Friday, September 14, 2012

Paper proposal for 2013 Joint Eaton/SFRA Conference

I've been thinking a lot lately about representations of media technologies in science fiction. Below is a paper proposal I submitted to the 2013 Science Fiction Research Association conference. It doesn't have much of a conclusion or "pay off," perhaps because I'm still working out that dimensions of the argument. Mainly, I envision the presentation as a way of getting at the questions I pose in the second paragraph; it's more about opening a conversation than it is offering a definitive position on the topic.

"Science Fiction and Writing Technologies"

To understand writing as a technology is to foreground the techniques of material inscription by which humans record memory in a durable form outside of the mind. Technological processes of material inscription, like other technologies, have co-evolved alongside and with humans. Katherine Hayles, following Bernard Stiegler, labels this process of co-evolutionary development between humans and technics “technogenesis” (30). When its technological dimension comes into focus, we find that writing is always instantiated within a particular material medium. To think of writing technologies, then, is also to think of media technologies. Hayles has recently presented the field of “Comparative Media Studies” as a way of conceptualizing the relationship between print and digital media, in particular. Further, writing involves technological competencies in addition to language-oriented literate skills. Put a different way, literacy is itself a technological competency. In a fundamental sense, then, writing technologies are always embedded within relations of social power and material production; a class of premodern literate scribes, the invention of high-volume mechanical printing, and contemporary multi-modal forms of self-publishing and digital media creation are examples of writing’s embeddedness within changing social and material ecologies.

The idea that SF speculates about the consequences of, and possibilities for, technological and scientific development is a familiar notion to scholars of the genre. However, the imaginative contribution that SF makes to how we conceptualize writing technologies largely remains to be explored. The proposed paper will ask two interrelated questions. First, what might SF texts that represent writing technologies allow us to say about how we live, work, and play with emerging forms of material inscription and prosthetic memory? Second, how do SF texts, as writing and rhetoric, circulate within the globalized information system at the same time that they attempt to represent this system?

As a way of getting at these two ideas, I will briefly explore three SF novels that directly address writing technologies broadly imagined. In 1949, Orwell’s infamous dystopian novel 1984 showed how totalitarianism might achieve a stranglehold on human consciousness in large part through control of the printed word. In Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth’s 1952 novel, The Space Merchants, the protagonist is a “Copysmith Star Class” who writes advertisements and works for corporations that unleash new hyper-invasive media technologies in order to condition consumers to purchase an endless supply of unnecessary products. When 1984 came to pass, Apple launched the Macintosh personal computer, and William Gibson and Samuel Delaney foresaw the emergence of “cyberspace” and the World Wide Web. In Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), Delaney explores the racial and class barriers to accessing digital information that scholars now refer to as the “digital divide.” Delaney figures this divide through Rat Korga’s illiteracy and inability to access the General Information system.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Review for the SFRA

During my summer independent study with Phil Wegner, I joined the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA). Phil would probably have prefered that I join the Society for Utopian Studies, of which he is President, and I do intend at some point to learn more about the concept of utopia. However, SFRA seemed more within my intellectual strike zone, and I even managed to review a book for them before the start of the term. Here's what I submitted.

Fiction Review
In the Lion’s Mouth
Joseph Paul Weakland
Flynn, Michael. In the Lion’s Mouth. New York: Tor, 2012. 304 pages, cloth, $25.99. ISBN 978-0-765322-85-2.

In the Lion’s Mouth (2012) follows The January Dancer (2009) and Up Jim River (2010) as the third in the “Spiral Arm” series of space opera novels by Michael Flynn. In Flynn’s universe, two interstellar powers fight a cold war known as the “Long Game.” They wage this war primarily through the clandestine operations of highly trained saboteurs and assassins. The Commonwealth of Central Worlds deploys agents called “Shadows,” while the United League of the Periphery trains operatives known as “Hounds.” Much of the novel centers on the adventures of Donovan buigh, a former Shadow and leader of a failed revolution against the “Names,” the covert political entity behind the Confederacy and its Shadows.

The novel’s frame story begins on the planet Dangchao Waypoint, where Shadow agent Ravn Olafsdottr stealthily infiltrates a League base. Her mission is to give news of Donovan buigh to his former lover, Bridget ban, a Hound of the League of the Periphery. The mutual enemies establish a temporary truce, and over several hours, Olafsdottr narrates the tale of Donovan’s fate by reciting poetry. Flynn develops this illusion by starting each section of the main story with a brief poem, before switching back into prose. Olafsdottr’s poem forms the bulk of the narrative, but the novel periodically returns to Olafsdottr and Bridget during brief “interrogatories.” Ravn admits that she takes liberties with her tale, so the reader must judge whether she is a reliable narrator. Interested scholars may wish to consider further the novel’s unusual narrative structure and stylistic experimentation.

