumptions that are not always shared by the sciences (especially the physical sciences, but also some historically conservative social science disciplines like economics or political science):

1) social causation: the proposition that the best explanations for social phenomena originate in social structures, rather than in individual psychologies, pathologies, or choices;

2) social construction: the proposition that knowledge is embedded within social structures like language, ideology, history, and economics, rather than existing radically apart from social structures in supposedly objective facts or eternal truths;

3) social justice: the proposition that knowledge has a politics, and that we should choose methods of knowledge production and dissemination that help heal the world rather than do harm or simply remain neutral.

Train Travel Day, Which Means A Whole Trainload of Links

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* Two talks down, two to go! My Worlding SF keynote is archived at Facebook Live, but my “Superheroes vs. the Climate” talk got pulled down due to the Funny or Die video I played during my presentation and will need to be edited and reposted. You can also get some coverage from Austrian Public Radio and the Superscience Me podcast (which was there all weekend reporting on the conference). If you’re dying for more Worlding SF content, there’s always the #WorldingSF hashtag on Twitter!

* I was also briefly interviewed for GlacierHub’s latest blogpost tracing the impact of ice sheets in science fiction.

* CFP: Science Fiction and Communism Conference 2019. CFP: Call for Papers: ANGUISH graduate conference at Georgetown University. CFP: The Midwest Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference, on “Artifice.” CFP: Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations, Mapping the Mythosphere, 23rd-24th May 2019. CFP: The 2019 Academic Conference on Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy, June 7-8, 2019.

* Paradoxa 30 is out, on Latin American Science Fiction.

* Terrific short film inspired by Richard McGuire’s Here.

* Margaret Atwood is officially writing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. All is proceeding precisely as I have foreseen.

* 2018 Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar. Of course there’s many, many, many more links below the image…

* Isn’t the most important response to the question “how do we get students to value the humanities” this: how do we get the humanities to value students?

Lies About the Humanities — and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.

What We Hire in Now: English by the Grim Numbers.

“While humanists are often skeptical of measuring a major through debt, salaries, or employment after graduation, other fields that have not already seen extensive declines probably have more to fear from an honest accounting of salaries than we do.”

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has paid $424,000 to insure itself against a significant drop in tuition revenue from Chinese students.

* UNC announces exciting plan to return Silent Sam to campus for a mere $5 million up front and $800,000 every year. (Over the past ten years, taxpayers have directed at least $40 million to Confederate monuments.) They’ve got some other great ideas, too!

* UNC TAs go on strike in protest. More here.

* I mean it’s only half (up front) what they’re paying their basketball coach not to coach basketball anymore.

Louisiana School Made Headlines for Sending Black Kids to Elite Colleges. Here’s the Reality.

Graduate School Can Have Terrible Effects on People’s Mental Health.

* The Insect Apocalypse Is Here. How A Shorter Sea Ice Season Is Changing Life In The Arctic. U.S. Climate Report Warns of Damaged Environment and Shrinking Economy. The Nobel Prize for Climate Catastrophe. How Extreme Weather Is Shrinking the Planet. Here’s How Climate Change Is Already Impacting The US. How Climate Change Is Challenging American Health Care. Climate May Force Millions to Move and U.S. Isn’t Ready, Report Says. America’s Last-Ditch Climate Strategy of Retreat Isn’t Going So Well. Reindeer in Sweden usually migrate in November. But there’s still no snow. Huge if true. Democrats get on board with Manchin for energy committee post. When the survival of the planet is at stake, calls for moderation and compromise aren’t a mark of adult politics — they’re a threat to civilization. But Mr. Burns and the plot of Snowpiercer have a plan.

* Parable of the Sower was a documentary.

* Imagine a better world: Forests are the most powerful and efficient carbon-capture system on the planet.

* Not even Pantone is safe. More geoengineering, coral reef edition.

* 150 Minutes of Hell: Inside the Carr Fire Tornado.

* Meanwhile, Brexit, am I right?

* Welcome to Our Modern Hospital, Where If You Want to Know a Price You Can Go Fuck Yourself.

The steady erection of a system of minority rule that Republicans are implementing is not as dramatic as a populist putsch. But it’s actually happening before our eyes. And it’s led not by the rabble-rousing president or the unwashed masses who thrill to his rallies, but by the elite network of donors, operatives, and politicians who run the Republican Party and the conservative movement.

* How do they do it, every single time?

* Russians! Surprise! Trump was blackmailing everybody.

* When I was closing tabs I found this story about the Moscow Trump Tower project, which was like three unindicted crimes ago already.

* The notion that a) the constitution absolutely forbids charging the sitting president for crimes, and b) the statute of limitations for those crimes *still runs while he’s in office* so he might never face charges, shows how fatuous the constitutional analysis was to begin with.”

* Trump officially ruining books, too.

Trump Ramped Up Drone Strikes in America’s Shadow Wars. No Bush, No Trump.

* When George H.W. Trump ruined a kid’s life for a five-second TV bit. Why Do Political Journalists Think It’s Their Job to Portray George H.W. Bush as America’s Benign, Saintly Grandpa?

Samuel Oliver-Bruno, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, didn’t need to leave the Durham church where he’s been taking sanctuary for eleven months Friday morning. He knew stepping foot outside the church risked arrest and deportation, but he chose to, in good faith, get a biometric screening to comply with part of his pending asylum petition. At about 8:45 a.m., Oliver-Bruno entered the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Morrisville, where he was thrown on the ground by ICE officers and arrested, according to Viridiana Martinez of Alerta Migratoria. He was taken outside and placed in a beige van with dark tinted windows.

* Migrants Tear Gassed at US Border. Families are still being separated at the border, months after “zero tolerance” was reversed. This is what the world looks like to kids in the caravan. US nixed FBI checks for teen migrant camp staff. ICE To Release Asylum-Seeker After 2 Years In Detention. Trans woman beaten to death in ICE custody. Making President Trump’s Bed: A Housekeeper Without Papers.

Holocaust Survivors Recall Exact Day Holocaust Started Right Out Of The Blue.

* Meanwhile, the Democrats.

* Same joke but meanwhile, NJ Democrats.

What the Cult of Ruth Bader Ginsburg Got Wrong.

The Pentagon’s Massive Accounting Fraud Exposed.

The New Republican Myth of California Voter Fraud. Meanwhile, in NC-09.

* How Democracy Works.

* Coups in WI, MI, NC, and WV. The suffocation of democracy.

* The lame duck session is a deranged, obviously terrible institution.

Overall, the experiences of Central European countries suggest that when left-leaning parties turn their backs on working people, other parties will willingly step up to channel their frustration.

40 million people with diabetes will be left without insulin by 2030, study predicts. Insulin is a cheap and easy to manufacture drug invented 100 years ago, deliberately entered into the public domain by its creators to prevent precisely this situation.

* U.S. Life Expectancy Declines Again. Suicides are at the highest rate in decades, CDC report shows.

* “Is curing patients a sustainable business model?”

Billionaires Made So Much Money Last Year They Could End Extreme Poverty Seven Times.

Unemployment Is So Low Some People Have 2 or 3 Jobs.

* Sign here to lose everything.

He won Powerball’s $314 million jackpot. It ruined his life.

* Generational analysis isn’t great, and yet.

* The violent theft of land and capital is at the core of the U.S. experiment: the U.S. military got its start in the wars against Native Americans.

GM gave out $25b in dividends etc last 5 yrs; its auto biz is now worth just $14b, yet financiers want more. Financialization grinds real industry into the dirt.

* Police chief gets three years for a wide-ranging conspiracy to frame black people for crimes. When Brooklyn juries gentrify, defendants lose. How Incarcerated Parents Are Losing Their Children Forever. Now we see the violence inherent in the system.

An interview with the managing editor at one of the country’s most widely read prison newspapers.

* I’ve been collecting an archive of attempts to bolster the police state by leveraging people’s sympathies for dogs. It’s such a bizarre phenomenon but it happens over and over.

* Meet the Stuntwomen.

* Meet the 90s nonwhite character actors.

You Probably Owe Jennifer’s Body An Apology. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie marketed so catastrophically badly.

About 137 women killed by someone they knew every day in 2017. More here.

* Rape by deception apparently isn’t illegal in Indiana.

* Neil deGrasse Tyson under investigation after accusations of sexual misconduct.

