Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Thoughts on the blog while on spring break

     I've spent the past week and a half trying to recover from a cold, which has led me to neglect the blog a bit.  It turns out that feeling tired and coughing up phlegm doesn't inspire occasional writing.  For the most part, I've spent my energy working on setting up the lesson plans for my students, giving those students feedback on their papers, and teaching classes.  My schedule doesn't massively overwork me, but this limited activity is all that I've been able to accomplish lately.

     However, I'm now on spring break, and am hoping to spend some more time writing for the blog.  At this point, I don't see myself covering too much political material, primarily because I haven't been very politically active lately, but also because a lot of the recent political kerfuffles haven't been very interesting.  For instance, most of the conflicts over Jacobin context has been rather dreary, and the most recent twitter battle just looks depressing.  I like the publication, but a lot of the material that has gotten coverage lately seems to be dedicated to dredging up battles that were tedious twenty years ago.  Other than that, so much of political debate seems to be negotiated through dreary clickbait pieces that don't even particularly look worth reading, let along spending any substantial time in response.  I suspect I will make an exception to write a review about publication of Stuart Hall's 1983 lectures on cultural studies, but that's more of an academic topic.  If there are some particularly interesting recent political interventions, please let me know.

      On the other hand, I have some potential ideas for topics focused on science fiction and genre fiction.  It's material that often falls on fallow ground with my small and activist oriented audience, but its a topic that I'm still interested in.  I'm planning on writing a sort of review of Nisi Shawl's Everfair.  For those who don't keep up on these matters, Shawl has produced a sort of revisionist steampunk novel.  Building off the critiques that the genre has tended to ignore the racism and imperialism that defined the era it fetishizes, Shawl has produced a novel that is set in the colonial space of the Belgian Congo.  The narrative constructs an alternative history that imagines a challenge to Leopold's colonial project in the form of an unstable alliance of Fabian socialists, African American abolitionists, and a substantial indigenous resistance.  I don't think Shawl lives up to the monumental task she sets up for herself with the project, but it's a very interesting failure and I want to write about that failure.

     In addition, I'm planning on writing about the Hugos.  I've been a part of the voting process for the past two years, which is something anyone can do if they are willing to spend forty bucks to join up, but I want to write about my process of voting this time.  My hope is that we have seen the end of the reactionary puppy campaigns to subvert the election process and that we will have a lot more interesting science fiction to read and discuss in the top nominations of the year.  I've avoided writing about the material before this year because of the tedious nonsense nominated by those campaigns, and I'm hoping we will see an end to that trend.  I'm also going to finally start writing about the Stephen King and Margaret Atwood novels that I have been reading for the past year or so.  I'm not entirely sure what I want to write about in regards to Atwood, but I really want to think about the moments that King discusses race and racism in his early novels.  (If you're interested in the topic, I recommend looking at It and Carrie in particular.)    

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Brecht's Measures Taken as an Activist Pedagogical Project

     I've been periodically thinking about a series of didactic plays written by Bertolt Brecht in the early 1930's, which are commonly grouped under the rubric of the "learning plays", for the past few years.  The learning plays were a collection of experimental theatrical works put together by Brecht and his collaborators in the late 1920's and early 1930's, designed to explore the concepts developed in his theoretical writings.  The plays were designed to break down the barrier between audience and actors, transforming the theater into a space of learning and engagement.  More specifically, I've been thinking about a play that was written for amateur workers' theatrical groups, Measures Taken.  You can see my initial thoughts about the play here.  Despite the fact that the play was explicitly written as a direct political intervention into the crisis of the Weimar Republic to be presented by workers' groups outside traditional theatrical settings, very little effort have been made to read the plays within this political context.  In a sense, it's understandable.  After all, the play itself was a failure, rejected by the structures of the German Communist Party and performed minimally. But, exploring that framework can provide a useful lens for thinking about the process of organizing, as well as the roll of organizers.

      The narrative structure of the play can be understood as an elaboration of two previously written learning plays, "He Said Yes" and "He Said No."  Each were thinly rewritten versions of classical Japanese No plays.  Both narratives were substantively the same; in each case, a journey is taken to deliver a set of documents, and in each case, the delivery of those documents is potentially put in danger by the misbehavior of one of the younger members of the party, who is injured due to this misbehavior.  The decision made on how to rectify this situation, however, radically differs.  In the first play, the individual decides to sacrifice his life in order to allow for the journey to continue, while in the second play, the individual rejects that idea, and simply proposes that the party returns to take on the journey at a different time.  While the ethical implications to each situation is radically different, each frames the ethical quandary of the play through this moment of decision, between life and death, between a strong commitment to duty and a commitment to the well being of the individuals involved in the upholding of that duty.

       However, when we turn to the narrative structure of "The Measures Taken", we a substantial transformation of the narrative.  The setting shifts from the setting of the classical No plays to the revolutionary situation in contemporary China, as defined by the crisis in the party after the destruction of the party by the Guomindang.  The play is no longer defined by a single moment of decision.  Instead, the narrative structure is stretched out, and is defined by a long series of small decisions, each of which has its consequences, but ones that are set up a new framework of choices, which themselves lead to the need for other decisions.  In each case, the figure of the young comrade makes a mistake in the process of organizing, a mistake of solving the immediate problem himself, rather than seeing the problem as an organizing opportunity, that is to say, as an opportunity to help the people involved self-organizing skills.  In each situation, the young comrade is given the opportunity to self-criticize, and in each situation, the young comrade recognizes her or his errors and commits to the revolutionary project.  The narrative ends with a moment of crisis.  Something has gone deeply wrong, and the young comrade is badly injured.  She or he insists on sacrificing herself or himself, rather than jeopardizing the project.  Indeed, its this very act of sacrifice that allows the revolution to go forward, and the committee members reporting back note that it was a contribution that the party had not expected.

      However, to fully understand the implications of the play we need to move beyond the simple structure of the narrative and to take a little bit of time to discuss some of the basic framework of the performance of the play itself.  Designed for street and other contingent modes of performance, the play requires minimal set work.  One could go farther and argue that the play is designed for very small groups, for political discussion groups, for educational groups, etc.  Rather than imagining the theatrical experience as spectacle, the play is designed for the actors and the audience to discuss the play, for the play to be an educational experience for all involved.  More significantly, the cast, who are in masks, rotate roles in the play, which means that every individual, at some point takes on the role of the young comrade.  In effect, the play asks each of the actors, who is most likely an activist or organizer herself or himself to reflect on a moment of failure, of a moment in which she or he caused the failure of an aspect of a project through a set of mistaken actions.  Moreover, it implicitly recognizes that any organizing project is going to be littered with these moments of failure.  The difference between the failed project and the successful project, at least the difference that can be controlled, is not the lack of failure, but the recognition and acceptance of that failure, and the commitment to develop new practices from those inevitable moments of failure.

     The play, in effect, becomes a meditation on the experience of failure and the mechanisms to learn from that failure and change, rather than slipping into despair or into defensiveness.  By doing so, it marks failure as a normal part of organizing, as something that must be dealt with and moved beyond.  Additionally, there will be many occasions when those failures were caused by the fairly ordinary mistakes made by the organizers and activists involved in the project.  But, perhaps more significantly, the play forces its participants and small audience to recognize that there is going to be a moment where they are the young comrade, that is, where a small or large error they made translated into a moment of defeat for the project.  It attempts to deflate the impact of that experience, to create the conditions in which that individual can recognize that error and attempt to make amends.  It's a process that I believe we rather desperately need within the structures of subcultural activism that I had been a part of for a number of years, which is ironic, because we fail so often, at so many levels.  But we lack the structural mechanisms to engage with that failure, to make its experience ordinary, to neutralize the trauma involved in it to allow for reflection.  I'm not sure how to do it, perhaps a return to this theatrical experimentation would provide a framework for thinking about the process.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

A Short Review of The Merril Theory of Lit'ry Criticism

     The Merril Theory of Lit'ry Criticism is the fourth book in a recent series published by the feminist science fiction publishers, Aqueduct Press. The series reprints forgotten authors and out of print works by significant writers within the genre. So far, the selections made by the publishers have been fairly interesting, and this edition isn't an exception.  Judith Merril's contributions to the genre of science fiction both as an author and as a critic has received some recognition in the past decade, but her critical work has remained out of print until this publication.  Rather than being contained in a single collection, that work is spread over a series of small publications, anthologies, and other ephemera produced by the subculture of science fiction. The book rectifies this situation and is a collection of Judith Merril's reviews, introductions to anthologies, commentaries on the genre, and investigations in the work of individual authors.  The book cannot cover all of the material produced by Merril in the 1950's and 1960's, but Aqueduct offers an ebook version of the text, along with the paper copy of the text, that completes the collection.

     The material is fascinating if you already have an interest in the work of Merril, the history of the genre during the time period, or the early history of science fiction criticism.  The book provides a good sense of her approach to the genre, and provides some fairly interesting critical readings of work within the genre, for instance her reading of Dune. There is also a lot of interesting, if fragmented, commentary on the business side of the genre, discussing its commercial prospects, and the shifting nature of the science fiction publishing business. The two longer commentaries on the genre of science fiction are probably the most in depth engagements with the structures of the genre, but one gets a pretty good sense of her views in the columns, reviews, and anthology introductions. Just as significantly, the collection of articles is an excellent companion to the work of Damon Knight, James Blish, and the more recently republished reviews and essays of Joanna Russ in its contribution to understanding the early attempts of genre criticism, which was focused on a efforts to improve the genre, rather than attempting understand its basic structures.

     However, that material tends to make the book fairly esoteric reading. The critical material, while interesting, largely engages with a series of texts that have been largely forgotten by all but a small group of fans of the genre.  The material from the anthologies is interesting, but makes more sense within the context of the anthologies, which are fairly easy to find used copies, rather inexpensively. None of these issues should be of much concern if you are interested in Merril or the history of the genre, because the book provides a fun look at that history, and I recommend picking it up.  The materials add up to produce an interesting an unique perspective on the genre, produced by someone at the center of its artistic production, combining aesthetic and business concerns.  On the other hand, if you're looking to the collection to get an introduction to the work of Merril, I wouldn't recommend this book. Instead, I would recommend starting with a collection of her short stories or her novel, Shadow on the Hearth

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Reflection on what I learned from the Campaign against sanctions in Iraq

            Two relatively minor events marked the height of the campaign against the sanctions in Iraq in the 1990’s, a disruption of a televised town hall meeting in Ohio held by members of the Clinton administration and the disruption of a speech by UN ambassador Bill Richardson at the University of Minnesota.  The actions sank the impending plans on the part of the Clinton administration to increase the aerial assault on Iraq and possibly introduce troops on the ground, but did little to challenge the sanctions themselves and their destructive effects on Iraqi society.  Moreover, the small impact of the campaign disappeared with the election of the Bush administration in 2000 and the transformation of the destructive sanctions campaign into an even more destructive invasion of the country.  The campaign had very little impact and disappeared into the mists of time.  Unlike the protests around prisons or the anti-globalization campaigns that arose around the same time, it has very little impact on either the political imaginary of radical politics or much to do with the tactical or strategic aims of the formations that define that politics.

            However, it was my first sustained entry into political activism, and has had a deep influence on my understanding of politics in this country.  In the early 90’s, the Bush administration was driven out of office by the Clinton administration, who promised a much more domestic focused national policy, and the situation in Iraq had been largely forgotten by public institutions, but the Clinton administration continued and in some cases even expanded the sanctions on Iraq started just before the Iraq war.  The sanctions covered anything with a conceivable military use, and therefore covered many of the necessary equipment needed to rebuild the war-torn country, and even affected items such as pencils and materials needed to clean and purify water.  The results on the country were devastating, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.  Those deaths received only minor attention from the press and were of a concern of only a small number of activists.  Some officials from the UN protested the effects of the sanctions, but there was no opposition to the policies from Democratic politicians, even those who had opposed the war in 1991 or those who opposed the later invasion.

Although I would not want to dismiss the lessons in organizing that I learned from my fellow activists in the Progressive Student Organization, I think that seeing the collusion of the Democratic Party, even its left wing was the most significant lesson I learned from the campaign.  Because the campaign was directed against the actions of a relatively popular Democratic administration, it removed the illusions that the dominant system could offer a way out of the situation.  Just as significantly, I entered the practices of activism not in response to a state of emergency or a crisis of governance in the country, but in response to the immense violence that the United States government was capable of in ordinary times.  The United States government actively aided and abetted the death of hundreds of thousands and virtually destroyed a generation of Iraqis as a matter of every day policy, policy that was embraced by both parties and had no substantive official opposition. It operated in full legality, and was not the product of a subversion of either the constitution or ordinary forms of governance.  It was an ordinary form of that governance. 

