Thursday, May 8, 2008

heterotopia and the myth-science of sf, pt.2

Sorry for the intense lag time -- like Gerry said we should be back on regular schedule shortly (ha!).

part one can be found here

Like the rest of the world, science fiction went through some major changes leading up to and following '68. I'm talking about what is now known as 'New Wave SF,' a loosely defined subgenre of science fiction which had the British magazine New Worlds as its flagship journal, under the editorship of Michael Moorcock from '64 to '71 (and again, though with less concentrated success, from '76 to '96). The 'experimental' work that came out of this period can perhaps best be defined by its deconstruction of the idea of outer space. This was carried out by a concerted attack on the older sf's representation of science and technology (its 'mode of production' so to speak), which tended either to the Gernsbackian -- technoscience as source of readerly edification enabling and regulating the pure entertainment of the hackneyed romance plots -- or the Campbellian, where science served as a medium for cosmic speculation. After Moorcock, Dick, Ballard, Pynchon, Ellison, LeGuin, Delany, Russ, Disch, Aldliss, and others, science fiction underwent a twin revolution of both form and content: it could violate all semblance of verisimilitude (always a contentious issue for the genre) and approach the terrain of pure fantasy, it could appropriate the stylistic techniques of literary modernism, and it could openly address 'social issues': radical politics, the war, feminism, sex, drugs, 'culture,' etc. People who were neither white nor male could write it. In short, it could find acceptance as 'serious literature.'

Fascinatingly, in the midst of worldwide opposition to imperialism, Man finally realized the oldest science fiction fantasy of all time by landing on the Moon.

(A more complete narrative of the New Wave's rise and fall can be found here.)

In an amusing historical convergence, there are at least two points where the post-'68 tradition of French philosophy intersected with Anglo-American New Wave sf. The first is Jean Baudrillard's treatment of J.G. Ballard in Simulacra and Simulation. The other is Samuel Delany's 1976 novel Triton, which also quotes liberally from renegade figures in the analytic and ordinary language schools, Quine, Spencer Brown, and Wittgenstein. It's a brief mention, probably too much made of, of Michel Foucault's cryptic remarks on 'heterotopia' (themselves probably too much made of). Heterotopia refers to the places with the power of "juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible," space here indicating an order or governing logic, of which there are always many. A heterotopia is a place where deviance flourishes in the midst of an external norm, potentially working to counter that norm. The examples he gives -- brothel, cemetary, ship -- are not archetypes, but singular instances. The existence of any particular heterotopia suggests a heterotopian analytic, a critical praxis: "As a sort of simultaneously mythic and real contestation of the space in which we live, this description could be called heterotopology."

This is what ultimately differentiates heterotopia from utopia. Utopia is a projection. If it isn't pure fantasy it has to be speculative, why it lends itself so well to 'speculative fiction,' the mainstream's pseudo-respectable title for sf. What I tried to argue last time was that speculation advances the will to a single, coherent universe, beginning from a given situation. Possibilities are considered to the extent that they are probable, and pursued to the extent that they are desirable. Within the realm of speculation we are talking about the relations between past, future, and an incomplete present.

Heterotopia has nothing to do with such things. Heterotopology recognizes heterotopias as sites that can be noticed, built, or brought forth from what already exists. They do not not judge, compile, or evaluate existing possibilities, but prepare new ones. Triton takes place across multiple worlds, amongst the moon-based libertarian-socialist societies against a post-apocalyptic Earth and the capitalist dystopia of Mars. On the moon Triton, there is a representative government that allows a high degree of individual freedom. During elections, everyone wins (each governing those who voted for them). Work is optional. People live in communes according to their preference of gender and sexual orientation. 'Preference' is the key term here; the society is organized around satisfying individual needs and desires, which tends to select out antisocial needs and desires (the enforcers, "e-girls," take care of the violently antisocial). Through advanced genetic and neurosurgery, even one's preferences can be tweaked. But the twist: there are "unlicensed sectors" in every city, where no laws apply. Ironically, violent criminals stay away, since the enforcers are also permitted in the unlicensed sectors, where they have carte blanche. Otherwise the "u-ls" serve as the exception to the regime of preference, though for this very reason some prefer to live there. There, where 'anything can happen:' religious cults, deviant sex acts, heavy drug use, non-consensual hallucinations, and general unhealthiness.