* The Miami Herald has been diving deep into the Jeffrey Epstein case.

* The Socialist Memelords Radicalizing Instagram.

@ChuckWendig yo, can you help me out

* Minneapolis becomes the first American urban area to ban single family housing.

School turns students’ lunch debt over to collection agency.

* Welcome to the Good Place: China’s plan to judge each of its 1.3 billion people based on their social behavior is moving a step closer to reality, with Beijing set to adopt a lifelong points program by 2021 that assigns personalized ratings for each resident.

* What could go wrong? Chinese scientists say they’re creating CRISPR-edited babies.

Millennials in China Are Using Nudes to Secure Loans.

* In less sensationalistic, Orientalist news, approximately one million Uighurs have been put in concentration camps in China.

* Surveillance in everything.

* The Palm Oil Catastrophe.

* Some deep dives into the Sentinelese, among the most isolated people in the world. A Twitter thread.

* Tumblr’s porn bad reveals who controls what we see online.

* How an army of temps produces NPR.

* A people’s history of He-Man.

* Remembering Square One.

* CNN, Palestine, and actually existing media bias.

* Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the politics of digital intimacy.

* N.K. Jemisin:  “I’m writing about dragons as a black woman, and it’s fucking political.”

* Kim Stanley Robinson and Anthropology.

‘Oumuamua goes into stealth mode in preparation for attack.

Gods of Fiction: African writers and the fantasy of power. Ainehi Edoro’s Essay on the God Complex of African Writers Sets Off Social Media Reaction.

* Good poets borrow, great poets steal, but not like that.

* Dialectics of Fortnite: Fortnite Addiction Is Forcing Kids Into Video-Game Rehab. Fortnite as third space.

How one man’s quest to spread Christmas cheer led to a miserable four-year war with his neighborhood.

* Uber is a “bezzle,” doomed to disappoint the suckers who buy into its IPO.

If you flip every word in “manic pixie dream girl” you get “depressive demon nightmare boy” and you think “well thank goodness THAT’S not a thing at least-“ but then you…

* Millennials are brokest generation. Doing my part!

* Jigsaw puzzle mashups.

* Huge — IF true.

In East Germany, a gamer scene emerged just before the fall of communism. Teenagers met at a computer club to swap and play C64 games. The state watched with interest.

* I’ve been rereading the series with my kids at bedtime and this is definitely canon.

* Six french fries? In this economy?

Written by gerrycanavan

December 11, 2018 at 7:15 am

Posted in Look at what I found on the Internet, Look at what I put on the Internet

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#ICFA39 Talk: “STAR TREK after DISCOVERY”

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(One of the nice things about my recent promotion is that I can perhaps start to think a little differently about the way I publish. With that in mind here’s my ICFA 2018 talk, delivered earlier this morning on the Star Wars and Star Trek panel, which builds on some recent writing I’ve been doing on franchise SF but which doesn’t really have a natural home in any of my current writing projects. As you can see it winds up in a similar place to my “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” post but takes a somewhat different path to get there.)

Hello, and thanks for coming out to this early morning panel. I did indeed just find out that I’ve been promoted — this is actually the first official thing I’m doing since I found out, which is nice because I really think of ICFA as my “home” conference. I’ve been coming here since the very start of my career and many of my earliest and best opportunities (my first publication, my first book contract, in various ways most of the editing projects I’ve done) have come out of my association with ICFA. It’s a very good place.

That said, I also like SFRA, where I am the outgoing vice-president, and one of the organizers of the upcoming SFRA18 conference to be held on the campus of Marquette University July 1-4, 2018. I have a few flyers, which I’ve also been secreting to various locations on the conference tables when no one is looking—I hope to see some of you there! Please email me with any questions or for any additional details.

I’ll be talking today about Star Trek (and Star Wars just a little bit), which is coming out of some pieces on franchise SF I’ve been doing over the last couple years, including a piece I was proud of that was shortlisted for the Pioneer Award this year (“Hokey Religions: Star Wars and Star Trek in the Age of Reboots”), popular criticism at The Los Angeles Review of Books and Sight and Sound, Dan Hassler-Forest and Sean Guynes’s Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling book, and even a blog post for the recent An und für such blog event on Discovery that went up this Tuesday night. So if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook some of this might be familiar to you, though I think most of it will be new.

Since this is a Star Wars and Star Trek panel I wanted to start off my remarks with an observation of the intriguing convergence that has been happening between these two in recent years. People who’ve been attending ICFA for awhile may find this convergence somewhat unexpected, as Star Wars and Star Trek have long been understood here as doing significantly different things, and perhaps as not even properly belonging to the same genre at all. This critical distinction was matched by or, more likely, produced by a parallel divide in SF fandom of the 1980s and 1990s; people who are old enough to have been active on the early Internet will recall that Star Wars vs. Star Trek was a banned topic on many forums, especially in its more fannish varieties (like the infamous question “Who would win in a fight, a Star Destroyer or the Enterprise D?”).

Now, this all may seem a little strange—of course the Enterprise D would win that fight, as the military applications of transporter technology alone far surpass any of the known tactical capabilities of the Empire, much less their sad devotion to the ancient Jedi religion.

But it’s also a bit strange to see fandom elevate the at-times rather slim distinctions between these two mass cultural corporate megabrands to the level of political or even moral principle, especially as those distinctions are largely originating on the level of affective response (what kind of person does watching Star Trek make me feel like I am, what kind of person does their watching Star Wars make me feel like they are, and so on), rather than any particularly rigorous distinction on the level of either form or content.

The thin line dividing the two properties has only grown thinner in recent years,as the J.J. Abrams reboot timeline expressly bringing a Star Wars action-comedy sensibility to Trek (with J.J. openly trumpeting that he wasn’t a Star Trek fan in his promotion of the first reboot film)

and the J.J. Abrams “sequel trilogy” bringing a dyspeptic, 80s-Trek-movies sensibility to Star Wars (where the once-carefree franchise becomes, in its 2010s formulation, an extended and grim meditation on the unfulfilled promises of youth, the roads not taken, the disappointments of parenting, and the sadness of growing old).

In 2016-2017 we saw each property embark full-throatedly on a project of metanarrative revision, directing their attention not only to telling new stories about categories of people they had previously ignored but also interrogating the assumptions that had previously undergirded appreciation of each franchise. I’ll talk most about Star Trek: Discovery in what follows but I hope this produces an immediate glimmer of recognition as a description of both Rogue One and The Last Jedi, which both not only center on women as central protagonists, and which both proliferate new points of audience identification beyond just “Bad Empire” and “Good Rebellion,” but which also give us new ways of understanding the mythic logic that structures the Holy Trilogy of episodes IV, V, and VI. Rogue One shows us “Star War is hell” after all, recentering our attention on the nameless extras in the background who need to die, anonymous and unmourned, so Luke Skywalker can be the Chosen One — while The Last Jedi shows us that being the Chosen One isn’t exactly all it’s cracked up to be either, and that the fantasy we thought we wanted (“You think what? I’m gonna walk out with a laser sword and face down the whole First Order?”) is infantile and embarrassing, and in any event when it does come produces not “new hope” but a new world of death that has the same no-future in the end (Kylo doesn’t turn Good; to a rounding error the Resistance doesn’t escape; Luke doesn’t save the day, and in fact, Luke dies).

For the rest of my talk I’ll be elaborating on what Discovery does to Star Trek, in the opposite direction, but my central claim can be summarized in a variation on a recent tweet of mine: Today Star Wars wants to be Star Trek and Star Trek wants to be Star Wars, and everyone is sad.

Have people been watching Star Trek: Discovery? Who’s seen all the way to the end?

I really hope I’ve pitched the paper at a level where everyone can enjoy what I’m about to say whether you’ve seen the series or not.

Because this is an academic talk I will have to break the spoiler seal, so I apologize if you were planning on going back to the room to watch some CBS All Access tonight. (That goes for you, too, Internet.) And it’s strange in a way to even have to worry about, as Star Trek has historically been a primarily episodic concern, with season and series arcs existing only at the margins of the franchise, especially in its paradigmatic formulations of TOS/TNG. It hasn’t previously hinged on “spoilers.” But Discovery is nearly all arc, nearly all mythology episodes: there is only one properly standalone episode in the series after the pilot, episode 7, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,” and even that one is nominally a sequel. (I’ll return to the subject of that episode a little bit in a moment). The other fourteen episodes are almost nothing but series arc, each episode feeding directly into the next, and sadly comprised of mostly “shocking” plot twists.

I feel as though I should also apologize the way Steve did yesterday, too, for this being all a little bit fannish. But this is ICFA, after all.

The initial arc of Discovery, which is set approximately a decade before the adventures depicted in the original season of Star Trek (1966), concerns Cmdr. Michael Burnham, who in the pilot has served on the Shenzhou under Captain Phillippa Georgiou (most recently as the first officer) for seven years. (That’s no arbitrary number; seven years is the typical run of a modern Star Trek series, so we are essentially being introduced to these characters in the context of the series finale of the TNG-style series Star Trek: Shenzhou, which of course never actually aired.) Burnham is a human orphan, her parents having been murdered in a raid by Klingon marauders; afterwards she was raised on Vulcan as a Vulcan by her adopted parent, long-running Star Trek secondary character Sarek (Spock’s father). She is therefore the adopted human sister of Spock, whom he just never happened to have mentioned on camera in any context before now.

Encountering a massive Klingon installation at the edge of space, Burnham becomes convinced that the Shenzhou needs to fire on the Klingons or the Shenzhou will be destroyed. Georgiou refuses on the basis that Starfleet does not fire first — so Burnham disables her with a Vulcan neck pinch in her ready room and gives the order as if it came from Georgiou, becoming Starfleet’s first-ever mutineer. Georgiou recovers quickly and belays the order, and in the ensuing battle the Shenzhou is lost, Georgiou is killed, and the Federation plunges into a cataclysmic war with a newly reunited and newly dangerous Klingon Empire that soon threatens its very survival.

(I should say here the series never exactly commits to whether Burnham’s impulse was correct, whether it could have stopped the war or saved the Shenzhou if she’d been allowed to see it through. That’s deliberate: in Discovery we aren’t in a place where we can simply trust our heroes implicitly anymore, and nobody knows what’s actually right or what’s best.)

This is just the pilot and we are already quite far afield of our expectations of a Star Trek series: mutiny, war, death, blowing up the ship and killing the captain and then not undoing it by the end of the episode. But things only get worse from here.

Burnham is found guilty of mutiny and sentenced to life imprisonment on a Federation work colony; however, sometime later, while being transferred with some other prisoners, there is an accident with her shuttle and she is brought aboard the science vessel U.S.S. Discovery, captained by Gabriel Lorca.

The Discovery has been retrofitted for the war, and in fact soon becomes the key tactical asset of the Federation, as it possesses a unique “spore drive” that taps into a fungal substratum of the universe, allowing the Discovery to appear and reappear anywhere it likes instantaneously. Lorca—a disabled, traumatized veteran of the war who has already lost one ship to Klingon attack, its only survivor—runs the ship not in the loose, avuncular style of previous captains but as a warship, an actual military vessel, with strict military discipline, unquestioning obedience, and a shoot-first-and-take-no-prisoners attitude towards the prosecution of the war. Indeed, our early episodes on the Discovery indicate that a decidedly un-Starfleet cult of personality has developed around Lorca on the Discovery, with some officers utterly worshipful of his leadership and others (especially the Discovery’s initial science complement, who have now found themselves conscripted as soldiers) deeply skeptical of his attitudes and decisions. One of Burnham’s compatriots from the Shenzhou, Lt. Saru, from an evolved prey species called the Kelpians, has been promoted and is now Lorca’s first officer, though he seems weirdly out of the loop compared to earlier first officers we’ve known.

And if you were at the Trek/Star Wars/Mass Effect worldbuilding panel yesterday, and heard Steve Rabitsch say he doesn’t like any of the DIS characters yet: I defy anyone not to like Saru.

Lorca doesn’t stand on ceremony with Burnham; he knows her past but also her ingenuity and incredible usefulness, and offers to allow her to resume service in Starfleet despite her crime as a non-commissioned enlistee, under his broad wartime legal authority.

The first arc thus details Burnham’s reintegration into Starfleet under the unusual Discovery command structure, as the Discovery first perfects the spore drive and then uses it to singlehandedly turn the tide of the war.

Until, that is, the last episode of the first arc, when Lorca uses the now-perfected spore drive to teleport the Discovery not home to Earth, where it can win the war, but to the Mirror Universe, first seen in the classic TOS episode “Mirror, Mirror,” home of the infamous Evil Goateed Crew.

In an extremely Star Wars twist, it turns out Lorca is not our father; he is not the affable, dad-joke Kirk, nor the dignified and distant but he-really-loves-you-on-the-inside Picard, nor the bombastic, affectionate Sisko. He’s actually the Mirror Universe Lorca, who was marooned in our universe after a transportation accident years before and who has successfully impersonated a proper Starfleet captain ever since (actually rising to extreme prominence in the fleet as an incredibly effective, brilliant war hero, due to his merging of Starfleet’s collectivist organizational ethos with brutal Mirror-Universe tactics). Lorca has done all this in a convoluted plan to return to the Mirror Universe and overthrow the Mirror Universe’s “Terran empire” and put himself at its head, with the Prime Burnham ruling by his side (the consequence of a creepy obsession he has with her, due to his having groomed the Mirror Burnham for a likely sexual relationship while acting as a literal father figure towards her in her childhood).

Luckily, in a Star-Wars-style, Throne-Room-fight high-speed resolution, Lorca is dispatched almost immediately after revealing himself as a bad guy, falling through a hole in the floor into the spore drive, presumably never to be heard from again.

Problem solved, the Discovery then goes back to the Prime Universe, where it arrives nine months late to find a Federation at the brink of defeat. But, through another extremely convoluted plan and a very high-speed resolution, they solve that problem too, and give a quick speech affirming the superiority of the Federation’s values that has not been borne at all out by any the events we have witnessed over the course of the season, while they all give each other medals—the end.

I write in last month’s LARB piece about Discovery about the way the series is unwilling to fully commit to its revisionist narrative (much moreso than either Rogue One and The Last Jedi, in fact), and instead characteristically uses its moments of “shocking revelation” as an opportunity to eject the suspect element from the series and start the narrative over.

And I write in this week’s AUFS piece about the way these attempt to eject these non-Trekian elements of the series—many of them the undead remnants of the original Bryan Fuller conception of Discovery that proved problematic during actual production, especially after he left the series—has itself proved failed. I don’t have time to talk about the whole post here or, indeed, to explain the entire time-travel conceit of “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”—I advise you to carefully study my blog post on your own time—so in the time remaining to me today allow me to simply summarize the essential problem I found there: like most of the early episodes of Discovery, “Magic,” ostensibly a standalone episode with a happy, we-beat-the-bad-guy ending, is no longer standalone at all, and in fact now almost impossible to watch without constantly thinking about the Mirror Universe twist. To make a long story short:

…having exposed and then immediately ejected Lorca from the series has not “solved the problem” of Lorca but retroactively turned rewatching the series into an exercise of trying to read Jason Isaacs’s exquisitely opaque facial expressions for some slight dropping of Lorca’s mask. On rewatch the whole series is now even more about Lorca than it was before.

Discovery has thus produced a perverse situation where it is primarily—indeed, nearly entirely—about something it has since decided it doesn’t want to be about—and that thing is unfortunately not “Star Trek,” at least not as we have ever understood the concept before. I’ll quote again from that piece:

As of yet we know very little about Star Trek: Discovery season two. But I think it’s fair for us, in this off season, to ask what elements of season one will extend to season two that will reward repeated rewatching by obsessive fans. Lorca is gone; Culber is gone; Tyler is gone; the war is over; Burnham is reinstated; Stamets is a plot device; Sarek is boring; Tilly is extremely inconsistently written, and by the end almost exclusively for laughs. What from the perspective of season two and beyond—from the perspective of the whole series as we will come to recognize it retrospectively years from now—will look like the must-see episodes of season one?

At the moment I think this is still very hard to say.

The last shot of the season, a cliffhanger, has the Discovery literally face-to-face with the Enterprise (still Pike’s, not Kirk’s), a place where Burnham’s adopted sibling Spock is currently serving as science officer. The series, that is, true to form, ends precisely on yet another image of imperfect, failed, mirroring: Discovery and the original Enterprise are clearly two versions of one another, in some sense or another, but the image is oddly composed, tilted and asymmetrical, and the twinned questions of (1) continuity and difference and (2) priority and subordination between the two ships remain very open-ended. Discovery seems unable to either replicate the past or to break free of it; even armed with the incredible power of the spore drive, it lacks direction or destination.

