Saturday, April 18, 2009

Week 14: Summing Up

How to sum up a semester of studying Topias through the lens of utopian science fiction? How to tie together works spanning Forster (1905) and Robinson (1992)? How to summarize theories as diverse as classical positivism and posthumanity?

Of course, blogging as a medium is limited to addressing these questions at length. So let me offer a few thoughts that stand out for me as I look back on the semester.

One way of tying together the SF works we have read is how they may (or may not) conform to conventions of utopian literature: the isolated community; the traveler who is shown its marvels; the absence of a money economy and of private property; the stasis of perfection that admits no decline or need for improvement.

Works that may (with qualifications) fit these conventions are Herland, Dr Bloodmoney, The Dispossessed, Woman on the Edge of Time, A Door into Ocean, and Red Mars.

> Herland is the clearest fit with classical utopian conventions, with A Door into Ocean running second

> Dr Bloodmoney begins as a dystopia but might cross over into Utopia if the second half of the book is seen as a journey through a "wondrous" land that evokes Dick's hopeful vision of people who are basically admirable

> The Dispossessed is, as Le Guin admits and we discussed at length in class, an "ambiguous" utopia

> Woman on the Edge of Time presents the utopia of Mattapoisett, by also draws energy from its dystopic visions of 1970s America and of Gildina's alternate world

> Red Mars depicts more of a utopia-in-becoming

Our other readings brought us into the dystopian genre: The Machine Stops, Brave New World, The Sheep Look Up, and Tiptree's short fiction (e.g., "Houston, Houston").

That leaves only Neuromancer, which I can't quite place in the utopia/dystopia continuum. Perhaps this is because Neuromancer is, for reasons discussed in class, a fairly conventional novel. Its reputation derives from bringing SF from outer space to cyberspace.

Another way of tying these works together is with the definition of Utopia I've been developing through my research this semester—namely that secularization is a precondition, along with its concomitant belief in the perfectibility of humankind. Thus, where Paradise is a divine provision, Utopia is built by human hands.

All the utopias we read—those by Gilman, Dick, Le Guin, Piercy, Slonczewski, and Robinson—start with a premise of human perfectibility. And in my mind, this raises two questions:

> Is the corollary proposition that dystopias assume human incorrigibility? Or do authors of dystopias assume that readers, once made aware of dystopic possibilities, can avoid them? I'm not so sure. The Machine Stops, Brave New World, The Sheep Look Up, and "Houston, Houston" all end in defeat. Is this cautionary or does it reflect a pragmatic pessimism?

> Though I'm satisfied with my evolving definition of Utopia (as a response to specific historical conditions, albeit an expression of innate human desires) on the macro level, in the future I may also explore the micro level. Namely, although the concept of Utopia arose with modernity, why does its literary expression come and go over the decades?

There were the Gilded Age utopias of Bellamy, Morris and Wells, followed by a long dry spell until the feminist utopias of the 1970s. Why the hiatus? If the basic concept of Utopia is tied to the historical conditions of modernity, are its contemporary coming and goings also tied to historical conditions?

That is, why did the conditions of the Gilded Age give rise to Bellamy, Morris, and Wells? Why did the conditions of early-to-mid 20th century—that period defined by two world wars—damp down literary expressions of utopia? Why did the conditions of the 1970s and 80s give rise to two successive waves of feminist utopias?

Is there a common thread?

+ How are the 1880s thru 90s (the heyday of Progressivism) similar to the 1970s thru 80s (a high-water mark for feminism)? Were they both periods of relatively peaceful social change and resistance to powerful Establishments, when the striving for human perfectibility was strong?

+ And is there a common thread between the 1910s thru 60s and the 1990s thru 2000s? Are these decades similar in being periods of war and postwar adjustment? The 1910s thru 60s were decades of unprecedented upheaval through war. The 1990s thru 2000s saw the end of an unprecedented 50-year Cold War, whose ending permitted long-festering regional hatreds to resurface and become globalized. Does human perfectibility seem less likely in such eras?

