The Role of Science Fiction in Industrialized Civilization
29 April 2011
If instead of calling science fiction “science fiction” we called it rather the literature of “the social impact of science and technology” (as in the BBC article HG Wells or Enrique Gaspar: Whose time machine was first?) it puts science fiction in a somewhat different light. But science fiction is no longer the marginal enterprise that it was in 1887 when Enrique Gaspar published his The Time Ship: A Chrononautical Journey. Science fiction has become so embedded in popular culture that its background assumptions no longer need to be explained (which makes for a better narrative) and thus no longer needs to be re-framed for its relevance to be understood, even if that re-framing is an improvement in accuracy.
Not only is science fiction pervasively present in our culture — and looms large in film and television, which are the primary forms of contemporary myth-making, not to speak of entertainment — it is increasingly becoming a universal genre for modern man. Whereas poets and mythmakers once set their tales in an inaccessible past, weaving origin narratives that gave peoples their identities, our contemporary poets of the image and mythmakers of film set their tales in the equally inaccessible future, weaving destination narratives instead of origin narratives. This is significant on several levels, not least that there has been a shift in the center of gravity of the identity of industrialized peoples from the past to the future. With a destination narrative centered on the future, we are not what we came from, but we are rather what we aspire to be — we are our future. (In a fully mythological setting, the identification is metaphorical and all conditions and qualifications fall away.)
Science fiction, then, is a form of mythology, a contemporary mythological tale sent in an inaccessible time and telling of wonders and horrors that transcend the ordinary wonders and horrors that we experience in the ordinary business of life. Moreover, the inaccessible time of science fiction is the future. Science fiction has changed our relationship to the future; it has transformed the future into a presence that looms over us, at once promising and threatening. In so transforming our relationship to the future, and making the future relevant to our lives in a way that had never before been the case in human history, the human experience of time has been changed. In other words, the structure of human experience has been changed, and that means that the world has changed for us.
One of the themes that Joseph Campbell repeatedly addressed in his lectures was the need for a contemporary mythology that speaks to the condition of our lives today. This is exactly what science fiction is. All of the themes of life in industrialized, technological society are given exposition in the literature of science fiction, and in the last century the genre has gone from being marginal to being nearly universal. The themes of science fiction are so familiar that anyone who watches television of movies knows the conventions of genre. This is significant. When science fiction was young, everything had to be explained. Now that science fiction is maturing, the knowledge of what its symbols stand for is widely distributed, and that makes it possible the genre to be nearly universal.
I have in other posts addressed the perennial interest that science fiction has taken in dystopian themes, to the point that it can be difficult to name a science fiction film that is not deeply dystopian. This reveals the social concern of science fiction, in taking a particular trend in the contemporary world and extrapolating it according to an exponential growth curve instead of a sigmoid curve that levels out and reaches a plateau. I especially discussed the extrapolation of present social trends in Anxieties of the Sexual Revolution, whereas I discussed apocalypticism in Fear of the Future.
While I was very pleased with my ultimate formulations in Fear of the Future, I realize now that there is more to the apocalypticism of so much science fiction. One aspect of that apocalypticism is the overthrow of the industrial city and the regimentation of our lives that that order entails, but that is not the only aspect of apocalyptic science fiction. Another aspect of apocalyptic science fiction is the dialectical imperative to extrapolate every idea in every possible direction. Usual this means simply given explicit consideration to the negative of every positive and the positive of every negative. Most especially, in the case of contemporary science fiction, it means confronting starry-eyed utopian visions of the future with its own dark underside. This is not new.
Before the mythology of Western civilization was based upon a vision of the future and our trajectory into the future, Western mythology, especially of the Middle Ages (which is the precursor to our own civilization), was a spectacularly elaborate extrapolation of the role of supernatural agency in human life, which I have elsewhere called the eschatological conception of history. In terms of what I have called Agent-Centered Metaphysics, the period of Western civilization from Late Antiquity to early modernity has been dominated by the idea of non-human agency. In practical terms, this means the agency of what we might call spiritual beings, whether angelic or demonic.
The official line of this period of Western civilization has been rudely but accurately characterized as “pie in the sky when you die.” My favorite characterization is Bertrand Russell’s tongue-in-cheek comparison of the sublime nature of the Platonic vision of a “higher” world in comparison to its vulgarization for mass consumption:
“…mathematics, though not applicable to the mundane scene, is a vision, at once reminiscent and prophetic, of that better world from which the wise have come and to which they will return. Harps and crowns had less interest for the Athenian aristocrat than for the humble folk who made up the Christian mythology; nevertheless Christian theologians, as opposed to the general run of Christians, accepted much of Plato’s account of heaven.”
Bertrand Russell, The Art of Philosophizing: and other essays, “How to become a mathematician,” p. 111
The very loftiness of the ideals to which a civilization aspires opens up that civilization to obvious counter-narratives: the ideals are not realized, and in their place often stand stark reminders of the less-than-ideal character of the world that we inhabit. The way in which this realization manifested itself in the above-defined period was an obsession with the demonic. The apotheosis of the obsession with demonic spiritual agency was the witch craze that swept through Europe during the early modern period. As though the tumult of the Reformation and the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War were not enough for the Europeans, they went on to construct a system of belief in malign non-human agents that scarcely has a parallel in human history.
It is important to understand and detail and the intellectual effort that went into the construction of the witch hysteria; by comparison it makes the red-baiting of the Cold War look haphazard and slipshod in comparison. It is also important to understand that the witch hysteria constructed a set of symbols that almost everyone had in common. As with science fiction narratives today, once the witch craze had gotten under way, everyone knew the narrative, and so could pick up the story at any point. There were imaginative variations on familiar themes, and, occasionally, a surprising or evening shocking innovation — just sufficiently unusual to capture our interest and attention.
