Notes from New Sodom

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

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Email Problem

Normal email fucked by cashflow crisis!

If you need to reach me try:

hal underscore duncan at hotmail dot co dot uk

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Notes on Strange Fiction: Narrative's Function (1)

0. The Function(s) of Articulation

There's an idea you hear a lot in the discourse of pulp genre, that fiction is above all else about communication. This often goes hand in hand with condemnations of this or that work as inaccessible or pretentious, more concerned with crafting a pretty artifice than with making that artifice function as it's meant to. The basic judgement is that the writer has breached the protocols of narrative by being more concerned with (superficial) presentation than (substantive) transmission, more interested in style than content.

The dichotomy of style and content is, of course, bogus, but since I've laboured that point elsewhere ("Strange Sentences"), as have others (e.g. Delany, in his essay, "About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words"), I'm not going to reiterate the argument. What I'm more interested in here is the implicit assumption of what narrative is for, because while I'm exactly the type of writer who's obsessed with the aesthetics of the artifice itself, while I'm actually rather dubious of the privileging of the writer as dispenser of grand or pointed insights in their stories, I'm not entirely convinced by the contrary viewpoint that seems to predominate in communities bound more to the literary genres and to the critique of literature in general, where narrative is seen as ultimately autotelic -- having a purpose in and of itself.

The question I want to ask, then, is pretty basic: What is the core function of narrative?

Narrative is, of course, as much social interaction as linguistic construct. Yes, it is an object, a string of sentences spliced together into paragraphs, paragraphs stuck together into scenes, scenes sewn together into episodes, episodes sutured together to form the narrative as a whole. It is a stitching-of-songs, a rhapsody whether in poetry or prose. But every song is a song because it is sung; every sentence is an act; so narrative is also a process. In the terminology of linguistics this dynamic aspect of discourse is acknowledged by referring to that object-in-action, the verbal statement, as a speech act or utterance. Partly because it is a less formal term and partly because, when it comes to narrative, more often than not we're dealing with written rather than verbal statements, I'm going to adopt a simple terms for the units of narrative (sentences, paragraphs, scenes, episodes and narrative as a whole): articulation.

The term seems apt: it encapsulaties the structure of the object (it is articulated -- composed of units and decomposable back to those units); and it encapsulates the process of its enaction (it has been articulated -- not simply composed as an abstract structure but manifested in a concrete form).

So, narrative is a type of articulation. As such, its purpose is more complex, I think, than either of the two views above allow for. This becomes clear if we look at it in terms of Roman Jakobson's model of the functions of language. Jakobson proposes that every message (which is to say every articulation) involves six key features:

• a sender (a speaker or writer);
• a receiver (a listener or reader);
• a channel (a line of communication that must be opened and closed);
• a code (a language, spoken or written);
• a context for the message (the situation it refers to);
• the message itself (a particular construct in the code).

Any articulation can be seen as an operation which takes one of these six features as a "target" that it focuses upon, which is to say that there are six functions any articulation may have, six operations it may be performing:

• Emotive (expressing the sender's state);
• Conative (inciting the receiver's response);
• Phatic (opening and closing the channel);
• Meta-linguistic (verifying the code);
• Referential (relating to a context);
• Poetic (existing as a construct for its own sake).

Some examples as illustrations:

• Emotive: "Fuck!";
• Conative: "Come here!";
• Phatic: "Hey there!";
• Meta-linguistic: "What the fuck does 'metalinguistic' mean?";
• Referential: "The dog is barking";
• Poetic: "The dead dog eats / dirt of the death-world's streets".

In Jakobson's model, one or other of these functions will be dominant in any articulation, though others may be present. To look at it from another angle, with any articulation we can ask what operations are taking place, whether directly or indirectly, in isolation or conjunction, in collaboration or conflict. In so far as narrative is articulation, those two viewpoints outlined above can be understood as essentialist assertions as to the function of narrative; in one view it is inherently referential, in the other inherently poetic.

There are problems with both of these views, I think, that become clear if we examine Jakobson's model at a little more depth. Being a thrawn sort however, the first thing I'm going to do is re-articulate the model. The parlance of information technology -- sender and receiver, context and code, etc. -- are too mechanical for my liking; and the terms for the related functions lack clarity and consistency. Besides, I want to throw the idea of a potential seventh function into the mix.

What Jakobson's model neglects, I think, is the medium within which the message is fabricated, the medium that must be established as a relationship between context and code, just as the channel must be established as a relationship between sender and receiver. Much of Jakobson's poetic function (referred to by other linguists sometimes as the rhetorical or aesthetic function) can, I'd argue, be better understood as targeting the medium rather than the message, reformulated as a "fabricative" function in which the operation is one of purely abstract structuring, pattern-generation. What is going on in the fabricative (poetic, rhetorical, aesthetic) articulation is a process of shaping the message as an articulation of the medium's potential, forms being selected for the pleasure of abstract order in its own right -- the harmonies of repetition and resonances, rhyme and rhythm, and so on.

This leaves the message, however, as a target without an associated function, which is where my proposed seventh function comes in. When I say that much of Jakobson's poetic function is targeting the medium, that "much of" is a significant caveat; a substantial part of what we classify as "poetic language" is, I think, doing something quite different. Metaphor and metonymy are quite distinct in nature from the abstract patterning of rhyme and rhythm; they may signify at a level of symbolism removed from the literal but they nevertheless signify. It would be a mistake to conflate figurative language with directly referential language, but it is equally a mistake, I think, to treat this sort of "poetic" articulation as autotelic artificing. With that in mind, I'd propose a revision of Jakobson's model which splits his poetic function into fabricative and figurative:

• Expressive (focused on the agent, revealing their state);
• Manipulative (focused on the audience, inciting their response);
• Connective (focused on the connection, conducting interactions);
• Coordinative (focused on the idiom, systematizing usage);
• Representative (focused on the subject, modelling events);
• Fabricative (focused on the medium, structuring articulation);
• Figurative (focused on the text, creating idiom).

The idea that I'm playing with here is that the text (i.e. the message) may be an act of (emotive) expression, (conative) manipulation, (phatic) connection, (meta-linguistic) coordination or (poetic) fabrication, but it may also be, at a fundamental level, an act of figuration, and that this is the dominant function wherever the text itself is the target of articulation. In segregating out figuration, what I'm suggesting is that the operation at play in figurative language -- metaphor and metonym -- needs to be distinguished from both literal reference-making (mimesis) and abstract pattern-making (autotelesis), understood as discretely purposed. That purpose, I'm suggesting, is the creation of idiom -- i.e. the ongoing (re)generation of the linguistic system itself.

Crucially, in viewing figurative language as a process of generating idiom, and associating this with the message as target, this model constitutes a wholesale rejection of the idea that the text as artwork is to be taken as an autotelic object. Rather, it works like this: due to the complexity of subjects, representative language is often inadequate to its own function; when the existing idiom cannot represent the subject to the satisfaction of the agent, the process of figuration targets the text in order to modify the assignations of code to context; within the text it creates an articulation which parses to an entirely spurious pseudo-subject, a figure; this figuration is significantly problematic to any literal reading, the figure it claims to be representing patently false if not impossible; it must be actively interpreted, the figure understood as symbol for an absent subject; the relationship of signifier and signified that is established through that interpretation constitutes an idiom; it may be a one-time affair, used only in that instance, but it may be taken up, become a part of the established code, a new signifier-signified relationship to be used freely in representative language.

An example: The absurd horror of war is a truly complex subject; it is difficult to capture the sheer unreason of it in purely mimetic reportage. So, in CATCH-22, Joseph Heller creates a figuration, the eponymous regulation, which does not parse directly to his subject but to a patently invented figure, problematic to any literal reading because it is both false and logically invalid in its circularity. To make sense of this the reader must understand it as symbol for the absent subject, the vicious illogic of a no-win situation so incredibly, inedibly fucked-up as to be representatively inarticulable. And indeed, Heller's figuration is such a functional idiom that it has been taken-up, used widely by people who may have never read the book, may not even know the origin of the term. To talk of being "caught in a Catch-22" in an everyday context is, functionally speaking, a representation.

In the above description of figuration, and in the example offered, I have been careful to make no assumptions as to how the interpretation is made, how the figure is related to the absent subject. Heller's conceit could be construed as an extended metaphor, the "vehicle" of the invented regulation mapped to the "tenor" of the subject by analogy, a resemblance recognised on the abstract level. Not all figuration is metaphoric though; in metonymy, the process of interpretation is not based on resemblances but on other forms of association -- the association of a crown with a king, for example, such that we use the artefact as a metonymic stand-in for the person. And where figurative language creates an idiomatic signifier-signified relationship between, say, "Catch-22" and a certain type of situation or between "crown" and king, this may not be all it does. Where Truman Capote's "The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on," can be taken to mean, "Critics bluster ineffectually; writers carry on regardless," it creates an idiomatic signifier-signified relationship between "dogs" and critics, it but also subtly redefines "dogs" and "bark" in our idiom, nudges us towards a notion of canine over-excitement as dumb hostility. It does not just set up a sort of symbolic short-hand denotation; it modifies the whole matrix of connotations attached to the symbols we select as signifiers.

The modification of our idiom caused by the act of figuration may be subtler still. Where in basic metaphors the correspondance of vehicle and tenor is often easily reconstructed or even explicit, as that metaphor is extended the figure may become such a centre of attention that its relationship to a particular absent subject becomes despecified. If the figure of Heller's Catch-22 originally metaphorised the particular lunacies of war, the idiom has been afforded a more general application, signifying lunacies of the same flavour in any number of possible contexts. Ultimately the subject may be so absented, suggested at the most liminal thematic level if at all, that the extended figuration is not read as metaphor at all; instead it is read as story. This is to say that narrative is essentially an act of figuration: its function is not to represent, but neither is it wholly autotelic; rather it is figurative, a crafting of idiom at a level higher and more abstract even than extended metaphor, at the level of stories -- which exist to revise the code, in Jakobson's terms, to establish new mappings between code and context.

It is not hard to imagine the figure of dogs barking at a caravan which trundles on extended into a narrative that is not inherently -- nor even apparently -- bound to the subject of critics and writers. Different readers may consider that figure to be standing in for entirely different subjects, may read into the narrative entirely different themes. In that action of interpretation, each reader selecting a different signifier-signified relationship, one so nebulous perhaps that it is barely possible to articulate, each is essentially modifying their own personal idiom in all sorts of ways, crude or subtle. As figurative rather than representative, narrative is not crudely polemical in the way it relates to its subjects, speaking of it only implicitly at most; but as figurative rather than fabricative, narrative is not autotelic at all. It is not simply relevant to a real world subject; it is a praxis by which we reshape our idiom in order to be relevant better. CATCH-22 does not just speak of the absurd horror of war; it addresses the idiom by which we speak of war, the idiom by which we speak of any subject. It manipulates that idiom, offers a matrix of associations that redefine "heroism", "cowardice" and "madness". This is the key function of narrative, I'd argue -- not just to comment on reality, but to critique the way we comment on it -- and the ultimate judgement of how well it performs that function is a judgement of the value added by this creative reconfiguration of the idiom, of the improved pertinence of the code in and of itself.

Still, if figuration is the key function of narrative, the other functions are not wholly absent. Actually, I'd argue, it's worth interrogating narrative in terms of each -- or looking at how each of these relate to narrative. So, over the next few posts I reckon I'm going to kick these functions around a bit, maybe try and justify my idiosyncratic nomenclature and this "seventh function" in a little more depth. For now though, I'm off on a wee jaunt to the Czech Republic on Friday (which I'm really looking forward to), so I'll leave it here and pick up the story when I get back.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Notes on Strange Fiction: Postmodern(ism)

In response to my last post on pataphysics, Matt asks, what would I consider "an explicitly postmodern text using pataphysics, as opposed to a modernist like Davenport?"

A short answer would be BUFFET FROID; I think this does read as a postmodern text in most respects. The long answer is a bit more complicated, because the idea of explicitness raises an interesting point here, I think, a flake of paint that I want to peel away -- scratch at the implications to see what's revealed underneath. A self-evidently or even apparently postmodern text is one thing; an explicitly postmodern text is another -- one, surely, which asserts a singular nature for itself as "postmodern". To me that means it's not just postmodern but postmodernist. What I mean is that, articulable in either that modifier "explicitly" or in the suffix "-ism", there's an important distinction to be made in terms of mode and agenda.

To try and clarify this a little, the idea that a text's philosophy is explicit in that text for me implies that when we read the narrative what we find is that the author's intent is stated, that a particular reading is invited. An explicitly postmodern text, I mean, would be one which articulates its nature, says, "I am a postmodern text: I was written as a postmodern text; I am to be read as a postmodern text." Read in a certain way, knowing that they come from a certain context, exhibit certain features, we could happily label many texts postmodern. If we buy into the idea of postmodernity as a condition we're living in (versus modernity), then we have texts born of this era, texts which exemplify it, texts which are postmodern in the same way that earlier texts were modern. If we're treating postmodernism as an aesthetic project, that's a different story; we're looking for texts which are part of that project, texts which are postmodernist in the same way Joyce's ULYSSES is modernist.

Hang on though. What do I mean by postmodern(ism) anyway?


Postmodernism, in the wikipedia definition, is "a cultural, intellectual, or artistic state lacking a clear central hierarchy or organizing principle and embodying extreme complexity, contradiction, ambiguity, diversity, interconnectedness or interreferentiality, in a way that is often indistinguishable from a parody of itself." Clearly the pataphysical quirks I was talking about in the previous entry -- which I hereby dub suturae, btw -- are a key literary technique in any text which is articulating that state; they create that sense of heterodoxy and disjunction, an aesthetics of anarchy. If you buy into the idea of postmodernity as an era, you might well argue that the conflation of pataphysics and postmodernism is only natural: those sutura are signs of the times; texts adopt them because they're addressing this postmodern era; it's only sensible to see these sutured texts as essentially postmodern. But postmodernism is more than this, I'd say; defined in opposition to modernism (as negation, inversion, successor,) it's not just a state -- that state is (or would be) postmodernity -- but a project.

To understand precisely what that project entails requires putting it in the context of modernism.


For me, modernism is pataphysics applied as a method for generating coherence out of confusion, a stitching-of-songs into a grand rhapsodic tapestry. (The Greek term, rhapsody, literally translates as "stitching-of-songs"; I would argue that the modernist project is, in fact, the project of literature from the get-go, evidenced in the stitched-together narrative structures of everything from GILGAMESH up, through Apuleius's THE GOLDEN ASS, through Cervantes' DON QUIXOTE, to Joyce's ULYSSES. But that's another argument...) Stitching together variant forms -- comedic, tragic, satiric, mythic, mimetic, literary, paraliterary -- it seeks to create a Big Picture from the juxtapositions, in the contrasts and congruities born of the seamed structure. (On the crudest, most literal level, the story-arcs that emerge in the seasons of series such as BUFFY or ANGEL can be understood as Big Pictures; in ANGEL particularly, the entire series has a key moment when that Big Picture resolves into clarity, when Angel demands to meet the ultimate Big Bad, whoever is in charge of Hell, and is presented with the streets of LA, the human race, as the ultimate Powers-That-Be.)

Postmodernism, then, emerges out of a sense that such a Big Picture is neither palatable nor, in truth, possible, where it pretends to truth as an objective assertion about the nature of things, a grand statement of the human condition. These are Lyotard's "meta-narratives", theories of history that project an underlying universalist organisation upon an inherently meaningless jumble of events and experiences. Such meta-narratives are considered suspect because they provide authoritative readings of reality. Postmodernism rejects that authority. The author is dead, according to Barthes; there is no unifying objective "truth" to be found; the multiplicity of conflicting subjective readings must be recognised.

Where BUFFET FROID hints -- in an exceedingly liminal manner -- at one reading in which the narrative is the Depardieu character's dream, but equally at an alternative reading in which the narrative is the Depardieu character's Hell, it does not resolve into either. Each reading is equally valid, and authorial intent is irrelevant. The point is not for the reader to decipher, from the clues, a latent but more legitimate "reality". In this respect the film is clearly open to reading as a postmodern(ist) text, one which embodies that state of contradiction and, crucially, accepts it, one which recognises the multiplicity of interpretations.

We can take this idea of postmodernity a little deeper though, overlay Baudrillard's notion of "simulacra", his post-structuralist position that language itself simply doesn't sustain such authoritative readings. The thing is, we relate to the world indirectly, through the dynamic matrix of signifiers, our understanding of actual objects (dogs and cats, say) mediated by our ideation/signification of them (as "dogs" or "cats"); and with the meaning of each sign determined by its relationships to others, the whole system of language is too fluid to allow for the total understanding(s) we desire. The attempt to artifice a Big Picture, in fact, seduces us into simulacra of reality. Where Baudrillard develops this to relate to society as a whole, I don't want to offer a crude reduction of ideas I might be misunderstanding, but a postmodernist position rooted in that view might be that, to all intents and purposes, reality has been usurped, that we live now in a realm of symbols rather than objects. If the meta-narratives are false, the reality they claim to refer to is lost to us; all we have left is an incoherent collage of conflicting stories.

Again, we might well relate this to BUFFET FROID where the narrative offers semiosis rather than mimesis -- the symbols of characters, places and actions working through relationships to each other that are ultimately divorced from the objective reality we would expect them to be related to, gaining their meanings not from referential connections with real-world objects but from their interactions with each other. The "dream" and "afterlife" interpretations, in fact, might be traced to this dislocation of narrative into the symbolic realm, our reading of the setting as dreamscape or netherworld understood as attempts to rationalise the symbolic realm/system, integrate it into our idea of reality as a metaphoric/metaphysical inner or outer sphere of action with connecting bridges across which meaning can be imported. Rejecting the autotelic meaning offered in the narrative in and of itself, these readings become attempts to bind it to an "objective reality" which, in a postmodernist view, does not exist.

Blowing up those bridges then, considering the film as a purely autotelic artwork, it is quite possible, I'd argue, to read the work as dealing wholly with symbols and the relationships between them: a deserted Metro station; a flick-knife; a murder; a deserted tower-block; a wife; a police commissioner; a strangler; and so on. We can read it as a performance in the Theatre of the Absurd, more mockery than mimicry. The indifference of its characters to the cruelty of their own actions and those of others, the general lack of any emotionally sensible reaction in the face of strangeness after strangeness -- much of the film can be seen as indicative of postmodernism's rejection of any pretence that we can know reality. The symbols dance and, in that dance, adopt postures and positions toward each other; we read meaning into the pattern of narrative built up in this way; but ultimately what we are confronted with is a simulacra.

From this, in turn, the postmodernist notion of "play" emerges. The autotelic text is a game of symbols, an artifice of ironic detachment, ludic or cynical, embodying an intellectual delight in the game for its own sake or an emotional disaffection in the absence of certainty. Viewed as a "black comedy", BUFFET FROID embodies both: it functions as a farce, offering the fun of the game, in its comical narrative of confusions and complications; it is also bleakly existentialist/nihilist in its brutalist excision of any sense of empathic relationships between in its characters.

