Science Fiction Studies
#83 = Volume 28, Part 1 = March 2001
Adventures of the Dialectic
Samuel R. Delany. Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts & the Politics of the Paraliterary. Wesleyan UP, 2000. xii + 464 pp. $50 hc; $22 pbk.
1. "And who is this Delany?", as the eminent (though fictional) scholar S.L. Kermit wrote in June 1980 to the equally eminent (and real) scholar Charles Hoequist, Jr., of Yale University (Neveryóna 391). Answers are not difficult to supply. He is a black writer, a gay writer, a dyslexic writer, a writer of science fiction, a writer of sword-and-sorcery, a pornographer, a writer of comic books. All of these labels bear strong connotations of marginality—social, literary, or both. But there are other, equally accurate designations that sound a good deal more "central." Delany is an American writer, a male writer, a New York writer, a literary and cultural critic, a writer of historical fiction, a writer of contemporary realism, an autobiographer. Each of these various descriptions, however much or however little respectability it may suggest, designates a partial identity. Do all of them together (allowing for the fact that others could certainly be added) add up to a complete identity, even to something like "the whole man"?
Not to any reader who has been paying attention to what Samuel R. Delany has been trying to teach us for the past three decades or so. In the pithy formulation of Ashima Slade: "There is no class, race, nationality, or sex [or, we might add, literary genre] that it does not help to be only half" (Trouble on Triton 302). At least since Dhalgren (1975), and probably since Babel-17 (1966) and The Einstein Intersection (1967)—and arguably even further back than that—Delany has in all his varied and voluminous work been trying to warn us against the perils, both intellectual and political, of easily received wisdom, of facile constructions of wholeness and completion and identity, of all formulations that evade the irreducible complexity and paradoxical quality of the universe. Beginning mainly in a field—space opera—where the glib and pernicious oversimplification has a long, powerful, and inglorious history, Delany has spent nearly his entire career patiently insisting that things are never as simple as we all like to believe they are.
Many would attribute, or at least relate, Delany’s anti-essentialist stance to his well-known interest in poststructuralism; but this does not seem to me quite the best way of putting the matter, though it is clearly not without some validity. True enough, Delany is deeply learned in poststructuralist philosophy and criticism, and he actively studied such thinkers as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault outside the academy and long before their work became academically reputable. Finally, however, his orientation seems to me somewhat less that of a poststructuralist than that of a dialectician in the classic Marxist sense. Delany has a solid dialectical understanding that everything is always related to everything else, and that causality never proceeds only in a linear fashion; throughout the immensity of the social field, causes are effects, and effects are causes. He understands the primacy of material production, and he insists upon being as concrete as possible in locating the exact historical pressures of particular times and places. Complexity is for Delany more fundamental than simplicity, and overdetermination—that is, determination by multiple factors, none of which can ever be reduced to any of the others—is the rule rather than the exception: "The Universe is overdetermined," as a maxim from one of his novels puts it (Stars 164). Accordingly, Delany knows that knowledge is always provisional, and the act of knowing is always interventionist in a political sense. Intellectual (or other) results are rarely predictable in advance, though a good general assumption is that rigorous and honest conceptual work will violate intuitive common sense; for Delany as for Marx, truth tends to be paradox. Delany knows—with Marx fully as much as with Derrida—that the margins can be central, and that centrality is often, in the end, marginal.
In what follows I will consider Delany as one of our most interesting and productive adventurers in the varied fields of dialectical thought. Where I have occasion to join issue with him, it will be, I hope, from the dialectical perspective that we both uphold.
