- Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. Postmodernism
via McCaffery, Hayles, & Gane (Larry McCaffery. Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with
Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers; N. Katherine Hayles. Chaos Bound:
Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science; Mike Gane. Baudrillard
Critical and Fatal Theory)
- David Y. Hughes. H.G. Wells: Towards a
Synthesis? (Patrick Parrinder & Christopher
Rolfe, eds. H.G. Wells Under Revision: Proceedings of the International Wells
Synposium, London, July 1986)
- Peter Ohlin. Science-Fiction Film
Criticism and the Debris of Postmodernism (Annette
Kuhn, ed. Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema.
Constance Penley, Elizabeth Lyon, Lynn Spigel, & Janet
Bergstrom, eds. Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction.)
- Roy Arthur Swanson. Postmodernist
Criticism of Pynchon (Alec McHoul and David Wills. Writing
Pynchon: Strategies in Fictional Analysis)
- Richard P. Terra.
A General Framework for Familiar Concepts (Thomas J. Roberts. An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction)
BOOKS IN REVIEW
- In Search of
the Poetic Fantastic (Patrick D. Murphy & Vernon
Hyles, eds. The Poetic Fantastic: Studies in an Evolving Genre; Scott E. Green. Contemporary
Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Poetry: A Resource Guide and Biographical Directory)
- A Symposium on
Utopia (Klaus L. Berghahn & Reinhold Grimm, eds. Utopian
Vision, Technological Innovation, and Poetic Imagination)
- Cheyfitz's Politics
of Imperialism (Donald M. Hassler)
A Handbook for Frankenstein
(Stephen C. Behrendt, ed. Approaches to Teaching
Shelley's ''Frankenstein.'') (Veronica Hollinger)
Edition of She (R.D. Mullen)
Borgo, and the English Association Nicholas Ruddick.
Priest; Stephen R. Dziemianowicz. The Annotated Guide to Unknown &Unknown
Worlds; Steve Behrends. Clark Ashton Smith; Raymond Z. Gallun with Dr. Jeffrey M.
Elliott. Starclimber: The Literary Adventures and Autobiography of Raymond Z. Gallun;
Beverly Lyon Clark. Lewis Carroll; Scott Alan Burgess. The Work of Dean Ing:
An Annotated Bibliography and Guide; Tom Shippey, ed., Fictional Space: Essays on
Contemporary Science Fiction) (R.D. Mullen)
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.
Postmodernism by Three: McCaffery, Hayles, and Gane
Larry McCaffery. Across
the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers.
Urbana: Illinois UP, 1990. 267pp. $29.95 paper.
Larry McCaffery is one of the few literary academics convinced that SF is the
quintessential literary mode of contemporary American culture. He is also the most
exposed. No other writer, to my knowledge, has been publicly scolded on National Public
Radio for overemphasizing the faddish low genre of SF, as McCaffery was for his article on
"The Fictions of the Present" in the Columbia Literary History of the United
States (1988). In the mid-'80s, McCaffery included interviews with Samuel Delany and
Ursula Le Guin in his collection of interviews with current American writers, Alive
and Writing. Since then, his commitment to SF has only become stronger; his recent
work has focused almost exclusively on postmodern SF, and he has taken on the mission of
legitimizing cyberpunk and its odd relations in the straight world.
In Across the Wounded Galaxies, McCaffery offers conversations with nine of
the most respected SF writers on the current American scene, and one ringer. The Delany
and Le Guin interviews from Alive and Writing are reprinted, along with new
interviews with Gregory Benford, Octavia Butler, Thomas Disch, William Gibson, Bruce
Sterling, Joanna Russ, and Gene Wolfe--and a conversational steeplechase with William S.
Burroughs, who proves once again that he is less an SF writer than an SF phenomenon.
