Saturday, June 9, 2007

A Brief Conversation with Eleanor Arnason

Timmi: I seem to recall your describing yourself as a Red Diaper baby. (Correct me if I'm wrong, please!) And I think I recall your saying that your father was an art historian. Did he think that art has a political dimension in the sense that Rachel was talking about when she said that all writing is political (meaning, of course, not that all writing is a conscious attempt to propagandize, but rather that the political infuses everything we do, even when a writer or artist imagines their art is "pure" and free of the taint of the political)? Did his ideas about aesthetics influence you? Or did you develop your own ideas about aesthetics?

Eleanor: I don't think I would call myself a red diaper baby. RDBs are people who went to left-wing youth camps in Upper New State. I grew up in the midwest and have always hated camping.

My father was an art historian -- and close to apolitical, except he liked avant garde artists, and they tended to have progressive politics.

My mother and her sisters were passionate feminists, who believed that prejudice of every kind was evil. I certainly got that from them, along with a belief in unions and collective action.

I have dim memories of calling myself a socialist or an anarchist in high school, not knowing what I was talking about. I discovered real politics in college in the early 60s and continued to develop my ideas through the 60s, as the Vietnam War rolled on and American cities burned.

What I got from my father (and mother) was a rich cultural education and exposure to a lot of interesting and humane people, who were often artists and often political.

Could you talk about what you think is the relation between the political and art in general and science fiction in particular?

Eleanor: I am very much a fiction writer, most comfortable when telling stories and speaking through a mask. So what follows is being written by someone who is thinking, “This sounds like pompous hooey. Why not just tell a story and let other people figure out what it means?”

You referenced Rachel's argument that all art is political. “Meaning, of course, not that all writing is a conscious attempt to propagandize, but rather that the political infuses everything we do.”

Back in the early days of the second wave of feminism, we used to say “The personal is political.” The truth of this is clearly evident now, when we look at the right's two big political issues: abortion and gay marriage. What is more personal than one's own body, one's family and the people one loves?

I'd argue (like you and Rachel) that everything is political. In the end, every aspect of human life deals (to one extent or another) with the relationships between men and women, castes and races and ethnic groups, workers and bosses, the people with wealth and power and those without.

This is a specific definition of political I'm using here. It does not mean the business of the polis or “the science or art of political government.” I would say I'm talking about power relationships as they exist throughout a society.

How can you write anything, without dealing with sex and money, violence (toward whom and why?) and power?

Jane Austen's novels are always about sex, money and power, which is probably why I love them. Dickens' novels are in great part about wealth and poverty, the unequal and unjust distribution of money. Moby Dick is about working on a factory ship for a boss who's crazy. Huckleberry Finn is about trying to escape the power relationships of slavery and a society that is comfortable with slavery.

What does this have to do with science fiction?

SF is a fiction about the relationship between people and technology. I don't think it could exist until the rate of technological change became so rapid that people could see change happening within their lifetimes or over a handful of years. It helps if there are scientific ideas such as The Evolution of Species in public discussion, available to everyone with any education. Wells drew heavily on Darwinism. Verne drew on ideas of future technological progress that floated through late 19th century European society. Once we have trains and transatlantic steamers and the pneumatique, who can say what wonders are next?

This is where things get complex, and I may have trouble explaining myself.

I think Marx and Engels are right when they say that technology and the way work is organized shape human society. A society based on stone tools is different from a society based on bronze or iron. Hunting and gathering societies are different from societies that depend on farming or manufacture.

I also think they are right when they say that ideology is shaped by experience. People's ideas - their art, religion, political theory, you name it - come from what they learn living day by day. But this does not happen in a simple manner.

Because human cultures are transmitted from generation to generation, our ideas often derive from the experiences of ancestors. As Marx wrote, “The traditions of all the dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” These traditions may or may not be relevant to our contemporary lives.

Because societies are complex, comprising at least two kinds of humans (men and women) and often many more kinds, experiences within a society differ. This should lead to different ideologies, though the ideologies of subordinate groups are often only partially formed. As a rule, the dominant ideology of a society is that of the rulers.

(Here we are on the verge of Antonio Gramsci and his theory of cultural hegemony. The synopsis in Wikipedia looks good to me. Read it if you want to.)

Okay. Technology shapes society; and social experience shapes ideology, including art. And there are conflicts within any given culture - between past ideas and modern experience, between the experiences and ideas of different social groups.

I think science fiction is a contested area. It's not the only one. It seems to me that all the popular arts show evidence of more than one set of experiences and more than one set of ideas. Much pop music begins in poor communities, among working people, often minorities. The African American community has an astounding history of creating great music. As the music becomes popular, the music companies take it over and smooth the edges and eliminate the messages they don't like.

Authentic popular music keeps emerging, and the corporations keep trying to turn it into a safe commodity, something that can be bought and sold, rather than something that tells the truth and maybe tries to change the world. (If Gramsci is right, the truth has the potential to change the world, since it breaks through the ideology imposed by the ruling class and says there is another reality besides the official reality. It is a first step toward change.)

SF is about changing technologies, changing societies and changing ideas. By its mere existence, it challenges the idea of permanence, the end of history, the status quo as in any way inevitable or fixed. For SF the status quo is always contingent and subject to alteration. More than one kind of society is possible. There will be a future, as Isaac Asimov said, and it will be different.

So it has the potential to be a critical and visionary art form. But it can also be an art form that expresses despair. It can give us escapes from reality, adolescent wish fulfillment fantasies that lead nowhere, except to more escapes from reality, more bad SF. Or it can defend the status quo. It can tell us the future belongs to white men and capitalism and war.

Our job is to create authentic SF, which criticizes the status quo and imagine alternatives.

Margaret Thatcher has been credited with two famous quotes. One is “There is no such thing as society.” The other is “There is no alternative (to capitalism as it exists now).”

I think we need to argue that there are societies and they have a huge influence on individuals for good or evil. We also need to argue that there are alternatives to the societies we know and the world as it is. We can create new and better societies. It is possible to build a new and better world within the shell of the old.

Timmi: Thanks for answering my question directly, Eleanor. It sure didn't sound like "pompous hooey" to me!

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