Posts Tagged ‘Jameson’
I was recently asked to write a review of Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America for a special “Petrofictions” issue of American Book Review. Imre has put the full text up on Facebook; hopefully you can read it there. Here’s a bit from the end:
…Here then is what science fiction looks like without (or after) the future: the twentieth century is envisioned not as the launching pad for a glorious technofuture but as an anomalous moment of prosperity and historical possibility which quickly burns itself out, leaving in its place the worst combination of Manifest-Destiny America, feudal Europe, and decadent Rome. The novel’s odd, melancholy temporality—a retrospectively narrative bildungsroman set in a future that is simultaneously a parody of the past—completely upends our sense that the last hundred years represent the apex of progress, and indeed the idea that history can be thought of as any story of progress at all. By its end Julian Comstockhas taken its reader well beyond the postmodern mood Fredric Jameson famously called “nostalgia for the present,” and comes to feel something like officiating at our own collective funeral.
But for all its anticipatory retrospection of the coming post-oil disaster, the novel is not hopeless. In the epilogue we are told that Adam has in essence gone on to reinvent the lost art of science fiction itself; in 2192 his most recent novel is American Boys on the Moon, a Jules-Verne-style adventure yarn about a group of youngsters who discover an old NASA rocket buried in Florida and use it to reach the moon. (In a footnote, Adam concedes the story is completely implausible, but admits he likes it anyway.) There are similar hints throughout the novel that a second age of enlightenment and invention could be in the offing, and indeed that the reign of the despotic and theocratic Dominion may soon be at its end. The theocrats are themselves huge believers in progress, insisting “the history of the world is written in Scripture, and it ends in a Kingdom”—but Julian’s revolutionary retort, seemingly borne out, is that history is actually chaos, written in sand and shaped by the wind (674). For Wilson, it seems, there’s an exciting, even necessary freedom in this permanent historical flux, which when juxtaposed against the violent schemes of the rich and powerful becomes in its own unstable and impermanent way a kind of unexpected utopia. The cyclicality of history turns out to be as cruel to kings and tyrants as it is to everything else; in time all their dreams of power and control turn to ash as well. Even in a history that can’t stop repeating itself, we find, the bad times eventually end, and good days someday come again.
So the question of history returns. How do we act on what we know? The time has come when we have to solve this puzzle, because the future, from where we look at it now, is different than past futures. Before we just had to keep on trying to do our best, and we would be OK. Things seemed to slowly get better, for some people in some places anyway; in any case, we would keep trying things, and probably muddle through. This is no longer the case. Now the future is a kind of attenuating peninsula; as we move out on it, one side drops off to catastrophe; the other side, nowhere near as steep, moves down into various kinds of utopian futures. In other words, we have come to a moment of utopia or catastrophe; there is no middle ground, mediocrity will no longer succeed. So utopia is no longer a nice idea, but a survival necessity. This is a big change. We need to take action to start history on a path onto the side of the peninsula representing one kind of better future or another; the details of it don’t matter, survival without catastrophe is what matters. In essence the seven billion people we have, and the nine to ten billion people we’re likely to have, exist at the tip of an entire improvised complex of prostheses, which is our technology considered as one big system. We live out at the end of this towering complex, and it has to work successfully for us to survive; we are far past the natural carrying capacity of the planet in terms of our numbers. There is something amazing about the human capacity to walk this tightrope over the abyss without paralysing fear. We’re good at ignoring dangers; but now, on the attenuating peninsula, on the crazy tower of prostheses — however you envision it, it is a real historical moment of great danger, and we need to push hard for utopia as survival, because failure now is simply unacceptable to our descendants, if we have any.
* “A lifetime achievement award is a little alarming,” said Jameson, who came to Duke in 1985. “But on the other hand, it’s very nice to have the recognition.”
* Your democracy at work: Barack Obama Has, on Average, Attended a Fundraiser Every 5 Days in 2011.
* Matt Stoller: When a switch in the party in power does not result in policy changes, there’s little point in electoral politics.
