Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Rise of Science Fiction as a Respected Genre

     I just came across this early attempt to formulate my intellectual project for the dissertation.  I cut out most of the absolute nonsense to get at some of the early efforts to formulate a relationship between literary form and historical period.

      To turn explicitly to the question of post-war academics within the context of these transformations, it’s notable that the creation of an entire series of academic formations parallels the rise of the mass society, putting the ideological detritus into the center of the analysis of modern structures of power.  This includes the rise of film studies, comics, advertising etc.  (Barthes work comes to mind, but so does the work of the Cahiers du Cinema group or even the work of Delany come to mind.)  Science fiction itself begins to transform in stature during this period.  It moves from primarily being published in pulp format as cheap periodicals to the novel format, both in paperback and hardcover format.  At the same time, the begins to rise a series of critical works on science fiction as a genre moving from the fan circles to respected academic circles.

            Science fiction then operates as one of those commodities produced within that society, but it also needs to be understood as a critical discourse of that society, particularly about the linkage between domesticity and consumption that was constructed in the post war period.  Science fiction had its roots in the traditions of ethnography, travel literature, and the utopia, all of which focus on questions of social reproduction and the social symbolic by posing questions about the customs of a society, its norms, its rituals, the ways that children are raised, and marriage compacts are arranged.  It posed questions on how societies perpetuated themselves, and perhaps more significantly, it posed these questions about the other in order to critique or denaturalize the assumptions of the societies that they lived in.  (Anderson points to this in his Imagined Communities, another place to look is in the material produced by Clifford in his analysis of ethnography and surrealism)  Science fiction contributes to these frameworks a sense of futurity, posing alternative futures, pointing to the contingency of the present, and at times, explicitly critiquing it.

            Science fiction moves from the margins of the society to much more respected position in the literary world, and at the same time, it begins to be re-evaluated as a genre, by both its practitioners as well as its critics.  Its status as both a product of mass production and as a discourse centered on the questions of reproduction put it in a unique position to critically examine the society it exists within.  Furthermore, its emphasis on contingency allows for the critique and re-imagination of a set of practices perceived as both natural and trans-historical, and allows for a critique of capitalism precisely at the moment in which McCarthyism has taken away many of the tools to make these critiques.  In addition, the feminist nature of these works allows for the exploration of the importance of the newly constructed space of the domestic in the reproduction of capital, both in its role of creating norms and expectations and in its role of assuring the market for a variety of mass produced items that insured the stability of Fordist capitalism.

            The intention of this project is to explore the way that feminist science fiction allows for first a critique of contemporary capitalism, and a series of imagined world systems that no longer operate within the logic of the commodity through a series of critical utopias, however in order to be able to map these resistances, one first needs to understand the relations of power in existence in order to establish this structure.  Women’s magazines become a unique space to map out these transformations, as they bring together a set of disparate discourses from the 19th and 20th centuries together to produce a sense of the domestic, far more coherent and homogenous than earlier formation, one that could only exist at a point of the level of social equality introduced at the end of the Second world war.

.  The literature on women’s magazines in the period of the war and the post war period has operated within the analytical structure of repression and agency, Betty Friedan making the argument that the post war period is far more repressive than the imagery of the war and beforehand, defending her readings through a set of stories contained in these magazines (which magazines?) whereas the work of Joanne Meyerowitz and Eva Moskowitz argue against this interpretation, focusing on both the ways that those magazines don’t fall into the trap of the Feminine Mystique, as well as the ways that there is a greater continuity between the work of the 1930’s and the 1940’s.  (My suspicion is that Meyerowitz’ interpretation may be shifted through Horowitz’ critical biography, that looks at the Popular Front influence on Friedan/Goldstein.  In addition, I have some minor methodological issues with Meyerowitz, particularly with her connection of magazines, such as AFL’s monthly magazine to women’s literature).  This repression/agency argument also doesn’t offer as full an argument as the linkages that Friedan’s work has with other critical works of the post war period, such as C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite, and Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man.

            To return to the subject at hand, my intension is to offer a different analytical framework than is offered by the one implicit in that dyad, one that follows Foucault’s critique of the repressive hypothesis, and insists on the productivity of power.  In some sense, I am following the model of continuity between the period of the war and the post war period, but I am focusing on something else, the way that these magazines were linked up to the war effort, more specifically the effort for women to support this effort, pushing their energy towards a war that took up incredible amounts of resources of the country, which was the primary contribution to the war effort.  (Aka the United States was transformed into a giant factory)

            I don’t want to read this engagement in an uncontradictory fashion. Contained within this effort towards total war are two projects, one directed broadly towards a social democratic project, the other directed towards the re-entrenchment and intensification of capitalism, that is to say, we find a project that continues and expands the Keynesian politics of the new deal, that is Roosevelt’s attempt to ‘save capitalism from itself’ vs. the imaginary of the people’s war.  I have no intention to argue that these imaginaries are autonomous from each other, certainly the party’s refusal to support strikes after the entrance of the USSR into the war and its support of the Japanese internment camps puts it into a profoundly ambiguous situation.  But this precise ambiguity is to be expected, precisely by the entanglement of power and resistance that Foucault writes about in his analysis of modern structures of power.

            As a side note, the contradictions of the popular front project are significant to its collapse.  I have already noted that the Communist Party compromised itself through the support of detention camps, and the refusal to support the labor struggles during the war (along with the disgraceful support of the Nazi-Soviet pact.)  Similar contradictions compromised the unions tied into the popular front project through the tension between the desire to protect the jobs of men who went to war and the jobs of the women who had entered into the war effort.  Alongside real narratives of repression of the left, we also have to remember the sense of betrayal that activists such as Betty Friedan and the sense of betrayal that African American members of the Communist Party felt as the party responded to McCarthyism by narrowing its vision of social justice.

            It’s important to remember that the victory of the war was met by massive strikes in the post war years.  I believe that this points to the power of the popular front imaginary and its continued commitment on the part of large numbers of ordinary Americans.  It is within this context that the project to destroy the political organization of the popular front.  It becomes a way to rescue the new deal from the more radical set of alliances that it made to succeed, that is to say, the radical trace contained in the effort to save capitalism, contained in the alliance between the communist party and the new deal democrats.  But the post war effort needed to continue to keep the economic engine in motion even as it as it neutralized the possibility of radical social transformation.  This need for continued mobilization can be linked to the commitment to Keynes economic theories that emphasized the need for economic demand and consumer spending to the continued health of the economy

            My interest is to begin to look at the space of the domestic as place in which grounds this new formation, linking the cultural, economic, social, etc., more specifically how Women’s magazines become a space to conceptualize and form this space creating intersection between capital, consumers, and later, the state.  But before that, perhaps it would be best to define the space of the domestic, and its importance.  Many commentators have already noted the reliance of the domestic space to stabilize the social order (bring up examples) At the same time, the definition of that domestic space was transforming.  As Nancy Walker notes, “By 1940 the domestic was commonly understood to mean work performed to sustain the daily needs of family members, which rarely included servants or livestock; professionals largely took care of the ill and the indigent, and while a housewife was expected occasionally to serve as hostess, the etiquette of calling cards was a thing of the past (Walker 55)  In addition, electricity was being introduced as a standard feature of housing.  This shift in expectations creates a far more homogenous domestic space through this narrowing of expectations.  Sally Stein makes the analogy of the techniques developed in the space of the domestic with the transformations in the workplace that were created by the new manufacturing techniques introduced by Henry Ford.

            The women’s magazine has an important role in the developing structure of the space of domesticity.  Although, it’s important to recognize that there are a number of significant texts dedicated to domestic advice, the women’s magazine were only begun in the 1870’s and 1880’s.  The connection to commerce was always fairly immediate.  Several magazines were initially started as catalogs, and publications put a great deal of explicit focus on consumption, as the space of the domestic was transformed from a space of production to one of consumption.  The magazines also began to cultivate a set of experts to offer commentary and direct the energies of the household.  (this needs to be spelled out a bit more.)  The United States government took an active role in the structure of those publications with the beginning of the Second World War with its propaganda department.

            While I read this shift in resistance that occurs within the period after the initial terror of McCarthyism as one that occurs under erasure, or as an effect of censorship.  But I want to read that concept of censorship within the framework that is provided by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams.  Freud sets up a set of terms crucial to his understanding of the psychic apparatus, condensation, etc.  In order to make these formations coherent and understandable to the reader, he brings in an analogy with political censorship.  He notes.

            The political writer who has unpleasant truths to tell to those in power finds himself in a similar position.  If he utters them openly the ruler will suppress his words—retrospectively if it is a question of words spoken, preventatively if they are to be made known in print.  The writer has the censorship to fear: and so he moderates and distorts the expression of his opinion.  According to the degree of severity and sensitivity of this censorship, he will find himself forced either to just hold back on certain forms of attack or to seek allusively instead of in plain statement, or he will have to conceal his objectionable views behind a harmless-seeming disguise—he may, for example, tell of incidents involving two mandarins of the Middle Kingdom, whereas he has the bureaucrats of the Fatherland in mind.  The stricter the censorship, the more far-reaching the disguise and often the cleverer the devices which nevertheless put the reader on the track of what is really meant.

            Freud begins by noting that censorship doesn’t only have a simple repressive impact on the work of the author, that is to say, while the destruction of words does occur, the imprisonment of writers, etc.  Freud is interested in another effect of censorship, the one that occurs at the moment that the author in some way internalizes these norms, whether out of fear or as an obstacle to be avoided.  It is precisely at this moment that the author transforms his or her discourse to escape the direct effects of censorship, in effect, censorship then transforms the terrain of the political conflict.  Freud sees this shift as a sort of semiotic game between author and reader, manipulating signs in order to complete circuit of communication.  But, this transformation doesn’t simply repeat the earlier statement.  In effect, censorship can no longer be understood purely within repressive terms, and must be understood as a sort of constitutive force, each new act of censorship leading to a new web of discourse in order to escape its effects, leading to an open ended production of language.

            McCarthyism and anti-communism produced such an effect in the post war era of the United States, closing off both the political forces of the Popular Front as well as the radical demands contained in that formation.  Within that situation, there was a desperate effort to create a new language, a language that would escape the censoring effects of anti-communism and produce a critique of the new modes of domination introduced by the new Keynsian paradigm.  The first model became a demand for inclusion into that system, which included the critiques of poverty offered by critics such as social democrat Michael Harrington that eventually informed the war on poverty, or the demands made by the early civil rights movement, which demanded access to the new wealth and political participation in the society.

            A second set of critiques came up at the same time, which posed the abundance of the society as a problem, rather than scarcity.  Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, the sociological work of C. Wright Mills, and later on, the formation of SDS were all examples of this formation, and feminism fit this model as well, especially when one looks at Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which allowed for the creation of a new women’s movement to come together.  Friedan had been involved in the popular front as both an activist and as a journalist, although she wound up in the suburbs after the collapse of that formation.  Friedan’s critique made the figure of the middle class (generally white) housewife as her central figure of analysis, a product of suburbanization, the increase in wealth, and the desire to produce a stable nuclear family.  This critique has been critiqued for who got left out of its analysis, women in poverty and women of color in particular, but if you think about the book as a critical analysis of a new class formation, one that included a large percentage of the entire society, rather than a work on women as a whole, it becomes a much more productive historical document.

1 comment:

  1. Of possible interest for a radical post-capitalist and maybe post-political perspective:
    Yannick Rumpala, Artificial intelligences and political organization: an exploration based on the science fiction work of Iain M. Banks, Technology in Society, Volume 34, Issue 1, 2012,
    (Free older version available at: )