Samuel R. Delany, Theorist

Samuel R. Delany, Theorist
Earl Jackson, Jr.
Winter 1997
LTMO 115

Out There: Science Fiction Practice and Theory

The Critical Thinking of Samuel R. Delany
Part One

Critical Apparatus: The Theoretical Writings of Samuel R. Delany

Our critical framework will be the theoretical writings of Samuel R. Delany, particularly the texts collected in Silent Interviews; The Jewel-Hinged Jaw; and Starboard Wine, as well as „The Significance of Science Fiction,“ and „Generic Protocols: Science Fiction and Mundane“ [handcorrected by the author]. To appreciate the subtlety and suggestiveness of Delany’s work, we must first enumerate and adhere to the distinctions Delany makes among „literature“ and „paraliterature“ and „mundane fiction“ and „science fiction.“ Delany’s marginality as a SF writer holds for him epistemological and aesthetic advantages he rigorously maintains and assiduously elucidates, through a critical disidentification with „Literature“ in his conception of science fiction theory and practice. In classifying SF as „paraliterature,“ Delany effectively affirms the general belief that „SF is not literature,“ but refuses its devalorizing connotation. He does not merely acknowledge SF’s exteriority to institutional legitimation, but specifies what that exteriority means for both SF and literature.

Delany conceives of SF and literature „not as two different sets of labeled texts, but as two different sets of values, two different ways of response, two different ways of reading“ (Delany, „Science Fiction and ‚Literature'“ 64). In other words, science fiction and literature are two distinct genres, since Delany defines „genre“ as „a protocol of reading“ or „a structuration of response potential“ („Generic“ 176-77). The divergence in responses and protocols of reading are determined by the effects the irreal world of the SF text has on the focus of the narrative discourse and the lattitude of interpretation. Many passages in a science fiction text can be read literally that in mundane fiction could be interpreted only metaphorically or as an indication of a psychoperceptual disorder in the character through which the scene is focalized. For example, the sentence, „Then her world exploded,“ in mundane fiction would be read „as an emotionally muzzy metaphor about the inner aspects of some incident in a female character’s life,“ but in an SF story the sentence could also mean „a planet, belonging to a woman, blew up“ („Science Fiction and ‚Literature'“ 65).

The conventional realist expectations from „mundane“ fiction, render its preunderstood world an inconspicuous or ancillary setting to the actions and inner states of the characters inhabiting it. A science fiction text presents a world without the guarantees of familarity or ready intelligibility. The imaginative autonomy of SF, therefore, focuses narrative interest on the elements and organization of the world evoked. The divergent readings admitted of the sentence, „Her world blew up,“ are not merely the difference between the literal and the metaphorical. They indicate that mundane fiction presumes the subjectivity of either the characters or the narrator to be the locus of textual meaning; science fiction, contrarily, prioritizes the „object“ (or world) over the subject.3

These distinctions are not innocent. The interpretative constraints natural to mundane fiction support a more generalized epistemological prejudice: „In literature, the odder or more fantastical or surreal it is, the more it’s assumed to be about mind or psychology“ (Delany, „Semiology“ 143). The subject orientation of mundane fiction, furthermore, is not simply one option among others, but has been for nearly a century a principal cultural value and a necessary condition for the „literary.“4 Literary genres began to be defined in terms of „the priority of the subject“ in the late nineteenth century, at the same time that „the awareness of the problems of representation coupled with the critical gestures that separated paraliterature from literature“ (Delany, „Dichtung“ 188).

Literature’s preoccupation with the inner states of the characters, its represention of the subject as the perceptual focus, the phenomenological frame, of the object, underwrite an ideological investment in the centrality of the subject as a self-evident unity. It is through this ideological investment that the „readerly texts“ of „literature“ serves as what Louis Althusser has termed an „Ideological State Apparatus“ cultural productions that repetitively stabilize and reconfirm the bourgeois subject, texts to which Barthes opposes the „writerly“ texts and the text of jouissance (or „bliss“) that disrupt and disestablish that subject.5

The interpretative constraints derived from mundane fiction support a more generalized „literary“ epistemological prejudice: „in literature, the odder or more fantastical or surreal it is, the more it’s assumed to be about mind or psychology“ (Delany, „Semiology“ 143). The fixation on character in mundane fiction determines the responses to distorted representations of the world, „we are led to the questions, Why did the character (the fictive subject) perceive it in this way? or Why did the writer (the auctorial subject) present it in this way . . . These are the kinds of questions we ask when we read the fantasies of, say Kafka. When Gregor Samsa, in The Metamorphosis , awakes to find himself become a beetle, our attention is drawn immediately to various psychological readings. Is Samsa mad? . . . Where our attention is not drawn in such a fantasy is to the nuts-and-bolts workings of the world of the story itself. . . . This priority of the subject as it guides our reading, our interpretations, the questions we ask of texts, . . . is what characterizes the traditional literary categories of writing; it is what joins both mundane fiction and the fantastic together as literature . . . Science fiction . . . works differently. It immediately focuses our attention on the workings of the world – . . . on the object. If we read in an SF story about a person who wakes up transformed into a bug, we are certainly concerned with how the person will react; but the underlying questions that guides even that concern is this: What in the world of the story cause it to occur? . . . Perhaps secret biological engineering has taken place during the night“ („Disch“ 146-47).

