Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren: Mapping economic landscapes in science fiction

By Josephine Wideman. This article originally appeared in Vector 288.

Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany’s 1975 novel Dhalgren is lengthy, hallucinatory, and at times unnavigable science fiction. Its form is as dense and as wavering as the urban landscape it depicts, where Delany’s protagonist, Kid, can wonder whether ‘there isn’t a chasm in front of me I’ve hallucinated into plain concrete.’1 Bellona – the fictional city where events take place – is a space ‘fixed in the layered landscape, red, brass, and blue, but […] distorted as distance itself,’ a place where ‘the real’ is ‘all masked by pale diffraction.’2 Although the scenery and scenarios of Bellona may be fictional, and perhaps even fantastic, they are also true representations of real experience. The unfixed landscape we live in becomes ‘fixed’ before us in Delany’s book. The distortions and diffractions by which it is fictionalised only increase its representational precision. The gaps in our experience, usually masked, are made visible. For although it takes an unusual form, we can recognise

this timeless city […] this spaceless preserve where any slippage can occur, these closing walls, laced with fire-escapes, gates, and crenellations are too unfixed to hold it in so that, from me as a moving node, it seems to spread, by flood and seepage, over the whole uneasy scape.3

In looking at Dhalgren, I have borrowed from the political theorist and sociologist Giovanni Arrighi in order to trace the presence and effects of capitalist accumulation in Delany’s fiction. Arrighi, in The Long Twentieth Century, describes the ‘interpretative scheme’ of capitalism as a ‘recurrent phenomena.’4 Drawing on work by the historian Fernand Braudel, Arrighi follows the Genoese, the Dutch, and the British cycles of accumulation to the current North American cycle. By examining past economic patterns and anomalies, he suggests that we may be able to gesture at the fate of our current cycle. Arrighi sets out to demonstrate that the rise and fall of these hegemonies, while never identical, tend to follow a set of stages that begin ‘to look familiar.’5 To make his argument, he proposes a new use for Marx’s ‘general formula of capital’:

Marx’s general formula of capital (MCM’) can therefore be interpreted as depicting not just the logic of individual capitalist investments, but also a recurrent pattern of historical capitalism as world system. The central aspect of this pattern is the alternation of epochs of material expansion (MC phases of capital accumulation) with phases of financial rebirth and expansion (CM’ phases).6

In Das Kapital, Marx initially proposes the formula CMC to theorise how capital functions. This theory begins with the assumption that people have needs and desires they can’t satisfy by themselves. Thus we create the commodities we know how to make (C), which are sold for money (M), which allows us to buy the commodities we want (C). As this cycle repeats, those who are skilled presumably accrue more value than others, being able to sell their commodities for a greater profit. This theory centres around the individual and his role in a capitalist system. But Marx then sets CMC aside in favour of another formula – the formula borrowed by Arrighi in The Long Twentieth Century – MCM’. In MCM’, circulation does not begin with the dissatisfied individual, but with capital itself. Money is invested (M) into the materials and labour necessary to produce a commodity (C), which is then sold for money (M). The difference between CMC and MCM’ is subtle but crucial. The first formula implies that capitalism recurs, and things are made and exchanged, in order to satisfy human desire and need. The second formula implies that money is in charge, that production and exchange are ultimately subservient to profit, and that money begets more money. For Marx, what drives capitalism is not only MCM, but MCM’ – the apostrophe signifying ‘prime’ – or the concept that money increases in value through circulation. The source of this additional, or ‘surplus’ value, is where capital really loses its lustre. This value is gained within labour – in the time spent on the creation and production of a commodity from raw material – and for Marx, its appropriation by capitalists is inherently exploitative.

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