Digesting all the theories I encountered this semester will take me awhile. I found Jameson (even his semiotic squares!) and Garrard accessible. On the other hand, continental philosophers (LeFebvre, de Certeau, Foucault, Heidegger) are still somewhat of a struggle for me.

Continental philosophy becomes gradually easier as I find incremental opportunities to work these perspectives into my own research projects—for example, Foucault's views on discourse, discipline, and ethics are proving helpful for my dissertation. Yet these are not "Eureka" moments but a process that occurs over time.

So let me wrap up with some "takeaways" from this course . . .

> I got a paper that I hope is presentable and publishable

> I received a broad-brush introduction to the interesting scholarly conversations going on in utopian studies, so that I now have the foundation for another research interest on which I can write and publish more in the future

> Though my MA is in Comm Studies, my (1970s) undergraduate degree was in English Lit; so I had the experience of, in a sense, "returning to my roots" and taking a literature class for the first time in 30 years, getting reacquainted with the literature side of English Studies that may be part of the departmental world I will inhabit in the future

> Finally, after starting out the course with a longtime personal interest in SF, I read a lot of good books that I enjoyed and found intellectually stimulating and challenging, many of which I may (because I'm an inveterate "re-reader" of my personal library) revisit for years to come

Friday, April 10, 2009

Week 13: Robinson, Again

Let's begin this week with a brief overview of commentaries on the Mars trilogy and the work of KSR. Then I'll delve into an interesting question on which two commentators disagreed.

> Many of the commentaries (Dynes, Markley, Otto, Burling) took on various facets of the Red/Green debate and its sociopolitical ramifications. Ho hum. I got a lot of plot summary, though this was helpful in sketching out the last two-thirds of the trilogy which I haven't read. And I learned more about Ann and Sax who, as the respective allegories for the Red and Green positions, were the characters most frequently cited in these critiques.

> But these four articles disappointed in several ways:

+ Markley centered his analysis on KSR's "eco-economics" but without really explaining it

+ Otto gives more detail on eco-economics, but he uses Leopold's "land ethic" as a framework for interpreting the Mars trilogy without establishing that Leopold was important for KSR

+ Burling uses Laclau and Mouffe's Hegemony and Social Strategy as an interpretive framework but without establishing that L&M were important for KSR, so that Burling's analysis becomes an appropriation of KSR to argue for his own politics

+ Dynes doesn't really suggest anything new, though he tangentially points out something I think is important—namely KSR's doctoral dissertation which describes Dick's "polyphonic narrative structure," so that we see the influence of PKD in the multiple viewpoint characters employed in the Mars trilogy

+ As a group, these four articles don't really take us much beyond the Red/Green impasse

> Nevertheless, agree with him or not, Markley easily wins the prize for getting off the best one-liner . . .

The trilogy ends on a beach with children eating ice cream . . . The technologies of terraformation offer, ultimately, a vision of small-town life, or such a life experienced in an ecologically pristine equivalent of Santa Barbara: scenic beauty, good restaurants.

What a hoot! And of course, Santa Barabara is just a few counties up the road from KSR's native Orange County, California.

> White easily offered the most helpful and nuanced analysis, taking us beyond Red/Green and (with a nice assist from Greimassian semantic rectangles) offers a nuanced yet clear analysis of . . .

+ the Red/Green/White/Blue metaphors in the Mars trilogy (p. 586)

+ the contrasting worldviews of the initial main characters (p. 590)

+ the contrasts between Boone and Chalmers (p. 598)

+ the functioning of Boone as a mythic questing hero (pp. 589, 594)

Since Jameson is a fan of Greimas, and KSR is a student of Jameson—to the point that KSR even puts semantic rectangles into the text of the Mars trilogy—then White's use of the rectangles provides us legitimate insights into the author's possible thinking

> Franko provides a nice summation of KSR's early pre-Mars work. Here we find that longevity treatments play a much larger role, as people live 500 or even 1000 years but lose their memories every 80 years or so. The plots KSR builds on this are quite interesting. And we also learn that major characters named "Clayborne" turn up in two prior works.

