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.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Blindsight (Science Fiction and the Ontological Tradition)

DISCLAIMER: My knowledge of philosophy is a work in progress, so excuse any obscure or poorly conceived references.  In light of the extensive discussion of philosophy in this post, I offer an apology to my readers: first, to those who feel they don’t understand; second, to those who don’t care; and third, to those who feel that I’ve absolutely butchered the philosophies herein described (I admit my summarizations are lacking).  Furthermore, portions of this post cite excerpts from Peter Watts’s novel Blindsight.  However, these excerpts are largely decontextualized and do not pose any narrative spoilers.

I'm sure most of my readers (oh ye hapless few) are expecting a post on science fiction. That is, after all, what this blog is all about. However, this post is still somewhat about science fiction, regardless of whatever topics the title might insinuate. Philosophy is another shrew I attempt to tame, but when it comes to writing about it I often discover that I'm no Shakespeare. So everyone will have to make do with this effort, despite its certain errors and omissions.

Let me rephrase.  This post is about science fiction.  I believe that we are witnessing an increasing trend in modern sci-fi to explore unresolved (even non-attempted) philosophical issues.  This was true of Asimov and Clarke, it was true of Dick and Herbert, and it’s still true of Miéville, Harrison, and Gibson (along with a plethora of others).  Today, I want to inform my discussion with some comments on a new addition to the list.

Late in Peter Watts’s brilliant and devastating sci-fi novel, Blindsight, the narrator states: “All those theories, all those drug dreams and experiments and models trying to prove what consciousness was: none to explain what it was good for” (Watts 313).  I only recently finished this novel, but it has lingered with me nearly constantly since.  It’s a tragic elegy to the human condition; a lamentation of what the author perceives as an evolutionary weak link, a developmental accident.  ‘What if,’ the novel essentially asks, ‘consciousness is not the most efficient state for optimal instinctual survival?’  The novel presents a narrative that is terrifying in both the scientific concepts it deals in as well as the utterly alien and unrelenting environment it introduces its readers to.  It is a deep, dark, cold work that thrusts its readers into the abyss, both physically and cognitively.  Many people might claim that this is far from their idea of an enjoyable read; but for me, this is science fiction at its inhuman best.

Blindsight is a contribution to the subgenre known as the “First Contact” story: a tale that deals with the discovery of and attempted interaction with an alien culture.  The novel is also an experiment in something I would deem “brutal realism,” a style that I would also ascribe to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (my favorite American novel) or Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie.  This unique brand of realism (a very recent movement, I might add) is brutal not because of its harsh, unrelenting commitment to portraying or representing reality in the traditional sense, as in the 19th-century tradition of realist literature (Balzac, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, and their ilk).  Indeed, I would argue that Watts cares nothing for attempting to represent a kind of phenomenological reality (i.e. reality as it appears to us), and this disregard is certainly central to the most important themes of the novel.  By “brutal realism”, rather, I intend a kind of stylistic approach that aims at something communicated in the very non-linearity and unreality of the novel itself.  Some might be tempted to invoke Baudrillard’s notion of hyperreality, of something that is realer than real; but I would discourage my readers from this.

Cormac McCarthy’s wonderful historical novel, Blood Meridian, is far from what any literary theorist would call “realist.”  The meandering narrative, the surreal exposition of chaos and combat, an almost primordial atmosphere that swells in the novel’s pathological obsession with landscape – none of this is realistic.  Rather, the novel achieves a different kind of realism; a brutal realism.  This is a realism that spawns not from its dedication to accurate phenomenological representation, but from an obsession with human dissociation.  Objects, landscape, environment – in brutal realism, these things become strange, unreal, inhuman.  They take on a distance from the human, and impossible separation that no amount of narrative, representation, or communication can overcome.  In brutal realism, humans are exposed to the vacuum of space, but not necessarily the airless, omnidirectional void of outer space; rather, the vacuum of the relations between a subject and object.  In brutal realism, these relations, which have so often donned an anthropomorphic appearance, are deprived of any human context.  They become truly alien.

