Saturday, June 09, 2007

Quote of the day, 6/9/07

As a culture, we are coasting on the tag-ends of our assumptions about a lot of things (including the difference between fiction and "propaganda.") ...Outside of commercial genres--which can remain petrified and profitable almost indefinitely--how many more incarnations of the Bitch Goddess can anybody stand? How many more shoot-'em-ups on Main Street? How many more young men with identity problems?

The lack of workable myths in literature, of acceptable dramatization of what our experience means, harms much more than art itself. We do not only choose or reject works of art on the basis of those myths; we interpret our own experience in terms of them. Worse still, we actually perceive what happens to us in the mythic terms our culture provides.

The problem of "outsider" artists is the whole problem of what to do with unlabeled, disallowed, disavowed, not even-consciously perceived experience, experience which cannot be spoken about because it has no embodiment in existing art. Is one to create new forms wholesale--which is practically impossible? Or turn to old ones?...Or "trivial," trashy genres?...

Make something unspeakable and you make it unthinkable.

...Outsiders' writing is always in critical jeopardy. Insiders know perfectly well that art ought to match their ideas of it...

But outsiders' problems are real enough, and we will all be facing them quite soon, as the nature of human experience on this planet changes radically--unless, of course, we all end up in the Second Paleolithic, in which case we will have to set about re-creating the myths of the First Paleolithic.

...Darko Suvin of the University of Montreal has suggested that science fiction patterns often resemble those of medieval literature. I think the resemblance lies in that medieval literature so often dramatizes not peoples' social roles but the life of the soul; hence we find the following patterns in both science fiction and medieval tales:

I find myself in a new world, not knowing who I am or where I came from. I must find these out, and also find out the rules of the world I inhabit (the journey of the soul from birth to death).

Society needs something. I/we must find it (the quest).

We are miserable because our life is out of whack. We must find out what is wrong and change it (the drama of sin and salvation)

Science fiction, political fiction, parable, allegory, exemplum--all carry a heavier intellectual freight (and self-consciously so) than we are used to. All are didactic. All imply that human problems are collective, perceptive, or cognitive--not the fictionally sex-linked problems of success, competition, "castration," education, love, or even personal identity, with which we are all so very familiar. I would even go farther and say that science fiction, political fiction (when successful), and the modes (if not the content) of much medieval fiction all provide myths for dealing with the kinds of experiences we are actually having now, instead of the literary myths we have inherited, which only tell us about the kinds of experiences we think we ought to be having.

...Our current fictional myths leave vast areas of human experience unexplored: work for one, genuine religious experience for another, and above all the lives of the traditionally voiceless, the majority of whom are women. (When I speak of the "traditionally voiceless" I am not pleading for descriptions of their lives--we have had plenty of that by very vocal writers--what I am talking about are fictional myths growing out of their lives and told by themselves for themselves).

Forty years ago those Americans who read books at all read a good deal of fiction. Nowadays such persons read popularized anthropology, psychology, history, and philosophy. Perhaps current fictional myths no longer tell the truth about any of us.

When things are changing, those who know least about them--in the usual terms--may make the best job of them. There is so much to be written about, and here we are with nothing but the rags and tatters of what used to mean something. One thing I think we must know--that our traditional gender roles will not be part of the future, as long as the future is not a second Stone Age. Our traditions, our books, our morals, our manners, our films, our speech, our economic organization, everything we will have inherited, tell us that to be a Man one must bend Nature to one's will--or other men. This means ecological catastrophe in the first instance and war in the second. To be a Woman, one must be first and foremost a mother and after that a server of Men; this means overpopulation and the perpetuation of the first two disasters. The roles are deadly. The myths that serve them are fatal.

Women cannot write--using the old myths.

But using new ones--?

--Joanna Russ, "What Can a Heroine Do? or Why Women Can't Write," 1971, as anthologized in To Write Like a Woman

I had several reasons for choosing this quote today, some of which are not quite as coherent as others--yet.


Tom said...

I like the quote a lot.

Mandos said...

Ah, but here's the thing. Would you have wanted a world in which we never thought of "bending nature to Man's [or whoever's] will"? Yes, we risk catastrophe now, but do you really think it were even possible that we would live in this nature-harmonious bonobo utopia?

belledame222 said...

False dichotomy. She's not arguing for some sort of oosey-goosey primitivism. She's talking about outworn myths. As in, "take the earth, rape it, conquer it, it's yours" (Ann Coulter's charming interpretation of "dominion"). Old habits that no longer serve. Is the point.

Mandos said...

Ah, but DO they no longer serve? Now that we've backed ourselves into a corner, maybe the solution is merely to bend the corner away. This is not the first time people have backed themselves into some kind of corner.

belledame222 said...

mandos, love, I have no idea what the fuck you're trying to say. What?

Mandos said...

Well, Joanna Russ says,

Our traditions, our books, our morals, our manners, our films, our speech, our economic organization, everything we will have inherited, tell us that to be a Man one must bend Nature to one's will--or other men. This means ecological catastrophe in the first instance and war in the second.

Well, for the first (Nature-bending/catastrophe), I'm not sure it could have happened any other way (minus the gender association, perhaps), and if it led us to ecological catastrophe, I'm not sure that the way that leads us out of catastrophe is not more Nature-bending.

Did that make any sense?

KH said...

I’ve never read her novels. Any good? The distinction between literature that dramatizes social roles & fiction that describes the life of the soul is too neat. What about modernist literature? Cultures, or this one, don’t exhaust themselves because the compendia of mythic motifs are exhausted. The problem lies elsewhere. The death of literature, the novel, isn’t caused by any mass turning away from inherited myths. People do still consume stories, just in different media. “24.” The culture industry purveys mostly fiction.

Mandos, the idea is that certain ideas about the domination of nature present problems that they can’t themselves solve. I take it you’re saying that, for example, modern technology produces, say, climate crisis, but that it & only it can solve the problem that it itself produced. That’s arguable in each case. But the argument is different. It’s that the domination of nature creates problems for which there are no technical solutions, above all the way it leads to the domination of people (who are part of nature). This isn’t just a science fiction writer’s theme; it’s a dominant motif of 20th century European high culture, e.g., Husserl, Heidegger, the Frankfurt School, etc., etc.

belledame222 said...

mandos, more so, but 1) it's a product of its time 2) i don't think she is, in fact, making an argument for the Primordial (technological) Fall, just: we've reached an impasse. These stories we tell ourselves are not working for the world we have -now-, and that's the important thing.

kh: i've only read a couple of 'em. Generally I prefer her essays, I have to say, whatever that says.

And yeah, it's a little pat, but again: this is thirty-five+ years old. actually in the intro to that essay she talks about some ways in which her take has evolved (for one thing, she wrote this as a prelude to her own trying to write science fiction). Mostly, though, she evolves and adapts, which is one of the reasons I like her.

Why I like this essay: well, among other things, I was thinking: you know what, that does describe me, at least: I don't read much "regular" fiction. I read psych, history...and I dig shows like Buffy, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly. And yes, I find there's a lot of truth to what she says about the "form" of such shows, and the ways in which they (potentially, in practice they can still be problematic) find ways around the blockages of the more erm traditional stuff.

so yeah, actually, the rest of that essay is in fact about exactly that: the different media. and again, remember, this is written in 1971, steeped rather heavily in English department academia of the era, if that gives you an idea of where she's coming from. She also talks a lot about the ways in which "other" peoples' writing, women, yes, but also Baldwin and other Black men, even the Russians (she posits "canon" as very specifically situated) is "flawed" when viewed through the (then?) dominant lens. The specifics I left out of one paragraph:

Outsiders' writing is always in critical jeopardy. Insiders know perfectly well that art ought to match their ideas of it. Thus insiders notice instantly that the material of -Jane Eyre- is trivial and the emotionality untenable, even thought the structure is perfect. George Eliot, whose point of view is neither peccable nor ridiculously romantic, does not know what fate to award her heroines and thus falsifies her endings. Genet, whose lyrical mode of construction goes unnoticed, is meaningless and disgusting. Kafka, who can "translate" (in his short stories only) certain common myths into fantastic or extreme versions of themselves, does not have Tolstoy's wide grasp of life. (That Tolstoy lacks Kafka's understanding of alienation is sometimes commented upon, but that does not count, of course). Ellison [Ralph, not Harlan; she talks about "Boy and his Dog" elsewhere] is passionate but shapeless and crude. Austen, whose sense of form cannot be impugned, is not passionate enough. Blake is inexplicable. Baldwin lacks Shakespeare's gift of reconciliation. And so on.

