Blind, dumb logic of capitalism

James Turley reviews Mark Bould's and China Miéville's new book 'Red planets: Marxism and science fiction' (Pluto, 2009, pp293, £19.99)

When English literature departments first arose in Anglo-Saxon academia, their purpose was in some ways relatively well defined. The bourgeoisie, so its political allies in the aristocracy and flunkies among the intelligentsia argued, was culturally bereft; worse, as the immediate superior in society to the labouring masses, it was the class that the latter ‘naturally’ looked to for spiritual guidance. The workers, however, were more civilised than the bourgeoisie, and the failure of leadership could result only in anarchy and the overthrow of the extant political order.

Literary studies may not seem the most likely cure for this social ‘ill’, but 19th and early 20th century ideologues such as Matthew Arnold were in thrall to its power. It could replace the old social glue of religion with a new one - inculturation into an organic national community, in which everyone has his or her place.

It does, as it turns out, take more than exposure to Shakespeare and Milton to stop a bread riot. Yet this eccentric project has left its mark on our society. The reach of ‘great’ literature into society is more penetrating than ever - no schoolchild can avoid a jaunt through Romeo and Juliet or King Lear; English lit is compulsory till 16. Meanwhile, the publishing industry makes a killing from repackaging Jane Austen as a chick-lit prophet (or splicing zombies into Pride and prejudice).

Another of the results is that, despite waves of attempts at ‘counter-canonisation’ along various critical lines, the Great Tradition (whatever that is) looms as large over our shoulders as ever. Any literature unlucky enough to be assigned a genre, particularly a genre with mass cultural appeal across different media, is likewise hived off from literary studies proper into a carefully delimited academic niche of its own.

These niches - and academics around the world are busy pulling apart science fiction, crime fiction and everything else - have themselves been only recently cut, amid the convulsions in humanities departments in the 1960s and 70s.

Genre - in literature and culture more generally - is an obvious site of interest for Marxist critics. Genres, by definition (and definition is a serious problem), are marked by a persistence through historical time. A Dupin story by Edgar Allen Poe is a remarkably different beast on almost every conceivable formal measure to a Rebus novel by Ian Rankin - but despite this, and the substantial historical period separating the two writers, the magic phrase, ‘detective story’, means we are able to read them together, without any illusions about the dazzling originality of the individual works. This is true not just of academic study, but of the more mundane relationship a casual reader - or a shelf-stacker in a library, for that matter - has with books.

Among all the genres, however, science fiction has obsessed Marxists the most. SF theory, almost from the outset, was dominated by Marxists, particularly Darko Suvin. Moreover, when the grand patrician figures of Marxist literary criticism made forays into genre criticism, SF was first on the list - Raymond Williams provided a highly influential essay to an early edition of Science Fiction Studies, and Fredric Jameson’s persistent flirtation with the subject culminated in a book-length exposition in 2005, Archaeologies of the future.

Why SF?

Why the appeal? In a sense, the answer is again obvious. Science fiction insists on a difference with lived reality (which realist fiction tries to conceal). Because of this, its worlds are historical worlds, marked by epochal change. If I write a space opera set centuries into the future, I cannot but make claims about how it is that history comes about (most notoriously associated with the genre is a technological determinism). In the words of Mark Bould, in his editor’s introduction to Red planets: Marxism and science fiction, the fictional world leaves a “negative space”, an impression or “snapshot of the structures of capital” (p4).

On closer examination, this does not distinguish SF from other genres particularly. Fantasy, for example, is symptomatically replete with history and ideology - only too replete, in its most proto-fascist ‘heroic’ incarnations; and if Philip Marlowe or John Rebus is to be tough on crime for any length of narrative time he must also cast a few glances at the causes of crime. In fact, for Bould, the relationship is basically a matter of chance; the appearance of Suvin’s work, with its productive (if limited) one-line genre definition, in the early 1970s, and his foundation of Science Fiction Studies, meant that the first truly rigorous treatment of SF was a Marxist one, and thus it is a Marxist theory that has cast a long shadow over the field.

Suvin’s definition is jargonistic: “SF is ‘the literature of cognitive estrangement’, a ‘literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment’ and which is ‘distinguished by the narrative dominance or hegemony of a fictional ‘novum’ (novelty, innovation) validated by cognitive logic’” (Bould’s summary, p18). It also raises all kinds of questions: what does cognition have to do with aesthetic formations? What about SF on film and television - are they really so easily separable from literary genre? Does the ‘novum’ have to be ‘new’ - why will the existence of dragons, for example, not do? (And do they certainly will not for a man so pathologically opposed to fantasy as Suvin.) This bold definition, for its strengths and its flaws, ensured that SF and Marxism were “idiosyncratically and contingently” married (p19).

