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Kittens in Stormtrooper Helmets (or, Why Defining SF or Fantastika is So Difficult)

No witty quotation today; let’s get right to it. Last week John DeNardo wrote a piece for the Kirkus blog about the definition of Science Fiction, the latest in an ancient tradition of devotees of fantastika trying to explain just what it is they love. It was a decent try, but ended up being more about what SF is not, than what it is. The reason for this? “[A] specific definition remains elusive. Perhaps [author Damon] Knight was right: I know it when I see it. Perhaps the best I can do is to dispel some of those misconceptions.”

Shortly after that there was a long commentary over at io9 entitled (a bit misleadingly) “Why isn’t Shakespeare cosplay more popular?” In this piece Chris Braak attempted to articulate why “geek culture” was so special, why it was “the ONLY legitimate form of American culture.” Through a discussion that ranged from Foucault to Harold Bloom, anthropology to The Velvet Underground, Braak tried to quantify the uniqueness of what geeks do with their particular objects of affection (which were all some form of fantastika or another). While I found his discussion problematic, it contained something that resonated in relation to John DeNardo’s discussion, and made me realize one of the reasons that SF and/or Fantastika can be difficult to define. The issues of cultural practice and meaning are linked.

And what links them…is kittens in stormtrooper helmets…

…which, sadly, I do not have any pictures of, because that might strengthen my case a bit. But you can see, for example, Jedi cats, Hello Kitty Darth Vader, and Sith Turtle. What sparked the linkage was a twitter link (now lost) that went to a kitten in a very well-done stormtrooper helmet. It was there that culture, imagination, and meaning all collided and I suddenly had an inkling about this inability to nail down a solid definition of SF.

Why we have such difficulty in coming to some common definition of SF (despite the efforts of some scholars such as Darko Suvin to craft an SF novum), or fantastika, or most subgenres for that matter, is because of that collision is powered by and shot through with investment and desire. An objective definition of SF is about as easy to formulate as one about, well, take mainstream literature. How do we define the mainstream? Oh wait, WE DON’T; I was unable to find an honest-to-goodness definition of the term “mainstream literature”. Or “mainstream culture”. All we have to go on is the definition of “mainstream” itself, which is highly relational; even the Wikipedia article notes that “the mainstream is far from cohesive; rather the concept is often considered a cultural construct.” “Mainstream” is that which is uncommon, not bourgeois, “widely accepted” in some fashion. In literature it is the opposite of “genre” and is somehow just plain old literature. It is implicitly defined, and shaped by prevalent ideas about society and literature, rather than subcultural or peripheral considerations.

This is important to keep in mind, because neither the mainstream nor SF is codified by lacking something or by lying dormant. For example, Braak’s discussion hinges on geeks being active, while mainstream culture (and, implicitly, its practitioners) is passive. This is actually incorrect. “Mainstream literature” is two things: a stereotype, and a cultural mirror. When writers or discussants want to contrast their literary subject with the usual, they often employ “mainstream literature.” It is generally either popular or critically-scrutinized literature of the contemporary moment, often mimetic in nature, but sometimes it is an undifferentiated opposition to a more specific peripheral production or practice. As Braak puts it: “Mainstream culture is easily available, but mostly interchangeable.” This does not mean that it is just an object; it is a cluster of rules, ideas, and meanings that are interacted with by cultural participants.

This is not to say that mainstream literature has no set boundaries, but that it is a category with encompassing parameters and a conventionalizing discursive terrain. It (and “the culture” it is a part of) is certainly not the stagnant object that Braak implies in his discussion; it is a field of cultural production that is used to normalize and integrate texts and ideas into the dominant cultural system. If we follow Braak’s line of reasoning we miss discovering why geek cultures and genres such as SF seem more active, harder to pin down.

Part of the problem is that he misuses an idea of Michel Foucault’s:

“Maybe we can narrow it down. Let’s pretend for a minute that we give a rat’s ass about Foucault, and indulge in the idea that modern society consists in large part of an array of “technologies of the self”: that is to say, tools that we use to constitute who we are. That is to say: a system of experiences that we use to define both individual and group identities.”

They are “actually the practice of finding, of obtaining, of refining and remixing those experiences into self. This is actually culture as ‘remix'” Braak assures us.

But Foucault was not talking about a system of experiences: he was examining culturally-constructed media through which experience was turned into affect (such as his analysis of the ancient Greek notion of “care of the self”). Technologies of the self were one of several “truth games” used to shape our identities, our sense of purpose, our ontological status. But all of that “mainstream” stuff that Braak dismisses is as much a part of those technologies as the non-mainstream, because they work gradually, insinuatively, diffidently, to contour identities and relations and power.