The campaign itself lacked the enormous rallies that defined the two anti-war movements that bookended it.  The largest rallies involved hundreds, rather than thousands and lot of the events were small and often frigid affairs in front of the federal building.  Most of the work was rather thankless and was responded to by the larger public with indifference, contempt, and occasionally, hostility.  By the time we disrupted the speech of Bill Richardson, the core of the activists involved in the action had been to dozens of often small and ignored actions that preceded it.  Richardson represented a face of the awful activities that we had protested and attempted to educate the public about, and he had that anger directed at him in an hour-long event where he was unable to say anything more than a few syllables.  However, that brief triumphant moment was unique in our work, which was hidden from public view.  That work made me see the daily work of activism in non-spectacular terms, building small campaigns that often had very little in terms of immediate results or gratification, but were still attempting to challenge important issues. 

In this sense, I feel that my experience in this campaign put me in a far better position to understand the politics of the country than many of my counterparts who entered activism through the 2003 anti-war movement, a movement that was dismantled by the illusion that the Democratic Party was the answer.  This is not too say that the campaign was not without flaws.  Using a somewhat dated understanding of anti-imperialism, our organizations were far too reticent to acknowledge the real flaws of the Iraqi regime. At the time, I was deeply critical of this error, and it contributed to my participation in the huge and, retrospectively, somewhat mistaken factional fight that undermined the PSO in the mid-nineties.  But looking back, I don’t think that this error had any real substantive impact on the efficacy of the campaign.  Instead, we probably accomplished all that we could have accomplished within those structural limitations. Our ability to move beyond those limited accomplishments would have required actions and events that were substantially outside of our control.

It’s also a forgotten moment that is worth remembering at this moment.  We’re continually being told that the oppressive and destructive actions of the Trump administration are truly exceptional. It is challenging the constitutional limitations put upon it in a variety of ways, and is actively allied to fascist elements in a way that our government has not done for over a half a century.    In many ways, I don’t disagree with that assessment, but we also shouldn’t ignore the very unexceptional forms of violence that occur within the very ordinary governance of this country, a country that is desperately holding onto its position at the center of the capitalist world system, a system built on systemic dispossession and the theft and exploitation of labor. We shouldn’t allow the extraordinary actions of Trump to slip in the kinds of erasure that we saw with the anti-war movement, and we shouldn’t accept the current nostalgia for the immensely destructive Clinton administration.  (This essay doesn’t touch on this, but in many ways this narrative of exceptionalism is also challenged by the thread of white supremacy that defines our country’s history, which structures that dispossessio, theft, and exploitation.)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Notes on looking at activism from the outside....

The last three years of my life have been the first time that I have been without some sort of substantial, collective project for some time in my life.  From my exodus from high school, I've been tied into one of any number of political projects, from helping out at the Emma Center, helping organize protests against the sanctions in Iraq, protesting globalization, participating in the Arise collective, to being a part of Anti-Racist Action.  When I first got to Irvine, California, I was not that politically involved, but grad school was its own collective endeavor, and a few years after, I got involved in first the protests against the fee increases in defense of a public education and later got involved in the efforts to reform our graduate student union.  Through that process, I defined myself within these projects, far more than I defined myself professionally and academically.  We succeeded and failed together.  Even when those groups drove me up a wall, and those points when I drove my comrades up a wall, I defined myself collectively.  I am not currently in such a deliberate community.

This isn't to say that I'm completely caught in a holding pattern. I'm looking for a job, but that largely involves filling out variations on the same form letters, revising them to show how you fit the arbitrary criteria of the job.  In addition, I've also been trying to get my work published, but that's largely the same process, taking material from my dissertation and shaping it into article form.  More significantly, both projects are focused on me as an individual and don't involve a lot of social engagement.  Don't get me wrong.  I've gotten a lot of help from my committee and a number of friends and colleagues in that process, but that help has come over disparate emails, and has been directed towards my own individual goals.  Even if I were a part of some sort of writing group, the goals would not be collective, the rewards or consequences would go to the individual members and not the group.  I'm at a point where I am relatively financially stable, but that stability has no security and I see at least one of my jobs potentially disappearing at the end of the school year.   Within this context, I need to keep on this individualistic trajectory to put myself in a position to get some sort of dependable employment, keeping those goals as a focus. 

