Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Candy Floss on a Shitty Stick

Dear Anonymouse,

I fear I may be about to be a bit brusque with you. I’m not even sure this is entirely necessary, to be honest, given that I’m going to be, for the most part, simply reiterating what I’ve already said in response to your comment to Sulla on my archive post, “The Homosexual Agenda”. There are even, in fact, some aspects of your comment that I find sort of charming, like your comparison of the disgust you feel in the face of homosexuality to being “grossed out by beans and onions”. You do recognise that “lots of people love those,” that it “doesn't mean there's anything wrong with them, or that it's gross or not beautiful and terribly romantic in God's eyes and many people here on earth as well. the love that is, not beans and onions.” The babble is inane, but its heart is in the right place. You even go so far as to say, “the real main thing is that no matter what ‘grosses us out’ is not our place to place judgment on an activity between two consenting adults who have feelings that they can't change and must have been sent by God.” That’s a worthy sentiment, and while I find the talk of God somewhat stimulates my own retch reflex, it does make me feel kindly disposed to you.

But you did have to post two days after the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, didn’t you? And you did have to say that “Homosexuality IS inherently disgusting to a lot of straight people...more even than the way we generally use the word inherently, I mean it is REALLY inherent, in that it is positively biological, at the very core of psychology for some (not all) straight people....and personally I believe that only a small part of that is society no matter how intolerant and evil society is, and most of it is just natural biology of the brain.”

At the very core of psychology, you say? Natural biology of the brain?

It’s nice to know that this inbuilt imperative of hatred isn’t something you’ve allowed to rule you, that you “used to think all homosexuality was pretty gross, but much more with gay men than women” until you “got a little bi-curious”. So now, you say, “although I'm not sure I can ever picture myself being with a woman, and still prefer men as a romantic partner, I can fantasize about women in romantic situations and I can watch lesbian love stories without flinching like I used to, it's actually nice.”

How lovely.

You go on: “I too am a girly girl and I like women that look like women, not men, maybe just a tiny bit spicy, if you know what I mean, but at the same time very very feminine looking.” And on: “When it comes to men though, where my romantic dreams still lie, I prefer men who are fairly masculine looking and acting, just not huge beefcakes or cavemen.” And on: “I don't really go for feminine type men though just because I like girls a little now.” And on: “I like it one way or the other, I don't really go for androgyny (which I believe that some people that classify themselves as "gay", as liking either men or women, REALLY in truth prefer people that are somewhere in the middle, sometimes even smack dab-but I guess there's no word for that yet).”

I know it’s just mean of me to say that your self-absorbed witterings are a riveting study of (I'm guessing late-adolescent?) vacuity. I know that this is needlessly snarky. But you did have to post two days after the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, didn’t you? And you did have to say that “Homosexuality IS inherently disgusting to a lot of straight people...more even than the way we generally use the word inherently, I mean it is REALLY inherent, in that it is positively biological, at the very core of psychology for some (not all) straight people.”

And you did have to say this in response to Sulla, who had valiantly taken a bigot to task for a specious claim that there was “no record of homosexuality being ‘celebrated’ or ‘embraced’ or even ‘tolerated’ until very recent history”. You did have to say this in response to Sulla’s simple factual statements pointing to clear examples of homosexuality toddling happily along without being subject to bigotry, both in the animal kingdom and throughout human history.

And as much as you may have “got a little bi-curious”, you do have some way to go. What is it you say? “[A]lthough I'm slightly more comfortable with the idea of gay men, and even in some tv shows or movies or whatever I can be dragged into the romance of it...if there is anything to [sic] explicit, even especially passionate kissing, I still feel very very uncomfortable and grossed out. And that will probably never change completely. I don't know if it's because I'm jealous that I could never be a part of that (I believe when we watch movies, a big part of it is putting ourselves in the characters shoes)...or if it's just some sort of biological reaction.”

See, now I’m confused. Or rather, you’re confused. You were so very certain that the disgust “is positively biological, at the very core of psychology for some,” but now when it comes to your own reaction, you “don’t know.” It might be a “biological reaction”. But maybe you’re just jealous. It could be natural or it could be a culturally conditioned prejudice. But hey ho. Whatever. It will “probably never change completely”. Personally, I’d be inclined to say it will almost certainly never change completely if that’s your attitude. I’d be inclined to encourage you to change that attitude, not to blithely accept prejudice as the “facts of life”. And definitely not to blather brainlessly to others that they should do the same.

Not to post your prattling piffle on the blog of THE…. Sodomite Hal Duncan!!, two days after the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, saying that “the main thing is that gay people at some point will just have to understand that reality for a lot of straight people.”

Not to meander merrily into a comments thread under the watchful eye of the queer cur Behemouth, and tell the good citizen Sulla that he shouldn’t be calling a bigot on his bullshit, that “if I were you I wouldn't waste my time trying to change them or even argue with them.”

Not to end your vacuous drivel with an empty-headed “peace.”


Anonymouse, with all due respect, it's very nice that you've made some baby steps towards not vomiting out your small intestines at the thought of -- shock! horror! -- two men kissing. And I do applaud the fact that you recognise your feelings as only that, rejecting the moralistic poppycock of the bigot that Sulla was responding to. But your peace 'n' kittens sentiments become candy floss on a shitty stick with this apologist balderdash about homosexuality being inherently disgusting.

So it just "IS", is it... for some anyway? Do you actually, I might ask, have any evidence for this assertion? Have you perhaps carried out some scientific studies the rest of the world hasn't heard of? Have you even the remotest idea of how the human nausea response works in relation to visual stimuli? Or are you just blithely and ignorantly excusing bigotry as a biological imperative cause you, like, think maybe it could be, f'rsure? Validating homophobia as an innate disgust that, well, we faggots just have to learn to live with? Telling me that "gay people at some point will just have to understand that reality"? Telling me that I just have to learn to deal with it, to suck it up? And telling Sulla not to get my back when the bigots come around? Just two days after the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots?

Let me buy you a fucking clue.

You say that "we would all do well to understand each other a bit better." Yes, these are very nice words. You might want to try understanding how a mixed-race couple would feel if you proclaimed on their blog that some people do just have an innate revulsion of miscegenation. Or how a Jewish person would feel if you said, well, those Fascists were just born with a natural hatred of the Jews. How a black person would feel if you said that, hey, some white people can't help joining lynch mobs. Some people are just naturally convinced that Gypsies steal children and put curses on people. You just have to accept that. Let them be. Don’t bother standing up to them. Don’t bother defending someone they’re attacking. There's just no point arguing with them.

Go away and think about that. Please. Think about that, and about whether you really want to sound like an apologist for hate crimes with a head composed entirely of… what? Is it air or is it bone? Or perhaps shit?

And after you've thought about it, if you do come back here, do not ever use my blog to tell someone who is arguing with a fucking bigot not to do so. Not to bother.

Is that clear? Am I making myself clear here?

Bigot posts hate-screed on my blog. Sulla shows his cojones by calling out said bigot for his bigotry. You tell Sulla, "if I were you I wouldn't waste my time trying to change them or even argue with them."

Well, in the name of every faggot in the world who's ever had someone stand up for them, and every faggot in the world -- and by fuck there's so many of them still out there -- who's never had someone stand up for them, thank fuck that Sulla is happy to "waste his time" standing up against bigots where people like you are not. Thank fuck that he is not you. Thank fuck that I'm not you. Thank fuck that there have been, and are, and will continue to be innumerable people around the world that aren't you.

Frankly, the world would be a much better place if you weren't you.

But you know, all it would take is for you to understand why, and then you wouldn’t be.

Peace out.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Critique From HereNow

The Fan and the Last Man

By way of Larry of OF Blog of the Fallen, by way of Jonathan McCalmont of Ruthless Culture, quoting from Mark of K-Punk, here’s a quote I want to get my pointy little teeth into:

“In many ways, the academic qua academic is the Troll par excellence. Postgraduate study has a propensity to breeds trolls; in the worst cases, the mode of nitpicking critique (and autocritique) required by academic training turns people into permanent trolls, trolls who troll themselves, who transform their inability to commit to any position into a virtue, a sign of their maturity (opposed, in their minds, to the allegedly infantile attachments of The Fan). But there is nothing more adolescent – in the worst way – than this posture of alleged detachment, this sneer from nowhere. For what it disavows is its own investments; an investment in always being at the edge of projects it can neither commit to nor entirely sever itself from – the worst kind of libidinal configuration, an appalling trap, an existential toxicity which ensures debilitation for all who come into contact with it (if only that in terms of time and energy wasted – the Troll above all wants to waste time, its libido involves a banal sadism, the dull malice of snatching people’s toys away from them).”

The most interesting features of this quote to me are actually the capitalisations of “Troll” and “The Fan”. All words are significant; but some are Significant. Like the Namings of the Enemy. These are the soft underbelly of polemic, the place where a well-aimed bite will bring you to the innards. We find something similar here, in another quote from the same K-Punk post — in the capitalisation of “Last Man”:

“Smirking postmodernity images the fan as the sad geekish Trekkie, pathetically, fetishistically invested in what – all good sense knows – is embarrassing trivia. But this lofty, purportedly olympian perspective is nothing but the view of the Last Man. Which isn’t to make the fatuous relativist claim that devotees of Badiou are the same as Trekkies; it is to make the point that Graham has been tirelessly reiterating – that the critique from nowhere is nothing but trolling. Trolls pride themselves on not being fans, on not having the investments shared by those occupying whatever space they are trolling.”

McCalmont challenges the expedient strategy of dismissing criticisms with the meta-argument that “they are in breach of the rules of proper engagement”:

In other words, not only is being a fan an acceptable state to be in, it is also the only meaningful position from which to engage with anything. To properly engage with a text, you must attack it from a particular theoretical and/or aesthetic position. To fail to possess such a position is to be little more than a troll.

I’m not sure I buy this rearticulation though. It’s a little ragdoll that I get the feeling will come apart at the seams with just a little shaking. There’s a simple case here after all: 1) Smirking postmodernity is a distinctively anti-fan position, characterised by an abjection of said fan as pitiable trivia-fetishist; 2) While pretending to a “lofty, purportedly olympian perspective”, this attitude is actually shallow and self-serving posturing; 3) The combination of argumentative critique and proud disdain for the emotionally-invested fan is the essence of the troll; 4) Critique born of this trolling, “critique from nowhere”, is worthless.

Fuck, you can just bite the head off this right away. It’s extending the argument to read this as saying that the only meaningful position is therefore to be a fan. This is to gloss over one simple alternative: not giving a flying fuck; being neither Fan nor Last Man. An argument that the anti-fan stance is wrong does not translate into an argument that the fan stance is right, not if we allow for a non-fan stance. This rearticulation turns the Last Man argument into a Straw Man: an argument that invalidates all critique but that of the Fan. Easy to torch.

The Ivory Watchtower

To be fair, of course, this Last Man argument has some problems in its own right. There’s a sweeping assumption at the last point there for a start. So the great white snark never picks a target that deserves the Darwin Award, eh? Doesn’t taste the blood, notice the ineffectual thrashing of the feeble swimmer way out of their depth? That hunter-killer critique can never be right? I could shore up that case a little, bolster it with an argument that the Last Man’s opinion is likely to be distorted by the prejudice associated with the abjection of the Fan, transfering that irrationalism to anything loaded with signifiers of fan appeal: but that would be me now extending the argument. Bollocks to that.