2. Though a great many other important sf authors have produced criticism of genuine interest—Brian W. Aldiss, James Blish, Thomas M. Disch, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stanislaw Lem, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Joanna Russ are the names that come most readily to mind—only Delany has established himself as a truly first-rate critic, as one whose critical work would be worthy of major attention even if its author had never written a line of fiction. Indeed, it seems probable that Delany’s stature as a novelist (and for me he is, along with Thomas Pynchon, the most consistently enjoyable, rewarding, and intellectually complex novelist in the contemporary US) has somewhat obscured the fact that he is also one of our best nonfiction writers. He has done great work in autobiography as well as in criticism, and he has, to be sure, frequently hybridized the two forms; but Delany as autobiographer is a topic for another (and much needed) study, and the current essay will focus on Delany as critic.
With Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts & The Politics of the Paraliterary, he has now published eight books that are entirely or predominantly critical in nature—a total that would be more than respectable for an entire career devoted to writing nothing but criticism. But the quality of Delany’s criticism is even more impressive than its bulk. It was in the mid-to-late 1970s that sf criticism really came of age, that it began to produce theoretically informed work that could be compared without defensiveness or apology to the best criticism being written in any other field; and, except for Darko Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (Yale, 1979), no other books were as important in this regard as The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (Dragon, 1977), The American Shore: Meditations on a Tale of Science Fiction by Thomas M. Disch—"Angouleme" (Dragon, 1978), and (a bit later) Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (Dragon, 1984). While Suvin defined with new rigor and usefulness the narrative and intellectual strategies of the genre, Delany focused with unprecedented sensitivity and intelligence on the language of science fiction; and he became the first to make clear not only that sf has a distinctive way of producing sentences, but that critical techniques long used to explicate modern poetry could with profit be applied to the language of Heinlein or Bester. At least insofar as the analysis of science fiction is concerned, I do not think that Delany’s later critical work has ever quite recaptured the intensity and excitement of his earlier, and most pioneering, efforts. By way of compensation, however, his range of active interests has greatly expanded (far beyond the boundaries of science fiction, though without ever leaving sf behind), so that it now is as large as that of any other serious critic active today. Delany is, quite simply, one of the major literary and cultural commentators of our time.
The present volume is the longest of Delany’s critical books to date, and among the most various as well. With his usual lucid intelligence, vigorous prose style, and humane tone, Delany produces interesting insights on topics that range from the epidemiology of AIDS to the internal politics of the comic-book industry; from the heated intellectual dispute between Foucault and Derrida about the thesis of the former’s Madness and Civilization (Librairie Plon, 1961) to a generally little-noticed production of Othello in Brooklyn; from the history of Stephen Crane’s reputation to the degree of scientific ignorance that prevails in the US today. But the multivalency of Shorter Views is due not only to the number (27), variety, and relative brevity of the individual pieces, but also to the largely aphoristic form in which many of them are written: the form, that is, whereby an essay is constructed out of many autonomous units, each of which may range from a single paragraph (or even a single sentence) to a mini-essay of a few pages. This is a form that Delany has often adopted (for instance, it is, virtually by necessity, the main form of his many interviews, half a dozen of which are included in this volume), and it is one with a powerful philosophical lineage, including most of Nietzsche’s work, several of Walter Benjamin’s best essays, and Adorno’s incomparable Minima Moralia (Suhrkamp, 1951).
As these precursors show, the aphoristic form is capable of important strengths: it helps to keep the organizing conceptual terms of an argument constantly in dialectical motion; it allows problems to be examined from an unusually large number of angles; it may aid in forestalling any premature closure or too glib totalization. Though Delany’s own use of the aphoristic form certainly displays all these virtues and more, I do sometimes wonder whether he has not, over the years, depended upon it a bit too heavily. For of course the aphoristic approach has its shortcomings as well as its advantages. It is the form of the sprinter, not the long-distance runner, and it tends to privilege the isolated flash of insight over the patient systematic analysis that many problems sometimes require. It too readily allows the writer to dazzle and then flee, to put forward the provisional hunch as accomplished truth without having to take responsibility for all the implications and qualifications that may be pertinent. A writer with a special literary talent for the singular stunning effect can easily be tempted to rely on effect too much.
Having sounded this warning, I must immediately add that Delany has manifestly proved himself capable of more sustained, extended analysis as well. Outstanding examples among his earlier critical work include Wagner/Artaud: A Play of 19th and 20th Century Critical Fictions (Anzatz, 1988), a wonderfully entertaining piece of cultural history that proposes some important modifications of the received map of literary modernism; "To Read The Dispossessed " (from The Jewel-Hinged Jaw), a brilliant close reading of the most influential novel in modern science fiction, and one that all subsequent readings of that text must take into account (even if, as is the case with my own critical treatment of Le Guin’s masterpiece in Critical Theory and Science Fiction [Wesleyan, 2000], with some measure of disagreement); and, perhaps above all, The American Shore, which must surely rank as the most intensive analysis ever applied to a single work of sf. Despite its title, the new volume contains two items that can also be mentioned in this regard: "Neither the First Word nor the Last on Deconstruction, Structuralism, Poststructuralism, and Semiotics for SF Readers," a splendid introduction to the named methods, which, like all the best "introductory" texts—Fredric Jameson’s Marxism and Form (Princeton, 1971) and Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory (Oxford, 1983; rev. Minnesota, 1996) are other examples—contains much to interest even those who were first introduced to the relevant material long ago; and "The Politics of Paraliterary Criticism," which counts as one of Delany’s major statements to date on many of the issues that have most engaged him in recent years, and to which I will return.
Overall, Shorter Views is an excitingly miscellaneous collection, with more different points of interest than could be seriously considered here (even though certain concerns do recur in the book, two of the most prominent of which are named in the subtitle). Accordingly, it seems fitting to continue the current essay in its own rather aphoristic way, and to focus on several discrete matters on which Delany seems to me particularly interesting.
3. One thing that Shorter Views helps to make clear is that Delany must be counted as one of the most important writers about AIDS. AIDS discourse is of particular rhetorical interest since it combines, as it must, the discourses of science, medicine, sexuality, politics, economics, morality, religion, and other weighty matters. Delany’s interest in the disease is most memorably expressed in his fiction—perhaps above all in "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals," the novel-length section of Flight from Nevèrÿon (1985), a book that, as we learn in Shorter Views, was, uniquely among the four volumes of the NEVèRŸON series, and evidently because of its attention to AIDS, effectively consigned to oblivion by the reviewers (and with the partial connivance of its own original publisher). But Delany as critic also has much to say about this most frighteningly "postmodern" of epidemics, and very much in the multidisciplinary way that the subject demands.
On one level, Delany’s stance on AIDS amounts to an insistence on scientific accuracy, or to as much of it as can feasibly be obtained under extraordinarily difficult epistemological circumstances. He seems (at least at some points) to have studied the medical literature on AIDS as efficiently as anyone without specialized professional training could do, and he reports some surprising findings—for instance, about the relative lack of monitored studies of AIDS transmission, so that, by 1993, he could locate no meaningful scientific data about the sexual transmission of the HIV virus either from or to women, despite the fact that by that time over 11,000 cases of AIDS in women had been verified. This situation is indeed, as he comments with restrained passion, "a crime whose statistics are reaching toward the genocidal" (37). But Delany does not just "read" the medical reports. He actually reads them, so to speak; that is, he knows that medical literature, like any other, is written in human language and may frequently require interpretive de-sedimentation in order to be as legible as possible. To say this is not to proclaim that a text can mean anything you want it to or that there is no relationship between textuality and truth—the positions often fantasized by positivistic imbeciles who rail against the "relativism" of Marxism and deconstruction without being capable of describing either in a way that would earn a passing grade in a sophomore theory survey. The point is rather that no discourse, not even one that claims the authority of the natural sciences, enjoys a magically transparent relationship to reality; a medical text, no less than a philosophical or poetic one, must be read in light of its historical contexts and rhetorical contradictions in order to be most adequately understood.
