Essential SF Criticism

Matt Cheney, in conversation with Eric Rosenfield, says:

Oh, SF criticism is a … minefield. There are a few problems with it, including that the sorts of people who will be attracted to it are generally not of the same sort of mind that is attracted to literary criticism, and there are only a handful of people who have a good grasp of real literary criticism who are also interested in practicing SF criticism. […] Much of what passes for SF “criticism” is actually just historiography. James Gunn is a good example of that. Useful and often interesting to read, but not what most people are talking about when they’re talking about “criticism”. Which many people would say is a good thing, since academic litcrit doesn’t exactly have the best rep outside the academy.

There are only a few writers of SF criticism worth paying much attention to in addition to Delany: Darko Suvin, Alexei Panshin, Damien Broderick, Frederick Jameson, and Adam Roberts (writers such as John Clute and Gary Wolfe are knowledgeable and thoughtful, but are primarily reviewers and taxonomists — Clute, in fact, has inspired an entire taxonomical industry amongst mostly British SF reviewers, who are bizarrely fixated on defining and categorizing things. Clute’s encyclopedias are invaluable and his reviews are often interesting, but the obsession with taxonomy [beyond its usefulness for creating an encyclopedia] is one I find mystifying). Certainly, there are articles here and there that are worth paying attention to, including some good recent work on SF and colonialism (an important topic, I think), but you’ll get pretty much the full breadth (such as it is) of the critical discussion of SF from reading those writers.

At the moment, I think I would find a discussion about whether or not literary taxonomy is a useful practice, never mind whether it is somehow a distinctively British practice, tedious in the extreme, so I’ll skate over that; and because it’s a posted email discussion, I’ll try not to be too judgmental about the “just” in front of “historiography”, though I am mildly offended on behalf of historiographers of my acquaintance. Later in the post there’s a deal of stuff about sf-the-publishing-category, too, which I’ll also avoid, except to say that I don’t think Nick Harkaway is wary of the sf label because he thinks the interesting things are happening outside sf, more that he’s concerned the label will stop people reading his book.

What I do want to talk about is a potential canon of sf criticism, because I’m pretty sure Matt’s list is not it. I’m not devaluing academic sf criticism, here, though I do feel a certain push-pull tension about it; on the one hand, it seems to me only sensible that dedicated training will improve someone’s ability to appreciate and explicate a work, which is one reason I went to the SF Foundation Masterclass last summer [1], and is why I’m currently reading this book [2] . On the other hand, though I don’t consider it a badge of pride to be “outside the academy”, I do somewhat resent the implication that those not trained in the ways of criticism have no useful contributions to make to critical debate, and I would have thought that attracting people with different sorts of mind to literary studies would be all to the good. The SF Masterclass’s principle of drawing its teachers from the ranks of academics, authors and independent critics seems to me a sound one; I have gained useful insights about sf from people in all three groups.

However: the bibliography of sf criticism on the SF Studies website is dauntingly large. For a slightly more focused list, the articles from their history of science fiction criticism issue are all very useful (hey, now Gary Westfahl’s article is online as well! That would have been useful eight months ago), and I know some of the names I’d want to add to Matt’s list — Atheling, Aldiss, Russ, Freedman, Jones, for starters, and something like The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, at least. But I also know there are a number of people reading this better-read than I in sf criticism: what would you put on an essential reading list? (And, perhaps, what non-sf critics would you put on an essential reading list for would-be critics?)

[1] As Liz says, do consider applying for this year’s class; I won’t be there, sadly, because my car’s just had an unexpectedly expensive service and I’m battening down the financial hatches, but I wish I could be.

[2] And I’m sure that once I’ve got past finding the fact that apparently, in English departments, calling someone a “liberal humanist” is an insult, alternately hilarious and really stupid, it will provide me with many useful insights, and possibly even a blog post or two.

63 thoughts on “Essential SF Criticism

  1. Niall, I have to say that I don’t consider being outside the academy a ‘badge of honour’, I was simply pointing out that there are advantages to not being a servant of one particular school or theory. But I have read and continue to read widely on critical theory, and consider it a very helpful tool in dealing with science fiction. (Which is why I find Matt Cheney’s comments deeply mystifying). It is also worth saying that I have found practically all the sf academics that I know to be welcoming to non-academics and to engage as seriously with my ideas as I engage with theirs. Though there are always rare exceptions who consider that the only possible response to anyone not in the academy is to ignore them or to patronise them.

  2. My view of this is “yes, but…” to all concerned.

    I agree that non-academic SF is dominated by reviewers and that it has a particular obsession (though I think that both are fading) with genre taxonomy and historiography.

    But I think that a) there’s lots of non-review work going on out there b) just because a piece is a review it does not mean that it does not contain nuggets of critical gold and c) once you strip away Theory, taxonomy and historiography are two of the most powerful critical tools there are.

    The main difference between good non-academic criticism and academic criticism is its reluctance to use all but the most basic of Theory and I think that it’s that refusal to use Theory that is behind the poo-pooing of amateur critics.

    But the problem with this view is that it’s quite naive as to the value and purpose of Theory in the first place.

    After reading Eagleton’s book on criticism it became clear to me that the primary purpose of Theory is to keep non-academics out of the debate. In order to read all of the works necessary for a full understanding of Theory you really need to devote a number of years to it and with a few exceptions this means doing a literary degree and then attending some grad school. By shutting out the amateurs, academics elevate the fields of study they share with amateurs to “the type of thing only academics talk about”, thereby gaining a monopoly on the means of expression and professionalising an enterprise that can just as effectively be carried out by amateurs.

    While the wave of Theory seems to have broken, it’s clear to me that a lot of literary criticism became not so much about gaining insights into works of fiction as means for displaying theoretical nous. For example, the physicist who got a nonsensical paper into a theoretical journal displayed no insights into physics but plenty of skill at making pretty shapes when he chucked his theoretical terms about.

    For the purposes of landing an academic job in an area where people are just insanely specialised, you can’t turn up and say “I provided good insights into SF” because the people interviewing you might not know anything about SF. But they’ll know Theory and so if you say “I applied theory to a whole new area” they can measure your theory-fu and decide whether you are worth employing.

    So while the definition of good criticism encouraged by academia may well correctly rule out a lot of amateur criticism as merely reviewing and just taxonomy, I think non-academics can rightly reply that a lot of academic criticism is ‘just about deploying Theory’.

    A more intellectually (and academically as Theory is evidently falling out of favour) progressive position to take is that there’s probably as much rubbish on both sides of the professional divide. SFS, for example, publishes plenty of stuff by non-academics and they frequently outperform the academics that do get published.

    There are plenty of tools available to critics and to prioritise some over others is to get a slanted view of the subject matter. I think Matt realises this as his wilingness to play with the non-professionals (though admittedly less than that of someone like Adam Roberts) suggests that he’s much less of a snob than the tone of the email suggests.

    Actually, I say “non-professional” but ‘amateurs’ include a number of people who a) are full time academics and b) occasionally live off their earnings in the field so I think the divide is more between people with lit backgrounds and people without them.

  3. A couple of further thoughts.

    1) Isn’t Darko Suvin’s major contribution to sf criticism historiological and taxonomic? And is Panshin as a critic really worth paying attention to? Have you read his perverse history of the genre?

