Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"Literary Singularities": a few words on M. John Harrison's 'Light'

“Information might be a substance.  Can you imagine that?”

~M. John Harrison, Light

            Can you imagine that?

            M. John Harrison’s Light is yet another example of recent science fiction literature that subverts the expectations of the genre.  It centers around three characters who never actually meet in the course of the narrative: the first is Michael Kearney, who, with his colleague Brian Tate, is a researcher in the field of theoretical physics whose recent work is beginning to expose some strange anomalies (oh yes, and Kearney is also a serial killer in his spare time).

            The second is Ed Chianese, better known in the novel as Chinese Ed.  Ed used to be an “entradista”; a space explorer who ran risky payloads and such through indeterminate regions of space.  However, the novel takes place after Ed’s heyday, depicting him living the remainder of his life in a state of stasis where he indulges in dream-like fantasies; of course, this idyllic world of sloth and sluggishness is about to come to a violent end.

            Finally, we have Seria Mau Genlicher, a K-ship pilot who has been cybernetically altered so as to be (literally) a part of her vessel.

            Kearney’s plot takes place in 1999; Ed’s and Seria’s both take place in 2400.  Across this broad temporal scope, Harrison gives us a glimpse into an ingeniously envisioned and immaculately constructed world.  This strange setting (for even Kearney’s 1999 plotline is ripe with oddities, particularly the serial murderer’s haunting visions of the mysterious Shrander) revolves around an even stranger center – central absence would be more appropriate.  Just before the novel’s halfway point, Harrison describes the anomaly of the Kefahuchi Tract, the enigmatic singularity at the story’s core:

This object was massively energetic.  It was surrounded by gas clouds heated to 50,000 degrees Kelvin.  It was pumping out jets and spumes of stuff both baryonic and non-baryonic.  Its gravitational effects could be detected, if faintly, at the Core.  It was, as one commentator put it: “a place that had already been old by the time the first great quasars began to burn across the across the early universe in the unimaginable dark.”  Whatever it was, it had turned the Tract around it into a region of black holes, huge natural accelerators and junk matter – a broth of space, time, and heaving event horizons; an unpredictable ocean of radiant energy, of deep light.  Anything could happen there, where natural law, if there had ever been such a thing, was held in suspension. (Harrison 183)

            Rather than attempt an exhaustive analysis of the entire novel, or performing a hodge-podge of different plot points and characters, I would really like to focus on who I believe is the most interesting character and his place in the novel: Michael Kearney.  However, this is not to say the other characters are not interesting.  If any of my readers choose to pick up Light at some point, simply make sure you read the passage concerning Seria Mau’s “binding” to her K-ship; if this description does not strike something ineffable in your core, then I doubt you have truly understood what you read:

They strap you down and give you a rubber gag to bite on.  The way is cleared for the shadow operators, running on a nanomech substrate at the submicrometre level, which soon begin to take your sympathetic nervous system to pieces.  They flush the rubbish out continually through the colon.  They pump you with a white paste of ten-micrometre-range factories which will farm exotic proteins and monitor your internal indicators.  They core you at four points down the spine […] (Harrison 337).

And that’s not all; believe me, it gets worse.  It is one of the most relentlessly inhuman processes I’ve ever seen imagined in fiction, and this is why I find the work so riveting.  As far as Kearney goes, I’m mostly interested in him because of his diegetic position at the opposite end of most of the narrative action.  Kearney’s plot takes place in 1999, more than ten years in our past even, and incorporates elements that might better befit a horror story than a science fiction novel.

            Kearney is haunted by visions of a mysterious being he calls the Shrander.  He describes it, at one point, to his ex-wife Anna Kearney: “‘Try and imagine,’ he had once said to Anna, ‘something like a horse’s skull.  Not a horse’s head,’ he had cautioned her, ‘but its skull […] Imagine,’ he had told her, ‘a wicked, intelligent, purposeless-looking thing which apparently cannot speak.  A few ribbons or strips of flesh dangle and flutter from it.  Even the shadow of that is more than you can bear to see’” (113).  Without ruining the surprise, we can say that the Shrander constitutes a horrific enigma for Kearney.  While it certainly materializes in a more crystallized form later in the novel, for most of the narrative the Shrander is a speechless, ominous presence that somehow drives Kearney’s mad desire to kill.

            Kearney has also come into the possession of a pair of dice, purportedly from the Shrander itself.  I want to share the description of these dice as well:

Despite their colour they were neither ivory nor bone.  But each face had an even craquelure of faint fine lines, and in the past this had led Kearney to think they might be made of porcelain.  They might have been porcelain.  They might have been ancient.  In the end they seemed neither.  Their weight, their solidity in the hand, had reminded him from time to time of poker dice, and of the counters used in the Chinese game of mah-jong.  Each face featured a deeply incised symbol.  These symbols were coloured.  (Some of the colours, particularly the blues and reds, always seemed too bright given the ambient illumination.  Others seemed too dim.)  They were unreadable.  He thought they came from a pictographic alphabet.  He thought they were the symbols of a numerical system.  He thought that from time to time they had changed between one cast and another, as if the results of a throw affected the system itself.  In the end, he did not know what to think. (163-4)

I might also mention that this is possibly one of the few examples of fine literature that manages to incorporate the word “craquelure”.  And a bit further down:

Over the years Kearney had seen pi in the symbols.  He had seen Planck’s constants.  He had seen a model of the Fibonacci sequence.  He had seen what he thought was a code for the arrangement of hydrogen bonds in the primitive protein molecules of the autocatalytic set. / Every time he picked them up, he knew as little as he had the first time.  Every day he started new. (164)

Rules and systems for categorization break down.  The dice are perhaps the most obvious example of an object in the narrative that refutes any attempt to define them.  Analogous to these strange, porcelain-like objects is the enigmatic Kefahuchi Tract; yet this warped fabric of space-time is also, in some ways, inverted.  The Kefahuchi Tract is not a place where the laws of physics stop working, but a place where law becomes illimitable, and hence ceases to be “law” at all:

Every race they met on their way through the Core had a star drive based on a different theory.  All those theories worked, even when they ruled out one another’s basic assumptions.  You could travel between the stars, it began to seem, by assuming anything.  If your theory gave you a foamy space to work with – if you had to catch a wave – that didn’t preclude some other engine, running on a perfectly smooth Einsteinian surface, from surfing the same tranche of empty space.  It was even possible to build drives on the basis of superstring-style theories, which, despite their promise four hundred years ago, had never really worked at all. (182)

We are given a glimpse of this in Kearney’s narrative, within the laboratory that he and colleague Brian Tate.  In one scene, when Kearney visits Tate, he finds that his partner has barricaded himself in the lab, apparently afraid not that something will get in, but that something might get out.  When asked about their research, Tate replies: “‘We had q-bits that survived a whole fucking minute before interference set in.  That’s like a million years down there.  That’s like the indeterminacy principle is just suspended” (280).  The indeterminacy principle, of course, is Werner Heisenberg’s famous maxim which proposes that there is an epistemological limit on our ability to know certain pairs of physical properties of a particle at the same moment: when one property is measured, another inevitably changes, and it is impossible to know the exact measurement of both properties at once.

            What we are being shown in Harrison’s brilliant sci-fi narrative is the structural importance of what I playfully call “literary singularities”.  It’s worth mentioning that Ken MacLeod, another contemporary sci-fi writer, actually called Light a “literary singularity”.[i]  MacLeod intends this in a kind of critical-generic fashion, which certainly suits the novel; however, by “literary singularity” I mean that Harrison is actually manipulating certain structural points within the narrative – points that have traditionally been governed by what Fredric Jameson theorized as the “unknowability thesis” – where representation and expression fail.  The laws of physics might be described as a method whereby human subjects represent reality to themselves, and theoretical quandaries such as black holes and time travel are points where these laws no longer hold any water; the representational model fails.  Light is critically aware of this failure; these scientific forms figure in the text as analogous singularities: both gravitational and textual.  The anomalies of science and the natural world achieve the status of effectual narrative components, perhaps the most important narrative components.

