Science Fiction Studies


#71 = Volume 24, Part 1 = March 1997

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore: On Naivete in SF and Criticism.

[David Dalgleish responds in SFS 72]

I was not one of the editors of SFS who favored publication of David Dalgleish’s article, "In Search of Wonder Naive Criticism: Some Objections to Baudrillard and Bukatman." In my view, the author conceals, perhaps from himself, his lack of critical rigor behind the hectoring of an outraged moralist. Yet there is no denying that the article is topical, and represents views of a number of readers and critics of sf. Many scholars and readers, weary of fashionable jargon being trotted out by academics who feel compelled to show they can hold the current tiger at least by the tail, believe that an elitist, esoteric industry of interpretation has buried the living genre under an avalanche of verbiage. Some feel that academic sf criticism has ignored the real history of sf as a popular genre, its fan base, and the great mass of popular works of sf for the sake of a few extraordinary texts that exemplify certain privileged theories.1 Some hold that the definition of sf should be limited to works belonging to the pulp tradition established with Gernsback’s coinage of the term, which would exclude most genre-theoretical approaches to sf.2 These are common-sensical, richly debatable conservative critical positions. But when such arguments are expanded to imply that it is wrong to apply current theoretical ideas to sf because sf is putatively too archaic/mythological, too populist, or, as Dalgleish would have it, too "naive," we reject that as faux naivete.

It is hard to know whether to treat "In Search of Wonder Naive Criticism" as a work of real or faux naivete. Dalgleish makes claims for a simple definition of sf that would, if accepted, bypass many of the problems that theorists of sf have faced since they began trying to answer the question "what is science fiction?" Some of these claims have support from other sf critics, others are nothing more than personal opinions inflated into general truths. Whether Dalgleish’s "naive" definition is worth entertaining, or merely a simplistic opinion backed by aggressive rhetoric, we can only determine by examining how he supports it. Since so much of his definition is tied up with his attack on postmodern criticism, we must examine how accurately he represents his enemies’ positions. Finally, since the title of his essay refers to the naivete of criticism rather than of sf, we must examine whether Dalgleish is practicing naive criticism, and whether critical naivete is a good or a bad thing. On all fronts, I expect to show, Dalgleish has played fast and loose with concepts, positions, and aims. He has set up straw men, cut philosophical corners, and refused to consider nuances and problems.

We have seen the enemy, and they are...? There is, at first reading, much to agree with in Dalgleish’s essay. Postmodern writing does often seem at odds with the generic protocols of sf. Postmodern theory does sometimes make claims that seem contrary to common sense and moral consciousness. Postmodern sf critics do appear at times to read sf works as no normal reader of sf ever would. The simplicity of much sf writing may well come as a relief from the constant problematizing of contemporary criticism. Much feminist criticism does attempt to restore agency and commitment that other postmodern criticism appears to bracket out. But Dalgleish wants it all. For him, all postmodern writing is incompatible with all sf. Postmodern theory is, in essence, nihilistic, demoralizing, and wrong. Sf is, in essence, simple, fresh, and innocent. Sf is "an antidote to the absurdities found at the extremes of postmodernism" (85).

According to Dalgleish, postmodern critics have "annexed" sf (79), appropriating discussion of the genre for their own project. This project is alien to the true essence of sf, which is that of a "naive" literature reflecting naive assumptions about reality and human beings. Postmodernism is founded, by contrast, on three absurd principles: the indistinguishability of reality from fiction, the denial of meaning, and the denial of the autonomous subject capable of making meaningful moral and social judgments.

For a critic who espouses respect for certainty, Dalgleish is disturbingly ambiguous about who his targets are. The enemies are in some spots "postmodernism," "postmodern critics," and "the postmodern critics" taken as a unified class—i.e., all postmodern critics, every aspect of postmodernism; in others it is "some" (79, 81, 82, 91) or "many" (92) of them. The confusion could have been avoided, for Dalgleish does not identify any postmodern critics of whom he approves. As his title indicates, the battle is between schools of thought. There is no room for nuances. Ultimately, Dalgleish takes on only two or three postmodern sf critics: Scott Bukatman, Jean Baudrillard, and, in passing, Fredric Jameson. The absurd assumptions representative of postmodernism are allegedly to be found in Bukatman’s Terminal Identity, Baudrillard’s "Two Essays" on sf and Ballard’s Crash (published in SFS #55), and in Jameson’s Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. These texts are the only pieces of postmodernism Dalgleish engages with.

Questions arise immediately. Where is this imperious body of postmodern sf criticism? Why do most of the critical articles published in (and indeed submitted to) anthologies, SFS, Foundation, Extrapolation, The New York Review of Science Fiction appear so, well . . . un-postmodern? Why are Bukatman, Baudrillard, and Jameson Dalgleish’s only examples of postmodern sf criticism? Why does he not engage also with other, differently-minded sf critics concerned with postmodernism and sf? He makes no mention of Brian McHale, whose Constructing Postmodernism includes two of the most influential essays on the relationship between sf and postmodernist writing. Then there’s Samuel Delany. Dalgleish laments that Delany’s "work is unfortunately being appropriated to reduce sf to a facet of postmodernism" (80). One wonders how Delany’s work could not be so appropriated, since he is perhaps the single critic most responsible for establishing postmodern criticism of sf. Similarly absent are Veronica Hollinger, Damien Broderick, Teresa de Lauretis, Constance Penley, and several contributors to SFS’s special issue on postmodernism and sf. These critics do not all agree with Baudrillard (if indeed Baudrillard’s mode of writing allows for anything resembling logical agreement) and in fact might agree with some of Dalgleish’s points. Would Dalgleish wish to define them out of postmodern sf criticism as he might wish to define some sf texts out of sf?