Flynn’s Spiral Arm contains two warring interstellar powers, but much of the novel appears to concern the Shadows’ own internal civil war. A “revolution” is brewing within the Confederacy, but because virtually all of the characters in the novel are socially elite, impossibly talented assassins, we gain little sense of what ordinary people think and feel in the Spiral Arm, much less what a revolution within the Confederacy would actually mean. No clear ideological differences exist between the Confederacy and the League, for that matter. Most of the conflicts between characters seem based on challenges to personal pride and honor, and few substantive political, ethical, or moral issues are at stake. Perhaps this is not surprising, as late in the novel, we learn that the second planned revolution was more of a “rebellion,” an effort to change leadership with the Names, rather than an attempt to transform any kind of political system.

Although the tangled skeins of personal intrigue among the agents are elaborate and at times interesting, scholars may find little else upon which to comment in the novel. A clue to Flynn’s project might be found in the epigraph he pulls from The Autumn of the Middle Ages (1924) by the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga: “Having dressed and painted their passionate dream of a beautiful life with all their powers of imagination and artfulness and wealth and molded it into a plastic form, they then pondered and realized that life was really not so beautiful – and then laughed.” Flynn writes that his “Shadow culture is based loosely on the decadent Franco-Burgundian knighthood of the fifteenth century,” the main source for which is Huizinga. In short, then, the novel appears to be in part a futuristic reimagining of certain elements of medieval court society. In fact, two Shadows even fight a formal duel over a mutual love interest.

While In the Lion’s Mouth is stylistically interesting, it falls short in what Darko Suvin terms “cognitive estrangement.” In other words, it deploys scientific fictional elements primarily to equip its agents (or “knights”) with fancy equipment and gadgets; Flynn describes the science behind several of these in his postscript. This is not necessarily a criticism in and of itself, as the battle sequences are among the most memorable parts of the novel. However, as a sort of medieval-futurist space opera, the novel doesn’t yield the cognitive pleasures of more cerebral space operas such as Vernor Vinge’s Fire Upon the Deep (1992) and Dan Simmon’s Hyperion (1989), nor does it contain the character development and psychological sophistication of a novel like Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1956). These novels also provide much more imaginative examples of what I take to be the hallmark of space opera, sublime speculation: sentient AIs, creatures that function as a “hive mind,” galaxy-wide communications networks, alternative laws of physics, and so on. These space operas might also offer more to scholarly inquiry. The galactic civilizations presented in Fire Upon the Deep are richly depicted – the sheer scale of Verne’s world and the varieties of life forms that inhabit it is a cognitive marvel. Likewise, Hyperion is remarkable for its stylistic virtuosity. Like Flynn’s novel, Simmons also employs a frame story. However, Simmons uses this technique to write a novel that is part space opera, part military science fiction, part planetary adventure, and part cyberpunk.

Beyond sublime speculation or stylistic experimentation, we might ask what Flynn’s cognitive estrangement reveals about our own world. It is here that the novel’s lack of political depth becomes particularly disappointing; a novel focusing so much on conflict might have gone deeper into the reasons for this conflict and the divergent worldviews that gave rise to the “Long Game.” In an era of clandestine interrogation, torture, and assassination, most of which occurs outside the public’s field of vision, we might question Flynn’s failure to throw a critical light on these practices within his novel. According to Huizinga, the Franco-Burgundian knighthood realized that “life was not really so beautiful” as it had imagined, “and then laughed.” In our own historical moment, facing as we do a series of interlocking social and ecological crises, we must do more than laugh. Perhaps here I reveal my own preference for politically conscious science fiction over stylized fantasy. Should Flynn write another novel in his Spiral Arm universe, perhaps he will speculate as to what a true “revolution” might look like.