    2) What non-sf critics should we pay attention to? Well I always read the TLS, London Review of Books and New York Review of Books – not cover to cover, but enough to know whether I want to persevere with each review. I will invariably read any review by Terry Eagleton or Frank Kermode, to my mind the model of what a witty knowledgeable review should be. I also like the work of James Wood and Zadie Smith. And essential reading is The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand (but Mattt Cheney would probably hate it because it is essenntially an historical account of the development of ideas).

  4. Paul, my issue with your phrasing in that column is that I don’t really think academics are forced to accept one stripe or other of Theory as a monolithic belief system; to the extent that academics align themselves with a given theoretic structure I think it’s because they find it more useful and/or interesting than other approaches.

    I have not read much Panshin (part of the history several years ago, basically), but based on that he did strike me as the odd one out on Matt’s list, yes.

    What non-sf critics should we pay attention to?

    Curses, that was going to be a follow-up post! Er, yes. I agree with you about Zadie Smith and Frank Kermode; I’m less impressed by James Wood. At the moment I’m enjoying Daniel Mendelsohn’s latest essay collection. But I have even less sense of what the core texts of general criticism are than I do of sf criticism (another reason I’m reading Barry).

    Jonathan, there’s a lot I agree with in your comment. I’m not sure your characterisation of the purpose of Theory is quite fair, though — I don’t believe it’s simply about exclusion. As I said in the post, I’m ambivalent. I believe in the concept of expertise — just because someone can read doesn’t mean they’ll be able to talk about reading intelligently or insightfully. Yet I’m also sceptical of the attitude that “not of the same sort of mind” and “real literary criticism” seems to lead towards, that only those who have studied a certain approach to talking about reading have intelligent or insightful things to say on the topic. (And has the wave really broken? I’m sure some people would challenge that. Though there is a little bit in The Seven Beauties of SF where Csiscery-Ronay Jr talks about theorists’ attempt to co-opt or reframe scientific discourse, and the way in which he emphasizes the weaknesses as well as the strengths of that position makes me think that maybe you’re on to something.)

    And on a largely unrelated note, I wish the SFS website had an RSS feed, to tell you when they’ve put up the content of the most recent back-issue.

  5. And is Panshin as a critic really worth paying attention to?

    Judging from Rite Of Passage he certainly isn’t a novelist worth paying attention to. Although apparently the book is more a work of criticism than fiction which might go some way to explaining why it is such a bad novel.

    And I very much endorse what Jonathan M says above.

  6. At the risk of providing a direct answer to your question, some thoughts about a canon of sf criticism. I had a hack at this question in my first editorial for Foundation, so I may re-hash some of that here. It seems to me – to be taxonomical for a moment – that there are three relatively distinct streams of criticism of sf, and that they all need to be taken into account. (This is more or less the division that’s observed by the SFF Masterclass, as you mention.) The first is the one that Matt focuses his attention on: criticism originating from within the literary academy, as practised by people like (my off-the-top-of-my head list) Darko Suvin, Gary Wolfe, Veronica Hollinger, Roger Luckhurst, Wendy Pearson, Damien Broderick, Peter Nicholls, Brian Attebery, Bruce Franklin, Carl Freedman, Rob Latham, etc. The second is one that sf has a particularly rich tradition of: practising writers talking about the field they’re working in. So you have there Damon Knight, James Blish, Brian Aldiss, Thomas M Disch, Barry Malzberg, Gwyneth Jones, Samuel Delany, Joanna Russ, M John Harrison, Ian Watson, Brian Stableford, Ursula Le Guin… just for starters. The last is, let’s say, the world of lay critics: people writing about sf who are neither (primarily) literary academics or fiction writers. This would include John Clute, Farah Mendlesohn, David Langford (a hugely underrated critic, to my mind), as well as several contributors to this thread.

    Of course, there’s some crossover. Farah goes in my third category rather than the first because, although she’s an academic, her training is on the history side rather than the literary. (She might disagree..) Delany, I guess, is someone who’s passed from the second category to the first. Clute has written some fiction. Et cetera.

    I don’t want to get too embroiled in the question of Whether Theory Is A Good Thing, except to say that a) “Theory” at this point is a word-acting-as-reification for a huge fuzzy set of different doctrines with relatively little in common, and b) Theory vs not-Theory needs to be understood in the context of writing as pheremone-emitter: does your work give off the right smell for the people who read it to feel it’s authorised, relevant to them, appropriate? Which is more or less Jonathan’s point, except to say that academics aren’t the only people who do it.

  7. Martin, re Panshin: his Heinlein in Dimension was an interesting first hack at a tricky author’s body of work. Haven’t read his SF in Dimension. His subsequent The World Beyond the Hill (with Cory Panshin) was not good, and fully deserved Clute’s polemic against it in Look at the Evidence.

  8. a) “Theory” at this point is a word-acting-as-reification for a huge fuzzy set of different doctrines with relatively little in common

    This may be because I haven’t got that deep into Beginning Theory yet, but one point Barry makes is precisely that the various streams of Theory have core assumptions in common (and one assumption he makes is that “liberal humanism” can be meaningfully opposed to the whole set of theories); he explicitly says, if you find yourself having trouble later, come back to this list, I’ll bet the bit you’re sticking on is an elaborated version of one of these ideas.

    To narrow down my original question a bit: if you (any you who feels like answering) had to give someone five books of sf criticism, to give them a grounding, which five books would you pick?

  9. I’m sure list-making is the neighbour of taxonomy… :-p

    Brian Aldiss, Trillion Year Spree
    John Clute, Look at the Evidence
    Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder
    Joanna Russ, The Country You Have Never Seen
    Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction

    And another five, since I found just five a difficult task:

    “William Atheling Jr”, Issues at Hand
    Carl Freedman, Critical Theory and Science Fiction
    Gwyneth Jones, Deconstructing the Starships
    Roger Luckhurst, Science Fiction
    Gary K Wolfe, Soundings

    and a last joker: Barry N Malzberg, Breakfast in the Ruins.

    Oh, and I should have mentioned Edward James in my original list of third-category names.

  10. Niall, there are no core texts of sf criticism just as there are no core texts of mainstream criticism. Every reader will interact differently with every work of criticism. There are a few books that are simply bad and might as well be discarded (Panshin’s The World Beyond the Hill is a case in point); but other than that most works are likely to contain something that the reader might respond to. Even a so-so work might contain just one sentence that opens up a work, an author or a whole genre in a way the reader had never seen it before. That, essentially, is what criticism is for. So for you the true core piece of sf criticism might be one sentence in an otherwise crap essay; for me it might be a different sentence in a different crap essay. It’s the way it makes you see that counts, and that can’t be legislated for.

  11. Niall: I don’t really think academics are forced to accept one stripe or other of Theory as a monolithic belief system.

    Maybe not ‘forced’, but there is a lot of monolithic thinking that goes on. So-and-so is a Marxist, someone else a Freudian; a Leavisite cannot accept anything of value in deconstruction; a structuralist will abhor anything that raises the name of Stanley Fish, and so on and so forth. A lot of academic writing I’ve seen seems to include some petty little section along the lines of: the author is a follower of [name of pet theorist] and so is wrong; the author clearly has not read [name of my pet theorist] and so is wrong.

    Graham: list-making is the neighbour of taxonomy

    I suspect the two may be closer than that.

    Your list is interesting, but wouldn’t you also want to include counter-arguments to them all? Aldiss’s history doesn’t actually work so well if you don’t accept his definition of (and hence starting point for) science fiction. Suvin could be problematic if you don’t accept his definition of sf. And so on.

