My Eaton/SFRA 2013 Paper: Media Theory and Genre

Here is my paper for the 2013 Eaton/SFRA conference, as part of the panel on “Mediation and Transmedia” with Scott Selisker (“Transmedia Automatism: Cinematic Motion in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl“) and Veronica Hollinger (“The Dis/enchantments of the Mediated Real”).

Media Theory and Genre

This paper is sort of chasing a certain claim, a double inversion of Arthur C. Clarke, although I cannot address it in any depth here: “Any insufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.”

So, this boringly-titled talk opens a discussion of genre as media and genre’s relation to other media. By “genre,” I mean at the start something fairly non-controversial, I hope: a set of texts, however blurry the boundaries around that set, the conventions of which take on meaning within the set and without historicity. By “media,” I follow McLuhan who more or less understands a medium as a thing, in the broadest possible sense. At times the term “technics,” which here is closely aligned with media but takes on Stiegler’s definition as “organized inorganic matter,” will supplement or replace “media.”

There are a number of strands of thought here that I hope to weave together. First, I am interested in theorizing fantasy as a genre, especially in relation with science fiction and horror, although the latter will not be present here. I am not interested in defining fantasy with regard to dragons or magic or elves and, likewise I am not interested in SF insofar as it involves technology or aliens, nor horror insofar as it involves vampires or transformation. We all “know” fantasy, SF, and horror when we see them, even if we continue to argue about many specific cases and definitive boundaries. Rather than ask “what is fantasy?” I wish to ask “what does, or perhaps better can, it do?” I shall draw shortly on a talk China Mieville gave in 2009 to help articulate this theorization.

Second, and following directly from the preceding: I have been intrigued for some time by something Frodo says to Sam as they await what seems to be certain death after the destruction of the ring: “For the Quest is achieved and now all is over. I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam.” An ongoing project takes this last phrase as its title and uses it as a starting point to think through the question of history with regard to genre, especially insofar as certain examples of interstitial genre offer us new and unexpected ways to think what I call the horizon of history, which I oppose to the so-called end of history we inherit from Hegel, Kojeve, and Fukuyama (not to mention Walter Benn Michaels). I can’t go into this project in any depth here, nor how I understand this phrase, but the question of history remains important to this paper.

Third, and at first to me seemingly separate from the second strand: my ongoing concern with media and media theory, a concern that in part because of this conference’s theme I have begun to see in relation to genre. I say “seemingly separate” because I at first thought that a consideration of media and genre would be rather distinct from a consideration of genre and history. Although we can no doubt think about each of these pairs separately, the more I thought about one, the more reading I did with regard to the other, the more they seemed to me inextricable, and not simply because each contains the term “genre.” The question of the future is no doubt a question of history. It is also both a question of 1) the manner in which we remember that history and 2) the manner in which our recording of that history structures our beliefs about the future and therefore our capacity to construct it. Thus the question of history intersects with the means by which we record history, which is to say with media or what Stiegler calls the “industrialization of memory.” Genre, I hope to show briefly, can be understood as such an industrialization.

So there is a lot going on, and I shall not get to all of it as much as I would wish. Nonetheless, I hope that this discussion does not reflect a sort of “things only Ben knows” phenomenon, and that the relationships amongst genre, history, and media become clear to you.

So, my primary concern: whereas China Mieville, in a 2009 talk entitled “Cognition as Ideology: A dialectic of SF theory” which you can see in its entirety on YouTube or read in Red Planets (I am working from the YouTube version), discusses the critical elevation of science fiction and coincident critical denigration of fantasy in terms of a politics of cognition, I discuss, following theories of media and technics from Stiegler and to a lesser extent McLuhan, this gap in terms of a politics of memory, namely that form of memory Stiegler calls “tertiary retention” or mnemnotechnics, memory stored prosthetically, the memory that allows for society itself insofar as it affords the transmission of culture across generations.

I will return to Mieville momentarily, but let me briefly address Stiegler. In Disorientation he discusses how the programming industries capture the processes by which culture maintains itself and transmits itself to the future. He writes, and I promise that the next two quotes are the only I will use from Stiegler: “Memory is always the object of a politics, of a criterology by which it selects the events to be retained” (9). The programming industries, through their deployment and manipulation of technics (for Stiegler electronic and digital media, but I here include print and the book), determines what memory retains not only in terms of something like content but also in terms of something like form. He writes,

And thus arises the question of the politics of memory. Today more than ever the political question is memory, in that it is industrialization itself that raises the question of selection, or pre-judgments, of the criteria of both judgment and the resultant decisions to be made in the possible beyond the real itself, technoscience no longer constatively describing the real’s existence but rather performatively exploring and writing about the new possibilities to be found there. (Stiegler, Disorientation 9)

Based on the form of retention, the manner in which technics stores not only certain aspects of human intelligence but also human gesture and embodiment, the industrialization of memory, in which SF takes part insofar as it involves the mass-marketing of the printed book (to which I limit this discussion), determines what we and our media can think and do in the future. This point should become clearer in a moment. For now, I will rehearse Mieville’s argument about the problematic critical split between SF and fantasy in order to then return to and weave together my three critical threads.

Mieville begins with what he calls “uncontroversial” definitions of SF and fantasy, the same definitions that I am assuming above by excluding them from my consideration—although he might get away with it more with him being China Mieville and all. In any case, he notes that while SF has become and continues to be critically fashionable, for the most part fantasy has not and is not becoming so fashionable. He also notes that the critical split over the values of these genres mirrors what he calls the “common sense” fan debate on the same question and registers surprise that the critical discourse on the subject does not often get past the SF-as-possible/fantasy-as-impossible divide. He notes that this debate has “important political ramifications” for both study of sf/fantasy specifically and culture generally because “science fiction is becoming a default cultural vernacular.” This debate takes on an extra importance when we realize that it has been going on for some time. Mieville traces it back to a debate between Verne and Wells.

Mieville traces the contemporary form of the debate to 1979’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction in which, as you know, Darko Suvin defines SF as the literature of cognitive estrangement and deplores fantasy as conservative and even fascist. Mieville notes that in Suvin and the critical tradition that follows from him “cognition is basically generally conceived as intimately related to scientific, rationalist relationships to reality.” He follows the logic of this claim in order to provide an immanent critique of it and winds up demonstrating the problematic adherence to the idea that cognition is itself as upstanding as its proponents would have it when he discusses the contortions they go through in order to justify their support of it. After all, much of the science in SF is impossible, so the genre is no more and no less cognitively estranging as fantasy. Adam Roberts gets out of this conundrum by claiming that SF has to do less with science than with the scientific method. Jameson states that “the scientific pretensions of SF lend the Utopian genre epistemological gravity” (Jameson, 2005, 57), a gravity I do not imagine he understands fantasy to possess.

To cut to the chase, Mieville asserts the ideological nature of such SF criticism and that “the cognition effect is about surrendering the terrain of supposed conceptual logic and rigor to a cadre of expert author functions” (since the rigor of the SF text cannot be found in authorial intent or in the reader). These author functions serve as a sort of technocracy, a rule by those or that which knows better. In short, SF is “better” than fantasy not because its knowledge is true or its science possible or even plausible, but because it has authority as science fiction, an authority to which we submit when we read it. Mieville concludes by saying that he finds theorization of the cognition effect valuable and that he does not wish to overturn the hierarchy Suvin and others setup by simply installing fantasy on top in the name of what he calls a misplaced “lumpen-postmodernist” irrationality. Rather, he wishes to historicize rationality in order to articulate it in a new form, a form appropriate for the contemporary world

Now, there are three things to say following this point, which correspond in reverse order to the three threads I am trying to weave together here.

