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Feeling Very Estranged

I think a lot about how humans read, and imagine through reading. This has led me to read more and more about how cognition works, how we receive and process what we read, and how our ideas of the workings of the imagination influence our understanding of texts and narratives. There are many theories of reading in general, and there are also notions of how we engage and comprehend certain textual forms, and more culturally-variable notions such as genre. In the study of fantastika (more specifically, SF), such understandings are very specific to the genre as different theorists and discussants conceive of it. The notion of cognitive estrangement is one of the most well-thought-out and commented on of these ideas, and, well, it bugs me. While there are some aspects of the idea that I find useful, it creates a limited view of how literature works generally and, in particular, what SF and most fantastic literature does.

Cognitive estrangement was first presented by Darko Suvin (the man who brought SF criticism the novum) as a formalized, narrow conception of what SF does, and thus what makes the genre distinctive. In the decades since he presented this idea (in most detail in his Metamorphoses of Science Fiction), it has undergone scrutiny and development, by both Suvin and other writers. and maintains an influential position in the discourse on fantastic literature.  What Suvin wrote in 1973, that cognitive estrangement is “the basis of the literary genre of SF” is true, if more nuanced and critically-examined, today. As Patrick Parrinder noted in his introduction to Learning From Other Worlds, a volume that examines this idea from a number of angles, Suvin’s conception has become “paradigmatic.”

The use of this idea as a heuristic device has shaped how SF is examined academically, but has also influenced less rarified discourse as well. Suvin’s idea is often presented (in its older form) as a definition of SF, for example:

“[SF is] a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.”

Cognition and estrangement are not one thing, but an interaction between two things that is hierarchical. There is cognition as a process of rationalizing information, of framing it, checking it, and categorizing it. Cognition here is both the general practice of thought and a particular application of that practice. Estrangement is the subordinate in the relationship, although it is not simple. It is the process of de-familiarization and alienation (borrowed from Russian formalism and Brecht), engaged in through cognition. It is “a cognitive strategy of perception-cum-evaluation based on radical critical desire.” The reader uses this strategy to compare the reality presented in a given fiction to the world they consider to be real. In SF, the rational aspect of this is that the world presented, while different than ours, presents a possible alternative world using verifiable speculations (generally scientific ones). That cognitive exercise is what the genre distinctive.

This is an extremely basic definition of cognitive estrangement, but this is also a common understanding of the idea. What makes it compelling for me is not the idea of rationality that underpins it, but the implication that the process of reading, particularly fiction, is a strange and disjunctive process. What Suvin’s idea exemplifies most strongly is that the reader intentionally takes a mental step away from their reality to engage a narrative that may use factual information and mimesis to strengthen a feeling of being possible and that, in doing so, they acknowledge that the “real world” is in some sense a construction. Suvin argues that fiction is a cognitive exercise in refuting reality. Estrangement “has as its purpose the recognition that the reader truly lives in a word of topsy-turvy values.” The contingency, ambiguity, and instability of the world around us essentially impels readers towards fiction, where they intentionally shift their perception from the problematic world around them into a narrative where, even if it is dark, weird, or complicated, a new set of rules for what making sense of the world are presented.

And here is where the exclusivity of cognitive estrangement starts to break down. As China Miéville has noted, the “rationalist/scientific mindset” of cognitive estrangement is still influential, but the contrast it creates of “rational” SF versus “irrational” fantasy shows the idea’s Marxist sensibilities in a way that erases the very obvious relationship between these two genres and between them and literature in general. The idea is shaped to be exclusionary, and creates a theory of the reading process that only begins to explain how and why people read. It also runs the risk of essentializing the reader him/herself, of making all readers of SF into a monolithic group with relatively the same purpose for reading such fiction. And yet, it is also very suggestive of a fundamental starting point for the urge to read fiction, for the need to engage in the process of mentally dislocating oneself and entering another world.

