Thursday, July 27, 2017

Cognition and Fantasy: China Mieville's Subversion of Fantastic Literature (a rough draft of a talk)

It's been a while since I have posted and I have woefully failed to live up to my previous plans as discussed on the blog. I posted nothing on the Hugo Awards and don't plan to at this point, and most of my other plans have been forgotten. A lot of this had to do with travel, but it also had to do with lack of inspiration. However, during this time, I managed to get an article accepted for publication and gave a short talk at the Marxist Literary Group talk at UC Davis. I thought I would post that talk to get the blog started up again. This is lightly revised, but I plan on putting together a far more polished and expanded version of the paper in the future for another venue.

A narrative thread in the second book of the Bas Lag trilogy, The Scar, offers a potentially productive entrance into an analysis of the work of China Mieville’s relationship to the fantastic. The novel itself shifts focus from the city of New Crobuzon in the first novel to the sea, following the voyage of Bellis Coldwine as she seeks to escape the city into exile. The ship she is on is eventually captured by a group of pirates and is taken to their floating city, Armada. However, the significant part of the narrative for us begins just before the capture of the ship, with the diplomatic visit to Salkrikaltor City, the city of the cray, that introduces Bellis’ companion through most of the voyage, Silas Fennec. Fennec is immediately introduced as a significant figure within the government of New Crobuzon, and commandeers the ship for an unnamed purpose. However, his plans are thwarted by the pirate takeover of the ship. After that occurs, Fennec eventually turns to the protagonist, Bellis, for support. In the process of getting her support, Fennec tells a variety of different stories why he left the isolated grindylow community that he had been living with for years. The initial story involved breaking a mysterious taboo of the society, and his story shifts to involve a conflict with a shaman, an inexplicable invasion of the city of New Crobuzon, and finally, the theft of a sacred magical object.

In each of these stories, the grindylow are marked as the mysterious and threatening other that simultaneously threatens and stabilizes the meaning of the imperial center of New Crobuzon. The grindylow are inexplicable, and mark the limit point of reason. Through the invocation of such a threat, Fennec is able to convince Bellis to send a secret message to the city of New Crobuzon, which, unknown to her and her friends, also includes information about the city of Armada. When this betrayal is discovered, Bellis and her friends are taken prisoner and Fennec must go on the run, increasingly dependent on the magical device stolen from the grindylow, which begins to transform him and is interpreted by Bellis as the ultimate reason why the grindylow hunt the ship.

However, when the grindylow eventually catch up to the ship and overtake it, they contemptuously slap the magical totem out of Bellis’ hands when she offers it to them to abandon the attack and gather up Fennec and his notebook full of the shipping routes that he planned to give to the government of New Crobuzon. The collection of stories that Fennec had been telling throughout the narrative turn out to be a series of lies, designed to appeal to the prejudices of Bellis, and to cover up the genuine goal of undermining the trade monopoly of the equally rational grindylow by the city of New Crobuzon. This reversal is emblematic of the narrative structures of China Mieville’s novels, upending and subverting the conventions of fantastic literature and their relation to cognition. If fantastic literature is the literature of limits, whether in the form of the limits of cognition within the framework of Todorov or transgression in the work of Rosemary Jackson, Mieville continually shows up those limits as ideological constructs through a parody of an expectations of the fantastic. Through this parody, he produces a kind of cognitive fantasy that folds the liminal imagery of the fantastic into the flow of capital and its resistances.

However, this term, cognitive fantasy is in direct contradiction to the generic analysis of Darko Suvin, who implicitly inspires this term. Suvin is an early critic of science fiction, and was one of the founders of Science Fiction Studies. His book Metamorphoses of Science Fiction is an early attempt to classify science fiction as a genre through a series of oppositions that shores up the definition of the genre through those distinctions. Suvin argues that science fiction can be distinguished from other genres via a concept of a multi-dimensional cognitive estrangement, that both separates it from realism due to its estrangement and away from myth, fantasy, and folklore due to its multi-dimensional and cognitive nature. Suvin separates the novum or innovation of science fiction from an emphasis on the formalities of technology and scientific data that comes out of the tradition of Jules Verne. Instead this novum is linked to the anticipation for another future and the oscillation between the social laws that define that future and the laws that define contemporary society. The estrangement provided by science fiction operates between the oscillation between the reader’s critical engagement with the alternate environment as it exists in the novel and the world as it is ideologically constructed.

