Monday, March 31, 2014

Maurice Blanchot and disinterested art and politics and science fiction and Vandana Singh

Well, I haven't made it much farther in The Space of Literature since last time I wrote about it, but I am still reading. This weekend I came across this passage in which Blanchot is discussing a passage from Rilke:
He says it himself: art takes its point of departure in things, but what things? Intact things — unverbraucht — when they are not being used and used up by their use in the world. Art must not, then, start from the hierarchically "ordered" things which our "ordinary" life proposes to us. In the world's order things have being according to their value; they have worth, and some are worth more than others. Art knows nothing of this order. It takes an interest in realities according to an absolute disinterestedness, that infinite distance which is death. If it starts then, from things, it starts from all things without distinction. It does not choose, it takes its point of departure in the very refusal to choose. (Trans. Ann Smock)
The notion of "disinterestedness" in art is I know a fraught one; it has often been used as a weapon to enforce art's "separation" from political and social issues (really art's abdication of its political and social responsibilities in favor of reproducing the status quo). And in that sense I reject it wholeheartedly. But in the sense Blanchot uses it here, I think it is anything but apolitical; indeed by refusing to choose their subjects according to the hierarchical "value" placed on them in our way of life, artists as Blanchot describes them strike me as being radically political. (I am for the moment irresponsibly overlooking the role death plays in this passage, but a thorough examination of that issue — which is basically what Blanchot's book is — would not I think substantially change what I'm saying here.)

The sfnal implications of this are probably obvious, and I will not belabor the point except to say that one of my many unfinished essays is a sort-of manifestoish thing calling for, not anti-capitalist sf (though we still need that too!) but non-capitalist sf, sf that simply refuses to accede to or even acknowledge the capitalist order of things.* Works dealing with the wonder of space, I think, point us in this direction**; for even the most ruthlessly and stupidly capitalist works of a Larry Niven, say, have moments in which space, and our relationship to it, is treated as a thing in itself, rather than (or at least not just) as a ground for exploitation. To be sure, this is not without contradictions — after all, the wonder of space has always been instrumentalized to convince us that we should go there and exploit it, Niven himself being a prime example of this — but isn't there some kind of famous theory about the contradictions inherent to capitalism, etc. etc.?

*To be clear, much anti-capitalist thought would have to go into the writing of non-capitalist sf, or else it would simply reproduce capitalism in mystified form.
**Which is not to say that they are the
only things pointing that way.

Anyway. I said I wasn't going to belabor the point. Let me instead close with some words from Vandana Singh's "A Speculative Manifesto", as it appears in her collection The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories (which just came in the mail this past weekend and oh boy am I excited). There are a few things I take issue with here, but for now I'll just leave it for its resonances with what I'm pointing at in the rest of this post:

So much modern realist fiction is divorced from the physical universe, as though humans exist in a vacuum devoid of animals, rocks, and trees. Speculative fiction is our chance to rise above this pathologically solipsist view and find ourselves part of a larger whole; to step out of the claustrophobia of the exclusively human and discover joy, terror, wonder, and meaning, in the greater universe.

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