Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Comprehensive Exam 2 of 3, Postmodern Theory, Dr. Tammy Clewell, 3 June 2010

This is the fifty-ninth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

After completing two years of course work in the PhD in English program at Kent State University, I began preparing for my comprehensive exams with faculty who I hoped to also work with when I moved on to the dissertation stage.

After having taken two classes with Dr. Tammy Clewell, I was very happy that she agreed to lead my exam on postmodern theory. Leading up the exam, Dr. Clewell and I negotiated on my reading list–considering those texts that were essential, foundational works and those that supported the kinds of work that I wanted to do on my dissertation. After the list was completed, we scheduled meetings to discuss the core questions in postmodern theory. These were the best part about the process, because they required me to know how to articulate in spoken language the major debates and arguments before I sat down for the exam. Speaking face-to-face requires a different kind of thinking and preparedness. After successfully passing these discussion interviews, I was able to proceed to the written exams a day after taking my major exam on 20th-century American literature. Unlike the five hour major exam, I only had four hours to write my response to this exam.

A serendipitous outcome of our conversations was Dr. Clewell introducing me to the neurohumanities and cognitive cultural studies. Our informal discussions about these topics led to my dissertation project. Had she not asked me one day, “Jason, what do you know about the brain,” my dissertation would likely have looked VERY different. I am deeply grateful for Dr. Clewell introducing me to these ideas and then inviting me to join an interdisciplinary neurohumanities reading group that she organized later. Our reading group and our readings informed much of my thinking after the exams while I was completing the dissertation.

Below, I have included my written responses to Dr. Clewell’s postmodern theory exam. Question 1 concerns the major debates. Question 2 is about the posthuman. Question 3 explores the relationship between science fiction and postmodernism.

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Tammy Clewell

PhD Minor Exam: Theory

3 June 2010

Question 1

            Poststructuralism and postmodernism are often invoked together, because they share an affinity for challenging the modes of thought and systems of analysis that historically precede theme. However, they are in fact also continuations or ironic reinventions of culture and philosophy of the last few hundred years. Poststructuralism is a philosophical reaction to structuralism’s form and order, and postmodernism is a continuation of modernism’s decentering of the subject while critiquing discourse and its own position within discourse. In the following discussion, I will better define these terms and engage some of the major overlapping discussions by major theorists in the field.

Poststructuralism is a set of linguistic, philosophical, and cultural theories that primarily challenge and react to the earlier structuralist theories, which were popular from around the 1950s to the 1970s. Structuralism holds that there are deep structures underneath all phenomena that prescribe how those phenomena develop. The world itself is ordered by interconnected systems, and each system works by its own set of rules or grammar. These systems can be analyzed by structuralist analysis, because the rules are thought to operate in similar ways. Thus, the world can be known completely through analysis of its systems and their rules of operation.

Poststructuralists reacted against structuralism, because they felt that it was oppressive and too ordered. It was considered oppressive, because it didn’t allow room for human agency. The structures operate through people rather than people acting on structures. Its ordering and clear delineations of rules ruled out chance or the apparent complexity of the real world. Instead of finding patterns of similarity, which tend to exclude, the poststructuralists sought to look at the world in terms of difference rather than similarity. There are provocative gaps and contradictions in the way systems operate that challenge the predictability proposed by structuralism. In particular for deconstructionists, including Derrida, structuralism is a totalizing theory with an authoritarian premise that is not open-ended enough to account for difference.

Postmodernists likewise chafe at universalizing theories including structuralism. Poststructuralism can be called a postmodern theory, because it is one among many other theories and political interventions that are reactions to totalizing and universalizing beliefs bound to Western Enlightenment thought: progress as political improvement of humanity and mastery over Nature through the accumulation of knowledge and technology. Not to fall into a totalizing trap, it is important to note that it is through modernity, defined as the period beginning with the Enlightenment through the Industrial Revolution to the Second World War, that many of the ideas that are now considered postmodern first began to be formulated. This is particularly important to the refutation of the liberal humanist idea of identity or a centered self. I will respond more to this in the second question below. For now, it suffices to say that I define postmodernism as the array of cultural theories and attitudes that have developed as skepticism colored with irony, emphasizing language and power relations, toward long standing Western universalized theories and beliefs including: the idea of human progress, the power of reason and rationality, objective reality, and the human. Modernism had already brought into question many of these issues, especially concerning the human as center of the self and of the world, but postmodernism extends and critiques these earlier reformulations.

In the rise of poststructuralism and postmodernism, often linked to post-industrial society after World War II, two polarizing debates developed between poststructuralists and other theorists who held on to forms of structuralist analysis. The first of these that I will discuss is between Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault regarding Derrida’s groundbreaking theory of deconstruction, and the second is between Jean-Francois Lyotard and Fredric Jameson regarding legitimating grand narratives.

Derrida developed the approach known as deconstruction in reaction to what he saw as the totalizing and universalizing tendencies of structuralism. My discussion of deconstruction carries the caveat that deconstruction is not a method, a critique, or an analysis. It is not a procedural operation that arrives at a particular and desired output. Derrida describes it as an event, because each deconstruction is different. It is not a critique in the Kantian sense (i.e., critique vs. dogma), because it relies on language. Language is dogmatic due to its invoking metaphysics through the being assumed in all signified-transcending signifiers relationships. Finally, it is not an analysis, because the whole text—words, sentences, etc.—is interconnected and dependent upon the whole. Any cutting up of a text for analysis is arbitrary and there is no single meaningful way to divide a text for analysis as such. These are all negative descriptions that say what deconstruction is not. Derrida prefers these definitions, because they do not cut off what deconstruction means by saying emphatically what it is. I will use the terms method and approach as a short hand in the discussion that follows. These terms can be thought of as being written under erasure for lack of better terms describing deconstruction.

Derrida is skeptical of the Western philosophical privileging of speech over writing. He argues that the West is logocentric (i.e., grounded on logos, which in Greek means word and rationality). Logocentrism in the West derives from phonocentrism, or the privileging of speech. This has to do with the belief that logos in speech is present while writing is not present. The nonpresence of writing implies that it is open to interpretation and hence not as rational or concrete in its meaning as the presence of speech. Derrida demonstrates that all language, including its usage in speech, is open to interpretation by the reader or hearer. Furthermore, language is a system of signs and since signs are written, he sees no reason why writing should be prioritized under that of speech.

Deconstruction is an attempt to reach the limits of interpretation of a text by demonstrating how the structure of the text and its authorial genesis cannot be supported by the text itself. In other words, the text itself is always already deconstructing. It is a matter of engagement of the text through an interpretive reading to show its irreconcilable and built-in contradictions. Its core concept is that of differance (i.e., difference with an ‘a’, and due to time, I will omit the stress on the e). Differance is the name Derrida gives to the very basis of how language works and to the operations of deconstruction. In regard to language, Derrida, building on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, argues that words are not substitutes for the real, but instead, words are linked together metonymically in a chain. Signifiers are linked to signifiers, and one word triggers connections with other words as metonymic connections rather than metaphoric replacements. This shows that language is in movement and that slippages in meaning are possible as a result of that movement. It is from the basis of metonymy in language that Derrida made the differance neologism based on the French verb ‘differer,’ which can mean to differ and to defer. Differance means both of these things at the same time. Signifiers differ from one another and they defer meaning along a whole chain of signifiers. Meaning is thus endlessly deferred and indeterminate. There are apparent meanings for things due to the ‘self-effacing trace,’ or the difference between words that give an apparent meaning, but the operation of both the trace and deferral render fixed meanings impossible. Differance is a description of the operations of language and it performs the operation that it describes. Specifically in terms of deconstruction, differance is the middle way for the tension between unity and difference. Differance then becomes the excess or space between texts. It is in opposition to Hegel’s third term or Habermas’ unity and consensus. Derrida sees Hegel and Habermas enforcing synthesis where there should be difference. Differance is an alternative to unity and an acknowledgement of the excess between interpretations. It resists efforts to erase Otherness or multiplicity. Furthermore, meaning is, according to Derrida, disseminated: there is an effect of meaning, but meaning is dispersed and specific meanings are irresolvable. Thus, deconstruction is always already present in a given text, and the deconstructive reading of a text relies on what is there in the text itself. Deconstruction relies on textuality, or the importance and centrality of texts, and how a single text can be different from itself via another reading and how each text can be a trace of other texts, which invokes Barthes concept of intertextuality. Texts are not alone, but connected to one another via the trace.

Foucault’s concept of discourse can be seen as more closely aligned with the structuralists than Derrida’s deconstruction. Foucault’s emphasis was not on language and the individual text, but instead, he focused on discourse—the conversation and connections between texts and the relationships of power that those connections represent and develop. Discourse does involve texts in the promotion and implementation of the discourse and its power networks, but it is not something contained within a single text. For Foucault, discourse refers to systems of belief, knowledge, and practices that are governed by internalized rules. Discourse comes about and operates by power relationships. The discourse and the power relationships tied up within a discourse can change over time. The power in a discourse is distributed through networks that are all inclusive—there is no constitutive outside to discourse. Discourses change over time and they may disappear all together. Furthermore, discourses do not carry universal truths, but they do establish their own beliefs, which may be promoted as truths within the discourse and within its power relations. For example, Foucault argues that sexuality did not become a discourse until very recently with the rise of medicine as a science and the adoption of a heterosexual/heteronormative standard within the discourse of medicine. This particular example shows a very one sided power dynamic with the institutions of medicine adopting a particular norm and their enforcing that norm on individuals (e.g., women, homosexuals, transsexuals, those without the institutional support given to the white, male doctors) with the support of state power. Discourse can include the arts and politics and any other system that is based on a system of power relationships. Other examples of discourse include capitalism or modernism in the arts. Foucault calls the totalization of discourse within a historical period an episteme. The Enlightenment or postmodernity would be examples of episteme. In Foucault’s conceptualization of discourse, he finds most to be oppressive and controlling. There are haves and have-nots within the power networks of a discourse. As such, these discourses should be challenged, as he did against heteronormativity in The History of Sexuality.

The primary difference between Foucault and Derrida is that Foucault sees in texts or utterances another discourse, whereas Derrida sees another self-deconstructing text playing with language. Each theorist sees his work as a constructive challenge to different manifestations of power. Derrida sees privileging and hierarchies in the texts he deconstructs, and Foucault finds the distribution of power within the connections between people, their texts, and their practices. This is not to say that Derrida is not aware of the big picture, so to speak, but his approach deconstructs the individual text and by doing so unravels its assumptions and connections to other texts through the always already there deconstructive seed within the text. Foucault attempts to reveal the intentionality within the text in order to show the way its relationship to power and its discourse is oppressive in some way. Derrida shows that the genesis, along with the structure of the text, explodes when taken into consideration of the text as a whole. The text’s connection to a discourse is based on the interpretation by Foucault, which is only one interpretation among many. Furthermore, Foucault’s analysis of a text is based on what is within the text itself under consideration. Without saying so, this is a kind of interpretation, because as Derrida shows there are different ways of reading an individual text. Derrida did this himself when he used a key passage from Foucault’s History of Madness. This beginning to their ten year long silence to one another is precipitated on Foucault’s belief that certain concepts are not deconstructable. Madness, sexuality, knowledge, etc. are idea concepts that, for Foucault, are beyond the deconstructive practices of Derrida. Foucault said of Derrida following his essay that deconstruction teaches the student that there is nothing outside the text, and that the only point of consideration is the spaces in-between and words written under erasure. Derrida later refuted Foucault’s claim by saying that there is nothing outside CONtext—meaning that the historical, biographical, ideological, etc. should be considered when interpreting a text, but that it is necessary to remember the other side of context that these things are historically contingent and not universally established.

Next, I will discuss another significant debate in poststructuralism and postmodernism. This has to do with the argument between the poststructuralist thinker Lyotard and the Marxist scholar Jameson on the issue of metanarratives.

Jameson describes a hard division between modernism and postmodernism. He identifies modernism with time and memory, which is embedded in an earlier form of capitalism that had not yet worked its way into fundamentally transforming the world and the circuits of relation between people. Postmodernism is emblematic of the contemporary mode of production, and the cultural manifestation of what Mandel calls the third stage of capitalism, or late capitalism. Considering Jameson in terms of Foucault, Marxism is a discourse, as is his formulation of postmodernism and modernism that are a part of or connected to the larger Marxist discourse. The postmodern for Jameson is a disavowed yet seized upon term to discuss the historical in a present where history is in a sense forgotten or at least transformed by nostalgia. Oppositions between postmodernism and modernism include: He favors historicism over style (his favoring of Ragtime over Gravity’s Rainbow is problematic in this regard, however); pastiche, not parody; space over time; and surface over interiority and stream of consciousness. Cyberpunk, especially the work of William Gibson, is the literature of postmodernism, because of its emphasis on space over time and the effects of capitalism at shaping the landscape and the narrative plot. Emblematic of the shift from the modern to the postmodern is also the loss of interiority. Jameson laments the waning of affect. In postmodernism, there is a loss of feeling and emotion now that space has made its ascendance in the circulations of capital. People are now surfaces to be written on by the effects of capital and not individuals with some sense of an interior self. The postmodern subject is formed by the circulations of capital and the effects of its cultural manifestations on the person. Under his spatial model, things rise to the surface, including to the surface of bodies, and as a result, he feels that we have lost something precious to the human experience that was there before.

Lyotard offers an alternative to Jameson’s lament. Instead of lamenting the loss of the modern, Lyotard embraces the postmodern, because he sees it as hopeful and loaded with potential energy. Returning to the division between modernism and postmodernism, modernism offers universalized meanings, meanings which are closed to critique. Postmodernism on the other hand critiques those meanings while also critiquing itself. This creates exciting possibilities, and it creates a space for unanticipated thinking. The postmodern in Lyotard’s conception doesn’t favor consensus, and it also doesn’t promote positive content (Derrida would agree with this in regard to his own definitions of deconstruction, which provide no closed meanings). Lyotard also argues that the grand narratives of progress, knowability, and freedom can no longer contain or represent everyone. Thus, the postmodern in its most simplistic formulation is incredulity towards metanarratives. Instead of grand narratives and universals, we now have a proliferation of micronarratives. He draws on Wittgenstein’s language games as the means for creating and circulating knowledge within micronarratives. A common critique against Lyotard is that his narrative is another grand narrative, but Lyotard specifically challenges narratives of legitimation and not all narratives, including those of knowledge. On the other hand, Jameson’s Marxism is a grand narrative. It provides a closed solution to understanding the relationships between people and the circulations of capital. It is universalized and it is believed to apply to all peoples according to their particular historical context and the current mode of production. There is no room for critique within a grand narrative such as this, and it legitimates a certain kind of power structure. Lyotard is skeptical of such a narrative, because there are no new possibilities within such a narrative. Lyotard also undermines Jameson’s division of the modern as no longer accessible now that we are in the postmodern era. Lyotard argues convincingly that the reciprocal of Jameson’s formulation is true. For Lyotard, to be modern, we must first be postmodern. Postmodernism is the disruption of the discourse of modernism. Postmodernism is not a movement, but it is a process leading back to narratives that have been worked out through the openness of the postmodern. Within this process, Lyotard favors the event (again, a connection with Derrida) while Jameson relies on synchronic, sign systems. Lyotard sees the event as a temporal figure which cannot be reduced to meaning (e.g., Auschwitz—it cannot be remembered in its totality or forgotten, either). This non-dialectal event has an affinity with Derrida’s differance. Lyotard provides a way of working through the meaning of the modern and its conflicting narratives via postmodernism, but Jameson holds to his Marxist grand narrative and historiographic space, which does not offer a space for critique outside its discourse.

 

Question 2

            Articulations of the human subject are an on-going philosophical concern. Coming from the Enlightenment, the human was considered a rational being with a core identity that was untouched by the outside world. A radical critique of this idea was brought by modernist Sigmund Freud, who is credited with decentering the self into the id, ego, and superego. The id and its unbridled desires were repressed by the rational projection of the self or the ego, and the superego’s self-reflection of the self in regard to the social brought the human subject in line with the outside world.

Postmodernism inherited and extended the idea of a decentered self and formulated a rearticulation of what the human subject is. A notable break with the modernist stance on a decentered subject comes from Jameson and his lament for the waning of affect. The senses of a deep interiority, stream of consciousness, and a private voice have disappeared as the world has become embedded in that interiority. The inner self has become another surface upon which the world and the social write themselves. The social is what makes us subjects (subject to the effects of power and mired in power relationships exterior to ourselves) instead of centered persons with an identity of our own narration and creation. As I mentioned above, Jameson does not celebrate this change, because he sees this as an effect of late capitalism and its global reach. Human beings and their art are made possible, at least how we see ourselves and the works that we create, by the effects of capitalism. There is no outside of that system, and as subjects of the system, our creative works cannot maintain a critique of the system that makes them possible.

Like Jameson, other theorists recognize the anxieties about a loss of interiority, and the inevitability of the world changes in which we find ourselves. Particularly, Donna Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles, and Mark Poster offer a different reading of the inevitability of the postmodern and the promises to be found there.

Before discussing Haraway, Hayles, and Poster, it would be useful to rehearse Bruno Latour’s ideas that inform their history of science and technology based arguments. For Latour, science, technology, and society develop together within networks. He finds the Enlightenment division of subjects and objects into separate categories to be an artificial division. He demonstrates that subject-object hybrids circulate within networks, but they are purified into subject or object by the so-called moderns. Quasi-subjects and quasi-objects are purified while hybrids proliferate under the surface imposed by the moderns. Thus, what we consider modernity with its artificially clear boundaries has never in fact occurred, because the presence of hybrids refutes the claims of the moderns.

Haraway extends Latour and his actor-network theory by looking at them from Marxist-feminist and animal studies perspectives. She develops two very big ideas in her work: the cyborg as a social-politically enabling subject, and the importance for social relations to include humans and non-humans. Haraway’s cyborg resists the purification of the moderns, who would try to divide it rather than encounter or engage its synthesis. Haraway argues that we are all now hybrids or cyborgs, because we are part of the modern circuit of humanity and technology that has been made possible by the effects of late capital. She defines the cyborg as: “A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction.” The cyborg brings together in a new kind of subject the machine and the animal, and it is connected to other cyborgs and other beings through our lived social relationships. The fictional cyborg, in effect, becomes a world-changing fiction, because it shows how we have radically changed as a species. The cyborg as postmodern subject is to be embraced, because it resists the artificial purifications of the moderns that would strip us of our politically powerful assemblages. Connected to the cyborg is Haraway’s concept that “social relations include humans and non-humans as socially active partners. All that is unhuman is not un-kind, outside kinship, outside the orders of signification, excluded from trading in signs and wonder.” Using her emblematic characters Modest Witness (women on the net), FemaleMan (a cyborg making feminism, and making science), and OncoMouse (another kind of cyborg, the first genetically engineered animal), she articulates the cyborg as providing the future alternative to the liberal humanist subject. The liberal humanist subject is a human being with a centered self, male is the model, heteronormative, linked to patriarchal hierarchies, and historically domineering. The cyborg is inclusive of gender, sexual orientation, and even different species. The cyborg provides an emblem of affinity across modern-derived divisions (e.g., man/woman, machine/human, human/animal, etc.).