The interviews are arranged alphabetically, not in the order in which they occurred. A
chronological table of contents would read: Delany (1983, after the publication of the
first two Nevèrÿon books); Le Guin ('83, before the appearance of Always Coming Home;
with a short addendum from 1988); Wolfe ('86, well after the appearance of the BOOK
OF THE NEW SUN tetralogy); Russ (July '86, after Extra(Ordinary) People); Gibson
(August '86, close after Count Zero); Burroughs ('87, immediately after The
Western Lands); Disch ('86, around A Troll in Surewood Forest; and again in
'88, after an interactive computer fiction program, Amnesia); Butler (July '88,
between Adulthood Rites and Imago); Sterling (July '88, soon after Islands
in the Net); and Benford (October '88, soon after Great Sky River). I would
have preferred the chronological arrangement, which would have made me keep track of what
new information McCaffery was feeding back into the later interviews. (The Delany talk
clearly informs many of the later ones, and one can wonder whether Le Guin or Wolfe might
have been questioned differently had they come after Sterling and Russ.)
McCaffery is a superb interviewer for writers. He does his homework, reading the
interlocutors' every work and public statement and the works of writers who are likely to
have had influence on them. He is erudite, often demanding subtle thinking on the fly,
respectful of talent, and courteous (too courteous for his own good sometimes). More
important for critical readers is McCaffery's thesis that SF has become the most
characteristically postmodern literary genre in America.
McCaffery expounds his thesis in the book's introduction, which might well stand as a
manifesto for the contemporary study of SF: "My premise is that SF's formal and
thematic concerns are intimately related to the characteristics of other post-modern artforms, that SF has been influencing and been influenced by these forms. SF can, in
fact, be seen as representing an exemplar of post-modernism because it is the artform that
most directly reflects back at us the cultural logic that has produced
post-modernism" (2-3). Contemporary SF is written in the science-fictional reality of
the developed West, saturated by the informatic technologies and the radical application
of technological innovations to social life, which allows people "physically to
inhabit their lives, without imaginatively or ethically inhabiting
them" (4). SF has "the capacity to defamiliarize our science-fictional
lives and thereby force us to temporarily inhabit worlds whose cognitive distortions and
poetic figurations of our own social relations--as these are constructed and altered by
our new technologies--make us suddenly see our world in sharper relief" (3-4).
The thesis thus gathers ideas from Darko Suvin, Jean Baudrillard, Bruce Sterling,
Fredric Jameson, Samuel Delany, Brian McHale, and other theorists of SF who are not always
so compatible. The introduction to AWG reads like the academic incarnation of
Sterling's brilliant manifesto for cyberpunks in the Mirrorshades anthology. Like
Sterling's introduction, McCaffery's invites consideration not as a direct argument, but
as a general overview of a many-sided cultural phenomenon. The proof is supposed to lie in
the texts that follow. And like Mirrorshades, the interviews in AWG do
not always bear the theoretical introduction out.
AWG is a Janus-faced project, serving two purposes for two different
audiences. First, the interviews are intended to legitimize SF writers as true artists,
not just formula-churning hacks. McCaffery naturally does not even mention this intention
in his introductory remarks; he assumes it. But the questioning and the line of discussion
in most of the interviews is less about global literary issues than about the background
and interests of the writers. For SF fans these topics may be inherently interesting; but
for a wider literary audience not very familiar with SF, like the audience of McCaffery's
earlier interview-collections, they basically function to demonstrate that SF writers have
a wide range of interests that have an effect on their work, that they think carefully
about their craft, and that they have interesting and useful views about their place
the rest of contemporary literature--in short, that they should be taken seriously.
For the most part, the writers come through. Benford expounds on Faulkner and the
distinction between the wilderness and the frontier in American literature, as well as
just about all matters cultural; Disch makes many acute observations about the current
scene; Russ, Sterling, and Gibson overflow with well-informed and interesting judgments
about literature and theory and SFs relation to them; Le Guin and Butler are modest, but
clearly reflective; and Delany is, as he often is in interviews, a living dissertation on
SF in the history of literature. The only major disappointment is Wolfe, whose views on SF
and literature are eerily kitschy and banal.
