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 MiĆ©ville’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; MiĆ©ville 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: