Saturday, January 14, 2012

An extended reading of Delany's Trouble on Triton (early draft)

            Joanna Russ both links Delany’s Triton with the creation of the set of feminist utopias and distinguishes it from them due to “an implicit level of freedom that allows him to turn his attention subtly by persistently away from many of the questions that occupy the other writers.”[1]  Russ notes that this freedom allows for Delany to explore a more complex conception of sexuality than the ones found in the other novels, focusing on a multiplicity of sexualities, rather than the simple avoidance of coercion and exploitation, as well as a complete break from the utopian form, shifting from Le Guin’s “ambiguous utopia” to the construction of Triton as an “ambiguous heterotopia.”  Russ argues that the shift in politics is linked to the relatively privileged position that Delany holds as a man, but without dismissing that position entirely, the reading misses out on the impact that Delany’s engagement with critical theory and the gay liberation movement had on the novel.  That engagement leads to a formal shift in Delany’s writing, a shift that simultaneously is committed to the linguistic effects produced through science fiction as a genre as well as transforming   It can be seen as a competing interpretation of the rise of the new left offered by the ambiguous utopia offered by Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, instead looking to the multiplicity of the new movements that arose under its label, the confusion and tumult created by them, as well as marking a politics of conservative backlash, defined by a resentful anger because of the destruction of a structure of symbolic familiarity.

            Delany’s critical work contained in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw provides an excellent beginning point for this engagement, intersecting with the with the earlier utopian work of Leguin, Russ, and others, as well as intersecting with Triton through a set of philosophical speculations contained in the criticism and the novel.  Written two months after the publication of Trouble on Triton, the critical reading of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, while often ungenerous points to the concerns that Delaney had about the construction of science fiction narratives, particularly around questions of sexuality, but also around the science of the narrative and the plausibility of several of the characters.  However, beyonde any particular engagement with Le Guin’s work Delany offers insite into the formal and political concerns that were in play during the production of his novel, Trouble on Triton.  The essay then becomes a critique of the limitations of contemporary science fiction, and by extension, it gestures towards the intervention Delany was attempting to make with the publication of the novel.  Within this context,  my intention is to read the two together as a combined project, critically rejecting the utopia as the privileged narrative for exploring radical politics.  Instead, heterotopia becomes the possibility for an open and constitutive politics.

           The Jewel-Hinged Jaw was Delany’s first sustained polemical and theoretical engagement with the genre of science fiction.  Written between the years 1966 and 1976, Delany produced a series of often harshly critical readings of critics and novelists.  The essays inhabit a curious transitional position with the body of criticism around the genre, standing between a set of critical texts produced by Judith Merril, Damon Knight, and others, primarily to legitimate the genre literarily, and to create standards to allow for that legitimation and the more formal modes of literary criticism inaugerated by the work of Darko Suvin  and the journal of Science Fiction Studies.  The essays oscillate between criticism of bad art and dismissive criticism within the genre and sustained engagements with the formal language of the history of the genre as well as particular works.

The relationship between the novel and the essays contained within The Jewel-Hinged Jaw go beyond a simple publication date.  The publications shared a number of similar citation, focusing on a number of philosophers of language, including Wittgenstein and Quine.  More significantly, there are small fragments of the novel contained within the pages of the essay.  In addition, the two texts deliberately operate interstitially, generically.  The Jewel-Hinged Jaw deliberately introduces a set of fictional narratives within its analysis of literary form, while Trouble on Triton introduces philosophy, critical theory, and literary analysis into the fictional narrative.  The two publications gesture towards a shift in Delany’s literary production, a shift from a set of more conventional science fiction narratives into a set of narratives that deliberately synthesize Delany’s fictional interests with his academic interests in structuralist and post-structuralist critical theory.

            In a short fictional philosophical lecture offered as a post-script to the narrative, Delany explicitly brings in Foucault’s concept of heterotopia, a concept explicitly contrasted with the utopian form.  That excerpt allows for a productive engagement with the critique of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed

Utopias afford consolation: although they have no real locality there is nevertheless a fantastic untroubled region in which they are able to unfold; they open up cities with vast avenues, superbly planted gardens, countries where life is easy, even though the road to them is chimerical.  Heterotopias are disturbing, probably because they make it impossible to name this and that, because they shatter or tangle common names, because they shatter “syntax in advance, and not only the syntax which causes words and things (next to and also opposite one another to “hold together.”  This is why utopias permit fables and discourse: they run with the very grain of language and are part of the fundamental fabula; heterotopias… desiccate speech, stop words in their tracks, contest the very possibility of grammar at its source; they dissolve our myths and sterilize the lyricism of our sentences.”[2]

