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Negative space,
or, Why I don’t trust æsthetes.

Which is funny, y’know, since I’ll forgive an artist almost anything if they can give me a clean pure hit of what it is I’m jonesing for. —This has been kicking around the back of my brain for over a week or so, ever since Miriam swore off Orson Scott Card, books unread. (And that has been kicking around for a while—ever since at least that Salon interview, y’know?) A discussion spawned; hell, a discussion went on a mad bender and woke up the next morning in Tijuana with a donkey because, you know, politics and art, and so trying to keep track of it all goes rapidly by the board. And anyway, the sort of person who says things like

I’m perfectly willing to accept the label of “æsthete,” although I know it’s meant to be a term of horrible abuse. Speaking as one of these aberrant creatures, I will state categorically that my expectation that art will be “æsthetic” has no political content at all. None. It’s not a disdain for politics, just a recognition that politics and æsthetics aren’t the same thing. I have political views about politics and æsthetic views about art. You can mix the two if you wish, but don’t tell me that in refusing to do so I’m doing it anyway. And I don’t have any political views that are covert or unconscious. They’re all out in the open (in the appropriate forum), and I happen to feel strongly about them. The assertion that they must be unconscious is just Freudianism smuggled into politics.

—keeps showing up, and I end up shrugging and walking away, because, you know, it’s a perfectly alien point of view; I’m sure he’s a nice chap, puts his pants on just the same as anybody else, loves his significant others and doesn’t kick dogs in public, but what are you going to do? How can you respond?

Well, a couple of ways. First, you can point out that science fiction is largely a fiction of setting: the bulk of the iceberg that’s unseen, underwater, is the act of world-building, and in that act, politics is paramount. (One is building a polis, after all.) (Oh, hey, look! World-building again!) —Therefore, it’s all-too-appropriate to keep in mind an author’s politics when considering their science fiction: an author who, say, considers homosexuality to be an aberration, is un- (or perhaps less) likely to build a world that would appeal to a reader who does not. There’s an assumption clash: one of his fundamental, foundational bedrocks is abhorrent to me, and vice-versa.

One can respond: well, yes, but there’s nothing about aberrant homosexuality in Ender’s Game, so how can it clash? Heck, there’s nothing in that book about homosexuality at all! And I will resist the urge to say oh, you think so? and I will even resist the urge to say precisely! (It profits us not to contemplate the implications conscious or otherwise of Spartanly sexless boys playing at war; we will be accused of reading into the text that which manifestly is not there, and again we would have to say oh, you think so? and precisely! and it gets us right back to who’s on fucking first.) —Instead, I’ll allow as how there’s frequently large gaps in the jerry-rigged polis left as exercises for the reader: one can hardly describe every kitchen sink, after all; one must make assumptions, and count on the reader doing likewise (which among other reasons is why fan fiction [and slash fiction] is so popular in science fiction). But that’s precisely why when those assumptions suddenly clash, it’s unsettling, even violently dissonant; as an admittedly extreme example, it’s why Bill Lind’s militant musings are either utopia or unthinkable hell, with very little room in the middle for a take-it-or-leave-it reading.

But Lind’s polemicising; it’s the sort of political art Green is dismissing above, when he thinks he’s dismissing the point of view that says all art is political. Politics as she is spoke is just another map: it’s what we say is our understanding of how we all get along with each other, and as with anything we say, we lie, we cheat, we fuck it up, we contradict ourselves, we project and dissemble and misspeak. Art is one of the ways we get over ourselves: this is what we mean when we twitter on about fundamental truths and the like. We all have a little polemicist in us, some more, some less, and if it ever comes to a fight between the author and the polemicist I’m going to root for the author every time, and this is why you can read and enjoy and fiercely love art created by artists whose politics you abhor.

But that’s hardly accepting the term “æsthete,” and recognizing that politics and æsthetics aren’t the same thing is hardly asserting that never the twain shall meet. To so rigidly divide politics from art, to blind oneself so willfully to the political connotations and consequences of art, is as short-sighted and foolish as to insist that all art must agree with one’s own politics or forever be damned. Miriam isn’t looking to validate her world-view, after all; she just wants a pleasant reading experience (for several values of “pleasant”), and she thinks such a blatantly homophobic author as Card is less likely to provide that experience, and so why bother? Thus does she winnow her chaff. (And anyway, there’s some nice socialist realist stuff out there. Recontextualize it; you’ll see what I mean.)

