Sunday, May 03, 2009

Science Fiction: A History of the Present

Notes for a lecture.

Despite only having the opportunity to suggest some inroads into the terrain, I want to get across that sf is present in art, relates to theory, but is also, more generally, an important presence in culture, as a force that brings together past, present and future. So I’d like to begin with a reading of a review, published in frieze. (freize Issue 119 Nov-Dec 2008) It discusses a piece from a group show in Toronto, which took as its theme documentary and constructed photography. The author of the review, Benjamin Carlson, makes use of a statement made by Walter Benjamin’s from the essay A Small History of Photography from 1931. Walter Benjamin says that the mere reflection of reality tells us nothing about reality. Unmasking and construction are necessary to distance it from its functional role within fashion and advertising. Walter Benjamin refers to Brecht, who believed that photography had to be built up as obviously constructed or artificial in order to be a meaningful or valuable representation of the world. A photograph of a factory tells us nothing about that factory or its place within human relations. Something must be artificially posed and constructed to do that.
This review of a group show, called Not Quite How I Remember It, demonstrates how such thinking can be detected in contemporary art.
In particular, a work by Gerard Byrne, called 1984 and Beyond, is singled out. This is a work that is described as complicating realist documentary through formal disruptions that defamiliarized the past in order to reframe the present.
The work takes its title from a panel discussion printed in Playboy magazine in 1963. The discussion was between the most well known science fiction writers of the time, including Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury.
Byrne’s video installation uses actors to recite the discussions, the actors delivering predictions such as a permanent base on the moon by 1980.
The script is divided into 12 scenes, which are spread in non-sequential order across three large monitors.
The predictions of wishful thinking are set against a backdrop of outdated hallmarks of progress: Modernist architecture, and the monumental Unisphere built for the New York World’s Fair of 1964. 

In a review of Byrne’s work in Art Monthly, Rikke Hanson argues that ‘ 1984 and Beyond 'makes strange' the very process of historicisation itself.’ However, she posits this in contrast to science fiction itself, which she claims is comforting and nostalgic, viewing the present as stable, lingering on the past, not wanting the future or change. Yet I see this as a bizarre misreading.
It suggests that sf itself has little to offer as either critique of the present or means of looking forward, whereas an artwork can do something regarding the relationship between history, present and future that sf cannot.
I would refute this. Rather we need to return to sf’s ability to defamiliarize the present, to question notions of the real, and to throw into doubt the relentless appeal of the new. SF author Brian Aldiss puts this differently. He says: ‘Good SF does not necessarily traffic in reality; but it makes reality clearer to us.’ A work such as 1984 and Beyond has learnt from sf.

And it is easy to see the presence of science fiction in other recent practices. For example, we can look at Gordon Cheung, a painter who make use of science fiction imagery to both draw attention to art’s submersion in endless chains of signification, and the seduction of the painted surface as a space of fantastic projection. Listings of stock prices are incorporated into the surface of the paintings. For Cheung, these act as a metaphor for global networks of capital that circle the Earth. The toxic colours, myths of progress, a sense of technological sublime. History, the present and the future are conflated in these paintings as both apocalyptic vision and hopeful image.
There is also a strong leaning towards science fiction in the work of Saskia Olde Wolbers. Visually, Wolbers constructs uncanny and strangely futuristic imagery using home-made specially effects, models, miniature sets and simple optical tricks. Each work is accompanied by a voice-over. These are narratives that fuse found and supposedly true stories with a sense of neurosis, estrangement and alienation reminiscent of the work of Philip K Dick. Selfhood, desire and transformation are bound together in these evocative and experimental tales, as is an unstable temporality that is simultaneously future orientated and historical.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s What we see when we are dead, evokes the technological sublime of artificially constructed worlds, while Andreas Gursky moves ever further towards spectacular and artificial views of the present as future. Here we see his manipulation of a giant particle accelerator. But I want to go deeper, and explore some other relationships that make sf interesting in this context. One aspect of this is the idea of intertextual form. It is defined by precedents and responses. The term intertextuality comes from Julia Kristeva, from her book Desire in Language from 1980. This notion of intertextuality is fundamental here. Without this relationship, neither art or sf would be able to signify anything at all. Also important in thinking about science fiction in relation to art and culture more generally is the work of Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard’s work since the 1980s became an increasingly literary mode of thought and writing. And some of his favourite, most cited points of reference are the authors Borges, J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick and science fiction as a genre. For Baudrillard, the world was becoming increasingly fictionalized and science fiction writers anticipated the radical changes brought about by science and technology. Baudrillard’s work develops in a way that he describes as "theory fiction," He also uses the terms s "simulation theory" and "anticipatory theory." These theories are attempts to get to grips with, and anticipate, historical events, that for him, are outside of the realms of contemporary theory. The contemporary reality is more fantastic, for Baudrillard, harder to believe, than the most fanciful science fiction.Therefore theory must try to grasp the present and anticipate the future.

