Tuesday, March 06, 2007
Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future
One of last year’s more exciting developments in SF criticism was the publication of Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future. Which gives you some sense of where the bar is set for ‘excitement in SF criticism’. Jameson’s been interested in science fiction for most of his career, but never before has he published so large a work devoted wholly to the genre—or, more specifically, devoted to utopia, here taken straightforward as a subset of SF.
For a long time the field of SF-crit was dominated by SF authors moonlighting as critics, or by enthusiastic amateurs; but in the last couple of decades SF has finally begun to achieve critical mass in the academies: a younger generation of critics and scholars unembarrassed by their love for the genre have been writing many excellent articles and specialist studies. That said, we have not yet seen a fully theorised critical masterpiece addressing the genre on the large scale. And so it is good to have a critic of Jameson’s stature weighing in so—well, so weightily (824g according to my kitchen scales).
To an extent the heaviness of the present volume is misleading. Half of this book (the second half) is a compendium of previously published essays, from 1973 to a couple of years ago. Some of these are very good; some only of glancing relevance to the work’s larger thesis on utopia; many repeat points already made in part 1. Worse, there’s a sense that the essays (written, often, immediately after the publication of a particular SF novel) tend to engage with marginal works—books that haven’t, by and large, received posterity’s blessing. To say this isn’t to deny that these books have intrinsic merit, only that they didn’t catch the zeitgeist, or embody the larger fascinations of the genre; or even more baldly that I can’t think of many students of the field likely to be especially fired-up by debates around (for instance) Vonda McIntyre’s The Exile Waiting or Shaw’s Back to Methuselah. Or to put it another way again: it might have been nice to have had Jameson’s thoughts on major Aldiss (the Helliconia books, say) instead of what we actually get, a long account of his lesser novel Starship; or it would have been interesting to hear Jameson’s opinions about Gibson’s Neuromancer rather than his cogitations on the lesser Pattern Recognition. But this is to nitpick: there’s a great deal of interesting criticism in the second half of the book, and some major figures and texts (Philip Dick, Robinson’s Mars books) do indeed get treated. Besides, it’s the first half of the book where the meat is to be found; and it’s in the first half we need to concentrate the bulk of our attention.
The argument is, as we’d expect, dense and allusive: all manner of theorists and thinkers, all sorts of literature and culture from Thomas More to Marcuse, from Le Guin to Lenin, from Proust to Pohl to Pynchon, get stirred into the mix. Naturally it’s written in Jamesonese, that baroque stylistic performance of stacked subordinated clauses and pendant footnotes as studded with abstruse reference as a pearly-king’s jacket is with faux pearls. This is the mode Jamesonienne which we have come to know and love (or not, as the case may be); and as such it makes a characteristically exhilarating read, although sometimes the style jars more than a little. With respect to ‘reality’ for instance Jameson writes that: ‘humankind, as T S Eliot’s magical bird sang, is able to bear very little of the unmediated, unfiltered experience of the daily life of capitalism’ (p.287). I try to imagine Eliot’s Burnt Norton bird singing anything so uneuphonious, but my imagination fails me. But there’s really little point in complaining about Jameson’s prose, sometimes so giddily exciting and sometimes so angular and indigestible. It’s one of the things for which he’s famous, after all.
Archaeologies of the Future is concerned with the status of utopias, a literary genre which has (as Jameson points out in the study’s first sentence) enjoyed the ‘unusual destiny for a literary form’ of becoming a political issue. Politicians often frame their discourse in utopian or quasi-utopian form: the broad sunlit uplands to which only they (they promise) can lead us. Of course no politician has ever actually delivered on this promise. This was one reason why Marx and Engels were suspicious of the utopian impulse (to quote from an earlier Jameson text, Marx believed ‘Utopian thought represented a diversion of revolutionary energy into idle wish-fulfilments and imaginary satisfactions’, Marxism and Form, 110-11). Real planning to change the world for the better, said Marx, required a proper understanding of agency, of political strategy, and a grounding in the historical realities of class and the dialectical.