            I’m skeptical, however, of Jameson’s dialectical model of unknowability or inexpressibility within a Marxist hermeneutical framework, although I’ve expressed my fondness for this model in previous posts (namely, my post on science fiction and historicism).  While I admit that Jameson’s method is not only theoretically rigorous but also one of the most influential approaches to literary theory in the past half-century, I want to stress that the dialectic poses problems for critics.  Perhaps most problematic is the dialectic's tendency to succumb to causal reasoning; since dialectical thought establishes antinomies that function in a structural relationship to one another, and these antinomies eventually must be reconciled (the Hegelian Aufhebung), dialectical method necessarily gravitates toward a determined telos.  Anything and everything can be subsumed by the dialectical method, which thereby insists that the total field of phenomena somehow conceals a dialectic substance.  Thus, Hegel could claim that History is, essentially, dialectical.

            The issue thus becomes separating the theoretical practice from the inherent nature of things.  We can interpret a text dialectically, but we must be cautious to avoid attributing a dialectical essence to the object on which our method fixates.  This is a major problem with much dialectical thought: while it takes texts as its objects, it doesn’t stop here but continues on to claim that the historical movement and conditions wherein phenomena might be witnessed (literary genres, class conflict, scientific development, etc.) is also dialectical.  But if current science and philosophy has revealed anything to us, it is the obliteration of teleology and idealism; history has no governing essence that necessitates one logical conclusion.  The laws of history and culture, like those of physics in the deep regions of space, fail; and if Light demonstrates anything, it is that in the wake of these failures possibility becomes infinite.

            The term “singularity” here has a very important definition that I should clarify before continuing.  I intend this term not in what is perhaps its most immediate sense: something that is singular, although this is certainly a component of what I intend.  The appropriate definition in this context is most closely linked to the use of the term in general relativity: a gravitational singularity, otherwise known as a black hole, an anomaly of space-time so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape its gravitational center.  Because of this extreme density, everything in a black hole collapses into an infinitesimally small point: a singularity.  Theoretically, black holes are also demarcated by mathematical limits known as event horizons (here, readers might be reminded of Paul W.S. Anderson’s cinematic sci-fi cult classic about a spaceship that mysteriously returns from the depths of space after vanishing some years prior).

            The event horizon is the truly intriguing structural component of a black hole that enables it as a metaphor for what I am deeming “literary singularities” in Harrison’s novel.  The event horizon marks the limit beyond which nothing (not even light) can escape the gravitational grip of the black hole.  Once something crosses this boundary, it will gradually be pulled toward the singularity and broken down atom by atom.  As Neil DeGrasse Tyson explains:

If you stumbled upon a black hole and found yourself falling feet-first toward its center, then as you got closer, the black hole’s force of gravity would grow astronomically.  Curiously, you would not feel this force at all because, like anything in free fall, you are weightless.  What you do feel, however, is something far more sinister.  While you fall, the black hole’s force of gravity at your two feet, they being closer to the black hole’s center, accelerates them faster than does the weaker force of gravity at your head.  The difference between the two is known officially as the tidal force, which grows precipitously as you draw nearer to the black hole’s center […] Your body would stay whole until the instant the tidal force exceeded your body’s molecular bonds […] That’s the gory moment when your body snaps into two segments, breaking apart at your midsection.  Upon falling further, the difference in gravity continues to grow, and each of your two body segments snaps into two segments.  Shortly thereafter, those segments each snap into two segments of their own, and so forth and so forth, bifurcating your body into an ever-increasing number of parts. (Tyson 284)

Furthermore, Tyson goes on to explain, you would also “extrude through the fabric of space and time, like toothpaste squeezed through a tube” (285).  All in all, not a pleasant way to die, provided you were wearing a sealed suit and hadn’t already succumbed from exposure to vacuum.  Space, as Tyson describes and Harrison reminds us in Light, is an inhospitable place.

            The most interesting factor concerning the event horizon is its appearance to an outside observer.  Human beings require light to see, but since light cannot escape a black hole once it’s crossed the event horizon, humans cannot actually “see” a black hole (hence the painfully obvious nomination).  What happens, then, when an object traverses the theoretical boundary of the event horizon?  Rather than simply disappearing to an outside observer, the object instead would appear to tumble eternally toward the event horizon, always nearing the point of no return, but never actually crossing it (think of an asymptote, a curve which approaches the line of a graph without ever actually touching it).  Likewise, if a subject traversed the event horizon, the moment of crossing would be mathematically calculable, but invisible; there would be no discernible visible difference.

            Since information itself cannot escape a black hole, any method of representation fails.  While mathematics and quantum physics can point us toward knowledge of a black hole’s existence, they cannot explain what a black hole is.  Descriptions of black holes as collapsed stars whose masses and densities have reached such extremes that not even light can escape their gravity helps us understand how a black hole comes to be, but doesn’t explain (again) what it is.  Most immediately, all we can say about black holes is that they are nothing; but nothing cannot exert the devastating forces that gravitational singularities exert on the observable universe.

            Can it?

            In Light, the Kefahuchi Tract is an observable, or naked, singularity.  It is a singularity without an event horizon, thus allowing observers to visibly witness it (theories do exist for naked singularities in current science, but none have been discovered).  However, even visibility doesn’t permit answers for Harrison’s readers.  If the singularity of the Kefahuchi Tract is visible, it is radically illogical.  The Kefahuchi Tract – and the universe in general – becomes, in Harrison’s literary vision, a site where anything is possible: “[Humans] wondered why the universe, which seemed so harsh on top, was underneath so pliable.  Anything worked.  Wherever you looked, you found.  They were hoping to find out why” (Harrison 182).  The Kefahuchi Tract is even more affronting than a black hole because it makes the absence of logicality visible.

            If the laws of physics do not hold for Harrison, neither do the laws of literature; and this makes Light an artistic masterpiece in my opinion.  If temporal processes break down, how can a narrative be traditionally represented?  This is not a problem for Harrison, who leaps back and forth between 1999 and 2400 seamlessly, although the two begin to bleed into one another in the presence of the strange substance that leaks from Kearney’s and Tate’s computer monitors.  This leads me to the quote with which I opened this post: “Information might be a substance.  Can you imagine that?” (Harrison 357).  To which I then asked: can you?  Harrison certainly does.

            One of the most enigmatic features of black hole research is known as the “information paradox”, which suggests that black holes destroy physical information once they consume it.  This seems strange on first glance, since information often appears intangible – as something known, but not something that is.  Does material contain information?  Or is information projected, internalized, and represented by observing subjects?  Harrison’s delicious romp through space and time posits a universe wherein information exists on an entirely different scale, as something physical, tangible, and perhaps even biological.  I would refrain from claiming that there is any conclusion to Light; I don’t think it attempts any conclusion.  It embraces an environment and narrative structure where a wealth of information proliferates, but remains incalculable to the human sciences.  Light accepts a universe where (just as in our reality) researchers and scholars posit theories and hypotheses by which to navigate space-time; but the novel exposes these theories to a harsh and capricious non-totality where anything seems to work.  This in turn invites the following question: what happens if things stop working?

