Escaping (into) the Past? The Last Jedi, Nostalgia, and Radical Theological Imagination

(This is a slightly edited version of a presentation I gave at Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations 2018, a two-day conference with the theme of ‘Escaping Escapism’. This post contains massive, massive spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. You have been warned.)

So, hot take time: Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a post-secular examination of what it means to be a person of faith confronting the oppressive history of one’s religious tradition. It’s also highly instructive for finding a way of reading fantasy texts theologically without invoking the discourse of nostalgia that the genre has historically been associated with. This presentation will consider The Last Jedi‘s metafictional commentary on Jedi lore as a model for radically re-thinking how we engage with with mythic and fantastic narratives in religious and theological contexts. But before we delve into a reading of the film proper, it’s important to give some theoretical and discursive context.

 

A long time ago in a discourse far, far away….

The fantasy genre is commonly associated with theology, but this association has largely relied heavily on assumptions of archaism and nostalgia up to this point. Much theological scholarship on fantasy takes cues from Colin N. Manlove’s claim that ‘[f]antasy often draws nourishment from the past […] particularly from a medieval and/or Christian world order […] [I]n fantasy the direction of the narrative is often circular or static’ (Manlove 1982, 23). (I’ll just offer a side note here to appease my medievalist friends and colleagues that fantasy’s engagement with the medieval is heavily contingent on modern understandings of that world order, regardless of accuracy.) Although Manlove wrote this in 1982, this mode of approaching religious fantasy texts has remained largely unchanged within certain corners of the academy and pop culture. Readings of the fantasy writing of authors such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as religious apologetics and/or a retreat from the trauma of modernity into a more hopeful archaic world order are practically a cottage industry (although again, I would argue that even these readings are a bit reductionistic!).

Yet in the West’s current political climate, which in the past several years has seen the rise of regimes that openly attack populations that were already marginalized at best–often (especially in the U.S.) couching this violence in religious terms–it’s necessary to reconsider this view. We need, as Rose Tico encourages Finn to do on the planet Canto Bight, whose opulent wealth masks the violent and oppressive means by which it is attained, to ‘look closer’ and ask who is marginalized and excluded by our nostalgic escapism. As Marcella Althaus-Reid puts it, ‘the location of areas of exclusion in theology is one of crucial importance; for instance, poverty and sensuality as a whole (and not as separate units) has been marginalized in theology’ (Althaus-Reid 2000, 4).

For Althaus-Reid as a queer Argentinian woman, this means that we need theology that proceeds from the struggles of women, poor people, queer and trans people, colonized people, and especially people who live at the intersection of these oppressed identities. Moreover, we also need ways of narrating these theologies without falling back on a monolithic–or indeed monomythic–grand narrative.

 

What does this have to do with space wizards?

Although Star Wars is technically a sci-fi/fantasy hybrid (that’s a whole other can of worms that we don’t have time to get into), we can see the impulse toward nostalgia at work throughout most of the saga. George Lucas and his collaborators famously modelled the narrative of the original trilogy after Joseph Campbell’s archetypal ‘monomyth’, and the films visually evoke cinema from bygone eras such as sci-fi serials, samurai epics, and Westerns, to name just a few. The narrative structure of the series has likewise tended toward stasis; in one now-infamous soundbyte from the making-of documentary of The Phantom Menace, Lucas proclaims, ‘It’s like poetry, [the films] rhyme.’ 2015’s The Force Awakens introduced new characters, but largely initiated a cyclical repetition of the original Star Wars trilogy, perhaps partly to reassure fans after the disappointment of the prequels. All of this establishes a narrative pattern in which the status quo is repeatedly disrupted only to then be heroically restored, which is mirrored in-universe by the emphasis continually placed on bringing balance to the Force.

The Last Jedi, meanwhile, signifies a break with this pattern and with many of the tropes and narrative devices that characterize the saga in the eyes of many fans. To say that this has been a controversial move would be an understatement, since in many ways the film can be read as a metafictional commentary on the Star Wars universe’s lore and themes.

The film opens where The Force Awakens left off narratively, as our hero Rey journeys to the remote planet Ahch-To in the hopes of training as a Jedi with Luke Skywalker and convincing him to aid the Resistance in their struggle against the fascistic First Order. She finds, however, that Luke has renounced the Jedi ways and is unwilling to help her, save for three lessons about why he believes the Jedi religion ought to die with him. In all of these lessons, fan perceptions of the expanded Star Wars universe become in-universe lore that is rigorously critiqued and revised within the film.

 

Lesson I: The Jedi do not own the Force.

Rey’s initial understanding of the Force may mirror the perception many fans came away from the original trilogy and even (especially) the prequels with. When Luke questions Rey what she knows of the Force, she responds, ‘It’s a power that Jedi have that lets them control people and make things float.’ This is a moment of comic relief in the film, but it also signals that up to this point the Force has been associated with mastery, domination, and control belonging to a select group of people.