Delany, for example, gives us just such a reading of a 1989 letter to The New England Journal of Medicine that claimed to report a case of the transmission of HIV infection from a woman to a man by means of oral sex. Such transmission, if truly a fact, would be news indeed, since no previous data had ever established such a possibility; and both The New York Times and The New York Daily News promptly reported this novel kind of sexual danger (with both newspapers falsely suggesting that the report in the prestigious New England Journal had been a peer-reviewed article rather than a letter to the editor). Analyzing the letter carefully, Delany shows that it does not at all prove what it seems to: the "confirmation" (as the Times and the Daily News treated it) of HIV transmission by oral sex depends upon the completely unconfirmed personal testimony of a single individual who happened to be a 60-year-old married man, suffering from both diabetes and dementia, who not only may have been confused but who also had abundant obvious motivation to lie about any homosexual contacts or intravenous drug use that he might have experienced. Is it scientifically responsible to announce that such testimony establishes anything? But the tendency of the letter to the New England Journal (and even more of the second-hand journalistic treatments of the letter) to narrow the perceived range of "safe sex" is part and parcel of a highly determinate and thoroughly vicious ideological formation. What is fundamentally at issue is nothing less than hostility to sex itself. AIDS, as Delany says, is being used as an "excuse to armor the body in silence, ignorance, and rubber"; the abuse of scientific authority is crucial, because "AIDS is currently at its most powerful as a ‘cultural tool’ against sex ... to the extent that we are in the greatest ignorance about it" (125).
Interestingly, anti-sexual (and ultimately lethal) mendacity often adopts the rhetoric of liberal inclusiveness. A slogan like "AIDS is everybody’s problem" may at first sound harmless enough; but it occludes the fact that AIDS is much more a problem for some than for others, because some sexual practices (like anal-receptive intercourse) are demonstrably more dangerous than others. Common sense might suppose that inflationary statements about HIV transmission are socially benign: for is it not best, in an admittedly uncertain situation, to err on the side of caution? But Delany shows that this logic is superficial and deadly. To leap from the realistic "Don’t get fucked up the ass without a condom" to the hyperbolic "Don’t do anything without a condom" is not a move in the direction of greater safety: "[B]ecause the latter is far harder to follow, it militates instead for laxness; and to the extent that the two are perceived as somehow the same, the laxness finally infects the former" (54). As a critic of AIDS discourse, Delany shows that the interpretation of texts need not be a trivial "academic" pastime; it can be quite literally a matter of life and death.
4. I will next turn to a concept that crops up in Shorter Views more frequently, perhaps, than any other: the paraliterary. Paraliterature is a category that Delany uses to designate certain genres, including science fiction but also mysteries, Westerns, pornography, comic books, and (somewhat surprisingly) academic literary criticism. It is noteworthy that, though Delany is generally very skeptical about definitions, and sometimes argues vigorously against the whole concept of definition (in most contexts), he does offer what he admits to be a definition of paraliterature and the paraliterary: "those written genres traditionally excluded by the limited, value-bound meaning of ‘literature’ and ‘literary’" (236). This is clear enough, especially in view of other, similarly formed terms. A paralegal is engaged in legal work but lacks the formal credentials and, at least in principle, some of the expert knowledge and ability of the true legal professional, i.e., the lawyer. A nurse can be described as a paramedical person because she or he is officially assumed to occupy a position in the field of medicine inferior to that of the true medical person, the doctor. Paraliterature, I take it, is thus written work generally recognized as belonging to the same very general discursive field as literature (for it does not include telephone books or instructions for hooking up a VCR), but perceived to lack the kind or degree of value associated with literature itself and therefore excluded from the latter. Bluntly stated, the prevailing assumption is that paraliterature is inferior to literature—though of course this is most definitely not an assumption that Delany shares.
