Fantasies of Contemporary Culture (in Review)

CulturalfantasiesA massive ‘Thank You’ to everyone who attended Monday’s Fantasies of Contemporary Culture symposium at Cardiff University, either in person or on Twitter. I enjoyed the day (and all the papers) immensely, and feel very honoured to have been a part of it.

I’ve compiled some of the images, tweets, and Facebook posts into a (very long) Storify thread. Browse them at your leisure. Here’s how it all starts:

 This week at Cardiff University, delegates gathered from around the world for the Fantasies of Contemporary Culture symposium. The event was an opportunity to explore the political and cultural functions of fantasy, in all its forms.

‘How might the fantastical characters and environments that populate our contemporary cultural landscape be informed by the experience of twenty-first-century metropolitan life,’ asked the event’s call for papers, ‘and how do such texts (in)form that experience in return?’ Delegates answered this question in many different ways, over two plenary talks, eight panel sessions, and numerous informal discussions throughout the day.

[read more here]

A lot of people were enthusiastic about doing this kind of thing again next year – and in fact we’ve already had a chat with a couple of delegates who might like to bring Fantasies of Contemporary Culture to their universities in the future. If we’re going to do this, however, we’d like to know what you thought of this year’s symposium.

We’ve compiled an anonymous survey of 10 questions. If you can spare the time (it should take about 2 minutes), we would love to hear your honest thoughts and points for improvement.

Thanks again – and hope to see you next year!

Fantasies of Cardiff Bay Opera House

Culturalfantasies_smallThis week a lot of work has gone into the Fantasies of Contemporary Culture symposium that I’m organising with Tom Harman. The event will take place at Cardiff University on 23 May, and the programme and registration will hopefully go live sometime next week.

Today, the finishing touches have been put to the event poster (pictured left), which features a rather abstract black-and-white image. This image is of an architectural model – more specifically, a model for Cardiff Bay Opera House. It can’t be found on most websites about the Opera House, however. You also won’t find this building anywhere in Cardiff today.

What is the story behind this image, and why have we chosen to use an architectural model on the poster for a fantasy symposium? The obvious answer is that, as both a Welsh monument and a structure that today exists purely in the imagination, the Opera House applies directly to our location and theme. But beyond that there’s a slightly more convoluted story that bears telling.

The Cardiff Bay Opera House than never was, © Greg Lynn FORM.
The Cardiff Bay Opera House that never was, © Greg Lynn FORM.

Back in the early ’90s, as part of the UK’s massive Millennium Commission, it was decided that Cardiff needed a landmark building to put it on the map. An opera house would be built as part of the ongoing renovations to Cardiff Bay, and various architects would compete to design this iconic structure. Alun Michael, a former Cardiff city councillor, even made a link between the ambition of the Cardiff project and the famous Sydney Opera House:

Sydney, as a city, was an empty space in people’s minds until the Opera House was built. We need a similar sort of building in Cardiff for us to make our mark.

The project was announced and the proposals rolled in. Our poster image comes from a proposal by Greg Lynn’s architectural firm FORM, which, in the lofty language of this paper in Assemblage (April 1995), highlights ‘biological processes of growth and change to trope traditional architectural design assumptions[, and takes] the computer as a generative instrument for systems of symmetrical and asymmetrical organization using theories of biological variation’. In simpler terms, the Opera House they imagined taps into the popular trend of ‘sustainable architecture’, maximising the building’s integration into its location and minimising environmental impact. It strives to build something as aesthetically close to a living organism as possible.

Image © Greg Lynn FORM
Image © Greg Lynn FORM.

This is not the proposal that ultimately triumphed, however. The project went to Zaha Hadid’s lovely ‘inverted necklace’, planned to at once adorn the crescent of Cardiff Bay and become its crown jewel.

Painting © Zaha Hadid Architechts
Painting © Zaha Hadid Architects.

It was not to be, however, and Hadid’s plans were announced to substantial media controversy. When the funding bid for Cardiff Bay Opera House was officially rejected, three days before Christmas in 1995, Hadid cited prejudice against her gender and race as a primary cause. Author Nicholas Edwards (a.k.a. Nicholas Crickhowell) writes:

If she had been male, white and Welsh would it have been different? I do not know. I hope not. There are those who tell me I am naive. I really don’t know … I suspect that if it had been a young Welsh-speaking architect who had suddenly produced the design, the Western Mail might have taken a different line.