Now let's move onto the "interesting question" which I cited at the outset:

> Leane gives a very nice discussion of science and colonialism, demonstrating how the two discourses have historically gone hand-in-hand. The term "scientific discovery" itself implies an act of colonization. Having studied the rhetoric of science last semester, Leane's analysis opens for me a new perspective as her citations introduce me to the literature on "successor science."

Thus Leane sees KSR and his Mars trilogy as exploring the possibilities for a "successor science" that avoids the old link between science and colonialism

> But Michaels asks how the Mars trilogy can be viewed as postcolonial in its sensibilities when the Martians are themselves colonists. It's like, he says, the American colonists of yore claiming to be natives. He suggests the Martians' moral argument instantiates a lamentable claim that "the difference between someone who is here (Mars) and someone who is there (Earth) can do the trick" (p. 660).

Thoughts, anyone?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Chapter 12: Robinson, Jameson

First, let me lay my cards on the table. Anticipating that I would need to read Sterling, I finished Red Mars a couple weeks ago. So it will be difficult for me to limit my discussion of Robinson only to his first 300 pages.

Instead, this week I will post some thoughts prompted by the Jameson chapter on the Mars trilogy. Then next week my post will explore insights suggested by the PDF articles found on Blackboard.

Jameson's observations accord with three points that recurred to me throughout reading Red Mars:

> The main characters function as allegories. In my view, this often got in the way of character development. I was reminded of religious fiction that I've read where (albeit to a far greater degree) characters are wooden figures whose actions are predictable. As other works we have read in this course (including last week's Ocean) will suggest, wooden allegorical characters are not necessarily de rigueur for utopian/dystopian fiction.

> The word "disquisition," used by Jameson, is exactly the same word that constantly came to my mind in reading Robinson's lengthy forays into hard science. While I admire his homework and (as Elisa assured us) know more about Mars than I did before the book, personally I find his disquisitions rather plodding.

> But I want to focus for the rest of this blog entry on Jameson's observation (which I echoed in a comment about Red Mars in last week's post) about the process of secularization described in the book. For one thing, secularization is a major issue in the scholarly discussions of Utopia which I have reviewed for my final paper.

Regarding this secularization Jameson writes:

What is important . . . is less the issue of causality . . . than it is the evocation of resistance: external reality organizes itself into a problem . . . whose nature poses a problem only insofar as it raises a question about its own coming into existence in the first place, about the very why of its happening. . . .

[This] moves us away from the standard history-of-ideas notion of the central role of the emergence of modern science . . . [and moves us toward] assimilat[ing] science to non-scientific activity and daily life as such. [My note: Latour has called this assimilation "technoscience."] Science thereby becomes only one of the byproducts of this increasingly specified "resistance" of reality, and not particularly even its primary agency, in a process we would do better to describe in terms of secularization.

For it is secularization as such which forestalls the easier answers of the theological or the traditional, the symbolic or the mythic . . . At the same time, this initial moment of secularization also precludes . . . the confusions that result when we are able to begin wondering about the very source of the answers themselves . . . (pp. 397-398)

Jameson's observation here is prompted by the character of Sax Russell who declaims that he wants to "try to understand" by "concentrating on the specificity of every moment," to "tease those reasons out" lest he by vexed by "the great unexplainable."

Let me try to translate. On Mars, conventional modernism won't do. The new planet is so complex and bewildering, its reality resists modernist cause-and-effect reasoning. Rather than wonder about causality, Russell must ponder why the realities and problems of Mars exist in the first place. Scientific and non-scientific activity are necessarily assimilated into the realism of the observable here and now. This process, which Jameson calls secularization, is necessary. For if the New Martians "begin wondering about the very source of the answers themselves," hopeless confusion will set in.