Luke corrects this assumption. As he puts it, ‘The Force is not a power you have. It’s not about lifting rocks. It’s the energy between all living things: the tension, the balance that binds the universe together. […] And this is the lesson: that Force does not belong to the Jedi. To say that if the Jedi die the light dies is vanity, can’t you feel that?’

This instantly democratizes the Force, and the implications of this extend to the film’s rejection of the rest of the saga’s obsession with prestigious bloodlines. While the previous seven films tell the story of simultaneously the most powerful and most dysfunctional family in the galaxy and their respective destinies, The Last Jedi deliberately subverts this in favour of a heroine who is well and truly from the margins of society. Rey, who has spent a film and a half obsessing over her mysterious parentage, is forced to confront the truth that there is no mystery. Instead of the heir apparent to a powerful lineage, Rey is the daughter of, in Kylo Ren’s words, ‘filthy junk traders, who sold [her] off for drinking money’. Her parents are ‘dead, in a paupers’ grave in the Jakku desert’. Rey is nobody, from nowhere, and as Kylo Ren–that is, Ben Solo–rightly identifies, she, unlike him, has no pre-ordained place in the grand narrative of the Jedi against the Sith. Instead, she is left to find her own place in the story.

This revelation upends our understanding of how this universe works, and throws into question everything that came before it. In fact, the character most obsessed with blood relations, lineage, and destiny in the film is Supreme Leader Snoke of the First Order, which brings to light the fascist and eugenicist implications of this ideology and also leads to his downfall. Snoke is so fixated on where everyone fits into the grand narrative that he doesn’t anticipate his apprentice turning against him and killing him. This leads us to…

 

Lesson II: Your space wizards are problematic.

Luke again: ‘Now that the Jedi are extinct they are romanticized, deified. But if you strip away the myth and look at their deeds, the legacy of the Jedi is failure, hypocrisy, hubris. […] At the height of their powers they allowed Darth Sidious to rise, create the Empire, and wipe them out. It was a Jedi Master who was responsible for the training and creation of Darth Vader.’

The Jedi may eventually have been destroyed by the Empire, but Luke suggests that their close association with the Old Republic, and their failure to sufficiently challenge that existing power structure, rendered them complicit in the Empire’s rise. Luke thus re-contextualizes the old Jedi Order as what Althaus-Reid has called ‘High Theology: an imperial enterprise, the art of android epistemologies but not of humans […] which allows theology to perpetuate itself (resurrect) through what we have called the decency mechanisms, of Black, Liberation, Aboriginal or Feminist theologies alike’ (Althaus-Reid 2000, 91-92). It’s hard not to hear Luke’s words and reflect on the various think pieces written by American evangelicals and Republicans disavowing Donald Trump in the wake of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and longing for a return to normalcy or ‘sanity’ within their institutions just as many in the Resistance of Star Wars desire a resurrection of the old Jedi Order.

What both Luke and Althaus-Reid point out, however, is that theology and religious institutions are often complicit in the creation of empire. Trump’s rise to power, for instance, was in part an effect of white American evangelicalism’s understanding of divine power, dominionism, and heterosexual masculinity, and the complex ways these things interface with the Republican party’s economic and socio-political agenda. Althaus-Reid, however, takes this a step further in pointing out that theological tropes that uphold hegemony and empire can manifest in the resurfacing of grand narratives and respectability politics even in theologies from the margins and ‘[succeed] in killing us’ (Althaus-Reid 2000, 92) all over again.

Once again, we can see this playing out in where The Last Jedi takes Luke as a character. It may have been a Jedi who saved Anakin Skywalker from the Dark Side, as Rey reminds Luke, but his attempt to resurrect the Jedi Order merely duplicates the old structure in ways that have both systemic and interpersonal consequences.

 

Lesson III: Luke is complicit.

Luke’s endeavours to train a new generation of Jedi see him sliding into religious fanaticism. The openness, vulnerability, and compassion he showed toward his father which allowed him to turn him away from the Dark Side give way to a dogmatic adherence to a strict Light/Dark binary regarding the Force, which finally mutates into paranoia about the Dark Side. He senses the darkness in his nephew Ben Solo and is tempted to murder him. Luke’s fear of the Dark Side allows the Dark Side to take hold in him for long enough to drive Ben over the edge. Traumatized, Ben turns fully to the Dark Side and becomes Kylo Ren.

 

So where do we go from here?