The case is flawed in another respect anyway. If I were to modify it would be to tear off the loose limb — the whole “troll” assertion. The analogy doesn’t sit comfortably, as McCalmont points out, with the academic’s consistent application of theory: “When an analytical philosopher attacks an idea, he does so whilst committed to certain theories and postulates.” Actually this is sort of implicit in Mark’s assertion on K-Punk, that “[t]he best critics do not pretend to offer value-neutral judgements from nowhere – as Nietzsche, Marx, Freud and Lacan have shown in their different ways, no such place exists, although the fantasy position of something like Analytic Philosophy is to pretend that it does.” The true troll has no such fantasy position, no high-rise hidey-hole of mock objectivity to snipe from; the troll is a grunt on the ground, running this way and that, chucking whatever wank grenade happens to be handy, through whatever doorway happens to be ajar. The troll’s critique is critique from everywhere and anywhere.

But if we chew off the fat of points three and four, maybe we are still left with a Last Man of sorts, defined by the first two points — the anti-fan, scorning the emotional investment of the devout, allowing that scorn to cloud their judgement. Critiquing from a “nowhere” that pretends to be a somewhere, a precarious construct of “theories and postulates”, a house of flashcards inked with empty signifiers. This is the latent myth of the Last Man, why it is capitalised like “The Fan”, because it is a symbol every bit as much as is the Fan. A bogeyman whose critique comes from the nowhere of nonsense, from the Ivory Watchtower of Academia, the Spire of Dreaming; it is a metaphor that pervades the discourse. There’s “investment” and there’s “investment”. That disavowal of the fannish emotional investment, that “posture of alleged detachment”, is not incompatible with an intellectual investment in that “fantasy position” of ironic oversight. It’s just that this mode of philosophical investment refuses the sincerity of sentiment, apes objectivity. Sounds like the old Reason versus Passion dichotomy to me. Head versus Heart. Rationalism versus Romanticism. Intellectualism versus sensationalism. Elitists versus populists. Last Man versus Fan. Maybe this’ll be more obvious with a bit of symbol flipping:

Sullen countermodernity images the academic as the snide sophistic Last Man, pathetically, defensively retreated into what – all good sense knows – is pseudo-intellectual flummery. But this ballsy, purportedly grounded perspective is nothing but the view of the Fan.

It’s juicy rhetoric from both angles, the Fan against the Last Man, the Last Man against the Fan. But let’s strip it to the bones.

Squabbling Siblings

So, the core of that K-Punk piece is a criticism of the “Last Man” attitude as a stance in and of itself. Not as the lack of a “correct” stance but as a stance handicapped by its prejudicial hostility. That stance is characterised by its disdain of investment, but the issue here is actually the “Last Man” treating this as “a virtue, a sign of their maturity.” In the context of the emotional nature of the fan’s investment, the Last Man’s affectation of distance can be seen as an intellectualist abjection of the sensational. This, the argument goes, is a form of investment in its own right, and a neurotic one, an abjection of the fan inside. How so? It is an “adolescent” affectation, “this posture of alleged detachment, this sneer from nowhere”. Why? “For what it disavows is its own investments; an investment in always being at the edge of projects it can neither commit to nor entirely sever itself from.” Map that “smirking” to the callow irony of a muso who derides a kick-ass rock band because they’re on the cover of NME, of a sophomore who thinks he’s “above all that” precisely because he’s bought into a solipsistic self-belief. Each is abjecting their own past naivety in an attempt to prove they’ve overcome it.

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t find that principle instantly recognisable, who doesn’t remember at some stage of their infancy or adolescence scorning the “childish” things they once cherished, abjecting them in a ritualistic disavowal of the embarassing naivety of that joy?

Does the Last Man exist within this subculture? It hardly seems likely that they wouldn’t, to be honest; why on earth would this subculture be any different? And rejecting that “posture” does not mean that the only valid response is the other extreme — the infantile investment of the fanatic, scorning all critique that denies his passion, even when it’s entirely reasonable. Not that I’m denying that extreme is one response. Does the Fan exist within this subculture? That’s another no-brainer as far as I’m concerned. But that doesn’t mean it’s either/or.

Of course, maybe I’m being too charitable in my reading of this Last Man argument. Maybe that is the contention — that it’s Last Man or Fan, and the Last Man is just a goddamn phony, so you have only one option if you want to be a good critic. If so, I don’t buy it. I don’t buy the binary logic that sets up the extremes of Fan and Last Man, disacknowledging anything between. Or more accurately, anything after. I do think these extremes are evident in the discourse, sometimes as Straw Men, raised up as symbols for the factions on each side, projected on to any disagreeable critique, but sometimes as actual positions. The dynamic seems a little like that of two siblings at times, the younger throwing infantile sulks because the elder derides their taste as childish, the elder aping adulthood but demonstrating their own adolescence in each callow disavowal. If I’ve been focusing on the latter in all the recent blather, by the way, it’s because I think the “you’re just a jealous poopy-head” balderdash is largely obvious and acknowledged, while the “meh, that’s so jejune” piffle is not.

Critique Going Nowhere

McCalmont’s post acknowledges the problem, in his references to academic training in critique that “gives birth to a belief in certain universal laws of not only logic but also argumentative discourse.” He has a highly pertinent comment, to my mind, when he notes that “[d]ebate in analytical philosophy is not directionless. Rather it stems from a belief in certain universal strictures.” As I commented in response — and as I touched on in the Ethics and Enthusiasm post — the key danger I see is of those strictures turning into a tick-list. Prescriptivism is a sophomoric mode of thought, the recourse to absolutism as the bolsters and barricades of an immature philosophy; it is a bedsit built of books, a safe haven in an uncertain world. And the tick-list is a crib sheet that makes the Last Man’s need for such stability apparent.

Ironically, the more methodical the review the more superficial it may look, even when it has substantive points well-argued, because it ultimately reads as critique-by-numbers, a ritualistic analysis in accordance with received wisdom learned by rote. Prose, setting, plot, character, theme, conclusion. Or drop “prose” and throw in “influences”. Drop “character” and throw in “eyeball-kicks”. Drop “theme” and throw in “kittens”. Says Johnathan: “Many is the paper I sat through which would be debated in terms of ‘simplicity’, ‘intuitiveness’ and even ‘cleanliness’.” Translate those to Populist terms like “accessibility”, “immersiveness” and “transparent prose” and it’s not hard to see how tick-list critique happens on one side of the fence, I think. Translate them to “verisimilitude”, “reflectiveness” and “rich prose” and you have a different value-set that’s all well and good but not necessarily the most relevant in reviewing a pulp fiction work for a pulp fiction audience.

But the point is not that it’s wrong to apply those values, not if you’re reviewing a work for an audience that shares them; rather that a tick-list critique on that basis, for all its literary standards, transforms those “universal strictures” into a formulation of a “good novel” every bit as blinkered as the philistine’s template of a “good story”. Even when the values are an individual’s own, their home-made aesthetic built from a ferocious interrogation of one’s own tastes, there is an air of convention to them. Another Hendrix poster on another bedsit wall. Another trafic cone in the corner. Another copy of Nietzsche, Marx, Freud or Lacan. You can smell the damp and dust of a rented aesthetics decked out in ornaments of individualism but still not really a home. Makes me want to cock my leg and piss in a corner.

But does this actually invalidate the critique? No, not at all. It can still be substantive, still be of value to the audience that shares those tastes. This is not critique from nowhere. The Last Man is not a troll. The targets picked from the Ivory Watchtower may be valid. The Last Man’s ruthless sniping may serve as a culling of the herd. And ultimately his aim may be true. But this does raise the questions articulated by McCalmont:

When we argue about the failings of a book’s prose style or the lack of narrative coherence or the weak characterisation or the poor structure, are we invoking an imaginary set of universal principles?

Yes, even if they are general conventions.

are we effectively attacking works from nowhere and with nothing?

No, because they are general conventions that mostly make sense. It’s just that in pulp fiction, with the exception of narrative coherence perhaps, these are often secondary to the dynamic qualities peculiar to that pulp idiom. The turgid prose of Epic Fantasy may be required for a thick weft of worldbolstering and worldbumphing. In the Romantic aesthetic of old school Space Opera, “strong” characterisation may be bold rather than subtle. And if you fail to consider factors like these it’s like treating a musical as a play, judging it with a tick-list of “acting”, “script”, “narrative coherence”. Which is fine until you’re addressing yourself to an audience that includes a whole lot of Steven Sondheim fans. “As for the experimentalist strategy of disrupting the narrative with song? The playwright is clearly striving for Dennis Potter style moments of rapture; sadly he achieves only a bizarre and unintentional effect of Pinteresque non sequitur.”

That may be critique from somewhere, but it’s critique going nowhere.

Of Pulp and Preachers

But here’s the key point:

are we being simply trolls?

No, but you’re going to piss people the fuck off if you can’t rein in a) the tick-list critique that takes academic method as formula b) the assumption that you know better. Because where that analytic mentality reads as utterly procedural thought, it serves as marker not just of sophomoric methods but of the stereotype of science fiction fanthink — that rigidity of thought locked into system — invalidating any air of superior nous. And then you get a critic who is, “in effect, attacking from the position of a fan even though he himself does not necessarily recognise that he is merely a fan or that his devotion to a particular position is all that he is defending.” You have someone who’s “attacking from the point of view that certain values are either actually universal or they should be.” You get the devoted, defensive advocate of dogma.

More to the point, you get a reader who knows fine well that what they’re dealing with is a fan turned aesthetic ideologue — turned demogogue actually, given that they have a platform, a pulpit — the balcony of that Ivory Watchtower from which one preaches to the masses. It’s not trolling, but it is a political act, where the reviewer is genuinely seeking to exert sway, where you are stepping into that Last Man role — or even where you just appear to be because your style of reviewing hasn’t matured yet, you haven’t quite found your voice, so the academic tone still echoes in your words. Maybe you’re not the Last Man. But that’s how the Fan is going to see you the second you curl your top lip into even a hint of a sneer at their taste. And this is what you’re going to be doing. As McCalmont acknowledges in a thread on OF Blog of the Fallen:

Book reviews are not just purchasing recommendations, they're also part of the fashioning of genre's identity and that feeds back into the books that the genre will produce in future.

And in relation to authors of works that don’t fit with the progressive agenda, authors of “core genre” works:

In fact, I don't actually think that critics should be in the business of patting those kinds of author on the head either. One of the roles of the critic is to stir the pot by situating works in a wider context and part of that stirring of the pot is saying "this is good... it moves stuff forward" even if it is down blind alleys.

Don’t get me wrong. Personally, I’m all for a peer-group discourse of mouthy opinionated bastards pushing their own idiosyncratic agenda. (Mea culpa.) I might ask, with a slight arching of the eyebrow and a wry smile, whether you think critics should be in the business of patting other kinds of authors on the head? I mean, the right kinds of authors? The ones that are good little doggies, walking to heel and feeling all toasty inside when the master rewards them with that pat? I might ask if you seriously don’t expect to get bitten by the feral mutts among us who are not interested in playing sheepdog in your fantasy of “shepherd of the genre flock”? By the readers themselves who are far from sheepish, when you try to steer them this way or that with a tap of your little stick? Even a breeze of the stick flicking past them, a glimpse of it in the corner of an eye, and they’re going to try and take it off you, snap it in two and ram it where the son don’t shine.

If you’re going to be an agitant, don’t for the love of Dog be surprised at the “baroque” accusations that result when you agitate people.

The people who disagree with your agenda are going to respond. Somebody telling you your tastes aren’t legitimate? That you should be enjoying something written on entirely different principles? When they’re apparently blind to their own fanthink? To most readers of pulp fiction that’s going to automatically read as just another example of the — how I hate this word — “elitism” of those devoted to the contemporary realist genre, to the exclusion of all else. And given the social qualities of that sort of interaction, it’s going to read as a mechanism of abjection. Sadly, the general autoresponse seems to be to come out, guns blazing, with the exact same strategies of dismissal and delegitimisation, but — also sadly — that’s entirely predictable and not really that unwarranted when you step into the role of Last Man.