But to return to art, I’d like to look at some recent work by Heather and Ivan Morison. I spoke about in a previous lecture. An ongoing obsession with science fiction and how it can be bound to their explorations of representation and natural history . Their two large kite-sculptures fuse an uncanny geometry of crystaline forms with flight enabling technology. Their work Dark Star draws on their research for bizarre mineral samples. They visited a place called Quartzsite in Arizona, frequented for the purposes of collecting crystals. In Dark Star, house-trucks, artefacts of a new-age gypsy movement in the States, are depicted in the desert landscape. Above them, spinning crystals hover, ominous and unexplained presences against the luminous sky.
Typically for the Morisons, the title also connects us to a specific sf reference. In this case, the title refers to a 1974 film by John Carpenter. Instead of the clean ordered future of Kubick and Clarke’s 2001, this is a projection of US counter culture and disillusionment into deep space.

However, for the second part of the lecture, I’d like to look backwards, towards a shared period of historical origins which determined both the genre, forms and traditions of science fiction, and the development of art as a modernist form. I’d like to suggest that both contemporary art and science fiction originate in their current forms in the nineteenth century. Just as art becomes the form that we recognize it now, as a modernist form, so science fiction emerges out of various kinds of literatures of the fantastic. The genre comes together in these c19 formations. Even though it draws on stories that are much older, it is shaped, like the notion of the artwork, by the forces of modernity. The most significant figure in all of this is H.G.Wells, and the novels he wrote between 1895 and 1901: The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr Moreau and The First Men in the Moon - he described these as ‘Scientific Romances’. Wells takes existing elements of fiction and reconfigures them in the modern form of science fiction. In particular, Wells’s novels exploit that essential element that the critic Darko Suvin argues makes possible the ‘basis for a coherent poetics’ of science fiction: the aspect of strange newness, or novum.

Jules Verne offers an obvious precedent for Wells, even though there was objection from both authors to the comparison. The distinction Wells makes between their work is very specific. He says of his own early novels:
As a matter of fact there is no literary resemblance whatever between the anticipatory inventions of the great Frenchman and these fantasies. His work dealt almost always with actual possibilities of invention and discovery, and he made some remarkable forecasts.
In contrast, Wells describes the Scientific Romances as fantasies. Rather than projecting a conceivable possibility, their conviction is analogous to that of an dream. After reading one of these novels, one wakes up to its impossibility. These are dreams that may not relate to technological possibility, but certainly relate to social possibility. The dream is one that takes place within a recognised and politicised configuration of social reality, which it offers a contrast to.This correlates with Darko Suvin’s assertion that sf, as defined by Wells’s stories, can be described as the literature of cognitive estrangement.
In his own account of the scientific romances, Wells’s trick was to domesticate the impossible. A plausible illusion allows the story to play out, and science becomes a modern substitute for magic, which Wells thought had lost its narrative currency by the late nineteenth century: ‘I simply brought the fetish stuff up to date, and made it as near actual theory as possible’.
Wells sees the business of the fantasy writer as maintaining a sense of reality. Used in this precise way, fantasy holds the potential, in Wells’s argument, to provide a new and novel angle on telling stories which themselves might be discursively revealing. This is something that he takes from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Wells’s stories do not shy away from reflecting upon contemporary political and social discussions’. Writing soon after Wells’s death, Borges wrote that Wells ‘bestowed sociological parables with a lavish hand’. Such a compliment can be placed alongside Joseph Conrad’s description of Wells as the realist of the fantastic. And the ideas of lavishly inscribed sociological parables, put together as convincingly rendered material reflections of the present in the screen of the future, has haunted science fiction ever since Wells. Sometimes the message is explicit and directed, but sometimes, vaguer, more intuitive.