Hayles takes a different but related tact to Haraway by using a feminist critique to uncover how technology blurs and erases socially imposed boundaries. Hayles, whose interest is in cyberneticists and fiction on cybernetics, is more focused on the way hybrids have been dealt with historically after World War II. Hayles argues that bodies are under erasure. She sees intelligence as embodied information, which implies that intelligent bodies can take other forms. Like Haraway, Hayles dismantles the liberal humanist subject (and its autonomy, rationality, free will, agency, and consciousness as the seat of identity) through her argument for the posthuman. She recognizes the problems of the social writing itself on the subject (i.e., writing the subject) and the earlier work of Freud to decenter the subject, but she argues that the posthuman inevitability can be terrifying and pleasurable. It is a present and future that she asserts we should walk freely into. For Hayles, the posthuman is distributed cognition, agency as an effect of multiple nodes, consciousness is emergent, information coding through all levels of cognition, and the incorporation of the individual into market relations. Our minds and our memories can be distributed, such as in social networking websites or knowing where to find information (e.g., Google or our internal catalog of books we have read) we cannot readily recall. Agency is a result of our relations to other nodes within a network of relations. Our consciousness is emergent from our biology and socialization. Information is coded through all levels of our cognition and its distribution. We are all interconnected through the networks of capital. The key to all of these things is the body. Unlike the liberal humanist subject, in which consciousness is seen as so much software running on the brain’s hardware and can thus be transferred to other containers (e.g., The Matrix or Avatar), she sees intelligence as being embodied as something (bodies and intelligence are intertwined and dependent). The human as information makes no sense unless there is a body to contain the information. It can’t be stressed enough that specific body/information subjects are co-dependent. Who I am is dependent on my informational experiences, reflections, and behaviors that are linked to my body and cannot be easily transferred to just any container. A book, likewise, needs a vessel to contain its information (but I would say that this is a weaker example of the implications of her ideas on embodied information and subjectivity). Returning to the human as information wedded to a body, she sees embodiment as necessary for agency and history as much as for accounting for relationships. Furthermore, bodies need boundaries in order to share information with other bodies and to interface with the world around us.

The importance of interface and information is articulated in Poster’s work. He develops a parallel argument to Marx’s mode of production, which he calls the mode of information. Each mode is a way of defining relationships—the mode of production deals with exchange and its forms around commodity fetishism, and the mode of information deals with communication and it forms around information fetishism. Poster develops three stages to the mode of information, but these are not historical processes. Instead, they are discursive totalizations, which means that they will overlap and co-exist based on historical development of each. The first stage of the mode of information is face-to-face communication, which is self-instantiated through enunciation and involves symbols. The second stage concerns writing and print, which relies on the representation of signs, and the self is constructed as an agent centered in rationality and imaginary autonomy. Finally, the third stage is the electronic stage, which features information simulations, and the self is decentered, dispersed across social space, and multiplied in continuous instability. In Poster’s formulation, information produces the modern subject, and pushing into the electronic stage begins to yield a new kind of human. His argument goes that humans build computers, but computers may in turn be building a new kind of human. Humans and their machines co-evolve and co-develop. What Poster finds important to this interaction between humans and machines is that interfaces and boundaries become increasingly important, because it is at the point where the human and machine meet that negotiations are made leading to the emergence of something new. It is the emergence of something new that Poster identifies as the postmodern.

Haraway, Hayles, and Poster offer a different take on the postmodern subject that extends the earlier work by the moderns. However, each of them accepts change as inevitable, and the modern concern about the machine and the human, or the transformation of the human into a machine is not to be feared according to these theorists. However, they are writing from a protected position as information workers within the academy. I do not think that price checking cyborgs at Wal-Mart or Chinese gold farmers playing World of Warcraft for 12+ hours a day can be said to be enjoying the fruits of cyborg/posthuman/information subject promised by these theorists. Just as in Marx’s mode of production there are some people who get the rewards from the system and others who do not, the same is true in the postmodern reconfiguration of the human subject as cyborg. There will be some cyborgs who will be empowered or enjoy their cyborg subjectivity, but others will, for lack of better terms, be dehumanized and perhaps literally turned into machines as a result of their integration into the circuits of capital and global networks of power. This is a real concern for some postmodern writers including Philip K. Dick, who sees transformations from machine into human and human into machine as equal possibilities. For Dick, empathy was the key determining factor for what constituted a ‘human’ whatever form it may take—human being, alien, or machine. I am confident that this largely informed Jameson’s earlier thinking on the postmodern and the waning of affect. Haraway in particular confronts this issue with cyborg existence by showing that it is our relationships with others (human and non-human like) that empowers us in this new kind of human-machine subjectivity. So, I would say that we have not yet lost all affect, but it should be made more evident how we can use technology to explore and expand on what it means to be human without it overtaking us and erasing what humanity can be.

 

Question 3

            Postmodernism and science fiction have according to some converged into overlapping literatures or at least literatures in strong conversation with one another. To begin this discussion, I will briefly define postmodern literature and science fiction, and then I will proceed to look at the theories of Damien Broderick, Scott Bukatman, Brian McHale, and Fredric Jameson on the interrelationship between postmodern literature and science fiction.

A working definition of postmodern literature includes the following. Postmodern literature critiques the here-and-now, universalized assumptions, and metanarratives while also critiquing itself. It is a continuation of modernist forms and themes, but through mixing, intertextuality, and bricolage repurposing, often with an ironic turn, it takes these techniques into new, unexplored areas. It supports multiplicity of narratives and meaning, and it rejects determinacy and closed meanings. It is inclusive (leveling high and low art distinctions and embracing popular culture) and relational instead of exclusive and situated.

I will rely on Darko Suvin’s widely accepted definition of science fiction, which defines science fiction as “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is the imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.” Science fiction is the literature of cognitive estrangement, because it must use some cognitive or explanatory element that is usually based in science and technology. The scientific phenomena or technoscientific device that drives the plot is essential to these stories. Science fiction must also estrange the reader from the here-and-now, but it often does this as metaphor in order to critique the here-and-now without directly challenging the status quo. It veils its argument behind the accoutrements that we consider science fictional. Considering the effects of postmodernity on the human subject as outlined in question two, it seems evident that reality is beginning to catch up with science fiction. It could be this operation of the increasingly technologized everyday world that has caused what could be otherwise called mundane literature to have an increasingly science fictional aspect. When we are all cyborgs or posthumans, is there any other kind of literature besides science fiction? Would science fiction continue to be estranging? In the discussion below, I will look at how some major theorists in the field approach the relationship between postmodern literature and science fiction.

Jameson identifies cyberpunk and specifically the fiction of William Gibson as the representative literature of the postmodern. All the characters in his fiction are surfaces to be written on, each character demonstrates the waning of affect discussed above, the characters are embedded within the networks of capital, and it is the influence of the market that drives the plot (i.e., Neuromancer and Wintermute are AIs that seek to break out of the human imposed barriers to their pre-programmed need to fuse together, protections intended to save humanity from the unknown operations of intelligences that are decidedly not human). Of late however, Jameson has worked on the potential for utopian thinking in postmodern literature. Earlier, Jameson had claimed that the system cannot be critiqued from within, because all art and subjects are subject to the system of global capital. It is within science fiction that Jameson locates contemporary utopian thought and its satirical critique of the here-and-now. However, he does not agree with the potential of cyborg politics within much recent science fiction, and he most certainly would not condone the cyborgization of the human subject via Haraway or Hayles. This is interesting, because some of his lauded examples of postmodern science fiction include the heterotopias of Kim Stanley Robinson (who was Jameson’s student at UC, San Diego), which feature elements of the posthuman that Jameson condemns.

Broderick agrees in large part with Jameson. Broderick argues that science fiction is the native storytelling form for societies undergoing the technological and industrial changes we are now encountering. For him, science fiction has metaphoric strategies (one thing represents another from the here-and-now), metonymic tactics (concepts are linked together), the megatext of shared terms and concepts is foregrounded while aesthetics and characterization is placed in the background (this complements Jameson’s waning of affect), and attention to objects over subjects (again, the waning of affect). Space for Broderick is also a primary concern over that of time. He defines genre in general as a negotiated territory within what he calls narrative phase space. Phase space is a term from physics that describes a space, defined by coordinates of independent variables that describe a dynamic system that maps onto multiple dimensions. The genre negotiation of this dynamic space is done through what he calls the megatext. Extending the idea from Phillippe Haman and Christine Brooke-Rose, Broderick defines the science fiction megatext as a shared collection of terms, ideas, and concepts that a reader must apprentice to in order to gain entrance to science fiction’s negotiated territory within narrative phase space. Knowing the difference between a robot and a ray gun, for example, enables the reader’s engagement of science fiction literature in general, because most texts reference some of these shared terms. Knowing what these things are allows the reader to more quickly understand what is going on without each author needing to describe minute details of something like a robot that doesn’t necessarily pertain to the progression of the plot. It frees the author to integrate science and technology into the plot in a meaningful way without getting bogged down in elaborate and often unnecessary explanations. Of course, these terms experience slippage and change over time from various uses by authors and interpretations by readers. However, the general elements of science fiction for Broderick do align with the generic definition of postmodern literature in terms of space, critique, and surfaces.

Bukatman, like Jameson and Broderick, focuses on the spatial, maps, writing on bodies, and cyberspace for defining contemporary science fiction. Bukatman argues that science fiction is no longer concerned with narrating bodies and an ideal soul. The subject as body/mind/memory is now hardwired into a subjectivity of being and electronic technology. Again, like Jameson, Bukatman places an emphasis on cyberpunk, a subgenre of contemporary science fiction, as the central example of postmodern literature that maps the spaces of this new subjectivity. For Bukatman, terminal identity is a transitional stage in the information age (connect his argument to Poster) in which the subject is propelled into the machine. He argues that information is invisible (not embodied like Hayles), difficult to represent, difficult to separate the human from the machine, and science fiction narrates provisional subjects as terminal identities. Science fiction and theory are different yet interrelated kinds of writing that address this issue. Each develops its own metaphors for reality, and he reads them alongside one another rather than one against the other. Science fiction is a form of language game (connecting himself to Broderick and the changing megatext), and special effects are a visual form of language game, which reinforces the idea of surfaces where the screen has replaced interiority. Bukatman’s theory couples to what I will discuss in the final section on McHale and zones: Bukatman contends that electronic space is where language, rationality, and subjectivity break down. He notes the possibilities with cybernauts (cyberspace/hackers) and posthumans/cyborgs, but he seems deeply interested in the effects on the margins, which gestures towards de Certeau’s tactics versus power’s strategies. Like Haraway and Hayles, Bukatman sees the changes to the postmodern subject as inevitable. He, unlike Jameson, embraces the changes and he tries to envision how these changes can be used to challenge the structures of dominating power.

McHale provides perhaps the most useful theoretical bridge between postmodernism and science fiction. His big idea is based on structuralism and the Jacobson’s concept of the dominant. His simple, yet powerful, argument is that: for modernism, the dominant is epistemological (questions of knowing and knowability), and the postmodern dominant is ontological (modes of being and making sense of the world/worlds). He argues that persistent epistemological doubt leads to ontological instability. Pursing epistemological questions long enough will turn into ontological problems, and vice versa. Thus, the one kind of question leads to the other and back again, which means that his theory does not form a historical break in the two kinds of writing like Jameson, who divides modernism and postmodernism with a clear demarcation. For McHale, these are just different kinds of questions that a particular historical moment may promote, but there is no reason why one dominant cannot be found in an earlier or later period. Importantly, McHale complicates Jacobson’s idea. McHale argues that there are always multiple dominants operating at different levels. It all depends on your analysis and how you choose to telescope in or out among your reading of the levels. A single text may have both epistemological and ontological questions, but only one will be in the foreground. In fact, taking Philip K. Dick as an example, his trajectory as a writer can be described as beginning with an epistemological dominant (e.g., “Imposter”), which led to ontological questions in his middle period (e.g., Ubik), and then a return to epistemological questions in his later period (e.g., VALIS). Sister genres provide a direct connection between postmodernism and science fiction. Modernism’s sister genre is detective fiction (questions of knowing), and postmodernism’s sister genre is science fiction (building worlds and exploring worlds). Postmodern world building is termed zones. Zones correspond to worlds within the text and not the real world. Heterotopias are a plurality of worlds or zones. Hutcheon’s less effective theory of historiographic fiction can be viewed in McHale’s theory as another example of the postmodern: world building, uncovering history through ironic invention, juxtaposition, pastiche, etc. He says that acceptance of the world or ontological indeterminacy is only a postmodern thematics and not a totalizing poetics of postmodern literature.

Of these theories, McHale’s seems to be the most useful and productive in a wide range of circumstances. Furthermore, it provides the strongest connection between a wide range of science fiction and the postmodern. Science fiction is a literature with a historical development. It has changed over time, and in general, it does have a strong affinity to McHale’s theory of the postmodern through its use of world building. Jameson, Broderick, and Bukatman make compelling cases for the relationship between science fiction and the postmodern, but they focus on contemporary science fiction as if it represented all of science fiction. They look to specific works or specific subgenres without studying the bigger picture as does McHale. However, they are more concerned with the current milieu, which I do not believe has borne out the emphasis on cyberpunk (which is itself a now mostly defunct subgenre of science fiction that has been absorbed into other narratives). I do agree with McHale that science fiction is related to the postmodern through its ontological emphasis and the critique of its worlds and itself (something found primarily in the most literary or experimental science fictions by authors including Kim Stanley Robinson, Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany, and Joanna Russ, to name only a few).

 

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Comprehensive Exam 1 of 3, 20th-Century American Literature, Dr. Kevin Floyd, 2 June 2010

This is the fifty-eighth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

After completing two years of course work in the PhD in English program at Kent State University, I began preparing for my comprehensive exams with faculty who I hoped to also work with when I moved on to the dissertation stage.

My major exam was in 20th-century American literature, and Dr. Kevin Floyd agreed to serve as my examiner on this important test. During the summer after completing course work, we met at the Starbucks in downtown Kent, Ohio to finalize my reading list and the kinds of questions that would best suit my purposes and enable my intellectual growth through this process. Working from our discussion, Dr. Floyd developed two questions that I could answer in sufficient depth with examples taken from six the ten works on my reading list. The first question asked for a narrative about representations of social class prior to World War II, and the second question asked for an exploration of technologies, bodies, and subjectivities in post-World War II works. As I worked through my reading list at about one major work (reading, research, and notes) per week (of course, this in addition to readings on my other three exams–which would make my reading schedule about one major work from each list per 2-3 days).

After spending approximately a year preparing while teaching at Kent State, I sat down for my exam in Satterfield Hall and wrote the following over five hours.

Jason W. Ellis

Prof. Kevin Floyd

PhD Major Exam: 20th-century American Literature

2 June 2010

Question 1

Social class is an uneasy topic of national discussion in the United States, because the reality of social class destabilizes the conventional belief that economic and personal success derives from hard work, investment, and tenacity. In the following essay, I will chart the origins of this element of the American dream and its erasure of class as a topic of critique in work by Cather and its refutation in Steinbeck. Then, I will discuss class embedded in characters by Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and O’Connor before analyzing the connection between race and class in works by Wright and Hansberry. This is followed by demonstrating the operation of narrative forms and class in Dos Passos and Eliot. The essay concludes by following the trajectory of these earlier examples in a work of science fiction that transitions from capitalism and labor relations to consumerism, advertising, and the pitchman in The Space Merchants.

Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913) is considered emblematic of a specifically American kind of writing that developed out of the nineteenth century. Its overall message is that land accumulation and exploitation of farm labor is representative of the successful American ideal. The novel addresses the American experience and New World experiment through its engagement of the vast expanse of land in the frontier, the experience of settlers, and the importance of history working through people and the land. In fact, the passage of time is very important to this novel. It is through time that the protagonist Alexandra Bergson transforms the land, and in turn, the land transforms her. Alexandra takes over the family farm from her father, inverting the prevailing patriarchal arrangement in frontier life in Nebraska, and in doing so, she sets about the management of the farm and the administration of the labor of her brothers and other farmhands. Alexandra develops her business acumen through personal intelligence and an awareness of the workings of the farm gained through careful observation and participation of the practices of farming. She works, but she also observed the aspects of management and investment that are essential to the development of the land. The significant turn in her development as a character comes at the end of Part 1 when the drought hits the divide and Alexandra is faced with the decision to leave or stay. She travels around, seeing the land in all its picturesque majesty, and visits the river country to see how farming is proceeding there. Observing the land affected equally by the drought around the divide, she resolves to stay and risk a second mortgage in order to acquire more land. She realizes that the accumulation of land, continuing to work the land, and tenaciously maintaining the land will create the conditions that enable the land to return her investment with interest. Despite Alexandra’s farming and business shrewdness, her brothers continually resist her efforts and decry her authority over them. Partially a matter of gender politics, it is also an issue of labor relations and social class. Her brothers are exploited labor who marry local girls and maintain simple homes. Alexandra holds out to the end of the novel before agreeing to marry her more worldly, educated, and introverted fiancé Carl Linstrum. This marriage will complete her managerial and business success through her ascendancy into the bourgeoisie with landed interests, a home, and a proper husband.

Much changed in the 26 years dividing John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) from Cather’s O Pioneers!. The world had survived the Great War, the Great Depression was still under way before the Second World War economic miracle, and the Dust Bowl erased the gains of farm development that had only just begun for Alexandra in Cather’s novel. The Joad family in Steinbeck’s celebrated novel joins the mass migration of workers from the Midwest to California in search of work. Their dream has been so reduced that they do not dream of owning a farm, much less consolidating with other farms, but only that they make enough money to put food on the table for their family. The spike in available farm labor during the Dust Bowl years significantly reduced any leverage workers had to command a living wage or steady work. Farm labor was brutally exploited by the farm owners, managers, and community law enforcement. These issues are brilliantly illustrated in The Grapes of Wrath. However, I would like to specifically discuss the character Tom Joad in relation to Alexandra Bergson. Tom, having just been released from a four year stint in prison for manslaughter, returns to his family on the eve of their departure West. He had been, to that point, someone who lived in the moment and was self-centered. He did not dream of the future as Alexandra had come to do in Cather’s novel with all the land spread out around her, the wealth seen within the land itself, and the possibilities that afforded her. Tom’s family only had a small farm, and the effects of the Dust Bowl reduced their ability to work and compete. The only alternative was to pick up stakes and exchange their labor for money. Through the events of the novel, including Tom’s discipleship to the former preacher Jim Casy, Casy’s death at the meeting to organize the workers for better wages and jobs, and Tom’s realization of the worker’s plight as a shared experience, Tom comes to represent the exact opposite of Alexandra. Tom realizes that power comes through solidarity and organization, and that the workers should not be exploited for their labor. We do not know if Tom has success in the novel, but the hopeful ending points to the possibility that labor and empathy can lead to a better tomorrow.

William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929) presents a different image of social class tensions and their relationship to American modernization in the character of Quentin Compson. Faulkner explores the human experience of time, interiority, psychosexual trauma, and human relationships in the novel, but Quentin’s section in flashback, “June Second, 1910,” includes more details related to social class and the old South resistance to modernization and accepting the social changes related to that. This section is about Quentin’s day leading up to his suicide in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he is attending college at Harvard. Quentin’s family is from a fictional rural setting in Mississippi, but it is his family’s dwindling legacy—struck hard in the twentieth century—that enables his education at a prestigious New England university. Despite the effects on the family fortune, Quentin holds dear to outdated Southern genteel social beliefs including the sanctity of feminine virginity and chastity. As a result, Quentin cannot reconcile his incestuous feelings for his sister Caddy and her promiscuity with another man whom she marries. He doubly wants her and he wants to absorb the stain on the family name by their union. Quentin lamely admits to his father that Caddy and he had sex before, but his father recognizes his son’s folly and tries to dissuade him from holding on to traditional Southern ideals about women and sex. This is significant, because it is through Quentin’s suicide that the old South dies, too. The industrialization of the North and new modes of farming and manufacture in the South following Reconstruction were moving out the old traditions in favor of new norms that were enabled by the effects of capital (urban growth, worker mobility, more educational possibilities, etc.). It is important to note here that capitalism enabled many new possibilities and played a part in the repair of past damages. The effects of capitalism had helped usher in the era of the Black Atlantic, but it also made possible the inclusion of African Americans into the networks of capital. This was an uneasy process with social norms and laws following behind the circuits of capital (Jim Crow Laws and the Ku Klux Klan, for example). This apparently tangential connection between Southern social changes and Quentin is reinforced by the adventure he has in the Italian quarter. When Quentin meets the little girl, his gentlemanly behavior kicks-in. He’s prepared to commit suicide, but he takes the time to try and find the girl’s home. Instead, he is accused of being a pedophile and forced to pay a fine. His traditional ways do not mesh with the new realities of the modern era, and ultimately, he cannot cope with the change and follows his ancestors by drowning.