Writing that reaction off as defensive groupthink is defensive groupthink. It’s a nice, safe, consolatory but ultimately self-defeating fallacy to dismiss that reaction as the irk of Fans invested in their precious precious, lashing out blindly in their sense of belonging to a community that’s under attack. No, it’s about the community belonging to them. Which is to say, it’s about the community not belonging to you, not as far as they’re concerned. So you apply for the post of genre gatekeeper, guardian of the ghetto, and they ask you, in no uncertain terms, who the fuck do you think you are? No shit, Sherlock. Suck it up. If you really, honestly want to effect change then you’re going to have to get over that cosy little fantasy of the “dumb” “ovine” “mob”. You’re going to have to recognise that some of them are foxes in their cunning, bulls in their belligerence, lone wolves in their individualism. You want to push the envelope? Get into their heads and figure out how to talk to them, how to treat them as people rater than sheep, so they won’t end up turning your Last Man stance into one big motherfucker of a Straw Man, swarming round it en masse, and putting it to the torch while you scream, “Oh, Jesus Christ! Oh, Jesus Christ!”

Otherwise you’re just bleating.

So saith the rabid dog Behemouth.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Notes Toward a Theory of Narrative Modality

A One-Sided Conversation

“The lemurs must have done it!”
“No, Jack, I did not make the lemurs eat your -”
“But I don’t give them peyote that often.”
“Stripy is not giving you the evil eye.”
“I will not use ritalin on them just because you -”
“Well, you could stop aggravating them for a start.”
“They wouldn’t be doing that if you hadn’t shot at them.”
“Yes, you can, Jack. It’s called self-control.”
“It might help if you saw someone about the phobia.”
“That could be because you keep killing the doctors.”
“Yes, we shall find one that isn’t a ‘monkey robot minion of the conspiracy’.”
“Look, you must try something, or one of these days...”
“Of course you may, but -”
“Jack, you should be able to deal with a few lemurs.”
“But I simply must have my pets!”
“I could… I suppose.”
“We really shouldn’t have to go through this every time.”
“Well, I would, if you stop bloody shooting.”

A Rough Schema of Modality

The above is a bit of fluff for the sake of examples. The rough schema of modalities below is based on the nine central modal auxilliary verbs with factives taken as markers of epistemic modality: did; do/is; must; may; might; can; could; will; would; shall; should. A broad division has been made into alethic (regarding theoretical possibility), epistemic (regarding actuality), deontic (regarding duty) and boulomaic (regarding desire).

(Note: while particular modal verbs have been used to characterise particular modalities, in practice they have much greater flexibility. “May” and “might” are often interchangeable. One modal verb may be used as indirect articulation of another. The implicit certainty of epistemic actuality allows “will”, for example, to be used as an indirect deontic prescriptive: “You will stop shooting the lemurs, Jack!” essentially says, “This will happen [epistemic future], because it must happen [epistemic necessity], because you must comply [deontic prescriptive]!”)

  • necessity: It must/must-not! “The lemurs must have done it!”

  • Epistemic:
  • past: It did/did not. “No, Jack, I did not make the lemurs eat your -”

  • simple present: It does/does not. “But I don’t give them peyote that often.”

  • present cont.: Is is/is not. “Stripy is not giving you the evil eye.”

  • future: It will/will-not. “I will not use ritalin on them just because you -”

  • Alethic:
  • possibility: It could/could-not. “Well, you could stop aggravating them for a start.”

  • contingency: It would/would-not. “They wouldn’t be doing that if you hadn’t shot at them.”

  • certainty: It can/can-not. “Yes, you can, Jack. It’s called self-control.”

  • Epistemic:
  • notion: It might/might-not. “It might help if you saw someone about the phobia.”

  • supposition: It could/could-not. “That could be because you keep killing the doctors.”

  • contention: It shall/shall-not. “Yes, we shall find one that isn’t a ‘monkey robot minion of the conspiracy’.”

  • Deontic:
  • prescriptive: It must/must-not! “Look, you must try something, or one of these days...”

  • permissive: It may/may-not. “Of course you may, but -”

  • restrictive: It should/should-not. “Jack, you should be able to deal with a few lemurs.”

  • Boulomaic:
  • conviction: It must/must-not! “But I simply must have my pets!”

  • reservation: It could/could-not. “I could… I suppose.”

  • disposition: It should/should-not. “We really shouldn’t have to go through this every time.”

  • selection: It would/would-not. “Well, I would, if you stop bloody shooting.”

  • Notes Toward a Theory

    Suspension-of-disbelief: Narrative is presented as having an epistemic modality of “did happen”, “is happening” or “will happen” (though the last is pretty rare). That modality serves as a baseline, the de facto modality of the narrative as a whole. Surrender to it, the pretence that the narrative is true, constitutes suspension-of-disbelief.

    Backstory: Narrative relates events that imply other events left unrelated. If a protagonist and antagonist are introduced as already enemies, for example, this implies that at some point in the past they have become enemies. Such implicit imports in the text construct a metanarrative, a narrative of extradiegetic context we can call backstory. Backstory has an epistemic modality of “has to have happened”.

    Punking: Where backstory is made explicit, related within the narrative, the epistemic modality usually becomes “did happen”. The narrative may however create a false backstory and then overthrow it with a revelation that it “did not happen”, that what “actually happened” is entirely otherwise. Where this takes place in the text the clash of “has to have happened” and “did not happen” creates a momentary punctura. The technique itself can be referred to as punking.

    Warp: The modal variation of a narrative created in the interplay of the baseline suspension-of-disbelief and other modalities. We can decribe the warp of a narrative as changing when different modalities are introduced in the import of sentences. We might also describe the general warp of the narrative as a whole in terms of what modalities predominate. The classic warp of horror narratives, for example, seems to be a distinctive blend of negative boulomaic disposition / conviction (“should not happen” / “must not happen”) and epistemic future / necessity (“will happen” / “must happen”).

    Quirk: Any feature which creates warp by introducing a modality that challenges suspension-of-disbelief. Quirks come in different flavours according to the modalities they impart to the narrative, the particular warp they create.

    Alethic modality: The subjunctivity Delany describes in “About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words” is recharacterised as alethic modality in this model. It is the theoretical (subjunctive) possibility of a narrative, as read by the reader, whether it “could” or “could not” have happened, be happening or happen. “The lemur ate the shoe,” has an alethic modality of “could have happened”. “The lemur ate the world,” has an alethic modality of “could not have happened”.

    Alethic quirks: There are four levels of possibility we might distinguish: logical; metaphysical/nomological; temporal; technical. In other words, events may be possible or impossible according to the strictures of logic, the laws of known nature, the details of known history, or the limits of known science. Where the narrative represents events that contravene these we have four flavours of quirk respectively (expanding on Suvin's coinage/exaptation of "novum" and following his naming strategy): sutura; chimera; erratum; novum.

    Mimesis: Any narrative may maintain an alethic modality of “could have happened” (or “could be happening” or “could happen”, according to the tense of the narrative). This process of mimesis entails presenting nothing that is contrary to the strictures of logic, the laws of known nature, the details of known history, or the limits of known science. Purely mimetic fiction may have warp in other respects, but it excludes alethic quirks.

    Weft (or mimetic weft): Where warp is introduced into a mimetic narrative by an alethic quirk, the alethic modality of “could have happened”, “could be happening” or “could happen” may be said to persist in effect, in so far as suspension-of-disbelief continues despite the quirk, or to be restored with a return to mimesis. The disrupted process of mimesis woven through the narrative can therefore be considered a binding (mimetic) weft.

    Worldbolstering: It might be argued that the presence of non-quirks like “lemur” and “shoe” in a sentence like, “The lemur threw the shoe at the unicorn,” might add to the weft, despite the warp created by the chimeric “unicorn”. The possibility of an action like “throw”, when divorced from the impossibility of the chimera it’s associated with, might also add to the weft. If so, the more of such detail the narrative is invested with, the thicker the weft.

    Worldbumphing: Oral and written narratives are objects that, absent any special quality that renders them impossible, will function as non-quirks within the narrative, the relation of events a thing that “could have happened”. As such the inclusion of faux documentation within a narrative — recitations of legend, excerpts from invented literary works — will add to the mimetic weft. This technique may well be employed not ot distance the reader by rendering the narrative metafictional but to reinforce suspension-of-disbelief.

    Credibility warp: In a past or present tense narrative, all four quirks will change the alethic modality of the narrative to “could not have happened” or “could not be happening”. A future tense narrative creates a special case: the limits of known science do not apply to what “will happen”, so the novum is not impossible and the alethic modality remains “could happen”. However, a future tense narrative may be considered a quirk in its own right as a vision of the future, a prophetic chimera or predictive novum, and so is likely to create credibility warp in and of itself. See tensewarp.

    Credibility threshhold: For different readers, different levels of credibility warp will be tolerated for different periods of time before suspension-of-disbelief collapses. Some may accept only minimal warp and only on a temporary basis; others may accept even the extreme and lasting warp caused by suturae.

    Strong/Weak: An additional alethic modality attaches to these quirks, distinguishing them into two strengths: the suturae carries an alethic modality of “could not happen ever”; the errata and nova carry an alethic modality of “could not happen now”. We can therefore talk about strong and weak alethic quirks. The chimera may be considerd strong or weak depending on whether one views the laws of nature as necessary or contingent.

    Conceit: With the weak alethic quirks, the “could not happen now” modality opens the door to contingency. Where an erratum contradicts the details of known history or a novum the limits of known science, the facts they contradict (e.g. “The Nazis lost WW2,” or “Robotics hasn’t achieved hard AI,”) can be negated (e.g. “The Nazis did ot lose WW2,” or “Robotics has achieved hard AI,”) to construct a conceit — the developments they are contingent on. The conceit is an implicit narrative of subtext: the quirk “would have happened” or “would happen” in the case of these developments taking place.

    Dewarping: Since these developments are backstory, the conceit has a modality of “has to have happened”. This forces a refocusing of the quirk on the compatible modality of “could have happened” or “could happen” it has in respect to the strictures of logic and the laws of nature. This neutralisation or masking of the “could not happen” or “could not have happened” modality is the basis of dewarping, the cancellation of warp (in this case credibility).

    Tensewarp: The novum points to a problem: this quirk still has the “could not have happened” or “could not be happening” modality in respect to the details of history; the developments it is contingent on are, by definition, future developments, so the conceit can only say that the quirk “would happen” if these come to pass; this is incompatible with the backstory’s past tense modality of “has to have happened”. The backstory is tensewarped.

    Base-shift dewarping: Base-shift dewarping resolves tensewarp by mapping the “could not happen now” alethic modality to the consequent “did not happen now” or “is not happening now” epistemic modality. Neither of these is incompatible with the baseline “did happen” or “is happening” epistemic modality if the narrative is situated in an elsewhen, adjacent to or ahead of the here-and-now — i.e. if we shift its base to a parallel or future reality.

    Ordinate reality: If one views the chimera as weak, the laws of nature as contingent, this quirk too can be refocused — on its compatibility with the strictures of logic. The conceit can be entertained that it “would have happened” were the laws of nature different. Base-shift dewarping can situate the narrative in an elsewhen displaced from the here-and-now in a third dimension. Orthogonal to the “side-to-side” axis of parallel realities and the “forward-back” axis of future realities, this can be characterised as an “up-and-down” axis of secondary worlds — ordinate realities.

    Chimeric kink: If one views the chimera as strong, the laws of nature as necessary, this base-shift dewarping is not possible. The “could not happen ever” modality means the chimera creates a palpable warp in the narrative — a kink. For some readers with low credibility threshholds, this is a limit of suspension-of-disbelief; the “did happen” or “is happening” modality can no longer be entertained. For others, chimerae may be dewarped by different means. For those with higher credibility threshholds, they may be accepted as a deliberate technique.

