Fantasy as Subversion: Unbinding the World

Red Planets we have. We should not neglect the red dragons.
—China Miéville

Realism gives me the impression of a mistake. Violence alone escapes the feeling of poverty of those realistic experiences. Only death and desire have the force that oppresses, that takes one’s breath away. Only the extremism of desire and death enable one to attain the truth.
― Georges Bataille, The Impossible: A Story of Rats

In one of his usual drifts Slavoj Zizek tells us the reproduction of the Real in our time is handled by the vast mediatainment system whose sole responsibility is to reproduce the capitalist fantasy: “the world in which the corporate Capital succeeded in penetrating and dominating the very fantasy-kernel of our being: none of our features is really “ours”; even our memories and fantasies are artificially planted. It is as if Fredric Jameson’s thesis on postmodernism as the epoch in which Capital colonizes the last resorts hitherto excluded from its circuit is here brought to its hyperbolic conclusion: the fusion of Capital and Knowledge brings about a new type of proletarian, as it were the absolute proletarian bereft of the last pockets of private resistance; everything, up to the most intimate memories, is planted, so that what remains is now literally the void of pure substanceless subjectivity (substanzlose Subjektivitaet—Marx’s definition of the proletarian).”1

In this sense the supposed sciences that were to produce truth and set us free of our ancient enslavement to religious consciousness and the empirical ego-self etc. through neurosciences, seem bent on migrating into new ideologies and scientific philo-fictions of non-human, posthuman, inhuman, anti-human, transhuman (all vying for the next enslavement or fantasy production of the Real). Just at the moment when capitalism in its old neoliberal form is deteriorating, decaying, and dying before our eyes the beast itself, Capital, is migrating into another fantasy, another world…

Rosemary Jackson on Fantasy:

As a critical term, ‘fantasy’ has been applied rather indiscriminately to any literature which does not give priority to realistic representation: myths, legends, folk and fairy tales, utopian allegories, dream visions, surrealist texts, science fiction, horror stories, all presenting realms ‘other’ than the human. A characteristic most frequently associated with literary fantasy has been its obdurate refusal of prevailing definitions of the ‘real’ or ‘possible’, a refusal amounting at times to violent opposition. ‘A fantasy is a story based on and controlled by an overt violation of what is generally accepted as possibility; it is the narrative result of transforming the condition contrary to fact into “fact” itself’ (Irwin, p. x). Such violation of dominant assumptions threatens to subvert (overturn, upset, undermine) rules and conventions taken to be normative. This is not in itself a socially subversive activity: it would be naive to equate fantasy with either anarchic or revolutionary politics. It does, however, disturb ‘rules’ of artistic representation and literature’s reproduction of the ‘real’.

In contradistinction to the fine thinking above of Jackson we would say that in our world it is ‘Real’ which is subverting the ‘Fantasy’ of capitalism in our contemporary setting. It is not the sciences per se that must come under scrutiny, but rather the sciences as bound and forced into a utilitarian straight-jacket by a capitalist teleology. The goals of capitalism and the sciences need not be bound together forever. In fact at one time the sciences were supposedly outside the economic and political sphere, and bound to the pursuit of knowledge (whatever that is anymore?). Of course, this too, was another sweet lie we told ourselves; for in truth the sciences have always been bound to the economic sphere, and bound to serve those powers who offer to support and fund its efforts. So that the sciences have never been about truth or knowledge per se, but rather about the “truth” and “knowledge” needed to serve the “power” of Capital.

China Miéville in an essay for Red Planets Marxism and Science Fiction that the barriers between SF (Science Fiction) proper, and Fantasy have been controlled by an authoritarian notion of ‘cognitive literature’ bound to the critical enterprise of Darko Suvin and his ephebe, Carl Freeman:

There is little doubt that the Freedman/Suvin theory is accurate in asserting that, for that folk-understanding of SF-not-fantasy, SFness is a function of the cognition effect – an embedded relation in the text between cognition and the reality function. However, any claim that the effect is a function of embedded cognitive rational rigour is untrue. To the extent that the cognition effect is about cognition, it is precisely about it, about a putatively logical way of thinking, not a function of it. And inasmuch as the experienced effect is in fact a function of authority, the ‘cognition effect’, in deriving supposed cognitive logic from external authority, is not only fundamentally a-rational but also intensely ideological. (239)

The point here is that the division between SF and Fantasy is one or persuasion and trickery, which exploit the underlying mechanisms of cognitive logic in the sciences as if it were the same as the function of logic itself within SF as a cognitive effect, when in truth this cognitive logic is bound to “external authority” which is neither logical or rational but rather “a-rational but also intensely ideological”.3 What this leads to is the very notion we are facing today with the so-called “technological fix” in which the sciences offer us the best chance of survival in the coming age of Climate Change and degradation, but as Miéville argues:

The cognition effect – a term which grows more sinister the more the phenomenon is critically interrogated – surrenders the terrain of supposed conceptual logic and rigour to the whims and diktats of a cadre o f ‘expert’ author-functions. This is a translation into metaliterary and aggrandising terms of the very layer of technocrats often envisaged in SF and its cultures as society’s best hope. (239).

This instrumentalist vision of an patrician class (Oligarchs) supervening through corporate and banking institutions, think tanks and the academy, and the capitalist bound sciences that serve these moneyed classes and institutions give way to a form of modern barbarism in which the populace becomes socially engineered to serve these almost Manhattan Project style techno-econmic systems in a ‘consensual’ surrender to the persuasive ideological power of Capital. The message M presents is that under capitalist pressure and its “hegemonising” conceptual agenda the “lies of ideology, in other words, do not necessarily do their job by being believed, but by hegemonising a conceptual agenda irrespective of whether they are believed”. (241)

One sees this daily in the battle between progressive and reactionary forces in the press that pit the various agendas of Climate Change forecasting and modeling against each other with both using rhetoric and persuasion to bolster up their various ideological claims. We see this being played out in various authors of SF and Fantasy in our age, and yet both are bound to these deeper ideological systems than many would believe. Again Miéville:

The idea that, because SF is deep-structured by an ideological conception of the world, fantasy is less so, is foolish. The claim that fantasy is in some systematic way resistant to ideology or rebellious against authority is, as anyone who knows the genre can attest, laugh-out-loud funny. (242).

Ultimately both SF and Fantasy can support visions that break with the authoritarian and capitalist modes of the production of the ‘real’ through cognitive estrangement no longer bound to an instrumentalist vision, one that seeks to disturb the real by the Unreal or estrangement from the ideological prison of Capital. This has typically been a function of utopian/dystopian desire and estrangement by way of interrogating the boundaries between reality and the Real.

The Real is that which is outside all our linguistic, imaginary and symbolic, reference points: it is that which cannot be reduced to our socio-cultural constraints or ideological pollution. Instead the Real is that which disturbs our ideological constructs, our apparent or so-called ‘reality’ that has been defined by language, symbol, sign, etc. Since Kant the interrogation of our socio-cultural ideologies and reality constructs has been the main agenda of philosophical projects whether in its Continental of Analytic modes.

If Language produces reality, and the Real is that which cannot be reduced to Language; then the very truth of things is this disturbance in-between which forces us out of our ideological nightmares and estranges us from them to the point of absolute alterity in which we are confronted by the Unreal of the Impossible.

  1. Žižek, Slavoj. Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology. Duke University Press Books (October 19, 1993)
  2. Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy – A Literature of the Subversive. Routledge; 1 edition (March 7, 2008)
  3.  Bold, Mark; Miéville, China. Red Planets Marxism and Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press (September 8, 2009)

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