Mutual Symbiosis: A Conversation with Gerry Canavan
Science Fiction has a revelatory nature. And the work of science fiction criticism is really the work of exploring what present the past has created and what futures the present will create. Since, like Bruce Sterling says, “There’s always more future on the way,” there’s always more to interpret, always more to understand.
Several years ago, while I was writing my dissertation, I found Gerry Canavan’s Theories of Everything, in which he views SF as a genre that “rests on the knife’s edge between the promise of utopia and the threat of apocalypse” (1). Since that time, Canavan has proven himself a versatile theorizer of everything, having written on seemingly every aspect of science fiction: Star Wars reboots, ‘50s era works like They Live, and on a diverse stable of luminaries including Octavia Butler and Kurt Vonnegut.
Not only does Canavan explore diverse writers, eras, and themes in SF, he brings a joy to his work. It is easy to see his love for analyzing science fiction. Canavan took out some time to answer questions about his work on Octavia Butler, pulp vs. literary SF, the psychology of storytelling, and ecology vs. utopia.
- Joseph Hurtgen
In your book on Octavia Butler, you describe her as engaged in oppositional thinking—white vs. black; female vs. male; heterosexual vs. homosexual; disabled vs. abled and describe how that opposition even permeated her writing process: she would flip the script and write stories that were the opposite of her intentions. But no matter what oppositional discourse she considered, she always wrote narratives of survival. Could you address the relationship between her use of opposites and survival narratives?
Butler says it here: opposites are sexy. They're generative. The collision of opposites makes things happen. She says that even with a pair like good-evil, good is sexy only if it's not too good, just as power imbalance can (sometimes) be dynamic and freeing so long as it is not coercive or soul-crushing (and best of all when it creates mutual symbiosis, the union of opposites). This links up to her ideas about survival in a few ways; first, it provides a description of what she thinks life is and how it works. That struggle/collaboration between opposites is part of vitality for her in nature just as in individuals, and when you don't have that sort of mutuality, all you're left with is something inert and dead. But the other crucial aspect of survival for Butler is that it isn't the same thing as victory or freedom. Because of her place in American society, she saw survival as entailing compromise and filled with a lot of sadness. She viewed survival as necessary even in the face of constraint and pain. Survival is always mixed up with its own opposite, suicide, a recurring threat in nearly all of her novels. Her characters often seem close to simply giving up and allowing themselves to die. So, staying alive in Butler's terms is always about allowing in a certain amount of pain, sometimes as much pain as you can tolerate, even as it makes other sorts of joys possible.
"I wanted to create a surface where experimental work could flourish. I was aware and told people early on that I thought it would be a contemporary version of Emigre Magazine - something so dearly missed in our field today. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about how long it might last, but I had a very, very strong feeling that it would find a global audience.
If the project lacks narrative content, it overwhelms that with a purity of purpose that I think is unique. The surface exists for contributors and viewers, it exists as reflected and projected light. It shouldn't really exist, it doesn’t really belong on a garage wall. But there couldn’t be a better place. It is very much real and ‘fictional' at the same time, as it both deals with and exists as a host for fictional or speculative content. To be sure, the projections communicated are sincere and personal, applied and practical, and, I truly believe, cannot to be dismissed as mere missives. These are the things I was thinking about as I made the surface in the first place. I was sure people would love it and I am eternally grateful to the contributors that have found their place in the project."
Erik Brandt from an email conversation with Eric Hurtgen. July 2017
Read more about Erik Brandt's Ficciones Typografika here. Or purchase the book, with a foreword by Ben DuVallhere.
Some of my favorite images come from inspired amateurs.
Not because of the lack of pretense or because the work is somehow more pure than that of professionals, I think the ground is pretty level for most of us in that area,
but the kind of care that amateurism often affords. In this case, I’m thinking specifically of the rare illustration work of Ray Topping, a British connoisseur of American roots music.
And even more specifically, I’m thinking of this watercolor he did for a compilation of the music of Rakotozafy.
Topping was a consultant to Ace Records, working a job as a paper merchant and then in the telephone division of the post office full-time to support his love for the music. Early on Topping had talent as an artist, even attending the Slade School of Art for a couple of years. But eventually his passions as a recorded music collector won out and he began working with Ace, helping to unearth rare masters and connect them to obscure artists who he felt were deserving of a broader audience. And very occasionally, he painted album covers for Ace compilations.
In this case, his portrait was of Rakotozafy, a legendary, if somewhat shadowy,
figure in the world of 20th century African music. Revered for his skill as a valiha player
(a multi-stringed, boxlike instrument), he was a hero in his native Madagascar, making multiple recordings
throughout the 1960′s. His status as a legend grew after allegedly killing his young son in a fit of rage
and spending his remaining days in prison—dying there either of grief or starvation, depending.