To be clear, I'm not meaning to write this with the sense of alienation and frustration that I did a couple years ago.  I'm not burnt out, and despite my frustrations with the disciplinary structures of academic life, I still find the work itself interesting, even if I'm not terribly interested in the trends of that life.  Instead, I find myself in a curious position, looking from the outside in at a flurry of political organization.  I've participated in some of the protests, notably the Women's March and some of the smaller actions, but I haven't organized those events.  I haven't been in that space of anxiety about whether we would succeed or not in our plans and I haven't been within the after parties of such actions, chewing over the successes and defeats of the day.  I miss those spaces even if I don't always miss the strife and conflict that often accompanies them.  To perhaps illustrate the difference, I made the point of stopping by a protest at the flagpoles of University of California, Irvine, the traditional space for protests at the university.  Because of work, I got there after the protest had completed.  There were a few signs remaining and groups of the organizers clustered together, chatting over daily life and the event.  I thought I would see if there was anyone I knew, but the faces were entirely new to me.  Life had moved on.  No doubt, this is a positive thing at an organizing level, meaning that organizing life continued at the university, but it also forced me to recognize the end of a world that I was a part of.

In any case, I'm slipping into the maudlin tedium that I had stated I was going to avoid.  The more significant point is that I've gone from a contributor to the political projects of the the students of the university to an occasional participant in an assorted group of political protests.  It's strange to look at those actions from this vantage angle, one that sees the results, but not the processes.  I'm not sure if I've gained something in this loss, but it's probably the position that is going to define my near future.  I still have some interest in getting involved in some of the Critical Resistance work, but Los Angeles is a lot farther than the forty five miles would indicate, and the Irvine political community outside of the university doesn't seem that interesting.  I'm too disconnected from the Irvine Valley College campus to really get involved, and the other campus that I work at is too small and insulated to really imagined becoming involved.  Perhaps what makes this so strange is that there is so much to do at this moment, which is not new, and there seems to be a lot of people looking to contribute to that work.  This, more than anything else, makes the present moment feel so odd.  There seems to be so much potential, but I've forestalled some of the necessities of life so long that I can't really forestall them anymore to put the work in to rejoining the process.  It's far, far more my loss than the movement's, but it seems like a necessity now.  Hopefully, this will not be the case in the future.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Message, Politics, and Form: Debates in Science Fiction

            This essay was published on my most recent failed blog project, and I thought I would reprint it here with some minor revisions.  I thought it was one of the better things I wrote for the project, but it didn't get a lot of attention, so I thought I would see if it got more attention over here.  The essay opens with the now close to defunct debate over the Hugo Awards, but it uses the controversy to explore the nature of science fiction through a discussion of the concept of message fiction.  Rather than simply taking a side on the debate, the essay both rejects the concept of messages a good way to understand science fiction and argues that politics are inherent to the genre at a formal level.  It does so by drawing from the critical work of Samuel Delany and Darko Suvin, and their understanding of the genre.  In any case, here is the essay....

            In the past few months, I have been fairly faithfully following the controversies surrounding the Hugo Awards, which was created by the expansion of what is called the Sad Puppies slate, along with the creation of a mirroring, Rabid Puppies slate.  Rather than getting into the details of that fairly baroque debate, I thought I would focus on one small rhetorical feature of the conversation.  Throughout the debate, the puppies have focused on condemning something called ‘message fiction’, which they define as the imposition of the political on the form of science fiction.  In response, the critics of the puppies tend to make two arguments, either noting the ‘messages’ or political aspects of the puppies texts, or arguing that all texts have a message, or political dimensions to them.  Not surprisingly, my views are far closer to the critics of the puppies, but they make a common mistake, collapsing the broader implications of the political into the narrower framework of message, which doesn’t necessarily operate within political terms.  I plan on showing the distinction between message and politics, and then use the literary criticism of Samuel Delany to examine how the political dimension of science fiction is better understood as a formal dimension of the genre.

