Monday, November 29, 2010

In Search of the Subjunctive Mood

For about a year now I've been sporadically musing on the steampunk fad that has lately gripped our field. This morning, likely because of the coincidence of my line-editing my novella "A Question of Grammar" last night and reading Christina Milletti's essay in Fiction's Present this morning, some of my thoughts about steampunk’s attractions have jelled. As often happens when I read interesting essays and articles, my thoughts at a certain point took off on a tangent to Milletti's argument. This intellectual practice of mine is perhaps not fair to the authors of the articles and essays I read, but I long ago made the decision to allow my thoughts to go where they will, rather than rein in my imagination in an effort to appreciate and evaluate the argument on offer. (I am, after all, an apostate academic. I left that fold almost thirty years ago, and never feel the slightest guilt for not reading work by academics as it is supposed to be read.) The fact is, my thoughts are always, at best, scattered and diffuse, open to the connections that interest me most.

Christina Milletti, writing about Gertrude Stein's and Christine Brooke-Rose's different uses of language to "jam the theoretical machinery itself...suspending its pretension to the production of a truth and of a meaning that are excessively univocal" (and here Milletti is herself borrowing from Luce Irigaray, writing in another context), declares:
In other words, since alternative systems of power cannot be enacted in the face of ever more opaque political discourse--as Bush "revealingly" noted in 2004, for instance, "We stand for things"-- the only plausible response is to prevent a continued pretension to consensus.
The insistence on lockstep consensus started with 9/11, of course. I'm sure most USians recall the bizarre totality of this consensus in 2002 and 2003 especially, when it was still a radical departure from “normal.” Although some "dissent" can now be spoken and even, occasionally, heard in the public sphere, it strikes me that the nature of that lockstep consensus has shifted rather than disappeared. (And let’s face it, we've become accustomed to it in ways that would surprise our pre-9/11 selves.) Still, lockstep consensus was not unknown to us before 9/11. I recall it prevailing through the 1950s and early 1960s. And after the end of the Vietnam war, it routinely came to be summoned (however briefly) whenever the US started a new war or mounted a one- or two-day military strike on a third-world target. I will note that lockstep consensus arose even when the war was opposed in advance. A huge opposition made itself felt before the first US-Iraq war in 1991 (aka "the Gulf War"), when on the very day the attack began 90% of the public professed to be opposed to it. The morning after the US military began flying “sorties,” however, the media woke to unanimous support, and though people were being arrested all over the country for performing civil disobedience in opposition to the war, the only picture presented by the media was that of total, unanimous support and most polls showed inverted attitudes toward the war (i.e., 90% for and 10% opposed). (IIRC, that was the war in which the government explicitly began to put journalists in bed with the military. Such that, for instance, US journalists at the scene reported the triumphal success of Patriot Missiles in protecting Israel and Kuwait from scud missiles, when in fact an objective study later revealed that they were an utter failure and simply served propagandistic ends the media were thrilled to enable.)

Now the US is in an ongoing state of what the Bush administration announced as perpetual war and which the Obama administration is doing its best to maintain and even expand. We've been told that this permanent state of war may well last for a hundred years. (Some of us figure that if it does, after a few decades the US won't be around to continue waging it.) One of the permanent wars the US has been fighting carries the military tag of "Operation Enduring Freedom." (It's the current POTUS's favorite war, perhaps because everyone who knows anything about it says it cannot be “won.”) The "enduring" in that tag covers a lot of territory. On the front lines of enduring are the Afghanis, who are the primary target of robo-warplanes and the deep-pocket funding of savage warlords and opium exporters who have endless amounts of cash and weaponry for making the lives of everyone in their territory a bitter, living hell. The US soldier and veteran and the US tax-payer-- i.e., the poor and middle classes, who continue to lose the few public services they ever enjoyed, not the billionaires who actually determine and profit from US policy-- are also required to endure. And finally there's the entire world, which has to endure not only this nihilistic distraction from all that needs to be done as it sinks into ever more dire straits, but also the warping of the very concept of "freedom," which obviously means something to US policymakers vastly different from what it used to mean to everyone else.

"Words mean what I say they mean, Alice." And who doubts that US policymakers aren't, collectively, Humpty Dumpty?