    Soft suturae: A fifth quirk can be identified, where credibility warp is a product of implausibility rather than possibility, a breach of the principles of reason as they cover relationships of contingency between events. The soft sutura is an absurd incongruity in the text, something that “would not happen” in such a context. It is, at the very least, distinctly not contingent on what “did happen” (a non sequitur); as this hardens to a contingency on such developments not happening, the soft sutura acquires a “could not happen” modality, becomes a sutura proper.

    Legacy quirks: Historically, the four levels of possibility have been parsed more intuitively, into the possibilities open to spiritual entities and those open to material entities, with the spiritual realm conceived as beyond the known world — i.e. the limits of natural, historical and scientific knowledge — both spatially and temporally. The flavour of alethic quirks in this model can be distinguished by whether they “could not happen here” or “could not happen now” — whether they are presented as exotica, dewarped via a spatial base-shift to the beyond of the unexplored world, or arcana, dewarped via a temporal base-shift to the beyond of the forgotten past. The two are not mutually exclusive.

    Legacy dewarping: Both of these dewarpings utilise conceits that what “could not happen here and now” is a spiritual possibility that “could happen” and “would happen” given a time or place with different limits of material possibility. Since spiritual possibilities are largely defined as chimeric powers over nature and even in apparent contradiction of reason (i.e. logic), both exotica and arcana occur across the full range of strengths we find in quirks resulting from the current model. The intuitive model may in fact be residual, with this strategy of dewarping still in effect. Which is to say, suturae, chimerae, errata and nova may also be, functionally speaking, exotica and/or arcana — c.f. the ancient, alien artifact.

    Argued dewarping: Using theory and detail of science, history or lore, the narrative can argue its conceit explicitly or implicitly. In its most extreme form this involves: explicitly and systematically establishing a foundation in known theory and detail — what “can happen”; explicitly and systematically establishing a coherent and comprehensive model of the developments — what “would have happened”; ensuring these are consistent except with respect to a minimal number of explicit points-of-deviation — what “could have happened”. In so far as argued dewarping maintains this approach it may be deemed tightly-argued, rigorous or “hard”; as it becomes less explicit and/or less systematic and/or more deviated, it may be deemed loosely-argued, non-rigorous or “soft”. Argued dewarping can also be termed worldbrokering.

    Evasive dewarping: A chimera may be recharacterised as a novum via the Paradigm Shift Caveat, the caveat that expanding the limits of known science may redefine the laws of nature. Essentially, the conceit is that our grasp of what “could not happen ever” is limited by theoretical science; that the theoretical development “has to have happened” in which the quirk’s modality has become “could not happen now”; and that the technical development “has to have happened” in order for the quirk to come to pass. Evasive dewarping may be tightly-argued in terms of theory that’s highly conjectural but still known (e.g. the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics), but it will likely lack detail and, since it is at odds with known science, is less likely to achieve complete dewarping.

    Ruptura: There is no guarantee that an alethic quirk will be dewarped at all. That which “could not happen” may be introduced into a narrative as a deliberate breach of the “way things are”. If there is base-shift dewarping at all, it may only be as a projection of a beyond from which the quirk may have come, as an intruder into our world, as a lurker on its threshhold, or as an inhabitant of its interstices. A superstitious or skeptical suspicion of conventional wisdom might allow one to maintain suspension-of-disbelief in the face of such rupturae — or simply an appreciation of the quirk’s significance in the narrative.

    Warp expectation: As a quirk is reused by strange fiction writers, it may become a conventional feature of one or more genres, part of the trope-set. The readers expectation of such tropes occuring in this or that genre automatically invests them with an epistemic modality of “might happen” — i.e. these fictive devices might or might not occur in this fiction. This does not necessarily dewarp the quirks but it renders the warp they create an anticipated disruption. The trope challenges suspension-of-disbelief enough to create an enjoyable credibility warp but not enough to collapse it.

    Warp depletion: As a trope is overused within a genre, the expectation that it “might happen” may become certainty— that it “will happen”. The predictability of the trope in and of itself may override any modality attached to the quirk, depleting its capacity to create credibility warp. The tired trope presents little challenge to suspension-of-disbelief and the quirk may barely function as a quirk at all. (One could argue that it ceases to be a quirk.)

    Warp hunger: Warp expectation may be scaled up, applied to the genre as a whole, as an anticipation that quirks will be employed to create an enjoyable credibility warp. When warp depletion sets in, this anticipation acts as a pressure for fresh quirks — warp hunger. Where the chimera is viewed as strong, this may in turn act as a pressure for evasive dewarping as writers mine highly conjectural theory for original ideas.

    Warp rationing: The conflict between warp hunger and low credibility threshhold — manifest in a view of the chimera as strong and/or a desire for tightly-argued dewarping — may lead to a compromise of warp rationing. The One Impossible Idea Caveat is an example of such — the allowance that one (but only one) chimera may be present in a narrative. The restriction to only one point-of-deviation in tightly-argued Alt-History is another case (and a more extreme one).

    Credibility shift: Mappings are possible between alethic and epistemic modalities. If it “could happen” theoretically, then it “might happen” actually. If it “would happen” theoretically then it “could happen” actually. Where a narrative employs tightly-argued dewarping, this may lead to the dewarped quirk acquiring not just the epistemic notion modality of “might happen” but the supposition modality of “could happen”. With this credibility shift, while the reader knows that the narrative itself is fiction, the abstract conceit of the backstory may even crystallise into a certainty: that the quirk “can and shall happen”.

    Idea advocacy: Credibility shift may be a deliberate aim, “one of the traditional functions of science fiction” being described in Gary Westfahl’s review of Moon as “explaining and promoting an innovative scientific idea”, inspiring research “in the manner of Hugo Gernsback's original vision of science fiction as a force that could make the world a better place to live in.”

    Gapstory: The unrelated events that constitute backstory may be left obscure. The story narrative itself will also elide events that are irrelevant, constructing the narrative from a stitching of scenes. As the story is read, the events left absent or obscure within the narrative, (including that which is as yet unread,) invite the reader to project into them another metanarrative, a narrative of non-text we can call gapstory. Gapstory has epistemic modalities of “might have happened”, “might be happening” or “might happen” depending on its relationship to the point within the narrative where warp is created.

    Determinacy warp: Where alethic quirks defy credibility, epistemic quirks defy determinacy. Where the absences and obscurities set the epistemic modalities of the gapstory into unresolved tension we get four key quirks: lacunae that “did and/or did not happen”; limina that “might and/or might not” have happened, be happening or happen; cryptica that “could and/or could not” have happened, be happening or happen; prefigurae that “shall and/or shall not” happen.

    Solid/Diffuse: Epistemic quirks may be solid or diffuse, erupting into a narrative or emerging gradually through it. A lacuna may be a marked hole in the narrative that we encounter directly, or a space that only slowly gains significance as the continuing narrative refers back to it. A prefigura may be a direct revelation of what is yet to be told or a foreboding that coalesces as the narrative signals its path. Limina and cryptica may be distinct events in a narrative that defy explanation or constructs of multiple events into a scenario that defies explanation, its ambivalence or inconsistency becoming apparent. In a mixture of the two approaches, quirks may be largely diffuse but with a kernel of solidity in the shape of a key signifier. A Chekhov’s Gun can be understood as any object likely to be read as the kernel of a prefigura.

    Warp morphing: The credibility warp of an alethic quirk may be translated to determinacy warp by interrogating the actuality of appearances. Apparitions and vanishings are chimerae but both can be recast as illusions. The former is rendered liminal in fantastique, where a sighting of a ghost, for example, has a modality of “might and/or might not have happened”. The latter is rendered cryptic in mystery fiction, where the vanishing of a murderer from a locked room, for example, has a modality of “could and/or could not have happened”.

    Partial/Total: Conventionally, fantastique employs partial warp morphing, placing credibility and determinacy warps in equipoise, while mystery fiction employs total warp morphing, recasting all alethic quirks as cryptica. The development of cryptica in the latter, in fact, is generally synchronous with the development of a prefigura, the event that “shall happen” being the resolution of what “could and/or could not have happened” into what “could and did happen”.

    Story: Narrative relates events in a significantly structured manner. If a narrative relates a protagonist’s conflict with an antagonist, for example, it frames the conflict shown in terms of beginning and ending actions. As events are abstracted to structural components, the result is a metanarrative, a summary narrative of the narrative as an articulated but singular event in and of itself, a story.

    Substory: As story is further abstracted to a general articulation, the result is a metanarrative of themes and subtexts, of which the story is considered a demonstrative example. This is substory. Substory becomes distinct from story where it is abstracted enough from specifying detail to acquire an alethic modality of “can happen”, when “This did happen to resolve this conflict” becomes “This can happen to resolve this type of conflict”.

    Equilibrium warp: Equilibrium can be considered the state of the substory at any point where what “can happen” carries deontic and/or boulomaic modalities that effectively neutralise each other — i.e. where it “may and/or may not happen” — or that dynamically counterbalance each other — i.e. where it “should and should not happen”. The stability of such a state is what renders it a situation. The disruption or absence of it — which is to say where what “can happen” carries uneven deontic and/or boulomaic modalities — is equilibrium warp.

    Sway: While credibility warp and determinacy warp are qualities of the narrative as read, it is a practical shorthand to talk of them as features in the text itself. Equilibrium warp too may be discussed in such terms, as a product of themes and subtexts, as a feature of substory. As a metanarrative of a metanarrative however, it may be more correct to locate all of these in the reader’s response and understand quirks not as textual features per se but as the dynamic effects of textual features, as forces rather than forms. Particularly with deontic and boulomaic modality what we are really talking about is the manipulation of a reader’s attitude to the narrative, the sway experienced in the reading.

    Authoritative warp: Deontic quirks create equilibrium warp by introducing the sway of authority. The basic modalites manifest as quirks in and of themselves — dicta, licentia and determina. More complex quirks may be identified: rupturae, where events that “did happen” transgress a dictum that they “must not”; torturae, where events both “must happen” by one dictum and “must not happen” by another; pressurae, where licentiae and determinae conflict in events that “should but may not happen” or “should not but may happen”.

    Active/Passive: To what extent does the narrative seek to sway the reader by actively ascribing these modalities, in the hope that the reader will agree, and to what extent to does its sway consist of drawing the reader into an immersive engagement where they ascribe the modalities, in the hope that the reader will apply expected values? Can and should we distinguish between active and passive sway, reckoning and rapport?

    Affective warp: Boulomaic quirks create equilibrium warp by introducing the sway of affect. Where events carry modalities of conviction or disposition — “must/must-not happen” or “should/should-not happen” — it may be more useful to treat this a strong/weak distinction, and take the flavour of the quirk as a product of its positive or negative loading: that which we revere may be termed a numen; that which we abhor may be termed a monstrum.

    Rapport: Quirks of reservation and selection might be suggested as demonstrating the importance of passive sway: we could talk of the tremulum and the staccatum as quirks of character attitude, where an action is something they “could do” or “would do” respectively; but are these more usefully situated in a reader’s attitude, where the action is something they “could do” or “would do”?

    Cornelian dilemma: The creation of equilibrium warp in a clash of affective and authoritative warps is so conventional as to have acquired a name, the Cornelian dilemma, from the torturae of Rodrigue in Pierre Corneille’s play Le Cid, born in the choice between rupturae (the failure to avenge his father) and monstrum (the loss of his love Chimène.)

    Miasma: The miasma of Greek tragedy can be seen as a sort of… ruptura monstrum. It is the monstrous pollution left by a rupturing of mores, the blood staining the ground, the infection of the wound. In Aeschylus’s Oresteia there is a miasma in the backstory — Agamemmnon’s filicide of his daughter, Iphigenia — but this is itself only the last in a chain of rupturae monstrum — his father Atreus’s fratricide of Chrysippus, his father Pelops’s betrayal of Myrtilus, and his father Tantalus’s filicide of Pelops. The narrative begins with equilibrium warp, we might well argue, flouting Todorov’s model of conventional narrative (as a five-stage structure of equilibrium, disruption, recognition, reaction, restitution); it is better viewed as presenting the pseduo-equilibrium of a vicious cycle, the stability of a story (or a substory) of revenge being played over and over. Miasma creates miasma creates miasma.