* And just to counter that cynicism a bit: arguably one of the more important (and more progressive) components of the ACA took effect yesterday, the requirement that health insurance companies spend at least 80% of premiums on actual health care. UPDATE: Countering the counter-cynicism, Tim Worstall says this probably isn’t a big deal after all.
* As is standard journalistic practice, the New York Times has allocated space for an accused child molester to tell his side of the story.
* If Duke is one of eleven campuses with “major Occupy movements,” I fear for the movement. Occupy Duke was genuinely tiny, and the #occupyduke hashtag is comprised almost exclusively of mockery and contempt.
* Occupy Commencement: UNC students are petitioning against Michael Bloomberg as commencement speaker.
* And Reuters selects the best 100 photos of 2011. Here’s #72:
* Two sites keeping track of Occupy Wall Street news: Greg Mitchell at The Nation and the 99 Percent Movement tag at Think Progress. Meanwhile the movement continues to go national (and international), and is apparently leading to walkouts on college campuses as well, including here in NC.
* In class Jameson often notes that for decades the word “capitalism” was a shibboleth of the left; people on the right just didn’t say it. It’s happening just a bit faster with this 1%ers meme.
* This July, beginning with the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California, as many as 6,600 inmates at thirteen prisons underwent a three-week hunger strike to protest the state’s use of “supermax” facilities designed for long-term solitary confinement. The strike ended on July 20 when inmates received as concessions winter beanies, wall calendars and the promise of “some educational opportunities.” But their larger, more basic demands—more humane living conditions and a feasible exit strategy from solitary besides “parole, snitch or die”—went unmet. As a result, on the morning of September 26, the hunger strike resumed at Pelican Bay.
* And submitted for your approval: the most gerrymandered district in history.
Continuing to break radio silence to report that Criticism‘s special issue on The Wire includes a piece from Jameson on realism and utopia in the series, as well as a piece from Mark Anthony Neal on social capital and cosmopolitan masculinity.
More on Detroit and ruin porn, also via Aaron Bady.
These photos of uninhabited ruined spaces do little more than confirm what the most casual observer already knows about Detroit and cities like it. Moore is sensitive to this danger, and does includes a few photos that represent Detroiters leading lives amidst the ruins. Besides two portraits of Detroiters at home, Moore also includes a photo of a rooftop party by twenty-something white urban explorers, a self-conscious reflection, perhaps, on his own access to these spaces and on the well-beaten paths of ruin fetishists. Vergara, the Chilean-born photographer whose photographs of Newark, Detroit, Chicago, Camden, and New York are collected in The New American Ghetto, addresses the ahistorical failing of much ruin photography by investing much more heavily in the ruins: Revisiting the same site over a period of years, or even decades, Vergara’s pictures show with often heartbreaking clarity the slow, painful transformation of a house, a street, a neighborhood. And Austin and Doerr’s Lost Detroitcombines ruin photography with architectural history, seeking to fill in the historical gaps. The ruin photos in Detroit Disassembled and The Ruins of Detroit, despite the authors’ obvious reverence for their brick-and-steel subjects, are also spectacles of degradation, in which, as Frederic Jameson writes about the postmodern condition, our “putative past is little more than a set of dusty spectacles.” In requisitioning the ruin’s aura of historical pathos, ruin photos suggest a vanquished, even glorious past but, like the ruins themselves, present no way to understand our own relationship to the decline we are seeing. After all, this is not Rome or Greece, vanished civilizations; these ruins are our own, and the society they indict is ours as well. As a purely aesthetic object, even with the best intentions, ruin photography cannot help but exploit a city’s misery; but as political documents on their own, they have little new to tell us.
* “The worldwide triumph of capitalism … secures the priority of Marxism as the ultimate horizon of thought in our time”: Benjamin Kunkel reviews Fredric Jameson in LRB.
* Archie Comics will soon be introducing its first openly gay character, “strapping, blond Kevin.”
* If you were trying to persuade me to support the climate bill, you picked the absolute worst possible approach.
* The ACLU explains everything that’s wrong with Arizona’s brazenly unconstitutional documentation legislation.