For our purposes, Suvin’s oppositions need to be explored more fully. Most significantly for our conversation, science fiction must be defined in opposition to the genre of fantasy through the category of cognition. Suvin frames this opposition in the following manner.

“Even less congenial to SF is the fantasy (ghost, horror, Gothic, weird) tale, a genre committed to the interposition of anti-cognitive laws into the empirical environment. Where the folktale is indifferent, the fantasy is inimical to the empirical world and its laws. The thesis could be defended that the fantasy is significant insofar as it is impure and fails to establish a superordinated maleficent world of its own, causing a grotesque tension between arbitrary supernatural phenomena and the empirical norms they infiltrate” (Suvin).

The fantastic is defined by its antagonism to the ‘empirical world and its laws.’ Rather than exploring the possibilities for transformation within the contradictions and tensions of the world as it exists, the fantastic creates a form of estrangement that exists in a sort of malevolent tension with the world. The fantastic is a literature of irrationality and limits to the possibility of critical cognition. In a sense, we are not that far away from the definitions of the genre offered by Todorov and Jackson, even if we are looking at those rules from a drastically different and phobic perspective. The fantastic shatter the possibility of certainty, setting up a set of static laws even as the genre transgresses them. The monstrous images of the fantastic freeze the ability to develop a complex and nuanced understand of the world. For Suvin, the estrangement of the fantastic represents a reactionary trend within literature. It’s a deeply reactionary artform, defined by irrationality and escapism, and is one that Suvin sees as a constant threat to the cognitive dimension of science fiction.

However, Mieville’s narrative structure throws the generic schema of Suvin into crisis through his hybridization of science fictional and fantasy generic forms. At initial reading, this process of hybridization might not be of great concern in Suvin’s interpretation of the narrative forms. After all, Suvin recognizes the influences that science fiction draws from a variety of sources, including fantastic literature. However, he largely interprets those negatively, examining how a variety of pulp influences draw science fictional narratives away from a commitment to cognitive estrangement into a variety of forms of mystification. This is where Mieville’s narrative becomes so problematic for Suvin’s narrative framework. His work is committed to a rigorous exploration of the social, political, and cultural structures of its world, while at the same time, engaging with the history of fantastic literature in its formal structure. Mieville imagines a materialist engagement with the fantastic, producing a set of naturalistic rules for the functioning of magic and fantastic creatures, and more significantly, by placing those creatures into a history of domination and resistance, of exploitation and racialization that critically comments on the history of colonialist exploitation of the past 500 years, rather than simply replicating its effects.

Mieville hasn’t limited his critique of Suvin to the implicit material contained in his fiction either, giving critical lectures on the subject and taking it on in his essays. All of this material works to reject the distinction between the non-cognitive and reactionary fantastic and the cognitive and progressive science fiction. In his talk at Kansas University, 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 get them 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’s critique certainly represents an engagement with a dominant strain of reading Suvin’s work, one that emphasizes the cognition of the scientific method over Suvin’s interest in in temporality and historical transformation. Insofar as that engagement with Suvin reproduces the epistemological firewall discussed earlier, it represents an important intervention, but it potentially misses out on the other dimension of Suvin, the cognitive process that challenges the inevitability of capitalist accumulation. That other dimension of cognition, a definition that is connected to the idea of cognitive mapping as borrowed from Kevin Lynch in The Image of the City by Fredric Jameson, can potentially connect the two through another notion of cognition. Within this context, Mieville’s engagement of the genre can be perhaps understood through a structurally possible, but unexplored dimension of Suvin’s work, which recognizes the ability of fantasy to reduce the cognitive dimension of science fiction, but leaves out the ability to imagine a cognitive or materialist fantasy. As Mieville notes in his discussion of Carl Freedman’s extension of Suvin’s work, “…if the predicates for a fantasy are clearly never-possible but are treated systemically within the fantastic work, then its cognition effect is precisely that normally associated with SF (Mieville 339). Although the comment is not followed up on in the essay, the interest in this sort of cognitive or even materialist fantasy can be found elsewhere.