In truth, though this superficially accounts for the shape of SF studies as a reified site of academic research of its own, it does not account for the prominent interest displayed in it by Jameson, Williams et al. These are writers whose substantial body of work is on already canonised material in European language traditions. Their point of engagement with science fiction is the same - its ambiguous relationship to that other genre, utopia. This question is taken up to considerable effect in the penultimate essay in Red planets by Andrew Milner.

Milner takes his cue from Raymond Williams’s thought, in particular his direct engagement with the problem of SF and utopia in an essay for an early issue of Science Fiction Studies. On this question, Jameson is simply following Suvin, who by subsuming utopia into SF (as ‘social science fiction’) is able to extend his SF canon back to Plato and further. Jameson follows this, and the substantial part of his book[1] simply explores the utopian core of SF through the various aspects of its problematic - the question of imagining absolute difference, the relationship to the created worlds of fantasy fiction and so on.

Milner - following Williams - criticises this line. He employs the concept of a “structure of feeling”, denoting the general cultural ambience from which any particular text emerges, marked by it in ways not immediately obvious in form or content. Milner traces the concept to a point where it can have a positive historical role in itself, by providing a fertile soil for new forms of cultural expression in response to broader social changes. For Milner, the reduction of utopia to SF or vice versa misses the key point about each - that their function is socially determined and historically thrown-up. SF emerges as a distinct literature at a particular point precisely because culture needs something new, and transhistorical genre classification misses this completely (pp223-25).


In another contribution to this book - possibly the pick of the bunch - Matthew Beaumont digs in much the same ground as Suvin’s ‘novum’ - the gimmick, as it were, around which the SF story estranges the world: synthetic humans in Do androids dream of electric sheep?/Blade runner, intergalactic travel in Star trek and so forth. Beaumont takes up an older motif from the visual arts - anamorphosis, or the presentation of an image at a skewed perspective, so that it only makes sense when looked at from a certain angle. For Beaumont, the SF ‘novum’ is precisely such a manoeuvre, which forces a reorientation of view and a breaking of habits of mind. In contrast to Suvin, for whom all this innovation has to be cognitively verifiable, the anamorphic estrangement necessarily has a destructive moment which “de-rationalises consciousness” and “de-realises” the narrative space.

Beaumont uses his concept to distinguish between two types of SF story - one corresponds to the painting which is entirely anamorphic - that is, distorted evenly throughout the frame. In this type of world (such as Star trek), we are in a far distant future, and the immediate spatial and historical systems are marked by a huge disjunction with the reader’s empirical reality. The second is when, into a world similar to our own, the novum features as a kind of stain, around which everything else comes to look strange. The classic painting of this type is Holbein’s The ambassadors, in which an orthodox-perspective painting of two French ambassadors is violently disfigured by an anamorphic skull streaked across the front of the painting. Holbein’s skull, or the gimmick technological innovation of a film like Brainstorm, is an anamorph, which distorts space around it (pp38-39).

If Beaumont’s essay has a problem, it is that he does not realise quite how good his idea is, or how many possible uses one could find for it. It seems to me perfectly obvious, for example, that the use of elements of fantasy and science fiction in China Miéville’s recent The city and the city is a paradigmatic anamorph, forcing us into a tense relationship with a narrative space whose stereotype we broadly recognise. Much that is presently revisionist and exciting in genre culture is the act of taking genre cross-pollination as far as it will go, onto the level of form itself; the relations we take for granted from the received generic categories are thrown into mutual subversion. Additionally, it abandons Suvin’s rather technologist insistence on the ‘new’, allowing for a more ambiguous relationship with the cognitive disruption.


There are far too many essays here to treat them all at length. Miéville himself takes up the traditional Suvinian rejection of fantasy as a proto-fascist “literature of mystification” by following it to its logical conclusion: the ‘cognition effect’ that supposedly distinguishes SF from fantasy is itself an ideological fiction, and therefore the distinction “no longer has teeth” (p240). William J Burling also writes on utopian SF, less interestingly and more pedantically than Milner, focusing on the problem of imagining utopian art. Carl Freedman presents a rather one-sided comparison of science-fiction and film noir, perhaps overstating the case for mapping the two onto the disjunction between the inflationary and deflationary perspective.