            If information is a substance, a substrate, to the universe in Light, then the Kefahuchi Tract is a window into its non- and pre-human ontology.  It does not conform to epistemological structures; or, if it does, it conforms to all of them.  Rather than a void, an unobservable absence that consumes light and information, the Kefahuchi Tract is observable; rather than consuming physical laws to the point that nothing functions, it deconstructs the limits of physical possibility.  Causal reasoning faces its greatest challenge.  The problem of induction first posed by David Hume suddenly surges to the forefront.  Viewed in this light (an unavoidable pun), the narrative universe almost seems to take on an abstractly benign quality.  There is no doubt that Light is a violent story, but behind the three narrative strains lurks something of a unifying thread.  I would not go so far as to claim that Harrison believes our universe to be inherently benign.  That would grant far too much anthropomorphism to its being.  There is, however, far more to it than what is visible.

[i] This reference is from the collection of excerpted critical praise at the beginning of Light.
Works Cited
Harrison, M John. Light. New York: Bantam Dell, 2007. Print.
Tyson, Neil DeGrasse. Death By Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.,
2007. Print.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

"Sleep well in your beds, 'cause if this thing comes true there ain't gonna be any more": Ecology and Psycho-sexuality in Jeff Nichols's Take Shelter

       The opening scene of Jeff Nichols’s existentially terrifying film, Take Shelter, sets the mood for entire affair: our protagonist, Curtis, stands in front of his house in the Midwestern United States watching an encroaching storm (the effects here are absolutely beautiful, although the result is unsettling).  As he observes the strange cloud formations, it begins to rain; but this rain is a strange amber color, and is compared by Curtis later on in the film to motor oil.  He sniffs the rain, but says nothing.  The scene then abruptly cuts to Curtis in the shower, yet the sound of the rain is uninterrupted, carrying continuously into our main character’s morning cleansing ritual.

            It is revealed that the strange opening sequence is one of many dream visions our middle-class protagonist begins to suffer.  As the film progresses, the nightmares grow stronger, and are paralleled by Curtis’s increasing paranoia and intensifying fear: fear, first and foremost, that his family is in danger; that, as he says, “[…] something might be coming.”[i]

            The film follows this growing paranoia; how it manifests, its mysterious cause, its effects on Curtis’s family… and as the audience is carried along, hypnotized by Nichols’s near-flawless directing, we begin to wonder: are these visions the result of a psychotically damaged mind; or is there some kernel of truth to them, some metaphysical essence of prophecy?  I do not intend to spoil the film for anyone, but I will say this before continuing: Take Shelter is possibly the most terrifying film I have seen since Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey (and those who are familiar with the latter will understand the kind of terror I am speaking of).  It does not rely on cheap scares, although there are a few moments that might make you leap out of your chair; rather, the film thrives on its growing intensity and uncertainty.  It gradually creates an aura of utter displacement and alienation, from both others and oneself, realized through the film’s protagonist (supremely played by Michael Shannon).  The most terrifying aspects of the film never cause the audience to jump or scream.  They are the moments when we realize how things that we take for granted – things that are supposed to be normal and familiar to us – suddenly become different, strange, and utterly unknown.  The film deals with this theme of alienation through one of the most precious and valorized institutions of our contemporary society: the family.  This is the primary reason why this film chills me to the bone.

            Someone might ask why I am including a discussion of this film on a blog about science fiction.  I have two reasons: first, I am inclined to believe that the film might actually be classified as science fiction (but I’ll say no more); and second, even if the film does not fall under the traditional category of sci-fi, its subject matter is of a common type with sci-fi (I’m referring to the nonhuman as such).  Take Shelter is a film about the gradual evacuation of a human relationship with the world.  As the film goes on, objects lose their sense of familiarity.  Scenes of nature appear grim and unforgiving, even intentionally threatening.  Family members begin to turn against each other, even while trying ruthlessly to prove their love.  Human action looks strange to other humans.  Intentions are threadbare, although they seem to still exist.  The human mind, that organ we take for granted, becomes the source of an unreality that we can scarcely imagine.

            Take Shelter is not terrifying because it shows us aliens, or ghosts, or monsters.  It is terrifying because it asks if there is any difference between the aforementioned things and human beings.  If you are an object for me, then I can only be an object for you; and when objects lose their anthropomorphism, the terror can be unlimited, even for a film that is as superficially banal as Take Shelter.  In this post, I want to venture beneath the banality to try and decipher a bit more about what is going on in this artfully composed film.  I have been a bit heavy on theory and philosophy in the past few posts, so I hope this one marks a return to dealing more directly with the “text” itself.

            I want to suggest two components of, or approaches to, the film, since they comprise the crux of the burning question at its center: is Curtis insane, or are his visions prophetic (are these mutually exclusive)?  In light of this central question, I want to suggest the following pair of methodological discourses: the psychological (psychoanalytic? schizoanalytic?), and ecological (since, if Curtis’s visions are somehow prophetic, it would appear that some catastrophic ecological disaster is looming).  Both of these approaches share a common concern: the relationship of the subject to an-other, whether that ‘other’ is another human being, or the nonhuman noumenon of nature itself.

            The human/nature dichotomy has long been a subject of debate among theorists, with many recent figures claiming that it is nothing more than an effect of rampant anthropocentrism since the Enlightenment (and prior) that posits the natural world as something “other” that needs to be controlled.  While this is a vulgar description, I want to briefly pursue a clarification of a more recent conception of what this human/nature dichotomy has in store.  It is put forth by Eugene Thacker in his recent publication, In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy Volume I: “can there exist today a mysticism of the unhuman, one that has as its focus the climatological, meterological  [sic], and geological world-in-itself, and, moreover, one that does not resort to either religion or science” (133).[ii]  Thacker is cautious to distinguish this proposition from any kind of mysticism of the Earth or nature, both of which harbor certain connections to more archaic conceptions of theism and spiritual unity between self and world.  Thacker urges his audience to consider the implications of a mysticism “after the death of God” – a “mysticism of the unhuman”, which he claims can only be “climatological” (158-9).  I do not want to dwell on this point too much, but I think it affords us a point of entry to Take Shelter: does this film offer its audience a terrifyingly real representation of humanity coming into contact with a strange, catastrophically violent external world?

            It is, of course, fitting that Curtis’s hallucinations almost always involve storms.  Sometimes he hallucinates thunder absent any visual signs; in one stunning scene, he witnesses an immense murmuration (for those who are unfamiliar with this term, look up some photos of them online – amazing).  Eventually, strangers begin to appear in his dream-visions, near faceless abstractions that seem to harbor no other discernible intention than harming Curtis and his family.  Finally, these hallucinations culminate in visions of people he knows, at first his coworker.  Then, in what is certainly the most terrifying scene in the film, Curtis has a vision involving his wife.  There are no words spoken in this vision, and no acts of violence, although the presence of a knife on the kitchen counter heightens the tension.  The scene is terrifying in the potential chaos that lurks beneath the surface, and in the terrific acting by Jessica Chastain (Curtis mentions earlier in the film that, in his visions, people’s eyes are “different”; somehow, Chastain manages to pull this off, and it doesn’t flee quickly from memory).  It is almost as though, in Curtis’s hallucinations, the enormous power of some unhuman noumenon infects those other human figures, who become nothing more than things (phenomena?), apparently devoid of any relative subjectivity.  It is worth noting that the hostile figures in Curtis’s visions have always been subjected to the greasy rain.

            Accompanying these hallucinations are several episodes and details that may offer some clarification on the psychological front:

            Curtis’s daughter, Hannah, is deaf, and in an early scene we see the whole family at an ASL class.  Not by accident, the sign they are discussing is the sign for the father.  Throughout the film, Curtis is conflicted by what it means to be a father (protector, lawgiver, breadwinner, etc.), and this comes to the surface in a line when he admits his hallucinations to his wife: “I promised myself that I would never leave, and I am doing everything I can to make that true” (Nichols).  The promise that Curtis made as a member of the family (legal/social/economical) conditions his actions, particularly in a financial way.  Money remains a prominent theme throughout the film, since Curtis’s obsession in protecting his family (which leads to him building a tornado shelter in their backyard) is a large drain on their savings.  Furthermore, the family is also saving for a cochlear implant for Hannah.  Around every turn lurks the question of money.

