Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Interviewed for a U of A podcast!

So, one of the local U of A media students is doing a podcast on true crime, and her first episodes is on "ghosts." She asked for an interview after noticing that I was teaching a course on monsters, and of course I was delighted to participate. Just finished up now. Since she set me a list of pre-set questions, I'm just going to post them here -- fun stuff!

Firstly, have you heard of the Maricopa Hall haunting, and if so what have you heard?
Oh yes, sure I have. I actually first heard about the haunting of the Modern Language Building, because that’s where the English Department is. Then when I was prepping for my Monsters class this semester, I googled haunted U of A buildings and found some websites on things like Maricopa Hall haunting.
The websites didn’t strike me as the most reliable things in the world, but there’s various stories for Maricopa Hall. 
  1. (a wealthy young female U of A student who committed suicide when she found out her future husband was cheating on her. 
  2. some conflicting reports that Maricopa Hall was originally intended to be the President’s private mansion back in the early 1910s. 
  3. a myth about a duel between two women in the desert, long before the U of A was even founded.
How do you approach stories that may have multiple different retellings?
I think it’s best if you treat each one unique. There may be a dozen different versions of Cinderella in films and literature – what does this one try to accomplish? And that’s just formal reworkings. For people who do folklore, they know that there’s hundreds, maybe even thousands, of versions of Cinderella out there. That’s because in oral storytelling no one story is ever told exactly the same way twice.
Actually, this idea of treating each new retelling as unique goes for just about anything. How many movies are there about the original stories for Batman and Spiderman, for example? Good stories will try to do something new and unique for the tradition. Bad stories will just bore you tears.
Where do urban legends and ghost stories fall within the realm of literature?
Urban legends are kinda tricky, cuz usually they’re entirely oral narratives. They’re not written down, normally, and they don’t have authors, so I might categorize them as folklore rather than literature.
But that doesn’t mean that they’re not interesting, or that you can’t analyze them. Take any urban legend you want -- in my monsters class this semester, I used the old urban legend about a man who wakes up in a tub of ice only to find that his kidney has been removed.
It’s not literature in the sense that we analyze it for characterization or symbolism; it’s not Shakespeare. But it still tells you stuff about the culture that produces that particular story.
Ghost stories are a somewhat different kettle of fish. They are written down, and they do often have authors.
Ghost stories are actually a pretty robust subgenre of literature, especially in the last 150 years or so—people still tell them all the time. And they have a pretty respectable past, too. For example, I’m sure you know Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is celebrating it’s 200th anniversary. Well, that was partly inspired because Mary and her friends were reading German ghost stories, and they got inspired.
How do you see female ghosts represented in literature and storytelling?
Well, that’s a pretty loaded question! Partly, there is this long tradition of associating women with the supernatural—just think about European fears over witchcraft over the centuries, and women were almost always female. Really, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was one of the first books that made witches good, and he was actually a major feminist for his time.

But the reason women have always been associated with the supernatural, I think, comes from this old sexist tradition that women were more emotional and less rational than men. So female ghosts have somehow always been seen as somehow spookier or more monstrous.

As in anything, ghost story writers really love to play around with those kinds of old tropes. I just saw this really fantastic British film, The Little Stranger, for example. Came about two months ago. Without giving anything anyway, it really throws a wrench into all those old gender stereotypes about female ghosts, and it’s really cool.
Do you see a significant connection between violence and ghosts in storytelling?
Definitely. M. R. James, who was this Victorian scholar famous for his ghost stories, thought that the ghosts should always be “odious” and frightful. Violence or the threat of violence is usually a part of that. It’s not enough that a character meets something supernatural—if a story’s going to be scary, that supernatural entity has to be dangerous in some way.

Of course, not all ghost stories are violent. The most famous ghost story of time, Charles Dickens’s The Christmas Carol, isn’t violent at all.

