Tag Archives: Kim Stanley Robinson

not oppositional, but negatory

An interview with M John Harrison by Jonathan Lethem, done earlier this year at Festival Internacional de Literatura de Buenos Aires; scroll down for the (original) version in English. (Hat-tip to the man himself for linking to it.)

I recall joking to a colleague a few years back that part of me wished Harrison wrote social theory rather than science fiction. The real joke being upon me, of course, in that he kind of always-already has been writing social theory:

The breaking of forms came later, out of a desire to test the limits and traumatise the reader’s assumptions about what a story is. I deliberately refused plot and closure. I bricolaged one genre or form on to another. I asked questions like: What would happen if I took the horror out of a horror story but left everything else in? I was concerned with doing damage to the foundational structures of fiction (causality, linearity, “character development”, etc), not to game them on behalf of fresh “twists”, or to toy with readerly expectations in the traditionally “experimental” ways. (Experimental Modernism is by now, after all, a genre of its own. It’s as old and over-developed as sci-fi, divided into easily-recognisable subgenres. There are rules to follow, textual markers to be laid down, easter eggs to be hidden for the knowing reader.)

[…]

People talk about science fiction as if it’s an end-product, an aim in itself. (In fact that’s almost a definition of the difference between genre SF and SF written from outside the genre: in the latter, “SFness” is a secondary product.) But for me SF isn’t a kind of content—it’s a vehicle, which on one day might be ideal for my purposes, and on another quite useless for them. I’m a writer: my voice and my concerns are what count, not that I write science fiction (or literary fiction or any other genre). I don’t, these days, make much of a distinction between genres. You choose one or another because it gives you the best chance to manage and present the themes of the story. Or, if one alone won’t do, you pick and mix. Every story an act of bricolage. Soon you find you have a voice of your own, and you want people to read for that, not for the nearest genre it resembles.

[…]

Personal agency is the great obsession of our day: the more you lack control over your life, the more you are likely to believe you’re in charge of it. Advertisers and ideologists are happy with that: they’re happy to mirror back to you to the sense that you are indeed the centre of the universe, the heroine of the story. If my characters come back from the heroic journey at all, they never come back bearing useful gifts–because I don’t believe anyone ever does. If people didn’t have Joseph Campbell’s artful wish-fulfilment fantasy to place them at the centre of events and keep them enchanted with their own reflection, they might dump their wish to be princess of all they survey, and instead channel their dissatisfactions into making a better world for everyone.

Of both academic and artistic interest to me here is the way that Harrison seems to be reaching toward the same rejection of the heroic that interested Le Guin… but rather than taking her path of showing non-heroic routes into futurity, he’s littering the supposedly heroic structures with trapdoors, deadfalls, monsters that turn out to have been mirrors. This is not a dystopian project, exactly, but it’s definitely not a critical utopia either… and this is why I’m not sure that KSR’s Greimas square of utopia is quite right. Because if the critical utopia occupies the bottom leftmost position (which KSR labels anti-anti-utopia), then there’s something useful and under-explored in the bottom rightmost position (which he labels anti-utopia).

I realise it’s more than a bit bold to call out Jameson’s most famous student for not using the Greimas square properly, and I really need to go back top the primary sources myself in order to truly get to grips with it. But if Felluga is not too far wrong in his reading, the Greimas square is exactly about transcending the simple oppositional binary of pro- and anti-; the lower positions are not opposites (not antis) of the upper, but (to quote Felluga quoting Jameson) “are the simple negatives of the two dominant terms, [which] include far more than either: thus ‘nonwhite’ includes more than ‘black,’ ‘nonmale’ more than ‘female'”.

So by that token, KSR’s square should instead read (clockwise from top left) as follows:

  • utopia
  • dystopia
  • not-utopia
  • not-dystopia

Seen this way, the critical utopia stays in position at bottom left (the not-dystopia — including, as suggested above, far more conceptually than the dystopia it negates). It feels to me, then, that Harrison’s writing occupies that bottom-right corner, the not-utopia — because the entire point is that it is conceptually far richer than the utopia it negates. Harrison’s not-utopias undermine the utopian precisely by exceeding it, by showing the tangle of unfinished infrastructures and unfinished buildings behind the fakeries and false promises of its glossy yet flimsy hoarding…

semiotics of utopia

It’s yer man Stan Robinson, trying to (quite literally) square away the reductive dichotomy of [u/dys]topia:

It’s important to remember that utopia and dystopia aren’t the only terms here. You need to use the Greimas rectangle and see that utopia has an opposite, dystopia, and also a contrary, the anti-utopia. For every concept there is both a not-concept and an anti-concept. So utopia is the idea that the political order could be run better. Dystopia is the not, being the idea that the political order could get worse. Anti-utopias are the anti, saying that the idea of utopia itself is wrong and bad, and that any attempt to try to make things better is sure to wind up making things worse, creating an intended or unintended totalitarian state, or some other such political disaster. 1984 and Brave New World are frequently cited examples of these positions. In 1984 the government is actively trying to make citizens miserable; in Brave New World, the government was first trying to make its citizens happy, but this backfired. As Jameson points out, it is important to oppose political attacks on the idea of utopia, as these are usually reactionary statements on the behalf of the currently powerful, those who enjoy a poorly-hidden utopia-for-the-few alongside a dystopia-for-the-many. This observation provides the fourth term of the Greimas rectangle, often mysterious, but in this case perfectly clear: one must be anti-anti-utopian.

One way of being anti-anti-utopian is to be utopian. It’s crucial to keep imagining that things could get better, and furthermore to imagine how they might get better. Here no doubt one has to avoid Berlant’s “cruel optimism,” which is perhaps thinking and saying that things will get better without doing the work of imagining how. In avoiding that, it may be best to recall the Romain Rolland quote so often attributed to Gramsci, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Or maybe we should just give up entirely on optimism or pessimism—we have to do this work no matter how we feel about it. So by force of will or the sheer default of emergency we make ourselves have utopian thoughts and ideas. This is the necessary next step following the dystopian moment, without which dystopia is stuck at a level of political quietism that can make it just another tool of control and of things-as-they-are. The situation is bad, yes, okay, enough of that; we know that already. Dystopia has done its job, it’s old news now, perhaps it’s self-indulgence to stay stuck in that place any more. Next thought: utopia. Realistic or not, and perhaps especially if not.

I’m not yet sure how anti-anti-utopia maps on to the critical utopia, which is my preferred formulation. (This may be one of those fundamental anarchist/Marxist lines of cleavage, I suppose.) But the theoretical details are secondary to KSR’s point, which is to do the work — and on that point we are in clear agreement.

Thick skein

You can’t talk about every possible future in one work of science fiction—that would be crazy. But what you could do is tell a bunch of stories that are relatively plausible, that are set in the near future, and that describe a course of action that readers can imagine in a kind of “thick” texture. Where you really feel like you’re there. There’ll be some contingent events and some characters that are representative, but they are also individual characters with their own quirks. There’ll be a story, and yet the reader will also say: “Well, yeah—this could be one way forward.” This way, you have the utopian strand of describing things going right. Do we have a sense that things could go right? Even if it’s physically possible, the question is: Is it politically possible, and is it humanly possible?

[…]

I would invite everybody to think of the Green New Deal as it currently exists (a document which is quite impressive in its amount of detail and substance) as a science-fiction story. It’s a utopian science-fiction story written in the form of a proclamation or a blueprint for action. In my short-story collection, The Martians, I experimented with all kinds of formats, including a short story in the form of the Martian Constitution and a short story in the form of an abstract in a scientific journal. In the case of the Green New Deal, and in the best possible way, I want to suggest that seeing it as a kind of science-fiction story is what we need. We need that kind of vision.

Kim Stanley Robinson

Re: the upper paragraph of this quote, cf. my piece for The Sociological Review (originally posted back in 2016) in which I argued for sf as a tool for speculative ethnography, providing a “thick description” of reconfigured sociotechnicalities; that argument was extended in my (open-access) paper for Energy Research & Social Science from 2017.

Regular readers will know I’m not a fan of the blueprint utopia per se, but note that KSR is here advocating specifically for multiple such blueprints, rather than simply advancing a single vision; that plurality is one way of avoiding the pitfalls of the solutionist technotopia. But it’s interesting to hear a fiction writer arguing for the treatment of policy documents as fictional forms, even if only in part; that understanding of the transposability of narratological approaches into political imaginaries is something my colleagues and I are working to develop further, and it’s good to have someone with the profile (and, let’s be honest, the charm and candour) of KSR arguing the same case.