Peter Watts is highly critical of most First Contact sci-fi narratives specifically because, he claims, representations of alien organisms often take the form of either “humanoid[s…] with bumpy foreheads,” or “giant CGI insectoids that may look alien but who act at best like rabid dogs in chitin suits” (375).  Representations of alien organisms almost always are informed by certain anthropocentric standards.  If they look human, then they often possess a kind of enchanted wisdom, or knowledge of technologies vastly superior to our own (of course, humanoid aliens – aliens constructed in our image – must somehow embody the human fantasy of highly developed, futuristic technologies).  However, if the alien organism takes on the form of a colossal insect, or tentacled encephalopod, or some other drastically nonhuman appearance, then of course it must be intentionally hostile.  It was Watts’s goal, in Blindsight, to “create an ‘alien’ that lives up to the word, while remaining biologically plausible” (375).  What this requires, for Watts, is not an organism informed by crude humanist conceptions of how other species are projected in relation to the central, evolutionary superior human (a view Watts strongly criticizes).  Rather, it requires an incredible, nearly unfathomable distance.  The alien must become so strange, so unknowable, so immensely alien that it achieves a form worthy of being called such.  Its hostility, if it exhibits any, must be purely natural rather than intentional, intentionality being something more decidedly human.  Brutal realism allows such a distance.  The very realism of the situation derives from its near-impossibility; the fact that such damning organisms could exist, that life could take such a radical form.

To us, such literary representations often take the form of what we label “science fiction.”  However, as I mentioned above, brutal realism need not manifest only in sci-fi; Cormac McCarthy experiments with it, as does Bret Easton Ellis in American Psycho, and it can be traced as far back (I believe) as Robbe-Grillet (more cautiously, I would even venture that brief flickerings of this style can be found as far back as the impressionistic writing of Joseph Conrad).  However, I do believe that it is in science fiction and fantasy that we find this style most prevalently.  In addition to Watts, one can find elements of this style in the work of China Miéville, M. John Harrison, Robert Charles Wilson, William Gibson, Philip K. Dick, or R. Scott Bakker, to name only a few.  It is in science fiction that we often see the truest use of brutal realism, since, to portray something inhuman realistically, one must achieve the ultimate sense of unreality; but not unreality so extreme that it eludes us entirely, like a literary black hole.  Rather, near unreality; reality so extreme that we represent it to ourselves as unreal.  This is the exact opposite of Baudrillardian, postmodern hyperreality.  Where hyperreality insinuates a virtual or artificial apparatus that takes on the appearance of being more real than real, brutal realism is, in a sense, a depiction of reality that is already so real it becomes strange.

The philosophical analogue to brutal realism is the somewhat controversial trend of speculative realism, which is often traced to the recent work of Quentin Meillassoux and Ray Brassier, despite the fact that the latter has made significant efforts to deny that such a movement even exists.  Regardless of whether or not speculative realism is any notable trend in philosophy, if it’s even a trend at all, the works of these philosophers, along with several others, are notable, for reasons concerning their content if not any fashionable label that sports the term “realism.”  This notable cast of the devil’s party stretches back to the recent work of Alain Badiou in the 1980s, could be said to include the Hegelian twist of Slavoj Žižek, and continues on through the work of up-and-coming philosophical elites such as Eugene Thacker, Meillassoux, and Brassier.  All these thinkers share one large goal in common: a complete and radical overhaul of the philosophical process, and a response to the ontological monolith erected by Martin Heidegger in the 1920s.