But violence ends up being a great plot device for injecting that element of fear and terror into a story, and that’s the angle a lot of ghost stories take.
Why do you think people tell ghost stories?
Cuz they’re fun. Most horror stories—and ghost stories are usually a subset of horror—work on the basis of a boundary. Here’s some line in the sand that shouldn’t get crossed . .. well, that line’s been crossed, so here are the terrible consequences. The thing is, crossing boundaries like that can be terrible—but they can also be enjoyable.

Just think of people who do modern day ghost hunting. A lot of them, I don’t think, actually believe in ghosts, though they might pretend do. But ghost-hunting means they get to cross forbidden boundaries—they go into that cemetery at night, they explore that abandoned building, etc. They might visit that old mental asylum. Reading ghost stories is just another kind of low-key risk-taking, and that’s fun.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Critiquing a Critique of Postmodernism?

Been reading a monograph by Dr. Adrian Howe, a postmodern feminist, called Sex, Violence and Crime: Foucault and the ‘Man’ Question. She's a criminologist who approaches her subject from a poststructuralist perspective. One section tackles another criminologist critical of PM-modes of thinking, Stan Cohen. I think her discussion worth posting about because it highlights my own skepticism to PM questioning and problemization.

So, Howe has two basic issues with Cohen (States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering).
  1. Cohen resusitates the public/private distinction that feminists hate, and
  2. his anti-postmodern way of tackling issues like denial strategies, discrediting whistleblowers, re-naming & justifications. He's critical of such things, of course, but as acts, not as matters of discourse
So, let's take Howe's second problem with Cohen in particular. According to Howe, Cohen lambasts the idea “that there can be no access to current or historical reality from outside a vantage-point of power,” which is the most “pernicious element” of the postmodern critique of positivism or Enlightenment rationality (qtd. in Howe 17). [Hint: my argument is that Howe's attempted refutation actually largely substantiates Cohen's assertions here.]

Howe responds to Cohen  by noting that “unsubstantiated assertion is elevated to an art form in the anti-postmodern camp” (18), a frequent complaint by postmodernists like to make. . . . but then she basically substantiates Cohen claims through the following summary of Judith Butler. For context, Butler wishes to "interrogate" -- a favorite postmodernist word -- what truly authorizes acts of "conceptual mastery." To wit:

Taking a position that ‘places itself beyond the play of power’, that ‘lays claim to its legitimacy through recourse to a prior and implicitly universal agreement’ is, Butler argues, ‘perhaps the most insidious ruse of power’. What form of ‘insidious cultural imperialism’, she asks, ‘legislates itself under the sign of the universal’? . . . power pervades all conceptual frameworks, including that of postmodernisms’s critics. Crucially, however, the imbrication of all speaking positions in a ‘field of power is not the advent of a nihilistic relativism incapable of furnishing norms, but, rather, the very precondition of a politically engaged critique’. That is, recognizing and fully owning one’s privileged speaking position is our first ethical duty” (Howe 18; all quotes are Butler's).
That is to say, any claim of denial against the ubiquity of the power structures inherent in discourse is itself the surest sign of power -- an"insidious" (Butler's word) rhetorical move, a form of "cultural imperialism" or conceptual "mastery."

Of course, Butler and Howe themselves are engaging in a power move. "If you disagree with you, that simply proves that we're right." They bolster their counter-power move through language like "insidious," "imperialism," "mastery," and "ruse of power." . . .  which ignores, of course, that such language works more strongly on the level of emotion than on logic, which needless to say suggests a less-than-arduous analytical rigor. That's why philosopher like to use formal logic: natural language contains so much ambiguity and emotiveness that the pure logic of arguments becomes easy to miss.

So, a problem emerges for Howe and Butler. If everything's a power move, how do they avoid their charges against Cohen being directly against themselves? Really, they can't. Postmodern discourse is a sort of power move on equal status as the alleged power moves of non-postmodern discourse. 

They can, however, add their caveat about the  "first ethical duty" being to question one's own subject-position, which apparently Cohen doesn't do to their satisfaction. If power pervades all conceptual frameworks, including the frameworks employed by postmodernists, then postmodernists can seem to avoid the self-referential problem simply by claiming that they occupy the high ground. "We question our subject positions, but you don't." Note, of course, the vagueness of a verb like "questioning"; too often -- and this seems the case here -- a phrase like "questioning our subject-positions" operates as a way to forestall critique; one's opponents refuse to question their subject-positions as rigorously as you yourself do.

