Out There Guideposts

Out There Guideposts
Earl Jackson, Jr.
Winter 1997
LTMO 115

Out There: Science Fiction Practice and Theory

An Ongoing Guide
(always in progress)

This course is conceived of as a preliminary critical examination of specific historical configurations of the relations between conceptions of the „subject“, representational practices, their technologies, and the politics which emerge from and/or circumscribe these relations. We will take very seriously Samuel R. Delany’s contention that one of the most valuable aspects of SF as a medium for radical cultural interrogation and expression is its historical development outside of „the tyrrany of the subject.“ My particular expansion of this observation is structured on two premises:

  • (1) The way the „subject“ is conceived in any culture is intimately related to predominant representational practices and their technologies;
  • (2) The self-identical, transhistorical, and transcendent „I“ derived from has been the lynchpin of the self-aggrandizing mythos of the Euro-American white male subject.

Drawing upon several material analyses of culture – semiotics, psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminist theory, etc., I view the notion of an autonomous and transcendent „self“ a Renaissance myth and ideological construction that represents neither a viable entity nor a presupposition useful in a critically rigorous understanding of the social construction of the „individual“ or „subject.“ In contradistinction to Descartes’s cogito, the subject as I conceive it is not the origin but the effect of language – of processes of signification.

This „Copernican revolution“ will ground and inform our readings. The political implications of this reversal become clearer if we consider the ways in which conceptions of a „self“ as a preunderstood ground of experience or psychologically coherent entity antecedent to its material history naturalize or otherwise support structures of domination, both in the construction of the master subject and of those sub-jected to that mastery. Descartes’s self-certain cogito abetted the mystification of the hegemonic (white male) western European subject as a universal principle, whose imperialist expansionism was the essential radiance of Reason.

Conversely, the affirmation of an individual as a „centered self“ or stable subject, is a means by which that individual is induced to accept her or his servitude – and sub-jection to the State. Michel Foucault argues that the various formations of the subject in history represent innovations in power and subjugation rather than the emergence of an autonomous individual consciousness.1

The ideological fixing of the subject is a central concern in post-1968 Marxism, feminist theory, and poststructuralist semiology. While the history of this critical attention to this political function of representation can be traced to Louis Althusser and his 1970 essay, „Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.“ For our purposes Althusser’s most important formulation is the relation of the subject to ideology: „The category of the subject is constitutive of all ideology, but at the same time . . . the category of the subject is only constitutive of all ideology insofar as all ideology has the function . . . of ‚constituting‘ concrete individuals as subjects. . . . All ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects, by the functioning of the category of the subject“ (Althusser, „Ideology“ 173). The „Copernican revolution“ proposed by semiotics and other disciplines serves to demystify the hegemonic (white male) subject’s transcendence and „universality“ and to destabilize those subjects whose fixity is a measure of their subordination to the dominant order.

Among science fiction writers, Samuel R. Delany is at the forefront of critical theory and practice. He writes at great length about the politics of „self-hood&quote; and the ideological violence that the mythology of the ideal &quote;whole&quote; self constitutes. Deployed in support of „the white, western, patriarchal nuclear family,“ this „self“ is an „ideological mirage . . . that necessarily grew up to mask the psychological, economic, and material oppression of an ‚other'“ (Delany, Stars „Afterword“ 384).

What does this have to do with science fiction, you ask? Just about everything. We will be reading Delany’s fiction and theoretical texts throughout the course, because they are not only stunning examples of the interanimation of practice and theory, but because the theory of the subject I just mentioned briefly is intrinsically related to the politics of genre fiction, and the peculiarities of science fiction as a paraliterary genre. This may sound very foreign at the moment, but I guarantee that anyone who reads Delany’s works with us for the next couple weeks will be amazed at how concrete these issues are, and how important they are to our understanding of what science fiction is, how it works, and what its particular relation to „Literature“ tells us about „Literature“ too.

Click HERE for our first installment in Delany’s critical thinking.

Click HERE to go to the guide for the first week’s reading.
Click HERE to return to the syllabus.