VISIONS OF DHALGREN (1): the city of pure difference

Liveblogging reading DHALGREN by Samuel Delany.

DHALGREN has the reputation of being a difficult read, being experimental in style and structure, and also in genre – as people disagree over whether it is “really” science fiction.

I have recently become interested in the idea of philo-fiction, an expression proposed by François Laruelle to designate a sort of writing intermediate between philosophy and science-fiction. After discussing ANATHEM by Neal Stephenson and AURORA by Kim Stanley Robinson  as cases of philo-fiction, I wish to consider Samuel Delany’s SF novel DHALGREN, published in 1974, as exemplifying this genre.

First, as mode of entry I will discuss the postface “The Recombinant City” by William Gibson. It emerges from Gibson’s (non-)interpretation that he regards the book itself DHALGREN as metaphorically a “prose-city”, the city as rhizome. The “rhizome” is a philosophical concept proposed by Deleuze and Guattari as an image of pluralism in thought and action, containing multiple points of entry and of exit.

Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren is a prose-city a labyrinth, a vast construct the reader learns to enter by any one of a multiplicity of doors.

The book may well be a rhizomic “prose-city”, but the city that is described in DHALGREN is called “Bellona”, and seems to have only one entrance. However, directions are unstable and misleading in Bellona, and the sunrise seems to change location in a way that is not linked with the seasons. Tak, the guide to the city for the protagonist, remarks:

“I’ve thought, maybe: It’s not the season that changes. It’s us. The whole city shifts, turns, rearranges itself. All the time. And rearranges us …”

Gibson is very eulogistic of DHALGREN:

It is a work of sustained conceptual daring, executed by the most remarkable prose stylist to have emerged from the culture of American science fiction.

Indeed, one is entitled to affirm that “conceptual daring” is the book-city. Given the traditional definition of science-fiction as the literature of cognitive estrangement ranging from the most scrupulous scientific accuracy to the most speculative flights of noetic experimentation, conceptual daring is a good synonym for cognitive estrangement in its more speculative aspect.

DHALGREN is a post-modern novel, and so attempts to push back the frontiers of writing to the point that some readers complain that they do not “understand” it. However, “understanding” is not the only mode of appreciating a novel. Understanding is the mode suited to the academic contract between writer and reader, assuring the latter that well-codified significations lie behind even the most difficult text. Gibson, however, is in search of something else.

I have never understood it. I have sometimes felt that I partially understood it, or that I was nearing the verge of understanding it. This has never caused me the least discomfort, or interfered in any way with my pleasure in the text. If anything, the opposite has been true.

Something else is happening in a post-modern text, something other than understanding of pre-given significations. We are no longer in the domain of familiar ideas, but of the attempt to bring our stereotypes into question, to transform our ideas and expectations. This is the domain of meaning. The cultural contract of communicating more or less familiar forms of signification is abrogated in philo-fiction.

To enter Dhalgren is to be progressively stripped of various certainties, many of these having to do with unspoken, often unrecognized, aspects of the reader’s cultural contract with the author.

Gibson assigns this feeling of unfamiliarity or even of uncanniness to an ethics of experimentation, and to a “singularity” that he associates with a particular place, America, and a particular historical period, the sixties:

No one under thirty-five today can remember the singularity that overtook America in the nineteen-sixties, and the generation that experienced it most directly seems largely to have opted for amnesia and denial.

In his lectures on WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? (page 44), Alain Badiou talks about this same period too, as exemplary for the experience of difference, of rupture, and of change. This experience is not limited to America. So somewhere, somewhen, a rhizomatic city came to be.

But something did happen: a city came to be, in America. (And I imagine I use America here as shorthand for something else; perhaps for the industrialized nations of the American Century.)

In 1980 I was living in Sydney, and I had a dream in which I was wandering parched for thirst in the desert. I heard a group of Althusserians talking arrogantly and I could not bear them. Then I saw a vision of a city on the horizon. In the dream it was called “Paris, the city of pure difference”. I ended up going there to live the next year and to attend lectures by Serres, Deleuze, Lyotard, and Foucault . Paris was my Dhalgren.

This city had no specific locale, and its internal geography was mainly fluid…There may have been those who wished to enter that city, having glimpsed it in the distance, but who found themselves baffled, and turned back.

This was my case in the dream, and in my life then: I caught a glimpse of that city. But I was not turned back.Let us enter Dhalgren together.

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