Dragons Over Spaceships: Fantasy and Science Fiction as Cultural Prostheses
I should begin by saying that I’m not qualified to make any of the claims that follow. I think I have something interesting to say, but there’s a damn good chance I don’t. I leave that for you to decide, while sheltering behind that ancient axiom of informal reasoning which asserts that the truth or falsity of claims is independent of those foolish enough to make them.
I want to talk about the relation between our contemporary experience of time and the genres of fantasy and science fiction. In particular, I want to discuss the process of what might be called ‘stranding,’ the way in which technological innovation and theoretical disenchantment, the twin dividends of institutionalized science, have marooned us outside of time.
My argument then, might run something as follows: Both genres, I will argue, are a result of a pernicious way ‘scientific progress’ has transformed our experience of the world.
To model this transformation of experience, I will adapt what the conceptual historian Reinhart Koselleck calls the ‘horizon of expectation’ and the ‘space of experience.’ Science fiction and fantasy, I will contend, are the result of the way the applications and implications of science have crippled these two fundamental features of our experience. On the one hand, the applications of science have pressed our horizon of expectation to the point of collapse by accelerating the pace of change. On the other hand, the implications of science threaten to collapse our space of experience by eradicating, rather than simply discrediting, intentionality.
Both science fiction and fantasy are attempts to compensate for these impending phenomenological disasters. Both genres are consolatory. Where science fiction attempts to recover our lost horizon of expectation through narrative, fantasy attempts to recover our lost space of experience through narrative.
REINHART KOSELLECK: AN ADAPTATION
Since the Enlightenment, science has gradually supplanted traditional forms of cognition, becoming the very paradigm of rationality in contemporary society. In addition to telling us how the world works, science now tells us what to eat, how to live, even how to raise our children. And well it should. Science is, without any doubt, the most powerful instrument of discovery humanity has ever known.
Insofar as scientific truth claims make things like cures for smallpox and thermonuclear explosions possible, science cannot simply be one network of ‘language games’ among others. Declaring that scientific truth claims ultimately stand upon the same consensual or formal quicksand as, say, literary or philosophical truth claims elides the very distinction that demands explanation. Theoretical truth claims generated by scientific institutions empower in a way at drastic odds with theoretical truth claims generated elsewhere–end of story. Any theory of meaning that cannot convincingly explain this remarkable difference is either incomplete or insolvant.
My point here is not so much to dismiss ‘fiction friendly’ theories such as contextualism, social constructivism, post-structuralism, and the like as to recall the incontrovertible difference between science and other institutional modes of theoretical cognition. When it comes to efficacious theoretical cognition, science really is the only game in town. We should be as much in awe of science as we are of the horrors and marvels that it makes possible. Whatever knowledge is, science is its most powerful expression. Whatever rationality is, science is its most forceful example. Far and away.
Before science, we largely relied on intentional explanations to understand ourselves and the world. Intentional explanations, crudely put, generate understanding by giving reasons and purposes for things and events. They also reference norms and values. Whenever we give reasons for our actions, we are not only providing others with explanations, we are often providing justifications as well. We ground our children ‘to teach them a lesson.’ We buy a bottle of fine wine ‘to make an impression.’ We give to charity ‘to do the right thing.’ And so on.
We moderns generally confine such explanations to human interactions and activities. Our premodern ancestors, on the other hand, used them to understand the entire world. For them, everything possessed ‘intent,’ criminal or otherwise. Storms, animals, madness, menstrual cycles, nearly everything was understood intentionally, attributed either to invisible agencies or to grand designs. For our premodern ancestors, the world was simply an extension of their community, constrained by similar codes of conduct, and moved by similar passions and purposes.
But storms are the result of complex meteorological processes, not the instruments of vengeful gods. Likewise, madness is the result of complex neurophysiological processes, not the sign of demonic possession. Our ancestors, in other words, were deluded. Our intentional understanding of ourselves and one another, it turns out, is entirely inappropriate to the world.