  1. With regard to the issue of media, we should note that the question of rationality and irrationality (and, perhaps, of what Mieville calls “arrationality”) is bound, for Kant (as read by Stiegler), to the question of the book as media or technology, to the book as a form of tertiary or, simply, prosthetic memory. SF has, at least, scientific pretensions and the cognition effect is, by these critics, at least implicitly aligned with the rational. And yet, the submission to this rationality, which any postmodernist would question with a “whose rationality?,” is precisely contrary what Kant discusses in his essay “What is Enlightenment?,” in which the submission to authority, specifically to the authority of the book, is a sign of personal and social immaturity, an immaturity suited to the age that precedes Enlightenment. Such is the vexed question of technics or media, which for Stiegler remain always and fundamentally pharmocological.
  1. With regard to the issue of history, we have here Mieville’s desire for an historicized rationality. The problem I encounter, though, when I consider my threads in reverse order is that media, technics, tertiary retentions, condition rationality as well as those means by which we historicize it. Otherwise put, what we call rationality derives from the media through which we receive rationality. That through which we receive rationality, that which transmits culture across generations, has been conditioned by antecedent media, prior rationality. Of course I am saying little here you do not already know in other contexts.
  1. Finally, with regard to the issue of genre theorization: for all of Mieville’s considerations of the problems endemic to this definition of SF, and for all of his claims to not wish to get rid of this definition per se and not get rid of one hierarchy for another—for all of this, he does not offer a positive definition or description of fantasy nor of the new forms of cognition or rationality coincident with it, at least in the talk version of “Cognition as Ideology.” Although I do not claim that this “failure” derives from the complicity of media and historical forms of rationality, I would like to think through this complicity—the complicity between SF and printed books and fantasy and printed books—in order to think through the distinction between SF and fantasy in terms of what fantasy does or might do, again rather than in terms of what fantasy is. I cannot do all of this work today myself; I merely wish to start the conversation and the project.

So, for the rest of the paper I am working from the premise that both SF and fantasy, insofar as each genre originates in a literate, print-based world and continues to involve itself with print, these two genres are extensively, perhaps existentially, conditioned by print. (An aside: I thus undertake this consideration exclusively with regard to print here, although we might also consider film, television, and other media as well insofar as these media operate in the wake of print and are likewise conditioned by it.) However, I take the position that SF’s relationship with print is a happier one than that between fantasy and print. Through this consideration, we discover a politics of memory, our ongoing orientation according to what the generic texts stores as cultural memory

Stiegler discusses technics as tertiary retention, which he adds to Husserl’s primary and secondary retentions. Very briefly put, “primary retention” has to do with the memory of the immediate past, what “just happened.” “Secondary retentions” are something like memory as conventionally understood, the information we store in our minds and bodies, recorded in the past during events in which we participated. Tertiary retentions, which are the necessary condition of culture, are memories stored outside of the human body, in books and sculpture, on hard drives, etc. Tertiary retention also and importantly are stored in artifacts—machines, tools, furniture, etc.—insofar as those artifacts record the postures, shapes, and movements of the bodies from which they derive, to which they conform, and form which they demand such conformity. thus the assembly line “records,” through a process of grammatization, the skills of the workers who use it, eventually deskilling them and leading to their proletarianization.

This loss of savoir faire leads to or comes with a loss of savoir vivre. The proletarianianized being is reduced from a state of existence in which she pursues her reason, a symbol, and object of desire to that of subsistence, in which desire becomes reduced to drive, a brute survivalist mentality that can produce no belief, no community, and no future other than a pure calculation from the present. Subsistence arises not as an epiphenomenon of technics as tertiary retention per se, but rather from a complete submission to such technics and a failure to address the question of technics in a manner appropriate to its contemporary moment. Furthermore, it derives from the programming created and provided by the programming industries, which dangle before us promises, false objects of desire, or diaboles in Stiegler’s terminology. Our former orientation towards the future, towards a future not reduced to a calculation of the present, a future in which we believe rather than one that engenders disbelief, becomes a disorientation.

Of course, SF has long sought to demonstrate, thematize, dramatize, something very much like this disorientation. However, I suggest here that it can, in its pharmacological capacity as poison, cause such disorientation by virtue of its involvement with the medium of the printed book. McLuhan understands print to be at the root of nationalism, rationalism, the very structure of Western thought since the advent of the Gutenberg technology. Flusser understands print to engender the linearity of historical thought that characterizes modernity; typography reduces the two dimensional world of the traditional image to a single dimension (the image having reduced the three-dimensionality of the world of the earliest carved idols to two dimensions and the carving of the idol itself a destruction of a four-dimensional world that characterizes the pre-human animal).

