Friday, August 7, 2020

A Short Comment on the Genre and Subculture of Science Fiction in the Wake of George R.R. Martin's Worldcon Comments

            The recent controversy around toastmaster George R.R. Martin’s repeated lauding of controversial editor and author John Campbell has produced a renewal of the ‘canon’ controversy. Most folks who I have seen respond to this have taken a fairly sensible approach. There’s no particular need to have read any particular set of science fictional texts to be a ‘fan’ of the genre. It’s hard to argue with the logic, particularly at a moment where one can spend a lifetime exploring a particular aspect of the genre, whether that be military science fiction, space opera or feminist science fiction. The textual production of the genre is so extensive that you are inevitably not going to have read some particular text that falls into some community’s ‘canon’, whether that is Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, or any number of significant figures.

            In a sense, one could very easily stop at that moment of critique. It pretty effectively neutralizes the demand, but I want to explore a different level of the assumptions embedded in the claim of canonicity and the demand that one must read a set of subcultural figures to establish your authenticity of a fan. This obvious act of gatekeeping contains an important set of assumptions that the circle of fandom is somehow coextensive with the circle of science fiction and fantasy, or at least that it should play some significant and outsized role in defining science fiction. At this point, that illusion is fairly well shattered. We live in a world where thinly veiled slash fiction is sold at Target and figures such as George R.R. Martin and J.R.R. Tolkien are multi-million-dollar industries. Figures such as Philip K Dick and Octavia Butler are parts of significant academic conversations that only have tangential connections to fandom at best as well. At this point, their cultural relevance is no longer controlled by the subcultural fandom for better or for worse. The next book produced by George R.R. Martin is probably going to sell like hotcakes even if the most recent incidents cause the archipelago of the subculture to turn their backs on him.

            But I want to push that dimension further and argue that science fiction never was the sold domain of fandom. The genre has its origins before the creation of this subculture and it always exceeded the limits of the subculture. Hugo Gernsback may have given the genre its official name and he may have played a significant role in creating the subcultural community that celebrates that name, but the conventions of the genre were coagulating before his intervention and authors and publications had made their names in its construction before him. We can point back to a number of obvious names, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, and aspects of the utopian tradition. We can even point to a fairly significant pulp tradition that shapes the work of Gernsback and others. Most of these authors, who still define the literary conventions had no connection to the subculture or tangential connections at best, such as Wells’ frustration at the reprinting of his work by Gernsback without royalties. If one looks at the debates between Wells and Verne, one can see that they were able to debate the definition and limits of the genre without him. I don’t want to entirely dismiss the distinction between science fiction and the scientific romance or the fantastic voyage, but they are frequently less distinct than the disjunctures that exist within the subcultural world of science fiction itself, a world that includes Doc E.E. Smith, Isaac Asimov, Pamela Zoline, and Octavia Butler.

            Even when we move into the era of the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s, we can find significant works of science fiction that fall outside the narrow confines of fandom. The work of Karel Capek comes immediately to mind, along with the dissident works of Soviet critics such as Yevgeny Zamyatin and Mikhail Bulgakov. In addition, we can add to the list the works of Olaf Stapledon, George Orwell, and Katharine Burdekin. Within the United States, we can think of significant figures such as George Schuyler who has only recently been recognized as a significant science fiction writer and others. Through this massively incomplete list, we can see a world of science fictional narrative production that both falls largely outside the circles of the subgenre and that often plays a significant role in shaping the literary production of the subgenre, whether in the form of the word ‘robot’ introduced to the world by Capek or the dystopian conventions of 1984 and Brave New World. That continues with the work of authors such as Stanislav Lem, who was antagonistic to the subculture, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and others. We can also include Margaret Atwood, who until recently has tried to distinguish her dystopian production from the genre and the subculture. Science fiction as a generic form has always exceeded the grasp of the science fiction subculture. It has never fully defined the readers of the texts and it has never defined the literary production of the genre. There are worlds of science fiction that don’t connect to that subculture or only tangentially connect to it.

            That isn’t to deny the real creativity and labor within the subculture. It has after all produced significant authors, modes of criticism, and very real communities. Members of the subculture have done a lot of the work to discover obscure texts that later define the conventions in the genre and have often done significant translation work. As maddening as it frequently is, it has created a rich language and a fascinating legacy. I can see why people want to preserve it and, in many cases, to break down the racialized and gendered walls of exclusion that often defined it. Within the latter context, decentering the narrative of fandom in the larger field of science fiction can play a productive role. Figures such as Campbell and Heinlein are significant within specific communities of literary production, but they don’t define the wider field of the genre. We can think of the ways that the subculture benefited from that larger world even as it frequently excluded it. We can track down other literary and historical narratives, which will be undoubtedly defined by their own flaws, contradictions, and promises. We can also follow paths of translation as subcultural narrative approaches are translated and transformed. The subculture has always played a part in this narrative, but it has never been the narrative in its entirety.