Since the Enlightenment, our understanding of the world has become less and less intentional and more and more functional. What is commonly referred to as ‘the scientific disenchantment of the world,’ is in fact a scientific ‘deintentionalization’ or ‘functionalization’ of the world. Wherever science has turned its scrutiny, intentionality has evaporated, to be replaced by functional accounts that have given us extraordinary power. The world, it seems, is a vast, stochastic mechanism. After four scant centuries of substituting intentional with functional explanations, we have acquired a power that our forebears would consider godlike.
Both the picture and the power, the theories and the technological applications of science, have irrevocably changed the status and character of our experience when compared to that of our ancestors. In order to chart this transformation, I will adapt a schema used by the German intellectual historian, Reinhart Koselleck. The specifics of his account, and the problems he encounters (such as equivocating categories like expectation and hope), stand outside the scope of this paper. For those of you interested in exploring his ideas further, I refer you to his Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time.
In Futures Past, Reinhart Koselleck investigates the history of our modern experience of historical time–what he calls Neuzeit. The first problem posed by such an investigation, he realizes, is the fact that we, as moderns, are forced to study the history of Neuzeit through the lense of Neuzeit. We become embroiled in what Koselleck calls ‘the vortex of historicization.’ (271). We can never quite be certain what belongs to the history and what belongs to the lense.
Rather than adopting a hermeneutic methodology, where the circular relation between our initial implicit understanding and our final explicit understanding is virtuous rather than vicious, Koselleck turns to what can only be called a phenomenology of time consciousness, namely, the relation between experience and expectation. Experience and expectation, he claims, provide the fixed phenomenological framework needed to map the mutation of our premodern experience of historical time into Neuzeit.
Though Koselleck poses experience and expectation as transcendental categories, what he means by the terms is quite straightforward. Experience, for Koselleck, is simply what has been lived, whereas expectation is simply the apprehension of what will be lived. Since we experience what has been lived as a kind of differential totality, Koselleck refers to the ‘space of experience.’ Since we experience our apprehension of what will be lived as a kind of limit, he refers to the ‘horizon of expectation.’
For Koselleck, our continually mutating experience of historical time is constituted by the shifting relationship between the space of our experience and the horizon of our expectation. By considering the impact of different socio-cultural phenomena on experience and expectation, we can infer crucial differences between the contemporary experience of time as opposed to say, the ancient experience.
So for example, the fact that the accelerating pace of technological innovation has rendered us the first generation in the history of the human race that cannot reliably anticipate that even fundamental social institutions such as universities will exist in a recognizable form in a generation’s time, means that our horizon of expectation differs profoundly from that of, say, a pre-Enlightenment yeoman. Add to that the false ideology of individualism (which produces an exaggerated sense of individual agency), the myth of ‘upward mobility’ (which produces an exaggerated sense of economic possibility), and what are essentially theological concepts of ‘progress,’ and our experience of the future is even further transformed.
Given the slow pace of technological innovation, our pre-Enlightenment ancestors could reliably expect that their children and their grandchildren would live much the same as they lived, work much the same as they worked, and that the social institutions they served would remain largely unchanged. Also, locked into a rigid social hierarchy and lacking any concept of secular ‘self-improvement,’* they would not hope for much beyond what experience had already offered them.
What this suggests is that the horizon of expectation for our pre-Enlightenment ancestors was continuous with the space of their experience, whereas ours has become discontinuous in the extreme, to the point that we now expect the obsolescence of our experience, which is to say, we expect the unexpected.
For our ancestors, the future could be known on the basis of past and present experience. Not so for us, primarily because of science (and it’s evil twin, capitalism, but that’s another story. In modernity, everyone ‘hopes to be a millionaire,’ which is to say, everyone hopes to join the largely hereditary elite that subsists on the surplus labour of the masses. We are accustomed to entertaining hopes detached from our daily experience).
