Thursday, May 19, 2016

Notes on cognitive estrangement

1. Estrangement is a term that Suvin adapts from Brecht. This is pretty well-known. What gets mentioned less often is that cognition also comes from Brecht: or at least, if you look at the way Brecht uses that word, it makes Suvin's ideas a lot clearer.

2. More generally, I think it's really important to keep the context of radical theatre and dramaturgy connected with the concept of cognitive estrangement. Suvin in 'Estrangement and Cognition': "I want to begin by postulating a spectrum or spread of literary subject matter that extends from the ideal extreme of exact recreation of the author's empirical environment [...] to exclusive interest in a strange newness, a novum."

Of course the chief thing that Suvin is getting at here is a distinction, always a vague and complicated one, between mimetic and non-mimetic literature. But we could read the sentence in another way. It's very interesting that the proposed continuum extends from an act of material worldbuilding -- an "exact recreation" of an environment, presumably, would not be ink on a page or pixels on a screen, but furniture and walls and timbers and pipes and trees -- to a merely mental attitude, a way of looking, an "exclusive interest."

You could say it extends from the entirely real to the entirely simulated, presumably traversing all kinds of complex future-bearing material performativities. Somewhere in that complex territory, tangled together with visions, pranks, prototypes, drills, manifestos, folk tales, thought experiments and intuition pumps, war games, terms of incorporation, reparations invoices, spec sheets, white papers, victim impact statements, projected P&L statements, and design fictions, perhaps we may find science fiction.

Then we should stick a flag in it, right? Except, of course, that the territory must exhibit movement, because Suvin's spectrum is also reversible: what I just said was the material end is also only a phantasm, an "ideal," and all the way across the continuum lies a core Marxist keyword for capturing the objective materiality of a situation, whatever its participants happen to think about it: that is, an "interest."

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