Jameson doesn’t disagree, yet he wants to find a place for utopias (and more broadly for all imaginary societies presented by SF) in his progressive critical programme. This represents his first dilemma: how to justify the study of utopia without sticking two fingers up to Marx and Engels. To this end he appropriates Sartre’s ‘ingenious political slogan’ intended ‘to find his way between a flawed communism and an even more unacceptable anti-communism’ (Sartre’s slogan was ‘anti-anti-communism!’ … something I’ve always thought liable to confuse slower-witted comrades if yelled from the barricades prior to a charge, but there you go). This, then, is the rubric of Jameson’s critique of utopia: an ‘anti-anti-Utopianism’ [xvi].
Perhaps that reads as merely semantics, but it’s not: the critical strategy of negation, in the fullest philosophical sense, has been the core of Jameson’s work for a long time now. In part this is merely to say that any Marxist working with the material dialectic must be open to the way thesis meets its negation on the way to synthesis. Indeed, Jameson insists that the dialectic includes not simply blank negation, but ‘all [the] types of negation together … both contrariety and contradiction’ and also ‘the logical difference between them’ [142-43]. The varieties of what Jameson calls ‘antinomies’ have informed his thought from at least his 1991 essay ‘The Antinomies of Postmodern’ (and the volume under review gives us, as chapter 10: ‘Utopia and its Antinomies’). It finds its diagrammatic expression in the ‘Greimas rectangle’, a sort of square-and-diamond superposition labelled at its various apexes with terms that express the weblike complex of antimonious opposition.
There are Greimas rectangles all over Jameson’s new book, to a rather tedious extent I thought (it’s part of the awkwardly refried-beans nature of Archaeologies of the Future that we get a whole clutch Greimas rectangles before we get an account of how they’re supposed to function—on p.178: an introductory account which is then repeated in amplified form at the very end of the book, pp.373-82). Jameson seems to take the Greimas diagram as his sonic screwdriver, a device of almost infinite applicability for unlocking the recalcitrant natures of any and all cultural text. Alas in many cases I felt that the elements of particular books were forced procrustean-bed-ishly into the grid. This is particularly true, I think, of the Greimas schematisation of Stapeldon’s Star Maker on p.131. I’d go into more detail on this, but I don’t want to become more tediously bogged down in minutiae than absolutely necessary.
The larger question is whether these antinomies, this anti-anti-Utopianism, is a fertile way of reading the genre. The answer, I think, is a qualified yes. Mostly. Jameson is surely right that those sorts of texts which present a naïve blueprint of how society could be better (perhaps most obviously Bellamy’s leaden but wildly successful 1888 novel Looking Backward) are the least interesting and most flawed examples of the genre. Utopia, he is arguing in this study, is not a coherent vision of radical otherness; and neither is it a straightforward blueprint for a ‘better world’ which could be magically transferred into this world in which we actually live. Rather it is always the historically and culturally specific response to particular social dilemmas. The best way to read Bellamy’s work, for instance, is not as a practical plan for making the world better, but as a specific formal and ideological response to the late nineteenth-century immiseration of the working classes.