And yet for Bron, the protagonist, this is not a paradise. He's from Mars, where sex (along with all other relationships) is mediated by credit, which has made him into an immature misogynist with no self-awareness. His innocent bumpkin act fails again and again with the independent, annoyingly self-actualized people of Triton. This basic antagonism inserted between foreground and background grants the novel freedom from its own ideals (and their shortcomings); without it Triton would risk appearing simply as a fantasy, or at least an improvement, but not a problem. The frisson of multiple active fantasies serves as the terrain through which the story navigates while Bron's antipathetic perspective serves as its vehicle. The novel thus includes its own interpretative topoi, positions from which various interpretations, criticisms, and distortions can be tested.

In a revealing interview, Delany argues that there is an antinomy of sorts between an interpretation that takes the 'bad things' in a given situation to be justified or not by 'good things' (or more precisely, The Good Thing), and one that doesn't. My take on Star-Maker was in terms of option A. Most science fiction authors assumed option B, taking a moment or image from the novel and blowing it up into a novel of its own, or breaking down its formal rules of invention and closure and reconfiguring them to create new aliens, new worlds, etc. Option B leads us out of assumed conventions into something like a logic of genre, opening up a field for 'heterotopology' as well as a certain way of thinking about modal logic (see the philosopher David Lewis for the most extreme form this can take, a logical defense of many-worlds theory), where many possibilities are always criss-crossing one another, denying the possibility of closure. B's critique of option A, the utopian/dystopian mode of interpretation (and it should be clear by now that I'm not only talking about reading literature), is that it begins from a position that doesn't exist, that of completion, to judge what does exist, which is always incomplete.

Before going on I want to mention that Fredric Jameson, whose recent work we keep coming back to on the question of science fiction and utopia, is not a utopian, option A-style reader in the sense I've been sketching out. He is not interested in figuring out which utopias are 'correct,' or in compiling the elements necessary to any fully realized ideal socialism. Jameson's utopian hermeneutic can be best understood as roughly analogous to heterotopology but with one major difference: it treats utopian projections as themselves critical sites or 'free zones,' but while reading them in the service of a deferred judgment. As with Marx, a formally messianic temporality (open not to the grace of God but to collective social desire and action -- provided my readers can still see the difference), gives Jameson's writing its urgency while in his case permitting criticism of the present to take place within and/or from the realm of literature and culture. The utopian critic writes for a reader in need of a location, something it is argued present reality and its discourses of power are able only to provoke without ever truly satisfying. In something of a minor masterpiece of deceitful self-aggrandizement reversing itself into self-refutation, Bron inadvertently demonstrates the circuity of legal ontology:

"'The fantasy/reality's just marvelous in her work. I mean, there, it's practically like what we do, the fantasy working as a sort of metalogic, with which she can solve real, aesthetic problems in the most incredible ways -- I was actually in a few of her productions last year, a sort of ersatz member of the company. But finally I just had to get out. Because when that fantasy seeps into the reality, she just becomes an incredibly ugly person. She feels she can distort anything that occurs for whatever purpose she wants. Whatever she feels, that's what is, as far as she's concerned. But then, I suppose...' Bron laughed at the ground, then looked up: they'd just left the Plaza -- 'that's the right we just fought a war to defend. But Audri, when someone abuses that right, it can make it pretty awful for the rest of us.'" (Triton)