These distinctions are clearly drawn, but the oppositions do not imply an automatic aesthetic or moral superiority of SF over literature. Delany illustrates the differences by citing the titles of two short story collections published in 1978, both of which he considers valid works of art, one „literary“ and one SF: Susan Sontag’s, I, et cetera and John Varley’s The Persistence of Vision. Sontag’s title „announces literature’s commitment to the subject and . . . equal commitment to the subordination of the ground, rendering the ground an expression of subject, of personality, of sensibility.“ The Persistence of Vision, on the other hand, „inscribes within itself the ubiquitous antagonism of, the continual impingement between, and the orginary conceptual severance that finally determines subject and object: for vision to persist, some one must perceive; some thing must be perceived“ (Starboard 15).

Although this particular comparison is not evaluatively marked, there are important differences in the social and political implications of the divergent orientational priorities. Literature’s subject-orientation delimits its critique to the level of the individual and personal. „Literature can condone or condemn any behavior, judge it moral or immoral; but to speak to human behavior is still to speak to the subject. As far as criticizing culture and the institutions that compose it, however, all literature can say, of the provinces, for example, is Get out of them. If you are smart enough to read this, they will stifle you . This is addressed to the subject . . . All literature can say of a particular government is, It oppresses you unto death. . . . This is again addressed to the subject. . . . Literature can instruct you how to move through society . . . What literature cannot do is critique an institution directly, suggesting, say, how it might be restructured to excite the subject in a different way..“ („Disch“ 150).

Although, like literary texts, science fiction cannot make „direct proposals“ either, it can, „because of the object priorities in the way we read it, in the questions we ask of it . . . critique directly both particular institutions and the larger cultural object in general – culture plus the infrastructural object culture proper is always a response to.“ Science fiction can „portray a different, an imagined, or a nonexistent institution that works much better than, or often much worse than, or . . . just differently from, an existing one. The object priority in the reading conventions – which must begin with some real institution simply to understand how the science-fictional one works at all – generates the criticism directly in the understanding (cognition) process itself“ („Disch“ 151).
Much of SF explores how „beings with a different social organization, environment . . . and body [might] perceive things,“ and how humans [might] perceive things after becoming acclimated to an alien environment“ („Dichtung“ 188).

This decentering of the subject is at once humbling and hopeful. While no longer the metaphysically privileged cogito, the deessentialized subject is thereby subject to transformation. No longer master, the subject is now „free and capable of change, of options, of alternatives; and change, options, and alternatives, are . . . what sf is about“ (Delany, „Significance“ 227). Delany’s advocacy of science fiction often entails defending the genre from the attempts of well meaning academics to claim it for literature. This incorporation would end the practice of „reading sf’s presentation of alternate / world-workings as complex commentaries on the workings of our own world-that-is-the-case and to read them instead as yet another manifestation of the subject – perhaps another projection of the authorial subject, as we read contemporary fantasy“ (Delany, „Disch“ 155). In preserving the specificity of reading that constitutes science fiction as a genre Delany also attempts „to preserve . . . time, space, and what might endure within them – a certain species of joy as it informs the word ‚enjoyment,‘ or what Roland Barthes has marked in another language with the cognate jouissance“ (Delany, „Dichtung“ 191).


1. See Foucault’s analyses of the subjectivated entities of the apparatuses of power in „The Subject and Power;“ and Discipline and Punish.

2. Or, a favorite gleaned from my own SF reading: „‚David, you still can’t marry me.‘
. . . My face fell, and I grabbed it and hid it under my coat“ (Sturgeon, „‚Derm Fool'“ 11).

3 „Mundane fiction…focuses our attention on the notion of sensibility, the psychology, the evocation of character – on…the ’subject'“ which is contraposed to the „object,…the particular thing the subject is out to create, change, demonstrate, understand, perceive, or know. Because the world of mundane fiction is fixed, at least in comparison with the multiple worlds of science fiction, when we read some distortion in the representation of the world in a piece of mundane fiction we are lead to the questions, Why did the character (the fictive subject) perceive it in this way? or Why did the writer (the auctorial subject) present it in this way? “ (Delany, „Disch“ 146).

4. Delany draws on Foucault’s „What Is an Author?“ to make explicit the intimate relations between the metaphysics of a unified Self and the institutions of Literature. He contrasts Foucault’s „four unities“ with four corresponding pluralities of SF („Science Fiction and ‚Literature'“ 67-69). See also: Foucault, The Order of Things; D. A. Miller; Macherey.

5 Althusser, „Notes for an Investigation“; Barthes, Pleasure 14-16; S / Z 3-5.

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