Sublime Slime: Sci-Fi as Radical Kitsch

Following his discussion of radical juxtaposition, Timothy Morton admits a point of concern. He warns: It is almost possible to show how any text could deliver a radical message… ? without accounting to properties of the text (p. 150). This concern extends to radical kitsch, but kitsch is typically not the kind of thing an artist aspires to create or would want his work to be read as. Indeed, kitsch is bad art, not even as aesthetic as camp. Kitsch is the unalloyed enjoyment of an object not normally considered aesthetic in a ‘high’ sense. ? (p.151) Arriving at radical kitsch begins with interrogating the object.

Asking questions about objects such as where did this come from? ? and where does this go? ? does ecological politics without relying on the abstract concept nature. But such materialism has its own pitfalls, and so Morton has another way of considering objects: sheer stuff. Sheer stuff is what is mass produced for the enjoyment of other people and not the objects crafted for our own use. My ipod, for example, is not sheer stuff, and I can be curious about coltan, just as Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about sugar and slavery. Sheer stuff is: the juicer, game system, popcorn popper, sewing machine, milk frother, hand-held vacuum, electric corkscrew, and glue gun. It isn’t easy to see the sheer stuff the makes up our world. I had to resort to Google search to get ideas for that list, because those are things I don’t use. When sheer stuff is art , it is called kitsch.

Enjoying kitsch takes work. Morton calls it a labor of love ? (p. 152). You have to want to like it to like it. He finds kitsch in nature writing, such as The Sand County Almanac, because it seeks to leave the aesthetic dimension to show us real nature and melt our hearts ? (p. 152). Experimental art that tries to de-reify itself, to jump off the canvas and out of the concert hall ? is another kind of kitsch (p.153).

All objects are or will become sheer stuff. All art becomes (someone else’s) kitsch ? (p.153). It’s all shit eventually. …sliminess is not only the revenge of objectivity (Sartre: ‘the revenge of the In-itself’), but also an invitation to look more carefully, to wonder ? (p.158). Acceptance is the response Morton calls for, but it is not an acceptance in earnest and needs the distracted yet ironic casualness of a California high school student ? (p.158). The reason for this attitude is that radical kitsch must remain kitsch, and not be hollowed out and worn as a design on a T-shirt. ? (p.155) It must stay slimy. Simply composting to redeem our refuse is insufficient, unless we are willing to compost for tens of thousands of years, the time it takes plutonium to cease emitting poisoned light ? (p.159).

As a genre, science fiction dates back to the early part of the twentieth century and is intimately connected to mass production (Franklin). It reeks of adolescence in its nostalgic pretensions. As the popular quote says, The Golden Age of science fiction is twelve. ? (Graham) The best science fiction stories are over-processed myths reproduced for mass consumption. Prolific science fiction writer, Stansilaw Lem, said as much:

The substance that fills the entire milieu of science fiction, and upon which the work of its authors feeds, is kitsch. It is the last, degenerate form of myths. From them it inherited a rigid structure. In myth the story of Ulysses is the prestabilized structure of fate: in kitsch it becomes a cliché. Superman is a spoiled Hercules, the robot a golem, even as kitsch itself is the simplified, threadbare, prostituted, but original constellation of values central to a given culture. (p. 68)

Degenerate as kitsch may be, what we can discover by delving into radical kitsch are our core values. Puerile, pulpy science fiction has (as it always claims) the potential to show us our real selves, not through mimesis but through fantasy. But we have to work at it, we have to want it.

Delany speaks on the nature of science fiction in Appendix A of Trouble on Triton, which begins with a conversation between two characters concerning twentieth century science fiction literature. Sam refers to an explanation he gave in the beginning of the novel on the artificial gravity on Tethys, which included a jumbled mathematical formula. The explanation, he says, would be incomprehensible to almost anyone a hundreds years prior except perhaps an s-f reader might have understood it ? (p.281). Sam’s knowledge of literary history comes from watching public channels. Bron, on the other hand, says he only watches Annie shows and ice operas ?, kitsch forms of popular entertainment mentioned repeatedly in the novel.

Also in Appendix A, is an essay that expounds on science fiction as a literary genre, citing technological innovations in printing ? for mass production as the single most important factor contouring the modern [twentieth century] science-fiction text ? (p.282). Delany discusses the metonymic name science fiction ? and the metaphoric nature of science fiction writing. Like Lem, Delany finds degenerate myths and ersatz science to be the substance of science fiction, but from that substance he identifies a rich metaphoric process:

In science fiction, science ? ?i.e., sentences displaying verbal emblems of scientific discourse–is used to literalize the meanings of other sentences for use in the construction of the fictional foreground. ? (p.285)

According to Delany, the literal use of scientific jargon expands the number of sentences available to the writer of science fiction and creates a textus ?, or extra-textual field of linguistic knowledge, within the text. (p.287) In mimetic fiction, the information from the text and information from the reader blend ambiguously to create the landscape or background. In science fiction the blend is explicit, texts rely on the literal use of scientific jargon to create the landscape. (p. 128) Reading kitsch science fiction is too obvious: the text actually spells out the landscape.

Ecological art is duty bound to hold the slimy in view ? (p.159). The kitsch ecology Morton argues for doesn’t make pretty or sublime pictures of nature ?, neither does it posit a strict materialism. Radical kitsch is a kind of dualism that accepts the slimy as slimy. Using techniques of deconstruction, Delany holds the slimy in view throughout Trouble on Triton. Bron’s behavior becomes more and more egregious until everyone (including and especially the reader) has been alienated from him. Bron is a despicable man ? and incessantly the focus of the novel. (Depauw)

In my next post, I will read the final pages of the novel as radical kitsch. Bron becomes alienated from herself. She witnesses herself and must come to terms with her sliminess. Delany exploits the melodramatic tropes of science fiction as Bron becomes aware of her own selfish motivations and deceptions–motivations and deceptions we all share.

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