But McCaffery's introduction also binds him to another project--and to another, more
specific and demanding audience. Given his thesis, it is not enough to show that SF
writers are careful artists, though that could have been a worthwhile project in its own
right. One might well have expected the same treatment for, say, horror fiction, with
interviews with Dan Simmons, Ann Rice, and Lucius Shepard, to mention a few. But for
McCaffery SF has a privileged position in the postmodern continuum. Consequently, his
writers are called upon to demonstrate their special awareness of the relations between
high-tech and fiction that McCaffery considers the determining factor in postmodernism.
In this respect, several of McCaffery's interviewees are uninterested in, or just not
up to, the job. The weaker interviews in the book are with writers who either have no idea
what McCaffery means by his ambitious conception of SF in contemporary culture or get
tangled up in their posturing.
The interviews with Butler and Le Guin never really go far beyond background and
authorial interpretations. The same might be said of Wolfe's, the weakest interview in the
book, were it not for the fascinating banality of Wolfe's responses
and--uncharacteristically--of McCaffery's questions. Wolfe's work is praised by several of
McCaffery's other writers as among the best achievements of current SF. I confess that
Wolfe's fiction is not to my taste; but even so, I was unprepared for his long
autobiographical excursions into his relations with the commercial SF old boys' publishing
network and an assessment of SF's role in literature summed up by the statement:
"Homer [were he alive today] would certainly belong to SFWA. So would Dante, Milton
and Shakespeare" (235). After a weird comparison of THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN with
Proust ("except that he wrote his remarkable works eighty years earlier" ),
I began to entertain the idea that Wolfe studiously conceals an interesting personality
behind an insipid facade. Basically, McCaffery does not know what to do with him. The most
excruciating missed connection in AWG comes when McCaffery (who is, after all,
trying to elicit proof that SF is a serious sort of literature) asks about the origin of
Severian. "What gave you the initial impulse to make Severian a torturer? Was it the
abstract notion of wanting your hero to deal with the nature of pain and suffering?"
No, comes the answer: the idea came at an SF convention's masquerade ball. "I was
sulking because no one had ever done one of my characters at a masquerade." The
solution: "someone who would wear simple but dramatic clothes" (247).
Much more interesting is the exchange with Benford--not for insights into, or
justification of, McCaffery's thesis, but for what it reveals about the writer. Like
Wolfe, Benford is out of place among the more innovative writers in AWG. His
inclusion is doubtless a show of respect for the most artistically ambitious of the
hard-SF writers, but Benford does little to help the image of SF writers as a postmodern
avant-garde. McCaffery takes pains to introduce him as a "modernist," and much
of the discussion revolves around Benford's identification with Faulkner and Southern
literature. But very quickly the reader's attention passes from the mildly interesting
glosses Benford puts on his own fiction, especially Against Infinity, to the
merciless arrogance with which he pronounces judgments on just about everything,
justifying himself and his hard-SF friends and denigrating everybody else.
In the course of what becomes a grand unified putdown, Benford makes himself morally
superior to non-scientists, cyberpunks, people without sex appeal, Lem, Yankees, Northern
literary critics, Europeans, formal students of literature, realists, postmodernists,
fantasy writers, those unfortunate folks who do not construct their own personal
mythologies, feminists, and that "theoretical lesbian" Joanna Russ. Far from
agreeing with McCaffery's thesis, Benford calls postmodernism "a small game,"
"a particularly pernicious example of self-decapitating literary jargon"
(25)--without paying much attention to McCaffery's meaning. (Self-decapitation is an
interesting idea, though. How is it usually done?)
Samuel Delany, by all rights, should be one of McCaffery's best spokesmen, and his
theories of SF's cultural superiority to "mundane" literature were probably a
primary influence on McCaffery's ideas. But his interview presents more of a problem than
a proof. It was one of the earliest, conducted in 1983 for a book of
"respectable" interviews. (An alternative version appeared in SFS #42 as
"The Semiology of Silence.") The discussion is vintage Delany, covering an
impressive variety of subjects, and displaying Delany's prodigious, idiosyncratic
erudition. But as in his other discursive work, Delany's knowledge often degenerates into
academic name-dropping and preciousness.