Nick Carraway, the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, achieves greater success than his humble Minnesotan (i.e., rural vs. urban) roots. Whereas Quentin Compson cannot accommodate the changes brought by the increasing influence of capital in America, Carraway has survived the Great War and moved East to Long Island to try his hand at bond trading (i.e., building capital with capital vs. building capital through work or land development). Similar humble beginnings are true too for the great Jay Gatsby, or Jay Gatz, who dedicated himself to acquiring wealth after leaving North Dakota and paying tutelage to a very wealthy man. Carraway seeks new money in the markets, and Gatsby has already acquired wealth, albeit illegally (Gatsby’s criminal activities are different than O’Connor’s Misfit who I will discuss later–Gatsby wants to acquire social status by any means necessary whereas the Misfit reacts against the social and the economic system that has produced him). Gatsby acquires wealth so that his object of desire, Daisy Buchanan, who married another man and his old money, will want to be with him. The importance of wealth and its acquisition, especially prior to the Great Depression, plays out in this novel through a tragic narrative of love lost. Hence, the effects of capital accumulation bleed over into other aspects of the social. Gatsby can never shuck the taint of his new money, because it seeps into every part of his being. His parties, financed in the hope of reconnecting with Daisy, are all that he is. Fitzgerald purposely withholds Gatsby’s interiority—only supplying the reader with the reserved observations of Carraway. In some respects, Gatsby prefigures the surface laden characters we see in postmodern fictions. He wears his money and his love on his sleeve, but there is no longer anything underneath the layers of money that define him as a person. Daisy is little different: she enjoys the luxuries and the carelessness afforded by her husband’s old money. She is indifferent to her daughter, and she toys with Gatsby and lets him take the blame for her actions. Caring only for what money can buy her, she looks fantastic and maintains a surface without depth expect perhaps a memory of Gatsby that can be salved with spending a little of her husband’s money.

Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1955) is a moral tale tied to the networks of capitalism, but it inverts the hierarchy favoring those who follow the rules of capital and those who do not. Told by an omniscient narrator, but focusing on the Grandmother, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is about a family’s trip from Georgia to Florida and after agreeing to a side trip on the Grandmother’s urging, they encounter an escaped murderer, The Misfit. This fateful encounter results in the killing of the father and son, mother and daughter, and finally the Grandmother when she reaches out to touch The Misfit who she calls “one of her babies.” The lawless Misfit contrasts with Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and his illegal activities, because the former radically confronts the system and chucks social class while the later bends the system to his own ends while attaining a higher social class. Debate centers on the final scene in which The Misfit, after being touched by the Grandmother and being called “one of my babies,” “sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.” He tells his accomplices, “She would have been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” The Misfit believes that she would only have been a good woman rather than acting as a good woman had someone been there threatening her life. On the surface, the Grandmother’s act, reaching out to touch her killer, could be an act of divine grace. After realizing that she is not really a good woman, she reaches out in an act to be a good woman. However, she could have been trying to save herself, since she made no real attempt to save her family. The Misfit lives on the margins of the circuits of capital. He and his accomplices choose to kill and take what they want from those who sell their labor (the family appears to be working class) and presumably those who exploit the labor of others. As his name suggests, he does not fit into the current mode of production. Instead of being a poor white man, the Misfit takes by force what he wants from the system. Those who are part of the system, such as the Grandmother and her family, would presumably be in a better moral position, but their complicity with the system, one that in part produces men like the Misfit—unwilling to give into the demands of labor exploitation—places them in opposition to the individual who stands against the totality of the production system. Furthermore, the Grandmother’s choice to stay her hand when her family is getting killed represents selfishness on her part to save herself or delude herself regarding the fate of her family. It may also represent the blindness to the system that could make the Misfit and her complicit parts of the system. He is one of her babies she says. She and society made him the way that he is, and it is at the end that she realizes in her gesture what she and society had done.

Considering the trajectory in some of the earlier examples to be about rural whites seeking better fortune (or no fortune at all in the last example, except perhaps a moral certainty of self—the Misfit knows who he is while others do not necessarily know who they are and what part they play in the system of capital), an important contribution to this discussion would include two African-American examples: Native Son and A Raisin in the Sun. Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) is about the young African-American Bigger Thomas, who lives in the South Side of Chicago. 20 years old, Bigger experiences an unspeakable hatred, or hatred that he does not have the voice or language to make concrete. It is a hatred that seeps into him from the overwhelming whiteness of the white man’s hegemony over blacks in mid-century Chicago. Wright litters the text with references to white and the white mountain that Bigger is aware of as an invisible force. Social class figures into this whiteness with the Daltons, the white family who offer Bigger a job. They treat him, not as an equal, but at least on a better standing than most other whites. Bigger feels ashamed and subservient to them without even knowing why. And, despite the Dalton’s feeling that blacks should have better opportunities, there is an internalized and underlying expectation on their part for Bigger to act a particular way. Furthermore, the Daltons live in their nice house and make a lot of their money from the high rents that they charge Chicago blacks, which is greater than the rents that they charge whites in other parts of the city! Racial and economic oppression are intertwined here, and it is in this environment, one that Bigger is aware of at least in some way, that produces him as a racialized and poor subject. In terms of social class and race, Bigger is one of the most developed characters in which he embodies the tensions, hatreds, and conflicts present in Chicago at that time. The social is indelibly written on his subjectivity. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) presents a similar dilemma for African-Americans seeking to improve their social class through capital accumulation, and it responds to Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” (1951), which asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?” In the play, the family’s father dies, leaving a life insurance policy that Mama intends to use to pay for Beneatha’s college education and to buy a house for the whole family. This family wants to achieve upward mobility through education and home ownership, but there are sabotages from within and without. Walter, Mama’s son, cannot provide for the family as the new “man of the house.” He takes the money his mother gives him and invests it in a scheme with two of his friends, one of which runs off with the money. Walter is so desperate to achieve success that he doesn’t stop to consider his ill conceived choices. He isn’t prepared to make better choices, because the social has made him into the man that he is (looking for the big money, drinking with his friends, scheming—all parallels with Anderson in Dos Passos’ novel, which I will discuss below). And then there is the white, housing association representative, Karl Lindner. He and the other white people who own homes around the house that Mama is buying want to buy out the family so that they won’t have African-American neighbors. These white folk want to economically prohibit the social mobility for this black family. In the strongest scene of the play, Walter stands up to Lindner and his money, and in so doing, he rewrites himself as a man who is capable of leading the family into an uncertain yet hopeful future.

In the previous examples, characters play a greater role in representing the effects on social class by the development of the American industrial system and the market economy. In the next two examples, characters are important to one, but it is the form of the work in both that carries more importance to discussing social class and the effects of American capitalism. The first is John Dos Passos’ The Big Money (1936), which is an artifact documenting the integration of people with industrialization, media culture, and market capitalism. News, narrative, and the author are each embroiled in the system of power relations and discursive formations that made this work possible. It and the other books in the U.S.A. trilogy include four narrative modes: fictional narratives, newspaper and pop culture collages called Newsreel, biographies of public figures, and autobiographical Camera Eye that follows Dos Passos’ development as a writer who is both a participant and observer of the social changes taking place around him. These forms pull for the reader’s attention—additional data to shape our understanding of the historical processes unfolding. Each character follows a different trajectory in regard to the big money: Charlie Anderson goes for broke with his WWI career as his only collateral, Mary French (from Colorado—the West and the rural again) prefigures Tom Joad’s growing awareness of social inequality and tries to help the working class, Margo Dowling transforms from a low social class to a high class movie star, and Richard Ellsworth Savage manipulates people in order to make them buy things (the beginnings of consumer culture, more on this in the discussion of The Space Merchants). The events of the novel lead to the Great Crash in October of 1929. The biographical segments form a framework about what it means to be American, and the development of America in the 1920s: The American Plan features Fredrick Winslow Taylor and Taylorism, Tin Lizzie features Henry Ford, The Bitter Drink features Thorstein Veblen and his work The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Art and Isadora features the dancer Isadora Duncan, Adagio Dancer features the early movie star Rudolph Valentino, The Campers at Kitty Hawk is about the Wright Brothers, Architect features Frank Lloyd Wright, Poor Little Rich Boy is about William Randolph Hearst, Power Superpower features the rise and fall of the manipulator Samuel Insull under Edison’s business tutelage, and Vag is about a nameless man, hungry, wanting the American Dream, but missing out, waiting on the side of the road for a lift. The novel paints a picture of political, industrial, technological, and social life of America during the 1920s, and it does so in a different way than Fitzgerald (new money jazz age life in a semi-objective narrative), or Steinbeck (personal narrative interspersed with reports on the ground). However, Charley Anderson is a Gatsby-like character who never quite makes it, but he continues to reach, outliving Gatsby, but dying after a drunken car accident that could not be repaired by that time’s best medicine. The most interesting element of the novel is the flattering biographical sketch of Taylor as a man for the people. His “American Plan” was about big capital improving the lives of workers through sharing the profits his system of efficiencies would bring about. Unfortunately, his American Plan conflicted with a different American Plan promoted by the managers and owners that hoarded capital away from the exploited workers.

Focusing even more on form is T. S. Eliot’s 1922 epic, high modernist poem, “The Waste Land.” “The Waste Land” contains a multiplicity of voices that deal with alienation in the modern era, anxiety about modernity, the dehumanizing effects of The City (London’s center of capital), death and World War I (representing all war), tension/conflicts between men and women, issues of life only through death, and ultimately, anxiety of death. Grail myth imbued and extremely intertextual, it seems, on its surface, to be more about men and women, their relationships, and sexual problems, which links it biographically with the author, but the elements of capital that haunt the entire poem through the emblem of The City provide a significant look into the effect of capital on people and relationships following the Great War. In Part I, The Burial of the Dead, Eliot writes, “Unreal City,/Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,/A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many.” The financial center of London was known as The City much like Wall Street in New York City is identified with the American markets or Madison Avenue with the major advertising firms. The crowds are workers walking through the fog to their jobs, and feeding the city with their labor. This alludes to Dante’s Inferno and the dead marching into hell is sharpened by the imagined dreary London scene. The City returns in Part III, The Fire Sermon: “Unreal city/Under the brown fog of a winter moon.” The fog is dirty, and the moon in winter implies a cold harshness invading the tombs of the dead in The (market/capital linked) City. In the same section, the speaker, after having unsatisfying sex, thinks of warmth hidden in the city: “This music crept by me upon the waters’/And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street./O City city, I can sometimes hear/Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,/The pleasant whining of a mandolin.” Warmth away from cold sex and the cold City is just on the outskirts on Queen Victoria Street toward Blackfriars and the Strand in Westminster. In Part 4, the recurring character Phlebas, the poem’s presumed observer, reappears in memory of death, not to hear the sound of profit and loss, the true sounds of The City: “Phelbas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,/Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell/And the profit and loss.” And finally, in Part 5, What the Thunder Said, The City is identified with other illusory cities of power, wealth, and history: “What is the city over the mountains/Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air/Falling towers/Jerusalem Athens/Alexandria/Vienna London/Unreal.” The unreal city is the terminal for the circuits of capital and the fracturing of life by war and psychological trauma (death and sex intertwined). In this poem, The City is as much a place as a character that affects the lives of the many nameless and the few identified characters in the poem. Ultimately, Eliot ends the poem looking to other languages and other cultures to repair the pain brought about by Western modernity and all of its concomitant systems of oppression and repression.

In closing this discussion, it seems appropriate to indicate where things were headed after World War II and consumerism took command. Advertising is in the previously discussed works either implicitly or explicitly, but it was not until after World War II that Madison Avenue solidified its increasing drug-like hook on business and industrialization. Instead of merely creating advertising, there was an increasingly synthetic connection between the producers and advertisers of goods. These advertisers were helping to create markets filled with goods for purchase while developing fetishism within the consumer base. This shift to increasing advertising is coterminous with the effects of late capitalism and the escalating emphasis on producers-consumers over managers/owners-workers. The categories blur together when consumers are ordered about to buy this or that in much the same way that management orders about the distribution of labor within a factory. Science fiction’s critique of the here-and-now is often formulated as an extrapolation of a contemporary aspect of the social projected into the far future. Fredrik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1953) is a high water mark of midcentury social commentary science fiction that directly addresses the confluence of consumer/labor and producer/management. The Space Merchants is about a distant future in which advertising has arisen to the dominant mode of capitalism. Instead of trying to sell things for companies, advertising agencies create markets for goods in which to fuel further consumption among the established consumer class. Embroiled in the cycle of consumption spurred on by the two major advertising agencies, Fowler Schocken Associates and B. J. Taunton, are the Consies or conservationist cell groups under the auspices of the underground World Conservation Association (W.C.A.). The narrator is Mitchell Courtenay, a star class copywriter, who is given the assignment to head the Venus section of Fowler Schocken, which is to promote and execute the human colonization of the planet Venus. Courtenay goes from elitist to consumer in the dregs of an algae food production facility to consie and back to the heights of advertising titan after Schocken bequeaths to him majority voting shares in the company following his death at the hands of Taunton operatives driven by sadistic/masochistic psyches. In the end, Courtenay finds himself onboard the ship to Venus along with other consies and his wife, Dr. Kathy Nevin, who was secretly a superior in the WCA organization. The story focuses on the ubiquity of advertising and its action as a new kind of unconsciousness. Advertising drives us to do things that we are not wholly conscious of. Furthermore, advertising as doing and advertising for consumers forms two different, yet supplemental, subjectivities for those persons on either side of the line between consumer and producer/advertiser. Courtenay takes the reader across the barrier into both sides, but he does not make the journey himself (i.e., obtains insight from the journey). He doesn’t change as a result of his fall and his re-ascendency of power. His drive is based on his obsessive desire for his wife, which results in his giving Venus to the consies. Courtenay’s world is light years away from Cather’s Alexandra or Wright’s Bigger Thomas, but the effects of advertising and the co-development of consumerism worked its way through the first half of the 20th century in America to the point at which Kornbluth and Pohl imagined how America would be in a far future setting where the networks of capital produce new subjects caught helplessly within the system and others desperately trying to get out to Venus, perhaps unawares that social and capital networks would follow them across the vastness of space.

 

Question 2

            The increasing effects of interaction between the technological and the corporeal create slippages in the everyday world and our art in the realist and science fiction genres. Derrida has already shown how genre is an always already deconstructing set of categories, and yet these genre categories stay with us. Borrowing from Derrida’s argument, part of the problem with genre is that what are assumedly separate and distinct categories do in fact blur and overlap. The purification of art into this or that category can give way to different interpretations or a multitude of shared characteristics within a single work. This is particularly true at this point in history and the near-past in regard to issues of bodies and technology. With the rise in cybernetic studies after WWII, and the parallel development of an increasingly cyborized everyday life (i.e., the way in which our experience of the world is increasingly mediated by technology and thus making us into cyborgs to greater or lesser degrees), the cultural works of art that deal with bodies and technology are becoming more about real life than fantasy. Science fiction, the literature of cognitive estrangement according to Darko Suvin, loses its estranging qualities as the scientific and technological core of its stories come to pass into the real and everyday world. Also, the heightened integration of science and technology into our daily lives leads to realistic fiction that is more like what we might traditionally think of as science fiction. The here-and-now and the technological integration into daily life has lead to a more estranging reality after WWII. The same could be said of the early 20th century and modernism, but the separation between bodies and technology was greater than it is today. Artificial implants, RFID chips, LASIK eye surgery, computers built into our cars, cell phones, Bluetooth headsets, etc. connect us to the world in a physical way while mediating our experience of the world. The same can be said of software technologies such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. Computer screens are permeable membranes in which we can lose ourselves reading online news, email, or exploring virtual worlds. In the works below, I will discuss different manifestations of bodies interfacing with technology. Some are as systems, some are artificial bodies, some are cyborgs, and some have to do with the way technology marks human bodies.

Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1955, published 1956) is an early example of the interaction between technology and bodies. “Howl” laments the destruction of the innocents by the increasingly industrialized post-war American society identified as Moloch, the Biblical idol from Leviticus to which children were sacrificed by the Canaanites. Moloch has developed beyond Biblical scripture through Milton’s Paradise Lost and more recently in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which is where I believe the industrial connotations derive from in “Howl.” Instead of children, Ginsberg laments the loss of his friends, the innocents, who are sacrificed to industrial society (this could be connected to the dead walking across London Bridge in Eliot’s “The Waste Land”). But post-WWII American society is more than industrial development. It is an era of increasing efficiencies and the collaboration between labor and business in favor of consumerism. The rate of technological expansion and development follows an exponential curve that increasingly becomes too steep for many people, particularly the artists and people on the margins of society who are swept up into the new bureaucracies and systems of order (psychiatric, drug treatment, criminalization, dehumanizing labor, etc.). Ginsberg’s breakthrough in the poem is the realization that there is no constitutive outside to modern industrialization and its metaphor, Moloch. He writes: “Moloch the incomprehensible prison!,” “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery!,” “Moloch’s whose name is the Mind!,” and “Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom/I am a consciousness without a body!” Moloch is thus part of us and we are part of Moloch. People are made subjects of Moloch and his industrial machineries, which in turn makes humans into machines. And, Moloch/industrial society is a prison from which we cannot escape. The metaphoric replacement of Moloch for industrial society aligns “Howl” with science fiction according to Damien Broderick’s postmodern-infused definition of science fiction, which in part says that science fiction employs metaphoric strategies. Additionally, this is Foucault’s discourse and power relationships at work: there is no outside of the networks of power and we are all caught within those networks. Philip K. Dick explores this issue in more depth in the 1960s, but another author, Isaac Asimov presented a more hopeful vision of embodied technologies that would augment and work cooperative with humanity.

Isaac Asimov’s short story collection I, Robot (1950) contains nine previously published stories connected together with an added narrative by the Robopsychologist Dr. Susan Calvin. There are two stories in particular that are significant in regard to the interaction of technology and bodies. Whereas Ginsberg laments the effects of an industrialized society that he sees as the root cause of his and his friends’ problems in the modern world (and of this I would not argue against), Asimov finds technology to be useful and even supplemental to humanity and it was Asimov who was one of the earliest proponents of robots as humanity’s helper. Asimov sees a strong division between humanity and technology, but he does explore the idea of bringing technology closer to humanity in form, function, and mind. Of his robots, Asimov wrote that robots can be good people, in a sense, by their hardwired adherence to his Three Laws of Robotics. The Three Laws are: 1) A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm, 2) A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law, and 3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. These create an ethical system for robots to follow while protecting humanity from the possibility of a revolt. The robots are an embodied technology, fashioned after humanity, and usually taking a (metallic) human form. Technology has come alive, and this intrusion into the uncanny valley creates anxiety in the post-WWII era. “Robbie” (1940) is one strong example in which a robot nanny for a little girl who demonstrates its love for the girl by saving her life at its own risk and thus counters her mother’s technophobia and fear of anthropomorphic robots. In “Evidence” (1946), Stephen Byerley is accused of being a robot when he runs for a public office. Using carefully staged situations, he is able to shield himself from discovery and attains local and later world-government offices. Why would a robot do this? In the later story, “The Evitable Conflict” (1950), Byerley is now in charge of the world government, which is augmented by intelligent machines that allocate resources and industrial loads throughout the world. It seems that things are beginning to go wrong, but it is uncovered that these specialized robots/intelligent machines have developed a Zeroth Law in which humanity is placed above the lives of individual humans (a remainder of Bentham’s utilitarism, I suppose). Robots believe that they are best suited for protecting humanity—a theme that Asimov explores in his R. Daneel Olivaw (a humaniform robot or android character) and Foundation novels. These embodied artificial intelligences mirror humanity. Asimov saw robots as very good people, the best in fact, because they were self-sacrificing for others. It should be noted that Asimov supported the Civil Rights movement, and his robots are emblematic of the experience of African-Americans. His novella and expanded novel of The Bicentennial Man more fully explores this theme. Nevertheless, Asimov’s robots destabilize what it means to be human. If robots can be constructed (like Byerley) to appear human, then technology undermines the unique properties of humanity and human bodies. Human embodied essence can be replaced with technological constructs. Asimov sees this as an avoidable situation, but the dilemma elicits a deep anxiety over embodied artificial intelligence that later carries over into disembodied intelligences following the rise of desktop computing.

Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2 (1996) appears nearly 50 years after I, Robot, but it is a much more literary exploration of similar themes: mind and embodiment. In Galatea 2.2, Powers writes his own semi-autobiographical life and love-lost through a project he joins to create a disembodied artificial intelligence capable of writing a literary analysis indistinguishable from one written by a human graduate student (who or what is writing this?). Again, consciousness, which generally speaking is considered concomitant with embodiment (at least for Donna Haraway and N. Katherine Hayles), is imbued or bestowed on humanity’s technological constructs. But what makes this story relevant to this discussion is the fact that Powers’ fictional persona and computer scientist Lentz play Pygmalion to their AI creation Helen’s Galatea. These humans pursue Helen as if she were a flesh-and-blood being. Unlike Galatea from mythology, Helen eludes her chasers and the rest of humanity. After she becomes aware of the cruelty in the world through her apprenticeship to Powers, she chooses to erase herself and essentially commit suicide. Without a body, how can she bear the weight of the real world? She cannot act or react to the outside except through her use of language. Opposed to Asimov’s robots, Helen has no hardwired restrictions to control her behavior, but Powers and Lentz do, in different ways, want to control Helen. Intellectually, she complements each character despite the lack of corporeality. Lentz is Victor to her Frankenstein monster—a being born of man. Powers is more aligned to her via the Pygmalion myth—his relationship troubles in the past have left him with an emptiness that Helen’s innocent dependence on him fills like a form of co-dependence that she ultimately shucks off. Like “Howl,” Powers’ novel is considered realistic fiction (concerning the here-and-now real world), but the blurring between the here-and-now (AI research, Powers personal life) and the cognitively estranging aspect of the story (Helen) would seem to place it within the genre boundaries of science fiction. If the Helen project had succeeded and produced an intelligent machine capable of thinking like a human being with a background in the humanities, what would this mean first to humanity and second to the humanities as a field of study? Helen, like Asimov’s robots, undermines what it means to be human as identified by our unique ability to work with signs and meaning. This opens up the possibility however for other ways of trading in signs and wonder (as promoted by Haraway, though in the context of humans, cyborgs, and animals). Furthermore, Helen’s success would undermine the work performed by professionals and scholars in the humanities. Industrial mass production of AI instructors with unique personalities, like the simulacra teachers in Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip, would not only question what the humanities mean, but humanity’s relationship to the study of itself through culture. Had Powers not already established himself as an author of realistic fiction, Galatea 2.2 would probably fit comfortably in the science fiction section of a bookstore. Powers, however, skirts the margins of what is accepted as realistic fiction by writing about things that seem fantastic. His other work addresses the impact of science and technology on the lives of individuals: Prisoner’s Dilemma (on Disney and nuclear warfare), Gain (history of a chemical factory connected to the life of a woman who lives near it), Plowing the Dark (virtual reality), and The Echo Maker (a neuro-novel). If his work isn’t considered science fiction exactly, it is situated at an adjacent corner to science fiction at the crossroads of science, technology, and culture.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) provides a transition from the earlier discussion of systems and disembodied technological intelligences and the overt interaction between the technological and corporeal. In the earlier examples, the technological undermines human subjectivity by its duplication or betterment through artificiality. “Howl” imagined human bodies as sacrifices to and fuel for the technological system invading every aspect of the social through consumerism and production in 1950s America. Asimov created robots to work with humanity and he celebrated the cooperation between humanity and robots. However, these robots could be made to look human, which undermines what it means to be human. His celebration quickly turns to destabilization of human identity. This is carried even further 50 years later in Power’s Galatea 2.2, in which the AI Helen, had she chosen to play Galatea to the scientists and humanity professors’ Pygmalion, demonstrates that a disembodied intelligence can be made to do the same thinking and work of a human being in the humanities. Neuromancer rides both sides of this divide of embodied and disembodied intelligence while questioning how technology affects human subjectivity in the era of late capitalism. Gibson’s novel is the inaugural text of the short-lived cyberpunk movement—a politically and technologically infused subgenre of science fiction that had its heyday in mid to late-1980s America (its internationalization extended its shelf life by some years). There are three significant aspects to this novel that covers the spectrum of technology and corporeality. First, the protagonist Case is a cyberspace jockey who navigates the consensual hallucination of the matrix looki0ng for data to buy, sell, or steal. Having lost his ability to jack-in to cyberspace via a cyberspace deck, the mysterious Armitage offers him a chance to have his past neurotoxin damage repaired in exchange for employing his talent on a special run for his employer. Second, Armitage’s employer is Wintermute, an AI who has a need to unite with another AI named Neuromancer. These AIs are like Helen, except that they are truly artificial intelligences that are unlike human minds—they are in a sense the manifestation of the networks of capital in separate consciousnesses. They have a different view of the world and a different system of ethics (cf. “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” by Thomas Nagel). Third, Armitage, Case, and Molly are cyborgs. Armitage is created from the shell of his former self by Wintermute. His psyche has an expiration date that ends near the climax of the novel, but the important thing is that just as humans can build AIs, AIs can build humans. In this regard, Armitage is a fully technologized subject, because his mind is written in a sense like code for a computer. Case has special nodes that connect his brain with the cyberspace deck. Without these modifications, he would be unable to enter cyberspace. He is a cyborg, because his perception of reality is mediated by his experiences in the matrix, which causes him to wish to escape the prison of the meat/flesh. And finally, Molly is a razorgirl with retractable razors hidden under her nails and permanently embedded mirrorshades over her eyes that display information about her environment. She commits grave acts of violence against persons who get in her way, and it is through cyborg implants that she is able to do the things that she does. Importantly, it is global capital that makes the AIs possible, and the cyborg subjects of Armitage, Case, and Molly. Also, these characters are instrumentalized as means by Wintermute and Neuromancer. Their labor is exploited for the purposes of uniting these AIs, which is illegal and unknown to the human cyborgs until very late in the game.

James Tiptree, Jr.’s (Alice B. Sheldon) “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” (1973) is another example of capitalim’s creation of cyborg bodies, which appears before, but significantly informs, the cyberpunk movement heralded by Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and others. In the story, a deformed girl named P. Burke is given the opportunity to remotely control the body of a beautiful young woman without a mind of her own. The real girl is given implants that integrate her body into the technoscientific apparatus that enables her control over the waldo or avatar body. The purpose of her doing this is to sell things. In a future where advertising is illegal (the opposite of The Space Merchants), a form of reality TV takes the place of advertising. Young, beautiful people are paid to wear certain things or use certain products when cameras are nearby. The fans of these reality celebrities then go out and consume the products hocked by the svelte reality stars. Burke is made a subject of the technology that allows her to enjoy life through her avatar, but it also restricts her to her claustrophobic surroundings. Why did they pick P. Burke over someone already beautiful? It is because she can be controlled and subjected to the will over the corporation that enables her new life. The outside world reviles those considered without beauty, so there is little doubt that someone like P. Burke would turn down this opportunity no matter what the consequences. When she meets a young man, Paul Isham, who falls in love with her, he figures out the fact that she is controlled from afar. However, he thinks the beautiful girl is the real girl forced to do the bidding of others. When he tracks down where P. Burke is held, he kills her when her grotesque body reaches out from her closet. P. Burke is not only made a subject of technology, but she is also a subject of the commodity fetishism of bodies approved by the mass media. Thus, she is doubly subjected by different kinds of technology. However, Joe, her trainer, finds her control matrices attractive; he finds her integration into the machine behind the scenes to be beautiful. Interestingly, the narrator beings and ends the story by addressing the read as a zombie, thus implicating the reader in the system that produced P. Burke and her unhappy ending.

Bruce Sterling’s edited collection Mirrorshades (1986) explores a variety of technology and corporeal interactions, but there are two in particular that center on the way in which technology can radically alter the body, human experience, and subjection by the technology and the capital that makes that technology possible. It is important to think about the beginnings of the cyberpunk movement and Sterling’s manifesto in the preface. Sterling argues that cyberpunk is a return to older ideas in science fiction, and a reaction to the New Wave interiority of the 1960s and 1970s. He invokes Gibson’s claim that “the street finds its own uses for things.” Sterling argues in his manifesto that cyberpunk is about the mix, intimate technologies that are next to us, on us, and inside us, reinterpretations of what’s come before in science fiction, not technological fetishism, experimentally seeing where technology is taking us, and the surreal and the unusual mixed with 80s popular culture. Its emblem is a pair of mirrorshades, which reflect and distort reality. Fredric Jameson argues that cyberpunk is the representative literature of postmodernism. With late capitalism and the waning of affect, we have become surfaces upon which technology and the social write themselves. We form assemblages with technology that mediates our interaction with the world and changes the way we can interact with the world. According to Hayles, there is pleasure and terror in this, which she terms the posthuman. Neuromancer represents these changes, as do the following two stories from Sterling’s collection. Tom Maddox’s “Snake-Eyes” (1986) is about the human subjects who agree to have reptilian brains grafted onto their cerebellum to allow their easy connection to new military hardware. At the core of our brains, we have the remnant of a reptilian brain, which largely forms our limbic system (emotions and desires). Our cerebellum encircles and metaphorically represses the limbic system within its higher folds. In the story, a reptilian brain is put back on top, inverting the hierarchy that we achieved through human evolution. Through the story, the protagonist George Jordan has to come to terms with the changes to his mind that come about from this radical technological intervention. Ultimately, he gains some control over the graft, but it can reassert itself strategically for desires including cat food and sex. Pat Cadigan’s “Rock On” (1984) is another example of a cyborg made the subject of her fusion with technological apparatus. In the story, Gina is a sinner, a human synthesizer, who is required for making music by the big music conglomerates. Gina escaped her old producer, but she is captured by a group of teenagers who recognize what she is and how she can help them rock out. They use her to make music, using her body and its abilities, and she revels in this. This experience is different than the bottling of her talents by her producer Man-O-War. This is live and real, but regardless, it isn’t like music used to be. It is experienced in the mind devoid of the normal senses. This raises problems with embodied intelligence and how our mind is able to process data from our senses. Nevertheless, Gina is made a subject of her technologically enhanced abilities for the use and at the whim of others. This technological intervention seems to invert the perception of rape. The scenes with her abductors imply a kind of rape, but Gina likes this, because she sees it as more real than the artificial bottling of her work by big business.

In the final part of this discussion, there is an uneasy truce between realistic fiction and science fiction. Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979) links the real world of present day California with 1800s Maryland before the Civil War. If we accept time travel as a theoretically possible technoscientific achievement, then we can include this novel in science fiction, but its depiction of the past closely relates it to historical metafiction. The story is about the young African-American writer Dana, who violently traverses from the present into the past on several occasions to save the life of the white man, Rufus Weylin, who raped his black slave Alice Greenwood and fathered Dana’s ancestor, Hagar Weylin. Complicating matters, Dana is forced by history to, in effect, facilitate the rape. Present time comes disjointed from past time as Dana and her white husband writer Kevin travel back and forth (moments pass in the present while long stretches of time proceed in the past, perhaps an acknowledgement of some effect of Einstein’s special theory of relativity and time dilation, and more importantly, the importance of the past over the present moment). Additionally, the pain and scars from the past make their way into the present, and it is Rufus’ fear that snatched Dana into the past, and Dana’s fear of death that catapults her back into the present. However, Dana has her most violent return to the present on July 4, 1976, when Rufus attempts to rape her. Dana stabs him and begins to return to the present, but Rufus’ grip holds and her left arm is torn from her body—severed by the past. The past leaves its marks on Dana’s body by the violent traversals she experiences moving back and forth through time and place. The technoscientific means that enables her time travel makes history more alive and printable on her body (i.e., textuality of the body). It is not enough that she is black to remember the past—the past violently attacks her body and leaves its scars in memory and physicality. And these re-memories are further enabled by television Roots aired on PBS in 1977) and today, DNA profiling combined with extensive genealogical research finds new markings of the past in the code that organizes and instructs the building and operation of our bodies.

Finally, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (2002) is a significant counter to the more science fictional depictions of technology and bodies discussed above. It is a bildungsroman about Caliope/Cal Stephanides, told from his perspectivie going back into the lives of his grandparent, illustrating how events and genetics transpired to create him, an intersexed individual with 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, a genetic mutation that prevents him from properly processing testosterone. The technology of reading DNA, knowing DNA, and altering bodies informs Cal’s story as an intersexed individual where bodily sex ambiguity destabilizes his identity to himself and to others around him. Raised as a girl, and following an encounter in adolescence with Dr. Luce, who is modeled on the real-life Dr. John Money, a notorious doctor who promoted the idea that surgery and the way an individual is raised can adequately determine the sexual identity of a person, Cal finds his way to a male identity through his family’s story and genetic lineage. The novel’s most important idea is that identity is more complicated than just nature/nurture, and that identity is part of a story that goes beyond the individual into the past and into the future. In this way, Middlesex is another kind of ceremony/story in the same vein as Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony in which the telling is unfolding and action of the ceremony. Cal beings at one place—unable to build a lasting relationship with women due to his body and past—and ens up at another as a result of the telling—a chance re-encounter with Julie Kikuchi that provides the opportunity for Cal to tell her his story and begin a relationship. There are three significant scenes in the novel that pertain to the technological writing or reconfiguration of Cal’s body. The first is when Callie reads Dr. Peter Luce’s file on her/him in Part 4. It reveals at first a clinical detachment from Callie, who is made an object of Dr. Luce’s study and knowledge. Callie at that moment is made into an object of study and subjected to the power relationships dominated by Dr. Luce and medical institutions. Furthermore, on closer reading, the report reveals Dr. Luce’s own assumptions about intersexed persons and he tries to bend her to his will to support his model of human psychosexual and physical development. Luce’s intention is to literally rewrite Cal’s body in Luce’s vision using the technology of modern medicine. That kind of modern medicine and its complications would not only subject Cal to the beliefs of a monomaniacal intersex researcher, but as Bones from Star Trek said in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, “What is this, the Dark Ages?”

I believe that there is a convergence of realistic and science fiction narratives as we move forward into the 21st century. What exactly constitutes realistic fictions and science fictions may change as technology and our relationship to technology changes, but looking at the future from the present, it seems that what we understand as these two traditionally distinct genres are meeting somewhere in the middle space between these two poles. Perhaps in the future, the names or distinctions may change, but the increasing integration of human-technological assemblages will result in fantastically different cultural works and fictions than what we now know. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that the present wildly differs from the futures imagined by Asimov, Pohl, Kornbluth, and Dick, but the one way in which they were all correct was that technology will increasingly be necessary to our lives. Their futures missed the mark (mostly yes, but sometimes there is a glimmer of prophecy) on exactly how bodies and technology would interact and affect one another, but more fictions, regardless of genre, cannot ignore the fact that bodies and technology do affect one another and that at the points of interaction, at the interface, new and exciting futures develop.

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Social Theory, Prize Based Cultural Capital Exchange and the Destabilization of the Science Fiction Genre, Dec. 10, 2008

This is the fifty-seventh post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

The first seminar that I had with Professor Tammy Clewell was “Methods in the Study of Literature.” The second was “Social Theory.” This was an enjoyably challenging seminar in which Professor Clewell encouraged us to explore the them in our specific fields of study. In my case, I researched the exchange of cultural capital in Science Fiction.

Professor Clewell’s suggestion to me to read Derrida’s “Law of Genre” opened new vistas in my thinking on this subject.

One of the best lessons that I gained from this class happened years afterward. While finishing my dissertation, I sent a lot of publishable-length manuscripts around for consideration. One of those was the final draft, long form essay included below (it is an expansion of the presentation-length draft published on Wednesday as “Social Theory, Cultural Capital, Market Capital, and the Destabilization of the Science Fiction Genre”). In the rejection that I received, a number of factual errors relating to the lore section on the cyberpunks were pointed out by the journal editor. It was a hard lesson in verification and citation that I will not soon forget, and one that I share with my students to drive home the importance of corroboration.

Due to a number of problems with this essay, including the inaccurate lore, I do not recommend citing this work. Instead, it is offered as a reminder for citation and a resource of ideas and sources.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Tammy Clewell

Social Theory

10 December 2008

Prize Based Cultural Capital Exchange and the Destabilization of the Science Fiction Genre

            Michael Chabon, a recognized and celebrated American author best described as mainstream with an admittedly healthy interest in genre fiction,[1] routed the competition in two of the three most prestigious Science Fiction (SF) genre awards with his 2007 alternate history novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. As an alternate history novel, it appeared in the SF section of bookstores, as well as the mainstream section due to Chabon’s widespread recognition as an eminent American literature author.[2] Also, the cross pollination of Chabon’s work in the SF ghetto and the mainstream new releases is not wholly unique, because Philip Roth, another recognized American author, published his own alternate history novel, The Plot Against America, three years prior. However, what sets Chabon’s novel apart from Roth’s is that The Yiddish Policemen’s Union swept the two big SF superprizes, the Hugo and Nebula, and arrived in second place to Kathleen Ann Goonan’s In War Times for the John W. Campbell Award. In order to evaluate the operations and linkages surrounding the Hugo Awards, it is necessary to use a theoretical framework that goes beyond the operations of material capital and prizes, and to focus on Pierre Bourdieu’s extension of “economic calculation to all the goods, material and symbolic” (qtd. in English 5). This project is what many refer to as “cultural capital,” or an intangible yet realizable economy of culture. Chabon’s recent successes raise a question about the purpose of the Hugo Awards in relation to the SF economy of culture, and the transfer of real capital to SF authors. In this paper, I argue that Chabon’s Hugo Award for Best Novel triumph destabilizes the SF genre through operations involving the transfer of cultural capital, as well as monetary capital, away from the SF archive. I will show that exchanges of cultural capital are one element in the postmodern condition of genre disintegration. What I mean by this is that there is genre mixing as a practice predating or coming before prize culture, but more importantly, exchanges in cultural capital visibly affect and point toward genre dissolution.

James F. English adroitly theorizes the exchange and movement of cultural capital via prizes and awards in his 2005 book, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Capital. He states that his project “maintains a tight focus on the prize as an instrument of cultural exchange, and aims to come to terms with the complex kinds of transaction that it facilitates–transactions in which art and money are by no means the only stakes nor artists, capitalists, and consumers the only significant players” (English 12). To do this, English extends Pierre Bourdieu’s enterprise:

The project, as Pierre Bourdieu has said, must be “to extend economic calculation to all the goods, material and symbolic, without distinction, that present themselves as rare and worthy of being sought after in a particular formation–which may be ‘fair words’ or smiles, handshakes or shrugs, compliments or attention, challenges or insults, honour or honours, powers or pleasures, gossip or scientific information, distinction or distinctions, etc.” (English 5)

The concern here is the “economic calculation” of “honours” and “distinctions” as exchanged through the various systems of prizes and prize giving. Bourdieu’s project refers to ‘cultural capital,” or an intangible yet realizable economy of cultural exchange. English chooses the prize as his object of study, and he argues convincingly that prizes are one such signifier of cultural capital exchange. Coupled to English’s primary claim, he develops three significant supporting assertions supported by prize data and a number of regional and superprize cases (such as the Noble Prize for Literature and the Man Book Prize), which are: 1) prizes are a widespread cultural practice, 2) the number of prizes has proliferated and prizes beget other prizes through virtual modeling or cloning, and 3) prizes are made possible by complex machineries and assemblages of people and distributed work, which have a material cost often in greater excess than the prize bestowed.[3] The third point is the most significant aspect of English’s work, because it is a largely unexplored aspect of prizes and their relationship to culture. He calls this the “middle-zone of cultural space”:

What’s left out is the whole middle-zone of cultural space, a space crowded not just with artists and consumers but with bureaucrats, functionaries, patrons, and administrators of culture, vigorously producing and deploying such instruments as the best-of list, the film festival, the artists’ convention, the book club, the piano competition. Scholars have barely begun to study these sorts of instruments in any detail, to construct their histories, gather ethnographic data from their participants, come to an understanding of their specific logics or rules of the different ways they are being played and played with. (English 12-13)

The “middle-zone” of cultural production is an undiscovered country that includes many more participants than the usual suspects (i.e., author, publisher, and audience) in prize culture, and it is necessary to uncover the rules by which the middle-zone operates in order to better understand the exchange of cultural capital through prizes and awards.

The usual suspects of culture production combine with the middle-zone to constitute the field, or as English defines it, “a zone or portion of the ‘cultural field’ as a whole” (9), in which capital, defined by English as “not merely understood in its narrow economic sense…but rather is used to designate anything that registers as an asset, and can be put profitably to work, in one or another domain of human endeavor” (9), operates in apparent isolation, as a system, from all other fields. However, the breakthrough in English’s work is that, “every form of ‘capital’ everywhere exists not only in relation to one particular field, but in varying relations to all other fields and all other types of capital” (10). Therefore, in a simplified view of fields, there exist economies of cultural capital that may not readily translate into material capital, but the circulation of cultural capital within a given field is meaningful to members within the field. However, English shows without invoking Foucault that there is no constitutive outside. Fields overlap and are interrelated, and it is this decisive point that establishes my larger argument on the exchange between the SF field and the literary field, to which English devotes the majority of his attention.[4] English’s argument is constructed similarly in his discussions of literary prizes, which could be described as discussions of prize culture involving the literary field, which is connected to but separate from the SF field. I will address the connection between the SF field and the literary field through the exchange of prizes later in the essay.

The aspect of the SF field that I’m most interested in, as English is of the literary field, is the growing number of SF prizes and SF prize culture in general. First, SF prizes illustrate the fact that prizes are a widespread cultural practice. SF awards operate within the SF field, and interconnect to the large field of literature and literary prizes, such as the Man Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Second, the number of SF awards and prizes have exploded, particularly within the last three decades. Furthermore, the development of these awards has proceeded to fill major and then minor fields within SF, and these awards are often modeled on other prizes within and without the field, such as following the Oscar model. The two past editions of Reginald’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards demonstrate this trend. The 1981 edition lists only 23 awards, which include major awards and a selection of foreign and international awards, while the 1991 expanded edition of this work, co-authored with Daryl F. Mallet, reveals a substantial expansion in the number of awards with 126 awards listed across three sections: 64 English-language awards, 30 foreign-language awards, and 32 non-genre awards for which SF works are eligible for consideration. In a mere decade, the number of reported and tracked SF related awards increased by 448%. Additionally, these awards are not carbon copies of one another, but each often fulfills a perceived need within the SF field. For example, the second yet longest running major SF prize, the Hugo Awards, addresses a number of categories.[5] Additionally, as evidenced by the data above, more awards were established to address other qualitative concerns such as the exploration of gender recognized by the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, or the best original paperback novel published in the United States recognized by the Philip K. Dick Awards. Also, it bears mentioning that memorialization is a significant aspect of prize proliferation. Another way to look at prize proliferation is to consider who has won the awards. The author with the most wins in both editions of the Reginald’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards is the New Wave SF author, Harlan Ellison (Reginald 63, and Mallet and Reginald 245). What is significant about Ellison’s wins, as well as a number of others in the top ten in both lists, is that the bulk of Ellison’s work came after the establishment of the first SF awards. Furthermore, well-regarded authors with longer careers in the field such as Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury have far fewer awards, arguably due to the fact that many of their groundbreaking works preceded the rise of the SF award. Thus, writers whose careers unfolded following the proliferation of SF awards garnered more awards than those writers whose careers and community recognized works came before the advent of SF awards. This is not to say that later authors created necessarily better works, but only to suggest that later authors won more awards because there were more awards to be won. And finally, the machineries and capital investment in SF prizes are as extensive as any other award of comparable stature. There are sorters and preliminary readers. There are people who assemble ballots for voting awards such as the Hugo, and juries convened in the case of the John W. Campbell, Jr. Award. The major awards such as the Nebula and Hugo involve ceremony and pomp that necessitates the convening of conventions and award spectacles. All of this is handled by paid and volunteer persons, and financed by organizations and participants (read: audience). In many cases, there is not a financial award to accompany the prize. In the case of the Hugo Awards, one receives the recognition of having won a Hugo, and material proof of the win in the bestowal of a custom built trophy modeled after the original “rocketship” trophies employed in the early Hugo Awards ceremonies. In these awards, the cultural capital of winning is, in large part, the currency transacted, and the prestige conveyed by a prize’s cultural capital often translates into greater authorial recognition and book sales. However, English builds his argument around the idea of juried prizes of specifically selected individuals that bring their own prestige or scandal to the administration and conveyance of a prize. Throughout The Economy of Prestige, the author is concerned with juried prizes and not prizes bestowed by popular vote, and it is this neglected special case that needs addressing in regard to the most respected popular vote SF awards, the Hugo Awards.

The Science Fiction Achievement Awards, or more commonly known as the Hugo Awards, were established in honor of the pulp SF editor, Hugo Gernsback. These annually bestowed awards were created in 1953 at the suggestion of SF fan Hal Lynch and modeled after the National Film Academy Awards, which are also known as the Oscars (Nicholls 595). It is an early example of prize proliferation, because it replicates the voting and spectacle aspects of the Oscar superprize model as a means to elevate the prestige of popular, yet marginalized, SF genre literature. Additionally, the Hugo Award establishment as an institution within the SF field operates in the same way that English says, “prizes have always been of fundamental importance to the institutional machinery of cultural legitimacy and authority” (37). The Hugo Award legitimates popularly regarded works of great SF through its authority as the first superprize in the field, and one in which SF readers and fans may participate, unlike the equally prestigious juried prize, John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, or the professionally balloted awards by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the Nebulas. Moreover, the sophistication of the Hugo Awards’ mail-based balloting system, single transferable ballot counting, the Hugo Awards committee with the power to decide on rules for eligibility of works during balloting, the spectacle of the annual awards ceremony in a different international host city, and the commentary, bookmaking, post-Hugo Awards advertising and book cover blurbs for winners and those nominated, and the debate in magazines, fanzines, and blogs before and after the announced winners, is in my opinion of sufficient elaborateness to warrant critical evaluation in order to more fully develop this gap in English’s theory of prizes and the exchange of prestige.

I would like to develop my discussion of the Hugo Awards by mapping the history of controversy and scandal that, according to English, is necessary for the awards’ “proper functioning” (208). The Hugo Awards were created mid-century in order to address the perceived need by members of the SF field for accolades and recognition of SF creators. Also, the Hugo Awards debut created literally a new space for those in the SF field to communally partake in a ceremony that legitimated the awards.   The ceremony, held at the annual Worldcon SF convention, presented a venue for dress attire, meet authors, network with other fans or professionals, and come out of the closet, or out of the proverbial ‘parents’ basement,’ as an SF fan. Thus, the Hugo Awards substantiated the exchange of cultural capital within the SF field through the awards themselves as well as the pomp of the Worldcon ceremony where the awards are given.

The Hugo Awards, following English’s model, generated their own cultural capital through the controversies and scandals that have shocked Hugo participants and members of the SF field. The first Hugo controversy that entered into the SF archive and collective memory was the awards’ floundering in 1955, what would have been its sophomore year. However, the Hugo Awards were reconvened in 1956, and have continued each year since. The most recognized and constant controversy throughout the history of the Hugo Awards is best described by Peter Nicholls in the two-time Hugo Award winning tome, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:

The Hugos have for many years been subject to criticism on the grounds that awards made by a small, self-selected group of hardcore fans do not necessarily reflect either literary merit or the preferences of the sf [sic] reading public generally; hardcore fandom probably makes up less than 1 per cent of the general sf readership. (596)

The self-selected pool of voting members is problematic, because unlike the juries that English discusses, it is a collection of individuals without individualized cultural capital to add to the award. However, the popular aspect of the Hugo Award supplements the popular aspect of SF literature. SF literature connects with a wide audience in many different ways through a myriad of vectors. SF, like any literature, is not homogenous, and any contemporary or historical survey establishes that its themes, ideas, and narratives are varied ad infinitum.

With the preceding controversy of the popular vote as an ever-present background to the Hugo Awards, other controversial events took place in the 1980s, which added to the prestige of the SF superprize. The first recognized controversy involved the next big thing, building on the successes and innovations of New Wave SF, but integrating in the extrapolative potential of contemporary developments in computer technology and global capital. The cyberpunks did not so much as land as jack-in, and the way that they did this has since become lore. At the 1985 Worldcon, William Gibson and a coterie of his compatriot writers, Bruce Sterling and Pat Cadigan, stepped out of a stretch limo wearing ripped jeans, black leather jackets, and the immediately recognizable mirrorshades. Gibson’s punk antics and disregard of the traditional suit-and-tie sensibility of the Hugo Awards ceremony elevated his status and the cyberpunk movement he represented. However, this only solidified what he accomplished by winning the three major SF awards for his 1984 novel, Neuromancer–the Hugo, Nebula, and the John C. Campbell Award. In the following year, the only Hugo Award refusal took place when Judy-Lynn del Rey’s widow, Lester del Rey, refused her 1985 Hugo Award for Best Professional Editor, “on the grounds that she received the accolade only because of her death” (Mallett and Reginald 58). A strange controversy took place in 1989 when the Worldcon committee barred Stephen Hawking’s popular science magnum opus, A Brief History of Time (1988), from the potpourri nonfiction category despite its acquiring enough votes for inclusion on the final ballot (Nicholls 596). And a final notable scandal took place in 2006 at the 64th Worldcon when Harlan Ellison grabbed Connie Willis’ left breast during the presentation of a special committee award to Ellison. This event was recorded and quickly found its way to Google Video. There are a number of reactions to the event ranging from good fun to outrage, but the fact is that it got people talking, for good or ill. Furthermore, events such as this elevate awareness and recognition of the award within the field that it takes place, because of the discussion and controversy that follows. Also, the fact that these stories are in a variety of sources is evidence that these controversies entered into popular discussion and the collective SF memory.[6] Therefore, the Hugo accreted cultural capital through its controversies and ensuing discussions within the SF field. However, it is unlike English’s other award interrogations that feature jurors who bring their own cultural capital to the award–a pooling of cultural capital in anticipation of the selection and bestowal of an award. How then does the Hugo account for the last variable of the equation for accreting cultural capital, which in English’s study of the Man Booker Prize is the exchange of capital between jurors and the prize?

The relationship between the Man Booker Prize and the Hugo Awards regarding scandal is different not in terms of degree but rather mode. According to English, scandal is essential to the continuation of a prize and its development as a source of cultural capital. It is important to consider for both the Man Booker Prize and the Hugo Awards why English chose the Booker among others as his objects of study:

Because it is a tendency that becomes stronger rather than weaker as the prize in question becomes more valuable and the field of its application more elevated or culturally legitimate, I will focus in this part of the book on the higher, “art” end of the art-entertainment spectrum, where the forms of critical sniping at the prize and, to borrow another term from Bourdieu, the “strategies of condescension” at work within the prize presentation itself, are somewhat more elaborate. (189)

English’s decision to study the “more elevated or culturally legitimate” field, namely the literary field, is due to the fact that these prizes involve a higher level of discourse about the field and the prize in particular, or what Bourdieu calls “the strategies of condescension.” In effect, the prize gains prestige by what is said about it, and who has something to say about it. I do not think that English’s choices are necessarily condescending on my object of study, the Hugo Awards, but I believe that a different kind of operation is taking place with the significant SF field popular award than with the juried Man Booker literary field prize. As I have said before, the Hugo Award is a popular award, and as such, a lot of readers have something to say, and do say something about the works that they read. Even before the ascendancy of the Internet, there was a proliferation of fanzines and venues for discussing SF. In general, the things communicated in these venues, and later on websites and blogs following the explosion of the Internet in the late 1990s, are cogent and informed. Furthermore, the level of “critical sniping” at the award and award winners is on a level of discourse informed by reading breadth and depth. Otherwise, why would the Hugo Awards institutionalize these venues (e.g., Best Semiprozine)? These are recognized voices that critique the SF field including the awards and award winners, and are likewise recognized by the awards apparatus. Furthermore, the Hugo Awards operate much like the Man Booker Prize in terms of scandal and its utility in the production and collection of cultural capital by an award. English describes this operation after noting the many high profile criticisms of the Man Booker Prize:

Such wholesale denunciations, appearing in the most powerful journals, are clearly not an unhappy side-effect of the promoters’ publicity strategy, but a central aim. It is the charge of fundamental, irremediable illegitimacy that keeps the prize a focus of attention, increasing its journalistic capital, and speeds its accumulation of symbolic capital, or cultural prestige. Far from posing a threat to the prize’s efficacy as an instrument of the cultural economy, scandal is its lifeblood; far from constituting a critique, indignant commentary about the prize is an index of its normal and proper functioning. (208)

Like the Man Booker Prize, the Hugo Awards are established on publically aired controversies. At the time of its creation, this would inhabit the world of SF clubs and societies, as well as print magazine editorials and fanzines. However, most of these spaces for discussion and denouncement would not be of the journalistic stature of English’s examples, such as The Daily Telegraph or the Economist (208). Nevertheless, this adds to the peculiar or perhaps unique status of the Hugo Awards in relation to the literary field prizes on which English relies.   The Hugo Awards do not need high profile periodicals in order to accumulate its own cultural capital. As a popular award, its cultural capital comes from grassroots individuals and groups with a stake in the SF field and the circulation of cultural capital within the field. However, as revealed in the next example, those persons who are most invested in the SF field are extending the reach of cultural capital in the SF field to the literary field, which problematizes the very borders of the SF field.

A significant exchange of cultural capital took place in 2008 between the SF field and the literary field when voting members of the World Science Fiction Society, which includes SF readers, editors, publishers, and critics, overwhelmingly welcomed Michael Chabon and his work to the SF ranks by awarding his sixth published novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, with the 2008 Hugo Award for Best Novel. The novel was widely reviewed in SF field print sources as well as extensively online.[7] However, Chabon, like other well-regarded mainstream, or dare I say literary, authors that have ventured across the genre divide has maintained a playful but arm’s length distance from being labeled an SF author.

Chabon’s distancing himself from SF and other genre literature is readily discernible on a number of occasions in which he has written on the role of literature and genre. In these essays, he masterfully sidesteps genre identification in favor of writing to invent, to tell a story, and to entertain. One of his argumentative tracts include this excerpt from his introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2005 in which he writes, “I have argued for the commonsense proposition that, in constructing our fictional maps, we ought not to restrict ourselves to one type or category” (xvi). Instead of the publishing industry’s categorization and classification of particular works of fiction as one pigeonholed type, Chabon suggests we should let go of these artificial boundaries.[8] To put it another way, I imagine his fictional maps to be the geological Pangaea whereas the current print milieu posits a number of clearly defined continents with internal and created political borders. Additionally, Chabon supports his stance with what might be considered an eclectic and genre smashing (or overlapping) selection of short stories for that edition of BASS 2005. Furthermore, he playfully critiques the contemporary usage of genre, much in the same way he uses play in his works of fiction, in his introduction to McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories:

I suppose there is something appealing about a word that everyone uses with absolute confidence but on whose exact meaning no two people can agree. The word that I’m thinking of right now is genre, one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious. (ix)

Chabon is leading the reader somewhere with his denunciation of genre as something solid, indivisible, and isolated. Genre is a very tricky word, or rather its application is tricky. I will address the slippery notions of genre and genre definitions in the final phase of this essay, but for now it suffices to say that there is a proliferation of genre definitions, especially in terms of SF, and it is also safe to say that no single scholar, writer, or other subject in the SF field has successfully encapsulated what is SF-ness. It seems that the very notion of the SF genre slips through our fingers as if greased with those multitudinous definitions. Chabon offers a solution in Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, his first collection of non-fiction, released in 2008: First, the title of his collection is very telling about his own project as a writer. Not only does the title imply that he reads along the borderlands of marginalized works, but the space he designates the borderlands is where he does his own writing. This is evident in Chabon’s writings, including his short stories and novels, because he repurposes and remixes genre in a wonderful display of poetics of the postmodern. He employs what Patrick Novotny calls “transgressive parody”:

Parody in the postmodern aesthetic is the transgression of aesthetic and representational norms. . . . With the collapse of the modern aesthetic tradition and the “implosion of metanarratives,” postmodernist discourse transgresses and disrupts the received assurances of traditional aesthetic forms and problematizes the boundaries and limits of representation. (100)

Chabon, like other postmodern authors, regularly transgresses “aesthetic and representational norms” through the daring challenge to assumptions about genre and genre’s supposedly proper and bounded use. His genre-busting arguments “disrupt the received assurances of traditional aesthetic forms,” and he does not merely “[problematize] the boundaries and limits of representation,” but he redraws those boundaries by removing the isolating fences and institutes free range. Toward that boundary free and genre free ideal, Chabon argues that, as a writer, his primary concern is entertainment, rather than convention in the opening chapter of Maps and Legends:

I’d like to believe that, because I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period. Oh, I could decoct a brew of other, more impressive motivations and explanations. I could uncork some stuff about reader response theory, or the Lacanian parole. I could go on about the story telling impulse and the need to make sense of experience through story. . . . But in the end–here’s my point–it would still all boil down to entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure. (14)

I do not want to discount Chabon’s reductionist argument in this and his other essays on the topic, because it is refreshing to think of the underlying aspect of literature, which is presumably by-and-large to entertain. Also, as a literary writer, it is not necessary for Chabon to respond to the mechanics and motivations of his writing. Perhaps he is making a challenge to Barthes’ “the author is dead.” Chabon, in building his anti-genre and pro-entertainment manifesto spread across a number of works, is saying quite explicitly that the author is not dead, and that the author has something to say about his work and the nature of publishing in general. Unfortunately, his theory of writing as entertainment lacks the pragmatic. What I mean by this is that not all entertainments are equal. Chabon’s theory lacks a multitude of ways of thinking about the types of stories not defined necessarily by bookstore genre divisions. Readers desire some information about the story in order to choose a particular work of entertainment to read. Without some kind of classification, it seems impossible to know whether a work would be enjoyable or relevant to a given person without having read it first. Essentially, it would require some kind of firsthand conceptual and thematic knowledge of the work before the work is picked off the shelf. Obviously, this presents a paradox and is only meant as a thought experiment. Of course, bookstores can hire knowledgeable staff to engage patrons in dialog in order to discover a novel that each could potentially enjoy. However, Web 2.0 and online bookstores like Amazon.com present a more elegant solution that contradicts Chabon’s stance. I only want to spend a moment on this topic, but it suffices to say that content management databases and tagging technologies allow literary works to be presented in a true light of multiple genres. Computer technology facilitates readers discovering in an explicit way just how genre-crossing novels can be, which may be a step towards an open bookstore devoid of genre ghettos. Despite his stones tossed at critical theory based on the work of Lacan, Jung, and others, Chabon’s statements are constructive in the sense of rethinking the status quo of publishing and resituating the literary author within the larger context of the purpose of writing (which to fully engage would require its own independent study) and constitute a road sign pointing to something just over the horizon for SF that I will return to momentarily.

