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ACLA 2013 seminar: 'Alterity Beyond Utopia'
full name / name of organization:
Gerry Canavan (Marquette University)
ACLA 2013 (Toronto, ON) – April 5-7, 2013
Note: You must submit your papers through the ACLA website:
Few genres can boast the capacity to position and reposition identities, bodies, worldviews, and material realities more effectively than science fiction. With its capacity to denature our assumed understanding of everyday life – projecting worlds in which emergent sciences and technologies, encounters with alien lifeforms, and transformations in embodied experience potentially unravel present ideologies and social hierarchies – it is no wonder that science fiction has become an important part of left-wing cultural criticism since the 1970s. Despite the flowering of scholarship on science fiction narrative and creative practice, however, contemporary academic practices of science fiction criticism remain deeply beholden to Darko Suvin’s 1972 formulation of SF as a “literature of cognitive estrangement … whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.” The Suvinian approach to science fiction studies thus refashions the genre around political (almost exclusively leftist) ruminations on utopia, understood in Suvin’s approach as an idealized post-capitalist world.
This panel seeks to trace the heterogeneous political pathways of American, European, and global science fiction to consider science fiction studies and the conceptual category of radical alterity beyond utopia. As a number of cultural critics have recently suggested, the traditional Suvinian approach to SF has often obscured the depth and variety of estrangements that science fiction, and speculative narrative more broadly, engages to critique, reimagine, reinvent, and restructure a variety of assumptions about modern social and political life; indeed, any historical overview of SF production reveals that its political imaginaries far exceed any single leftist vision of utopia. Since at least the late 19th century, American writers, filmmakers, and artists have used the tropes of SF to critique (and offer alternatives to) Jim Crow segregation, the patriarchal assumptions of the nuclear family, and the demonizing of sexual minorities; similarly, Russian creative producers helped revitalize science fiction narratives in the 1920s, and later in the 1960s, by using it as a vehicle to critique the systematic oppressions of a totalitarian communism. In these and countless other examples, SF has served as field of creative possibility for critiquing specific historical circumstances, while positioning readers and viewers within larger global contexts of oppression (not merely capitalist, but patriarchal, racist, imperialist, etc.). In this sense, science fiction might be understood as a genre less defined by a universal utopian strain than its capacity to position and reposition its audience in new identities, alternate histories, and alternative modes of being in the world.
We seek papers that contribute to fleshing out the creative positioning work of SF in a variety of historical and political contexts. What sorts of conceptual possibilities—political, cultural, aesthetic, philosophical, existential, spiritual, libidinal, queer—open up when we consider science fictional figurations of alterity outside the desire for socio-economic utopia? What happens when we treat the literary and cultural productions of SF as a kind of creative positioning project, rather than a utopian projection? What happens when we begin to imagine new systems, and build new worlds, that fit on no conventional cognitive maps? We invite papers that investigate any aspect of the relationship between radical alterity, utopia, and the complex transnational and transhistorical network of interrelated genres variously called science fiction, speculative fiction, and SF.