Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Notes on Estrangement 1: Quick skeptical comment on WorldCon academic track in Helsinki

This may just be the blazing Finnish sun and that weird walnut drink talking, but.

During his paper, Andrew Butler discussed Darko Suvin -- the theorist whose ideas are totally indispensable to our distinctively coherent, and focused, and totally packed-to-the-gunnels enclave conference here in Helsinki -- and in a throwaway comment, mentioned that Suvin thinks only a small fraction of SFF is any good.

Another way of putting that: Suvin might say that only a small fraction of SFF is actually cognitively estranging. (And btw, the more recent Suvin would certainly see cognitive and non-cognitive estrangement as braided together within any text, rather than functioning as a big distinction between SF and fantasy, or differentiating good books from bad ones).

I suspect that he'd see non-cognitive estrangements (which are mystifying, politically useless, conservative or reactionary in their effect) as fairly common. I think I would see them that way too, too, at least for the sake of argument!

I've been to two sessions and seen some fantastic papers and enjoyed them whole(withered)heartedly. But could that very enjoyment point to a problem? Is there maybe a pattern developing here? Do we perhaps systematically overestimate the political usefulness, or revelatory power, of the SFF we happen to love and/or happen to be researching? And/or if these texts do contain radical potentials (via cognitive estrangement or some other mechanism), do we systematically overestimate the ease with which we may access and elaborate those potentials as critics?

To take a crude example (and without doing justice to the nuance of the papers we've seen!): what if the figure of the cyborg does not rupture, but rather reinforces, the binary between nature and technology? What if chimeric human-animal hybrids likewise do not rupture, but rather reinforce, the binary between human and non-human?

(Or perhaps, what if these binaries have become like playthings that texts can rupture as often as they like to little or no effect, while unwittingly reinforcing other equivalent binaries, whose namelessness and elusiveness are part of their resilience and power? Equivalent binaries or other structures which nevertheless are quietly carrying out ubiquitous and obscure work on behalf of anthropocentric domination?)

I find the idea that We3 or Oryx & Crake or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? disquiet my deep normative structures halfway convincing. I also find the idea that they reinforce those structures halfway convincing.

There is a rich tradition of Marxist literary criticism, to which Suvin surely belongs, which takes as its starting point the powerful recuperative capacities of capitalism and its intermeshed systems of oppression ... a tradition which begins by viewing any object of culture as probably complicit, in at least most of its aspects, with that dominant order. Are we in danger of forgetting that tradition here?

In the WorldCon booklet, there's a splendid and indispensable field guide to academics. One important factoid is: academics do not squee, they critique. Behind it there hovers a gentle tongue-in-cheek recognition of the passion and pleasure of many SFF academics: shhh, don't spoil it for them, critique is just a scholarly squee -- nobody spoil it for them!

It feels a little close to the bone.


  1. Gary K Wolfe and I did a podcast under the aegis of Joonas Kauppinen, who asked us all about estrangement. As neither of us had done academic track stuff (me for pretty obvious reasons: not being one), we winged it. Starting with Darko of course. Ranging pretty far afield. We had a lot of fun. Hope the podcast will convey the fun

  2. I talked to Darko a couple of days ago, and he wished that someone had told him about the theme for the academic track; he would have been happy to come if he had known and had been asked to. (He was only a few hundred miles away at the time. He's back in Italy now.)

    It would have been interesting if Merja had known. Or if I had looked at the academic programme before the con, and told Darko.

  3. Damn, I did look at the programme and missed it. :( The Ubiq team will not be pleased with me. Mihaela