1.18.2004

An Appeal For Theory

I'm working on a rather longish critical essay tentatively titled "An Appeal For Theory," which is just as it says, an appeal (positioned from within "genre") for a serious engagement, assimilation, and subversion of the tools and modes of the historical literati. The goal: to cut out duplication of effort, and bring some evaluative structure (not to be confused with either structuralism or New Criticism) to the table in a way that vastly extends the recent work done by the Carl Howard Freedman's and Science Fiction Studies of the world. By literati, I simply mean "that group of erudite academics yet inhabiting the castles, manning the turrets, and pruning the gardens of Literature with the desperate puritanical zeal of (that stripe of) Catholics still clinging to the notion that premarital sex is a sin."

Okay, you say, but vive la revolution est fine, the walls are breached, the castles stormed, the sacred cows are on the torture racks, and all your bases are belong to us! Indeed. As Gabe points out, we have metrosexuals, horror schlockmeisters winning NBA awards, "comic books" winning Hugos and WFA's, fat-fantasy about to storm the 2004 Academy Awards, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. We live in a bubbling cauldron of morphing tropes, dipping down into that vasty vat of the subconscious, probing the edges of the Human Interstice, and occasionally resurfacing with blindingly bright new bodies (or at least sexy new exoskeletons). At ground zero: that wacky government experiment gone haywire, "the internet," since the latter part of the last century unleashing grass roots eruptions of subversiveness, while at the same time destroying (by ignoring) the methodologies of western critical theory with rapacious postmodern zeal.

A sample from the first portion of the essay. (Rough format.) I sliced the top off my finger yesterday, can't type much, so this is true "cut-and-paste" publishing.

* * *

Science fiction has been much on my mind these last two years, as a genre, as a fashion, as a pseudo-scientific attempt at a literature of clairvoyance, and most regrettably, as something disdained with willful ignorance by English lit professors and so-called "mainstream" (claiming to be non-genre, non-populist) contemporary fiction writers. Complicating matters is the question of genre infighting, subdued near the center (the critically acclaimed and frequently published) yet growing increasingly agitated as we move toward the periphery. We'll define the periphery in this case as all of the new online amateur or semi-pro webzines and journals (weblogs or just "blogs") now dotting the cyber-landscape like glittering constellations (one thousand points of light), as a form of subversive democratic self-publication designed to circumvent rejection letters and disagreeable editors, and that capitalizes on one of the internet's greatest strengths.

And also, unfortunately, one wicked Achilles heel.

If the current breed of informal online essays and op-eds are a fair thermometer for the temperament of genre criticism in this freshly minted century, science fiction as a subject of categorical inquiry has descended into the semantic cock pits of a new crop of hip and savvy thunderbloods determined to beat it senseless as they lift legs and mark "new" sub-genres with predictable territorial pettiness. Intellectual angst clutters web sites and trendy essays everywhere. The blog-rant has become a fashionable, insular alternative to the newsgroup flame war. The proliferation of internet and "anything goes" webzines (what's peer review again?) has gradually shifted the locus of conjectural combat away from familiar media and magazine outlets and into the margins of online discourse. Note that the margins have thus become anything but marginal in this democratic era of hypertextual "fifteen-seconds," where a blurb in a popular author's online journal or a link from self-proclaimed "nerd-news" website Slashdot is a first class ticket to stardom measured in visitor hits. These quasi-cerebral endpoints attract cults of personality (often unto themselves, cults of dissonance) like snowballs in slush, mixing good with bad, and careful with sloppy. There is a sense that in order to matter, one must write about writing, must pack web servers to brimming with diacritic au courant speculation; must, in short, drag the rest of us along on fractious developmental odysseys masquerading as scholarship whether what's being suggested is fresh or geriatric.