    I’d also think of including Delany: The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and Le Guin’s ‘Mrs Brown’ essay and Brian McHale’s ‘PostCYBERmodernPUNKism’ and perhaps McCaffrey’s Storming the Reality Studio where it comes from, and what about Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s Voyages to the Moon (somewhat dated but I still found it invaluable) or Adam Roberts’s The History of Science Fiction despite the fact that I would argue with it vociferously and … well, the point is the list goes on, and they’re all core in one sense or another.

  12. Paul:

    So-and-so is a Marxist, someone else a Freudian; a Leavisite cannot accept anything of value in deconstruction; a structuralist will abhor anything that raises the name of Stanley Fish, and so on and so forth.

    Yes, but your original phrasing was “do not have to accept”; can’t these be honestly-held philosophical/theoretical positions that lead to disagreements? Is there not (to put it more strongly) an argument to be made that thinking and concluding that a particular framework best represents/captures your understanding of the world is a stronger starting point — in terms of understanding what it is you’re looking for, and why — than being a magpie? I’m probably playing devil’s advocate here, but maybe I’m just not ready for that kind of commitment …

    As for lists: you and Graham are both cheating, obviously. Yes, everyone will react to different criticism differently, and yes, there’s always more to read, but you have to start somewhere. Nobody can read everything at once. Which is why my second question was “where should someone start?” rather than “what is the canon?”

  13. (I’d note, just in parenthesis, that we’re all using “science fiction” more or less as a synonym for “written science fiction” and that if we were talking about film, tv, or other media, there’d be a whole slew of other material we’d have to be concerned with.)

  14. Niall – I agree that I was overstating. I think that there are many reasons for why people would want to embrace Theory but I also think that professionalisation of literary criticism is an important part of its rise. I’m sure people who buy into Foucault’s Theories would agree with me ;-)

    It’s interesting to see Russ’ name being chucked about so much. She’s definitely an author whose social stock is rising and it’s set to do so even more when Farah’s book comes out. But to be honest, I’d put her into the same tier as David Langford; I think she’s very astute as a critic and undeniably a great writer but having read Langford’s White Dwarf collection and Country, I can’t say that I’ve taken that much away from either of them in terms of tools. Especially when you compare their works to Clute’s Look at the Evidence or Scores.

    Similarly, Atheling struck me as strongest on the nuts and bolts of writing and while it’s great criticism, I don’t think it is that influential anymore simply because hardly any critics write about the technical side of writing. That was definitely driven home at the SF Masterclass as Geoff Ryman’s bit taking us through a story line by line was an approach that I think most of us had never even considered.

    Which raises in my mind what a canon of SF criticism should look like. Canons tend to be about creating a shared framework of reference, so inclusion should not so much be a reflection of quality or even insight but rather influence and how often those ideas still pop up. In which case you’d go with Clute, Aldis. Suvin possibly Freedman or Westfahl and then probably a focus on individual essays. That’s assuming that the canon reflects actual influence as opposed to what should be influential :-)

  15. Niall, I don’t dispute that they are honestly held philosophical positions, but there is an element of reinforcement and specialisation within the academy that is perhaps a necessary part of the way the academy works, but this leaves those outside the academy free to browse in a less guided, less structured, but sometimes equally productive way.

    Is this being a magpie? yes. Is this a harder approach than being given a framework? yes. But for those of us who are, for whatever reason, outside the academy, it is often the route we are given. Why not make the best of it?

    As to the lists, yes we are cheating, but to a serious purpose. Any one of the works Graham and I named would make a perfectly acceptable starting point. But each one will give you a different view of things and colour subsequent reading differently.

    My own first encounter with serious criticism of the genre was a collection of essays on Ursula Le Guin. I hated it because of the language, though I suspect if I re-read the book now it would seem crystal clear and rather simplistic. But that first exposure to critical jargon, even if it seemed incomprehensible, paid dividends. The next critical book I read was Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw which also employs an often off-putting critical language. But because I had encountered many of the words in context before, I found it was much easier to read what Delany was saying.

    You learn to read criticism in much the same way that you learn to read sf, and as with sf where you start doesn’t matter half as much as where you move on to.

  16. On the other hand it might be possible to entertain the notion that Theory is hard not because academics deliberately want to repel the amateurs, but because it is the result of a lot of often very clever people genuinely thinking through a series of hard questions. I recognise the accuracy of Paul’s picture on the academy (“there is a lot of monolithic thinking that goes on. So-and-so is a Marxist, someone else a Freudian; a Leavisite cannot accept anything of value in deconstruction; a structuralist will abhor anything that raises the name of Stanley Fish”); but I worry that it’s a short step from that to ‘look, they can’t even agree amongst themselves! We [as it might be: reviewers and critics of SF] don’t need to pay any attention to them…’ And that’s a fatally limiting thing. So when Paul goes on to say, of himself:

    Is this being a magpie? yes. Is this a harder approach than being given a framework? yes. But for those of us who are, for whatever reason, outside the academy, it is often the route we are given.

    I can’t buy that. It’s not that being a magpie is ‘harder’ than having a framework (maybe it is; but I don’t think that’s the key thing). It’s that it by definition means you cherry pick: and in turn you either end up reinventing the wheel, or else you miss altogether key insights or perspectives. Nor do I see that this is the route ‘given’ (given by whom?) Actually I’d say bookshops are pretty well stocked with books that provide interesting and worthwhile introductions to Theory; Niall’s reading one right now, after all. I wonder if this is a route given to some (I’m not talking specifically about Paul when I say this) by their own sense that academic criticism is nothing but endless disquisitions about angels-on-pinheads, or endless restatements of tribal affiliation, and nothing more. Some academic writing can certainly be characterised by those descriptions;; but a lot of immensely illuminating and thought-provoking stuff has been written too.

    Some examples: there’s a lot of talk in SF circles about ‘genre’ (sometimes in a narrowly definitional, tribal sense; sometimes in ); but very little engagement with genre theory, which is a rich and compelling strand of academic thinking. Or to take an example closer to my own heart: there are plenty of fans who are interested in the metaphoricity of SF and F. Reading the wikipedia entry on metaphor, or thinking to yourself ‘well it’s kind of obvious what a metaphor is’, prepares you to discuss sandworms or The Matrix only up to a point. But if—to address Niall’s q; ‘what non-sf critics would you put on an essential reading list for would-be critics?’, given that the names offered in the thread so far have been a number of good reviewers rather than critics or theorists)—if you’re interested in what Suvin calls the novum in SF, the way SF builds its texts around elements that stand in a metaphorical rather than a straightforwardly representational relationship to the actual world … well then you need to look into Roman Jakobson’s distinction between metaphor and metonomy, and the (I think, brilliant) things he spins from that distinction. You’ll want to read magisterial Ricoeur’s the Rule of Metaphor (1973). You might, conceivably, want to have a stab at De Man’s Allegories of Reading (1979) and Derrida’s ‘White Mythologies’ (198something). The point is this: in academic criticism, when I read discussions of metaphor the authors understand Jakobson and Ricoeur; but I have read a good deal of sf criticism that talks about metaphor and has never heard of Jakobson.

  17. A PS: Niall: ‘once I’ve got past finding the fact that apparently, in English departments, calling someone a “liberal humanist” is an insult, alternately hilarious and really stupid …’

    Hey, don’t call me stupid ….

    Theory does involve buying in to a number of starting positions and then following the debate in whichever direction you’re interested in as far as you’re minded to go. Those starting assumptions are, when you boil them down, poststructuralist and antihumanist ones—and, actually, poststructuralist because one widely shared belief is that structuralism is a humanism. (I’m simplifying crudely, here of course).

