Monday, September 7, 2015

Jameson on Time Travel, Science Fiction, Hyperspace, and the Camera, for Realz

Fredric Jameson reviews Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative by David Wittenberg (Fordham 2013) in the London Review of Books.
Wittenberg’s proposal begins modestly enough, with an emphasis on SF’s bias towards visuality: witness Wells’s first time traveller, who observes the passage of worlds and time as so many streams of flux, ‘melting and flowing under my eyes’ – ‘le film des événements’ indeed. The shorthand of visuality will then mark mass culture as ‘degraded’ (in the language of culture pessimists like Adorno and Horkheimer) by comparison with the anti-visuality, the anti-representational convictions, of the various high modernisms.
Not unlike science itself:
Virtually everything designated as structuralism and poststructuralism is marked, in its so-called spatial turn – indeed, in its synchronic tendencies – by schematism. This is a kind of ‘picture-thinking’ very different from what Hegel understood as Vorstellung; nor does it fall under the anathema of representation since it does not represent.

This is why science fiction, despite appearances, cannot be said simply to carry on the traditional narrative methods of ‘old-fashioned realism’, merely applying it to fantastic or at least non-realistic content. Rather, it enlists the visual literality of Einstein’s thought experiments to convey conceptions often more outlandish than his own (and this is no doubt the moment to disabuse the sceptical reader of the still widespread opinion that science fiction is always about ‘science’). For Einstein’s ‘experiments’ were very far from being the laboratory experiments and falsification devices in terms of which the history of ‘hard science’ is so often written (it took a good deal of ingenuity to invent a ‘real experiment’ – the solar measurements of 1919 – to confirm his ‘scientific’ theories). Rather, Einstein’s demonstrations were pedagogical, texts more closely related to children’s books than to applications for a grant. Yet these ‘examples’ are not to be understood as mere rhetoric: they pioneered a form of schematism which authorised the early writers of science fiction to take their cosmological fantasies literally and to re-enact in a visual (or later on a cinematographic) mode the dynamics of worlds either too large or too small to be conveyed by human language (perhaps, then, as Badiou’s work has been reminding us, mathematics is one of the ultimate – and alternative – forms of such literality or schematisation).
A problem: how do you imagine radical historical change, as from one 'mode of production' to another? One method is to gloss over such change by having one's protagonist go to sleep in one world and wake up in a radically different one. Edward Bellamy and William Morris wrote fictions in which
the narrator falls into a magnetic sleep, only to awaken a century later in Utopia. This failure of imagination is the same, I want to argue, as that of the political revolutions designed to achieve the same transition in real life: the absence of a third term between the two systems, the absence of a mechanism.

Wells’s formal innovation, on the other hand, lay in his shifting of the reader’s attention to a technological substitute for the missing historical transition, namely the time machine. (We might argue that the party was Lenin’s analogous innovation in the realm of political strategy.) With the insertion of this technological third term, the hitherto merely notional fantasy of time travel had become a full-blown genre, capable of standing on its own and developing its history autonomously according to its own now semi-autonomous formal laws and structural problems.
And so on and so forth until we arrive at the multiverse:
My own suspicion is that the multiverse is to be grasped schematically, as a distorted (and visual, literal, pictorial) symptom and expression of the rather different anxiety of the explosion of subjects under decolonisation and globalisation, which no longer finds psychological containment in concepts of nation, race, class and the like. The existence of the other, Sartre taught us long ago, is a primordial trauma for the biological individual: how much the more traumatic may not be the unrepresentable, inconceivable multiplicity of others – singular and collective – in the current human world? The multiverse – a new global version of Leibniz’s system of monads? – can serve to organise those anxieties, however imperfectly, at the same time as its possibilities of mutual intervention and contamination open up the sealed world of the earlier generic moment and offer counterfactual release from the tyranny of a fixed past and a collective destiny foretold. Science fiction has become the salvational fantasy of counterfactuality.
More so forth and so on, a lot more, involving signifier and signified, referent, syuzhet and fabula, Kant, Hegel, Hayden White, Holocaust deniers – what a party we're having! – structuralism and post, consciousness and the self, on and on through the conceptual vortex ntil we arrive at:
What time-travel stories demonstrate is: first, the transcendental necessity of a superspace in any narrative rendering of time; second, the fundamentally visual character of that superspace, underscored by the descriptive normality of its spacetime and the sense in which we merely occupy it like any other narrative scenery; and third, the precedence of popular, rather than experimental, narrative in positing this quasi-transcendental spacetime as a real milieu of the reader, the interworld of his or her perspective. The time-travel story literally depicts the physical conditions of ‘the Place’ where the ‘points’ from which we ‘view’ plots unfolding must be presumed to abide.

But modernity has in fact invented such a hyperspace from which to observe the observer: it is called the camera. And film becomes the logical extension of the time-travel narrative in that paradoxical sense in which, as Stanley Cavell so memorably put it, the world is viewed without myself. This is, then, how the structural/poststructural search for the decentred subject ended up, not with some impossible ‘death of the subject’, but rather in film theory, with the camera apparatus as that ultimate subject without subjectivity, that ultimate literal and visual embodiment of the ultimate observer of the ultimate self and of the literalisation of James’s literary ‘point of view’.


  1. Don't really know. Haven't looked for them in time travel texts.

  2. I guess I am wondering whether the ring form acknowledges this hyperspace to observe the observer albeit as if sourced through synesthesia (the visual translated to the pairing of known and unknowable/unknown). The senses of the audience sort of hyperlinked through the trace of language locating these resonances of presence without a singular self.

  3. Ring-form is about how events are ordered in the text and not really about the nature of the world depicted in the text. Did you ever see the film "Pulp Fiction"? We've got three intersecting stories that are layer out in a confusing way in the film so that for awhile in the middle you don't really know where you are. The last sequence you see on screen is one of the first to actually happen. But, in terms of how things balance out, it's a pretty good ring.

  4. Yes, I remember Pulp Fiction, and get it that ring form is about how events are ordered. I guess I am always fascinated by the nature of the world and how we are of it and in it while the nature of time challenges our apprehensions in the world as being of a direction. The metaphors employed by ring form seem highlight (signify? -- don't know the appropriate terms here) the nodes of time-space and time's arrow. And the events themselves are the collaboration of the culture's values, mores, etc After all, I'm assuming that the performers of ring-from know their listeners will hear the story as if beads on a string, and the performer wants to enchant and cultivate harmony in choosing those metaphors in events that carry carry through both aspects of time e.g. the supposedly out- of- sequence dreams and mystic shorelines, and the deeper shared time-space dissonance/coherence of the group.

  5. FWIW -- I've learned in performing to people who are usually the audience equivalent of deer in headlights when hearing poetry: preface by telling how to hear the poem (rather than what it is "about") as if they've walked into it themselves, like walking in on a timely conversation. I've had positive feedback about this practice.

    1. Interesting. Outside of poetry slams and hip-hop people simply aren't used to listening to poetry. Do kids memorize and recite poem in primary and middle school any more? I have no idea.

      As for ring-form, I suspect that for the most part the people who use it don't do so consciously. They don't tell themselves, "I'm going to structure this as a ring." They just do what makes sense and it turns out, on analysis, to be a ring.

    2. Check this out: