Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique



^ Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique


Morrison uses the underlying structures of superheroic fantasy to disseminate avant-garde ideas by identifying the affinities between superhero fantasy and the formulation of the subject under Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique capitalist modernity. This can be seen in the radical conceptions of individuality which characterise both his superheroes and supervillains as postmodern subjects; fantasy homologous with postmodern subjectivity at its Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique extremes of ideological compromise and subversion simultaneously.

Morrison’s villain in ^ The Filth is a ‘parapersona’ suggestively named Spartacus Hughes, who informs his opposite that ‘[a]nyone can be Spartacus Hughes’, in the same way Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique ‘anyone can be President [a]nd the President can be anyone’; Hughes is ‘an anti-person’, acting like a virus: ‘reproducing myself into the future the only way I know how Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique. By violence’.502 Hughes is like the commodity form itself, always the same and always different, like Sublime in New X-Men he can take on or ‘infect’ new bodies. There is a liberating Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique potential to Hughes and Sublime however, both characters effectively function as multiple names like Wu Ming, formerly the Luther Blissett Project, as explained in the Luther Blissett Manifesto:

The Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique Luther Blissett Project has been launched in the Summer '94 by an international gang of revolutionaries, mail artists, poets, performers, underground 'zines, cybernauts and squatters. A multiple name, if it was used outside small circles of Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique radicals, would be a practical solution of problems such as the relation between community and individual, or the quest for identity. [….] Luther Blissett is a-dividual [not subject to individuation Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique], because the character has many personalities and reputations; Luther Blissett is also a con-dividual [actively resisting individualism through collective definition], because many individuals share the name; Luther Blissett is a multitude as well Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique as a 'decentralized subject', a project aiming to what Karl Marx called 'Gemeinwesen' (i.e. the common essence of the Wo/Mankind, the awareness of the global community).’503


Morrison’s friend, the Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique avant-gardist Stewart Home is among those who have taken up the use of multiple names, including Luther Blissett, in an attempt to use fiction to actualise the above metaphors for contemporary Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique global community. His comments on the experience are illuminating for considering Morrison’s rhetorical use of superhero roles. Home writes that ‘[t]here is no fixed referent, merely a fiction Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique created by those using the name’ but ‘as soon as you use a multiple name, by sharing the identity and adopting an arbitrary signifier, you immediately find that you are in a position to Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique mould both the signifier and what is signified’, ‘by doing something as Luther Blissett, you find yourself actively shaping the identity.’504 Home has even suggested that ‘Stewart Home’ can be treated in Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique the same way, in his satirical second introduction to Suspect Device: A Reader in Hard-Edged Fiction, he writes of the ‘Stewart Home Project’, ‘launched on 24 March 1979 by the Celtic bards Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique K.L. Callan and Fiona MacLeod’ so that ‘diverse individuals’ could ‘produce a body of work that would be credited to a fictional author called Stewart Home’.505 These are very similar Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique to the terms Morrison has the butler Alfred use for the passing of the Batman mantle from Bruce Wayne to Dick Grayson following the events of Batman R.I.P: ‘think of Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique Batman as a great role, like a Hamlet or Willie Loman… Or even James Bond. And play it to suit your strengths.’506 The power of the superhero for Morrison is that, for a Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique differently structured set of economic reasons, it is very similar to the idea of ‘open names’ and can thus be reinterpreted in avant-garde terms, is structurally disposed towards being inhabited by Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique avant-garde rhetoric.

Morrison thus values the positive, liberationary possibilities offered by what Brian Stableford terms ‘lifestyle fantasy’507 modulated with his own sense of absurdism through his use of Surrealism. To Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique Morrison the whole world is intrinsically absurd, so that a Surrealist response makes most sense of the actual functions of contemporary capitalism. He draws the analogy with continuity in interview:

Until the day when Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique the publishers allow characters to grow old, die and be replaced, there can be no real use for ‘continuity’. Otherwise allow characters to simply go on forever with no pretence Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique towards real time and under the full understanding that this is an imaginary world мейд by generations of workers.508