The concept is a potentially interesting one; certainly it represents a serious attempt to come to grips with a difficult set of problems that have occupied cultural studies ever since the pioneering work of George Orwell and, later, Raymond Williams. But it seems to me that the concept as Delany deploys it displays some real problems, or, more specifically, some lapses in dialectical rigor; and I will try here to detail a few of my disagreements with his formulations. To be sure, Delany is (as T.S. Eliot famously characterized Samuel Johnson) "a dangerous person to disagree with," and especially when it comes to the analysis of sf and allied genres. But the risk seems to me worth taking, in no small part because any dialectical thinker is better honored by vigorous counter-argument than by invariable assent.
In the first place, the dichotomy between "literature" and "paraliterature" tends to suggest a stark binary opposition such as may indeed exist in the case of doctors and nurses (who function within a rigid institutional hierarchy and who rarely change places) but not, I think, in the context of understanding genres like sf. Instead of allowing us to conceptualize the problem as one of a continuous literary field with a great many gross and subtle (and constantly changing) gradations of perceived canonicity, the terminology of "paraliterature" tends to insinuate (though clearly against Delany’s own general intentions) the notion of a single hard-and-fast barrier, with all works or genres falling on one side or the other. Accordingly, it becomes difficult to see the pertinent issues in a concretely historical way, whether as regards the past or the present. Was the novel itself, for instance, once "paraliterary," and, if so, at exactly what point did it cross the border into literature proper? Today the works of such authors as Turgenev, Flaubert, and Henry James seem as securely canonical as almost any texts one could name. Yet these novelists came of age at a time when poetry was still generally assumed to be "the crown of literature" and the novel was still widely regarded as a faintly (or even not so faintly) disreputable form of entertainment. And they all struggled—just as, somewhat later, Mikhail Bakhtin, still perhaps the greatest critic of the novel, struggled—to obtain recognition for the novel as a valuable form in somewhat the same way that sf critics like Delany today struggle to obtain such recognition for science fiction. Or to take another example: if any form today (except pornography) can be unhesitatingly classified as "paraliterary," it is surely, one would think, sword-and-sorcery. Delany himself has called it the "most despised sub-genre of paraliterary production" (Silent 129). Yet if you examine the four Wesleyan University Press volumes of Delany’s own most important work of sword-and-sorcery—the NEVèRčON series—you will find that each one bears a testimonial by the highly influential literary critic Fredric Jameson, who pronounces the series to be "a major and unclassifiable achievement in contemporary American literature" (emphasis added). To suggest that Jameson ought to have changed the final word in his endorsement to "paraliterature" seems to me not just pedantic but plainly and utterly wrong—in part, indeed, because of the enthusiastic and wholly merited praise that the NEVèRŸON tetrology has drawn from Jameson and other eminent arbiters of literary matters (e.g., Umberto Eco, also a fan of the series).
Even on its own terms, then, the opposition between "literature" and "paraliterature" is simply too rigid and undialectical to represent with any rigor the extremely complex and historically variable processes whereby written works are evaluated in intricate and always shifting critical hierarchies. I do not suppose for a moment that Delany is unaware of the kind of objections I am raising. On the contrary, few critics are more generally attentive than he to the perils of binary oppositions and to the need to understand all intellectual borders as porous and in constant flux. But even Homer nods, and my main point here is that such nodding is encouraged by the very term "paraliterary," and the dichotomous division of science fiction and certain other genres from "literature" in the first place. An example that strikes me as particularly illustrative is Delany’s mechanical anatomizing of Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star (1976), which he sees as a good, vibrant work of sf for its first three quarters or so but one that then becomes "literature" at the end, as the author "just gets tired and takes refuge in a Beckettesque fable" (208). However much one may applaud the polemical point that "paraliterature" can be aesthetically superior to "literature," the opposition of science fiction to literature still seems a simplistic way of describing the complex heterogeneity of DeLillo’s novel.