            The concept of message fiction is probably most easily understandable by referring to its earlier antecedents, notably morality tales, fables, and folk tales.  These stories are explicitly constructed to pass on a lesson, which can often be expressed in sentence or two.  These lessons might express an abstract concept such as the golden rule, or may express the far more concrete danger of wandering alone, away from home, in the dead of winter.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this form of literary construction, and, indeed, it is a far older form of literary creation, and deeply contributes to all forms of literature.  However, the authors were far less concerned with literary form and quality, which was in service of the lesson. Not surprisingly, the structure of this traditional approach is most easily found in pedagogical literature produced for either children or adolescents.  We might reference Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, or the Canadian television series, Degrassi Junior High, as examples of this sort of ‘message fiction,’ along with a great deal of religious fiction.  It’s significant to note that we are far away from the narrative structures of science fiction, when we discuss is sort of literature, and that while this form of pedagogical fiction has political implications, it rarely is intended to act as a political intervention.  However, another subsection of ‘message fiction’, which might be called polemical fiction, interventions into the events of the day, can be constructed with explicitly political purposes in mind, and utilize science fictional narrative structures.

           However, the politics of science fiction and other dominant literary forms takes a distinctively different approach than the messages discussed above.  That politics can be found in the explicit and implicit background assumptions of the writer that are embedded in the narrative form of the story.  They are produced in the effort to create a sense of ‘reality’ that constitutes the background of the story, and the norms and expectations of the characters interact within social institutions.  Indeed, even within the polemical fiction discussed above, the story is judged far more on its ability to engage an audience on these formal questions.  Perhaps, this argument is better explained through a concrete example.  A recent debate has opened up around conservative John C. Wright’s nostalgic invocation of the literary trope of the ‘princess in distress,’ which he marks as part of the origins of the genre, before the accursed introduction of political messages.  A critic argued that this trope itself constituted a message, a political dimension to the text.  At a larger and more substantial level, I’m largely in agreement with this critic.  The ability to imagine women as only in need of rescue has a disturbing and deeply hierarchical implication to it.  But, it isn’t a message.  Instead, it’s a narrative convention, created to engage with a set of audience expectations to produce a sense of enjoyment.  Its political implications are embedded in a set of common assumptions about the role of women in a society and about what it means to be feminine. 
          All fiction, whether escapist or engaged, fantastic or realistic, focused on a past or a future, engages in this unmistakably political process through their construction of a world that is both recognized and enjoyed by an audience.  In his effort to define the genre of science fiction in his essay, “About 5,750 Words”, author and critic, Samuel R. Delany understands this process through the concept of ‘subjunctivity,’ which he draws from an engagement with the linguistic theorist, Ferdinand Saussure.  Delany notes, “Subjunctivity is the tension on the thread of meaning that runs between (to borrow Saussure’s term for ‘word’:) sound-image and sound-image.”  (Delany 10)  To break that fairly opaque statement open, Delany is noting that narrative is constructed by a string of words being joined together to produce a narrative.  The subjunctivity of a piece is defined by the relationship of that narrative to its relationship to the world of the author.  Reportage is defined the “blanket indicative tension… this happened,” while  naturalistic fiction is defined by “could have happened,” fantasy is defined by “could not have happened”, and  science fiction is defined by “have not happened.” (Delany 10-11)  Within this series of generic descriptions, Delany shifts from the narrative conventions of ‘reportage’, which must correspond with the facts of the empirical world, to a variety of fictional narrative structures, which produce worlds that critically engage with that world through a variety of rules sets, which define what can and not occur within that world.

            In every case, the author has to make a series of critical interventions about what the world is, and how will their fictional world engage with those expectations.  Science fiction attempts to largely imagine what might be called ‘potential worlds’, worlds that could exist, but do not, whether in the form of a future to come, an alternative present, or a past that never occurred.  In each case, we break away from the ideological horizons of the present to imagine a different, and even alien society that could exist.  At the same time, the author has to produce that alternative with a meaningful engagement with the available natural and social sciences, history, and critical theory.  The ‘have not happened’ has to be plausible within the knowledge of its time, and it has to show that plausibility through its narrative structures.  It therefore has to engage with the question of politics, amongst other questions.  Delany stresses these demands on the genre in his lengthy critical investigation of Ursula Leguin’s Utopian novel, The Dispossessed,

