Conference Report: Sublime Cognition 2018

By Eli Lee


Sublime Cognition, the second annual conference of the London Science Fiction Research Community, was held on 14-15th September at Birkbeck, University of London. Over two days, its attendees looked at the theme of science fiction and metaphysics from an enormous, and often highly original, variety of perspectives. As its organisers Aren Roukema, Francis Gene-Rowe, Rhodri Davies and Katie Stone outlined in the conference programme: ‘the functional and thematic relationship of the metaphysical to SF is now widely acknowledged, but the roles played by such phenomena – and their implications for a wider understanding of SF as genre or mode – have yet to be subject to significant interrogation or debate.’ Sublime Cognition set out to address this, by way of presentations and discussions that ranged from evolutionary metaphysics to satanic socialism to artificial intelligence, Buddhism and Chinese SF. It was a fascinating two days covering a huge amount of fertile ground – this conference report outlines at least some of it, with apologies to those whose presentations I missed.

When the LSFRC 2017-18 reading group announced the Sublime Cognition theme a year ago, the reference to Darko Suvin’s sense of the ‘cognitive’ was clear – Suvin understood SF as guided by a ‘rational empiricist epistemology that separates it from the spiritual, supernatural and numinous concerns of other literatures of the fantastic.’ The conference showed just how much this rational, empiricist epistemology is troubled by, as the LSFRC puts it, ‘a long history of engagement with myth, religious imagery, magic and mysticism’. The conference participants were looking to further unpack this relationship between the two, as well as investigate what might be in that ‘tertiary space’ that exists between their oppositional pulls.

The conference kicked off with Roger Luckhurst’s excellent keynote on Gareth Edwards’ low-budget 2010 film ‘Monsters’. There’s a scene in ‘Monsters’ in which the sublime is truly reckoned with – at the culmination of the film, in a deserted petrol station, its characters confront one of the giant tentacled monsters up close and personal. The effect is one of awe, amazement and fear, a “perverse mix of pleasure and pain” – in other words, it is a confrontation with the sublime, as per its 18th-century meaning. Luckhurst went onto incisively and entertainingly deconstruct this scene and its potential interpretations. He referred specifically to Jack Halberstam’s ‘Monster Theory’, which suggests that with monsters, meaning always outruns itself – in the ‘monstrous sublime’, monsters always escape taxonomic fixity – there is always interpretative overload.

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Monsters (2010)

Luckhurst went onto explain how we can situate this theory within the particular context of ‘Monsters’. The film is post-catastrophe – it takes place six years after an alien invasion on earth, in a border zone between Mexico and the United States. Luckhurst argued for not seeing the film as a universal allegory but instead understanding that its horizon of interpretation could be fruitfully local – there is already and real and famous antagonism (and power asymmetry) between Mexico and the US, with the migrant trail leading up to the border already its own form of sun-soaked gothic; and then the border zone between the two is already conceived of as liminal, mysterious, enigmatic. Perhaps ‘Monsters’ reflects and comments on this. Luckhurst introduced us to ideas of ‘gore capitalism’ (as per the book by Sayak Valencia) and the ‘vast necro-economy’, that result from these antagonistic, conflict-strewn migration networks, and he wondered, too, about the extent to which ‘Monsters’ is immersed in a cultural imaginary which figures Mexico as a ‘zone of death’, and in the borderline ecosystem as a place of enigmatic unreadability and hybridity. He made a fascinating case for ‘Monsters’ as a work of a local, historical moment, and a strong case, too, for resisting a comprehensive allegorical interpretation, and instead understanding its enigmatic core – one which keeps you trying and trying to read it.

This was such an interesting, wide-ranging presentation and got the conference off to a great start. Next up was James Burton’s compelling take on SF as gnostic myth. He began by engaging with the dichotomies at the heart of ‘sublime cognition’ – the fact of it being both an irrational and rational idea, and of SF being both critical and conservative. But, he reminded us, the rational depends on the irrational – you can’t have one without the other. And SF both enables the imperial imaginary and also reveals its underside, its inherent irrationality. This means that rationality’s undoing is inherent within its own foundations; and in Burton’s view, in SF, this is a form of rationalistic autocritique. And the idea of a gnostic myth is to present, or experiment with, alternatives to the universalising doctrines of the rational. This is why, for example, we can see writers like Philip K Dick as offering us gnostic myths with their novels – in particular when Dick experiments with forms of salvation (which I won’t go into detail about here), he exposes more clearly the irrational, subversive underside of the totalising logics of capitalism.