    Aeschylus’s trilogy of tragedies tells of Clytemnestra’s mariticide of Agamemmnon, and of Orestes’s matricide of Clytemnestra, presenting these as torturae for the tragic protagonists — revenges that “must happen” and killings of kin that “must not happen”. Aeschylus shapes these warring dicta into torturae monstrum, in fact, in Orestes’s understanding of his situation, a double-bind that in itself “should not happen”. It should not, but it does. Orestes murders his mother, and the cycle turns again; but something new has been introduced. The new ruptura monstrum, the new miasma that stains Orestes, renders him subject to the vengeance of the Furies, is set against our sympathy, against the affective warp that cries out for a numen, the solution that “should happen”. That solution is Athena taking on the role of judge in place of the Furies, establishing justice in place of vendetta. The whole trilogy becomes an argument by demonstration that the resolution of a ruptura monstrum does not come from another ruptura (and another and another) but from the complementary response of a dictum numina. A divine decree of mercy. A law of pity.

    The story of the Oresteia is the Athenian myth of how justice came into being. It doesn’t really matter though how much the audience might have believed that this is how it “did happen”. Far more important is the substory, as relevant now as then, that this is how it “can happen”.

    Horror: The mode of horror is all about the ruptura monstrum. The miasma cries out in the opening of Dan Simmons’s The Song of Kali:

    Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist. Some cities are too wicked to be suffered. Calcutta is such a place. Before Calcutta I would have laughed at such an idea. Before Calcutta I did not believe in evil, certainly not as a force separate from the actions of men. Before Calcutta I was a fool.

    After the Romans had conquered the city of Carthage, they killed the men, sold the women and children into slavery, pulled down the great buildings, broke up the stones, burned the rubble, and salted the earth so that nothing would ever grow there again. That is not enough for Calcutta. Calcutta should be

    Before Calcutta I took part in marches against nuclear weapons. Now I dream of nuclear mushroom clouds rising above a city. I see buildings melt in lakes of glass. I see paved street flowing like rivers of lava and real rivers boiling away in great gouts of steam. I see human figures dancing like burning insects, like obscene praying mantises sputtering and bursting against a fiery red background of total destruction. The city is Calcutta. The dreams are not unpleasant. Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist.

    Calcutta, Simmons tells us, is a ruptura monstrum in and of itself, a transgression so abhorrent it demands expunging. It “must not” be. It “must not” have ever been. There is no Athena to order off the Furies for Calcutta, no merciful justice, no dictum numina. This is not a narrative that begins in equilibrium, but one that begins with equilibrium warped as much as it can be, authoritative warp and affective warp written into the text with every ounce of prescriptive conviction the narrator can summon. And, in the classic mode of horror, the only conceivable response to this is the monstrum dicta of annihilation. Look at the litany of atrocity he invokes in the second paragraph, of horrifying crimes against civilisation and humanity. “After the Romans had conquered the city of Carthage [ruptura monstrum], they killed the men [ruptura monstrum], sold the women and children into slavery [ruptura monstrum], pulled down the great buildings [ruptura monstrum], broke up the stones [ruptura monstrum], burned the rubble [ruptura monstrum], and salted the earth so that nothing would ever grow there again [ruptura monstrum].” And what does he tell us then?

    “That is not enough for Calcutta.”

    Monstrum dicta.

    But there’s more going on here. Between the first two sentences of the third paragraph, the narrative creates gapstory, tells us that there is “Before Calcutta” and there is “Now”, and between them is… what? The whole story, actually, untold as yet, a lacuna for the moment, but with the unravelling of its significance promised. Between those two sentences then is not just a lacunae, but the kernel of the prefigura that manifests through the entire prologue, from “Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist,” to “Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist.” This is to be expected in a horror narrative. It might well be argued that ruptura monstrum and prefigura of ruptura monstrum in horror fiction take the place of cryptica in mystery fiction and limina in fantastique, that horror becomes distinct from the former largely by situating the key ruptura monstrum as resolution rather than narrative trigger and distinct from the latter largely by collapsing equipoise, presenting events as determined.

    Ruptura numen: In The Bacchae by Euripedes, we have the monstrum dicta of Pentheus the tyrant, King of Tears, who has denied the god Dionysus his due. To be sure, Pentheus hubristic decrees forbidding the Bacchic rites to take place in his city are transgressions of the natural order, rupturae on a higher level. We can see hints of miasma too, again in the backstory, in the death of Semele and her pointedly untended grave. But it is his proclamations that doom Pentheus, his rationalist disdain of mystery, the fact that he has Dionysus thrown in chains. He is the King of Tears because drink is the cure for sorrow. He is reason in the shape of a man, the monstrum dicta personified. No wonder then that he loses his head, both metaphorically and literally. As the dictum numina resolves the ruptura monstrum in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, here the monstrum dicta is resolved by its complement — Dionysus as the ruptura numen, in all his transgressive glory.

    Tremulum: Hamlet does not have a “tragic flaw of indecision”. Hamlet knows he is in a tragedy. He understands that his father’s ghost is the ruptura monstrum of this backstory, but knows also that this ruptura of credibility is also the prefigura of bloodbath. The tortura of dicta is quickly established in his father’s explicit injunctions: Hamlet “must” avenge his father, but he “must not” harm his mother. The drama takes that tortura as its start point however rather than its focus. Hamlet is not Orestes in an archaic world of divine law, of miasma and Furies; he is a mortal man (and a modern man) for whom those injunctions are contingent, twinned pressurae rather than inviolable decrees: he “should but may not” avenge his father; he “should not but may” harm his mother. So the question becomes: could he? The bulk of the play is an exploration of this tremulum, resolved at the end with the staccatum of his slaying of Claudius, a killing that happens as much because it “should” — as the determina born of his mother’s death — as much it “must” — as the dicta born of his father’s. Even then the tremulum is not wholly resolved: “Had I but time, as this fell sergeant Death / Is strict in his arrest, O I could tell you— / But let it be.”

    Farce: Farce is structured as horror, but with soft suturae in place of rupturae monstrum.

    The Absurd: The soft sutura is the quirk of the absurd. Outside comedy, where the credibility warp is not transformed into humour, the absurd tends to generate equilibrium warp, to become unsettling. Even within comedy, in some forms, a subtle sense of monstrum may be maintained. Humour seems deeply associated with cruelty.

    Sutura monstrum: We might speculate from this, ask what bearing the presence/absence of monstrum has on the nature of humour. Where Avicenna views comedy as the art of reprehension, we might wonder if this implies a fundamental recoognition of determina/monstrum, of that which “should not” happen. Where Aristotle relates humour to ugliness that does not disgust, we might wonder to what extent this posits humour as a dewarping of the monstrum, a coping mechanism that defuses the affective warp. Where Kant claims that the comic is an expectation that comes to nothing, this is to posit humour as pnctura. Where Plato views ridicule as exploiting an ignorance in the weak, an inability to retaliate to wit, we might wonder if this suggests a mechanism of demonstrating incapacity, establishing what that which we “should not” be (i.e. the monstrum) “can not” do. More modern theories have rooted humour in incongruity, the juxtaposition of things that don’t belong together (Morreall), or in cognitive shifts of problem resolution (Latta) or from seriousness to play (Boyd). We might speculate that all these views are identifying different aspects of a (soft) sutura monstrum, that what they point to is a strategy of rendering the monstrum dysfunctional by binding it to a sutura with a modality of “would not happen”. The comic might, in this model, be understood as the acceptance of credibility warp — the suspension of suspension-of-disbelief — as a means of neutralising affective warp.

    Thursday, June 18, 2009

    And On A Lighter Note

    If you didn't already see this on SF Signal, max the screen, spark up a J, sit back and enjoy. This is... impossible to describe.

    Civilization by Marco Brambilla from CRUSH on Vimeo.

    Wednesday, June 17, 2009

    There's No Prescribing Prescriptivism

    I’m bringing this response to this comment to the front page, because it’s too long for a comment and worth addressing here anyway, I think. So, S Johnson says:

    Forbidding the critic to prescribe is itself a prescription.

    Which is why I have not attempted to do so. I have simply argued, and will continue to argue, that there are different modes of critique identifiable according to whether they apply — or refrain from applying — certain distinct strategies. This is an attempt at a descriptive model. It does not exclude prescriptivism as a potential strategy, does not say that the presence of prescriptivism renders critique “no longer critique” — which would indeed be a prescriptivist strategy, a (re)definition of critique that prescribes a limit, paradoxically setting prescriptivism outwith that limit. Instead the model explicitly includes prescriptivism. I have said that prescriptivist critique can and does exist. See my posts on “The Assumption of Authority” for specific examples I argue exhibit prescriptivist strategies. I've said it doesn't need to exist, that it is not a necessity of critique, and that one can identify critiques where it's absent.

    At no point have I said we must expunge it. I have only suggested that we should avoid it as much as possible. Note the modality.

    I have argued that there are practical detriments to applying prescriptivism — descriptive assertions — but I have also acknowledged that it can be enjoyable to read and that I recognise the tendency to apply prescriptivism as a fairly natural trait, one I am by no means immune to (c.f. my comments on Fringe or Tolkien). I have repeatedly emphasised that my valuation of critique by this strategic model is orthogonal to any valuation of critique in terms of argumentative substance, that others may well value substantive prescriptivist critique over superficial non-prescriptivist critique. I have at no point prescribed them from doing so, simply argued that the practical detriments of applying prescriptivism are a damn good reason to value critique on the basis of mode as well as on the basis of substance.

    Repeat: At no point have I said we must expunge it. I have only suggested that we should avoid it as much as possible. Note the modality.

    Where you trivialise the effects of prescriptivism in critique, I consider this highly naive in light of its socio-political uses in linguistics. Again, see my “The Assumption of Authority” posts for more detailed arguments. I can, if you want, try and make my case more explicit however.

    I would point to the empowered prescriptivism of obscenity legislation and decrees of “suitable subject matter” within the Hollywood studio system and network television, historically and in the present. I would point to homosexuality as one subject matter that has been prescribed as obscene in legislation and/or as “unsuitable” in commercial television. I would point to the absence of gay characters in any of the Star Trek franchises, and to the various statements by Rick Berman that lend credence to rumours of this being a matter of prescriptive policy: that gay characters were not to be represented as a matter of principle. I would suggest that this prescriptivism reflects the prejudices written into the mores of society at large, is in fact enacting those prejudices, reifying them if not reinforcing them. I would point to the fact that the first gay kiss on British television only took place within my lifetime (Eastenders, 1986) because representation of homosexuality in so “graphic” a manner was hitherto decreed improper. I would point to the fact that a more recent gay kiss (Eastenders, 2008) sparked moral/prejudicial complaints from audience members who still deem such subject matter improper, complaining specifically that it took place before the nine o’clock watershed -- i.e. that it transgressed a prescription of "proper" prime-time viewing. I consider this, and other such reactions, hard evidence that prejudicial prescriptivism is pressured for by prejudiced audiences.