            The sexual imagery and social hierarchy of patriarchy is present as well, particularly in associations of phallic representations and nocturnal enuresis.  Themes of drilling and digging – even employment itself (Curtis works on a construction crew that involves some kind of rig-drilling – more than a coincidence the weird rain sometimes looks like oil…?) – all these tropes reinforce Curtis’s masculine sensibilities.  His confidence is shaken in an episode of bedwetting, but his daily activities allow him to compensate.  Part of his anxiety is a fear of not fulfilling the space of the father in the familial hierarchy; of not being able to protect those whom he is supposed to protect.  His obsession with the symbolic compensation for his feared lack of masculinity essentially presents itself as the trend we know of as “homesteading.”  Finally, we also learn that Curtis’s mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when he was only ten years old; and to add to that, we also learn that his own father passed away less than a year prior to when the film takes place.  Any issues he may have had with his own father are left out of the film, but an audience might wonder what this literal “death of the father” might symbolically connote for Curtis.

            Psychologically, the film offers a probing look at one man’s descent into an intense anxiety and the effect of this anxiety on his family.  However, don’t write the film off as a depressing, hopeless representation of madness or insanity.  At the true heart of this film lies something extraordinarily touching and human (I know, strange for me to claim!): that is, the representation of trust and love among a family.  Samantha, Chastain’s character, is a strong and realistic representation, and doesn’t succumb to what might be criticized as typically negative feminine stereotypes: she does not leave Curtis, although she struggles with him.  She does not try to hurt Curtis psychologically, and in fact ascends to a position of admirable strength in order to assist him in what she must understand is a culturally difficult scenario.  Even in one of the film’s most violent scenes, in which Curtis’s questionable mental state boils over in a public rage, she does not run away or shrink like other members of the Lion’s Club dinner event.  Instead, she approaches her tormented husband, reassures him, letting him cry on her shoulder as they vacate the premises.  She does not see him the way other characters are made to: she never alienates him, never begrudgingly ignores him.  The only thing she could be said to feel is uncertainty and worry over his condition; but this only urges her closer to him.  In a telling scene near the end, Curtis admits unemployment to his psychiatrist in a slightly embarrassed tone, and we are again reminded of that symbolic link between unemployment and castration.  But I would encourage the audience not to project this view onto Curtis’s character; for while Nichols may very well be dealing with these ideas, I would argue that Samantha does not view Curtis as emasculated at all.  Curtis is still embarrassed to admit his unemployment in front of someone else (is it a coincidence that this other figure is that of the psychiatrist?), but he is not embarrassed to admit it in front of his wife.  I believe that the film deals, at least mildly, with a Deleuzian-Guattarian subversion of traditional (Oedipal) psychoanalytic structures.[iii]  Certainly there is some connection to be made between Curtis and his deceased father, but Curtis himself has a daughter, Hannah.  The Oedipal cycle ends here, so it does not behoove us to discuss it.  What we can discuss is the sexualization within the social apparatus, specifically a capitalist social apparatus.  The psychological implications are all there, ready for the taking…

            …and then we are awarded with the film’s ominous and stunning final scene, which I don’t want to discuss in detail (for those who want it spoiled for them, send me a message or look it up!).  I only want to ask how we are to reconcile the two apparent concerns within the film: the psychological and the ecological.  My most immediate response is likely also the simplest, and probably too vulgar to withstand any serious academic interpretation: capitalism.  But of course!  Scenes of construction and drilling are juxtaposed with scenes of trees and leaves, storms and rain; is this not the anxiety over the destruction of nature?  And we are constantly reminded of the family’s financial troubles, more general economic concerns (as when Curtis’s brother warns him about the state of “this economy”); is the looming storm, the pending catastrophe, not the inevitable explosion of the real contradictions that grind and crank in the capitalist economy’s core?  I think Nichols would scoff at this superficial interpretation, but I do think it is worth considering, even if only to discard it for another more appropriate analysis.  Most pertinently, I think, we can engage the film through a kind of triumvirate: sexuality/psychology, commodity/money, ecology.  It is in the latter of these three that potential relief waits, the bombastic release of internal tensions in the form of a thunderstorm.  But the former two components are specifically codifying systems; they are hierarchized structures, the real conditions of which effect imagined social relations.  I won’t offer any more lucid interpretation of the relation between these structures, but I think that their presence in the film is beyond coincidence.

            Why does Nichols choose the ecological as the locus of disaster, of catastrophe (of revolution)?  I believe it has to do with a conception of the ecological, or the climatological as Thacker calls it, as an alien realm; a reality not-for-us, a harsh noumenon that does not even permit its “thinkability.”  Here we might briefly quote Quentin Meillassoux, whose book After Finitude has proven quite monumental for me as of late: “this totality of the thinkable is itself logically inconceivable, since it gives rise to a contradiction.  We will retain the following translation of Cantor’s transfinite: the (quantifiable) totality of the thinkable is unthinkable” (104).[iv]  In Take Shelter, the natural world assumes Meillassoux’s definition of reality as an unthinkable totality, specifically because totality itself becomes non-totalizable.  Reality becomes, as Meillassioux defines it, transfinite.  Part of this concept of “transfinitude” involves an opening up the “possible” to a set of unlimited possibilities.  Thus, order gives way to chaos, reason to unreason, systems to their dissolution (and perhaps, even, moments of pure miracle, which is not quite an appropriate word but the only one we have recourse to).  This is how the film achieves its stunning portrayal of the world we know suddenly become other; threatening, ominous, almost intentionally malicious…

            I believe that one scene in particular solidifies this terrifying representation of reality.  In one of his dreams, Curtis pulls his daughter away from their living room window after seeing a stranger outside, peering in through the glass (it is, of course, raining outside).  The front door begins to shudder violently, as though someone is trying to get in.  Eventually this shuddering afflicts the entire house, the furniture, picture frames, vases, televisions, everything.  And then, when the intensity of the tremors reaches its climax, everything in the room suddenly lifts off the ground, suspended in midair by perhaps three or four feet.  A deafening silence accompanies this moment (a brief auditory glimpse into the world of Curtis’s daughter, whom he clutches desperately), as though the house has been invaded by a vacuum.  Accordingly, Curtis looks as though he cannot breath, although he does cry out at one point; sound, of course, does not carry in a vacuum, although Nichols does choose to drastically lower the frequency of Curtis’s voice.  This is a strange episode that does not repeat in the film; reality never again alters itself in this way.  It is as though, for this single moment, the void of some nonhuman reality yawns in front of Curtis, its Lovecraftian jaws gaping wide, threatening to engulf him.  It is as though it begs Curtis to see its true nature in this moment, albeit briefly, but we are left to wonder whether human senses could apprehend such abyssal otherness.  I am reminded of R. Scott Bakker’s wondrous character of the No-God in his ongoing fantasy series, which begs those who look at it to “TELL ME WHAT YOU SEE.”[v]

            Of course, such hallucinations can only be classified as such: hallucinations.  We are given this from the eyes of someone who very likely suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.  However, I would just like to close by asking if, perhaps, what the film is drawing our attention to is the fact that as humans we have no choice but to identify such behavior with insanity.  How else could we make sense of someone who claimed to witness something so vastly alien?  The explanation, within our systems of science and knowledge, does not allow for a “mysticism of the unhuman,” as Thacker calls it (although he, Meillassoux, and others are working to change that).  We must classify such cases as psychotic episodes, instances of insanity.  After all, if we define insanity in its crudest sense, it does not mean a broken or deficient human being; it just means a square peg that won’t fit into a round hole.

