Thursday, March 26, 2009

Week 11: Slonczewski, Dwelling

A Door into Ocean was a delightful read. But beyond giving a plot summary or simply rhapsodizing about my enjoyment of the work, what can I add to a critique of Door? How can I use Door as an opportunity to understand the utopian genre better?

Thus, as I finished the book, several questions came to my mind:

> Why is Door not generally mentioned in articles we've read so far on feminist utopias?

> Is Door, in fact, really a feminist utopia at all? Is it better seen as a feminist ecotopia, or simply an ecotopia, or a pacifist utopia?

> Does Door fit Gearhart's (1984) definition of feminist utopia? Or fit the descriptions of ecofeminism found in Garrard (2004, pp. 23-27) and in Deegan and Podeschi (2001)?

So I began by searching for journal articles about Door. Not much, in fact, shows up in the article database about Slonczewski in general and Door in particular. But I did find one very good article:

Fitting, P. (1992). Reconsiderations of the separatist paradigm in recent feminist science fiction. Science Fiction Studies, 19(1), 32-48.

Notice the word "reconsiderations" in the article title. Fitting places Door (1986), along with Pamela Sargent's The Shore of Women (1986) and Sheri Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country (1988), as 1980s responses to the feminist utopias of the 1970s. He writes that

the three are very much replies to and reworkings of the central themes of the feminist utopias of the 1970s. A central concern of many of those works was understanding and explaining the violence of patriarchal forms and values. The utopias of the 1970s presented a range of explanations for male violence, grouped roughly around an "essentialist" pole . . . and a more materialist one, according to which male violence is socially produced . . . In any event, the novels of the 1970s often had answers to questions about the differences between men and women and the roots of violence, whereas the novels of the late 1980s are not so certain. At the same time, efforts to break down or blur the differences between men and women . . . have by and large disappeared; and the earlier ideal of "androgyny" is now recognized as a depoliticization and desexualization of the body rather than as a utopian fusion of male and female (p. 33).

Fitting offers an interesting critique of Door's pacifism. You should read it. In the end, while he finds it moving and almost convincing, Fitting believes the happy ending of Door seems contrived. (Slonczewski admits in her website that she changed to ending in order to get her book published and wishes her original ending could have been used.) But in juxtaposing Slonczewski's 1980s utopia to her feminist forebears of the 1970s, Fitting points out,

Although Slonczewski's vision distinguishes between male and female values, this is not ultimately tied to biological sex. There is no essential difference between men and women. Spinel . . . finds a Shoran partner/lover and becomes a full member of Sharer society. . . . On the other hand, the invading Valan troops include both men and women, and Commander Realgar's "interrogator" (or torturer) is a woman. The novel makes a clear distinction between values and plumbing (pp. 40-41).

This distinction extends to technology:

Nor does the juxtaposition of male and female values repeat the essentialist rejection of technology as male . . . The crucial distinction is rather between a machine and what might be called an "organic" technology . . . [T]he emphasis on female values has led to imaginary communities which pay special attention to the "life" sciences like medicine and biology, which are opposed to men's skill with war technology.

Fitting also sees that the 1980s utopias adopt a different strategy than those of the 1970s:

In contrast to the utopias of the 1970s, these three novels do not focus on the evocation of alternative societies in any literal sense. . . . In their dialogue with the utopias of the 1970s, then, these three novels blend literal representations of alternative patterns of life with more rhetorical and figurative evocations of a transformed world. . . . Their very titles—"gate," "door," "shore"—call attention to the transition; each text identifies itself as the representation of a fictional world which, unlike the relative certainty of the '70s' utopias, stands on the edge of or in between the old and the new. Whereas the earlier utopias . . . adopted textual strategies which sought to implicate the reader in the struggle for a better society, rather than simply juxtaposing the utopian society—explicitly or implicitly—with the present, these three novels all situate themselves in an afterwards. . . [T]hese later [1980s] novels, insofar as they stage the reconciliation of men and women, clearly refer to the separatism—real or figurative—of some of the '70s' utopias (pp. 41-42).