Further, why are Bukatman and Baudrillard treated as if they espoused exactly the same views, whereas Terminal Identity attempts to place Baudrillard’s ideas (among others) as attempts to humanize the relationship between human beings and machines, a tactic inimical to Baudrillard’s analysis of the "strategy of the object?" Terminal Identity is ultimately about defensive strategies taken by artists in the face of an overwhelming wave of technological transformation. Dalgleish also pits Bukatmanian nihilism against feminist positivity, conveniently ignoring the fact that Terminal Identity concludes with an evaluation of the potentials precisely of feminist criticism, noting the importance of feminist theory for postmodern criticism of sf.

One cannot escape the conclusion that Dalgleish is merely writing down his angry reactions to certain ideas he believes he has come across in his reading. Despite the apparent prudence of the second half of his title, it is not enough for him to attack Bukatman and Baudrillard alone, since that might leave room for other postmodern theorists with less extreme views. Dalgleish exaggerates his reactions into a tirade against a school of nihilists undertaking a hostile takeover of his cherished genre. They are "annexing" it. They have made postmodernism and sf "indistinguishable" (79). They "reduce sf to being of interest for the postmodern elements of...cyberpunk" (89). They engage in "a self-perpetuating debate about mostly superficial matters" (91). They do not "do justice," they do not "appreciate truth" (92).

It is quite astonishing that Dalgleish manages more than 13 pages without once exploring the concepts of postmodernism except as some cartoonish nihilism. Aside from The Crying of Lot 49 he does not mention a single work of postmodern fiction. He does not quote a single postmodern theorist at length. He evades having to discuss the putative postmodern axioms with an interesting rhetorical ploy: after quoting a phrase from one of Jameson’s essays, on the disappearance of the sense of history, he follows with "That has broken down in postmodernism, leading to the decentered subject, etc." (82). Like the wave of a conjurer’s hand, that "etc." distracts us from the question, what does Dalgleish really know? (Later we will see that this light dismissal of the "decentering of the subject, etc." makes feminism much more of an enemy to Dalgleish than he seems to realize.) Every ostensibly informed claim he makes about postmodernism turns out to be derived from some other, usually critical, commentator’s interpretations. Even in this Dalgleish is highly selective. He relies on Marleen Barr and Jenny Wolmark for his information about feminist sf, even though Barr explicitly places her own feminist fabulation among postmodern genres, and Wolmark, in addition to noting the significance of feminism’s and postmodernism’s "shared theoretical moment" (Wolmark 20), takes her operative definition of sf from Donna Haraway, whom Dalgleish contemptuously dismisses as one of "idols of postmodern sf critics" (81). His understanding of American literary postmodernism seems to have come from Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz’s German study (rather than, say, McHale)—who, as it happens, holds views quite opposite Dalgleish’s; for Puschmann-Nalenz, sf begins to gain in literary value as it approaches postmodern practices. One might conclude that Dalgleish’s knowledge about postmodernism is based on Bukatman’s book, Baudrillard’s two essays, and a whole lot of critical hearsay, selectively read.

No mention is made by Dalgleish of the philosophers and anthropologists of postmodernism, from whom the principles of postmodern sf criticism must have derived, other than Baudrillard. Students of contemporary criticism might wonder from which contexts Dalgleish has abstracted these axioms. Even among anti-foundationalist "nihilists" there is a good deal of difference between Deleuze-Guattari, Foucault, Baudrillard, Rorty, Derrida, Haraway, and others—and the differences relate to precisely what sorts of agency, what sorts of powers to create meaning can be imagined. For Dalgleish, there are no differences. Perhaps he believes he has cut through the smoke-screens to the heart of things, distilling postmodernism’s toxic essence. The various routes to anti-foundationalist, anti-metaphysical conclusions are not important. Evidently, these postmodern thinkers, along with Barthes, Levinas, Cixous, McLuhan, Judith Butler, Lacan, Virilio, and their ilk, are involved in a "self-perpetuating debate about mostly superficial matters" (91). For Dalgleish evidently only practical moral conclusions matter. Postmodernism’s calling things into question simply means, for him, eliminating them, leaving readers without moral compass.

I do not care to meet the person who doesn’t read Crash as perversion; the ethical and social implications of Baudrillard’s statement [i.e., Crash should not be read as perversion] epitomize the dangers of postmodern thought....

Again, I protest against the conflation of reality and fiction—it is an extremely dangerous mode of thought that leads to the sort of amoral perception that Baudrillard advocates. (83)

Postmodernism’s misprision of sf is dangerous.

Demon #1: Bukatman. Bukatman is Dalgleish’s most available adversary, so it is worth taking a closer look at Dalgleish’s critique of his ideas. Bukatman’s sins are many. He conflates, Dalgleish alleges, sf and postmodernism; he considers interesting only those aspects of sf that relate to postmodern concerns about the mediation of the subject by electronic technologies He occupies the "extreme postmodern position" (80). He claims that the human subject is constructed by electronic technologies (83). He "largely ignores" the central utopian/dystopian dimension of sf (88). He overcomplicates things, he "does not allow the body to be simply a body" (89). He is "infatuated with the ‘crisis of the subject’ and the ‘feminine’ as a pre-oedipal discursive mode" (90). Bukatman "conflates real and fictional, body and information, thereby precluding the possibility of the fictional illuminating, changing, or representing the real, because fiction and reality for him, are one big, tangled, indistinguishable mess" (90). He is not interested in metaphysics and "spiritual notions" (91), "ignoring the masses of sf with quasi-mystical/fantastic elements" (91).

I have only identified the sins Dalgleish links specifically to Bukatman, though contextual clues make it clear that most of the absurd positions Dalgleish attributes to postmodernism in general are probably shared by him. But does Terminal Identity really make the extreme claims Dalgleish says it does? What does Bukatman himself say?

The newly proliferating electronic technologies of the Information Age are invisible, circulating outside the human experiences of space and time. That invisibility makes them less susceptible to representation and thus comprehension at the same time as the technological contours of existence become more difficult to ignore.... In this time of advanced industrialism coupled with economic exhaustion, a deep cultural ambivalence has made itself evident across a range of phenomena. Fredric Jameson has labeled the resultant ambivalent, and sometimes contradictory, formations of postmodernism "the cultural logic of late capitalism." There has arisen a cultural crisis of visibility and control over a new electronically defined reality. It has become increasingly difficult to separate the human from the technological, and this is true rhetorically and phenomenologically. Within the metaphors and fictions of postmodern discourse, much is at stake, as electronic technology seems to rise, unbidden, to pose a set of crucial ontological questions regarding the status and power of the human. It has fallen to science fiction to repeatedly narrate a new subject that can somehow directly interface with—and master—the cybernetic technologies of the Information Age, an era in which, as Jean Baudrillard observed, the subject has become a "terminal of multiple networks." This new subjectivity is at the center of Terminal Identity. (2)

The unholy trio of Bukatman-Baudrillard-Jameson is present in Bukatman’s paragraph, but where is the bold overstatement that Dalgleish accuses Bukatman of? Bukatman writes of "deep cultural crisis," because electronic culture has posed "a set of crucial ontological questions" about humanity. Sf has been called upon to "narrate a new subject that can somehow directly interface— and master—the cybernetic technologies...." (italics mine). Where Dalgleish finds absurd assertion—the rejection of reality, of "metanarrative," of human subjects searching for meaning and control over their destinies—Bukatman actually writes of a new historical-cultural reality, sf’s special power of narrative, and the construction of a human subject trying to control its own destiny in a new world. What, exactly, is lacking here?

Bukatman is not innocent of some rhapsodic formulations of this crisis, but any attentive reader of Bukatman knows that he draws at least as much on the work of Guy Debord and Maurice Merleau-Ponty for his analysis of the postmodern condition as on the demonic postmodernists. Neither Debord nor Merleau-Ponty can be accused of ignoring social reality.

Further, Bukatman comes in for special contempt because of his interest in cyberpunk. A case can certainly be made that many critics have overvalued cyberpunk in general and Neuromancer in particular. The jury will be out on the issue for some time. But Dalgleish makes it seem as if Bukatman’s Terminal Identity were about cyberpunk exclusively; he does not consider it important to note that it is primarily about sf in other media more spectacular than writing—films, video, comics, architecture. Bukatman is concerned to describe the new cultural scene in which sf has gained a new audience, and in which sf plays a central role. He collects, more exhaustively than any critic before him, the theoretical statements and aesthetic works that treat this new cultural formation as a new reality. This indeed may define a postmodernist: anyone who believes that fundamental questions have been posed to human cultures by the conjunction of historical and technological forces in the second half of the twentieth century. A postmodernist might be anyone who believes that fundamental humanistic verities have been problematized by new technologies and economies, that the questioning of so-called "eternal truths," long put in question by modernist philosophers and psychologists, are now in question at the level of everyday experience.

What is Dalgleish’s response to this formulation? He appears either to be unaware of the situation, or to consider it too trivial to mention. At best, it is etc. Where he actually deigns to discuss technology in sf, it is to join in Sharona Ben-Tov’s disparagement of the "technological transcendent" in sf. This is a curious moment in Dalgleish’s essay. He employs Ben-Tov’s interesting but exceedingly narrow thesis from her The Artificial Paradise for criticizing the whole genre’s tendency to create myths of transcendence via technological innovations and projects. It serves Dalgleish’s purpose for criticizing Neuromancer, but he turns around immediately to affirm the value of transcendence-fictions of the mystical/fantastic sort. Thus the only form of transcendence Dalgleish condemns is the artificial transcendence of technology. Technology, bad. Nature-mysticism, good; "...natural transcendent Nature vs. technological, dead Machinery" (87).

There is not one sign that Dalgleish agrees that high technology’s second-nature has altered social reality enough to warrant a new approach to representation, nor that he understands the arguments for it. If the post-World War II world culture is not significantly changed from earlier ones, what would Dalgleish accept as an example of historical-cultural change? We will have more to say about this when we come to the question of metanarratives and history in sf.

In the last pages of his essay, Dalgleish takes Bukatman and cyberpunks to task for overcomplicating things, and ignoring simple facts of life.

Sf allows the simple, everyday reality—the familiarity and comprehensibility of everyday things—that postmodernism denies. Most sf is concerned with the "meat" that the cyberpunks leave behind. While the postmodern critic and the cyberpunk live happily ever after in their meaningless, disembodied postmodern cyberspace, most sf (and most literature in general, except for the minority of aggressively postmodern texts) continues to debate fundamental issues in life, granting those issues the possibility of real meaning. (89)

I am sure this passage expresses many of Dalgleish’s sincere sentiments. But what can he possibly be thinking of? Nowhere does Dalgleish list the everyday things he thinks sf traditionally considers comprehensible and real. Perhaps he means the search for meaning, power, vice, virtue, adventure, romance; perhaps he means shopping, clothing, money, work, crime, family life, technology, love and sex in the real world. Which genre, we might ask, is more scrupulously realistic about the latter set, cyberpunk or traditional sf? And where do anti-gravity, faster-than-light travel, extraterrestrial sentience, galactic civilizations, alternate biologies, and Star Makers figure on the scale of everyday comprehensibility? Bukatman quotes Ballard on Burroughs: "Whatever his reservations...about some aspects of the mid-20th century...Burroughs accepts that it can be fully described only in terms of its own language, its own idioms and verbal lore" (78). Who would you rather trust to describe the human condition on the cusp of the millennium, Dalgleish or the unholy postmodernists? As for living happily ever after in a meatless world, perhaps Dalgleish should read more of Gibson than Neuromancer, perhaps "The Winter Market," some Cadigan, some Shiner. Is it possible that Dalgleish has read so little cyberpunk that he believes it is an unambiguously techno-utopian genre?