Some might suggest that losing cognitive access to the future is a small price to pay for the cognitive access to the present we moderns have gained as a result of science. Our ancestors may have been assured a future that conformed to the space of their experience, but in so many ways that experience was utterly deluded. The intentional explanations they adduced for the world were at best flattering palliatives and at worst subreptive rationalizations of oppression. Good riddance.
The problem, however, is that experience is fundamentally intentional. Not only is it intentional in Brentano’s sense of ‘aboutness,’ it is also intentional in the umbrella sense of the term, which includes normativity, affectivity, and purposiveness. Experience is intentional through and through. This is why we say the intentional explanation of the world results in anthropomorphism, the erroneous attribution of human norms, affects, and purposes to what is in truth an arbitrary and indifferent world.
In addition to closing down our horizon of expectation, science also assails our space of experience. In order to cognize the world we must filter out the intentional malapropisms that fundamentally characterize our experience. What this means is that in a large measure, we no longer recognize the world we presently experience. We quite literally live in an alien world. Since we are part of that world this also means we no longer recognize ourselves. We are ourselves alien.
So for instance, where our pre-Enlightenment ancestors lived in a world steeped in moral significance, we live in a world where value is an illusion. Evolutionary biology, for instance, states that ‘moral intuitions’ are experiential subreptions selected for because they provide the requisite social cohesion necessary for the successful rearing of offspring. There’s no good, no evil, not really, only the effective transmission of genetic material. The same might be said of familial cohesion and ‘love,’ or should we say ‘pair bonding.’ Or how about babies? Infants are cute, not because they are in fact cute, but because cuteness as an experiential response was selected for because it facilitated parent-child pair bonding, which in turn effected the successful transmission of genetic material… And so on, and so on.
Of course the same goes for that other cherished feature of experience, purposiveness. In contrast to our pre-Enlightenment ancestors, we moderns know ‘shit just happens’–though a great many of us hope otherwise. There’s no reasons, only causes. The power of science to monopolize rationality has reached such an extent that one can no longer ask the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ and still be ‘rational.’ Since there’s no scientific answer to this question, and since science is the paradigm of rationality, the question becomes irrational, silly, the subject matter of Monty Python spoofs.
Compared to our ancestors then, we are stranded, shipwrecked, not just in the present, but in a present that isn’t real. Our horizon of expectation has collapsed, and the space of our experience has been dispossessed. And it is this state of affairs, I would like to argue, that provides the socio-phenomenological foundations of science fiction and fantasy. Both genres, I want to suggest, are best understood as symbolic compensatory mechanisms for our stranded souls. In other words, both genres are best understood as cultural prostheses.
THE SOCIO-PHENOMENOLOGY OF SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY
If a culture were trying to compensate for phenomenologico-cognitive deficits such as these, for our contemporary experience of stranding, what might we expect to arise as a result?
Given the cognitive opacity of the future one might expect a culture to offer ‘cognitive seeming’ accounts of what we might expect. Since we know only that the future will be different, and since what we want is cognition–or the semblance of it, anyway–what need is someway of getting from here and now to there and then which gives the impression of cognition. What we need, in other words, are pseudo-cognitive transformation rules that provide the semblance of a horizon of expectation. Since science is the paradigm of knowledge, one might expect these rules to be ‘apparently scientific.’ Since technological innovation is the obvious ‘problem,’ one might expect it to constitute the primary locus for these rules.
In other words, one might expect the development of science fiction or something like it.
Given the gap between the intentional world of our experience (what is commonly called, following Husserl, the Lebenswelt, or ‘lifeworld’)–the world we recognize–and the deintentionalized world described by scientific theory–the world we cognize–one might expect a culture to generate surrogates, worlds where recognition is cognition. Since the scientific deintentionalization of the world has caused this lacuna, one might expect these alternate worlds to repudiate the validity of science. Since all we possess are pre-scientific, historical contexts as models for ‘intentional worlds without science,’ one might expect these to provide the models for these alternate worlds. Put differently, one might expect culture to provide ‘associative elimination rules,’ ways to abstract from the present, for the production of alternate intentional contexts which conform to, and so repatriate, the otherwise displaced space of our experience.