Star Trek after Discovery is thus facing a deep crisis of narrative coherence, condemned to be neither “Star Trek” nor “after”; indeed, having tossed out nearly everything that constituted the first season, there is very little sense of what if anything can extend from this initial season into a future, seven-or-more-year Trek arc like the ones we have been habituated to expect post-TNG. To coin a phrase: What are the spores here? What sort of life can grow on Discovery now, post-season-one? And will the thing this show grows into truly be “Trek,” whatever that means?

I am of course speculating here, but if any such through-line exists I suspect the key figure will actually be Saru, a key character I have spoken very little about here who is sidelined for much of the first season due to the breakdown of his prior relationship with Burnham and his effective nonpresence in Lorca’s inner circle. With the possible, arguable exception of Deep Space Nine, no Trek series has ever managed to be a true ensemble show: a pair or trio of characters always rises to the top to provide the primary locus of narrative interest. Picard and Data; Kirk and Spock (and McCoy); Janeway and Seven (and maybe the Doctor); Archer and T’Pol (and Trip). While Lorca dominates season one—so thoroughly that it is hard for me to imagine what the series will look like without him, and episodes 1.14 and 1.15 don’t exactly fill me with confidence—it seems hard to imagine that Discovery as a multi-season, unified totality can be anything but Burnham and Saru. Their fraught, delicate, but genuine friendship is the last remaining source of compelling interpersonal drama that hasn’t been jettisoned from the series by the end of season one; if seasons two (and beyond) are to feel like an extension of season one, rather than a complete reboot, Burnham and Saru will have to be their foundation.

In short, I argue, to survive as a coherent narrative project rather than an exercise in rebranding, Star Trek after Discovery will first and foremost need to find its way back to being Star Trek—and the fertile ground of the Burnham-Saru friendship is only path I see from where we are now towards that goal. If there’s hope for the series, it starts there. Thanks for listening!

‘Unfortunately, Wakanda Will Have to Continue Not to Exist after Black Panther as Well’

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But Black Panther is not a standalone movie, nor an origin story in the traditional sense. Its narrative is disciplined not just by its embedding in ‘real history’ but in a fictional franchise history whose long-term planning is said to extend to the 2030s, if not beyond. We can see the reactionary effects of this disciplining in both temporal directions. The nonexistence of Wakanda ‘up to now’, its refusal to participate in global events, even in the face of the slave trade and European colonization, actually becomes a plot point in the film: the motivation for Killmonger’s anger and the root of his radical politics. And unfortunately – because of the narrative requirements of franchise time – Wakanda will have to continue not to exist after Black Panther as well. A world with an unhidden Wakanda would very soon look almost nothing like our world – Wakandan emergence would be as seismic in its own way as major cities being destroyed by aliens, lifted thousands of feet into the air by killer robots, and smashed to bits by monstrous green Hulks. What Wakanda would actually mean to the globe – materially, technologically, economically, philosophically, spiritually – would be so radical as to permanently sever the connection between ‘there’ and ‘here’ on which the eternal present of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is based.

My short essay on Black Panther and the limits of its politics in the face of the larger MCU franchise is up at Frieze!

Written by gerrycanavan

February 28, 2018 at 9:06 am

A Few Quick Thoughts on BLACK PANTHER I Haven’t Already Seen Elsewhere

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(1) I haven’t seen anyone point out that this was the MCU’s take on a Bond movie, right down to M, Q, a Bond girl, an extraneous mission in Korea, and even a Felix Leiter.

(Updated.)

(2) I loved pretty much everything about the Wakandan world-building; pretty much my only minor quibble there was a slight over-reliance on American idioms (like Shuri giving the finger, or the General saying someone “did not get the memo”). It’s a small thing but it fits into point (4) below about the inability of Marvel to imagine a Wakanda that was genuinely independent from Western hegemony, much less the hegemon of the world that it would actually be.

(2a) I do feel a bit like I want to rewatch the T’Challa scenes from Civil War though because I think there was quite a bit of retconning and reimagining happening here; the later scenes with Cap seem not to have happened, and the earlier position of Wakanda in the United Nations seems a bit hard to square with the treatment here.

(2b) Shuri was awesome, incidentally. I demand a Shuri spinoff.

(3) I’ll leave it to others to say “Killmonger was right” but you really do feel your heart sink in the third act as the Wakandans begin to fight each other. For me the real “heart sink” moment was when the planes started exploding over the Wakandan capital; perhaps it was the presence and participation of Everett Ross but you really feel the gut-wrenching rupture of the Wakandan Afrofuturist utopia in that moment.

(3a) Killmonger was right though.

(4) I also had an unhappy moment of clarity about the prominence of Wakanda in the Infinity War trailer. As some of you know I’ve written a chapter on “Wakanda as Nation” for an upcoming collection called Afrofuturism in Time and Space.

Not to belabor the point, but a few more quick quotes from the chapter:

With regard to Wakanda specifically, this problem of interpretation has only compounded over decades of Marvel comics, which frequently upend Wakanda’s historic inviolability in the name of giving individual Black Panther stories sufficient emotional stakes. Thus an African nation that was never colonized historically becomes, over the long run of Marvel stories, the site of repeated meta-imperial11 incursion, from the U.S., from alien invaders, from supervillains like Dr. Doom, from the Atlantean king Namor the Sub-Mariner… As Ta-Nehisi Coates notes in an interview with the science fiction news website io9, part of his task when he took over Black Panther in 2016 was precisely to reestablish Wakanda as the undefeatable global superpower it was always intended as, but never quite was allowed to be.

[…]

We see a similar contradiction in the depiction of Wakandan trade, which has the effect of eroding and destroying Wakandan traditions through Western influence even as Wakanda is ostensibly the more powerful trading partner in this equation—replicating the colonial narrative but with an ahistorical logic that takes the superiority of Western values as axiomatic (and totally untied to the West’s brutal practices of invasion and domination). Already by the 1970s, Black Panther is unsure whether he has done the right thing in entering foreign markets at all, wondering if the reforms he and his father have instituted in opening Wakanda to the world have actually doomed the country—as are many of his countrymen. It is relatively late in the game that Marvel writers even begin to interrogate the techno-progressivist, secular assumptions behind the foundation of the Wakanda story: that a monarch would actually strip-mine a “sacred” site, the Mound, instrumentalizing its special properties for technological gadgetry and even selling parts of it to the West in the name of economic development, all without any cultural struggle or resistance from the population—much less the nearly magical faith that doing so would make things in Wakanda better rather than worse.

Indeed, by the “Doomwar” storyline of the 2010s, the presence of the vibranium within Wakanda has proved to be such a “resource curse” that the heroic resolution of the story sees T’Challa activate a process he has invented that renders all the vibranium in the world (both inside and outside Wakanda) inert, in order to protect it both from foreign invaders like Dr. Doom but also to break the country’s cruel-optimistic dependence on the resource.

[…]

Here, as always, we see the fundamental tension in Wakanda as both/and/neither/nor, as it has been reproduced again and again across its fictional history: an Afrofuturist vision of African superiority that nonetheless must always be disciplined by final subordination to the West…

So, look back at that Infinity War trailer. Based on my study of fifty years of Black Panther stories for my chapter, I’m feeling very confident that white supremacy will reassert itself here again precisely as it always does in Wakanda stories; we’ll never get to see Wakanda become the global hegemon it by all rights ought to be because it’s going to get catastrophically smashed up beyond all recognition before it gets the chance. Count on it.

Infinite Sunday Infinite Reading

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* From last week, a rare “actual content” post: White Male Critic Asks Why If Wonder Woman Is Really So Great Why Didn’t She Prevent the Holocaust.

* Princess Buttercup Became the Warrior General Who Trained Wonder Woman, All Dreams Are Now Viable. The Strange, Complicated, Feminist History of Wonder Woman’s Origin Story. Who mourns for the space kangaroos? I’m Pretty Sure Steve Trevor Lied About His Dick Size in Wonder Woman. Classic DC.

* Black Panther next! Everything We Learned From the Black Panther Teaser Trailer.

Why you should go to the Octavia Butler sci-fi conference at the Huntington. I’ll be there!