This is where a niggling problem with the whole idea of postmodernism kicks in for me though. As much as I'm sympathetic to many of the concerns that postmodernism is rooted in -- the interrogation of meta-narrative's universalism, the model of meaning as dynamic system of shifting relationships rather than mechanical structure of concrete connections, the focus on semiotic systems as simulacra that have long since achieved independence from any objective reality -- and as much as I have a sometimes ludic and sometimes cynical outlook myself, this is where I find myself suspicious of postmodernism as a project within art and as a philosophy in its own right, not least of all in its assertion of postmodernity as the era we are now living in.

Partly this suspicion rests in a critique of postmodernism as ultimately a nihilist/existentialist flavour of modernism, one in which the destruction of meta-narrative, the death of the author, the democratisation of reading, the recognition of heterodoxy, the extirpation of absolutism from systems of language and thought, can all be viewed as modernism that takes, as its universal meta-narrative, only the illegitimacy of essentialism. Rather than a successor to modernism, this is only one (central and crucial) subtype at the heart of it, evidenced in the work of Nietszche and Sartre.

For me, as a nihilist/existentialist of sorts, this is not perhaps an invalidation of postmodernism in and of itself, simply a rearticulation that brings into question the idea of modernity and postmodernity as distinct historic states; for me the recognition of the vacuum at the heart of absolutist/essentialist systems is a core feature of modernity wherever it is to be found. That so characteristically postmodern response to that vacuum, however, the response of ironic detachment, is one that I have less sympathy for, in so far as it consitutes, I think, an admission of defeat. What I mean is, if we take that ludic/cynical irony as an articulation of the postmodernist worldview, the text becomes a statement-by-negation about the potentialities of narrative and about reality as a dead zone for meaning, an assertion that narrative can be no more than a game, to be played for its own sake, that sincerity is untenable in this postmodern era of simulacra.

This brings us back to the question of postmodernism as an explicit project of a text, a position adopted by the narrative. If we read BUFFET FROID as a postmodern text, we have three (or more) possible readings: it takes place in a dream; it takes place in Hell; it takes place in the realm of symbols. If we read it simply as a pataphysical narrative, a fourth reading is possible, a reading that is not metaphysical but not entirely autotelic -- one in which, regardless of the context we project onto the events, it is understood as having something relevant to say as regards actual human relationships, about empathy and the lack thereof, about alienation and our capacity for cruelty. If our postmodernism is consistent in its rejection of authority, in fact, it should hardly refuse the validity of such a reading, a reading in which the patterning of the simulacra is stubbornly taken as a commentary upon objective reality. Whether the characters are dead, in a dream of death, or stuck in a simulacra of death... well... there's a fairly consistent theme here; there's little that's more objectively real, I'd say, more universally relevant, than death.

People die. Is that a meta-narrative? What can I say? I'm a modernist. I'm an existentialist modernist, holding to the idea that existence precedes essence; but I don't think it's a contradiction-in-terms to also hold to the idea that existence ends.

From a nihilist/existentialist position then, reading BUFFET FROID as a comment on the objective reality of death -- if only as a comment on a (post)modern state of confusion where we're pretty much divorced from that objective reality -- is valid, I'd say. Any narrative can be seen as a purely strategic creative action, a crafting of symbolic commentary which entails an adoption of the rhetorical tricks of essentialism, but does so on the understanding that any "statement" made is just that -- the existential act of an existential agent. A rejection of the idea that life has any inherent meaning doesn't preclude us from trying to make sense of it. The conscious fabrication of meaning in this way is not "bad faith", the expectation being that the reader will create their own meaning from the articulation on offer. It's fiction, after all, not religion; you're not meant to believe it.

Reading BUFFET FROID as an explicitly postmodern text however, I think, risks projecting onto that ironic detachment an an intentional impetus that is at odds with the very philosophy we're taking it to espouse. In this philosophy where the author is dead we are, paradoxically, fabricating an authoritative reading in which the meaning of the narrative is sourced back to Bertrand Blier's agenda. Depardieu is not dreaming. Depardieu is not dead. Nor are we to read this as a symbolic critique of the human condition; this is postmodernism, and in the postmodernist view the realm of symbols is mere simulacra, irresolvably divorced from an "objective reality" that "no longer exists". By reading BUFFET FROID as part of the postmodernist project, it seems to me, we close off these "totalising" interpretations and leave only one valid reading of the text: as an autotelic artefact of darkly comic absurdity, the ironic distance of its vision the only tenable response in a postmodern era.

That explicitly postmodernist texts do exist and function in exactly this way is, I think, a problem for the philosophy of postmodernism -- or for me at least. This may be a failure of imagination on my part, I admit, but in the idea of an explicitly postmodernist narrative with irony as a necessary trait I sense that particular form of bad faith which is endemic enough to nihilism and existentialism to give them both bad reps as philosophies of fatalism and angst. What manifests in failed nihilism or existentialism as an essentialist projection of meaning onto the void, a pathetic fallacy that the value-neutral disinterest of the universe is a value-negative hostility, manifests in postmodernism as an essentialising (and totalising) negative valuation that treats the absence of authenticity with the disaffection of the cynic. I'm not convinced, in fact, that the disengagement inherent in the more playful irony of postmodernism which treats the text as game isn't equally dubious, a defensive distancing.

It is nice and safe, after all, to read BUFFET FROID as ironic. And it is a black comedy, after all. The events are farcical even at their darkest, artificed to an utter irrealism. Is it an explicitly postmodern text? Well, if the shoe fits, as they say... But at the same time, I can't help but relate its title to Burroughs' THE NAKED LUNCH, and parse it as an image of confrontation with reality, an image of that moment of recognition that the "simulacra" of a meal is actually the "objective reality" of a dead animal.


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Notes on Strange Fiction: The Pataphysical Quirk

The story so far:

Strange fiction is built from quirks -- words or phrases reading as images or image-combinations that breach the base-line subjunctivity level of "could have happened" attaching to any sentence read with a suspension-of-disbelief. Quirks come in different flavours according to (amongst othet things) the type of impossibility they embody, temporal or nomological. Dividing temporal impossibility into technical and historical, we get the hypothetical novum and the counterfactual erratum. Understanding nomological impossibility as a transgression of the laws of nature, we get the metaphysical (supernatural or extra-natural) chimera.

OK. So...

There's a third level of possibility identified by philosophers. While this is sometimes equated with the nomological/metaphysical (where the laws of nature are considered a priori truths -- essential and necessary in and of themselves,) a more useful distinction can be made (where we allow for the laws of nature to be considered a posteriori truths). The third level of impossibility is, in this schema, the logical. A dilating door is a novum, and a Nazi US president is an erratum; these are temporal impossibilities (one technical, the other historical). A crescent sun is a chimera, a nomological impossibility. A word or phrase reading as an image or image-combination that is a contradiction-in-terms is a different flavour of quirk altogether. (It would be useful to have a name for these quirks of illogic, I have to say, but nothing springs to mind right now. Suggestions are welcome.)

So how do these quirks of illogic feature in strange fiction?

Left turn, Clyde.

Illogic in literature is one of my interests, including that which arises from narrative discontinuities, jarring juxtapositions of apparently unrelated scenes, cut-up and fold-in threads of story that are irresolvable into a coherent causality. Delany's DHALGREN does this effectively on a number of levels, from the circularity of its structure (the half-sentence that begins the book completing the unfinished half-sentence which ends it, a la FINNEGANS WAKE) to the upside-down journal entries spliced into the narrative towards the end. A different but comparable type of discontinuity is to be found in the story that climaxes his Neveryon sequence, "A Tale of Plagues and Carnivals", where events in his invented elsewhen are intercut with events in New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

Right turn. Clyde.

Delany's reference, in one of the appendices to the Neveryon books, to the writer Guy Davenport was enough to intrigue me enough that, coming across a copy of Davenport's collection of short stories, ECLOGUES, in a bookshop, I picked it up out of curiosity. In that collection there's a story called "Idyll" which I've referenced on numerous occassions as a core influence on my own work.

The story begins in ancient Greece with a contest of insults between a shepherd and a goatherd. (Like much of Davenport's work it is imbued with a Fourieresque utopianism and homoerotic sensualism that is both deeply appealing in its relish of the world's intellectual and sensational richness and deeply unsettling in its openness to critique as pederastic apologia.) The story pivots radically, however, when a dialogue exchange between the characters becomes a transition from ancient Greece to the American Civil War. Without quite being able to point to precisely where in the narrative this happens, the reader realises they have crossed a seam in reality. The two characters have morphed into soldiers in the mud and misery of a more modern conflict. The name of the story and the juxtaposition of Arcadian pastoral with modern warfare make for a fairly obvious meaning in the bold contrast -- the reader is not left utterly baffled -- but the shift is a deeply strange structuring. If a surface "message" seems self-evident in the juxtaposition, a deeper, more liminal meaning is coded in the congruities of the two spliced-together scenes (the seam of more abstract continuity between them) and in the negative space between them (the seam defined by their spatio-temporal incongruity). I find this story endlessly fascinating.

On the back cover of this Davenport collection I came across the term "pataphysics"* for the first time, in a blurb describing Davenport as one of the world's foremost pataphysicians. At the time I remember finding that strange term also quite intriguing. What the fuck, one asks oneself, is pataphysics?