    The trick is to realise that ‘humanism’ doesn’t today mean what it meant to Thomas More, and it doesn’t mean ‘humane’; it’s now code for ‘essentialist.’ An example of essentialist thinking: ‘women can’t drive cars.’ (I saw Rodney Marsh on the TV the other day, saying: ‘I got into trouble for it, but all I said was that if you got on a plane and you discovered that both the pilots were women, would you really stay on that plane?’). This unpacks into ‘there is something in the essence of woman that is incompatible with the ability to drive cars.’ It’s a profoundly ideologically constructed and profoundly malign manifestation of human discourse, and comes pre-inoculated against counter example (‘…well there are exceptions to every rule; but in general woman are rubbish at driving’), or with pseudo scientific justification (‘you see, women’s brains are wired differently when it comes to spatial awareness’). Of course such beliefs don’t exist in isolation; they’re part of a larger pattern of beliefs that have historically tended to limit what women can do (it goes against the nature of woman to want to run the country, have a job of her own, get out of the house etc.) Similar articulations sometimes make this essentialism plain, eg: ‘Muslims are essentially undemocratic’; or not: ‘show me the African Proust?’, which is racist code for ‘black people can’t produce great literature’. Now I daresay people on this thread probably won’t disagree that racism and sexism are malign; but I’m saying that precisely what is problematic with eg sexism and racism is that they are powerful contemporary essentialisms.

    Thinking in essentialist ways is very common, and for understandable reasons. It’s comforting: to dispose of the multiplicity of the world into a set number of categories gives you the (spurious, I’d say, but potent) sense that you’ve controlled that multiplicity, you’ve brought order to chaos. It’s not just that this is illusory; it’s that the urge to control is ideologically complicit with a broader historical and social circumstances. It’s never innocent. The imperial project of the 19th century necessarily went hand-in-hand with a number of essentialising ideological and intellectual discouses—that’s when scientific racism began, for instance. Because essentialism despecificizes it necessarily (ironically, given the way some theorists use ‘humanism’) dehumanises; it is an oppressive tactic, conceptual apartheid.

    The first great antiessentialist thinker is Nietzsche. Nietzsche fucking rules, in my opinion. For many of my generation, it was Foucault who dealt the death blow to Structuralist approaches to culture: for me it was the History of Sexuality that knocked my brain about. For others it was The Order of Things (the famous opening passage, about the structuralist urge to arrange the world, is here. For a slightly younger generation Deleuze was the great antiessentialist … he certainly theorised anti-essentialism more thoroughly and wholeheartedly than anybody else. Foucalt is supposed to have said that one day ours would be known as the Age of Deleuze; maybe he’s right.

  18. Much to say about Adam’s comments, but for the moment I’ll just remark that “humanist” is not code for “essentialist” for a whole bunch of people (unless you want to argue that all those I’ve linked to are essentialistswhodontknowit, which strikes me as really reaching); and therefore that this usage of the term strikes me as a really unhelpful decoupling of its sense in a narrow slice of academia from that used in the world. If you want to argue against essentialism, fine, but call it that.

    Separately, I have to say that I’ve never been able to take Deleuze seriously since the Sokal/Bricmont demolition job in Intellectual Impostures.

  19. Hmm… if humanism is essentialism then surely Sartre is wrong and existentialism is not a humanism as he states precisely that existence precedes essence.

    So evidently the term’s meaning has shifted 180 degrees in the last 50 years :-)

    As a PS to my original post, I was referring more to the way in which theory is used in criticism than to theory as a body of thought in and of itself. As someone with a background in analytical philosophy I have a real problem with the post-Kantian tradition of people who take humanity as a starting point for philosophy and I think that much of continental philosophy’s talk of the self is to cognitive-neuropsychology what pre-socratic philosophy is to modern scientific thought but as with the people who drew up the ground-rules for astrology or Catholicism I would never doubt their intelligence or their honesty :-)

    Intellectual Impostures (and the equally great Higher Superstition) is a great example of what I was talking of though as it shows that a lot of discourse in critical theory functions with ‘victory conditions’ that appear out of whack to people not ‘brought up’ inside that tradition. The Sokal Affair showed that if you judge a paper by its insight and truthfulness then a lot of what got published as critical theory was way off base. However, if you shift the ‘victory conditions’ to something like displaying your familiarity with a body of theoretical work and your willingness to aply it to new fields then those same papers that looked like fraudulent nonsense to outsiders start to look like worthwhile contributions to academic discourse.

    This is not limited to continental philosophy though. I think there’s a point where all theoretical discussions stop being about the things the theories are actually about and start being about the theory itself regardless of its veracity or how warranted adherence to said theory might be.

  20. What we have going on here is a fascinating Oscar Wilde conversation, lots of people separated by a common language. Even ‘Theory’ is being used to mean different things (and I acknowledge that my own use of the term slides alarmingly at times).

    Adam, when I talked about the approach being harder I meant that trying to understand Theory is hard when you are outside the academy, outside the structure of being told start here, move on to there, this is a gloss on what is going on. I cherry pick because I have no alternative, and I recognise that this means I miss things out or misinterpret things. I have read Barthes but not yet Derrida, I have read about Jakobson but haven’t even encountered anything he actually wrote. So yes, in strictly academic terms anything I write is open to being dismissed. That shouldn’t be an obstacle to trying, and I see nothing inherently wrong with inventing the wheel.

    As for what you say about liberal humanism: I take your point precisely. I am currently reading Catherine Belsey, who starts by saying that common sense is neither common nor sense, then goes on to show why theoretical arguments often mean adopting positions that appear to contradict common sense.

    Jonathan, I think the meaning of humanism (at least in terms of critical theory) really has made a 180 degree turn in the last 50 years. In part this is because a lot of the terms that are bandied about in critical discussion seem to have undergone almost exactly the same change. This might have something to do with the manner of academic attack: so-and-so says X but what he really means by this is Y and we know Y is wrong so of course X is wrong. Do this often enough and X really does come to mean Y, at least within the restricted circles that are involved in this discussion. Which is one of the things that makes it hard for the outsider to get a good solid grasp of what is going on. Terms are so often redefined in opposition to something else that their actual meaning becomes malleable.

  21. Graham: Nothing wrong with your links, but they don’t tell the whole story. Yes, humanism has a long history, and is still a badge of honour for many people who take it to mean eg ‘a humane interest in all people’. Here’s a quotation from Tony Davies:

    It is one of those words, like ‘realism’ and ‘socialism’ whose range of possible uses runs from the pedantically exact to the cosmically vague … to some modern humanists, the contributors to Julian Huxley’s The Humanist Frame (1961) for exampe, it stands self-evidently for the secular and rational decencies of contemporary civilisation (ie of people like themselves); while at the other extreme I have known two normally quite civilised and peaceable academics almost come to blows after one accused the other’s latest book of ‘residual humanism’, a description which was taken, rightly, as an insult of the most contumelious kind. [p.3]

    Isn’t contumelious a fine word, by the way?

    Sokal’s book is fun, I agree; but re: Deleuze I would say that, of all contemporary-ish thinkers, I have known more people come to mock Deleuze and stay to pray than any other philosopher. He’s, for some, one of those head-changing thinkers. But to do that you need to make the very considerable labour of engaging with his stuff, which is far from easy.