Others cited lack of public support for the design, and the push for sports over the arts with the construction of Millennium Stadium. Perhaps the most common word thrown around about the Cardiff Bay Opera House was ‘elitist’, a label that was perhaps understandable given the cultural connotations of opera today, but largely under-informed when applied to this project.

The Times Higher Education has a thorough article that attempts to unpack the various causes. Those interested in reading more about the failed bid can also pick up Nicholas Crickhowell’s Opera House Lottery: Zaha Hadid and the Cardiff Bay Project from Amazon for a mere £10. You can also view many of the original materials relating to the project at the National Library of Wales’ Cardiff Bay Opera House Trust Archive.

Whatever the reason for the project’s failure, it is now (again in the words of Alun Michael) ‘the most famous unbuilt building in Wales.’ Indeed, in 2011 it became the most famous rebuilt building in China, as Zaha Hadid’s rejected design was eventually applied to the Guangzhou Opera House. The Wales Millennium Centre (in Welsh: Canolfan Mileniwm Cymru) now stands where the Cardiff Bay Opera House would have.

Zaha Hadid’s design lives on in the Guangzhou Opera House.

Before it was even built – or to put it in the terms of our symposium, while it was still a fantasy – the Cardiff Bay Opera House brought a whole slew of the social and political issues in Wales to light. For us, then, this image serves as a striking visual reminder of the way even our unrealised ideas have power, and remain with us. For whom do we build culture, and what impact can seemingly innocuous and apolitical projects have on our society?

The problems and discussions surrounding the Cardiff Bay Opera House are echoed in various ways through much of contemporary fantasy. What kinds of fantasies are currently at play in our culture? Join us on 23 May at Cardiff University and find out!

The inscription (in English) on Wales Millennium Centre reads: 'In these stones / horizons / sing', © Gwyneth Lewis.The inscription (in English) on Wales Millennium Centre reads: ‘In these stones / horizons / sing’. © Gwyneth Lewis.

Poster image © Greg Lynn FORM, in Greg Lynn, Jesse Reiser, and Nanako Umemoto, ‘Computer Animisms (Two Designs for the Cardiff Bay Opera House)’, Assemblage, 26 (1995), 8–37 (p. 12).

Fantasies of Contemporary Culture (CFP)

In addition to all the wonderful conferences I’m hoping to attend in 2016, I happen to be co-organising a symposium of my own, on the role fantasies play in the construction of contemporary reality. Whatever your background, discipline, or career phase, we want your abstracts (and we just want to meet you). Have a look at the call for papers below, and see if it sparks your fancy:

Rejected design for Cardiff Bay Opera House, which was never built. © Greg Lynn, 1995.
Rejected design for Cardiff Bay Opera House, which was never built. © Greg Lynn, 1995.

Fantasies of Contemporary Culture

Cardiff University, 23 May 2016
Call for Papers

Keynote speakers:
Dr. Mark Bould (UWE Bristol)
Dr. Catherine Butler (Cardiff University)

From the record-breaking sales of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, both in print and on film, to the phenomenal success of various forms of hyperreal ‘reality television’, contemporary Western culture seems singularly obsessed by the spectacular and the fantastic. This desire to experience other(ed) realities is also evidenced by the continued popularity of neo-historical literature and period drama, the domination of Hollywood cinema by superhero movies, and by the apocalyptic and dystopian imagery that abounds across genres and target audiences. With a long critical and cultural history, conceptualised by scholars as diverse as Tzvetan Todorov, Farah Mendlesohn, John Clute, Brian Attebery, Fredric Jameson, Lucie Armitt, and Darko Suvin, fantasy has arguably become the dominant mode of popular storytelling, supplanting the narrative realism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Rather than attempting to define fantasy, horror, weird, or science fiction as distinct genres, we wish to take up Katheryn Hume’s expansive definition of fantasy as anti-mimetic, or as ‘any departure from consensus reality’ (Fantasy and Mimesis, 1984, p. 21), in order to engage with the broader artistic motivation to question the limits of the real. This symposium, then, will explore the political and cultural functions of such fantasies. To what extent does the impulse to create fantasy art comment back upon this ‘consensus reality’, and to what extent does it represent a separate reality? How might the fantastical characters and environments that populate our contemporary cultural landscape be informed by the experience of twenty-first-century metropolitan life, and how do such texts (in)form that experience in return?

