Thursday, March 20, 2008

kidding on the square

Apologies for the slow posting—we culturemonkeys are just coming off our Spring Break. And preemptive apologies for the post that follows, as well, another public exercise in trying something on for size...

The chart at right is Jameson's Greimas square for Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker, not only one of the finest science fiction novels ever written but a kind of overarching theory of SF, a compendium of all that is possible along a certain trajectory of recombinative imagination. In the case of Star Maker, as the square suggests, that trajectory is the dialectic of the one and the many, the interplay that informs all of the planetary social systems that the novel's narrator visits. The other diagonal represents the theoretical countermovement in the novel, dualism and nondualism, those places where the opposition between the individual and the community is represented as nondialectical (and usually reformulated as good/evil, progress/anti-progress, life/death, futurity/apocalypse, and so on).

Mapping out the novel in this way we find its principal moments and various figurations nicely laid out.

While discussing Star Maker the Futurity group found ourselves playing with a Greimas square of our own, a collaborative square I put forth now not because I believe it is right and complete but because I want to discuss the ways in which it might be wrong.

I've modified the square slightly since we talked about it, which is something we can talk about in the comments.

The square is an attempt to lay out the component subgenres of speculative fiction along these semiotic lines.

We take as our first opposition the difference between science fiction and fantasy/eros, following Jameson's borrowing of Coleridge's distinction between imagination and fancy but aligning "imagination" as much with "the erotic" as with fantasy. Science fiction's theoretical extreme would in this sense be more a novel that is more Star Maker-esque than even Star Maker itself: this is the programmatic business of speculative engineering and genre combinatorics. This is nerdonomics, operating on a scientific-mathematic logic. The erotic, on the other hand, is pure arousal—affect. The relevant aesthetic example here is not the pornographic so much as poetry and myth: the idea of Camelot, outside any consideration of how many people should live inside or how tall the walls the should be. This is the dream logic of pure imaginative play.

On the other axis, we map horror against spectacle, spectacle in the Debordian sense of a manifestation of pure positivity:

The spectacle manifests itself as an enormous positivity, out of reach and beyond dispute. All it says is: “Everything that appears is good; whatever is good will appear.” The attitude that it demands in principle is the same passive acceptance that it has already secured by means of its seeming incontrovertibility, and indeed by its monopolization of the realm of appearances. (The Society of the Spectacle 15)
Horror, then, is anti-spectacle—it promises us violence, real, raw, and uncontrolled. But as with science fiction and the erotic I mean to keep these two terms free from other valences or connotations outside the foundational distinction between positivity and negativity, for as we all know there can be an Dionysian ecstasy to violence just as surely as there can surely be a terrible unfreedom in spectacle. What I'm interested in right now is just the question of imaginative method, trying to identify the sorts of moves that can be made through speculative fiction.

When science fiction combines with horror, we get Frankenstein and its many children; when it combines with spectacle, we get Star Wars. Likewise, when Eros and fantasy combine, we have the seductive myth of the vampire; when it's spectacle and fantasy, we have the pornographic, or, more accurately, the polymorphous perverse.

Borrowing from the apocalyptic suprahistorical cycle of Star Maker, our group then flirted with an ambitious addition to the chart: an attempt to overlap a mapping of the Utopic and the apocalyptic in relation to these terms. We struck upon the notion that perhaps Utopia can be seen as the standpoint of eternity, the position which all the deviations and excesses of the four subgenres—each one trending in its own way towards the boundary condition of apocalypse—are read against...