Roadside Picnic

Strugatsky, Arkady, Boris N. Strugatsky, and Olena Bormashenko. Roadside Picnic. Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Review Press, 2012. Print.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic is a first contact story with a crucial difference: the aliens never reveal themselves, nor do they give any hint of their purpose for visiting Earth. The only traces that remain of the encounter are several “Zones” of mysterious and dangerous debris left at seemingly random locations around the planet. The novel’s titular “picnic” is a metaphor for this; humans are insects that encounter an inscrutable array of artifacts leftover from an alien picnic; we are ants without the cognitive ability to understand the objects, their purpose, or their creator’s motivations. After finishing their “meal,” if you can call it a meal, the aliens simply disappear, leaving humans to sort through the aftermath. In this way, Roadside Picnic strongly parallels Lem’s Solaris, as both novels challenge the idea of human “cognitive universalism,” or the commonly-held notion that human ways of thinking about and being in the world could be mapped onto non-human entities.

The Zones containing the alien debris were evacuated, as many of the artifacts are dangerous to human life. Humans make periodic forays into the Zones to recover alien artifacts, but have had little success in reverse engineering alien technology or uncovering any clues as to the nature of the alien visit. So called “Stalkers,” criminals who enter the Zone illegally to treasure hunt, pass on birth defects to their children apparently caused by something in the Zone. Stalkers, when they move to other parts of the world after living and working near and in the Zone, also cause statistically-improbable disasters in the communities to which they relocate. The Zones themselves contain strange gravitational anomalies, corrosive sludge, and reanimate corpses that leave the Zone and continue, in a zombie-like way, their daily lives. Although humans have managed to appropriate some of the alien technology for their own use, such as small batteries with infinite life-spans, most of the phenomenon and objects remain inscrutable to science – much like the sentient ocean in Solaris.

The novel follows Red Schuhart, a stalker living near one of the Zones in what appears to be North America. While Schuhart works for a scientific institute that conducts official research in the Zone, he also conducts illegal treasure-hunting on the side, as many of the artifacts are highly-profitable on the black Market. The Zone is so dangerous that many die or suffer permanent damage navigating it, and skilled stalkers are highly-paid for their work. Schuhart also observes first-hand the corruption and greed surrounding the Zones; contact has not resulted in Enlightenment, but only confusion and moral decline.

In the novel’s conclusion, Schuhart finds a golden orb that is said to have the ability to grant a person’s innermost desire. This object raises a number of interesting philosophical and social questions. Does Schuhart, or anyone else, actually possess the language to articulate a desire that would be beneficial to humanity? In other words, what would his utopia look like? Schuhart detests the corruption that surrounds him, even while he participates in it. He seems to feel that the orb should be used for a higher purpose than simply manifesting one’s own idiosyncratic desires. However, while his purpose is noble, Schuhart sacrifices an apprentice stalker to gain access to the orb. He even borrows his words to the orb from the dead apprentice: “HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN!” (193). The words reveal that he does not have a concrete vocabulary for describing an ideal society, but instead asks the orb to “Look into my soul, I know – everything you need is in there. It has to be. Because I’ve never sold my soul to anyone! It’s mine, it’s human! Figure out yourself what I want – because I know it can’t be bad” (193).

Can we believe Schuhart? Doesn’t his ruthlessness in sacrificing the apprentice, and his history of crime, undermine his claim that his soul isn’t bad? Or is he redeemed by his utopian desire for universal happiness and peace, even if he is only able to voice this desire in a naïve way, in a plagiarized way? If we were granted the same opportunity, would our situation be any different? It’s here that the novel might be read as a political critique of the Soviet Union and its own ambiguous utopian aims. As Ursula K. Le Guin observes in her Foreword to the novel’s most recent edition, however, the story succeeds because it is as much about an individual as it is a political allegory.

Roadside Picnic was adapted by the authors into the film Stalker (1979) and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of video games.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Embedding

Watson, Ian. The Embedding. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1990. Print.

The Embedding interrogates the relationship between language, embodiment, and reality. In particular, Watson explores the possibility of a relationship with a reality “outside” of language and embodiment. The notion that we construct our reality through language is a familiar one, but The Embedding is also concerned with how bodies themselves participate in the construction of reality. At the beginning of the novel, a team of researchers are investigating the “universal grammar” (the researchers refer to Chomsky several times) of human languages, and want to know whether the brain is “wired” to produce a finite-array of possible language-constructions. The British researchers are based at an institute in Africa, and they experiment on African children born in scientific captivity. In another connected story arc, an anthropologist studies an Amazonian tribe with a similarly unique language. The “Xemahoa,” as they are called, use a psychotropic fungus to speak a new tongue in an altered cognitive state. The tribe is under threat by a dam built by the United Stated and the Brazilian government. Thus, the novel engages questions of language and embodiment alongside a commentary on colonialism. In other words, in addition to exploring an “outside” to language and embodiment, The Embedding also examines whether there is an “outside” to politics. For Watson, the answer to both questions appears to be: No.

Shortly after their birth, the children at the institute are placed in different cognitive environments as a way of probing the limits of what the human brain will accept as reality. In one environment, children learn a language unlike any spoken by “normal” humans. The researchers use a computer to create a synthetic language twisted into impossibly complex grammatical constructions, in which words and clauses pile on one another in long sentences that would be beyond the semantic grasp of any normal human. In order to process this artificial language, the children are given brain enhancing drugs that increase their short-term memory. This allows them to keep these complex sentences in their mind long enough to process their meaning. In short, the goal of the experiment is to determine how the brain imposes limits on perception and cognition. Other environments seem to stretch normal human logic and Gestalt psychology (the perception of shapes, colors, causality, and so on…). Of course, the researchers and other characters also struggle with the ethicality of these experiments.

In the Amazon, an anthropologist lives with a tribe caught in the crossfire between the capitalist exploitation of the Amazon River and socialist guerillas. By inhaling a fungus called “Maka-i,” the tribe can speak a new language similar to the artificial one developed by the British researchers. This allows the Xemahoa to articulate, and hold in conscious presence, their relationship with their entire cultural cosmology. To explain a bit more, when we read, the words before our eyes are the immediate objects of our cognition, but they quickly recede from immediate presence as our eyes scan over the page. The same might be argued for spoken language. However, the Xemahoa use the fungus to gain the ability to recite one long, unimaginably complex sentence and hold it present in mind for the duration of the drug’s effects. According to the anthropologist, this allows them to gain a complete and “direct sensory apprehension” of their entire world. As one character that has a similar experience later in the novel puts it: “The world was about to be embedded in his mind in its totality as a direct sensory apprehension, and not as something safely symbolized and distanced by words and abstract thoughts. The Greater was about to be embedded in the Lesser” (214). It’s not clear which elements of the Xemahoa’s environment grant them this ability, the clay they eat, the fungus itself, the plants and animals that serve as referents for their words. Interestingly, the Americans recognize this: “If there’s anything in this drug business, we got to save the whole ecology” (155). This part of the text warrants further consideration as an example of the “ecology” of language and writing.

The Embedding enacts these various cognitive estrangements to explore the relationship between language, embodiment, and reality. The third story arc concerns an alien race that visits Earth. These aliens are attempting to gather languages (and brains) from all sentient species they come across. They compile these languages (and the brains in which they are embodied) within a “Language Moon.” They believe that once they have collected enough subjective languages, they can merge them into a master objective conception of reality that will transcend any particular subjective experience of the world. As they alien describes it: “There are so many ways of seeing This-reality, from so many viewpoints. It is these viewpoints that we trade for. You might say we trade for realities” (117). Their goal is to find an “outside,” a space beyond language or the constraints posed by an embodiment. In doing so, they wish to literally escape the universe itself:  “Only at the places where the languages of different species grate together, presenting an interface of paradox, do we guess the nature of true reality and draw the strength to escape. Our language moon will reveal reality as a direct experience” (135). Although this might seem like irrelevant metaphysical speculation, Watson makes these ideas tangible in the political and cultural tensions that surface in the novel.

The anthropologist studying the Xemahoa notes that in order to engage “politically” with what is happening around them, the tribe would have to give up something of their cultural-autonomy and purity; in order to fight on the terms of their opponents, they would have to compromise the integrity of their own terms. Similarly, the US and the Soviet Union ally against the aliens – their ideological tension, capitalism vs. communism, for at least a period dissolves by a threat “outside” of human concerns: an alien presence. The aliens come simply wanting to trade for languages; they even offer the humans new space-travel technology and the locations of colonizable planets in return. However, after South America falls into political chaos as a result of US political engineering, the US decides to use the aliens as a scapegoat and blame them for causing the turmoil. The US and USSR briefly join forces to nuke the aliens, the revolutionary momentum in South America falters, and the status-quo more or less returns. As the narrator sums it up in a reference to Jefferson Airplane’s album Blows Against the Empire: “Sorry, Jefferson Airplane… the Empire still stands firm” (87). In illustrating the impossibility of accessing a transcendent space outside of reality, perhaps Watson asks the reader to consider seriously how our linguistic, ideological, and ecological position shapes our world.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Critical Theory and Science Fiction

Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. London: University Press of New England, 2000. Print.


Freedman writes that when he was working on this project, he offered colleagues this short description: “my thesis about critical theory and science fiction is that each is a version of the other” (xv). However, as a whole, Critical Theory and Science Fiction seems to argue that a certain kind of SF embodies the mode of emancipative thinking that Freedman associates with critical theory: “I do believe that both… have the potential to play a role in the liberation of humanity from oppression” (xx). In other words, Freedman doesn’t claim explicitly that critical theory itself is in some sense “science fictional.” Rather, he writes, “Just as Lukács argues that the historical novel is a privileged and paradigmatic genre for Marxism, so I argue that science fiction enjoys – and ought to be recognized as enjoying – such a position not only for Marxism but for critical theory in general” (xv). This leads me to the following questions: how would our thinking change if this relationship were reversed? What if “critical theory in general” was a paradigmatic “genre” for science fiction? What would this mean? Is it possible to enact this kind of cognitive estrangement on critical theory itself, or would the result be an irrational estrangement or fantasy, in Darko Suvin’s sense?

I’m interested in this more provocative and inchoate (and perhaps fatally problematic) project because it seems in order to use theory one first has to position oneself within the theoretical conversation; one has to form a set of intellectual and interpretative allegiances. One must decide upon a starting point from which to develop one’s own contribution to the conversation. This starting point most often is the theory of another thinker, whose work one complicates or applies to a particular cultural artifact under consideration. Freedman makes the point that each school of critical theory and literary interpretation privileges a certain genre for this analysis (he offers several examples on page 29). Further, Freedman himself seems to ally most strongly with Marx and historical materialism – although his discussion and application of theory is wide-ranging.

To develop my playful notion a bit, perhaps there are resonances between those who do theoretical work in an academic setting and authors of science fiction. Freedman claims that the two projects have “structural affinities,” but what “cognitive effect” might imagining the theorist as science fiction author produce? As I hinted at in the preceding paragraph, theorists ultimately make idiosyncratic decisions about where (and with whom) they begin and enter a conversation. These decisions occur within institutional contexts and also reflect the social process of scholarship. However, might one’s relationship with theory bear a personal imprint, as well? Theorists are indebted to the thinkers that preceded them, and must wrestle with their influences, no less than a science fiction author creates texts that derive from and complicate authors who wrote before. An author like William Gibson, for example, owes a great deal of his style to Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler and cites William Burroughs as one of his primary influences. However, Neuromancer ultimately provides a way of looking at a computerized world that goes beyond anything that came previously (both in the stylistic and “cognitive” sense).

However derivative its elements might be, then, Gibson’s “cyberpunk” is certainly an original invention, even if, as Freedman astutely points out, cyberpunk is “less radically critical and so less radically science fictional” than earlier works (198) [emphasis removed]. “Critical theory as cyberpunk” is then a doubly imperfect metaphor. However, this brings us to another parallel between the author of critical theory (CT) and SF. As Steven Shaviro suggests in Connected:
Both of these sorts of writing [CT and SF] seek to grasp the social world not by representing it mimetically but by performing a kind of ‘cognitive estrangement upon it so that the structures and assumptions that we take for granted, and that undergird our own social reality, may be seen in their full contingency and historicity. (x)
To pivot from my own cognitive estrangement and return to Freedman’s argument, “critical theory, as a mode of reading, tends to privilege science fiction (though usually, so far, implicitly and even unconsciously)… science fiction, like critical theory, insists upon historical mutability, material reducibility, and utopian possibility” (xvi).

There are perhaps other cognitively valuable resonances between authors of CT and SF; each traditionally occupies a position of privilege within the Euro-American world; each seeks to introduce a series of new words and concepts into various discourses (Csicsery-Ronay calls the language-inventions of SF authors “fictive-neology,” and CT authors often create their own words to express new insights provided by their arguments); neither is bound by scientific or empirically-verifiable epistemologies, nor can the speculations provided by CT and SF often be verified by empirical means.

I offer these thoughts primarily as a way of thinking a bit further about how I will position myself within the theoretical conversation. This is still very much a work-in-progress; I’m still in search of my “theory voice,” so to speak.


To return once more to Freedman’s argument, I should note that he does make one alteration to Suvin’s definition of SF as the literature of cognitive estrangement. Freedman’s departure hinges on whether or not Suvin’s definition of SF requires texts to adhere to the latest scientific epistemologies in order to be considered “cognitive.” For Freedman, this is not the case:
The crucial issue for generic discrimination is not any epistemological judgment external to the text itself on the rationality or irrationality of the latter’s imaginings, but rather (as some of Suvin’s language does, in fact, imply but never makes entirely clear) the attitude of the text itself to the kind of estrangements being performed. (18)
Freedman addresses this issue by creating the concept and term “cognition effect”: “Unless the distinction between cognition and cognition effect is kept steadily in view, the definition of science fiction as cognitive estrangement can lead to patent absurdities” (18) [emphasis added]. Scholars might debate whether Freedman’s modification of Suvin’s terms is truly necessary, but if nothing else the “cognition effect” provides an even clearer concept with which to understand and discuss what SF does for readers. Freedman distances “cognition” even more strongly from a narrow definition of “science.” He thus more closely aligns cognition with “critical thinking” than with anything resembling the scientific fidelity characteristic of “hard SF.”

Interestingly, Freedman doesn’t discuss at length how SF tropes are often appropriated by uncritical cultural projects: mindless entertainment spectacle, advertising, reactionary political rhetoric, etc. For example, most people’s conception of SF is probably closer to what SF scholars would pejoratively call “sci-fi.” If there is a “rhetoric of science fiction,” this problem is something worth thinking more about…


Other interesting quotations from Critical Theory and Science Fiction:

It is in the past forty years or so that we have witnessed the production of the largest distinct body of work that strongly incarnates tendency of science fiction and is explicitly and unambiguously published under name of science fiction. Especially insofar as the American and British traditions are concerned, this great increase in the critical sophistication of science fiction as named genre can be corrected with the more general increase in critical thinking – that is, in dialectical, historical, and utopian thinking – that characterizes the general cultural phenomenon known as ‘the Sixties.’ (94)


Science fiction is of all forms of art the one most closely and profoundly allied to critical theory. (199)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Shaviro, Steven. Connected, Or, What It Means to Live in the Network Society. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. Print.

Shaviro describes Connected as “a speculative exercise in cultural theory,” and begins with a brief meditation on the parallels between science fiction and theory. He writes,
Both of these sorts of writing seek to grasp the social world not by representing it mimetically but by performing a kind of ‘cognitive estrangement upon it (a term Freedman borrows from Dark Suvin), so that the structures and assumptions that we take for granted, and that undergird our own social reality, may be seen in their full contingency and historicity. (x)
Many theorists I’ve encountered comment on the relationship between SF and theory, but these comments are usually tantalizingly brief and underdeveloped. Shaviro claims to be writing a form of science fiction, but his theoretical justification is limited to a short preface. (I haven’t read Freedman’s Critical Theory and Science Fiction, which might be the text for which I’m searching.) Nevertheless, Shaviro does offer some valuable insights, some of which I will articulate here.

First, an idea inspired by Shaviro (he doesn’t argue this directly): there may be a formal and/or stylistic mode that critical theory shares with science fiction. According to Csicsery-Ronay, one of SF’s seven beauties is “fictive neology.” He argues that SF functions as a source of language innovation and that the new words it deploys are a key element of the genre. SF readers “decode” and begin to understand a new cognitively-estranged world in part through encountering and deciphering the fictive neology within an SF text. Each SF author coins new words to describe their speculative inventions, for example, words such as “cyberspace,” “matrix,” “net,” and “virtual reality,” some of which bleed over into popular usage (like Gibson’s “cyberspace”).

Like SF, critical theory is also a source of language invention, new words, and concepts. Many of the terms developed by theorists are explicitly science fictional: Haraway’s “cyborg,” Baudrillard’s “hyperreal,” Hayles "virtuality." Many theorists create their own coinages to represent concepts that are closely related to those of other theorists. This seems not unlike SF authors who develop their own fictive neology to describe things like artificial intelligence, faster than light travel, genetic engineering, digital information and communication systems, and so on. Each SF author not only develops his or her own fictive neology for the features a cognitively-estranged world, but also offers his or her own perspective on how a particular novum will change the world. When you read an SF novel, you can’t help but situate it in relation to other SF works in the SF “metaverse.” What does Neal Stephenson do with cyberpunk in Snow Crash that Gibson doesn’t? How is this author’s “cyberspace” indebted to and/or different from Gibson’s depiction of it in Neuromancer?

I think these questions are a more elemental part of the SF reading experience than literary criticism. In other words, I think the chain of intertextual associations that the fictive neology triggers in a reader's mind is something that occurs for those without formal training in literary criticism, for those not interested in situating authors in relation to one another for the purpose of academic discussions. In any event, I would conjecture that a similar chain of associations occurs when we read theory, which, unlike most SF, is a highly-rarefied academic discourse. How many other theoretical notions does D&G's concept of the "rhizome" evoke for experienced readers of theory, for instance? From how many theoretical notions does the rhizome itself derive from and complicate? The skillful SF writer, like the theorist, must survey how a science-fictional (or theoretical) trope has been addressed previously in order to write something original and provocative, in order to evoke the cognition effect of SF.

To the extent that SF is attempting to explore the social and cultural consequences of technoscientific development, these are important questions; both theorists and SF authors are trying to get a handle on the current globalized technoscientific condition. Like the SF metaverse, these theoretical perspectives also exist in a continual conversation. Indeed, as Shaviro points out, quoting Freedman,
critical theory and science fiction share ‘certain structural affinities’ (23) in the ways that they engage with late capitalist society. Science fiction and critical theory alike are engaged in the task of what Frederic Jameson calls the ‘cognitive mapping’ of postmodern space: an effort that ‘seeks to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system,” given that this system is unrepresentable by traditional mimetic means (54)
I’m interested in critical theory as science fiction at least in part as a way of understanding and situating myself within the sheer volume of theoretical discourse available to a scholar in the humanities. I often think about questions such as, “Which theorist offers the most insightful and useful model of the phenomenon under consideration?” “Which theorist do I find most accessible and interesting?” “What theoretical work offers me the thrill of gaining a new vantage point on the world?” Similarly, we tend to evaluate SF authors to the extent that they offer estranged perspectives on reality, fictional insights into the direction of technoscientific development, to the degree that they evoke cognitive wonder. Critics have commented extensively on Neuromancer, for example, precisely because it is so useful for thinking (pleasurably) about contemporary human-techno relations.

When I consider Connected as a whole, I don’t get the sense that Shaviro offers any unifying thesis concerning “what it means to live in the network society.” There doesn’t seem to be any particular theory being developed in the text, nor does Shaviro seem to think any particular theorist offers a privileged vantage point on the condition of being “connected.” All the usual suspects are here: Benjamin, Foucault, D&G, Derrida, Haraway, and others. However, his ability to employ them in his analysis of various science-fiction texts and contemporary techno-cultural concerns is remarkable.

Shaviro’s rapid forays into various cultural texts begin and end abruptly. Stylistically, the effect evokes the sensation of surfing television or web browsing. I read Connected as an e-book, in fact, so I found it easy to read alongside my other online activities, like listening to music and checking my Facebook. If I lost my place, I could just jump to the next italicized topic heading. I was unfamiliar with many of the works he examines, particularly the music, so my reading sent me to Google several times, where I either looked at books on Amazon or videos on YouTube. I wish I could say that I did something like “spiral out into the web,” propelled by Shaviro’s abundant use of cultural texts, that his text in fact connected me to other texts. However, I’m reminded of how a few websites owned by a few companies control so much of my access to information. Shaviro, in his reading of Jeter’s SF novel Noir, notes that that every connection leads back to a corporation (1).

Connected doesn’t provide any easily-summarized set of ideas about the networked society. This is in part because so much of his discussion is situated in relation to specific cultural artifacts: experimental hip-hop albums, music videos, science fiction literature, digital copyright law. He examines an array of cultural texts emerging from and reacting to capitalist technoscientific development, and the insights are as diverse as the texts themselves. This is both innovative, but also frustrating, as I’m used to being able to quickly gain a sense of a text’s primary conceptual/argumentative movements. Connected demands a different style and set of expectations for reading.

Like the network society, Connected employs a sort of fractal structure. There isn’t a table of contents or a traditional chapter organization, and ideas seldom build from one another in a linear fashion across sections. The reader is more or less thrown into the “middle” of a series of mini-meditations on cultural artifacts that embody the features of the networked society. However, like a fractal, Connected contains recurrent patterns. It explores new theoretical tropes appropriate to the network society: the virus, the system, the hive mind. Connected also reexamines how pre-digital ideas and entities are transformed and reconfigured within network society: the body, the soul, and money. It would have been useful for Shaviro to explain in more detail his rationale for his book’s unconventional structure – is this how cultural criticism reads in the network society?