But there is, I think, an even more fundamental objection to the category of paraliterature as Delany generally uses it. To bring this objection into focus it is necessary to recall Delany’s hostility to the category of definition. He is especially adamant in his view that genres—"literary" or "paraliterary"—cannot be defined, and he regards the attempt to define science fiction as a symptom of criticism of the most simple-minded and retrograde type. His anti-definitional stance is based primarily on his conviction that the claim to define amounts to a claim of total intellectual mastery entirely inappropriate to anything so complex and historically variable as a genre. This seems, on one level, an eminently sound and dialectical point. But, as the former Leader of the Free World might say, it all depends on what the definition of definition is. Granted Delany’s understanding of the term, his conclusions do follow. But his understanding of definition is not the only legitimate one. Delany seems to me to draw a sharp distinction—as sharp, indeed, as that between literature and paraliterature—between definition and "functional description"; and he allows that the latter, with its much weaker claim to mastery, is not only legitimate but necessary in order to enable the discussion of such things as genres. Again, though, it seems to me that the binary opposition thus suggested is rather too stark, and that the concept of definition can be profitably understood in ways that separate it from the concept of functional description much less absolutely than Delany’s own scheme allows. Indeed, a good working (and, I think, eminently dialectical) definition of definition might be "a functional description that makes a special effort to be as comprehensive as possible while nonetheless acknowledging total comprehension to be impossible." Such is how I read interesting and useful attempts at defining sf such as those proposed by Suvin and Aldiss, and such is the spirit in which my own definition of science fiction (heavily based on Suvin’s) was offered to the world.
But let us examine the most general "functional description" of genre that Delany himself gives: "a collection of texts that are generally thought similar enough so that, largely through an unspecified combination of social forces (they are sold from the same bookshelves in bookstores, they are published by the same publishers, they are liked by the same readers, written by the same writers, share in a range of subject matters, etc.), most people will not require historical evidence to verify that a writer, producing one of those texts, has read others of the group written up to that date" (257). I am tempted to reply that, if this is the best description that can be formulated of genre once the project of definition has been abjured, then the problem is not too much ambition for intellectual mastery, but too little. The term "unspecified" seems largely to give away the game in advance, and allows the dubious use of "etc.," which is here employed in a series where the unnamed items can manifestly not be inferred from the named ones. Much of the rhetoric is heavily affective—"are generally thought similar enough," "most people will not require"—and, strictly construed, appears to commit us to mass empirical research into the views of individual readers before the discussion of genre can really begin. Likewise—and even more pertinently—of the five "social forces" that Delany does specify, none (with the partial, problematic exception of the last) possesses the slightest formal value; they are sociological in character, and restrict the understanding of genre to matters largely extrinsic to the texts that exemplify a genre. And yet genre, I insist, is nothing if not a formal category.
This, then, is my fundamental objection to the concept of paraliterature, especially as a way of understanding science fiction: namely, that it entails a sociological reductionism that essentially ignores the formal features of texts. To be sure, the intrinsic/extrinsic opposition is as much in need of dialectical deconstruction as any other, and I am the last to maintain that sociology has nothing to teach literary criticism. But I do maintain that the former cannot substitute for the latter without eliding the formal concerns that are necessarily central to literature and literary criticism. It is particularly ironic that Delany’s scheme should logically lead to such an insensitivity to form, since, of course, no one has generally been more sensitive than he to the formal (and especially the stylistic) features of sf.
Indeed, even in those recent writings where the category of the paraliterary is most prominent, what I take to be fundamental terminological and philosophical problems do not prevent Delany from saying many interesting and useful things about science fiction and other genres (especially pornography and comic books); and it may seem strange that I have devoted so much space, relatively, to finding fault with a book and an author that I so admire. But Sherlock Holmes once advised Dr. Watson ("literary" or "paraliterary" characters, by the way?) that, since crime is common and logic rare, his stories should concentrate more on logic than on crime. Intellectual felicities are abundant in Delany’s critical writings. What seem to me weaknesses in dialectical reasoning are rare and, partly for that very reason, need to be examined with some attention—and, if possible, according to standards as high as Delany’s own.