The building blocks of Mieville’s construction of a materialist or cognitive fantasy can be found in his introductory essay on H.P. Lovecraft’s The Mountains of Madness.

“Lovecraft is pulled to do this in part by the “scientism,” the materialist articulation, of his vision, which embeds horror in material reality. Through a key driver behind this new form of weird was the specific political/cultural apocalypse of the war, in its own aesthetics a materialist “scientific” weird implies a universe that has always been monstrous and implacable. Lovecraft’s uncanny, in other words, expresses this radically new crisis precisely by depicting an eternal and unsympathetic uncanny.

This is the paradox in this utterly new kind of fantasy. In expressing the ‘supernatural’ in materialist terms, Lovecraft will not use the standard figures of supernature, with all their mythic baggage. But his materialism means it is not just in his creatures that horror lies, but in the material reality that they are a part—and that awe-ful reality is eternal. Lovecrafts’s radical innovations must seem to have resonated for eons” (Mieville xvi).

Although it is an odd place to begin framing a materialist fantasy, Mieville sees in Lovcraft a shifting of the topography of fantasy. The horror of the first world war causes a dramatic shift Lovecraft’s fantastic world, shifting it from the supernatural to natural and the material. The horror of the world is a product of the indifference of the natural laws of the universe, and is no longer the product of a supernatural good and evil, terms that simply are mistakenly placed on the indifferent phenomenon by a primitive and mistaken humanity. At the same time, there is certainly still a dimension of mystification within this framework, as it expresses ‘this radically new crisis precisely by depicting an eternal and unsympathetic uncanny.’ The cause for the innovation, a distinctively historical shift, is still occluded from the discussion. At the same time, the fantastic is not a product of a supernatural dimension intruding into the empirical world. If the fantastic cannot be understood by humanity, that lack of understanding is produced through the cognitive limitations of humanity itself, and the monstrous creatures operate within their own unnamed naturalistic expectations.

The distinct shift that Mieville introduces into the genre is the dimension of historicity. The fantastic is not only made material, but made historical, notably in a manner that intersects with the forms of mystification and obfuscation that are embedded in the commodity form itself. For Mieville, this critical engagement can allow for a critical engagement with capitalism’s modes of domination that are made invisible in the ‘zero world’ of ‘naturalism.’ Mieville notes, “Under capitalism, the social relations of the everyday—that “fantastic form”—are the dreams, the grotesque”, of the commodities that rule” (Mieville, Marxism and Fantasy 336). The estrangement of science fiction may help in revealing those structures of domination, the ‘social relations of the everyday” that are the “grotesque of the rule of the commodity, and point to the possibility of another structure of social relations. The fantastic no longer simply is a symptom of the contradictions of capital, a sign of the deluge of the counterrevolution to use the terms of a later essay by Darko Suvin, but a way into understanding the grotesque relations created through the commodity form. But Mieville’s transformation of the fantastic genre goes beyond the terms that he sets out for it, engaging with the history of the monstrous images of the fantastic, making them material, and using them to explore the conflicts embedded in the history of what might be provisionally and inadequately called racial capitalism. Mieville drags the liminal and supernatural constructions of the fantastic and introduce them into the rationality of capitalism and more significantly puts them into the struggles that point to the limit of that rationality.