Bob Dylan Delivers His Nobel Prize Lecture, Just in Time.

* Scenes from the class struggle at Evergreen.

* Evergreen headlines: Humanities Majors Drop.

Eight reasons why universities can’t be the primary site of left organizing.

* Academics at UNC want to know what was wrong with plans for a class dealing with athletics scandals, including one at Chapel Hill.

UWSP student asks court to force poetry professor to give her an A.

The Poverty of Entrepreneurship: The Silicon Valley Theory of History.

* Fifty years of One Hundred Years of Solitude. No Magic, No Metaphor.

* Apple’s new HQ is a retrograde, literally inward-looking building with contempt for the city where it lives and cities in general.

* Corbynmania! How Labour Did It. Why Corbyn Won. Theresa May’s desperation could undo peace in Northern Ireland.

* Excerpts from James Comey’s Opening Statement to the Senate Intelligence Committee or from Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day? The Comey testimony was riveting reality TV. I asked 6 legal experts if Trump obstructed justice. Here’s what they told me. Trump Can Commit All the High Crimes He Wants. Republicans Aren’t Going to Impeach Him. How Donald Trump Shifted Kids-Cancer Charity Money into His Business. Trump’s DOJ says Trump can still get paid. Our A.I. President. A Noun, a Verb, and Vladimir Putin. All this and Trumpcare isn’t even dead. What Will Happen to Us? Four Cartoonists on A Life Without the Affordable Care Act.

Reporter Covering Inauguration Protests Now Faces 75 Years in Prison.

* I think we may have had the Russians all wrong.

* Noam Chomsky explains the twentieth century.

What if Your Cellphone Data Can Reveal Whether You Have Alzheimer’s?

* What’s really warming the world?

* Candidate opposing Steve King drops out of race citing death threats and a possible inability to get health insurance. America!

* Twilight of the comics direct market.

Before I go: A mother’s hopeful words about life in its waning moments.

The toddler survived with some scar tissue—but not everyone who gets Powassan, POW for short, is so lucky. With no treatment available, half of all people who contract the virus suffer permanent brain damage; 10 percent die. And while POW is nowhere near as prevalent as that other tick-borne summer scourge—Lyme—it is starting to show up more often.

People tend to avoid sick people, even if they don’t consciously now that they are sick, according to a new study published in PNAS.

* The addicts next door. Drug Deaths in America Are Rising Faster Than Ever. In one year, drug overdoses killed more Americans than the entire Vietnam War did. The last words of a ‘heroin junkie’: There seems to be no escape.

* Not only will this happen in your lifetime — this tweet has accelerated the process.

* Shock finding: Tax evasion is shockingly prevalent among the very rich.

* On dying alone.

On Aug. 15, 1977 at 10:16 p.m. ET Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope detected a curious signal from deep space. Nearly 40 years later, we finally know what caused it and, sadly, it’s not aliens.

* Donald/Donald. Don’t stop till you find the panda. How to succeed. Now my story can be told. Should we be concerned about that? What’s the problem with Florida? Can I interest you in a war on non-transport accidents? If you want a vision of the future. The state is that human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. Zoos.

* In tiny Townville, S.C., first-graders are haunted by what they survived — and lost — on a school playground. Gut-wrenching.

How Bostonians Defeated the Olympics.

White supremacists love Vikings. But they’ve got history all wrong.

* The Myth of General Lee.

* Peanuts and the Civil Rights Movement.

‘Life or death for black travelers’: How fear led to ‘The Negro Motorist Green-Book.’

* For the first time ever, a video game has qualified for an Academy Award.

* When David Fincher nearly directed a Star Wars sequel trilogy.

I always thought of Star Wars as the story of two slaves [C-3PO and R2-D2] who go from owner to owner, witnessing their masters’ folly, the ultimate folly of man…

How Wookieepedia Tackles the Insanely Difficult Task of Chronicling the Entire Star Wars Universe.

* This week in the richest society in human history.

At $75,560, housing a prisoner in California now costs more than a year at Harvard.

* Make this movie!

* Compatibilism: A Parable.

* I’ve always known this is how it will end for me.

* Everett Hamner will be recapping Orphan Black season five for LARB.

* Some economies just can’t be disrupted. Grilled cheese for instance.

* Pinball’s back, baby!

* So is — Mary Poppins? Fine, I guess.

C. L. R. James in the Age of Climate Change.

The Unexpected Afterlife of American Communism.

* Al Franken was a great guest on Marc Maron, if you missed it. Crazy to say it, I think he might actually run for president. Then again, why not him?

* RIP, My Batman.

West’s Batman/Bruce Wayne is, and will always remain, the single most important screen incarnation of the character, for better or worse: For better because it was the most surprising, at times confounding, interpretation of the Caped Crusader, feather-light and hilarious precisely because of the character’s seeming lack of self-awareness; for worse, in the eyes of some fans, because it encouraged millions of people who had never picked up a Batman comic, or any comic, to be amused by the sight of adults dressing up in wild outfits and pretending to punch each other in the face. Every subsequent, high-profile reinvention of Batman, whether in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, Tim Burton’s alternately perverse and sincere Batman and Batman Returns, Christopher Nolan’s operatic trilogy, and Zack Snyder’s funereal Batman vs. Superman, is, first and foremost, a reaction against the Adam West–driven Batman series.

* And the bad news never stops: Sleeping In Is Deadly, Popular People Live Longer, Adolescence Lasts Forever, and So Does High School.

Written by gerrycanavan

June 11, 2017 at 9:00 am

Posted in Look at what I found on the Internet, Look at what I put on the Internet

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White Male Critic Asks Why If Wonder Woman Is Really So Great Why Didn’t She Prevent the Holocaust

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As I mentioned on Twitter earlier this morning, the hype turns out to be right: Wonder Woman is really pretty good, especially by the poor standards of the DC Cinematic Universe. DC would be absolutely crazy not to use Wonder Woman as the model for production going forward rather than Batman v. Superman or (god forbid) Suicide Squad; it’s the only one in the DCCU that has been remotely successful from either a political or artistic point of view. (A Twitter friend even suggested that this might be (another) way the film might replicate Captain America, beyond the obvious, templating future entries in the shared universe and becoming the new franchise anchor after a somewhat slow start.) It gives me hope that Wonder Woman (and, soon, Batgirl) can show DC there’s real money in female-oriented superheroes.

I’ll admit I did have some trouble with how obviously the film was cloning Captain America, and I don’t think this is mere pushing-up-your-glasses nerdery: World War II, and the Holocaust especially, hangs over the film in a really direct way, I think, and not only because of Gal Gadot’s Jewish ancestry and its place in the strange debate over whether or not this Wonder Woman qualifies as a woman of color. WWI vs WWII is not a situation where you can just change the dates and tell the same sort of triumphalist story; WWI is simply a very different sort of moment, and a WWI narrative mandates a sort of bitter aftertaste even at its most triumphant.

At least since Star Wars SF and fantasy trilogies have tended to follow a particular template:

  1. optimism
  2. disillusionment
  3. recuperation

The historical existence of World War II is the original and ultimate dark, gritty sequel, a nightmare that like so many filmic sequels was made possible by the conditions of victory of the first one. The choice to set Wonder Woman during WWI thus makes both WWII and WW2 its necessary extension, a situation the film itself even nods at by having its poison-gas-themed villainous Dr. Poison spared by Diana and escape at the end (presumably to help develop Zyklon-B somewhere down the line). Our foreknowledge of the Holocaust — and Wonder Woman’s own retrospective knowledge of it in the film’s unexpectedly quiet frame narrative — haunts the film’s apparently victorious climax, telling us immediately that there is something off or incomplete about her apparent defeat of the God of War: that in some way it was deceptive or incomplete, perhaps, or potentially that her seemingly liberatory victory over Ares only made things worse. The obligatory Empire-Strikes-Back dark turn of Wonder Woman 2 is built into the historical logic of the film’s WWI setting from the jump — and similarly makes any sort of final recuperative turn in WW3/WW3 somewhat hard to imagine. (Perhaps a temporarily pacifistic Diana Price using the spy look from the 1970s comic stops nuclear Armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis? I’m just spitballing.)