Roger Schlobin claims that the ‘key to the fantastic is how its universes work, which is sometimes where they are, but is always why and how they are’ (‘Rituals’ Footprints Ankle-Deep in Stone’, 2000, p. 161). With this claim in mind, we invite submissions from any discipline that address the relationship between current cultural, social and political dialogues and fantasy texts – specifically ones that interrogate dominant structures of power, normativity and ideology. Suggested topics include, but are not limited to, the relationship between fantasy texts and contemporary culture through the lens of:

  • Theories of fantasy
  • Ideology and world building
  • Ecological fantasies
  • Escapism
  • Cognitive mapping
  • Utopian/dystopian vision
  • Categories of monstrosity and perfection
  • The humanities (fantasies, futures)
  • Capitalist critique
  • Genre studies/border crossings
  • Age studies (childhood fantasy versus adult fantasy)
  • Gender studies
  • Alternate histories and retrofuturism
  • Postcolonial fantasy (incl. Welsh)
  • Nationalism and politics
  • Inequality and race relations

We welcome paper and panel proposals from postgraduate students, independent researchers, affiliated scholars, writers, and artists from any background or career phase. Paper proposals must be between 200-300 words; panel proposals should be between 400-500 words. Please send abstracts, including your name and e-mail, institutional affiliation (if any), and a short biography (100 words maximum), to Dr Tom Harman (HarmanTL@cardiff.ac.uk) and Megen de Bruin-Molé (DeBruinMJ@cardiff.ac.uk), using the subject line ‘CFP Fantasies of Contemporary Cultures’. The deadline for abstracts is 21 March, 2016.

The programme will include coffee/tea breaks, lunch and a wine reception. This will be covered in the registration fee (£10 for students and part-time staff, £20 for salaried staff). For additional information and updates, please consult this website, or follow us on Twitter at @cultfantasies.

Past, Present, and (Retro)Future

Source: meccanismocomplesso.org
Source: meccanismocomplesso.org

Things are happening in the world of popular (neo-)Victorianism! This week not one, but two calls for papers graced my inbox. The first is for a symposium (a.k.a. a one-day conference) in Amsterdam on historical and neo-historical fiction, and the second is for a symposium in Portsmouth on Victorian materiality and the material object. If you’re interested in alternate history, material culture, steampunk, period drama, retrofuturism, nostalgia, or just the past (or the present) in general, do submit an abstract.

If you’re not in the business of giving conference papers, you can come along and listen for free, or, since I’m likely to attend both of these events, you can follow my experience at the symposium on Twitter, and read my thoughts about the event here, after the fact.

And now the CFPs!

640px-GrimburgwalAmsterdam1. Reading the Present through the Past: from Historical to Neo-Historical Fiction

One-day symposium, 4 March 2016
The Netherlands Research School for Literary Studies
University of Amsterdam

Ever since the turn of the twenty-first century, literary and cultural returns to earlier periods have become increasingly frequent and visible. Novels on past eras dominate the shortlists of literary prizes and the number of historical films and TV series has exploded. The popularity of Hilary Mantel’s books about Henry VIII’s court, the success of TV series like Sherlock and The Americans and of graphic novel series like Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are cases in point. Many of these works, however, seem to relate to the past in ways that are different from earlier historical novels and films.

According to Elodie Rousselot, editor of the recent collection Exoticizing the Past in Neo-Historical Fiction (2014), literary contributions to this trend belong to a new subgenre of contemporary historical fiction, the ‘neo-historical novel’. Even though it is set in the past, ‘neo-historical’ fiction aims to discuss and mediate the concerns and occupations of our current age. In establishing overt connections to the present day, these works display an awareness of their own constructedness and open ways for a critical reflection on exoticizing approaches to the past. For this one-day symposium, we invite contributions that take up the challenge to think about the continuities and specificities of contemporary (neo)historical fiction and explore it as a literary and cultural phenomenon.