- Eric Hurtgen
Conversation with Paul Roquet: Japanese Ambient Music of the 1980s
Listening to music is at once a shared endeavor and a private experience. Shared, because music is crafted for listening. Private, because the individual experience of music is always your own, always subject to your own set of experiences, always subject to your own inner emotional landscape and interpretation.
Ambient music feels especially private. Brian Eno’s soundscapes feel designed for personal headphone listening. And the rich collection of Japanese ambient music from the ‘80s invites the listener into a joyfully solitary green world. As a Westerner, however, I feared that I was missing something in my musical wanderings through Japanese ambience. If this music could instruct, what would be its lesson?
To better understand it, I talked with Paul Roquet, Associate Professor of Japanese Studies at MIT where he researches and teaches on the atmospheres of Japanese media and culture. His book Ambient Media: Japanese Atmospheres of Self, considers the function of ambience in Japanese music, video, cinema, urban space, and literature.
- Joseph Hurtgen
Thank you for taking out some time to speak with me about Japanese ambient music. I'm particularly drawn to its nascence in the '80s alongside an economic and cultural boom. At this time, Japan was becoming associated globally with cutting-edge technology and aggressively competitive multinational corporations, yet artists like Hiroshi Yoshimura created music reflecting the simple beauty of nature. Why? What is going on here?
I don’t know Yoshimura’s particular motivations, but simplicity was certainly a central focus for much of the Japanese ambient music produced at the time. Several decades of high-speed economic growth, technological change, and an ever-expanding consumer culture had promised a more comfortable life, but by the late 1970s the complexity of living in such a society was starting to wear people out. In this context, a nature-focused aesthetic became appealing precisely because it promised a break from cultural pressure, from the pressure to constantly navigate complex human-built environments. It wasn’t so much that the natural world was actually simple, but that it offered an experiential simplicity for human observers. Nature wasn’t saying anything in particular and didn’t demand anything in return. By offering compelling forms in isolation from human contexts, natural imagery tended to support the kind of attention Brian Eno had earlier highlighted as central to ambient music, the experience of perceiving something “as ignorable as it is interesting.”
How many cultures choose their griots
their shamans, their poets
by putting them off the bus?
Frank X Walker from Black Box
Vanderbilt Avenue, just south of the southeast corner of Vanderbilt and Lafayette. Brooklyn, New York
With the industrial proliferation of visual and audiovisual prostheses and unrestrained use of instantaneous-transmission equipment from earliest childhood onwards, we now routinely see the encoding of increasingly elaborate mental images together with a steady decline in retention rates and recall. In other words we are looking at the rapid collapse of mnemonic consolidation. This collapse seems only natural, if one remembers a contrario that seeing, and its spatio-temporal organization, precede gesture and speech and their coordination in knowing, recognizing, making known (as images of our thoughts), our thoughts themselves and cognitive functions, which are never ever passive.
An ongoing series of short social-platform-based videos that document a conscious noticing of the rhythm of routine. A document of the movement of light on the commuter train that Skip Hursh takes to work, as it navigates the same bend in the track every day.
Los Angeles-based producer Brian Allen Simon has been making music for nearly a decade under the name Anenon. His most recent composition, Tongue is an abstract exploration of the present moment; the act of turning feeling into musical form. Simon's work seems to celebrate the ephemeral, the changing aspect of tone, of rhythm; born as his music is in the heat of improvisation. It's in this improvisation that Simon seems to be reaching to get down to the absolute primacy of existence: the breath. Which is maybe why the saxophone is so central to Simon's music, the great tool of exalting exhalation.
It's fitting that Tongue begins with bird song; as an admission of place, a time-stamp of geography. The album closes with the familiar sounds of the shuffling of someone in the studio, someone finished with a session. And in between those bookends, Simon's most mature work to date and certainly his most accomplished. This album is an artifact of an artist continuing to hit his stride, confidently speaking in his own voice.
Recently, Brian took some time to discuss his composition and recording process on the Tongue project, the reverie of the Italian countryside and the pleasures of mastering manual transmission.
- Eric Hurtgen
Your work seems to exist at the intersection of multiple musical genres—free jazz, abstract experimental techno and ambient—as if your curiosity can't be contained by genre. Does this seem like a fair assessment of your work?