But, for the final part of the lecture, I want to look at the end of Wells’s career. in closeness to death he equates his own imminent demise with a sense of inescapable catastrophe; no less than the end of the world. In his essay Mind at the End of its Tether, written in 1946, the year of his death, the words are characterised by a disturbing sense of breakdown, which reflects a sense of physical and psychic breakdown, yet he captures an anxiety about present and future, together with an overwhelming sense of failure regarding a lifetime that is conflated with plans and hopes for all manner of utopian fulfilment. The breakdown in reality that his text constitutes may allow a breakdown of his own model of temporality, and suggest a model of time and history that is appropriate for my own enquiry here. This is not the idea of time as fourth dimension as set out in The Time Machine, a controllable or navigable medium. There is an abandoning of the technological model of time travel as the operation of machines. Time is trauma, memory, psychotic fantasy and delusion. Causality is replaced by an uncomfortable proximity between possibility and inevitability. Writing shortly before his death, Wells’s tone is apocalyptic.
It implies that things can no longer hold together according the same binding fabric that once seemed to make sense of events. The very sequence of events is untrustworthy. He speaks of himself, as was characteristic, in the third person:

‘P45 He did his utmost to pursue the trends, that upward spiral, towards their converge in a new phase in the story of life, and the more he weighed the realities before him the less was he able to detect any convergence whatever. Changes had ceased to be systematic, and the further he estimated the course they were taking, the greater their divergence. Hitherto events had been held together by a certain logical consistency, as the heavenly bodies as we know them have been held together by the pull, the golden cord, of Gravitation. Now it is as if that cord had vanished and everything was driving anyhow to anywhere at a steadily increasing velocity.’

Within this untrustworthy sequence Wells describes, we can recognise that although there is a failure of projects, of hopeful and didactic projections, there is an alarming success in predicting the extremity, or state of exception, he now faces at his death. The pattern of things to come has faded away (P46). . But as things fall apart, and gravity loses its hold, perhaps this chaos is not as hopeless as Wells depicts, a broken model of time that may prove useful. This temporality has some points of reference that suggest the terrain I want to allude to: The abrupt transitions of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 (1969), and also of J.G Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), both reflecting William Burrough’s own fractured temporality of Naked Lunch from a decade earlier (1959), while the reversed chronology of Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow (1991) inverts a linear narrative of the Holocaust.

I’m drawn to the idea that trapped within the intersection between science fiction and utopia is a not-writing of the disaster, a facetious recalling of Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster (1980). Blanchot posits the Holocaust as a breakdown of history, memory and language, a rupture from which history cannot recover or escape. But it also posits a challenge to representation:

The holocaust, the absolute event of history (…) that utter-burn where all history took fire, where the movement of Meaning was swallowed up,(…). How can it be preserved, even by thought? How can thought be made the keeper of the holocaust where all was lost, including guardian thought? (P47)

The works of fiction that I am interested in interpreting in response to this include those that occupy a comfortable and central position as utopian narratives: Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and The Handmaid’s Tale are all central to the ideas I am discussing. But then I am drawn to narratives that skit around the boundaries, erode them, make possible a kind of pollution, a slippage between the science fiction genre and the rest of the world.

