Monday, October 19, 2009

Different Drummers? But see, Sousa's just noise to some of us

Yesterday at Seattle's Anarchist Bookfair, I participated in a panel on Anarchism and Science Fiction. Understandably, our discussion barely scratched the surface, but I was fascinated to note that I came away from it filled with a sense of just how important the topos of anarchism has been for feminist sf. I have an urgent wish, now, to read an intelligent exploration and speculation about that-- not in general terms, but in very specific examinations of texts and tracing of genealogies of texts and their ideas.

So imagine my bemusement this morning, when I read an article in the new issue of Foundation, "Biological Determinism, Masculine Politics and the Failure of Libertarianism in Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress," by Jason Bourget. (You may be wondering what "masculine politics" might be. I know I did, when I first read the title. But given the context in which he uses the expression, I believe that by "masculine politics" the author means "masculinist politics.") Why bemusement? Because while the article, drawing on an essay by Neil Easterbrook, argues that Heinlein's version of libertarianism is an elitist tyranny based on a masculinist ("masculine," in the author's words) biological determinism-- taking note chiefly of the inequality of the sexes in Heinlein's "libertarian utopias"-- the article begins with the (likely inadvertent) exclusion of political science fiction written by women (much of which is feminist sf), which is an irony too familiar to be anything but wearying. Here's the first sentence:

In his essay on "Politics and Science Fiction," Ken Macleod boldly declares that "the central political voice in genre sf is that of Robert A. Heinlein" and that "the political strand in sf can be described as a dialogue with [him]."

Much as I've enjoyed reading some of Ken Macleod's novels, and much as I've enjoyed reading essays by many science fiction writers, I've pretty much dismissed Macleod's critical writings as worthy of my time and interest. And that's precisely because of his essay "Politics and Science Fiction" (a chapter in the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction ed. James and Mendlesohn), which I read a few years ago and that pretty much convinced me the man's understanding of science fiction is of the mangled truncated variety that either does not see or cannot understand feminist sf. His essay mentions work by only three women writers: Le Guin, Russ, and Bujold, while at the same time generalizing wantonly about "feminist sf" without offering any examples other than Russ. Just about all the guys who talk or write about "political science fiction" routinely, probably unconsciously, exclude feminist sf from the category, but the fact that it's a widespread practice doesn't excuse it. (They did it at a WisCon panel a few years ago, by the way, and didn't get called on it there. Still doesn't excuse it.) In this case, Macleod actually devotes a whole paragraph out of his chapter to misrepresent feminist sf. In short, he bluntly dismisses feminist sf as "a more troubling exception to the generally progressive spirit of sf."

Each time I've read this statement, I've felt as though Macleod had turned the world on its head: since, as far as I'm concerned, most sf is ideologically conservative and most feminist sf is ideologically progressive. And each time I read it, I did a double take a few sentences later, when I realized that by "progressive" Macleod doesn't mean politically progressive, but instead means buying hook line and sinker into the full 19th-century liberal ideology of "progress." Here's what he has to say about feminist sf:

Some of [feminist sf] does indeed turn its back on progress and the conquest of the universe as a typically male power fantasy-- and to that extent, and perhaps for that reason, it has isolated itself from all but a few sf readers.

Are we to understand from this that women writers are ignored because they want to be? I guess Macleod doesn't think much of Russ's How To Suppress Women's Writing.

But not all feminist sf, even of the most radical kind, takes that view. Joanna Russ's The Female Man (1975) carries a militant message of progress in its title. That the English word for the human species and the word for the male sex is the same, with its implied exclusion of half the human race from the achievements ascribed to all of it-- "man's conquest of space," and so on -- is an old problem.
"Progress" is a loaded word with a truly terrible history of encouraging and accommodating simplistic thinking. Combine that with "man's conquest of space" and what do you get? It would seem that Macleod believes that we (feminists) feel excluded from the fruits and glories of imperialist conquest and thus repudiate "conquest" out of nothing more than sour grapes ressentiment, while Russ, by contrast, finds the grapes of imperialist conquest sweet and makes no bones about wanting them for herself, just like your typical 19th-century white feminist lording it over the inferior races, I guess. Can he really believe this about Russ? Does he actually thinks that's what Russ is complaining about? Reading on, it seems that he does:

While some feminist writers have responded by repudiating the achievements,

Not only has he thrown the ideologically loaded "progress" at us, but now he's conflating "achievements" with "conquest"? That's a slippery rhetorical move if I've ever seen one. And who, exactly, are these "feminists" who are repudiating human achievements (that women, contrary to general opinion, have had an important role in performing and for centuries have been being denied credit for)? I can believe there are such feminists, since "feminist" covers such a wide spectrum. But whoever these feminists are, they aren't anyone I read (or personally know). I do think Macleod needs desperately to read Helen Merrick's The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms. (It will be out from Aqueduct in December, folks.)