    Jonathan M. Sarte, yes. But Sarte’s humanist existentialism is hardly an essentialist existentialism. What does he say? Thank you, google: ‘every man realises himself in realising a type of humanity’. The point here is that, as Heidegger says somewhere, the ‘essence of man’ is taken as a ground for the truth of Being-in-the-world rather than relating specifically to ‘man’, or ‘humankind’. In that sense ‘existentialism is a humanism’ is almost a tautology.

  22. Paul; I hope I didn’t give the impression I thought your work ought to be ‘dismissed’. The problem with cherry picking is its inevitable randomness. What’s wrong with reinventing the wheel is that it’s a waste of time and energy, and that one is liable to get the spokes wrong. You wouldn’t expect an artist to spend the first five years of her career independently discovering the rules of perspective, or a physicist to have to work out Newton’s laws from scratch. (Nor, I should add, was I trying to suggest that you are one of the people who think the entire academy can be tipped out of the window because Stanley Fish doesn’t agree with Chris Ricks about how to read Milton. But your readiness to engage with this stuff, to actually address is, is rare, I fear.)

    Paul (I shift to the third person to address everybody else) says generous things about my History in the thread above, which is especially courteous of him, since I know his problems with that book go a lot deeper than just a few passages here and there. I recently reviewed his What Is It We Do book for the journal to which this is the editorial blog, and what I said, for those who haven’t read the review, is that the second part of the book (reviews of specific texts) is much better than the first part (meditations on the nature of genre itself).

    This is to touch on a point already made in this thread. SFF is unusually well supplied with brilliant reviewers: Clute and Langford have been named (I second Graham’s praise for Langford-qua-reviewer, by the way; just as I vehemently agree with his Vector piece on the astonishing under-rating of Nick Lowe’s superb film criticism). Paul is another such: a highly intelligent, perceptive and articulate individual with a very deep knowledge of the genre who is motivated by a genuine passion for it. But reviews are not the same thing as criticism, which is what we’d expect, since they’re setting out to do different things. As far as critics go, I think Matt Cheney is right. We’re not very well supplied with good critics. Partly this is because it’s only recently that the academic study of SF has become respectable enough for people to put themselves forward to hiring committees as SF specialists … SF was my first love, but my PhD was on Browning and I got hired in the first instance to teach 19th-century novels and poetry; only when I’d been in post a couple of years, and when I was covering the dept’s needs for classes on Dickens and Tennyson, did I uncover, with a ta-dah, a course on SF.

    But there’s another angle, and that’s that I’m not sure the SF community has proven very hospitable to academic critics. So, my opinion: the best book about SF in recent years is Roger Luckhurst’s Science Fiction … in many ways more penetrating, and certainly better orchestrated, than my own, I’m sorry to say (sorry for myself, I mean). But the year it came out the BSFA non-fiction award went to Gary Wolfe’s Soundings, a collection of decade-old reviews. I mean no disrespect to Wolfe when I say this, because Soundings has a lot of interesting stuff in it; but it is not in the same class, as a critical intervention into SF, as Roger’s book (full disclosure: Luckhurst is a friend of mine). I wonder if Wolfe won because a lot of Sf fans are more comfortable with reviews than with criticism?

    I don’t intend, saying this, to denigrate reviews. I review. Reviews actually seem very congenial to me because I was originally (before I was seduced by slinky deconstruction in the late 80s) trained in the techniques of New Criticism, which is to say, in close-reading the text and avoiding biographical fallacies. Reviews are good environments for that. My History of SF makes, across its considerable length, I think only three critical arguments: one is not original to me (that SF has shifted in the last 3-4 decades, from being primarily a written to being primarily a visual medium, film/tv/comics, with an attendant shift of cultural logic from ‘ideas’ to ‘images’); the other two are original to me, I think, although they haven’t been, um, universally embraced (they are, firstly, a thesis that SF as a historically developing phenomenon separates itself from ‘Fantasy’, broadly conceived, round about the time of the Reformation, for reasons all tied up with the logic of that Event, the invention of ‘Protestantism’ and the rise of proper post-Copernican scientific enquiry; and that it continues to express this often buried conceptual dynamic; and secondly I make an argument about ‘technology’, or more precisely the techne/episteme distinction that Heidegger draws, with respect to the varieties of SF). But apart from that, my History boils down to a whole bunch of mini-reviewerish sentences on individual texts. That’s not something I’m proud of; it’s how I tried to make sure that the case I was advancing didn’t lose contact with the specificities of actual textual production.

    OK: my comments are getting elephantine. I’ll rein myself in.

  23. Adam, you say:

    [Deleuze is], for some, one of those head-changing thinkers. But to do that you need to make the very considerable labour of engaging with his stuff, which is far from easy.

    I should perhaps disclose that I had a fairly intense period of reading cap-T Theory around 1999-2001 – I was employed by a Lacanian and, believe me, you don’t want to see what a postmodern approach to cashflow entails. So I’ve spent a fair emount of time engaging with Lacan, Deleuze, Ricouer, Foucault, Kristeva, and a bunch of others (though not Jakobson). Even before I was aware of what Sokal was doing, I had a problem with all of them to some degree – both an unanswerable question (since it goes to intention) and the most important one: were these people writing in good faith? Were they (for instance) using scientific concepts because they accurately amplified the theories they were putting forward, or just to look cool and give a superflous (and inaccurate) impression of precision? Sokal/Bricmont answered that, for several of them, so comprehensively in the negative that I think sidelining it as “fun” is rather dodging the issue. (All of which is not, of course, to say that any individual reading Deleuze or the others I’ve named may not come back feeling they’ve struck a rich vein of ore – so long as we also grant that any reading may also be a misprision.) In terms of reading about the underpinnings of how language and experience works, I get far more from Wittgenstein, Hilary Putnam, or Gillian Rose, say, than any of those named above – even though I find the Philosophical Investigations a tougher work to engage with.

    The more I think about it, by the way, the more I come to the conclusion that all the anti-essentialist arguments I’ve seen are in fact essentialist in their strategy and tactics: assigning certain properties to a class of entities (here, “isms” that purport to make sense of the world) on the basis of partial evidence and extrapolating from that to statements about the nature of the whole of that class. Postmodernism’s refusal of master narratives is a neat dodge, but doesn’t get it out of the problem that it offers a master narrative. A teapot with “this is not a teapot” stencilled on the side will still hold your PG Tips.

  24. Adam, you say:

    We’re not very well supplied with good critics. Partly this is because it’s only recently that the academic study of SF has become respectable enough for people to put themselves forward to hiring committees as SF specialists

    The little leap between the first and the second sentences is, I think, the nub of what we’re arguing about here: the semi-unexamined equation made between “critic” (as opposed to “reviewer”) and “person who writes about sf from a position in academia”. Everything else – the questions about the necessity of theory or not, the question (which you edge close to in your remarks about Gary Wolfe) about whether “review” should have a pejorative attached to it in relation to “critical intervention in sf” – subtends from that.

  25. I wonder if Wolfe won because a lot of Sf fans are more comfortable with reviews than with criticism?

    This is undoubtably true. Those who are interested in academic criticism are a niche of those are interested in non-fiction who are a niche of those who are interested in SF who are a niche of those who are interested in reading. You probably remember the debates around the future of the BSFA Non-fiction Award given the extremely small number of people who voted for it.

    Without wishing to sound like I am teaching my grandmother to suck eggs this is also an inevitable consequence of a populist award. How often does the BSFA Novel Award go to the “best” novel rather than a fan friendly one? (Although Air won the same year as Soundings so we did pretty well there.)

