Science Fiction Studies

#77 = Volume 26, Part 1 = March 1999

Tom Moylan

A Variety of Utopian Forms

Diana Knight. Barthes and Utopia: Space, Travel, Writing. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997. xi + 287 pp. $78 cloth.

Diana Knight’s study of Barthes by way of utopia sheds new light on the oeuvre of this important intellectual. In doing so, Knight also helps us reconsider the lingering binary opposition of structuralism versus post-structuralism as she carries out an insightful exploration of one writer’s engagement with the theoretical and political qualities of the utopian impulse. While her references demonstrate familiarity with major works in utopian studies, especially British ones, she chooses to argue inductively from Barthes’s texts (tracing his explicit and implicit claims) rather than from an historical or theoretical overview of utopia itself. In this chronological reading of his work, she builds the claim that "utopia is an overlooked but crucial dimension of Barthes’s writing," one that he consciously and creatively developed throughout his intellectual and personal/political life.

As Knight puts it in her Introduction, utopia, for Barthes:

is a concept (part theoretical, part ethical) that mediates the supposedly conflicting emphases of [his] various phases. From Marxism to structuralism, from textuality and hedonism to his final preoccupation with love, pity, and death, Barthes never stopped hypothesizing and fantasizing how things might be otherwise otherwise, that is, than in his own alienated and class-torn society. (1-2)

Rejecting utopia as an escape from history whilealmost obsessivelyclaiming it as that which radically supersedes the shortcomings of the present, Barthes also resisted affiliation with models of post-revolutionary futures even as he produced a variety of utopian forms that could nevertheless express a not yet achieved potential. She explains that "thinking otherwise," for Barthes, "conceptualizing differently, means operating on the territory of the currently impossible," even to the extent of risking his own alienation from the processes of radical political change (2). Knowing the arguments against naming the substance of the revolution, yet realizing that its "daily finality" had to be explored, he chose to work within the gap, the dangerous gap, of naming or alluding yet not dictating or enforcing. For Barthes, utopia became "the taboo of the revolution," and it was precisely the writer who was "responsible for transgressing it" (quoted in Knight 3).

Barthes as writer, therefore, embraced the vocation of transgressing both the dominated present and the liberated future, of speaking the unspeakable, of risking the representation of that which could not, should not, be uttered. He created ways, in many and unique forms, of exploring how it is that one makes "the initial revolutionary choice," of "why one becomes a revolutionary" (3). He followed this practice throughout his life, even near the end (when he has been too readily seen by some to have abandoned political engagement) as he stubbornly kept to the real work of mediating the literary and the political, insisting that utopia was the "second term that allows the sign to function" (quoted in Knight 1), to move elsewhere, beyond mythologies and orthodoxies.

As the degree-zero of his utopian project, writing was Barthes’s primary avenue for bearing witness to alienation and for expressing the dream of liberation. In the realm of language (but also and increasingly with his own subjectivity) he dared to speak otherness, to pursue radical transformation. In his view, literature was "driven by a forward movement relative to the rest of society" and had "an ambiguous role: to express unease and social hardship as long as they exist, but also to be utopian" (quoted in Knight 4n). As "an increasingly self-conscious writer," Barthes regarded utopia as "simply the word for a positive theoretical, social, and affective solution to the difficult interrelationship of human beings, their desires, their needs, their language, and the world" (10).

Knight begins with Barthes’s early Marxist and structuralist period of critique and opposition, as found in Mythologies (1957) and elsewhere. Here she foregrounds the emergence of his desire for a "realm beyond meanings," beyond critique. In this structuralist moment, she notes that space became one of the first categories tapped by Barthes’s utopian imagination. While in Mythologies he negated and demystified alienated society, he also began to seek out certain spaces as utopian alternatives. Thus Knight refers to Barthes’s utopian inflections of aesthetic space in an early essay on classical Dutch painting and on the microcosmic space of theater, and she details his work on the cosmogonies of Jules Verne as they generate "fictional spatio-temporal universes" that can be understood as utopian forms (43).

Knight’s second chapter on "Structuralism: Utopian and Scientific" is especially of interest as she implicitly challenges the reception of Barthes as one who was once a structuralist and then not. As a political intellectual who chose "to live to the full the contradictions" of his time (quoted in Knight 45), Barthes, she argues, never locked himself in to a single position or stance. In this period of the hard-edged critiques of Mythologies, he nevertheless sought to locate utopia within the very ideological world he challenged. His structuralism was less a rigid "scientific" practice and more of a method in which he indulged ... scientificity" (quoted in Knight 51), relishing its methodological, synchronic motors for the sake of pressing, diachronically, into history and struggle. In ways that anticipate, and influence, Fredric Jameson’s recent arguments for the use-value of totality and his earlier work on cognitive mapping, Barthes argues for the worth of modeling, not to construct or dictate but to explain how the social works to make it "intelligible" in order to critique and transcend it. Even in its scientific and negative operations, this "urban semiology" is a utopian act that allows the world to be read, to be known, as a "concrete abstraction" that can inform political and critical practice. Knight’s analysis of Barthes’s "Eiffel Tower" essay demonstrates his method of conjoining critique and pleasure, as he dwells on the physical delight of the Tower’s panoramic view which also enables a demystifying overview of Paris, in a manner that is more generous, more happy, more liberating, than the repressions of a panopticon.

Moving beyond the early years (which she reads as a move not involving a "break" with structuralism as much as a shift in approach and sensibility), Knight turns to Barthes’s work on Fourier, perhaps his most direct encounter with utopian intertextuality. She argues that Barthes’s "modes of analysis" resonate with Fourier’s, even as both differ from the orthodoxies of "Fourier’s followers." Her key insight is that "the ‘real content’ of Barthes’s work is neither a mythology nor an occasionally precious style ... [but] rather like Fourier’s a project of taking apart and reinventing the real world" (68). She cites Barthes’s observation that Fourier sought to decipher the world and then to remake it, to offer a new fantastic system that contributes to the project (in which for both men sexuality is privileged) of liberating the social by way of liberating language. Thus, Fourier offers a "marvelous real ... That subsumes a fantasmatic perception of material reality" (83), not opposing materiality but opening it to an ambivalence, an ambiguity, that facilitates the inter-connections of desire and need.

During this discussion, Knight reaches the moment of 1968 and Barthes’s reaction against what he saw as the narrow self-righteousness of the students. In her reading of "Utopia Today" (1974), she traces Barthes’s understanding of the "paradoxical relations between politics and utopia, and of the familiar failure of each to understand the other" (86). For Barthes sees utopia as a "political form of fantasy" (quoted in Knight 87) that is best grasped within the dimensions of the everyday: not offered in theoretical proclamations but rather in the "detailed inflections of the Utopian system" expressed by the writer. With such detail, politics can be prevented or forestalled "from solidifying into a totalitarian, bureaucratic, moralizing system" (quoted in Knight 87). After ‘68, unlike those who reacted against it, Barthes moved inimitably beyond what that moment politically represented.

Knight follows this post-‘68 period in several chapters that consider Barthes’s exploration of space, sexuality, and utopia in the context of his travels to Morocco, Turkey, Japan, and China. Detailing her complex treatment goes beyond the limits of this review, but suffice it to say that Knight refuses a static, negative view of Barthes as simply a reformed poststructuralist, a sexual traveler who in bad faith falls into the trap of Orientalism. Instead, she offers a nuanced reading of Barthes’s life and work in the 1970s that braids together his sexual experiences and his travels with his continuing and radical sense of the "political." This discussion comes to its sharpest point in "Turkey and China: ‘But Where is the Orient?’": Knight discusses the distinction made by Barthes, in light of ‘68, between the "political" (the "fundamental order of history, of thought, of all that is done and spoken ... the real") and the "repetitive, fixed discourse" of "politics" (167).

In the early to mid-1970s, then, Barthes concerned himself with what he termed the "novelistic," as a literary strategy for "inscribing the everyday reality" of the political. Not the novel per se, the novelistic is "a system which is almost totally immersed in the signifier," which resists the limits of the signified (quoted in Knight 168). Given the date of Barthes’s claims for this formal/political strategy, its resonance with the critical utopian texts of the same period is evident. Although his move is more adventurous and less inscribed by generic convention, his insights and sensibilities have much in common with the self-reflexive literary utopias of the period no doubt more with the work of Russ and Delany than with that of Le Guin or Piercy. The novelistic shapes Barthes’s most generically utopian text, The Empire of Signs (1970), wherein his fantastic Japan is the other space, alternative to the alienation of present society. And yet the novelistic, with its powerful force of indirectness, also includes those other forms and practices that Barthes explores, uses, enjoys, in the 1970s. Here, his interest in haiku (157), in the "negative hallucination" associated with the Chinese attitude of fadeur (188), his formal interest and bodily pleasure in sexual "incidents" and "tricks" (214), his fascination with personal ads (215), and later in the 1970s his experiments with diary entries (245) coalesce in a set of formal practices that allow him to embrace the "neutral" as a way to oppose and transcend social reality. This formal strategy enables him to occupy a space that refuses the fixations of the present and the reductions of opposition politics. In this post-‘68 position, Barthes does not opt out or give in to the status quo; rather, he opposes alienation by way of something other than, more than, recognizable politics. Thus, he comes to prefer the binary of "imperialism/something else" to that of "imperialism/socialism" (171), and he frequently names the space of this otherness in terms of non-Western locales: Japan, Morocco, Turkey, China. Indeed, the "transitional status of residence" in such places (rather than tourism or citizenship) provides a self-conscious, open attitude for what is in effect a utopian alternative.