Keynote speakers:

Dr Elodie Rousselot (University of Portsmouth)
Prof Dr Elisabeth Wesseling (Maastricht University)

Possible topics include, but are by no means limited to:
• the neo-historical imagination as a literary movement and/or broader cultural phenomenon (literature, film, TV, art, adaptations, etc.)
• comparisons between (re)constructions of different historical periods (neo-Victorian, neo-Gothic, neo-Tudor, neo-medieval, neo-Golden Age, neo-WWI/WWII, alternate history, etc.)
• theoretical and conceptual approaches to neo-historical fiction (postmodernism and post-postmodernism, mashup, cultural memory, affect, postcolonialism, posthumanism, utopia/dystopia, etc.)
• connections within and across national and linguistic borders and communities; world literature and cosmopolitan memory

Please submit abstracts of 250 words for 20-minute papers in English, together with a short biography, to Daný van Dam at vandamhd@cardiff.ac.uk by 18 December 2015.

 

28742. All Things Victorian: Exploring Materiality and the Material Object

Call for Papers one-day symposium, 19 March 2016
The Centre for Studies in Literature
University of Portsmouth
Keynote Speaker: Dr Nadine Muller (Liverpool John Moores University)

The rapid industrialisation of the nineteenth century, with its unprecedented increase in the mass-production, proliferation and consumption of machine-made material objects and things, forced a reconsideration of the relationship between the self and the physical world in Victorian culture. Since then, neo-Victorian re-imaginings of the past have recurrently appropriated Victorian materialities as both a means of re-fashioning the past for contemporary consumption and of engaging with the past through haptic communication. This interdisciplinary conference seeks to explore the material object, its invested meaning and the ways in which this has been presented and re-presented in Victorian culture and contemporary neo-Victorian re-imaginings.

We invite delegates to submit abstracts exploring Victorian materiality and the material object in literature, cultural studies, the visual arts, film, television adaptation, fashion and consumer culture. Topics of interest include, but are not limited to:
•  The representation of Victorian things, objects and artefacts in: Victorian and/or neo-Victorian literature; film, television and drama adaptations; fashion and textiles; Victorian and/or contemporary consumer culture.
• The material object: Victorian clothing, jewellery, furniture, architecture, photographs, mementos, keepsakes, memorials, archives etc.
• Human interactions and engagements with materiality and the material object.
• Theories of material culture: thing theory, object theory, cultural memory theory, trace theory.

Please submit proposals of 250-300 words for papers of no more than 20 minutes along with a 50-70 word bio-note to cslpgconf@port.ac.uk. The deadline for accepting proposals is 31 December 2015 and acceptance will be notified by 15 January 2016.

Victorian Monsters? Strategies of Appropriation in the Neo-Victorian Mashup

Octopus Portrait, © Yumiko Utsu, from the Victoriana: The Art of Revival exhibition
Octopus Portrait, © Yumiko Utsu, from the Victoriana: The Art of Revival exhibition

This post originally appeared on the Victorianist, the postgraduate blog of the British Association for Victorian Studies, on 18 May 2015. It is reposted here with the kind permission of the editors.

I should probably preface this post by admitting that I’m not a real Victorianist. The Victorians were one of my undergraduate passions, and I continued to read and write all about them during my MA, but somehow I was always more interested in how we speak about the Victorians today than in how they actually spoke to themselves or to us. It was the fantasy of the Victorians that I found most intriguing. For the purposes of today’s post this works out well, because although the texts and subcultures I’m currently researching are often set in the nineteenth century, borrowing Victorian politics and aesthetics, they aren’t really Victorian either.

Specifically, I’m talking about the monster mashup, in this case the kind that appropriates objects, texts and contexts from the long nineteenth century and combines them with a very twenty-first century monster culture. These mashups come in many flavours, and can be found in virtually every artistic medium. You’ve got computer and console games like Fallen London or The Order: 1886. There are monster mashups in film and television, like Van Helsing (2004) and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful (2014). They’re also in the fine arts, and a rich selection of monster mashups found themselves displayed at the recent Victoriana: The Art of Revival exhibition in 2013.