    I would like to say more about the analytical/continental philosophy split in this thread and to put in a good word for essentialism but that is for later.

  26. Adam: That you disagree with things in my book, just as I disagree with things in your book, is actually part of what they are about. The argument is central to the whole issue of criticism, and I for one tend to get more from books I dispute with than I do from books I agree with. (God, this sounds very thesis – antithesis – synthesis! Believe me, I didn’t intend to come over all Marxist.)

    But in the spirit of that, although I take your point I think you are maybe making too big a distinction between criticism and reviewing. There’s a paucity of language here, allied with the fact that no-one has ever adequately defined where criticism ends and reviewing begins. Nevertheless, there are surely reviews that can contain a significant critical point, and there is criticism that works as a review. This muddy hinterland is the gap we’re floundering in at the moment. Those of us who come from the reviewing side may be tempted to make too big a critical claim for reviews; those from the academic side may be tempted to be too protective of criticism from defilement by reviewing (I’m exaggerating for effect). But in fact it’s all a continuum and the important thing is trying to engage with the whole spectrum.

    That said, and despite the fact that I got a lot out of Gary Wolfe’s book, I remember my review (yes, distinctly a review not criticism) was basically a call for Wolfe to do something more ambitious. Soundings was an interesting book, but it was essentially a safe book. So I agree with you on this point.

    Graham: The problem with so much Theory is that it is couched in counter-intuitive terms, and a lot of it seems to be only understandable if you grasp what it is arguing against rather than what it is arguing for. And that does seem to leave the way open for the whole enterprise to become self-reflecting, Theory for the sake of Theory rather than for the insights it might provide. But there are insights. Though I often get the impression that the insights I gain from reading criticism are not necessarily the insights the author intended.

    Though, like you, I find engaging with Wittgenstein far more amenable (which probably comes as no surprise).

    Martin: Let’s not get into the whole BSFA Non-Fiction Award debate yet again, or this discussion will never end.

  27. I will engage with all this in more detail later, but one factual point that may have been overlooked: they year Soundings won the BSFA Non-fiction Award was the year that the award was decided upon by a jury rather than a vote of the membership.

  28. Ssh, Tony! Next thing you’ll be reminding them who the judges were.

    Gosh, there’s a lot to respond to here, or at least a lot to digest, since quite a bit of it leaves me feeling in the long grass at the moment. But don’t let me stop anyone! One thing I might do tonight/tomorrow is pick out the two lists in the first chapter of Beginning Theory — where Barry states what he considers to be the basic assumptions of “liberal humanism” and the basic assumptions of theory — and go through them here, saying which I agree or disagree with at present. This is partly for my own reference, but also because I’d be interested to know whether others here stand. And also it may bring some specificity into what we’re talking about by saying “theory”.

    Anyway, more immediate matters:

    Adam, where is this distinction of Jakobson’s that you mention actually available? I can’t see anything that looks right on Amazon.

    On essentialism (which is a perfectly good and clear word in its own right, it seems to me, so why anyone felt the need to invent a code for it is a mystery …), you say, “It’s not just that this is illusory; it’s that the urge to control is ideologically complicit with a broader historical and social circumstances. It’s never innocent.” At the risk of diving into a taxonomy discussion, I say: Never? Hmm; at first glance, it looks like there would be a difference between essentialising about people and about things. It certainly looks innocent to say, well, this is science fiction and this is not. For example. (Martin, I look forward to your good word about essentialism, because I can’t imagine that your example will be taxonomy…)

    Graham: on a quick google, Hilary Putnam looks interesting. Where would you suggest I begin?

  29. Well, this is one of Putnam’s most famous pieces, and a good introduction to his way of thinking. If you want a book, though, you should probably try Mind, Language and Reality; not sure if it’s available any more but if – say – you know someone with access to a major university library system, getting hold of it shouldn’t be a problem. There’s also a cluster of philosophy of language people in dialogue with Putnam – W V O Quine, Donald Davidson, Saul Kripke – who his work may lead you on to.

  30. Paul:

    Let’s not get into the whole BSFA Non-Fiction Award debate yet again, or this discussion will never end.

    Well, we could talk about the Nebulas, if you want…

  31. To paraphrase Rodney Marsh: ‘I got into trouble for it, but all I said was that if you got on a philosophy course and you discovered that all the modules were continental philosophy, would you really stay on that course?’ And yet this seems to be true of most English departments.

    I come from an analytical philosophy background as do several others in this thread and this does seem to carry over into the way Theory is viewed which is entirely understandable given how closely-tied Theory is to continental philosophy. The fall of New Criticism is a fall of the Anglo-American analytic tradition that isn’t mirrored in philiosphy departments. So maybe this is less academic/non-academic Theory/non-theory than a wider theoretical split. As it happens I was talking to someone about Deleuze in the pub on New Year’s Eve and Heidegger came up. I just shook my head in bemusement. Perhaps it all comes down how you view Heidegger: to paraphrase Cletus, nothing cracks a turtle like Being And Time but that is about the only good use for it.

    So some nice essentialist statements there! More seriously my background is in political and moral philosophy and I do hold essentialist views in these areas. I don’t inherently see essentialist as a dirty word and certainly wouldn’t recognise humanist as one.

    I also appreciate that this post is the closest that we have come to one says “bah, bloody Theory, I blame the French” in a remarkably sensible and even-handed discussion. I am more moderate than that, honest. I’ve got my Eagleton on the shelf and there isn’t even too much dust on it.

    PS Sorry for mentioning the BSFA Non-fiction Award.

    PPS Adam started it!

  32. Hmmmm ….

    I’m tempted to say, ‘hey come on guys I’m just doing my job: I’ve got a mortgage and three kids!’.

    Apart from that, I might also add that HE in the UK is the third most casualised sector after catering and construction; that, compared to other professions, we get crap pay considering the length of ‘training’; that, academics work more unpaid overtime than workers in any of the other comparable professions etc. Ok, there are some compensations in terms of flexibility and autonomy but these are currently being attacked by some of the most vicious management practices around. To pick an institution I don’t work at: the University of Sussex – once The Place for interdisciplinary study – has been ruthlessly destroyed by vindictive management culminating in its current rule by dictatorial junta and the attendant climate of fear. In this environment, academics do tend to defend themselves a tad aggressively. Not because, they want to exclude threats to their preeminence but because we live in a country that appears increasingly allergic to any manifestations of intellectual independence, critical thought etc etc.

    In this climate, I do sometimes think the only future is outside the academy (but I’m financially trapped). However, if I went outside the academy I would not abandon the critics and theorists I value (loosely and in no particular order) Benjamin, Empson, Freud, Zizek, Jameson) anymore than i would stop reading sf, Orwell, Woolf, Mass-Observation etc etc and all the other stuff that goes into the frameworks of my thinking. So, to conclude outburst, I think my mind is both of and outside of the academy. There is no point being obsessively for or against the academy – it’s the ideas that count. Of course, Theory often gets subordinated to institutionalised power games but as critical thinkers, we should all be capable of sorting the wheat from the chaff.

    Thinking is under attack globally and we should be making common cause. One of the attractions of sf is that it holds open a public space (sphere! – add Habermas to list above) where this can actually happen. On which point, one can instance those individuals from lists in posts above (Delany, Farah etc) who can slot into different categories.

