Toying with Our Teleologies: Reflections on What SF Can Do for Anthropology
By Priya Chandrasekaran, Taylor C. Nelms, Valerie Olson, Elizabeth Reddy, Heather Thomas, and Nicholas Welcome
At the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association in late 2017, a group of anthropologists came clean about their science and speculative fiction fandoms. We weren’t the only ones. Our panel was one of three devoted to critically exploring the intersections of anthropology and science or speculative fiction (SF), in addition to the first annual AnthropologyCon, which gathered together anthropologists and game designers. There’s a long history, of course, to encounters between anthropology and SF; readers of the Geek Anthropologist will have no need of the reminder. We called our panel “Toying with Our Teleologies: Anthropologists Read SF.” The title references a line in China Miéville’s novel Embassytown. “Just then,” Miéville writes of an alien conurbation, “looking down streets with angles not as we’d have built them, which terminated or twisted in ways that still seemed almost playfully alien, toying with our teleologies […]”—and we took Miéville’s evocation as a kind of mission statement for thinking again about what SF might do for anthropology. If, as Samuel Collins has suggested, an earlier détente between SF and anthropology grew from a particular understanding of difference—holistic, homogenous, homeostatic—then we sought to jumpstart a conversation about how might we reimagine and remake the interface between the two in and for a contemporary moment that calls on anthropology to “matter” again, in new ways?
As anthropologists, we work as social scientists, but we do not simply produce “science.” Like writers of SF, our science, and our speculations more generally, happen—are fashioned and distributed—through stories. In SF, the methods of science for producing probable knowledge—induction, deduction, abduction—are reattached to sensibilities of the possible—speculation, imagination, foresight. As a result, the act of knowing—something science is supposed to discipline—detaches from realism, and reality—something science is supposed to narrate—is exposed as a kind of story. SF scholar Darko Suvin’s well-known description of science fiction as cognitive estrangement, therefore, makes SF and anthropology resonate as makers of stories about fields of experience. For SF-attuned anthropologists (and anthropology-attuned fans of SF), “the field”—both as something out there and as something anthropologists themselves create through fieldwork (as in Marilyn Strathern’s famous formulation)—is bent and twisted out of any received or normative form of “realistic” data, space, and time.
In their papers, panelists responded to the provocations posed by their readings of SF works and reflected on the importance of SF for anthropology and its future. Our encounters with SF positioned it not simply as an object of theory, but as a medium for thinking and a resource for worldly, even practical, engagement. SF is more than its writerly products, and we thus call attention to the ways SF can serve as a tool for doing anthropology. At the same time, however, SF is not like a scientific tool, not in the narrow sense as something to be calibrated to represent reality and reproduce results, experimental or otherwise. As Valerie Olson noted in her comments as discussant, in the papers we presented at the AAAs, SF—ultimately a creative form—becomes what philosopher Alva Noë claims art can be: a “strange tool,” something meant to make amazement and reorganize thought and perception.
We borrow from Olson’s comments a framework for re-imagining SF’s diverse potential for anthropologists. Across the papers we presented, the strange tool of SF works, we suggest, as a technology of alternative selves, a speculative instrument, a fantastical lens, a danger detector, and a wisdom machine.
A Technology of Alternative Selves—Healther Thomas
In “‘Brain Weird and on the Wrong Planet’: Autistic Community, Neurodiversity, and Sci-Fi Fandom,” Heather Thomas showed how SF serves as an alternative method of self-perception, one that scales to the species level. Since the late 1980s, Thomas told us, scholarly assumptions about the power of fandoms and the self-awareness of those who participate in them have transformed. Social science and humanities scholars no longer hold to the belief that these self-professed “geeks” stand unaware of how their participation in fandom and subcultural groups might constitute meaningful political, community-building, and identity-forming activities. Drawing on her own ethnographic research with autistic communities, Thomas explored how participation in online fandoms, particularly science fiction fandoms, works as a key site of autistic self-understanding, self-expression, and community formation and maintenance. What forms of disability self-expression, self-knowing, and community practice, she asked, are enabled through SF fandom? And what can studies of SF fandom bring to anthropological and more widely political questions about representation, neuro-social diversity, and social justice?