Why? Simply put, there seems to be a willful ignorance on the part of young genre writers to engage (as opposed to "bristle at") the standards established by that erudite crowd of canonical sanctimoniousness, the literati; the logic as old (yet denied, as in "in denial") as Hammurabi, "they snubbed us, so we'll snub them." Consequently, there is a great deal of duplicate or parallel critical outpouring occurring haphazardly and without a sense of organization in much the same way, say, that jazz as an American musical phenomenon passed through an aggressive gauntlet of experimentation that ranged from ragtime to free jazz (Joplin to Coleman), mimicking the shift from baroque to twelve tone (Bach to Schoenberg), in the so-called "classical" idiom. Contumaciously ignorant of the interstitial forces binding "classical" to "jazz" or "jazz" to "easy listening" (and so on), wars were then, and are still now waged between irreverent experimental meta-jazz beatniks and their fundamentalist "old-school" peers, recombining in strange inverted pyramids or tetrahedrons of specialization, played out in sniping magazine interviews, CD jacket liner notes, and ultimately the music itself, in spite of the fact that all of this has "happened before" and "will happen again"--a vicious and ancient cycle of Santayanan nescience.

What is needed, more than ever now, is integration (complete with reverse-colonization) with established academic norms, a mending of rifts born both of mutual disregard and perhaps even a kind of academic laziness in speculative genre criticism. Just because we were excluded in the past from that umbrella paradigm somewhat mystically construed as "serious" or "high art" does not mean we should treat of science fiction as an independent colony or species with its own somehow hermetically unique critical strictures. The enormously broad spectrum of literary thinking that constitutes the history of literary theory and criticism--Aristotle to Quintilian, Alighieri to Maimonides, Boccaccio to Sidney, Addison to Young, Coleridge to Wordsworth, Arnold to Wilde, Baudelaire to Habermas, Bahktin to Jakobson, Freud to Kristeva and beyond--applies far more explicitly to science fiction and all of its so-called interstices than almost any of the genre's current pseudo-critical "guides" by writers working within the science fiction idiom, and who often resort in their critical thinking to simplistic New Criticism rehashing which reflects the enormously powerful sway the New Critics still hold over institutional learning, and the serious implications of being sublimated by a "borgian" puritanical theory that is as recent as John Crowe Ransom and 1941. That there are entries on "critical and historical works" (focus on genre criticism), "linguistics," and a general "history of SF" in John Clute and Peter Nicholls' Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, but no mention whatsoever of theory, or literary theory, is both an accurate representation of genre fiction's current depth of critical scholarship, and proportionately telling.

* * *

Knowledge progression is a cumulative affair, not bifurcated for the sake of convenience, lack of time, or resistance to inquiry. Consider this from the preface to the recent massive 2000+ page Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism:

In recent decades, theory and criticism have grown ever more prominent in literary and cultural studies, treated less as aids to the study of literature and culture than as ends in themselves. As Jonathan Culler notes in Framing the Sign: Criticism and Its Institutions (1988), "Formerly the history of criticism was part of the history of literature (the story of changing conceptions of literature advanced by great writers), but…now the history of literature is part of the history of criticism." This dramatic reversal, which occurred gradually over the course of the twentieth century, means that the history of criticism and theory increasingly provides the general framework for studying literature and culture in colleges and universities. Some literary scholars and writers deplore the shift toward theory, regarding it as a turn away from literature and its central concerns. These "antitheorists," as they are called, advocate a return to studying literature for itself--yet however refreshing this position may at first appear, it has problems: it itself presupposed a definition of literature, and it promotes a certain way of scrutinizing literature ("for itself"). In other words, the antitheory position turns out to rely on unexamined--and debatable--theories of literature and criticism. What theory demonstrates, in this case, is that there is no position free of theory, not even the one called "common sense."


(The essay continues, jumping into a specific blow-by-blow analysis of recent essays and genre theory work by Alan DeNiro, Marjorie Perloff, Noam Chomsky, Jean Baudrillard, James Gunn, Carl Howard Freedman, John Clute, Gary Westfahl, Jim Ridgway, Marleen Bahr, Karen Sayer, John Moore, blots from Science Fiction Studies, and books in the Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy series.)

discuss this post at our messageboard