I don’t want to get too deeply into this; my point is that both mainstream and peripheral or localized cultural practices and ideas comprise these technologies. The mainstream is constituted, accessed, and reproduced in a different way, but both are the result of the human capacity for culture in action. As Braak himself later avers, “Culture is the practice of using those things around us to forge distinct individual identities, and close-knit social groups.” We all do this, whether in pursuit of a comforting prosaic mainstream or an outrageously exotic fringe.

This matters because there is a relationship between what we are accessing and how we constitute it culturally, and that can give us a bit of insight into why SF is so difficult to categorically define. What is “mainstream” is so because it is reproduced emphatically and repeatedly (if imperfectly) through cultural actions that tend to reinforce it, rather than embody it or recreate it, because it has a particularly mimetic relationship to our commonly-shared ideas of reality, whether material, social, or intellectual. This is where both the split in how people use the capacity for culture and the object they are engaging becomes more clear, and where we can begin to answer the question of why SF/fantastika is so much more open to struggles of definition (and sometimes to innovation and diversity).

It is that break from the mimetic and the conventional, and thus a certain break from the mainstream, that both opens up the narrative terrain of the fantastic and immediately shifts to a more subjective range of interpretations. Since all forms of fantastika (except perhaps for the most formalized and highly ritualized sorts of fables and fairy tales) germinate in a break from the real, their definition becomes more dependent on the individual imagination. This is a continuum, to be sure, but what makes for so many heated debates about what SF is, as opposed to, say, mystery, lies in that step away from reproducing or directly invoking commonly-held understandings of the real.

When John DeNardo finds it more useful to describe SF by what it isn’t, he is demonstrating that what we think it is lies more within the individual than it does with a common understanding, because there isn’t a common framework of linkage to “the real” that can reinforce a common understanding. Any linkage is a confluence of the author’s words and the reader’s reading of those words. Braak’s innovating, active geeks epitomize that individual utilization of imagination. They are accepting the opportunity to not re-create “mainstream” ideas or ways of engaging texts or ideas, but to take advantage of the imaginative space opened up for them. As soon as a writer or reader or film-goer decides to create or engage a non-mimetic text, a new sensibility is employed. Definition is thus more subjective, more inflected with imagination.

“Classic culture” is not “locked up,” it is reproduced according to a different dynamic. Structuring ideas and symbols have less flexibility, more anchored utility. This loosens up to some extent in literature, given the interpretability of language and intention and the vagaries of cultural and symbolic translation. This happens with some fantastic literature; witness for example a discussion of Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” in the latest Mind Meld, (a story that some American students are exposed to in public school), which is positioned as “literature.” A lot of effort goes into redefining it as a tale that is not fringe, but that holds literary benefit that anchors it in the mainstream. The combination of satire and fable in “Harrison Bergeron” gives it literary heft, with a valuable lesson for student readers that in some ways mirrors common ideas. And yet, it is a work of fantastika and thus is comfortably embraced as part of the genre.

This flexibility varies from work to work, but again, that is part of the reason why defining SF or fantastika is so difficult. Definitions of SF, of the nature of the fantastic, are in process because the practitioners and the socio-cultural field are active and shift according to the cultural practices and perceptions being used. Some people read the literature, some engage in cosplay,and some take a mainstream practice (owning a pet) and combine it with something imaginative, like a photo of a lightsaber-wielding cat. While there are conventions (and in some instances an embrace of fantastic stories and symbols by the mainstream culture), they have a much greater capacity for interpretation and individual engagement. This means that one’s investment can be more personal, more intimate, more playful, and possibly more significant as one’s imagination interfaces with these more free-form ideas. This is where genre becomes more about desire, about identity, about relationship, either in fulfillment or absence. We can see what we want, be who we wish to be, remake the world and see it in a different way, and such things cannot be easily defined as they become part of us, saturating our imagination and giving us the power to choose what is significant, what resonates, and what casts a different light on our life and world around us.

9 Comments on Kittens in Stormtrooper Helmets (or, Why Defining SF or Fantastika is So Difficult)

  1. Why the heck is this term “fantastika” so popular? I think it’s really, really, awful, indicative and apropos of nothing except an attempt at sy-fi channel type cuteness. What’s wrong with “science fiction” and “fantasy”???

  2. I did read a little bit of Foucault for a mandatory philosophy course in college, many years ago.  I honestly remember little of that. I just remember my teacher insisted that we sit in a circle when we had class…

    A lot of effort goes into redefining it as a tale that is not fringe, but that holds literary benefit that anchors it in the mainstream. The combination of satire and fable in “Harrison Bergeron” gives it literary heft, with a valuable lesson for student readers that in some ways mirrors common ideas. And yet, it is a work of fantastika and thus is comfortably embraced as part of the genre.

