What We Talked About At ISA: Political Speech in Fantastical Worlds

Game of Thrones - Race as a Floating Signifier

Four years ago, I tried to capture a discomfit with the new embrace of the pop-cultural within IR. The focus then was on the way putatively mainstream categories were put to use in the interpretation of science and speculative fiction. This year at ISA (see passim), I extended and nuanced that view, to account both for the great rise in pedagogical uses for the pop-cultural, and to push more forcefully at ‘critical’ approaches to the same.[1]

Like others, I am hostile to the success of zombies (or, to be frank, Dan Drezner’s version of zombies) as a useful way to stimulate reflection on world politics in all its variety. For zombie-IR, elements of the speculative and the fantastical are recruited to make sense of world politics not because they trouble or undermine or reimagine it, but because they replicate it in a way that is taken to be more easily digestible than speaking directly of world politics itself. Such simplification has come under challenge (here, here, and here, for example) and so cannot be said to characterise all approaches to the speculative. But the trend – what I term the speculative as descriptive analogy – certainly appears to be the most popular one. Let us call this Drezner’s Law: the more directly an ‘analysis’ of pop culture reflects dominant categories and concerns, the more broadly that analysis will be consumed.

Despite a single footnote on the zombie as metaphor, and a small gesture towards them as expressions of capitalist consumerism, the main accomplishment of Theories of International Politics and Zombies is to reify monolithic theories, which are taken to be no less than ‘paradigms’. In a feat of definitional feat, those dominant ‘paradigms’ (Realism, Liberalism, Constructivism, Neo-Conservatism, Role Theory) in turn hold the key truths to world politics “whether researchers admit it or not” (really?). It seems churlish to deny the usefulness of pedagogical lubricant, but it also becomes hard to avoid the sense of scholars bored to tears by the delivery of paint-by-number theory courses and the yearly task of boiling down paradigms and lineages into the simplest distinctions (Realists think states matter, liberals are interested in cooperation, constructivists believe in, well, social construction). Articulating these ideas through a new universe alleviates the boredom, however fleetingly, and raises a wry smile at the comparisons. The popular appeal of shows like Battlestar Galactica or Game of Thrones also makes it possible to generate interest in more complex themes through blog and social media ‘outreach’, as if mobilising cultural artefacts to recruit students or prove that scholars are somehow ‘in touch’. The human face of political science.

This ‘success’ presages a reduction of culture to the material for potted walk-throughs of IR theories, rather than as a prompt to thinking differently. We are therefore left with a challenge. What would it mean to follow Hannah and Wilkinson in “tak[ing] an IR of the undead seriously in the classroom”? For although the descriptive analogical register has many superficial similarities with a more critical approach to pop culture (it deals in the same objects, it breaks down boundaries between representation and represented, it admits of some pleasure in the reception of (fantastical) political discourses), it is in many ways a diametrically opposed pedagogical project. Where the emphasis for critical scholars is consistently on unsettling and re-imagining the commonsensical categories of global politics, the descriptive-analogical reifies them. The message is that these brave new worlds – in all their imaginative splendour and danger – are at root just like our one, and indeed interpretable within the bounds of our most conventional theories. Notwithstanding the experience of classroom distraction, we should not confuse a certain increased attention and enjoyment in the zombie or wizard parallel with an increased tempo of critical thinking. The joy of the familiar – and of having confounding, challenging, methodologically strenuous theory reduced to well-worn plot points – is not the energy of discovery.

Mad Magazine - Planet of the Apes

The above criticisms are not new. So what do we speak of when we speak critically of pop culture and world politics? We say that pop culture “reproduces” things (power relations, prejudices, myths about politics); that it “naturalises” existing histories and power relations, even if in a fantastical register; that it “mirrors” our own political worlds, “illustrates concepts”, expresses geopolitical anxieties; or is otherwise “illuminative” of contemporary politics. It may not act as a linear cause on real world events, but nevertheless “provide[s] one layer in the complex continuum” producing feelings towards others. Following Cindy Weber, “fictional universes serve as silent, sub-textual pillars of the real”. More strongly, SF can make “ethical sophistication [possible] by displacing events” or even in part contribute to the constitution of a world in which hierarchy, intervention and militarism are taken for granted”, the world in question being ours. Drezner himself is both more cautious and more open: pop culture “often provides a window into the subliminal or unstated fears of citizens”.

