Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Queering Utopia

Oscar Wilde wrote in his essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” that “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”

Tom Moylan echoes this concept in “Absent Paradigms” (mainly 64-5) - Utopia is not a concrete map; it is a “mapping,” a constant performance. Utopia is unattainable. How can science fiction impart utopian impulses to readers? By positioning the reader in the text, the narrative works on the reader, encouraging the reader “to ‘break out of the passivity and illusionism of the traditional reading experience in an effort to push the reader to work for change.’” (Fitting qtd in Moylan, p 54). The reader must work “from the inside” to fill in the details left out of such utopian science fiction works, glimpsing utopia in the “absent paradigm of the alternative world” (52).

In Crusing Utopia: the then and there of queer futurity, Jose Esteban Munoz writes about the utopian nature of the queer movement. “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality…. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality…. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.” (1) Soon after that, he claims that “Queerness is also a performative because it is not simply a being but a doing for and toward the future. Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.” (1) Munoz opens with Oscar Wilde’s quote for a reason — queerness is a vision to work towards, it may never be attainable. His language may be very different from Moylan’s explanation of absent paradigms, but queerness operates through an absent paradigm.

Constance Penley’s “Nasa/Trek” and Jennifer DeVere Brody’s “The Returns of Cleopatra Jones” both offer queer readings of seemingly heterosexual characters through this framework of absent paradigms. Penley writes of K/S (Kirk and Spock fanfiction) as a way for women to write a space for themselves in Star Trek (Penley describes Star Trek as a supposedly egalitarian world 300 years in the future, but there weren’t any female captains for years). Penley also cites the argument that “science fiction, seemingly the most sexless of genres, is in fact engrossed with questions of sexual difference and sexual relations, which it repeatedly addresses alongside questions of other kinds of differences and relations” (103). In other words, science fiction, because it seems sexless, is a prime target for readers to fill in absent paradigms of sexuality with ideas of queer sexuality. Star Trek “fans recognized that there was an erotic homosexual subtext there, or at least one that could easily be made to be there” (101-102).

DeVere posits a similar argument to explain why (primarily queer black feminist) fans cast Cleopatra Jones as a black queer figure. “In order to (mis)recognize Cleo as a ‘queer’ black heroine, these readers creative have deformed and erased aspects of the film character’s initial reception. In other words, the image of Cleopatra Jones can be ‘queered’ only through a canny counterreading that privileges different desires that result from spatiotemporal distance” (103). In this sense, arguing for a queer reading of Cleopatra Jones involves actively erasing and reworking the initial intent and public perception of her character (as a blaxploitation heroine who had to appeal to an audience of primarily black heterosexual men). Cleopatra Jones is not “sexless” — recognizing a queer subtext in the Cleopatra Jones films requires a utopian performance that overwrites the original perception of her character, building an absent paradigm that wasn’t originally there and filling it in with a queer vision.
In this way, absent paradigms, queer futurity, and utopian visions all have similar trajectories that can find a unique vehicle in science fiction.


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