Saturday, September 29, 2012

Starting points: miscellany

The name

"Marooned Off Vesta" is the title of Isaac Asimov's first published story, which appeared in the March 1939 Amazing. I must admit that I have not actually read it, and from descriptions I have seen it seems rather uninteresting. So why name the blog after it?

My analysis of sf is, I hope and flatter myself, radical--in the sense of going to the roots so as to do things differently. One of my major arguments is (or will be) that, despite its problems, classic sf needs to be not just re-evaluated but re-explored in order for contemporary sf to fulfill its promise. In light of this, naming the blog after a seemingly insignificant story which nevertheless launched what is perhaps the genre's single most seminal career seemed appropriate.

Beyond that, and regardless of the likelihood that the story itself is a boring triviality, the title is great. And it strikes me as very accurately describing the way I feel as I embark on this endeavor: marooned off an asteroid, trying to figure out what's going on with this stuff, lost and flailing and almost panicked but also trying to think clearly and on top of it all really excited because look where I am!

(Also, I had originally come up with the name for an earlier, abandoned-before-it-started blog idea, where I had planned to write about every single one of Asimov's books, in publication order. I quickly realized, however, how extraordinarily tedious and life-consuming this would be: even doing one book a week it would take over ten years to do them all, and many of them are now-obsolete science books. Even so, the idea is still somehow tempting; I think I just wish someone else would do it.)

Sf fandom

Though I have loved sf my whole life, I am not and never have been a fan in the sense in which the word is used in the world of sf. I do not say this in order to distance myself from fandom as something distasteful. Quite the opposite, in fact: I say it so as not to appear to be claiming for myself a status to which I have no right. I have never participated in the social aspect of sf, never attended a con, never corresponded with fans or writers or publishers.* As such, despite my lifelong devotion to the genre, my perspective is somewhat of an outsider's, with all of the attendant weaknesses, and I hope at least some of the corresponding strengths.

*The closest I have come is sporadic reading of and very occasional participation on fannish blogs (and recently I have begun scouring the internet for scanned archives of fanzines), through which I have become aware of such things as RaceFail and the recent Readercon sexual harassment scandal, as well as more pleasant things from time to time--but this is all secondhand at best, and does not impact me as personally or as emotionally as it does for the people truly involved. Again, to be clear, I emphatically do not mean this as a negative judgment on fans and fandom; if anything, it is, again again, just the opposite.

One very important effect this has on my writing and on my thinking is that when I discuss a writer, I am discussing their writing only.* If, as for instance in my previous post, I describe a certain writer as misogynist, I am not implying anything about their interpersonal behavior, because in most cases I know nothing about it. My intention in pointing this out is not to mitigate the claim or to "go easy" on people, but rather simply to remind those who might otherwise be confused that I am not pretending to have some insight into anyone's innermost being, but rather am examining the texts with which I have been presented. I know nothing of how Larry Niven treats women in his real life, and I know nothing of how he feels about them in his secret heart, but I do know that they do not fare well as characters in his fiction.

*I hope it is obvious that this is a simplification for the sake of discussion. I am not of the belief that a text exists in a vacuum, and when discussing a text I bring to it all of the experiences I have ever had, to varying degrees of relevance, and these naturally include any knowledge I may have of the writer beyond the given text in front of me.

Literary criticism

The world of literary criticism is still relatively new to me, and I am acquainting myself with it gradually and rather piecemeal. I am not at all up-to-date, and you may find me arguing for or against ideas that have been considered settled for decades. In a way I might consider this a strength, as I like to try to keep a historical perspective, like to keep ideas alive rather than considering them over and done with, obsolete, move on to the next. Far more than this, though, I certainly acknowledge it as a weakness. I will always welcome recommendations for areas of study, always welcome being educated, so long as I am not talked down to. For example, if you try to use Harold Bloom to argue that feminism is just a "school of resentment" and a load of nonsense, I will ask you to stop being an asshole or go away.

What it boils down to, and this is true of many things aside from literary criticism itself, is that I was not given a tradition and so am trying to put one together for myself. I do not have the education, despite having some of the credentials, and so have been trying to find a direction on my own.