Left turn, Clyde.


The Wikipedia entry is not entirely unhelpful but the characterisation it offers is by no means instantly comprehensible. Roughly speaking, it describes pataphysics as the study of what lies beyond the realm of metaphysics. The term coined by Alfred Jarry, it was defined by him as "the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments". The wikipedia entry also offers Raymond Queneau's description of pataphysics as founded "on the truth of contradictions and exceptions."

Here's my own take on it, a suggested interpretation of pataphysics which might be a little less opaque:

As metaphysics is to physics, so pataphysics is to metaphysics. If this seems like gibberish, we can understand the relationship in terms of levels of possibility. Where physics deals with (the limits of) temporal possibilities, and metaphysics with (the limits of) nomological possibilities, pataphysics deals with (the limits of) logical possibilities. Physics examines our world for its temporal structure of material cause-and-effect. Metaphysics steps outside the domain of physics in order to build models of nomological substructure that might (theoretically) allow for apparent circumventions of material cause-and-effect. Pataphysicis is the next step, necessary because metaphysics accepts the limitations imposed by logic. Where metaphysics creates models of systems that are (or are meant to be) coherent and comprehensive (because consisent and complete, as Godel tells us, is too much to ask), pataphysics creates diagrams of systems that focus on the contradictions and exceptions as significant in their own right.

Pataphysics is the study of logical impossibilities. Where temporal and nomological impossibility is artificed into narrative in the form of hypothetical / counterfactual and metaphysical quirks, logical impossibility is artificed into narrative in the form of pataphysical quirks.


But what does that mean in practical terms? What does a pataphysical quirk actually look like?

Just as it's not that difficult to situate novae, errata and chimerae in textual specifics ("The door dilated," "President Himmler sat in the Oval Office," "The crescent sun was high, the moon low,") pataphysical quirks are not so hard to pin down, I think, as it may at first seem. Understanding that the basic unit of illogic is the contradiction-in-terms, we can define the pataphysical quirk as a use of words or phrases (reading as images or image-combinations) that generates an inherent self-contradiction in the narrative, something that renders a sentence literal nonsense. Chomsky offers one possible example in the sentence "Colourless green ideas sleep furiously," which is actually a self-contradiction in a number of ways: anything green cannot be colourless; the quality of colour is not an attribute of ideas; ideas cannot sleep; sleep cannot be done furiously. The definitions of the terms make them incompatible.

In its simplest form then, the pataphysical quirk is an oxymoron like Chomsky's nonsense sentence. In practice, however, the basic oxymoron is not a very common form of the pataphysical quirk, possibly because we're often able to apply simple transformations to these sort of oxymorons, reinterpret them as metaphoric sense or bad writing rather than nonsense. An oxymoron like "The silence was deafening," can be read figuratively. An oxymoron like "He froze, turning his head slowly to look," can be understood as simply sloppy prose. (It's a sentence like this in the first few pages of THE DA VINCI CODE that made me stop reading.) And in strange fiction particularly the tendency to concretise metaphor in the form of conceits makes us prone to reading pataphysical quirks as metaphysical quirks. One can imagine a strange fiction narrative in which Chomsky's sentence makes sense:

In the metaphysical elsewhen of Morphologyland, ideas are living creatures, gelatinous and transparent like amoeba when newborn. Into this elsewhen are born two new ideas -- Modernity and Postmodernity. Dismissed by their elders as too green to deal with the world, these naive young ideas resent their low status, but not on a conscious level. The ideas of Morphologyland, you see, are so emotionally repressed they can only really experience their anger while dreaming. By day, Modernity and Postmodernity frolic in the fields, blithely unaware of the ire building within them. At night however, under a gibbous moon, these colourless green ideas sleep furiously, twitching and snarling in their fitful slumber.


If we're looking for pataphysical quirks then, we have to look beyond the simple oxymoron. The oxymoron does however point us in the direction we need to look. The underlying illogic of the oxymoron resides in the fact that it consitutes a simultaneous negation of the very assertion it is making. It is a breach of coherence, a violation of the cardinal rules of composition that apply within a linguistic system, a statement which paradoxically denies its own validity, flaunting its self-evident artifice. If we treat this violation of the system as the core feature of the pataphysical quirk, then we might begin to see, I think, how they can be constructed from far more sophisticated mechanisms.

The wikipedia article on pataphysics offers an interesting avenue for investigation in the idea of the "pataphor", a figure of speech that is to the metaphor as the metaphor is to the literal representation, one that creates an additional degree of separation between the narrative and its context. So if a literal representation of the context would have a character "make it clear exactly where they stand," and a metaphor would have them "lay their cards on the table," a pataphor would transform the metaphor into a new context, have the character "lay their cards on the table, then pick them up and start building a house of cards". While concretised metaphors may be written into the strange fiction of novae, errata and chimerae, and this sort of fantastication therefore quite familiar, the pataphor is noticeably distinct in the fact that it concretises the metaphor, in this example, as it occurs, violating convention in the most fundamental way, rendering the whole narrative as unpredictable and metamorphic as a dream. We might easily follow that pataphor with another, a description of the character "unlocking the door of that house of cards, picking up the mail from the mat as they walk in."

The pataphor is not all there is to it however. The typographical tricks of concrete poetry can also be understood as pataphysical quirks, as can those of books like Danielewski's HOUSE OF LEAVES, or Bester's THE STARS MY DESTINATION or THE DEMOLISHED MAN, violating the sequential structure of prose. The portmanteau puns of FINNEGANS WAKEare pataphysical quirks, every single one of them, from riverun onwards, violating the structural integrity of the words themselves. The interpolated, upside-down journal entries in Delany's DHALGREN are pataphysical quirks, as is the sentence split between end and beginning, fusing the narrative into a (logically impossible) loop. The collaging of narratives in "A Tale of Plagues and Carnivals" makes each section and each interstice between them a pataphysical quirk. Wherever we find such collage, in fact -- in the elegantly structured order of Guy Davenport's "On Some Lines of Virgil" or the cut-up and fold-in chaos of William Burroughs' THE NAKED LUNCH -- what we are dealing with is pataphysical quirks.

In short, any such disruption, anything which fucks with the conventions of the system, ruptures the linear continuity of the text, breaks it up into pieces and puts it back together in non-consecutive patterns, collapses it into itself or splays it out into reality in a metafictional breaking of the "fourth wall", any violation of the integrity of the narrative.-- can be considered a pataphysical quirk. If novae, errata and chimerae can be said to dislocate the narrative, in fact, shift it in one of three "temporal dimensions" -- the "forwards" of the hypothetical, the "sideways" of the counterfactual, the "up/down" of the metaphysical -- then the "fourth dimension" of potential dislocation can be said to be the pataphysical, that dislocation which breachs the "inner/outer" boundary between narrative and context.

The pataphysical quirk is not new. One very good reason, in fact, for gathering these variant techniques together under an umbrella term, understanding them all as pataphysical quirks, is that it's well past time we ceased referring to techniques that have been around in Western literature for over a century (and possibly much longer) as "experimental". These techniques are no longer experimental, and the writers that utilise them are no longer experimentalists. The pataphysical quirk is tried-and-tested, it has specific effects, and the writers that use it as are as often as not entirely aware of what they're trying to achieve with it.


So, what are the effects of the pataphysical quirk then?

Let's look at a very simple form of the pataphysical quirk as a starting-point. We can scale up an oxymoron such as "He froze, turning his head slowly to look," into the more complex sort of narrative non sequiturs we get in absurdist or surrealist fiction, the discontinuities that give these works their oneiric quality, the discombobulation engendered where the sentences don't build up into a sensible sequence. The pataphor outlined above may result in this, but the effect can also be achieved by straightforward self-contradiction. To take a visual example, in Bertrand Blier's film BUFFET FROID there are two such pataphysical quirks right at the start of the film, strangenesses which serve to establish its agenda.

In the opening scene, a commuter waiting in an otherwise empty Metro station is disconcerted by a conversation with a character played by Gerard Depardieu, in which the latter talks of his dreams of murder and displays a potential weapon -- a flick-knife. The setting is uncannily deserted but for these two and the conversation rich with non sequiturs, but the real quirk comes when the flick-knife is laid down on a seat behind them only to have disappeared when they next turn to look for it. One might, at a stretch, imagine that one of the characters has surreptitiously pocketed it, or that someone has snuck in and across the large empty space of the platform to steal it, staying out of shot at all times; neither of these fancies is remotely plausible however. The knife is simply there one moment, gone the next.

The second quirk seals the deal, in fact. After being kept out of a train by the alarmed commuter, Depardieu is seen walking through a tunnel of the station -- where he finds the commuter who we've seen leave on that train just seconds ago. Depardieu's flick-knife is stuck in his stomach, and the dying man's description of his attacker is pointedly applicable to Depardieu. Again there is a strangeness to the presentation -- an absence of blood, a casual acceptance in the way both respond to the situation -- but it is the discontinuity that is the core of the strangeness. The narrative simply does not make sequential sense. The implicit cause-and-effect connections of the shots (like that which binds the sentences of written fiction) renders the whole series of events an inherent self-contradiction.

Pataphysical quirks such as these often invite a reading of the narrative as oneiric, the discontinuities modeled on those of dreams, the whole narrative as a representation of a dream even. This is, I'd say, one potential reading of BUFFET FROID, suggested right at the start by the unreal quality of the deserted station, the casual attitude of the characters to the strange situation, perhaps even specifically hinted at in Depardeiu's casual disclosure that he dreams of murdering strangers. In Michel Gondry's THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP similar pataphysical quirks of narrative non sequitur are explicitly sourced to dreams. The narrative is comprehensible as a night-time recombination and fancification of a day-time situation that can be at least partially reconstructed. Likewise, we might read BUFFET FROID as a dream of the day-time counterpart of Depardieu's character, reconstructing some of his reality from the alienation and existentialism articulated as much in the setting as anything else. His loveless relationship with his wife, their home in an otherwise empty tower-block in La Defense, her eventual murder -- these could be read as pointers to an external reality.

With BUFFET FROID this reading remains largely a projection of the viewer however, with little more than Depardieu's early mention of dreams to suggest it. An equally viable (and equally suppositional) reading is possible in which the grim desolation is that of some sort of existentialist Hell. The films sits easily within that mode of strange fiction which represents the afterlife as an amnesiac reiteration of the bleak misery of reality. The depopulation of the cityscape, the casualness with which murder is committed throughout the film, the fact that most characters seem entirely willing to despatch others without regret, the fact that Depardieu's murdered wife's corpse has an expression of relief -- much of the strangeness of the film makes perfect sense if we simply imagine that this is a murderer's circle of hell. So, Depardieu, having committed some murder in reality, has been damned to a cold inferno inhabited by characters with as little empathy as himself, spiritless souls whose only course in their empty afterlives is to repeat their crimes upon each other until they themselves are (presumably) sent to oblivion through murder. The murder of the commuter at the start of the movie is, in this reading, a presentation of his own culpability to him. While Depardieu buries this in his amnesiac denial, editing his action out of the incident, he remains sufficiently aware of this guilt to question, wondering aloud to his wife and others as to whether it's possible that he did actually murder the commuter.

This reading of the film is, of course, just as much a projection, a rationalisation which is ultimately unneccessary and reductive. In this type of narrative, the point is not to find a "solution" to the strangeness, the underlying "actual truth" which makes everything sensible. In THE BIRTHDAY PARTY by Harold Pinter, it's not really relevant what "organisation" Stanley might or might not have left. In THE PRISONER it doesn't really matter whether the Village is run by the British, Russian, American or Ruritanian secret service. To look for such literal reductions is, as often as not, to miss the entire point. The pataphysical quirk is there to disrupt this process of rationalisation, to strip away the self-serving logic of cause-and-effect, to disjoint our stories of self and world, present us with the bare bones of the dynamics that our relationships with self and world are based on, the meat of isolated actions and situations. BUFFET FROID translates from the French (for anyone that doesn't know this) as COLD CUTS. It is the same image that underlies the title of William Burroughs seminal work of cut-up and fold-in narrative non sequitur: THE NAKED LUNCH. Burroughs explained his title as representing the moment of realisation that comes when one looks down at the dead meat on one's plate and understands exactly what it is.

This is pataphysics.


As Guy Davenport demonstrates, though, this is not all that pataphysics is, not all it can be. The illogic is not necessarily used to expose brutality, the bleakness of an amoral universe empty of intrinsic meaning. This is certainly a tendency in pataphysical writing, in which the absurd and the cruel often go hand in hand, but the technique of the pataphysical quirk is simply a technique. Like any technique it can be used with quite different objectives in mind.

Michael Winterbottom's movie NINE SONGS is a narrative which utilises pataphysical quirks to great effect (as I've blathered on about at great length previously). To be fair, the disruption of the system is subtle and restrained, the narrative of a relationship told through largely dialogue-free sex scenes separated by nine gig scenes (the nine songs of the title), emphasising the artifice of the cut-between-scenes as a mild quirk in its own right but maintaining the linear order; the intercutting of this structure with a diegetic framing narrative -- shots of Antartica from the sky with a voice-over by the protagonist as he arrives -- is the only substantial breach of continuity. Nevertheless, this formalism reveals a purposeful and powerful pataphysics in action.

By stripping away all conversational melodrama and pseudo-meaningful story, Winterbottom presents the course of an entire relationship through these wafer-thin slices of scenes which consist almost entirely of two people fucking. What he understands and articulates masterfully is the degree to which people relate without language, simply through the way they behave to and with each other. Infatuation, resentment, forgiveness, pity -- every act of sex in the film is an act of communication, a dynamic exchange composed of actions and reactions which speak volumes about the characters and their relationship. Even at its most artificed -- through this artifice, in fact -- NINE SONGS achieves a realism that makes the staged conversations of most realist cinema look as phony as the insufferable babbling of Dawson's Creek. Each snapshot moment encapsulates a state, every congruity and interstice between them suggests a transformation, and -- assuming the viewer actually gets it -- the film resolves into an excruciatingly tender and poignant portrayal of a relationship. As far from affectation as one can get, it becomes an incredibly natural and sincere representations of a relationship.

The result was, of course, criminally misrepresented by reviewers who seemed to just miss the point entirely for the most part, focusing on the reality of the penetrative sex acts filmed by the camera. Interrogating the film for some grand controversialist statement on the relationship pornography and art, most reviewers apparently failed to glean the fact that the actuality of the intercourse was only a means to an end -- a rendering of sex at the level of detail necessary for it to function as a visual language. If NINE SONGS implictly asserts, by example, that the filming of actual intercourse normally associated with pornography is valid as a technique in art, that assertion bears as much relevance to a reading of the film as if one were to read SNOW WHITE as a movie about the relationship between animation and feature-length cinema. As the first full-length animated feature, SNOW WHITE does make an implicit assertion, by example, about the validity of animation as a technique in feature-length moving pictures. Disney were, in fact, quite concerned as to the audience's response, whether viewers would accept a movie-length cartoon. While this may be of interest to a historian of cinema, it is hardly an incisive comment on the movie as a work of art.


There's clearly a relationship between pataphysics and postmodernism, but that relationship is not one of identity. The conflation of the techniques and one project that utilises them is another good reason for rearticulating the discourse; all too often any work that uses these sort of systemic ruptures is glossed as postmodernist (or postmodern experimentalist, in a combination of the two glib labels) when it may be far from this. Where postmodernism plays in the ruins of modernism, its ludic gamings of narrative safely couched in archness and irony as often than not, and as often as not refusing the whole notion of meaning, defiantly irrelevant, where it fragments the narrative with quirks of illogic in order to make it abundantly clear to the reader that all of this is mere artifice (because God forbid we take the strangeness seriously) this is only one application of the technique.

That technique, we shouldn't forget, was inherited by postmodernism from the modernists whoo came before them. Hell, it's arguable, I'd say, that postmodernism can be seen as simply a sort of nihilist/existentialist modernism. If modernism sought to craft grand meta-narratives that could explicate the Big Picture of the human condition, fusing rationalism and romaticism, modern science and ancient myth, the postmodernism which claims to reject all such grand meta-narratives sounds suspiciously like a meta-narrative in its own right. The end of history? Yeah, OK, whatever.

Davenport was, I'd say, about as modernist a writer as you can get. Pataphysics in his hands was all about the restoration of the archaic in modernity. It's no accident, I think, that he writes of the death of Picasso in one story and, in another, of the discovery of the cave-paintings of Lascaux that resonate so deeply with the imagery of the bull that dominates much of that painter's work. Or that the dog in that story of discovery is called Robot. In Davenport, the fragmentation of story born of a pataphysical approach is not a declawing of the narrative. It does not reduce everything to a ludic artifice, an ironic game to be enjoyed on a largely intellectual level. Enthusiasm is as much a key word in terms of his fiction as is elegance, and in its most ancient sense -- en-thusiasmos... having the god within.

To put this in the context of the last entry on seams, with much pataphysical fiction, it seems to me, the very point of the fragmentation is not to show how really all we have is this multiverse of idios kosmoi [sp.?] -- realms of individual subjective reality; rather it is to refocus the reader on the seams, not just as the boundaries between these realms but as the interstitial spaces we travel and, in fact, in which much of the real action takes place.

So, yeah, that -- as far as I'm concerned -- is what the "pataphysical quirk" is all about. Now if only I could think of a name for it. As I say, suggestions welcome.

*Jarry called it 'pataphysics, but I'm dropping his apostrophe here cause pataphysics is poncy enough in its own right without making it more so. Sue me.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Come On Gang -- Wheels

A wee while back the Boy Kitten was through in Edinburgh for a gig by a mate's band. When he got back he played me this track, which the band, Come On Gang, have just released on iTunes. Personally, I think it's fucking excellent -- sorta Belle & Sebastian at their bouncy-rockiest. So enjoy...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Notes on Strange Fiction: Seams

The Rhetorics of Fantasy

So I recently finished reading Farah Mendlesohn's THE RHETORICS OF FANTASY, (which I can't recommend highly enough,) and it got me thinking about the realms and seams of strange fiction -- the discrete or semi-discrete worldscapes of elsewhens working on different factualities and nomologies, and the way that boundaries between them are rendered as spatial or perceptual frontiers, seams in reality.

To put this in a rough context for anyone not up to speed on the whole "strange fiction" thing (and not wanting to trawl through the blog entries where the idea is set out): the way I see it, you've got this technique which involves utilising what I've taken to calling, for ease of reference, quirks. Quirks are units of strangeness. Technically speaking, I'd argue, quirks can be defined quite precisely, as transgressions of boundaries of possibility, contradictions of knowledge-sets -- contraventions of the facts of science and/or history and/or of the laws of nature. When encountered in a sentence in a story, a quirk causes a shift from a base-line suspension-of-disbelief to a sense of incredulity in direct conflict with that suspension-of-disbelief. The sentence jumps from a subjunctivity level of "could have happened" to a subjunctivity level of "could not have happened" (c.f. Delany's "About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words" essay). When you read about a dilating door, a Nazi US president or a crescent sun in a text, that's a quirk. None of these things "could have happened".