Mundane fiction can get by with a clear and accurate portrayal of behavior that occurs merely because it occurs.  Science fiction can not.  In an alien culture—both Anarres and Urras are alien cultures—we are obliged to speculate on the reason behind any given behavior; and this speculation, whether implicit or explicit, must leave its signs in the text.  The scenes and paragraphs are signs of limitations on the social egalitarianism of Anarres; they are not sighs for the causes of those limitations.
            Nothing prevents an SF writer from writing a story about an intelligent species in which adolescent male bonding behavior is imprinted on the genes.  (The species might biologically and genetically bear a resemblance to birds, who exhibit much complex behavior that may well be genetically controlled.)  Similarly, nothing prevents the SF writer from writing about an intelligent species in which such behavior is completely the product of intrasocial forces.  Indeed, the writer if she chooses can write about a species in which the reason switches back and forth according to the changes in the moon.
            What we must remember, however, is that once mundane fiction has accomplished its portrait of behavior at some historical moment, from the here and now to the distant past, if we ask of it: “But what do you think the surrounding cause are?” mundane fiction can answer, without fear that it is shirking its job, “Frankly, I don’t know.  It’s not my concern.” But because science fiction is not constrained to answer such a question “correctly,” within its generic precincts, the “I don’t know. It’s not my concern” of mundane fiction not only becomes self-righteous and pompous, it signifies a violation of the form itself.   Science fiction may ultimately end with an “I don’t know” about any given point, but only after a good deal of speculation, either implicit or explicit, has left its signs in the text. (Delany 128-129) 

            Delany opens his engagement with the genre by contrasting its narrative horizons with that of ‘mundane’ or what he may have earlier called ‘naturalistic fiction.’  The latter can simply represent the world ‘as it is.’  It need not explain why a social phenomenon exists; it merely has to exist to be represented.  However, science fiction has to live up to a much higher standard, due to its speculative nature.  Delany goes on to show how open ended this process can be, allowing for the imagination of radically different worlds, with structures of gender and sexuality that have radically different biological and social explanation.  However, the author produces the rules for the universe of the novel, and therefore must be able to show either the natural or social rules for such a world, in either an ‘implicit or explicit’ manner.  Anarres fails, Delany argues, not because it represent inequality, but because it fails to offer an explanation for that inequality.  It naturalizes the social expectations of the present, and therefore fails in its obligations as a science fiction novel.  In effect, the science fiction novel demands a sort of political engagement with why its social structures work the way they do, even if that explanation imagines an alternative biological structure.  To draw on the work of Darko Suvin, science fiction "does not ask about The Man or The World, but which man?: in what kind of world?: and why such a man in such a kind of world?" (Suvin, "Estrangement and Cognition", 2.1)

            It should be noted that the political engagement that Samuel Delany demands has no partisan markers.  It doesn’t demand that the author be a radical or a conservative, commit to the views of a particular party, or even understand the social structures of the present in the same way.  It simply demands that the world that is represented has some sort of explanation of how its culture came to operate in the way it does in the book, either in an implicit or explicit fashion.   It’s why radical critics are more than happy to recognize that novels such as Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Keith Roberts’s Pavane, and Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun series are great science fiction novels.  They produce richly imagined worlds, with complex social and political structures that are formal political engagement with the present through those author’s conservative political framework.  They ask substantial political questions that are worth following in the narrative form, even if you profoundly disagree with the answers.  To use the language of Darko Suvin, science fiction is a literature of cognitive estrangement, which means it’s a literature of critique, in its richest and most open ended sense.

Friday, January 27, 2017

No Nostalgia for George W Bush: A Critique through Wendy Brown's Regulating Aversion

     One of the curious by products of the election of Donald Trump as president has been a sort of reevaluation of the presidency of George W. Bush.  A lot of this work has occurred through comical memes with slogans such as, "I bet you never thought that you would miss me!"  Not surprisingly, these forms of comical expression are not simplistic in their expression.  They are not precisely endorsements of the former president, but they seem to express the notion that somehow the very real problems of the past may be preferable to the present.  On one hand, I think this sentiment operates through a sort of forgetting, a forgetting of the violence associated with the war, of the sorts of repression that defined the era, but at the same time, perhaps they are right to see the present as containing a greater, fascist threat.  At the same time, this sentiment has taken a more serious form in a nostalgia for the kinds of tolerance that were expressed by Bush just days after the destruction of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.  This sentiment posits a greater feeling of genuine humanitarian sentiment on the part of Bush expressed through this desire for tolerance.  It's also the sentiment that I believe drives the earlier comedic statements.  It's precisely this nostalgia that I want to challenge, and I plan on drawing on Wendy Brown's analysis of Bush's invocation of tolerance in her 2006 text, Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire.
      In her engagement with Bush's invocation of the concept of tolerance, Brown registers her critique at two levels: the tension between the call for tolerance and the brutal nature of the war, and at the same time, the contradictory nature of the call for tolerance of Muslim citizens, who were to be at the same time embraced as fellow citizens and closely monitored as threats.  She opens this by noting, "But while Bush continuously urged citizen regard for the rich diversity of the American population, while he preached respect and tolerance as model citizen behavior, this was hardly the state's bearing either in prosecuting the war in Afghanistan or in "fighting terrorism" on the domestic front.  Even as the populace was suborned to civility and tolerance, state practice was immediately and flagrantly extralegal, violent, race-conscious, and religion-conscious." (Brown 100)  Brown notes that these polices could be seen in the interrogation of thousands in their homes, the intense forms of surveillance allowed for in the Patriot Act that also circumvented "judicial powers that protect civil liberties." (Brown 100-101) More dramatically, the Bush administration sanctioned the torture of detained prisoners at Abu Ghraib and in domestic custody.  The administration also refused to recognize the rights granted to prisoners under the Geneva Conventions.  In effect, as Brown points out, the calls for tolerance on the part of its citizens went hand in hand with "The state's own vigilantism, violence, and racial profiling, at home and abroad." (Brown 101)

