Hello out there,
This is my first post on this blog. My name is Rachel Swirsky, and I'm just starting out as a science fiction writer. My bachelor's degree is in Anthropology; within the field, I focused mostly on sex & sexuality, and the anthropological critique/analysis of literature.
I'd like to write a little bit about my analytical and political relationship to literature.
My anthropological theory of literature, basically, is that through reading a large sampling of a culture's literature, it's possible to deduce some of the basic concerns and narratives running through that culture's subconscious. This is especially true when a subject becomes trendy in science fiction.
For instance, the way that we (as science fiction writers) explore virtual reality as a social space reflects our anxieties about social spaces in the "meat" world. Depictions of virtual reality tend to cleave to older cultural dialogues about cities. They're seen as freeing, a place for people to move beyond mundane concerns -- much as the theorist Simmel saw cities -- or they're seen as oppressive places where human interaction is traded for fetishization -- much as the theorist Durkheim saw cities.
I see art as our culture's roiling subconscious. Our beliefs and anxieties bubble to the surface. Especially in the fiction of ideas.
Narrative and Society
I think that one of the strongest effects of culture on the human psyche is to shape the narratives that we use to dissect the world. These narratives give me a lens for interpreting what happens to me. I, as a western woman, am likely to interpret my choices from an individualistic perspective. I decide things. I make them happen. In Invitations to Love: Literacy, Love Letters, and Social Change in Nepal, Laura Ahearn discusses the ways in which Nepali women will talk around the concept of agency; saying, for instance, that they were forced to make a love match because of a magic spell, rather than that they chose to make a love match.
Narratives obviously shape our interpretations of gender as well. The ways we view the actions of men, and the ways in which we view the actions of women, are subtly but importantly different. This is one of the major reasons, I believe, why people are so disturbed by gender ambiguity. When presented with an individual who does not visually present as male or female, people have trouble figuring out what narratives to apply to that person, and thus how to interpret or interact with hir.
Cultural narratives are shaped in manifold ways, of course. Nevertheless, I think it's important to look at novels and short stories (and plays and television shows) as direct ways in which we shape our narratives. When The Simpsons presents an image of a boorish, stupid husband who is too stupid to be trusted with simple tasks, and his competent housewife who is content to be his helpmeet -- they are tapping into those narratives. At times, they manage to use the narratives to mock themselves, in a complex weave of upholding and subverting the paradigm.
Roseanne, on the other hand, presenting complex individuals who do not so easily fit into the standard narratives of male and female, breaks the paradigm for a moment. It pries open our narrative space just long enough to give us a framework for talking about fat, bossy, but extraordinary women, and men who are both involved in manly work and not always in control. (Hat tip to Myca at Alas, a Blog for those examples.)
In literature, we see this with something like Delany's Trouble on Triton, which poses some alternate methods for categorizing sexuality. Rather than gay and straight exclusively, we see people categorized by whether they prefer younger or older partners, their inclination toward sadomasochism, and so on.
The Political Potential of Narrative
In his collected essays, Salman Rushdie writes, "Description is itself a political act," and "Redescribing the world is the necessary first step towards changing it."
I believe that it is impossible to make political progress unless there are narrative spaces opened up for that progress to take place in.
I look at this as a process that happens on several levels. For instance, Joanna Russ's Female Man looked at gender in a radical, frame breaking way -- a way that was able to reach many feminists and intellectuals. Ursula Leguin's Left Hand of Darkness is less radical -- in many ways, it seems traditional from a modern perspective -- but it was able to take some of the furthest, most radical ideas and, through grinding off a few of the edges and spurring them on with adventure-driven storytelling, bring those ideas to a less radical public.
Twisty Faster of I Blame the Patriarchy writes that any depiction of an oppressed class is a political act.
I would go farther. Any depiction of anyone is a political act.
Writing -- any type of art -- is taking something which inhabits three dimensions and flattening it. How one chooses which information to represent, and in which ways, is inherently political. It will exclude some information. It will exaggerate other information. And that's even before the elements of imagination and speculation are mixed in, which involve more distortion. The ways in which that distortion happens are inherently political.
In most literary workshops I've been in, people have a tendency to get bogged down in discussions of whether or not it's "realistic" for a character to do a given activity. Reality is stranger than most fictions. Believability itself is -- as Ben Marcus argued in Harper's last year -- a way of fitting reality into little boxes, for what he called middle class acceptability (I would probably call it monitoring content to make sure it toes the line of comfortable cultural narratives).
When women are excluded, that is political. When transmen are excluded, that is political. When transwomen are excluded, that is political. When the future is white, that is political. When the future is abled, that is political. When the future is western, that is political.
When women are included, that is political. When transwomen and transmen are included, that is political. When we see people of color and disabled people and people from the global south, that is political.
All writing is political.
Science fiction, by depicting the not-real, has great potential to break our comfortable cultural frames. As a political writer, I aim to create narrative spaces for people who don't fit into the dominant narratives. Literature reflects how we think of the world. It's a recursive, but terribly slow relationship. Books may have less of an effect on popular culture than television shows -- but, just as Joanna Russ broke the ice and Ursula Leguin popularized the message -- there's room for us all to work at the slow, arduous, important task, of opening the political dialog to unacknowledged stories.