‘Continuity’, however, determines the worlds of superhero comics as they actually exist Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique, so Morrison uses that as part of his development of a critical aesthetic. Because superheroic characters exist in an implicitly Surrealist environment of ‘continuity’ they have the most absurdist capability to offer critique on the Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique shifting moment of capitalist modernity as constant cycle of iteration and constant demand for reneawal. Their oneiric climate co-exists with the insistence of modernity on its forward-looking Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique progression. Superhero histories are a blend of absurdity and realism, originally formed according to the demands of previous moments of modernity, which are ceaselessly adapted and re-adapted, added to and taken away from by Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique generation after generation of artists and writers, so importing into them a critique of modernity can spread that critique through the same cultural channels. In the course of twenty Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique years Morrison’s particular position shows considerable change but his attitude towards the superhero is that it represents an important fantasy mode, one which has a strong positive power for its audience.

Today Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique Morrison concludes that superheroes have the potential to be ‘utopian role models’ which act as symbolic anchors for grounding ‘hopeful images of humankind’s future potential’ against the ‘[t]error-stricken, environmentally Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique-handicapped, overpopulated, paedophile-haunted world that’s being peddled by our news media’.509 Morrison’s view of the value of the superhero is similar to that of a character in Seven Soldiers of Victory Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique who writes:

In the fury of bright crayola colors, broken bones, and sound effects that can burst your ear drums if you let them, the themes may seem unfamiliar Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique but, trust me, those are human stories, writ large [….] When you use your x-ray vision to really, really LOOK…every day is mythology.510


These words are those of a reporter turned Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique superhero. The newspaper, called the Manhattan Guardian reports on the ongoing adventures of its own superheroic avatar Manhattan Guardian, fighting injustice and rescuing those in need: it is a paper that depends on Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique writing good news and happy endings. The therapeutic implication of this is clear: fantastic elements in superhero comics are an optimistic force in modernity, they express hope as a virtue in Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique a modern idiom to counter depairing views of modernity which appear in other populist media. Morrison does not insist that politically ‘committed’ forms should predominate, but rather insists that ‘aesthetic’ forms have a material content Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique which invokes a sense of wonder with politically liberationary implications which can form part of a forceful political debate: continuity’s cyclicality, in embedding absurdism and multiplicity over narrative Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique and singularity also embeds a constant desire for change that can be put to utopian or politically radical use.

^ Chapter Five: China Miéville’s Marxism: A Dialectical Materialist Aesthetic of Fantasy


1: Marxist Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique Dialectics and Literature

As both an activist and as a scholar of international law China Miéville’s Marxist commitment is central to his work; he stood as a parliamentary candidate for the Socialist Alliance Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique in 2001, and has published his PhD thesis on jurisprudence, Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law (2005). As a fantasy novelist Miéville has twice won the Arthur C. Clark Award Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique for novels set in his secondary world of Bas Lag. Carl Freedman has commented significantly on the importance of Marxism to understanding China Miéville’s fictions, identifying a ‘Marxist Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique urban sublime’ in Miéville’s first novel, King Rat (1999),511 and then later comparing it with the image of revolution in his third Bas Lag novel, Iron Council.512 Following on from Freedman, Rich Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique Paul Cooper has since related Miéville’s world-building techniques as a fantasy novelist directly to the Marxist concept of dialectical materialism.513 I read Miéville’s fantasy novels in terms of the Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique dialectical relationships which define them, analysing the relationships of characters within their social strata and ideological outlook as a Marxist critique of contemporary modernity in an immersive fantasy world Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique.

Miéville has put forward his reconception of Marxism’s relationship with fantasy theory in interviews and essays for publications such as International Socialism (2000),514 Historical Materialism (2002)515 and Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction (2009), uniting his Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique political and aesthetic interests in the public sphere.516 But what is at stake in an attempt to unify fantasy fiction and Marxism? Reviewing the Historical Materialism ‘Symposium on Marxism and Fantasy Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique’, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay describes the possible significance on an international level for the worlds of theory and literature:

If it can be done, fantasy receives the imprimatur of the critical Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique Left (which matters more in the UK than the US, yet may come to matter a good deal more here as the Empire gets rolling, over us as over everyone else) and perhaps a reconciliation Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique with the mass of Tolkienites and computer gamers. It may also contribute to a transformation in Marxist aesthetics[.]517


How this transformation might occur has been suggested by Mark Bould Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique, who has written in ‘The Dreadful Credibility of Absurd Things’ that a Marxist theory of fantasy could provide Marxists with an illuminating new conception of the nature of individual subjectivity under capitalism Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique.518 This chapter will argue that Marxist dialectical materialism forms the foundation of Miéville’s aesthetic in these fantasy works and that the developments within these novels are guided by an emergent Marxist Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique theory of fantasy as a means to reconceive individualism within Marxism. To understand how dialectical materialism might apply to the context of literature we must first ask: what is meant by dialectical materialism?

In Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique Keywords (1976), Raymond Williams explains that the tradition of dialectics which underpins Marxist philosophy derives from several roots: he writes that the term ‘dialectic’ in Plato referred to ‘the art of defining ideas Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique, and, related to this, the method of determining the interrelation of ideas in light of a single principle’.519 This extends to most Western philosophy, but Williams explains that the use of Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique it in Marxism is drawn specifically from German idealist philosophy which ‘extended the notion of contradiction in the course of discussion or dispute to a notion of contradictions in reality’ to Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique describe the fundamental principles of the world.520 Williams continues:

For Kant, dialectical criticism showed the mutually contradictory character of the principles of knowledge when these were extended to metaphysical realities. For Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique Hegel, such contradictions were surpassed, both in thought and in the world-history which was its objective character, in a higher and unified truth: the dialectical process was then the continual unification of Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique opposites, in the complex relation of parts to a whole. A version of this process – the famous triad of thesis, antithesis and synthesis – was given by Fichte.521


Williams explains that ‘Hegel Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique’s version of the dialectical process had мейд spirit primary and world secondary’ but in Marxism ‘[t]his priority was reversed and dialectics was then “the science of the general laws of motion both Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique of the external world and of human thought”’.522 Dialectical materialism is, broadly, the expression of these ideas in the material world; it is more typically termed historical materialism to emphasise that it refers Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique to human rather than natural processes.

Historical materialism holds that the contradictions which can disrupt or destroy the capitalist system are produced by it even as it negates its own Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique preconditions. This is sometimes called the ‘negation of the negation’ because it produces opposition to the social relations of capitalism from within;523 Marx explains in Capital:

The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labour at last reach a point where they Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique become incompatible with their capitalist integument. [….]

The capitalist mode of appropriation, the result of the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property. This is the first negation of individual Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique private property, as founded on the labour of the proprietor. But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation. It is the negation of negation. This does Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique not re-establish private property for the producer, but gives him individual property based on the acquisitions of the capitalist era: i.e., on co-operation and the possession in common Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique of the land and a means of production.524


The idea of negation here means the process of creating alternative social relations from the conditions of things as they exist; this has an Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique aesthetic dimension, because the realm of art and literature are the realm of cultural production. Marxist dialectical materialism, then, is concerned to explain social development and the economies of human interaction including the Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique cultural sphere: ‘[w]hat the component of dialectics asserts is that concrete reality is not a static substance in undifferentiated unity but a unity that is differentiated and specifically contradictory, the Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique conflict of opposites driving reality onwards in a historical process of constant progressive change, both evolutionary and revolutionary, and in its revolutionary or discontinuous changes bringing forth genuine qualitative novelty’.525 A Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique Marxist aesthetic practice must reflect the dialectic; its central consideration is the question of how to do so, given that the forms of art and literature which are dominant are determined by Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique their commodity status under capital.