The problem with this view, though, is precisely what Cohen --as quoted by Howe -- says it is. If PM discourse is a power move, and it is, then it's not enough to question our own subject position when it comes to things that seem to demand a refusal of problemization: things like atrocities (Cohen's main interest), or the undeniable fact of global warming, or "real" facts over "alternative facts." PM must avoid truth claims . . . but truths claims undeniably have politically effective power.

The issue is that PM is so clearly a tool of the cultural & political left that PMists simply do not have to deal with postmodernists from the cultural and political right. As such, such postmodernists -- who hail almost entirely from the cozy confines of academia -- never really have to face having their core methodology used against them. Nietzsche and Heidegger were perhaps the last really useful postmodern thinkers on the right, but the postmodern left treats Nietzsche's and Heidegger's political views as historical idiosyncrasies rather than a direct outgrowth of their views on language, valuation, and historicity. But those implications are almost entirely ignored by the PM Left.

And it's interesting how Howe seems to refuse to accept the logical consequences of her own position. For example, dismissing the anti-PM claims of nihilism and relativism, Howe states:
many poststructuralist feminists, me included, have no intention of turning away from questions of truth and justice. . . . We also continue to strive to get justice for victims—never forgetting, of course, that what counts as justice is as discursively mediated as truth.” (178).
She's absolutely right about that, I think -- most poststructuralist feminists do not have any interest in turning away from truth claims. They certainly want to appeal to truth claims . . . even though, as Howe clearly states earlier, all claims to truth are "insidious" power-ploys that suggest a something that exists outside representation. Postmodern feminists like Howe are claiming, "We believe in justice . . . but, at the same time, we don't believe in justice." Judith Butler herself used this have-one's-cake-and-eat-it-too ploy when she devised her arguments in favor of "strategic essentialism": we'll employ theoretically untenable essentialist views when it's (politically) convenient to do so.

Rather than making several "unsubstantiated assertions," then, Cohen's characterization of postmodern issues appears absolutely accurate.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Shannara Chronicles

I'd been hearing for a few years about The Shannara Chronicles, a fantasy adaptation of Terry Brooks clearly trying to take advantage of the Game of Thrones buzz. I've always been drastically curious about it. Brooks's first Shannara novel is, infamously, an almost point-by-point copy of The Lord of the Rings, and I knew that the series (which premiered on MTV) began with Brooks's equal, The Elfstones of Shannara. But the success of the adaptation has been always something that's aroused my curiosity.

Well, no more. Last night the wife and I watched the first episode, and . . . . well, egads. Bad bad bad bad bad. Imagine a show full of ridiculously beautiful teenagers who can't act, put horrible plastic fake-looking Elf ears on them, and then insert a whole bunch of genre cliches and banalities. The Shannara Chronicles ends up being the result. Skipping the rest of the series seems like a pretty safe decision, methinks. Even for a teenaged target audience with low expectations, I'm surprised it managed to last two full season.

Interestingly enough, I loved The Elfstones of Shannara when I was 12 or 13 or so. I read a ton of Terry Brooks as a young'un, way before I'd ever read LotR, and thought it was wonderful. A few years back I tried re-reating The Sword of Shannara, though, and stopped 50 pages in. It's hard to imagine how jarring the phrase "mutually assured destruction" can be in a fantasy novel.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Harlan Ellison Gets Roasted

Ran across a "roast" of Harlan Ellison a few days back. A few of my favorites:
  • Screenwriter David Gerrold: "The fact that Ellison is a self-made man relieves God of a great responsibility." 
  • Gerrold again: "I've been Harlan's friend for six years. Of course, I've known him for eighteen years. . . ." 
  • Robert Bloch: "I first met Harlan in 1952. He was 18, and I was unlucky."
 The full roast can be read here.