In the conventional view of sf/fantasy, a distinction is usually made between the two forms as fictions of the possible and the impossible respectively, but this is a distinction which glosses over the temporal (technological and historical) impossibilities of "novae" (Darko Suvin's term for the hypothetical novelties of sf) and "errata" (my own term for the counterfactual alterations of alt-history). Rather than admitting the impossibility of these quirks we tag on a caveat of contingency -- "could not have happened here-and-now" -- which is not afforded the nomological impossibilities of metaphysical... well, let's call them "chimerae".

This is what underlies the idea that sf is about the "possible", while fantasy is about the "impossible". That distinction has value on one level; it's not quite fair to say that temporal impossibilities are "just as" impossible as nomological impossibilities. But on another level it's deeply dodgy, I'd say, a bullshit self-delusion which carries a dubious agenda in its assertion of a more rational basis for sf. All too often it functions as a denial that this fiction is really dealing with the impossible at all. Bollocks, I say. The temporal impossibility is impossible, and it's exactly that impossibility that invests the novae and errata of sf and alt-history with their power. Deal with it, uber-rationalists. That sense-of-wonder you dig so much? That's the incredibility of the quirk.

More to the point, the technical distinction between levels of impossibility is simply not that relevant in terms of how these quirks function; temporal or metaphysical, what we're dealing with is the impossible; novum, erratum or chimera are just different flavours of quirk; and, functionally speaking, these different types of transgression play the same way in most readings. Faced with what "could not have happened" we apply the same "here-and-now" caveat (with chimerae just as much as with novae or errata), relocate the action to an imaginative elsewhen in which it could have happened if only this or that were different. The hypothetical novum (e.g. dilating door), counterfactual erratum (e.g. Nazi US President) or metaphysical chimera (e.g. crescent sun) may relocate us in different "directions" -- "forward", "sideways", or "up/down" -- but ultimately many strange fiction narratives have a tendency to mix-and-match different flavours of quirk so freely (often obscuring this by handwaving that presents chimerae such as FTL or ESP as novum) that the elsewhens are shifted in more than one dimension, so to speak. Any reference to an ancient alien race leaving inscrutable technology behind (a la Stargate) or to "a next stage in human evolution" is liable to be indication of a chimera disguised as a novum.

So that's the context of where I'm coming from -- a model of strange fiction defined by quirks, elsewhens as worldscapes generated from those quirks, conceptual relocations.

Given this model, it doesn't seem surprising to me that strange fiction can be typified by the politics of boundaries (and specifically, boundaries between here-and-now realms of the mundane and elsewhen realms of the strange), which, it seems to me, is part of what's going on in Farah's identification of four rhetorics of fantasy narrative: immersive; portal-quest; intrusion; liminal. Roughly speaking, one way to look at these is, I think, in terms of the relationship between a mundane "here-and-now" (which is to say a worldscape so minimally dislocated as to be indistinguishable from our world) and a distinctly strange (i.e. more radically dislocated) elsewhen. Which is to say, as often as not the conceptual dislocation is literalised, concretised in the notion of an actual alterior realm with a different nomology (different laws of nature) to those on which our world is run. And a big part of the rhetorical structure of the fantasy narrative is related to the nature of the seams between mundane and strange realms.

The Politics of the Rhetorics

The realm-seam relationship as I'm positing it is an abstraction of some of Clute's motifs from the ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF FANTASY, a paring away of some of the specificities and valuations. A realm may be as distinct and self-contained as a secondary world or as integrally bound to (or bound within) ours as an imagined lost land; hell, our reality may be considered a realm in its own right. A realm's boundaries may be maintained defensively from the inside (making it a polder) or from the outside (making it a prison) or they may simply be there. As seams they may be thick or thin -- borderlands of crosshatching or palimpsesting inhabitable in their own right or thresholds crossed with a step; they may be sealed tightly with crossings only possible through a portal or a rift, or they may be stitched loosely with crossings possible at any point along the long threshold.

So, in immersive fantasy, you have an elsewhen isolated utterly from the here-and-now, the action taking place entirely within that worldscape as a fully discrete realm. The seam around the realm is sealed shut. In portal-quest fantasy, you have a here-and-now and an elsewhen which have a point of contact or overlap; the seam is generally sealed tightly but there's at least one portal that allows the protagonist to set out from the former on a grand adventure through the latter. In intrusion fantasy, a similar point-of-contact or overlap allows an antagonist to cross over from the latter and cause trouble in the former; there's (usually) a subtle difference in the value attached to the seams between realms here, a sense that these should be tightly sealed but that some stitch has come loose, that the crossing is wrong, an act of invasion through what might be better described as a rift than as a portal. In liminal fantasy... well, liminal fantasy is where it gets interesting.

Reading Farah's taxonomy (which is far more subtle and flexible than this crude summary might suggest), I find myself wanting to overlay alternative terms on her model, rearticulate each in terms of key quirks, states and processes in an attempt to draw out the symmetries of politics that seems to be lurking in there. The characterisation of one form by its key quirk -- the portal -- makes me want to rearticulate the others in a similarly figurative manner. The characterisation of one form in terms of a key state -- liminality -- makes me want to rearticulate the others in a comparable lexis, in terms of states. And the fact that immersion and intrusion are processes makes me want to look at those other two forms in terms of process.

So let's give it a go.

Realm, Portal, Rift, Seam

It seems to me that this is all quite possible. In a figurative taxonomy, I reckon, these four rhetorics -- immersive, portal-quest, intrusion and liminal -- could be rearticulated in terms of four key quirks: realm; portal; rift; seam. And in terms of states/processes, Farah's rhetorics immediately bring to mind, for me, a set of relationships defined in terms of movement across boundaries (or lack of movement / lack of boundaries): isolation; excursion; incursion; infusion.

In the excursion (i.e. portal-quest) and incursion (i.e. intrusion) fantasies there's a symmetry that's fairly transparent. In one, the protagonist crosses the boundary (going out into a strange elsewhen) and this is a Good Thing; the portal is generally opened precisely to allow this passage; it may be an accident but if so it is a fortunate one, maybe even a fated one. In the other, the antagonist crosses the boundary (coming in from the strange elsewhen) and this is a Bad Thing; the rift may be opened deliberately to allow this passage, but a rift can be distinguished from a portal precisely by the sense of wrongness that attaches to it; if it is not an accident it is an act of malice. Where a portal is woven into the seam, so to speak, a rift is a tear in it. If a portal can be opened by accident and a rift by design then there's no hard-and-fast distinction between the two, of course, especially when a narrative might make it ambiguous as to whether the crossing was as much a Good Thing or a Bad Thing as it first appeared; so as much as anything I'm adopting the distinct names to reflect the politics attached to them; at a deeper level they're essentially equivalent, different flavours of the same type of quirk.

The point is that the distinction between the two rhetorics as a whole reflects this political relationship written into the realms and seams of a narrative; to put it crudely, it's all about who gets to cross the seams between realms. There is a polder/prison relationship at play between the realms here, an ordained way of things in which the hero gets to cross the seam, while the monster does not, the portal exists to be crossed, while the rift exists to be closed. The relationships of realms and characters have been completely politicised, and in an often dubious way. The excursion fantasy has a certain colonialist/orientalist subtext to it; the strange is the exotic, the frontier, the wilderness waiting for the indomitable hero to come along and tame (bringing order to its natives in the process.) The incursion fantasy carries more than a hint of demonisation and abjection, of otherings and paranoid projection; the strange is the weird, the repressed whose return is a threat precisely because of the pathological nature of that repression.

(There are, of course, all sorts of possible permutations of this symmetry, inversions of the rhetorics that arise by flipping the exterior/interior relationships of realms, the vectors of protagonist and antagonist, the moral/political values attached to these, and so on.)

Where it gets interesting for me is that I see a similar symmetry between isolation and infusion fantasies. In one, the seams are sealed so tight that they are imperceptible; the realm is a closed system, without portals or rifts; it has no contact with any other realms; there is no crosshatching between alternative (i.e. temporal) elsewhens or palimpsesting of alterior (i.e. nomological) elsewhens; everything takes place within that realm. In the other, the seams are so loosely stitched that they become the very point of the narrative, usually when the protagonist realises their existence; the realm is so open to other realms, so crosshatched and palimpsested, that there is no need of portals or rifts; the overlap is so pervasive that the realm may only truly be understandable as a "patch" within a vast "quilting" of multiversal reality. The seams fragment the worldscape. It is riven by thresholds at every turn, permeated by borderlands throughout, a construct of patch-realms and seams thick enough to almost constitute realms in their own right.

Where excursion and incursion fantasies seem to have a pretty binary relationship coded into their black-and-white politics of polders and prisons, monomythic heroes and horrorific menaces, the isolation and infusion fantasies offer a different duality, situating themselves as end-points on a spectrum of granularity, a range of "fine" or "coarse" quiltings of realms and seams. At one end of the spectrum we have the coarsest possible granularity, the discrete monad of a totally self-contained realm, its seams sealed tight -- the "pure" form of an isolation fantasy. At the other end, perhaps, we have the finest possible granularity, the worldscape so finely stitched that the seams are indistinguishable from the realm itself; the "pure" form of the infusion fantasy might well be that liminal fantasy Farah focuses on, the fantasy which challenges the distinction between strange and mundane, interrogates the whole notion of the fantastic. Infusion and isolation are processes, however, that suggest degrees of segregation and admixture.