This led nicely onto a talk by Jo Walton on satanic socialism in science fiction – alas, I was a little late so missed the beginning of it, and only caught up with it when Jo was talking about the idea of supernatural supercomputers. Walton suggested that we draw on a common pool of resources to construe both AI and supernatural entities – for example, the idea of the malign compliance of the magical servant who won’t stop what it’s doing (like the golem); or the supremely powerful malevolent being who can be tricked; or, say, hubristic artificers whose contraptions do unexpected things. But ‘these folkloric materials,’ he said, ‘do get mobilised in new ways with AI’ – such as around the anxiety around AI usurping human judgment, or, for example, or belief that AI is both simultaneously titanic and strangely fragile. None of these ideas, Walton suggests, are yet especially helpful when it comes to understanding the actual role AI is playing in reshaping society, and it’s worth questioning why we have such a strong impulse to feel ‘at home’ among AI processes, and why we need to construe them as agential, and also, how this might be challenged by the unpredictable new directions AI might take in the future…

Walton went on to talk about the Chilean Project Cybersyn (1971-73), an experiment in cybernetic economic management during Salvador Allende’s brief presidency. Cybersyn, a sort of precursor to Big Data, was intended to encourage the free exchange of information and worker participation in this Marxist period. It presented a radical new alternative to the neoliberal belief that only money, markets and the price mechanism can solve questions of production and distribution in modern complex societies. Cybersyn might have been hampered by its imperfect technology, but as Walton says, several decades later, with diverse digital value-forms now proliferating, the idea of the Hayekian image of the economy as providentially self-governing having been proved to be a fallacy, and platform capitalism placing ever more of our daily life under algorithmic management, questions about ‘thinking the economy’ in all its rich complexity and potential have become all the more vital.

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Following this, I enjoyed talks from Tanojiri Tetsuro of the University of Tokyo on the Japanese anime cyberpunk series Psycho-Pass, and Mattia Petricola from the University of Bologna on the re-enchantment of SF. In this interesting paper, Petricola suggested that SF resurrects modes of representation that push us to understand what might be considered transcendent, or what otherwise cannot be understood. I also enjoyed an interesting talk from NYU professor Farzad Mahootian, about Stanislaw Lem’s ‘Golem XIV’ and its relationship to neoplatonism.

The next talk – one of my favourites due to its insight and clarity – was Katie Stone talking about creation and reproduction in feminist science fiction. Stone pointed out that ‘SF is filled with men of science who, acting as surrogates, as it were, for the author, attempt to become gods by creating new life’. This is, she says, often an explicitly masculine form of creation, divorced from the messy complications of female biology. Stone went onto investigate an alternative form of creation in SF, one which came to prominence in the feminist SF of the 1970s, and which explores reproductive technologies, queer sexualities and split subjectivities, as well as the idea of continuous creation, as an alternative to the ‘father god’.

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Stone pointed out, too, that consciously written into the pre-history of SF is the idea of the father god – we have, for example, sin birthed from the head of Satan, and Athena birthed from the head of Zeus. Even though we often see the rebellion of the created, there is still this notion of the man, or the SF author, indeed, as a singular, omniscient creator. In contradistinction to that, we can look at work such as James Tiptree Jr’s story ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’ (1973), which constructs ‘artificial’ life, never pretending that ‘godhood’ is possible and instead pointing towards more collaborative, interesting and dispersed modes of reproduction. Stone claims this latter mode is more apt for a genre which reflects the multiplicitous possibilities inherent in the idea of creation. As Donna Haraway says, ‘I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess’. Re-visiting the creation myth with a view instead to revealing and investigating the pantheon of figures who offer us alternatives to the father/godhead offers not only a wide-ranging counternarrative but, potentially, a way to destabilise the patriarchal narrative and offer a fully-realised, exciting, heterogenous and overdue replacement. I really thought Stone’s talk was fantastic!

