Science Fiction Studies

#48 = Volume 16, Part 2 = July 1989




Marc Angenot

Following the Thread

Translated by Robert Barsky & RMP, Edited by RMP

Marcel Thaon, Gérard Klein, Jacques Goimard, et al. Science-Fiction et Psychanalyse: L'imaginaire social de la S.F. Paris: Dunod, 1985. vi+ 243pp. FF242.

This somewhat heterogeneous volume comprises seven essays. Three of the contributions are by Marcel Thaon, who offers a "psycho-history" of SF and a study of Dick as a writer of "psychotic familial novels." Tobie Nathan considers van Vogt's oeuvre as exhibiting an "identity crisis." Ednita P. Bernabeu deals with contemporary SF as a "fantasm of regression," by which she means that in the face of unresolved conflicts, this genre favors "pre-genital libidinal investments more archaic" than in other non-canonical genres.

More interesting than these in my view is Jacques Goimard's treatment of SF film. In surveying the history of this subgenre from the 1920s on, he shows that one can conceptualize the aesthetic deficiencies of the early films in terms of a badly established rapport between "belief" and "illusion." By contrast, the more recent films--E.T. and Return of the Jedi, for example-- mastered technique "too well," thus allowing for their doxological content to be reproduced time and again in a kind of eternal return of clichés.

To my mind, however, the most interesting of the contributions to the volume, and the one which most justifies the subtitle ("SF's Social Imagination") is Gérard Klein's essay, which also literally bulks the largest (it occupies pp. 47-151, almost half the book's total number of pages). Editor, novelist, and SF critic, Klein is a subtle thinker who has for many years been reflecting on the social genesis of literary writing. Trained as an economist, he has constructed--within the context of an undogmatic methodology merging sociology and psychoanalysis--a singular and engaging set of hypotheses. (Elements of these appeared in an earlier book of his, Malaise dans la science fiction [Metz: L'Aube enclavée, 1977], which his present work both develops and criticizes.)

Klein is a "thinker"--even if this label seems quaint and outdated--an "amateur" (in the best senses of the word) who steers clear of the academic world and its conventional frameworks, a man whose contemplations have led, in his words, to something "which seems to me so vast and in some respects so frightening that I always feel I end up expressing it with inadequate metaphoric approximations" (p. 47).

What, then, is his discovery, and how does he arrive at it? Our first clue comes from his title, "Trames et moirés." This literally means "Woofs, or Wefts, and Watery Silks"; but it is best rendered more loosely as something like "Threads and Shimmerings" so long as we understand that there is some sort of causal relationship between the two key words--i.e., that the shimmering comes from, is a visible effect of, the threads. To put the point (still vaguely) in non-figural terms, he begins with a preliminary thesis for which he slowly accumulates evidence: that literary works (in fact, all cultural products, even religions) do not have a history unto themselves, an autonomy, but are inextricably part of the totality of social processes. This totality, moreover, is so complex that the correlations which determine the work of art remain inexhaustible.

Klein perceives these correlations between aesthetic objects and social facts as analogous to the relationship between "dream world" and "daily life" in Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, according to which the dream is a solution in the realm of the imaginary to a problem not clearly perceived in waking reality. The relationship between the text and the world is therefore not one of reflection, or mimesis, or structural homology, or manifest transposition. Rather, it amounts to a shift, a displacement, whereby the text expresses something "which it would not have been able to say otherwise because it did not know it otherwise" (p. 49).

Having said that, Klein nevertheless rejects the reduction of the problem of meaning to the analysis of an "individual" unconscious--for him, an illusive "shimmering" at the surface of the social fabric--as much as he does the kind of metaphysical explanation which appeals to a--for him, equally illusory--"collective unconscious." What he is looking for, starting from a symptomatic reading of the work, is an unresolved conflict, an "unthinkable" demarcated by a social matrix, inside of which the author has operated. This is not to say, however, that anything to the purpose can be extracted from the author or authorial pronouncements about his or her own text. The connections which the work invites come "from all readers across time and space, and are therefore almost innumerable and inexhaustible" (p. 50).

Any one interpretation is thus always partial and subjective, though not necessarily without validity, or even "truth." The meaning of the text is neither a reflection of manifest social structures nor the end-result of censorship on the part of the individual Unconscious, but instead is the outcome of a boundless and inexhaustible "interreadability." This makes the literary text into something that is not a transcription dictated by styles, themes, figures, and fictional formulas of something that could have been known by other means; instead, it is the discloser of aspects of the social order--aspects which without that particular text would have remained mute. If the work, as Klein says, is a prism, then the kind of analysis he is proposing will look to its spectrum.

Corresponding to these hypotheses about the nature of meaning in a text are others regarding the nature of social entities. Here, as in the case of the individual and collective Unconscious, the usual ideas on the subject undergo a process of dialectical rejection. First of all, Klein interrogates the concept of the individual, concluding that even in the relationship of psychoanalyst to analysand one collectivity is speaking to another collectivity. Resorting to a favorite image, he argues that every human being exists only "as a shimmering, as a superimposition of threads" (p. 51), a kind of illusion resulting from a multiplicity of interactions among a multiplicity of determining factors.

Who speaks through the mediation of this illusory "individual," then? Social groups? Social classes? If you so insist, Klein replies, but it were better if you didn't. Textual production is not related to classes as social subjects defined by economic or power relations, similarities in mores or lifestyles--all of these objectively delineated and stable and allowing us to group together "individuals" on the basis of some set of shared and invariable traits. Instead, he proposes that we consider the matter in terms of the dynamics of what he calls "collective subjectivities." These develop from the "sharing of the same experience" (p. 52) and from the communicational capacity to give an intersubjective account of that experience. In this view, "we belong to a multitude of social groups, many of which we don't even suspect the existence of" (p. 53). The larger implication here is that an infinite number of "collective subjectivities" constitute themselves--and as the opposite of Leibnizian "monads"--and are able to communicate, not by reference to a transcendant code, but "a step at a time" by virtue of the (first of all, experiential) elements they have in common.