Marxist aesthetic theory asks whether the most appropriate aesthetic response to the commodity status of art under capital is to use the representational modes which are most favoured in Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique the conditions of the world as they are (the most popular and/or accessible, and typically realist), incorporating committed Marxist content into the form, or to use a more aesthetically Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique defamiliarised form (such as Surrealism, Futurism or the fantastic) to resist existing forms of representation as being ideologically bound to capital. Lenin, for example, believed Futurism and such avant-garde forms to be flawed Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique at best, ‘double-dyed stupidity and pretentiousness’ at worst, favouring Socialist Realism;526 while Trotsky, more supportive of the principles of literary and artistic freedom, observed that ‘art is always a Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique social servant and historically utilitarian’ whatever its aesthetic.527 As Dave Laing’s The Marxist Theory in Art (1978)528 and Cliff Slaughter’s Marxism, Ideology and Literature (1980)529 indicate, these debates from the early twentieth-century persist into Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique later twentieth-century literary study, taking different formulations between Trotsky and Lukacs, and between Gramsci, Althusser and Benjamin on the question of the ideological role of art and literature.

In Marx’s Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique conception, ideology is the phenomenological correspondence of capitalism which ‘conceals the contradictory character of the hidden essential pattern by focusing upon the way in which the economic relations appear on Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique the surface’. 530 He writes that ideology is ‘very much different from, and indeed quite the reverse of, [the] inner but concealed essential pattern’ of how capitalism actually works.531 Commodity forms are ideological because they Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique distract people from how the relations between commodities actually function; they do this by encouraging a фокус on, and investment (economic or emotional) in, their epiphenomenal qualities rather than Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique their place in a system of exchanges that regulates and determines social interaction. The key question for Marxist aesthetics is whether any particular form of literature – realist, Surrealist, or some other mode – would be more Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique or less compromised, by being too abstract (experimental, avant-garde or mannerist) or by being too commodified as an existing form (reproducing the status quo within its representations) to Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique provide a dialectical critique of existing social relations. How does this affect Marxist theories of fantasy literature in particular?


^ 2: Marxist Fantasy Theory

Marxist fantasy occupies a particularly contested space within Marxist aesthetic theory. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique Jr. summarises the debates on the nature of fantasy and its significance for Marxists in his review of Miéville’s ‘Symposium on Marxism and Fantasy’ for Historical Materialism:

Fantasy Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique […] was, like sf, also experiencing a boom in the late 1960s and early 1970s, fuelled by the first paperback editions of Tolkien’s books. In the culture wars of the time Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique, Left sf scholars came to associate sf with progressive modernism, utopian hopefulness, and social criticism, clearly positioning sf in opposition to the right-wing, proto-fascist world-view supposedly inherent in sword Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique-and-sorcery fantasies like Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian series and the medievalist nostalgia of Tolkienesque ‘high fantasy’. It was a distinction similar to the one Lukacs мейд between the realistic Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique historical novel and ‘legitimist pseudo-historicism’—a model of political aesthetics that still informs much of the academic Left’s thinking about fantastic writing.532


In broad terms, fantasy has historically been considered Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique at best as backward-looking and escapist, complicitly ideological, and at worst as actively reactionary and right-wing. Escapism is a condition of ideology whereby the commodity status of the literary object has Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique been mystified in its consumption as a commodity. Left critics, seeking to demystify, to expose the relations concealed by ideology, find an affinity between Marxism’s future-orientated revolutionary rhetoric Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique and SF which presents fantasy as its opposite following the distinctions drawn by Darko Suvin based on the concept of ‘cognitive estrangement’ (which he derives from Brecht’s Verfremdung effekt and Shklovsky’s ostranenie Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique, see introduction). As Suvin explains, cognitive estrangement separates SF from other modes in several ways:

The estrangement differentiates [SF] from the ‘realistic’ literary mainstream of the 18th to 20th century Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique. The cognition differentiates it not only from myth but also from the fairy tale and the fantasy. The fairy tale also doubts the laws of the author’s empirical world, but it escapes Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique out of its horizons and into a closed collateral world indifferent toward cognitive possibilities. It does not use the imagination as a means to understand the tendencies in reality, but as an Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique end sufficient unto itself and cut off from real contingencies. 533

To be cut off from ‘real contingencies’ is to be an inherently escapist form; myth and fairytale are both identified by Suvin Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique, following Gramsci, as ideological forms which conceal the actual character of social relations under capitalism (Suvin borrows from both Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and The Modern Prince in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction). Suvin locates Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique fantasy as the commodity form which is most equivalent in its operations to ideology. For Suvin, fantasy takes part in the obfuscation of social relations (it is complicit in the negation of Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique social relations under commodity capitalism) and he constructs SF as the negation of fantasy’s ideological estrangement, therefore, for Suvin, the cognitive estrangement of SF operates as the ‘negation of the negation Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique’ of fantasy: fantasy is inherently more ideological and SF is inherently more dialectical materialist.

