Posts tagged lit
oscar wilde, the remarkable rocket
little-known bit of lit trivia: wilde was gonna call this story “pro-feminist men learn to cry” but his publisher changed it to make it more marketable
anyway, about that mark fisher discussion of The Lathe Of Heaven
The Lathe of Heaven is a novel by Ursula Le Guin about a man called George Orr whose dreams have the power to retrospectively change reality — he dreams, and sometimes he wakes and finds that his dreams have always been true. Orr visits a psychologist, Haber, who decides to harness this power to change the world for the better, hypnotising Orr into dreaming that this or that social problem has been fixed. in every case it is disastrous — kind of a monkey’s paw situation, you know, where your wishes come true but in the worst and most vindictive way.
the name George Orr is a pretty direct (and frankly rather naff) reference to George Orwell, of course. the scenes where the world changes following one of Orr’s dreams recall Winston Smith in 1984 throwing away old newspapers that contradict IngSoc’s current party line on what the world has always been like. Fisher links this to Wendy Brown’s work on Stuart Hall’s idea of “dreamwork” under late capitalism. Brown argues that neoliberal capitalism deals with its contradictions simply through producing a retrospective narrative that papers over them.
following this, Fisher critiques the narrative arc of the novel as fundamentally quietist, too attached to the world as it currently is to envision an alternative that isn’t disastrous. in The Lathe of Heaven, he says, even dreaming of an alternative to the status quo is dangerous and shouldn’t be attempted.
Even though Le Guin is far too canny, too committed to a certain dialogic model of literary craft, to fully demonise Orr, it is hard not to take from the novel a familiar, conservative message, quintessentially anti-modernist: trying to change things only leads to worse catastrophes.
but I think it’s lazy reading not to comment on The Lathe Of Heaven’s anti-authoritarian politics. the dreamer, Orr, is not the villain, not even an ambiguous villain. that would be the psychologist, Haber, if anyone. he believes he can take on the responsibility of changing the world, he, as an individual. He does this through literally controlling the dreams of our protagonist, Orr, who you pretty much have to read as a victim here. It’s specifically that authoritarian control over the very dreams and therefore reality of another that the narrative critiques.
consistent themes in Le Guin’s writing: the danger of imposing your will on others, the unintended consequences of our actions, the limits of our knowledge of the world, the need for humility. her stories are really challenging and interesting and complex but I think they do sometimes push the reader into an endorsement of straight-up passivity. but you gotta have context when reading Le Guin. She’s absolutely a post-Marxist leftist, influenced primarily by feminist and anarchist traditions. Her narratives stress contingency, the possibility of betrayal, the calcification of vanguardist revolutionaries into an oppressive overclass.
she’s also got a longstanding interest in Taoism, and The Lathe Of Heaven is perhaps her most explicitly Taoist-influenced work. The title comes from an old, apparently rather flawed translation of the writings of Taoist Chuang Tzu/Zhuangzi:
To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven. (知止乎其所不能知，至矣。若有不即是者，天鈞敗之。)
Zhuangzi is perhaps best known in the English-speaking world for his anti-state politics. Anarchists love him because he makes us look less like a bunch of white crusties, Austrian school economists love him because in the contemporary context, a lot of what he says sounds like straight-up neoliberal soundbites. “Good order results spontaneously when things are let alone”, stuff like that. Buuuuuut I think it’s pretty sketchy to attempt to claim him for any particular contemporary anti-statist political stance, left or right. Zhuangzi wrote in the Warring States period, i.e., in a period of state formation/expansion characterised by brutal violence — but also a period where it was less possible for the state to project unquestioned sovereignty to the limits of its borders, and where many people lived outside day-to-day state power. basically, a period where capitalism and neoliberalism as we currently live under them weren’t around, and neoliberal dogwhistles like “the government governs best that governs least” can’t be assumed to have had the same resonance.
so Le Guin’s political position is informed by a whole raft of pre- or postmodernist intellectual traditions, it’s not simply unreflective endorsement of the status quo. And to be fair, fisher is critical of these traditions, he’s not unaware of them, but to be honest I still think it’s a fucking lazy critique. “…the late capitalist-Pomo liquidation of social projects as such - the defeat of modernism in other words” is a ridiculous and wholly unjustified elision of “social projects” into “modernism”. it’s crazy disingenous to sneakily collapse all opposition to modernism or modernist political frameworks into anti-communism and therefore neoliberalism. in any case, as I’ve said before, capitalism as we know it is totally dependent on state authority to create and maintain the conditions for its survival. The idea that neoliberalism is in any way anti-state is like the idea that capitalism preserves diversity against the attacks of the Left’s homogenising impulse — pure propaganda, manifestly false.
like, you can make an argument against a leftist tradition that you don’t think is gonna work, in fact you probably should, but don’t just say “it’s not Approved Modernist Communism, therefore it’s reactionary” and act like your argument’s been made for you! that shits me.
The Lathe of Heaven does creates a few problems for me as a reader, though. It’s just that I think it’s more interesting to approach it not as a reactionary but as a left melancholic text. Left melancholy is a term coined by Walter Benjamin to describe the Left’s attachments to our past failures. Wendy Brown has written on left melancholy as a condition of lassitude and directionlessness and doubt affecting the post-Soviet Left — what does it mean to be a Leftist after both Stalin and Fukuyama?
Relatedly, it’s interesting to think about The Lathe of Heaven in terms of Brown’s theory of “wounded attachments” — the persistent investment in the politicised suffering that creates us as subjects, and consequent unwillingness to envision a world truly without such suffering. there is a major character in The Lathe Of Heaven, a woman of colour named Heather Lelache, who cannot, does not exist, has never existed, in the world Orr is told to dream without racial injustice. It’s either kind of amazing or totally fucked depending on how you read it.
more about left melancholy and wounded attachments in a bit.
Nervous Conditions, Tsitsi Dangarembga
This is one of the best books for a lot of reasons but one of the big ones, to me, is these sort of “coming clear” moments in the narration, where Tambu—who is at this point fourteen and still very much a kid, not in terms of any of what you would generally call “maturity” but just in terms of how she thinks, how concrete she is, how she goes through that primal fresh sort of suffering over having to rethink anything that she ~knows—is sort of thinking her way towards some Big Problem, and there is this incredible elegant visual language, all these things that sort of emerge and resolve and then immediately dissipate, it’s merciless, and I think it might be the best linguistic, um, possibly not depiction even so much as mimesis of a very young and very sharp person grappling with things that are just sort of out of her range/TOTALLY UNFAIR things to have to deal with. I think at one point leonineantiheroine (whose tumblr presence I miss on like, a daily basis) said that the Hunger Games reminded her of this book and I am totally on board with that too.
ahhhhhh yes best book best book best book
Anonymous asked: you wrote this really interesting piece on australian culture and sci fi fic and end of the world scenarios, which was why i followed you in the first place. you said that the obernewtyn series would be a whole other post. do you still intend on writing that? i liked the series since i was little but now i'm older realise that hey, blackface is a massive plot point. if you can be bothered, i would love reading it :)
I swear this is gonna happen someday! and when it does I will tag it “obernewtyn” so I guess you could put that in a google alert or something, I’m not sure how that works
I have a lot of thoughts about paranoid nationalism and obernewtyn