In her discussion of "So How Was China," the essay Barthes wrote after his trip with the Tel Quel group in 1974, Knight brings into focus this political and aesthetic position. She demonstrates Barthes’s preference for the neutral as the most ethically positive category: neither reactionary or militant, it is located in everyday subjectivity where it negotiates lived experiences of need and desire. In this essay, Barthes does not denounce revolutionary politics, but "looks for utopia under its repetitive and clichéd rhetoric" (187). Against the politically-correct "utopia" of his Maoist colleagues, he posits a more elusive and radical utopia rooted in the absence or refusal of repression.

This is the constellation of categories and activities that shape Barthes’s final years as he gives literary and bodily form to the indirect, to the avenue of "gentle drift" (192). In her closing chapters, Knight moves into these years with a focus on Barthes’s self-aware sexuality in experience and in writing, his relationship with his mother, and then through her death to the years just before his own. This is the period of the Pleasure of the Text (1973), the time when he lays claim to jouissance and text as opposed to the limitations of the literary work (oeuvre), a formal move that Knight connects to Barthes’s essay on the Japanese game of Pachinko, with its structured and pleasurable non-meanings. Knight again reminds us that for Barthes, "in order for pleasure, sexual or otherwise, to become a utopian jouissance ... [it] must first pass through language," but through language freed from social alienation and, she asserts, it is "because this has not happened that Text remains a utopia" (108). In the final chapter, "Maternal Space," Knight discusses Camera Lucida (1980) and its notion of the punctum, yet another instance of the indirect, the novelistic. She weaves her tale of Barthes’s despair over his mother’s death, his sexual encounters, and his use of the literary diary into an argument for the lasting centrality of the utopian in his own body and in his writing.

Central for Barthes, therefore, is an understanding of utopia as the "writer’s permanent commitment to writing the world," an act that includes the qualities of "conceptualization, understanding, complicity, and projection" (271). This "recreation of the world as a meaningful whole" is to be achieved by indirectness, "the basic strategy of the utopian writer" whose detours "via hypothetical utopias" transgress and transcend the world. Powerfully at the end of his life, it is "the writerly homosexual spaces that characterize [his work and restore] him to what he loves be it reality or the mother through the indirect circuits of other quests and other loves" (274).

Diana Knight’s book is a clear and useful close analysis of the themes and variations of utopia in Barthes. It is well worth reading, for she offers a refreshing (another Barthean word) reconsideration of his life and work, enlisting the utopian impulse and utopian discourse to take us beyond received assessments of Barthes himself as well as beyond the polarized traps of the theoretically trendy 1980s.

John Huntington

A Kinbotean Experience

Wells, H.G. The First Men in the Moon: A Critical Text of the 1901 London First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices. Ed. Leon Stover. The Annotated H.G. Wells #6. McFarland (800-253-2187), 1998. xii + 239 pp. $49.50 cloth.

Wells, H.G. The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance: A Critical Text of the 1897 New York First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices. Ed. Leon Stover. The Annotated H.G. Wells #3. McFarland (800-253-2187), 1998. xii + 321 pp. $55 cloth.

The two books under review come from a six-volume edition of Wells’s first six scientific romances. Stover’s The Time Machine (1895) and The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) appeared in 1996 and were reviewed in this journal.1 Apparently The War of the Worlds (1898) and When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) are forthcoming as volumes 4 and 5. The new volumes continue to advertise themselves as "Critical Texts." In both cases Stover has selected one of the early publications that he considers closest to Wells’s intention, but like the volumes reviewed earlier their main aim is less to argue for a definitive text than to promote insistent and eccentric interpretations of these novels.2 The scholarly and intellectual methods that characterize the earlier volumes persist in these, stated often word-for-word. I will not spend time repeating Mullen’s and Hughes’ analyses of the deceptiveness of Stover’s details but will content myself with simply examining the broad issues raised by Stover’s thesis and his way of reading.

