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Friday, September 11, 2015

Scattered Speculations on Vulgar Science Fiction Through the Futurological Looking Glass

Although I am a passionate fan of science/speculative fiction literature, film, fandom, I realize that I rarely write about sf here and that I probably should. The exception that proves the rule happens to be one of my favorite essays here at Amor Mundi, by the way: Raised Vulcan Eyebrows and Hopeless Human Hopes. I do take sf seriously, and I make very regular recourse to it in my science-technonlogy-studies (STS) and environmental-justice-movement (EJM) teaching at Berkeley and the San Francisco Art Institute. If you scroll down to the "Science Fiction" heading in The Superlative Summary you will find seven other pieces on sf there, tho' I'd say the quality is mixed at best.

The focus of my work and my writing here and elsewhere has, for whatever reasons out of the strange vicissitudes of personal and professional biography, turned out instead to be mostly the critique of futurological discourses and futurist sub(cult)ural formations. I happen to think that futurology is the quintessential discourse of neoliberal corporate-militarism, and that the strange exhibitions made by robocultic futurisms are a kind of reductio ad absurdum or iceberg tip symptomizing prevailing pathologies of postwar-to-ecocatastrophist capitalism. As a democratic socialist (or social democrat, if you like) Green, all this matters to me enormously, of course.

I do often make the point that futurological "scenarios" are in my view the definitive literary genre of the neoliberal epoch -- which really amounts to the truism that marketing norms and forms disastrously suffuse postwar public discourses -- and this observation also often leads me to joke that these futurological "scenarios" are actually just impoverished forms of science fiction, but, you know, entirely bereft of clever plots, interesting characters, or sustained themes. Indeed, most futurological “scenarios” amount to little more than stipulated settings of a scene (hence their name) and then filled with dystopian/utopian wish-fulfillment fantasizing. Again, I daresay the connections to advertising are obvious. Hilariously, these settings are themselves inevitably borrowed from actual science fiction writers, and given the plausibility that attaches to the familiar, futurologists tend to recycle those conceits real writers would disdain as cliches.

I will also say that I regard the familiar pretense that science/speculative fiction is an essentially or even primarily "predictive" genre to be a vulgar futurological fallacy. Works in any literary genre can be accidentally or incidentally predictive -- but sf, like all great literature, is constitutive of and responsive to living, earthly polyculture. It is the open futurity inhering in the diversity of stakeholders contending and collaborating in the present, in their presence, that provokes the allegories, commentaries, myths, testimonies of science/speculative fictional futures. It will perhaps seem paradoxical from the vulgar futurological vantage that has come so much to define the sfnal in the neoliberal epoch, but for me it is because it is so exquisitely the genre not of the future but the future anterior tense that sf is indeed a prophetic literary form.

Leave it to capitalists idiotically to mis-identify sales pitches for prophesies. You can be sure that the same futurological impulse that would loot and dismantle the (to be sure, deeply flawed) Academy and substitute for it a promotional for-profit archipelago of corporate-military think-tanks and universities re-made by financial managers and techno-fixers in the image of the same think-tanks, and who extol venture-capitalist skim-and-scam artists and self-promoting celebrity CEOs and guru-wannabes as "Thought Leaders," would also insist we celebrate as "The Literature of Ideas" sf as an exhortation to mass acquiescence to status-quo amplification marketed as progress, disruption, accelerating change, and transcendence!

Another vulgar futurological gesture is embodied in the periodic policing of science/speculative fiction for "positivity" -- and this impulse seems to me equally in evidence in the recent facile Stephensonian call for cruelly optimistic can-do science fiction as well as in the ugly racism and sexism of the Sad Puppies who also fancy themselves to be defending the civilizational citadel. To clarify, in each of these cases a gesture that would reduce sf literature to consumer-capitalist or white-supremacist or patriarchal (that is, sexist/heterosexist/cissexist) agitprop -- which would be bad enough -- but actually amounts to the even worse, but by now completely conventional, subsumption of sf literature into the prevailing deceptive, hyperbolic, triumphalist, apocalyptic, eugenic, techno-fetishistic faith-based norms and forms of neoliberal corporate-militarist marketing, promotion, self-promotion, advertising as public discourse.

As I always insist, every futurism is a retro-futurism, inasmuch as "The Future" is always a parochialism rationalizing and reassuring elite-incumbents of forever ongoing status-quo amplification. "Disruption" usually amounts the deregulatory dismantlement of democracy in the service of plutocracy, "innovation" usually amounts to the promotional re-packaging of stale and discarded commodities as novelties, "resilience" usually amounts to exploiters congratulating those who manage to survive their exploitation to be exploited still more, "accelerating change" usually amounts to the increasing precarity of majorities as experienced by minorities who either benefit from that precarity or foolishly identify with those who do. Again, the only thing more typical of postwar capitalism than compulsory "positivity" about our soul-wrecking planet-wrecking extractive-industrial-consumerist corporate-militarism is to add the insult to these injuries that we testify endlessly to the progressive productivity of this wreckage.

Benjaminian angel of history, smh.


Eric F said...

I've read almost all of the published works of Octavia Butler, and I think I am due for a reread.

Your thoughts on this?

Dale Carrico said...

My thoughts are: yes, you should re-read everything she wrote. I re-visit her work every few years, and have often taught her as well. I lurve Octavia Butler. Do you read Nalo Hopkinson or Nnedi Okorafor?