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Of Jetpack Utopias and Hyperbolic Tomorrows: David Graeber and the Science Fiction Imagination

“[J]etpacks and flying cars symbolize the gap between our imagination and our ability to impose our imagination upon our world.” – from You Call This The Future?

“[O]ur science fiction future is, most often, not a future at all, but more like an alternative dimension, a dream-time, a technological Elsewhere, existing in days to come in the same sense that elves and dragon-slayers existed in the past—another screen for the displacement of moral dramas and mythic fantasies into the dead ends of consumer pleasure.” – David Graeber, “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit”

A few weeks ago a lengthy article appeared in The Baffler, a journal that publishes critical, sometimes satirical pieces on art, politics and culture. The last issue featured an essay by David Graeber, an anthropologist currently affiliated with Goldsmiths College in the UK and an intellectual advisor to the Occupy Wall Street movement. The topic of this essay was neatly contained in its title: “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,” and in it Graeber discusses a particular formation of the American science-fiction (SFnal) imagination. What I want to do this week is discuss his invocation of an American SF imagination and how he uses it to discuss problems with our economic system. My intention is not to comment on the political aspects, but instead look at the SFnal idea he asserts to represent Americans’ imagination of the future. What does his conception of this imagining reflect in terms of popular speculative thinking and how fruitfully does it represent the SFnal imagination?

Graeber’s conception is one created in service to a larger political point, but its genesis seems to be within the idea of the American Dream. Mid-century SFnal thinking was “a particular generational promise. . . that was never quite articulated as a promise but rather as a set of assumptions about what our adult world would be like.” Visions of automatic homes and colonizing the solar system were products of modern scientific advances, but they were also emerged from the postwar optimism and prosperity that characterized the era. Graeber believes that these visions were not inaccurate so much as unfulfilled. He charts their disintegration and subsequent transformation into a new idea of the future, a change driven by the advances that were actually financed and enacted. Graeber states that “[t]he technologies that have advanced since the seventies are mainly either medical technologies or information technologies—largely, technologies of simulation.” Instead of technologies that would liberate us from working or preserve us from stress and conflict, most advances have been “conducive to surveillance, work discipline, and social control.”

Graeber’s main point is that this material deviation from an SFnal imaginary was not just one borne of limitations of reality, but of the needs and objectives of the political-economic system. While I have sympathy for his thesis, I do not think that the SFnal imagination as he presents it has such a singular thrust to it. One of the interesting aspects of SF (and fantastika more generally) is that it is not all one thing, that it contains multiple ideologies and perspectives. In the period that Graeber describes there was much more to SF than jetpack dreams; from the humanist strains of classic SF to the New Wave, SF was a succession of mergers and splinters. While popular media sometimes used SF tropes to connotate ideas (such as that of a future of luxury), there were also critical trends within the literature. Conceptions held by casual readers and viewers were different than those of committed fans; Graeber is focusing on the popular ideas in his essay, but even some of those were cautionary and subversive.

The question is, was SF a constellation of dreams or a litany of promises people were fed? Both, really, and more than that. SF was, and to some extent still is, a cluster of ways to think about tomorrow, an extension of what we know into what we hope and/or dread, and the chimeric narrativization of our aspirations and fears. It is ideologically-inflected entertainment that tries to make sense not just of the future, but of our current existence and how we have gotten that point, and where we may (or perhaps shouldn’t) go. It plays with time, with the contours of the possible, and teases us about our limitations. Certainly it can and has been appropriated for social and political-economic purposes, but what struck me as troubling was the generalization of the perspective and its reduction to a misrecognition and disappointment. Graeber asserts that his characterization of the SF imaginary was in a sense betrayed by the directions taken in technological innovation, but this presumes that the SFnal imaginary was unchanging and naive. As noted in the first quotation above, such imaginings are not about our expectations for the future, but our hopes for the present and where it might lead. That “gap” is not just one of an unfulfilled promise, but of the problem of thinking humans trying to figure out the world and what they can, or cannot, do within its confines.

It is true that popular ideas of SF were grounded in a notion that technology could bring out the better aspects of our nature and provide us with more comforts. But this notion was not totalizing, as Graeber implies, just ascendant. His presentation of the SFnal imagination is exacerbated by the fact that his characterization of technological advancement is also limited. While he admits that “[i]ndustrial capitalism has fostered an extremely rapid rate of scientific advance and technological innovation—one with no parallel in previous human history” he believes that the direction of the innovation has been very narrowly directed. The future of those popular projections was obtainable if we had just paid attention and not let ourselves be led astray by other interests. This presupposes that people were being specifically misled, misleading themselves (which he intimates with his ideas of collective “guilty awareness”), or at best encouraged to dream with excessive optimism. These are all aspects of the dreamed future, but they are nowhere near all of the aspects of the SFnal imaginary. In fact, some of the technologies that were created were inspired by those dreams (such as the creation of cell phones to resemble Star Trek communicators), and they inspired more than consumption.

Certainly Graeber is being sweeping and playful in this essay; it is not a meticulously-footnoted academic article or Salon-style pop journalism. It would be easy to over-criticize this piece for its broad strokes, but doing so would not engage either the essence of Graeber’s narrative nor the questions it raises, both in its representation of SFnal thinking and the critique of it contained within the narrative. As Graeber’s quotation at the beginning of the column shows, he understands that our ideas of the future are not pragmatic or programmatic. But his characterization of the SFnal imaginary sets it up as rather rigid and unreflective, when I would argue that it is not just a “displacement” but a conceptual space with porous boundaries that is used in many different ways. It is also a very human endeavor, because we always seem to be trying to predict or shape the future, and rarely does it turn out as we want or hope it to be.

Few visions of the future have ever come to pass in human history; the failing of the midcentury American SFnal imagination is just the most recent in a long line of prophetic aspirations that have not been fulfilled by reality. It may be that it was denied by political-economic agendas and progressions, by a myopia brought on by too much investment in its reiteration of the American Dream. But the disappointment, and that vague guilt, are also the result of yet another lesson learned in visualizing the future; that no dream survives its enactment by human beings. Certainly the SFnal imagination has taught us that, sometimes more cuttingly than we might prefer.

2 Comments on Of Jetpack Utopias and Hyperbolic Tomorrows: David Graeber and the Science Fiction Imagination

  1. Paul Weimer // June 21, 2012 at 1:03 pm //

    Thanks, John. Erudite as always.

    I do think Graeber is being deliberately broad, or perhaps being deliberately provocative on his part.

    SF is a complicated mess and welter of trends, themes and subgenres. Always has been, I think.

    And that puts me in mind of the recent Wired piece done by Paolo Bacigaulpi about Cyberpunk “saving” Science Fiction.

    I don’t think that cyberpunk saved SF, that’s too broad of a generalization too. But it certainly refocused the field.

    • Thanks for the link to Paolo’s piece. I’ll have to go read that.

      I think there is a little provocation in Graeber’s formulation, but I’m not sure that his argument holds together firmly; I don’t think we can correlate the fulfilment of that future with the systemic change he advocates, because even if we made those changes the future would not become that industrial-magical Elsewhere he invokes as the SFnal imagination.

      As I said, I am sympathetic to his argument, but not convinced. I am still chewing on this and might write more in a post over at my own blog.

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