The Invisible Man is for Stover a rhapsody of the superman-terrorist, superior to the fools and scoundrels around him, a precursor of the new age. Stover repeatedly asserts that the model for Griffin is Sergei Nechaev, the psychopathic Russian revolutionary who organized a single cell and managed to convince his few fellows that they were part of a vast network of cells. Dostoyevsky depicted him as Stavrogin in The Devils (1872). I cannot tell where Stover gets his version of Nechaev, but he finds him a thrilling model of single-minded self-sacrifice and ascetic devotion to the cause, and he declares in many notes that Griffin is himself just such a dedicated revolutionary. Yet one looks in vain for even a single piece of evidence that will substantiate the connection between Nechaev and Griffin: nothing in the novel suggests that Griffin serves any cause other than his own ambition. The self-sacrificing social heroics are all Stover’s invention. The quality Griffin clearly does share with Nechaev, of which Stover also seems to approve, is an arrogant contempt for ordinary people.

For Stover the purpose of scholarship seems to be to make a case that the text will not support. Despite all the evidence of Wells’s affection for ordinary men, the Bert Smallways of the world, Stover forces Wells’s comic depiction of Iping, the town in which Griffin takes refuge, into a savage allegory of common humanity’s debasement. A Unitarian whose tooth is chipped in a scuffle with Griffin signifies the failure of religion. As Griffin tries to escape from Iping the novel describes "some picturesque strangers of both sexes putting up a cocoanut shy," but according to Stover this is not an innocent carnival game but a "cockshy," "a place for the merry-making sport of casting sticks and stones at live cocks until they are pelted to death" (n.71). Such cruel "traditionalism" signifies all that Wells supposedly finds wrong with Iping. This ingenious argument makes no sense: if the point is to reveal the primitive cruelty of Iping, why should the narrator himself engage in the euphemism of the "cocoanut shy"? Later, after the mayhem of Griffin’s escape when the street is "littered with cocoanuts," Stover still insists (on no evidence whatsoever) that this is "a locution for the dead birds killed at the cockshy." Then, in blatant self-contradiction, he proceeds to treat the coconuts as literal and to find in them a secret image of the invisible man (n.136).

Stover seems able to read only in terms of heroes (Griffin) and villains. Doctor Kemp, since he betrays our hero, must be a contemptible scientist who is unable to appreciate the marvel before him, and Stover labors to find a dark suggestion in Kemp’s every act. That Kemp "does not live by practice" leads Stover to attack him as a "coupon-clipper," "one who uses his wealth to pursue hobby-horsical science" (n.171). That Kemp hopes his work will earn him the F.R.S. proves him to be after "mere prestige" and "empty of any real contribution to Natural Knowledge" (n.152). Though Wells does not mention the award again, Stover attacks Kemp for his F.R.S. ambitions repeatedly (in notes 166 and 171), and he even returns to the charge in First Men in the Moon, finding in Cavor’s indifference to honors an opportunity to take Kemp, who is not even in the novel, to task as "knavish for his insincere desire to win the prestige of F.R.S. membership" (n.36). Griffin’s ambition, on the other hand, though it is made explicit and even sinister in the text itself ("I told no living soul, because I meant to flash my work upon the world with crushing effect, to become famous at a blow" [137]) passes entirely unremarked. When Kemp orders his servants "to confine themselves to the basement and ground-floor," Stover finds him un-Wellsian. Wells, Stover reminds us in a long note, wanted "the hired help living in the upper rooms" (n.173). But Stover has missed the casual description of the servants, just five lines before they are sent below, "descending sleepily." That is, they live above, just as Wells would want. By sending the servants below, Kemp is simply keeping them out of Griffin’s path.

Saint-Simon is the overwhelming presence behind Stover’s First Men In the Moon, as he is in Stover’s version of The Time Machine. Having Saint-Simon on the brain, Stover finds him exemplified in every organization, from Bedford and Cavor’s tiny household project with its three workmen, to the gigantic lunar formicary. In defending Cavor against unnamed "humanist critics" who supposedly would make him out to be a "mad scientist," Stover makes him a champion of "the cold, inhuman reason of the moon" (262), which he says "is cognate with the ‘cruel rationality’ the makers of the modern state find necessary to impose in advancing the managerial revolution," the Saint-Simonian ideal which is supposedly Wells’s own ideal in the novel (n.237). As happens continually, Stover’s obsessive thesis has led him to find meanings for lines entirely out of context. The phrase about "cold, inhuman reason" is Bedford’s (whom one would expect Stover to distrust), not Wells’s or even Cavor’s, and it speaks not of managerial ethics but of the tactics by which the Selenites will protect themselves.