Another Twitter friend had an idea for WW2 I thought was great, and wrote this longer post more or less entirely to popularize: a Wonder Woman film that sidesteps the stale supercharged-Nazi-demons angle in favor of street-level resistance in a Warsaw ghetto:

Depowered or in some other way hamstrung by the Spear of Destiny, perhaps, but still needing to make a difference where she can… In the same way that some MCU movies can be political thrillers and others can be heist movies, Wonder Woman 2 could be and should be a Holocaust film. Knowing nothing about screenwriting and caring nothing about money, I really think that’s the way to go.

Science Fiction Film and Television 9.3: “STAR TREK at 50”!

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Science Fiction Film and Television 9.3: “Star Trek at 50″ is out just in time for the anniversary year. Here’s a table of contents:

Star Trek at 50, or, Star Trek beyond Star Trek
Gerry Canavan

Transmedia space battles: reference materials and miniatures wargames in 1970s Star Trek fandom
Bob Rehak

The inertia of tradition in Star Trek: case studies in neglected corners of the ‘canon’
Adam Kotsko

Star Trek, global capitalism and immaterial labour
Dan Hassler-Forest

To boldly grow up: navigating female adolescence in Star Trek and Lost in Space
Zara T. Wilkinson

‘A friendship that will define you both’: Star Trek and the devolution of American masculinity
Bridget Kies

‘And yet, everything we do is usually based on the English’: sailing the mare incognitum of Star Trek’s transatlantic double consciousness with Horatio Hornblower
Stefan Rabitsch

A generic correspondence: Sturgeon–Roddenberry letters on sf, sex, sales and Star Trek
Andrew Hageman

‘It’s just us now’: nostalgia and Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Benjamin J. Robertson

Plus reviews of Stephen Universe by Brittany Pladek and book reviews from Sean Matharoo and Josh Pearson…

Check it out!

Written by gerrycanavan

December 16, 2016 at 12:44 pm

Octavia E. Butler Archives – Resources

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A sporadically updated list of materials I’ve either written or used or enjoyed on the Octavia E. Butler Archives at the Huntington Library, hopefully useful for other researchers:

* Octavia E. Butler Collection Finding Aid (500+ pages!);

* my general guide:  “The Octavia E. Butler Papers.” (Eaton Journal of Science Fiction);

* The Huntington’s landing page on Butler, including many images of manuscript documents;

Tracing Octavia Butler’s Footsteps: An Interview with Dr. Ayana A. H. Jamieson (a tremendous read!);

Inside The Octavia Butler Archives With L.A. Writer Lynell George; Butler’s notes from writing Kindred; Celebrating Octavia Butler at the Huntington; So Be It! See To It!; #VisitOctaviaButler tag on the Huntington’s Tumblr; “Archives” category at the OEB Legacy Network; Radio Imagination;

* Audio from the June 2017 Octavia E. Butler: Convergences of an Expanding Field conference at the Huntington (as well as a write-up from the organizers, a description of the associated exhibition, and a Storify of tweets from the event);

* Octavia Butler, remembered by her friend Shirlee Smith;

* Pasadena on Her Mind: Octavia E. Butler Reimagines Her Hometown;

* me on Parable of the Trickster“’There’s Nothing New / Under The Sun, / But There Are New Suns’: Recovering Octavia E. Butler’s Lost Parables.” (LARB);

* me (briefly) on the Fledgling sequel(s): Archives Reveal What Octavia Butler’s Next Books Would Have Been Like. (io9);

* me on Reagan in Dawn, Talents, and Paraclete“Making America Great Again with Octavia Butler.” (University of Illinois Press blog);

* and of course the whole kit ‘n’ caboodle: Octavia E. Butler (Modern Masters of Science Fiction, University of Illinois Press);

* and a kind of “deleted scene” from my book in a recent issue of Women’s Studies: “Eden, Just Not Ours Yet: On Parable of the Trickster and Utopia.”

octavia-butler

Jameson as Teacher

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I begin my review in this conflicted, confessional mode because both Tally and Wegner do; both foreground their personal relationships with Jameson, albeit with considerably more confidence and grace than I feel able to muster, situating his writing within the context of teaching within the university system to which he has dedicated his life. Jameson’s very public profile and reputation as “America’s most famous Marxist” actually makes him something of a rare exception in this regard: he is one of the leading members on the relatively short list of scholars who have been more influential outside their classrooms than inside them. For most of us the classroom is where the lion’s share of our work happens, however much our egos might prefer things to be otherwise. For most of us the classroom is the work.

I have a short review essay (weirdly personal by academic standards, at least by mine) about Jameson as thinker and Jameson as teacher, pegged to Robert Tally and Phil Wegner’s recent books on his career: “Doktorvater.”

This paradox returns us also to the question of what it means to be Jameson’s student, whether metaphorically as his reader or literally as his dissertation advisee. Early in Tally’s book he paraphrases other critics who see Jameson as “embrac[ing] all things—but, like a python, squeezing the life out of them” (20). What resists this totalizing enclosure in Tally’s treatment is Jameson’s foregrounding of the productive tension between history as a nightmare and the future as possible utopia, located in the present as a site of struggle—a critical perspective that remains vital and alive insofar as it is always both urgent and irresolvable. Wegner’s version of this same problem comes in his conclusion, where he quotes Evan Watkins’s observation that Jameson’s work is “an ‘anomaly’ among that of the ‘masters of theory’ for the simple reason that ‘you can’t follow this act.’” (Wegner 213). “Jamesonian” has simply never caught on as an adjective in the mold of Hegelian, Marxist, Freudian, Foucauldian, even Žižekian—even as many people (some of his many former students and dissertation advisees among them!) are clearly doing “Jamesonian” analysis. Rather than unfinishable, from this perspective Jameson’s project looks too finished, too complete: he ate the whole elephant, and left nothing behind for the rest of us. Wegner’s answer is to return to the question of fidelity and betrayal: to attempt to simply do Jameson is itself a betrayal of the Jamesonian ethos, and turn him into a “discourse of the university,” another kind of too-close, python-like suffocation. The alternative is to see Jameson not as a master or a mapmaker so much as, again, a teacher, who one day leads us to the gates of the school and then hurls us out into the world to find our own way. “Maybe you can’t do this for yourself,” Wegner quotes Watkins. “It’s not exactly clear what it might mean to ‘follow Jameson’s direction.’ But it is always possible to learn from his work how to do what you do far better and in more historically responsible ways” (qtd. in Wegner 213). As a conclusion to a two-hundred page exegesis, this is perhaps somewhat deflating—you mean this was all a dead end? a road to nowhere?—but for Wegner it seems something more like a rousing call to arms, a “joyful possibility” that speaks to Jameson’s “inexhaustible richness,” resulting in an exuberant final benediction: “May we prove equal to the task!” (213). Jameson’s very irreproducibility, his singularity, can become the engine for our own critical production, so long as we betray him right.

Reading and Teaching Harry Potter after THE CURSED CHILD (No Spoilers, Just a Few Instant Reactions)

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Zoey slept in this morning, so I was able to read the entirety of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on my Kindle app under the covers, racing both an iPad battery that was very rapidly heading to zero and a four-year-old whose every tiny twitch and movement suggested the end of my project was drawing near. I think it’s good. It’s definitely strange. As a revisionary work, it throws some very odd wrinkles into the interior logic of the Harry Potter universe, and as a result I suspect it will always have a sort of quasi-authorative, even apocryphal status within the canon, even beyond what one would have suspected because of the unusual circumstances of its multi-author composition and its form as a play rather than a novel or even a film. It never feels quite real, never feels like the actual future of these people and these circumstances; it’s a tie-in book, oxymoronically authoritative fan fiction. Still, there are a few things here worth lingering on, and it’ll start a lot of conversations.

I know I’ve read the thing almost comically early, so perhaps I’ll do a follow-up post in a week or so with some actual spoiler-laden analysis about the events of the plot. But what struck me most as I was reading The Cursed Child is how directly it resonates with the way I’ve been teaching the series in my literature courses the last two years (a pedagogical focus undoubtedly driven by the fact that I’m a parent now myself). Like many other things in life, the original Harry Potter books look rather different after one becomes a parent, and living inside the franchise again I’ve really come to see it as in large part as a frustrated rumination on bad parents, and on bad fathers in particular.