Monday, April 13, 2020

A Short Comment On Donald Trump

            Despite the many efforts to frame Donald Trump as an entirely unique president, I find myself most often associating his presidency with the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Both individuals entered the public eye through their work in entertainment, Reagan as a second tier Hollywood movie star and Donald Trump through his role as first a headline maker and then in his role as a reality tv star and controversial interview subject.[1] In that sense, their affective differences can easily be ascribed to the genres that defined their acting careers. Reagan’s pleasant geniality is a product of his role as the hero in a variety of somewhat small Hollywood melodramas. As Reagan aged, he eased himself into the role of the genial and wise grandfather, reflecting the roles he probably would have played if he had succeeded in staying in the industry. Trump on the other hand reflects the generic conventions of reality tv, a genre that emphasizes getting the audience’s attention at any cost and creating an aesthetic of spontaneity and authenticity. In this sense, Trump really isn’t that far from his persona that he and his producers constructed for his reality tv show, The Apprentice.
       Despite these surface level differences, we can find some deeper continuities. Both figures have been profoundly successful at avoiding the consequences of their mistakes in policy and in speech. Reagan was known as the Teflon president because of these qualities and Donald Trump has been able to weather a long series of mistakes that would have easily sunk many other politicians’ careers. The two are also defined by a loose relationship with the truth. It has been largely forgotten, but Reagan would frequently relay the narratives of his own films as a representation of an experience of World War II and Trump’s long history of dishonesty is too lengthy to fully and meaningfully spell out. In this sense, despite the efforts on the part of the liberal media and the apparatus of the Democratic Party to frame the presidency of Donald Trump in terms of discontinuity, a radical shift that marks a deep disturbance in the modes of liberal governance and a threat to that tradition of governance, Donald Trump can be seen as in continuity with a series of counter-revolutionary practices that took center stage with the election of Ronald Reagan and continued through the presidencies of George Bush, Bill Clinton, George Bush and even Barack Obama.

In effect, the last thirty or so years of official political leadership in the United States can be understood within the framework that Paolo Virno laid out in his critique of post-Fordist capitalism in the 1990’s. Virno noted that the era was increasingly defined the qualities of cynicism, opportunism and fear. He frames this affective shift in terms of the shifts in the accumulation of capital after the world revolution in 1968 in his article, “The Ambivalence of Disenchantment”: “Marked by intensified domination, the post-Fordist productive process itself demonstrates the connection between its own patterns of operation and the sentiments of disenchantment.  Opportunism, fear, and cynicism—enter into production, or rather, they intertwine with the versatility and flexibility of electronic technologies.” (Virno 14)  Virno defines the terms as the willingness to work cynically from rule set to rule set and to opportunistically choose the rule set that is most advantageous to the subject in question. In this sense, both politicians play a series of roles, and in doing so, evade a series of criticisms. They both use a pose of sincere spontaneity to mask the opportunistic shifts in their positions and as a way of deflecting the criticism of their often-obvious deception and insincerity.

In this sense, Trump is not an anomaly, but representative of certain political trends of the post-68 era. Those qualities may appear to be more immediately unpleasant than previous examples, but you can create a through line with the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and to a lesser extent, of Bill Clinton, that easily connects to the qualities of the Trump presidency. If Donald Trump is a more extreme version of this model, it’s only because his predecessors have created that possibility. There is also a decay of the legitimizing structures of the bourgeois state that perhaps has its start with the Watergate moment. That through line also points to the crisis of the post-1968 moment and the gradual decline of the United States as a world power and the larger crisis in the world system. All the candidates in different forms offered a return to former glory and all failed in that effort. Reagan was perhaps able to hold onto the illusion, but that illusion was broken with the later candidates. In a certain sense, the failures of the Bush administration might have played a helpful role for the Trump candidacy. There is no meaningful expectation that the promises will be fulfilled, and the empty bellicosity is embraced as such. In that sense, this trend can be understood within the context of the ‘morbid symptoms’ that Gramsci identifies as the product of a stalled revolution. The 68 movement neither succeeds or fails and we are in a moment stasis.

[1] This interpretation of Donald Trump reads his self-presentation as a self-made businessman and entrepreneur as a semi-fictional media construct, created by himself and the mainstream media.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

A Short Comment on the Scorsese Kerfuffle

            Martin Scorsese recently created a great deal of controversy by panning the films made within the Marvel Universe. According to Scorsese, the films weren’t really ‘cinema’ which was defined by him as, “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” Instead, he compared the experience to a “theme park” with actors. On one hand, Scorsese’s analogy isn’t that far off. It could be argued that the often-lighthearted romps created by the studio have depended on a mixture of spectacle and quips. The experience of a Marvel film is remarkably like a theme park. We go for the rides and soak in the sound and sights. Fans develop emotional investment in the characters, but the films haven’t been the psychological investigations that Scorsese seems to associate with the experience of cinema. On the other hand, hasn’t that kind of spectacle at least in part defined the cinematic experience from its origins? Silent film featured melodrama, but it also featured fast-moving trains, planes, and automobiles. Buster Keaton’s classic, The General, was driven by its stunts as was the work of Harold Lloyd. Later films such as Around the World in Eighty Days continued that tradition, as did the much-applauded Gravity. That ‘theme park’ quality of spectacle may not be Scorsese’s preferred mode of cinema, but it is cinema. One could even make the argument that the films often fail to provide the kind of innovative spectacle that defines good or great cinema, but that is a different conversation.