The most relevant point for McCaffery's purpose is Delany's claim that SF is a
privileged idiom. SF represents a counter-culture, able to establish new literary
conventions through the collective production of new codes by SF writers and readers.
Delany phrases his claims in the language of literary history and theory: "SF is a
paraliterary practice of writing; its mimetic relation to the real world is of a different
order from even literary fantasy. It grows out of different tradition. It has a different
history" (84). This separation of SF from "literature" is based on
post-structuralism's polemical deconstruction of the institution of literature as a
19th-century invention, and Delany adheres to it with a strictness contradicted by his own
use of the discourse of the literary academy. "Literature" is a stultifying
bourgeois intellectual institution. Delany therefore actively defines and his chosen genre
out of the institution; to be included in it means the death of the vitality and
innovativeness characteristic of outsider genres. This defining out, however, is done
through the discourse of literary theory, hardly the language of outsiders.
Delany seems at times to want to be the Keeper of the Semiotic Keys, affirming SF's
uniqueness and newness while reserving the right to make connections with literature
himself. For someone so set on distinguishing the traditions and histories of SF from
literature's, Delany almost obsessively links SF and his work with literature of
the past. The name-dropping of major and minor writers Delany has read achieves an
unintentionally comic climax with the claim, near the end of the interview, that "The
model for Triton was Madam Bovary, in the sense, say, that
Princesse de Clèves was the model for Radiguet's Bal du Comte d'Orgel (rather
than in the sense that Bester took the plot of The Stars My Destination from The
Count of Monte Cristo") (102). Sounds like literature to me.
The discussion with Burroughs is frenetic, disjointed, and passionless; the one with
Disch convivial and acute. Neither of these writers is at present actively involved in
expanding the thematics of SF, but their comments on the literary scene are valuable.
Disch, who is the only practicing professional writer-critic among the interviewed
writers, provides the most intelligently reflective discussion, moving smoothly from
critical aperçus to meditations on craft.
The strongest interviews are, not surprisingly, with the writers most sympathetic to
McCafferys thesis: Russ, Gibson, and Sterling.
McCaffery's talk with Russ is the strongest in the book, and to my mind, it is the best
interview. Russ, whom Benford in his interview labels "a perpetual rage
machine," proves to be the most even-minded and naturally dignified of McCaffery's
authors. Their discussion ranges from questions of form to the significance of SF for
marginalized people to the obstacles women face in publishing SF. Even the personal
anecdotes about her ideas and influences are carefully balanced between biography and
social analysis. Russ resists McCafferys attempt to place her among the postmodern writers
of metafiction who "force readers to question the 'reality' of our own world."
Russ is adamant: "America is perfectly real" (184).