Demon #2: Baudrillard. I will not dwell on the dispute between Dalgleish and Baudrillard. It’s not a fair fight. Baudrillard is a notoriously easy target, indeed a sort of lightning rod, making a career of attracting the outrage of righteous people by making wild prophecies about the demolition of many of the most sacred humanist categories. He has called himself a nihilist and an intellectual terrorist. As an anthropologist and sociologist, a writer of obvious imagination and style, he is a traitor to the humanistic tradition. But although Baudrillard is easy to attack, he is hard to hit.

Dalgleish cites only Baudrillard’s "Two Essays" in SFS #55, and he does not appear to be familiar with any of the rest of the Baudrillard’s work. He seems completely unaware of Baudrillard’s characteristic style—the high-theoretical surrealist sf/poetry articulating marrow-deep ambivalence about the destruction of western philosophical culture by the communications revolution, expressed with withering, poker-faced irony. Baudrillard is an agent provocateur, dedicated to deflating the bourgeois intelligentsia, challenging them to defend their ethical positions under dramatically new conditions. Dalgleish believes "Baudrillard wants us to stop searching" for the truth (84). What is the large and stimulating, and constantly changing, body of Baudrillard’s writing but a search and a challenge to search with new tools of thought?

Dalgleish is particularly outraged by Baudrillard’s provocations regarding the death of meaning and the absorption of reality by the culture of hyperreal simulations. It is not clear whether Dalgleish has reflected on what Baudrillard means by the hyperreal. As we have seen in Bukatman’s case, Dalgleish has no time for the idea that a techno-economy can change human beings’ lived experience of reality. Baudrillard’s entire philosophy, such as it is, is based on the notion that reality is never perceived innocently. This view has roots in Durkheim and Weber, not to mention Marx. Although Baudrillard’s formulations develop the radical modernist premises to an unnerving extreme, righteous indignation is probably the most inappropriate response to them. Many critics have taken Baudrillard to task before Dalgleish. Their critiques, like his, are almost all predicated on the idea that Baudrillard is writing a commentary on the postmodern condition that can be logically and discursively challenged. I have argued elsewhere that Baudrillard should be read less as a critic of sf than as a sf writer who constructs sf scenarios about the present in the language of theory.3 His interpretations of simulation culture, including his writings on sf, are written in a profoundly ironic mode with more affinities to fiction and poetry than to argument.

Let us note that treating Baudrillard seriously requires us to expand the object of sf criticism beyond not only Dalgleish’s ultra-narrow sense of written sf-texts, but beyond sf artifacts in general, to a nebulous mode of consciousness, "science-fictionality," where the fictions of sf overlap with everyday consciousness.

Concerning sf. Dalgleish begins his essay lamenting the lack of a clear definition of sf and a clear critical method appropriate to it. In the absence of these, he tells us, postmodern critics have annexed the genre. In an effort, I suppose, to liberate the genre from the usurping world-view, Dalgleish claims that sf is a whole other species of thing than postmodernism, worthy of critical self-rule, a sort of East Timor or Chechnia of literature. Paradoxically, this different species worthy of critical independence is characterized by its "naiveté," its uncritical acceptance of certain simple axioms about the nature of the world. These axioms are, one can infer, not only true, but also the ones shared by Dalgleish himself. There is one real world; the truth can be known through language; free subjects can better the world; the search for natural transcendence gives meaning to existence. By explaining the simple purity of sf’s heart, Dalgleish makes the implicit plea that it be returned to the bosom of traditional ethical criticism. If it must be only a semi-autonomous region (too naive to develop its own reflective criticism), then the right place for it is Ethical Empire, where Dalgleish lives and plies his trade.

Although there is much one might agree with in this view, there would be three main objections to defining sf as a naive literature. The first is that it seems willfully to exclude a large number of works considered by most sf critics as the most interesting in the genre. The second is that it seems to ignore history—global history, the history of art, and the history of the genre. Is it sensible to claim that sf writers have not reflected on the body of works that were written before them in the genre, becoming more self-conscious (hence, not naive) as a result? The third is that it invents a hypothetical reader-author relationship for sf, custom-made to be used as a norm.

For Dalgleish, sf is ultimately a genre of comfort, truly a literature of escape. It defamiliarizes only to refamiliarize. It tells straightforward stories that are not "disturbing to the average individual" (83). "True sf, as I define it, is always searching" for moral and philosophical certitude (84). Metaphysical speculation is a necessary condition. And since it descends from utopian writing, it is concretely concerned with prevailing social and cultural issues (which are, of course, cast in refamiliarizing forms). Works that purport to be sf that do not adhere to these principles are not sf.