belledame222 said...

oh, as per stuff like reality shows, what's happening with our autocannibalization of "celebrity culture"--I actually think that bears out her point even more, several decades later. Pop culture, the zeitgeist, is -weird- right now, you notice? Yeah, there are a few formats that still work (she does address that somewhere in that quote, that tried and true commercial forms will go for a while), but, even so--

well, what -are- our myths? A big one is the "American Dream," we can all be winners if we just try real hard, and competition is a good healthy thing, that's how we flourish.

So, considering that, look at stuff like "Survivor" and all the various spin-offs. "The Weakest Link." What's that really saying about us? Because, I sure as shit see a connection between the increasing meanness and tawdriness of such shows and the increasing meanness and tawdriness of what's happening with the economy. The American Dream isn't really working at this point if it ever did, and at some level I think we know it.

KH said...

Sounds humane.

belledame222 said...

or, you know, this is all of course pre-postmodernism (ha!); but, again, while I can't speak much to the specifics of pomo fiction, I think it also sort of extends her point: it's been all -about- the breakdown of stories that no longer serve.

at this point i think we're all wondering how we might put ourselves together again. that's...broad, i realize, i shouldn't say "we." it's been on my own mind a lot.

belledame222 said...

per her novels: the one I know best is "The Female Man." Ironically enough, there's a lot in it that would resonate with the transphobic creeps (I don't see it as transphobic in itself exactly, there is however a typical of the period posit of a men-born-only world, where boys who can't make the "masculine" cut are relegated to, yep, dolled-up "fembots" for sexual purposes). It's of its time.

But there's a humanity to it that really makes you get where that agony, that frustration of a woman of that particular demographic in that very specific period would be feeling.

more to the point, there's a -lovely,- erotic sequence between her and her female best friend, and do you know, THAT is a big chunk of what i find missing in all this online retro bullshit.

KH said...

What sounds humane is the Russ quote, not “The Weakest Link.” My idiot shrink says I’m too pessimistic – there’s a Bataille line about it always having been possible to say that the bottom’s fallen out, things can’t go on like this – I paraphrase broadly. But, yes, it does all seem hollowed out. People have been noticing that for a very long time. I’m too fragile to pay much attention to it, but what I do see confirms my intuition in spades.

I don’t know if it’s the exhaustion of specific motifs, or a comprehensive loss of meaning, for any motif. I can’t imagine it’s just a matter of economic distress. People used to be poorer.

It’s not just you. There’s an apocalyptic vibe in a lot of reasonable people’s culture right now.

belledame222 said...

Do you know anything about "transpersonal psychology?" There was a conference I went to a few years back where the theme was "The Re-Enchantment of the World." I think there's a lot to that. "The Hollow Men" was a hundred fucking years ago, "God is Dead" has been around for a while, and the versions resurrected by the fundamentalist zealots seem increasingly Dawn of the Dead-like.

it -is- an apocalyptic era. has been for a while. as was quoted toward the end of 'Angel:"

"You're soaking in it."

I think collectively we're at one of those pivotal moments: we can, quite literally, change or die.

actually, it's always both/and. change -is- death. death is change.

the question is, how do we want to go about this, because it's happening, like it or not.

KH said...

"Reenchantment .." is an old Morris Berman book, which I never read. I did read, a lifetime ago, his "All That Is Solid Melts Into Air" (a line from the Communist Manifesto), which is an fairly interesting, kind of slapdash gloss on ideas of modernity. He's sort of a bright, decent, fluent, mystagogic, not esp. rigorous kook. (I don't mean that as a criticism.)

I know the term "transpersonal ...," but have no idea what it means.

I think Eliot was just saying what everybody felt. His solution is of course wrong, or at least unavailable to me.

By way of consolation, I tell myself that I've got no more influence on the course of the future than I do on the course of the 14th century. I can't imagine it will end well, but then again, I've never been a particularly strong horse.

That's my dark personal revelation for the day.

belledame222 said...


Alon Levy said...

