Scattered Thoughts on Delany and Le Guin

Near the 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.”

Readers of 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?

And where?

An archaeological excavation of another archaeological excavation.

Between 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).

Part of 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.

Of course, 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.

An epigraph to one of the Neveryon books borrows from Foucault’s The Archeology of Knowledge:

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 …

Foucault 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 unimaginable.

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 borderlands.