ENGL 4010: Carrier Bags as Weak Theory (SP23)

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<strong>Carrier</strong> bags<br />


Stewart and Le Guin

In The <strong>Carrier</strong> Bag <strong>Theory</strong> of Fiction, visionary author Ursula K. Le Guin<br />

retells the story of human origin by redefining technology <strong>as</strong> a cultural<br />

carrier bag rather than a weapon of domination.<br />

Hacking the linear, progressive mode of the Techno-Heroic, the <strong>Carrier</strong><br />

Bag <strong>Theory</strong> of human evolution proposes: “before the tool that forces<br />

energy outward, we made the tool that brings energy home.” Prior to the<br />

preeminence of sticks, swords and the Hero’s long, hard, killing tools,<br />

our ancestors’ greatest invention w<strong>as</strong> the container: the b<strong>as</strong>ket of wild<br />

oats, the medicine bundle, the net made of your own hair, the home, the<br />

shrine, the place that contains whatever is sacred. The recipient, the<br />

holder, the story. The bag of stars.<br />

This influential essay opens a portal to terra ignota: unknown lands<br />

where the possibilities of human experience and knowledge can be<br />

discovered anew.

Le Guin<br />

Not just the bottle of gin or wine, but the bottle in its older<br />

sense of container in general, a thing that holds<br />

something else (150).

The Vuvalini, the Many<br />

Mothers, and their<br />

longing for shows,<br />

for stories.<br />

“Shows. Everyone in the<br />

old world had a show.”<br />

These shows are<br />

thought <strong>as</strong> linkages<br />

to others that might<br />

still be out there.<br />

“Do you think there’s still<br />

somebody out there?<br />

Sending shows?<br />

Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015

Where is that wonderful, big, long, hard thing, a bone, I believe,<br />

that the Ape Man first b<strong>as</strong>hed somebody with in the movie and<br />

Le Guin<br />

then, grunting with ecst<strong>as</strong>y at having achieved the first proper<br />

murder, flung up into the sky, and whirling there it became a<br />

space ship thrusting its way into the cosmos to fertilize it<br />

and produce at the end of the movie a lovely fetus, a boy of<br />

course, drifting in the Milky Way without (oddly enough) any<br />

womb, any matrix at all? I don’t know. I don’t even care. I’m<br />

not telling that story (150-51).

The linkage, the<br />

chain, b e t w e e n<br />

discovery/invention,<br />

violence, exploration<br />

and the human here<br />

is rather striking.<br />

This linkage is not<br />

without merit, but it is<br />

certainly in need of a<br />

complication.<br />

2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968

2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968<br />

I don’t know. I don’t<br />

even care. I’m not<br />

telling that story.

[B]ut how do you get more than one stomachful and one<br />

Le Guin<br />

handful home? [...] A holder. A recipient.<br />

The first cultural device w<strong>as</strong> probably a recipient...Many theorizers feel<br />

that the earliest cultural inventions must have been a container to<br />

hold gathered products and some kind of sling or net carrier.<br />

So says Elizabeth Fisher in Women’s Creation. But no, this<br />

cannot be. (150)

The team found psychoactive compounds in an<br />

animal-skin pouch constructed of three fox snouts<br />

stitched together, Jose Capriles, Penn State, 2019.

Le Guin<br />

[L]ong before the useful knife and ax; right along with the<br />

indispensable whacker, grinder, and digger—[...]—with or<br />

before the tool that forces energy outward, we made the tool<br />

that brings energy home. It makes sense to me. (151)

Le Guin<br />

So long <strong>as</strong> culture w<strong>as</strong> explained <strong>as</strong> originating from and<br />

elaborating upon the use of long, hard objects for sticking,<br />

b<strong>as</strong>hing, and killing, I never thought that I had, or wanted,<br />

any particular share in it. (151)

Le Guin<br />

So the Hero h<strong>as</strong> decreed through his mouthpieces the<br />

Lawgivers, first, that the proper shape of the narrative is that<br />

of the arrow or spear, starting here and going straight there<br />

and THOK! hitting its mark (which drops dead); second, that<br />

the central concern of the narrative, including the novel, is<br />

conflict; and third, the story isn’t any good if he isn’t in it. (153-54)

Russell Brandom maps an action sequence in Skyfall for The Verge.

Le Guin<br />

I differ with all of this. I would go so far <strong>as</strong> to say that the natural,<br />

proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a<br />

bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear<br />

meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a<br />

particular, powerful relation to one another and to us. (153)

Russell Brandom maps an action sequence in Mad Max for The Verge.