Russ stakes a claim on all of them for women.Women can be Man, without being men. Russ makes a passionate claim for freedom and achievement.

By eliding conquest with achievements, he slickly covers over a significant theme in Russ's work. Who, after reading We Who Are About To... could see Russ as a propagandist for triumphal human chauvinism? And where does he get off thinking that most feminist sf doesn't "make a passionate claim for freedom and achievement"? Clearly, our panel yesterday would have been incomprehensible to him. (As would most WisCon panels, I suspect.)

What most frustrates me about Bourget's article is that while Bourget views "masculine" (masculinist?) politics as at the heart of Heinlein's political fiction, he fails to explore what that means for males who do not fit the masculinist ideal of masculinity. (Instead, he attends to an already well-worked vein, viz., the suppression of women's public agency and speech in Heinlein's ideal political systems.)

What most strikes me about Bourget's article is that if Macleod is correct that all political science fiction [by men, that is] is in dialogue with Heinlein, then Bourget would logically have to argue that most political science fiction is Tiptree Award material, for if masculinism is supposedly at the heart of all political science fiction, then all political science fiction is necessarily about definitions of masculinity-- either challenging or exploring said definitions. Stan Robinson's fiction often does this, occasionally incisively, and Chip Delany's Triton addresses the issue dialogically, but can we honestly say that most other political sf novels [by men] have provided fresh insight into the issue that Bourget describes?

I seriously hope that someone someday will make a thorough exploration of the topos of anarchy in, as well as its significance for, feminist sf. Because that's a piece of critical writing that I would love, love, love to read.


Josh said...

Hm, "the central political voice in genre sf is that of Robert A. Heinlein." Guy's living in 1968: Fall of the Towers and Adventures of Alyx are indeed in dialogue with Heinlein. In the 1940s, the central political voice was Asimov; in the 1950s, Kornbluth; in the 1970s, Le Guin and Tiptree. But what's the point of naming "central"s anyway? Guy who writes anarchist novels should know that it's probably been necessary since before 1968 to begin to think that there was no center, that the center could not be thought in the form of a being-present, that it was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of non-locus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play?

And speaking of Trouble on Triton, I notice that Phila's anarchist bookstore is having a discussion-group on it this Friday: first time they've done that with SF, AFAIK.

Foxessa said...

Such a good essay. Thank you.

Also, I was hoping to read some accounts of the matters looked at, at this convention.

Love, C.

Unknown said...

"I seriously hope that someone someday will make a thorough exploration of the topos of anarchy in, as well as its significance for, feminist sf. Because that's a piece of critical writing that I would love, love, love to read."

That would be something, all right. There is a related question that interests me even more. What is it that has alienated anarchism and feminism, when there are so many commonalities? The anarchist Emma Goldman springs to mind - we have her to thank for the availability of birth control, which has been central to our ability to do critical work, but I don't think most feminists know about her. And then there's Lucy Parsons, an anarchist and woman of color who is even less well known.

To Foxessa: as for an account of the doings at the bookfair, I'll do my best. But it will have to wait a bit because I'm already a day late on typing up the minutes from my co-op preschool meeting.

Lake Desire said...

I am not sure what has alienated feminism and anarchism because I see both as deeply interconnected struggles against hierarchy, patriarchy, and state violence. I've certainly encountered male anarchists who are dismissive of feminism as divisive and a special interest, in the style of the "it's all about class struggle" old left style and until I met some really awesome anarchists of all races and genders, I thought anarchism was a young white boy's club--and it can be at times. Fortunately, though, I feel like those of us dedicated to collective liberation are finding one another and doing organizing together.

Foxessa, I'll copy and paste the schedule of panels at the bookfair. Let me know what you'd like me to go more into (I can bug my friends in attendance to comment, too). An interest in fighting ableism, racism, and sexism as anarchist struggles is illustrated in the panel topics. (Past bookfairs I've been to have been more about do-it-yourself and punk culture.)

10:00 W Ganging Up on the Bosses: a New Model of Direct Action Organizing
10:30 S Anarchy and Art! Discussion and Making things
11:30 W Panel: Too brown or not brown enough: Response from the fringes
12:00 S Anarchy and Improvisation: workshop and discussion
1:00 W Panel: Aging, Disability and Allyship in the Community: Don’t leave us behind at the end of the march!
1:30 S Panel: Community Accountability/Transformative Justice
2:30 W Panel: Building Alternatives to Capitalism: Egalitarian Economics at the Emma Goldman Finishing School
3:00 S Aggressor Accountability
4:00 W Your Eyes My Body My Eyes Your Body: Body Image
4:30 S
6:00 W Walking Tour of Seattle’s Radical Past & Present

