I was contributed to a panel on the relevancy of the work of Darko Suvin in the present moment at the recent Utopian Studies conference. My paper, like the other papers, is primarily a defense of Suvin's work, albeit with some qualifications. I'm sympathetic with critics such as China Mieville when they decry Suvin's reductive reading of fantastic literature, but I don't think that this is the most interesting or most important aspect of Suvin's work. Moreover, they substantially misread Suvin's theoretical framework, notably his understanding of the term, 'science.' Some of this comes out of the fact that much of Suvin's writings have been out of print for a number of years and have only recently been republished. In any case, the panel's very real interest in Suvin was not shared by conference attendees, and the panel outnumbered the audience for the presentation. It was unfortunate because I thought all the presentations and the discussion afterwards was quite interesting. In any case, to get this preliminary investigation slightly more attention, I thought I would post it here. (Apparently, Suvin will or has heard a recording of the talk and I genuinely hope that he liked the talk. I can't think of a thinker within Science Fiction Studies that has a greater influence on my work.)
The critique of China Mieville represents a dominant interpretation of the work of Darko Suvin at the current moment. Mieville focuses on Suvin’s distinction between the ‘cognitive estrangement’ of science fiction and the reactionary mystification of fantasy. He argues that Suvin’s distinction and hierarchy constitutes a sort of neo-Fabian technocratic reasoning and mystifies the construction of both genres. Mieville engages with the limitations of the theoretical framework as developed by Suvin and Carl Freedman, showing how the “cognitive effect” emphasized by both authors is a product of a kind of rhetorical maneuver, a trick on the part of the author to get the reader to accept the cognitive effect of the work in question. Mieville notes that this largely operates as a consensual game, but that the logic implicit in the work of Suvin and Freedman evades the way that the modes of scientific cognition that both celebrate are formed out of and are embedded in the logic and violence of capitalist accumulation. He rejects the ‘epistemological firewall’ implicit in the concept of cognition and argues that science fiction and fantasy should be seen as slightly different modes of estrangement, both deeply embedded in the ideological matrix of capitalist accumulation. Mieville is correct to point out the limitation in the construction of this binary, but his critique also rigidifies Suvin’s framework into a kind of technoscientific fetishism.
These interpretations draw on an understanding of science that Suvin himself rejects in his essay, “Cognition and Estrangement,” which embraces a concept of science that falls under the larger rubric of the German Wissenschaft, which focuses on any form of organized knowledge, rather than simply the natural sciences. Suvin’s refusal of this technoscientific interpretation of the science and cognition is only intensified when we turn to his essay, “Utopian” and “Scientific”: Two Attributes for Socialism from Engels.” That essay frames his critique of Engels opposition of the terms scientific and utopian in a critical examination of the history of the category of science, framing Engel’s use within the shifting meaning of the term. The article explores the rich tensions within Engel’s essay, and by no mean entirely rejects the work entirely, but refuses Engels’s effort to use the epistemology of the natural sciences of his time as a ‘model for Marxist or socialist historiosophy.’ Suvin argues that all forms of scientific social practice are embedded in the social relations of their time, making the same critiques of capitalist technoscience that Mieville would later include in his critique of Suvin. The science of historical materialism therefore could not take these social practices as a model.
Instead, Suvin rereads Marx to reframe Marx’s engagement with the term science in a way that rejects the science/utopia opposition, instead seeing it as a critical engagement with the utopian tradition. At the same time, he rejects the formulation of science as the positive science of the natural sciences. Suvin notes, “Science is here, obviously, thought of by Marx neither as an official social institution nor as an absolute epistemological mode, but as a usable and misusable ensemble of cognition—which is, as in Kant, a pioneering prefiguration I was postulating earlier.” (that is a combination of clearly and firmly demonstrated knowledge that is based on real historico-economic processes as opposed to the more conventionally embraced system building part of the formulation) Revolutionary science is a potentiality that operates in opposition to the dominant structures of our society and as such cannot simply model itself on those structures. “Cognition” becomes not only an exploration of technoscience, but the network of social relations of the capitalist world system, their gaps, lacunae, and contradictions, and the potential transformations within those transformations. Suvin’s position found in this article is remarkably consistent throughout his work. It can be found in his later writings and it is already found in his critiques of the liberal utopianism of the work of Jules Verne.
Instead of framing his discussion of cognitive estrangement within the confines of either positive science or the narrower technoscientific regime that increasingly stands in for the word science within the present moment, Suvin’s concept of the cognition in cognitive estrangement operates within the register of history. This engagement with history is made most apparent with his development of the concept of the novum, starting in his essay “SF and the Novum”, which notes, “The new is always a historical category since it is always determined by historical forces which both bring it about in social practice (including art) and make for new semantic meanings that crystallize the novum in human consciousness” (Suvin 80). The novum operates in a double historical register, both marking out the historical moment that the literary technique operates in historically, and as a marker of the possibility of other worlds that operate in that moment of time. Within this context, the repeated framework of “post-Cartesian and post-Baconian scientific method” (Suvin 65) becomes another historical framing, intertwining the generic structures of utopian and later science fiction with the rise of the structures of capitalist accumulation, albeit as a marker of alterity. The novum constantly points to the radical possibilities for other world to exist, worlds that are immanent to the everchanging regime of capitalist accumulation, but are exogenous to it. This radical dimension of Suvin’s formulation is then stated by critic Tom Moylan. “Thus, Suvin’s novum is neither the reified “novelty” produced by capitalism nor the vanguard privileged by orthodox Marxism. Instead, it is the dialectical force that mediates the material, historical possibilities and the subjective awareness and action engaged with those possibilities.” (Moylan 49)
Cognition then cannot be linked to the formations of capitalist technoscience that his critics want to insist upon. It is not a practice dependent on technoscientific accuracy, but dependent on the rejection of the text’s present as inevitable. But as I noted before, the firewall between the genres and the emphasis on openings or practices of freedom have their own problems. I want to potentially register a pair of limitations to this eminently useful framework, both touching on Suvin’s phobic reading of the fantastic. The first deals with the cognitive limits contained in the fantastic. Whatever you think of the history of fantastic and gothic literature, it produces a rich symptomology of the limit points of capitalist instrumental reason, the hauntings that point to a logic that is immanent yet exogenous to that logic, even if it can’t comprehend this outside. More recent fantastic work, whether in the form of China Mieville, Victor Lavalle, or even the more conventional work of Tad Williams has begun to draw on that symptomology in a far more conscious manner, creating a new kind of potentially cognitive fantasy. The second is a more abstract, which is the rejection of a negativity of limitations, which simultaneously rejects the negativity that is central to creating new forms, whether on the theoretical level, or the level of political or aesthetic practice, even if one does not have a solution to the dilemma. Within this context, it must be recognized that one may have a cognitive orientation both towards the fantastic and towards blockages and limitations, even when they take the form of aporia. This “cognition” within the “cognitive estrangement” of Suvin’s concept may not be limited to science fiction as Suvin would like it to, but it may still represent the radical critical potential of the genre, a marker of the process of cognitive mapping in literature. I’m interested in exploring this other potential “cognitive estrangement”, not as an act of conservation, but as a new mode of criticism that draws from the strengths of Suvin’s work, rather than its weaknesses.