Friday, September 17, 2010

More on the Futurians

    In my earlier post on the Futurians I noted that former member Damon Knight had written a history on the group, although the work was out of print.  Well, I've gotten my hands on the book, and I've managed to read through it fairly quickly.  It's prose style is a bit of a relief compared to the rather tortured and purple prose of Sam Moskowitz's writings on the subject.  [For those who don't know Moskowitz was another notable fan from the early days of fandom, and was an adversary of the Futurians.  His book, The Immortal Storm gives his side of the narrative.  Moskowitz also wrote a couple so so books on the genre, and edited the infamous collection, When Women Rule, that was a partial inspiration for Joanna Russ' Battle of the Sexes essay.]  Knight has some sense of how to communicate to an audience, and it's a pretty quick read.  At the same time, it's a lot stranger than I had expected.  Knight brings out the unmistakably abject aspect of these social networks.  It's a narrative of illness, social awkwardness, and occasionally, abject poverty.  However, those descriptions don't really give justice to the real oddity of some of the interactions.  To give you a sense of this, early in the book, Knight reveals the following habit of one of the early organizers of fan culture, Willy Sykora,

      "The ISA had meetings in Sykora's basement, where he had a jar of ten-year-old urine that he was keeping to see what would happen to it.  He'd take it out and show it to us and say, 'Now it's ten years, eight months, and three days old.  Still looks like piss."

      When I initially reached that moment of the narrative, I stopped reading.  I wound up stalling there two or three times before I got past the point of the narrative, not because of a sense of disgust, but because of laughter and the uncanny resonance contained within the awkwardness that the story had with so many early narratives of punk.  Sykora wasn't a Futurian, and the group actually had its genesis through Sykora's expulsion of Wollheim and his friends, but the group itself was only marginally more functional than Sykora.  The narrative is full of petty conflicts, violence, contained within an aura of a profound absence of communication.  I don't mean to demean the group by saying that, on the contrary, it makes me realize the extent that early fandom fits into the sub-cultural social formations that were taken up by Dick Hebdige amongst others. Hebdige begins his analysis of subculture with a reflection on a fairly well known moment in Genet's A Thief's Journal.

      Genet writes about his arrest during a raid by the Spanish police.  A tube of vaseline was found on Genet when searched, a sign of his homosexuality.  The response of the police was derisive laughter and hostile innuendos.  Genet, too, joins in this laughter, although painfully.  But, after the incident, he most vividly remembered the tube of vaseline.  Hebdige then quotes from the text directly, "I was sure that this puny and most humble object would hold its own against them; by its mere presence it would be able to exasperate all the police in the world; it would draw down upon itself contempt, hatred, white and dumb rages."  For Hebdige's semiotic approach, the importance becomes the investment put into 'the most mundane objects.'  Subcultural formations tranform those objects into signs, 'tokens of a self-imposed exile.'  But what concerns me within my analysis is the embrace of the abject, the embrace of the contempt of the other, and the transformation of that into an alternative social formation.

      This brings me back to the text.  In an interview, Knight asks Judith Merril and Virginia Kidd what they thought of an earlier analysis produced by him, declaring the group to be 'a gallery of grotesques.'  The following response is reported by him.

     "The Futurians were a very motley crew she [Merril] said, and Virginia Kidd, who was sitting beside her in my living room, put in, "Almost everybody was callow, one way or another."
      "Callow, or extremely unattractive, or both," said Merril.  "I felt I belonged to such a group, and I think this was characteristic of everyone there, that each of us regarded ourselves as grotesque, and felt comfortable in a gathering of grotesques." (Knight 149)

      A a group, the Futurians tended to come out of the lower middle classes, with a couple notable exceptions, born into a depression that was defined by restrictions and an absence of futurity, rather than the brutal desperation felt by landless farmers and unemployed workers.  However, their relationship to the grotesque, the abject came out of a different economy, an economy of illness, fallen arches, acne, and social awkwardness.  It was a set of coordinates that put them on the margins of the society of the spectacle, of mass consumption and advertising that was just beginning to be born at the time.  I'm tempted to label the formation queer, however not in the sense that is taken up by the GLBT movement in the late 1980's, but in the sense that advertising expert Paul Nystrom uses the word.

