20 July 2006

PKD and Style

I've been making my way through Carl Freedman's Critical Theory and Science Fiction recently, and though it's admirably ambitious, it seems, so far at least, mired in predictable academic Marxism, and Freedman's attempt to show that critical theory (from Kant till now) can be an outgrowth of science fiction and vice versa leads him toward some conclusions that seem to me (at least right now, and perhaps superficially) silly.

For instance, one section of the book is titled "The Critical Dynamic: Science Fiction and Style" and it attempts to show that the style of Philip K. Dick is not, as many of us have thought, in most cases rather clumsy, but is, instead, a kind of apotheosis of critical style, a perfection in and of itself. (I suppose it would be easy to believe this if you spend most of your time reading academic journals. Dick's sentences would, indeed, seem a revelation of clarity and eloquence.) The annoying part of the discussion is that Freedman claims to be analyzing language, but he seems to bore himself with this discussion, because he's apparently just not very interested in language as language. I'm not saying that language always has to be analyzed purely for its linguistic elements, that aesthetic criticism is the only way to go or that it's free of assumptions or cant, but it would be nice if you're going to discuss language to really discuss it, and not just say, "Style as it's been talked about by literary people is bourgeois, and this style, which you've all previously thought is ugly, will bring us closer to revolution." (Okay, I'm caricaturing. But only a little.)

I feel compelled to argue here with Freedman not because I want to subject a general audience to academic writing (as if I could subject you to anything -- you know you're about to go click over to some porn once this grows boring). Rather, I think it's a worthwhile exercise now and then to look at complex arguments written in difficult language and see what's going on within them, because sometimes what is there truly is complex enough to justify the difficulty of the diction and syntax. I'm not a master of analyzing this sort of writing, but I do read more than my fair share of it, and the risk of utter misinterpretation and misrepresentation seems worthwhile, at least occasionally, so here we go...

I should attempt fairness and let Freedman speak for himself:
The point to be stressed about the language is its profoundly critical, dialectical character. For undialectical theory, the most familiar emotions -- love, affection, hatred, anger, and so forth -- tend to be unproblematic categories, assumed to be much the same in all times and places, and to exist on an irreducibly subjective level. They may of course manifest themselves in a practically infinite number of permutations, and the precritical reader may relish such psychological fiction as that of Dostoevsky or Flaubert for the subtlety and acuteness with which those authors portray the (presumably universal and static) varieties of affective experience. A dialectical approach, on the other hand, would adopt the kind of perspective suggested by Dick. Because the [opening] paragraph [of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?] shows an emotional dynamic of a future age operating quite differently from what we ourselves empirically experience, the question of the historicity of feelings is raised, and the possibility of a historical periodization of emotion in coordination with other aspects of social development (such as technology) is at least implied. The technical emphasis of the paragraph also tends to remove emotion from idealist notions of spirituality or the unproblematically individual, and to suggest that psychic states may be reducible to concrete and transindividual material realities -- a reduction that Freud, after all, held to be the ultimate conceptual goal of psychoanalysis and Lacan (substituting language for neurobiology as the grounding of psychoanalytic materialism) claimed to have achieved through the mediation of neo-Saussurian linguistics. We may also not that, if the phrase I used above, "technology of the emotion," has a strong Foucauldian ring, it is not by chance. Dick's paragraph does indeed resonate with Foucault's concern to show that power does not merely repress or distort the subjectivity of individuals, but actually constitutes human subjectivity, from the ground up, so to speak, and in historically variable ways. (32)
Perhaps I should also quote the paragraph from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? that prompted Freedman to see Dick as an exemplar of Freudian, Lacanian, and Foucauldian ideas:
A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard. Surprised -- it always surprised him to find himself awake without prior notice -- he rose from the bed, stood up in his multicolored pajamas, and stretched. Now, in her bed, his wife Iran opened her gray, unmerry eyes, blinked, then groaned and shut her eyes again.
Before the section I quoted, Freedman does a good job of showing how the word "merry" conveys information within this paragraph and helps the astute reader learn about the imagined world, but few of his insights are, except for the references to critical theorists, anything that would not appear in a basic How to Write Science Fiction sort of handbook. It may be that those of us who read this stuff with some regularity take it for granted and are blind to the amazing power of single words to suggest worlds. But I don't think so. Consider how many fans can cite Heinlein's phrase "the door dilated" (from Beyond This Horizon) as an example of something SF can do that non-SF can't do.