Hugh Trevor-Roper, in his classic study of the early modern witch hysteria gives a psychodynamic explanation for the intellectual elaboration and practical manifestations of witchcraft, which might be taken as a bit dated, but the core of the idea is sound:
“…take the case of Françoise Fontaine, the servant-girl whose interrogation at Louviers by Loys Morel, prévôt-général of Henri IV in Normandy, was discovered and published in full in 1883. Here there was no question of torture: the prévôt was a humane man, and the story was elicited by patience, not pressure. And yet the story is the standard story, even down to the details: the visit of the Devil through the window, in the guise of “un grand homme tout vestu de noir, ayant une grande barbe noire et les yeux fort esclairantz et effroyables”; the large promises made; the oppressive solidity of his attentions, the lack of pleasure derived from them, the ice-cold contact . . . In his introduction to the document, the Vicomte de Moray has shown, from the evidence of the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, that every detail of Françoise Fontaine’s experience has its parallel today: the diabolic incubus is only the sixteenth-century form of a kind of sexual hysteria familiar to every twentieth-century psychiatrist.”
“Only . . . ? No, not quite. For there is, in these numerous sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century cases, one ingredient which has since disappeared: the Devil. Today, every psychopath has his or her private obsession. The supposed incubi and succubi vary from patient to patient. In the past the neurotics and hysterics of Christendom centralized their illusions around the figure of the Devil, just as the saints and mystics centralized theirs around the figure of God or Christ. So, while the pious virgins, having vowed themselves to God, felt themselves to be the brides of Christ, the less pious witches, having bound themselves to Satan, felt themselves to be his concubines. The former, like St. Theresa or Madame Guyon, enjoyed ecstasies of glowing pleasure piercing their inmost entrails as they clung to the mystical body of their Saviour; the latter, like Françoise Fontaine or a hundred others who were dragged before their judges, felt joyless pangs as they lay crushed in the embrace of that huge black figure who “jettoit quelque chose dans son ventre qui estoit froid comme glace, qui venoit jusques au dessus de l’estomac et des tétins de ladite respondante.” In the former the psychopathic experience was sublimated in the theology of the Fathers, and they might be canonized; in the latter it ran into disorder in the folk-lore of the demonologists, and they might be burnt.”
Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: Religion, the Reformation and Social Change, “The European Witch-craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” III
This passage from Trevor-Roper fascinates me, and I find it difficult to quote only a portion of it. I encourage the reader to follow the link and read several pages before and following this quote to get more of the context. Better yet, read the whole essay. It is a masterpiece of historical writing.
The implicit perspective behind Trevor-Roper’s analysis of this particular historical phenomenon is that in every age the mass of people centralizes their concerns around a particular set of symbols, and those who are mentally imbalanced may extrapolate and, shall we say, exapt these symbols to new ends and new meanings. For an entire civilization centralized around the symbols of Christianity, some hysterics became saints if their visions were of angels, and some hysterics became witches, if their visions were of demons.
We find a precise parallelism of this today in respect to the emerging centralization of our industrialized civilization around symbols of future and the science fiction embodiment of the future. Today many people believe that they see UFOs, and for some people this is an experience that transcends the mundane concerns of daily life. It is a celestial experience, an experience of the heavens. (In my Technical Ecstasy: Futurism and Utopia, I cited Jung’s book Flying Saucers, in which Jung wrote, “something is seen, but one doesn’t know what.”)
For others, stories of flying saucers and aliens from other worlds are the stuff of nightmares, not dreams. There are unbelievably elaborate descriptions of alien abductions and bizarre procedures carried out upon abducted individuals, many of these procedures oddly similar to the sexual hysteria that Trevor-Roper mentioned in connection with demonic visions. Just as intellectuals of the early modern period could be convinced of the reality of witchcraft by testimony extracted by patient inquiry rather than torture, and the mounting evidence of so many nearly identical stories was taken as evidence that there must be something real behind it all, so too today the great many accounts of alien abduction that tally down to the smallest details are taken as corroborative, and therefore as a form of evidence. Moreover, the evident trauma that many of these individuals manifest further suggests that there must be something real behind it all.
For most of us, science fiction is something that we can take or leave. We many enjoy a film or read a novel, but that is as far as it goes. It is indifferent to us whether it is true or false; the question never even arises. Our only concern is whether the work was entertaining and had some significance for our lives. And science fiction does have significance for our lives, because it is built upon taking some interesting or disturbing trend in the world today and extrapolating it far beyond its present bounds. This is the source of human interest in science fiction. The stories speak to us because they are taken out of our lives — lives lived in industrialized technological society.
The ability of us to adopt this take-it-or-leave-it attitude to science fiction, even while being perfectly conversant in the set of symbols necessary to the narrative, is precisely parallel to the conception of religion in classical antiquity that Paul Veyne set out in his excellent book, Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? Thus I speculate that the axialization that might someday emerge from industrialized civilization may be symbolically derived from science fiction, but structurally similar to the eclectic religious beliefs of classical antiquity.
Not everyone is capable of adopting this eclectic, take-it-or-leave-it attitude. There will always be individuals whose raptures and visions are so intense that they are manifested physically and may result in unprecedented intellectual developments not least due to the visceral physicality of a symbol experienced through the body.
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Note added 08 May 2011: In researching my recent post Transcanidism I had occasion to read the Wikipedia article on transhumanism, and I found it striking that a great many of the objections to transhumanism explicitly referenced science fiction films, underlining both the dystopian character of science fiction cinema, as well as the nearly systematic way in which this contemporary philosophical idea, tied up as it is with human eschatology, has been explored in science fiction.
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