Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Slightly Edited Version of an Earlier Talk on Tolkien

I gave this talk a couple years ago at U of M conference on fantasy. I was going to simply print it as is, making a note that it didn't take up the question of racialization as thoroughly as it should (still a problem), but I wound up having to add some material to the psychoanalysis section, which was incomplete to the point of incomprehension. I don't think that it's escaped that entirely, but it's certainly more comprehensible.

I want to open up my conversation about monstrosity and hybridity in fantasy in a slightly different manner than I initially intended, through a specific moment in Tolkien’s ring trilogy, the scouring of the shire. For those who don’t remember, the narrative of the trilogy goes well beyond the throwing the ring into the fire. Instead, we are told of marriage, the exodus of the elves, etc. The final incident occurs as the hobbits return home. As they reach its border, they realize that the Shire has drastically transformed since they had left.

We quickly discover that there has been both a change of production and governance in the shire. This consists of an increase of security forces, increased regulation, and formalized structure of authority moving from the chief (Lotho) down to the sheriffs and the population. This has been directed towards increasing the crop production of the Shire, primarily for export. At the same time, there is clearly a foreign influence on the Shire as well. This is marked by the ubiquitous presence of ‘sallow faced men’ who report to another boss, who has more influence over the Shire than Lotho. This individual, who is nicknamed “Sharkey”, turns out to be the wizard Saruman himself, revenging himself for the loss of his tower.

We’ll return to Saruman eventually as he links the destruction of the Shire with the events at Orthanc, but first, let’s turn to a moment that best expresses the results of his work. This will also allow an insight into the process of degradation created through the various forces of evil in the books. This occurs at the moment that Sam discovers that the Birthday tree had been cut down. Ted Sandyman, the millworker, interrupts his sorrow.

“There was a surly hobbit lounging over the low wall of the mill-yard. He was grimy faced and black-handed. ‘Don’t ‘ee like it, Sam? he sneered. ‘But you always was soft. I thought you’d gone off in one o’ them ships you used to prattle about, sailing, sailing. What d’you come back for? We’ve work to do in the Shire now.’

‘So I see,’ said Sam. ‘No time for washing, but time for wall-propping But see here, Master Sandyman, I’ve a score to pay in this village, and don’t you make it any longer with your jeering, or you’ll foot a bill too big for your purse.’

Ted Sandyman spat over the wall. ‘Garn!’ he said. ‘You can’t touch me. I’m a friend of the Boss’s. But he’ll touch you all right, if I have any more of your mouth.” (Tolkien 296-7)

This passage returns us to the argument held between the two at the beginning of the novel. However, neither character is the same. Sam has traveled the world, and became the bearer of the ring for a time, while Ted Sandyman has replaced his earlier more traditional bonds of fealty and kinship for a place of employment in the factory of Saruman. What we see in this confrontation of servants, is in fact a confrontation of two systems of structuring society. Sam represents a system of naturalized and paternal authority. The relationship of Sam and Frodo is not only defined by employment and contract, but is also defined by tradition and affection. Whereas Ted Sandyman’s relationship with ‘the Boss’ is no longer defined by these natural structures of authority. Ted has already indicated that his subservience is only defined by the reciprocal modes of influence that he has on the boss. A system that once operated within tradition has been replaced by contract.

But we need to push this farther to understand its relationship to monstrosity. When we look at Ted Sandyman, we are presented with a figure that is ‘grimy faced and black handed.” His manner of speech also has transformed dramatically from the beginning of the narrative. It’s turned crude, taking on the inflection of the speech of the orcs. The unnatural system of the factory covers up Ted Sandyman’s natural pale skin with a dark coating of grime, changing his language, and his social role. We are already in a system of racialization. In order to understand this further, we need to look beyond the incident itself, to establish this connection between the figure of the miller’s son and the orcs. Earlier in the text, upon being told of the absence of both the comforts of inn and pipeweed, Sam remarks that instead of welcome, the travelers have received, "No welcome, no beer, no smoke, and a lot of rules and orc-talk instead.” (Tolkien 279) The figure of the orc allows Sam to present the current regime of governance as unnatural.

Why does the orc fulfill this role? To understand that, one needs to understand some of the broader elements of Tolkien’s world structure. For each of the races created in the world, Ents, Men, Hobbits, Elves, etc., Melkor created its opposite in the form of orcs, trolls, etc. The orc is in fact the imperfect copy of the elf. We can push this further, when it is further established that Saruman operates as the imperfect copy of Sauron, who in turn took the place of Melkor. What we find opposing ‘the men of the west’ is in fact a set of cheap mass produced commodities, copies of masters and copies of men. This structure of inauthentic relations is connected to the South and to the East. In attempting to take the place of Sauron, Saruman in fact creates his own replica of Mordor in Orthanc. This replication consists of both a production of a new hybrid of orc and man and of mass industrial production. When this is destroyed, Saruman then turns to the shire in order to replicate his order. This in turn transforms Ted Sandyman and enters him into the racial and economic order of Orthanc and Mordor.

The figure of Ted Sandyman allows us to understand something about this entire system through his racialization. The system of industrialization literally transforms him into the monstrous “dirty faced and black handed” body. This body is then placed into a chain of signification with both the bodies of the masses of orcs ready to produce factory warfare and the bodies of the criminals, who are described in similarly racialized terms, either. Saruman, in his robe of infinite colors, conjures them up to work in his factories, and his factories literally use the innocent figure of the hobbit to produce monsters. The threat of industrial capital is thus linked on one side with the figure of the inauthentic copy and on the other side with the grotesque, monstrous body. These figures are not only linked, but they collapse into one another.

How does this chain of signifiers, which both operate on both a level of association and show a strange ability to literally become one another, operate? We need to shift our attention to the literary precedents to this story structure. We can first look to the industrial novels of England. These novels focus on the risk of the construction of ‘two Englands.’ These novels both present the threat of the breaking up of the nation because of the rise of industrial capital, and generally the resolution of this crisis through marriage or other means. These texts generally establish this distinction linguistically, through the use of dialect. Naturalism follows through on this trend and extends it. The structures of society are linked to the biological, rather than the linguistic and cultural. Naturalism most obviously draws from the social implications taken by many writers from the discoveries made by Charles Darwin considering Natural Selection and evolution. More significantly, they gesture towards the intractability of the class structures of capitalism and the legitimacy of colonialism.

This can be pushed farther when we start considering the fantastic and science fiction texts produced in the same era. The short stories of H.P. Lovecraft expand the confrontation that operates in these earlier texts to universe itself. His philosophical system operates on a mechanical sort of materialism. An indifferent, if not hostile universe surrounds humanity. This is constituted through the monstrous figures of the alien. Within Science Fiction, H.G. Wells draws on this logic of Social Darwinism in his novel, The Time Machine. He follows through on the logic of naturalism, the notion that the factory system will produce a difference in race and makes it literal through the figures of the Eloi and the Morlocks. This work is curious as that it reverses the logic of social Darwinism. It is the children of the ruling classes who become weak and imbecilic, while the workers grow strong. But at the same time, the text holds a great phobia for those monstrous figures of the Morlocks, and despite the fact that they have access to advanced structures of instrumental reason, we are never given access to them as subjective creatures.

I don’t think that this is the end of a literary history that we could draw, but it points to some of the important texts the come before the Ring Trilogy, that seem to have similar figuration. We can see that something similar occurs in the fantastic stories and science fiction text we touched upon to the process that occurs in Tolkien. Various figures are not described metaphorically as monstrous, but they literally become monsters. What does this mean? I want to move from this discussion to a discussion of fantasy as a genre. This will give us greater access to monstrosity in Tolkien’s text.

When we look at the literature that tries to offer an explanation of the structures of the genre we get an emphasis on structures that blur between the space of the conscious and the unconscious. To begin almost every writer on the fantastic emphasizes that fantasy cannot be understood as conscious allegory, to the extent that there is a connection to the material world, this connection is metonymic. To continue briefly into some particular interpretations, Todorov in his structural analysis of fantastic literature puts a great deal of weight on the factor of undecidability. For Todorov, a work is fantastic because the text doesn’t offer a clear interpretation, whether the events of the novel are supernatural or whether mundane occurrences or madness can explain them. This puts it between the marvelous, which operates purely in the realm of the supernatural and the uncanny, which ultimately offers mundane explanations for Rosemary Jackson, on the other hand, puts a great deal of emphasis on transgression. Incest, violence, etc mark fantastic literature. All of these elements transgress normative limits of society. Throughout, the critics of the fantastic point to the fantastic as a place that tries to grasp at what is incomprehensible within the society itself.

To be sure, there would be extreme limitations to directly applying the methods of either Todorov or Jackson to Tolkien’s text. There is no question that there are supernatural explanations to events, and transgression can’t be found expressed in the manners indicated by Jackson. Indeed, for both critics, Tolkien doesn’t write fantasy at all, he is a writer of the marvelous. However, there are a couple important elements that can be drawn from this critical research to understand the work of the Tolkien. The first is the notion of metonymy. We can see this operate throughout the text, through both the figures of the orcs and the unfortunate men and hobbits that get dragged into the gears of the factory. This ties into the second notion, and perhaps the most important one, the emphasis that fantasy tries to grasp at what is in some sense incomprehensible to its contemporary society.
So what links metonymy to the incomprehensible? In order to understand that, we need to take a brief detour into the conception of the unconscious. Rather than depending on Todorov’s or Jackson’s reading of this concept, which are a little tethered to their understanding of the fantastic, I will offer my own reading, depending heavily on the concepts developed by Jean Laplanche and Jacques Lacan in their readings of Freud.

To understand the unconscious, I want to turn to the work of Jean Laplanche. Laplanche is both a close reader of Freud and an analyst himself. Laplanche argues that the unconscious is born in the care and feeding of the child by its caretakers. The child obviously receives a number of needs from the adult caretakers, nourishment, cleaning, etc. But the child receives something in addition to that, which is the unconscious sexuality of the adult. For the child, this constitutes an alien element, an ‘enigmatic signifier.’ The child cannot determine the meaning of these actions on the part of the adult, and therefore they cannot be incorporated into the child’s psychic structure.

The unconscious is then made up of these undigested, unsymbolizable signifiers. They collect together in random formations, forming any number of assemblages. In addition the psychic structure of the subject is constantly attempting to work through this material in order to comprehend it and integrate it into the conscious understanding of the subject. These signifiers are in constant rearrangement, thrown together any number of formations. This labor is constant and its results occasionally erupt into the consciousness. To make this a little more concrete, and to link this back into the conversation about the fantastic briefly, I thought I could draw an analogy with any number of fantastic creatures. When we look at creatures such as centaurs, griffins, etc., we can see how these apparently mystical creatures are, for the most part, strange assemblages of mundane creatures. In fact, when the Europeans explored, well, the rest of the world, there is an explosion of these representations, both in depictions of exotic animals and hybrids of animal and human. We can see that we have already returned to the metonymic process of the connections between the sallow faced men, the orcs, and the dirty industrial hobbit. Within that context, the unsymbolizable elements, the industrial worker and the colonial other are welded together through a logic of racialization

\Obviously, the emphasis on sexuality doesn’t help us much with comprehending this picture. Even if we do accept that there are sublimated forms of sexuality operating in the text, I don’t think it helps us with the linkages between racialization and industrial labor that we see operating in the text. In order to get at that, I want to introduce another psychoanalytic term, the symbolic. The symbolic is analyst Jacques Lacan’s attempt to deal with the new topography of the unconscious that Freud introduces in his later text, The Ego and the Id. This text argues that the unconscious doesn’t merely include transgressive elements, but also includes deeply embedded social structures, structures that Lacan links with the Law. For Lacan, this structure of the symbolic is linked to both the incest taboo and the oedipal structure. It operates as a limit space between the social and nature. We can see a type of racial symbolic in the work of Tolkien in the previously mentioned racial logic of the mythological structure of his world, a world defined by a binary of divine races and their illegitimate copies. The figure of Ted Sandyman introduces the threat of miscegenation into the mix, the threat of transgression of the racial symbolic. The ‘scouring’ of the shire is simultaneously a defense of this symbolic.

I think that this concept of an internalized social system is useful, but the centuries of capitalist domination have shown that these social symbolics are far more contingent than Lacan would ever accept. In the same way that Lacan naturalizes and dehistoricizes a set of institutions that create patriarchal heterosexuality, Tolkien implicitly erases colonial violence and social struggle. Instead, I would suggest we follow the critical work of Jean Laplanche and Judith Butler in understanding the symbolic as a set of social practices that congeal into unconscious norms through repetitive practice. Oedipus may offer some explanation for the family structure of Vienna in the 19th century, but not necessarily now. Marxist political theory emphasizes that capitalism operates through a continual process of incorporation of spaces outside its order. This historically has taken the form of both colonial expansion and the enclosure and destruction of the commons. In its utopian imagination, this takes the form of the dialectic, moving from thesis to antithesis to synthesis, allowing for a full and productive incorporation of its other.

However, this has never been fully successful, and we can see the resistance to this order both in the form of one, two, three, many anti-colonial movements and the organization of a workers movement that at times stretched the globe. However, these elements cannot be incorporated into the critical and conservative anti-capitalist visions of the world offered by Tolkien, Lovecraft and others. They are so invested in a nostalgic vision of the past as a naturalized set of human relations, defined by master and man rather than master and slave, that these transformations are incomprehensible to their symbolic conception of the world. Their response is to continually project back the violence of capitalist modernity back onto its victims. The orc combines the figure of the colonized subject who is outside the symbolic order of white Europe that is dependent on for its continued existence, and the factory worker who has been reduced to wage dependency through the destruction of the commons. Rather than operating as a model of intersectionality in this literature, these figures operate in a metonymic flow, constantly linking and delinking in failed attempts to revive a narrative rationality.

Perhaps, an alternative can be found in the work of China Mieville’s work on New Crobuzon and the figure of the remade. The Remade are produced within a criminal disciplinary system that has dropped any pretense of rehabilitation as a goal. Instead, through biothammaturgy, a combination of magic and science, the criminals are engineered to be monstrosities. They constitute a hated and degraded underclass of the city. This conception of monstrosity holds onto the critique of capital as brutal system of domination that is implied in Tolkien. If anything, its critique is far more rational and systemic. However, at the same time, we are offered a vision of an alternative within the outlaw pirate nation. This occurs precisely at the moment that the remade start to take their modes of monstrosity as a starting point. They re-appropriate their painful and monstrous bodies, and equip them for new possibilities. At the same time, they produce a social order that falls out of the social symbolic of the city that must position the transgressive within abject terms. This is the truly revolutionary moment within Mieville’s work. It points to an alternative system profoundly alien and opposed to capitalism that nonetheless is completely constituted by it. Perhaps we should end there.

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