Except non-SF can do it, and plenty. Every book builds a new world out of words, because unless the author is writing only for herself, he will need to wield language in such a way as to suggest important background details, because all fiction is a map of territories, not the territory itself, and words are the substance of that map, the instigators of imagination. If we're imagining Saul Bellow's Chicago, we may draw on our previous experience or knowledge of Chicago to build the setting in our minds (or we may have no previous experience of Chicago and have to use our previous experience of Bangalore), but with SF settings we're also grabbing at whatever happens to be in our head that works for that, too -- images from movies and art, experience with current technologies that we alter a bit (at the prompting of the author's words), etc. The translation of reality into words in fiction renders everything imaginary. As for Rick Deckard's mood organ, we figure out what it is because we already have referents for the words "mood" and "organ". Though I might think of "morose" when I think of the word "mood" and might imagine a clunky old organ I saw in a junk shop while you think of "good" for "mood" and a beautiful pipe organ, our references still overlap enough that we're ending up with the same bit of information. (It would be interesting if, though, for "organ" you associated the word "liver". The biological meaning of "organ" is actually not entirely inappropriate, providing a nice pun.) The clever use of the words "merry" and "unmerry" link in our minds to "mood organ", because, well, they link to the word "mood", and so we easily pick up Dick's meaning with a simple bit of extrapolation. But making a typical move in a clever way is not a hallmark of genius; it's the hallmark of a good craftsman who sometimes got lucky.

I'm off on a tangent. Getting back to where we were -- and maybe all I'm doing is proving that Freedman is right and I should be less suspicious, but let's continue being suspicious for a little while at least -- what does all this have to do with style? Freedman says he's not suggesting that "historical materialism, psychoanalysis, Foucauldian archaology ... are actually present, even embryonically, in the short and apparently unpretentious paragraph that opens Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" but that, instead, those "elaborate theoretical structures" and SF have "shared perspectives":
What is crucial is the dialectical standpoint of the science-fictional tendency, with its insistence upon historical mutability, material reducibility, and, at least implicitly, utopian possibility.
Am I an idiot for being doubtful? All storytelling, to some extent or another, represents historical mutability and material reducibility if you want it to. Say you have a novel about one day in the life of somebody whose days are all alike, and thus the book seems, on the surface, to be about the inability to change anything in the world. The writer will, most likely, fill the book with descriptions of objects encountered in the person's unchanging day, situations that are exactly the same, etc. -- and yet, it wouldn't be difficult for a critic to show that, in fact, there are differences between any one moment and the next, and that though the changes represented in the person's day are subtle, they are nonetheless there, and give us hope for the impending, if far-off, triumph of possibility over capitalism.

I could be missing the point. If so, I'm doing it willfully, because I'm depressed about the situation of the world and it's made me cranky with idealists and ideologues. But where were we? Weren't we talking about style? Right, style--
Yet it must be noticed that the quoted sample of Dick's prose, like the prose of most (though certainly not all) science fiction, is far from what is ordinarily considered "fine" writing or the work of a "stylist" in the usual eulogistic sense. If, then, a deep affinity between critical theory and science fiction can be detected on the molecular level of style, the question of stylistic quality or value must somehow be engaged. (32-33)
Freedman then goes on to give an overview of what he sees as "the general context of the ideology of style that has developed within hegemonic criteria of literary value". He contrasts style ("an effect of the bourgeois cultural revolution") with rhetoric, which is older and has a "shared figural infrastructure" that "guarantees a considerable degree of pan-rhetorical community", whereas
Style is generally assumed to be the direct expression of the middle-class ego and must be created anew and almost ex nihilo by every stylist. Fundamentally, it has little in common with such a characteristically collective and transpersonal project of the precapitalist order as rhetoric. On the contrary, it is part and parcel of the whole celebration of personal subjectivity so typical of cultural modernity -- not only in the sense that the individual stylist is personally and almost solely responsible for every act of stylistic production, but also in that every particular style (understood here as an overall pattern perceptible in the work of any given stylist) is taken to be profoundly revealing of the author not merely as producer of style but as a human subjectivity in toto. (34)
Will you forgive me if this makes me want to scream out the Dead Kennedys song "Holiday in Cambodia"?

(Why do I subject myself to this sort of thing? I don't know. Some sort of guilt, I'm sure. Some of you wear hairshirts, I read Critical Theory and Science Fiction.)

Freedman desperately wants to prove that though Dick's writing may seem to be little more than competent and functional, in actuality it is built of "heterogeneous and polyvalent prose" (37), and hence worthy of admiration for its style. He quotes from Ubik and cites Hemingway and Heinlein for comparison, an interesting mix (I wondered what a comparison with Hammett and Chandler would have done, actually).