Thomas placed her research into conversation with both disability studies and fan studies scholarship to get at why SF fandom matters. It is not simply because it holds weight with those who participate. For disability anthropology, and anthropology more generally, these forms of attachment and identity matter because disabled people’s participation in fandom communities links up with their self-understanding and resistance against dominant ways of defining which bodies and realities are legitimate. In SF, Thomas argued, autistic people see their characteristics re-represented beyond a pro-social frame. Autistic persons become universally legitimate kinds of characters. Life gets retooled into a field of relational difference that exceeds the known parameters of terrestrial neurodiversity.
For Thomas’s interlocutors, then, SF is more than a vehicle for imagining a universe of varying social worlds. By foregrounding the understandings of autistic adults whose senses of otherness and displacement get processed and reworked in and through imagined worlds and futures, Thomas shows how SF gives people a means for re-theorizing the social itself as a universalistic category.
Anthropologists might take the hint.
A Speculative Instrument—Elizabeth Reddy
In “Impossible Knowledge: Mexican Earthquake Expertise and Science Fiction’s Techno-optimisms,” Elizabeth Reddy addressed how the inconsistent, yet unstoppable and often violent movements of the earth motivate the work of a thriving and diverse community of seismic experts in Mexico. This variety of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and policymakers reckon laboriously with Mexico’s geophysical instabilities. At the same time, Reddy noted, their projects are circumscribed by impossibilities. Key among these is the impossibility of knowing, with any useful degree of certainty, when an earthquake might happen.
In exploring this epistemological challenge and the expert theory-making it provokes, Reddy introduced a book of science fiction that was itself introduced to her during fieldwork: Richter 10, Arthur C. Clarke and Mike McQuay’s 1996 scientific fantasy of earthly techno-optimism. In Richter 10, quakes are predicted effectively and radical geo-engineering might even prevent them from starting. Reddy described how the impossibilities of Mexican earthquake science are constituted in social practice, considering these practices of seismic knowledge and its limits alongside those described in Richter 10.
While complex geophysical conditions afford ready opportunities for SF writers to imagine wholly new and transformative technoscientific knowledges, Reddy drew in her paper on empirical ethnographic data to describe how a community of seismic experts manages the scope of their ambitions. Reddy’s interactions with seismic technologists shows how science fiction—trained not as in Thomas’s paper on themselves, but on the world around them—acts as a speculative instrument for her interlocutors, bringing together the actual and speculative instrumentation of terrestrial geology.
A Fantastical Lens—Taylor C. Nelms
In “Invisible City: A Speculative Guide to Seeing (and Unseeing) Alternative Economies,” Taylor C. Nelms placed us in the midst of downtown Quito, Ecuador, where a diverse array of individual and collective economic activities have fired the imaginations of Ecuadorians looking for examples of alternatives to (what they see as) neoliberal capitalism. Yet these very same people—a group of development professionals and neighborhood activists not unlike the experts in Reddy’s paper—also frequently described the difficulty, even impossibility, of identifying “true” alternatives. Activities that appeared, at first glance, to be “different” could also be easily folded back into the flow of the “normal” urban economy. Following these experts through Quito’s crowded downtown, Nelms examined how Ecuadorians make visible—to themselves and others—the alternatives around them, hidden in the city’s nooks and crannies. Yet he also described how they unsee such alternatives, and these practices of seeing and unseeing alternative economies provide a perspective from which to consider ethnographic sense-making generally.
As he set to analyzing modern Quito’s shifting urban landscape, Nelms turned to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972) and China Miéville’s The City and the City (2009)—both speculative tales of fictional cities. While the former offers a paratactic catalogue of urban forms, the latter gives us a kind of guidebook for operating in divided cities. These books, Nelms suggested, offer two different ways of understanding the appearance of difference in urban space—and thus two approaches to seeing and unseeing the “alter” in urban alternative economies. How might SF, Nelms asked, serve not simply as an archive of alternative worlds, but as a methodological resource in orienting ethnographic attention?
Here, SF functions as a fantastical lens, allowing Nelms to focus on the factors that make urban forms not just diverse in the given sense of the word but potentially infinitely differentiated. Following Strathern and taking up Thomas’s challenge, Taylor advocates for a post-realist ethnographic sensibility, in which both SF and ethnography act as lenses through which authoritatively seeable worlds end up as one among many visions. As in Arturo Escobar’s description of how discourses of transición [transition] might provide resources for revisioning plural worlds, in Nelms’s formulation, SF remakes ethnographic attention itself as sociopolitical practice.
A Danger Detector—Nicholas Welcome
In “Oil’s Terroir: Authority, Science, and the Speculative Fictions of Contamination in Ecuador,” Nicholas Welcome took us back to Ecuador, this time to the Pacific coast. Focusing on the case of Ecuador’s national petroleum refinery in Esmeraldas, Welcome turned, like Nelms, to SF for a conceptual vocabulary to make sense of the noxious effects—at once social and natural—of oil production. The invisible, but nonetheless dangerous emissions of the Esmeraldas industrial complex create knowledge gaps that leave city residents, workers, and scientists speculating about the effects of pollution, even as they wait for someone to intervene. In the petrochemical spaces Welcome took us, pollution is not just factory or laboratory chemistry but perceived miasma. Industrial officials imagine it as a miasma with higher or lower numerical levels, but workers detect it as a dimension of air, a malevolent force with a life and territory of its own.
As Welcome argues, this is a lot like the alien force that turns a place in the southern United States into “Area X,” in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. In VanderMeer’s fantastical-yet-familiar vision, a stretch of the coastline has been closed to the public due to what is described as an environmental accident. Yet, rather than a natural event or industrial disaster, the region has been transformed by a chthonic presence. The authorities send scientists to investigate the phenomenon, yet each expedition ends in tragedy, as some researchers disappear, others are driven to madness, and the remaining few who come back are unable to make sense of what they have experienced. Even as Area X appears to have been reclaimed by nature, the metamorphosis defies experts’ attempts to represent it—imposing epistemological limits that echo those of the seismic scientists in Reddy’s paper and the development professionals in Nelms’s. Instead, Area X produces its own terroir, a sense of place that shifts depending on who interacts with the micro-environment, when, and for how long.
VanderMeer was raised in the American South along the oil-producing Gulf Coast—also known as the petrocoast, forgotten coast, or “America’s toilet”—and his experience there shapes the portrayal of this Lovecraftian horror. In Welcome’s paper, VanderMeer’s conceptualization of terroir offers a path to think through how contamination alters people’s sense of place as it wends its way through everyday life, institutional practices, labor regimes, and scientific knowledge. Welcome’s work on the speculative fiction of pollution also dovetails with Nicholas Shapiro’s work on bodies attuned to formaldehyde beyond the boundaries of scientific detection and Timothy Choy and Jerry Zee’s theorization of the distribution of air and the atmospherics of knowledge and power, as well as with anthropology’s long concern with bodily perceptions of danger. But Welcome’s analysis also calls attention to how today’s perceptions of dangerous localities are experienced through speculatively sensed danger detection. In Welcome’s descriptions of petrochemical emplacement, SF shows how contamination is a substance people detect through speculative modes of perception. Oil’s terroir is also its terror.
A Wisdom Machine—Priya Chandrasekaran
Finally, in “Intimate and ‘Strange Encounters’ with Climate Change and Ethnographic Time,” Priya Chandrasekaran looked at how Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (year) and Sarah Ahmed’s analysis of “stranger danger” in urban communities interlock to become a wisdom machine—aligning speculative, sensory, and material forms of knowing into a field of experience. In Chandrasekaran’s view, Butler’s fiction is less an apocalyptic forecast of climate catastrophe than an affective mirror, reflecting the unbridled consequences of neoliberal ideology, resource grabs, racism, and economic segregation in Butler’s—and our—present. Rather than statistical abstraction or future threat, climate change in Butler’s parable is a familiar “body”—indeed, an embodiment of violence, love, collectivity, scarcity, abundance, bondage, and survival, all at once. That body is made intimate through a narrative that defies the linearity of teleological time or a secular clock, instead avowing the circular refrain and premise of the Earthseed religion: “God is Change.” “Human exceptionalism” and “bounded individualism”—those “old saws of Western thought,” as Donna Haraway calls them—cannot provide solutions to the problems they have created, so Butler envisions a world that is no longer based on security, protection, or distinction, but rather on practical and contingent relationships, forged through actions rather than identities.
Chandrasekaran also calls attention to how, despite researchers’ best intentions, treating ethnographic field experience as data can erase their (our) interlocutors’ own theorizations of life. Instead, she suggests, Butler’s literary method attends to sensibilities of endurance and overcoming, as well as love and transformational knowing. Like Nelms, Chandrasekaran thus posits that, through Butler’s guidance and her play with temporality, we might re-conceptualize ethnographic practice itself. How do disciplinary parameters of truth-making enable and foreclose certain temporal engagements? And what ethnographic truths and solidarities might speculative and intimate encounters with and in the future foster in the present, when rampant financial speculation, populist xenophobic conspiratorial speculations, and apocalyptic environmental speculations all converge? Ultimately, Butler and her protagonist Lauren Olamina challenge us to approach ethnographic fieldwork—in its dual modes: writing and relating—as the cultivation of “hyperempathy”—that is, as a way to reconsider not how we view “the other” but how we view ourselves as ethical and relational beings.
If, as Diane Nelson writes, “[a]nthropology as social science is the study of alien encounters,” then all of these papers show that we must attend to the freight of those encounters and the messiness they carry—the structure and serendipity that produced them, their simultaneous allure and repugnance. We seek to inquire into how SF might become, as with Haraway’s “string figures,” a partner in a “game of relaying patterns,” an endeavor of risky, experimental co-making, full of opportunities for both trouble and pleasure.
In estranging the ethnographic field to include readable and watchable fields of possibility, these papers tinker with teleologies. For us, SF is a genre that opens up. It gives people a way to read through and beyond categories like the real, the familiar, the virtual, the unreal, the pretend, and (above all) the speculative. SF enables people to connect perceptions of the indeterminate, the unknown, the alternate. But the speculative in speculative fiction also becomes not just a matter of seeing, imagining, or hypothesizing, but of practice and partnership—not just of looking, but looking-after.
If we are after other futures, other worlds—after in both senses: in search of and already in the wake of—then in these papers, we hope to trace the beginnings of some of the practical and political resources offered at the intersections of anthropology and SF.
Priya Chandrasekaran is a Postdoctoral Lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program, where she teaches the seminar Climate Science Fictions. She just finished Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017) and has cracked open Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Americanah (2014).
Taylor C. Nelms is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine and Co-Editor in Chief of the Journal of Cultural Economy. He’s currently reading Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (2017) and Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts (2017).
Valerie Olson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Into the Extreme: U.S. Environmental Systems and Politics Beyond Earth (2018, University of Minnesota Press). She just finished reading Deji Bryce Olukotun’s Nigerians in Space and has decided to re-read Samuel Delaney’s Babel-17, which she first read in junior high.
Elizabeth Reddy is an anthropologist and Postdoctoral Research Associate at University of San Diego’s Shiley Marcos School of Engineering. She is Co-Chair of the Committee for the Anthropology of Science, Technology and Computing. She is (finally) reading A Wizard of Earthsea (1979) and has The Three-Body Problem (2016) and Nine Fox Gambit (2016) queued up next.
Heather Thomas is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. At the moment, she is reading Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi (1994).
Header image taken from the book cover of China Miéville’s The City and the City.
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