            To turn to the language of Foucault, Le Guin’s usage of the utopian form transforms the tumult of the new left into the consolation of the utopian form, a form that turns the tumult of those varieties of movements into something familiar and organized, something that no longer challenges our social symbolic, the syntax of our language.  For Delany, the familiarity of the utopian narrative allows for a set of symbolic assumptions about social reproduction to be smuggled in the back door, about the socialization of boys and girls, about sexuality, and about the inability of the text to seriously incorporate queer sexualities into the social symbolic of the world of Annares.  He repeatedly opposes this comfortable fictional narrative with a number of anecdotes, bringing in narratives about media and protest, a white colleague’s inability to see Blacks in Johannesburg, science studies, and his experience in an informal collective of gay fathers.  Each gesture towards a complexity erased in the familiar language of Le Guin’s narrative, which Delany reads within the realist tradition of 19th century fiction, including socialist realism, and its inability to recognize the mediating impact of the mass media, the social structures of scientific knowledge production, and the proliferation in alternative forms of family life created by gay liberation and feminism.
         For Delany, these limitations are always linked to formal concerns.  His primary concern is framed early in the essay.

“We feel we can make valuating assumptions of reference and resolution in this particular examination because this particular novel—The Dispossessed—demands them: All in the book that asks us to take it as a novel ideas also asks us to hold the novel up, however sensitively, intelligently, and at the proper angle, to the real.”

            Holding up the novel to the standards of the real may initially sound like a call for some sort of versimilitude, but for Delany the relation to the real is intimately linked to form.  Within this context, Delany’s call for an engagement with the real has a strong relationship to what Roland Barthes calls the reality effect, descriptive practices that do not contribute to the advancement of the narrative, but allow for the ‘real to slip ‘back in as a signified of connotation,’ gesturing towards the complex and fragmentary nature of reality, and the expulsion of the signified from the narrative process.  For Delany, the failures in Leguin’s text can be linked to to the text’s fidelity to a set of literary practices of the 19th century, particularly in the text’s representation of labor and protest.  He poses the creation of a new language of prose as an alternative project.  He notes,  “We are not talking about what is lost in the translation of from the language of another time or place.  We are talking about what is gained by writing in our own.” (Delany 225) 

           The creation of that alternative literary from is tied into the ways that sign structures of science fiction differ from mundane fiction.  Delany argues that mundane fiction makes the demand of description of its prose, whereas science fiction has additional analytical demands placed on it.  He notes,

            “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—and both Annares and Urras are alien cultures—we are obliged to speculate on the reason behind any given behavior; and in this speculation, whether implicit or explicit, must leave its signs in the text.  The scenes and paragraphs cited are signs of the limitations on the social egaitarianism of Annares; they are not signs for the causes of those limitations….  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.”

            Science fiction is put in the position of having to examine and question the reasoning behind the behavior and social structures contained in its narratives.  The reader must be put in the position of engaging with the structures of the imagined society at the analytical level, rather than simply at the descriptive level.  We can think of this process within the terms introduced by science fiction critic, Darko Suvin, who argued that the genre should be understood as engaging in a process of ‘cognitive estrangement.’  The genre both estranged the reader from the social, political, and cultural expectations of a society through presenting an alternative future that was possible given changes in technology and social forms.  It allows for the reader to recognize the contingency of the zero world of the reader through the presentation of a potential futurity.

            However, Delany’s analysis of this effect engaged with it at the level of language, rather than at the narrative level.  In the theoretical section of the text, he makes the following argument.

 “In  simple sense, what science fiction does—at the level of coined science-fictional term…, at the level of the specifically science-fictional sentence (e.g., Robert Heinlein’s “The door dilated.”), and at the level of the uniquely science-fictional plot—is to take recognizable syntagms and substitute in them, here and there, signifiers from a till then wholly unexpected paradigm.  The occurance of unusual, if not downright opaque, signifiers in the syntagm focuses our attention on the structures implied…, whether internal, external, implicit or explicit to any given signifier… in a given text.”