Boone and Chalmers are realists; they just want a pragmatic Martian polity that "works" and disdain metaphysics. In contrast, Jameson points to Ann Clayborne's transcendant Gaia-like worship of pristine Mars and to Hiroko's functionally similar conviction that "social cohesion is cemented by re-ligio, and therefore the unique relationship the settlers need to develop to Mars must be sealed and stengthened by ritual attachment to the planet" (p. 408). [For a discussion of the Gaia Hypothesis in the contemporary eco-movement see Garrard, pp. 172-175.]

Thus Jameson notes, "But it is obviously as the spiritual leader of the Greens that the figure of Hiroko takes on an ideological meaning comparable to Ann's" (p. 408).

For this reason I would propose that, rather than see in the Mars trilogy only the tension between Reds and Greens, a major source of the books' conflict is that between myth and transcendance (represented in their own ways by Ann and Hiroko) on the one hand, and realism and secularization (represented by, among others, Boone and Chalmers) on the other.

As I blogged last week, the secularizing impulse of Red Mars offers a stark contrast to Slonczewski's Sharers who celebrate spiritually derived values and (to repeat Jameson) recognize that "social cohesion is cemented by re-ligio." Jameson's italicized reference here is to the Latin derivation of the word "religion" from religare, "to tie back" (yes, I took four years of Latin). Our word "ligament" derives from the same Latin root, ligare, "to bind."

And how does this discussion connect with my final paper?

My readings have delved into, among other things, the scholarly controversy regarding the very definition of Utopia. Many have suggested a difference between Paradise (a religious concept ushered in by God) and Utopia (a secular concept ushered in by human effort). Here is an adapted excerpt from my second short paper:

Kumar (1978) argues that, as Zhang (2002) summarizes, "utopia is [not a universal human impulse but] a uniquely modern concept that emerged in specific historical conditions. The core of the utopian vision is a fundamental secularism, defined against the medieval and Augustinian idea of the original sin; and its prerequisite, the idea of an essentially good human nature or at least the perfectibility of human nature" (pp. 4-5).

Further, More wrote his Utopia at a time when discovery of the New World had given rise to the travelogue as a literary form. Thus, out of a general human striving for betterment, the function of Utopia emerged in the West as a response to secularization while its form came ready-made in the travelogue. Then, like Yalçintaş' (2006) example of digital media still driven by the QWERTY keyboard, the utopian genre developed along the path set by its antecedents. Thus Kumar (1978) concludes,

"[U]topia is not universal. It appears only in societies with the classical and Christian heritage, that is, only in the West. Other societies have, in relative abundance, paradises, primitivist myths of a Golden Age of justice and equality, Cokaygne-type fantasies, even messianic beliefs; they do not have utopia" (p. 19).

Interestingly, Zhang [a Chinese scholar writing about the Utopian concept in the East] disagrees with Kumar's conclusion but accepts Kumar's basic premise. He argues that China did develop a concept of utopia but explains that, as in the West, secularization of Chinese culture was the necessary precondition.

The secularizing influence was the rise of Confucianism. Its founder, Confucius, is seen in his Analects as "a thinker largely concerned with the reality of this life rather than afterlife" and "rather ambivalent about gods and spirits," who believes "the way back to ancient perfection is not through faith or divine intervention . . . but by a vigorous human effort at the present, in this world" (Zhang, 2002, pp. 7-8).

If this line of argument is correct then Robinson's trilogy could be Utopian only if his vision is secular. Ann Clayborne's Reds would commune with sublime Wilderness [see Garrard, chap. 4] and Hiroko's Greens would commune with Life. Their visions are transcendant Paradises, not human-built secular Utopias. Boone, Chalmers, Russell and their followers are the realists who seek not transcendant communion but prefer understanding to wonder.



Kumar, K. (1978). Utopia and anti-utopia in modern times. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.

Yalçintaş, A. (2006). Historical small events and the eclipse of utopia: Perspectives on path dependence in human thought. Culture, Theory, and Critique, 47(1), 53-70.

Zhang, L. (2002). The utopian vision, east and west. Utopian Studies, 13(1), 1-20.