Jameson’s argument is that it is only in their negation that utopias can genuinely register the desire for a better world. Hence he spends most of his time on works we might think of as dystopian rather than utopian: Le Guin’s Dispossessed, Dick’s Ubik and Palmer Eldritch, the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic. These books, by refusing to offer facile prescription about how to resolve the problems of our lives, engage much more directly in the ‘utopian impulse’ than other texts that might more straightforwardly be labelled utopian (Morris’s News from Nowhere say, or Heinlein’s Moon is a Harsh Mistress: both of which Jameson touches on, although not in detail). Anti-anti-Utopianism, in other words, is about ‘freeing the imagination from the present rather than offering up impoverished images of what life in the future’s going to be’. This means that some obvious candidates for discussion get omitted (no mention of Louis Sébastien Mercier’s L’An 2440; nothing on Banks’s Culture novels; nothing on Star Trek’s Federation). But it does open the way for some extraordinary and powerful readings of key works: More’s ‘communism’ (in the original Utopia) is not a simple matter, but rather embodies ‘a triangular movement’ where Gold, Hierarchy and Pride shuffle between themselves, ‘whereby the theme of money is ideologically neutralised’ (p.40). The take on ‘wish-fulfilment’ in Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven and the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic is brilliant; the account of Lem eye-opening, the readings of Dick and Kim Stanley Robinson amongst the best I’ve come across.
But there is also a kind of narrowness of scope, rather peculiar in a book that wears its broadness of cultural reference so obviously on its sleeve. Everything passes through the magic mangle of a particular cultural sensibility, and this sometimes distorts matters. For instance, is it right to call Herbert Marcuse ‘surely the most influential Utopian of the 1960s’ (p.xv)? In Jameson’s house, maybe; but in the rest of the world? (What about Timothy Leary? the Maharishi Yogi? Heinlein or Tolkien? John Lennon? Or, indeed, what about Charles Manson or Pol Pot?) I wonder what narrowly clubbish notion of ‘influence’ is here invoked. We might expect Jameson to read Le Guin through the Marxist-tinted spectacles, but I’m not sure her fundamentally Taoist writings are well served by talk of, for instance, ‘Le Guin’s Marxist view of the modes of production …’ (p.144). Or again, and despite the fact that ‘utopia’ (founding text: published 1515) is explicitly identified as a subgenre of science fiction, SF itself is limited to the twentieth-century. Lip-service is paid to the question of ‘whether one dates [SF] from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the same years  (sic) or Wells’ Time Machine in 1895’ (p.1), but in fact almost no early or mid nineteenth-century SF is adduced; and worse there’s no sense of the rich heritage of the often explicitly utopian science fiction written from Kepler’s Somnium in the 1630s right through the 1600s and 1700s.
There are also rather more errors than make for comfortable reading: Aldiss’s Helliconia trilogy (here listed in company with Roberts’ Pavane and Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt) really cannot be described as ‘alternate history’ (p.59); when Ridley encounters the alien in Alien 3 it is not prior to her going off to mate with the creature (p.117); Silverberg’s great 1972 novel Dying Inside is hardly ‘nightmarish’ (p.123)—melancholy and rather beautiful are surely terms closer to the mark; it’s really not true to say of Aldiss’s Hothouse that ‘the cultural and artificial’ have ‘long since vanished’ leaving ‘only the most abundant and riotous purely organic imagery’ (p.258)—organic abundance is there aplenty, of course, but so are a number of fully formed cultures (and a fair bit of technological kibble too); and there is no ‘extragalactic intervention’ in Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End (p.265). But this, perhaps, is only to pick nits. Indeed, in the end, I found myself rather touched by Jameson’s weary admission of out-of-the-loop-ness on the subject of designer clothing—he quotes the list of items worn by the heroine of Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (‘a fresh Fruit T-shirt … her black Buzz Ricksons MA-1 … black Harajuku schoolgirl shoes …’) and concludes: ‘I have no way of knowing whether these items actually exist’ (p.386). There there, Granddad. (Or then again, we might ask: if you don’t know what type of clothing Buzz Ricksons produce, then what do you picture when the narrator refers to her ‘Buzz Ricksons MA-1’?)