The comic aspect of Bedford seems beyond Stover’s reach. It is not enough for Bedford to be a scoundrel and unreliable, he must be proven wrong at every single turn. If the science of the novel is wrong (I don’t think it is in the way Stover asserts, but the point is not worth pursuing here), it is so because Bedford is covering up. Bedford certainly has his flaws, but Stover with some glee keeps battering him and claims that Wells, too, hates him passionately: "a petty grubber who just happened to strike it rich" (n.157); "The author relentlessly has Bedford bury his nose into his own hateful petty bourgeois mentality ... [and] would love to wipe out the Bedfords of the world" (n.159); "A more dishonest person is hard to find in British fiction" (n.177). Stover seems to have forgotten that the Time Traveler is described as a con man of sorts, or that Wells shows considerable affection for Caffrey in Love and Mr. Lewisham (1900) or George Ponderevo’s uncle in Tono-Bungay (1908).

Stover has a wide-ranging, if selective, knowledge of Wells, which allows him to achieve some curious insights among the cranky, strange, and misguided interpretations. He has tracked down references; he has annotated the geography; he has explained words and ideas. But the enterprise is all so smothered in the accumulation of an obsessive agenda that even the documentation becomes suspect. In Stover’s intellectual universe, you can always substitute other Wells for the text at hand: thus on numerous occasions the reading of First Men in the Moon is defended by turning to The Shape of Things to Come (1933), published thirty-two years later; the Grand Lunar and John Cabal are interchangeable. Wells in this reading shows no signs of evolution or change. Like a jackdaw, Stover has collected a small set of treasured one-liners from Wells and from other figures (especially Saint-Simon, Lenin, and Stalin), and he brings them out, stripped of context, to assert his very doubtful "truth." Even the footnotes, which one might hope would finally give some thickness to the Saint-Simonian idea, fail to enlighten but simply refer us back to other works by Stover himself. To read Wells in these editions is to be trapped in a tightly twisted hermeneutic spiral. It is a Kinbotean experience.

Finally, Stover, somewhat like Michael Coren,3 has in his obsession turned a writer of imaginative openness and invention into his single-minded, demonic antithesis. Strangely, Stover boosts Wells as an important innovator and novelist in order to attack him for the "statist" politics he claims to lie at the heart of "Wellsism."4 "The great political issue of the twentieth century has been whether the state is to serve man (the open society) or man the state (the closed society), and Wells cast his lot with the latter" (First Men in the Moon, "Editor’s Introduction," 29). Such terms are inadequate to the issues these novels explore. Wells had a sense of complexity and irony that Stover seems unable to grasp. When Cavor says that "In the moon every citizen knows his place" (238), he is admiring a neatness that surely also appeals to Wells in some way, but Stover’s annotation is not interested in shadings. It fairly crows: "In this one brief sentence of eight words, Cavor sums up the new ethic of the managerial revolution, with its redefinition of citizen as state’s man" (n.209). But were he to read Cavor’s next sentence he would suspect that this simple slogan, though it has complex implications, could not possibly represent Wells’s position: "He [i.e., the citizen] is born to that place, and the elaborate discipline of training and education and surgery he undergoes fits him at last so completely to it that he has neither ideas nor organs for any purpose beyond it." This is the parody of education that Wells attacks throughout his life, from The Wonderful Visit (1895) on. Wells’s work is filled with examples of sometimes comic but always heroic men and women who break from such social discipline: Kipps, Mr. Polly, Ann Veronica, to name just a few. H.G. himself is the greatest example of the fallacy of such a scheme: where would Wells be if he had accepted the "place" to which he had been born?


1. See R.D. Mullen, "Scholarship and the Riddle of the Sphinx: The Stover Edition of The Time Machine." SFS 23:3 (Nov. 1996): 363-70, and David Y. Hughes, "The Doctor Vivisected: Stover’s Moreau." SFS 24:1 (March 1997): 109-118.

2. The sign of how irrelevant the textual issues are is that in The First Men in the Moon, Stover is able to make the acrobatic argument that the Grand Lunar’s term "red dawn" is a crucial key to interpreting the novel (n. 81) even though it does not appear in the edition Stover has chosen as "closest to the author’s intention" (see n. 233).

3. See his The Invisible Man: The Life and Liberties of H.G. Wells (New York: Atheneum, 1993).

4. Stover continues to imply that Wells himself promoted "Wellsism," but as R.D. Mullen’s analysis of Stover’s edition of The Time Machine clearly showed, this is entirely Stover’s own construction: the term hardly appears in Wells, and never as a party label.

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