    Do you think, though, that when a work of SF gets put into the mainstream, does that mean that definition trumps any classification of it as Fantastika within the genre?  For example, is A Canticle for Leibowitz still SF, since that gets lumped as literature nowadays? Other examples  come to mind.  Just to name two: Flowers for Algernon and On the Beach.  I think the latter rarely gets thought of as SF these days, even within the community. I think its also happening to Flowers for Algernon, too.  

    What am I saying is, can what is previously defined as Fantastika be completely rebranded and redecided as not being Fantastika?  And when is that valid?



  3. Hal Duncan // April 7, 2011 at 3:47 pm //

    Dunno if John will agree with me, but my tuppence worth:

    <i>What am I saying is, can what is previously defined as Fantastika be completely rebranded and redecided as not being Fantastika?</i>

    If “Fantastika” were a branding, a nominal label for a category of fiction defined commercially and/or culturally, sure, a work could be redefined as not “Fantastika,” but the term is not used in that way here (least that’s not how I read John’s use) — hence the the absence of capitalisation, “fantastika” rather than “Fantastika.” It’s a descriptor for “fiction utilising the fantastic,” more comparable to “tragedy” or “comedy”… on a comparable <i>level</i>, actually, I’d say, as a mode posited simply on the use of a particular technique/approach. C.f. also “erotica.”

    You can’t really rebrand tragedy as not being tragedy, because that’s like rebranding a symphony as not being a symphony, dig? The word is a technical label for a broad idiom.

    <i>What’s wrong with “science fiction” and “fantasy”???</i>

    I’m not keen on “fantastika” myself, tbh. The “-tika” is just an exotic way of saying “-tica” which is, in turn, just a way of avoiding “-y” — i.e. “fantastika” is just a way of <i>not</i> saying, “fantasy,” like coining “tragika” for “fiction utilising the tragic.”

    Unfortunately, some sort of work-around is required because one simply cannot use “fantasy” to refer to that overarching mode without running face-first into the brick wall of discourse that cordons off one particular subset of such fiction and slaps up a huge-ass poster on that wall labelling the contents “Fantasy.” Note the capital — that <i>is</i> an exercise in branding. Worse, there’s actually a whole labyrinth of such walls and a fuckload of people running around slapping up such posters to try and establish the borders of “Fantasy” as being exactly (and only) where <i>they</i> deem them to be. Worse still, the same is happening for “Science Fiction,” and these two labyrinths are either essentially connected, essentially disconnected, woven through each other or intermingling in some disputed borderlands — depending on whose posters you pay attention to. And the ideological devotion of those putting up the posters (or ripping down those put up by others) reduces the whole discourse to fucktarded territorialist bullshit, the pointless fucking arsewankery of endless bickering over nothing — <i>nothing</i> — more than whose system of nominal labelling is “correct.”

    If you want to talk about the territory of “fiction of the fantastic” as a whole without being derailed into turf war bollocks, you have no choice but to set aside contentious terms like “science fiction” and “fantasy” and use a word that isn’t going to have some incalcitrant cretin up in arms over your heresy.

    You could use “fantasy” as the overarching descriptor. It’s impossible to persuade hardline loyalists for Science Fiction or Epic Fantasy, however, that this is a valid term for the work of Borges, Bulgakov, Burroughs (William, I mean,) and countless similar fictions that don’t fit the stereotype those loyalists revile and revere respectively.

    You could use “speculative fiction,” but that too is caught up in the territorial squabbling and compromised. As a product of the community built around the commercial categories, it’s really a label for the alliance of commercial categories, <i>not</i> the broad mode — which might easily include Pinter’s Birthday Party or Lyndsey Anderson’s If…, I’d say. And when it comes down to it, “speculative” just isn’t really an accurate descriptor for the distinctive quality, the technique/approach.

    My own preference is “strange fiction,” because it avoids the “‘fantasy’ > ‘fantastica’ > ‘fantastika'” work-around in favour of something straightforward but capable of technical definition — “the strange.” It’s also shorn of that sense of desire attached to notions of “fantasy” (i.e. the implications of wistful daydreams, wish-fulfilment.)

  4. Hal Duncan // April 7, 2011 at 4:07 pm //

    Though maybe I’m coming at this from a different angle — cause desire does seem to be woven into your notion of fantastika, John, along with the community identity gubbins I’m eschewing in the notion of the strange. Yes? No?

