Friday, April 8, 2011

On Delany's The Jewel Hinged Jaw, Initial Thoughts

I came across this recently, and thought I would put it up. My initial reaction to Delany's first collection of science fiction literary criticism.

Samuel Delany’s collection of essays The Jewel Hinged Jaw shows a lot of similar pressures as other science fiction criticism at the time. There is still a clear sense that the genre was not respected either in the academy nor in many mainstream literary arenas. At the same time, it is also clear that science fiction is becoming an important commodity. One can see the shifts that occur within the book itself. The initial essay discusses the commercial uptake of the genre. At that point, it was impossible to sell books labeled science fiction on the market because the distributors would just ignore them, but by the time “Shadows” comes out as an essay, that description had become outdated. This only represents one facet of what Delaney is trying to respond to. He is also involved in a complex conversation with the science fiction writing community about literary style and experimentation, a conversation about the problems with literary critics about the problems with structuralism, and with both authors and publishes about audience expectation in genre theory. In effect, he tries to juggle a lot of tasks, and it can be questioned whether he keeps all the balls up throughout.

Probably the most significant of the essays is the one entitled “Shadows”. It opens with a statement from Joanna Russ, which appears to be its purpose, an experiment in what science fiction criticism would look like. Russ argues that in order to produce science fiction criticism, the critic would have to engage a radically different set of tools in its production. This set of tools would emphasize the unusual and would bring in a whole set of interests traditionally read as extra-literary into the process. She states this in these provocative terms. “For example, allusions to the death of God will be trivial jokes, while metaphors involving the differences between telephone switchboards and radio stations will be poignantly tragic. Stories ostensibly about persons will really be about topology.” (Delany 38) Russ is, of course, referencing the modes of estrangement that operate in science fiction. She puts this estrangement in terms that would have be extremely familiar to the formalists that initially produced the concept of estrangement, which is in a manifesto form that takes on the forms of extremity and grotesqueness found in futurism.

Let’s return to Delany. He takes up these provocations and runs with them. Along with a discussion of science fiction, he introduces long conversations about structuralism and its relationship to literary criticism and anthropology, formal logic, and a series of anecdotes about Delany’s everyday life and his literary production. There are moments that it is difficult to grasp why these various fragments are put together, especially the moments of formal logic, but there seem to be a couple projects that can be drawn from the work. The first concerns the role of criticism. Delany argues against the structuralist imagination that posits their work reveals some sort of essential skeleton from the literary work. He instead argues that critical work can only allow for a partial, distanced look at the work. This response is always personal, although the best work will be methodologically rigorous. This isn’t a dismissal of criticism, and Delany makes the point of recognizing that criticism can allow for a more productive reading of the text, but it is an attack on the notion of the discipline as an objective science.[1] A second point swirls around issues of political domination. He argues that domination operates within a form of unconscious, rather than as conscious decision. He marks this in the remarks of a SF author, structuralist criticism, and later on in Ursula Leguin’s novel, The Dispossessed. The implicit argument seems to be that we can only begin to recognize these unconscious structures because the modes of resistance have put them into crisis. This has been because of the conscious decisions to reject those modes by the NSM’s. The final point might be that science fiction operates in a manner analogous to the future, by “casting a shadow over coherent areas of imaginative space that would otherwise be largely inaccessible.” (Delany 117-118)

What is to be made of this? The common point that might be drawn from these goals is that approaches to producing knowledge must remain contingent, multiple, and open to recognizing their own partiality and incompleteness. The brief even tossed of reference to the various new social movements might be an important clue to this in that they have challenged forms of knowledge production, even in older counter-systemic movements. Delany attempts to not only prove this, but perform it in his work. This leads to the modes of reflexivity that appear throughout the book as well as the various references to the tidbits of his personal life. To a certain extent, one could read Delany as a mediator between the late work of Michel Foucault and the various social movements that he is trying to understand.[2] The science fiction he examines is both a marker of these times and something that critically engages in these times.

[1] While I agree with Delany that criticism is always partial, subjective, etc, I think its important to remember that genre still acts as a disciplining an normalizing structure on what is recognized as literature (and criticism). A critic might be able to point to those forces within the work of art, which are not a ‘skeleton’ so to speak, but do mark its structural conjuncture.

[2] Foucault is, of course, not attempting to produce a history of these movements. Instead, they act as studies of the conditions that brought rise to these movements.

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