     Perhaps more significantly, Brown maps out a profound gap between the call for tolerance and the call for citizen vigilance.  As she notes, "But in addition to mutual respect and tolerance, and the newfound patriotism of shopping, the state hailed its subjects in yet another way in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, one that seems at odds with the above analysis.  In the domestic war against terrorism, Americans were asked to become the "eyes and ears of the government," and to heighten vigilance about strange people and strange behaviors: we were to be wary of mail we didn't recognize, people we didn't know, actions that seemed out of place.  This need for wariness, of course, justified racial profiling undertaken by the citizenry--for example, suspiciousness toward an Arab man sitting in an office reception with a package on his lap or towards a "foreigner" on a airplane who was nervous and fidgety.  Indeed, such "intolerant perspectives" were not only justified, but patriotic, insofar as they constituted the suspicious citizen as member of a citizen militia in the war on terrorism.  Patriotic, too, as the very name of the congressional act licensing it indicates, was the embrace of curtailed civil liberties and thus our tolerance of curtailed civil liberties and thus our tolerance of racial profiling in airport security stations, reductions or loss of access to public buildings, searches and seizures without warrants, detainments without cause and without Miranda rights, wiretaps on phone conversations, surveillance of book buying and library habits, and the interception of mail between prison inmates and their lawyers.  In this interpellation, we are no longer distant and passive subjects of the state but rather its agents and mirror image, appendages of a nonliberal raison d'etat." (Brown 102-103)

     Brown then uses this rather lengthy engagement with the practices of the Bush administration to analyze the nature of the contemporary nation-state, but I want to linger on the concrete practices of the administration itself.  As Brown notes, the administration both demands that the populace of the United States both embrace and observe these 'strangers' among us.  Perhaps more significantly, as she notes, the passive embrace of a kind of forbearance of vigilante violence was opposed to the entrance of the citizen (to be sure, coded white) into a kind of grid of intelligibility that demanded that the citizen channel those energies into the active surveillance of those marked as "foreign and hostile."  In effect, just as the administration asked for a set of practices that would allow for "tolerance and inclusion," it created the mechanisms to create the very opposite behavior.  More significantly, these forms of racially coded surveillance seeped into the pores of daily life, profoundly transforming the ways we engaged in public space with the injunction that "if you see something, say something."  'We' were disciplined through these acts of being watched, searched, and searching ourselves.  Within this context, rather than seeing George W. Bush and Donald Trump as expressing radically different value systems, we should see the rise of Donald Trump as a product of the very contradictory set of injunctions placed on us by the Bush administration, between the need to tolerate and the need racially profile as an agent of the state. 

      Trump openly embraces the racialized citizenry already implicitly embedded in the practices enacted by Bush administration. He draws off the forms of knowledge and power produced through the calls for surveillance on the part of that administration, the experts that arose to explain the "Muslim mind" and the kinds of anti-Muslim organizing authorized by those calls.  By drawing from that paralegal structure, he actively played and plays on the tensions between the injunction to 'tolerate' and the more powerful injunction to monitor.  In doing so, he presents himself as the sole escape from this agonizing tension.  But the Bush administration created the conditions for this setting, and he shouldn't be allowed to dodge this responsibility.