Rather than focusing on the process of ostramie, or distancing, Delany focuses on the ways that the introduction of new, alien words lead to a transformation of the structure of language at the level of the word, the sentence, and beyond.  He draws on Lacan’s interpretation of the signifier, emphasizing the transformation of the entire web of signifiers through the new signifier.  The science-fictional effect is similar to the reality effect discussed by Barthes.  It operates through a set of language effects that operate at the level of the signifier, while operating in excess of any narrative logic.  It gestures to a form of reality effect that simultaneously critiques the descriptive logic of both 19th century realism as well as contemporary mundane fiction.  It constructs another structure of literature, one that operates at a different symbolic logic.

      The shifts in the formal structure of Trouble of Triton from the earlier narratives discussed are immediately obvious.  The novel is presented in a deliberately fragmentary fashion, providing not only the novel, but notes on the process of its production, alternative material, and a fictional philosophical lecture.  It deliberately refuses the closed, synthetic mode of the novel taken up by the earlier novels discussed.  Instead, it operates within a modernist fascination with the fragmentary, the incomplete.  In addition, the narrative of the text is continually interrupted with a series of philosophical quotations, primarily from philosophers of language, adding an additional set of mediating breaks within the text.  Through these immediate formal differences, we can begin to think about the differences contained in the novel, differences that gesture towards a vision of futurity that neither operates on the logic of progress, nor through the decisive transformation of catastrophe.

Like Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Triton is set in a multi-world system; however this narrative contains no alien species, only the effects of a continued human colonization.  There are constant conflicts and negotiations between the inner-planets and outer-planets of that system, linked up to an implicit center-periphery system.  This conflict plays a background part in the narrative, as Bron travels with the Triton government agent Sam on a never fully identified mission[3]  However, the focus of the novel is primarily Bron’s attempt to negotiate the complex structure of genders, sexualities, and family and care structures in the society.  In effect, the narrative brings out the full possibilities contained within a regime of sexuality that is only touched on by the other narratives.  The society simultaneously explodes any privileged form of symbolic and rejects any notion of the individual as such.  Instead, the narrative offers a society that proliferates as an infinite variety of types, bringing in a medical apparatus that allows for an endless transformation of the body.  The narrative uses the same structure of dormitories as Leguin’s utopian planet of Anarres, but those dormitories become the structure that both permits and categorizes the types of the society, allowing for a multiplicity of family types through the formation of communes, spaces structured for gays and lesbians, as well as single sex dormitories.

          Bron, rather than playing the privileged epistemological role that Shevek plays in The Dispossessed, instead plays the role of the throwback, the man who cannot adjust himself to the complexity of the society.  He can neither accept this variety, nor can he accept his role as one of many types in the society, keeping a sort of hopeless and outdated commitment to the figure of the individual.  In effect, Bron is a far more traditional protagonist for the utopian form, giving the reader a naïve witness to follow the various transformations in the daily life of the society, reproducing the reader’s estrangement to those arrangements.  Bron is pushed through the narrative moving event to event without much agency, failing at the role of spy, lover, and supervisor.  However, unlike those traditional utopias, there is no conversion of pedagogical transformation for Bron.  Instead, the narrative ends with the only discovery that Bron makes because of his sex change, the ability and proclivity to lie when a woman, bringing out a dimension of aporia found in all of the narratives, but made explicit through the inability for Bron to successfully adapt to the new society.

            Bron is both explicitly linked with a set of social expectations that are no longer held by most of society and she himself notes this.  “Sometimes I wish we did live in the past.  Sometimes I wish men were all strong and women were all weak, even if you did it by not picking them up and cuddling them enough when they were babies… because, somehow, it would be simpler that way to justify…” But she could not say what it would justify.” (Delany 302)  Obviously, this nostalgia invites the sort of ideological critique that was brought up earlier, but it also allows for the structural oscillation that Suvin considers crucial to science fiction.  Bron’s continual inability to grasp social relations is both tied to the fact that his social expectations look like something contemporary and the fact that this historically situated social symbolic limits the ability of the reader to fully grasp.  In other words, Bron becomes the access point for the reader through his incapability, rather than his capability.

            This thematic is returned to continually throughout the book.  Bron is confronted by something he cannot grasp or put in a position that he must confront his own limitations, and he shuts down.  This is given a multiplicity of explanations, ranging from emotional laziness by his sometime lover the Spike to logical sadism by his friend Lawrence.  This epistemological blockage is continually represented within the interior monologue of the character, which continually poses problems only to deflect them away from both blame and cognitive understanding.  This seems to be linked to his investment in a particular logical system, which allows for this continual avoidance.

[1] 146.
[2] Samuel Delaney, Trouble on Triton, 292
[3] Once again, providing an implicit parallel with Shevek’s travel to the Earth.

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