PLURALISM AND SCIENCE FICTION: Estrangement, Alterity, and Divergence

If you accept Darko Suvin’s definition of science fiction as the literature of cognitive estrangement you get a vision that is somewhere in between sf and fantasy. If the “estrangement” involved is not just at the level of specific devices, hypotheses, and inventions but at the more englobing level of world-building, then we can see that there exist bridges between the two genres, and hybrid cases. Further I think this estrangement goes even to the formal level of the “deconstruction” of the hero and of the monomyth, as Bob Bogle shows with Dune and its sequels.

One aspect of consciousness that receives much consideration in Dune is attention, and the management of attention. If we give the Butlerian Jihad a symbolic or an allegorical interpretation, we can see that Herbert is a precursor in the critique of what nowadays is viewed as the destruction of attention that is being effectuated by the misuse of digital technologies. The Bene Gesserit, amongst others, are a school of attention, and schools its members in the practice of deep attention.

This practice of attention provides the Bene Gesserit with a criterion to distinguish between mere men and women, governed by their pulsions, and human beings capable of sublimating these pulsions, binding their energy, and acceding to the life of desire. This is achieved by the discipline of attention, which is not a continuous presence, but rather manifests itself in sparks of awareness and flashes of insight. A good example is the test of Paul with the gom jabbar to see if he is human. If the monomyth defines, as Bogle says what it is like to be an organic human being, the sporadic flash of awareness characterises what it is to be a noetic human being.

As Bernard Stiegler emphasises, only a God is noetically conscious all the time (Stiegler gets that from Aristotle), an ordinary human is noetic only in flashes. These flashes constitute moments of attention and of choice on the path of our individuation. We must distinguish individuation from being an individual different from others, which is a banal “organic” phenomenon. I am thinking of the Jungian idea of individuation as a noetic process of differentiation and complexification, cultivating the sparks of consciousness so as not to be programmed by our surroundings.

The problem is that we are constantly in danger of disindividuation: we sink into habit and let ourselves be guided by clichés and stereotypes, we accept uncritically and repeat other people’s opinions and perceptions, uttering standardised words and phrases and playing pre-defined roles. “Noetic” does not mean just being conscious, but rather becoming conscious of a fork in the path, of alternatives, taking stock of the situation and inventing one’s own solution instead of just going along with the majority flow.

Slavoj Zizek tends to see science fiction films as instances and vectors of the forces of disindividuation. He likes to interpret films by subtracting out any noetic alterity and just seeing the stereotypic oedipal drama. This interpretative procedure is catastrophic in the case of science fiction. For example, he focuses on the heroic wishfulfilment in the case of AVATAR, but also the familial wishfulfilment in the case of WAR OF THE WORLDS:

“One can easily imagine the film without the bloodthirsty aliens so that
what remains is in a way “what it is really about,” the story of a divorced
working-class father who strives to regain the respect of his two children.
Therein resides the film’s ideology: with regard to the two levels of the
story (the Oedipal level of lost and regained paternal authority; the
spectacular level of the conflict with the invading aliens), there is a clear
dissymmetry, since the Oedipal level is what the story is “really about,”
while the external spectacular is merely its metaphoric extension.” (p57)

His monist reductive approach can be seen in his assertion that the Oedipal level is what the story is really about, condemning any element of alterity to being mere metaphoric gift-wrapping. One sees the absurdity of this approach very clearly in a film like AVATAR where the world-making is the main stuff of the film, especially as Pandora is a planet of noetic abundance. Science fiction is defined as “the literature of cognitive estrangement” precisely because it explicitly constitues itself by means of alterity. Any monomyth, such as the oedipal drama, will be deconstructed by SF’s penchant for alterity.

Imagine what Zizek would have to say about the novel DUNE (or the film). The oedipal drama is deliberately foregrounded as is the heroic wishfulfilment: Paul goes from adolescent aristocrat leading a sheltered life to Messiah on a desert planet. but the aim in fact is to deconstruct the hero and the oedipal monomyth and to open us out onto a pluralist ontology as the later novels make even clearer:

“In his Golden Path, Leto sought a divergence of futures. Divergence is itself the grand theme of God Emperor of Dune. Leto is determined to smash the human psychological need for an illusory universe in which all tales converge on a final Big Message. This theme is the climax of Herbert’s original design from the early 1960s to obliterate the monolithic hero myth” , argues Bob Bogle in FRANK HERBERT: THE WORKS.

Bob Bogle finds that this pluralist principle of divergence rather than a principle of convergence is a constitutive feature of Herbert’s DUNE series. Herbert was very influenced by Jung, who consistently favoured multiplicity and differentiation, and we can see this influence all through the DUNE books. Bogle goes so far as to describe this privileging of divergence and diversity as part of the creation of a “new myth” where pluralism and its abundance are affirmed on every level:  “it is preferable to live in a universe in which mythologies diverge infinitely, like light passing through a biconcave lens. And if that means there are no clear answers — nor even maybe a very clear plot — so be it”.

So I can only conclude on a positive note: Let’s read more SF. Go read DUNE. Go watch Avatar. Embrace alterity and affirm divergence.

5 thoughts on “PLURALISM AND SCIENCE FICTION: Estrangement, Alterity, and Divergence

  1. As a writer, I may well use the human drama to illuminate, support or explain the philosophical point being made by the science fictional element. Some science fictions stories, especially in films, may just use the science fiction as mere scene setting, but we might also say, with respect to what you call a metaphorical extension, that there is a point where, to coin a phrase, a difference in kind becomes a difference in degree. The _novum_ may just be a metaphor, but if it is strange enough, complex enough, novel enough, then it adds a dimension, a breadth, a scope that the original thesis lacked. Both the original _War of the Worlds_ and _Avatar_ had something to say about colonialism and imperialism. There are many anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist fictions, but how many grabbed the world’s cinema screens as long and as completely as _Avatar_? Not acknowledging the difference made by the novum is truly poor criticism, indeed.

    The linking of attention and noetic consciousness appears reasonable, and yet current psychology would tend to problematize or even medicalize the kind of constant attention that appears divine or superhuman above, at least in the form of hypervigilance. Obviously, there is a difference between mindfulness, which is probably closer to the kind of constant or deep attention that we might see with approval, and hypervigilance, but the defensive nature of hypervigilance might also spur us to question the linking of attention and humanity. Might it not be more human to detach oneself from one’s surroundings in order to think, with or without being conscious of it, especially since current neurology suggests that some significant fraction of our thinking will necessarily escape our own powers of attention?


  2. Hello Jean-Louis, thanks for your substantial comment. It is good to have the point of view of an actual writer of SF as well. What I like about science fiction is that it is a literature that explicitly makes difference, otherness, strangeness one of its central themes and principles of construction. It is also a privileged place to see the interplay of quantitative and qualitative difference. So I find it important as you say to emphasise that in much good science fiction the novum is not just at the level of a new content but also of the world producing and containing that content. I do not think that this is a defect of a metaphorical vision of the text. Metaphor is ambivalent, and may be a way of using the new as a mere disguise for the old and well-known (as in Zizek’s oedipal interpretations). But metaphor can also use the new to evoke the unfamiliar, be exploratory rather than given over to recognition of familiar experiences.

    I think that detachment is a necessary part of “good” noesis, to avoid the sort of fusion with one’s environment that may be comforting, but that prevents change. I try to talk about it here, in a review of the film DETACHMENT.


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  5. Pingback: NOETIC ESTRANGEMENT: on some commonalities between science fiction and philosophy | AGENT SWARM

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