At first glance, this appears to be a reversal of Suvin’s standard of selection. Where Suvin excludes 99% of what is commonly held to be sf, keeping only the most abstract and literary texts, Dalgleish appears to exclude only the most interesting ones, those that tend to generate sf-theory in the first place. (Similarly, where Suvin emphasizes estrangement and cognition, Dalgleish appears to emphasize reassurance and faith.) It should not be difficult then to categorize what is true sf and what is not: anything experimental, overly ludic, anti- or nonhumanistic, "subject-denying nihilism" is not sf. Ballard is still in (barely) because even in Crash "there is a center—a moral center" (83). Dick is in, solidly, because "the issue of moral certitude, not simply the difficulty of gaining moral certitude, is crucial to Dick’s work" (84). Neuromancer must be out because of its cyberpunk nihilism; but is cyberpunk really out? After all "it tries to reconcile genre sf’s assumptions with postmodernism’s assumptions" (87). Dalgleish doesn’t get around to clarifying what these genre assumptions are in cyberpunk and Neuromancer. Perhaps the promise of technological transcendence criticized by Sharona Ben-Tov? In any case, "the attempt fails." So, in or out? Voyage to Arcturus is in, which might surprise some readers. Female Man is in, because "at the center of her novel lies an expression of truth," and the novel has "overt socio-political concerns" (88). Who is out, then? Waldrop? Womack? Crowley? Delany? Ryman? Banks? Powers? Noon? Calder? Hoban? Rucker? Jeter? Blaylock? Shiner? Turtledove? Gene Wolfe? Gwyneth Jones?—none are mentioned by Dalgleish. Dalgleish identifies only Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories as possible usurpers who might have snuck into the house of sf under false pretenses. (Or is the problem that they are "unsuccessful?" [95]) It may be that it is sufficient for a writer to fulfill just one of Dalgleish’s conditions of naiveté to be included in the genre: moral seriousness. If VALIS and Female Man can be considered naive works, and Neuromancer as borderline sf, perhaps the only category that really counts is: does it affirm the dignity of the human subject or not? (Further, this would dictate how a given work should be interpreted. Solaris must be in if we read it as an affirmation of the human spirit; it’s out if we read it as a satire on human pretensions. Roadside Picnic is in if the protagonist is granted his concluding wish; it’s out if the whole thing is a hoax.) Or perhaps it’s an even simpler matter: does it depress Dalgleish or not?

If there are so few—if any—works that fail to fit into Dalgleish’s domain of naive sf, what is really in question in "In Search of Wonder Naive Criticism"? Not the naiveté or postmodernism of sf, but of criticism.

On sf-criticism. Dalgleish wishes to disqualify postmodernist criticism of sf on moral grounds. He does not like it and that’s for sure. It makes him angry. But rather than arguing about the role of art in purveying traditional humanistic ethical values versus those of cynical, relativistic, nihilistic postmodernity—a tack that might force him to develop a theory of the relationship of art to the culture it grows up in—Dalgleish sets up an all-purpose dualism: there are naive forms of literature, and there are...postmodern ones? The classic version of this opposition is Schiller’s distinction between naive and sentimental poetry. Naive poets were those with direct apprehension of nature, the original creative minds who drew on their direct experience as models for art—Homer, Shakespeare, Ossian. The sentimental poets are those who, alienated from nature by modernity, are forever seeking experience of nature, but are forced to create artificial forms for their poetry. They are the critical artists, who learn more from art and reflection than they do from life as lived. Schiller did not believe that naive poetry was possible in the modern age, other than in isolated pockets of the folk. Modern poetry was sentimental. Criticism is sentimental by definition.

Dalgleish does not invoke Schiller, which is unfortunate since he does not actually name any other attitudes toward art than the naive and the postmodern. Would the same polarity exist between, say, naive sf and modernist criticism? Would modernist criticism be just as likely to distort and corrupt the essence of sf? Or is modern sf the same as naive sf? Delany makes a fascinating case in one of his interviews for linking sf to the Wagnerian origins of modernism;4 and in any case it would be difficult not to view a genre of exploration-literature like sf as an aspect of modernity. Further, if we hold with Schiller even a little, then literary criticism is "in essence" also a sentimental/modern activity of consciousness. How then should literary criticism relate to a naive genre like sf? Should it strive to be naive, too, against its nature?

It is not at all clear whether Dalgleish has thought about these matters. Nowhere does he distinguish between the proper spheres of postmodernism and sf. Indeed, his contrast is between a form of fiction and a form of criticism, not two forms of fiction or two forms of criticism. We cannot be sure exactly what concrete linguistic activities we are comparing—he contrasts two abstract attitudes toward the life-world. Sf is naive, and naive means morally responsible and concerned with the dignity of the subject. Postmodern criticism is relativistic, nihilistic, subject-denying, amoral. Could the opposition be simplified further: naive fiction good, criticism bad?

Dalgleish is not much clearer when he formulates the elements of sf’s supposed naiveté. Each of these categories may have some validity, yet each is riven by the same problem. Each is asserted by a critical view that purports to be naive itself, and yet must be conscious of the sophisticated, anti-naive categories it rejects. It must defend its naiveté against an intellectual adversary, without losing its naive faith. This is the old story of defending faith against the Subtle One. But where sophisticated critics and philosophers of faith, like Gabriel Marcel or Jacques Ellul, have been willing to wrestle with the modern demons of technology and existential despair, Dalgleish does not indicate that he believes that there are problems that sf, and literature in general, must deal with in the historical world.

Metanarrative. The irony of this is that Dalgleish bases his notion of sf’s faith in metanarrative on his opposition to postmodernism’s "disappearance of the sense of history." Since, Dalgleish argues, "a sense of history is equivalent to the ‘metanarrative,’ the connectivity of things" (82), postmodern writing eschews metanaratives. Naive fiction, therefore, holds with both history and metanarrative. Sf is devoted to the model of linear connection of events leading from the past to a putatively "real" future. This is a point where I agree with Dalgleish.