Marxist theorisation of fantasy has been influenced by this differentiation, particularly in the interventions of critics such as Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique Frederic Jameson who follows Suvinian distinctions. Jameson identifies SF as a form which not only mediates between the contrary aesthetic demands of faithfulness to, and negation of, the real in literary Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique representation, but as a form which has a unique affinity for Marxist socialism through its association with the utopian tradition. Jameson locates a Marxist aesthetic in the practices of utopian Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique writing in general and with science fiction in particular as representative modes which are concerned with resisting and imagining alternatives to present conditions: Jameson follows Darko Suvin’s argument that ‘cognitive estrangement’ uniquely characterises ‘SF Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique in terms of an essentially epistemological function’ as a form which interrogates the existing world, while constructing ‘the more oneiric flights of generic fantasy’ as implicitly passive and, by implication, escapist and Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique ideological.534

Jameson’s ^ Archaeologies of the Future takes a wider view of fantasy’s capacity for utopianism than Suvin’s early writings, in it Jameson explores a number of fantasy texts for Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique their radical potential, among them Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels. However, when picking out these specific fantasy texts Jameson retains a Suvinian hierarchy between SF and fantasy. Where he writes that Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique in Le Guin’s Earthsea magic stands for ‘the enlargement of human powers and their passage to the limit, their actualization of everything latent and virtual in the stunted human Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique organism of the present’ he also notes as an aside that magic remains a ‘facile plot device […] in the great bulk of mediocre fantasy production’; 535 fantasy is here implicitly more governed Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique by narrative logic (hence generic or market logic) than SF. Where the ‘main formal device [of SF] is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment […] distinguished by the narrative Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique dominance or hegemony of a fictional “novum” (novelty, innovation) validated by cognitive logic’,536 fantasy only has plot devices which predominantly create the false release of escapism, something Marxist critique can demonstrate the Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique ideological content of but not employ. Jameson explains why he finds the forms of SF and fantasy to have quite different orientations towards ideology, he writes that ‘fantasy remains generically wedded to Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique nature and to the organism’ while SF privileges the mechanical, even mechanising biology in its use of the tropes such as ‘genetic engineering’.537 For Jameson both SF and Marxism are future-orientated Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique, modern and therefore materialist, where fantasy is implicitly nostalgic and idealist, and the ‘ethical dynamics of magical powers can today be seen as a compensation’ which ‘nonetheless testifies to the omnipresence of a built environment Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique’;538 fantasy thus remains SF’s Other, it operates despite itself to support SF’s validity by its need to act as ‘compensation’ (the function Marx ascribes to religion). How Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique does Miéville counter this in his own conception of fantasy?


^ 3: Miéville’s Marxist Fantasy Theory


China Miéville has several strategies for asserting the value of fantasy to Marxists. Miéville argues that Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique fantasy is not inherently escapist,539 nor inherently more ideological than SF,540 arguing instead that the insistence on the cognitive logic of SF opposed to ‘supposedly cognition-less fantasy’, 541 is itself Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique an obfuscation of the literary qualities of rhetorical persuasion and surrender of textual authority to an author function (suspension of disbelief) which characterise both SF and fantasy as forms which are equally bound Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique to ideology: ‘[f]antasy, then, in its form as well as its many contents, is no less an ideological product than SF is[….] nor is it more so’.542

Miéville argues, contra-Suvin Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique, that viewing SF and fantasy as overlapping forms is more than a ‘rampantly sociopathological’ extension of market categories,543 it reflects a familial resemblance between them which can be detected Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique in the rhetoric of both modes. To illustrate this, Miéville pursues Carl Freedman’s Suvinian argument that SF can be recognised as a genre because it produces an ‘estrangement effect’, whereby the Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique rhetoric of its construction leads the reader to accept it as SF. From this perspective, SF can be said to be based on ‘the attitude of the text itself to the kind of estrangements Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique being performed’.544 Miéville counters by referring back to writers from Verne and Wells to Isaac Asimov, that this cognition effect is actually dependent primarily on persuasion, not on any supposed rigorousness Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique unique to the cognitive estrangements of SF:

The cognition effect is a persuasion. Whatever tools are used for that persuasion (which may or may not include actually-cognitively-logical Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique claims), the effect, by the very testimony of SF writers for generations and by the logic of the very theorists for whom cognition is key, is a function of (textual) charismatic authority Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique. The reader surrenders to the cognition effect to the extent that he or she surrenders to the authority of the text and its author function. [….]

Nor is this a marginal concern for SF. Wells’ is Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique not a theory of SF as hoodwinking: it is extremely unlikely that many of his readers would ever have been convinced of the possibility of gravity-repellent Cavorite, but because Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique of the particular kind of authority in the text, a cognition effect is created even though neither reader nor writer finds cognitive logic in the text’s claims. Instead, they read Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique/write as if they do [emphasis Miéville’s].545


Miéville is arguing that SF’s cognitive form is not based on the rigorous cognitive logic Suvinian criticism claims for it but rather Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique that it is structured by the same principles as fantasy: the audience is reading as if the impossible were possible based on the authority of the text and the author function. Miéville Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique’s fictions demonstrate this same basic underlying premise: they unify elements which have been identified by, among others Andrew M. Butler and Joan Gordon,546 as cross-generic, and as part of Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique a wider cultural trend in SF-fantasy.

On a wider social level, Miéville writes that the fantastic (in either SF or fantasy) can provide uniquely useful approaches for incorporating political critique Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique of ideology into fiction. He argues that the existing social relationships of life under capital are founded on relationships between commodities which are essentially fantastic in nature because the laws governing them are primarily Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique imaginary, and because commodity relations, in turn, affect real social relationships, so therefore ‘“reality” is a grotesque “fantastic form”’.547 Miéville writes:

I am claiming that the fantastic, particularly because ‘reality’ is Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique a grotesque ‘fantastic form’, is good to think with. Marx, whose theory is a haunted house of spectres and vampires, knew this. Why else does he open Capital not quite with an Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique ‘immense’, as the modern English translation has it, but with a ‘monstrous’ (ungeheure) collection of commodities?


Miéville questions the extent to which any fictional representation can be considered intrinsically Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique more or less ideological than any other, while also asking whether ideologically determined social relations under capital can be considered ‘realistic’. This rhetorical strategy implicitly questions the newness of contemporary commodity relations: it Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique suggests that the society of the spectacle and the critical apparatuses which follow it, such as Baudrillard’s simulacra and the postmodernist theories which draw upon Baudrillard, are already implicit in Marx Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique’s conception of dialectical materialism and of the haunting and monstrous forms by which he characterises the commodity form.

From this perspective, which Miéville elaborates in Historical Materialism and Red Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique Planets, it is clear that he considers fantasy to be one of the more appropriate responses to this situation. In this way fantasy can be seen as the most important mode Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique for Miéville to relate his practice as an activist, his theory as a Marxist and his aesthetic interests as a novelist, because, like the forces of capital, it is concerned with the Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique relationship of a non-rational, imaginary system to the real world. Miéville argues that imagining the impossible is part of the ordinary processes of labour, he writes:

Consider Marx’s distinction Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique of ‘the worst of architects’ from ‘the best of bees’: unlike for any bee ‘At the end of every labour process a result emerges which had already been conceived by the Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique worker at the beginning, hence already existed ideally.’ For Marx, human productive activity, with its capacity to act on the world and to change it – the very mechanism by which people make history Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique, though not in the circumstances of their choosing – is predicated on a consciousness of the not-real. The fantastic is there at the most prosaic moment of production.548

In writing this, Mi Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critiqueéville is obviously acknowledging an intellectual inheritance from the kind of visionary and avant-garde post-1960s radical traditions articulated by Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, situating their thought within a Marxist framework Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay raises an important critical point about this in his review of the Historical Materialism symposium. He writes:

There is no reason why the process of thinking the not-possible should Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique not be compatible with an ‘idealist’ notion of the imagination as a faculty that works with historical conditions as if it were, in some way, autonomous from them. Unless Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique the dialectic inheres in matter (the vulgar Marxist position par excellence), then thinking the never-possible is something that human minds bring to the mix—an ‘idealist embarrassment’ at the heart of Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique historical materialism.549


For Miéville, this idealist trace has pre-existing material circumstances in a human subjectivity which consists of conscious and unconscious drives determined by material capitalist social relations; he views Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique the imaginary in this relation through the matrices of Surrealist and postmodernist aesthetic practices. His interpretation of the dialectical materialist aesthetic is a broad one, reclaiming categories considered to belong to postmodernist discourse; as Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique he says in interview with Joan Gordon, he is resistant to postmodernism while being attracted to the innovations typically associated with it: ‘[y]ou can use certain deconstructive techniques, for example, without being Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique a postmodernist’, ‘I don’t think it’s fair that hybridity, uncertainty, blurring identities, fracturing, formal experimentation, or the blurring of high and low culture should be ceded to postmodernism! I Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique want all that, and I’m a classical Marxist’; crucially, he adds, ‘[f]or me, much of that list is about dialectics, which is something that underpins a lot of Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique what I think about’.550 Polysemy and hybridity, and the subversion of binary categories for Miéville are phases within the overarching dialectical perspective; hence his work situates debates from disparate radical traditions Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique within an overarching dialectical materialism. Miéville is uniting politically committed and aesthetically distanced impulses at a higher point of insight derived from dialectical materialism; he clearly draws on the ‘supreme point Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique’ of Surrealism. 551

For Miéville the act of writing politically within fantasy is an act of ‘engaging both with politics in general and with the politics of genre’ because it intervenes in the realm of Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique the imaginary through a form which may be considered to derive from outside his chosen form in a way which consciously echoes the work of New Wave writers of the 1960s, blending Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique pulp and avant-garde frameworks.552 Miéville’s interest in fantasy is derived from two impulses which operate in tension and which he shares with, among others Moorcock and the Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique New Wave writers: the tendency of generic formula fantasy to codify fantasy, and the contrary power of Surrealist uses of fantasy as idiosyncratic aesthetic forms. In interview with Joan Gordon (2003), 553 Mi Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critiqueéville describes his own approach to writing as beginning from mood and setting and particular but specific images, ‘totally abstracted from any narrative’ drawing on Surrealist notions of the paradoxical image, inspired by his Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique fondness for ‘in particular, […] the works of Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Hans Bellmer, and Paul Delvaux’.554 These images are then ‘systematised’ through a form of bestiary-making which he consciously Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique derives from the ‘mania for cataloguing the fantastic’ of the Role Play Games (RPGs) such as Dungeons & Dragons he played as a youth (‘I’ve not played for sixteen years […] but I still buy Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique and read the manuals occasionally’).555 The tensions between the respective attractions of fantasy drawn from fantastic images, things which are surreal and defy classification, and the ‘superheroically banalifying’ approach to fantasy Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique of reducing fantastic creatures and scenarios to statistics involved in RPGs, are what Miéville identifies as primary to his own writing process.

Miéville writes that the Surrealists are useful for Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique radicals for the way in which ‘they examine questions of power and oppression in the very form of their work’.556 He states that he sees ‘the best weird fiction as the intersection of the Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique traditions of Surrealism with those of pulp’, implying that his own work is defined by the dialectic of disjunctive imagery and estranged systems constantly acting against one another.557 In Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique this schema, the codification of fantasy into statistics represents a kind of escapism which is commodified and anti-fantasy or Surrealism represents an escape from the ‘banalifying’ of fantasy because it refuses to Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique be confined or codified into a form which can be wholly commodified but the two co-exist as a discourse. Miéville’s novels are all about the struggles of individuals to create Conclusions: Superheroic and Supervillainous roles as avant-garde critique a space to express their subjective experience through the contrary demands of politically committed and aesthetically distanced practices.

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