I think this is a pretty fair assessment, but it also gets kind of tricky when talking about intersections of genres in my work. My curiosity has more to do with what I'm capable of as an artist and person rather than what I'm capable of taking from different genres to generate new music. Free jazz and Ambient music have always been constants for me as a consumer of music, and Techno less-so. It's unfair to the artists that are understood in the context of these genres if I said that my curiosity about them only generates small motifs or ideas in my work that a listener can then relate back to said genres. I'm not trying to deconstruct. What I’m most interested in when it comes to studio work is generating ideas on the fly through improvisation and going back and sifting through those ideas to generate new material. Finding the seeds to grow. Sometimes the ideas are already fully formed and sometimes they’re not. Having saxophone, piano, and synthesizer at the front of a lot of my music makes it easier for one to say that the music comes out of Free Jazz, or Techno, or Ambient. I don’f fully relate my own music to any of those genres though.
Photographers are never just photographers. Just like photographs are never just photographs.
The earliest photographers of fame—Mathew Brady, Eugene Atget, Henri Cartier Bresson—were painters before
they picked up the camera, lending their work the quality and status of paintings. Their
compositions—though arbitrary moments captured in time—appear as timeless images waiting
to be recorded. Whether the image was a fiction or a fact or some mixture of both is, in many ways, immaterial. The work of
Photography isn’t so one dimensional. Photographers both find and establish meaning. Though
they often never appear in the pictures they record, a sense of how they view the world and a sense
of their personality lives within their work.
A few years ago, I showed Andy McMillan a photograph I had taken of an abandoned ‘50s era
service station. I was proud of the photograph. He agreed there was something to it and said I
should return to that location every day to take the same picture. I didn’t. But Andy’s work
conveys that kind of everyday discipline. His photographs are arresting and intelligent: they
Andy lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. His images have appeared in national publications,
including The New York Times, ESPN, CNN, Time, and The Washington Post.
- Joseph Hurtgen
- Interview conducted by Eric Hurtgen
You showed me one of your most recent photographs the other morning on your laptop. It was of a woman, on an upturned tree, against the background of grasses. One of things we were talking about is how it will translate as a printed image. Later in the day as I was staring out a window, into the street, trying to work, I was thinking about the primacy of the printed photograph, even now—maybe especially now. What keeps you working toward that version of the medium? So much of photography is now located—and exists solely—online.
While they may seem subtle, the differences in the glowing, back-lit images we see on our computers or smartphones and a photographic print are substantial. There's a sense of permanent latency to images in digital form. Each screen will interpret them differently and communicate the information differently. Making a physical print is important to me because it's a means of communicating. I use a large-format camera that lavishes the subject matter with detail and I often make huge prints. The scale and detail complicate the reading of what otherwise may seem to be documentary photographs. This often gets lost online. Having said that, the internet is a perfect home for some work. It just depends on what you are trying to say.
I feel like you've been complicating your photographs purposefully for a while now—stripping away any kind of immediate didactic or metaphoric quality. Your focus seems to me to be only on the relationship of the elements in the frame to one another—as if anything that is not in the frame doesn't really exist or, at least, doesn't need to exist. Is this reading at all correct?
I think of it in less abstract terms. The world that we live in is a complicated one. The relationship between it and our interior universe is complex. The nature of photography is both exclusive and implicit. While it can represent with incredible detail and precision, it can never represent in totality. I see this as the strength and weakness of the medium. The more I photograph the more I lean into this dynamic.
People of color die often and early in science fiction movies, an expendability reflecting society’s treatment of the group. And what group typically holds subordinate roles in sf? Again, people of color. Science fiction often demonstrates how social inequalities, discrimination, and prejudice will appear in the future, whether a future of absolute wonder or of obsolete junk. Yet, sf is filled with narratives that allow those from typically disenfranchised groups to transcend the limitations placed on them by society. Sf explores ideas with the potential to powerfully change the lived experience of humans. Sf explores identity alongside new ideas, new technology, new vistas for how humans will live.
Isiah Lavender, English Professor at Louisiana State University and author of Race in American Science Fiction (2011) and the forthcoming Classics of Afrofuturism, analyzes the role of race and racism in sf. Along with Adilifu Nama, his work has brought attention to how racial discourse has historically asserted itself almost unassumingly in sf. He discusses the work of sf writers that speak back to such institutionalized racism.
In Race in American Science Fiction, you note that sf has neglected issues of race or, at least, has applied levels of cognitive estrangement to represent other races as mutations, aliens, or some othered species. In other words, while the figures in sf might not appear as Native, Latin, or African-American, they read as if they are. So we have a resistance against representing characters as anything other than white and an additional problem that non-white characters generally fit into a monstrous or otherwise weird category. Since Race in American Science Fiction was published, the Star Wars franchise has altered this age-old approach. What do you make of the new sf cinema? Does it satisfy your call for ending the neglect and othering of issues of race in sf?