            From this perspective, science is just another way we sleep soundly at night.  Watch Take Shelter; you might not sleep soundly, but it will be because you’re busy thinking.

[i] Jeff Nichols, Take Shelter, Strange Matter Films: 2011.
[ii] Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy Vol. I, Zero Books: 2011.
[iii] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane, Penguin Books: 2009.
[iv] Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, Trans. Ray Brassier, Continuum: 2008.
[v] R. Scott Bakker, The Second Apocalypse Series, Overlook Press: 2003-present); the figure of the No-God is one of current speculation on internet forums.

Friday, August 3, 2012

An Abbreviated SF Manifesto: Science Fiction and Historicism (Part II)

This post is intended to complement the previous; I feel that several issues were left unresolved or unsatisfactorily dealt with.  I believe that the discourse between historicist and scientist Marxism was well-fleshed out, and I believe that Miéville’s novel Iron Council is a fine example of a science fiction author who is concerned with the theoretical issues we were discussing; but what does all this mean for science fiction as a genre?  Certain authors might express interest in the topics we were exploring, but how is the entire movement of the genre reflexive of these topics?  Is it at all?

This post is intended as a complement to the previous, but also as a challenge.  Thus, I am setting out to accomplish two things with this post:

1.     Address the issue of historicism as it relates to the science fiction genre as a whole, rather than how it manifests in the content of sci-fi literature, and

2.     More adequately explore the (scientist) philosophical notion of the Absolute (as an ahistorical notion), and whether science fiction literature might provide some access to this notion.

I will not claim that this exploration will be exhaustive, but I do intend it to be sufficient to raise some questions about science fiction’s relationship to, and influence on, these issues.

Since its early years, science fiction has always been a fringe genre; a form of literature that existed in the margins of academic theory, despite its widespread popularity as a pulp genre.  Its presence as an underground and pop culture phenomenon has, for several decades, isolated it from the attention and criticism of academic elites, the only exception being to lambast it as a prime example of low culture doggerel.  Literary and cultural theorist Fredric Jameson made large strides for the genre in the 1970s when he began writing essays on sci-fi literature (these essays were anthologized in a work titled Archaeologies of the Future: the Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions), and in recent decades many English departments have made efforts to secure at least one faculty member who has an interest in the genre (I personally had the pleasure to attend a course on Philip K. Dick instructed by Bill Brown at University of Chicago).  Still, science fiction remains dangerous territory, and when authors that generally avoid science fiction (those who write “straight fiction”, as Philip K. Dick calls it) deign to venture within its boundaries, the label “science fiction” is rarely attributed to their work (I’m thinking of Cormac McCarthy’s foray into post-apocalyptic literature with The Road, or Margaret Atwood’s daring Oryx & Crake).  To this day, science fiction remains just outside the sacred limits of High Literary Fiction, like the pagan intellectuals forever stranded in the antechamber outside Dante’s hell.

It is this very marginalization, I contend, that charges science fiction as a potentially radical and revolutionary form of literary art.  It is a challenge to traditional forms and norms in Western fiction, and while it borrows from traditional styles of literature, it also has (to some extent) been granted a unique opportunity to drastically alter and warp the styles that it works with.  As a child of the fractured, impressionist, and sometimes unreliable narratives of modern and postmodern fiction, science fiction is the vehicle through which several contemporary writers are actively challenging our conceptions of fiction in Western culture.  This is not to say that other genres of fiction are not capable of challenging these conceptions, but merely that science fiction occupies a unique place in which to do so.  By being relegated to the underground, to the fringes of literary practice, it is given a greater freedom to explore, experiment with, and explode the boundaries of traditional practices.

It is not any Absolute notion (in the philosophical sense of the term) that has charged science fiction with this possibility, but its historical positioning as a radical genre.  As a genre, science fiction is still in debt to previous forms of literature; Miéville is in debt to Lovecraft, Stross is in debt to Vinge and Clarke, Harrison is in debt to Moorcock (and non-sci-fi writers such as Burroughs), and all the aforementioned are in debt to those who created the space for fiction dealing with speculative worlds: William Morris, Lord Dunsany, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and others.  All these writers occupy a privileged space in literary studies, but not one that is granted universal praise.  Rather, these writers have the privilege of being exceptions to the rule, ruptures in the practice.

Within the structure of literary history, this privileged space sets itself in relation to not only to the rules of its time, but also to the fantasies of the future.  By displacing itself from the academically vetted forms and styles of typical literary fiction, sci-fi acquires more freedom for experimentation.  Furthermore, this acknowledgement of its own historical importance allows it to comment on historical possibility; this is why science fiction is so obsessed with time travel and futuristic innovations.  It recognizes where it stands historically, and it must logically inform its own content with a knowledge of its contemporary culture (speculative fiction that disregards this historical responsibility typically enters into the realm of what we refer to as “fantasy”, although this is not an entirely fair characterization, and one that I intend to explore in the future).  In this sense, science fiction cannot be separated from its historical conditions and circumstances, which results in a unique paradox of sorts: in order to represent content that is relentlessly non-contemporary, futuristic, or anachronistic, science fiction as a genre must be relentlessly aware of its own historical position.

The opposition to this is the same one I mentioned in my last post: Darren Jorgensen’s accusation that all fiction is historically self-aware; so why should science fiction be more aware than any other genre?  My response to this accusation is as follows:

All fiction is, essentially, historical fiction.  Fiction, whether it deals in past, contemporary, or futuristic content, must acknowledge its own historical position if it wishes to be taken seriously (this is, unfortunately, the reason why fantasy has yet to break free of its negative stigma).  Science fiction is no different, and, some might argue, must be even more aware of its own historical position if it wishes to seriously depict events/objects/worlds that have not yet come into existence.  There is a logic to historical development, even if it isn’t a logic of human making.  I would be more tempted to suggest that humans impose a certain logic on historical development, which then guides us to the conclusion that history could only have happened this way.  As Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: “The insidious thing about the causal point of view is that it leads us to say: ‘Of course, it had to happen like that.’ Whereas we ought to think: it may have happened like that – and also in many other ways” (Wittgenstein 37e).  The true power of science fiction, then, lies not in depicting fantastically make-believe worlds, but in depicting alternative histories.  The point of this operation is not to provide imaginative worlds which readers can lose themselves in (the escapist argument), but to remind readers that history is comprised not of causal events, but of contingent events.  The most important gift that science fiction has given its audience is the reminder that history is not ours.

Where is the Absolute in all this?  Where is the Truth?  The Truth (if there is one) lies in the “not ours” of history.  The Truth that sci-fi strives toward is the Truth of Absolute contingency, or Absolute chaos: the reality of what-is to radically become what-is-not, and to change without warning, without recourse to human history.  What is Absolute is the apparatus by which we might hypothesize about alternate realities, alternate histories; the apparatus by which we might envision (and even realize) alternative Truths.  My inspiration for this notion of such a philosophical apparatus stems from recent developments in the continental tradition, particularly those of Alain Badiou and Quentin Meillassoux.

Toward the end of the 20th century, philosophical notions of the Absolute began to fall out of favor.  The epistemes of Michel Foucault, the paradigm shifts of Thomas Kuhn, the deconstruction of Jacques Derrida; all these led to a kind of meta-philosophy, a philosophy of philosophy, which in turn resulted in a subtraction of the Absolute from philosophy.  The idea of Absolute Truth was consigned to the dustbin of relative meaning and value.  Now, in the early years of the 21st century, we are seeing a reinvigoration of the Absolute in the philosophical projects of Alain Badiou, Quentin Meillassoux, and Ray Brassier; but it is not an Absolute like that of Hegel, Kant, or even Plato.  It is an Absolute of unlimited possibility.