But the main problem I faced with Archaeologies of the Future is the tendency of Jameson’s eloquent and slippery antinomies to metamorphose into calcified over-rigid schema. One feature of the book is its exhausting proliferation of conceptual categories, which are all presented (despite tangling across one another) as if they exactly slice up the synchronic pie-chart of the subject. There are, for instance, lots of binaries: Jameson contradistinguishes ‘Utopian impulse and Utopian program’ (p.4), the ‘existential experience of time’ and ‘historical time’ (these two being ‘seamlessly reunited in utopia’, p.7), ‘imaginary enclaves’ and ‘real social spaces’ (p.15), Science and Ideology (p.42f.), Imagination and Fancy (p.44), SF and Fantasy (p.57), Good and Evil (p.67), entropy and its ‘far side’, resurrection (p.82), the desire for a leader who can ‘make a new start’ and the fear of a dictator (p.86) and ‘two distinct forms’ of ‘the artificial’ in Aldiss’s Starship, the material and the formal (p.255). But this is the least of it. There are also four levels of Utopian allegory (anagogic, moral, allegorical and textual, p.9), four ‘dimensions or cardinal points’ of More’s Utopia (Greece, medieval Europe, the Incas, Protestantism), a series of often extraordinarily intricate Greimas squares (for instance, 30, 37, 131, 181) each of them balancing eight mutually opposing and interlocking categorisations. More than that there are six historical stages of SF (adventure, science, sociology, subjectivity, aesthetics and cyberpunk) with an implied seventh stage, feminism, running concurrently with the last two, and four historical stages in the representation of alien-ness in SF: first the Golden Age ‘account of bodily and social dispositions’ of the 1950s and 1960s, which is to say the ‘classic exotic alien’; second the ‘Other as the Same’ of Blade Runner and the 1980s; thirdly the 1990s in which the alien represents ‘everything non-normative and perverse’, and nowadays, when apparently the alien has ‘reverted to magic and dragons’ (pp.140-1).
It is not merely the way all these distinctions and Linnean categories must be taken as all complimentary, in some sense layered over one another (who could hold in their heads so filigree a conceptual lacework?); it’s the feeling I couldn’t shake that most of them simply mis-fit the subject. Look at that last little classificatory structure again, the various types of alien: does it seem to you accurately to describe the rich culture of SF over the last four decades? Personally I think of all the myriad types of alien creature over SF in that period and I simply do not recognise Jameson’s potted narrative of the development. Of course there were sexually perverse aliens in books published in the 1990s, but that’s been true since Philip Jose Farmer and arguably long before that. And have aliens really become dragons again today? Not only can I think of a hundred counter-examples, I’m not sure I can think of a single example from contemporary SF to back the assertion up! How far, I wonder, do these charts and maps and structural schema provide the illusion of scholarly classificatory rigor at the expense of actual insight into the subject?
But in a way it does miss the point to pull Jameson up on details. The force of the book is in its larger project; its powerful way of reading Utopian texts, and of reinvigorating the utopian impulse for the twenty-first century. Future interventions into the debate on utopia will not be able to ignore Jameson’s perspective, however gnarly it gets at its edges.
[An earlier version of this review appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction]
Adam, thanks so much for this review. I’ve had my library’s copy of *Archaeologies of the Future* on my shelves for a few weeks, and I really must dig in soon.
I was wondering if you’d be willing to share the syllabus for your Science Fiction since 1945 course. I’d love to take a look at it.
Interesting review, Adam.
“Anti-anti-Utopianism, in other words, is about ‘freeing the imagination from the present rather than offering up impoverished images of what life in the future’s going to be’.”
Anti-anti-utopianism seems itself impoverished, doesn’t it? As a critical concept, it seems to exclude more than should be excluded.
I mean, look at a series of three books: Alasdair Gray’s Lanark (finished 1976), Iain Banks’ Use of Weapons (1990, but if you want the first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas 1987), China Mieville’s Iron Council (2004). All of these appear to me to be related by the crisis of the British left. Banks’ books are not offering up naive images, they need to be a strong, universal assertion precisely in order to free the imagination from the then-contemporary collapse of the USSR, closing off any chance of its redemption. As such, I think they are in some ways stronger than Gray’s localism or the inevitable note of historical nostalgia that appears in Mieville.
