«Who cares? Historical Materialism has a tradition of presenting symposia: in special issues and ongoing debates we have examined the question of ...»
SYMPOSIUM: MARXISM AND FANTASY
Historical Materialism has a tradition of presenting
symposia: in special issues and ongoing debates we
have examined the question of political organisation,
East Asia, the political economy of Robert Brenner
and, most recently, Hardt and Negri’s Empire. What
follows is rather different from previous symposia,
however, in that the point of the focus may not be clear to the readership of a journal of ‘research in critical Marxist theory’. Why should Marxists care about fantasy and the fantastic?
In soliciting pieces for this symposium, we kept the rubric for submission open-ended. ‘Fantasy’ and ‘the fantastic’ are terms with many meanings, taking in considerations of surrealism, sex and sexuality, folk traditions, dream analysis, fantasies of everyday life2 and utopianism, as well as the analysis of genre literature. We were very quickly reminded that For greatly increasing my understanding of the fantastic, I am extremely grateful to Farah Mendelsohn, Carl Freedman, Andrew M. Butler and most especially Mark Bould. For invaluable comments on early drafts of this introduction, I would like to thank Paul Reynolds, Matthew Beaumont and Esther Leslie.
See Kornbluh’s piece, below.
Historical Materialism, volume 10:4 (39–49) © Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2002 Also available online – www.brill.nl 40 China Miéville considerations of the fantastic have long been part of certain Marxist traditions.
They stretch from the Frankfurt School Marxists and Walter Benjamin on surrealism, Kafka and Disney, to Ernst Bloch on utopia, the Trotskysant surrealists such as Breton and Pierre Naville, and the sloganeering of the situationists attempting to turn the fantastic and dreams into class weapons. At the same time, a focus on fantasy allowed for explorations in areas given less attention by Marxists. One example of particular interest to several of the writers in this symposium is fantasy as a speci c literary genre.
Even with identi able traditions of exploring fantasy within Marxist thought, there are Marxists who are uneasy with it. Among the responses to our call for papers, we received an email quoting Engels on the ‘opportunists... who create a literature on literature’, compared to the more correct position of those ‘who desire to write about other books only... if they contain anything worth writing about’. Our correspondent placed Historical Materialism rmly in the opportunist camp: ‘The only thing Marxist about that call for papers is that it uses the terms Marxist and Marxism sprinkled among terms derived from the dominant ideology’.
There are (at least) two levels at which these accusations can be met. Historical Materialism is an interdisciplinary journal, focusing not only on questions of politics, philosophy and economics, but also on culture and the aesthetic. A brief survey of popular lms, books, television, comics, video games etc.
illustrates the extent to which the fantastic has become a default cultural vernacular. The extraordinary success of lms such as those of the Star Wars franchise or The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001), books such as Rowling’s Harry Potter or Pullman’s His Dark Materials sequences underscore the popular interest in fantasy. If for no other reason than to make sense of this phenomenon, and to engage thinking in a cultural terrain that clearly attracts such popular interest, this aesthetic mode is worthy of investigation. We would argue, nevertheless, that there are other reasons.
One might be the identi cation of left cultural élitism amongst Marxists who would be happy to read an analysis of the novels of George Eliott or the lms of Ken Loach, but who blench at Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here, the staid tastes of a Melvyn Bragg or a Lenin 3 and disdain for popular culture See Watson’s piece, below, on the differentiation between Lenin’s taste and the implications of his analysis.
Editorial Introduction 41 become the reference points for worthwhile culture and elide with an often un-theorised (unconscious?) Lukácsian critique of ‘decadent’ non-realist forms.4 The extent to which anti-fantastic sensibilities are contingent on cultural élitism can be illustrated by thought-experiment: if the same journal that contained an article on Eliott or Loach contained pieces on Kafka or Bulgakov, it is dif cult to imagine any objections. As ‘high’ culture, these authors are ‘worth writing about’, because their ‘seriousness’ – their canonical status – somehow subsumes their fantastic mode.5 In this symposium, we wanted as Marxists to take seriously the speci city of that fantastic mode, free from an ironically (capitalist) modern distinction of high and low culture.
