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.

No comments: