Reflections on philosophy and culture

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Speculative Modernism II: Alfred Jarry's Time Machine

(This is an entry in a series of posts about 19th century French literature and fantastic literature.  For previous entries, you can go  here, and here)

A little known episode in the history of both high modernism and early science fiction occurred when they were both in their infancy.  At the end of 1898, the famed journal Mercure de France - one of the major hubs of the Symbolist movement - serialized Henry Devray's translation of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, less than four years after its original publication in English.  A mere month later, Alfred Jarry wrote what was to be his last publication in that journal - a remarkable essay entitled "Commentary and Instructions for the Practical Construction of the Time Machine."

Jarry was perhaps the first writer to take up Wells' most famous literary conceit.  But to anyone familiar with his distinctive concerns, this would have come as no surprise.  Before science fiction even had a name, Jarry was using science and metaphysics as the departure point for a unique form of literary-philosophical experimentation: pataphysics.  What they are to truth and universality, pataphysics is to contradiction and exception.  At once a celebration, mockery, and imaginative extension of science and metaphysics, Jarry's imaginary discipline foreshadowed the obscurantist irreverence of high modernism.  But it also foreshadowed science fiction's obsession with  the aesthetic possibilities of modern science's uncanny image of the world.

Pataphysics was certainly on Jarry's mind as he composed his essay on time travel.  To publish it, he used as his pseudonym the titular protagonist of his novel The Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician, the manuscript of which he had just completed.  In fact, while pataphysics had simply been a central theme in that novel, "Commentary" was not a work of fiction but rather a piece of pure pataphysics.  It is written in the form of a scientific paper, and Jarry's knowledge of recent science and mathematics was such that it turned out to be so convincing an imitation that two eminent British scientists mistook it for a genuine scientific work.1  

Jarry begins "Commentary" much as the Time Traveller in Wells' novel does: with a discourse on the nature of time as a fourth dimension rather than a medium categorially distinct from space.  He then proceeds to outline the principles by which a time machine can travel, and gives a detailed sketch of its inner workings.  By the end of the essay, Jarry has prepared the reader for a metaphysical climax: a short section in which he tells us that in time as viewed from the vantage point of the machine, we are able to recognize a fundamental aspect of all time-experience, for which he uses his beloved Lycée teacher Henri Bergson's term: duration.

Had Jarry lived longer - he died at age 34 - I like to imagine he would have become one of the founding fathers of science fiction.  Perhaps the genre would not have developed at such a distance from the other great developments in 20th century literature, or from philosophy for that matter.  Perhaps Jarry might eventually have met Wells, and they would have co-authored the ultimate pataphysical scientific romance.  But as things actually happened, Jarry spiraled into poverty, alcoholism, and illness at a terrifyingly young age.  And while Dadaists, Surrealists, and other high moderns took up his work and celebrated it as inspiration for their own, his recognition among science fiction writers would have to wait until the 1960s, when early New Wave writers like J.G. Ballard rediscovered him.

**For Roger Shattuck's translation of "Commentary," click here.  For a more up-to-date translation, cf. Jarry, Alfred. Brotchie, Alisdair & Edwards, Paul (eds.) Adventures in 'Pataphysics (London: Atlas Press, 2001), pp. 211-218.

(1) As recounted by Alisdair Brotchie in his Alfred Jarry: a Pataphysical Life (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011), p. 241.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Why fantasy (justifiably) gets a bad rap

Earlier today, M. John Harrison (to my mind, one of the finest living writers), posted an entry in his blog that for my money encapsulates everything that's wrong with lazy fantasy fiction.  It's a short entry, so I'll quote it in its entirety:

I'm not against worldbuilding on the grounds that it impedes narrative. Nothing I’ve said has anything to do with worldbuilding vs narrative. Worldbuilt fantasy is over-engineered & under-designed. Whatever the term worldbuilding implies in that context, it isn’t deftness or economy of line. A world can be built in a sentence, but epic fantasy doesn’t want that. At the same time, it isn’t really baggy or capacious, like Pynchon or Gunter Grass. It has no V. It has no Dog Years. It has no David Foster Wallace. It isn’t a generous genre. The same few stolen cultures & bits of history, the same few biomes, the same few ideas about things. It’s a big bag but there isn’t much in it. With deftness, economy of line, good design, compression & use of modern materials, you could ram it full of stuff. You could really build a world. But for all the talk, that’s not what that kind of fantasy wants. It wants to get away from a world. This one.