The class I teach Harry Potter in is a foundations course for English majors, but the theme is “Magic and Literature”; we spend the last half on children’s literature and the last full month on Harry Potter, first talking about the franchise as a whole (with some exceptions, they nearly all know it by heart) and then (re-)reading the fifth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, together. I choose Order of the Phoenix deliberately: the first three books are all still a little childish, and the fourth is mostly so until the shocking events at the end, which (after Cursed Child) now looks even more like the fulcrum of the entire series. (A surprisingly high number of students in the current college-age cohort had younger siblings who were initially not allowed to read past book three, and only came back to the series later, if at all, after a year or more break.) The sixth and seventh books are really plot-driven, almost to the exclusion of the world-building; you can’t really read one without reading both, and at that point you’re completely excluding any students who don’t already know the series extremely well. But the fifth book is in the sweet spot: it’s adult, in a way the earlier ones aren’t, and it opens up on the larger, darker Wizarding World while still being a stand-alone adventure. It’s also, perhaps it goes without saying, my personal favorite of the five, and I think the actual best writing of all seven — and it brings up some fascinating issues about the Wizarding World and its internal politics that aren’t really developed anywhere else.

We spend two weeks on Phoenix, and afterwards we talk a little bit about the epilogue to the last book, which (as every child knows) flashes forward nineteen years to the day Harry Potter’s second son, Albus Severus, goes to Hogwarts. We need the epilogue in the class because, in my teaching, it’s the culmination of the various explorations of bad parenting that structure Phoenix.

The discussion for the first day inevitably focuses on the scene with Molly Weasley (chapter nine, “The Woes of Mrs. Weasley”). Mrs. Weasley is a fascinating character from the perspective of the Harry-Potter-rereader-as-a-parent, as she is one of only a handful of genuinely “good” parents anywhere in the series: good in the sense that she sees her children (and Harry) as pearls beyond price and simply wants to love, nurture, and protect them, rather than instrumentalize them either in the service of her own ego (as with, say, Lucius Malfoy) or in the service of some larger, supposedly greater cause (as with Dumbledore).

(The character most like Molly in the series is, weirdly, Narcissa Malfoy, as my students in the first iteration of the class pointed out to me: Narcissa is the version of Molly who doesn’t take the word of the men for an answer and who is therefore able to get what she wants and protect her child at any cost, the Higher Cause be damned. That’s a not-insignificant plot detail for reading The Cursed Child.)

In chapter nine of The Order of the Phoenix we see Molly Weasley get excoriated by every other member of the original Order of the Phoenix for being weak, and being unwilling to see that war has come to the children (especially Harry, who is 15) and that they now must grow up and be soldiers instead. Molly says no, leave them out of it, they’re children, and gets shouted down. (In case we miss the point, Molly is then humiliated by the narrative by being unable to defeat a boogeyman parademon that the children had been taught to defeat with a simple spell two years before.) The remainder of the book and really the series as a whole is an exercise in further proving that Molly and those who think like her, like Hermione, are wrong (even though from a strict plot perspective Molly is in fact completely right and if the children had done nothing but just be kids everything in Book Five would have turned out fine). But within the logic of the original series it’s Molly who has to change; she only gets her redemptive moment in Book Seven when she is finally able to reconcile love to violence when she tells Bellatrix Lestrange “Not my daughter, you bitch” before murdering her.

Dumbledore explains at the end of Book Five that, in fact, his problem is that he loves Harry too much, and has been unwilling to fully weaponize him as the circumstances demand, treating him too much like a child — but now he will, reluctantly and with regret, bring Harry completely into the fold as his full lieutenant. (It’s only in Book Seven that we find out Dumbledore is still lying to Harry, even here, and that Dumbledore has always known he was raising Harry for the slaughter; even Snape, who himself has barely any conscience or pity, is horrified when he finds this out.) Both years teaching the course I’ve said at the end of the first day that my overall take on Dumbledore is that he seems to be a brilliant general, a middling-to-poor teacher, and an absolutely terrible father; no one agrees with me on day one, but by the end of the full lesson about half the class or more does. Dumbledore, like Gandalf, and like the Doctor, and like Obi-Wan, and like any other number of mentor wizards in the history of science fiction and fantasy we could name, abuses his protege and everyone else as his instrument in the name of a higher, nobler purpose — and if that’s painful, if that hurts, well, please know he’s sorry, it’s only because he loves you so very much.

The Dumbledore pseudo-apology scene that comes at the end of Book Five is important enough, central enough to the Potter mythos that it plays out again with one of Dumbledore’s portraits in The Cursed Child — only this time, Harry gets to talk back, and this time Dumbledore turns out to be definitely and definitively wrong.

This is why the books always needed the nineteen-years-later epilogue, despite all the many reasons it was a tremendously bad idea compositionally: what we see in the epilogue is that while Harry continues to admire the many men around him who seek to deploy him as their child-soldier, and even names his two sons after his four bad dads (James, who at least was bad mostly because he was dead; Sirius; Severus Snape; and Albus Dumbledore), he actually parents them like Molly Weasley. In the scene Albus is scared that he’ll be sorted into Slytherin, and wants reassurance from his dad that it won’t happen:

“Albus Severus,” Harry said quietly, so that nobody but Ginny could hear, and she was tactful enough to pretend to be waving to Rose, who was now on the train, “you were named for two headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew.”

“But just say — ”

“– then Slytherin House will have gained an excellent student, won’t it? It doesn’t matter to us, Al. But if if it matters to you, you’ll be able to choose Gryffindor over Slytherin. The Sorting Hat takes your choice into account.”

“Really?”

“It did for me,” said Harry.

He had never told any of this children that before, and he saw the wonder in Albus’s face when he said it.

The punchline of the whole Hogwarts adventure, in my reading, is that Harry’s reward is that he gets to be a father, and/but that he isn’t a father like Dumbledore, Sirius, or Lucius. He just loves his kid unconditionally, whoever he is or isn’t, no matter what, forever.

The play’s retelling of the Deathly Hallows epilogue in Act I, Scene II truncates this scene crucially by eliminating the bolded dialogue. (I haven’t seen it performed so I can’t be sure how it plays on stage, but the stage directions don’t indicate any special reaction from Albus to this information either.) It has to retcon out Harry’s choice to love his children like Molly and Narcissa so that he can spend the play learning that lesson instead. So instead of Harry the Good Dad, we spend most of The Cursed Child with Harry as actually a pretty bad one, who fundamentally misunderstands his role in his son’s life, so at the end he can reform and be returned to the place where the original epilogue had always left him anyway.

In that sense, I suppose, the plot of The Cursed Child writ large is itself a little bit like the bubble timeline of any classic time-travel story, existing temporarily to dissipate in the face of reconciliation with the place we already were all along. But that reconciliation is an interesting thing; even reconciled, we can’t read the earlier books in quite the same way, because after The Cursed Child even Rowling won’t let Dumbledore off his hook. The story The Cursed Child tells in the foreground is ultimately the one the Harry Potter series was always telling in the background: how easy it is to be a bad parent, and how easy it would be to be a good one, if only you were stronger.

‘The Discovered Country’

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My review of Star Trek Beyond (and audition for the writers room of Star Trek: Discovery) is up now at LARB: The Discovered Country. Check it out! Let me know what you think here or there or at the other place!

Written by gerrycanavan

July 29, 2016 at 2:12 pm

Tolkien, THE FORCE AWAKENS, and the Sadness of Expanded Universes

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(some spoilers near the end of the post, though I try to be vague)

Not long after completing The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien briefly began work on a sequel called The New Shadow, set 100 to 150 years later during the reign of Aragorn’s son Eldarion. (The main link between the two stories is the minor character Beregond, the noble but disgraced soldier of Gondor whose son, Borlas, would have been a major character in The New Shadow.) The New Shadow reveals that the eucatastrophic fairy-tale ending of The Return of the King was extremely short-lived; with the Elves and the Wizards gone from Middle-earth, the Dwarves moving underground, and the Hobbits now isolated in what amounts to an enclave in the Shire, Men are quickly falling back into their old bad habits. In fact the Men of Gondor already seem to have forgotten much of the details of the War of the Ring, even though it remains in living memory: they seem not to remember, or take seriously, the fact that they once strode with gods and angels in a war against pure evil, and were victorious. Instead, children play at being Orcs for fun; the death of Elessar has been an occasion for political striving and reactionary plots; and even something like a secret death cult of devil-worshipping rebels seems to be spreading through the elites of Gondor.

Tolkien wrote 13 pages of it.

