Conference Report: Utopian Acts 2018

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By Sasha Myerson

Organised by Katie Stone and Raphael Kabo, ‘Utopian Acts’ was a one-day mix of art, activism and utopia hosted by Birkbeck at the beginning of September. The conference provoked us to explore ideas set out by Ruth Levitas in ‘Utopia as Method’ and consider utopia as an act. Aiming to challenge the dystopian pessimism of our current moment, it asked whether examining the intersection of academia and activism might provide a way forward, out of our current impasse, towards a better future. Such thinking informed the structure of the conference, which included a mix of interactive workshops alongside talks by artists, activists and more conventional academics. In a welcome break from the norm at conferences, the event was free and substantive effort was made to ensure inclusivity and accessibility. This included grants to reimburse speakers, step free access to the building, gender-neutral bathrooms, a policy on pronouns and encouragements to keep academic language clear and intelligible. Overall, the conference made an ambitious attempt to relate its content to its form, putting some of its ideas into practice.

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Organic Systems: Environments, Bodies and Cultures in Science Fiction

The London Science Fiction Research Community (LSFRC, possibly pronounced “Lucifer” for those who prefer their initalisms to be acronyms) played host to a larger crowd than usual in Gordon Square on Saturday 16th September for their first day-long conference, organised principally by Rhodri Davies, Francis Gene-Rowe, and Aren Roukema. One of the primary activities of the LSFRC is its monthly reading group: each year, the organisers decide on a theme and request suggestions for texts that might interact with the theme in interesting ways. Once the (typically extensive) list has been compiled, it is voted on by the community, and the texts which come out top form the next year’s reading list. “Organic Systems” was the topic of discussion for 2016-2017 – for anyone interested the topic for 2017-2018 is “Sublime Cognition: Science Fiction and Metaphysics” and the group meets in Gordon Square on the first Monday of each month (I’d advise checking the Facebook group for relevant details). Consequently, this one-day conference marked the culmination of a year of discussion and gently percolating thought regarding, in Chris Pak’s words, “interlocking systems intersecting on multiple levels” within sf and its accompanying critical discourse. I suppose it should be noted for reasons of editorial balance that I did attend at least some of the reading group sessions.

posterLSFRC Sublime Cognition poster by Sing Yun Lee

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Post-Cyber Feminist International

Glitch @ Night - BBZ London, photo Mark-Blower, no24Post-Cyber Feminist International, Glitch@Night BBZ London (Photo: Mark Blower)

‘A particularly gendered set of obstacles emerges from the contemporary ubiquity and commodification of the digital sphere. From sexual harassment and privacy to issues surrounding divisions of labour, the progress of gender justice has in some ways failed to keep pace with the dizzying velocity of digital developments. At the same time, new networked technologies have come to dominate the horizons of critical discourse, pushing older and more quotidian devices to the margins of cultural visibility. And yet, these domesticated technologies (from the Hoovers to HRT) continue to exert a shaping influence on many people’s everyday lives. It is critical that feminists find new ways of interrogating technologies in order to forge a radical gender politics fit for an era in which the analogue and the digital are inexorably intertwined’ [ICA]

Black Feminism and Post-Cyber Feminism, photoMark-Blower, no27Black Feminism and Post-Cyber Feminism (Photo: Mark Blower)

Post-Cyber Feminist International took place at the ICA between 15-19 Nov 2017, and consisted of a series of events, exhibitions and workshops dedicated to exploring how radical gender politics can shape our technological future. Visual artists, musicians, writers and theorists came together to find new ways of engaging with race, class, gender and to discuss their work-in-progress. Post-Cyber Feminist International showcased interrelated constituents such as sonic feminisms, Black feminism and glitch feminism, celebrating the 20th anniversary of The First Cyberfeminist International (1997). Continue reading “Post-Cyber Feminist International”

Superhero_ines: Rebooted Comics and Trans* Identity

Manteau: Seriously? Bust? – What kind of things’ve you dialed so far? You been a giant metal spring, yet? A super-disco dancer? A boomerang? Now it’s bust because you’ve got ovaries? Every few dials, this happens, Baroness.
(Miéville & Santolouco, Dial H #3, 2012)

In this academic article, Christina Scholz explores trans* identity within comic books. Christina Scholz teaches at Graz University, and has research interests which include Weird fiction, M. John Harrison and China Miéville. You can visit Christina’s blog for links to more academic writing, fiction, and reviews (and other things!)

Abstract: Gender is a discursive and performative construct, and mass media such as comic books play a role in how it is constructed. Problems arise from discrepancies between prescriptive models of gender and individuals’ actual lived experience. Now, in the era of the reboot, comic book writers have the opportunity to change the identity politics inherent within well-known series, reaching a wide audience through iconic figures, and contributing to changing cisnormative perceptions of gender. Comic books are particularly crucially placed in this regard, since superheroes, as established metaphors of otherness, may in some sense already be ‘queer’ figures. However, although important and exciting steps have been taken toward better representation of trans* identities within superhero comics, we still have a long way to go. Drawing in particular on the theory of Judith Butler and Antke Engel, as well as lived experience, this article explores the past and present representation of trans* identities in comic books, and looks with hope toward the future.

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Whither the super-reader?

I’m still slowly working my way through Peter Barry’s Beginning Theory, and have reached postcolonial criticism. In true textbook fashion, each chapter includes a “STOP and THINK” section, and this one actually made me do both:

Postcolonial criticism draws attention to issues of cultural difference in literary texts and is one of several critical approaches we have considered which focus on specific issues, including issues of gender (feminist criticism), of class (Marxist criticism), and of sexual orientation (lesbian/gay criticism).

This raises the possibility of a kind of ‘super-reader’ able to respond equally and adequately to a text in all these ways. In practice, for most readers one of these issues tends to eclipse all the rest.
[…]
Should we, in general, try to become super-readers, with multiple layers of sympathy and awareness, or will trying to do so merely produce blandness and superficiality?

Obviously, it is impossible for anybody to answer this question for anybody else. My own feeling is that while an even spread of awareness across all these issues is theoretically possible, in practice aiming for this, merely in the interests of political correctness, is almost bound to produce superficiality. A genuine interest in one of these issues can really only arise from aspects of your own circumstance. These perspectives cannot be put on and off like a suit — they have to emerge and declare themselves with some urgency. (198-9)

Now, Barry’s bias shows through before he declares it — the very term “super-reader” carries connotations of the unattainable, even childish. And when he does declare his bias, he still loads his dice, with that clause about “merely in the interests of political correctness”: yes, obviously aiming to do something merely in the interests of political correctness is doomed to failure.

But leaving that aside, I’m still struck by a number of things. To start with: “for most readers one of these issues tends to eclipse all the rest”. I’m sceptical of that most (many, I could get behind; but I’m not sure about most), but more than that, this doesn’t seem to leave much room for the idea that a text might shape the way people who read it respond. Surely it is also the case that for most texts, one of these issues tends to eclipse all the rest, in either a positive or a negative way. There is a threshold, I think, beyond which reading a text from any particular perspective becomes an act of creation in itself, rather than a useful response to the text; where any given person draws that threshold will vary, but it seems an inevitable limitation of single-perspective criticism.

So I think that limitation has to be put on the other side of the scales to a super-reader’s presumed blandness and superficiality — except, I’m not sure what Barry actually means by those terms, here. The most sensible reading I can come up with is that it comes from what he discusses in his personal opinion paragraph, namely motivation: it’s impossible for anyone to truly care about all these different perspectives at the same time, says Barry, so attempts to accomodate them will of necessity be artificial. There is an extent to which I agree with this (or at least am anxious about it; see below), but I think I disagree with it much more. If nothing else, it’s a position that presumes these different perspectives are indeed separable, and it seems to me that’s only possible in an — pardon me — academic sense. In the real world, and by extension in sufficiently complex texts, they’re going to be interlinked. Parsing them separately has value, but taking that so far as to declare them islands seems damaging.

And then we come down to the nub of it, which is to say Barry’s argument for his position. “A genuine interest in one of these issues can really only arise from aspects of your own circumstance.” What is genuine, here? This gets personal: for each of the four perspectives Barry lists in his first paragraph, I fall at the “privilege” end of the spectrum (as, indeed, I do for just about any axis of privilege you care to define). That establishes the terms of my engagement with any of them and, clearly, those terms are never going to be the same as they are for individuals at the other ends. In a real sense, that’s going to limit the depth of my understanding. By the same token, however, the implication is that whenever I do try to adopt one of these perspectives, I will, precisely, be putting it on like a suit; and that my interest can never be “genuine”. Which rather leads you to wonder, why bother?

