Friday, May 15, 2015

a short set of thoughts on fan criticism, and recent academic science fiction criticism

       In the years that I have studied science fiction, I have read a fairly large amount of criticism produced either by fans of the genre, or authors who regularly engage with fans.  It's not surprising.  After all, some of the first literary criticism of the genre arises from fanzine publications and other texts produced within the subculture of fandom.  I've read the work of Damon Knight, Judith Merril, H.P. Lovecraft, and various fanzines such as Khatru, to name a few sources. 

      Through that engagement, I've found that fan criticism most often produces taxonomic criticism, that is, it creates categories to group texts together in order to see thematic and occasionally formal connections between texts in the genre.  I've always had a mixed response to these critical texts.  One one hand, I find myself wanting the sort of rigorous, formal engagement that one gets out of academic literary criticism produced after the structuralist moment, and on the other hand, I always enjoy the interesting thematic connections that these authors produce, and, just as significantly, frequently find myself using these critical endeavors to expand what I read. 
     To be honest, it's a set of benefits that I really didn't give much thought to until recently.  I took it as an inadvertent result of reading the comments of a thoughtful and well read person who is engaged in the genre.  But I've been rethinking that unthought assumption as I work through Farah Mendlesohn's relatively recent book, Rhetorics of Fantasy.  It would be a mistake to understand Mendlesohn's text as simply operating within the same critical framework as those texts.  It brings in a critical vocabulary from the structuralist literary criticism of Todorov, amongst others, and brings in art criticism, as well.  At the same time, it produces a similar chain of associations and connections through rhetorical categories that you find in those texts. 

      What I've finally realized is that this chain of texts is consciously designed to put its readers in touch with a chain of texts that the reader might find similarly interesting, to open up the reader to new worlds of reading through this critical apparatus.  In effect, it's a structure that is not that dissimilar from the book reviews that are also published in such publications, although they offer a broader evaluation of the genre.  At the same time, it points to a criticism that goes beyond that form, through the production of a critical archive, and the production of a series of connections that can be developed further.  But in both cases, the central focus of the engagement is the pleasure of the text.  The works are deeply normative, in this regard, asking what texts might be enjoyable to its readers, as well as why they might enjoy these texts.  Writers such as James Blish and Damon Knight go further as to identify what qualities might produce better fiction. 

      Through that engagement, they remain much more connected to the genre, refusing the separation of critic and writer that is produced by post-structuralist critics such as Pierre Macherey.  Instead, the critic operates more as guide to consumption, a critical archivist, rather than producer of knowledge.  However, we're seeing a synthesis of this older form of criticism with academic criticism recently.  We can see this with Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fiction, along with Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr's The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, and the Parabolas of Science Fiction collection edited by Brian Attebery and Victoria Hollinger. Each of the texts take a pluralistic approach to the reading, while simultaneously engaging in a pluralistic disciplinary approach, combining the structuralist tendencies of Todorov, Suvin, and Delany with the taxonomic approaches that one traditionally finds in the fan and authorial critical writing of any number of writers. It's an interesting approach.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Opening Post

     So, I have decided to start another blog to get back to writing on a more regular basis.  I found myself writing less and less for the last blog, Work Resumed on the Tower, largely, because I had found myself at the end of two major projects that animated my writing during that period, my work as a graduate student, and my work within the reform movement of the graduate student union, Academic Workers for a Democratic Union.  With those projects finished, it made increasingly less sense to continue working on the blog.  I was also in a position where I was fairly substantially underemployed, and at a loss what I would do next with my life without those projects.  I initially considered creating a blog that would focus on my work on science fiction, but I don't feel focused enough to create that blog, and I'm not entirely convinced that I want to get involved in the fights of science fiction fan community.  Perhaps, I will come up with a way to engage with the genre that will avoid the kerfuffles and focus on the formal structures of the genre, but that will have to wait.

     Instead, I'm going to put together a blog that will let me write about any particular topic that comes to mind.  Not surprisingly, I'm probably going to cover a lot of the same things that I covered in the earlier blog, politics, culture, and theory.  You're not going to get the same sort of inside baseball coverage of the union, and the activist and academic politics of the University of California-Irvine, but those were issues that were of interest to a very small group of readers, in any case. On the other hand, I'm not sure what is going to be the focus of the blog because, despite getting some relatively stable employment, I'm not entirely sure what I'm going to be doing with my life.  I'm still in the process of trying to find a tenure track job, but that search is not terribly promising given the state of the humanities.  Additionally, I'm interested in getting involved in political activism again, hopefully outside the subcultural activism that I was previously involved in, but I'm not sure what direction that might take.  In any case, the structure of the blog remains open.

     The title of the blog is taken from a brief inter-title within Jean-Luc Godard's film, Masculin/Feminin, where Godard notes that, if he were to rename this film, hew would call it The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.  The name always appealed to me because it gestured towards the dual influence of radical politics and popular commodity culture on the new left and counter-culture, which largely still influence the radical politics of the United States today, even if that social formation lies in ruins.  It also allows me to recognize two streams within my work, the first being the substantial influence of Marxist theory and practice on my work as both an intellectual and an activist, and the second being my interest in popular culture in a variety of forms, most notably in the form of science fiction, but also music and film.  In any case, the title provides quite a bit of latitude in what I can discuss in the forum, while remaining within the rubric of the title.  Let's see where we go from here...