It also seems difficult to extract Shaviro’s observations from the cultural artifacts on which they are based; although the author employs a “networked” argumentative structure, his ideas seem to resist easy replication and portability. In other words, aside from the idea of cultural criticism as SF, it would be hard for me to imagine how to use Shaviro, except for the odd quotation, or in relation to a specific text he analyzes, or perhaps as an inspiration for a new way of performing criticism. As I write this, however, I realize that these are all interesting ways to connect a text to other texts. Perhaps Connected suggests that doing cultural criticism or theoretical work in the network society is letting go of monolithic theoretical constructs. Or, more precisely, the desire for a unified interpretive framework from which to understand our place within the network.

Useful quotations about SF and critical theory/cultural criticism from Shaviro’s preface:

“This means that science fiction is the privileged genre (literary, cinematic, televisual, and digital) for contemporary critical theory, in much the same way that the nineteenth-century realist novel was the privileged genre for the early-twentieth century Marxist criticism of Georg Lukacks and others.”

“Throughout this book I look at cultural practices, especially those involving digital media, both as they are described in science fiction novels and films and as they are being enacted today on the Internet. I do not distinguish between these two sorts of sources. My aim, like that of any other science fiction writer, is to discern the changes that are transforming our world into a very different place from the one into which I was born. Science fiction does not claim to predict what will happen then, a hundred, or a thousand years from now; what distinguishes the genre is its linguistic and temporal orientation. Science fiction is always written in the future tense – conceptually, if not grammatically. Not only is it about what has not yet happened, but its very structure is that of the not-yet happened. It addresses events in their potentiality, which is something vaster and more mysterious – more perturbingly other – than any actual outcome could ever be. Science fiction is about strange metamorphoses and venturesome, unpredictable results. It is a practice of continual experimentation, just as science and technology themselves are.”

“Science fiction conjures the invisible forces – technological, social, economic, affective, and political – that surround us” (xi)

“It is only by writing cultural theory as science fiction that I can hope for my work to be (in Lenin’s famous phrase) ‘as radical as reality itself’ (xi)

Monday, July 2, 2012

A Canticle for Leibowitz

After a nuclear holocaust, an order of Catholic monks preserves fragments of human knowledge in hopes that civilization will one day rebuild itself. Civilization does reemerge after centuries of darkness, but quickly the mistakes of the past are repeated: nationalist fervor, unethical technological advance, war. The legacy of nuclear conflict lives on in the human genome, resulting in monstrous births and mutations. Late in the third millennium, the order of Leibowitz departs for Alpha Centauri, leaving Earth to fall once more into nuclear darkness, perhaps for the final time.

Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) attempts to stage a conflict between religious faith and secular reason, and for the most part it’s successful, although you could argue it stacks the deck against secular reason. There are many powerful passages in which the irresponsibility of politicians and scientists are condemned. There is even a lengthy parable which describes the first nuclear holocaust in Christian-religious terms. Perhaps my primary criticism is that the novel is somewhat one-sided; the secular humanist worldview seems unrecoverable, and Christians have the last laugh. Indeed, a wooden carving of Leibowitz has a bemused smirk which the novel frequently references.

After each human-generated apocalypse, Nature reclaims the dead and the destroyed, and the order of Leibowitz remains to preserve the ember of knowledge for the survivors. I’d call the book, for lack of a better phrase, an attempt at “Christian satire”. The novel isn’t necessarily preachy, but perhaps I say this because the forcefulness of its condemnation is often quite lyrical and enjoyable; in other words, it's easy to be persuaded by Leibowitz. Although there are attempts to stage a genuine conflict between religious values and secular values, it seems clear in the end that the monks are the (flawed) heroes and that the cause of all this destruction is human vanity. Aside from the novel’s theological agenda, it contains some interesting speculations:

The order of Leibowitz attempts to preserve knowledge, but it doesn’t understand much of what it preserves. An electrician’s blue print, for instance, completely mystifies them. Preserving knowledge provides no guarantee that it will be useful to those who encounter it in the future. Or perhaps the idea is that “knowledge” doesn’t reside in these artifacts as much as it emerges from their “use value”; the blue print doesn’t become knowledge until it allows us to think or do something we couldn’t do before. They are able to learn some things from the memorabilia, as they call it, but there are a lot of missing pieces, and no one person has the complete picture.

The idea of preserving written texts and materials against the onslaught of time and calamity warrants further consideration. This is a common idea in speculative fiction, including Bradbury’s Fahrenheit  451. In Leibowitz, post-holocaust humans enact a great “Simplification” in which they attempt to eradicate all knowledge and learned people in retaliation for the disaster. “Bootleggers” then become “bookleggers,” and the monks memorize books in addition to protecting them – all at the risk of their lives.