Reflecting on the oppressive histories of Western Christianity in our world and the Jedi Order in the world of Star Wars, one temptation would be to disavow religion and theology completely. We see this reaction in both Luke and Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren’s philosophy is to ‘[l]et the past die. Kill it, if you have to.’ Kylo Ren razes Luke’s new Jedi temple to the ground, killing all but a few students, and after killing Supreme Leader Snoke, installs himself as the leader of a fascist regime. Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker’s solution is repression. Lots and lots of repression. He severs his connection to the Force and attempts to burn down the library housing the sacred Jedi texts.

The problem with both of these approaches is that they are both purity discourses that fail to adequately address the heart of the problem, and once again maintain oppressive hierarchies while outwardly disavowing them. Luke Skywalker and Ben Solo are both men from a powerful family who continue to benefit from their problematic heritage even as they attempt to shed the trappings of it. (We see this happen literally with Ben, who first changes his name and later destroys his mask, but refuses to give up his powerful position even when Rey provides him ample opportunity to do so.) This once again brings to mind Althaus-Reid’s words when she notes that ‘[t]he problem is that it is easier to live without God than without the heterosexual concept of man’ (Althaus-Reid 2000, 18).

Dismantling toxic white imperialist masculinity is a difficult responsibility, and one which both Luke and Kylo Ren try to abdicate. Kylo Ren attempts to escape the abuse inflicted on him in the name of the Jedi Order and protecting the Light, but ultimately replicates abusive patterns in the violent and nihilistic means by which he attempts to overcome his trauma. The ambition he expresses to Rey is a vision to transform the galaxy, but it’s a world order in which he would still be at the top of the hierarchy. Luke, meanwhile, wallows in self-pity and resentment of his status as a legend, and thus fails to be of any help to his allies or of any emotional support to his friends and loved ones when they need him.

Thankfully, Rey, in her need to give some structure to her connection with the Force, sees a different way forward. She cannot ignore, for instance, the voices that call her by name to the Jedi library, but neither is she afraid, as Luke is, of the cave of dark energy beneath the island. As she says to Luke, ‘[t]he galaxy may need a legend,’ but she also recognizes that it will require a different way of relating to that legend than what came before. Before she leaves Ahch-To, Rey takes the sacred Jedi texts with her unbeknownst to Luke and stows them aboard the Millenium Falcon as she journeys to aid the resistance.

Meanwhile, Yoda shows up in Force-ghost form to burn down the library while telling Luke, ‘Heeded my words not, did you. “Pass on what you have learned.” Strength, mastery … but weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is.’ In this scene, Yoda’s words come very close to those of queer theorist Jack Halberstam, who posits that ‘[u]nder certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world’ (Halberstam 2011, 3).

At the end of the film, the battered remnants of the Resistance are housed on the Millennium Falcon, meaning that the sacred Jedi texts are now in their midst. Rather than being sequestered away in a library in what Luke calls ‘the most un-findable place in the galaxy’, the Jedi texts now exist among the downtrodden and marginalized, those struggling for their ability to exist in a hostile political environment. While Rey remains committed to carrying on the Jedi tradition, the institutional structure in which it was formerly housed has quite literally burned to the ground, leaving her to re-invent it on her own terms.

There may be a fun scriptural allusion to be made here about the sacredness of things which burn and yet are not consumed, but there seems to be something a bit more going on here than even that. The final scene of the film depicts several enslaved children on Canto Bight sharing the legend of Luke Skywalker and the Jedi, before revealing that one of the children has a connection to the Force. It’s a testament to the potential of legends and religious narratives to provide the oppressed with tools to resist and liberate themselves from their oppressors, though exactly how remains yet to be seen.

Or, as Margaret Atwood put it in The Handmaid’s Tale: ‘The Bible is kept locked up, the way people once locked tea up, so the servants wouldn’t steal it. It is an incendiary device: who knows what we’d make of it, if we ever got our hands on it?’

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Fantastic Subtexts and How (Not) to Write Them: Magic, Marginality, and Metaphor in the Potterverse

CONTENT NOTE/SPOILER ALERT: This post involves critical discussions of racial violence, queerphobia, child abuse, and child mortality. It also contains spoilers for the Harry Potter series and the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Continue reading “Fantastic Subtexts and How (Not) to Write Them: Magic, Marginality, and Metaphor in the Potterverse”

Whose Lane is it Anyway? On Writing and Researching from a Position of Privilege

The other day, a very good friend and colleague posted this tweet:

When I saw this, I giggled. And then, I cringed. I cringed because I recognized myself in it, in the way I’ve sometimes approached both my day-to-day interactions with people who aren’t cis men, and even my own academic research.