The latest installments of the Star Wars franchise prove to be a partial exception to the rule to my way of thinking. Finn, from The Force Awakens (2015), seems to be an essential character to the new trilogy and that's great, but why is he the only unmasked Storm Trooper that we see? Why don't we ever see a black imperial officer? What does it mean that the grunts appear to be people of color since only one of them has been unmasked? While all the major players die in Rogue One (2016), Forest Whitaker's death is the most memorable, sacrificing himself for the rebellion after being a spent force, choosing to stay and die in the Death Star's initial test firing.
What is the work of the university system? Producing knowledge? Burdening students with a lifetime of loans to default on? Building massive apartment style dorms and cafeterias with Chick-fil-A and Papa Johns to choose from? Knowledge production is theoretically our answer, though most universities have turned to for-profit business models. These models put pressure on professors to regularly publish scholarship while taking on administrative and teaching duties that crowd out time for writing and research. Following the business model of high productivity, many professors are forced away from working on the frontiers of their fields and, rather, write and train students to write unreadable “scholarship.” But these obstacles do not stop academics from adding readable material to their knowledge fields and finding new ways to do so.
We discussed the role of academic journals and academic writing with Karma Waltonen, English professor at UC Davis, writer, blogger, and editor of Margaret Atwood Studies.
With a visible expansion of academic journals in recent years, it is clear enough that journals are a popular form of discourse. Academic training, especially in graduate school, is geared toward knowledge production, lending itself to the journal form. Yet most of what is written and read in journals generally stays within academic circles. Do you find this problematic at all? What is your view of the role of the academic journal and knowledge production in the 21st century?
I think we definitely have an issue with academic knowledge tending to stay in academic circles. On the other hand, though, everything written is written for a specific audience--and specialists writing to specialists is part of how specialized knowledge can propagate. Still, I think it's important for us to better honor academics who write and educate outside of journals. Part of our problem is that we only reward one type of writing--for one type of audience. But surely those of us who reach even larger audiences by taking our work out into the world deserve recognition too.
I conceive a strip-miner to be a model exploiter, and as a model nurturer I take the old- fashioned idea or ideal of a farmer. The exploiter is a specialist, an expert; the nurturer is not. The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter's goal is money, profit; the nurturer's goal is health—his land's health, his own, his family's, his community's, his country's. Whereas the exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: What is its carrying capacity? (That is: How much can be taken from it without diminishing it? What can it produce dependably for an indefinite time?) The exploiter wishes to earn as much as possible by as little work as possible; the nurturer expects, certainly, to have a decent living from his work, but his characteristic wish is to work as well as possible. The competence of the exploiter is in organization; that of the nurturer is in order—a human order, that is, that accommodates itself both to other order and to mystery. The exploiter typically serves an institution or organization; the nurturer serves land, household, community, place. The exploiter thinks in terms of numbers, quantities, "hard facts"; the nurturer in terms of character, condition, quality, kind.
In the spatial sense, the grid states the autonomy of the realm of art. Flattened, geometricized, ordered, it is antinatural, antimimetic, antireal. It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature. In the flatness that results from its coordinates, the grid is the means of crowding out the dimensions of the real and replacing them with the lateral spread of a single surface. In the overall regularity of its organization, it is the result not of imitation, but of aesthetic decree. Insofar as its order is that of pure relationship, the grid is a way of abrogating the claims of natural objects to have an order particular to themselves..."
Rosalind Krauss from her article Grids in the journal October
On January 1st, New York-based artist and designer Ben DuVall relaunched his personal website as an experiment—inverting the typical utility of an artist or designer’s site as an archive of past work and remaking it as an “anti-archive.” Gone was Ben’s personal portfolio and in its place was something much more spare and direct. Removed from the constraints of a market-based approach to design or art, the space was reconfigured so that it could become a kind of performance in its own right.
Practically, Ben’s new site is a frame for one piece of content that changes daily. When the 24 hours is up, the piece is removed and can only be accessed from “the Anti-Archive custodian.” All work must be uploaded on the day that it is live on the site so the content stays firmly anchored in the present—charting somewhat in real time the currents of Ben’s creative output. This setup encourages the viewer to focus on the content that is directly in front of them while at the same time inviting them to forget the earlier work that preceded it.
What follows is a discussion with Ben about the nature of this project and the issues surrounding its making. Please excuse any shift in tone to 'interviewer.' Though I count Ben as a good friend, it's hard not to slip into a pseudo-journalistic style, especially for someone not trained in the art. Only true journalists and savants seem to escape it—one by going through it and the other by completely bypassing it.
