Neither a Contract Nor a Promise: Five Movements To Watch Out For (Guest Blogger China Mieville)

China Mieville on June 16, 2009

       (The City & The City, an Amazon featured book for June.)

It's been a while since we've had some red-hot literary-movement action. Part of the problem is that the declaration of such movements, schools, salons, moments, manifestoes, sets, etc, tends to be a post-facto thing. Someone--a participant or otherwise--notices a bunch of writers and artists doing some stuff through which the observer considers there to be some shared thread(s). Give it a name, and boom: performative taxonomy complete.

So, missing the tendentious genealogies, the reclamations of forgotten texts and bigging-up of some new, pining for a smidge of controversy, I thought we could save a bit of time by naming a few movements in advance, then writing books to fit. That way we could start arguing about them without having to wait through those tiresome publication schedules.

Accordingly, what follows are a few modest proposals for literary/artistic movements to fulfil the moment's cultural needs, and a few bon mots to start the arguments.

i) Zombiefail '09-ism

Named partly in honour (not mockery) of an important debate about race and politics that set fire to livejournal earlier this year, this will be the movement for those tired of the unrelenting imperialism of zombies in horror--and now other--fiction. The writers' position will be that what started as an invigoration (one hesitates to say 'revivification', in this context) of an antique trope has viralled to the point where its ubiquity makes it ambulonecrotophile kitsch. Zombies that once stalked the cultural unconscious like baleful rebukes are now cuddly toys, dead metaphors (ba-boom) at which we can't stay mad. Paradoxically, out of very respect for increasingly degraded zombies, Zombiefail '09-ist writers will either explicitly undermine their banalisation by melancholy mockery of them, or refuse to write about them at all, instead plundering various mythoi for more neglected monsters with which to end the world.

Negative influences, being reacted against, will include pretty much all the astounding number of zombie-based films, books, video games, card games, comics and knitting patterns of the last 10 years (particularly since 2002, and what Zombiefail '09-ist writers will call the '28 Days Later Event').

Positive influences will include earlier zombie culture, particularly Romero and Tourneur/Lewton, here to be conceived as texts too holy to be cited in this postlapsarian world.

What to say: 'It's a cultural tragedy, this commodified camp of the Death Drive.'

What not to say: 'Moar Brainzz!'

ii) Post-Elegiasm

The end of the world, whether wrought by Peak Oil, rising sea levels, the rage of nature, war, warlordism, nuclear conflagration or--D'oh!--tailored virus will not be achingly beautiful, nor morality tale. So will insist the Post-Elegiasts. This grumpy group of literary dissidents will be infuriated by the lightly disguised End-Times pornography of all the countless supposedly 'bleak' and 'dystopian' (right...) apocalypse fictions and culture. Visions of startlingly gorgeous ice floes under the Chrysler building, lugubrious lip-smacking depictions of ash landscapes, the lumpen bucolicism of all those overgrown cities, will not be for them.

Post-Elegiasts are to be united in scorn for what they will perceive as this cowardly surrender, and will term 'High Tea among the Ruins'. This will manifest in one of two very contrasting ways: the 'High' Post-Elegiasts will depict the not-end of the world, endless accelerating advances, perhaps including singularities, perhaps asymptotic improvements, never one-sided but doggedly progressive. The 'Low' or 'Punk' wing will revel instead in depictions of Ragnaroks of various kinds that are genuinely horrible, ends-of-the-world unrecuperable by sanctimonious aesthetics, ugly, base and totally depressing. These are to be considered the more daring artists, but will sell in very low numbers.

The influences of the High Post-Elegiasts will include Golden-Age Science Fiction, Extropianism, Futurology and Fabianism, as well as self-help manuals and Paolo Coelho. The Low will focus instead on splatterpunk, Pierre Guyotat and D. Keith Mano's The Bridge. Both wings will be united in their disdain for Alan Weisman, Richard Jefferies and Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

What to say: 'Fiction of justice beyond an eschatological horizon is exoneration.'

What not to say: 'Will Smith sucked but overgrown New York looked kewl.'

iii) LitFic Praetorians

Every new mess mainstream politics and culture gets us into should be its last, but never understimate its staying power. It's an ironclad,and the burgeoning econopocalypse, despite causing a little wobble here and there, is not yet putting paid to it. For the novel, this will be illustrated by a declaration of war by the lions of good taste against those sceptical of its claims to investigate the contours of The Human Condition (tm), or some such.

Unlike much previous soi disant Literary Fiction, the LitFic Praetorians will understand i) that they are a genre among many, ii) that their esteemed position is under attack. And they will decide to take the fight to the enemy.

