2018-2019 HTDTWT Seminar Hypatia Vourloumis: Xenogenesis: Critical Theory and Science Fiction - from month to month
Seminar 6, April
The chain of deconstructions cannot, of course, be contained here: for if the image functions as a violent displacement from the origin, life, or meaning to which it apparently refers, there is a second fundamental question raised more or less explicitly in each of these essays. What about my text as the image of the image: what about the possibility of reading…? Carol Jacobs, The Dissimulating Harmony
So stands the epigraph to ‘The Tale of Old Venn’, a story within the story Tales of Nevèrÿon, a story within the Nevèrÿon series by Samuel R. Delany. Old Venn teaches of mirrors and reflections, of the economies of writing and money as power and technology, techniques and technes productive because of the violences they conceal. For our final class on critical theory and science fiction we are reading Tales of Nevèrÿon so as to ask: what is it to read? what is it to write? We will discuss the opening of the novel which introduces us to Gorgik’s desire for narrative, for stories, the subsequent initiation into learning to read semiotics and the hermeneutics of systems, the ethics of writing from a non-place of being with, language, the relationship between the desire for stories, ethnography and sexual desire; power, class, labour, gender, the institution of slavery and its abolition.
Furthermore, for this final class we will delve into the ways in which the realms and supposed borders of critical theory and science fiction collide and blur and disappear by way of their deconstructive intercourse, (in this case, in the ancient future sword and sorcery world of Nevèrÿona and the discourse ‘around’ and ‘about’ it) – and the speaking and writing of multiple tongues in unison. As the many voices of the same story where does fact begin and fiction end? What of time and space? Of protagonists? Of linear narratives? Of beginnings and endings? (The entire four novel series begins and ends with the same ‘Tale of Gorgik.’ We began and end with Delany’s politics of the paraliterary). What happens when all the stories of the series are to be read as margins, as supplements, and the supposed appendixes (margins and supplements) of the tales are works of fiction by the author in the name of fictional critics of the author? For as Sylvia Kelso writes in her Science Fiction Studies article ‘Across Never:’ “Delany’s work has always pushed limits well beyond the usual sf parameters… In this process, postmodern theory, as content or praxis, has been central. Robert Fox notes the importance in the Nevèrÿon cycle of the astrolabe, an instrument in which "one matrix is superimposed on another, and both are necessary for a correct ‘reading’" (104). Only when articulated against both theory and genre does the cycle more clearly reveal, in its complexities of meaning, its outraging of generic conventions, and the demands it makes upon its readers, the extent of its claims to be both a text about "limit-experiences," and a "limit-experience" in itself.”
On the occasion of this close reading of Tales of Nevèrÿon we will end this seminar by collectively exploring the critical fabulations and queer possibilities of the novels and essays we have read over the semester - the simultaneous collapse and expansion of the limits of our reading, writing and study together, the books we hold in our hands as astrolabes.
Seminar 5, March
For our penultimate class of this seminar exploring the relationships between critical theory and science fiction we are reading Alexis Lothian’s book Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility (NYU Press, 2018). Lothian’s project is one that asserts that queer theory is often a practice of speculative fiction and furthermore, that the ‘convergence of queerness and science fiction requires that neither one be defined in advance.’ As the title of her book suggests, Lothian seeks to critically engage with questions of temporality, and in particular, futurity (as it has been imagined in the past and in the present) in both queer theory and science fiction and their respective structural valuations of ‘progress,’ social change, and speculations on the question of distribution or who gets ‘to “have” a future or be denied one.’ Chapters such as ‘Afrofuturist Entanglements of Gender, Eugenics, and Queer Possibility’ and ‘Science Fiction Worlding and Speculative Sex’ directly speak to the novels we have read so far as well as the artworks that we have engaged with. We are also analyzing two films that Lothian critically engages with – Children of Men by Alfonso Cuarón and Born in Flames by Lizzie Borden in order to further a discussion surrounding the countering of a normative human project and how queer deviations from the future are worked out on the screen. Quoting William Gibson who observes that ‘The future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed,’ Lothian’s book asks how imagined futures for those ‘away from whom futurity is distributed’ work against oppression by speculatively dreaming and enacting negotiations, transformations and queer possibilities.
