Wednesday, April 6, 2011

More on Literary Criticism and Science Fiction Genre Criticism

This continues from the material I set up in my passage on Theodor Adorno, which can be found here.

     However, as Adorno notes, aesthetic production is linked to the reworking of ideological material, linking his conception of the aesthetic to the concept of literary production of developed in the 1920’s by a small circle of literary critics surrounding Mikhail Bakhtin. The circle attempted to reject both the solipsistic interpretation of art by the formalists and the crude economic of their Marxist contemporaries. This attempt is most obvious in the critical reading of Formalism provided by Bakhtin and Medvedev, shifting the emphasis of formal analysis away from technique and formal estrangement. They note, “The literary structure, like every ideological structure, refracts the generating socioeconomic reality, and does so in its own way. But, at the same time, in its “content,” literature reflects and refracts the reflections and refractions of other ideological spheres (ethics, epistemology, political doctrines, etc.). That is, in its “content” literature reflects the whole of the ideological horizon which it is itself a part.”[1] The production of literature then is tied to both the reworking of the ideological codes of the literature that came before and within that process. It also draws on material of other ideological spheres, transforming them in the process. The engagement in this process puts literature at the ‘ideological horizon’ of its world, allowing it to engage with both the potentialities and contradictions of the transforming ideological terrain.[2]
     These concepts are further developed in the structuralist influenced criticisms of the 1960’s and 1970’s, which critically draw from the concepts of language developed by Saussure, as well as the arguments presented by Formalism. However, these critics abandon the belief in an isolated concept of art that is promoted by the formalists under the guise of autonomy. These theorists emphasize the transitory nature of genre production, emphasizing the manner in which a formation of genre coagulates to communicate to a specific audience, comes into form as a dominant form, and loses its efficacy as literary form to be replaced by other forms. Genre then takes on a normative function, a way of mapping the formation of literary norms in response to conventional and historical expectations. Form then becomes a way of exploring social formation, although in a mediated form. The author is de-centered as the first reader, and is linked into a community of readers who shape genre through social expectations.
     There are a number of limitations to this formulation that have been explored by Marxist critics in this field, which point to the ways that these readings tend to homogenize those social formations. Jameson in particular focused on this problem in his reading of structuralism and is precedents in Formalism and Saussure's semiotics in The Prison-House of Language. Jameson noted that these modes of criticism contained a common element, the tendency to emphasize the synchronic over the diachronic. These models don’t deny the diachronic per se, but they emphasize the interpretation of systems as synchronic totalities. This very quality leads to an inability to understand why things change. The conceptualization loses the ways that diachronic transformations can only be understood through the recognition that totality is constantly in motion, in constant flux. No moment can be understood as a complete totality in and of itself. To return this question to genre, the structuralist influence on genre theory leads to a tendency to ignore the contradictions, gap, lacunae and failures that are constitutive of literary works.[3] This problem becomes particularly sharp when confronting science fiction, which confronts the question of transformation over time.
     At this point, the question of science fiction as a particular genre becomes central. One of the first systematic attempts to define the genre was made by Darko Suvin in his book, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. He defines the genre with the term “cognitive estrangement,” borrowing from the term from the critical work of the formalist Viktor Shklovsky and Bertolt Brecht. The genre is defined by the Novum, or an element of novelty that is taken as a pivot for the possible transformations of the society as a whole. Suvin distinguishes science fiction from the fantastic through the legitimization of the Novum through the scientific knowledge of the period, therefore linking up the Novum the need to read it through a ‘socio-historical lens.’ For instance, the narratives to be discussed in the prospectus are haunted by catastrophe, notably the threat of nuclear war, but also the threat of biological warfare, and civil war. Suvin notably refuses the mythic reading of these narratives, focusing on their historic peculiarity, rather than reading them in the deeply structured manner as invited by critics such as Northrop Frye.[4]
     Suvin’s concept of the genre has been explored and developed by a group of sympathetic colleagues, particularly in the pages of Science Fiction Studies, and in the work of such theorists as Federic Jameson, Carl Freedman, Peter Fitting, and Tom Moylan. That work has managed to challenge some of the basic assumptions that Suvin makes about the genre, particularly the distinctions he made between the genres of science fiction and the fantastic.[5] However the most famous of that work, the work of Jameson, spends no substantial effort in exploring the feminist works that this thesis discusses, nor do the questions of social reproduction. The work of Fitting and Moylan on the other hand deal with these works in their engagement with the concept of critical utopias and dystopias from the end of the Second World War into the end of the century. Moylan’s concept of the critical utopia is particularly significant for this work. He argues that the new utopian tradition rejects the earlier tendency within the tradition to present the good, new society as a static, fully formed blueprint. Instead, these works focus on the conflict between the old dominant order, and an order to come. He also emphasizes the importance that critically rethinking gender plays in this new utopian tradition, as well as the explicitly feminist interventions in the genre.

[1] Mikhail Bakhtin, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985)
[2]   They note, “This is the reason that literature so often anticipates developments in philosophy and ethics (ideologemes), admittedly in an undeveloped, unsupported, intuitive form.  Literature is capable of penetrating into the social laboratory where these ideologemes are shaped and formed.  The artist has a keen sense for ideological problems in the process of birth and generation.” Bakhtin, Mikhail The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985

[3] See Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production.
[4] For more, read Suvin’s argument in SF and the Genological Jungle in Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 16-36 16-36.
[5] See Jameson book.  Also, Brian Attebery shows the influence of the gothic on science fiction, particularly its concepts of gender in Decoding Gender in Science Fiction.

No comments:

Post a Comment