Accordingly, this movement will continue to privilege those aspects of fiction that have come, for some, to be the sine qua non of literature itself--a celebration of 'interiority' and a particular propagandist conception of 'character'; a prose that claims to be 'spare' and 'precise'; a striving for a horizon of metaphor to perfectly express some 'human truth' in terms of a more concrete thing (crockery, paint, a particular animal, a meteorological condition, etc, preferably referred to in the book's title); a dynamic of artful recognition; and so on. However, unlike its less self-conscious predecessors, it will do so overtly, courageously taking the battle to exteriority, militancy, estrangement and alienation, and aggressively foregrounding its concerns on such seemingly unfriendly literary turf.

Thus, for example, the redemptive power of art will be affirmed in the bloody imperial rubble of Iraq; musings on the melancholy of age and the rediscovery of life-affirmation in the arms of somewhat younger women will unfold before a backdrop of polemical dream-logic; and poignant stories of family betrayal and infidelity among academics will be set during alien invasions.

Influences include all winners of the Booker prize, particularly Ian McEwan, particularly particularly his book--claimed by the school as its foundational text - Saturday.

What to say: 'Great literature transcends everyday concerns.'

What not to say: '"Literary Fiction" is a marketing category.'

iv) Noird

Pronounced Nward: Weird Noir. Candidates for membership are already appearing. Crime novels, particularly of a hard-boiled variety, infused with and riffing off the strange. Detective fiction with a deeply sceptical relationship to the supposedly everyday, whether it eschews morality or not.

Influences will be pretty obvious. Sinewy crime from Dashiel Hammett; Raymond Chandler; Minette Walters; Martin Cruz Smith; Sara Paretsky; Karin Slaughter; Conan Doyle; et innumerable al. Also films, particularly monochrome, extra particularly any featuring trench-coats, hats with shadows, and hands holding smoking revolvers.

The other influence, of course, will be the Weird. It's to be broadly conceived, here, ranging from the explicitly Cthulhoid tentacular through to the slipstream oneiric. Lovecraft through Murakami, Machen via Svankmajerova, Ligotti and C.L. Moore through Louise Bourgeois and Stefan Grabinski. You'll be reading Noird if a flawed hero/ine in fedora; peppers a Deep One with slugs; finds clues that reconfigure themselves after bagging-and-tagging into malevolent trinkets, tchotchkes and odradeks; or realises that the murderer is A Personified Nightmare of Opaque Quotidian Complicity.

What to say: 'All crime fiction is dream fiction really, of course.'

What not to say: 'I prefer cozies.'

v) Salvagepunk

As Steampunk wheezes and clanks exhausted into the buffers, dragging an increasingly huge load of books behind it, the hunt for the next great somethingpunk is over. The orgy of para-Victoriana has been impressively tenacious, but it has its limits, and rather than yet another reclamation of an earlier mode of production--steam, dust, stone, diesel--the punk aesthetic of DIY, cobbling-together, contrariness, discordance and disrespect for the past will go meta. It will investigate not imaginary branchline points in a timeline (an understandable if rather plaintive discomfort with the idea that such a line was actually teleological, and ended with this bloody mess) but history itself as always-already a bricolage, and what we do about that. Though this might look like apocalypse fiction, it will in fact be not about any implied catastrophe, but about scobbing together of culture from the refuse (and implying that all culture is and always has been so scobbed). An art of making-do, tool-use and ingenuity. A fiction infused with a militant amnesiac uninterest about cultural memes' origins and 'pure' 'original' 'purposes' - which chimeras its adherents will derisively and polysemically render 'pUr(e)poses' - this will be literature that celebrates reclamation, and/but forgets that prefix 're-': so, clamation fiction, ignoring the fact that ruins are ruined, were ever anything else.

If Benjamin warns that history is a buffeted angel staring at a giant pile of debris, Salvagepunk ignores the angel and roots around in the debris looking for a car to hotwire.

Salvagepunk is the most developed of these schools so far: its bards and theorists already exist, and have brilliantly started the job of delineating its contours, and making notes for a manifesto. More than any other of these incipient movements, it will have a recent history of precursors on which to draw, Salvagepunk avant la lettre. These influences include the Mad Max films, The Bed Sitting Room, Charles Platt's Garbage World, Steptoe and Son and the entire musical history of sampling, at all.

What to say: 'All art is an act of radical forgetting.'

What not to say: 'You finally did it! Damn you all to hell!'

These are five suggestions. There will, of course and happily, be more. Many of the writers who'll try their hands at one or other of these approaches will, of course, betray their chosen movements in one or other way: their fiction will not be 'pure'. But that shouldn't lead to their explusion from their chosen schools, nor, contrariwise, the belief that these movements are bogus. In Alain Badiou's words: 'To criticize an aesthetic programme for failing to keep any of its promises is to miss the point. ... [A] programme is neither a contract nor a promise. It is a rhetorical device whose relation to what really takes place is only ever one of envelopment and protection.'

Here is to envelopment and protection. 

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