These are all claims that the text of speculative fiction increases our understanding of the world we inhabit and which we take as real, non-speculative, mundane, actionable. And that is the first step in formulating change in the non-speculative, but ontologically open, actual world. Even to say that fiction ‘reproduces’ is to suggest that we gain an insight into the power that is being reproduced by examining the language in which it is reproduced. This is still a view of SF as analogical, although surely we must note how much richer the options above are then is implied by the mere matching up of objects in fiction and fact (this zombie represents terrorism, and the like). The analogical is supposed to be a key mechanism in how SF works, alongside the use of extrapolation that makes its painted futures believable (or allows the part suspension of disbelief). An expanded sense of what analogy can do – which we might distinguish from the ‘descriptive’ analogical by calling it ‘critical’ analogical – is what invests it with promise. Through its peculiar techniques, then, SF enables an account of the present which “is inaccessible directly, is numb, habituated, empty of affect. Elaborate strategies of indirection are therefore necessary if we are to break through our monadic insulation and to ‘experience’, for some first and real time, this ‘present’, which is after all all we have”. Thus does the analysis of SF take on the qualities of a scholarly-political project, and thus can it be said to operate – at its best – in a manner not dissimilar to critical theory or post-structuralism.

No less an insider of politically-charged speculative fictions than Joanna Russ argued that SF is didactic. It teaches lessons, if by a tortuous path. This approach is key for critical-analogical reasoning. Examples can be enumerated. Blade Runner and Planet of the Apes serve as meditations on scientific racism and segregation, and smuggle refutations thereof in their entertaining surfaces. The evaporation of Colin Powell stand-in General Casey in Mars Attacks! offers a critique of the conservative politics of black respectability in the United States. In offering us example after example of seduction in the Cylon genocide/deception, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica reflects the dominance of registers of heterosexuality in signifying human being itself. Le Guin’s ‘The Word For World Is Forest’ can be seen as “one of the major SF denunciations of the American genocide in Vietnam”. These are all indeed lessons of a kind.

We Can Do It - Hunger Games District Six

But although this account of the critical didactic in SF holds, it is not all there is. Moreover, that the embrace of this account within the pop-cultural-IR community ignores a tension at the foundation of the speculative that threatens to undo all criticism. The claim for the special powers of SF in this instance may somewhat dissipate if we were to read The Dispossessed side by side with George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia or Emma Goldman’s Living My Life. In distinctly non-speculative registers, they too surely offer a critique of the present, a vision of alternative futures, and a sense of rich experience (as compared to dry political dogmatism). They progress by extrapolation and analogy, as we already admit when we link utopian fictions to the material of the utopias that inhere in all political visions

To say that SF is didactic is not to say that it is necessarily politically didactic, although we would perhaps like it to be. To extract lessons from fictions is not all that different from using fictions in lessons. If the latter risks simplification and reduction, then so must the former. To continually ‘read’ the speculative for political content, for coded messages about ourselves sent from a future we have imagined in the present, is to foreclose an ambiguity and a certain richness. More, it is in part to confuse the registers that belong to different (ideal) types of writing. It is to somehow sidestep the production in us of what China Miéville has called “that peculiar, unsettling, vaguely supernatural sensation”. Proper monsters do not brook resolution or party allegiance. Put otherwise, aesthetic sensibilities cannot replace political speech, even if there is such a thing as political aesthetics. The programmatic character of politics, its specificity and its antagonism (or antagonism towards it) cannot be smuggled wholesale via character or plot or symbolism. They are different things, and work on us in different ways. We acknowledge as much when we write of resonances, or intertexts, rather than cause-and-effect, but still here we flinch from the possibility either than the speculative obscures our world in the creation of another or, more fundamentally, that its measure lies not in how much it illuminates our mundane political life.

Star Trek - Obama Nichols Uhura

This may appear a deeply conservative suggestion, as if (once again) fiction or culture was being relegated to the sphere of the frivolous, unfit for scholarly attention. This is not what I intend. For how could we not see politics in a passage such as this, from Joanna Russ’ The Female Man:

(Man, one assumes, is the proper study of Mankind. Years ago we were all cave Men. Then there is Java Man and the future of Man and the values of Western Man and existential Man and economic Man and Freudian Man and the Man in the moon and modern Man and eighteenth-century Man and too many Mans to count or look at or believe. There is Mankind. An eerie twinge of laughter garlands these paradoxes. For years I have been saying Let me in, Love me, Approve me, Define me, Regulate me, Validate me, Support me. Now I say Move over. If we are all Mankind, it follows to my interested and righteous and rightnow very bright and beady little eyes, that I too am a Man and not a Women, for honestly now, whoever heard of Java Woman and existential Woman and the values of Western Woman and scientific Woman and the alienated nineteenth-century Woman and all the rest of that dingy and antiquated rag-bag? All the rags in it are White, anyway. I think I am a Man; I think you had better call me a Man; I think you will write about me as a Man from now on and speak of me as a Man and employ me as a Man and treat me as a Man until it enters your muddled, terrified, preposterous, nine-tenths-fake, loveless, papier-mâché-bull-moose head that I am a man. (And you are a woman.) That’s the whole secret. Stop hugging Moses’ tablets to your chest, nitwit; you’ll cave in. Give me your Linus blanket, child. Listen to the female man. If you don’t, by God and all the Saints, I’ll break your neck.)

The ‘message’ here is strikingly clear, at least if we sense that the politics of the character are like the politics of the author. So perhaps we can clarify by distinguishing two ways in which SF might be political. First, as political expression: the speculative is, as we so often stress, not just a dream of what might be, but a reflection of what is, and always already saturated with our political satisfactions and dissatisfactions. Different texts will stress those themes in their own way, and some may be conservative or reactionary, as well as emancipatory in their desires. The second sense is as political programme. References to re-imagining politics through SF indicate this kind of role, as if a Le Guin or a Delany unlocks something in us that is directly – or at least quickly – translatable into an alternative future that we can make manifest. A successful example like Orwell’s Animal Farm, understood by almost all as anti-Stalinist political programme, indeed appears to transcend categories like ‘SF’ or ‘fantasy’ and becomes a political fable.

These two varieties of political inflection do have a role that is peculiar to SF as a genre. It remains true to say that SF “strays”(as Russ puts it) into a range of extra-literary fields, including politics and history, and hence that criticism of it must stray into those fields also, in a way markedly at odds with criticism of naturalistic fiction. Thinking of SF as politically expressive is vague, but the vagueness is crucial, since it maintains the openness and ambiguity of cultural artefacts. It is still politics, but at a different cadence than is implied by substituting in of ‘our’ actors for their make-believe counter-parts, or reducing something like Frankenstein to a displaced manifesto on the evils of industrial capitalism. Moreover, at a certain level, politics in this mode becomes indistinguishable from play. Samuel R. Delany says that SF is less “predictive” than “incantatory”, meaning that it names non-existent things and then goes about “investing them with reality” and meaning. Its expressive form is not assimilable into its programmatic one, except in those examples that are little more than political manifestos dressed in fiction (Ayn Rand is, perhaps, the stand-out example here). We can feel the politics in SF, and where we have a secure grid of intelligibility it borders on the self-evident that a pop cultural artefact means something politically, and that what it means can be quite specific in real world terms (beware environmental degradation, don’t privilege religious power, make technology serve humanity, and so on). But even if we do not wish to indulge the Weird, or Uncanny, or the simply indistinct in our fictions, political reductionism remains a category mistake of sorts.

Metropolis Actress Cooling

Let us go back to Ursula K. Le Guin one more time. She proposed that there were two possible answers to the hypothetical man (the stress was on men) who demanded to know the use of imagination for practical or economic ends. For Le Guin, the lesser answer, the ‘next-to-truest’ one, was that “the use of imaginative fiction…deepen[s] your understanding of the world, and your fellow men, and your own feelings, and your destiny”. This is the kind of answer that almost everyone who studies popular culture in IR wants to give. But the truest answer for for Le Guin was something different, and less tangible for social scientific analysis. What, then, is the primary point of imagination? “The use of it is to give you pleasure and delight”. The criticism of SF, and the project of pop-cultural-IR, must therefore be able to reckon with both pleasure and delight in the making and un-making of political worlds.


[1] In the Q&A I realise that I began the reading for this paper when I was 10 or 11, acquiring a battered copy of Dune in the same American warehouse, and I think on the same day, that I paid 50c for Pearl Jam’s ‘Vs.’ So Frank Herbert started teaching me about diplomacy, alliances, rebellion, gender and war at about the same time as Eddie Vedder was serenading me with tales of gun ownership, white privilege and abortion rights.

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2 thoughts on “What We Talked About At ISA: Political Speech in Fantastical Worlds

  1. Pingback: On Paul Kirby’s “What We Talked About At ISA: Political Speech in Fantastical Worlds” – Militainment and the National Security State

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