Allow me note here that Dalgleish’s use of the term metanarrative is ambiguous. The standard use of the term metanarrative in postmodern discourse originates with Lyotardian critique of Master Narratives, i.e., those overarching cultural myths that inspired different ideologies of progress. A metanarrative is meta because of its difference from more local narratives that do not make global claims. Does Dalgleish mean that sf writers necessarily subscribe to Master Narratives of progress or apocalypse? Or is he merely using an inflated term for narrative itself, a discernible story that follows the traditional logic by which stories are told? We cannot know for sure, since Dalgleish conflates the two meanings. Does the "connectivity of things" on the local level necessarily imply some global connectivity? Dalgleish’s answer: "Linear time, the connectivity of things, is a predicate for getting to the ‘real’ future, one with which we can become familiar" (82). Sf’s faith in narrative is thus actually faith in linear time. Any serious narrative entertainment of cyclical, looping, branching, reversing, spiraling time cannot be sf. I would be curious to read Dalgleish’s interpretation of Man in the High Castle. Must alternate histories exit the genre?

It is also ironic that Dalgleish bemoans postmodernism’s ahistoricity in precisely the same move in which he implies that "linear connectivity" has some transhistorical moral validity. Faith in the linear movement from a past to the future is required for real-world readers to cope with the "real" future. Where then does the communication revolution fit in Dalgleish’s linear faith in the course of history? Is it a necessary condition? Is it an ontological illusion, an epiphenomenon with no historical substance? Does it have nothing to add to, or to say about, the human condition? Is it a fabrication by intellectuals and advertisers? Are the artists inventing it, as Ballard says? What role does historical change have in Dalgleish’s "naive" polemical conception of postmodern ahistoricity?

Because Dalgleish doesn’t actually excommunicate any particular sf text, it’s hard to know how strict his notion of a science-fictional essence is. How strong, in terms of the history of the genre, is the distinction between naive and postmodern? Is all sf naive? Is some sf naive, and some sf postmodern? In the past, was all sf naive, but now some sf is postmodern?

Considering literary history, one would expect that sf would change as the culture in which it grows changes, with for example sf-appropriate versions of traditionalism, modernism, post-modernism, or other, similar historical categories. An essentialist definition that ignores historical changes—e.g., that sf is some transhistorical "naive" genre—is tantamount to Dalgleish saying sf is what he calls sf. He is like a jazz-traditionalist in the 50s who could say that be-bop is not jazz, because it doesn’t sound like Dixieland or Swing; the non-naive, postmodern versions of sf (like Neuromancer?) are thus something else, postmodern or whatever, but definitely not sf, no matter what readers and critics might think.5 Dalgleish wants to control the term to fit his taste, and to deny certain historical changes of the genre. Although he pretends to attack postmodernism’s ahistoricism, he does it by trying to freeze the genre, and through it, to exclude postmodernism from historical legitimacy. In other words, postmodernism may be happening, but it shouldn’t be, and sf will have none of it.

Metaphysics. Dalgleish writes, "one of the...justifications of [sf] as a genre, has always been its ability to dramatize metaphysical, eschatological, and philosophical issues in a way realistic fiction cannot" (85). It is indisputable that many of the greatest works of sf are saturated with metaphysical speculation and displaced religious yearning. Yet Dalgleish’s notion of metaphysics has curious boundaries. Works that propose that human subjects are creations of information systems (like Neuromancer) are apparently not involved in metaphysical speculation because (so Dalgleish argues) Case, data-determined, is not capable of transcendence. But surely Neuromancer raises a wealth of metaphysical questions. Is individual consciousness a spiritual or a material thing? Is there an essential difference? Can a machine intelligence attain self-awareness and freedom? Can a machine-generated virtual reality have the same status as our real reality? (I.e., can a machine have a soul? Can it make one? Can a soul make a machine?) Can human beings and machines combine to form entities different from either? If these are not metaphysical, what are they? Perhaps they are empirical, in which case the putative postmodern distaste for metaphysics is completely justified, since the problems of metaphysical contemplation have been materialized on earth and present problems of concrete knowledge and action. One suspects that Dalgleish would like to exclude all subjects but the humanoid from his naive metaphysics. Exit materialism, exit quantum reality?

Do Dalgleish’s strictures against the technological determination of subjectivity apply to any determinism? Apparently not, for he includes Star Maker in his canon, a work that ends with an apocalypse surely no less deterministic than Neuromancer’s.6

Whatever these speculative ontological problems might be, they do not fit Dalgleish’s notion of the metaphysical. For him, it must have to do with a higher Nature. Apparently, fundamental questions about the operation of this reality cannot be metaphysical, for the naive reason that Dalgleish does not allow for the problematization of the human subject and its relation to the world it creates. In his discussion of Ben-Tov’s critique of technological transcendence in sf, Dalgleish illuminates this further. Ben-Tov, in his view, narrows her perspective only to sf that fits Suvin’s exclusive category of works of cognitive estrangement. She would find works that narrate positive forms of transcendence if she would include in her sample works that feature "some sort of mysticism or irrationality carried over from the fantastic tradition it is so closely allied with" (87). It is a matter of "the mystic vs. the postmodernist" (87) "The mystical, natural, transcendent approach" vs. the "rational, technological approach of the cyberpunk" (91).

It is no help to mention that the gist of the entire postmodern project is the critique of the duality Dalgleish enthusiastically lays out here. This is aggressively naive criticism. It probably will do no good also to wonder what the conclusion of Neuromancer is if not mysticism? What is the whole cyberspace trilogy but a dialectics of mysticism? I can only speculate that Dalgleish will not even accept of that the phrase technomysticism has any meaning, for he does not entertain the idea that specific form of metaphysics that can imagine human beings creating beings of a higher order than themselves. What is there in organic given nature, one wonders (for that is surely what Dalgleish means by "Nature" and "the natural"), that precludes such transformations?

