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Sunday, December 02, 2012

What Futurology Does To Science Fiction

James Hughes (from an abstract of his talk at Robo-Easter yesterday):
Futurists and Transhumanists have been derided for association with science fiction, and conservatives have warned of the totalitarian implications of utopian speculation. But speculative fiction is the principal arena in which human beings imagine their own future radically transformed by social and technological change, try to anticipate the pitfalls, and motivate themselves to grasp the opportunities.
I suppose it won't exactly be a newsflash for me to say I disagree with this, but I do think it is useful to pressure this formulation.

First of all, it seems to me that transhumanoid futurists are not derided so much for their "association" with science fiction but for their confusion of science fiction with science practice and science policy. Some folks deride sfnal fandoms, sure, but this derision (of which I would be a prime target myself) is importantly different from the derision of futurological fandoms (of which I would not properly be a target myself), which usually focuses on the superficiality, pseudo-scientificity, non-representative whiteness-boyness-privilege, Guru-Wannabe/True Believer organizational idiosyncrasies, un(der)critical technophilia/technophobia of the latter in my experience. In speaking of an unspecified "association" he is indulging in a consoling evacuation of a whole lot of substance his own avowed political commitment would otherwise demand he critique in ways that would risk his identification. This has always been my chief problem with James Hughes (and hence it is different from my problem with many other techno-transcendentalists).

Second of all, I think it is quite wrong to propose that science fiction is "the principal arena in which human beings imagine their own future radically transformed by social and technological change" since I think almost the whole range of the humanities, social sciences, and policy discourses offer up preeminent arenas for such imagination, work, and contestation. And I have to add, to amplify this point, that literally every actually legibly constituted profession and discipline of knowledge-production has a foresight dimension that functions as a facet of the arena Hughes is talking about: Indeed, one of the chief problems of the futurological as a kind of pseudo-discipline in my view is that it has no actually existing subject-matter of fact/concern over which it has a unique expertise and from which it would produce unique insight and foresight, but then simply declares its subject "Foresight" as such to disavow that vacuity while actually enacting it.

Anyway, not only do I disagree that science fiction is the principal arena in which foresight is elaborated, for the reasons I have already said, but I must say that I do not even agree that science fiction has anything to do with consequentialist scenario-spinning AT ALL (although the sfnal occasionally, very incidentally, may throw up sparks of foresight like any sustained human endeavor will just as well), or anything to do with "The Future" in the futurological sense AT ALL either. I say this because I regard science fiction, like all literature -- and especially good science fiction like all good literature -- as an engagement with the present (not always only the present in which the text originates, but always crucially starting from there), exaggerated, stylized, allegorical, or otherwise imaginatively alienated to provide critical purchase on and occasions for widening empathy in the present mostly unavailable to us outside of the literary.

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