Science Fiction Studies

#121 = Volume 40, Part 3 = November 2013


Stephen Dougherty

The Self Is a Reader, The Reader a Time Traveler

David Wittenberg. Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative. New York: Fordham UP, 2013. ix + 306 pp. $85 hc; $27 pbk.

David Wittenberg’s remarkable book seeks to account for our enduring fascination with the paradoxes of time-travel stories. According to Wittenberg, time-travel fictions constitute a popular and significant contribution to narrative theory: time travel is not about fiction’s fidelity to science but about “the temporality of literary form” (5). This does not mean that the concerns of theoretical physics do not impinge on the study. Indeed, the work of Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, Gödel, Hawking, and other important physicists and philosophers of science make up part of Time Travel’s rich, sophisticated intertext. Wittenberg investigates time-travel fiction, however, mainly in terms of its narratological relevance and more specifically in terms of its “literalization of [the] structuring conditions of storytelling” (29). This approach opens quite naturally onto historiographical concerns as well. Thus, for Wittenberg, the question of how the past is reconstructed within the present is always at play, in one way or another, in time-travel stories.

Wittenberg identifies three phases of time-travel fiction, each one associated with important developments in science and its popular reception. The first phase is that of evolutionary utopian travel, commencing with Edward Bellamy’s profoundly influential and then thoroughly passé novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888). The second phase is that of time travel associated with Einsteinian theory, wherein the literature “becomes, above all, … about the forms and mechanisms of storytelling itself” (31). The third is an “amorphous,” “‘multiverse/filmic’” phase (31), which essentially constitutes elaborations and revisions of the time-paradox—or time-loop—story that would come to dominate time-travel fiction by mid-century. The first phase is chiefly characterized by what Wittenberg calls the “macrologue,” that part of the utopian fiction wherein the increasingly important “pseudo-scientific” explanation of the protagonist’s time travel, as distinct from the text’s utopian political content, is presented to the reader. Due to late-century ideological, political, and aesthetic shifts, the macrologue itself would eventually overwhelm the utopian romance, exploding parodically out of its old generic confines and assuming a rather comical life of its own (hence an example like Frank Rosewater’s time-travel shampoo in ‘96: A Romance of Utopia [1894]). As Wittenberg intriguingly writes, “[t]he time travel story is the residue of utopian visitation once the destination of utopia is forsaken” (46). The genre emerges from the rubble of exploded political convictions and morphs into a vehicle for meditation on the nature of storytelling itself.

The looming figure that presides over the genesis of the modern, science-fictional time-travel story is, of course, Albert Einstein. Yet, as Wittenberg argues, Einstein’s influence on the development of time-travel fiction is mainly characterological and narratological. Moreover, it is decisively visual—and as time-paradox fiction’s successful proliferation in television and the movies would later attest, cinematographic. From G. Peyton Wertenbaker’s “The Man from the Atom” (1923) to Robert A. Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps” (1941), the macrologue would come of age, turning fictions of time travel into metanarratives about storytelling or story construction—or, better yet, story depiction. Time travel becomes a “metaliterature of Oedipus and Narcissus, ... a genre of psychological implication, a scenography in which selves meet themselves, kill their progenitors, and plumb the significance of their own histories” (64; emphasis added). As Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps” demonstrates, in Wittenberg’s long second chapter tracing in ghostly lines the backlit emergence of genre sf, the paradox mode pivots on the question: what happens when you meet yourself? The answer is that you misrecognize yourself. Heinlein’s plot works only insofar as Bob Wilson fails to recognize himself in his various avatars. The lesson here is thoroughly Lacanian, and it testifies to the unheralded ways in which Gernsback-to-Golden Age sf was inextricably connected to psychoanalytic as well as physical-scientific discourses. The lines of influence radiated in all directions, which is to say that there is no reason to assume that sf was a merely passive channel in the global circulation of popular, scientific, philosophical, psychological, and aesthetic discourses in those early decades of the twentieth-century witnessing the formation of the modern(ist) dispensation.