I’m researching the ways that fantasy, as a genre, can provide narrative ground for women and LGBTQ+ people to contend with religious traditions that have historically been less than inclusive, to put it very mildly. And while I do fall into the ‘G’ of ‘LGBTQ+’, the broad focus of my study means that I have very different privileges and experiences from the majority of the people in my bibliography. (As a side note, I don’t think I’ve always done the best job of representing that on this blog.) Not only am I a white, cisgender man, but I’m also active in a progressive, but still mainline, Episcopal church—something to which many women and LGBTQ+ people have either been denied access or from which they’ve had to abstain out of concern for their own safety and well-being.

As can be expected from this, I’ve learned by making a lot of mistakes in my research and writing, and in the way I’ve discussed my ideas with other people. And yet I still find it important to do academic work on topics outside the protected bubble of my own whiteness, cis-ness, and maleness. In this post, I want to share some things I’ve learned about how to responsibly account for differences of privilege in your academic writing.

First of all, your ‘lane’ is not the same as your identity. The phrase ‘stay in your lane’ has become a popular one in the world of activism, and it’s a phrase that’s as often misunderstood as it is invoked. A friend of mine, a novelist, takes issue with the way it’s sometimes used or understood for the same reasons ‘write what you know’ can often feel like bad advice. For those of us in positions of privilege, ‘stay in your lane’ can feel like a taboo against ever engaging with intersectional politics of liberation in the same way that ‘write what you know’ is often misunderstood to mean ‘write about what you know’.

Of course, if I believed that either of the above were true, I’d not only be out of a job, but also abdicating my responsibility to transform my own consciousness and challenge my own oppressive assumptions. Just like the advice to ‘write what you know’ really means to find some way of identifying with your writing, no matter how removed from your own experience it may be, staying in my lane is about examining what my identity is and how I position myself within broader political aims. Staying in my lane means things like resisting the urge to explain or narrate someone else’s experience (especially to them), realizing that my perspective is not the most important one and de-centring it appropriately, listening to and amplifying marginalized voices in responsible ways, and using that knowledge going forward to transform and unsettle the privileged spaces I inhabit on a day-to-day basis. In academic terms, this can look like being mindful of whom you cite when, holding the privileged among your bibliography accountable for what they say and do, and bringing to light scholars who may be obscure due to marginalization.

Whatever it may look like, the key to ‘staying in my lane’ is this: it has less to do with how I define myself and more to do with the work I’m doing and how I approach it. Let’s look back at the tweet my friend shared. This is important for several reasons. The first is that continually asking, ‘Am I a good ally?’ plays into the fragility of privileged identities. As a white man, I have a pathological need to think of myself as virtuous. If I can maintain that image of myself, the thinking goes, then I never need to challenge the stories we’ve heard since birth: that I’m the hero, the civilised, the victorious, the morally upright.

Asking questions about my identity as an activist, instead of about the work of activism, fails to be liberating because it re-orients the focus away from other people’s liberation to my own ability to maintain the status quo regarding my self-image. This is also the impulse behind people whose rallying cry is, ‘not all [x]’; both responses to activism make the conversation about privileged people’s validation. This need for validation also demands that people in already vulnerable positions undertake vast amounts of emotional labour and waste time and energy that could be better spent elsewhere. This is especially important to keep in mind in academia, where it’s incredibly easy to see scholars as disembodied minds and where interactions with other scholars are often seen as opportunities for networking and self-promotion.

Counter to this, staying in my lane also means bearing in mind that the ideas I encounter from marginalized voices are born out of day-to-day, embodied experiences. The people I cite may have published their work at personal risk to their careers or their livelihoods. They may have published their work while caring for children or loved ones or participating in direct social action. This should make a difference in how I share these ideas in my own writing and how I interact with other scholars professionally. In these cases, it’s not simply enough to amplify marginalized voices; it’s also important that we take consideration for how to present them ethically so that marginalized people are protected and well-represented. How we do this will vary greatly depending on the type of research we’re doing, but the key is this: if our goal is liberation, then the dignity and well-being of those whose liberation we’re trying to support should be our top priority.

Finally, staying in my lane means that I should know my limits and be open to my own voice being called into question. Once, I was presenting a paper on The Left Hand of Darkness, a speculative novel about the limits of gender in which the majority of characters are non-binary, at a conference where there were likely to be lots of trans* and non-binary people attending my panel. What I didn’t want to do was stand at the front of the conference room and cissplain people’s own identity politics to them. So after a few of my non-binary friends, family members, and colleagues offered (important side note that no one owes you their time in checking your work), I had them look over my paper to see if there was anything I’d missed. Lo and behold, there were a few places where I’d inadvertently name-dropped complex issues which—while connected to the themes of my paper and important in their own right—I didn’t have time to do full justice in my half-hour talk. On other occasions, friends—in both academic and non-academic circles—have rightly called me out on the way I’ve talked about certain aspects of my work.