Harrison has never been prone to these vices, and he's surely not alone in this: China Mieville, Samuel Delany, Michael Moorcock, Mervyn Peake are other fine examples.  But these vices are so rampant in fantasy that outsiders often think that every fantasy narrative is an affair that sacrifices everything else that's interesting in literature for the empty joy of re-assembling the same old lego pieces (elves, dwarves, magical items, dark lords, etc.) in superficially new ways.

I loathe this sort of fantasy.  The most recent example I encountered was Steven Erikson's series Malazan, Book of the Fallen - one of those seemingly endless fantasy series that writers have been churning out in the wake of Robert Jordan.  It's been touted by fantasy fans as one of the finest series ever written.  Its setting is a prime example of a secondary world that is "over-engineered & under-designed."  

When you begin the first book you're first of all flooded with names: of people, cities, empires, armies, and the like.  Now, for lovers of fantastic fiction, this can be part of the joy of the narrative.  Being thrown into an unfamiliar setting can be like being parachuted into a foreign land of which one knows nothing.  At first you feel alienated and confused.  But slowly, as time passes you pick up the knack of how the lifeworld around you works.  You experience the joy of discovering ways of life that are different from your own in ways you never quite realized ways of life could be.  You consider yourself and the world around you from the point of view of someone for whom they are foreign and unfamiliar.    You inhabit and find value in conceptions of the world that you neither have nor can completely comprehend.

Reading a Malazan book and other fantasy novels of the same sort is an experience of a very different kind: like being dragged to a party your friends have talked up to you, but that turns out to be incredibly tedious.  You go to a place that is superficially new, and meet people that are superficially unfamiliar, but quickly you realize that this is possibly the most boring situation you've ever been in.  In Erikson's kind of fantasy, nothing challenges you, nothing stimulates your imagination.  Instead, it's...exactly what the skeptics think all fantasy is: just an excuse to numb your brain and escape the world.

Dismissing fantasy on the basis of reading books like these is like dismissing Mexican food on the basis of eating Taco Bell.  Unfortunately, while most people know that Taco Bell is Mexican food's trashy cousin, most people don't know that lazy fantasy isn't all the fantasy there is.... 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Users as Workers: the Economy of Identity in Social Media

"Looking in a Mirror" by Louise Èlisabeth Vigèe Le Brun
The great genius of social media is the way it monetizes personal identity - i.e. the way it sells us to ourselves.  Of course, this is in some ways an old phenomenon.  We've been buying idealized images of ourselves for a long time, drawn in by ads designed to solicit a recognition of our better selves in the posed, photoshopped people we see in them - in Radiohead's words, "fitter, happier, more productive."

But I think social media goes one step further - and here lies its true genius.  Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, and the like have managed to convince us that they are free.  Of course, in one sense, they are free.  You don't have to pay a monetary fee to use these services.  Instead, the business model of social media takes a cue from commercial television and  radio.  For the privilege of access to the service, the service provider doesn't charge you (the user).  Rather, it charges advertisers for the privilege of access to you.  In this way, you get access to yourself - that is, special tools to craft who you are in public space - free of charge.

However, I think we distort the situation if we end the story there.  Specifically, the economy of labor in social media is profoundly different from commercial television and radio.  That is, in social media, the primary source of labor is the user: users are workers, and are paid a special kind of wages.  These wages are fundamentally affective: in exchange for her labor, the user is rewarded with a sense of authenticity - the sense that she is a self-determining individual, freely constructing her identity in public space.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Speculative Modernism I: Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's "Swan Killer"

(This entry is the first of a series I'm grouping under the label 'Speculative Modernism.'  For the introduction to this series, click here)

Auguste Villiers de L'Isle-Adam is one of those writers you'd probably only encounter if you had a specialist's interest in French Symbolism or Surrealism.  His reputation as a precursor to Symbolism has largely to do with his inclusion in two early critical works that helped to define the Symbolist canon: Paul Verlaine's The Accursed Poets (1888), and Remy de Gourmont's The Book of Masks (1896) (from which Felix Valloton's drawing of Villiers to the left is taken).  Later, when the Surrealists were harnessing Symbolism's enthusiasm for the weird to their own ends, Villiers was carried along for the ride: for example, in André Breton's Anthology of Black Humor (1940).