    I would point to predictable critical reactions to such transgressions of propriety, how they are invariably deemed “gratuitous”, “indecent”, “offensive”, “vulgar”, how aspersions are cast on the motivation of creators with arguments that they are simply being “controversial” in order to gain commercially from the resultant publicity. I would suggest that such reactions were demonstrably present in reviewers’ reactions to the first Eastenders gay kiss in 1986 and that they articulated and validated the widespread homophobia brought to the surface by the emergence of AIDS. I would suggest that it was not only tabloid reviewers that reacted in such a way but that the same moral/prejudicial prescriptivism and projections of base intent were present in broadsheets with a conservative agenda. I would point to the TLS review of The Naked Lunch and the letters to the editor in support of it from Victor Gollancz and Dame Edith Sitwell (published in an appendix of the 1988 Paladin edition) as evidence that such attitudes persist among reviewers and readers who are far from “shallow”. I would assert that prescriptivism in such instances is not just born of but is also pandering to prejudice. Where you trivialise the consequences of such prescriptivism on the grounds that reviewers have no “genuine power” to prescribe and that “even the shallowest reader is easily able to read the critique/review critically, i.e., reject it,” I would say this is a level of dismissive complacency I have to strive not to over-react to.

    Prejudice begets prejudice. A prescriptive condemnation born of prejudice also panders to it, validates it with (assumed) authority, the prejudice thereby reifying and reinforcing itself. Prescriptivism is a mechanism whereby such prejudice seeks to establish itself as unofficial but conventional, the default paradigm — normative and sanctioned by both public consensus and expert opinion. Where it succeeds in establishing itself thus, (often because the prescriptivism is pandering to a pre-existing and widespread moral/prejudicial attitude to a scapegoat group within society,) as the default paradigm it propagates. People are not born prejudiced but acquire their prejudices through the persuasive force of peers and authority figures. Conventionality is itself conventional, many if not most individuals, I would assert, unconsciously accepting whatever default paradigm they are raised in, even accepting changes to that default paradigm as and when they occur. Were this not the case we would all be living in utopias entirely free of prejudice, as there would be no counterforce to the efforts and abilities of individuals to dismantle prejudice, in themselves and others, as and when they recognise it as unjust. It is simply, I would argue, a complacent pretense to imagine that rhetoric is ineffectual, a pretense disproven by every demagogue in history. The prescriptivist rhetoric of propriety has effects in all domains of peer-group discourse and to argue otherwise is, I’d say, untenable.

    While the aesthetic standards applied prescriptively to fiction in the present day might seem of little socio-political import — the critique under discussion not tending to impose blatantly prejudicial prescriptions like those regarding the representation of homosexuality (though I can assure you that I’ve read reviews of Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains which, in over-stressing a few depictions of gay sex and projecting a political agenda on the author’s part, indicate to me that the prejudice itself persists, albeit in a milder form of… hypersensitivity to that which is normally absented) — I would again point you to the posts on “The Assumption of Authority”, in particular to the example of critical responses to sensation novels. The segregation of these novels out as fundamentally not proper novels but as a debased form of fiction, characterised as “feminine” and dismissed as commercial hackwork, “redolent of the manufactory and the shop”, binds a prescriptivist quality aesthetic to a deeply misogynist discourse of hysteria. The socio-political import of this was clearly disregarded in a climate where such misogyny was the default paradigm. Those who are not themselves the abject are often blind to the discourse of abjection, often even unwitting participants in it.

    I would point to the terms “elitist” and “populist” as markers of two rival discourses of abjection that are as inextricable from socio-political prejudices as that surrounding sensation novels is inextricable from misogyny. The rhetoric of prejudicial disdain is meted out, on the one hand against the “hoity-toity”, and on the other against the “hoi poloi” -- against the “snob” with complex tastes and the “pleb” with simple tastes. The high culture / low culture divide may no longer be as tightly bound to the class structure of society as it once was, but one should not underestimate the extent to which these rhetorics still reinforce class divisions by rendering abject those perceived as “getting above their station” or as “uncultivated proles”. Prescriptivism in the strange fiction genres is ideally situated to act as carrier of anti-intellectualism and classism, with advocates of more commercial fiction decreeing complex works “improper” and advocates of more complex fiction decreeing commercial works “improper” , each opponent of “elitist wank” or “populist trash” ironically engendering a counter-response that abjects them as a “pleb” or a “snob”.

    I would suspect that many within the community accreted around the strange fiction genres will have first-hand experience with both types of prejudice: as the bookish “nerd” abjected by anti-intellectuals for their interest in literature (and in the science and history that fuel these fictions); and as the fannish ”geek” abjected by intellectuals for their interest in these genres of fiction deemed capable of no more than crass commercial pulp. I would say I’m staggered that the discourse within the community replicates both prejudices, but I’m not suprised at all really; those who are abjected often abject others in turn, as “white trash” will abject members of another race or religion — blacks in the US, Catholics in Scotland.

    I am however fairly passionate that we should reject such discourses of abjection wherever they rear their ugly heads, and I think prescriptivist critique is no less powerful a conduit for reifying and reinforcing prejudice than most others. Again, think of the misogyny written into the criticisms of sensation novels, think of the homophobia in any decree that The Naked Lunch isn’t a “proper” novel but just “filth”, think of the working class kid who’s sneered at by his housing scheme peers for actually liking books and looked down on by middle class idiots whose Daddy and Mummy have raised them to read the “proper” type of books. Do you really not think that attitude is perpetuated by prescriptivist critics who damn a serious book because it’s “not fun” or damn a fun book because it’s “not serious”, and as everyone knows, to be a “good” book, a “proper” novel or a “proper” story, a book simply must be this and never that? Really?

    Shenanigans! I say. I call shenanigans!

    And yet, again, I stress, all the above is a descriptive model of the adverse effects of prescriptivism as I see it. It asserts that prescriptivism is there, and that it is of dubious worth and demonstrable detriment. I make no attempt to forbid it, to prescribe a “proper” mode of critique. I have no mandate to do so. I simply challenge prescriptivism.

    Repeat (till blue in the face): At no point have I said we must expunge it. I have only suggested that we should avoid it as much as possible.

    Note the modality.

    Tuesday, June 16, 2009

    The Assumption of Authority 2

    Sacrificing Assumptions

    If I write a review of an epic fantasy novel as someone who doesn't really care for epic fantasy and is looking to see whether this particular novel is significantly better and/or different from most epic fantasy novels, and thus worth reading even by those who don't care for epic fantasy, am I not serving the community of like-minded readers? — Abigail Nussbaum, comment on a previous post here

    It is not absurd to hold Gattaca to the standards of CSciFiBlockbuster, but its aim is not to be an object of that class. Neither is it absurd to hold War of the Worlds or I Am Legend to the standards of CProperScienceFictionFilm, though neither have this as the standard they’ve set for themselves. It is simply that in doing so the critique becomes mere compatibility assessment. It may be functional, serving to tell the reader whether the film is of the class they’re looking for, but if we don’t assume all such reviews will appear in either Sci-Fi Explosion Monthly or The Journal of Proper Science Fiction, or if we don’t assume that these readerships are exclusive, that the audience for one can’t appreciate the other, then a review which dismisses War of the Worlds or I Am Legend on the basis that they’re not in the CProperScienceFictionFilm class is as worthless as one which dimisses Gattaca because it’s not in the CSciFiBlockbuster class. — Me, the Ethics and Enthusiasm post

    The “mere” in “mere compatibility assessment” is maybe a bit dismissive, but I have tried to make it clear that conventional reviews are entirely valid. And you should theoretically be able to read into that quote above that given a “community of like-minded readers”, I’d absolutely see Abigail’s review of an epic fantasy as worthwhile. The If Not…Or If Not… Then… construction is kind of convoluted though, so it’s worth making explicit: If a reviewer for Sci-Fi Explosion Monthly, generally hostile to anything that wasn’t a Hollywood SFX Blockbuster, and particularly suspicious of independent movies (“fucking arthouse wank”) went to see Cube, they might well find that the high-peril drama made it significantly more to their taste than, say, Primer. Their review would be worthwhile. I can’t think of any Hollywood blockbuster that would actually work the other way round, but you get the point. Even the negative reviews would be worthwhile in warning the magazines’ audiences away from movies they wouldn’t like. SImilarly allowing for like-minded readers, Abigail’s review of an epic fantasy would be carrying out a perfectly valid function — whether it was positive or negative.

    The “community of like-minded readers” is the core point here though. If those reviewers were writing for FutureVision, a new magazine dedicated to cinematic SF of all flavours, one might assume the majority of readers had wide tastes (else they’d stick to one or other of the established specialist magazines). The negative reviews arising from a wrong match of reviewer to work would be of little use. They might well have been told that both Gattaca and I Am Legend were “the worst movie I’ve ever seen”. I would be interested to know what percentage of Strange Horizons readers share Abigail’s (and my) general distaste for Epic Fantasy, and what percentage would be reading a review that was utterly at odds with their more eclectic interest if Abigail slated it for not being better and/or different in a way that she (and I) might appreciate, even though it was better and/or different in a way they would appreciate. In a venue like F&SF I would imagine there’d be a lot of readers who didn’t feel they were well-served.

    That said, I’m not so much arguing for works to be allocated to reviewers likely to find them to their taste, as I’m arguing for reviewers to adjust themselves to the works — especially if they aspire to writing in-depth critique. The more capable a reviewer is to fit themselves to the work, the better they are as a reviewer, it seems to me, the wider their range; without that capacity, they may not be a bad reviewer within their tastes but I don’t think they’re ever going to be a good critic. It may sound counter-intuitive, but this suspension of taste can, I think, improve one’s critical skills immensely. It may be the only way to nurture an understanding of those aspects of the craft that are neglected in the genres you prefer — to learn to appreciate the different skill-sets at play in genres that you dislike. In my time served at the GSFWC, I think I’ve learned a lot from having to critique work that was utterly outwith my tastes — even when what I’ve learned has largely been the limitations of my own range. I still can’t, for the life of me, appreciate worldbumphing. But I try.

    That does mean, I think, sacrificing assumptions, as much as is possible.

    Every review starts with underlying assumptions about what constitutes a good or bad work, and to my mind a reviewer best serves their readers by stating those assumptions as explicitly as possible. I'm not sure how one would go about doing that without implicitly claiming legitimacy, or even universal legitimacy, for those assumptions, unless what you're calling for is a sort of Your Mileage May Vary boilerplate. But that strikes me as a question of niceness and civility, and not that I don't consider either one important, but they don't seem to justify distinguishing, as you did in your previous post, between different types of reviewing according to whether they claim authority.

    I don’t disagree with much here. I agree with Abigail 100% that the stating of assumptions is valuable to the reader. I don’t see a problem at all in claiming legitimacy, even universal legitimacy, because an assertion of legitimacy is not an assumption of authority. And I’m not calling for reviewers to backflip through hoops of caveats and qualifications. But we’ll come to that.

    The only thing I’d argue with is the first clause. I’d add to this that every reading starts with such assumptions and that the reviewer who can sacrifice these during the reading will most likely create a better review, but this is a tangential point. More pertinently, I’d ask a couple of questions: Can we really have assumptions about what constitutes a “good or bad work”? Isn’t “work” too vague to be standardised? Novels, short stories, movies, operas, punk albums, art installations, gigs, paintings, songs, and so on, ad infinitum — all of these, we might say, are of the class CWork. And surely we can only have assumptions about what constitutes a “good or bad work” of the relevant sub-class. This may sound picky, but there’s a point. We can have assumptions about what constitutes a good or bad object of the sub-class CNovel, say, but even here we have problems. In the late 18th century that book-length-narrative-fiction was divided into novel and romance. These were quite different forms, the C18thCNovel and C18thCRomance. The current novel inherits from both traditions, encompasses all book-length-narrative-fiction. Strictly speaking, I’d say we have a CModernNovel rather than a CNovel.