Martin Heidegger is considered, by many, to be the last truly great philosopher in the Continental tradition, and his magnum opus, the formative Being and Time, still stands to this day as one of the great behemoths of ontological philosophy.  For a long time after Heidegger, “philosophy” in its traditional sense seemed to diminish.  Influential figures emerged such as Hannah Arendt and Jean-Paul Sartre; the work of both was strongly informed by that of Heidegger (Arendt was his student and lover, Sartre a colleague and, at times, an enemy).  Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Hans-Georg Gadamer may be other contenders, but their work is also often overshadowed by that of Heidegger.  By the 1950s and 1960s, Western academia has become steeped in the traditions of structuralism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction, all of which owe their existence to a sometimes imbalanced concoction of Frankfurt School Marxism, psychoanalysis, and Heideggerian phenomenology.  Furthermore, it is also after Heidegger and his immediate successors that we begin to take note of that odd shift in the continental tradition whereby philosophy, as it once existed, no longer seems to dominate academic circles, but has given way to the discourses of critical and social theory and, by the late 1970s and 80s, postmodernism.  At this point in time, philosophy seems to take on a new form, and ceases pursuing the traditional route of intense ontological exploration, and instead begins intensely looking at, and critiquing, philosophy itself.  This is why, during the reign of poststructuralism and postmodernism in the later 20th century, master thinkers such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida can begin registering and cataloguing previous philosophers in a kind of structural-historical framework, each one being conditioned by certain historical circumstances and informed by previous philosophers and popular knowledge of the day.  Philosophy becomes a philosophy of itself, and Derrida’s unrelenting deconstruction purports to bleed all previously lauded philosophies of any substantial content.  They all become, in a sense, mere empty signifiers in the endless play of philosophical discourse, and the philosophical ontological subject becomes nothing more than a side effect of knowledge structures.

And then, in 1988, something happens.  An obscure gem appears on bookshelves under the name L'être et l'événement - Being and Event.  The author is Alain Badiou, and his goal is to reestablish the ontological tradition in continental philosophy, beginning with the salvation of the subject in the wake of its dismissal by postmodern theory.  In this sense, Badiou aligns himself with the ontological tradition last touched on by Heidegger.  However, Badiou also challenges Heidegger, and Being and Event, down to its very title, is a direct confrontation of the ontological theory laid out in Being and Time.  Badiou writes that Heidegger “remains enslaved, even in the doctrine of the withdrawal and the un-veiling, to what I consider, for my part, to be the essence of metaphysics; that is, the figure of being as endowment and gift, as presence and opening, and the figure of ontology as the offering of a trajectory of proximity” (BE 9).  For Badiou, the answer to the metaphysical trap is mathematics, which, he posits, is capable of illuminating a materialist theory of the Subject and Being.  For Heidegger, phenomenology presented the most applicable approach to ontology.  Being presented itself in temporality, the human subject was bound up in a continual process of opening, of emerging.  As Heidegger says: “time needs to be explicated primordially as the horizon for the understanding of Being, and in terms of temporality as the Being of Dasein, which understands Being” (Heidegger 39).  Badiou’s accusation is that, while Heidegger attempts to circumvent metaphysics, his theory of Being remains inhibited by metaphysical obfuscation.  For Heidegger, Being lurks behind a certain veil, manifesting in phenomenological reality only when a temporal subject engages with phenomenal objects.  In contrast, Badiou seeks a materialist ontology, not a metaphysical, or noumenal, Being that is concealed behind natural phenomenon.  Mathematics, Badiou claims, provides philosophy with the path to such a radical ontology.  For Badiou, a Subject isn’t reducible to an individual, but an individual might become part of a new Subject through participation in truth procedures.  Thus, the act of emergence, of presentation, is Multiple, and one can begin to see how this dense philosophical theory comes to inform Badiou’s allegiance to Marxism: this new Subject is something along the lines of an emerging, revolutionary proletariat.  Time remains important for Badiou, but only insofar as it relates to the temporality of the event, a rupture in which individuals may ingratiate themselves to a new Subject through radical truth procedures.  This involves the instantiation of new possibilities, possibilities that were previously considered to be outside the realm of possibility.  As Badiou clarifies: “The State is always the finitude of possibility, and the event is its infinitization” (IC 7).  Thus, we can begin to see how Badiou’s ontology paves the way for a reinvigoration of the Subject as something constituted by individuals through collective action, a revolutionary call to truth.

