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.

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