    A problem arises: assumptions about what constitutes a good or bad CModernNovel are shaped by generations of argumentative discourse about what constitutes a good or bad CTraditionalNovel and what constitutes a good or bad CTraditionalRomance, much of it a discourse of abjection - the discourse of high and low culture, literature and pulp, “literary” and “genre” fiction. Readers of the strange fiction genres should be familiar with this discourse, most of having been on the receiving end of that abjection at some time or other, I’m guessing. In the early 20th century, the novelistic equivalents of CPulpMagazine emerges via dedicated genre imprints — CPulpNovel. Arguably, there’s a novelistic equivalent of CLiteraryJournal too, a CLiteraryNovel, that could be distinguished as another subclass of CModernNovel. But as the 20th century went on these converged (particularly within the field of strange fiction). And cross-fertilised (particularly within the field of strange fiction). Do we now have the CLiteraryPulpNovel (pulp goes literary) and the CPulpLiteraryNovel (literary goes pulp)? Either way I think there’s a strong case for having different assumptions for what constitutes a good or bad object for each of the subclasses we identify at this level. And then some.

    Suppose we rearticulate that opening clause: “Every review starts with underlying assumptions about what constitutes a good or bad CModernNovel.” I’d be tempted to tack an “almost” on at the start, to allow for the possibility of radical (post)Modernist readers who consider the CModernNovel a completely empty class, its instances incapable of evaluation except with reference to the multiple genre paradigms they collage — but I reckon there’s at least a standard of interestingness even where there are no (or minimal) assumptions as regards conventional standards of plot, character, background, prose or theme. Anyway, why does this matter? Well, I think by scratching at that generalisation I can maybe articulate better my own issue with reviews. It seems to me that some reviews don’t just start with underlying assumptions about what constitutes a good or bad CModernNovel. They’re based on readings which start with such assumptions and refuse to sacrifice them. Not only that, but these are filtered through the lens of a subclass to the extent that the reader/reviewer is really holding the work up to scrutiny as an object of that subclass.

    Because that’s what constitutes “a good novel”. They may even be applying another subclass — CLiteraryNovel or CPulpNovel — as the filter through which they define what constitues “a bad novel”. It’s here, I think, that the refusal to sacrifice assumptions risks turning into prescriptivism, when it becomes a refusal to recognise the legitimacy of not having those assumptions. That is a different sort of assumption — the assumption of authority.

    Signifiers of Assumed Authority

    I'm still not clear on how an authoritative review would differ from a non-authoritative one (this is the point where I'd benefit from specific examples, I think).

    Actually, Abigail gives her own example, which sounds like a perfect case of the prescriptivism I’m talking about (though the Guardian Review that comes up on Google doesn’t seem to be the same one she’s talking about, so I can’t really say):

    I'm thinking, in particular, of the Guardian's review of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, whose author claimed that the book failed as alternate history because, as everybody knows, an alternate history must deviate from real history in one and only one point, whereas TYPU deviated in several. But by making that determination, aren't I simply claiming authority for my own standards?

    The way I see it, it’s the other way round. Abigail is making a legitimate personal evaluation in the face of a review which seeks to deny it, to assume authority. I’m taking for granted that her summary reflects the sentiment rather than the actual wordage per se, so this is a model of an example rather than an actual example, but taking her own phraseology, there are signals that can be used, I think, to distinguish prescriptive decrees from descriptive generalisations.

    The epistemic modality of “must” is a key indicator, asserting necessity. Any description of that sort which carries an epistemic modality of necessity rather than contingency, a sense of “must” or “must not”, can be considered a prescriptive. The phrase “as everybody knows” reinforces that insistence on necessity with an appeal to the authority of common knowledge — “everybody knows”, so it “must” be true. Or rather, what you have is not an appeal to but an assumption of the authority of common knowledge, an assumption of the authority to speak on behalf of everybody. The reviewer is presuming that their expertise extends to a knowledge of what everyone else knows. They are affecting the attitude of someone invested with that knowledge. On the basis of this assumed authorisation, they are attempting to express a decree: (alternate history + x deviations) where x > 1 = BIG PILE OF HORSESHIT!!!

    Actually, there is an alternative reading in which this modality can be read as honest prescriptivism, if we take “must” as a deontic rather than epistemic modality — the “must” of social obligation rather than theoretical possibility. It is still absolute, but it is open about the fact that this is an attempt to exercise authority, an attempted decree of the alternate history writer’s duty to abide by the prescriptions. This is the language of commands, the language of imperatives. Even if Abigail’s characterisation is just an informal summary, it’s these sorts of little details that are revealing. Modalities.

    The modalities of “can only” or “cannot” carry the same assertion of necessity as “must” and “must not”. A contention that “an alternate history writer cannot deviate from history at more than one point,” is actually of the form “X can only be” rather than “X is (always)”. It is equivalent to “X must be” rather than an essentialist position that “X is universal”. It is in effect an indirect imperative that all others (particularly writers) recognise that “X is universal”. The prescriptivism should be apparent on an attentive reading, since the epistemic modality, by presenting the scenario as an impossibility, renders this assertion descriptively absurd. An alternate history writer quite patently can deviate from history at more than one point; the reviewer is criticising an example of the very thing they’re classing as an impossibiity. The only way to make sense of this is to stress the alternate history, perhaps capitalise it as Alternate History to signify genre label rather than descriptor — “an Alternate History writer cannot deviate from history at more than one point”. Which is to say, if they do so, they cease to be writing in the genre of Alternate History. So either this is an attempt to decree what writers can and cannot do within the genre, or it’s an attempt to decree where writers, readers and the world in general are to draw the borders around that genre. The two are functionally identical. The prescriptivism is clear. The reviewer is assuming authority.

    Can and should such prescriptives be rendered simply descriptive? An “I firmly believe...” would frame this as the reviewer’s adamant stance, the acknowledged subjectivity transforming a conclusive review to a critical review. A “Conventionally…” would frame it as an application of genre standards, the assumption that these are shared transforming a conclusive review to a conventional review. These are not the same as a caveat that Your Mileage May Vary, which indicates subjectivity with respect to the substance of the assessment — that a different evaluation of how well the standards are met may be made by different readers. These are simply contextualisations that bind the standards within a frame, prevent the edict from reaching out in an unwarranted assumption of authority. And the additional wordage of these qualifications is, in fact, not even necessary.

    Replace “must not” or “cannot” with the weaker “should not” and the injunction ceases to be absolute; it is permitted to do what one “should not”, just as it’s permitted to not do what one “should”. It is commendable to do what one “should” or not do what one “should not”, but it is not prescribed. The reviewer is still articulating their standards, still even expressing them as an exhortation to follow certain protocols in writing Alternate History. But this is an act of urging rather than commanding, and as such it’s entirely conventional in the peer-group discourse of equals advocating different agendas, in the argumentative to-and-fro of rival opinions, each holding to their own, even striving to persuade others, but ultimately recognising the legitimacy of dissent. If it is a directive, it is not an imperative. In fact, just as “must not” can be read as deontic modality rather than epistemic, “should not” can be read as boulomaic modality rather than deontic — the “should not” of desire rather than duty. It can be taken as an expression of entirely subjective preference.

    This is one simple nuts-and-bolts way of parsing a review for prescriptivism. These epistemic, deontic and boulomaic modalities may not be explicitly articulated, but they may be clear implications, by which I mean not just that we may infer them from the text, but that the text articulates them indirectly, as assumptions required for us to make sense of it. The review referenced by Abigail might not have used the exact phraseology of her summary, but her summary may be an accurate representation of what the text is articulating indirectly. How then might we distinguish potential inferences from clear implications?

    As suggested above, presumption and affectation may be considered components of “assuming authority”, and these are often, I’d say, bound to clear implications. They may take the form of a presumption/affectation of superior expertise. In cases where the reviewer is simply displaying conviction of their own literary skills and/or knowledge it may be difficult to distinguish confidence and over-confidence, but it is not impossible. The latter can be detected in any statement that asserts the illegitimacy of any contrary opinions. (With apologies to Chance Morrison for bringing this up again,) a statement such as “I want to know how the reviewer was bribed to tell me such lies”, is an attack on the legitimacy of any contrary opinions. Whether the intent was hyperbole or not, this translates as “I want to know what mechanisms resulted in such illegitimate evaluations.” Indirectly but clearly, this articulates an assumption that those contrary opinions must be illegitimate evaluations. “I want to know whether the reviewer was bribed to tell me such lies,” admits of the possibility they were not. “I want to know how the reviewer was bribed to tell me such lies,” assumes the necessity that they were. Thus we get the clear implication that these contrary opinions must be wrong, that Morrison herself can only be right, a presumption/affectation of expertise preeminent over all.

    Alternatively, a presumption/affectation of knowledge may take the form of speculation on that which the reviewer does not and cannot know presented as a spurious assertion of “fact”. To take a recent contentious review as an example — but from a quite contrary approach to that which many reading this would expect, I imagine — Martin Lewis’s review of Nights of Villjamur speculates on the pace of production, asserting that “the book shows every sign of being written in a rush, not just from the state of the proof (at one point a viewpoint has been changed from third- to first-person without all the pronouns being fixed) but from the obvious lack of interest and care taken in certain passages,” but this is not presumptive/affected as it is clearly presented as interpretation by the phrase, “shows every sign of being”. His review of Vellum however, linked to from the Newton review, contains a flat assertion that it is “half a novel, a single work that has been arbitrarily cleaved in two.” This is simply inaccurate. Had the same “shows every sign of being” phrase been included here there would be no issue, but as it stands the review presents a speculation that Lewis does not and cannot know to be true — because it is actually false — as a spurious assertion of “fact”. (In actuality the structural decision to write a diptych of two novels was made after much deliberation, (rather than arbitrarily,) on aesthetic grounds that I considered to outweigh the potential for misreading to occur, (again, rather than arbitrarily,) and with the vast majority of the actual writing still to be done, (which is to say, before there was a coherent novel to be halved, a single work to be cleaved.) Factual error corrected, I’ll make no defensive claims here that Lewis’s impression of a sundered novel is rendered illegitimate by this actuallity. The author is dead. I won’t stink up the room.)

    In what sense does this indicate prescriptivism however? It may be deemed a presumption/affectation of knowledge with regards to the creative process (or publication process, if the “increasingly common” is referring to the tendency of publishers to split long works in half for purely expedient purposes — which I think is a fair inference,) but it is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It does not assert a decree that this must not be done. Except that — and here I tread perilously close to defending the work — this presumption/affectation of knowledge is bound to an assertion that Vellum “is not a novel”. The causal relationship between “not a novel” and “half a novel… cleaved in two” is surface text. The clear implication however is that the division, and thereby the incompleteness, is self-evident in the text, that the narrative presented does not function as a novel because it is cleaved rather than “properly” ended: (novel - “proper” ending) = Not Proper Novel! On its own that statement would have a conclusive air to its flat assertion that this is just how it is, and its failure to specify the difference between cleaving and “properly” ending makes it circular, but it would stand simply as unacknowledged subjectivity and we can project into it a value of “proper” equalling resolution. With the presumption/affectation of knowledge of the creative process however, the assumption of authority is evident to anyone who knows different and may be suspected by anyone who finds it implausible, and this assumption of authority imparts an authoritative force: (novel - “proper” ending) = Not Proper Novel! becomes (novel - “proper” ending) = NOT PROPER NOVEL!!! And if we do project into that “proper” a value of resolution, this becomes an attempted decree running contrary to the individual evaluations many would make, that resolution =/= closure.

    The position that (novel + closure - resolution) = Proper Novel is a controversial minority position, but it is a legitimate evaluation, and no reviewer has a mandate to decree otherwise. An exactly opposite evaluation is entirely legitimate, and I would probably say should be considered as a relevant conventional standard even in a critical review addressing the work by the standards it sets for itself, but to attempt to decree that (novel + closure - resolution) = NOT PROPER NOVEL!!! via a conclusive review is an invitation to challenge that assumption of authority.

    In other words: you’re not the boss of what’s a novel.