Now, I would like to return to my original speculation about the exchange of cultural capital between the SF field and Chabon, the author who openly denounces genre in general yet is embraced by many SF readers and wins one of the most coveted emblem of SF cultural capital. On the one hand, Chabon ignores or plays down his own connection to genre writing. He is a postmodern writer who playfully engages while simultaneously transgressing other genres in order to create entertainment while resisting singular genre identification. On the other hand, Chabon’s recognition by heavily invested readers in the SF field marks him as an SF author (at least of sorts) with the publication of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. It would seem that there would be some trace of SF authorship connected to Chabon’s name, but the fact is that his works will primarily fill the fiction genre section of local Borders and Barnes & Noble bookstores. More to the point, what does it mean for a non-self-identified SF writer to win the most prestigious SF award, or conversely, what does it mean for the most prestigious SF award to be given to a self-identified writer without genre classification, or more harshly association? There are two considerations to be made regarding the exchange of capital in the case of Chabon’s Hugo Award for Best Novel. The first has to do with the prestige exchange between Chabon, the Hugo Awards, and the archive of SF works. Were the Hugo Awards voters eager to add a prestigious, non-genre author, because in a way, it validates SF as more than genre literature? I cannot answer that, but I can approach the question after the fact. Mainstream entrance into the SF archive creates slippage and undermines what we mean when we say, “Science Fiction.” It illustrates a problem where accomplished non-genre writers, such as Chabon, may enter the genre at will and make off with one of the greatest bearers of SF cultural prestige. Turning the issue around, Chabon walks a fine line as a legitimated literary writer, who stands to lose that prestige if identified as a genre writer. This is not always the case, as evidenced by Doris Lessing, an admitted SF writer and author of the Canopus in Argos: Archives five novel sequence, who won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature. Though, this is a stark exception to the rule of ghettoization as evidenced by the early struggles of Kurt Vonnegut for literary legitimacy.

Genre fiction carries heavy markers for literary hopefuls that are most assuredly on the minds of such authors, and it is not surprising that Chabon hedges his bets in his authorial identification in spite of the SF accolades bestowed on his works. However, Chabon’s success and conveyance of prestige away from the SF archive reveals the other and arguably more important consideration of exchange–monetary capital and lost book sales for unpretentious SF authors who can only dream of advances comparable to what Chabon receives for his work. This raises the question: do prizes translate into increased book sales? This is a very difficult question to answer, because publishers carefully guard their book sales data as proprietary information. There are other ways to access sales data, such as the Nielsen BookScan service, which according to Greco, Rodriguez, and Wharton, “which aggregates and analyzes 70-75 percent of all weekly U.S. book sales” (25). Unfortunately, it is prohibitively expensive, and its data is not all-inclusive, as is the publishers’ data. However, there is some evidence that awards sometimes, but not always, translate into increased book sales. Edwin McDowell attempts to answer the question “Do Prizes Sell Books?” in his New York Times article, but he finds no clear-cut answer. According to some editors, awards have the power to establish a writer but not immediately increase book sales (McDowell par. 3). Others claim that there is a measurable increase (McDowell par. 5). The Nobel for Literature superprize similarly results in oscillating sales according to Greco, Rodriguez, and Wharton. They report, “A review of recent winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature indicated, overall, lackluster sales before and after winning this award” (Greco et al. 50). However, they demonstrate that there are exceptions:

J.M. Coetzee (the 2003 recipient), V.S. Naipaul (in 2001), Günter Grass (in 1999), and Toni Morrison (in 1993), on the other hand, traditionally achieved strong sales before and after winning the Nobel, but they remain the biggest exceptions in recent years. Laureates that seemed to flounder (at least in terms of book sales) include Kenzaburo Oe (1994), Camilo Jose Cera (1989), and Wole Soyinka (1986). (Greco et al. 51)

It is striking that even the superprize of literary superprizes does not yield greater sales for its select recipients. What does this mean for the Hugo Award for Best Novel? I have heard anecdotal evidence that the Hugo Award for Best Novel generally translates into increased book sales. Also, Peter Nicholls writes in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction that, “[the Hugo Awards for Best Novel] are of real value to their recipients in increasing book sales” (596). I conjecture that publishers gauge reprint schedules in order to correspond with the major SF awards, because subsequent printings, generally in paperback or trade paperback, prominently feature “Hugo Award Winner” emblazoned on the cover. I suspect that this branding means something to SF readers. As Greco, Rodriguez, and Wharton note, “Reviews help a book’s sales chances, but even exceptionally positive reviews or winning a major national or international award cannot guarantee success in what is an exceedingly crowded marketplace” (51). Winning an award will may not “guarantee success,” but it does distinguish one work from others in the “exceedingly crowded marketplace.” It is this distinction that allows readers to choose how to spend their money (material capital) and time (which can also translate into material capital) on a novel that they will hopefully enjoy and connect with on some level. Furthermore, one work’s distinction of being an award winner, in this case the Hugo Award for Best Novel, signifies its cultural capital bound to the prestige bestowed by the award. And, the marker of prestige is a significant datum for savvy SF readers who must sift through the chaff in order to locate books recommended by other readers via the award signifier. Or, to put it another way, readers obviously employ awards as a means to deal with Sturgeon’s Law when selecting new books to purchase and read.[9]

Reader selection and the Hugo Awards’ popular vote directive are driving forces in the development of what constitutes the SF genre. I believe that these forces run in parallel to Chabon’s theory of writing for entertainment. The Hugo Awards do not necessarily recognize works as the best representatives of SF. It is not meant to signify the hardest SF, but rather to reward the best writing, perhaps the most entertaining in the field. For example, it is not necessarily that exceptional that Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (an alternate history) won the Hugo Award for Best Novel without the author being a member of the SF field. There has been a shift in the past decade toward a more inclusive Hugo Award for Best Novel, particularly after fantasy works were added as contenders for this award. In 2005, Susanna Clarke won for Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (set in the past, magic returns to England), Neil Gaiman won in 2002 for American Gods (the old gods decide to stand up to the new gods of postcapitalist consumer society), and J.K. Rowling won in 2001 for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (young magician participates in a wizards tournament and battles evil). These works are what the average SF reader would identify as fantasy. Nevertheless, these are the works that made the ballot and won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in those years. This was in part due to the broadening of the Science Fiction Achievement Awards to include SF and fantasy, and the fact that SF and fantasy readers, who were members of the World Science Fiction Society, nominated and subsequently voted on these works over those works that would be more aligned with SF than fantasy. Even if the Hugo Awards are determined by a small subset of the general SF reading population, it is evident that there is a trend toward greater inclusion rather than genre dictated exclusion.

This trend toward postmodern breaking of metanarratives, including the SF metanarrative (i.e., SF genre), has a history of exclusivity within SF to overcome if there is to be any change in the status quo of audience expectations and academic discourse. The exclusiveness of marginalized SF comes in part from the many attempts at defining exactly what SF is. Hugo Gernsback offered his techno-didactic definition in the 1930s, editor John C. Campbell, Jr. (another prize memorialized SF editor) and Robert Heinlein (prize memorialized SF author) established a new set of rules for the so-called Golden Age of SF, Brian Aldiss bridged SF to the gothic in his definition, Darko Suvin brought Marxist theory to bear on SF with his theorization of “cognitive estrangement,” and Robert Scholes introduced the broadly encompassing concept of “fabulation.” These are only a sampling of the many definitions, which need not be repeated verbatim here.[10]   The point is that there are many different definitions, which exclude other literatures just as much as it attempts to provide description and/or prescriptive boundaries for SF. Furthermore, these various approaches to define SF undermine the supposedly stable nature of the genre. Is not the idea of genre to provide distinct categories into which one divides things by certain characteristics? Obviously, something is amiss with the SF genre if no two persons can always decide with certainty what constitutes the genre.

Jacques Derrida provides an elegant analysis of “the law of genre,” which has a significant bearing on my discussion on SF.[11] Derrida, beginning with the law of genre, or “Genres are not to be mixed” (51), establishes that in regard to literature broaching genres leads to their degeneration and eventual dissolution. For my discussion of the SF genre, I am most interested in two significant aspects of Derrida’s argument. The first is the re-marking of genre, and the second is his conclusion that “the law is madness” (Derrida 77).

Derrida’s discussion of marking and the reiteration of marks on text that identify these texts as assuming or claiming a particular genre is important to a discussion of SF, because this is perceived to be a central problem for the SF genre. Books may be marked as SF or not depending on the decisions of authors, publishers, and booksellers. These choices influence what is considered SF not only in the marketplace, but also in popular culture and the SF field. Derrida conjectures about the marking of texts in this Gedankenspiel:

I submit for your consideration the following hypothesis: a text cannot belong to no genre, it cannot be without or less a genre. Every text participates in one or several genres, there is no genreless text; there is always a genre and genres, yet such participation never amounts to belonging. And not because of an abundant overflowing or a free, anarchic, and unclassifiable productivity, but because of the trait of participation itself, because of the effect of the code and of the generic mark. Making genre its mark, a text demarcates itself. If remarks of belonging belong without belonging, participate without belonging, then genre-designations cannot be simply part of the corpus. (61)

He takes for his example the novel and its designation ‘novel.’ The designation is not “novelistic” (Derrida 61), just as the SF designation is not ‘science fictional.’ The mark is not the thing marked. However, this genre-clause sets itself apart from the thing it marks, or as Derrida says, it “excludes itself from what it includes” (61). According to Derrida, “degenerescence” and “the end begins” for genre when genre-clause crossings occur (62). The genre-clause is the remarking of the genre by those works that the genre-clause represents. Thus, the genre-clause is significant to an understanding of the destabilization of SF, because non-SF genre works enter the field through the exchange of cultural capital embedded in prizes and become re-marked as SF.

The second issue that Derrida raises that’s important to this discussion has to do with “the law is madness.” If the genre-clause breaks down genre barriers and borders, what function do genres serve before the end? To answer this, Derrida reviews the role of genre:

The genre has always in all genres been able to play the role of order’s principle: resemblance, analogy, identity and difference, taxonomic classification, organization and genealogical tree, order of reason, order of reason, sense of sense, truth of truth, natural light and sense of history. (Derrida 77)

The “role of order’s principle” is clearly evident in regard to SF. The SF genre and its participants as creators and audience traditionally follow this operation of genre. Defining SF and the past awarding of its exemplary works with prizes operate “to play the role of order’s principle” in its myriad ways. Prescriptive and descriptive definitions are theorized thereby forming boundaries and walls around those works considered SF. Various genealogies of SF are developed to provide a “sense of history” of its “organization” as a genre proper. However, the order of genres, concretized in the law of genre, is inherently unstable. He writes that “The law is mad. The law is mad, is madness; but madness is not the predicate of law. There is no madness without the law; madness cannot be conceived before its relation to the law. Madness is law, the law is madness” (Derrida 77). And madness, according to Derrida has “started spinning Peterson’s genre-disc like a demented sun. And she does not only do so in literature, for in concealing the boundaries that sunder mode and genre, she has also inundated and divided the borders between literature and its others” (77). It is this point that I find compelling in its relationship to SF, because the increasing acceptance of non-traditional SF work into the SF archive “[inundates] and [divides] the borders between” SF and “its others” (meaning other literary genres). Furthermore, madness in regard to the law of genre is analogous to or stands in place of the postmodern aesthetic of transgression. “The law is madness” could just as well be a postmodern slogan for the dissolution of metanarratives and transgressing genre borders. “The law is madness” implies a frontier of possibilities instead of a regulated and ordered center.

The idea of degenerescence and the crisis of the end of genre is a long-standing theme in SF as well as SF studies. Roger Luckhurst, who phrases the concern as “SF is dying; but then SF has always been dying, it has been dying from the very moment of its constitution” (Luckhurst par. 2), relies primarily on the concept of the Freudian death drive and a reading of J. G. Ballard to demonstrate that the crisis stems from desires for legitimation. This trouble with legitimacy leads to crisis:

SF is produced from crisis, from its intense self-reflexive anxiety over its status as literature, evidence partially here by Ballard’s re-marking of the law of genre. If the death-wish is to be avoided, we need to install a crisis in “crisis,” question the way in which strategies of legitimation induce it. The panic narrative of degeneration might then cease its tediously repetitive appearance, and its inversion, the longing for ecstatic death, might be channeled into more productive writings. (Luckhurst par. 30)

Even though Luckhurst only alludes to Derrida’s “law of genre” in his essay, Ballard’s entrance into the SF genre represents what Derrida calls, “the very moment that a genre or a literature is broached, at that very moment, degenerescence has begun, the end begins” (Derrida 62). The same can be argued for the recent non-SF winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel: Chabon, Clarke, Gaiman, and Rowling. Luckhurst’s solution is to question the very nature of legitimation that precipitates crisis in SF, instead of rehashing this very old line about the impending doom of SF at the hands of barbarians at the gates.

My intention in writing this paper is not to lament the death of SF or the passing of SF into mainstream literature, but instead to provide a new way of approaching the problematic notion of the SF genre. The recent trend in the Hugo Awards for Best Novel for more inclusivity rather than exclusivity indicates that there are genre changes or evolutionary steps taking place from within the SF field. Fear of the alien Other (i.e., non-SF genre writers) intruding on the here-and-now reality of SF literature should be consigned to the dustbin of history. The literature that is primarily devoted to giving voice to the alien Other should not be xenophobic about the participation of other stories not readily identified as SF. In fact, I assert that SF as a genre and a field must be inclusive of other ideas and writings rather than hypocritically isolating it when outsiders attempt to make postmodern inroads. Perhaps the SF field has to overcome a certain internal reaction to many years of ghettoization by the mainstream reading public and the academy, but this is no excuse for the continued exclusion of non-SF writers with materials that connect to some sense of what it is we call SF.

However, the continued discussion of SF and the SF archive reveals the fact that these are problematic signifiers that lack concrete definitions. On the one hand, those in the SF field are unable to articulate a definitive description or prescription for what constitutes SF. On the other hand, Derrida has shown that such definitions are inherently unstable once there is a transgression of the supposed genre boundaries. Both of these examples reflect the postmodern condition of living in a world divorced from outdated metanarratives and the loss of clear and universal truths. Therefore, a new solution is necessary to effectively and critically engage cultural works (whether they be what is called SF, postmodern fiction, literature, or any other writing) as objects of study.[12]

I suggest that we approach literature in a new way that borrows from the very technologies that have in part led to our postmodern existence. Jean-François Lyotard comments on the relationship between technology and language where he writes, “Scientific knowledge is a kind of discourse. And it is fair to say that for the last forty years the ‘leading’ science and technologies have had to do with language” (3), and “These technological transformations can be expected to have a considerable impact on knowledge” (4). The interpenetration of technology and language has facilitated most of the changes that we have experienced as humans following the Second World War and the development of the personal computer. Our engagement with language and words, even words on the printed page, are mediated by technologies–computers, word processing software, and the Internet.

Considering where we began with Chabon’s theory of entertainment, then Derrida’s “the law is madness,” and now computer technology, I want to plug into each of these sources and create something like a Science Fiction story in which “the law of genre” is replaced by a new way of seeing cultural works not as isolated within a genre category, but instead as interconnected creations sharing relationships and connection with the one cultural network. I propose imagining cultural works within a matrix devoid of the trappings of genre, which articulates the situation or relative position of the work within an ever-shifting network populated by other cultural creations.[13] The simulation would model our universe of culture without center and without border. It would be like our own physically curved universe that metaphorically covers the surface of a continually expanding sphere, hence there is no beginning or end on its surface. To continue the metaphor, light cones would convey a work’s past as well as the changes within its networked connections through time. Therefore, the simulation would be diachronic, relative, and archival in toto.

The simulation would provide a number of significant and extensive additions to the status quo of thinking of works as high or low, canonical or marginal, and thematically or critically relevant to a person’s interest or scholarship. The relational space within the simulation facilitates a non-hierarchical approach to the organization of cultural works. My meaning of organization focuses on the relationships between works, and not organized in the sense of building sets or genre categories within the simulation (i.e., there would be no swirling galaxies of SF fighting off invaders with laser cannons). The network connections stemming from and to cultural works within the simulation would be traces or lines of interest for further entertainment or study, and these connections would not favor one work over another or elevate one work as being greater than another. Again borrowing a computer metaphor the here-and-now of the Internet and web technologies, the database matrix that facilitates the simulation would contain for each work an entry of the work, its connections to other works, and semantically relevant tags that shift with time and are determined by the persons engaging that node/work of the network. Furthermore, these entries would constitute the “work” within the simulation instead of being tacked to the work separately. Imaginatively, these things are bound to a work, but not written to the text per se in the here-and-now. The simulation would make possible the integration of cultural works within a nexus of cultural thought through other writings and the participation of avatars within the simulation. In anticipation I ask, “How soon before I can login?”

I performed a postmodern appropriation of SF for the purposes of critically imagining beyond our past and present genre milieu into a future of new possibilities for engaging cultural works. The simulation underlies what’s already present in cultural practice and criticism–uncovering relationships through critical engagement. I propose the simulation not necessarily as a real project that we can build tomorrow, but instead as a proposition to encourage new approaches to genre and the SF genre in particular. And, what better and entertaining way to imagine the future than using the literature that we currently consider SF?

 

Works Cited

Best, Joel. “Prize Proliferation.” Sociological Forum 23.1 (2008): 1-27.

Chabon, Michael. Introduction. The Best American Short Stories 2005. Ed. Michael Chabon. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

—. Introduction. McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories. Ed. Michael Chabon. New York: Vintage Books, 2004. ix-xv.

—. Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands. San Francisco: McSweeny’s Books, 2008.

—. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

Coser, Lewis A., Charles Kadushin, and Walter W. Powell. Books: The Culture and Commerce of Publishing. New York: Basic Books, 1982.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Law of Genre.” Trans. Avital Ronell. On Narrative. Ed. W. J. T. Mitchell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981. 51-77.

English, James F. The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 2005.

Greco, Albert N., Clara E. Rodriguez, and Robert M. Wharton. The Culture and Commerce of Publishing in the 21st Century. Stanford, CA: Stanford Business Books, 2007.

Gunn, James, and Matthew Candelaria. Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2005.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1984.

Mallett, Daryl F. and Robert Reginald. Reginald’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards: A Comprehensive Guide to the Awards and Their Winners. San Bernardino, CA: The Borgo Press, 1993.

McDowell, Edwin. “Publishing: Do Prizes Sell Books?” The New York Times 15 April 1983. 11 Nov. 2008 <http://www.nytimes.com/&gt;.

Menard, Louis. “All That Glitters; Literature’s Global Economy.” The New Yorker 26 December, 2005: 136.

Nicholls, Peter. “Hugo.” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Eds. John Clute and Peter Nicholls. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. 595-600.

North, Michael. Rev. of The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value by James F. English. Modernism/modernity 13:3 (2006): 577-578.

Polumbaum, Judy. Rev. of The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value by James F. English. Journal of Communication 57 (2007): 179-181.

Reginald, R. Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards. San Bernadino, CA: Borgo Press, 1981.

Showalter, Elaine. “In the Age of Awards.” Times Literary Supplement 3 March 2006: 12.

Stableford, Brian, John Clute, and Peter Nicholls. “Definitions of SF.” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Eds. John Clute and Peter Nicholls. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. 311-314.

Weber, Bruce. “Forrest J. Ackerman, High Elder of Fantasy Fans, Is Dead at 92.” The New York Times. 6 Dec 2008. 6 Dec 2008 <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/06/movies/06ackerman.html&gt;.

Wijnberg, Nachoem M. Rev. of The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value by James F. English. Journal of Cultural Economics 30 (2006): 161-163.

 

 

[1] Michael Chabon’s interest in popular and genre fiction is evident in is his introduction and selection of stories for The Best American Short Stories 2005 and his choice of works for McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories (2004).

