Monday, June 22, 2015

Marxist Science Fiction Studies

According to Mark Bould, because science fiction rarely addresses “the economic dimensions of social totality” it leaves a negative space which “is often primarily, if unwittingly, bound by the structures, potentials and limits of capital” (Bould in Marxism and Science Fiction (2009), p.4).

According to this approach, fantastic literature, and science fiction especially, has a particular mode of telling us about the historical moments which produce it. For the most part – and despite the importance to science fiction of pedagogic essayistic or dialogic inserts (info-dumps) – this mode isn't overt or deliberate. Teasing out science fiction's knowledge requires interpretation that can see the text’s “negative space”: that is, which is alert to a variety of allegorical figurations, psychic transferences and disguises, symptoms, inversions and negations, and lacunae and aporia.

Behind such thinking, there is also the excellent intuition that it is difficult to directly acquire and sustain knowledge of the economic dimensions of social totality. It is not just for the extra challenge that we try to discover such knowledge in certain kinds of cultural production: it is because we think we have good reason to believe that it will be more discernible there than elsewhere.

For Bould, the reason that science fiction reliably produces these rich negative spaces is that it does not “take place in a world which pretends to straightforward mimesis” and it therefore cannot help but foreground its own internal consistency. Reading science fiction implies a continuous process of identifying fantastic elements and trying to relate them to each other and to its less fantastic elements. The systems which are thereby produced tend to “impact against material reality,” sort of in the sense that material reality leaves scuff-marks and indentations.

In short, material totality falsifies itself through ideology, and one of the best ways of exposing it is by studying the false totalities of fantastic literature.

There are some elegant ideas there, and they aren't just Bould's. I think that theoretical approaches of this kind underpin a great deal of science fiction scholarship (especially Marxist of course), and a great deal of that scholarship is very useful. It's roughly the sort of thing I did in my sprawling review of Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I think we should keep doing it, too!

But the paradigm has been creaky for a while. Here are some of the main issues.

First, why should tacit knowledge of social totality be so reliably present in cultural production at all, let alone at such a convenient grain and scale, and in association with so many striking shibboleths? Is it not just as likely that at, any one moment, the most significant features of social totality may have left no traces, or a pattern of partial and misleading traces, in whatever work of fantastic literature happens to be under inspection?

Well, good progress can be made on those questions just by setting aside the habit of scholarly squeeing -- where valorizing the text and valorizing the institution of text-valorizing comes first -- and thinking carefully and realistically about ideology (and by looking at what theorists of ideology, especially Althusser, have actually said, not what we tell undergraduate students they said in the hope of being proved delightfully and invigoratingly wrong). One rule of thumb is: the author (and perhaps some editors) made this text, so let's think about how the supposed tacit knowledge was preserved intact through that particular bottleneck.

Second, how should we approach science fiction which does attempt, in one way or another, to address the economic dimensions of social totality? When it comes to economics, it is difficult to sustain a firm distinction between science fiction (where material reality leaves its imprints) and science fiction studies (which exposes them, as if by taking rubbings). Why shouldn’t science fiction writers undertake, within their narratives, to also interpret and explicate the negative spaces created by their imaginative world-building? As a reader, I know that they do do this. They go ahead and weave the sorts of statements you could imagine literary critics making into the texts. Why wouldn't you? And so when economic terminology and concepts appear explicitly in science fiction narratives do they require some different interpretative approach? And/or the same approach, with particular alertness to the confusion which will be caused by interpreting economic language as a symptom of something which is, once hermeneutically excavated, necessarily construed in the same economic language?

Third, what word can I use instead of "totality" to avoid a really boring conversation?

Fourth, there is a tradition of more-or-less informal literary criticism which places science fiction in some privileged relationship to the future. It is easy to take the mick out of futurism, and although science fiction studies rightly rejects naive accounts of science fiction as a predictive art based on rigorous extrapolation of present circumstances, the notion that science fiction has a distinctive temporal orientation is intuitively pretty persuasive -- and it's an influential part of how writers and readers of science fiction talk about science fiction. Science fiction is about the future (including Gibson's famous future that is "already here"). Science fiction tells us what's going to happen, what might happen, what won't happen but at one point could have.