Admitting limits and shortcomings is uncomfortable, and it’s difficult to do in academic writing, which so privileges having everything neatly fit together like a well-oiled machine. But it’s also worthwhile and leads to more productive conversations both within the academy and outside its structures, where so much politically-motivated writing aims to reach. There are still limits to my work that I’ve become painfully aware of but have no idea what to do with yet, but I’ve accepted that naming these limits and being attentive to them is a crucial part of my writing process.

I want to close by reflecting a little bit on the implications all of the above has had for my own work and my writing process. When I started thinking about what I wanted to research for my PhD, I had two goals in mind. The way I had been writing about religion in my academic writing up to that point no longer felt adequate either for the personal changes I’d gone through since I started my Master’s or anything I’d learned in the classroom during that time. Additionally, I was tired of writing about books that centred white cis men after my Master’s introduced me to a myriad of diverse authors. This was how I came up with the initial idea of a study that would take a deconstructive approach to religion in fantasy texts in order to make way for a ‘feminine’ embodiment of the divine.

As I did more and more of my research and talked to more and more people, I realized that deconstruction alone wasn’t going to be enough. Deconstruction is vital to a number of liberative projects both inside the academy and in the public sphere; taken on its own, it’s also a branch of theory dominated by white cis men, and as such a lot of deconstructive writing has all the requisite shortcomings that accompany that. After growing increasingly dissatisfied by the end of the first year of my PhD with the way I was writing about all of this, I knew my perspective had to shift. I spent last summer reading up on the various ways women of colour and trans* scholars—among them Gayatri Spivak, Jack Halberstam, bell hooks, and Marcella Althaus-Reid—have expanded and critiqued Derrida’s deconstructive project in their own liberative pursuits, and this in turn expanded the scope of my thesis.

Where I am now is a thesis with a planned structure to lay bare this process instead of hiding it by using a common motif found in a couple of the key novels I’ve chosen to focus on. Till We Have Faces and The Passion of New Eve both feature characters descending into layer upon layer of caverns, and this mirrors their experiences of spiritual and sexual transformation. Each chapter of my thesis will introduce a deeper ‘layer’ of discourse that both expands and troubles the themes I discuss in the previous chapter. This makes for a difficult writing process that requires a lot of careful attention, but my hope is that by exposing my own thought process and its limits and leaving it open to questioning, I’ll end up with a final product that not only holds me accountable as an author but also invites other people to challenge my claims and conduct their own readings.

Do you find yourself having to check your privilege in your academic writing? If so, how have you dealt with it?

Failure Fiction: The OA and the Healing Breakdown of Narrative

‘[I]f myths are lies breathed through silver, the silver is more important than the lies, and the body’s breath more important than either.’

This observation from Brian Attebery’s Stories About Stories is made in reference to Till We Have Faces, but it could just as easily apply to The OA, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s trippy, hyper-inventive, frustrating, boundary-smashing hot mess of a Netflix series. Centred on Prairie Johnson, a blind woman (Marling) who goes missing from her Michigan suburb for seven years only to return with her sight mysteriously restored, The OA hops across genres and locales as Prairie, who now calls herself ‘the OA’, recounts her life’s story. The show has invited no shortage of scrutiny since its surprise release on the 18th of December, with viewers and critics polarized as to its strengths and flaws and entire message boards and subreddits dedicated to fan speculation. (Warning: here be spoilers. Proceed with caution.) Continue reading “Failure Fiction: The OA and the Healing Breakdown of Narrative”

New Year Update

A (very belated) happy New Year to everyone reading this! I’ve just about gotten back into the swing of regular thesis work and am very excited to be diving back into research after a restful break. I’ve also got some exciting new posts planned for this blog; in addition to continuing the ‘My Favourite Fantasy Texts’ series I’m also planning posts about my most recent obsession, Netflix’s new series The OA, as well as the Harry Potter spinoff Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

In the meantime, I thought I’d give some stray thoughts on all the other fantastical art and media I’ve encountered over break but don’t have enough to say about for a full-length blog post.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was…okay-ish? I went in wanting to like it a lot more than I actually did (since I adored The Force Awakens), and the public discourse surrounding the film makes me genuinely wish I could see what other people find so compelling about it. It’s certainly in the running for the most beautifully directed film set in the Star Wars universe; Gareth Edwards gives all the environments of the film a lush life and texture of their own to complement the intriguing, underutilised worldbuilding, and he has an eye for unsettling grandeur. Ultimately, though, the film is let down by a story that feels like a series of fetch-quests enacted by paper-thin or inconsistently written characters. Jyn Erso is hard-edged and cynical or wide-eyed and idealistic depending on what’s convenient for the plot at the time; her character arc in particular seems to be the victim of extensive re-shoots and script rewrites. It’s hard to be compelled by this rag-tag group of outsiders banding together when they barely speak to each other except to dole out clunky exposition. That, coupled with the simplistic plot, made me feel like I was watching someone else play a video game for most of the film. On the plus side–Coruscant flashback notwithstanding–it seems like Disney is on its way to disavowing the prequel trilogy as canon, which is perfectly fine by me.