Finally, Fitting cites Moylan's description of the 1970s feminist utopias as "critical utopias," and argues that the 1980s utopias are, similarly, "critical reexaminations and reworkings of the now-classic utopias of the 1970s" (p. 44).

Thus we come to the question: Is Door a feminist utopia at all? Here we should recall Gearhart's (1984) definition of a feminist utopia as one that:

> Contrasts the present with an envisioned idealized society (separated from the present by time and space)

> Offers a comprehensive critique of present values/conditions

> Sees men or male institutions as a major cause of present social ills

> Presents women not only as at least the equals of men but also as the sole arbiters of their reproductive functions

Using these criteria, Door is not a feminist utopia. Men or male institutions are not seen as a major cause of present social ills; instead, Door opposes values rather than sexes.

Nor does Door draw explicit contrasts with "the present" and with "present social ills" in the way that, for example, Piercy does. At the time of its composition, Slonczewski explains on her website, "My aim in writing A Door into Ocean was to give students a window into a hopeful future." Only now, in hindsight and "ironically," does Door "give today's post-Cold War students a look back at our dark past."

So is Door an example of ecofeminism? According to Deegan and Podeschi,

Ecofeminists stress the interconnectedness of life, nature, and the environment with the world view of women and reproductive capacity. Ecofeminists also examine the relationship between women's social oppression and nature's exploitation as two faces of patriarchal control (p. 19).

Door may be "ecofeminist" on the first count, that of stressing interconnections. But on Deegan and Podeschi's second count, which links oppression and exploitation to patriarchy, then Door is not ecofeminist. Yes, the distant interplanetary ruler in Door is called the Patriarch. And yet, as Fitting points out, in Slonczewski the domineering power is not specifically male.

Deegan and Podeschi's article claims that the pedigree of ecofeminism traces back to Gillman and Herland. But Gillman's book is an attempt to suggest that women can do whatever men can do, if permitted the freedom. By contrast, Door is not about women in a biological sense, but about the capacity for female Sharer values to achieve an advanced yet humane society.

Yet Garrard give us a different definition of ecofeminism:

Deep ecology identifies the anthropocentric dualism humanity/nature as the ultimate source of anti-ecological beliefs and practices, but ecofeminism also blames the androcentric dualism man/woman. . . . Ecofeminism involves the recognition that these two [dualisms] share a common "logic of domination" (p. 23).

By Garrard's definition, Door may be seen as ecofeminist. In the world of Shora, humanity and nature cooperate in a non-dualistic web of life. And in the societies of Shora and Valedon, social roles are not strictly gendered. Males can adopt female Sharer values (Spinel); females can adopt male Valan values (Jade). Even the dualism organic/inorganic breaks down as the Sharers learn how minerals are vital components of life.

Now let's look a moment at Slonczewski's website. Some thoughts . . .

> The chart of polarities and binaries that are resolved in Door is quite useful. And it set me to wondering two things: (1) Could these be expressed in Greimas semantic squares? (2) Does the focus on binaries mark Door as an essentially modernist work? Even if dualisms are challenged and resolved, it does seem that dualisms set the agenda.

> Having read Dune numerous times (though not lately) I can readily see how Door is a response to Herbert's universe.

> Slonczewski's personal asides—how she conceived of raft trees, how she had to compromise in order to get published—are very interesting and illuminating.

> The amount of space given to explaining pacifist principles leads me to believe that Door could arguably be read as principally a pacifist utopia. If the humanity/nature and man/woman dualisms share a common logic of domination, then wouldn't the most salient rejoinder be a logic of nonviolence?