Seminar 4 February
Being haunted draws us affectively, sometimes against our will and always a bit magically into the structure of feeling of a reality we come to experience, not as cold knowledge, but as a transformative recognition. -- Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters
What is it that a black feminist poethics makes available? What can it offer to the task of unthinking the world, of releasing it from the grips of the abstract forms of modern representation and the violent juridic and economic architectures they support? -- Denise Ferreira da Silva, In the Raw
Works of speculative fiction, such as N. K. Jemisin’s novel The Fifth Season, draw us affectively and magically into strange and fantastical worlds we come to recognize. Transforming our thinking and experience of the world, and what Raymond Williams terms ‘structures of feeling,’ The Fifth Season, the first book of Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy, releases us from abstract forms of modern representation through its hauntingly evocative architectures, renderings and correlations, including those of imperialism, centres and peripheries, enforced labour, racial profiling and policing, underground resistance, and environmental disaster. Essun, Damaya and Syenite, three key figures in the narrative, are all orogenes, known derisively as ‘roggas’ – (the three become one). Orogenes are born with the ‘the ability to manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy.’ Infants and young children who are discovered to be orogenes are captured by members of a type of police academy. These ‘Guardians’ bring them to the capital to be disciplined at the Fulcrum, an imperial facility for schooling the ‘savages’ into submission while at the same time training them to apply their powers. For, ‘any infant can move a mountain; that’s instinct. Only a trained Fulcrum orogene can deliberately, specifically, move a boulder.’ Once trained, orogenes are mobilized under surveillance (or, in a horrifying scene of capture, used as a form of human battery) to fix the earth’s dangerous tremors and convulsions that constantly threaten life. The continent where Jemisin’s story takes place, named Stillness, is constantly moving and buckling and shifting.
The book begins with the words: ‘Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?’ It begins with a personal ending, a harrowing scene of domestic violence that is followed by another imminent ending, a scene that will unleash violence at a larger (continental) scale:
He reaches deep and takes hold of the humming tapping bustling reverberating rippling vastness of the city, and the quieter bedrock beneath it, and the roiling churn of heat and pressure beneath that. Then he reaches wide, taking hold of the great sliding-puzzle piece of earthshell on which the continent sits.
Lastly, he reaches up. For power.
He takes all that, the strata and the magma and the people and the power, in his imaginary hands. Everything. He holds it. He is not alone. The earth is with him.
Then he breaks it.
Denise Ferreira da Silva argues for a task of unthinking the world with a view to its end. Reading Jemisin’s work with two essays by da Silva: ‘Toward a Black Feminist Poethics: The Question of Blackness Towards the End of the World’ and ‘Difference without Separability’ we will think critically about critical fabulation and what needs to be broken, what needs to end, abolished. We can read Jemisin’s novel whilst keeping da Silva’s following words in mind:
A black feminist poethics attends to matter in the raw, that is, as that which has been appropriated (extracted, violated) but not fully obliterated by the practices and discourses that describe what happens and what exists as determined by form (as abstraction) or law (efficacy), something akin to Hortense Spillers’s flesh.
We will also read Da Silva’s writing on quantum physics, entanglement as ‘difference without separability’ to think through the Stillness’s constant motion, the appropriation and extraction of orogenes’ raw matter and power and, importantly, the ways in which the systemic violation of orogenes can never fully capture or discipline their exceeding insurgent knowledge, fugitivity, structures of feeling, connective shattering, quantum affect and quantum flesh.
Seminar 3 January
Our seminar continues with an ongoing study of Octavia Butler’s work. Reading the first novel from Butler’s Xenogenesis series Dawn (1987) with Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1985) the class will grapple with difficult and complex questions pertaining to histories of power, colonialism, eugenics, biotechnologies, xenophobia, and the category of the ‘human.’ In Dawn Lilith Iyapo’s strange awakenings in an alien spaceship after the annihilation of planet Earth in a nuclear war and her eventual communicating with the alien species Oankali and Ooloi (cognitively, communally and sexually) who have saved her and given her the task of awakening other (potentially violent) human subjects ensconced in the walls of the space ship, offer readers important theoretical glimpses pertaining to the ways in which, in Haraway’s words, ‘the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion. Contemporary science fiction is full of cyborgs—creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted.’ For the humans who have survived the nuclear war, saved, healed, and awakened after centuries long sleep by the alien Oankali, (who astutely express that humanity’s defining contradiction is that human beings are doomed because they put their intelligence to work in the service of hierarchy), their survival means that by way of their physical contact with the aliens their biological, chemical, cellular and neurological make up is altered by way of a ‘xenogenesis.’ As Kodwo Eshun notes:
The question of xenogenesis can be understood as a kind of diagramme for the revision of the human. Octavia Butler's diagramme of xenogenesis requires a relation to ontogenesis or the becoming of being, and technogenesis or the becoming of technology. Her novels condense and elaborate these ideas in ways that can guide contemporary political imagination. From Kindred (1979) onwards, Octavia Butler is thinking through the implications of denaturalisation. Her books explore what happens to gender, sexuality and personhood under conditions of enforced deontologisation. What Octavia Butler shows is that the human or humanity is a revisable project. Under conditions of denaturalisation, the nature of nature, gender, sexuality and kinship gives way. Characters find themselves navigating conditions in which the necessity of survival forces them up against and beyond the limits of what it means to be human. Butler's novels stage thought experiments revisited by feminist philosophers.
In ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ Haraway argues that "one important route for reconstructing socialist-feminist politics is through theory and practice addressed to the social relations of science and technology, including crucially the systems of myth and meanings structuring our imagination." She acknowledges her debt to writers of science fiction and finds in these texts the sources of her cyborg myth. "Cyborg monsters in feminist science fiction define quite different political possibilities and limits from those proposed by the mundane fiction of Man and Woman."
Octavia Butler’s intervention is to uncover the ways in which racial, gendered, and corporeal classifications of otherness inform the above definitions and practices, and make their reproduction possible. For as Zakiyyah Iman Jackson writes in ‘Outer Worlds: The Persistence of Race in Movement “Beyond the Human”’
“Movement beyond the human” may very well entail a shift of view away from the “human’s” direction; however, accomplishing this effort will require an anamorphic view of humanity, a queering of perspective and stance that mutates the racialized terms of Man’s praxis of humanism, if it is to be movement at all.
Jackson’s important contribution complicates Haraway’s notion in an interview titled ‘When We Have Never Been Human, What Is to Be Done?’ where she states ‘we have been worlded as species in a kind of Foucauldian sense of discourse producing its objects again. Two hundred years of what became the powerful world-changing discourses of biology have produced us as species, and other critters too. We are also undergoing a moment of radical reconfiguration of category work in biology in the form of bio-capital and biotechnology, which, as Sarah Franklin theorizes especially well, is about these kinds of trans-relationships that re-do kinships.’ Jackson complicates the above observation by bringing our attention to the ways the ‘worlding’ of species, cannot be separated from ‘the racialized terms of Man’s praxis of humanism.’
Jayna Brown in an essay titled ‘Being Cellular’ also points to how ‘fantasies about the plasticity of life in speculative thought must consider the histories of social and scientific racism and eugenics.’ Echoing Lilith’s ethical dilemmas and questions aboard the Oankali’s space ship Brown asks:
What forms of sociality and the communal are available for us if we estrange ourselves from the life of our species? And how might these practices of estrangement—queering—actually allow for a new ethical landscape? Black, queer, and disabled people know what it is to be considered inhuman. We feel the politics by which the human is legitimated, how the lines around the human are policed, and the inhuman ways that racialized, disabled, and queer bodies are treated. We are painfully aware of “the way power is present in any attempt to represent material reality.” But we (an assumptive we, not a falsely inclusive one) are less ethically bound to honor the boundaries of a bodily sovereignty never granted to us. What would it look like to take as our provocation the idea that we embrace our inhumanness? To let go of the assumption of heteronormative human (and racial) superiority, and open up to new forms of sociality and modes of being?
Finally, in another interview ‘Cyborgs at Large’ Haraway notes that "scientific discourse without ever ceasing to be radically and historically specific, does still make claims on you, ethically, physically." Butler, Jackson and Brown reveal the very historically specific, physical and material ways in which power historically and ongoingly makes claims on particular bodies and by doing so complicate any sweeping notion or general figure and category of the socialist-feminist ‘cyborg’. Butler’s important intervention is to share with readers of Dawn, through her observations of the time period in which she wrote the novel (defined by the nuclear arms race between the US and Soviet Union in the 1980’s) and the powers of imagination, what these ethical and physical claims entail on the level of actual flesh and feeling (fear, desire, pleasure) and the ever present ethics of survival as we confront a contradictory entwining of agency and lack of choice in our inevitable (re)production of alternate futures and the real fictions of ‘human being.’