My "politics"

The two philosophies that have impacted me most strongly, and to which I aspire, are anarchism and feminism. I am not comfortable, however, describing myself as either an anarchist or a feminist, for a variety of reasons.

When Margaret Killjoy asked Ursula K. Le Guin (in Killjoy's delightful book of interviews, Mythmakers & Lawbreakers: Anarchist Writers on Fiction) if she considered herself an anarchist, Le Guin answered, "I don't, because I entirely lack the activist element, and so it seems phony or too easy." (A moment later, Killjoy asks if she minds that many anarchists "claim" her anyway, to which Le Guin replies, "Of course I don't mind! I am touched and feel unworthy.") With my accomplishments far less than Le Guin's, this is approximately how I feel about taking on the label "anarchist" or "feminist" for myself. As Chumbawamba said to Bob Dylan, I just haven't earned it yet.

Beyond that, though, both terms have become highly problematic in that they mean drastically different things to different people. I am not afraid of being misidentified with the caricatures of either philosophy; if anyone can manage to view me as a mad bomber or the elusive "feminazi," they have a better imagination than I, and are welcome to it. No, unfortunately, it is the very real problems I am uncomfortable with. If I say I am an anarchist to someone who subscribes to the views of Max Stirner, or to the extraordinarily misogynist and macho tendencies which are so common in anarchist circles, they will come away thinking something very different of me than I intended (this has, to my horror, happened, and gone on for a very long time before I realized it). If I say I am a feminist to someone whose idea of a feminist is Janice Raymond (or, going another way, Camille Paglia), or to someone who endorses the racist aspects of the so-called "second wave"* or the naïve liberal and consumerist aspects of the "third wave," I have similarly misrepresented myself.**

*"So-called" because there has been feminism for as long as there has been oppression of women; given the systematic erasure of women's history in a patriarchy the ahistoricism of calling certain types of post-mid-century feminism the "second" wave is understandable but not pleasant, and the problem is of course only exacerbated by the name of the "third" wave.
**Note please that I am not condemning these movements! Much, indeed most, of both "waves" are immensely important and humbling. Recognizing flaws in them, even severe ones such as radical feminism's brutal transphobia (to which the word "flaw" is inadequate), is not to throw them out entire.

Elements of my politics will probably become clearer as the blog progresses, because although my view of literature is not purely political, neither can it escape politics--the personal is the political, and both are the critical. As an anti-centralist with a skeptical attitude towards the capitalist notion of endless technological progress and a feminist-influenced outlook, my view of, say, Asimov, or Adrienne Rich, is going to be very different from that of someone who does not share those views.

On my influences

Since it is very difficult to sum up my outlook on life, the universe, and everything briefly and lucidly, I have decided that (at the risk of being a name-dropper) giving a brief list of some writers and thinkers who have had the biggest influence on me will help fill in the gaps. Some people who have in some ways had perhaps even greater influence have been left off--say for example George Orwell and Howard Zinn, whose Homage to Catalonia and People's History of the United States, respectively, along with Le Guin's The Dispossessed, were my gateway into radicalism in my teen years--because I don't intend this list to represent everything I think and feel and my whole historical path to getting there, and neither do I want it to just be a list of Facebook-style "likes" to show off my aesthetic taste. Rather I want it to give a sense of the main points of how I'm thinking now on a variety of topics (which, to use the same examples, Orwell and Zinn no longer would, quite, though I do still find them valuable). I do not necessarily endorse everything these people have said, of course, but all have been and are key to my current understanding of how to make and interpret works of art, of how the world works, of how to be in it. In alphabetical order:

  • Angela Y. Davis
  • Samuel R. Delany
  • Marcel Duchamp
  • Brian Eno
  • Silvia Federici
  • Derrick Jensen
  • Gabriel Josipovici
  • Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Maria Mies
  • Yoko Ono
  • Joanna Russ
  • Julia Serano
  • Assata Shakur
  • Susan Stryker
  • Joss Whedon
And now, onward...

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