Friday, April 11, 2008

White Noise

This is the first of two posts discussing how we might want to think about studying science fiction and how an approach that limits itself largely to "close reading" of (even a large number of texts) seems to miss a tremendous amount, at least insofar as we're interested in literary/cultural history.

Bear with me a bit as I work through a familiar example, the argument should become clear quickly. Gerry had what I thought was an insightful post way back in the beginning of the class when he addressed the possible ways to read apocalyptic fantasy. I'll quote them:

1) The roller-coaster hypothesis: We are able to enjoy scenarios about radical destruction or the collapse of civilized society because we do not fear they will ever come to pass.
2) The survivalist hypothesis: We consume these scenarios precisely because we believe they will come to pass, because we know they must come to pass.
3) The recursive hypothesis: Apocalpytic fantasies succeed in the box office and the best-seller lists because these sorts of fantasies had succeeded in the past. In other words, consumer culture just keeps feeding us the forms that have already worked, over and over again.
4) The bare-life hypothesis: We enjoy apocalyptic fantasy because we have been primed by ideology to recognize the absence of civilization as a ultra-Hobbesian state of permaviolence and degradation, which is to say that the purpose of apocalpytic fantasy is to serve as reinforcement and justification for the biopolitical power structures that already exist.
5) The wish-fulfillment hypothesis: We persist in imagining the end of the world because we secretly (or not so secretly) long for the destruction of society in general and/or capitalism in particular.

After our meeting two weeks ago, I think we have to add yet another one (#6), that the apparently dystopian apocalyptic fantasies are actually utopian fantasies, a Malthusian dream for a society and a world free from the burdens of overpopulation. Maybe one could include this in the above typology under 5, but I think that would be a stretch. It seems that one could long for an end to the scarcity and ills brought about by overpopulation without necessarily wanting an end to capitalism (in general or in particular).

Yet I'm concerned that this proliferation of explanations amounts to a "white noise" of theories. Barring any additional exploration (i.e. by methods other than "close reading"), I think we end up with a case of underdetermination of theory by avaialble evidence (i.e. the diligent, anecdotal close readings). I think there are various ways around this, and I'll touch on one that I think is potentially promising in my next post. I think this is a serious problem, frankly, and I don't think it's answered by speaking of "overdetermination", i.e. that there are multiple things at play. Of course there are, but are there an infinite number of explanations, because I think that's what the list above leads to (#5, in particular). Saying something is overdetermined by a few factors is different than saying "they are lots of explanations."

Obviously this comes back to a point that I've already made, that there seems to be little in the way of argument about what makes one "close reading" (say, #2) better than any other. In the context of the other reading for the class, it seems that one might attempt to arbitrate between various readings by referencing a larger theory, say Bloch's, for example. But then his theory and his arguments seem to be in play as much as the claim that a reading of a text provides evidence for one or several theories of apocalyptic fiction. And examining his theories more closely hasn't been a priority, more close readings has. (I think that's a fair description, right?)

So as I recall there were some counterarguments. One was that it was putting the cart before the horse to ask that we do serious theorizing about methods before reading the texts. But when would be enough? How many texts would you have to read before you could start theorizing about methods? 10, 100, 1000? And what difference is there going to be between the 100th close reading and the 101th close reading? It seems like you need a pretty serious theory of close reading to justify the default assumption that you need to do it a lot before you start theorizing about method. That seems to be putting the theory cart before the horse, if anything is.

Remind me if there were other counterarguments so I can address them next time.

Oh, and I should add, I've always assumed that we were interested in literary history. I'm open to arguments that that's not what we're doing. For example, if someone wants to argue that we're having fun, enjoying reading fiction, doing interpretive work (along the lines of Fish's NYT blog posts), what I've just written wouldn't really apply.