In this sense, Mieville’s conceptualization of the fantastic aligns itself far more with the concept of grotesque realism that Mikhail Bakhtin uses to describe the novels of Rabelais than the concepts of the fantastic developed by either Rosemary Jackson or Todorov. The concept of degradation as developed in Bakhtin’s analysis of Rabelais is helpful. Within this frame work, Bakhtin notes,

“To degrade is to bury, to sow, and to kill simultaneously, in order to bring forth something more and better. To degrade an object does not imply merely hurling it into the void of nonexistence, into absolute destruction, but to hurl it down to the reproductive lower stratum, the zone in which conception and a new birth takes place. Grotesque realism knows no other lower level; it is the fruitful earth and the womb, it is always conceiving.” (Bakhtin 21)

To be sure, there are elements of Bakhtin’s description that we need to jettison, its emphasis of the rural, the organic, the local, but the emphasis of the creative powers that the material world and the body provides a powerful tool to read the politics of Mieville’s novel. It also can be found in the supernatural elements of the story; the realms of hell, magic, etc. are all dragged into the realm of the material, rendering them up for the gristmill of capital and labor, power and counter power. To return to the image of the grave provided by Bakhtin, it is the continual production of corpses and the fear of death that continually draws the fantastic elements of the book into the productive womb of materiality. Along with this, the fantastic is continually incorporated into the instrumental world of the bourgeoisie, revealing its own fantastic nature. But that materiality goes beyond the modes of parody that are invoked above, which is represented by the concept of remaking in the Bas Lag novels. Remaking is a form of punishment in the world, a product of bio-thaumaturgy, a sort of rationalized magic that is used to manipulate the body, and more specifically used to punish criminals by transforming them in a manner that replicated the nature of their crimes. The scene that exemplifies this process in the first novel, Perdido Street Station, involved a man whose flesh was manipulated to look like a bird-like garuda. The punishment was in response to the man’s attempt to steal a painting with the portrait of a garuda. The former thief describes the punishment as such, “Magister said since I was so impressed with garuda, I could—“ his breath caught for a moment “—I could become one.” The punishment operates as a cruel sort of parody.

The figure before Isaac and Derkhan shivered and scratched its stomach. Its skin was pale and pockmarked with disease and cold. Isaac’s eyes wove all over its body in dismay. Bizarre nodes of tissue burst from its bunched toes: claws drawn by children. Its head was swathed in feathers, but feathers of all sizes and shapes, jammed at random from its crown to its neck in a thick, uneven, insulating layer. The eyes that peered myopically at Isaac and Derkhan were human eyes, fighting to open lids encrusted in rheum and pus. The beak was large and stained, like old pewter.

Behind the wretched creature stretched a pair of dirty, foul-smelling wings. They were no more than six feet from tip to tip. As Isaac watched, they half-opened, jerked and twitched spastically. Tiny pieces of organic muck spilt form them as they shuddered.

The creature’s beak opened and, underneath it, Isaac caught a glimpse of lips forming the words, nostrils above. The beak was nothing but a roughly made fixture shoved and sealed into place like a gas-mask over the nose and mouth he realized. (Mieville 100)

The process of remaking is a deeply material process and transforms the forms of alterity implicit in fantastic literature into a deeply material, historical, and social process. The abject body of the thief turned remade is described in detail, marking the abject physical transformation of the body. It is a process that looks careless at the surface level, with its ‘claws drawn by children’ and head covered in ‘feathers of all sizes and shapes’, but beneath that surface carelessness is deliberation, designed to punish and distinguish the prisoner’s body. The disciplinary process of the state and its ability to categorize and discipline state populations is mapped onto the abject body of the criminal. By physically marking and transforming the body of the convicted, the act of Remaking becomes a way of producing a disciplinary marker on the surplus army of the unemployed, placing them outside the space of respectable society, marking them as a universally hated class. It both represents the naked power of the state, its capacity to inflict extraordinary level of pain and suffering on those who transgress its order, and a mode of abject alterity that is hated and feared. This same power is explored within the next novel, not as a way to return the punished body to its originary state, but to heal and make that body productive, to explore the possibilities implicit in that body, but both acts are twin sides of this intense materiality, a process of remaking the body, and exploring its monstrosity. The fantastic is then engaged with as a mode to engage with that history and to think through it, but that engagement is dependent on a reframing of the genre that no longer accepts it on its own terms, one that potentially could be understood under the sign of cognition.

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