It's kind of hard to believe that you've been running (operating?) your site as an anti-archive for almost half a year now—that's a lot of unarchived content. How are you feeling about the project at this point in its process?
Yeah, today is day 142, so about a month away from half a year. It's funny that you mention time, because so much of the work has ended up dealing with time, somewhat independently from the anti-archive concept. I've become really fascinated with video timecodes and timestamps, which arose from some work I was doing with film subtitles, but now those have branched out into some drawings and artist books. So it's something that I'm thinking about a lot, the pretty obvious references that pop into my head a lot are On Kawara and Christian Marclay, Kawara from the art-as-life standpoint and Marclay from his mining found material in the service of some kind of overwhelming or meditative (sublime?) effect.
The most important thing to me, which lies somewhere between success and failure, is that producing so much, even if it's just a quick few minute sketch, has helped me to pick up some threads between different aspects of my work that I was confused about how they fit together before. I have an extremely hard time working in series, which the site has forced me to do, first of all with everything I upload as a meta-series and even within the smaller series that show up along the way. Since I can't think of something totally original every day, I'm forced to revisit some older work or use it as a launch point.
Some day the earth will weep, she will beg for her life, she will cry with tears of blood. You will make a choice, if you will help her or let her die, and when she dies, you too will die.
- John Hollow Horn, Oglala Lakota, 1932
The particular kind of wonder elicited by environmental crises and the ecosystems that humans develop in response is one of the consistent overarching themes of environmental science fiction. Those themes invariably flow from and then back into an engagement with politics and how they influence society, both now and in the potentialities of the future. Eric C. Otto, an Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities at Florida Gulf Coast University, understands well the issues surrounding environmental science fiction and the strands of critique associated with the genre. In his book Green Speculations, Otto looks at how science fiction (sf) critiques the human values associated with environmental ruin. In conversation, Otto carefully points to a future that involves reckoning with disaster and thoughtfully mobilizing human ingenuity against that disaster.
- Joseph Hurtgen
In Green Speculations, you discuss the role of wonder in sf's descriptions of human ecosystems. The sense of wonder is often inspired by technosocial responses to ecological disaster and climate change in sf--for example, Kim Stanley Robinson's flooded New York City in 2140. What does it mean that flooded cities are entering the sf megatext? Is this an admittance of environmental defeat? How do you read these new science-fictional ecosystems?
The question of human-created, “artifactual” wonder and non-human, “natural” wonder was something I really grappled with in writing Green Speculations. And I continue to grapple with, for example, the fact that my emotions upon flying over the Grand Canyon for the first time equated to my emotions upon flying over Manhattan for the first time (i.e., tears, and a silent expletive). Both places are indeed awe-inspiring, yet they are radically different ecologically and historically. (Not to mention I was in a heavier-than-air flying machine!)
Environmental sf complicates the question and meaning of wonder, because at the same time it is concerned with human impact on the non-human world, its authors also imagine some pretty “Manhattan-esque” (if you will) responses to, and engagements with, ecology. We can’t say environmental sf wants to return us to a lost nature and restore wonder in the Rachel Carson sense, but we also can’t say it wants to solve environmental issues with wondrous technology. Instead, the “new science-fictional ecosystems” seem to be the most genuine narrative responses to a global situation where human ingenuity has impacted ecosystems but can also be thoughtfully mobilized to reverse or minimize this impact (e.g., permaculture).
Does science fiction imagine human-induced ecological disaster because it is admitting defeat? I don’t think so. There are sf stories featuring flooded cities, extinct and exploited species, overpopulation, drought, toxic waste, and more, and I think writers are telling these stories (1) to remind us that we’re not there yet, and relatedly, (2) to urge us to avoid moving toward these futures by being more thoughtful about the artifacts we create (i.e., technologies, economies, etc.).
Photograph from ‘Dogs Chasing Cars in the Desert’ by John Divola
Speed is simply the rite that initiates us into
emptiness: a nostalgic desire for forms to revert to immobility, concealed beneath the very intensification of their mobility. Akin to the nostalgia for living forms that haunts geometry
Jean Baudrillard from America
rhythmic procession of days
digital memory, knowledge coming and going
logic of rock and roll:
thanks to heroic self-sacrifice to psychedelia, I hallucinate drug-free
echoes of radio static: neurons, cells, cell-like biota,
zoetropic aurality, recognition of self, mirror staging,
dissociative panic, stirrings of uncertainty, prefigurations
the feeling that, no, this isn’t life is it?
life in the woods, life in skyscrapers, life at home
sirens on roadways as loud as sirens in dreams