As with Russ, McCaffery achieves an instant rapport with Gibson, since Gibson, too, is
an engaging conversationalist. But where Russ displays a judicious dignity, Gibson seems a
genuinely modest person, puzzled about his own success. For his part, McCaffery approaches
Gibson with awe. "After reading Neuromancer for the first time, I knew that
I had seen the Future of SF (and maybe of literature in general) and its name was William
Gibson" (131). Gibson responds with disarming self-depreciation. To judge from his
other interviews, this is Gibson's usual tactic. He is candid about his deficiencies in
both science and writing, all the while using it as a pretext for generating even more
seductive metaphors: "[D]uring the writing of [Neuromancer] I had the
conviction that I was going to be permanently shamed when it appeared. And even when I
finished it I had no perspective on what I'd done. I still don't, for that matter. I
always feel like one of the guys inside those incredible dragons you see snaking
through the crowds in Chinatown. Sure, the dragon is brightly colored, but from the inside
you know the whole thing is pretty flimsy--just a bunch of old newspapers and
papier-mâché and balsa struts" (135). Gibson is an accomplished lowballer,
intentionally anticipating and pre-emptively deflecting praise. In his version, nothing is
original with him; he is merely a collection point for others' voices and visions. His eye
for detail, he tells McCaffery, comes directly from Dashiel Hammet; his sprawl-slang is
"probably just 1969 dope dealer's slang or biker talk" (136). The idea for the
cyber-voodoo deities of Count Zero was the fortuitous result of a chance copy of National
Geographic finding its way into his hands one day (139). Although McCaffery was
clearly right to let Gibson play this game of humility, I wonder when Gibson will be
challenged to reveal some of his theoretical reflections and decisions. McCaffery's
interview--along with Colin Greenland's in Foundation #36, with which it has
affinities--is a basic source of information on Gibson's creative process; but it is
hypnotized by the seductive image of the modest, lucky artist that Gibson likes to
project, and it stops short of pursuing the notions of self-reflexive artistry that are so
evident in Gibson's own texts.
In the company of Brooks Landon, McCaffery finds his Dr. Johnson in Sterling. It is this
interview that corresponds directly with the claims made in the introduction, and in it AWG
seems to make its point. The exchange with Sterling comes soon after the publication
of Islands in the Net, Sterling's farewell to cyberpunk. McCaffery, Landon, and
Sterling find a giddy speed of exchange--a tour de force for the interviewers,
since Sterling's mile-a-minute hyperconnectivity is not easy to keep up with. But Sterling
is also an affable, witty man, who delights in conversation and does not leave his
interlocutors behind; his connections are not fanciful or metaphoric, he believes in them,
and he makes sure they are understood. Sterling's live language is strikingly antic and
acute in a way that does not come out in his writing. As a critic of his own work,
Sterling matches Gibson. "To read Schismatrix," he tells McCaffery and
Landon, "hurts in a peculiar way, in the same way that really harsh feedback hurts.
It lacks melody. There's nothing there to ease you in the structure and boot you up if you
lose your grip"
Perhaps most striking in the interview is this clarity with which the "ayatollah
of cyberpunk" articulates the goals of Islands as a book aimed deliberately
at bourgeois "agents of integration" rather than at the bohemian sensibility of
cyberpunk: "[I]t is a deliberately ambiguous political novel that is meant to disturb
people, to force them to examine for themselves.... I wanted these people portrayed as
what they mean to our real society..." (220). Sterling scores big in AWG. The
apodictic pronouncements of Mirrorshades are in the past, brilliant debris in the
wake of a restless and generous intellect.
In the end, in effect, AWG splits into two categories: "talks with
writers," emphasizing the artists' individual histories, interests, ideas about
themselves and their milieux, and reflective conversations that actually illuminate
McCaffery's premise that SF writers are particularly attuned to the culture of the
hyperreal. Possibly this split comes from the fact that McCaffery interviewed writers,
who are heavily invested in the cult and methods of private imagining, and much less
involved in the cultural dynamics of postmodernism than the artists of the simulation arts
(audio, film, computer games and simulations, installations, etc.). Brooks Landon, in
"Bet On It: Cyber/video/punk/ performance" (Mississippi Review 16
: 245-51), has suggested that the true locus for SF in postmodernity is in these
arts. Perhaps McCaffery will turn to those artists next.
N. Katherine Hayles.
Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science.
Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990. xvi+309. $35.95 cloth, $12.95 paper.
Books about the relations between scientific theories and literary currents always put
me on guard. Given the distance between the two kinds of discourse (two? many?), how does
one tell the difference between valid links and elaborate verbal handwaving?