And the inevitable answer to that is, because I like to think I care. That no one of these critical perspectives seems to declare itself to me with particular urgency — or, put another way, that it costs me nothing to see them as all urgent — is certainly a luxury. I’d like to think it’s a luxury I can take advantage of, though. “Multiple layers of sympathy and awareness” doesn’t seem like a bad thing for me to aspire to, nor does it seem inherently unattainable (though a perfectly even spread of concern surely is). I’d go so far as to say, acknowledging this is as biased a way of putting it as “super-reader”, that to me, right now, it seems the responsible thing to do.

Unwritten

Things I would totally write posts about if I weren’t spending all my time either playing Final Fantasy XII or keeping up with commitments elsewhere, a partial list:

1. Survivors. Watched the final episode last night; I’ve seen the odd post about the series, but did anyone else watch it through to the end? I was much more impressed than not, I have to say. I’m not keen on the Secret Conspiracy, which makes me wary of the second series, since it looks set to play a greater part in the story than it has done so far; and sometimes the plots are a mite predictable. But sometimes they’re not, and I think all the central characters are well-realised. And I’m a sucker for community- and society-building stories, anyway.

2. The return of Battlestar Galactica. While I empathize with reactions like Abigail’s, in that I invariably find that reading what the people making Galactica have to say about it diminishes my enjoyment, if I ignore what they’re saying I can still find much to appreciate. In the first episode of season four round two, for instance, I didn’t much care for the manner in which the reval that ended the episode was handled — clumsy, I thought — but I do like the reveal itself. I like that, this time, it has a greater weight for the previously-revealed cylons than for the humans; I like that the the relationship it references becomes a model for the whole human-cylon relationship (particularly given what we appeared to learn elsewhere in the episode about the relationship between the populations of the twelve colonies and the skinjob cylons). I’m glad that it doesn’t invalidate major character development. And I also find it satisfying, in a perverse way, that I found it initially disappointing, and only found things to appreciate on reflection, because it seems to me that disappointment was an effective way of mirroring the series characters’ disappointment at the end of the previous episode in the audience. I don’t believe for a second that the makers intended that effect — I can’t have that much faith in TV showrunners — but I think it’s there nonetheless.

3. Further adventures in Theory. I’ve still got comments on the previous threads I should respond to, and indeed it’s not like I’ve read much more of the book yet (see above re: Final Fantasy and other commitments). But at the moment I am wrestling with Structuralism. As related, I am not convinced by some of the arguments for the creational power of language (I don’t think we divide the spectrum into individual colours entirely arbitrarily, purely as a matter of language; I think we divide it up the way we do because certain physical phenomena filters light into particular bands of wavelengths, and it is useful to have words for those bands), and I find some of the examples of structralist criticism given to get a bit, er, abstract. But at the same time I am sympathetic to the idea of a mode of criticism that is about relating texts to larger structures — not surprisingly, since I buy into Damien Broderick’s concept of the sf megatext (at least as I understand it from reading discussions of the concept), even if it does take me away from the text I start with.

4. Reading, and particularly reading of shortlists, as social behaviour; although on this one I’m not sure I have anything to add, so much as I want to point it out as a concise statement of something I am often conscious of. The urge to write reviews, in this model, is something of a totalitarian impulse, an urge to make, or at least persuade, people to talk about what you’re interested in talking about. (So is there an extent to which I approve of the BSFA novel shortlist because it consists largely of things I’ve already read? Maybe.)

Restate My Assumptions

So, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, one of the things I’m reading at the moment is Beginning Theory by Peter Barry. In the first chapter, he lays out “a series of propositions which I think many traditional critics would, on the whole, subscribe to, if they were in the habit of making their assumptions explicit”, under the banner of “liberal humanism”; and then, later, lays out five core assumptions which describe “the basic frame of mind which theory embodies”. I thought it might be interesting to go through both lists and note down my initial — unexamined, as it were — reactions to each statement, both for my future reference, and perhaps to start being a bit more specific about what “theory”, as used all over the place in that other comment thread, means. (i.e. I’m also interested in other peoples’ reactions to these statements. Heck, turn it into a meme and post it on your blog, if you like.) These are slightly truncated versions of the statements, in most cases — Barry gives some elaboration — but I think they get the gist across.