* Julian Sanchez has been doing an influential series of posts about epistemic closure on the right.
* And some breaking news: Jay Leno sucks.
In a text from 1988, Fredric Jameson argues for the necessary emergence of what he calls ‘an aesthetics of cognitive mapping’: an aesthetic adequate to the highly ambitious – and he suggests ultimately impossible – task of depicting both social space in our historical moment – then described as late capitalism or postmodernity – and the totality of class relations on a global scale: what Jameson calls ‘a cartography of the absolute’. This notion of cognitive mapping builds on Kevin Lynch’s book from 1960, The Image of the City, and Jameson argues that an inability to cognitively map the contours of the world system is as debilitating politically as being unable to mentally map a city would be for a city dweller. The works that would emerge under the banner of this aesthetic would allow individual subjects and collectivities to understand their local situation in a globalised world: ‘to enable a situational representation on part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole’(6). While the works emerging under the aesthetic of cognitive mapping would not merely be didactic or pedagogical, they would necessarily also be didactic or pedagogical. While Jameson’s text remained speculative, as he claimed that no such works had yet been produced and that he could not even imagine what their formal characteristics might be, The Wire can be understood as one the most cogent attempts at producing a work classifiable under such an aesthetic.
Crossing my radar tonight: “Baltimore as World and Representation: Cognitive Mapping and Capitalism in The Wire.” Via Vu.
* I’ll be posting this year as a HASTAC Scholar at the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboatory. My first post is about status update activism of the sort that is all over your Facebook newsfeed today.
* Speaking of health care, Olympia Snowe now runs your health care.
* LRB makes an impressively desperate bid for my attention with Fredric Jameson’s review of Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood alongside reviews of Inglourious Basterds and Inherent Vice.
* Kevin Carey nicely notes the difficulty inherent to blogging about a book you’re two-thirds through with. Another post or two on Infinite Jest soon. The total collapse of blogging at A Supposedly Fun Blog is one of the great disappointments of Infinite Summer, I think.
* And Gawker declares the Michael Cera backlash has officially begun.
There have been some interesting Infinite Summer posts about whether Infinite Jest “counts” as science fiction—see, for instance, these two at Infinite Tasks and this from Chris Forster)—so I thought it might be interesting to run through some of my standard classroom definitions of science fiction and see how the book shapes up. (My notes on this are older than the Wikipedia page and mostly cribbed from Fred Chappell, but most of these definitions appear there as well.)
To begin with, there are a few classic definitions it clearly doesn’t meet.
…a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.
Versions of this notion of “scientific prophecy” pop up whenever science fiction is discussed, and Infinite Jest pretty clearly meets neither criteria; its speculations are philosophical, not scientific, and it is surely a satire, not some coherent futurism.
Science fiction is a branch of fantasy identifiable by the fact that it eases the “willing suspension of disbelief” on the part of its readers by utilizing an atmosphere of scientific credibility for its imaginative speculations in physical science, space, time, social science, and philosophy.
I would defy anyone to claim that their willing suspension of disbelief is not frequently and fatally challenged by the hyperbolic “hysterical realist” elements throughout IJ. “FREAK STATUE OF LIBERTY ACCIDENT KILLS FED ENGINEER: BRAVE MAN ON CRANE CRUSHED BY 5 TON CAST IRON BURGER” (398) is not a sentence calculated to brace a spirit of credulity.
Science fiction is anything published as science fiction.
This is usually the last definition I offer my students in my introductory SF lecture, and the one I usually argue is the most important. SF is, as much as it is anything else, a discrete, recognizable set of consumer practices and preferences—and here, too, Infinite Jest is clearly not science fiction because it isn’t branded as science fiction in the marketplace nor is it consumed as science fiction by “science fiction fans.” IJ pulls in dollars under an entirely different brand, mainstream literary fiction—which is a perfectly cromulent brand, if that’s what you’re into, but it’s not SF.
So, then, 0 for 3. Not a great start. But there are other definitions of science fiction that do cast a strong light on Infinite Jest:
Science fiction is the search for definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mold.