The traditional approach was to identify how certain scientific ideas are translated
into themes--concepts of disease-formation in Zola, evolution and entropy in Wells,
Copernican cosmology in Donne, etc. It is significantly more difficult to demonstrate how
Copernican cosmology, Darwinian theory, or thermodynamics influenced the concepts of form,
or basic cultural assumptions about what literature can and does do. Even worse, as soon
as the one-way influence of scientific theories on literary works is called into question,
certain cherished empirical-pragmatic truths are questioned, too. Can literature influence
scientific-theory construction? And if we propose some deeper substratum of cultural
attitudes underlying both literary and scientific culture, how does our proposition escape
its culture-determined discourse sufficiently to describe its own conditions of
These problems are exaggerated when it is a matter of 20th-century science and
literature. The dominant paradigms of relativity and quantum physics confounded most
literary scholars, and the works that tried to connect them with new literary movements
were usually lyrical variations on Heisenberg's and Einstein's discursive writings.
Uncertainty in physics, which had precise parameters, was married in most accounts to the
existential philosophical tradition, and works that explored openness of form, multiple
points of view, undecideable conclusions, and radically paratactical techniques were
paraded out as examples of the influences of QM on literature. Much of this criticism
depended on Heisenberg's writings on the philosophical implications of QM; but all the
while, Heisenberg the professional physicist was claiming that quantum phenomena could not
be understood in traditional language. A mathematical, and hence completely aliterary,
transformation had to occur in the mind of the beholder before the paradigm would make
As a paradigm, chaos science has two distinct advantages for humanists over QM. First,
chaos is not counterintuitive. Where QM was clearly antagonistic to common-sense notions
about cause and effect, many of chaos's principles--sensitivity to initial conditions,
statistical patterns at the heart of apparently disorderly events, similarity across
scale, order emerging from disorder--are at least ostensibly compatible with the mundane
wisdom of coping with a vast unpredictable personal and collective life. Second, chaos
provides a wealth of visual images, while QM is extremely difficult--if not impossible--to
visualize. These images of chaos--the Lorenz attractor, the Mandelbrot set, fractally
generated images--fulfill a deep need; their ubiquity, from book-covers to video-graphics,
hints that they play the role of icons, images of a vividly religious apprehension of
universal patterns. Chaos theory has undeniable affinities with Lucretian epicureanism and
Taoism. For many scientists it already provides a sense of rationally justified hope that
even a system as destructive and out of control as the human world of the late 20th
century may eventually evolve into something different. For all its radical claims, chaos
science offers humanistic culture the most habitable scientific paradigm since Romantic
It is the premise of N. Katherine Hayles in Chaos Bound that scientists,
literary critics, and writers are already inhabiting the paradigm.
With her previous book, The Cosmic Web: Scientific Field Models and Literary
Strategies in the Twentieth Century (1984), Hayles broke new ground in the study of
the relations between fiction and science. Her premise was that a paradigm shift occurred
in 20th-century culture, away from Cartesian-Newtonian objectivism to the field model.
This new model pervaded most aspects of culture, not only normal science, and Hayles
identified certain affinities between scientific field theories and the work of Pirsig,
Lawrence, Nabokov, and Pynchon. CW set a standard for elegance and clarity of exposition,
but also for the audacity to make extensive homologizing connections between scientific
theories and literary fictions on the basis of the richness of meaning implied--and often
repressed--in scientific metaphors. Hayles proposed that significant similarities could be
found without ever having to posit the influence of any domain on another.
The Cosmic Web is a brilliant book, but it has its problems. Extending Kuhn's
concept of a scientific paradigm to a notion of a cultural paradigm is ambitious, to say
the least, and it is hard to distinguish from a Zeitgeist. Hayles treats social
dialectics hardly at all, and so the book seems merely to set up to poles for oscillation:
the scientific and the literary. And though she states that "literature is as much an
influence on scientific models as the models are on literature" (CW 10), her claim is
not demonstrated. Hayles's strength is in establishing convincing analogies. How they
become synthesized, accepted, and practiced is left vague (which is perhaps appropriate
for a field notion).
Chaos Bound resolves the problems of The Cosmic Web, and in global
fashion: it sets up a new scientific paradigm as its "cultural dominant": chaos,
or dynamical systems theory. The field concept's implicit stasis is replaced by chaos's
dynamism. The problem of the separate domains of literature and science is resolved with
the image of cultural feedback loops, and with the introduction of a third disciplinary
domain, critical discourse. The problem of the Zeitgeist-like paradigm is
(almost) resolved by the model of the Foucauldian episteme.
Chaos Bound is to my mind, now the most impressive work on the relations
between contemporary scientific theory and literature. I cannot judge first-hand the
accuracy of the scientific accounts in the book, though Hayles (who has an advanced degree
in chemistry from Caltech, in addition to her literature degrees) is widely respected for
her understanding of science. What cannot fail to impress a non-scientific reader is the
clarity and elegance of her presentation. Moreover, CB's tracing of the chaos paradigm
throughout culture gives Hayles a global theory of postmodernism with considerable
Hayles claims that the paradigm of the field model was naturally superseded by the
chaos model: "the pendulum went as far as it could in the direction of encompassing
order" (CB xii), and several disciplines began simultaneously to explore the
possibilities of disorder. In science, these explorations led to the intensive study of
nonlinear dynamics, fluid mechanics, quantum-electrodynamics, fractal geometry,
irreversible systems far from equilibrium, systems theory and others. A cognate interest
in literary studies led to the developments in post-structuralist literary theory and
contemporary fiction. In the new model, besides science and fiction, Hayles includes
post-structuralist critical discourse. This move was certainly dictated by the exigencies
of postmodern criticism, but it is also the site at which cultural critics begin to
establish a common philosophical ground for the discussion of both scientific and literary
cultures. This will come as bad news for those who hope deconstruction and related
post-structuralist theories will just fade out of the picture; by establishing homologies
between critical discourse and chaology, Hayles demonstrates that the former is based on
the fundamental interests of the culture, not merely metalinguistic games.
CB consists of several different types of discussion of what Hayles has called
an "archipelago of chaos," corresponding to the many sites at which interest in
chaotic "orderly disorder" has been manifest. Historical accounts of the
development of chaos study are interwoven with the description of ambivalent affinities
between post-structuralist critics (Derrida, Barthes, Serres, Foucault) and nonlinear
scientists, and analyses of literary texts that demonstrate the intimations of chaos in
20th-century western culture. Unlike CW, in which such affine relations between
fiction and science comprised the argument, CB discusses only a few (strikingly
different) kinds of text: The Education of Henry Adams, Doris Lessing's The
Golden Notebook, and Lem's The Cyberiad and His Master's Voice. Two
chapters framing the discussion, "Self-Reflexive Metaphors in Maxwell's Demon and
Shannon's Choice" and "Chaos and Culture: Postmodernism(s) and the Denaturing of
Experience," are perhaps Hayles's best. In the former, Hayles unpacks the
"surplus meaning" (Ricoeur) of the scientific metaphors, as different social and
scientific milieux select some meanings and repress others. The discussion of Maxwell's
Demon, as it evolves from a Victorian moral dilemma to a modernist attack on authoritarian
hierarchy, is one of the finest displays of rhetorical interpretation of a scientific
metaphor that I have encountered. Concluding the book is Hayles's theory of cultural
postmodernism as the progressive "realization that what we have always thought of as
the essential, unvarying components of human experience are not natural facts of life, but
social constructs" (265). These "de-naturings"--of language, context, time,
and the human--demonstrate both the magnitude of the conceptual revolutions covered by the
term postmodemism, and the adequacy of the chaos paradigm to deal with it.
CB also has particular significance for the study of SF and postmodernism. The
discussion of Lem's texts (which first appeared in SFS #40) is one of the best analyses of
Lem's conception of literary construction. But much more important is Hayles's mapping out
of a postmodern world-view determined by denaturings, a constellation of themes that has
been one of the special domains of SF. If Hayles is right in her analysis, the
"rationally realistic" literature of postmodernism will be indistinguishable
from postmodern SF.