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On New Year’s Eve some friends introduced me to the animated miniseries Over the Garden Wall, which is an utter delight that I’m wondering why I didn’t discover sooner. The story follows two brothers, Wirt and Greg, as they become more and more lost in a forest populated by surreal beings and begin to uncover the plight of a mysterious Woodsman and his connection to a creature known simply as the Beast. Patrick McHale’s storytelling is imbued at every turn with poetic ruminations on love, loss, depression, and childhood, and the worldbuilding evokes an unholy marriage of Hayao Miyazaki and Mark Twain with its nods to nineteenth century Americana, quick wit, and fantastical elements that are by turns marvellous, elegiac, quietly unsettling, and downright horrifying. Woven through all of this is a gorgeously eclectic folk-opera soundtrack. Hilarious, off-the-wall inventive, and oddly moving, Over the Garden Wall is entirely unique.

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I don’t have much to say about A Monster Calls yet, as I’m still slowly digesting and processing it, but the scene midway through in which Conor is forced to confront his grandmother in the living room he’s just destroyed had an unexpectedly devastating effect on me. The tears started flowing then and didn’t stop for the rest of the film. It’s the kind of film where the credits began rolling and the lights went up … and the entire audience sat riveted to their chairs, in hushed silence.

That’s enough for this week, I think; look out for more updates soon!

My Favourite Fantasy Texts #3: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

There’s no denying it now: winter is very near at hand. In Glasgow the temperature outside for the past couple weeks has stayed consistently below 0°C, and the days are getting shorter. The time of 2:30 p.m. sunsets is upon us and much of the day is spent in darkness. In my own Christian tradition, this time of year is set aside to meditate on profound absence, on creation unfinished, on the hope against all hope for a dreadful and wonderful grace that is still yet-to-come, that may not come, that is already here, that is always somewhere other than where we have looked.

In this frigid and dark time of anticipation, I can think of no better text to talk about than Ursula K. Le Guin’s groundbreaking 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness. Set on the wintry planet of Gethen, whose androgynous inhabitants experience great fluidity in gender and sexuality, the novel’s speculative worldbuilding and themes, radical in 1969, seem more relevant than ever now. As politicians continue to police trans and gender-nonconforming bodies in public spaces, with no promise of things getting any better following the most recent U.S. presidential election, Le Guin’s rich parable of a society not premised on a binary understanding of gender provides both welcome consolation and a provocation to action for the reader.

Before I go any further in discussing this text, a brief note on genre is in order. While some nitpicky souls may insist that, what with the spaceships, interplanetary politics, and talk of genetic experiments, Left Hand would more accurately be classified as sci-fi, many aspects of the novel’s worldbuilding would be just as at home in a straightforward high fantasy novel. My own research tends to follow Brian Attebery’s claim that ‘[t]he interesting question about any given story is not whether or not it is fantasy or science fiction or realistic novel, but rather what happens when we read it as one of these things’. My reading of The Left Hand of Darkness as fantasy ultimately has less to do with any set of criteria for genre categorization than it does with the fact that the things I find most interesting and rewarding in this text are the things brought to light when I read it as fantasy.

The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of Genly Ai, an envoy from Earth on a diplomatic mission to Gethen on behalf of the utopian Ekumen of Known Worlds. Initially, Genly is bewildered by the Gethenians’ lack of a fixed sense of gender and their alien social systems, commenting,

‘Though I had been nearly two years on [Gethen] I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes. I tried to, but my efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing [them] into those categories so irrelevant to [their] nature and so essential to my own.’

(Note on pronouns: while the novel’s original text uses male pronouns in reference to Gethenian characters, I tend to use singular ‘they/them’ pronouns in accordance with Le Guin’s 1987 annotations to her essay ‘Is Gender Necessary?’) Throughout the course of the novel, however, Genly comes to a greater understanding of his would-be allies through his time with an elusive religious order, his failures to navigate Gethenian politics, and his eventual exile from society alongside disgraced politician Therem Harth rem ir Estraven.

One of the most striking aspects of Left Hand is the way in which Le Guin repeatedly and consciously undermines the authority of her narrator. Not only does Genly betray misogynistic attitudes at times—such as early on when he misreads Estraven’s actions as duplicitous because of their perceived femininity—but the narrative itself is routinely interrupted by other voices. Gethenian folk legends, excerpts from religious texts, journal entries from Estraven, and reports from previous Ekumenical voyages to Gethen serve to call Genly’s outsider perspective into question and form a rich, dense mosaic of motifs, themes, and images that the novel has no interest in falsely organizing into a unified whole. Tracing these recurring ideas within the text and connecting the dots is a big part of the pleasure I gain from reading this novel.