'She' is the Spike, his ex-girlfriend, a performance artist who earlier on dumps him after realizing that he is, in our Earth terms, a typical heterosexual male. Throughout the novel, Bron encounters the liberated desires of others first with fascination, then with a desire to contain them in a hierarchy, to organize them in terms of classical, ordinal logic rather than modal (Delany's 'metalogics'). Bron's anxieties are triggered when fantasy moves from possibility to actuality. Once those fantasies move beyond logic into aesthetic expression, they become more fascinating, but more alienating to him once their motivating desires are more concretely actualized, when he can no longer pretend they exist for his pleasure. For Bron, "Whatever she feels, that's what is" is the ultimate affront. In the language of rights, he expresses his desire to meet the other on terms of abstract equality only, which in his mind includes the right not to have his deficiencies pointed out. Elsewhere he cries out for legal recognition of his own repression: "What happens to those of us who have problems and don't know why we have the problems we do?" Here the political logic of the archetypal capitalist state is folded into traditional ontology: both are exposed as attempts to define (and therefore justify) one's lack. Against the algebraic openness of the right to x, Bron yearns for the negative freedom promised by rights in defense of the other. The right not to know, not to struggle, not to think, not to feel, not to love, finally not to be bothered.

Aesthetics and imaginative storytelling appear in Triton not only as counterfactuals, methods for 'solving problems' (as Bron would have it), but as restaging the situation that produced the abstract problem in the sensory 'language' of art. Triton claims 'heterotopology' for art -- and especially imaginative, extra-mimetic, theatrical art -- over critique, precisely by having most of the novel progress through a series of philosophical dialogues which float Platonic speculation over a stage teeming with Aristophanic grotesquerie.

New Wave sf characteristically refuses the realist conventions accepted by earlier writing either for reasons of professional necessity or a simple lack of interest in form. In doing so it opened up the present for the same kind of speculation traditional science fiction reserved for the future, as well as the sort of quasi-future one finds in Triton and the earlier Dhalgren, more interested in merging aesthetic with social experimentation than technical details or high adventure. Doing so brought it dangerously close to sf's major antagonists, self-consciously 'literary' fiction and fantasy, and further away from the future as a space for either rational speculation or irrational hope. The idea of the future was imaginatively employed (or not) as just another space for experimentation, along with genre, gender, race, and politics, to exploit the possibilities immanent in human relationships now. Its constitutive wager was to deliberately treat imaginative writing as a material practice with which to examine (and intervene in) the present.

Like its distant counterparts in film, this 'New Wave' would be aestheticized into oblivion, but one can't say it never had its moment.

The negative theology of Star-Maker can now be read as the last gasp of traditional utopianism projected in advance, accomplished by meticulously running out all the genre's possible outcomes and representing them, from the POV of cosmic time, as just so many returns of the same. The Star Maker then exists to satisfy a lack that should not be, the irrational hope it spurs in the narrator experienced as a reassuring, even invigorating feeling of emptiness, overlaid with anticipation.
"One antagonist appeared as the will to dare for the sake of the new, the longed for, the reasonable and joyful, world, in which every man and woman may have scope to live fully, and live in service of mankind. The other seemed essentially the myopic fear of the unknown; or was it more sinister? Was the cunning will for private mastery, which fomented for its own ends the archaic, reason-hating, and vindictive passion of the tribe.

It seemed that in the coming storm all the dearest things must be destroyed. All private happiness, all loving, all creative work in art, science, and philosophy, all intellectual scrutiny and speculative imagination, and all creative social building; all, indeed, that man should normally live for, seemed folly and mockery and mere self-indulgence in the presence of public calamity. But if we failed to preserve them, when would they live again?"
This is the nihilism from which Nietzsche extracted the promise of the overman, framing the future in terms of a binary choice: fear or praise. Of what? What could there be after we've seen the pitiless destruction of every hope, by a being totally indifferent to suffering? 'After' is inconceivable: we're confronted with inevitable dispossession, of something much more abstract than material objects or territories -- the future's promise. We're asked to believe that even this constant anticipation of dispossession can be revalued, through "yes-saying" (in Nietzsche's words), to become the 'preservation' of a daring without purpose or meaning beyond itself.

Combine these two impulses -- aestheticization of the present as its critique + affirmation of our doomed future as its preservation -- and you get cyberpunk, the sci-fi appropriate to Reaganism, the simulacra, and the golden age of finance capital.

Next, maybe something on cyberpunk and Afrofuturism. Maybe.