end of Samuel R Delany’s Trouble on Triton,
a delightful metatextual scene occurs. There, our ‘protagonist’ who is traveling
with a political delegation to earth from the moon Triton discovers the
avant-garde theater troupe with which s/he’s hopelessly entangled partaking in
an archaeological expedition in Outer Mongolia.
“That is you!” Scraggly-bearded Windy, dusty from labor, came up the pile, a pail with things in it held out from his thigh, his other arm waving for balance. “What in the world are you doing here?”
“I was … I was just walking by. And I … What are … ?”
“The last time I seen you is on some damn moon two hundred and fifty million kilometers away. And he’s just walking by, he says!”
“What are you all doing?” Bron asked. “On Earth?”
“The usual. Micro-theater for small or unique audiences. Government endowment. Just what it says in the contract that brought us here.”
Bron looked around. “Is this one of her … ?”
“Huh? Oh, Christ, no! A bunch of us from the company just decided to volunteer a hand with the diggings. They’re into some very exciting things.” Windy laughed. “Today’s biggest find, would you believe it, is a whole set of ancient digging implements. Apparently someone in the immemorial past was also trying to excavate the place.”
Delany will recognize in the astonished cry – “What in the world are you doing here?” – the question of all
of his books in some way traverse – how is it possible, in this world, for I to
say you, and for you to say I? And how is it possible in this world for any I
and any you to find each other in any case, here
of all places?
excavation of another archaeological excavation.
the present and an arche, an origin
that might substantiate a self or give continuity to a tradition, there stretches
an untraversable distance prolonged even further by the very search for an
origin. This distancing of what is to be found by the very act of searching for
it in Delany’s works takes the form of an amnesia, an aphasia, and an alexia.
In Dhalgren, The Kid flees and forgets, forgets
fleeing, and flees forgetting. In Babel-17,
The Butcher who has no word for ‘I’ helps stop a saboteur who turns out to be himself,
who he has forgotten. In Triton, the
trouble is that Bron cannot forget the past (or even remember the past in a
catharsis that would constitute its forgetting and the forging of a future).
the delight of this scene for me is how in displacing its origin it recognizes
the origin of a writing that occurs in this displacement. A writing that
questions both origins and originality. The writing of an archeological rather than an anthropological
science fiction. In this way, Delany places himself as inheriting the tradition
of Ursula K Le Guin while also disrupting its continuity.
at least this much is clear: Delany gives the epigraph “An Ambiguous
Heterotopia” to Triton in direct
conversation with Le Guin’s epigraph to The
Dispossessed, “An Ambiguous Utopia.” But we can go further.
epigraph to one of the Neveryon books
borrows from Foucault’s The Archeology of
But there is negative work to be carried out first: we must rid ourselves of a whole mass of notions, each of which, in its own way, diversifies the theme of continuity. They may not have a very rigorous conceptual structure, but they have a very precise function. Take the notion of tradition: it is intended to give a special temporal status to a group of phenomena that are both successive and identical (or at least similar); it makes it possible to rethink the dispersion of history in the form of the same; it allows a reduction of the difference proper to every beginning, in order to pursue without discontinuity the endless search for origin …
continues a few pages later, saying that the role of this theme of historical
continuity is “to preserve, against all
decentrings, the sovereignty of the subject, and the twin figures of
anthropology and humanism.” Against the decentering work of Marx and Nietzsche,
“One is led therefore to anthropologize Marx, to make of him a historian of
totalities, and to rediscover in him the message of humanism; one is led
therefore to interpret Nietzsche in the terms of transcendental philosophy, and
to reduce his genealogy to the level of a search for origins.”
The amnesia, aphasia, and alexia that Delany traces and
traverses, is a decentering peculiar to a forgetting of origins. Forgetting
fractures the kind of continuity that totalizes history in the nature of
progression or justification. The kind of continuitiy that remains – if it can
be called that, but nevertheless a temporalizing historicity remains – is only
the inertia that follows from the awareness that I have forgotten. A
remembrance, but not of a memory, a remembrance, but not a nostalgia. An archeology
of this present will not find origins, but will only find futile searches for origins
in its stead.
Le Guin’s supposed anthropological tendencies have been often
noted, at least from the biographical perspective – her father was the first
person to receive an anthropology PhD in the United States. But much more could
be noted about how her anthropological approach doesn’t frame itself in
relation to the ‘primitive’ but rather to the present. Like how in her
introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness
she speaks of fiction’s lie This lie is no longer the philosopher’s noble
lie, but rather is an untruth that offering no guidance nor extending the
present into the future, seeks merely to see the present as if it were
If this is anthropology, then it’s not the humanism of
totality and continuity.
Part of the problem that Delany finds in The Dispossessed (in a critique that feels
so polemically desperate that it’s hard to accept or even receive) is that even
there in a book that is about the incongruence
of ideality and the society that attempts its revolutionary achievement, the
incongruence of language and desire, and the incongruence of desire and sexuality
– Delany finds the language of the book to be at odds with what it
communicates, and what it communicates to be opposed to the book’s ideal form, and this ideality opposed to
the real. In a strange hermeneutics,
he finds a difference in intention and intended.
But that’s what it’s about right? That incongruence? The
impossibility of our imagining an otherwise?
An impossibility that collapses the future into the present’s disease and
dismay at any instance of imagining? But the liberal idea of progress – the endless
postponement of the future – is also just an idea – which is also the idea that
imagination should be congruent to
reality. And ideas can be overcome?
In Frederic Jameson’s 1982 essay “Progress versus Utopia;
Or, Can We Imagine the Future?” (where he cites both Triton and The Dispossessed with
regard to the following), he inverts the common SF formula, where SF keeps the
future alive even if only in the imagination. Rather, the deepest vocation of
the SF that re(dis)covers utopian thinking, as Jameson will say,
is over and over again to demonstrate and to dramatize our incapacity to imagine the future, to body forth, through apparently full representations which prove on closer inspection to be structurally and constitutively impoverished, the atrophy in our time of what Marcuse has called the utopian imagination, the imagination of otherness and radical difference…
If Delany’s critique of Le Guin is framed within the desire
that ambition should necessitate accomplishment, then all of his novels should
also be leveled under the same critique, for the assumed nature of both authors
is that they reveal the incongruence between the present and any future that
might depart from it.
Delany at the final instance of the critique admits that the
ideal model that a book proposes is illusory and must necessarily collapse into
the language of the present that, as much as a tension twists it and in these
books can be made to mean other things, will still collapse into signs and
images that affirm the present.
What’s important, then, is not congruence but difference and
maintaining difference before it collapses into the same.
In my last post, I tried to frame an analysis of ‘heterotopias’
and ‘utopias’ from the perspective of a space
of difference, where difference is not to be seen as a boundary or a surface
separating incongruous elements but rather some space that can be inhabited, a