I'm not sure, I'd have to say, that other criteria attached to Farah's liminal fantasy don't render it distinct from even a "pure" variant of my "infusion fantasy", but this is largely what intrigues me. In describing the liminal fantasy, Farah tends to focus in, as I read it, on something akin to Clute's equipoise, Todorov's moment of hesitation, and on the more literary works which exploit such ambiguities -- to focus on the threshold of liminality that emerges where we're not sure if the quirk is really a quirk at all, so to speak. With what I'm labelling "infusion fantasy" I think we have a slightly looser model. Where Farah distinguishes her liminal fantasy from slipstream and interstitial, the latter two not considered truly fantasy at all, I'd suggest that all three forms could be plausibly viewed as variants of the infusion fantasy, along with magic realism.

The infusion fantasy rests in a mundane worldscape that is, to all intents and purposes, our reality, represented as sundered by seams, infused by the strange. Slipstream as originally defined by Sterling is more than just the interzone between sf and mainstream. Explicitly linked to postmodernism and its techniques, the "slipstream" posited by Sterling is an area of turbulence and disruption, and it is that aspect which, I think, points to how it figures into the picture here. If the strange intrudes into the mundane that intrusion is often taken for granted; it is just as likely that the mundane will intrude into the strange. What I think we have here, at the heart of slipstream, is a folding through of the strange and the mundane, a radical interpenetration (far more radical than that of intrusion fantasy), one that leads to the deep instability and uncertainty of an infused realm, offered as an estranged postmodern view of the world -- infusion as confusion.

This approach is at odds with the discourse of fantasy as a commercial genre largely defined by excursion and incursion forms. It is directly in conflict, in fact, with the requirement of consistency that attaches to the isolation form (the importance placed on the well-built worldscape and continuity by obsessive geeks). But I think it's a mistake to exclude this form of strange fiction as "not fantasy"; the whole concept of slipstream is, I suspect, born of a recognition that there's an underlying system of potential techniques, a system of modes or approaches recogniseable even where the particular mode adopted falls outside the conservative limitations of genre as negotiated between (unambitious) authorial intent and (undemanding) reader expectations. Slipstream is a recognition of the fantastic infusion that we spot in works published outside the fantastic genres.

Where interstitial fiction is not so nebulous as to be impossible to pin down, it might be similarly understood as that form of fantasy fiction which is not just cross-genre in a superficial trope-mixing sense but is more interested in the seams than the realms, liable to put so much attention into the crosshatching and palimpsesting of different genre approaches that again the result is a sense of infusion, a deconstruction of the integrity of worldscapes as aesthetically-coherent settings, a tendency towards collaged idioms and quiltings of story-forms. It is not surprising, I think, that this type of fiction seems to be partnered with slipstream in terms of the indie press anthologies and magazines where it's likely to be found and in terms of its outsider relationship with the mainstream of fantasy as a commercial genre.

Magic realism is a slightly thornier issue. Where the term is not simply a cipher for "literary fantasy with a concern for domestic realism" or "literary fantasy from Latin America", its definition is usually focused on the idea that the quirks represented are not actually fantastic at all. To read them as such is to apply an inappropriate Rationalist worldview that fails to recognise the culture they spring from. Rather they represent the reality of that culture, a reality in which such events may well be considered entirely possible. This is at the core of many arguments that to conflate magic realism and fantasy is a gross misreading, and it's one reason Farah gives for discussing this form within the chapter on immersive fantasy; we need to understand the realms of magic realism on their own terms, not colonise them with a Western Enlightenment worldview.

I like this harder-edged definition to magic realism (although I do think it raises certain questions as regards the rather liberal application of the term in general use). But ultimately I think it's more useful to situate magic realism in infusion fantasy than in isolation/immersive fantasy, because the distinction between mundane and strange remains even where the distinction of fantastic and realistic is a more complex matter. One way to look at it, I think, is to see the quirks of magic realism as what I'd call arcana rather than chimerae, nomological irregularities rather than impossibilities.

This is to say that the events are still understood as strange, as non-mundane, as quirks, but that the "could not have happened" subjunctivity level is transformed into a "could have happened" subjunctivity level by reading an apparently chimeric event as having worked by an underlying mechanism of magic that is accepted as an article of faith. The arcanum "could have happened", basically, if we believe in occult systems which transcend the laws of nature. We do not know how the arcanum works, but we don't need to. In fact, it's precisely because we do not know how it works that we do not rule out the possibility that it does in fact work, the possibility even that others might understand the workings we do not -- hence the term arcanum, with its associations of secret knowledge. The metaphysical causation (i.e. magic) these narratives embody is therefore seen as applicable in the real world. The worldscape posited by magic realism is our own reality viewed as a realm shot through with the seams which are necessary for the quirks to take place, a realm in which the mundane is naturally infused with the strange. This relationship of infusion could well be considered implicit in the pairing of the two words that define the form -- magic and realism.

Infusion Fantasy at the Movies

But infusion fantasy may be detectable even in far more conventional narratives which are clearly identifiable as within the fantasy genre, in a certain type of adventure-oriented Dark/Urban Fantasy, for example, where literary aspirations are really not the driving force. One perfect example is the movie HIGHLANDER, where the worldscape is our reality as a lattice of seams, a strange/mundane patchworld in which immortals live among us as liminal agencies, their battle to be The One taking place on the margins of our perception, in the back-alleys and car parks of New York (significantly interstitial spaces). Ignoring the sequel's retcon elsewhen, these Immortals are not from an outside territory; they are simply a quirk of this world, born into it of normal parents, emerging here and there throughout history and across the continents (significantly distributed in space and time, each having their own patch). That the fantastic status of these immortals is not in question means they're not quite liminal in the way that term is used in the ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF FANTASY; but I think it's apt in this context.

Note that in HIGHLANDER Macleod's transition to liminality is made explicit in his exile from his clan. This is a casting out from his mundane realm in one respect -- a literal exile from the village -- but it leaves him still in the mundane realm in terms of actual geography. His relationship to it has changed utterly however; now that he's immortal he no longer quite belongs; his immortality is a tear in the fabric, a quirk that indicates a seam. He inhabits the wilderness now, the interstitial terrain between mundane settlements.

As often as not, in infuion fantasy, the threshold is not so much a borderlands/realm as a state entered into by the protagonist. It is a threshold of perception which they enter and in so doing find themselves engaging with the antagonist in that zone, the action taking place at times on this patch or that but as often as not in the seams themselves. So Mcleod's awakening to the truth of the liminal state that he inhabits is shown as an expansion of perception under the tutelage of Ramirez, a developing awareness of the "Quickening", a strange force infusing the world, this animistic life-force symbolised in the breath and heartbeat of a stag and in a bolt of lightning called down from the heavens. While not entirely dissimilar to some of the ideas of magical initiation we find in portal-quest / excursion fantasy, we're being asked to imagine our own realm as infused with this magical force, rather than a secondary world; and there is no discernable sense (as far as I can see) that this force is "thinning" (a core element of Clute's narrative grammar of fantasy), no sense that the magic is seeping out of the infused world. There is no poldered idyll to be saved or restored here.

If anything, there is a sense (albeit a vague one) that by tapping into the magic, drawing it out of the seams through the Quickening, the immortals concentrate it within themselves, that this "life-force" is partly transfered into their killer and partly released back into the world (as represented in the spectacular SFX light-shows) when one immortal is beheaded by another. Is it possible then to read the whole procedure of the "Gathering" (especially given the name) as one of "thickening", a coagulation of power as the numbers of the immortals are whittled down, the narrative on an inexorable vector towards the solid singularity of "the One"? Whether or not this is a valid reading (the amnesiac flailing attached to the thickening stage in Clute's narrative grammar of horror seems at odds with the "quickened" state of a liminal hero), it seems entirely appropriate that the end-state of this singularity is a sort of total infusion of consciousness and worldscape, the hero telepathically aware of what everyone in the world is thinking. And it seems strangely appropriate also that what goes with this transcendence is a balancing step towards humanity -- an ability to age and die but also an ability to have children. Where the politics does not set values on the seams, assign characters to one realm or another, refuse or require crossings and returns, the protagonist of the infusion fantasy may remain in a liminal state even if the transformative arc of the narrative entails a change in the precise nature of that state.

Note also that, form following content, the thematic liminality or interstitiality of the narrative action -- the idea that forces and agencies interact in seams of reality which we are oblivious of -- is reflected in the fragmented structure of interwoven flashbacks, which renders the whole movie a narrative of patches and seams. Rather than positing a duality of mundane native domain and strange outside territories (as we'd get in excursion/incursion fantasy), the movie offers us the familiar worldscape of the present-day in contrast with the strange worldscapes of the past, but with the two completely interpenetrating each other; more to the point, the purpose of this construction is not to establish boundaries between realms but to destroy those boundaries, to show us the consistencies that bind these dislocated corners of the fictive world. The very nature of the immortal is that they bind the elsewhen of the past to the here-and-now; their very life is a seam running through reality.