The fantastic might be of particular interest to Marxists for a more important reason, to do with peculiar nature of modern social reality and subjectivity.6 The lived reality of capitalism is commodity fetishism. Magnitudes of value coagulated in the commodity form – things – ‘far from being under their [human producers and exchangers’] control, in fact control them’.7 [T]he de nite social relation between men themselves... assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things... [where] the products of the human brain appear as autonomous gures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race.8 Our commodities control us, and our social relations are dictated by their relations and interactions. ‘As soon as [a table, for example] emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It...
stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas’.9 A comrade once told me hesitantly that, while he supposed that ‘ghost stories might do a job of depicting alienation and so on’, it was important not to lose track of the fact that ‘ghosts don’t exist’.
Such sleight of theory is not at all restricted to left literary snobs. The capacity for the ‘literary’ intelligentsia to enjoy works of fantastic ction without diluting their disdain for fantasy and science ction (sf) is long established. Kingsley Amis (or possibly Robert Conquest, his co-editor) expressed this well in a now-famous doggerel couplet in one of their early 1960s sf anthologies: ‘“Sf’s no good,” they bellow till we’re deaf./“But this looks good.” – “Well then, it’s not sf.” (Amis and Conquest 1964, copyright page.) This argument draws on and dovetails with Mark Bould’s, below, as well as on my earlier essay (Miéville 1998).
Marx 1867, pp. 167–8.
Marx 1976, p. 165.
Marx 1976, p. 163.
42 China Miéville Under capitalism, the social relations of the everyday – that ‘fantastic form’ – are the dreams, the ‘grotesque ideas’, of the commodities that rule.
‘Real’ life under capitalism is a fantasy: ‘realism’, narrowly de ned, is therefore a ‘realistic’ depiction of ‘an absurdity which is true’,10 but no less absurd for that. Narrow ‘realism’ is as partial and ideological as ‘reality’ itself.
As I have argued elsewhere,11 the notion that a putatively ‘realistic’ novel about the bickerings of middle-class families that seem hermetically sealed off from wider social con icts12 is less escapist than, say, Rats and Gargoyles by Mary Gentle – set in a fantasy world, involving discussions of racism, industrial con ict, sexual passion and so on – or Une Semaine de Bonté by Max Ernst (1934) – a surrealist collage novel which menacingly recon gures the bourgeois world in its representations – is unconvincing. ‘Realistic’ books may pretend to be about ‘the real world’ but that does not mean they reverberate within it with more integrity and insight.
It is precisely for these reasons that Kafka was ‘one of the few writers Adorno considered... adequate to the problems of making literature in the modern world’.13 In fact, the fantastic might be a mode peculiarly suited to and resonant with the forms of modernity. The usual charge that fantasy is escapist, incoherent or nostalgic (if not downright reactionary), though perhaps true for great swathes of the literature, is contingent on content. Fantasy is a mode that, in constructing an internally coherent but actually impossible totality14 – constructed on the basis that the impossible is, for this work, true – mimics the ‘absurdity’ of capitalist modernity.
This is what makes fantasy of interest to Marxists. At best, perhaps, in opening up that paradoxical modern form to re exive scrutiny, the fantastic might enable us to open up for a critical art.
This is not, of course, to attribute an inherently ‘subversive’ tendency to fantasy: nor is ‘critical’ art a function solely of the conscious concerns of the writer. Nevertheless, both the apparent epistemological radicalism of the Geras 1971, p. 76.
See Newsinger 2000, p. 159.
What Iain Banks calls ‘Hampstead novels’.
Halley 1997, p. 60.
This internal coherence will likely be rigorous, but not necessarily rigorous in the sense of replicating rationalism. I would argue, for example, that the best works of surrealism, like Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonté, are rigorous, though obviously not straightforwardly rationalist.
Editorial Introduction 43fantastic mode’s basic predicate – that the impossible is true – and its intriguing quasi-isomorphism with the ‘grotesque’ paradoxical form of capitalist modernity might be starting points to explore why there appear to be a statistically anomalous number of leftist writers in fantastic/science- ctional modes.