5. Finally, I will offer some brief reflections on the penultimate item in Shorter Views, "Some Remarks on Narrative and Technology or: Poetry and Truth," which I take to be one of the most remarkable essays in Delany’s entire critical corpus. The subtitle is borrowed from Goethe’s autobiography (as Delany points out), but the problem to which it points is at least as old as Plato; and Delany’s consideration of it is one of the most fascinating that I know. The essay is one of his most difficult—after several attentive readings, I am still struggling to grasp all its implications, though more fascinated by it than ever—and the difficulty is related to its extremely aphoristic form. It is composed of 22 largely autonomous sections, some of which are devoted to fairly abstract philosophizing, others of which present detailed empirical accounts of such varied matters as the development of modern anti-Semitism enabled by the new printing (and other) technologies of the 1880s; the rise, about a century ago, of English Literature as an academic subject designed to "save our souls and heal the State" (Professor George Gordon of Oxford); the "countercanon" of never quite canonized but never forgotten works associated with the decade of the 1890s in England, by such authors as Olive Schreiner, James Thomson, and Ernest Dowson; and the ontology of grammar itself. As this description should suggest, Delany’s argument proceeds more through indirection and oblique analogy than by formal propositional logic. Still, it seems possible to identify, tentatively, a few provisional conclusions.
Though foregrounded in the subtitle, "truth" is in fact abandoned in the essay’s third section, to be replaced by science: not, perhaps, an exact synonym, but evidently a rough functional equivalent to "truth" in the constructed and dialectical meaning that Delany insinuates through an elaborate anecdote about a conversation he once had with an editor. The real focus of the piece is thus on poetry and science, as is announced at the very beginning: "Science and Poetry are my concerns here" (408). Instead of attempting to establish a direct relation (or non-relation) between the two terms, however (the strategy familiar in both the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions), Delany proposes an analogical relation that grows out of a quadrapartite scheme that includes not only science and poetry but also the two terms of his main title, technology and narrative. Rejecting the commonsense view that technology is merely the "application" of science, he argues that technology is in a sense the logically—but not the perceptually—prior category. Technology, so to speak, is simply what is there: "The object world, controlled or uncontrolled, maneuvered or unmaneuvered, is technology" (420). Science is an aspect (but not the essence) of technology, and may be described as "aestheticized technology," so long as we add that it is simultaneously "the political aspect of technology—as it is the theoretical aspect" (421). It seems to me within the spirit of Delany’s argument to add that science is the only way we have of understanding technology. In a sense, then, Delany is here reinventing and updating the critical philosophy of Kant; in Kantian terms, technology is noumenal, while science is phenomenal. Yet technology is not, for Delany, a merely inert Ding an sich. By stressing the authentically reciprocal relation between technology and science—"Science, then, might be called the ability of the object world to excite explanations in the reasoning body that, through their coherence and iterability, allow (or suggest) a greater and greater control over the object world" (421)—Delany imparts a dialectical quality to his scheme that Kant’s lacks.
And what of poetry? Delany’s real originality is to propose that poetry stands to narrative roughly as science does to technology; poetry, that is, is not an alternative to narrative but an aspect of it. Just as science represents a necessary abstraction from technology, so does poetry represent a necessary abstraction from narrative. It seems to me—though Delany does not put the matter in quite this way—that it would be possible to attempt nothing less than an anatomy of literature as a whole by specifying the precise relationships that obtain between poetry and narrative in various texts and genres. At one extreme, for instance, might be the realist novel as practiced by Balzac or Jane Austen, works in which the poetic is so deeply embedded in the narrative that detailed analysis (such as that performed by Roland Barthes in S/Z [Éditions du Seuil, 1970]) may be required in order to make clear that it is only by way of poetic language that narrative can be apprehended. At the other extreme would be such texts as Jean Toomer’s "Sound Poem (I)" or the works of poets of the Language school such as Lyn Hejinian and Ron Silliman (examples suggested by Delany himself): here the poetic is so nearly extrinsic to narrative as to be hypostasized into something like autonomous existence.