Seminar 2 December
"There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another." (Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”)
"Who put us in a race and for what purpose are we racing?" (Rammellzee)
For our second seminar we are reading Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred. A genre-defying work of historical fiction Kindred tells the story of Dana, a struggling writer living in California in 1976, who finds herself traveling back in time and space to antebellum Maryland in the 1800’s. Through a close reading of this novel alongside texts including Saidiya Hartman’s introduction to Scenes of Subjection, and scholarly articles engaging with Butler’s critiques of the limitations of realist forms, genre classifications, and ‘objective history’ and archiving, we will discuss questions of experience, the flesh, and time – the enfleshment and transfiguration of history and the present. Dana finds herself fighting for survival in 1800’s and this fight is also the condition of possibility of her existence in 1976 as she has traveled back through her own genealogical time to an ancestral past. Trapped in limbo, a limbo of constant back and forth between her present and past which will determine her present and future Dana will emerge back in her own time at the end of the novel alive yet fully scathed and physically amputated by a literal and metaphorical grave pull.
In his essay ‘History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas’ Wilson Harris writes of the Black Atlantic diaspora’s embodied memories of being in limbo, the contortions and cramped state of an ancestral journey, the traversing of the Middle Passage. For Harris, the Caribbean dance limbo, and I would argue here Butler’s novel, perform ‘the renascence of a new corpus of sensibility,’ a ‘re-assembly which issue[d] from a state of cramp to articulate a new growth’ and ‘the necessity for a new kind of drama, novel and poem … a creative phenomenon of the first importance in the imagination of a people violated by economic fates.’ (Harris, 1999: 158-159). As John Akomfrah’s afro-futuristic film ‘The Last Angel of History’ (which we watched in our last seminar) suggests the Atlantic slave trade was experienced as a form of alien abduction and this entails, as figured in the danced limbo as Harris argues, as well as in Kindred, the wrestling with the sense of a “phantom limb,” a memory of the part of oneself that has been amputated by way of violent contact, the sensation of a missing part still felt present through its absence (Harris 1999, 157). Thus, one can posit that Kindred echoes Saidiya Hartman’s argument that slavery and its ongoing aftermath emits a tragic and brutalizing continuity in antebellum and postbellum constitutions of racial subjugation.
If Hartman’s revisionist project, which dismantles any simple temporal and ontological binary between ‘slavery’ and ‘freedom,’ dares to (citing Edouard Glissant) ‘abandon the absurd catalogue of official history’ and points to the ‘ethical necessity of historical fiction’ (13-14) Kindred’s time travel likewise re-envisions and critiques the documentation and transmission of barbarism in official histories and archival presents and also troubles any sweeping notion of ‘cyborg feminism’ (Donna Haraway) that refuses to acknowledge and address the fleshed past, present and future of specific socio-economic-cultural histories, experiences and aftermaths.
Butler, Octavia. Kindred. 1979. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003.
Crossley, Robert. “Critical Essay.” In Kindred. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003. 265―84.
Hartman, Saidiya. “Introduction.” In Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America. Oxford University Press, 1997. 3-14.
Okajima, Kei. “History and the Flesh Embraced: Time Travel, Slavery, and the Question of Roots in Octavia Butler’s Kindred.” (unpublished article).
Vint, Sherryl. “Only by Experience: Embodiment and the Limitations of Realism in Neo-Slave Narratives.” Science Fiction Studies Vol. 34, no. 2, Afrofuturism (2007): 241-261.
Harris, Wilson. Selected Essays of Wilson Harris: The Unfinished Genesis of the Imagination. Edited by Andrew Bundy. London: Routledge, 1999.
Doyle, Jennifer. “Carrie Mae Weems’s From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995-1996).” In Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art. Duke University Press, 2013: 112-125.
Seminar 1 November
For the first session of the seminar Xenogenesis: Critical Theory and Science Fiction we will read three different pieces of writing: José Esteban Muñoz’s essay ‘Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts,’ Carl Freedman’s introduction to his book Critical Theory and Science Fiction, and Samuel R. Delany’s ParaDoxa interview in the collection of essays Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts and The Politics of the Paraliterary. These three texts can be read together to think through questions of definition and genre; the hierarchies of academic rigor, evidence and knowledge production; and queer methodology, ephemera and content. How can Freedman’s strenuous efforts to legitimize science fiction as an academic object of study speak to Muñoz’s critique of institutional systems, archives and sanctions? How do queer acts of and as minoritarian knowledge production speak to Delany’s queer thoughts on the paraliterary? We will analyze these three essays in conversation with one another in order to contest, reread and rewrite the protocols of critical reading and writing.
Muñoz, José Esteban. ”Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts,.” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 8, no. 2 (1996): 5–16. http://liu.xplorex.com/sites/liu/files/Publications/MunozEphemera.pdf
Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.
Delany, Samuel R. “The ParaDoxa Interview: Inside and Outside the Canon.” In Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts and The Politics of the Paraliterary. 186–217. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.