  5. Richard:

    I don’t think “fantastika” is terribly popular, although it is seeing a bit more use recently, and right now I apply it as an overarching term. It is not supposed to replace either SF or capital-F Fantasy. . . because it can’t, except in broad usage. There is no Académie Fantastique that regulates the terms and set definition parameters (even at the level of branding that Hal Duncan discusses in his comment). I personally am not trying to shove aside these terms, but SF seems to get the most attention in terms of definitional anxiety and the range of fantastika (or whatever blanket term you wish to use) is frequently debated, so I focused on those terms in this article.


  6. Regarding the origin of Fantastika, if you do not like from Fantastique when spoken, then you could say from 

     Kaffka via Amerika to Fantastika.

  7. Paul:

    I agree broadly with what Hal said, but let me dig a little more into it. I don’t think that a process of “rebranding” is going on; when A Canticle for Leibowitz is labelled and/or treated as “literature,” the text does not lose its fantastic elements or referents. What happens is that observers select other criteria that downplay those things and focus on the “literary” features. In a sense they step away from what an SF fan might find engaging or valuable and reinterpret the text based on another set of standards and cultural assumptions. They impose dominant mainstream criteria that are concerned with other aspects of the text than its step away from being mimetic (sometimes, paradoxically, trying to normalize the fantastic elements). So, it does not cease being a piece of fantastic literature, but is treated more as a “literary” text and valued for its contribution to an imagined corpus of works that have broad cultural value.

    As Hal said, you can’t rebrand tragedy, but you can foreground other merits or messages in the text and distinguish the text as being “literary” or “mainstream” by assigning more cultural or discursive significance to them.

    What Hal brings up about “work-around” terms is important, because that is what most of our overarching terminology does; try to create an understanding that circumvents the boundaries of more narrow or more invested terms and establishes productive linkages for examining how these texts are related, how they work, how we receive and use them. “Fantastika” is not an ideal term, but we have yet to create one, for the reasons I discuss in the column. Desire is definitely implicated in the terminology we use to make sense of and represent fantastic literature, precisely because of that quirk (to borrow from Hal) in the text that we connect to with our own imagination, our own sense of self, our own needs and wants and curiosities and presumptions. Unfortunately, some folks need to not just put forth their own ideas, but impose them on the literature and on other people’s understandings, create fortresses and weapons out of them.

    Hal, you are coming at it from a different angle, but I also do not want to reduce all of this to struggles over identity. There is more going on than just some assertion or formation of identity markers. And I think that the idea of “strange fiction,” for example, points to that. My interpretation of that label is that it is tactical, not for reasons of identity, but for the purpose of creating a designation that does not spark ideological reactions, that has some resonance but that is not so specific that it impinges on more specific terms or weakens others’ conceptions. And it is overtly not an attempt at “branding,” which I think is an awful mainstream idea that infects peripheral and ancilliary cultural and literary fields like the fantastic and actually contributes to a lot of the asshattery that arises in discussions about the literature and our love of it. And yet again, we come back to desire, to people wanting their conceptions to be solidified, to be ratified as a brand, while others want the freedom to define texts and ideas their own way.

  8. Hal Duncan // April 8, 2011 at 1:42 am //

    <i>My interpretation of that label is that it is tactical, not for reasons of identity, but for the purpose of creating a designation that does not spark ideological reactions, that has some resonance but that is not so specific that it impinges on more specific terms or weakens others’ conceptions.</i>

    Spot on.

    And I don’t mean to suggest you’re being reductive, I’d stress. Hell, while I avoid “fantasy” so as to avoid the sense of “wishful revery,” I posit strange fiction as using not just alethic quirks — i.e. of (im)possibility — but also boloumaic quirks — quirks of desire (numina) and dread (monstra). Playing on affect rather than incredibility, what “should (not) happen” as opposed to what “could not happen.” One of the problems I find with the novum, indeed, is that it downplays the extent to which SF can be driven by these sort of boulomaic quirks. And I see those quirks as playing a big part in those heated debates, the investment, the manner of engagement, the construction of identity.

  9. And I see those quirks as playing a big part in those heated debates, the investment, the manner of engagement, the construction of identity.

    Absolutely! And it’s true that the Suvinian sf novum has no concern for affect or desire, and indeed wants to eliminate those factors to create something logical and coginitive in the strict sense of those terms, to thus elevate SF as a superior form of imagining useful for resistance and critique. That approach has a number of problems, which I think both your ideas, Hal, and what Istvan Csiscery-Ronay said the previous week both demonstrate aptly. Desire and imagination must be taken into account; all of the factors that power investment need to be addressed and examined in the relationship between text, reader, and those technologies that Foucault is pointing to in his analysis. And part of that inquiry has to be understanding the literary field and trying to use terms that don’t inhibit engagement.

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