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Lecture 09 - "Utopia and Other Science Fictions"


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Ninth lecture for my students in English 192, "Science Fiction," summer 2013 at UC Santa Barbara.

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Lecture 09 - "Utopia and Other Science Fictions"

  1. 1. Lecture 9: “Utopia and Other Science Fictions” English 192 Summer 2013 19 August 2013 “History is therefore the experience of Necessity, and it is this alone which can forestall its thematization or reification as a mere object of representation or as one master code among many others. Necessity is not in that sense a type of content, but rather the inexorable form of events […] History is what hurts, it is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis, which its "ruses" turn into grisly and ironic reversals of their overt intention. But this History can be apprehended only through its effects, and never directly as some reified force.” — Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious
  2. 2. Administrative matters ● Reminder: tomorrow is the last day to drop classes. ● I know that no one is thinking of dropping this class. This is just a friendly reminder that the deadline is rapidly approaching, in case any of your other classes are less fun. ● Papers are due at the beginning of lecture on Thursday. ● Today is the last day to propose a paper topic not on the list of paper topics handed out last week. ● As with all other course-related issues, I am happy to discuss paper-related matters in my office hours or via email. ● Questions? Other matters?
  3. 3. Utopian thought ● … generally attempts to envision a society in which the various social, political, and economic ills of the real world have been solved. ● … is first recorded in systematic form in Plato’s Republic (ca. 380 BCE), a dialogue between Socrates and various others which discusses existing political forms and describes a city (Kallipolis) ruled by philosopher-kings. ● … gets a generic name in Thomas More’s Utopia (1516); it depicts a fictional island society and its religious, social and political customs. ● “Utopia” may be read as both “Outopía,” no-place-land, and “Eutopiā,” good-place-land.
  4. 4. Intentional communities ● Flourished especially in the early 19th century. ● Saw themselves as radically altering social structure for those within the communities. ● Frequent areas of critique and intervention included commercialism and capitalism. ● Religious communities also formed after the Second Great Awakening (ca. 1790-1840) to provide believers with spaces in which all aspects of their lives could be lived according to their religious principles.
  5. 5. Later literary examples ● Left-leaning (socialist): ● Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1887) ● William Morris, News from Nowhere (1890) ● H.G. Wells, A Modern Utopia (1905) ● Right-leaning (libertarian): ● Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (1957) ● Robert Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966) ● Psychologically oriented: ● B.F. Skinner, Walden Two (1948)
  6. 6. ● Gender-oriented: ● Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (1915) ● Joanna Russ, The Female Man (1975) ● Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) ● Twentieth-century fiction treating the topic increasingly sees the attempt to rationally solve all problems as leading in the direction of horrifically dystopian fiction: ● H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895) ● Yevgeny Zamyatin, We (1924) ● Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932) ● George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) ● Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
  7. 7. Fredric Jameson (1934-) ● Possibly the best-known and most productive Marxist literary critic and theorist working today. ● Most commonly read works are probably The Political Unconscious (1981) and Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). ● Has taught at UCSD and UCI; currently at Duke University. Jameson at the Holberg Prize Symposium (Norway), 2008.
  8. 8. Some formal notes on SF “we need not examine the scientific premise any too closely, since it is rather the mimesis of a scientific premise which is the crucial feature (and which, according to Aristotle, must be plausible rather than necessarily true).” (Jameson 90) “literary analysis is best served by a conception of such scientific content as constituting a formal device: here [in Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’], in other words, a specific scientific effect or mathematical paradox (or, if you prefer, the plausible mimesis of those things) serves as a frame, or better still, a pseudo-causal hypothesis to be matched up with a story type of a different order.” (91)
  9. 9. “Dominants” in SF periodization “I think it might be better to take an immediate lesson from our own immediate theme of the synchronic system versus the diachronic narrative, and to rewrite Asimov’s periodizing narrative of SF history in terms of so many possible dominants which form different functional constellations in any given period.” (92) ● We will return to Jameson’s periodization of SF (90-94) later this term.
  10. 10. The Utopian impulse “Utopia seems to have recovered its vitality as a political slogan and a politically emerging perspective. “Indeed, a whole new generation of the post- globalization Left […] has more and more frequently been willing to adopt this slogan, in a situation in which the discrediting of communist and socialist parties alike, and the skepticism about traditional conceptions of revolution, have cleared the discursive field. The consolidation of the emergent world market – for this is really what is at stake in so-called globalization – can eventually be expected to allow new forms of political agency to develop.” (Jameson xii)
  11. 11. But what about our argument that SF cannot radically transcend our own perspectives? “On the social level, this means that our imaginations are hostages to our own mode of production (and perhaps to whatever remnants of past ones it has preserved). It suggests that at best Utopia can serve the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment […] and that therefore the best Utopias are those that fail the most comprehensively.” (xiii)
