Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Absence of Absence

Tom Moylan’s essay “Absent Paradigms” like the Science Fiction it works to describe, define and analyze, is marked by a nearly complete absence of the popular voices which Moylan and Constance Penley suggest are vital to the America’s scientific imagination. Moylan, much to my confusion, elides public social protests of the early to mid-20th century with academic wrangling about the definition of Science Fiction. In his broad summary of critical liberal thought over the last 70 years Moylan suggests that Sci-Fi writers “grew from and fed back into the countercultural and sometimes counterhegemonic space of this broad oppositional phenomenon” (Moylan 33) . Moylan’s statement seems something of a truism – writers were in some, vague and largely undefined way, influenced by the politics of their time. His vague pronouncement is more troubling, however, as he continues his analysis of academic thought and its relation to science fiction.

Moylan’s essay does much work in (re)constructing a narrative of the development of the science fiction genre by, like the scholars he critiques, excluding popular authors. Lamenting the exclusionary practices of elite liberal critics Moylan writes:

The dominant "high culture" camp continued the corrosive work familiar to the logic of mainstream academic liberalism by isolating and than appropriating a small portion of sf for inclusion in the established literary canon. In that hegemonic perspective, "popular" works of sf and "tendentious" works of utopian narration were relegated to shadowy margins and only exceptional examples (like a select few "scholarship boys") were cut out of the pack and rehabilitated by reducing them to their similarities with the already privileged canonical works of Western literature. [Moylan 38]

The “established literary canon” which Moylan broadly labels as conservative and traditional is also the canon from which Moylan produces his critique. Moylan quotes at length the work of Joanna Russ and Darko Suvin the potentialities of science fiction to radically reimagine human experience. Yet his analysis largely ignores what he terms “inside criticism.” Looking to “established” critics of sf, published in journals and located within the ivory towers of elite universities, Moylan assumes other forms of criticism are inaccessible:

One area that is often neglected (and that is important for a larger cultural studies approach) is the critical work that has occurred within the realm of sf publishing (by writers and editors) and fandom, as opposed to academic criticism, what some call "inside criticism.” Therefore, Gary Westfahl's essay on what the terms the "popular tradition" of sf criticism needs especially to be acknowledged.[Moylan 36-37]

But simply pointing to the lack of engagement with popular, and fan produced, criticism while proceeding in an analysis wedded to academic critique seems inappropriate. Moylan’s brief call for acknowledgment is akin to ethnographers who state the impact of scientific discourses to objectify and ossify the cultures they attempt to represent and then continue in their pseudo-scientific analysis. Simply calling attention to a problematic mode of interpretation doesn’t remedy an author’s obligation to think through, or around, the mode of interpretation.


Post a Comment