Liberal humanism, then:

1. Good literature is of timeless significance; it somehow transcends the limitations and peculiarities of the age it was written in, and thereby speaks to what is constant in human nature.

Nah. I know from experience that the older the work I’m reading, the more work I have to do filling in historical context to get even a bare minimum of understanding of what’s going on, but more than that, there’s a part of me which believes that one of the most interesting things about literature is precisely the way in which it engages with the limitations and peculiarities of the age it is written in.

2. The literary text contains its own meaning within itself. It doesn’t require any elaborate process of placing it within a context, whether this be socio-political, literary-historical, or autobiographical.

See above; certainly some texts will resist the need for contextualisation more strongly than others, for a longer period of time than others, but ultimately I don’t think anything endures by itself forever; certain texts that appear to have endured have done so, in part, because the contextualisation they require has become part of the cultural air we breathe (i.e. Shakespeare), not because of anything inherent to the text itself.

3. To understand the text well it must be detached from these contexts and studied in isolation. What is needed is the close verbal analysis of the text without prior ideological assumptions, or political pre-conditions, or, indeed, specific expectations of any kind.

Mmf. Sort of. I do place close verbal analysis at the core of understanding a text, not least because it’s something I enjoy getting better at; and I do prefer to let a text suggest meaning to me than to go to a text looking for an answer to a question. But, of course, that is my prior ideological assumption. (I knew that much before I started reading the book.)

4. Human nature is essentially unchanging. The same passions, emotions, and even situations are seen again and again throughout human history. It follows that continuity in literature is more important and significant than innovation.

Nope. “Human nature”, to the extent that it can be defined at all, isn’t even the same from culture to culture in the present moment; I sincerely doubt it remains the same over centuries or longer. And, of course, as a science fiction reader one of the things I enjoy is imagination of the ways in which humanity can change in the future.

5. Individuality is something securely possessed within each of us as our unique “essence”. This transcends our environmental influences, and though individuality can change and develop (as do characters in novels) it can’t be transformed — hence our uneasiness with those scenes (quite common, for instance, in Dickens) which involve a “change of heart” in a character, so that the whole personality is shifted into a new dimension by force of circumstance.

This, on the other hand … “transcends our environmental influences” makes it sound like we’re born being who we are, which is clearly rubbish; but individuality as something that evolves but does not transform sounds right to me. I don’t think I’ve ever transformed in the way the process is described here; I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone to transform in that way, either. Life isn’t that easy.

6. The purpose of literature is essentially the enhancement of life and the propagation of humane values; but not in a programmatic way: if literature, and criticism, become overly and directly political they necessarily tend towards propaganda.

On the one hand, speaking again as a science fiction reader, I’m not supposed to mind a bit of didacticism in my fiction, and I’m sure I mind it less than most of the people Barry has in mind here. On the other hand, to the extent that literature can be said to have a purpose, “propagation of humane values”, in the sense of making, through literary creation, a sincere and compassionate attempt to understand people and the world, and to communicate that understanding to another, doesn’t seem so bad.

7. Form and content in literature must be fused in an organic way, so that the one grows inevitably from the other.

Must be? No. (Are there any “must” statements that could justly be applied to literature?) Can often very productively be? Yes.

8. This point about organic form applies above all to “sincerity”. Sincerity (comprising truth-to-experience, honesty towards the self, and the capacity for human empathy and compassion) is a quality which resides within the language of literature. It isn’t a fact or intention behind the work … sincerity is to be discovered within the text in such matters as the avoidance of cliche, or of over-inflated forms of expression; it shows in the use of first-hand, individualistic description … the truly sincere poet can transcend the sense of distance between language and material, and can make the language seem to “enact” what it depicts, thus apparently abolishing the necessary distance between words and things.

This seems more or less to be an expansion of point 6, which makes me wonder whether I’m misunderstanding one or both of them; but still, it seems largely sound to me.