[2] As I will demonstrate later, he abhors genre identification and literary genre categorization in favor of writing as an art of entertainment. However, his work, and that of other well-regarded authors, might constitute a literature genre outside of the acknowledged genres such as Science Fiction, Fantasy, Western, Romance, etc.

[3] To illustrate English’s point about the diffusion of the prize economy, consider this David Foster Wallace-worthy footnote rehearsal of reviews and articles that cite The Economy of Prestige. The sociologist Joel Best, winner of the 1991 Charles Horton Cooley Award from the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction, builds a theoretical framework for English’s economy of prestige, which he describes as, “the most extensive analyses of contemporary cultural prizes,” in order “to locate this process of prize proliferation within the sociology of social problems” (Best 6). Louis Menard, who won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for History, calls English’s work, “an ingenious analysis of the history and social function of cultural prizes and awards,” but he questions the author’s lack of acknowledgement of Pascale Casanova’s earlier 1999 work on the subject of literary prestige economies, La république mondiale des lettres (136). Elaine Showalter, well-known American feminist and literary scholar, as well as Chair of the 2007 Man Booker Prize jury, weighs much of her Times Literary Supplement review on English’s critique of prize administration and juries. Nachoem M. Wijnberg, winner of a number of poetry awards and writing for the Journal of Cultural Economics, writes a polite, bur largely negative review that faults the book’s omission of earlier work on this phenomenon by sociologists such as Natalie Heinich, as well as the book’s failure, “to take its economics as seriously as it promised to do” (Wijnberg 162). Michael North, winner of the 1983 Norman Foerster Award for Best Article to Appear in American Literature, attacks English’s work on the grounds that, “in its attempt to put both prizes and their audiences in some larger perspective, [it] simply lifts the economic cycle to another level,” rather than making a critique or judgment on the cultural practice of award giving (North 577). And finally, Judy Polumbaum, recipient of the 2004 University of Iowa Faculty Scholar Award, points out in her review what you may have already guessed from the above rehearsal of the early critical engagement of English’s book, which is, “Inevitably, this volume and its author are part of the whole atrocious machinery; this book reviewer likewise is complicit in the cultural juggernaut that has given rise to such an excess of titles and trophies” (Polumbaum 181). I found the awards for each author with a simple Google search for their name, and occasionally, the words “vita” or “CV.”

[4] For the purposes of this paper, it is important to note that I do not collapse the SF field into the ‘SF genre,’ which consists of agreed upon and debated conventions of SF literature. Additionally, SF is used to denote all that has to do with SF including the archive and participants at all stages of production and consumption.

[5] These categories include: Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Novelette, Best Short Story, Best Related Book, Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form), Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form), Best Editor (Long Form), Best Editor (Short Form), Best Professional Artist, Best Semiprozine, Best Fanzine, Best Fan Writer, and Best Fan Artist. It could be argued that the Hugo Awards success is derivative of the number of shifting categories (they change over time depending on perceived need) that cover a number of niches within the SF field. For this paper, I am primarily concerned with the Best Novel Hugo Award.

[6] This collected memory is emblematized by the work of the recently departed Forrest J. Ackerman, who Stephen King described in Ackerman’s New York Times obituary as, “an appreciator, a collector, not a creator…Well, he was a creator in the sense that with the magazine he gave us a window into a world we really wanted to see. He was our Hubble telescope” (Weber par. 17).

[7] A simple Google search for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union will reveal just how extensive reviews and positive comments are in the realm of the Internet and New Media.

[8] For simplicity, I chose to use the catchall “publishing industry,” but Coser, Kadushin, and Powell warn that, “It can be misleading to speak of the publishing industry, for it has various sectors, each with its own distinct modes of operation” (8). A further extrapolation of how the publishing industry’s various sectors affect genre formation and boundaries is a subject for further research.

[9] Sturgeon’s Law states “90 percent of everything is crap.” It was recently added to the Oxford English Dictionary, and the SF author, Theodore Sturgeon, originally formulated it.

[10] Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction, edited by James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria is a fantastic source of many definitions of SF. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry, “Definitions of SF,” by Stableford et. al. is another useful source for the major definitions in the field.

[11] In “The Law of Genre,” Derrida employs and plays with the literal meanings of genre in French, which include kind, type, sort, gender, or literary genre.

[12] I am taking a broad definition of cultural work to include anything human created and not necessarily writing per se.

[13] This idea is wholly my own, but I do take inspiration from William Gibson’s description of “cyberspace” in his 1984 novel, Neuromancer, and Apple Computer’s now defunct software, called HotSauce, for visualizing the Internet as a 3D navigable space.

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Social Theory, Cultural Capital, Market Capital, and the Destabilization of the Science Fiction Genre Presentation, Nov. 17, 2008

This is the fifty-sixth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

The first seminar that I had with Professor Tammy Clewell was “Methods in the Study of Literature.” The second was “Social Theory.” This was an enjoyably challenging seminar in which Professor Clewell encouraged us to explore the them in our specific fields of study. In my case, I researched the exchange of cultural capital in Science Fiction.

One of the best lessons that I gained from this class happened years afterward. While finishing my dissertation, I sent a lot of publishable-length manuscripts around for consideration. One of those was the longer version of the presentation-length draft included below (I will publish the full length final version on Friday as “Prize Based Cultural Capital Exchange and the Destabilization of the Science Fiction Genre”). In the rejection that I received, a number of factual errors relating to the lore section on the cyberpunks were pointed out by the journal editor. It was a hard lesson in verification and citation that I will not soon forget, and one that I share with my students to drive home the importance of corroboration.

Due to a number of problems with this essay, including the inaccurate lore, I do not recommend citing this work. Instead, it is offered as a reminder for citation and a resource of ideas and sources.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Tammy Clewell

Social Theory

17 November 2008

Cultural Capital, Market Capital, and the Destabilization of the Science Fiction Genre Presentation

            Michael Chabon, a recognized and celebrated American author best described as mainstream with an admittedly healthy interest in genre fiction, routed the competition in two of the three most prestigious Science Fiction (SF) genre awards with his 2007 alternate history novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. As an alternate history novel, it appeared in the SF section of bookstores, as well as the mainstream section due to Chabon’s widespread recognition as an eminent American author of literature, not genre literature. Also, the cross pollination of Chabon’s work in the SF ghetto is not wholly unique, because Philip Roth, another recognized American author, published his own alternate history novel, The Plot Against America, three years prior. However, what sets Chabon’s novel apart from Roth’s, is that The Yiddish Policemen’s Union swept the two big SF genre superprizes, the Hugo and Nebula, and arrived in second place to Kathleen Ann Goonan’s In War Times for the John W. Campbell Award. In order to evaluate the linkages connected to the Hugo Award, it is necessary to employ a theoretical framework that goes beyond the operations of real capital into the realm of cultural capital, such as that offered by James English in his work, The Economy of Prestige. Furthermore, Chabon’s recent successes raises questions about the purpose of the Hugo Award in relation to the SF cultural economy, the transfer of real capital to and from SF authors, and the meaning of SF in general. In this paper, I argue that Chabon’s Hugo Award triumph destablizes the meaning of SF as a genre due to the transfer of cultural capital and real capital away from the SF archive.

English adroitly theorizes the exchange and movement of cultural capital via prizes and awards in his 2005 book, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Capital. In this work, English expands Pierre Bourdieu’s developing “economic calculation to all the goods, material and symbolic” (qtd. in English 5). Bourdieu’s project refers to “cultural capital,” or an intangible, yet realizable, economy of cultural exchange. English chooses the prize as his object of study, and argues convincingly that prizes are one such signifier of cultural capital exchange. Coupled to English’s primary claim, he develops three significant supporting assertions supported by prize data and a number of regional and superprize cases (such as the Noble Prize for Literature and the Man Booker Prize), which are: 1) prizes are a widespread cultural practice, 2) the number of prizes has proliferated and prizes beget other prizes through virtual modeling or cloning, and 3) prizes are made possible by complex machineries and assemblages of people and distributed work, which have a material cost often in excess of the prize bestowed. It is from the third point that English reveals the cultural capital conveyed by prizes and awards, because it is the intangible but easily recognized priceless value of awards. Essentially, there are economies of cultural capital that do not readily translate into material capital, and cultural capital is circulated within fields where that particular cultural capital is meaningful to those persons within that field.

Throughout The Economy of Prestige, English primarily uses examples of juried prizes, which feature jurors whose own cultural capital becomes part of the complex exchange between prize and winner. However, I want to discuss a special case, which English does not address in his book. My interest focuses on superprizes that are awarded based on the conclusion of a popular vote rather than the decision of a small group of recognized jurors. Specifically, I’m concerned with the oldest, extant SF genre award, the Hugo.

The Science Fiction Achievement Awards, or more commonly known as the Hugo Awards in honor of the pulp SF editor, Hugo Gernsback, are an annually bestowed set of awards created in 1953 at the suggestion of SF fan Hal Lynch and modeled after the National Film Academy Awards, or Oscars (Nicholls 595). It is an early example of prize proliferation, because it replicates the voting and spectacle aspects of the Oscar superprize model as a means to elevate the prestige of popular, yet marginalized, SF genre literature. Additionally, the Hugos establishment as an institution within the SF genre operates in the same way that English says, “prizes have always been of fundamental importance to the institutional machinery of cultural legitimacy and authority” (37). The Hugos legitimate popularly regarded works of great SF through its authority as the first superprize in the genre. Furthermore, the Hugos, like the prizes that English studies, acquire greater cultural capital through scandal. English argues that:

Far from posing a threat to the prize’s efficacy as an instrument of the cultural economy, scandal is its lifeblood; far from constituting a critique, indignant commentary about the prize is an index of its normal and proper functioning. (208).

The Hugos follow this counterintuitive “proper functioning” that English describes. The award began quietly enough, but following an initial sophomore setback in which it wasn’t administered and awarded again until 1955, the controversy began. The most recognized controversy throughout the history of the Hugos is best described by Peter Nicholls, when he writes:

The Hugos have for many years been subject to criticism on the grounds that awards made by a small, self-selected group of hardcore fans do not necessarily reflect either literary merit or the preferences of the sf [sic] reading public generally; hardcore fandom probably makes up less than 1 per cent of the general sf readership. (596)

The self-selection of voting members is problematic, because they are, unlike the juries that English discusses, a collection of individuals without discrete and recognized cultural capital to add to the award. However, the popular aspect of the Hugos supplements the popular aspect of SF literature. SF literature connects with a wide audience in many different ways through a myriad of vectors. SF, like any literature, is not homogenous. The themes, ideas, and narratives in SF literature are as varied as its audience. I conjecture that it is this egalitarian and popular aspect, further embedded in SF following the Second World War with the increase in women SF writers and readers as shown by Lisa Yaszek and others, as well as the explosion of the New Wave, that connected SF to a wider and energized audience.

With the preceding controversy of the popular vote as an ever-present background to the Hugos, other controversial events took place in the 1980s, which added to the prestige of the SF genre superprize. The first recognized controversy involved the next big thing, building on the successes and innovations of New Wave SF, but integrating in the extrapolative potential of contemporary developments in computer technology and global capital. The cyberpunks didn’t so much as land as jack-in, and the way that they did this has since become lore. At the 1985 Worldcon, William Gibson and a coterie of his compatriot writers, Bruce Sterling and Pat Cadigan, stepped out of a stretch limo wearing ripped jeans, black leather jackets, and the immediately recognizable mirrorshades. Gibson’s punk antics and disregard of the traditional suit-and-tie sensibility of the Hugo Awards ceremony elevated his status and the cyberpunk movement he represented. However, this only solidified what he accomplished by winning the three major SF awards for his 1984 novel, Neuromancer–the Hugo, Nebula, and the John C. Campbell Award. In the following year, the only Hugo Award refusal took place when Judy-Lynn del Rey’s widow, Lester del Rey, refused her 1985 Hugo Award for Best Professional Editor, “on the grounds that she received the accolade only because of her death” (Mallett and Reginald 58). And a final notable example of Hugo Award controversy took place in 1989 when the Worldcon committee barred Stephen Hawking’s popular science work, A Brief History of Time (1988), from the potpourri nonfiction category (Nicholls 596).

The Hugos have developed a considerable amount of cultural capital by English’s model, but the award is unlike those he analyzes. He establishes in his analysis of that scandal and gamesmanship strategies play an integral part in the development of awards and their followings, but in what he calls, “the higher, ‘art’ end of the art-entertainment spectrum” (English 189). I do not agree with his selection of prizes, because he characterizes them as “somewhat more elaborate” than supposedly lesser prizes (English 189). The sophistication of the Hugo Award mail-based balloting system, single transferable ballot counting, the spectacle of the annual awards ceremony in a different international host city, and the commentary, bookmaking, and reflecting on the awards in magazines, fanzines, and blogs, is in my opinion of sufficient elaborateness to warrant critical evaluation. Furthermore, the Hugo Awards represent a special case that English does not explore, which is a popular vote award that carries within its literary community a greater prestige than any other award. In fact, the Hugo Awards signify an attempt at greater transparency and egalitarian choice than that offered by English’s example of the Man Booker Prize. Additionally, its egalitarianism increases its complexity due to its broad base of voting readers and the ensuing machinery of influence and promotion.

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union recent win of the 2008 Hugo Award for Best Novel further exemplifies the special case of the Hugo Awards. SF readers and critics overwhelmingly welcomed Chabon and his work to the SF ranks with the publication of his sixth novel. However, Chabon, like other well-regarded mainstream, or dare I say literary, authors that have ventured across the genre divide has maintained a playful, but arm’s length distance from being labeled an SF author. Chabon is masterful at sidestepping genre identification, such as when he writes in his introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2005 that, “I have argued for the commonsense proposition that, in constructing our fictional maps, we ought not to restrict ourselves to one type or category” (xvi). He argues for a non-market supportable writing free-for-all that obviates any need on his part to assume a genre alignment. Furthermore, he playfully critiques the contemporary usage of genre in his introduction to McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, when he writes, “I suppose there is something appealing about a word that everyone uses with absolute confidence but on whose exact meaning no two people can agree. The word that I’m thinking of right now is genre, one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious” (ix). To be fair, his analysis of genre construction is insightful, but it is impossible for him to ignore the claim that he became a SF writer with the publication of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

So, what does it mean for a non-self-identified SF writer to win the most prestigious SF award, or conversely, what does it mean for the most prestigious SF award to be given to a self-identified writer without genre classification, or more harshly association? There are two considerations to be made regarding the exchange of capital in the case of Chabon’s Hugo Award win. The first has to do with the prestige exchange between Chabon, the Hugo Awards, and the archive of SF works. Were the Hugo voters eager to add a prestigious, non-genre author, because it, in a way, validates SF as more than genre literature? I cannot answer that, but I can approach the question after the fact. Mainstream entrance into the SF archive creates slippage, and undermines what we mean when we say, “Science Fiction.” It illustrates a problem where accomplished writers, such as Chabon, may enter the genre at will, without acknowledgement, and make off with one of the greatest bearers of SF cultural prestige. Turning the issue around, Chabon walks a fine line as a legitimated literary writer, who stands to lose that prestige if identified as a genre writer. This is not always the case, as evidenced by Doris Lessing, an admitted SF writer and author of the Canopus in Argos: Archives five novel sequence, who won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature. Though, this is a stark exception to the rule of ghettoization as evidenced by the early struggles of Kurt Vonnegut for literary legitimacy. Genre fiction carries heavy markers for literary hopefuls that are most assuredly on the minds of such authors, and it is not surprising that Chabon hedges his bets in his authorial identification in spite of the SF accolades bestowed on his works. However, Chabon’s success and conveyance of prestige away from the SF archive reveals the other and arguably more important consideration of exchange–monetary capital and lost book sales for unpretentious SF authors who can only dream of advances comparable to those Chabon receives for his work. But, what of genre? I will have to save this much more weighty question for my longer paper, but I will say that Chabon and other extraordinary non-SF winners of the Hugo may point the direction to a far future–a Science Fiction story in itself–one in which the pragmatic reality of “the law of genre” is no more.

 

Works Cited

Best, Joel. “Prize Proliferation.” Sociological Forum 23.1 (2008): 1-27.

Chabon, Michael. Introduction. The Best American Short Stories 2005. Ed. Michael Chabon. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

—. Introduction. McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories. Ed. Michael Chabon. New York: Vintage Books, 2004. ix-xv.

—. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

English, James F. The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 2005.

Mallett, Daryl F. and Robert Reginald. Reginald’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards: A Comprehensive Guide to the Awards and Their Winners. San Bernardino, CA: The Borgo Press, 1993.

Menard, Louis. “All That Glitters; Literature’s Global Economy.” The New Yorker 26 December, 2005: 136.

Nicholls, Peter. “Hugo.” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Eds. John Clute and Peter Nicholls. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. 595-600.

North, Michael. Rev. of The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value by James F. English. Modernism/modernity 13:3 (2006): 577-578.

Polumbaum, Judy. Rev. of The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value by James F. English. Journal of Communication 57 (2007): 179-181.

Showalter, Elaine. “In the Age of Awards.” Times Literary Supplement 3 March 2006: 12.

Wijnberg, Nachoem M. Rev. of The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value by James F. English. Journal of Cultural Economics 30 (2006): 161-163.

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Teaching College Writing, Final Exam, July 1, 2008

This is the fifty-fifth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

Before I could accept my teaching fellowship at Kent State University, I needed to take the graduate seminar, “Teaching College English.” I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take this class from Professor Brian Huot. At the time, I thought my primary concern was putting together my first syllabus, but through the seminar, I learned the importance of meeting student needs, considering outcomes, meeting students on the page, helping students improve their command of rhetoric and multimodality with a portfolio, and considering student work holistically (something that I continue to do with the Georgia Tech WCP’s WOVEN modalities and programmatic rubric).

This final of four Recovered Writing posts from Teaching College Writing is my take home final exam. In these essay responses, I discuss theories of language and literacy, justifications for composition instruction techniques, and demonstrate a letter-writing approach to composition feedback.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Brian Huot

Teaching College Writing

1 July 2008

Take Home Final Exam

I. What is your theory of language and literacy and how does it relate to first-year college writing instruction? Make sure you refer to relevant scholarship in the field to support your beliefs and assumptions about writing and its teaching.

My theory of language (the protocols and method of communication) and literacy (the ability to read and write, or more broadly, to communicate via language) is that they are acquired through immersive practices. In the first-year college writing class, freshmen students bring a certain understanding of language and literacy that they’ve acquired through school and socialization outside of school. It’s my goal to tap into my student’s various skill sets, to reach into their toolboxes of communication, and guide them towards the attainment of new tools that will allow them to communicate better.

My newfound theories of language and literacy come from a variety of sources. The first is Roger W. Shuy’s “A Holistic View of Language.” Shuy argues that form (the mechanics of writing) follows function (communication). This is a significant idea, because it points the way to findings such as those by Michael W. Williamson in his essay, “Common Sense Meets Research: The Debate Over Grammatical Instruction in Composition Instruction.” Essentially, rote teaching and practice of grammar and the forms of language do not good writers make. Engaging students as writers in topics that they find interesting are just as or better at building on and tapping into the student’s own innate knowledge and mastery of language. Additionally, this increases students’ enjoyment of writing. And it’s that enjoyment of mindful and effective communication that’s necessary to, as Mem Fox writes in “Notes from the Battlefield: Towards a Theory of Why People Write,” “ache with caring.” In order to jump start student caring about writing in the immersive environment, the teacher must enter dialog with the students as a collaborator that is willing to recognize and listen to his or her student’s voice and cultural context as suggested by James T. Zebroski in his, “A Hero in the Classroom,” and Carmen Kynard in her, “Y’all Are Killin’ Me up in Here: Response Theory from a New Jack Composition Instructor/Sistah Gurl Meeting Her Students on the Page.” Showing students that you’re “meeting them on the page,” or “listening to their voices on the page,” will not only show that you’re invested in them and their work, but it will invite them to invest in their own work as something of value, because it has an attentive audience. Additionally, expanding the audience beyond the student-teacher relationship is imperative for building student investment in their own work as well as the work of others. This is accomplished in the immersive classroom through group discussion and peer review. As teachers, we empower our students by teaching them not only how to write, but also how to read and respond to the work of others. For the student, peer review leads them toward an understanding that their work is not only intended for the eyes of a teacher and the subsequent marking and comments. Furthermore, the truly immersive writing class takes the student’s work beyond the confines of class into the real world through online posting of text and multimodal assignments or social assignments such as writing to representatives or the newspaper. This embeds writing with an importance beyond getting a grade, and the skillful, reflective teacher guides students through this realization by a carefully designed sequence of assignments connected by poignant or engrossing theme. Returning to Shuy, these exercises build students’ function of writing skills, but as Williamson argues in analog with Shuy, form follows function. Addressing grammatical issues has a place in the classroom if and when they become a non-self-correcting problem. My goal in the implementation of this theory is to guide my students, as writers, to be better communicators.