    To belabour the point of exactly what I’m taking issue with here, that I’m decidely not seeking to defend my precious flower, I’ll point to a far more scathing review of Vellum as an example of a non-prescriptive review, one that does not assume authority. As part an overwhelmingly negative review, Clute makes a somewhat similar but more systematic evaluation, praising certain aspects but judging that the work is completely structurally unsound, that it disintegrates to the point that it “shreds caring”. Crucially though, he refrains from applying his structural standards as a decree of what constitutes a proper novel. He does not decree that (novel - “proper” structure) = NOT PROPER STORY!!! Rather he explicitly articulates what he is measuring the book against: “A tale tooled to illuminate chaos without becoming chaos (which I take as a definition of any great work of art)” In fact, the context presents this as a standard apparently set by the book itself, a “promise” that “seems” (note: “seems”) to be made in the first 30 to 50 pages — which places this in the zone of critical review for me, whatever I think of his evaluation.

    Anyway, there are, I’m sure, other points of distinction that could be made between conclusive reviews and non-conclusive reviews, if you dig down into the language. But are all these little details of modalities and implications merely a matter of tone, of style? On the contrary, I think, the fact that they’re not is why we use such a distinctive phrase as “assuming authority” rather than simply talk of “arrogance” and “condescension” (or more accurately in amongst all the talk of “arrogance” and “condescension”… and “pretentiousness” and “elitism” and “populism” and “bribery” and “stupidity” and “jealousy” and “spite” and any other ad hominem you can think of.) It’s not simply the wild-eyed stab of another great white snarkhunter, spitting their last breath at some mofo dick who left them hurting. Or rather if it’s used as such, that’s not to say all such accusations boil down to that, no more than all complaints of injustice boil down to “you’re infringing on my selfishness and I hate you for it,” because that’s what petulant adolecents mean by “it’s so unfair!” No, “assuming authority” is a specific charge, I’d say. Of authority — not legitimacy, not expertise. Being assumed.

    And if two senses of the term “assume” — presume and affect — carry the idea of taking it for granted that one has authority and acting as if one has authority, part of the charge, I’d say, is that this strategy of assumption is an attempt to gain authority.

    8. The ability to decree that X is universal -> the authority to decree that X is universal.

    Towards the end of the last post, I made the point that an attempt to decree is not actually an exercise of authority if there’s no authority to be exercised. Pretending to have authority (to oneself, in the form of presumption; to others, in the form of affectation) is not having it. I can try and build an army of killer bees. I can buy myself a hundred hives, set them up in my Fortress of Wax and, from my Throne of Honeycomb Sweetness, cry out, “FLY!!! FLY, MY STRIPY MINIONS!!! I COMMAND THEE!!!” This does not actually mean I will have authority over an army of killer bees.

    (Oh, but once Dr Arturo perfects the pheromonal command spray, I tell you, with an army of insects who can defy the very laws of physics — what? you think the wing-span to body-weight ratio story is an urban legend? pitiful fool! — then with my army of assassin apoids, bumbleberserkers every one of them, for whom to fight is to die, armed with their crossbows and their little gladiator helmets — I tell you, they can defy the very laws of physics! — then nothing, nothing, nothing will stand in my path! Once I have the pheromonal command spray…)

    The thing is, all that is required for an attempt to decree to be successful is that it is accepted as a decree. If others can be made to submit, to accept the denial of legitimacy to their personal evaluations, then the pretence has been made real — the individual has been empowered to make decrees. With the abrogation of the right to decide for themselves, the subjects have authorised the individual as authority over them, bestowed the necessary mandate. Power becomes privilege. This is the assumption of authority in three other senses of the term “assume”: to accept (to take what is given); to acquire (to take what is simply there); to appropriate (to take what is not yours). It is the assumption of the mantle of authority, the assumption of the status of authority.

    One might dismiss this as an unlikely occurrence, a fancy founded on an underestimation of the reader’s capacity to think for themself, or one that even if it were to occur on any measurable scale would be so trivial as to be unimportant. I would refer you back, in that case, to the historical precedents of linguistic prescriptivism cited in the previous blog post, to Johnson’s characterisation of Scots words as vulgar slang, and tell you that this attitude, assimilated wholesale into the Scottish culture, continues to the present as a marker — a mechanism even — of class privilege. Prescriptivist attitudes can have a higher uptake than you’d think. Privilege seeks to perpetuate itself, and it does so by denying rights. In a conventional review, one is writing for a (self-selecting) readership that shares the general standards of the genre or the particular venue, or the personal standards of the particular reviewer. In a conclusive review, one is invariably writing against any who do not share your standards, not just writers but readers, denying the legitimacy of their judgement, denying their right to like what they like. No, not just denying the accuracy of their judgement, which is fine; denying their right to make that judgement.

    A more pertinent example? In the field of literature, contemporary criticism of sensation novels was, it rather seems, a misogynist rhetoric of hysteria, of fiction "preaching to the nerves instead of the judgment", fiction aimed "to supply the cravings of a diseased appetite". Not that all those women of the not-so-upper-middle class who made up the burgeoning readership could perhaps have a healthy appetite for such stuff, a legitimate taste for it. Oh, no. Those quotes are from H.L. Mansel, who also provides a fine heritage for the presumption/affectation of knowledge of creative process and commercial aims in his spurious assertions on Wilkie Collins: "No divine influence can be imagined as presiding over the birth of his work; no more immortality is dreamed of for it than for the fashions of the current season. A commercial atmosphere floats around works of this class, redolent of the manufactory and the shop". [my italics] The sensation novel was certainly lurid in subject matter and approach, dealing with, in the words of a more contemporary commentator, “the exposure of hypocrisy in polite society, intentional and unintentional bigamy, adultery, hidden illegitimacy, extreme emotionalism, melodramatic dialogue and plotting, and the brilliant but eccentric villain with gentlemanly pretensions.” And yet, to this litany of impropriety, “we should add the realistic and sympathetic investigation of individual psychology and an exploration of the female psyche in the manner of George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë.” (all quotes from this article)

    The latter sounds rather worthwhile to me. Actually, I quite like the sound of the brilliant but eccentric villain with gentlemanly pretensions too. But clearly I must, as everyone knows, have a diseased appetite. Like my appetite for making hot homo fuck. Or so the prescriptivists would have you believe.

    9. The assumption of authority =/= the assertion of legitimacy.

    So long as I state my assumptions clearly, what is the harm in claiming authority for them (besides, obviously, making myself look silly a la the above-mentioned Guardian reviewer)? Isn't it up to the reader to grant or refuse that authority?

    If we’re talking about authority and “claiming” it as I’ve characterised it here, that last question seems… disingenuous. If I can get away with it, what’s wrong with that? If I can bootstrap myself into a position of authority and legislate taste, write a review that leads readers away from all that I class prescriptively as “bad” (because to be authoritative about such things is to be prescriptive), if I can write a dictionary that systematically abjects a segment of the population, if I can use critique to scourge the vulgar / low / common fiction that might happen to speak to a segment of the population whose tastes I consider illegitimate, if I can have some people accept my mandate to do so even if those plebs baulk at it, what’s wrong with that? But I don’t think that’s what Abigail is talking about. Rather I read into those questions a conflation of authority and right, with maybe a dash of expertise. Rephrase those sentences with “legitimacy” in there and my answers are simple. So long as I state my assumptions clearly, what is the harm in claiming legitimacy for them? No harm at all. Isn't it up to the reader to grant or refuse that legitimacy? Absolutely. Because granting or refusing, here, simply means agreeing or disagreeing.

    There’s nothing wrong with asserting the legitimacy of one’s opinion. What I’m arguing against is the assumption of authority, which is neither a decision that one has legitimacy nor its expression in a claim that one has legitimacy. We assert legitimacy all the time, every expression of a decision an exercise of one’s right to make a personal evaluation and therefore, as an exercise of a right, an implicit assertion of that right. An assertion of legitimacy. Even to back this up with an assertion of expertise is just part of making one’s case. This is only to assert greater cogency, greater efficacy, better foundations, sounder arguments, the wisdom of wider experience — which is, I think, what Abigail means by “claiming authority” for her assumptions, claiming the greater consideration due an expert. One is surely bound to do this at times without feeling the need to demonstrate there and then — to refer to one’s time served in a workshopping group, or susbtantial experience as a reviewer, or simply as a reader who reads a whole lot more than many. I think Abigail might characterise this as “claiming authority” but I see it as claiming justification as long as it admits of challenge.

    It all comes down to authority as a privilege. Someone else may be equally an expert, or more so. Are you claiming authority over them, claiming that they must submit to your opinion because it is authoritative? Even if someone is not an expert, are you claiming that they must simply submit to your opinion without a right of challenge, because it is authoritative? Aren’t you, in most cases, simply claiming expertise on the understanding that a contrary opinion based on greater expertise is a legitimate challenger? Aren’t you actually claiming expertise on the understanding that a non-expert who asks you to prove it is a legitimate challenger? You’re asserting that someone should pay attention to you as an expert. When they ask why they should believe you, do you accept this as a legitimate challenge, employ that expertise, demonstrate the justification? If so, then at no point have you laid claim to a mandate beyond the natural right of making your case in a peer-group discourse of equals. At no point have you laid claim to a privilege of having your opinions carry more weight on the basis of your authorised status.

    This assertion of legitimacy and expertise is not a claim of authority until it admits of no need to justify that expertise, until it asserts a prerogative, the very privilige of not having to justify oneself. Because you are the judge. Then the assertion of expertise is only a stratagem in the assumption of authority, a flashing of a badge, a finger pointed at a diploma. It does not say “you should subscribe to my view because I am correct,” but rather “you must subscribe to my view because I am authorised”.

    “Should.” “Must.”

    In an assertion of legitimacy and justification, that “should” leaves it up to the reader to evaluate your expertise, to come to their own equally legitimate evaluation as to whether they should accept your analysis as sound. The assumption of authority doesn’t leave it up to the reader to grant or refuse that authority. It assumes that the authority has already been granted and tells them what to think. Not only is the assertion of legitimacy not an assumption of authority then; it is in fact a challenge to any individual who is assuming the authority to decree, as they can only achieve this privilege by denying that right. The assertion of legitimacy and justification is a rejection of authority that puts its money where its mouth is. It brings its tools to the table, its greater cogency, greater efficacy, better foundations, sounder arguments. It slaps them down and calls shenanigans. And as often as not it is addressing the whole room, not just the authority, because it recognises the assumed privilege can be obliterated simply by persuading enough of this authority’s subjects to take back their right by exercising it. If the assumed authority is not entirely stripped from the empowered, the privileged, their bootstrapped mandate can be severely limited when enough individuals refuse to recognise it, exert their right of individual evaluation and say, “this goes beyond any remit you have.”

    This is why I can make hot homo fuck with a hot twink and not get arrested.

    For me, this is, I’d say, a potential additional function of critique, where it refuses authority, in that it reminds the reader that, hey, actually, they can decide for themself. Good critique can expose the presumptions and affectations of the authorities, show the man behind the curtain. In doing so it can be an invitation to the reader to exercise their own right. It can be argumentative, opinionated, advocate aesthetics via conventional reviews. It could even argue for the relevance of aesthetics in critical reviews; I think this is a path fraught with the peril of collapsing that review into compatibility assessment or prescriptivist dogma, but if that review still fundamentally takes the work on its own terms… well, it is a tight-rope walk that other critique might emulate. Critique can, I think, assert legitimacy and justification without the assumption of authority, and in doing so not simply avoid a potentially detrimental pitfall but improve itself, exceed the minimal expectations of compatibility assessment, the critic sacrificing their own assumptions and showing the reader how and where and why they might sacrifice their own and gain the benefit of it in the ability to engage with a work that wants to reward them, if only they will meet it on its own ground. Critique can do this, I think.

    I sort of think it should try.

    “Should”, not “must”.