Is there no mention of Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex, one of the few sci-fis which is heavily influenced by Jameson and Deleuze (Jameson is directly referenced more than once).
There are also rather more errors than make for comfortable reading.
I’m struck by something Adam Roberts says above; not to quarrel with it, but because it gives me some insight into why some theory fans get so narked at inaccuracies about the literature. If it bugs a reader that (say) Jameson thinks Aldiss’s Helliconia trilogy is an alternate history—bugs them to the point where they can’t bring themselves to read theory ... then seems to me they’re going to miss out more than they gain.
Oh, have I been there.
It’s the feeling I couldn’t shake that most of them simply mis-fit the subject.
Looking over Carlos’ context link, I see many people dinging Adam’s physics in Gradisil, and questioning whether it can really be called hard SF. As an ex-physicist myself, this is basically why I don’t think that anyone should define their book as hard SF. Most “hard SF” books have really questionable science somewhere; the few that don’t are almost universally books that don’t have the literary qualities that would make them books that I like to read. I’m having real difficulty thinking of an intersection—probably to be found in Stanislaw Lem, perhaps best in Solaris. But most “hard SF” fans don’t seem to like Lem. I really like Kim Stanley Robinson, but you can poke holes in his science too if you want to.
I think that the confusion is between “hard SF themed” and “hard SF”. Adam seems to have wanted to write a hard SF themed book, with technolibertarianism and all, harkening back to a specific moment in SF history. Adam, I think that you confuse the issue when you defend your specific science; people can poke holes in it, of course, but that’s because you’ve chosen to set the book in Earth orbit rather than setting it far enough away to use the “conventions” of hard SF, which, as someone on the LiveJournal thread points out, include FTL drives.
The difficulties with Jameson getting things wrong seem to be of a different order. Mis-fitting the subject is a critical problem for an academic being read by academics. Getting things wrong is also a critical problem for an SF writer being read by hard SF fans, of course, but in that case you can hopefully slip the problem by saying that it’s SF and falling back to general SF fans. Jameson would have more difficulty with a similar maneuver.
I interviewed Jameson for the Boston Globe’s Ideas section about “Archaeologies” when it came out, and I may be the only other person—besides Adam Roberts—who will ever read the book cover to cover. I agree with Adam: the book is flawed in innumerable ways, but the theme of anti-anti-utopianism is a very productive one, indeed.
Valve readers may be amused to hear that I only discovered Jameson via his science fiction theorizing; his 1975 essay on Philip K. Dick’s “Dr. Bloodmoney” (talk about a marginal work by a major writer) in Science-Fiction Studies blew my mind and cracked me up when I read it in 1992, in a collection of SFS essays published that year. (That was also my first encounter with Greimas’s semantic rectangle.) I’d just graduated from college, where I’d studied some Theory; and in high school I’d devoured everything by Philip K. Dick and many other science fiction authors; only once I read Jameson, though, did it occur to me that the twain could meet.
I have the complete transcript of my interview with Jameson somewhere on my hard drive; if the Valve would like to post it, I’ll send it along.
I would like for you to post it. I’ve also read the book from cover-to-cover. You might be surprised at how many other people have.
Really? OK, maybe I was wrong about that… But I don’t want to post the whole transcript to the comments area, here, because it’s wicked long! If Holbo gives me the go-ahead, I’ll do it, though—next week. I’m on my way out of town now.
I did think that you had a tendency to swallow books; but I wonder what Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future are supposed to do on your kitchen scales. This is where things are starting to become serious ...
Since you mention Eliot’s Burnt Norton: quite euphonious, actually.
Desiccation of the world of sense,
Evacuation of the world of fancy,
Inoperancy of the world of spirit;
Love is itself unmoving,
Only the cause and end of movement
How can there be any (absolute) love, abstracted from the people who love?
I’d say: follow the thrush.
And move above the moving Tree!