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Following on from this, the architect Luke Jones looked at the symbolism of the glass city in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s Soviet SF classic, ‘We’ (1924). He touched on the nature of the novel’s glass city as reflective (zing!) of its totalitarian fantasy of social uniformity and dystopian, panoptic surveillance, but he also took his exploration further. Of course, glass is symbolic of ideas such as a utopian futurity, the rational and the scientific, and a telos towards order; the city in ‘We’ is therefore a transparent hive. But it also has romantic associations, too – Jones suggests that the city is depicted as a ‘vast prismatic crystal’, pointing towards celestial unity, and the main character in ‘We’, D-503, in particular finds himself in a state of uplift and excess brought on by the almost mystical nature of his gleaming surroundings. This dual nature of glass – being both mystic and lucid – is a perfect expression of the duality of sublime cognition. Furthermore, the expression of utopia through a city’s architecture in ‘We’ is part of a long-established tradition of visionary cities, from Tommaso Campanella’s ‘City of the Sun’ (1602) onwards, in which the symbolic specificity of urban forms and materials engenders a solidification of dogma, as well as an enclosing – or an absolutizing – of a utopian order.

At the end of Day 1, there was a roundtable with conference organisers Arem Roukema, Rhodri Davies, Katie Stone and me – as I was busy talking and listening, I made few notes, alas. One useful one, though, was the question of whether awe and wonder were part of science after all, and whether the dichotomy between the two was therefore false. And Fiona Moore (I think, apologies if not) contributed the excellent thought that, “We’ll never run out of areas where the universe is so random that we just can’t take it.” I also spoke a bit about Ursula Le Guin and the ‘Tao Te Ching’ here, based on the idea that the TTC offers a practical way – in Le Guin’s view – to encounter the sublime. This also meant that the day ended with a recitation of a verse of Le Guin’s translation of the ‘Tao Te Ching’, which was a nice bit of, uh, spiritual praxis (this is not a thing, btw).

‘The Invisible Gardener’ – Helen De Cruz

On the morning of Day 2, I missed the keynote by Helen De Cruz, unfortunately, on ‘What Speculative Fiction Can Offer the Philosophy of Religion’ , so with apologies, I can’t shed any light on this question. That said, shortly after this was an enjoyable and unusual paper by Thore Bjørnvig on the neuroscientist John C Lilly (1915-2001), most famous for his research in which he gave LSD to dolphins (and less famous, but also remarkable, for the fact that he spent an entire year being continuously high on ketamine, which concluded with him trying to call the White House to warn them of a potential invasion by an extraterrestrial intelligence). Bjørnvig took us through the arguably eccentric trajectory of Lilly’s career, whilst at the same time drawing parallels with Olaf Stapledon’s novel Star Maker (1937), enabling a re-evaluation of Lily’s work as informed by the mythmaking, cosmic, horizon-expanding vision of Stapledon’s work.

From here, we moved onto an equally fascinating discussing about Jonathan Lethem’s novel ‘Girl in Landscape’ (1998), by Joseph Brooker, who called the novel ‘Lethem’s most unmistakably SF novel’. Brooker likened the feel of the novel to a ‘transposed western’, given its strong sense of taking place on a frontier, and suggested that reading it in parallel with John Ford’s famous western ‘The Searchers’ (1956) might offer up some interesting ideas. The novel takes place on a distant planet where a family have gone to resettle; the experiences of their thirteen-year-old daughter Pella, as she explores and inhabits this desolate landscape, formed the crux of Brooker’s talk. Pella’s encounter with an alien environment engenders radically different experiences of her body, and of subjectivity. For instance, there’s a part of the novel where she dreams that she’s a deer – this ‘deer fugue’ (the description of which made me really want to read it) suggests a sort of beautiful strangeness in which consciousness is at once rendered mysterious by being situated in the ‘other’ and at the same time this alien, animal consciousness is both knowable and known. It re-embodies and reinscribes Pella elsewhere, beyond her human self. Brooker argued that ‘Girl in Landscape’ therefore hovers enigmatically at the border of the scientific and the metaphysical; it privileges a drifting ‘estrangement’ over any clarity of ‘cognition’, whilst still retaining the implicit alibi of a materialist explanatory framework.