Mike Gane. Baudrillard
Critical and Fatal Theory. London & NY: Routledge, 1991. 228pp.
$49.95 cloth, $16.95 paper.
This book fills a long-felt lack. Because Baudrillard has had very little influence in
France, while certain of his works have had disproportionate influence in North America,
no balanced study of Baudrillard's whole corpus has yet appeared. Gane's book is such a
Gane begins with the thesis that Baudrillard's life project has been the attempt to
keep revolutionary theory alive after the collapse of the revolutionary movement. This has
led him from the attempts to modernize Marxism characteristic of the intellectual ferment
in Paris around 1968, when Baudrillard was particularly influenced by Althusser and
Barthes, toward a rejection of Marxism as the "mirror of capitalism." Gane's
familiarity with Durkheim is very helpful, for he makes a surprisingly fruitful connection
between Baudrillard and Durkheim. He detects the latter's influence (mediated through
Marcel Mauss and Georges Bataille) in Baudrillard's use of the principles of primitive
symbolic exchange to create a position outside the productionist model that Baudrillard
believes Marxism shares with capitalism.
The three sections of Baudrillard: Critical and Fatal Theory describe the
three major phases that Gane detects in Baudrillard's extremely varied output. In the
first, he places Baudrillard in the constellation of the French left philosophers working
on an internal critique of Marx around the May Days of '68. Gane sketches the points of
contact between Baudrillard and the "Saints" of "The French Ideology":
Sartre, Althusser, Foucault, Lacan, Barthes, Derrida, Debord, Kristeva, Lefebvre, Lévi-Straus, and Bataille. Gane then provides a careful corrective reading of the pivotal
text in Baudrillard's early career, Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. The
second section deals with the period of Baudrillard's critique of Foucault, and the
paradoxical concept of the death of the social. Gane submits Baudrillard's weirdest text, On
Seduction, to a close reading that identifies Baudrillard's idiosyncratic strategies,
but also criticizes the text thoroughly--not for its sexism, per se, but for the
tortuous arguments with which Baudrillard supports it. In the final section, Gane
discusses the most recent developments of the project: the phase of "fatal
strategies," which includes the best-known of Baudrillard's translated works, America.
Gane's Baudrillard combines remarkable clarity of style and confident
familiarity with the arguments of a notoriously difficult group of thinkers. He insists on
respecting and understanding Baudrillard's thoughts and intentions. Consequently, he
produces a withering critique of Douglas Kellner's facile trashing of Baudrillard, the
only other text on Baudrillard's corpus currently available to North American readers.
Gane's critique of Arthur Kroker, whom he considers the main agent of Baudrillard's
absorption into postmodernism, is not as powerful, perhaps because Kroker is closer to the
Gane also emphasizes the importance that the poetic has had for Baudrillard's theory.
For Baudrillard, it is the language of poetry that best resists the languages of
hyperreality. Gane explicates America in this light. It is only on this point
that I have reservations about Gane's approach. Gane essentially tells the story of the
intellectual development of a powerful pataphysical thinker--one whose influence will most
likely grow in the future. Gane's narrative is fine intellectual history, but his approach
to Baudrillard leads him to neglect Baudrillard's theoretical poetry on its own terms.
Thus there is very little discussion of Baudrillard's essay collection Simulations et
simulacres, which includes, in addition to the single most influential work by
Baudrillard in North America ("The Precession of Simulacra"), some of the most
audacious and effective examples of Baudrillard's style of poetic argument. This is
perhaps justified by Gane's British context, and perhaps by the fact that these works are
often discussed in Baudrillard commentary. Even so, there is no real discussion of
Baudrillard's technique of poetic theory. By the same token, Gane neglects the influence
of fiction writers on the exposition of the fatal strategies--especially Ballard's
influence on America.
But not everything can be done at once. Gane's Baudrillard is certainly the
most clearly conceived and clearly written assessment of Baudrillard's work yet to appear.
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