Primo Levi’s short stories, recently published in the volume A Tranquil Star (2007 in English), serve as an interesting example of this. Levi is best known for his writings that reference the holocaust directly, in particular Survival in Auschwitz. But with these stories there are overlaps with science fiction – intersecting the genre without fully entering into it. In a letter to his publisher about his short stories, ‘Levi says that he is trying to give form to a perception he has of “an unravelling in the world, a breach, large or small, a ‘defect of form’ that annihilates one or another aspect of our civilization or our moral universe.” I only have time to briefly describe two of the stories from the collection. In ‘Censorship in Bitinia’, (1961) An authoritarian state seeks a resolution to a particular diffuclty – who is best suited for the reliable operation of censoring texts? P49 ‘, the work of censorship, which is damaging to the human brain, and is performed in far too rigid a manner by machines, could be profitably entrusted to animals trained for the purpose.’
‘The animal best adapted for the task is the common barnyard chicken. ‘They stick scrupulously to the prescribed mental programs, and, given their cold, calm nature, and their evanescent memory, they are not subject to distractions.’The second is his story ‘The Knall’ (Published 1971) , which examines bare life, and an ethics of easy killing.
The story is built around a pop-culture craze for a small cylindrical object called a knall. This is lethal but kitsch object taken to an extreme of its destructive capability.

Within these stories, Levi tells us that he is interested in emphasising ambiguity, Levi writes : (P16) “a story has as many meanings as there are keys in which it can be read, and so all interpretations are true, in fact that more interpretations a story can give, the more ambiguous it is. I insist on this word, ‘ambiguous’: a story must be ambiguous or else it is a news story, therefore everything is valid, rationality is valid, the science fiction world is valid, and even the sensation of dreams is (P17) valid.”’ This question of validity is one that I would like to sustain here. It brings us back to the challenge to representation created, or perhaps made explicit, by the Holocaust. And it is to Adorno’s response to this challenge that I would like to return now. Adorno states that a new categorical imperative has been imposed by Hitler on unfree mankind: we have to arrange our thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen. This, I would like to suggest, is the ethical and redemptive possibility that can be drawn from the bleakest or bitterest of intersections between utopia and science fiction.
Yet the question of validity also needs to be addressed in terms of both culture industry, and perhaps more importantly within the context of his discussion of the autonomous and committed work.
Adorno is motivated by a desire to see avant-garde works defy the homogenising effect of commercialisation, to resist the market, to protect something of subjectivity that may be embodied in an artwork, to protect it from the reduction of exchange value and the dominant ideologies of oppressive capitalism.

For Adorno, this will always be grimly inescapable.Yet I would argue that science fiction is able to articulate critical voices as counter narratives.
It can also be seen, as an intertextual genre, as something that has a degree of autonomy, of internal and referential abstractions. Value, or validty, for Adorno, must be found in resistance, and resistance must be achieved through a kind of difficulty of form. And perhaps this attention to form is precisely what needs to be articulated within the spaces of science fiction.
His objection to politically committed literature or art, which shows the pain and suffering of those who have been subject to the cruelty, injustice and horrors of the twentieth century, is that it turns suffering into consumable images. Adorno states, infamously, that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. In saying this, he is warning against a betrayal of suffering. To constructively write poetry after Auschwitz relies upon an internal radicalism.
To write explicitly about the horror of Auschwitz is to make genocide a part of cultural heritage, a theme of literature, which ultimately makes it easier to play along with the culture which gave birth to murder. If you remember, he says: “The so-called artistic representation of the sheer physical pain of people beaten to the ground by rifle butts contains, however remotely, the power to elicit enjoyment out of it.” Stylization makes the unthinkable appear to have meaning, and in this, there is a kind of injustice done to the victims. Committed art or literature appears to oppose society yet remains a part of it. The work appears to be saying ‘it should be otherwise’, but that to announce itself in this way can only lead to the degradation of this sentiment.
Rather the hidden form in the autonomous work is the wordless assertion of what cannot be said in politics. This is not just a characteristic of autonomous art, but is its burden. And science fiction, I would like to suggest, might offer forms of autonomous work. We have infinite variations of the it should be otherwise. And this is the burden of sf.