One might expect the development of fantasy literature or something like it.
For us, the future world is as opaque to cognition as the present world is transparent and alien. For our prescientific ancestors, the situation was the opposite: the future world was as transparent to cognition as the present world was opaque and familiar. Where the future is our mirror, the present was theirs. We now bounce light off the future to symbolically illuminate ourselves, while our ancestors, unable to penetrate experience, saw themselves literally reflected across their present–they anthropomorphized. Where we write science fiction and fantasy, they wrote scripture–what we now call myth.
SOME SUGGESTIVE HIGHLIGHTS
1) The prevailing assumption seems to be that science fiction and fantasy are wedded in the vague sense that both are ‘speculative,’ and that, for arbitrary historical reasons, they share the same cultural industrial outputs–the publishers of the one tend to be the publishers of the other. The suggestion here is that their connection is both far more intimate and far more profound. We have already considered how, socio-historically, they are both a consequence of the institutional dominance of science.
2) The novum or nova which as as I can tell, are typically thought of as points of differentiation, should be seen the points of extension, the points which explain, and therefore domesticate, the differences which define the alternate context at hand. Science fiction is primarily involved in establishing pseudo-cognitive continuities. The ‘encounter with difference’ characteristic of science fiction, on this account, is simply a side-effect of rule-governed mapping of the familiar onto the alien–which is the structure of cognition. In this account, estrangement is the phenomenological origin, rather than the result of science fiction. Science fiction, in other words, is primarily a literature of recovery. On this account, otherness or alterity belong first and foremost to the future.
3) If science fiction is comparatively ‘socially progressive,’ it has more to do with the implicit understanding that traditional biases against various groups will be progressively discredited, (leaving only the economically rationalized biases against the longest suffering and most systematically oppressed: the poor). In other words, it belongs to the transformation rules. Likewise, if fantasy is comparatively ‘socially conservative,’ it has to do with the elimination rules: the associative connections between traditional biases and traditional conceptions of the world are difficult to overcome.
4) Both genres are invested in providing the semblance of recovery, which is why science fiction is no more about the actual future than fantasy is about the actual past. Both genres offer the illusion of cognition, be it functional or intentional.
5) In terms of what Heidegger calls the ‘ontological difference,’ science fiction is primarily an ontic discourse, a discourse concerned with beings within the world, whereas fantasy is primarily an ontological one, a discourse concerned with Being itself. What this suggests is that the socio-phenomenological stakes involved in fantasy are more radical than those involved in science fiction. In Adornian terms, science fiction, it could be said, is primarily engaged in the extension of identity thinking, whereas fantasy, through its wilful denial of cognition, points to the ‘messianic moment,’ the necessity of finding some way out of our functional nightmare.
Haven’t you always been interested in fantasy as a genre? (By “always” I mean since your youth, before you presumably became less intellectually naive). If so, is this not “justification after the fact” (to use the phrase you used recently in reference to the essay and liberal arts education in general)? So, fantasy must be important because you enjoy it?
I am sure you have thought of this yourself. This is also the reason I (at least) find you problematic. The simultaneous inflation and deflation of your own ideas. Are you a Wittgenstein, insisting that we throw the ladder away after we have climbed it?
In any case, a very neat theory. Well done.
There’s no escaping that as a probability… It’s simply the cost of doing theoretical business, one that I think I reference with some frequency – nowadays.
Otherwise, I don’t believe in ladders. Only comic books.
Koselleck, Brentano, Husserl, Heidegger: some of my favorite comic book artists.
I guess the problem you face is that when you let the air out of the balloon sometimes it’s just going to sound like a fart.