    "There will be quizzical looks, doubtful stares and critical estimates.  He will be thought queer.  He will be judged as lacking in brain power and, perhaps, as an undesirable person.  If he persists [in violating the norms of consumption]... he will, if he is an employee, lose his job!  He will lose customers if he is a salesman; he will lose votes if he is a politician.  He will lose his custom if he is a doctor or a lawyer.  He will lose all of his friends." (Ewen 95)

      To be labelled 'queer' in this context points to the transgression of the symbolic norms of the society of mass consumption.  Those put in that position fulfill a dual purpose, to map the contours of the norm, and to simultaneously show the consequences to not fulfilling those roles.  Knight's narrative repeatedly makes gestures towards this status, through the isolation of the group, but more significantly, through the contempt from policemen.  That marginality occasionally took the form of being perceived as criminals because of their mimeographs, and a police raid because one of the male dominated households was suspected to be comprised of homosexuals.  [In this sense, the term is never free of its sexual implications, its transgression operating as a floating signifier.]  I'm not interested in claiming a status of oppression for the group, but rather I want to gesture towards its marginality, a rejection of the burgeoning consumer capitalism that went beyond their often fleeting radical politics.  Science fiction became a way of transforming the grotesque signs of commodity failure into the stylization of a genre, into a contradictory and often brutal social circle.

       The other side to that stylization was a set of aesthetic practices that often uncannily match the production process of DiY punk.  The group was committed to collective living arrangements, and set up shop in any number of houses and apartments, given names such as "The Futurian Embassy" and "The Ivory Tower."  Those houses invariably centered around the collection of books and magazines, as well as the mimeograph machine, which allowed for small scale publication.  Those publications took the totality of the world as its aesthetic space, producing diatribes, articles, stories, and poetry in response to factional battles, politics, interpersonal disputes, and often, the dishes.  The personal quarrels, descriptions of daily life, and responsibilities freely intermixed with the production and consumption of science fiction.  At the same time, this process was equally defined by arguments, insecurity, and occasionally, violence.

       Members of the group were also involved in the production process of the genre.  Frederick Pohl and Donald Wollheim in particular were involved in the recruiting of small time entrepreneurs to produce pulp magazines.  Before 1943, Knight estimates that the Futurians were the editors of about half of the pulp science fiction publications.  Out of necessity these publications generally featured the work of fellow Futurians, and that work was overwhelmingly defined by collaboration, and generally published under the guise of pseudonyms.   These practices contain the same interest in finding alternative circuits of production and circulation that came out of the punk movement, and at the same time, gesture towards the collaborative practices of the avant-garde.  (although perhaps not the same literary quality...)  For the most part, these practices were designed to bring a bit of money back to the members, but they also were a continuation of the internal practices of the group.

       These practices produced a contradictory sense of intimacy and insecurity, family and adversaries.   The group imagined itself in Janus-like terms, posing a safe and intimate inside to a hostile outside, but the group quickly replicated the division between Sykora and Wollheim with a division between Pohl and Wollheim, a division that lead to fistfights, a drunken pact on the part of Pohl and Kornbluth to murder a member of the opposite faction, and a lawsuit on the part of Wollheim, demanding the destruction of his expulsion order by the other group members.  The sexual politics of the group were also murky, defined by members' contradictory views that often contained contradictorily radical and reactionary elements to them.  The sexual relationships and the conflicts that they caused are too numerous to discuss here.  (Perhaps, I'll write a third piece on this, dealing with Merril in particular.  It might be an interesting way of thinking about her particular feminism, but Wollheim is equally interesting, if not as politically progressive.)

       The group collapsed as the various members began to find success, as the genre moved from its pulp origins to struggle to some form of respectability.  There are some practices that continue from the period into the relatively gentile nerd oriented science fiction culture of today, songs, slang, etc.  But the chasm between the two moments seems fairly large to me.  In a certain sense, it can be understood through the changing mechanisms of the dominant regimes of consumption, moving into the fragmented world of neo-liberalism from the mass production of Fordism.  It would take far too long to work through that process within any real thoughtfulness in this post.  Of this, enough.


  1. I'd like to make one comment on the essay, and I would prefer to avoid excessive revision. The depiction of Genet's fictional narrative as a sort of transparent description of events, rather than as a work of fiction, an aesthetic act, is Hebdige's and not mine. The slight awkwardness in structuring and introducing it is mine.

  2. "gentile nerd oriented science fiction!" Also, really want to live in a Futurian squat or squat called Futurian. (clean and with plumming)