Given these naive requirements for sf, it is not at all clear what distinguishes sf from fantasy. Dalgleish’s idea of metaphysical speculation seems much more closely allied to fantasy fiction. Narrativity is also more closely tied to the traditional narrative base of quasi-mythic fantasy than to sf. Belief in the fundamental reality of this world as opposed to a "higher reality" comports much better with fantasy than with sf which even in its most conservative forms entertains the idea that human beings’ knowledge of the world can be influenced by material conditions and other human beings.

Utopia, sf and postmodernism. Dalgleish also argues that sf is naturally incompatible with postmodernism because of its deep roots in the genre of utopian writing, which is fundamentally incompatible with postmodernism. Utopian writing, according to Dalgleish, is concerned with real social arrangements (allegedly denied by postmodernism), the persuasive action of language on free subjects (ditto), and the implicit judgment about one society set against the one in the present (all such comparative judgments are supposedly rejected by unified postmodernism).

There are several flaws in this line of reasoning. First, even if utopian writing and postmodern criticism are viewed as mutually exclusive (a not implausible proposition), there is no reason why artists and thinkers would not strive to reconcile them. Every synthetic system or practice is an attempt to reconcile enormous exclusivities: one need only think of the Augustinian and Thomistic reconciliations of mysticism and ratiocination, or of the Romantic poets’ attempt to reconcile language with the ineffable sublime, or melodrama’s attempt to reconcile tragedy and comedy. Why should artists not try to reconcile utopia with postmodern decentering, even if it results in disturbing utterances?

But even this point is problematic. Dalgleish quotes Jenny Wolmark to the effect that sf is a mixture of utopian and dystopian elements, and implies that she would agree with the statement: "a great deal could be said about the difficulty of reconciling utopian/dystopian literature with postmodern theory—the basic assumptions of the two sides are almost mutually exclusive" (88). What does Wolmark really have to say on the matter?

The inclusion of both utopian and dystopian characteristics within the same text is a feature of both feminist and postmodern writing, in which the totalizing tendencies of the dominant ideology are challenged from a variety of different perspectives. The novels under discussion in this section [Chapter 4: "Trouble in Women’s Country"] are part of the struggle to articulate the emergence of the female subject in a context in which female agency continues to experience profound limitations. The postmodern uncertainty generated in the narratives derives from the disruption of genre expectations and also from the perspective the narratives provide on contemporary social and sexual relations. (Wolmark 91)

Wolmark may not have intended to continue her elision of sf and postmodern writing beyond the first sentence (the novels she discusses are not particularly postmodern by most people’s definition), but she articulates clearly that the double perspective of utopia/dystopia is characteristic of both sf and postmodernism. Such utopian genealogy of sf is important for Dalgleish only in so far as it establishes sf’s naivete about the efficacy of human choice and action, a morally clear, good position. What happens when a utopian sf text is so ironic as to be problematic? A problematized utopian narrative problematizes the present. The implicit or even explicit comparison between the utopian /dystopian elsewhere and the reader’s here-and-now may not leave the reader with a heightened sense of moral agency because narrative may not allow either the elsewhere, or the here-and-now a clear moral position. "Irony and ambiguity abound," Dalgleish allows, but pushed far enough, these create great problems. More’s Utopia is itself so ironic it fits easily among postmodern writings (see Louis Marin’s Utopiques: Jeux d’Espaces). How are we to assess the rottenness of our 16th century England if the ideal we compare it to is manifestly impossible, self-contradictory and lacking in grace?

Feminism. My final criticism of Dalgleish’s "In Search of Wonder Naive Criticism" concerns his puzzling treatment of feminist criticism. He refers to Marleen Barr and Jenny Wolmark as exponents of anti-postmodernist sf-criticism. In the culture war, their brand of feminism is on the side of the naive sf camp, in strong opposition to the putative postmodern denial of the real world of women’s poverty, rights, and oppression. Wolmark is a good ally to have. But tellingly, Dalgleish ignores Wolmark’s more inconvenient comments, like the following in Aliens and Others:

the decentering of the modernist legacy, along with the decentering of the unitary subject have been of immense importance as far as feminism and feminist cultural production have been concerned, enabling the question of gendered subjectivity to become part of the postmodern agenda. (11)

While Wolmark critiques the refusal of many male theorists of postmodern-ism to accommodate the problem of gender in their accounts, these remarks refer specifically to those who attempt to theorize the cultural scene as a whole. Elsewhere, Wolmark accepts Donna Haraway’s definition of sf as her book’s working definition: "Science fiction is generically concerned with the interpenetration of boundaries between problematic selves and unexpected others and with the exploration of possible worlds in a context structured by transnational technoscience" (2). The word postmodern does not appear in this formulation (which is why Dalgleish may have missed it), but a more postmodern definition can hardly be imagined.

Dalgleish has the curious illusion that feminism is a naive world view. One wonders what feminist theory he has read, and what of that he paid attention to. Wolmark clearly aligns feminism not only with traditional political concerns of women, but also with the recent projects of postmodern feminism, queer theory, and the cyborg, all linked by the problematization of power and identity via the problematization of the gendered subject. Unsurprisingly, Dalgleish believes that "feminism has allowed itself to become diverted by postmodern overcomplication...." (90)—in fact, by a complexity that stems from refusing to consider gender a naive category.