Here science fiction collapses into a special category of existential literature, in which the SF aspects are merely the engine motivating the text’s more-central philosophical speculations. The science-fictional elements in Infinite Jest, it seems clear to me, are operating almost entirely on this level—each inventive speculation in the novel drives existential speculation about how we might be able to live in ultratechnological modernity in the shadow of the death of God. (Side question: is Infinite Jest “in the Gothic mold”? I’d have to pull out an entirely different set of quotes to discuss that question fully, but in its massive textual sprawl, its strong tendencies towards melodrama and hyperbolic excess, and its palpable atmosphere of both individual and familial tragedy I think we could have the start of a fairly strong case.)
We come now to the two definitions I use most commonly in my writing and teaching, which are (I concede) are completely in conflict with one another. But I think—I hope—it’s a productive tension. First is Darko Suvin, who inspired Fredric Jameson and most of the Utopian school of SF theorists I primarily read:
SF is, then, a literary genre or verbal construct whose necessary and sufficent conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment. —Darko Suvin
There’s a lot to pull out there, but the key words are “estrangement,” “cognition,” and “imaginative framework alternative.” What Suvin argues in his work is that the defining characteristic of science fiction is the pwower of defamiliarization that allows us to see our own world more clearly (and maybe for the first time), which is accomplished through the sort of intricate, even obsessive world-building confabulations SF is famous for. In particular, Suvin and his successors argue, SF expresses the desire for another kind of life, whether explicitly (as Utopian fiction) or implicitly (the desire for a plausible alterity expressed in negative in most dystopian, anti-Utopian, and apocalyptic fictions).
Infinite Jest, it seems to me, is pretty deep in the murky swamp that divides this sort of SF from more generic Utopian/dystopian political satire. The trouble for any Suvinian analysis of Infinite Jest, I think, comes in the unstable irony I was going on about earlier in the week; as Infinite Tasks lays out in detail, O.N.A.N.-ite politics is not in any sense a imaginative framework alternative to the present. It’s a series of gags. Wallace’s world-building just isn’t on the level. It’s no coincidence, to take but one example, that a close reading of DFW’s references to the Gentle administration and the start of Subsidized Time c. the year 2000 would seem to place the “Limbaugh administration” around the year of the novel’s composition in the mid-1990s, and therefore somehow impossibly concurrent with the Clinton administration that is also occasionally referenced. Infinite Jest is our cracked self-reflection, not another world.
And finally there’s Delany, who rejects political readings of SF in favor of a definition focused on wordplay, and really on the pleasure of the text itself:
In science fiction, “science”—i.e., sentences displaying verbal emblems of scientific discourses—is used to literalize the meanings of other sentences for use in the construction of the fictional foreground. Such sentences as “His world exploded,” or “She turned on her left side,” as they subsume the proper technological discourse (of economics and cosmology in one; of switching circuitry and prosthetic surgery in the other), leave the banality of the emotionally muzzy metaphor, abandon the triviality of insomniac tossings, and, through the labyrinth of technical possibility, become possible images of the impossible.
This literary-linguistic pleasure, I think, is quite clearly a huge part of the pleasure of IJ for those of us who are enjoying it; the way in which, 400 pages in, we find ourselves now able to parse a sentence like this one:
All this until the erection of O.N.A.N. and the inception, in Clipperton’s eighteenth summer, of Subsidized Time, the advertised Year of the Whopper, when the U.S.T.A. became the O.N.A.N.T.A., and some Mexican systems analyst—who barely spoke English and had never once even fondled a ball and knew from exactly zilch except for crunching raw results-data—this guy stepped in as manager of the O.N.A.N.T.A. computer and ranking center in Forest Lawn NNY, and didn’t know enough not to treat Clipperton’s string of six major junior-tournament championships that spring as sanctioned and real. (431)
There is surely something Delany could recognize in this sentence and the subtle mental acrobatics required to make sense of it; if this isn’t quite science fiction, exactly, it seems to me it’s something very close.