I don’t intend this post as an exhaustive exploration of 20th-century ontological philosophy, and I fear that I my efforts at explanation may have been in vain; not because I think my readers will be confused or bored by this description, but because my own understanding of Heidegger and Badiou might very well have failed me.  Regardless, the most important point I wish to communicate is that Heidegger still stands as an indispensable figure in 20th-century philosophy, and Badiou is, in my opinion, the most recent genuine challenge to Heideggerian ontology.

It is with Badiou that we see a return to the discernible ontological Subject in the aftermath of its decimation by the likes of Foucault and Derrida.  I still am not sure which way I lean.  A theory of the Subject is comforting, while theories of its emptiness often appear convincing.  Perhaps a reconciliation of sorts is in order; but for now, I wish to move this discussion along and back into the science fiction realm.  The philosophers I’m about to mention may be offended at being associated with science fiction, but I think the connection warrants attention.  It has nothing to do with the fantastical, fictional aspects of science fiction literature and cinema, and more to do with the themes one can find emerging in 20th-century sci-fi, some of which even began appearing before their philosophical contemporaries got a hold of them.  In the wake of Badiou’s new ontology, a group of radical and welcomed thinkers has emerged.  Meillassoux’s After Finitude, Brassier’s Nihilism Unbound, and Thacker’s After Life are all genuine attempts to track the new Subject into more complicated and dangerous philosophical territory; most specifically, the realm of the nonhuman, or inhuman.  ‘How,’ these texts ask, ‘are we to think the nonhuman?  The nonliving?  The unmediated?’  How can we possibly seize upon something not human without recourse to what is human?  Science fiction may take its readers to fantastic and wholly imagined realms and environments, but its reason for doing so is the same as this new group of philosophers: to explore the difficulty of representing possibility beyond possibility.  It seeks to demolish what Badiou would term the State, and expose our conceptual limits to an unyielding reality that has no concern for us.  However, the difference from Badiou is that, in much contemporary science fiction, this rupture isn’t caused by individual participation in a new Subject, a revolutionary act of truth-seeking.  One merely needs to observe Watts’s Blindsight to find the argument that human thought and action, no matter how hard it tries, is condemned to failure.  The State will not be ruptured by any collective humanist event.  It will be ruptured by the imposition of radically inhuman forms and environments, by an object-realm that posits itself as unflinchingly not-for-us.  And, as in Blindsight, there is very little, if anything, that we can do about it.

And here is the final step, a move that some might deem goes beyond ontology: the decimation of the Subject of Being, but not through recourse to the theories of Foucault or Derrida.  This move is given to us by recent developments in cognitive science.  It is not that the subject doesn’t exist, necessarily, for even Watts acknowledges that subjectivity is an essential part of what we define as ‘human’.  What this new move offers, the move of much recent science fiction, and perhaps even of the style I termed “brutal realism”, is the tragic helplessness of the Subject.  It remains unconscious toward much of its own biochemistry, its own survival instincts, and in fact it impedes its own success.  The subject of consciousness is a weak link.  The subject of consciousness is an evolutionary failure.  Watts writes:

I wastes energy and processing power, self-obsesses to the point of psychosis.  Scramblers [alien organisms in Blindsight] have no need of it, scramblers are more parsimonious.  With simpler biochemistries, with smaller brains–deprived of tools, of their ship, even of parts of their own metabolism– they think rings around you.  They hide their language in plain sight, even when you know what they’re saying.  They turn your own cognition against itself.  They travel between the stars.  This is what intelligence can do, unhampered by self-awareness. (Watts 304).

It is a move that bemoans the impotence not only of institutions such as language, politics, or religion, but of consciousness itself.  This is the final move beyond Heidegger, the final move beyond even ontology; as Watts says, not the question of what consciousness is, but what it’s good for.  Not very much, it turns out.