Any student of feminist literary theory knows that at least two of Dalgleish’s privileged naive categories—metanarrative and metaphysics—have been subjected to thoroughgoing critiques by feminist theorists. The relationship of narrative to Oedipal myths of recuperative violence has not been as easily dismissed by feminist theorists as Dalgleish believes. And the entirety of feminist cyborg theory, perhaps the most science-fictional of all postmodern theories, is based on the critique of the myths of transcendence—especially the mysticism of "Nature."

Cynical or obtuse criticism? Here’s a simple truth. If you claim that truth is simple, you also imply that those who deny this are wrong. Naiveté in criticism can only survive if it claims there are transparent, unambiguous objects— like sf texts—which offer themselves to be understood one way (the critic’s way), unchanging over time. David Dalgleish’s argument that sf is essentially "naive" is thus either true, obtuse (was: naive), or cynical.

If his claims for sf and postmodernism are simply true, I can say no more about them because I am outside its truth. It wouldn’t be a matter of criticism any longer, but theology and mysticism. Nothing in Dalgleish’s article has demonstrated this truth, but it still may be true.

The claims may only be critically obtuse. Perhaps Dalgleish believes that a text has meaning somehow independent of its readers, especially other critics. Otherwise, as soon as an audience views sf texts as rich and problematic, he must accept that the texts involve problems that he did not perceive or that all such problematizing is an illegitimate projection of (other) readers’ concerns on an innocent text-screen. The only critically useful way to decide this is to entertain the putative problems, read the given texts with them in mind, and see whether interesting or useful claims emerge. One working definition of criticism might be: figuring out what problems make a text interesting. To refuse to entertain the logic of these problems is simply an ostrich-strategy. As criticism, it has no value, even if its basic propositions are demonstrated elsewhere to be true.

Dalgleish has no interest is understanding postmodern criticism. He would like to build a prophylactic wall around sf (one way to make a ghetto) to limit it to some readings, and absolutely prevent others. He might thus protect the genre’s innocence, purity and simplicity from postmodern violation. But how do we know Dalgleish can tell whether the purity is an illusion or not, since he seems absolutely innocent of the notion of problematization? Criticism is dangerous and painful to the naif. It is about identifying illusions, and once simplicity has been exposed, you can never go home again. Unless, like fundamentalists, nationalists, and essentialists, one holds that questioning cherished illusions is the first step toward nihilism and democracy.

There are signs that Dalgleish is not always aware that criticism necessarily involves the formulation of abstract questions about concrete things. Or perhaps he is not aware that he is practicing criticism himself. He takes Bukatman to task for the typical postmodern habit of elevating everything "to a realm of abstract discourse removed from the real world" (89). What does Dalgleish believe he is doing himself in "In Search of Wonder Naive Criticism," singing a song? Although it definitely lacks the theoretical rigor of postmodern criticism, and though it may appear to be a defense of the real world, Dalgleish’s essay is a piece of criticism about criticism. It is abstract, removed from the real world. Perhaps it is postmodern in its very naiveté.

Dalgleish’s criticism may, however, be not obtuse, but cynical. He must know, since he is himself a practicing critic, that criticism involves questioning a text, and that the questions posed by texts and by critics change with time. Yet he still insists that some texts should be exempt from serious problematization. This way the emphasis is not on the blessed simplicity of sf, but on the menace of certain critical views—against which the naiveté of sf texts has to be constructed. Dalgleish appears to have defended himself well against them, giving them little mental surface for purchase.

Is "In Search of Wonder Naive Criticism" then a work of willful naiveté?

A willful refusal to entertain complexity, to understand questions put to reality, does not equal innocence, but stubbornness, obtuseness, timidity. It is a disingenuous form of criticism, for it says "do not entertain certain ideas or you will lose your soul!" It says sophistication is bad, complexity is wrong. Though I might agree with Dalgleish that "there’s nothing wrong with a little naiveté once in a while" (85) in art, in criticism there is plenty wrong with it, especially when the naivete is mostly bluff. Dalgleish would like it both ways: he would like to be a sophisticated defender of naivete, and a naif himself. How can the uneasy relationship of sf and postmodernism begin to compare with uneasy relationship of David Dalgleish with his own critical ideas?


1. Edward James in a lecture entitled "After 50 Years: The Past and Future of SF Scholarship" at the Speaking Science Fiction conference, University of Liverpool and Sydney Jones Library, July, 1996.

2. Gary Westfahl, "On The True History of Science Fiction," Foundation 47:5-27, Winter 1989/90.

3. "The SF of Theory: Baudrillard and Haraway." SFS 18:387-404, #55, Nov 1991.

4. Silent Interviews. On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics (Hanover NH: Wesleyan UP, 1994) 192-93.

5. This problem arises with every mutation of the genre. The furor over cyberpunk seems silly now, since the mass of readers and critics naturally accepted it as a legitimate genre of sf. But the question of the fantasy-sf fusion, or horror-sf, is still on the table. Bringing the discussion closer to home, SFS has clear working protocols that exclude consideration of manuscripts dealing with fantasy. Although convenient, the definition of sf the protocol implies is not unproblematic, and will probably only become more problematic with time.

6. See Stanislaw Lem. "On Stapledon’s Star Maker." SFS 14:1-8, #41, March 1987.



Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Ben Tov, Sharona. The Artificial Paradise: Science Fiction and American Reality. Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1995.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. NY: Ace, 1984.

McHale, Brian. Constructing Postmodernism. NY: Routledge, 1992.

Puschmann-Nalenz, Barbara. Science Fiction and Postmodernism. A Genre Study. NY: Peter Lang, 1992.

Wolmark, Jenny. Aliens and Others: Science Fiction, Feminism and Postmodernism. U Iowa P, 1994.

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