The wooden spoon goes to Sherryl Vint’s ‘Species and species-being: alienated subjectivity and the commodification of animals’. The naive reader may be wondering what that has to do with SF (or Marxism, for that matter) and, to be honest, I still am now. The extent of her engagement with the topic of the book as a whole is a gratingly sentimental use of some stories by Cordwainer Smith to back up a basically moralistic critique of animal exploitation: “Smith’s revolutionary underpeople understand that the way to a better and non-alienated life is the recognition of the other as a subject, not merely as an object,” she writes (p129). Apart from being a kind of Hallmark-card postmodernism, this is simply inconsistent. The moral subject must treat the other as subject - but that founds the other’s subjectivity strictly in the subjectivity of the first, in an unequal relationship: the other’s subjectivity is stillborn, still object to the self. All moralisms necessarily imply the objectification of the other, which remains completely passive.

For any philosophy of self-liberation, it is not for us, the humans, to decide if animals have rights, but for the animals themselves. Until the first wildcat strike of lab monkeys, it is impossible to stitch this matter together with the struggle of exploited or oppressed people, which precisely involves the assumption of subjectivity regardless of what anyone else thinks about the matter. Fans of Louis Althusser will note with a knowing nod that a substantial majority of Vint’s Marx citations are from the Economic and philosophical manuscripts.

Althusser in space

Althusserians should not get too smug, however, as there is the added bonus of an essay by Australian academic Darren Jorgensen. His contribution is perhaps the most peripherally related to SF of the lot, instead choosing to argue against the avowedly historicist theories of Fredric Jameson on the reading of literature from a perplexingly dogmatic Althusserian perspective. As someone with a reputation as the CPGB’s in-house Althusserian (although on today’s left, the minimum requirements for such an epithet appears to be the failure to advocate the pulping of all extant copies of Lire le Capital), I feel obliged to treat Jorgensen more extensively.

His essay is in two broad parts - the first amounts to an enumeration of Jameson’s principal theses on literature, with each entry appended a statement like “this is not the science Althusser advocates” (p199), “here lies the fundamental difference between Jameson and Althusser”, and so on, normally with a single section outline of the relevant Althusserian commandment. The fundamental issue is historicism - for Jorgensen, Jameson’s approach is circular, with the text a product of the same historical consciousness which supposedly forms around it: “Jameson defers to history as the ground of his analysis, while discursively constructing this history” (p197). Ultimately, this circle is self-defeating and objectivist, leaving us with “no new paths for revolutionary action” (p201).

Jorgensen turns to Althusser - or “the scientific Marxism of Althusser”, as it must surely be called about 10 times in these few pages. Here is the first surprise for anyone familiar with this thinker’s work - that little quip about revolutionary action calls to mind a certain phase in Althusser’s career, exemplified by the extensive ‘Reply to John Lewis’, where he endeavoured to splice the class struggle back into his previously too-rationalist philosophy. The class struggle, according to Althusser’s primary thesis of “Marxism-Leninism”, is “the motor of history”.[2]

Yet Jorgensen is not having any of it: “It is necessary to distinguish the younger, scientific Althusser from an older man who was traumatised by domestic and political events, just as Althusser himself differentiated between a younger and an older, more scientific Marx,” he warns us (pp204-05). Jorgensen in fact concurs with the judgement of Gregory Elliott, perhaps the pre-eminent non-Althusserian Althusser scholar. In his classic (and now exorbitantly expensive) account of the latter’s thought, the headier 1968-74 period is ultimately dismissed as a concession too far to Maoism: “[Althusser’s ex-follower Jacques] Rancière’s complaint is that Althusser wasn’t enough of a Maoist. In contrast, [I] argue that if Althusser’s revisions are to be faulted, it is more properly for their Maoism.”[3]

Jorgensen has already informed us that “Althusser’s theorisation of ideology is his most enduring contribution to Marxist literary studies” (p199). Yet Althusser’s classic essay on the subject - ‘Ideology and ideological state apparatuses’ - not only dates from this period of self-criticism, but is founded on the epistemological position that the subject can only exist in ideology, which is a kind of zero-condition for human individuals to be able to interact socially at all.[4] This represents a major retreat from the “sledgehammer”[5] distinction between science and ideology, with ideology in a far more complicated relationship to a scientific discourse it in some senses underwrites by ‘lending’ it subjects. It is precisely this distinction which Jorgensen wants to keep alive.