    (Now back to the relentless grind from which I shall no doubt emerge unchanged but not unscathed sometime around Easter)

  33. PS. Martin, I was on a philosophy course and when I discovered all the classes were not on continental philosophy, I switched to joint Philosophy and Literature :-)

    PPS. Graham, Niall, Putnam and Kripke are cool and seem like natural companions for sf but when i wrote about them in the MA Critical Theory at Sussex (a course so painful it must have done me good) – using them as refutations of poststructuralist excesses (!) – I got straight C’s for my efforts. (However, I did illuminate one point in my eventual dissertation on Walter benjamin and Mass-Observation by describing a John Wyndham short story – but that’s another story).

  34. Graham: Amazon appears to have only volume 2 (of the trilogy? Does it suffer from middle-volume syndrome?), so it may have to be the library. And hey, I have access to a university library system myself, as do you.


    Of course, Theory often gets subordinated to institutionalised power games but as critical thinkers, we should all be capable of sorting the wheat from the chaff.

    Yes, I think that’s an important point.

  35. Niall: It’s volume 2 of N in his collected papers. Don’t know the value of N, if you’re wanting to skip ahead to the last volume where the Dark Lord is defeated.

  36. Somebody with too much free time badly needs to write reviews of the major critical theories as though they were SF&F texts, using the language of SF&F reviewing: the Story that each theory tells and the arc and phases of those stories; the real year of each theory; etc. The Frankfurt School as a polder and so forth.

    (Not that I’m anti-theory — another with a philosophy background! — but it is always interesting, and occasionally revealing, to turn the tables on any proposed hierarchy.)

  37. Adam, clearly you should review this when it’s released (not until May! Pah!) and use it as the basis for explaining Jakobson’s distinction, thus achieving a beautiful unity between criticism and review.

  38. Graham: the semi-unexamined equation made between “critic” (as opposed to “reviewer”) and “person who writes about sf from a position in academia”

    I’d say it’s not so much an equation as a definition specific to a particular sociolect. (Though as given it’s not strictly accurate, I don’t think: I’d say a literary critic isn’t an academic who writes about literature, it’s a person who writes about literature the way academics do, as part of — or at any rate in a way suitable to be a part of — the conversation about literature academics are having.)

    Either way, it should be easy enough for folks in the SF world to wrap their heads around (and avoid taking offense at) given that they should already have mastered the distinction between “fan” and “fan”.

  39. Did Wolfe win because SF fans are more comfortable with reviews than with criticism? Maybe. Maybe also that a review, even the often complex and thought-provoking Clute/Wolfe type reviews are relatively self-contained and designed to be accessible in the short term. Criticism tends to either require a degree of prior knowledge or consequent follow up. The debate above demonstrates taht quite clearly. This inevitable biases against annual awards. Ten years down the line the same voters comparing the same two books with time to absorb their contents may or may not produce the same result.

  40. I always took ‘essentialism’ to be a form of modern-day Platonism; a belief in the existence of abstract properties as distinguished from ‘nominalism’.

    However, I get the impression that the form of ‘essentialism’ Adam is equating with ‘Liberal Humanism’ is the very Post-Kantian idea that objects have a set of characteristics independent of our perception of them and which determines how they interact with other similarly be-essenced objects in the world.

    I’ll echo Martin’s support for essentialism and go one or two further : the discovery of the characteristics of objects possessed independently of their being perceived is the only truly worthwhile intellectual enterprise.

    While I have some sympathy with the idea that essentialism carries with it some unfortunate side-effects (including the magic combo of undermining the belief in the changeability of human nature AND supporting, in principle, the concept of racial classification which together gave us the Holocaust), I would think that it goes without saying that a commitment to essentialism does not necessarily entail a commitment to the existence of those types of essences and I’ll add that I think idealism has some pretty horrific side-effects of its own.

  41. On metaphor/metonym (and I wish I could always remember the distinction between metonymy and synecdoche and which the Left-Hand Gun would be) see Jakobson’s The Fundamentals of Language which seems helpfully to be out of print. I’m pretty sure there’s an extract in the second of David Lodge’s two theory readers – Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Lodge uses it in Working with Structuralism, Routledge, 1981, Ch. 1, pp. 3-16 to play with the historical novel (which as we all know, is simply sf in reverse).

    I suspect my reaction to the phrase “liberal humanist” is dictated by its use as a self-description by someone I regarded as being somewhat to the right of Genghis Kahn. There a certain class of white, male, middle class, straight academic who doesn’t see the need for theory and/or political readings even more vehemently than even the most sceptical fan. And is given to phrases such as, “We all agree what Shakespeare means.”

    On Sokal: I’ve read an account of the events of Social Text which differs from Sokal’s, in which the editors asked for revisions and he refused to produce them, and they published the piece as an example of nonsense. Whether that makes things better, I doubt, but it ends up as critique as slapstick.

    Barry’s book on theory could be followed by a reading of Raman Seldon’s Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory and/or Practicing Theory and Reading Literature (1989)

  42. Those wishing to get an intense crash course in lit/crit theory could do worse than read the Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan anthology.


    >’I’ll echo Martin’s support for essentialism and go one or two further : the discovery of the characteristics of objects possessed independently of their being perceived is the only truly worthwhile intellectual enterprise.’

    Assuming this is possible, how would you do it without theoretical tools and framework and what makes you think the independent characteristics would necessarily be essential?

  43. Nick — The term ‘essential’ belies a debt to Kant. In particular his distinction between noumenon and phenomenon and the idea that there’s this transcendental gulf between the two. Indeed, Kant thought that you could never really get ahold of the noumena of things (the characteristics of ‘things in themselves’) and this view informs much of the hostility towards essentialism as well as continental philosophy’s focus not on things but on human subjectivity (the the place where phenomena take place).

    Without wanting to turn this thread into a re-run of the Science Wars of the 90s, I think that you can begin to grasp things in themselves through the scientific method — though an an empiricist I’m ultimately agnostic as to the literal truth of scientific theory (i.e. whether or not there are actual things called leptons or whether thats just a convenient way of making sense of the data and the formulae).

    I don’t think that things have non-essential characteristics. Either they’re part of what make-up-things in which case they are essential or they don’t make-up-things in which case they aren’t characteristics at all but errors. Things can have necessary or contingent characteristics but on a thing by thing basis all characteristics are essential.

  44. To follow on Andrew Butler’s comment, I found David Lodge’s explication of Jakobson in Modes of Modern Writing to be quite helpful.

  45. David:

    I’d say it’s not so much an equation as a definition specific to a particular sociolect.

    Oh, sure, provided we can agree that any sociolect carries implicit assumptions that can be questioned rather than just accepted with a shrug. My contention is that this particular usage does the job of effacing from discourse a whole chunk of what might legitimately be regarded as part of the sf-critical community and – though of course I don’t equate it in seriousness with other such effacements in the real world – I think we need to recognise that it’s a real problem and another usage would be better.


    I suspect my reaction to the phrase “liberal humanist” is dictated by its use as a self-description by someone I regarded as being somewhat to the right of Genghis Kahn.

    Forgive me, but isn’t that (no matter if it’s a reaction rather than a formal argument) very very precisely an essentialist approach? “Member 157 of Class X has certain distasteful properties, therefore I’m going to stay away from the whole of Class X.”

    On Sokal: I’ve read an account of the events of Social Text which differs from Sokal’s, in which the editors asked for revisions and he refused to produce them, and they published the piece as an example of nonsense.