> This emphasis on pacifism and spiritual values is in sharp contrast to Red Mars, which I've nearly finished reading. In Red Mars, religion and spirituality is virtually absent in the group of the First Hundred and their early society. Then as Mars develops, religion and spiritually are reduced to cultural eccentricities that stand in the way of achieving a humane new order. Of all the books we've read so far, Door seems to have the most sympathy for religious and spiritual values as integral to a humane society.

As for the Garrard and Heidegger readings . . .

Reading Heidegger was, as usual, pretty thick reading and at times impenetrable. But the Garrard reading was the most enjoyable chapter of Ecocriticism so far!

Most of you know my research interest in Holocaust Studies. So it's tough for me to read Heidegger and completely divorce him from history. Garrard did a deft job of summarizing the Nazification of Heidegger's views on dwelling. It was refreshing to read a critique of Heidegger that skipped the customary obeisance and dared to call out Heidegger's shame.

Having grown up with the "Keep America Beautiful" campaign and the tearful Iron Eyes Cody, I found Garrard's incisive critique of the Ecological Indian to also be refreshing. Of course this is a stereotype being appropriated by the establishment. But few have been willing, like Garrard, to point this out.

Neither have I made a secret of being a person of faith. So I found Garrard's critique of Berry to be very interesting. In evangelical circles there is a generational conversation going on between older leaders (e.g., James Dobson) who want to keep the movement's focus on hot-button social issues and newer leaders (e.g., Rick Warren) who want to also address broader issues of social concern such as poverty and the environment.

This conversation was illustrated a few years ago when some younger evangelicals mounted a "WWJD" campaign, where WWJD stood not for "What Would Jesus Do?" but rather "What Would Jesus Drive?" So I'll check out Berry and be interested to learn more about his Christian philosophy of dwelling.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Week 10: Gibson, Cyberpunk

Star Wars is often described as a Western set in a SF universe. Truth be told, I kept wondering whether Gibson's Neuromancer should be similarly interpreted.

My ponderings began with the early and recurrent use of the term "cowboy" to describe Case and his breed of freespirited cyberspatial frontiersmen. Gibson was invoking for his imagined world the enormous power that the frontier myth exerts on American culture.

I tried to imagine myself reading Neuromancer in 1984. Its references to carbon ribbon, computer paper and tape storage, and its assumption that all connections must be wired and the human-computer interface keyboarded, would not have seemed archaic as they do today.

So, yes, I can readily see how Gibson's vision of cyberspace and his move to situate an SF story not in outer space but in a computer matrix, would have appeared groundbreaking and full of new possibilities.

Yet for all that, I found Neuromancer to be rather conventional, a frontier narrative for the computer age. Yes, I understand why we, looking back, read our own preoccupations with postmodern identity, with cyborgs and simulacra, into Neuromancer. Nor do I deny that such readings have merit. Part of Gibson's influence is that he created a prototype world that still works as a canvas onto which we can project our concerns.

But despite the merits of Davidson's invocation of Baudrillardian simulation—and references by multiple commentators to Harraway's Cyborg Manifesto—neither should we miss how Gibson updated the frontier myth in a story with many cowboy Western elements:

> The "hired gun" (Molly) and "faithful sidekick" who is an ethnic Other and speaks pidgin (Maelcum)

> The beloved "horse" (Case's deck) to whom the hero is emotionally attached and that takes the cowboy on swift rides across fantastic frontier landscapes

> The saloon (Ratz's bar in Chiba City) which, of course, was sent up in the famous Mos Eisley scene in Star Wars

> The tension between frontier and border (ably described in Concannon's article) which in Western films (Shane is an arch example) is often played out as a conflict between cattlemen and settlers

> The High Noon shootout between hero and villain, and even the captured maiden who is freed when the hero rides to the rescue

> The ending where the good guys, having finished their task, go their separate ways and ride back to the wild country from whence they came ("Who was that masked man?")