The Greimas square-dance

More KSR on anti-anti-utopianism, this time at Commune Magazine:

Clearly we enter here the realm of the ideological; but we’ve been there all along. Althusser’s definition of ideology, which defines it as the imaginary relationship to our real conditions of existence, is very useful here, as everywhere. We all have ideologies, they are a necessary part of cognition, we would be disabled without them. So the question becomes, which ideology? People choose, even if they do not choose under conditions of their own making. Here, remembering that science too is an ideology, I would suggest that science is the strongest ideology for estimating what’s physically possible to do or not do. Science is AI, so to speak, in that the vast artificial intelligence that is science knows more than any individual can know—Marx called this distributed knowing “the general intellect”—and it continually reiterates and refines what it asserts, in an ongoing recursive project of self-improvement.

That’s the dovetail I didn’t know I was looking for  that connects to this recent NYT longread on Oncle Latour:

Crowded into the little concrete room, we were seeing gravity as Latour had always seen it — not as the thing in itself, nor as a mental representation, but as scientific technology allowed us to see it. This, in Latour’s view, was the only way it could be seen. Gravity, he has argued time and again, was created and made visible by the labor and expertise of scientists, the government funding that paid for their education, the electricity that powered up the sluggish computer, the truck that transported the gravimeter to the mountaintop, the geophysicists who translated its readings into calculations and legible diagrams, and so on. Without this network, the invisible waves would remain lost to our senses.

Pessimism of the Intellect / Optimism of the Will

KSR’s angry optimism [CCCBLab, Barcelona]:

The way that we create energy and the way that we move around on this planet both have to be de-carbonized. That has to be, if not profitable, affordable. Humans need to be paid for that work because it’s a rather massive project. It’s not that it’s technologically difficult (we already have the solar panels, the electric cars, we have the technical problems more or less solved in prototype) but the mass deployment of those is a huge human project, equivalent of everybody gathering together to fight World War II. Everybody agrees that, yes, this is important enough that people’s careers, lives, be devoted to the swapping out of the infrastructure and the creation of a de-carbonized, sustainable, physical plan for the rest of civilization.

Well, this isn’t the way capitalism works, as currently configured; this isn’t profitable. The market doesn’t like it. By the market I mean – what I think everybody means, but doesn’t admit – capital, accumulated capital, and where it wants to put itself next. […] It’s just the way it is and there is no control over that except for nation-state governments, each one looking at its own responsibility and power and feeling in competition with others, not wanting to lose its differential advantage.

Nobody can afford to volunteer to be extra virtuous in a system where the only rule is quarterly profit and shareholder value. Where the market rules, all of us are fighting for the crumbs to get the best investment for the market. And so, this loose money can go anywhere in the planet without penalty. The market can say: “It doesn’t matter what else is going on, it doesn’t matter if the planet crashes in fifty years and everybody dies, what’s more important is that we have quarterly profit and shareholder value and immediate return on our investment, right now.” So, the market is like a blind giant driving us off a cliff into destruction.

No further comment. BUT —

… I think there is a difference between cruel optimism and angry optimism, where you have the Gramscian pessimism in the intellect but also optimism of the will. Use the optimism as a club, to beat the crap out of people who are saying that we are doomed, who are saying let’s give up now. And this “let’s give up now” can be very elaborated academically. You can say: “Well, I’m just into adaptation rather than mitigation, there’s nothing we can do about climate change, all you can do is adapt to it.” In other words, stick with capitalism, stick with the market, and don’t get freaked out. Just adapt and get your tenure because it is usually academics who say it, and they’re not usually in design or architecture, they aren’t really doing things. They’re usually in philosophy or in theory. They come out of my departments, they’re telling a particular story and I don’t like that story. My story is: the optimism that I’m trying to express is that there won’t be an apocalypse, there will be a disaster. But after the disaster comes the next world on.

Cf. the good work they’re doing at Into the Ruinsclimate change (and concomitant political, economic and sociotechnical change) as inescapable but nonetheless survivable, storyable. Solarpunk is in a similar space, but more over on the utopian side of the spectrum, which is likely why its proponents have produced so little so far: they’re not yet testing their dreams hard enough to generate storyable worlds from them.

(By “storyable” I mean “more than a mere backdrop or set-dressing; a world/context which plays as generative a role in the plot as any of the characters do, if not significantly more so”. None of which is to say that solarpunk is no good; more to observe that it’s a young scene of predominantly young artists, and is still finding its feet in aesthetics and technique alike. Writing science fiction is not uniquely hard, but it is hard in a unique way, and the speculative toolkit has evolved many of its conventions through necessity as much as ideology; it’s a cliche, and I resisted it myself, but you have to learn the rules before you have any chance of challenging them successfully and systematically.)