But what I really wanted to do before I went on too long was quote some Delany, and so that’s what I’m going to do, dammit, at the risk of landing us right back on first again: I love my significant others, after all, and I know how to put my pants on both legs at once, and I never kick dogs in public, but this, this—

...for the poststructuralist critic, this oppositional tale between thematics and deconstruction is an old story. It is the story of two opposing forces whose right and proper relation is one of hierarchy, of subordination, of supplementarity. It is the story of the battle of the sexes, the antagonism between man and woman whose right and proper positionality is for woman to stand beside, behind, and to support man. It is the story of the essential opposition between white and black whose proper resolution is for black to provide the shadows and foreground the highlights for white, for black to work for white. It is the story of evil that finds its place in adding only the smallest of necessary spices to a pervasive, essential good. It is the story of nature and her cup-bearer, the primitive, posing a bit of relief for the rigors of civilization and its flag-waver, culture. It is the Other as the locus, as the position, as the place where the all-important Self can indulge in a bit of projection (i.e., can throw something forward into the place of the Other—or simply hurl things at the Other). It is the story in which the frail, fragile, and erring body is properly (as property, as an owned place) a vessel for the manly, mighty, and omnipresent mind; where masturbation (or, indeed, homosexuality or any of the other “perversions”) is a fall-back only when right and authentic heterosexuality is not available; where the great, taxing, but finally rich literary tradition, with its entire academically established and supported canon, occasionally allows us to give place for a moment to those undemanding (because they are without the power to demand) diversions (those objects we find when we turn from our right place of traditional responsibility) of paraliterary production—mysteries, comics, pornography, and science fiction. It is the story where the conscious and self-conscious subject occasionally discovers (i.e., uncovers the place of) certain inconsequential, or even interesting, slips of the tongue or sudden jokes that can be explained away by an appeal to an unconscious that is little more than a state of inattention. It is the story of the thinking, speaking, acting subject for whom the way to consider objects is as extension, property, tool; of presences merely outlined and thrown into relief by the otherwise secondary absences about them; of the authoritative voice that knows and speaks the truth, prompted by a bit of suspect writing whose proper use is only as an aid to memory; of primary creative work that, from time to time, may rightly, if respectfully, be approached through some secondary critical act; of the mad who can be heard to mention as they shamble past a few amusing or even shocking truths, here and there among their mutterings—truth that, alas, only the sane can really appreciate.

And you might say, why, that’s riddled with nothing but political assumptions! And I’d say, oh, you think so? And I’d say, precisely!

  1. scribblingwoman    Apr 25, 06:24 AM    #
    Politics and art and sf
    Against his better judgement, Kip Manley weighs in on the politics and art debate with a post subtitled "Why I...

  2. Stephen    Apr 25, 07:50 AM    #

    I'm not a huge fan of Orson Scott Card, but I've read a few of his books and they were enjoyable enough to pass the time.

    First of all, the writer of the Salon article is a complete imbecile; I don't think I need to explain why. Second of all, I'm not sure why so many people are getting worked up over his stance on homosexuality and marriage. He's a devout Mormon whose argument is based on the _definition_ of "marriage".

    A lot of liberal people calling for homosexual marriage are the same people who want to separate religion and state. Marriage should have stayed out of the government in the first place (and should, in the future, stay out of the Constitution).

    Mexico has the right idea. Legally, everyone must get a civil union. Religiously, people may have an additional service and get "married" through a church of their choice. Some couples are civilly united months before their religious service. The U.S. government should follow this example and separate marriage and civil unions.

    Religion should dictate marriage. State should dictate civil union.

  3. 8 Ways to Sunday    Apr 26, 02:23 PM    #
    You Say Æsthete, I Say Potato
    It's really all so much mental masturbation, but it's fun, in a way, and isn't that what's masturbation's all about anyhow?

  4. Kevin Moore    Apr 27, 05:42 AM    #
    I knew it! You couldn't finish this essay without dragging in Delany, now could ya? Why, you, I oughtta....

    But seriously, I kid. Great essay. As a political artist, one who has created something as seemingly apolitical as Sheldon (yeah, right), I have always found the Berlin Wall (or is it Sharon's Wall now?) placed between politics and art to be a bourgeois self-delusion.

    And you knew I couldn't get to the end of that paragraph without using the word "bourgeois." So we're even.

  5. David Lee Ingersoll    Apr 28, 06:39 AM    #
    The reason I find Card's opinion so off putting is that he attempts to make logical, secular arguments for his religious views. And he's not that good at being logical. Too much "x types always say" in his reasoning. Kip could rip him apart with his left brain on hold.

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