If you fault my reading for not going gaga over simulations and cyborgs, consider that my reading finds some support in the articles we perused for this week:

> Concannon explores the salience of the borderland in Gibson. Cyberspace functions, he concludes, as a "trope" that "reflects a balancing of impossibility and possibility" (p. 441), which is simply another way of expressing the frontier myth.

> While Davidson (p. 192) only notes in the portmanteau "Neuromancer" a cross between neuro and necromancer, Jones points out that the AI of the novel also saw itself as a New Romancer. The SF works of Aldiss, Gibson, Sterling, and Powers have distinct romantic element, Jones argues, perhaps even updating the 19th century romantic tradition.

> Moylan (as quoted by Fair) pans Neuromancer for seeking "refuge in recognizable film noir plots and macho heroes already embedded in the dominant ideology" (p. 97) and—as I too immediately noticed—the instantiation of Maelcum as "basically a humorous sidekick in the ignoble popular culture tradition of Pancho and the Cisco Kid or Tonto and the Lone Ranger" (p. 100).

Young people today might miss these associations, but readers in 1984 would not. Perhaps the closest we come is the allegation that the Jar Jar Binks character introduced in Star Wars Episode 1 is a racist stereotype.

> Several commentators see Neuromancer as modernist, rather than postmodern, in its sensibilities. As quoted by Fair (p. 102 n4):

Scott Bukatman argues that cyberspace achieves the modern ideal of a body dissolved into pure motion and perfect mechanized efficiency. Tony Fabijancic argues that the architecture of both Gibson's cyberspace and nineteenth-century urban spaces "[contribute] fundamentally to a wider moern rhetoric of being and thinking." N. Katherine Hayles writes . . . [that Gibson's] "narrator characterizes the posthuman body as 'data made flesh.' To the extent that the posthuman constructs embodiment as the instantiation of thought/information, it continues the liberal tradition rather than disrupts it."

> In this vein, I was struck by Fernbach's suggestion that Neuromancer has a "conservative dynamic" that belies the "democratizing rhetoric that surrounds the new technology of the internet" and which "tells us that gender and race are not fixed in this space." Instead, she suggests, "The notion that online personas transcend social and cultural hierarchies remains a utopian myth" (p. 248). Thus,

Despite being hailed as the apotheosis of postmodernism, cyberpunk uses the familiar Freudian narrative of a return to the wholeness of the pre-oedipal to discuss the crisis of contemporary masculinity. In cyberpunk, fears about the intrusive potential of technology are displaced anxieties about changes in the social order both now and in future worlds--changes that have already begun to threaten a stable, unified masculine identity that presents itself as the universal subject (p. 249).

> Myers makes a fascinating comparison—which, again, I too picked up—between Neuromancer and detective fiction, especially the atomized urban spaces of Gibson's Sprawl and of Conan Doyle's fogbound London and Chandler's steamy Los Angeles. But I also saw in Neuromancer a connection with the spy thriller genre, a genre that in 1984 (after the 1960s spy genre mania and before Tom Clancy) seemed dated and quaint.

But whether we see elements of film noir, detective fiction or spy thriller in Neuromancer, to me the important point is the one element common to all three genres and to westerns and frontier narratives—namely the archetypal American hero, the loner who keeps going against all odds, all opposition, and finally wins victory and vindication by his/her ingenuity and will power.

> Nixon picks up on this aspect of the quintessential American loner-hero when she writes,

Cyberpunk's fascination with and energetic figuration of technology represents the American cowboy as simultaneously embattled and empowered. In '80s America the Japanese megacorporations did dominate the technological market, but the cowboy's freedom and ingenuity allow him to compete purely on the level of mastery . . . [pitting] pragmnatism and mass production versus American innovation and ingenuity (p. 225).

So far all these reasons, while I can see why Neuromancer is influential as the progenitor of the cyberpunk genre, the work itself impresses me as conventional.

P.S. I checked out Garrard's Ecocriticism and was surprised there appears (at least in the "Wilderness" chapter) to be no discussion of frontier myths. Did I miss something?