But how might this idea of burden relate to the figure of the survivor?
Saul Bellow offers a such a figure at the centre of his novel Mr Sammler’s Planet. Sammler is an old man observing social change in New York in the late 60s, a Holocaust survivor who had been friends with Wells. He is witnessing a liberal society in an apparent process of degeneration, fueling his own sense of disillusion. In one of the rare occasions he discusses Wells directly, Sammler positions his despair in relation to Wells:

‘I would not swear that mankind was governable. But Wells was inclined to believe that it was. (…) But in World War Two he despaired. He compared humankind to rats in a sack, desperately struggling and biting.’

Writing on Mr Sammler’s Planet, a critic called Kurt Dittmar recognises the obvious connection between Sammler and Wells’s Mind At the End of Its Tether, and comments on Sammler’s rejection of the possibility of the survival of the Enlightenment. Ditmar says:

‘He is authorised to do that as a survivor of the Holocaust, which finally demolished the Enlightenment and its conception of the human being as naturally good and thus at least potentially in control of his or her social morality. The work of H. G. Wells, (…) is presented as the utopian ultima ratio (which means Last Resort) of a foolish moral idealism founded on the irrational credo of enlightened humanity. Well’s last publication (…) has its symbolic equivalent in the confrontation of Sammler’s cultural ambitions with the ultimate destructiveness of the Holocaust. A close acquaintance and an admirer of H. G. Wells, Sammler had collected notes for an intimate biography; and in 1939, joined by his wife who has an inheritance case to attend to, he takes these notes to Poland, “expecting to have spare time for the memoir”. They are caught by the Nazi invaders; and although Sammler miraculously escapes, his wife is murdered; his notes on H. G. Wells are destroyed and leave no trace within “the geyser that rose a mile or two into the sky” when “the country exploded”. This deliberately non-specific way of referring to the Holocaust is typical of Bellow’s style, and the present context clearly demonstrates its function: (and here I think is Dittmars important point, and the point I am trying to make too) Bellow is not concerned with the historical particularity of the Holocaust as a specifically Jewish fate, but with the Holocaust as the final – i.e., quintessential – disruption of the Enlightenment and its moral optimism, whose last great representative was H. G. Wells.’

This disruption of the Enlightenment that Dittmar articulates may also resonate with Hannah Arendt’s indictment, that this crime was different to the basic anti-Semitism that had existed before. This was the wish not just to have no Jews in Germany, but no jews. this is new. A crime against human status. (pp91-92)

However, Sammler’s rejection of the survival of Enlightenment intersects, albeit from the margins, the discursive spaces of utopia and science fiction. In this area of intersection, we may find passages between the autonomous and the committed form. We may find texts that are tied to ideological commodity status, yet as Bloch and Jameson have illuminated, these works can always be read in terms of counter-narrative and oppositional impulse. And what of Sammler himself, blinded in one eye after, exactly as Adorno describes, being beaten to the ground with a rifle butt. Are we left to complicitly enjoy this act of violence, as we may the image of the boot on face offered by Orwell’s 1984? Or perhaps Sammler’s despair, rather than being ossified as a theme of literature, may instead suggest a recovery of Enlightenment that could aim to be as universal as its destruction.
The imposition of a new categorical imperative, to arrange thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, is broken free of any lingering specificity and lurks within the spaces of utopia and science fiction.
Within such spaces, enlightenment is to be critiqued, like utopia, but not abandoned. Ultimately, we are left with an urgent need to retrieve enlightenment, and the world of science fiction might be just the place to do this.

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