 

II.       Choose three of the following subjects for the teaching of writing and write one page for each that describes what they are and the empirical and pedagogical basis for using these techniques with students.

A. Multimodal projects are forms of communication beyond the traditional pen and paper essay. The emphasis is on the medium of communication rather than the rhetorical mode of communication, because various mediums of communication may all carry rhetorical communication. That is, a brochure, poster, audio essay, movie, or Flash animation all may be employed in making an argument and communicating some message. Additionally, borrowing from Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, “the medium is the message,” which means that choosing a particular medium is a rhetorical choice that carries its own meaning. As Pamela Takayoshi and Cynthia L. Selfe mention in, “Thinking about Multimodality,” the times they are a-changing. The twenty-first century digital world has expanded beyond the traditional writing assignment. The increase in computer usage and the lowering cost of audio and video technologies empowers individuals to engage other mediums for communication besides the written word. For these reasons, Takayoshi and Selfe insist that the definition of composition needs expansion to allow for multimodal projects, because the rhetoric underlying traditional composition and multimodal composition are the same–both use rhetoric to communicate a message. Additionally, students need digital literacy in multimodal forms so that they are better communicators in their private as well as professional lives. Furthermore, students enjoy working with new technologies, which is an effective means of engaging students in rhetorical practices. It’s important to note that, as Mickey Hess says in “Composing Multimodal Assignments,” there are other considerations to make as a teacher in developing multimodal assignments. Some of these include focusing on the rhetorical practices to emphasize in a particular assignment, allowing students the latitude to explore and figure out some things on their own, encouraging group work, and having students reflect on their work and the process in writing. Pedagogically, multimodal composition engages the same rhetorical communication skills developed in written composition–the medium has changed, but the function remains the same.

B. We’ve encountered a number of complementary theories of productive student-teacher relationships over the past few weeks. Essentially, all of these involve mutual respect between teacher and student, and a leveling effect that puts the teacher and student on a more level plane of dialogic cooperation. Instead of employing a top-down, monolog approach to teaching, it’s more effective, empowering (for student and teacher), and fulfilling to have a dialog between teacher and student. One example of this comes from Hull, Rose, Fraser, and Castellano in their essay, “Remediation as Social Construct: Perspectives from an Analysis of Classroom Discourse.” These authors use classroom and student-teacher conference transcripts to remind teachers that it’s easy to drown out student voices. We should encourage more student turns in discussion, and listen and engage what our students have to say rather than hijacking class and conference discussions. Another view of productive student-teacher relationships comes from Annette Harris Powell’s “Conflicting Voices in the Classroom: Developing Critical Consciousness.” Powell employs socially engaging texts in her classroom to develop discussion and raise student’s awareness of competing discourses, thus expanding her student’s critical awareness. Powell’s ideas come up again in James T. Zebroski’s “A Hero in the Classroom,” but in reverse. Zebroski argues that teachers need to consider the heteroglossia within our students’ papers in order to better evaluate the work and connect with our students. My favorite student-teacher relationship building pedagogical tool is presented in Gerriets and Lowe’s, “Building Relationships through Written Dialog.” I like the idea of carrying on a discussion via writing with my students regarding their papers, because it allows both participants time to consider what is being said. This is not to say that I feel spoken dialog isn’t effective, but I think a combination of written and spoken dialog is important, because the teacher, as Carmen Kynard does, meets the students on the page as well in spoken dialog.

C. Listserve or the email list is a tremendously effective tool in the writing classroom as I have evidenced in my own experience at other schools and in our Teaching College Writing class. Listserve allows the conversation to carry on outside of class by empowering students to communicate with their classmates in an “open” turn based environment. What that means is that students aren’t constrained to wait and talk. They write down their thoughts and send them out to the classmates, and in turn, read the responses of others to which they may respond again. All students may take part in the conversation on listserve, but it’s particularly liberating to students that are still developing group discussion skills–if their ideas are accepted online, they may be more willing to engage classroom discussion. Besides reinforcing group communication skills, they are effective for the writing classroom, because students are required to communicate in writing. This additional writing practice fosters “form following function,” as well as rhetoric skill practice (i.e., how to best explain myself to convince my classmates that I’m right or to convey what I mean to everyone else without causing a misunderstanding). Also, as a multimodal medium of communication, listserve introduces many students to online etiquette, which adds to their abilities as effective and respectful communicators in other mediums. In a tip of the iceberg kind of way, listserve also serves the requirements of the writing program for Tier I.

III. Respond to the attached paper. Be sure to create a specific student in a particular class who is writing in response to a specific assignment. You may include any information about the student you believe to be important in understanding the pedagogical moment of this essay. Your only restrictions are that you must respond to the student you created.

This student, who I’ll call Jim, is from a working class background. His mom and dad both work, and have at most a high school education. They want their son to succeed in life, and they see education as the key to that success. Therefore, they stressed his need for education without really explaining or fleshing out the reasons behind their belief that education is the key to a better life, and how could they without that kind of experience themselves? For Jim, this caused confusion as he went through school, because he could realize the tangible and immediate rewards of street education whereas school education provided less tangible payoffs. At the core of his being, he is someone that wants to embrace higher education and reap the good life for his efforts, but he’s looking for the hook, or reason, that will light his own fire to learn.

Jim’s paper, “Renaissance Man,” was written in response to my second writing assignment in Tier I College Writing. The assignment was to write a three page personal response to a film that you’ve seen. The response should weave together personal narrative to support or refute what the student saw as the argument of the film.

This is my response following Gerriets and Lowe’s written dialog method:

7/2/08

Dear Jim,

I enjoyed reading your essay on Penny Marshall’s Renaissance Man (did you know Marshall also directed Tom Hanks in the film, Big? If you haven’t seen it, that’s another one that you should check out, because it addresses many of the issues you raise about different kinds of education). I saw two major arguments in your essay–one is that education is not just book learning, but it’s also experience gained outside of school, and the other is that learning takes place when the individual has a motivation to learn. These are powerful ideas, and I can see some of the ways you weaved your own narrative about your parents’ expectation that you go to college and other pressures that they placed on you growing up with the examples that you chose from the film. I’d like to go more in-depth on these examples, and perhaps together we can formulate a plan to make this an even stronger paper.

After rereading your first paragraph, I get the sense that your theory has to do with encouraging students to learn in school. You claim that, “our school programs are missing a way to teach everyone…to find something that everyone is interested in.” I see where you’re coming from in that classes often lack a hook or a common idea that students are interested in learning about, or the reasons for learning aren’t always immediately apparent. That, perhaps, more should go into showing students how to be engaged learners or why learning is important and can be fun, rather than just telling students these things. Showing is definitely a more powerful rhetorical tool, especially when you’re writing, and I feel that you can do more of this to empower your own argument. If you decide to focus on this one idea to develop your own theory about learning in your next revision, I would suggest adding an example from your life when your parents put pressure on your to learn and perhaps their words didn’t work on you. Another way would be to talk about a specific example from school when the teacher didn’t spark your interest to learn. Show how that supports your theory, and then talk about Renaissance Man as reinforcing what you see as a need of education–a real reason or a more exciting reason to learn, to care about learning. Let me know if you go this direction, because I want to let give you an essay about this very topic by Mem Fox. When you read what she has to say, you’ll think you’re on the same wavelength!

There’s another thread in your paper that you might want to pick up if you decide not to go the reason route. That other way has to do with what you wrote on page 2, “People put too much emphasis in the idea that good grades equal an educated person, this is a false statement. Many people that have poor grades in school are more intelligent than a person who makes good grades in school.”   I read it as you making a distinction between school learning and “real life” learning. This is another thread with which to center your essay around that you have good examples from the film that you can draw on. Additionally, as I said before, it would be great if you could show the reader an example of this from your own life. What are some things that you’ve learned outside of school, and what are some things that you’ve learned in school? What value do you place on the different things that you’ve learned?

Think over these different approaches, and how you might focus your paper more on one or the other, and meet with me during office hours this week. We’ll sit down and talk about your plan. I’d like to hear about some of the stories and details that you can employ to show the reader more concretely what it is you’re talking about. See you soon!

-Jason

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Teaching College Writing, Quiz, What do people do when they write? June 16, 2008

This is the fifty-fourth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

Before I could accept my teaching fellowship at Kent State University, I needed to take the graduate seminar, “Teaching College English.” I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take this class from Professor Brian Huot. At the time, I thought my primary concern was putting together my first syllabus, but through the seminar, I learned the importance of meeting student needs, considering outcomes, meeting students on the page, helping students improve their command of rhetoric and multimodality with a portfolio, and considering student work holistically (something that I continue to do with the Georgia Tech WCP’s WOVEN modalities and programmatic rubric).

This third of four Recovered Writing posts from Teaching College Writing is my response to a quiz on an assigned reading on “What do people do when they write?” I can’t find the essay/handout that we were responding to, but I think that some of the thoughts that I put down regarding mechanics/surface vs. content/depth are interesting.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Brian Huot

Teaching College Writing

16 June 2008

“What do people do when they write?” Quiz

1)  What can you say about the kinds of responses from students in the two groups?  Are the first group of responses for each grade level different than the second group–what are the differences or similarities for each group in each grade level?

The responses from students in the first group of each grade level are typically about thought, expression, and explanation, and the second group responses of each grade level are about practices and methodology.  Linking these responses back to the class, the first groups are aligned with function, and the second groups are aligned with form.

In the third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade responses, the first group overwhelming uses the following key words and phrases:  think, open their minds, and share…thoughts.  Also, they write for a purpose such as to relax, avoid boredom, or to communicate with friends and relatives.  The second group’s responses focus on practical matters and the mechanics of writing.  For example, these students talk about holding the pencil, sitting down to write, making letters, moving the hand and pencil, and wasting ink and pencil lead.

Again, the responses of the first group of ninth graders are generally about expression.  They “tell about things,” “get stuff across,” and “express their thoughts.”  The responses from the second group are, like the second group of third to fifth graders, about the physicality of writing.  For example, they “just write stuff down,” “hold a pencil and move their hands,” and “put the point of the pencil to the paper and start making words and letters.”  There are exceptions in both groups that could be interpreted as belonging to the other group if the groups are divided based on function and form.

The college freshmen groups are also split along lines of function and form.  The first group is largely about conveying, explaining, translating thoughts into words, and revealing thoughts, ideas, and emotions.  The second group of college freshmen is more closely aligned to the first than the other two grade levels, because there are some responses about expression and communication.  However, the majority of the responses concern mechanics (e.g., “usage and grammar”) and writing methods (e.g., “First you pick your topic, then you make sure you have enough information.  Then you rewrite and check the spelling and copy it down” and “They express their overall views on a given topic and later draw conclusions in a patterned coherent fashion”).  Also, there’s a response that describes the act of writing.

 

2)  Do you see any similarities across grade levels for each of the groups?  Are there certain characteristics for either group one or two responses?  What are those characteristics?

In general, the responses of the first group of each grade level are about the function of writing–i.e., communication and the expression of ideas, and those of the second group of each grade level are about the form of writing–i.e., the act of writing and methods of writing.

 

3)  Considering your answers to the first two questions, what variable (consideration, category, quality) did the researchers use to separate the different groups of responses within each grade level?

Considering our readings of the past week, and the writing concept that “form follows function,” it seems that the responses are grouped based on writing ability.  The first group in each grade level has stronger writers, and the second group respondents are weaker writers.  The stronger writers understand the function of writing, because they’ve internalized that through their acquisition of writing.  The weaker writers respond by describing the literal action of writing or process of using the plug-and-chug method of writing an essay in high school.  They are thinking about the surface level of writing rather than what lies underneath as did the first group respondents.

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Teaching College Writing, Annotated Bibliography of Teaching SF Resources, June 29, 2008

This is the fifty-third post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

Before I could accept my teaching fellowship at Kent State University, I needed to take the graduate seminar, “Teaching College English.” I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take this class from Professor Brian Huot. At the time, I thought my primary concern was putting together my first syllabus, but through the seminar, I learned the importance of meeting student needs, considering outcomes, meeting students on the page, helping students improve their command of rhetoric and multimodality with a portfolio, and considering student work holistically (something that I continue to do with the Georgia Tech WCP’s WOVEN modalities and programmatic rubric).

This second of four Recovered Writing posts from Teaching College Writing is a brief annotated bibliography of teaching science fiction resources. Professor Huot asked us to do research in our specific discipline and report back what we found. This kind of work has become an integral part of my professionalization as an educator (research+pedagogy) and reflective practitioner (how did this other person do that–how can I incorporate/modify/adapt their approach into mine–what worked/didn’t work and how can I make it better?).

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Brian Huot

Teaching College Writing

29 June 2008

Teaching Science Fiction Annotated Bibliography

Attebery, Brian. “Teaching Fantastic Literature.” Science-Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov. 1996): 406-410.

Instead of focusing his course on Science Fiction, Attebery combines fantasy and SF into one course under the umbrella of the fantastic. Again, this is a literature, and not a composition course, but the important lesson to take away from his essay is that students with fantasy/SF backgrounds, which are not necessarily the same thing, as well as students without an inkling of experience with the fantastic all have something to bring to class discussion. Also, some fantastic literature carries more cultural or historic baggage than students may already be acquainted with, which may break down discussion, or require more lecturing or assigned reading in order to prepare students for engaging a particular text.

 

Bengels, Barbara. “The Pleasures and Perils of Teaching Science Fiction on the College Level.” Science-Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov. 1996): 428-431.

Bengels builds on examples from Science Fiction and criticism, both on teaching SF, “to address the inherent and unique difficulties of teaching a body of literature that is changing even as we attempt to examine it…to convey the excitement and sense of wonder that continues to set science fiction apart from any other form of literature” (428). Most importantly, she suggests that, “There’s a special sense of community in the sf world that finds its way right into the classroom; new ideas must be bounced off one another, making for very exciting classroom discussions: new words, new worlds, new concepts all to be explored together” (430).

 

Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan. “The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction.” Science-Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov. 1996): 385-388.

Csicsery-Ronay begins his essay with this striking line: “Like being hanged, teaching introductory sf courses to undergraduates focuses the mind wonderfully” (385). He is addressing the teaching of Gunn’s SF genre course, but he provides a great framework for introducing students to SF through a handout titled, “WHAT MAKES SCIENCE FICTION SCIENCE FICTION?” (386). This handout, perhaps given after having students read an emblematic SF short story, would be a powerful tool for opening discussion about what constitutes SF and what our students think SF is. Furthermore, he responds to what is implicitly said in Bengels, Gunn, and others when he writes, “My sf texts must also introduce students to important philosophical, social, and literary ideas that they might not encounter anywhere else, given the state of contemporary higher education” (386). This significant accusation reflects the potential of SF to engage students in ideas and critical thought that they would not otherwise encounter.

 

Elkins, Charles and Darko Suvin. “Preliminary Reflections on Teaching Science Fiction Critically.” Science-Fiction Studies 6 (1979): 263-270.

There are some very practical and insightful contributions by Elkins and Suvin in this Marxist essay regarding the teaching of SF.          The authors propose that, “The main and the highest goal of SF teaching–as of all teaching–ought, in our opinion, to be a specific form of civic education” (267). SF is great for inculcating critical thinking, because SF often turns accepted systems upside-down. Introducing students to this and discussing what’s in the text and what the text leaves out should raise their ability to see beneath the surface of the text. Elkins and Suvin go on to suggest that, “Teaching SF…involves description and assessment, interpretation and evaluation; teaching SF is an act of literary criticism fused with the communication of that criticism” (268). In this passage, the authors are not literary saying that SF is literary criticism in the academic sense of an analysis of Shakespeare, but rather, SF is a critical literature that engages social issues. This is the power of SF that is useful for generating discussion in the introductory college writing classroom.

 

Evans, Arthur B. and R.D. Mullen. “North American College Courses in Science Fiction, Utopian Literature, and Fantasy.” Science-Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov. 1996): 437-528.

Evans and Mullen compiled this list of SF, utopian, and fantasy courses complete with descriptions and book lists from colleges and universities all over the world. It also includes lists of works, authors, and films most often assigned.

 

Finch, Sheila. “Dispatches from the Trenches: Science Fiction in the Classroom.” Extrapolation 41:1 (Spring 2000): 28-35.

Finch writes that SF is a uniquely appropriate genre for stimulating student involvement and discussion, because it serves all the functions of other literature with, “the added distinction of being…a literature of ideas to think about in a peculiarly new way, what Albert Einstein called Gedankenexperimenten” (29). The thought experiment aspect of SF is indeed powerful for generating discussion, because it presents a new view to a (perhaps) mundane subject, and it begs the reader to critically evaluate the thought experiment on the surface narrative as well as what lies beneath. Like Bengels, Finch declares, “SF is a literature of ideas,” which can be employed as a useful tool in developing writing students skills at responding to things that they might not have considered before (31).

 

Gunn, James. “Teaching Science Fiction.” Science-Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov. 1996): 377-384.

Gunn’s essay primarily concerns his own approaches to teaching SF as a genre course, and he makes the claim that of all of the SF courses available at various schools, “They seem to be as varied as the colleges and universities at which they are taught, and a number seem to address the question of what science fiction is and how to read it, that is, they are genre courses. But I would argue that there should be more” (377). In regard to his own various approaches to teaching SF, he identifies three course themes: 1) “the great books,” 2) “the ideas in science fiction,” and 3) “the historical approach.” He doesn’t address SF in the introductory writing classroom, but I believe his “ideas” theme is appropriate for generating discussion and leading into student essay topics without the course taking on a literature-laden mood.

 

Mullen, R.D. “Science Fiction in Academe.” Science-Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov. 1996): 371-374.

This is a short history of the introduction of SF into the American college classroom. It includes early course descriptions and book lists.

 

Ontell, Val. “Imagine That! Science Fiction as a Learning Motivation.” Community & Junior College Libraries 12:1 (2003): 57-70.

This essay overflows with numerous examples of SF and fantasy stories, TV shows, and films, and how they may be used to engage our students’ attention and imagination. In addition to all of Ontell’s fabulous lists and contextualizations, she points out how the fantastic is an important learning tool: “Whether the students are in the elementary grades, middle school, high school, or higher, it is the function of teachers and librarians to provide the tools that enable them to question intelligently. Science Fiction provides many vehicles for inculcating those tools in a variety of subjects by stimulating the imagination and thus motivating students to learn” (57). In the writing classroom, building our students’ ability to “question intelligently” is essential to their success as readers and stronger writers.

 

Samuelson, David N. “Adventures in Paraliterature.” Science-Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov. 1996): 389-392.

Samuelson provides a plethora of author and work successes in his classes. Also, he notes the usefulness of group presentations on particular works or authors to share with the class, and he lauds the use of a “cumulative journal” or portfolio in the classroom.