If we shift the focus from the rationalizing aspects, I think this becomes clearer. It is not the technological innovation or the scientific breakthrough that makes the world different, it is the world the author creates using such devices. It is not just the use of a scientifically-rationalized idea (or even a conceit that is particularly rigorous in terms of logic or consistency) that creates that movement away from realism and into a new space of imagination. The decision to read fiction itself is that first shift away from the world around us, which makes sense because, as Carl Freedman has noted, all fiction employs some level of estrangement. What SF, and fantastic literature writ large, do is bring the reader at some greater speed into the fictional world. Fiction is a form of magical thinking, and fantastika (among other categories) takes that more literally and uses it to unanchor the reader from the actuality around them. We come to fiction not because we want to be estranged, but because we already feel estranged and want an experience that transports us. It is also, in some form, always critical, even if that critique is, say, “romance in our everyday world is not what I want it to be; what else is possible?” or “what if we could speed across the galaxy and find places undreamed of?” Reading fiction is the act of asserting and dealing with the feeling of estrangement that results from being human; personally, I think that fantastic and weird literature addresses this desire better than other sorts of fiction, but we cannot artificially cut off one type of literature from the others as being more inherently rational or critical. That is not why we read fiction.

5 Comments on Feeling Very Estranged

  1. We come to fiction not because we want to be estranged, but because we already feel estranged and want an experience that transports us.

    I am not precisely sure I agree with you, John. Or at least I am not always consciously aware of it.

    Anyway, I do think that Fantastika does unmoor us with that estrangement more quickly than non-Fantastika ever can. Although non-Fantastika that takes place in a context and milieu alien to the reader has advantage in that regard.

    A work of non-Fantastika set in a faraway place I know little about is more effective that way than one set in more familiar surroundings.

    • Well, the question is: why do we read fiction in the first place? We can talk about pleasure or enlightenment or the challenge or other reasons, but why choose fiction? Why do we want to imaginatively displace ourselves in that manner? I need to do more reading and thinking about this idea, but it struck me as a plausible consideration, if pretty hypothetical.

      And I think your point that cultural knowledge has effects on the sense of estrangement is an important one to acknowledge and examine more closely.

  2. “What SF, and fantastic literature writ large, do is bring the reader at some greater speed into the fictional world.”

    I don’t think “speed” is the right concept here. All literature initiates that process of estrangement, and different categories of literature use different tools/techniques to do so. The differences between those categories (whether SF, fantasy, horror or crime, romance, mainstream literary) lie in which techniques they employ and how they do so.

    As a result, the reader’s experience of reading (one dimension of which is the “speed” of their estrangement) is informed and affected both by their previous reading experiences (their familiarity with the techniques) and by the specifics of their application in a given work. This process takes place across all genres, and where fantastika is significant, I believe, lies in the variety and heterogeneity of estrangement techniques that it employs. For example, one is far more likely to see crime/mystery techniques alongside fantastic techniques than vice versa (though I’d argue some novelists like John le Carre pull off the converse nicely).

    • I agree that “speed” is not the best way to describe that. One thing on my list of items to figure out with more thoughtfulness is how different techniques aid (or intentionally hinder, sometimes?) the process of estrangement, the different ways that readers “get into” a story. I like the idea of fantastika’s heterogeneity of techniques as a way to frame it, but what sort of heterogeneity are we talking about? Is it the explicit and implicit rules and norms of a given storyworld? Is it in how far stories stray from mimesis? That notion of porousness that you imply in your last sentence links to the potential openness of fantastika that faciliates the vast range of possibilities. Hmmm. . . .

  3. Hmmm indeed! In an ideal world, one could put together a list of estrangement techniques, from structuring the story, to ways in which words are used/sentences constructed, and everything in between. I suspect that each of these techniques yields a different degree of estrangement.

    Consider four different techniques employed by four very different authors: Anthony Burgess and his use of Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange, Greg Egan’s use of formulas/charts in The Clockwork Rocket, John le Carre’s use of jargon in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and Dashiell Hammett’s use of unemotional realistic narration. Each of these techniques yields a different degree of estrangement. Each of these techniques – individually – can be and has been used in various genres.

    But what fiction genres can support all of these techniques? I suspect only fantastika can accommodate them all, either separately or together. Readers of fantastika are prepared to accept a wider variety of estrangement techniques, whether through tastes, training, or desire. Other genres, I suspect, tend to use a narrower assortment of these techniques, and at the same time to combine them with less variety: consider the unending controversy over Christie’s unreliable narrator in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I somehow doubt we’d see the same reaction in fantastika.

    Whether that says something about fantastika as a genre, or about us as readers, well…that might be a “chicken and egg” type of question. 😉

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