I'm not sure about the overarching theory, but this seems misplaced:

we find the following patterns in both science fiction and medieval tales:

I find myself in a new world, not knowing who I am or where I came from. I must find these out, and also find out the rules of the world I inhabit (the journey of the soul from birth to death).

The science fiction I've read and watched isn't like that at all - even what predates this quote. In The Caves of Steel, the novel that made Asimov famous, Bailey doesn't need to find out the rules of his world; he already knows them perfectly well, and only needs to apply them to solving the book's main conflict.

belledame222 said...

she's pretty clear that she doesn't mean everything in the entire genre, elsewhere.

but f'r instance, I think "Battlestar Galactica" (the new version) fits that template pretty well.

Deoridhe said...

We do not only choose or reject works of art on the basis of those myths; we interpret our own experience in terms of them. Worse still, we actually perceive what happens to us in the mythic terms our culture provides.

I'm going to post the notes from a conference I went to recently which ties into this, albeit not directly. I think you'll find it interesting; a chunk of his presentation was poetry. Kicked some gender stuff up in the air, too, leading to some interesting effects.

Anyway, if I get time, it'll go up tonight. It gut punched me, so I've been dragging my feet on sharing.

belledame222 said...

look forward to it, d.

Anonymous said...

alon levy, I think Caves of Steel was actually about knowing his own world's rules too well, and being able to see things differently from how they appeared to be.

I'm more or less busking this as I go along here, but:

The solution required being able to envisage a new, different, way of doing and seeing things, and the Bailey/R. Daneel Olivaw series essentially were a saga of how humanity breaks out of a system that has worked for centuries, but has become poisonous and dead.

There is a very strong analogy between Caves of Steel and its sequels, and the challenge described by Russ. "Caves of Steel" shows us the problem, and the genesis of new ideas. "The Naked Sun" puts Bailey in a situation where he, personally, has to face the only possible solution to the massive problems facing humanity, and then that personal experience becomes political and the theory and activism from that personal experience start being developed in "The Robots of Dawn".

This narrative, of having to find a new way to think in order to be able to progress, is revisited in the conclusion to the R, Daneel Olivaw story-arc, "Robots and Empire", when again humanity is only able to grow when it is forced by a changing and potentially cataclysmic situation, to follow a radically new course. It also requires a character (Giskard) to think in a new and radically different way about how he sees the world, in order to help bring about the change.

Alon Levy said...

Oh, the sequels do conform to what Russ said, sure. But the original one doesn't; even its resolution required merely applying the rules of what humans and robots could and could not do to the situation at hand. The Naked Sun is something else, but it wasn't an originally planned sequel, but rather something Asimov wrote to capitalize on the success of The Caves of Steel.

What does seem to conform to what Russ says is epic fantasy, which typically features a provincial character who is guided into greatness. The similarities to medieval literature are then not very surprising in light of the fact that Lord of the Rings has a very medievalist outlook in general, and subsequent epic fantasy consists of rewrites of LOTR.

Trinity said...


i'm not so sure I agree.

well maybe i do. it depends on setting. if you're writing realistic fiction, set in particular communities, she's right -- real stories of the XXXXX community are often better written by members of that community, yeah.

but stuff with weird settings and such... eh. I tend to think most of that's archetypal, and the artistry stems from not only how believable it is but how fresh and new you can make it.

I'm not so sure that's because, say, sci-fi is medieval under another guise (though that nicely explains why sf and fantasy parallel one another) so much as it is because there's something appealing about hiding real-world oppression.

it's easier to think about and understand if the Weezles oppress the Nanus. if it's the men oppressing the women, it's too personal. too easy to say "oh, THAT's not how it is" or "oh, it's not THAT bad"

6the latter being, i think, why sf/f is so GOOD at pushing us to examine the nooks and crannies of our own lives: "IS it like that? I'm well off -- gods, AM I A WEEZLE?!??!"

I dunno. I mean I get the point that there are motifs in white American Lit that don't work for everyone, and miss parts of oppressed peoples' stories. And I agree... but only up to a point.

belledame222 said...

hm. well, yeah, it goes both ways--sometimes the erm metaphorical aspects serve to obfuscate. if it's just a simplistic 1:1 analogy. But more often, I think, symbols, good ones, are more than the sum of their parts.

which is what myth is about.

i think that's why i really agree with her. the truly epic stories seem to need...something a little extra, these days.