End-of-history thinker Francis Fukuyama claims that there can be no regress. There is only progress. History, Fukuyama argues, following Kojeve following Hegel, contains “a constant and uniform Mechanism or set of historical first causes that dictates evolution in a single direction, and that somehow preserves the memory of earlier periods into the present.” Of course we know, and somehow Fukuyma like so many other thinkers of history in this mold fails to note, that this “somehow” is media, tertiary retention, technics. In any case, Fukuyama, who seems to understand himself to be describing something like, in the context of Flusser and McLuhan (as well as Stiegler’s discussion of orthotēs—the exactitude that it orthography—in Disorientation) reveals himself to be in the thrall of the print/book logic McLuhan and Flusser describe.

To be clear at this point: SF, insofar as it arises as a genre in print and in printed books (and I realize I am simplifying if not mystifying a lot of history here) and as a genre that concerns itself with progress (whether in celebratory or critical terms) enjoys a happy relationship between its medium or technicity and its generic concerns. Fantasy, as a genre often concerned with regress—in which the age of heroes is past, in which the cultural progress of the past is often lost and impossible to reproduce—does not enjoy this same consistence. Whereas SF calculates the future not only in terms of what its “about,” but also in terms of its printedness and bookness, fantasy undermines such calculation, Fukuyama’s Mechanism and “single direction,” and thus reveals an in-consistence.

SF is progressive in two senses. I am certain that, on the whole SF tends to be more progressive in its politics than fantasy, which still so often involves restorations of past sovereignty and uncritical explorations of counter-modernities. Fantasy tends towards the regressive, tends to situate the height of civilization in the past; change comes alloyed with great sadness. Despite the apparent conservative nature of its politics, I nonetheless am intrigued by the way in which fantasy describes a movement of history other than that enabled by print and advocated by Fukuyama. I do not wish to live in the world’s that most fantasy describes. Consider, for example, Mervyn Peake’s Titus novels and their setting, Ghormenghast—a world where every day is the same, a world in which magic is reduced to its ritual without its effects, a world in which change, Progress, of any sort is the exception and not the rule, an aberration. Such a world is terrible, miserable.

And yet I would argue that even such misery offers an opportunity for us to rethinking our own immiseration, the symbolic misery Stiegler diagnoses in our world in which we chase our consistency in a symbol become diabolical, in which credit is reduced to trust, in which our belief in the future has turned to disbelief. We no longer believe, but we certainly suspend our disbelief for SF and, I might add, for fantasy. However, because fantasy does not offer us progress, does not offer a calculated future I am curious to think how it might offer us belief—belief in something else, whatever that might be.

I am not offering fantasy here as savior, but merely opportunity. As I have mentioned, fantasy, like SF, is conditioned by the logic of print as well. Perhaps nowhere is this logic more apparent in fantasy than in its reliance on the Quest. Likewise, Mieville notes that, like SF, fantasy most significant problem is perhaps the fact that it cannot escape narrative. (And, I might note, that The Scar is, for me, perhaps one of the great fantasy texts in its critique of history, the Quest, and narrative, all of which collapse into one another at a certain scale of critical focus.) I should also note that, of the two genres SF has the longer and richer history of experimentation with regard to narrative, form, and, yes, even the medium of the printed book, as Acker, Delaney, and Burroughs would attest.

No, fantasy cannot simply save us from whatever problems SF presents, nor, of course, does SF present to us only problems. What fantasy can do—I think, I hope, I believe—is provide us with new ways of thinking, new rationalities, and new models of experience. Whether magic can do such a thing, whether magic can be theorized not as the primitive, the irrational, or the impossible, remains to be seen. Regardless technology, whether that thematized in SF or that through which we consume SF, has failed to grant us the existence modernity seemed to offer and perhaps it’s time to pursue something else. Thank you.


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