Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

‘The Carnivalesque Creativity of Monsters, the Pushing into the Unknown, the Ineffable’

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Socialist Irrealism: An interview with China Miéville.

J: It can be argued that science fiction as a genre, from Jules Verne’s aeronef hovering above the “unknown regions of Africa” to Dr. Moreau’s island, developed out of the intertwined enterprises of industrial revolution, scientific revelation and colonial conquest. We can see the genre as rooted in capitalist expansion and scientific discovery, but it is as deeply rooted in social relations of imperialism and colonialism, drawing many of its foundational tropes from narratives of violent expansion, genocide and conquest. Many authors since have transformed these tropes into critical counternarratives, exploring them from different perspectives or turning them around; others reproduce in their work the worst of imperialist and settler colonialist ideology and nationalist paranoia. Given that science fiction narratives as a form are involved in a politics of spatial and temporal encounter, between species, worlds and cultural systems, do you see any evidence that such imagined encounters can take place outside of a paradigm of domination and exploitation? Can you talk about how you engage with, or disengage from, forms of domination, colonialism and imperialism in your work?

C: I suspect no, we can’t think outside of those paradigms, and I am quite suspicious of the notion of thinking outside of anything. We can never think outside the paradigm we are in. The notion that one can step outside is sadly mistaken because colonial capitalism, white supremacist capitalism, is a total system. In the case of sci fi, and narratives of expansion, penetration and exploration, my suspicion is that those categories are so indelibly part of colonial modernity that you can’t decolonize them, can’t think you are exploring anything without colonialism being in the room with you. But that is not to say it is not also a conflictual and fractured system.

A: What about other work engaged with colonialism in critical ways? The work of Nalo Hopkinson would be a paradigm for that.

C: Most categories with which we think are going to be stained by something pretty toxic. This doesn’t preclude our aesthetic, dialectical or social virtuosity in doing certain things with it, thinking interesting, potentially radical, political and even critical thoughts with it. But it’s utopian in the bad sense to think you can drain the power out of these social relationships. As a writer, being aware that colonialism is in the chair with you can be quite emancipatory. Rather than thinking you’re putting it aside, you can explicitly and implicitly engage with it.

There is a brand of naïve anti colonialism that falls back into the noble savage narrative, that simply replicates a notion of beautiful natives and a place or a past that, if we could return to it, would answer all of our political problems. And it is very difficult to recognize the toxicity of colonial relations without getting caught in this kind of narrative.

This gets back to the way some from within my own stable who defend this genre of fiction–people who work within theories of the utopian tradition, who talk about science fiction texts as presenting fascinating radical alternatives. The idea that a book based in another society is useful to us in a utopian manner to the extent that we can learn from it how we might have a different society–that’s just not how they work. That’s why to me the fundamental category has always been alterity, not utopianism. I think there is something about the sublime, and the sense of the sublime as inhabiting the everyday, that may operate as a copula between a utopian or alterity-based tradition and the critique of the everyday. And the thing about the sublime is that you can see it from the hills you’re on and it’s blowing your fucking mind, you couldn’t possibly describe it and it’s beyond language, and that sense of the unrepresentable, that sense of awe. Awe is a word that in SF we have become embarrassed by and I say let’s rehabilitate it! Let’s have critically rigorous socialist awe, and the locus for that, I think, is a kind of radical quotidian sublime.

Written by gerrycanavan

January 10, 2012 at 3:07 pm

One Response

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  1. i basically agree with everything he’s saying as it applies to cultural work, but there’s a logical problem if you try to apply it to argument or to thought in general, and then i wonder if i’m right to agree with him on the cultural part. the problem is just the silly obvious thing: ‘how can you be so sure (and sure in writing) that your concepts are inevitably aspects of this colonialist paradigm if it’s impossible to think and write outside those concepts?’ he tries to have it both ways with the point about our virtuosity and internal contradiction within totality. but i think a more derridean view of the indeterminacy of language is better suited to this situation — you can’t fix a set of concepts (or actions, for that matter) as ‘finally’ anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, anti-racist, ‘politically correct,’ etc., and vice versa. then there’s a pragmatic corollary – if you run into problems appropriating some narrative form (i.e. science fiction from colonialism), then a more radical approach than internal critique might be to just try a different form, or even to abandon narrative altogether in favor of argument (in which he seems to be able to say whatever he wants). no one’s forcing him to write about monsters.

    it’s the occupy movement that radicalizes (‘decolonizes’) its slogans; the slogans themselves could go either way.


    January 11, 2012 at 11:53 am

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