9. What is valued in literature is the “silent” showing and demonstrating of something, rather than the explaining, or saying, of it. Hence, ideas as such are worthless in literature until given the concrete embodiment of “enactment”.

Sf-reader ping again: I suspect that what satisfies me as being an “enacted” idea wouldn’t necessarily satisfy the people Barry has in mind here; there’s that touch of didacticism to consider. But an idea that is worked through a text is a beautiful thing.

10. The job of criticism is to interpret the text, to mediate between it and the reader. A theoretical account of the nature of reading, or of literature in general, isn’t useful in criticism, and will simply, if attempted, encumber critics with “preconceived ideas” which will get between them and the text.

I have no problems with the first sentence. As to the second sentence … well, that’s why I’m reading the book, isn’t it?

All of this seems to suggest that I am not, actually, a full-on liberal humanist; but there are several points on that list that I wouldn’t want to let go of.

Now, on to Theory:

1. Many of the notions which we would usually regard as the basic “givens” of our existence (including our gender identity, our individual selfhood, and the notion of literature itself) are actually fluid and unstable things, rather than fixed and reliable essences.

Yes … to a point. Newtonian mechanics isn’t actually a wholly accurate description of how the universe works, but it’s a pretty good approximation for a lot of purposes. Cognitive neuroscience may reveal that my selfhood does not exist in the way that I perceive it to exist, but on a day to day basis my perceptions are what I have to work with. And to bring it back to literature, it is not possible to draw a sharp line between, say, science fiction and fantasy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful to talk about science fiction and fantasy as distinct types of literature.

2. All thinking and investigation is necessarily affected and largely determined by prior ideological commitment. The notion of disinterested enquiry is therefore untenable: none of us is capable of standing back from the scales and weighing things up dispassionately: rather, all investigators have a thumb on one side or other of the scales.

Yes, again to a point. Necessarily affected yes, largely determined, not necessarily. Acknowledging thumbs-on-scales is good; investigating the consequences of thumbs-on-scales is good; trying to construct systems of thought which compensate for thumbs-on-scales is also good. It may not be possible to carry out a purely disinterested enquiry, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to approximate it; it means we should be aware of the biases that factor into the attempt.

3. Language itself conditions, limits, and predetermines what we see. Thus, all reality is constructed through language, so that nothing is simply “there” in an unproblematical way — everything is a linguistic/textual construct. Language doesn’t record reality, it shapes and creates it, so that the whole of our universe is textual. Further, meaning is jointly constructed by reader and writer.

Define “reality”. Do I believe a physical universe could exist if no language existed to describe it? (Assuming here that the action of observation counts as a form of language.) Yes, I do. A rock doesn’t need to be called a rock to exist. Do I believe that our social reality, how we think and relate and describe, is constrained by the language we have to think in and relate through and describe with? Also yes. I don’t know what “the whole of our universe is textual” means. As for reader-writer interaction constructing meaning: yes, but with the caveat that this appears to be intended as at least a partial counter to “the job of criticism is to mediate between the reader and the text” above, and the two positions don’t seem exclusive to me. Reframe it as the job of criticism being to mediate the construction of a particular meaning, if you like.

4. Any claim to offer a definitive reading would be futile. The meanings within a literary work are never fixed and reliable but always shifting, multi-faceted and ambiguous.

Yes. I do not think, for instance, that Victoria Hoyle’s reading of Lucius Shepard is inferior to the author’s view of his own work. (But some meanings are more equal than others.)

5. “Totalising” notions are to be distrusted. For instance, the notion of “great” books as an absolute and self-sustaining category is to be distrusted, as books always arise out of a particular socio-political structure, and this situation should not be suppressed, as tends to happen when they are promoted to “greatness”. Likewise, the concept of a “human nature”, as a generalised norm which transcends the idea of a particular race, gender or class, is to be distrusted.

Yes — recognising the obvious paradox inherent in the statement — as long as “distrusted” means “recognise the limitations of” rather than “discard out of hand”.

And that’s the lot. Not quite a theorist yet, then. It occurs to me that the second list is somewhat less interesting to me, at first glance, simply because it says less about reading and interpreting; it talks in generalities, about principles that apply far beyond criticism, whereas what I’m interested in (what I’m reading the book for) is ways to talk about literature specifically. But I suppose that’s what the rest of the chapters will do.

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.