Even more interesting, however—at least potentially—than the relations between poetry and narrative or between science and technology is the parallel that Delany suggests between poetry and science. In an anecdote that Delany has told or alluded to more than once, the young Marilyn Hacker (to whom Delany was married for a number of years) told an interviewer that, as a poet trained at the Bronx High School of Science, she did not see much difference between the two interests: for both science and poetry are based on precise observation. In a way, what Delany is doing now is expanding this remark and giving some philosophical heft to it; and, though it is devoutly to be hoped that he expands on the poetry/science analogy further than he has yet done, some implications already seem clear. For one thing, this is a radically democratic theory. Poetry is liberated from notions of quasi-divine inspiration, as science is liberated from mere expertise; and both are seen as fundamental functions of the human mind. We cannot establish any sort of relation with the object world in which we live without being, to some degree, scientists, just as we cannot make any kind of sense of the sequence of events in our life without adopting the role of the poet. But democracy is not the same as populist sentimentality, and the degree of precision with which we observe makes a great deal of difference as regards the quality of our poetry or our science. Still, Delany’s scheme does seem to me to imply that at least the rudiments of great poetry and great science are indeed within the potential grasp of every human being. This, of course, is only one direction in which the science/poetry analogy might be pursued. There are doubtless many others; in particular, I should guess that some interesting implications for science fiction might well be inchoate in this extraordinary essay.
6. The foregoing pages have hardly even begun to convey the variety of riches to be found in Shorter Views. When advising students (or other readers) making their first acquaintance with Delany’s critical prose, one should recommend The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, The American Shore, and Starboard Wine as the first texts to read in order to get a sense of his achievement as a pioneer of fully serious sf criticism; and Longer Views is the book to recommend for extended treatments of matters mostly outside the realm of sf. But from now on I will recommend Shorter Views as the book that best displays the sheer range of Delany’s mind. Perhaps not since Edmund Wilson have we had a practicing critic who—unaffectedly and in beautifully written prose—has addressed such an immense diversity of topics with consistent high intelligence, has been able to sustain his arguments with such widely various examples, and has so often dazzled us with surprising yet apposite connections between different items and different orders of things.
The comparison with Wilson supplies, indeed, a clue to the kind of unique importance that Delany as critic possesses. For Wilson was the last great American critic to work almost entirely outside the academy; his work is, among many other things, a souvenir of a vanished cultural scene in which literary journalism could still produce first-rate thought. Delany, of course, has for more than a decade now been pursuing a distinguished academic career at several major universities. But for most of his adult life he earned his living by his pen, outside the walls of academe (in fact he possesses no formal degree beyond a high-school diploma); and I think that in many ways his critical production combines the best of academic and nonacademic intelligence. Like the first-rate academic he has become, Delany works at the highest levels of conceptual sophistication; he is impeccable in his erudition, and, while never diffident about his opinions, generally displays the impersonal humility of the true scholar. But like the first-rate free-lancer he used to be, he ranges more widely and takes more chances than even the best academics usually do; and he is refreshingly independent of the academic fads and fashions that can be as conformist as the mores of any suburban garden club. He does not, of course, always persuade one of the rightness of his views; he persuades me, I should say, about 85% of the time. But, invariably, Delany’s criticism—like his fiction—possesses the quality that Brecht once identified as the only real criterion of aesthetic value: the ability to make us think.
Samuel R. Delany. Nevèrÿona, or: The Tale of Signs and Cities: Some Informal Remarks Towards the Modular Calculus, Part Four. 1983 (as Neveryóna). Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1993.
-----. Silent Interviews: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1994.
-----. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. 1984. New York: Bantam, 1985.
-----. Trouble on Triton. 1976 (as Triton). Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1996.
Back to Home