It is a neat theory,
I have always been a comic fan, sometimes American superheroes, sometimes the tales of the Hindu Pantheon- and as I got older it always seemed to me that the colorful heroes and titans were struggling between the poles of eternal and dynamic existence; trying to be both Truth and Story.
Perhaps science takes away something people crave, something that market forces inevitably will lock down on and produce as lucrative product- Hollywood Thor anyone? By the same guy who brought us Frankenstein- and Hamlet.
Human cravings can be negative- we all have an inherited love of sugar and fat, and modern life can provide these in abundance, so are we gorging on fantasy? Are you are hoping to doctor the fast food of literature with truth?
I have been gathering material for a project tentatively named ‘why we read’ for a while now, and this is right up my street.
It seems to me that, at least as far as SF/F is concerned, you have been trying to get at the same thing as me but from a slightly different angle. There are quite a few goodies in this essay, and will surely spend more time mulling it over, but here and now I want to ask this:
“If a culture were trying to compensate for phenomenologico-cognitive deficits such as these, for our contemporary experience of stranding, what might we expect to arise as a result?”
Let’s take a culture where SF/F _does_ arise as a result of phenomenologico-cognitive deficits. What does consuming SF/F _do_ for the readers of these genres? What about those people who vehemently reject SF and F? What are their horizons like? Going deeper, what about people who reject all fiction? What kind of compensatory mechanism might they use, in your view?
“What we need, in other words, are pseudo-cognitive transformation rules that provide the semblance of a horizon of expectation. Since science is the paradigm of knowledge, one might expect these rules to be ‘apparently scientific.’”
This is beautiful.
It might be unintentional, but this perfectly describes the ideology of a better, happier tomorrow built by the living generation as a scientifically pre-determined outcome of the class struggle.
I’m glad you liked.
These questions are similar to the ones that led me to think that this analysis horribly over-simplifies what is the result of a social, and therefore super-complicated, phenomena. Especially nowadays, with media fractured the way it is. The kind of headspace I’m describing probably required a far less media saturated environment to grab, which could have been the case when the genres were institutionalized. Nowadays I’m far more inclined to think that something like fantasy and SF are simply ‘comfortable places to be,’ allowing for the accumulation of consumers for a plurality of reasons no one has quite wrapped their heads around, two of which may be a simulated sense of expection or a simulated sense of anthropomorphic belonging. I hadn’t read Pascal Boyer when I wrote this.
In terms of sheer cultural consumption, the numbers would suggest porn! The stranding is real, I think. As technology bends relationships, old norms lose applicability, and emergent norms arise, which may or may not be consistent with established norms. The point is that accelerating technological innovation means accelerating normative innovation. You look at the spiking rise in scores on standard narcissism tests, just for instance. How does a society get retooled for vanity in the space of a generation? I guess what I’m saying is that fantasy and SF will always remain ‘comfortable positions,’ but everything is moving so fast elsewhere that stranding simply fades into the noise of a generalized anxiety. Either that or the story is alot more complicated.
It might be unintentional, but this perfectly describes the ideology of a better, happier tomorrow built by the living generation as a scientifically pre-determined outcome of the class struggle.
Absolutely. Capital is science’s evil twin. The pretence is otherwise, but they are a single organism – as the Soviets found out.
Have you read Christopher Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots’? In it he writes that fantasy as a genre is what happens when you have explored all of the world. Conan Doyle set The Lost World in a remote part of South America because it was still a possibility that fantastic things happened there – we would find that much harder to conceive of now. I think it is Beowulf that happens ‘in the next marsh’ or just over the hill. Fantasy reaches back throughout history, it has now just been rendered homeless through our exploration of the world. In the same way, science fiction or the exploration of other worlds is in this thought process just an extension of the same mind that came up with Beowulf.
I do not think this contradicts what you are saying, I just thought at the time that it was a particularly powerful way of understanding these genres. To me, this view and your own maybe combine quite well to form some sort of explanation or background intellectualising for these genres. Good read! need to read it again maybe to fully understand