Trinity said...

Like take my novel. I can make the main character a real snooty asshat and still make a point about negative stereotypes of SM people, because the whole question of sexuality is open in the made-up world in a way it's not in this one. Of course hardcore anti-SM people won't get my point either way. But it offers a lens: okay, so what does being a top mean in a world where there WAS no Freud or no MacKinnon or no de Sade?

sometimes when all that's filtered out... it helps people see through their cultural filters.

Trinity said...

and, y'know, it can really get you going as a writer, too. like... in my novel, i wanted it to be ambiguous what these people's relationship is with Earth.

So that meant... characters doing SM, but I cringed to use that word, as Sade and Masoch were *people* in an Earth timeline.

So I forbade myself to use "sadist" "masochist" etc. And it really made things unusually hard. I no longer had this catchall concept with all these nuances of meaning and flavor, and I had to use words like, say, "cruel" and then deal with them in context.

And it's really made me think, and I think it's making the piece better too. Because instead of "oh yeah, she's a sadistic dominant top"... what is she? What are her motivations? What does she like about pain or control? How does the woman she's seducing, who is in a sense used to practicing or pretending mild submission (she's a sex worker), respond to this? What is it she discovers when she enjoys it?

I have to SAY those things because the new world/setting means they DON'T come prepackaged with meaning

even though T&C are rather archetypal SM dykes *in some ways*.

Alon Levy said...

I don't think fantasy is written with that in mind. Genre fantasy and to some extent SF are very oblivious to how race and gender and even class work. Even when they are present, they're written as mere plot devices rather than as commentary on our own world.

Wars between humans and elves and mistrust between elves and dwarves are never portrayed in a way that's even remotely analogous to modern race relations. If a society has a racial underclass, the underclass will typically be presented as innately stupid and weak (think Dragonlance's gully dwarves).

Gender relations in fantasy and SF tend to be projections of those of the author's milieu into the past or future. In fantasy it's impossible because in a medieval society where 90% of the people are peasants, infant mortality is 250/1,000, and 20% of mothers die in childbirth, the only social structure that makes sense is severe patriarchy. In science fiction nobody ever talks about sexism or gender, but still almost all strong characters are male.

Alon Levy said...

Two things...

1. Trin, what is your novel about, exactly?

2. What I said about fantasy/SF here applies mostly to the archetypes. I haven't read Le Guin, but to my understanding she doesn't have those problems. The fantasy I'm talking about is in the tradition of Tolkien; the SF is in this of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein.

belledame222 said...

because the new world/setting means they DON'T come prepackaged with meaning

Right, I think that's her point.

belledame222 said...

altho' in the later-written intro she does say she's gotten rather jaded about SF qua SF, which can be just as reactionary and hackneyed as anything else, etc.

Trinity said...

"The fantasy I'm talking about is in the tradition of Tolkien"

that covers *so* much ground I'm not sure what to say in response.

and my novel is um... weird. it's half plot and half smut, which probably means neither audience will want it. but I dun care so nyah!

it's basically this story of this woman who has a reputation for what we would call SM sadism who gets a courtesan to fall for her, laced with some political intrigue. I'm trying to make it both hot and somewhat interesting plot-wise. i think it just might be crazy enough to work :-P but the setting is your standard sci-fi futurey universe with sharp class system thing.

and... yeah. the racism in fantasy/analogies to "racism" in sf ARE oversimplified and ridiculous. I still think, though, that it CAN get people thinking and CAN be done well.

I mean, wasn't the first interracial kiss on US television Kirk/Uhura? because that wasn't quite as scandalous if it was some weird people in space?

and sometimes you CAN go further if you're just-barely-hiding the real-world thing you're poking at.

but it's the real artists who manage that and most writers ain't them.

and Heinlein... eh. I wasn't around then but I got the impression he was rather weird for his time.

Sabrina Star said...

I've been reading everything i can get my hands on by Sheri S. Tepper. (I've been moving a bit more slowly with Octavia Butler because she addresses things so intense i find myself needing a year or so to process her books.)

Butler and Tepper are two great examples of women using science fiction to craft entirely new myths.

Alon Levy said...