Approaching the same issue from the other side, the economic humanities unpick the ways in which the models, thought experiments and other cognitive-rhetorical constructs of our best predictive sciences -- economics, say -- work as fictions, albeit also as sporadically performative, self-fulfilling (or other-fulfilling) prophecies. In short, while science fiction studies has got comfortable with the idea that science fiction doesn't predict the future, the study of future-predicting practices has started investigating the ways in which they are science fiction.

Design fiction in particular seems to be challenging the scholarly orthodoxy that science fiction tells us more about its contemporary moment than any future moment, by orienting itself at materialisation, mediated by readers. Fabian Muniesa (2014), drawing on Jean-François Lyotard, remarks that “[k]nowledge about things no longer occupies an overarching, critical, general and properly modern position but is now, in a sense, part of the industrial functioning of things” (p.8). We might not want to accept design fiction as SF or SF-related in any way; it could be understood as a kind of unsubstantiated grab for some cultural capital clustered around the idea of the future. But assuming we did accept it on more-or-less its own terms: design fiction doesn't fall into the trap of trying to work with complex and chaotic social trends. Instead, it usually concentrates narrowly a single imaginary product or service in the hope of performatively influencing its likelihood of emerging. A video clip on Kickstarter, which portrays a mock-up or prototype of a product in an effort to fund its development, may be considered a design fiction.  Design fiction does not attempt to predict the future: it attempts to pitch it.

Authors and fans have a particular way of evaluating science fiction: according to what it knows about the future. Literary critics don't have to get on board with every bit of that, but they can't afford to ignore it either.


  1. "It is difficult to directly acquire and sustain knowledge of the economic dimensions of social totality."

    Why is this so difficult? Do you mean by this that it's difficult to understand the structure and mechanisms in the economy or difficult to get them all in one snapshot? If you know the structure can't you find moments that sort of stand in for what going on overall. For instance, if you know that the rate of profit is declining then one moment of a chain store closing would be a good stand in for the economic reality of the moment?

  2. Hi! Hmm, thanks, good question. I'm ventriloquizing a bit -- I mean, I think that the assumption that such knowledge is difficult to acquire in other ways tacitly underpins a lot of literary & cultural criticism of that kind. Maybe I'm overstating it slightly: I guess there are plenty of critics out there who would say, "Oh, I ain't judging, the economists and the political scientists and the sociologists do it their way, and I do it mine." Perhaps there are even more who want to gloss it over, because things could get a bit awkward ("Yes, yes, humanistic methods definitely get to the bottom of things, whereas economists get obsessed with mathematical models and lose sight of what's really important. And I'm not just saying that because I don't know any math.")

    But as it happens, I do think there are particular difficulties attached to knowledge of systemic causation generally, and that economics in particular has always struggled to generate the right set of analytic objects, and struggled to keep its own qualifications and provisos genuinely active within its analyses (as opposed to stating at the start how totally weird the assumptions are and then actually just forgetting about it). And the totality is, obviously, kind of big: it's hard to know in advance what factors to prioritize. That's not to say that such knowledge is impossible, and the kind of "snapshot + structure + extrapolation" you describe is definitely one of the ways in which we seek it. Do you think there are inherent dangers or pitfalls to that kind of thinking? For instance, the structure may not be what we thought it was, or the structure may be in the process of changing, or some other subsystem we assumed it was isolated from may deliver a sudden side-swipe, or some apparently negligible detail may turn out to be the proverbial hurricane-causing butterfly. But yes, it's worth a shot! (Hope that makes sense!)

  3. Well, I ask this question because I'm currently reading Marx's Capital and, while it's a difficult book, I don't think it's fundamentally more difficult than, say, Judith Butler or any other contemporary philosopher who leans toward post-structuralism. Moreover, I think it's important to realize that post-structuralists are not Marxists but over an alternative theory to Marx, one that refuses the ideas of Marx on anti-structuralist grounds.

    My feeling is that literary Marxists should stop by Marx and his theories of political economy, pay them a visit, before deciding ahead of time that it's too difficult or impossible to attain an understanding of the economic base of society.

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