He later wrote:

I did begin a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall, but it proved both sinister and depressing. Since we are dealing with Men it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good. So that the people of Gondor in times of peace, justice and prosperity, would become discontented and restless — while the dynasts descended from Aragorn would become just kings and governors — like Denethor or worse. I found that even so early there was an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a centre of secret Satanistic religion; while Gondorian boys were playing at being Orcs and going around doing damage. I could have written a ‘thriller’ about the plot and its discovery and overthrow — but it would have been just that. Not worth doing.

Instead, Tolkien turned his attention back to the imaginative project that had more or less defined his life: The Silmarillion, begun between 1914 and 1917, which he tinkered with on and off until his death in 1973. The Silmarillion has always marked, I think, the grey line between being a casual Tolkien fan and becoming a Tolkien enthusiast — a path that then leads one even further into Christopher Tolkien’s twelve-volume History of Middle-Earth and the discovery of Tolkien’s own very elaborate (and somewhat fannish) self-commentary on his legendarium alongside many multiple alternate drafts of the narratives that form the barely glimpsed mythological background of The Lord of the Rings. 

The Silmarillion is nominally a prequel — ostensibly it is the Elvish legends that Bilbo translated and appended to the Red Book while he was retired in Rivendell — but the published version of the book includes a two-page summary of the War of the Ring that culminates in a brief, New-Shadow-style glimpse past Aragorn’s reign. We are reminded of the sapling of the White Tree that Aragorn and Gandalf find in the mountains near Gondor, which Aragorn plants in Minas Tirith as a symbol of his reign, and told that “while it still grew there the Elder Days were not wholly forgotten in the hearts of the Kings.” While it still grew there — which is to say, it doesn’t grow there anymore.

I don’t know that I would call this material “sinister,” but I taught The Silmarillion this semester after having tried and failed to read it as a child, and I think it would certainly be fair to call it “depressing.” What looks, in The Lord of the Rings, like a fairy-tale about how good and decent folk are able to do the impossible and defeat evil (with just a little bit of help from the divine, here and there) becomes in The Silmarillion and The New Shadow and Tolkien’s pseudo-theological commentary only the briefest, most temporary respite from a nightmare history in which things always turn out wrong, millennia after millennia after millennia. In fact Arda, the planet on which the continent of Middle-earth rests, is a cursed and fallen place, infused with evil and wickedness at its material core, and the only thing to do is raze the place and start over, as Eru Ilúvatar will at long last at the very end of time. To study Tolkien beyond Lord of the Rings is to come to a keen understanding of how tragic this history actually is, how Return of the King looks like a happy ending mostly because that’s where Tolkien (quite deliberately and self-consciously) decided to stop writing. But the Fourth Age was no better than the Third, and likely quite worse, and on and on through the degenerative millennia that bring us to the end of the Sixth Age and the beginning of the Seventh with the fall of the Third Reich and the development of the atom bomb.

I’ve been thinking about The New Shadow since it became clear that The Force Awakens would be borrowing from the Expanded Universe the notion that the Battle of Endor at the end of Return of the Jedi did not mark a full or permanent victory for the Rebel Alliance. The Force Awakens is The New Shadow, sinister and depressing, except they decided to go ahead and do it anyway. I joked in the link post earlier this morning that you can tell who read the EU novels and who didn’t based on whether your reaction to The Force Awakens is sadness — but the events of The Force Awakens, as sad as they are, are really only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how horribly Luke, Leia, and Han are punished in the EU novels, over and over, as everything they attempt to build turns to ash and the galaxy repeatedly falls into chaos, war, and catastrophe. In the farthest reaches of the EU universe, the Star Wars Legacy comics, set around 140 years or so after the Battle of Yavin, Luke’s descendent Cade Skywalker wanders a Galaxy that is again in war, as it always is, with a resurgent Empire again ruled by Sith masters — and when one casts oneself into the mists of time in the other direction (in material like the Knights of the Old Republic games, set thousands of years before A New Hope) one finds more or less the same basic story of genocidal total war playing out there too. Star Wars has always been, in the EU at least, a universe more or less without hope, that only looked hopeful to casual fans because they were looking too closely at just a very slender part of it.

This is why, while I can certainly understand the impulse to complain about The Force Awakens as derivative, I really think this is more repetition with a difference than mere or base or stupid repetition. One Death Star is a horror; two Death Stars and one Starkiller Base and whatever horrific murder innovation the First Order will come up with for Episode 9 is something more like the inexorable logic of history, grinding us all to dust. Likewise, it’s true that The Force Awakens hits many of the same story beats as the Original Trilogy, but almost always in ways that are worse: the death of Obi-Wan was sad but mysterious, suggestive of a world beyond death which the Jedi could access, while the death of The Force Awakens‘s version of Obi-Wan is not only brutally material but visceral, and permanent, as far as we have any reason to believe right now. The loss of Alderaan is sad, but the loss of what appears to be the entire institutional apparatus of the resurgent Republic is unthinkably devastating; aside from the loss of life it would take decades for the Galaxy to recover from such an event, even if they weren’t having to fight off the First Order while doing it. The film is extremely vague about the relationship between the Republic and “the Resistance,” but it appears to be a proxy guerrilla war against the First Order fought inside their own territory, secretly funded by the Republic — and prosecuted by Leia, Akbar, Nien Nunb, and all our heroes from the first movies, whose lives are now revealed as permanently deformed by a forever war they can never put down or escape. (If you want to ask me where Lando is, I think he said “good enough” after Endor and walked away, and that sort of makes me hope they never find him, never drag him back into it.) It’s horrible to lose a parent to addiction, or to mental illness, or to ordinary everyday cruelty, however you want to allegorize Vader’s betrayal of his children — but how much worse would it be to lose a child to it, how much worse would such a thing taint every aspect of your life and poison all your joy.

That Star Wars implies a world of sorrow belied by the spectacle of Jedi‘s happy ending isn’t a surprise to me — I told you, I read the EU books — but I can see why it’s a surprise to someone whose last memory of these people is smiles, a fireworks display, hugs, and a picnic. Return of the Jedi never asked us what we thought would happen when those people woke up the next morning and the Empire still had 90% of its guns, ships, territory, generals, and soldiers, ready to descend into vicious, scorched-earth fanaticism as they slid into defeat; it just wasn’t that kind of story. The Force Awakens is that kind of story, and I find that interesting enough to be excited about 8 and 9, to see where they try to take this story now that it turns out fairy-tales aren’t real and that deeply entrenched totalitarian systems don’t have exhaust ports, trench runs, or single points of failure. So I think the emerging critical consensus that The Force Awakens infantilizes its audience by re-presenting us with the same images we all saw as children is actually deeply wrong: The Force Awakens condemns Luke, Leia, and Han to actually live inside history, rather than transcend it, and it condemns us too.

Watching THE FORCE AWAKENS as the Father of a Three-and-a-Half-Year-Old Girl (No Spoilers)

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There’s still plenty of weird plot holes in the movie to complain about — and, of course, call no trilogy happy until it is concluded — and the man simply doesn’t get Star Trek at a basic and fundamental level — but J.J. Abrams achieves something in a sequence of shots near the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens that I hope I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. My daughter is three and a half right now, and she’s still piecing together the world. We’ve raised her, somewhat accidentally, without much concept of gender; it’s only recently that she’s even come to really understand that some people are boys and other people are girls. And it’s broken my heart a bit, as this process has come into focus for her, to see her recognize that nearly all the protagonists in nearly all the stories she loves are boys. She sometimes announces, as we play, that she gets to be the boy — by which she means that she gets to be the hero, the star. I’m the boy, daddy; you’re the dragon. I’m the boy, daddy; you’re the witch.

And as I watched this one particular, truly perfect scene, at the climax of The Force Awakens, I really felt like I could see the whole thing through her eyes, and imagined the moment she watches it a few months or years from now and how it might undo a bit of the toxic lessons she’s already started to learn about boys and girls. I cried. I’m crying now, just writing about it. And however else The Force Awakens is received and whatever its reputation winds up being, however badly 8 and 9 screw it all up (or don’t), Abrams has given little girls like mine a tremendous and very special gift. That bit lives forever, as far as I’m concerned.

I’ll write a longer and more spoiler-y post once more people have seen it, I think, but for now I wanted to say just that much.

Written by gerrycanavan

December 17, 2015 at 11:12 pm