I have an embryonic idea for a fantasy book that does tackle those issues... but I have a backlog of about 3 or 4 books I want to write before that one.

The idea is that the protagonists' native country's dominant philosophy is based on horizontal rather than vertical stratification. Vertical stratification puts people on a pyramid of power, with an upper class, a middle class, and a lower class. Horizontal stratification is based on the idea that all classes, all occupations, and both genders are necessary for society to function, so basing one's status on them is futile. On the other hand, units like nations, regions, and clans can be more or less self-sufficient, so they're a sound basis for stratifying society.

So on the one hand you get gender equality (gender roles exist, but lead to equally varied and equally respected occupations) and something like welfare, but on the other you get very strong regional identities. Those regional identities get stronger the bigger the region is, so on the national level they turn into racism so severe that people in the country in question barely even recognize people of other countries as human.

The plot's trigger is that a sorceress who likes fencing - itself something forbidden to both women and sorcerers - and especially fancies a sword she found that was manufactured in another country. She flees from her village. A soldier who fancies her tries to convince his family to protect her; instead, they both get exiled. Then they have to find a place to settle that doesn't treat women like dirt and doesn't think everything that's foreign is evil.

Mandos said...

I like both Tepper and Butler, but I'm surprised at the popularity of Tepper among feminists; or maybe I shouldn't be. But Tepper, while definitely being a feminist author, comes off as very essentialist from time to time, and some of her ideas seem highly problematic from other standpoints, like the concept of "glusi" in The Fresco.

Sabrina Star said...


I know what you mean about Tepper, sometimes what she writes has a hint of too much obvious distinction between male and female whatever-it-is, like hitting the reader over the head with it sorta thing.

IMO it usually turns out to be forgivable. She has males in her books who "get it" at least as often as males who don't.

Mandos said...

Well, even without gender, there is, I guess, a touch of standard SF-style elitism. I mean, her solution to the problem of poverty in America in The Fresco (which is what I was alluding to) is the notion of "glusi" and the Glusi Centers, which, if I recall correctly, was the place where the indolent and the unmotivated get upkeep free of charge but have some kind of workfare sort of thing? Maybe I misinterpreted it.

Tepper relies a whole lot on ironic retribution, I've noticed, and some of that can be kind of ideologically questionable.

Also a certain amount of elitism, like in Gibbon's Decline and Fall, where the


protagonist is given the opportunity to unilaterally alter human reproductive biology to fit a radical feminist programme. She's given five different options by these aliens.

Deoridhe said...

FYI, the post I mentioned is up, though I'm still adding poems.

I mean, wasn't the first interracial kiss on US television Kirk/Uhura? because that wasn't quite as scandalous if it was some weird people in space?

They also had one of the first integrated casts, or so I hear. There was also an episode where they interacted with a race of people who were half black, half white, divided literally down the middle, and oppressed each other based on which side the different shades were.

But for the purposes of all this examination, the default was white and male, and that's the default that continues to this day. Le Guin talked in her latest Earthsea book (Tehanu, I think) about how she fell for that trap even while she tried to avoid the racial bias one (even in Left hand of darkness, the two characters are, for all intents and purposes, treated as male).

I didn't find Tehanu a satisfying response to that conclusion, though, as the entire plot revolved around how men ignore, rape, attempt to murder, discount, and devalue women EXCEPT FOR ONE and he's not really around. I mean, Tehanu's a kick-ass character, and survives things well, but she was taking on the world and... it just made me depressed. Unlike her treatment of Ged and the other men, where the plot was about things other than his skin tone, Tehanu's story was entirely about how, as a female, her intelligence and skill was repeatedly ignored and, when not ignored, was used as a reason to mistreat her.


And another of my favorite sci-fi stories, where the main character IS female (white) and minorities ARE mentioned (via internal inferiority complex on the part of the privileged white character) I realized there was an underlying racism because even though she has the requisite white liberal guilt - SHE'S THE ONE WITH THE ADVENTURES. She may not be as cool as everyone else, but the alien's think she's REALLY neat.

The ...pale skinned aliens. *sigh*

I mean, I love the story, I want more, I'll read it again, but once, just once, I'd like a book that handles race and gender and sexuality and everything else without making some part of me cringe.

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