  12. 12. “These [Utopian] texts are so often taken to be the expressions of political opinion or ideology that there is something to be said for redressing the balance in a resolutely formalist way […] It is not only the social and historical raw materials of the Utopian construct which are of interest from this perspective, but also the presentational relations established between them – such as closure, narrative and exclusion or inversion. Here as elsewhere in narrative analysis what is most revealing is not what is said, but what cannot be said, what does not register on the narrative apparatus.” (xiii)
  13. 13. “It is important to complete this Utopian formalism with what I hesitate to call a psychology of Utopian production: a study of Utopian fantasy mechanisms, rather, and one which eschews individual biography in favor of historical and collective wish-fulfillment. […] This is clearly a question that needs to be enlarged to include Science Fiction as well, if one follows Darko Suvin [in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction], as I do, in believing Utopia to be a socio-economic sub-genre of that broader literary form. Suvin’s principle of ‘cognitive estrangement’ – an aesthetic which, building on the Russian Formalist notion of ‘making strange’ as well as the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, characterizes SF in terms of an essentially epistemological function […] – thus posits one specific subset of this generic category specifically devoted to the imagination of alternative social and economic forms.” (xiii-xiv)
  14. 14. The Utopian wish “It has often been observed that we need to distinguish between the Utopian form and the Utopian wish: between the written text or genre and something like a Utopian impulse detectable in daily life and its practices by a specialized hermeneutic or interpretive method. Why not add political practice to this list, inasmuch as whole social movements have tried to realize a Utopian vision, communities have been founded and revolutions waged in its name, and since, as we have just seen, the term itself is once again current in present-day discursive struggles?” (1)
  15. 15. “Yet the lifework of Ernst Bloch [1885-1977] is there to remind us that Utopia is a good deal more than the sum of its individual texts. Bloch posits a Utopian impulse governing everything future-oriented in life and culture; and encompassing everything from games to patent medicines, from myths to mass entertainment, from iconography to technology, from architecture to eros, from tourism to jokes and the unconscious.” (2)
  16. 16. Ernst Bloch’s Utopian schema (source: Jameson, p.5)
  17. 17. Wish-fulfillment in SF ● For Jameson, SF is a site in which the question of what we want and how this constitutes our epistemological and ontological categories comes to the forefront in particularly revelatory ways. “it does not seem irrelevant to inquire how the Utopias themselves, or their SF analogues, stage wishing as such, and what counts in them in particular as the fulfillment of just such wishes.” (72) “What is then so often identified as Utopian boredom corresponds to this withdrawal of cathexis from what are no longer seen as ‘my own’ projects or ‘my own’ daily life. This is meanwhile the sense in which depersonalization as such becomes a fundamental or constituent feature of Utopia as such.” (97)
  18. 18. ● Keeping in mind our provisional assessment (from lecture 6) that SF “explores the consequences of some transformation to the basic parameters of existence,” the genre can frequently be seen as the exscriptive (in Lippit’s sense) projection outward of human desires. ● It is worth remembering that Jameson has advocated (on page 1) the hermeneutic detection of wishes in everyday life as well as in literary writing. “as Science Fiction approaches the condition of Utopia […], a peculiar fairy-tale topology begins to rise towards the surface like a network of veins.” (74) ● Note that Jameson, in today’s selections, is explicitly linking the SF genre to several predecessors and related discursive fields, including earlier Utopian writing (throughout his book), fantasy (e.g., 74, 83), the fairy tale (e.g., 77), and historical fiction (e.g., 76).
  19. 19. ● Ultimately, wishing itself, and the object of the wish, is a fundamental characteristic of Jameson’s Utopian hermeneutic. “Freud’s insights […] identified the particularity of the wish as the insatiably egoistic fantasy which repels us not because it is egoistic but because it is not mine: a formulation which discloses an unpleasant swarm of competing and irreconcilable desires behind the social order and its cultural appearance.” (76) “[We can] reduce the stakes somewhat, and make of Haber [in Ursula Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven] not a Utopian revolutionary, who wishes to change everything and to transform the very totality of being, and read him rather as a New Dealer and a liberal or social democrat, eager for reform rather than revolution, and intent on changing now this, now that, as he encounters the various ills of society one by one on his path.” (80)
  20. 20. Synchronic and diachronic systematics Synchronic. Linguistics. [translating French synchronique (F. de Saussure a1913, in Cours de linguistique générale (1916) iii. 117).] Pertaining to or designating a method of linguistic study concerned with the state of a language at one time, past or present; descriptive, as opposed to historical or diachronic. Also transf. in Anthropology, etc. Diachronic. Linguistics. [translating French diachronique (F. de Saussure a1913, in Cours de linguistique générale (1916) iii. 120).] Pertaining to or designating a method of linguistic study concerned with the historical development of a language; historical, as opposed to descriptive or synchronic. Also transf., in Anthropology, etc. (from the Oxford English Dictionary)
  21. 21. “Bradley’s elegant formulation warns us of the self-defeating price to be paid for any truly thoroughgoing exercise of systemic thinking in history; and this, whether we have to do with a relatively contemporary (structural) conception of the synchronic (or of totality, or of the mode of production, or the Foucauldian episteme), or simply (as in Bradley) of some state a/state b progression, or indeed with some more general sense of the present as an immense and interrelated web from which not even a dead butterfly can fall at the peril of the whole.” (Jameson 87)
  22. 22. Media Credits ● The photo of Fredric Jameson at the Holberg Prisen Symposium was taken by Tor Erik H. Mathiesen. It is shared under a Creative Commons-Attribution license. Source: on.jpg