Apologies are due again here for missing a slew of talks I’d have otherwise liked to see, which included Glyn Morgan’s ‘For God’s Sake, Where is God: Evil, the Holocaust and Fantastic Fiction’, and Ethan Doyle White’s paper on Twin Peaks, entitled ‘My People Call it the Dweller on the Threshold’: Theosophy, Esotericism, and Occulture in David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks’ – as well as Hallvard Haug’s ‘Artificial Spirit: Magic, Technology and the Alchemical Singularity’. Don’t they sound great? It was genuinely hard to pass them up but the siren song of the ‘Interplanar Consciousness’ panel was strong enough to lure me away – and this turned out to be a strong choice. It started with Llew Watkins exploring the connection between Buddhism and SF. He explained that one key aspect of Buddhist thought is the belief in an unbelievably large universe – as it says in the Avatamsaka Sutra, one of the most influential Mahayana sutras of East Asian Buddhism, “in every atom there are oceans of worlds” – we live in a truly endless universe. The worldview of the Avatamsaka has been described as ‘fractal’ and ‘psychedelic’. Watkins rightly sees a parallel between this infinite vastness and the recurrent backdrop in SF of multiverses, parallel universes and multiple realities. In the Buddhist sense, though, these realities are not real – they are empty – they are not material; rather, they are all display. This suggests that the universe is a series of mental processes that appears in time. This idea underlies the metaphysics of texts such as Borges’ ‘Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ (1940) and M. John Harrison’s Viriconium series (1971-84) and might allow us to perceive both SF ontologies and our own reality in potentially liberating ways.

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The next talk, by Imogen Woodberry, was another of my favourites – it looked at the influence of mysticism on Aldous Huxley in and around the 1930s. During wartime, whilst the Freudian idea of man’s natural tendency towards aggression was being touted elsewhere, Huxley was an active and fervent pacifist. In the early 1930s, he became interested in Eastern religion, in particular the Vedanta – the Hindu philosophy that concerns itself with the relationship between metaphysical reality, the individual soul and the physical universe. Through his encounters with F.W.H Myers and Gerald Heard’s work, Huxley believed that humankind had access to higher, transcendent levels of consciousness, and this was a belief that he explored thoroughly in his work. In ‘Eyeless in Gaza’ (1936) we see the protagonist balance his rational mind with his emotions whilst he moves towards a more mystical outlook. At the same time, he continues to ask the key question of this novel’s famous predecessor ‘Brave New World’ (1932): how can we live a good life?

In ‘Ends and Means’ (1937), Huxley looks at this question again, asking what an ideal society would look like, and outlining in detail why he believes in pacifism. At the same time, he was participating in Gerald Heard’s group meditations and becoming increasingly into Vedanta and ideas of cosmic consciousness – he was, in effect (and these are my words, not Imogen’s!), a proto-hippie. His ability to build bridges between sociopolitical ideals and transcendental, or mystical experiences, made him able to propose models of expanded consciousness that were radical for the time. As Woodberry said, Huxley believed that these models would allow for higher levels of being that were creative, beneficent and interconnected. Anyone who has read his 1963 novel ‘Island’ will know that far from ever abandoning these ideas, Huxley grew to believe in them more deeply as time went on, resulting in this conclusive statement of a sane society with transcendent and mystical underpinnings – with ‘Island’ being his definitive utopian counterpoint to ‘Brave New World’.

