What I’ve Been Up to the Last Five Years

I recently had to write up what I’ve been working on over the last five years for my “post-tenure dossier,” so I thought I’d excerpt that here to explain how I got from Electric Dreams: Computers and American Culture to Centaur Manifesto: Mythos & Logos on the Commons. The language is pretty jargon-heavy and a little stilted, a function of the three-page limit and institutional context. One of my goals is to write the book itself in a much looser, more direct and conversational voice, closer to the way I try to be in the classroom. In fact, transcribing and editing my lectures is the next step in getting Centaur Manifesto written. I’d appreciate any feedback, either in the comments below or via Twitter, where I’m @tedfriedman.

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My first book, Electric Dreams, was largely inspired by the rise of “cyberpunk” science fiction in the 1980s and 1990s. It was a cyberpunk author, William Gibson, who coined the term “cyberspace,” and science fiction both influenced the development of computer technologies and provided the richest exploration of their potential consequences. By 2000, the subcultural sensibility first expressed in Gibson’s novels had become ubiquitous in the form of The Matrix and its sequels.

In the twenty-first century, however, a cultural shift appeared to be occurring. The blockbuster genre of the 2000s was not science fiction, but fantasy, in the form of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises. At the same time, the energy of cyberpunk appeared to be spent, and the most vital and influential genre writers were emerging instead out of fantasy fiction and comics.

Fascinated by this development, I began to research the history of the fantasy genre, and to search for new theoretical models to help explain the shift from science fiction to fantasy. I began my work on fantasy media with “The Politics of Magic: Fantasy, Technology & Nature,” which was published in 2009 in Scope, an online peer-reviewed media studies journal published by the University of Nottingham. I argue in the essay that the trope of magic is a powerful tool for making sense of computer technologies. A computer program is a kind of spell, deploying highly-structured language to allow the user to transcend the constraints of time, space and gravity within cyberspace. At the same time, the concept of magic is rooted in the ancient practices and beliefs of animism, and the contemporary appeal of fantasy suggests a deep cultural desire to return to a more rooted relationship to nature in the context of global environmental crisis.

In “The Politics of Magic,” I discuss the influence of feminist scholar Donna Haraway’s 1986 essay “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” which called on technophobic theorists to engage the oft-ignored genre of science fiction. I suggest that the time is ripe for a “Centaur Manifesto” to similarly address fantasy, which today is often likewise dismissed as mere escapism. Haraway picked the figure of the cyborg because it is a hybrid creature on the border between human and machine, reflecting how all of our lives are dependent upon and intertwined with technology. Similarly, the centaur is a magical hybrid of human and animal, culture and nature.

In addition to Haraway’s ideas, “The Politics of Magic” incorporates the work of historian of science Morris Berman, phenomenological ecocritic David Abram, and actor-network theorist Bruno Latour. Looking to dig deeper into the historical roots of fantasy, I began researching theories of myth, a concept which once held great sway in critical theory, but which has more recently fallen into disrepute among poststructuralist scholars wary of essentializing metanarratives. I turned first to Joseph Campbell, whose Hero with a Thousand Faces has been hugely influential on generations of Hollywood screenwriters and spiritual seekers. Frustrated with the limitations of Campbell’s approach, I concluded that what was truly distinctive about Campbell’s ideas stemmed from the influence of Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, a student of Sigmund Freud who broke with his mentor over their differing ideas about the role of the unconscious. Freud emphasized the need for the ego to control a dangerous id, while Jung also saw in the unconscious a source of wisdom. Jung found in myths and fairy tales evidence of a “collective unconscious” rooted in deep archetypal structures.

Jung has been widely dismissed by contemporary critical theorists as irredeemably essentialist. But a new generation of “post-Jungian” scholars persuasively argues that Jung was a far more subtle, dialectical thinker than the caricature, and that his ideas remain relevant. The release last year of The Red Book, an illustrated manuscript of “active imaginations” that Jung kept private for almost 100 years, has led to a renewed interest in his ideas. In Jung’s concepts I have found new tools to help explain contemporary American culture. As I write in “Jung and Lost,” while film studies emerged in the 1950s and 1960s under the influence of Freud,

“today it is Jung’s shadow which looms over much of American culture. The most commercially successful Hollywood genres of this decade are fantasy and superhero movies, subjects which in previous generations were viewed as kids’ stuff, but today claim a larger portion of culture than ever before. These genres reject conventional models of realism and psychological depth. Instead, they embrace magical storytelling and characters of outsized dimensions and godlike powers. These qualities have led them to be largely dismissed by conventional cultural critics (beyond fan studies scholars who have tended to emphasize audience reception over the textual properties of the stories themselves). But these same qualities are well described by the Jungian language of archetypes and the collective unconscious. Their roots are in the storytelling traditions of myth and fairy tale – exactly the genres Jungian analysts have always most valued.”

Jung and Lost” is one of six invited columns I wrote from 2008-9 for Flow, an online media studies journal published by the University of Texas. In “Myth, the Numinous, and Cultural Studies,” I make the case for a renewed engagement in cultural studies with the concept of myth. In “Strat-O-Matic and the Baseball Tarot: Sense and Synchronicity in Sports and Games,” I suggest that Jung’s concept of synchronicity – “meaningful coincidence” – can help explain the power of randomness in play. And in “Vertigo,” I move beyond Jung to other models of the numinous, arguing that the parallels between poststructuralist theory and Buddhist philosophy can help critical theorists think past “the linguistic turn” to escape “the prison-house of language.”

Another of my pieces for Flow, “Tweeting the Dialectic of Technological Determinism,” addresses the role of Twitter in the Iranian protests. And in “The Play Paradigm,” I suggest “What Media Studies Can Learn from Game Studies.” I have also “curated” two pieces for In Media Res, the digital humanities site now published by Georgia State, and guest-edited a week for the site on pop music. I look forward to expanding my role in the project.

I am now in the process of turning my work of the last few years into a book, A Centaur Manifesto: Mythos & Logos on the Commons. The goal of the book is to bring together post-Marxist ideological criticism with post-Jungian depth psychology. I have published all of my recent work in open-access journals, and I hope to have the manuscript for Centaur Manifesto reviewed through the “open peer review” process, which could bring together readers from cultural studies, religious studies, depth psychology, and the fantasy community. I will regularly be blogging about the book at tedfriedman.com, and tweeting as @tedfriedman.

One thought on “What I’ve Been Up to the Last Five Years

  1. Terry Green

    Thanks Ted, for keeping me in the loop on your work. My career in engineering was so different from your academic study, that it is difficult for me to follow your work from a subject or point of focus standpoint since you have followed the focus of both Freud and Jung into the areas of popular swing between points of view of both. In class your contrast between the two was well executed, and allowed us to follow the differences. In structural design for instance the designs are based on two different methods (working stress and ultimate load). The difference being that we (engineers) get to the similar answers using both, but in your analysis, you are using two radically different approaches and the answers are of course miles apart (fantasy v.sci-fi).

    I guess the question I have is will your research establish a trend which can be used to project the future interest of audiences? i.e. a period of fantasy, then sci-fi, then back .cyclically. That projection could be modeled to execution (after establishing the moving forces of the audiences), and it could be extremely useful to movie makers, and therefore monetarily beneficial to the developer.

    These are just some thoughts.

    Reply

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