You’ll also find monster mashups, perhaps more predictably, among the ranks of comics and graphic novels – consider Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999) or Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer (2009). And of course there are novels, like Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula (1992|2011) or Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker (2009). Arguably the best-known monster mashup in novel form is the ‘novel-as-mashup‘, popularised with 2009’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and continuing with such groan (or grin) provoking titles as Wuthering Bites (2010) and Grave Expectations (2011). These mashups lift the very words, sentences, and chapters from the texts they appropriate, changing a word here, a paragraph there to create a new (if ultimately very similar) text. From lowbrow to highbrow, drama to comedy, there’s a monster mashup for everyone.

'Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went.'
‘Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went.’

The targets of these mashups aren’t exclusively from the nineteenth century, but an overwhelming number have thus far turned to the Regency and Victorian eras of Britain’s literary history for their source material. Copyright laws are no doubt partly responsible for this, as is the fact that we’ve got so much physical and visual material to draw on from the nineteenth century onward. The public education system is another likely culprit, as the most popular mashups (and the ones that attract the most media attention) tend to involve the classics of art and literature that most children in the Anglo-American world are introduced to during their early education. These are also the texts that have been kept alive by a seemingly endless series of adaptations, whether on the stage, by the BBC, or in cinemas.

A few weeks ago one of my fellow Cardiff PhDs, Daný van Dam, shared a post on Gail Carriger’s ‘Parasol Protectorate’ series (2009-2012), another monster mashup set in Victorian London. She wrote the following about the series’ Victorian appropriations:

Like many other neo-Victorian novels, Carriger’s books return not so much to the Victorian period and its history as to contemporary ideas about the Victorians, projecting present-day concerns upon an earlier period.

The precise nature of the relationship between neo-Victorian fiction and the past it references is something neo-Victorian studies is very interested in. In her book History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction, Kate Mitchell puts the situation this way:

‘The issue turns upon the question of whether history is equated, in fiction, with superficial detail; an accumulation of references to clothing, furniture, décor and the like, that produces the past in terms of its objects, as a series of clichés, without engaging its complexities as a unique historical moment that is now produced in a particular relationship to the present. […] Can these novels recreate the past in a meaningful way or are they playing nineteenth-century dress-ups?’ Kate Mitchell, History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction: Victorian Afterimages (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 3.

With the monster mashup, answering this question is usually fairly straightforward: this is clearly a case of dress-up. In appropriating historical texts and contexts, these overtly fantastical monster mashups don’t necessarily seek to restore or revise the past, but rather to bring it back to life as a new text, and in a new context. They are twenty-first century texts in a Victorian coat. Regardless of their apparent superficiality, these kinds of creations and discussions are important in postmodern culture. Dress-up and performance serve their own purposes, and nostalgia can be an end as well as a means. 

Screenshot from Failbetter Studios' browser-based game 'Fallen London'.
Screenshot from Failbetter Studios’ browser-based game ‘Fallen London’, which allows you to play as a citizen of this monstrous city.

Postmodern theorist and critic Fredric Jameson has frequently returned to the subject of historicity and nostalgia in his work, often in conjunction with utopia. Both nostalgia and utopia, he argues, paradoxically evoke a kind of perpetual present by fetishising either the past or the future. Unfortunately, both are doomed to creative and subversive failure – nostalgia because its narrative of the past ultimately only serves to circumscribe the present, and utopia because its totalising narrative of the future inevitably morphs into dystopia. It is the failed deployment of these two elements that has resulted in postmodernism’s stagnation or end of history.

Nevertheless, Jameson continues to pursue these twin impulses of utopia and nostalgia, aiming to contribute to:

[T]he reawakening of that historicity which our system – offering itself as the very end of history – necessary [sic] represses and paralyzes. This is the sense in which utopology revives long dormant parts of the mind, organs of political and historical and social imagination which have virtually atrophied for lack of use, muscles of praxis we have long since ceased exercising, revolutionary gestures we have lost the habit of performing, even subliminally.

For Jameson, in other words, though nostalgia and utopia are both doomed to failure and stagnation, the urge to imagine, to fantasise, and to create using these impulses remains vitally important. In this sense the creation of history-saturated fantasies is much more for the sake of present-day culture than it is an homage to history. Neo-Victorian fantasies help keep both history and imagination alive in popular culture, giving them a much-needed stretching.

Dan Hillier, ‘Mother’ (2006). Altered engraving.
Dan Hillier, ‘Mother’ (2006). Altered engraving.

As a side effect of the way they ‘stretch’ history, monster mashups also manage to revitalise history, mythologise it, and even change it in a sense. These texts encourage discussion between disparate groups of people. They also force old texts into new contexts, revealing our historical and hermeneutical distance from (and closeness to) the old contexts. This recontextualisation of the Victorians can sometimes have productive results.

To give one example, these reality-blurring and genre-bending monster texts often draw attention to the constructed nature of the self, and the problems inherent in contemporary representations of identity and otherness. Monstrous others have stood in for racial, sexual, and social minorities for hundreds of years, but in the words of Judith Halberstam, in contemporary Gothic the monster is no longer totalising:

The monstrous body that once represented everything is now represented as potentially meaning anything – it may be the outcast, the outlaw, the parasite, the pervert, the embodiment of the uncontrollable sexual and violent urges, the foreigner, the misfit. The monster is all of these but monstrosity has become a conspiracy of bodies rather than a singular form.

In contemporary Gothic, monsters are us, and we are all monstrous. In any case, through this ‘conspiracy of bodies’, neo-historical monster mashups can call out cases of imperialism, colonialism, or patriarchy without singling out a particular minority victim. Monsters represent otherness, but not a particular Other. Symbolically they oscillate between the centre and the margins, endlessly deferred. Consider Travis Louie, for example, with his fantastical portraits of Victorians. These both call us to identify with the characters they depict and present those characters as alien. Louie has a whole series of these ‘Victorian cryptozoology‘ images as well, which evoke discourses of imperialism and colonialism.

© Travis Louie
© Travis Louie

Naturally this oscillation doesn’t automatically mean that using monsters in mashup texts is unproblematic. Specific monsters are still socially marked in different ways – the homoerotic male vampire, the sexy female robot, the lower-class zombie – but monsters do add a layer of mediation, a buffer between audience and story. Texts like these open discussions of otherness that might otherwise be met with resistance or increasingly negative accusations of ‘political correctness’. And, as always, imagining difference in the past potentially creates space for difference in the present. History and its cultural traces provide the foundations and reference points for today’s ideologies.

Roland Barthes has a great deal to say about the way history and tradition become myth. For Barthes, mythologies are formed to perpetuate an idea of society that adheres to the current ideologies of the ruling class and its media. Mashups, as part of the domain of popular culture, certainly contribute to the perpetuation of society’s myths (the nation, heterosexuality, gender, etc.). They are rarely subversive in the traditional sense, but because of their appropriative nature it is difficult for anyone to control which ideas and ideologies are communicated to audiences and readers. There is always ample room for divergent interpretation.

anno-draculaIn writing about the process of mythologisation, Barthes also refers to the tendency of socially constructed notions, narratives, and assumptions to become ‘naturalised’ in the process, or taken unquestioningly as given within a particular culture. Monstrous or fantastical history inherently resists such naturalisation, because it refuses to be taken entirely seriously, though certainly possible to politicise it. Monster mashups make history strange – or sometimes reveal the strangeness of history. Kim Newman has claimed that he initially decided to write Anno Dracula in response to Thatcherism and the rise of neo-Victorian political sentiment in the late 80s. This novel describes a Victorian England in which Dracula had succeeded in Bram Stoker’s novel, and come to rule over Great Britain. In this alternate history, which can be read as ironically similar to our own, Newman re-evaluates stereotypically ‘Victorian values’ as monstrous, ultimately showing that we often see what we want to see where the Victorians are concerned.

In a discussion of the Neo-Victorian graphic novels of Alan Moore, also extremely political, Jason B. Jones argues that what makes such mashups subversive is not their disregard for literary categories or forms, but their potential redefinition of our very identities and cultural spaces. He states: ‘[s]uch game playing foregrounds the extimate aspects of historical change, as something neither wholly external nor subjective’. In other words, texts that mix history and fiction while also playing with genre convention make the reader more readily aware of the constructed nature of even the most serious history. 

the_league_of_extraordinary_gentlemen_1280x1024-1024x819

RIP Terry Pratchett: Where the Falling Angel Met the Rising Ape

Terry Pratchett’s publisher just announced that 85610the Discworld author, who spent many years struggling with Alzheimer’s, has passed away. He was only 66.