Quickly enough, though, we get to the sorts of statements that I find particularly annoying in Freedman's attempt to analyze style, because they show that he's not really interested in style, but rather something else. He states that "the overall critical agendum" of Ubik is "the satiric and rationally paranoid estrangement of the commodity structure of monopoly capitalism", that "the unadorned functionality of neo-Heinleinian prose ... clashes with what is for the reader the intensely strange content of the action" (38).
...Dick's style does more than move his plot along and insinuate the general cognitive estrangements that generically define science fiction. Even more important, the style, in its heterogeneous complexity, enacts on the molecular level the most searching critical-theoretical juxtapositions and interrogations that the novel in toto is concerned with implementing. If this style be "subliterary," then that category itself certainly needs to be rethought -- especially within the general context of science fiction. It is time, in fact, to consider more deeply the ideological functions of formalist canons of stylistic value. (38)
Freedman brings in Mikhail Bakhtin to help in this deep consideration, saying the "rejection of any attempt to construct literature as a self-sufficient autonomous system" is what unites Dick and Bakhtin: "For both, the internal structure of style is no less important than, while closely related to, its radical referentiality" (39). The prose of a novel should not be subjected to the same standards of analysis and evaluation as the language of poetry receives, and a poetic style "for all its apparent verbal richness, tends by its lyrical, rhythmic flow to repress otherness, to occlude difference", and so the heteroglossia of novelistic prose is better suited to foregrounding otherness and difference, and thus to help us foment revolution:
Accordingly, it follows that novelistic style, when most capable and most powerfully novelistic (and in that sense, indeed, most literary) may eschew certain properties of polish, of well-roundedness, of fluently controlled density and resonance proper to the poetic, and, correspondingly, that novelistic prose that does display such qualities, however "literary" it may seem in normative terms, is perhaps to be suspected of contamination by the monologic authoritarianism of poetry. ... Conversely, the dialogic, novelistic style endorsed by Bakhtin and exemplified by Dick is above all critical and dialectical, its "prosaic" quality may signal substantive, as opposed to merely technical, complexity. (39-40)
Of Dick, Freedman says, "Much of the complexity of the style derives from the ironic fine-tuning possible in free indirect discourse, an instrument that Dick can at times play with near-Flaubertian precision" (41).

Summing up, then, we have learned that clever-if-often-clunky prose eschews technical complexity in favor of substantive complexity, whereas more technically refined prose suffers from monologic authoritarianism, represses otherness, and occludes difference. Thus, we should celebrate Dick's prose because its very "faults" actually better serve the purpose of all science fiction: estrangement, which is a critical tactic that (apparently) helps us better see the terrors of commodity capitalism and overcome personal subjectivity.

While I am in awe of Freedman's ability to argue an apparent weakness into being a strength (boy would I love to see him show why Dr. Futurity is a great novel!), I think he's stacked the deck and also performed some sleight-of-hand, because he's chosen work that is ideologically appealing to him and tried to demonstrate how that ideological appeal manifests itself at the level of the prose. There are simply not enough contrasts within this argument for it to be convincing. We needed a stylistic analysis of Farnham's Freehold, a book I doubt Freedman has much ideological sympathy with, to understand how Dick's "neo-Heinleinian" sentences differ from Heinlein's own. We needed an analysis of some of Dick's bad novels -- surely Freedman agrees that at least one or two of them are, if not as awful as some of us bourgeois individualistic stylemonkeys think, not quite great. None of the techniques he ascribes to Dick are particularly rare within the world of SF writing, and without showing how Dick differs from what I would assume Freedman considers lesser writers, there's simply no way to be convinced that there is validity in his claims.

(I don't mean to beat up on Philip K. Dick, by the way. I've read more books by Dick than by any other writer. I do think estrangement is a central pleasure they offer. I think they'd be just as estranging, and perhaps even more so, if their sentences were more carefully wrought, because there are occasional moments in Dick's better novels [and even a few short stories] that show a real talent for a certain stylistic panache, and these moments are often powerful. Imagine what might result if John Crowley polished the sentences of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch!)

I'll continue reading Critical Theory and Science Fiction, and I expect once Freedman moves on to topics other than style that I will find his perspective slightly less annoying. Mostly, I suppose what bothers me is his attempt to use complex references and convoluted writing to put forward the idea that "serviceable" prose style is superior to a more distinctive and accomplished style because it is somehow closer to "the truth", when "the truth" turns out to be a shopworn, doctrinaire ideology that any 19-year-old in a college socialist club could spout with more subtlety. There are writers of more stylistic accomplishment whose viewpoint Freedman might consider just as politically interesting as Dick's (Don DeLillo comes to mind), and I find it difficult to believe that such writers are hiding otherness or blinding us to the realities of our commodified lives through the dazzle of their words, because an accomplished style can be a zap to the language centers of the brain, a distinctly estranging experience at the immediate level of words, a euphonic revolution in and of itself.

I'm hardly the first to say that stylistic accomplishment stands in sharp relief to the flat and numbing language that surrounds us, the dissembling pronouncements of bureaucrats and admeisters, the rote phrases that hide empty thought, hypocrisy, and murder. This may be my own ideology, but it is one of the few that gives me any hope in humanity.