Time Location Title
11:00 W Panel: Beyond The Dispossessed: Anarchism and Science Fiction*
11:30 S Our Archives–writing & preserving anti-authoritarian history
12:30 W Intro to Video Activism
1:00 S Anarchists Against the Wall: who are they and why is everybody interested in Israel/Palestine talking about them?
2:00 W Intellectual Property is Intellectual Theft: anarchists, free software, and the digital commons
2:30 S North West Anarchist/Autonomous People Of Color on Racism, Sexism, Homophobia Now in Anarcho-Radical Movements presentation/panel
3:30 W Panel: Collective housing/Intentional Community
4:00 S Sex, Riot, and Queer Potentiality
5:00 W Panel: Anarchism and anti-racism

Foxessa said...

Thank you, Ariel -- Looking forward to seeing more. :)

It's hard to believe that feminists don't know of Emma Goldman! Sigh.

Love, C.

Ken said...

How on Earth (so to speak) do you justify the move from 'conquest of space' to 'imperialist conquest' and 'inferior races'? The conquest of space was pioneered by the socialist Soviet Union and is being continued today by socialist China and by India, as well as by some of the imperialist powers. And there are no 'inferior races' to 'lord it over' in space because (outside of skiffy) there is no intelligent life there or indeed any life at all. So humanity's conquest of space would seem to be a quite harmless vacuum and inanimate (but interesting) matter.

Ken said...

That last line should read:

So humanity's conquest of space would seem to be a quite harmless 'conquest' of vacuum and inanimate (but interesting) matter.

Unknown said...

"So humanity's conquest of space would seem to be a quite harmless 'conquest' of vacuum and inanimate (but interesting) matter."

It would seem that way, but unfortunately space is a tactically strategic place to wage nuclear war on Earth.

Lake Desire said...

I would argue that India or China are currently not socialist countries because government interventions in their economies aren't to facilitate the workers controlling what they produce.

Timmi Duchamp said...

How On Earth...? May I remind you that your chapter addresses science fiction and its depictions of politics, not real life science and politics? Your wanting to eliminate sf from the discussion makes me wonder if you think that by eliminating "skiffy" you'll somehow manage to sanitize the word "conquest" of all its brutality and ugliness.

But even if you eliminate science fiction from the discussion, the language you so casually use both here and in your chapter isn't innocent. For an example of a different way of talking (and thinking) about space exploration that (no doubt consciously) avoids the loaded 19th-century ideological associations of the language you use, check out Kim Stanley Robinson's Return to the Heavens, for the Sake of the Earth in the July 19, 2009 issue of the Washington Post.

The "New World," as Europeans called it, was held to be "empty" and "uninhabited" (by "intelligent" or "civilized" humans) and therefore there to be taken; exploration and colonization were driven by the fantasies of appropriation that have driven all the most celebrated feats of "exploration" in European history. In much science fiction, the "conquest of space" is tantamount to the conquest and dispossession of Others. But often even in stories of space colonization that view the universe as nothing more than vacuum and inanimate matter, the narratives of colonialism and imperialism continue to dominate.

Consider Adam Roberts' Salt, a novel depicting the colonization of what has to be one of the blankest, emptiest planets to be found in sf. In this novel, the very "cosmic diaspora" that Robinson deplores is underway; and although the various groups that colonize Salt have different political philosophies and reasons for settling themselves on the planet, in the end, the story Roberts tells is indeed one of "conquest" in all its ugly splendor-- driven, again, by the ingrained fantasies of appropriation that the colonization of space seems for many people to necessarily entail. (Fortunately, there are some exceptions.) This goes along with the attitude that what someone else doesn't "own" is there to be plundered and "civilized." In the US, this was codified into the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. And today, this attitude is the reason Earth's oceans are on the verge of catastrophe.

The traditional discourses of science were shaped by all those Enlightenment tropes and metaphors that fit so well with the ugly realities of 19th-century colonialism. But as Robinson's essay demonstrates, the discourses of science don't have to continue to cling to and be shaped by them. And neither do science fiction writers. For more about the invidiousness of the tropes and metaphors that have traditionally dominated science, check out the Science and Technology Studies (STS) literature. (Especially work by Donna Haraway, Hilary Rose, Bruno Latour, Sandra Harding, Helen Longino, Anne Fausto-Sterling, and Ruth Bleier.)

PS Are you seriousy arguing that the Soviet Union was not imperialist? Or that modern-day China is not imperialist? And that their interest in space, like the US's, isn't driven by military and economic ambitions?

Unknown said...

hey timmi, thanks for this post. i'll be looking for your fiction.

Athena Andreadis said...

Ah, yes. To boldly go where every blinkered bigot has gone before: Is It Something in the Water? Or, Me Tarzan, You Ape