Science fiction is the literary precursor of this recent philosophic trend.  As a genre of fiction it is more charged than “regular” fiction with the possibility to represent radically other realities.  The difficulty of interpretation (which I often fall prey to) lies in recognizing that the content of these represented realities matters little.  What matters is their structure, their logical relationship to the conditions of their author’s own present.  As long as such realities, even the most farfetched, are contextualized within actual specific historical conditions, they are capable of demonstrating the radical contingency of historical events.  This is the cross-section of historicism and scientism, of historicity and Absolute procedure.  Historicity conditions the details of a fiction’s diegetic content; its Absolute procedure is the logical commitment (the form of this commitment would be a kind of philosophical apparatus) to its own historical conditions in order to experiment with, and convincingly represent, alternate histories and alien worlds.

Works Cited

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Culture and Value. Trans. Peter Winch. Chicago, The U of Chicago P:

Monday, July 23, 2012

"Future History": Science Fiction and Historicism

My topic today is partly informed by the dialogue between historicism and scientism in Marxist hermeneutics.  I’ll begin by iterating that I tend to support the historicist approach, although I find myself torn by this discourse, namely because there is much to desire regarding the scientist approach although it often appears out of reach of the human.  Since this blog, as a space for science fiction, is specifically concerned with the genre’s more current obsession with the nonhuman as is, I would like for this post to concern itself seriously (or as seriously as is possible in an online space) with this theoretical debate.  While I see the historicist approach as affording the more immediate access to a theory of praxis, the scientist approach seems to coincide with the more radical nonhuman approach of science fiction literature.  However, I want to insist that historicism offers a logical interpretive support to the science fiction genre, and that this connection emerges primarily in the genre’s more recent developments (typically works published since 1950).  While this blog post can only serve as an introduction to this much larger thesis, I believe that recent trends in science fiction brilliantly reflect trends in 20th-century historicist hermeneutics.

To begin the explication of this discourse, I want to introduce a quote from science fiction writer Philip K. Dick:

[Robert] Heinlein has written what he calls “future history,” and much of SF is.  And much of the motivation that drives the SF writer is the motivation to “make” history – contribute what he sees, his perception of “…and then what happened?” to what all the rest of us have already done.  It is a great colloquy among all of us, writers and fans and editors alike.  Somewhere back in the past (I would say about 1900) this colloquy began, and voice after voice has joined in, little frogs and big in little puddles and big, but all croaking their sublime song… because they sense a continuity and the possibility, the opportunity, the ethical need, if you will, for them to add onto this growing “future history.” (Dick 71)

This quote is taken from The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick, a collection of essays, speeches, interviews, and even some proposals, and hypothetical introductions, for unwritten novels or screenplays.  The book concludes with excerpts from Dick’s Exegesis, an intimate portrayal of the writer’s hallucinations and visions near the end of his life.  A participant not only in science fiction, but also the countercultural movements of the 1960s, Dick’s catalogue offers an exceptionally unique perspective on modernity.  His writings are more than mere machinations of a sci-fi-inspired imagination; they are reactions to the elements that we as human beings must suffer: political hegemony, cultural ideology, technology, religious fundamentalism, economic exploitation, and even more personal/psychological elements such as paranoia, hallucinations, memory, and the uncanny.  Taken altogether, Dick’s work explores the relationship between reality and appearance: do we understand other people, or only ourselves? Are we free beings, or are we slaves under the illusion of freedom? Is technology making our lives better, or worse? Is hard work the means to success, or is it the instrument of exploitation?  Is what I remember doing yesterday what I really did yesterday?  The list goes on and on, but the central theme remains the same: who am I, and what have I done with the real me?

Historically, Dick’s work heralds the advent of a new movement in science fiction: the shift from what has traditionally been known as “the Golden Age of Science Fiction” (characterized by the work of early giants such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, A.E. van Vogt, Poul Anderson, and Robert Heinlein among several others) to what has been more recently referred to as “New Wave Sci-fi”.  Each is characterized by a very specific style and set of standards.  In Golden Age, plots are often rather straightforward, linear, and feature more traditional, archetypal models (despite its late appearance, George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy fits rather nicely into this category, albeit without the advanced scientific knowledge that characterized many earlier examples).  Golden Age science fiction also traditionally falls into the category of “Hard Sci-fi”, or science fiction that attempts to deal realistically with legitimate scientific problems or situations, thus remaining more scientifically accurate.  Finally, Golden Age sci-fi is also often profoundly concerned with the ideas it proposes, ideas that often trump plot and character in importance.  For this reason, many critics find Golden Age sci-fi simple and hackneyed in style, and some of them rightly so.

In contrast to the Golden Age, New Wave sci-fi introduces something new.  Although opinions vary in this matter, general consensus holds that the Golden Age comes to a close just prior to the 1950s (although many of its greatest writers, such as Bradbury, continued working throughout the 20th century), and the New Wave picks up sometime in the 60s and 70s.  If we accept this relative chronology, we find that Philip K. Dick occupies a unique and perhaps uncategorized moment in sci-fi history – not quite Golden Age, but slightly prior to New Wave – and yet he is considered by many to be one of the most important writers of science fiction, and fiction in general, to ever grace the printed page (he was the first writer of what can be definitively called “science fiction” to have his work anthologized in the Library of America collections).  Thus, we find Dick’s fiction to be some of the most original and interesting to ever emerge in the science fiction genre, namely because he can be said to embody the very shift between Golden Age and New Wave.  His early writing is often in debt to his predecessors; strong emphasis on ideas, concepts, but lacking in developed characterization and plot, particularly his short stories.  However, even in these earliest writings, we find that his ideas and proposals take on a form that is distinct from those of his predecessors in that they explore, to a greater extent than the sci-fi leagues before him, their cognitive and psychological implications.  In Dick’s work, even his earliest stories, the speculative environments introduced are rarely posited as objective or noumeal realities, in-itself realities.  They are, readers will often find, skeptical to a sometimes debilitating extent.  The speculative environment becomes reflexive of a possible internal disjunct with reality, a perception that might not square with what actually exists.

As readers move chronologically forward through Dick’s body of work, they will find that his characters begin to adopt more personalized attributes, more round representations.  As he matures, so does his writing, and later novels such as A Scanner Darkly or VALIS begin to look less like imaginative explorations of strange worlds and more like poignant psychedelic critiques of a world that is oddly similar, yet not quite right – an uncanny world, one that we know to be real, but that seems strange.  This is the immense contribution that Dick offers to the New Wave tradition, wherein we begin finding more and more writers who are obsessed with their characters’ reactions to the environments represented in their narratives, with the philosophical implications of hypothetical worlds, with the relationship between the human subject and the inhuman object (for a fantastic example of Dick’s own fascination with the latter, observe his late novel Ubik).  It is in this tradition that we see writers such as William Gibson, M. John Harrison, and Ursula Le Guin, writers whose novels take an exciting new energy, an obsession with the fractured and delicate human subject that had been exposed to literary audiences by Modernist writers like Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf.  This shift from Golden Age to New Wave can perhaps be characterized most explicitly as a shift from idea/concept to character.  The heroic characters of Golden Age sci-fi are characters who know the world they exist in, who take charge and effectively enact change, and possess an almost preternatural (maybe even meta-textual) certainty of their diegetic position.  The tragic and flawed characters of New Wave sci-fi, in contrast, are often helpless, submissive victims of an unrepresentable reality, an object-realm that exacts its unrelenting dominance over human subjects specifically because it is alien, other, nonhuman.