In “By His Bootstraps,” Bob Wilson does finally get to the point of recognizing his avatars, and crucially identifying with the final avatar, “Diktor,” but only at the end of the story, a little after Heinlein’s audience has already figured it out. He is the reader of his own story, and therein lies the “moral.” Wittenberg explains:

The realization has two components: first, the anti-Cartesian insight that the self is not an object (a cross-section) but rather a history, a narrative; and second, the narratological insight that the self is a reader, and that what it does in realizing itself is to catch up with the perspective of the actual or potential audience of its own story.... To combine these two insights: the self is the narrative of its own time travel, a fantasmatic invention of a mechanism by which it completes an excursion into its own past, and therefore the possibility—literal in a time travel story, presumably fantasmatic in real life—of a consummate viewpoint upon its full series of cross-sections. (76-77)

Story, self, and reader converge upon one another in a dynamic very much like the one that psychoanalysis puts into play: the self is constituted by a process of “self-viewing” (77). Time-travel fiction is speculative in at least two senses of the word. This is why time-travel stories would achieve such great success in visual media. It is also why H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine would not become a time-travel touchstone until well after its initial publication. In 1895, it is not even yet fully a time-travel story, as Wittenberg suggests. It will become so—it will catch up to itself—in time travel’s “‘multiverse/filmic’ phase,” once Wells’s great novum, the time machine, the “literal depiction of a machinery of narratological viewpoint” (89), could be fully assimilated into the new visual technologies of storytelling.

Time-travel fiction is by its very nature a popular philosophy of narrative —more specifically, of narrative viewpoint, insofar as its subject turns out to be the psychical milieu of the ordinary reader in the ordinary act of reading. In time-travel fiction, the narrative rendering of temporality demonstrably necessitates the existence of a superspace (time tunnel, time shaft, time corridor, river of time, spacetime, etc.), which turns out to be the space of reading itself. There is, then, something distinctly time-travel-ish and temporally paradoxical about the very engagement with narrative on Wittenberg’s account: the transcendental space of reflection—i.e., the reader’s position—can always be further reflected upon, so that the time loop just keeps looping. One discovers in reading (and re-reading) Wittenberg’s book that it resonates very sympathetically with the work of possible-worlds theorists such as Ruth Ronen, Marie-Laure Ryan, Thomas Pavel, and Lubomír Doležel, all of whom he writes to and with in Time Travel. His dialogical speculations about the relation between fiction and the real are valuable, I think, for all students of “imaginary texts” who might sometimes second-guess the reasons for their curious devotion. He insists somewhere near the middle of his own deeply considered critical reflection: “in the end, we do not have a strict ontological basis for distinguishing the real world of reading, the narrative space in which we negotiate the relationship between possible worlds, from narratives themselves, the fictions we read or watch” (114). In which case reflection becomes something like part of the very substance of the world. “Our world, too—the domain of reflexion, the putatively ‘real,’ ‘historical,’ ‘nonfictional’ world—is also a story, one that must continually be retold, reassembled, reflected, in some ambiguously transcendental hyperspacetime, after the fact” (114; emphasis in original). Stories are part of the world in a very strict—and very real—sense because reflection is part of the world.

We cannot help but tell stories. We become who we are and what we have always been, or will have been, through storytelling. The time-loop story is in effect a literalization of this psychoanalytic awareness; it is a literalization of the very process by which a reflective consciousness returns to the past, reviews it, and inflects it. Trauma, Wittenberg leaves no doubt, is the mainspring of time travel. What he calls the “referential pathos” is the reader’s desire for the story to be real—for the fabula, the what-is-told of a story,to come before the sjuzhet, or the how-it-is-told, to use the language of Russian formalism. One can think of this “to come before” in terms of hierarchical value and also in terms of temporality. “Stories not only illustrate but also compel the postulation of fabular apriority; fabula is not merely prior, but primal for any given narrative, a founding fantasy” (127; emphasis in original), very much like that of the primal scene in psychoanalysis. Thus, it is not coincidental, Wittenberg notes, that fabula and sjuzhet are related in the same strange, atemporal manner as are trauma and symptom: neither comes first in any definitive—and desired—sense. What is special about time-travel stories, Wittenberg claims, is the manner in which they depict the desire for fabular apriority, the referential pathos, as the crisis of storytelling. Time-travel fictions are purpose-built, so to speak, to reflect on this crisis and to literalize it. Furthermore, as Wittenberg illustrates in an extended, multi-modal reading of Samuel R. Delany’s 1966 novel Empire Star, time-travel narrative refers us back to the place where the ontologically unsatisfying negotiation between fabula and sjuzhet takes place: in the text and, even more importantly, in the paratext. Perhaps this is part of the reason why the physical medium of the book and the magazine have been and remain such important artifacts—i.e., collectibles—for sf fans. As in Wittenberg’s reading of Empire Star, the sensual materiality of the book as coveted “art object,” complete with its own unique (print) history, ends up standing in for, or standing behind, the thwarted desire for fabular apriority. The book itself, in all its textual, visual, tactile, and olfactory this-ness, is “the thing one must finally always possess in order to read, and to finish reading” (140). The book as paratext possesses a satisfying facticity, stability, and finality about it that the time-travel narrative spectacularly fails to possess.
                As the above suggests, the awareness of the specificity of medium is crucial in Wittenberg’s study. The book-reading experience is not the same as the television- or film-watching experience. Yet it is also important to remember that Wittenberg construes the visuality of the time-travel story as being fundamental from its historical inception. Let us consider Wittenberg’s unorthodox account of the role of visualization in the readerly experience of an illustrated sf book such as Delany’s Empire Star:

first comes a “picture” of the fabula, in the guise of a paratext held and viewed by a physical reader in space and time, with pages, chapters, and a layout; then comes the sjuzhet presented “within” a text and “viewed” from a readerly position in hyperspacetime (represented in the time travel story by a proxy transtemporal traveler); last comes the narrative’s fabula, always postulated as prior, even when its historical disposition is rendered permanently indefinite by paradox. (147; emphasis in original)

The fabula does not come first; its “picture” does. Even if the time-travel story has no illustrations, it is still a visual medium, “a literal depiction of the textual and paratextual conditions under which viewpoint is constructed” (147). This argument helps Wittenberg to neatly bridge the gap between the critique of the literary and the visual. (The televisual and filmic time-travel texts to which he turns his attention in the later chapters are already accounted for, already hailed, as the apotheosis of the time-travel story.) The argument for the visual primacy of time travel begs a certain line of questioning, however, which ultimately bears on the specificity of Wittenberg’s claims. Does the argument that the time-travel narrative literalizes the desire for the ultimate visual command privilege the image in some potentially destabilizing fashion? Does the argument somehow threaten to collapse reading into viewing, word into image? These questions might seem terribly over-anxious. Nevertheless, some philosophical reflection on the nature of the relation between word and image would be helpful here.

In the very absence of such rumination, Wittenberg’s study calls to mind the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s book The Ground of the Image (2003). Nancy speaks of the “literary image,” as exemplified in this brief passage from Edith Wharton’s novella Summer (1917):

A girl came out of lawyer Royall’s house, at the end of the one street of North Dormer, and stood on the doorstep.
The springlike transparent sky shed a rain of silver sunshine on the roofs of the village, and on the pastures and larchwoods surrounding it. A little wind moved among the round white clouds on the shoulders of the hills, driving their shadows across the fields. (qtd. in Nancy 4)

The “visual resources” folded, as it were, into the language of the narrative are quite obvious—or “evident,” as Nancy suggests. Yet it “remains no less a matter of writing” (4). We know it remains a matter of writing since we are reading it, but somehow Nancy’s reminder is trenchant. When Wittenberg writes that visual depiction is the “very ground” (147) of time-travel narrative, when he claims that the “picture” of the fabula always comes first in the time-travel reading experience, he is putting in play venerable philosophical questions about the relation between word and image that might intrude on his highly accomplished narratological analysis. He knows that his keen attention to “viewpoint” might be problematic, with “its contamination by ... ocular metaphors” (107), and it might be savvier to let the problem slide. Yet it is the very success—indeed, brilliance—of Wittenberg’s readerly analyses (of Empire Star and other literary texts) that makes his transition to the televisual and filmic textual analyses—of several Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94) episodes and Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (1985)—seem troubling. This is indeed an important tension at the heart of Time Travel. The visual is construed as the “very ground” of time-travel fiction, yet its unfolding is a readerly phenomenon, hinging on our relation to the word.

Ultimately, what is at stake is how word and image constitute subjectivity; and Wittenberg’s book is about the construction of subjectivity and the temporal process of subjectivization in word and image. Wittenberg offers a certain kind of synthesis when he writes that “time travel, as a basic condition of storytelling—as viewpoint-over-histories, and as paratextual self-illustration—preexists both the literary and the cinematic genres of time travel fiction per se” (220). This is a stirring idea for all those fans of time-travel fiction and the popular science of time travel: before subjectivity, before words and images, before the world, comes time travel.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Ground of the Image. 2003. Trans. Jeff Fort. New York: Fordham UP, 2005.

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