Le Guin<br />

It is a strange realism, but it is a strange reality. (154)

“Breaking down the chaos of a Mad Max car ch<strong>as</strong>e.” Russell Brandom, The Verge

Just prior to this, The<br />

Dag, one of Immortan<br />

Joe’s wives, w<strong>as</strong><br />

<strong>as</strong>king The Keeper of<br />

the Seeds about the<br />

latter’s proficiency with<br />

a rifle.<br />

This scene is thus in<br />

pointed contradistinction<br />

to the gun<br />

scene.<br />

In an earlier scene,<br />

bullets are referred to<br />

<strong>as</strong> “anti-seeds”: “plant<br />

one and watch the<br />

thing die.”<br />

Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015

Le Guin<br />

Still there are seeds to be gathered, and<br />

room in the bag of stars (154).

Ordinary Affects is a singular argument for attention to the affective<br />

dimensions of everyday life and the potential that animates the ordinary.<br />

Known for her focus on the poetics and politics of language and<br />

landscape, the anthropologist Kathleen Stewart ponders how ordinary<br />

impacts create the subject <strong>as</strong> a capacity to affect and be affected. In a<br />

series of brief vignettes combining storytelling, close ethnographic detail,<br />

and critical analysis, Stewart relates the intensities and banalities of<br />

common experiences and strange encounters, half-spied scenes and<br />

the lingering resonance of p<strong>as</strong>sing events. While most of the instances<br />

rendered are from Stewart’s own life, she writes in the third person in<br />

order to reflect on how intimate experiences of emotion, the body, other<br />

people, and time inextricably link us to the outside world.

Stewart<br />

It’s a mode of production through which something that<br />

feels like something throws itself together. An opening<br />

onto a something, it maps a thicket of connections<br />

between vague yet forceful and affecting elements (72).

The Breakf<strong>as</strong>t Club, 1985

Stewart<br />

To inhabit a space of attending to things is to incite<br />

attention to co-existing forms of composition,<br />

habituation, performance, and event and to the “weak”<br />

ontologies of lived collective fictions comprised of<br />

diacritical relations, differences, affinities, affects, and<br />

trajectories (73).

Stewart<br />

For me, then, the point of theory now is not to judge the<br />

value of analytic objects or to somehow get their<br />

representation “right” but to wonder where they might<br />

go and what potential modes of knowing, relating, and<br />

attending to things are already somehow present in<br />

them <strong>as</strong> potential or resonance (73).

Stewart<br />

Tracing the worlds that people make out of requires a<br />

supple attention and the capacity to imagine<br />

trajectories and follow tendencies into scenes of their<br />

excess or end points (78).

Stewart<br />

Matter in an unfinished world is itself indefinite—a not<br />

yet that fringes every determinate context or<br />

normativity with a margin of something deferred or<br />

something that failed to arrive, or h<strong>as</strong> been lost, or is<br />

waiting in the wings, n<strong>as</strong>cent, perhaps pressing (80).

Veg<strong>as</strong>, of course, is a different story with different trajectories to<br />

Stewart<br />

trace. And so is the story of the m<strong>as</strong>ter-planned, and the story of the<br />

homeless, and countless other stories that can be told. But they all<br />

have their forms of alertness to the poesis of a something snapping<br />

into place, if only for a minute. All of these stories of tracing things<br />

that come together have their attachments to potentiality and<br />

their constant production of the sense of being in something—<br />

something grand, something degraded, something dumb—whatever.<br />

Everywhere now you hear the question “how’d you get into that?”<br />

Things don’t just add up.

Stewart<br />

The moment when things throw themselves together<br />

into something that feels like something is the kind of<br />

cultural production that's often given form in literature and<br />

poetry and folklore (76).

The look and feel of<br />

Unknown Fields’ projects<br />

and productions resonates<br />

with Le Guin, and they<br />

point toward what a<br />

“<strong>Carrier</strong> Bag <strong>Theory</strong> of<br />

Reports” might be.<br />

“Here we are both<br />

visionaries and reporters,<br />

part documentarians and<br />

part science fiction<br />

soothsayers <strong>as</strong> the<br />

otherworldly sites we<br />

encounter afford us a<br />

distanced viewpoint from<br />

which to survey the<br />

consequences of emerging<br />

environmental and<br />

technological scenarios."<br />

Unknown Fields, Division Showreel, 2013

Images from Unknown Fields’ Tales from the Dark Side of the City, Perimeter, 2016.

Images from Emergence Magazine.

<strong>Carrier</strong> bags<br />


Stewart and Le Guin

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