Infusion Fantasy on the TV

To take another example from the visual media, the TV series BUFFY may appear at first sight to be an incursion fantasy, with the heroine (a high-school cheerleader, an icon of the mundane) called into action to defend her mundane native domain from the alterities of vampires and demons (icons of the uncanny, creatures of the night and darkness, generally sourced to Hell or some other netherworld -- intruders from a strange elewhen, in other words). But Buffy is herself a quirk, a Slayer, a supernatural champion born to destroy these creatures, the series beginning with her awakening to this liminal nature through the instruction of a Watcher, an agent of a liminal organisation, what Clute calls a wainscot. And she must meet these beings on their patch, glean their agendas in the threshold zone of interaction, the night; she must become, in fact, a creature of the night herself, stalking the graveyards, her true nature hidden even from her own mother, known only by the Scooby Gang. Eventually we will learn that the first Slayer was created by binding a demon to a human host, that Buffy is, to all intents and purposes, the same as what she hunts.

Two points: 1) hiding that nature is not too difficult; it is established early on that most humans either fail to percieve even the most horrific outbreak of the strange or or able to rewrite it in their memories as some mundane catastrophe -- i.e. that one has to be liminal to glean the liminal; 2) her liminality is eventually passed on to all potential Slayers, the specialness/strangeness distributed across the world (as immortality in HIGHLANDER is distributed at the beginning of the movie, and as the hero's consciousness is at the end), hundreds of otherwise mundane teenage girls infused with her power.

This liminality is developed throughout this series. The Scooby Gang is largely constructed from liminal beings or from characters who become so: Willow, Buffy's best friend, is gradually queered not just in terms of her sexuality but in terms of her witchcraft (and her morality in one season (as appallingly as this is done)); Dawn's created humanity renders her both real and unreal, strange (a mystical key) and mundane (a teenage girl); Oz is a werewolf, about as liminal a trope as you can get, caught in the moral ambiguity of being both nice guy and murderous beast; Anya is a vengeance demon become mortal, her whole pseudo-life constructed (like Dawn's) on her first appearance in the series; the implanting of the control chip in Spike's brain begins the process by which he'll gradually turn from villainous monster to rogue (the key character type of infusion fantasy perhaps, in their moral positioning between good and evil).

Only Xander, as far as I can see, remains grounded in the mundane, but even his narrative arc offers up an intriguing imagery of suspension between states. In the early seasons he's caught between Buffy and Willow romantically. As time goes on his status is arguably portrayed as even more liminal because he is the only non-empowered member of the Scooby Gang, doesn't feel he quite belongs amongst the slayers and witches and vampires and ex-demons -- but of course can't go back to the mundane ignorance of the seams that permeate the world. One might even see the loss of his eye in the final season as a symbol of that threshold transition, the sacrifice of an eye representing not a loss of perception but a gaining of perception. The gouged-out eye is an eye sent to the "other side"; it is a removal of an obstacle to a deeper "second sight"; it is a partial exchange of visions, the sacrifice made by Odin in order to gain a state of wisdom-as-perception, a halfway step (but only halfway) towards the archetype of the blind seer.

Similar liminalities proliferate in ANGEL (or across BUFFY and ANGEL). Angel's possession of a soul renders him an outcast from both day-world and night-world, and there's always the possibility of his reversion to Angelus -- made actuality a couple of times across the two series. Also between the two series, we have Faith, another slayer, occilating between good and bad. We have another Watcher, Wesley, who has his own descent into moral dubiety. Gunn's introduction as a self-made vampire-hunter, as a human with no special powers who has entered the ongoing battle in the back-street seams of the night, extends the motif established in Xander. Lorne's night-club is a neutral territory, a seam, where good demons and bad demons mingle in an uneasy truce. More and more, the implicitly Christian moral dualism of vampires as "demons" from "Hell" is stripped away, the notion of Satanic diabolism replaced with a sort of neo-pagan bestiary of gods and monsters who might individually inhabit any point on a spectrum between ethical and unethical. Humans are capable of being just as monstrous, maybe more so, in their greed for power, as demonstrated in the character of Lyndsey (who, at various points, hovers on the verge of conversion to the side of good).

The moral ambiguity of the infusion fantasy is one of its most marked features; this is a form of fantasy in which our world and the "Other" are inextricable, the boundary between them smashed as a political statement, a rejection of the abjection implicit in intrusion fantasy, a rejection of the idea that the strange is invasive, essentially Evil. Consistent with Angel's "soul" and Spike's "empathy chip" being at the root of their capacity for redemption, when the character of Fred becomes the demon Illyria, the precise nature of her wrongness is identified not as a nebulous and intrinsic (and pointless) malevolence, but as the entirely natural lack of empathy a predator has for its prey. If Nature is red in tooth and claw, then so too is "Supernature". Wheedon ultimately makes this position explicit in the episode where Angel demands to see "the management" of Wolfram & Hart, the demonic law firm, and is taken down in an elevator only to find that the Hell he expected to see is, in fact, the street-level of our day-to-day world. Angel's gleaning leads him ultimately to the recognition that in the infused world strangeness and disruption are not at all connected with each other, wired together by the politics of incursion fantasy.

Infusion Fantasy in Literature

We can, I think, expect to see a tendency, in this type of narrative, for the tension of perspectives to resolve, for the liminality to collapse into duality. The adventure story form is such that heroes and villains will emerge as factions pitted against each other, vying for control over strange and mundane terrains. Add to this the tendency to concretise the abstract threshold zone from a state of perception into a sort of realm in its own right -- like the Twilight/Gloom (a naming so blatant in its symbolism it barely needs comment) in Lukyanenko's NIGHT WATCH (whose protagonists and antagonists are significantly referred to as the Others) -- and what you may well end up with is something basically understandable in terms of the excursion fantasy (i.e. parseable in terms of Farah's portal-quest rhetoric). But I think there's a potential here for something that retains enough ambiguity to constitute a distinctive form in its own right, something that's not quite the liminal fantasy Farah describes but maybe a more general form within which that liminal fantasy could be understood as a particular type.

I'd have to freely admit my own bias here. For anyone who's read VELLUM and INK, it's probably obvious that I'd situate them in the mode of infusion fantasy. (I like Farah's reading of VELLUM in the chapter on "The Irregulars" as a portal-quest where the reader is the one on the excursion rather than the protagonist, but ultimately I look at that framing structure as something of a feint, an architecture set up largely to be deconstructed.) And with my interests lying in the direction of fucked-up narratives, stories told in the seams of realms defined more by crosshatching and palimpsesting than anything else, I'm clearly going to look at that as a form in its own right. Riffing off Farah's taxonomy of rhetorics fairly freely, I've not thought about this at any great depth, to be honest, not in terms of literary examples. So where Farah draws intriguing correspondences between those rhetorics and writing styles that attach to them -- in terms of PoV, heightened affect, travelogue-style descriptions and character reveries -- I don't have any detailed thoughts about this potential "infusion fantasy" in that respect. I wonder if structural fragmentation might be one characteristic feature, but that could just be my Modernist sympathies showing through.

I do think there's food for thought though. The notion of it as a form that encompasses some of the more awkward modes of strange fiction -- liminal, slipstream, interstitial, magic realism -- but one which isn't privileged by definition as an essentially high-brow literary form... that idea is appealing to me. I'd be curious to know what others think, if the characterisation strikes a chord with them, if obvious literary examples spring to mind.

Anyway, enough rambling for now.


Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Soundtrack Podcast & Other News

Just so's you know: Julie K. Rose, over at the Writers and Their Soundtracks blog has just posted my soundtrack to VELLUM & INK, with a link to the podcast where you can hear some of the tracks and a bit of the Q&A session we had by email, read out by Julie. The full text of the interview should be up on the site at some point next week, but if ye've got a chance to listen to the podcast, well, ye'll get to hear the collaboration I did with Aereogramme for the Ballads of the Book album, "If You Love Me, You'd Destroy Me". Sure, I'm biased here, but regardless of what ye think of my lyrics, the music Aereogramme put them to is seven shades of awesome, so go listen.

In other news...

I'm looking forward to a wee trip to the Czech Republic at the end of the month, where I'll be a guest at Parcon in Pilsen, along with Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, Ian R. Mcleod and Les Edwards, making this sort of the world's first New Weird convention. It sounds like it's going to be a lot of fun (there's talk of a beer spa), so if yer in the area between 22nd and 24th August, come say Hi.

In terms of other conventions there's a sorta bad news / good news situation, because unfortunately I'm going to miss WFC this year, the awesome con that's really the highlight of my year in con terms, not least because it's my only real opportunity to catch up with the good mates I've made in the States over the last couple of years. I'm really going to miss not seeing the gang this year, hanging out with the smokers like the bad kids at school, getting roaringly drunk and confusing people with my unintelligible accent and slurred rants. The good news flipside of this is that the reason I can't go is because I've been invited to Utopiales in Nantes as a guest! Which is *well* cool. It looks to be an awesome experience (and it takes me to France at a time when the Boy Kitten will be studying there.) So, yeah, that's a pretty cool reason not to be able to make it, I'd say.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Lone Star Stories: The Behold of the Eye

The latest issue of Lone Star Stories is online, featuring a wee fairy story of mine called "The Behold of the Eye":

"The Behold of the Eye," Flashjack's laternal grandsister (adopted), Pebbleskip had told him, "is where the humans store the imagos of their appetence—which is to say, all the things they prize most highly, having had their breath taken away by the glimmering glamour of it. Like a particular painting or sculpture, a treasure chest of gold and jewels, or a briefcase full of thousand-whatever notes, or the dream house seen in a magazine, a stunning vista seen on their travels, even other humans. Whatever catches their eye, you see," she'd said, "is caught by the eye, stored there in the Behold, all of it building up over a person's lifetime to their own private hoard of wonders. The humans say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, you know, but as usual they've got it arse-about; what they should be saying is something else entirely."

"Beauty is in the Behold of the Eye," Pebbleskip had said. "So that's where most of us faeries live these days."