To his credit, Jorgensen is the dogmatist’s dogmatist, and immaculately consistent in restricting himself to the hard Althusserian early works, For Marx and Reading Capital (as well as the paradigmatic application of these works to literature, Pierre Macherey’s Theory of literary production). In this, he at least is far more aware of the problems involved than Nicos Poulantzas, a much more prestigious predecessor. It is impossible to get around the fact, however, that he has chosen to grasp the wrong horn. Althusser’s early epistemology is split between two tendencies: one is that which he later renounced as ‘theoreticist’, in which a theory of scientific knowledge is basically taken over wholesale from a certain Gallic rationalism and ultimately Spinoza. Reason and substance are held to be cosubstantial; a science needs no criteria external to itself for validation as a science.

This is a circular position; science is self-grounding, and so not grounded at all. The most obvious symptom of this with regard to Althusserian reception in literary studies is none other than Fredric Jameson. Jameson is a philosophical magpie, who subsumes contemporary ideologies as a distorted reflection of history, and thus holding a certain level of objective local validity, in need of ‘totalisation’ through a historically grounded commentary. This is all done in impeccably historicist form.

And what are the concepts pilfered from Althusser in Jameson’s most systematic engagement with his thought? Overdetermination, structural causality - in short, the ‘early stuff’ in full, which proved as easy for an opportunistic historicist to detach from a circular definition of science and ideology as anything else.

The other side to Althusser’s epistemology is the conception of knowledge as an act of production, with determinate ideological raw materials, theoretical tools and scientific products (in the jargon, Generalities I, II and III respectively). This has consequences, for it is impossible to stay at this level of a simple ‘labour process’ without inquiring into the conditions of that production. It is the conditions of production - of knowledge, or effect, or meaning - that can be most profitably explained by a Marxist approach to criticism. Moreover, the classic Althusserian theory of ideology is grounded explicitly in this problem, and steps into the breach to elaborate the logic of the earlier position without so serious a theoreticism.

Wielding the young (not that young, as it happens) Althusser against Fredric Jameson is one thing - but doing so against the older Althusser seems to me a critical mistake in a way posed very sharply in the case of SF. Any attempt to construct SF as a coherent theoretical object separate from some kind of general theory of genre will fail. SF does not persist as a genre because people keep writing texts that fit Darko Suvin’s definition, but because the publishing industry, academics and readers reproduce it constantly en situation - that is, as a genre among others, to be distinguished from crime, fantasy, ‘literary fiction’ and so on.

These genres do not have to add up, and they almost invariably do not. One can commit a crime on Mars, or solve one using sorcery. The divisions follow the blind, dumb logic of capitalism. This is not to say genre is an unproblematically economic phenomenon; it is in fact in reciprocal and constantly shifting tension between the economic, the ideological, the formal and innumerable other contingent pressures. To grasp genre is to grasp it in its motion of reproduction, and grasp the generic text in terms not of a received classification, but in terms of its relation to pre- and post-existing symbolic discourses.

Milner, in his essay, makes some headway here, again employing concepts derived from Raymond Williams (a thinker whose originality was not truly appreciated until very near his death). It seems to me, though, that in examining aesthetic institutions the theory of ideological state apparatuses lends itself very well - as do the introduction of complex structural relations within the social formation, of regional theories within general theories, and many other mom-and-apple-pie Althusserianisms. The mind-bendingly difficult project of making what is valuable in Althusser fit together - something like the job of auditors in the last few years, sorting through the assets of collapsed banks trying to work out which ones are toxic - is enough to drive any man to Williams, of course, and these problems will not be solved through science fiction.

The final question is what hope there is for a privileged relationship between Marxism and SF. It seems to me that it is precisely impossible to posit such a relationship. What is immediately obvious with science fiction - that other worlds are possible, that history visits profound transformations on our lives - is just as obvious with fantasy, and lurking more tacitly in the illicit demi-mondes of crime fiction. SF is one test case among many - in the end, as Miéville concludes, the differentia specifica of SF, its ‘cognitive logic’, is a chimera.

The question of genre more generally, however, is critical to understanding how cultural production is arranged today, and there is much research to be done. This book is a valuable contribution.


  1. F Jameson Archaeologies of the future London 2005.
  2. L Althusser, ‘Reply to John Lewis’ On ideology London 2008, p79.
  3. G Elliot, L Althusser The detour of theory London 1987, p198.
  4. The first version of this thesis appears in ‘Three notes on the theory of discourses’ (1966), translated in F Matheron The humanist controversy and other writings London 2003.
  5. For Althusser’s own judgement on his “tolerably unrefined” thesis see F Matheron op cit p224.