But Villiers also holds an interesting place in the history of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  For example, in his novel Tomorrow's Eve, we find a man who replaces his unpleasant fiancee with a android double; in Tribulat Bonhomet, we find a vampire story that predates Bram Stoker's Dracula by almost thirty years; and in Axel, we find an elegant precursor to the 'Dying Earth' subgenre of science fiction.  For this reason, his work is a good place to turn to find lines of intersection between high modernist and fantastic literature - the common theme of this series of blog posts.

I recently discovered Villiers' work through The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which contains an entry on him in which John Clute and Peter Nicholls sketch Villiers' influence on fantastic literature.  I recommend reading this entry for some basic insight into Villiers' significance for fantastic literature.  I'm sure I'll have more to say about Villiers more generally in future entries, but for the present I'd like to talk a little bit about his short fantasy story "Swan-Killer" and some of its themes.  

Monday, April 9, 2012

Speculative Modernism - Introduction

I've been fascinated by the links between literary modernism and fantastic literature (science fiction, fantasy, and horror) for a long time now - ever since I discovered Beckett's The Lost Ones as a teenager and mistook it for (or better: recognized that it is) a work of science fiction.  Lately, this fascination has reared up again, prompted by my recent reading of Alastair Brotchie's new biography of Alfred Jarry - Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life.

In recent months, this has led me in a direction I've been led before: 19th century French literature - specifically, proto- and post-Symbolist literature.  This is literature that had a decisive impact both on high modernism and on science fiction and fantasy.  For me, the works of Lautréamont, Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, and Jarry inhabit the same intellectual space as works by writers like H.P. Lovecraft, J.G. Ballard, M. John Harrison, and China Mieville.  All of these writers share the suspicion that literary realism is not real enough, that what we tend to think of as the ordinary is a pleasant fog by which we obscure the strangeness of ourselves and the world we inhabit.  Their shared sensibility, in turn, combines a mischievous love of the weird with a conviction of the utmost seriousness - that estrangement from the ordinary is the most powerful and the most necessary weapon in the writer's arsenal.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Liberal and Conservative Culture

Liberals often ask one another: "Why do conservatives in American so often think that liberals are elitists snobs?"  Answer: because they are!  

At least, there is a lot in the cultural trappings of political liberalism in American which many folks with a working class background (and here, I include myself) find alienating.  This is a constant source of frustration for me, since at the level of political ideology, I'm often with the Democratic Party; however, at the same time, liberal culture often sickens me.  Politicians usually attempt to avoid these cultural trappings, but they are rampant among liberals 'on the ground.'  

There are a lot of examples of this.  In mainstream Hollywood cinema and TV, southern accents and country music are often signifiers for stupidity.  The single most frequently used trope in liberal rhetoric is that of the ignorant, unwashed piece of 'white trash' who is too much of an idiot or a bigot to realize that the Democrats are the ones who have their best interests in mind.  Urban liberals happily think of Middle America as a destitute cultural wasteland - all that nasty stuff you hope to fly past as quickly as possible while relaxing in your Business Class seat.  Liberals like to think of and portray devout Christians as quaint, silly Neanderthals praying to the clouds in the hopes that the clouds will give them rain.  And so on.

The strange thing is that liberal culture is guilty of many of the same vices they laughingly attribute to conservatives.  A good example of this is the notorious obsession, quite common in liberal culture, with pseudoscience-based health trends that, of course, also happen to be inaccessible to most working class people: organic, non-GMO, gluten-free, and/or vegan foods; homeopathic remedies, 'natural' supplements, and a contempt for so-called 'western medicine.'  The same liberals who harp on these trends like to think of conservatives as 'anti-intellectual.'  And yet, the 'science' on which these trends are based is about as solid as creation science.  Liberals often suspect that conservatives are secret racists, and yet the very term 'western medicine' is a racist one: as if the roots of modern science-based medicine didn't trace through the medieval Islamic world; as if there isn't empirical medical research of the highest importance coming out of countries outside North America and Europe.

I think I've had these worries about liberal culture in America for quite some time.  A year and a half ago, I had the unusual experience of moving from one of the most liberal areas in the U.S. - west L.A. - to one of the most conservative - Alabama.  Perhaps being in the reddest of red states has given me the confidence to express these worries.  Every time I open up an issue of The New Yorker or read articles on the Huffington Post, I cringe at what I read.  This isn't because my politics are moving to the right, but rather because I don't think that liberal culture in America really knows how to attract the sympathies of working class people in Middle America.  And this is a serious problem: it's what makes possible the success of hateful Republican Party rhetoric.  But I don't have all that much optimism that the situation will change much in the near future.