The divide between Golden Age and New Wave can actually be rather explicitly identified.  After the advent of the space race and the cultural obsession with the “final frontier,” radical scientific ideas that had been the central theme of much Golden Age Hard sci-fi suddenly begin to look less like science fiction, and more like science itself.  Writers (and readers) become less concerned with the “wow factor” of new ideas, and more concerned with the implications that new technologies and global markets have on a largely superstitious and tradition-steeped public.  They become less concerned with imaginative intrigue and futuristic fantasy, and more concerned with literary ambition, stylistic innovation – the power of literature to expose the consequences of the imposition of new worlds on a (potentially obsolete) human subject.  Science fiction literature, in a sense, reclaims its right to be thought of as “High Culture” (an unfortunate form of segregationist elitism to begin with), as opposed to the low, popular, “pulp” culture environment that provided its original breeding ground in the 1920s and 30s.

Despite his sometimes unorthodox prose and style, Dick is a major informant of this New Wave movement in sci-fi; but I would suggest that it is in this non-aestheticism that part of his unique appeal can be found.  Even the excerpt cited above offers an example; I highly doubt that many science fiction authors would exhibit appreciation at being referred to as frogs “croaking their sublime song.”  Yet this is the procedure and strategy of the New Wave: to turn the Golden Age on its head, to introduce a radically new form of science fiction that will make its readers scowl, raise an eyebrow, and perhaps even question the text they are reading.

In light of this historiographical exploration of science fiction, I feel inclined to propose another question: what are the connections between science fiction and history (a more literary variant of this question might be: what are the connections between the sci-fi novel and the historical novel?)?  The debate can be traced to a stunted dialogue between Fredric Jameson and Darren Jorgensen (which is less of a dialogue per se and more of a newcomer taking on a giant of literary theory), which in turn illuminates a much broader and influential dialogue between two monolithic Marxist thinkers.  In his essay “Towards a Revolutionary Science Fiction: Althusser’s Critique of Historicity”, Jorgensen criticizes Jameson’s ruthless emphasis on science fiction’s historical “self-consciousness,” claiming that this emphasis contains a contradiction: “if history determines genre, no one genre should be more historical than any other” (Jorgensen 197).  Jorgensen is referring to comments made by Jameson in an early essay on science fiction, but also in large part to a wider argument made popular by Jameson’s 1981 book The Political Unconscious, which specifically targets Althusserian scientific Marxism.  Althusser’s theory posits a framework of radical existence and experimentation beyond capitalist ideology, which he claims individuals can access as a means of revolutionary praxis.  This mode of being exterior to capitalism is not conditioned by the latter, thus making it a pure, radically other form of existence that is always available, always potentially present and ripe for revolutionary action.  In contrast, Jameson’s historicist model suggests that revolution and radical action can only develop historically, and he observes literary models to support this.  In literature, The Political Unconscious claims, we can observe certain antinomies of capitalist ideology emerging as the systems interior components begin to come into contact with one another.  The Political Unconscious looks at binary oppositions in different works of literature, and rewrites them as historically charged manifestations of cultural conditions.  Thus, for Jameson, revolution is an emergent phenomenon, comprised of action that must gradually develop over time, alongside capitalism but not a property of capitalism per se, until the antinomies of the system can no longer sustain themselves.  Althusser opposes the historicist brand of Marxism because, as he sees it, revolution should not be something that individuals must wait for, so to speak; this always provides a kind of theoretical excuse to avoid action, an argument that became useful for the academic elite during the May 1968 protests.  For Jameson, revolution becomes historically possible; for Althusser, revolution is always possible.

If we wanted to understand this in more philosophical terms, we might suggest that Jameson’s theory is an epistemological one, whereas Althusser’s is an ontological one.  That is, Jameson’s theory of historicist Marxism suggests that revolution only becomes an option over time, as knowledge structures (informed historically by cultural developments) gradually shift and change, allowing for the option of revolution to appear.  Althusser’s theory, on the other hand, posits an unchanging revolutionary framework that exists externally to capitalist ideology, that is not conditioned by historical circumstances – a kind of Absolute condition for revolution.

Let me reiterate: I subscribe to the Jamesonian version.  I find it difficult to square a kind of universal, Absolute theory of emancipation with a society and a culture that is constantly in a state of flux.  If ideology and cognitive/physical bondage take different historical forms, how can any “universal” revolutionary praxis work for all of them?  Is it not more likely that history conditions not only the components of cultural ideology, but also the components necessary for emancipation?  Althusser’s theory thus becomes one of idealism, despite his claim that “ideology has a material existence” (Althusser 112).  Ideology might very well have a material existence in Althusser’s theory, but its resolution has an ideal form, one that somehow exists exterior to ideology, exterior to human thought itself, and thus exterior to its anthropomorphisms.  Furthermore, Althusser claims that ideology has no history, in stark contrast to Jameson, where ideology must be historically determined.

If one has difficulty seeing where all this leads, that person is not alone.  Althusser claims that “ideologies have a history of their own” while “ideology in general has no history, not in a negative sense (its history is external to it), but in an absolutely positive sense” (108).  These are strong words, especially for a theorist who also wrote that “ideology has no outside (for itself), but at the same time […] it is nothing but outside (for science and reality)” (119).  What Althusser means by this is that in order for ideology to work, it must convince its subjects that they are “outside” of it (i.e. not under its influence); and yet, only by coming to an absolute scientific knowledge of ideology can one declare that she is “inside” ideology (since she thus would understand that it has no outside).  The argument is so cyclical that it begins to make its readers feel as though they have raced around so quickly that they have caught up with and bumped into themselves.

Interestingly enough, this is how I sometimes imagine the character’s in Dick’s novels feel.

I will not try and convince readers of either the Jamesonian or Althusserian model, but instead suggest that both models provide relevant methodological apparatuses for exploring science fiction.  I personally find Althusser’s model problematic primarily for the reason that by attempting to secure a scientific Marxism, and thus provide a revolutionary model that is immediately present and at hand, Althusser also precludes any possibility of human engagement with it.  By positing a radical existence beyond ideology (and hence beyond human apperception), Althusser closes off the revolutionary possibility from the realm of the human subject; the very ability of the human subject to conceive of revolution has been conditioned by that individual’s subjectivity, which is a direct result of ideology.  He thus proposes a method of philosophical praxis that is impossible to practice.

If Althusser’s theory succumbs to paradox, it is fitting; one must conceive of ideology as an object in order to come to terms with her subjectivity within it.   The impasse collapses inward from culture and society down to cognition itself – a theme that registers with a great deal of contemporary sci-fi.  Furthermore, Althusser’s emphasis on a kind of scientific Marxism suggests that what human subjects need to do in order to achieve emancipation is engage in action so radical that it ruptures the very limits of ideology itself.  A violence of this kind is unimaginable, and it is this utter disconnect between ideological subjects and a revolutionary exterior that is the truly “science fictional” component of his theory.  On the other hand, Jameson’s approach provides an interesting methodology for exploring the genre of science fiction as a whole; and this shall bring us back to Dick’s prophetic statement that what sci-fi writers desire to create is a kind of “future history.”

It is with this point that Dick hits on the crux of the argument between historicism and scientism.  Dick suggests a hypothetical situation in which a three million-year-old skull is discovered in Africa, and the implications of such a discovery for a sci-fi writer:

[…] I would imagine a whole culture, and speculate as in a voluntary dream, what that person’s world might have been like.  I do not mean his diet or how fast he could run or if he walked upright; this is legitimate for the hard sciences to deal with.  What I see is what I suppose I would have to call a “fictional” environment that that skull tells me of.  A story that that skull might wish to say.  “Might” is the crucial word, because we don’t know, we don’t have the artifacts, and yet I see more than I hold in my hand.  Each object is a clue, a key, to an entire world unlike our own – past, present, or future, it is not this immediate world, and this skull tells me of this other world, and this I must dream up myself.  I have passed out of the domain of true science. (Dick 72).