I have no words at the moment to express the loss that I – or that many other fans – will feel at this moment. I can only offer my heartfelt thanks for the many wonderful stories he gave us. Terry Pratchett, you will be sorely missed. Thank you for your insight, your sarcasm, and most of all, your wit.

“Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.” –Terry Pratchett, Hogfather (London: Corgi, 1997), p. 422

Of Apes and Angels

Image via 'Awesome and Oops'
Image via ‘Awesome and Oops’

“Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.”
–Terry Pratchett, Hogfather (London: Corgi, 1997), p. 422

This blog has recently undergone a move from WordPress.com to a real domain, as well as a re-design that includes a new name – something more vivid and less technical than ‘Neo-Historical Monsters’. The new name, ‘Angels and Apes’,  is taken from one of my favourite quotes on the use and nature of fantasy, from one of my favourite authors. To get me in the mood for the holidays I was recently re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Hogfatherwhich is part of the extensive and excellent Discworld series. In it, Death (who speaks in all-caps) and his granddaughter Susan fight to save the Discworld equivalent of Father Christmas, because otherwise the sun will never rise again. In the novel’s climax, a sceptical Susan asks Death what would really happen if belief in the Hogfather died out. In the following – rather long – conversation, Death replies:

THE SUN WOULD NOT HAVE RISEN.

“Really? Then what would have happened, pray?”

A MERE BALL OF FLAMING GAS WOULD HAVE ILLUMINATED THE WORLD.

They walked in silence for a moment.

“Ah,” said Susan dully. “Trickery with words. I would have though you’d have been more literal-minded than that.”

I AM NOTHING IF NOT LITERAL-MINDED. TRICKERY WITH WORDS IS WHERE HUMANS LIVE.

“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IT IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little-”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

[…]

STARS EXPLODE, WORLDS COLLIDE, THERE’S HARDLY ANYWHERE IN THE UNIVERSE WHERE HUMANS CAN LIVE WITHOUT BEING FROZEN OR FRIED, AND YET YOU BELIEVE THAT A… A BED IS A NORMAL THING. IT IS THE MOST AMAZING TALENT.

“Talent?”

OH, YES. A VERY SPECIAL KIND OF STUPIDITY. YOU THINK THE WHOLE UNIVERSE IS INSIDE YOUR HEADS.

“You make us sound mad,” said Susan. A nice warm bed…

NO. YOU NEED TO BELIEVE IN THINGS THAT AREN’T TRUE. HOW ELSE CAN THEY BECOME? said Death.

[p. 422]

Though this is probably not specifically intended to be a posthuman quote, the two fit very well together. The universe would keep on existing without humans, but it would exist in a very different way – especially for us. We are creatures of experience and imagination. Everything in our world ultimately exists because we recognise it’s there; because we have decided it does in fact exist, and that it does so in a particular way. Our existence is, in fact, a kind of fantasy. With that in mind, imagining things beyond our current conception of ‘reality’ is a very important way for us to change that reality, and to push the boundaries of human experience.

This idea is a foundational part of my research. The idea that we create our own reality is what first drew me to the study of genre fiction, and it resonates with me on a deeper level as someone who embraces the postmodern philosophy that the most important questions are ontological rather than epistemological: so not ‘how did I come to be?’ but ‘who and what am I?’. The possibility of infinite imagination in identity creation is an important concept in things like revisionist mythmaking and afrofuturism, or re-writing the past to make space for different voices in the present. This is also a central question in posthumanism, which continuously tries to redefine the human from the outside in, ultimately rejecting the idea that a ‘perfect human’ can exist.

Angels and apes represent two very different human identities. One is part of classical and religious narrative, one is part of modern and scientific narrative. The angel Death’s comment about falling angels and rising apes in Hogfather is a reference to a famous paragraph from a study by playwright/anthropologist Robert Audrey:

We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted to battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.

–Robert Audrey, African Genesis: A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man (New York: Dell Publishing, 1961), p. 354

Whether we identify as rising apes, falling angels, or something in between, it’s important that we keep on asking ourselves who we are and what we believe, and that we keep on imagining difference.

Unless of course we no longer want to grow as people, or as a species. Then we should definitely never write or read fantasy, especially not fantasy by Terry Pratchett.