We can compare this critical theory, which opens into an ontology of the "collective subject," with numerous heterological ways of thinking which, from Charles Fourier to Mikhail Bakhtin, belong to a materialism of desire (originally delineated by Epicurus in terms of the mutual attraction of atoms and their interactions once concatenated). Such theories reject at one and the same time the primacy of the individual and that of society as a stable and objectified system, as the ultimate arbiter of meaning; and they attempt to replace thinking in binary terms of "alternativity" (the same and the other) with one that centers on "intertwining" ("entrecroisement" -- more literally, "intercrossing": p. 55) and thence, in the domain of communication, on "polysemy," hermeneutic cooperation, and axiomatic Uncertainty--in short, on the instability, the slippage, of meaning.

It is on the basis of his theory of the collective subject and of group interaction that Klein works out--over and above his novel reflections on the social functions of SF--a general hermeneutic and aesthetic (labels which he would doubtless object to for being too highfalutin for his unpretentious--and bountiful--meditation).

It is impossible to summarize the analyses by which Klein sustains his contentions or the twists and turns which give them their richness and consistency. But as one example of how he follows a thread to lengths that lead to surprising discoveries about the fabric it belongs to, consider his reflections on the theme of the return of the legitimate but usurped king (the subject of Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millenium [1970]). Klein begins with a brief outline, a few lines sketching the historico-political and literary dimensions of the theme. This, however, is only the preliminary for a series of thoughts on form and content: on the unlimited exchange of forms among collective subjectivities and on the radical transcendence of content; on perennial forms (in this case, particularly the Oedipus myth) versus ephemeral ones; and on the absence of hierarchy or arbitrational rules among collective subjectivities.

At this point we might be tempted to categorize Klein's thinking in such crass terms as perspectivism, radical relativism, indeterminism, and "immanentism." Dictionaries of philosophy abound in these pseudo-concepts, which serve as the currency of reflection. Klein, however, cannot be pigeon-holed: he is, by now-traditional standards, too idiosyncratic. Witness his range of subjects: he brings into his discussion not only Lovecraft (about whom he has much to say), Tolkien, the Gothic novel and Jules Verne, but also the autistic child, Zen Buddhism, the theory of onomatopia, etc. This is also, of course, a risky business; but given the wealth of ideas he produces for us as he follows out his unusual system of thought, it is very much worth our while to go along with him and see where he takes us.

One thing his thinking leads to are answers to a series of questions concerning "literature" and SF. To the traditional question, "What is the use of literature?," for instance, his hypotheses permit him to say "that [literature] allows collective subjectivities, and thus social groups-- without their realizing it--to coexist and communicate in a general way" (p. 75).

As for the analyses of literary genres and specific works by which Klein develops and elaborates upon his understanding of the social imagination, some idea of their scope will be evident from the following outline. Beginning with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, he sketches the evolution of modern literatures of the imaginary from the Gothic novel, through the literary fantasies of the 19th century and the scientific adventure stories of Jules Verne, to H.G. Wells and the birth of SF. He then returns to Lovecraft's work, the subject of a previous study of his. Here he attempts to redefine the axiomatic differences and the historical rivalry between fantasy (the appearance of which corresponds to a decline of religious values) and SF (in which "science--or more precisely, an ideology of science"--assumes "the constitutive function held by the supernatural" in fantasy: p. 118). By reason of this last (parenthetical) point, he asserts that fantasy and SF are opposed to one another not as two transhistorical genres, but as two periods are, or as two problems that appeared in successive periods of which the genres are representative:

Fantasy would express for certain social groups the conflict between the individual created in the 19th century by liberal bourgeois society and the medieval values which one had inherited and tried to disclaim, only to rediscover them in the course of one's problematic wandering....

SF, on the other hand, corresponds to the society of monopolies, or of organization.... From its beginnings, SF predicted the dissolution of the individual, who is condemned to become the invisible man, someone still possessing a conscience [or consciousness] but dying finally of not being recognized, of being unable to act in a socially significant manner. (pp. 127-28)

Klein, who in his earlier work on Lovecraft believed he would be able to predict the end of classic fantasy, sees its resurgence in popular American literature: in a form of fantasy which seems to have taken up the older tradition. In Stephen King, Peter Straub, et alii, a maleficence, detached from all sacred order or intelligible supernaturalism, obtrudes itself as something not possessing any rationality. Klein suggests that this new fiction of the perverse uncontrollable may express the experience of a new unintelligibility which confounds magic and technology in a way--related to the vast "neo-feudal" multinational (i.e., transnational) conglomerations of modern corporatism--that signifies the "loss of control of their destiny experienced by large segments of the population" (p. 142). This new ideological complex may also find its expression in some works of SF--e.g., most of Herbert, some Brunner, and Aldiss's "Helliconia" trilogy.

Klein concludes his densely-packed text by stating that he is nothing other than an amateur: "it is precisely this irresponsible position which grants me the audacity to expound theses which apparently run counter to commonsense" (p. 150). But if his be "imprudent" speculation, would that it were not the privilege only of the researcher situated outside of academia. His long essay, which recapitulates many years of reflection and draws upon a broad background of diverse study, has to its credit the ability to offer, in page after page, stimulating suggestions, complex hypotheses, formulated in a synthesis whereby all of the weighty questions of epistemology and of the sociology of SF and of literature in general are novelly re-examined.

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