Questions of de nition (where does ‘leftism’ begin?) make for innumerable grey areas, so this cannot be scienti c. However, the sense of an odd preponderance remains.15 Impossibility and cognitive estrangement There has been a tradition of Marxist writings on science ction (sf ).16 Though nessed his position,17 Suvin’s early claim that fantasy is a he has recently ‘sub-literature of mysti cation’, fundamentally distinct from sf (he deems their lumping together as ‘rampantly socio-pathological’),18 remains enormously in uential in the eld. Indeed, it is clear in some submissions to this symposium.19 Suvin’s claim is that sf, unlike fantasy, is characterised by ‘cognitive estrangement’ – it operates according to a rationalist/scienti c mindset, but is estranged from the ‘here and now’ so that it can extrapolate creatively.
In contrast, one of the corollaries of the position I have been outlining above is that sf must be considered a subset of a broader fantastic mode – ‘scientism’ is just sf’s mode of expression of the fantastic (the impossible-buttrue). Mindful that the putative ‘scienti c rigour’ of much sf, including many
Sf/fantasy writers who have identi ed themselves as Marxists (or Marxians or
–isants) include myself, Eric Flint, Steven Brust, Mack Reynolds, Ken McLeod, John
Barnes, Kim Stanley Robinson, Samuel Delany, William Morris, Alexander Bogdanov:
left-anarchist authors include Ursula Le Guin and Michael Moorcock. The Marxist theorist David Harvey wrote short stories for the sf/fantasy journal New Worlds in
the 1960s (although at that point he would not yet have identi ed himself as a Marxist):
see, for example, Harvey 1965. In addition, there are a very great number of other writers who situate themselves on the Left.
Most systematically represented in the work of Darko Suvin (Suvin 1979). Other important gures in this tradition include many of those who have published in the journal Science Fiction Studies, such as Carl Freedman (Freedman 2000), and Fredric Jameson (see for example Jameson 1976a, 1976b, and remarks throughout his œuvre.
Jameson’s interest in sf has acted both as titillation for those more hidebound, as well as evidence for the scope of his thought: consider Terry Eagleton’s accolade that Jameson is ‘[a] prodigiously energetic thinker whose writings sweep majestically from Sophocles to science ction’).
Suvin 1979, p. 9.
See for example Jameson, below, and Freedman, below.
44 China Miéville de ning classics of the eld, is entirely spurious,20 Freedman has introduced the crucial re nement to Suvin’s original position that cognition proper is not... the quality that de nes science ction.... [R]ather [it] is... the cognition effect. The crucial term for generic discrimination is not any epistemological judgment external to the text... but rather... the attitude of the text itself to the kind of estrangement being performed.21 Freedman himself deems that even this re ned version distinguishes sf from fantasy (he makes this case in his essay below). I would argue that, in acknowledging that unscienti c but internally plausible/rigorous, estranging works share crucial qualities of cognitive seriousness, Freedman illuminates how what is usually deemed the speci city of ‘sf’ can be shared by ‘fantasy’. The incoherent – not to say ad hoc – cognition often seen as part and parcel of ‘fantasy’ can be found in much ‘sf’. It is better, I would argue, to see sf as only one way of doing the fantastic – though one with a particularly strong set of conventions.
One can make working distinctions, but any attempt at systematic theoretical differentiation seems to me to fail.
The question of whether sf and fantasy are sharply distinguished is important for considerations of subjectivity, insofar as it relates to modern conceptions of the ‘impossible’. Consider Marx’s distinction of ‘the worst of architects’ from ‘the best of bees’: unlike for any bee, ‘[a]t the end of every labour process a result emerges which had already been conceived by the worker at the beginning, hence already existed ideally’.22 For Marx, human productive activity, with its capacity to act on the world and to change it – the very mechanism by which people make history, though not in the circumstances of their choosing – is predicated on a consciousness of the not-real.23 The fantastic is there at the most prosaic moment of production.