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The Butterfly Lovers

Following Imogen’s talk, we enjoyed a fascinating look at Chinese SF from Yen Ooi, where she looked specifically at SF tropes from Imperialist China. Several key tropes stand out in the stories from this period, Ooi explained – namely reincarnation, metamorphosis and transverbal consciousness, all of which are common in western SF today (‘Dune’ and the television show ‘Altered Carbon’ were given as examples). Ooi reminded us of the three philosophical forces behind these historical stories – Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, the first representing the natural forces of life and death, the second representing ethics and the third the rituals of a spiritual life. Within this context, Ooi guided us through the various and intriguing interpretations of imperialist Chinese stories, such as ‘The Butterfly Lovers’, written during – we think – the Tang Dynasty, so sometime between the 6th and 9th century. The drawing of threads between these ancient Chinese stories and today’s SF was pretty mindblowing, especially given that, as Ooi pointed out, it’s not often that we look beyond western SF to inform ourselves of what might have gone before, or what was perhaps written into the genre’s deep prehistory in other parts of the world. Ooi’s excavation is only the tip of the iceberg, and a reminder that we also need to flip the script on the western bias of postcolonial and technopostcolonial readings of Chinese SF by offering a Chinese-inflected reading of western SF.

Last up before the final roundtable were a couple of presentations on Philip K Dick. Apparently, at some point prior to this, I missed Dan Byrne-Smith donning a wizard’s robe on stage and playing some electronica – peak sublime cognition, according to all who were there. In any case, PKD awaited, so I didn’t feel too hard done by. First up was Carrie Gooding, whose focus is on the esoteric side of PKD and who talked us through the idea of Dick as a ‘fictionalising philosopher’. We looked at, for instance, Dick’s encounter with Plato, and how this informed his metaphysics. As Dick says, in the ‘Exegesis’, “in college I was given Plato to read, and thereupon became aware of the possible existence of a metaphysical realm beyond or above the sensory world. I came to understand that the human mind could conceive of a realm in which the empirical world was epiphenomenal. Finally, I came to believe that in a certain sense the empirical world was not truly real, at least not as real as the archetypal realm beyond it…hence in novel after novel that I write I question the reality of the world that the characters’ percept-systems report”. It was so interesting to read about this link between Dick’s work and Plato, especially since I’ve long been fascinated by the way in which his realities collapse and slide and generally appear wildly unstable, and I didn’t know about this at all. Gooding’s enthusiastic plea for us all to read the Exegesis may well end up working!

Before the final roundtable, conference organiser Francis Gene-Rowe did an impromptu paper on PKD too, but I wasn’t able to catch too much of it, save a note from VALIS that complements Gooding’s paper nicely: ‘Occlusion as a ruling principle: we fail because of an intellectual error: that of taking the phenomenal world as real.’ Again, having been wondering about PKD’s relationship to material reality for a long time, seeing it addressed here in new ways that go beyond my own thinking was refreshing. And as ever, it’s great that PKD is being looked at less at as a wild outlier, and is instead being given the critical thought he’s due. There’s also, of course, the point that his layers and layers of reality, in which nothing is fixed or stable, suggests epistemic relativism, which might trouble real-world attempts at ethics, perhaps – but that’s for another conference…

Sublime Cognition snip

The final roundtable saw writers Justina Robson, Jeff Noon and Fiona Moore discuss their ideas of sublime cognition, and how, when they write SF, they parse this idea. They agreed that as a writer of SF you are inevitably going to find yourself in territories beyond the rational, or approaching the sublime. But this is what, perhaps, ultimately draws both writers and readers to the genre – its endless compulsion to, as Robson said, ‘go to places that the rational can’t even touch’. As Noon argued, “I’m an atheist, but I’m not sure I am in my work. I’m not sure if you can be an atheist if you’re an SF writer”. It seems, in the end, that in SF you can’t divorce the sublime, the transcendent and the mystical from the known, the material and the logical – they come together, in one contradictory package. The relationship between the two is therefore one of the great illuminations of SF – the fact that its materialist frameworks are limned with so many varied examples of the numinous; and that these two modes of being often appear to be inextricable – this truth about SF works as a constant reminder of its unlimited and exciting horizon of interpretation, and it’s a reason perhaps, too, why we all keep on coming back to it, again and again, confident it will yield greater enlightenment – and greater enjoyment – each time.

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Eli Lee is a writer based in London. She is Fiction Editor at Minor Literature[s], is currently at work on her debut novel, and can be found on twitter at @_elilee.

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