Fatalism and the belief that the way it is now is the only way it can be has been gradually seeping into the cultural fabric of the US for a long time. After 9/11 that fatalism and belief combined with lockstep consensus to utterly destroy our political system. The few USians who don't see the doom of the planet and the eventual destruction of all public services in the US as inevitable are stymied by the lock doom and gloom has on the public sphere-- and on elected officials who ignore what all but a lunatic minority of the public want. The current iteration of capitalism, which is now threatening to end access to higher education for all but a handful of people and wreck social security for the aged and cast the unemployed into the bottomless pit of the hopeless, has wrecked our economy and promises to destroy a tolerable standard of living for all but the affluent if something isn't done to reform the system and clean up the correction riddling our financial institutions and government. We all know that. And we all know that if Congress wanted to save the day, it has the resources to do so (since although poverty is steeply on the rise, so is wealth for the richest one percent). But our elected officials either believe that such change can't be accomplished or else are so financially invested in the corruption themselves that they want the public to believe it can't be accomplished. And so we're told that the financial system is in great shape. (After all, the billionaires are enjoying record profits and personal incomes. The crash of 2008 apparently was a blessing in disguise!) I could go on and on, of course. (Guantanamo? And our own Pinochet? Don't get me started.) I will only note that in 2008, most of the people who voted Obama into office believed at that particular moment that change was possible and would come about if he won. That reform of the financial system has not come (even as the scandals continue to mount), that enduring is still perpetual, that the billionaires are still calling the tune, that Obama’s administration chose to lie about the reality of BP’s damage to the environment and the people of Louisiana, are all reasons that many people who for a moment in 2008 broke out of the imperative mood and were thinking subjunctively have sunk back into fatalism.

The short of it is: in its conduct and understanding of public life, the dominant thinking in the US is currently stuck in the imperative rather than the declarative or even subjunctive mood.

All of the above is pretty obvious, I know. What is less obvious is the effect the "enduring" mindset (i.e., the thinking that insists that enduring is all there is now-- and all there can be to look forward to) is having on US fiction-- and particularly on the field of fiction we call science fiction and fantasy as it is presently constituted as we go into the second decade of the twenty-first century. (Please note, I'm talking here about f/sf in the US only.) Most striking, to me, is that we've been seeing a lot of dystopias and a lot of stories looking back or set in the past. (Sometimes, as in Julian Comstock, the story combines dystopia with looking back.) Some of the stories set in the past are escapist fluff, of course, but escapist fluff is nothing new, and I don't think we have particularly more of it now than we have had in the past. Certain settings and tropes, of course, have a higher potential for being cozy than others. (Traditional space opera is, in a sense, the sf genre's equivalent to the country-house murder mystery, just as vampire and werewolf stories are the fantasy genre's equivalent to it.) Not all of the stories looking back are cozy or escapist. That cozy versions of the past are proliferating now simply reflects that in 2010, constructions of the past are where it's at. So just what is this powerful impetus for writing about the past all about?

What it is at least partially about, I think, is the desperate desire to break out of the endurance and fatalism of the present. If the present, as many people in the US now seem to feel it is, is the only way it can be, then to imagine change one has to look into the past. (Looking into the future for change requires believing that the present isn't what has to be.) [If I were at home where I could access my library, I’d probably now cite Joanna Russ’s article about sf and the subjunctive.] Seeing and imagining the possibilities for change involves creating trajectories that are logically subjunctive (rather than imperative) in mood; such trajectories can be seen to have begun as spores or rhizomes (i.e., possibilities) in the past, as being pregnant in the present, and as having generated effects in the future. If, however, your view of the present is totally blocked, you are going to have a hard time looking for possibilities in the present that aren't of the doomed, fatalistic sort. Which means to imagine meaningful change you need to go back into the past, to "find" (or invent) the germs of something different, the seeds of alternatives, that have the potential for creating alternative trajectories through the present into the future.

Of course not all sf stories set in the past end up doing any more than simply revalidating the predominating view of the present. (Sometimes that sense of the imperative mood-- of thinking "this is what must be," no matter how different the past might be--is simply too overwhelming for the writer to escape.) But I do think for many writing steampunk or other kinds of stories set in the past, the past is the only imaginative space remaining that has escaped the lockstep consensus of enduring. The hope, I imagine, is that if you change the past, maybe we won't be forced, imaginatively, to go on enduring in the new present much less in the future that that altered past is creating.

So no. Steampunk is not just a fad. For some writers, it's a way of breaking out of the fatalism our culture has become steeped in.


Timmi Duchamp said...

I've been reminded that Julian Comstock's author is Canadian. Sorry for, er, having annexed him. Please disregard that example.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Your steampunk theory is interesting, Timmi, but I'm not sure the impulse isn't simply nostalgia for a time that never was, rather than a search for a new imaginative place.

But then my own view of the future is a crazy mix of optimism and despair.