This excerpt, as the one above, is from a 1974 essay titled “Who is an SF Writer?”  In this essay, Dick zeroes in on one of the most important and identifying themes of New Wave sci-fi: the obsession with an inaccessible reality.  This reality cannot be explained, Dick claims, through recourse to traditional science, that being a pursuit of knowledge conditioned by known, or contemporary, reality.  The sci-fi writer, according to Dick, must resort to something else; and if it is the sci-fi writer’s aim to imagine fictional world-extensions of a decontextualized object, then it must attempt to place that object in some kind of logical context.  This context is only available to the sci-fi writer through the lens of historiography.

This might seem contradictory, since history itself is always a human history.  It is written by humans, requested by humans, and read by humans.  But by writing history, by requesting it, and by studying it, we can come to see the element of contingency at play in historical progress.  That is, we can begin to identify where history took a certain direction, and some of the circumstances that conditioned that direction, but also how things might have been different.  The study of history also allows for the study of non-history; not the study of what actually was (yet still through the lens of structured narrative), but the potentiality of radically different outcomes.  It is in this way that we begin to see the inherent chaos of historical development, and the illusion behind the notion of progress.  It is no coincidence that one of Dick’s early and most successful novels, Man in the High Castle, was an alternative history novel.  And merely three years later he published Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb, a novel that dealt with the aftermath of nuclear war on earth.  More than anything, these examples should suggest to us the poignancy of Dick’s statements from “Who is an SF Writer?”: namely, that a science fiction writer’s method is, first and foremost, historical.

Jameson’s theory posits the historical development of both ideology and the revolutionary tools with which human subjects can try to dismantle it.  The conclusion implicit in this is that humanity must wait, in a certain sense of the word, for its revolutionary capacity to catch up with its ideological containment.  In a sense this is true; but in another sense, it is misleading.  Jameson would not condone apathy or indifference; the attitude of “Well, it isn’t time for revolution yet, so we might as well wait a little longer.”  Not at all.  Jameson’s theory is one of intellectual dedication and commitment, and the continual attempt of revolution against a continually adapting ideological complex.  One should notice here a certain similarity with the Hegelianism of Slavoj Žižek (despite the differences between the two thinkers), especially as it emerges in his explication of the slogan “We are the ones we have been waiting for” (Žižek 148-157).  For Žižek, as for Jameson, historical development is against us, in a large sense, and it is up to the collective masses to inaugurate a revolutionary historical event, a rupture in the apocalyptic tide of history (154).  What Jameson’s The Political Unconscious exposes, then, is not an absolutely positive notion of ideology or revolution, but a method of identifying ideological antinomies in the textual production of different historical periods (one might even say in the textual production of history itself).  In the conclusion of his book, Jameson asks his audience the following:

[H]ow is it possible for a cultural text which fulfills a demonstrably ideological function, as a hegemonic work whose formal categories as well as its content secure the legitimation of this or that form of class domination – how is it possible for such a text to embody a properly Utopian impulse, or to resonate a universal value inconsistent with the narrower limits of class privilege which inform its more immediate ideological vocation? (Jameson 288).

Jameson is here outlining the problem of discerning from literary/historical texts, which he takes as superficially infused with the class ideology of their contemporary cultural circumstances, a certain revolutionary impulse; a Utopian twist that exposes, in the underlying hypocrisies of the work, the inherent emptiness of the ideological values that it espouses.  Jameson offers a potential solution to this problem by suggesting a dialectic, in the Hegelian sense of the term, between ideology and Utopia: Jameson says that all class ideologies contain a Utopian element within themselves, and this is the justification for his historical conception of Marxism.  If ideology and Utopia are forever engaged in a dialectic struggle, then history is the battlefield for that struggle, and human subjects are its soldiers.

Although I have been referencing Dick to explicate this concern with history in science fiction, I want to turn now to what I perceive as the most explicit and wondrous representation of a historicist Marxism in a work of speculative fiction; specifically, China Miéville’s heartbreaking novel, Iron Council.

Iron Council is the story of a railroad being built across Miéville’s fictional realm known as Bas-Lag, about the laborers who rebel and take control of it, and lead the train-cars back toward the metropolitan capital, the of authoritarian politics and technocratic hegemony – New Crobuzon.  I will not spoil the narrative (which is a thrilling one), but will merely say that major theme is the charged potential of revolutionary praxis in history, the progression of history (the description of the railroad being built in Miéville’s novel often utilizes vocabulary reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s famous ‘Angel of History’ section from the monumental Theses on the Philosophy of History), and role of human subjects in realizing historical opportunity.  Toward the end of the novel, two characters whose opinions disagree on the fate of the revolutionary force (known as the Iron Council), face off in a verbal debate that epitomizes the crux of the historical dilemma:

“You don’t decide when is the right time, when it fits your story.  This was the time we were here.  We knew.  We decided […] We were something real, and we came in our time, and we made our decision, and it was not yours.  Whether we were right or wrong, it was our history.  You were never our augur […] Never our savior.” (Miéville 552).

The point of the passage is that the historical moment of revolutionary praxis is not decided by individuals, nor does it persist or stay the same.  The speaker of the passage above is emphasizing the role of human agency in revolution, but not the conscious ability of human subjects to create or destroy the opportunity for revolution.  Jameson’s theory, as described above, is not one designed to create the opportunity for revolution, but one designed to realize when the opportunity is present.  The science fiction element, the speculative essence of this theory, is in the acknowledgement that humanity has very little role in the creation of revolutionary opportunity.  Historical development, whether it be in strides of economics, religious (in)tolerance, political alterations, or technological or artistic development (or, more likely, a combination of all of the above) is never reducible to one human subject, or even to human masses that share some cognitive awareness of the conditions they are engendering.  Human beings enact quantifiable change in the material fabric of the world, that is certain; but it is erroneous to believe that we can ever be totally aware of this change, or aware of our role in its passing.  Our role, rather, is to engage history intellectually – to observe the conditions of the past, present, and future in hopes of discerning when and where the potential for emancipatory action appears.  History is a double-edged sword in this sense: on one hand, it provides the lens through which we can attempt to understand our own position and possibly engage in successful revolutionary action.  On the other hand, the very presence of history itself implies that we are still constrained by the bonds of ideology, by the socio-political laws that govern the way in which we represent the past, present, and future to ourselves.  History is, in its very composition, an ideological maneuver; a product, like the literary texts considered by Jameson in The Political Unconscious, of cultural ideology itself.  This is no doubt why Althusser finds the need to theorize a form of radical existence outside of historical conditioning.

In this regard, one might question whether or not successful emancipatory action is ever truly possible, in an absolute sense.  Both Jameson’s and Althusser’s theoretical models seem to place the prospect of revolution in a distant utopian realm, whether that realm be a non-ideological ether totally separate from our socio/politico-economic system, or a hypothetical future that history dreams of achieving but can only asymptotically approach.  I have no definitive answer to this question, but I take comfort in Žižek’s recitation of the Beckettian motto: “Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better” (qtd. in Žižek 86).

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis.  “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Lenin and Philosophy and

Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster.  New York, Monthly Review Press: 2001. 85-126.

Dick, Philip K. “Who is an SF Writer?” The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected

Literary and Philosophical Writings. Ed. Lawrence Sutin. New York, Vintage Books: 1995. 69-78.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca,

Cornell UP: 1982.

Jorgensen, Darren. “Towards a Revolutionary Science Fiction.” Red Planets: Marxism and

Science Fiction. Eds. Mark Bould and China Miéville. Middletown, Wesleyan UP: 2009. 196-212.

Miéville, China. Iron Council. New York, Del Ray Books: 2004.

Žižek, Slavoj. First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. London, Verso: 2009.