    The first half seems to be the case, the second not – they did ask for revisions (among other things, to remove excessive numbers of references), but at no stage before publication was there a concerted sense that it was a parody. (And, indeed, after publication, not all the editors were convinced it was.) See the editorial here and Sokal’s response here. That said, I think the hoax is something of a red herring and the book itself represents a far more substantive argument to be grappled with.

  46. Jonathan,

    >’Without wanting to turn this thread into a re-run of the Science Wars of the 90s, I think that you can begin to grasp things in themselves through the scientific method — though an an empiricist I’m ultimately agnostic as to the literal truth of scientific theory (i.e. whether or not there are actual things called leptons or whether thats just a convenient way of making sense of the data and the formulae).’

    Isn’t this the same as saying you need theoretical tools and framework to ‘make sense’ of independent characteristics – which is more or less what I said. The difference would be that I’m not convinced you can distinguish between ‘discovering’ through scientific method and then ‘making sense’ through theory. I doubt many, if any scientists, acquire all their data before allowing themselves to consider what any of it means. And even if a conscious decision was made to take this approach, I’d argue that that decision would have been made as a result of thinking about the question in terms of a theoretical framework.

    I don’t think we’re about to enter the science wars – it’s more a case of putting the emphasis on a different part of the process.

    Similarly with essentialism – I see you are saying that independent characteristics are necessarily essential by definition. Which is fine, because it allows the possibility that those characteristis might be fluid and unstable. However, in the sense that ‘essential’ is used generally in the Humanities, it doesn’t permit that possibility. When we say something is ‘essentialist’, we’re saying that it is fixed and doesn’t permit fluidity and instability. NB. I’m just trying to clarify here rather than necessarily endorse – there is obviously also something slightly ridiculous about having a term that is always a BAD THING: obviously it does often function as a straw man .. but there you go.

  47. Nick — I accept what you say about the theory-laden nature of even non-committal observation but I think it’s also interesting that most notable advances come as a result of someone freeing themselves from the supposedly helpful schemas of previous generations and theories. There’s a great bit in one of Feynman’s papers where he talks about how he came up with this new form of notation and people just could not get their heads round it initially. In science, theory is always instrumental. Concepts only have use in so far as they drive forward discovery of better patterns more elegantly expressed.

    I agree that comparisons can be drawn between Theory helping one ‘understand’ a book and a belief in the existence of certain objects helping you ‘understand’ a physical phenomenon but in the second case the ‘understanding’ is not the goal… it is a means to the end of generating precise predictive models of physical phenomena and I think that’s a very different way of thinking about things. At least there’s an extra step involved in science that is not present in purely Theoretical understanding.

    I also accept what you say about the fluidity of objects but again, either things have certain characteristics or they do not. If an object’s characteristics changes then it just has a new set of characteristics. The only cases where characteristics can’t change is at the level of language where a change in characteristic might mean that a term no longer applies to a particular object such as somebody ceasing to be a bachelor when they get married. But these are not so much characteristics of the objects as ways of describing them which takes us out of the realms of science.

    What would be an example of an essentialist mode of thought in which things did not change? I ask as I think that your interpretation of essentialism’s central claim is a lot weaker than the one, for example, put forward in the third theoretical idea in Niall’s more recent post.

    It’s one thing to claim that the only characteristics things have are those placed upon them by humans through thought and language (which is Barry’s claim) and the claim you make on behalf of the essentialists, which is that the only characteristics things have are those that are subject to change and variation over time and circumstance. If you see what I mean :-)

  48. Er, I’m not making any claims on behalf of the essentialists (if there are any), I was merely saying how it tends to get used in certain Humanities discourses. I don’t follow your last paragraph at all because that is not what I said (I think I said the opposite) – and i don’t think it relates to ‘Barry’s claim’ which I’ve written about on the other strand too.

  49. Graham:

    Forgive me, but isn’t that (no matter if it’s a reaction rather than a formal argument) very very precisely an essentialist approach? “Member 157 of Class X has certain distasteful properties, therefore I’m going to stay away from the whole of Class X.”

    I’m not sure I’ve said anything here for or against essentialism – but I am confessing to a prejudice which colours my response to a particular term. I was quite happy to let Member 157 get on with his Liberal Humanism and carve out his own groove of Renaissance and Irish literature, and fair play to him, but he was rather keen to attack and destroy the circles that he perceived me as being part of, to the extent that he took over the literary theory course with the expressed wish of turning it into an anti-literary theory course. He also agreed to the publication of an article by someone he disagreed with, as I recall using a phrase including “enough rope to hang himself with,” with the hope that readers would see the article as so wrongheaded it would discredit the whole approach (in that case cultural materialism).

    Fortunately I don’t tend to mix with Class X any more (they tend run away screaming from Media and Cultural Studies) but if I do meet them I have a deep-seated sense that I need to be on my guard. Although I should say that some of my best friends are/have been Liberal Humanists.

  50. Interesting that all this should appear a few days after I published my own thoughts on theory.

    Shameless self-promotion aside, I make the following observations.

    1. One of those slippery terms under discussion is “the academy”. One might from some of these discussions assume that every university department is awash with people belonging to various theoretical persuasions. This is certainly not the case in my bit of the academy, Classical Studies, where you’ll find people as hostile to theory as any sf fan. Martin seems to suggest that things are different again in philosophy. I think when people are talking about “the academy” here, often they actually mean “English Literature departments”.

    (And while we’re on the subject, I have difficulty buying into the equation of “essentialism” and “liberal humanism”. For instance, an essentialist worldview I would expect to be hostile to the transgendered – for men are men and women women, and that can’t be changed. A liberal and humane view ought to be a lot less hostile, on the grounds that, whatever, they’re still people.)

    2. I also don’t buy the notion that not signing up for any particular theoretical approach necessarily makes you ignorant of areas of theory. I think it is entirely possible to be theory-aware without being committed to any one particular dogma. For me, this is the only approach that makes sense (I emphasize that this is what works for me). As Graham says, all theoretical dogmas are master-stories of the universe, and I am distrustful of master-stories of the universe (which is, of course, my own master-story of the universe). Niall’s list of the statements from Barry is an interesting case in point. There are two positions, set up as opposites, with lists of the dogmas to which each adheres. Yet my response (and Niall’s and Paul’s) to both is to say “Well, I agree with that bit, but I don’t agree with that, and would want to qualify that.”

    3. What really affects the non-academic’s ability to engage with theory is not so much lack of adherence to a particular theoretical approach, but time. For all that I recognize and sympathize with Nick’s complaints about management in academia, I’ve worked both sides of the fence dividing the academic and the non-academic, and if you don’t have research time built into your contract of employment, then you don’t have as much time to produce scholarly writings as people who do (unless you support yourself as a full-time independent scholar, which in many ways is just a different way of being in academia). For me, since I left full-time academia, time for writing is a precious commodity that I have very little of (also, contrary to many people’s expectations, I don’t get paid more either). And I think this is also the case for people like Paul and Niall and Graham. Time spent reading other people writing about writing about texts (which is often hard reading, as it’s not really aimed at people like us) is time lost for our own writing about texts, which is what we usually would rather be doing, and what we have to do if we want to maintain a profile in our chose field. So perhaps what we should be surprised about is not that most non-academics don’t bother to engage with theory, but that there are actually a few who do.

  51. It’s hard to take Rosenfeld too seriously once one gets to the line, “While I was critical of Gunn’s post, the concepts discussed made me realize that there might be a lot of SF criticism out there that I had never read and never even heard of.”

    Um, yeah. Read a bunch more first. Then come back & make broad generalization.

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