Some might argue that this doesn’t warrant an abandonment of ontological philosophy and discussion, and I would agree.  I’m not claiming that we should abandon the pursuit of Being and consciousness, but simply that the current trend we’re seeing today, the advancements in cognitive science and philosophy of mind, are pointing to this dawning realization that the theory of the Subject as something totally aware of its relation to its biological components and desires is flawed.  Jacques Lacan first began outlining this lack in the human subject in the 1950s, and even Badiou doesn’t reduce the Subject to an I; his theory involves a multiplicity of individuals.  Yet it clings to the hope of progress and prosperity through mutual cooperation.  His philosophical progeny have begun to distance themselves from this notion, to observe the human Subject’s relation to the world around it as something less optimistic, not so facilely proposed.  We as human beings might be radically removed from the world around us, but there is still a way to interact with it, to engage with it; we just have to think more critically.

Blindsight takes a further step.  It doesn’t care as much about what consciousness is, but what purpose it serves.  Watts gives a depressingly blunt answer to this quandary: “You want to know the only real purpose [consciousness] serves?  Training wheels” (302).  In Blindsight, all aspects of what we consider ‘human’ are reduced to a kind of sublimation by the conscious mind: “The rush evoked by fractal imagery, the algorithms used for habitat selection, metastasize into art.  Thrills that once had to be earned in increments of fitness can now be had from pointless introspection.  Aesthetics arise unbidden from a trillion dopamine receptors, and the system moves beyond modeling the organism.  It begins to model the very process of modeling.”  Consciousness, Watts claims, is a step removed from survival-existence.

However, I want to reiterate that this does not mean we should abandon the pursuit of Being and the Subject altogether, but simply that we should encourage a more meaningful collaboration between the age-old traditions of philosophy and science.  In Archaic Greece they were one and the same, but as the centuries wore on we’ve seen them attempt to impose themselves as discrete fields.  Meillassoux offers an interesting assessment in After Finitude:

Doubtless, where science is concerned, philosophers have become modest - and even prudent. Thus, a philosopher will generally begin with an assurance to the effect that her theories in no way interfere with the work of the scientist, and that the manner in which the latter understands her own research is perfectly legitimate. But she will immediately add (or say to herself): legitimate, as far as it goes. What she means is that although it is normal, and even natural, for the scientist to adopt a spontaneously realist attitude, which she shares with the 'ordinary person', the philosopher possesses a specific type of knowledge which imposes a correction upon science's ancestral statements […] (Meillassoux 13)

Each field privileges itself with its own brand of knowledge which it believes the other to be lacking.  Meillassoux certainly appears to elevate philosophy in this statement, but I believe he intends for a synthesis between the two.  Indeed, perhaps the “realist attitude” of science has demonstrated the fallibility and impotence of human consciousness, especially in regards to the inhuman world around it.  But what does this mean for philosophy?  What responsibility does this place on us if we acknowledge the fact that our own faculties, the instruments by which we interpret the world around us, distort that interpretation?  How should we move forward?  If science and philosophy can each provide their own brand of aid, then I would rather use all the tools at my disposal than one at the expense of the other.

As a final note, some readers might contend that I’ve conflated the terms of ‘Being,’ ‘Subject,’ and ‘consciousness’ in this post, and I would agree with that rejoinder.  It would require far more research on my part to properly distinguish between and among these terms in this context.  However, I would also claim that the emergence of sentience and consciousness is certainly one aspect of Being, and one that remains important even if the object of an ontological discourse is something inanimate; for an understanding of Being concerns itself with the relationship between the conscious Subject and the object-realm, and this relationship can only be fully grasped if the nature and process of human consciousness is taken into account.  I do acknowledge, however, that the entire realm of ‘Being’ does extend beyond the narrow parameters that I’ve described above.  Cognitive science and philosophy of mind attempt to explore and explain merely one facet of that much larger and more complicated field of ontology.

Works Cited

Badiou, Alain. Being and Event. Trans. Oliver Feltham. London: Continuum, 2006.

-. “The Idea of Communism.” The Idea of Communism. London: Verso, 2010. 1-14.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John MacQuarrie and Edward Robinson. New York:

 Harper & Row, 1962.

Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude. London: Continuum, 2008.

Watts, Peter. Blindsight. New York: Tor, 2006.