This multifaceted approach to storytelling is a big part of why Gethen feels like one of Le Guin’s most lived-in worlds. Le Guin’s worldbuilding is always fascinating to examine from a theoretical perspective. Here, her society with ‘no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive’ anticipates the work of feminist poststructuralists like Hélène Cixous, who theorizes that our binary construction of gender both influences and is reinforced by other binary relationships in language and thought. But unlike the settings of Le Guin’s more straightforwardly allegorical works, such as The Dispossessed, Gethen is sprawling, expansive, and intricately detailed, existing for its own sake; every landscape, environment, and character hints at a life far beyond the confines of the narrative.

Every time I revisit The Left Hand of Darkness (I’ve been keeping an emergency copy by my bed for the past month), I fall in love all over again with its vistas, beautifully realized through prose so dense that at times it reads like poetry. The red sandstone palaces of Ehrenrang, the roaring fire in Estraven’s house, the hospitality of rural Karhiders, the stifling comfort of Orgoreyn, the squalor of Pulefen labour camp, the vast glacier over which Genly and Estraven escape imprisonment … all these landscapes have lingered in my imagination to both console and disturb. By far my favourite portions of the novel concern Genly’s time with the Handdara, ‘a religion without institution, without priests, without hierarchy, without vows, without creed’.

The Handdarata’s particular form of mysticism goes a long way toward informing the novel’s hope for a politics defined not by hierarchy, but by an irreducible I-Thou relationship. Genly eventually comes to understand that his mission is ‘[n]ot political, not pragmatic, but mystical’, requiring reverence toward differences in culture as well as gender and sexuality. His coming heralds more than just a political alliance; it defers toward a future of mutual understanding that is already present in the interplanetary solidarity of the Ekumen, but still yet-to-come in his own relationships with others.

With its nuanced explorations of gender, politics, religion, and science, The Left Hand of Darkness embodies the best of what speculative fiction has to offer, proving that escapism and social consciousness need not be at odds with one another. Gethen is a world I foresee myself revisiting over and over again, and Le Guin’s words have spoken light and warmth to me on many a cold, dark night.

Dreaming in Their Language: Arrival and the Time of the Other

SPOILER WARNING: If you have not yet seen Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival and still want to, close this window, go to your nearest cinema, and see it ASAP. This post contains mega-spoilers for the film.

Last week was rough. It had only been a week since He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was elected to be the next President of the United States and already I was watching my home country from afar as it transformed into (even more of) a racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, queerphobic, xenophobic police state. I found it hard to concentrate on any one thing for very long as I tried to balance teaching and essay-marking with checking in with vulnerable friends and family from a distance, trying to resist the silencing voices that were coming from the political right and middle, and fighting off a nasty bout of tonsillitis.

So on Wednesday, my marking done and my seminars for the week finished, I was in desperate need of a two-hour respite in a dark room in front of a giant screen. I had heard many great things about Arrival (it’s a mainstream sci-fi film about linguistics! and one that lets fifteen minutes pass before a white man even utters a syllable!), so I hopped on the subway into town, bought a ticket, and settled into my seat hoping that the intriguing sci-fi narrative promised by the trailers would calm me down for a while.

There’s a moment, midway through Denis Villeneuve’s beautifully crafted film, in which Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) finds herself becoming dislocated in time. The film’s storytelling, which until that point follows a fairly linear—if slightly stylized—structure, suddenly begins to unravel, with even basic conversational scenes fragmented by jarring jump-cuts and disorienting insertions of what we’re led to believe are flashbacks (more on the latter in a bit). Concerned, Louise’s research partner Ian (Jeremy Renner) asks, ‘Have you been dreaming in their language?’

Louise is an expert linguist, recruited by the U.S. military to try to communicate with the Heptapods, aliens who have arrived in twelve spaceships at twelve different sites around the globe. Where they’re from and what they want is unknown, and many of the world leaders working to puzzle this out suspect that the Heptapods are planning an attack or an invasion. This puts Louise under immense pressure to get the information she needs from them as soon as possible.

Louise herself has different ideas, however. Noting the immense gulf that likely exists between the grammatical structure of English and a language that is wholly other, she rejects the (perhaps unintentionally) oppositional tactics that have been employed by the U.S.’s allies (Chinese linguists, for example, have been communicating with the Heptapods using mahjong tiles) in favour of a more careful approach: one that, from a certain point of view, may be read as deconstructive. Starting hesitantly, from square one, Louise and the two Heptapods that have landed in the U.S. (nicknamed ‘Abbot’ and ‘Costello’) begin exchanging brief written messages in their respective languages. What Louise gradually learns about the Heptapods’ language may at first seem like intriguing, but non-essential, worldbuilding. Upon closer examination, however, it’s essential for understanding the film’s themes as well as its literal narrative.

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Written Heptapod is not bound by time. Its characters, signifying meaning rather than sound, all occur simultaneously in open, circular structures that articulate complete thoughts. This is why Louise, as she becomes more and more deeply immersed in her analysis of the language, gradually becomes un-stuck in time. The film cites the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity as the in-story reason why this happens (shout-out to my linguist friend who later explained to me that the way Sapir-Whorf actually works is a little bit more complicated than that), but from an interpretative standpoint, this element of the film also resonates strongly with the ethical impulses underpinning deconstruction and the notion of différance.

In a moment when global politics are so dominated by xenophobic immigration policies and the resurrection of fascism, Arrival is incredibly timely in the way it systematically dismantles the fear of difference so commonly found in the alien invasion subgenre. Rather than the hostile plan for colonization that the majority of the film’s characters expect from the Heptapods (often citing, in classic H.G. Wells fashion, western civilization’s imperialist history), their mission turns out to be a benevolent one of exchanging language for the purpose of building an alliance not only between human and Heptapod, but between all the nations of Earth. Each of the twelve nations visited by Heptapods is given a twelfth of their language, requiring researchers worldwide to cooperate in order to decode it.

Given the current events to which Arrival is, in part, a response, it’s important to note that deconstruction draws heavy influence from the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whose notions of radical hospitality and ethics of alterity (or otherness) were a reaction to the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II. For him, western society was in desperate need of ‘a logic other than that of Aristotle, of a thought other than civilized’. What Levinas therefore proposes among the ruins of Enlightenment philosophy is ‘a philosophy of dialogue that cannot not be an ethics’, in which ethical responsibility is determined not by abstract, theorized principles but by an encounter with the other. This responsibility requires not only an attention to the suffering of others, but also a recognition that they are radically other and separate from ourselves, not to be located within any universalized, transcendent humanism.

So far, it’s fairly easy to see how this relates to Arrival; sci-fi narratives about alien encounters are a well-established way of articulating human hopes and anxieties regarding how we view and relate to the other. But Derrida takes this a step further, and demonstrates that this radical difference that’s so essential to any act of genuine hospitality is linguistic as well as ethical. Coining the term différance so as to distinguish it from simple differentiation, he theorizes radical difference within language’s structure as the paradoxical condition for any dialogue or mutual understanding, not just in the differences between sounds or graphic symbols and their assigned meanings, but also in the way they’re spaced out and separated by time.

So what does this mean for an alien race whose written language isn’t temporally spaced, and whose difference from the linear structure of many human languages literally causes moments to coalesce into a unified experience? This is where, to me, Arrival’s status as optimistic fantasy becomes most apparent—and to be clear, I absolutely mean that as a compliment. The film implies that the Heptapod writing system may serve as a kind of ‘universal language’, both literally and metaphorically uniting people across nations, across cultures, across time itself. The open, circular structure of the Heptapods’ graphematic symbols can be read to signify another of deconstruction’s key qualities: openness toward the future and the approach of the other. In short, the film dares to envision the connection with the other that deconstruction is much more hesitant and cagey about giving tangible representation.

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Temporal paradoxes abound in the narrative as Louise’s familiarity with the Heptapod language allows her to gain crucial insights from the future for preventing an interplanetary war resulting from various mistranslations of the Heptapods’ message for humanity. (Are they presenting humanity with a weapon, a tool, or a gift?) Throughout the film we’re presented with the recurring image of a lake framed in the doorway of a screened-in porch. The message is clear; we, the audience, are being urged, like Louise, to look toward a future horizon, receptive to the hope of future unity.

Yet wisely, Arrival doesn’t sugarcoat its message; as Jessica Lachenal has stated in her review for The Mary Sue, this isn’t a Hollywood liberal, ‘all lives matter’ kind of film. The eventual solidarity between human and Heptapod and unity among nations is hard-won, and there are lives lost. And openness to the future means being receptive to tragedy as well as triumph. We eventually learn that what were ostensibly flashbacks featuring Louise’s daughter who dies of cancer are actually flash-forwards, and that in order to embrace the hopeful future she has been shown through her newfound perception of time, Louise must also make herself vulnerable to this personal trauma.

Arrival is the kind of story we need—the kind of story I need—in the wake of everything that’s happened in 2016. It’s a year when we have seen ample evidence of language used as a weapon against the vulnerable, and in response many have used it as a vital tool for dismantling systems of oppression. Arrival, with its lyrical, elliptical approach to storytelling, reminds us that we also need language used artfully, offered as a gift, to dare us to dream of better worlds.