Monday, April 24, 2017

Notes on Norman Kemp Smith's Kant: TIME

Maybe I'm reading too much into a novel.  Maybe not.  I find, reading Adam Roberts' brilliant science fiction novel The Thing Itself, that Roberts is following his own rule.  That is, the one given in his guide to writing science fiction, also known as his Gold Rule: 'Show, don't tell' (Roberts, 2014).

The Thing Itself shows the reader (who, I posit, is in all probability a science fiction reader, and therefore more likely than most readers to be an active participant in the cultural milieu of the writer and potentially a writer him/her-self (Roberts, 2006)) what it means to construct a performatively heterogeneous world.

The world of The Thing Itself, as a heterogeneously performative one, is distinctly preferable to that of, for example, Doreen Massey in her book For Space, where she asserts that heterogeneity is something worth wanting in and of itself, and she asserts this without evidence, and as a statement, furthermore, with political intent.

Instead of a tedious quote from Massey, I will here assert with Kant (and Roberts) that heterogeneity is a property of the cognitive structure of being human and it is, furthermore, chalk-full of representational content that largely gives the structure its content.  It is part of a dialectic of inside/outside that maps onto time/space quite precisely.  The origin of this dialectic springs ultimately from the thing itself.

Roberts novel maps onto the Kantian dialectic very nicely, while at the same time producing a cognitively diverse set of responses to The Critique of Pure Reason (translation used by Roberts: unknown).   There is, truing to the fundamental dialectic of the thing itself of Kant, a mix of the interior and the exterior in terms of the locale of narrativity of the various voices found in The Thing Itself.  There are many.  We switch, in ten chapters, between several with the longest being 'A Solid Gold Penny', corresponding to Kant's category of Limitation.

The beauty of the heterogeneous narrativity of The Thing Itself lies also in its compulsive readability.  The cognitive structure of a main character corresponding to each 'fragment' chapter is set up and then fulfilled through the production of a stream of representations.  In the Solid Gold Penny section, we have a sort of Molly Bloom cognition that is inhabited by a child who evolves through the course of the section to the point where this chapter alone constitutes a short story or mini-novel in itself.

There are alternating chapters that continue the thread of the ongoing conflict between Roy and Charles who become united in their opposition to an evil AI, product of 'The Institute' that has 'solved' the problem of 'the thing itself' by accessing it through computing devices that do not hold the same cognitive limitations as humans.  They are thus able to directly access the thing itself because computer intelligences are not limited by the products of human evolution: brains structured specifically with underlying hardware that automatically 'see' the world structured in terms of time and space.

Time, in Roberts, is given as careful consideration as space, and it is structured logically according to various psychologies, times, and places in which the characters find themselves situated, from the 'olden days' of the Golden Coin chapter, to a futuristic one in which genders and times alike have become blurred almost beyond recognition.  There is an experimental quality to these chapters that feels true somehow to the spirit of Kant, for whom time:

"is therefore to be regarded as real, not indeed as object but as the mode of representation of myself as object" (Kant, 1989, page 79).

I cannot help but think, when reading Massey (2005) that not only does she incessantly 'tell' (as opposed to showing), but that she completely misses the fundamental dialectic of space-time, that of the body and its structuring devices.  She misses out too on the space-times of science fiction, as for example explained not only by Roberts himself (2006 and 2014), but by expert 'hard' science fiction writers like Nahin (2011), who demonstrate (i.e. 'show') what is and is not possible, logically and in light of the given theory and evidence, in time and space travel.

It is much more exciting to be told about space-time in a story like Roberts' The Thing Itself.  I wish the reading (both popular and academic) portions of the world had more space (and time) for this kind of thing.

[To Be Continued]


Kant, Immanuel.  1989.  Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith.  London: Macmillan Education.

Massey, Doreen.  2005.  For Space.  London: Sage.

Nahin, Paul J.  2011.  Time Travel: A Writer's Guide to the Real Science of Plausible Time Travel.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.

Roberts, Adam.  2006.  The History of Science Fiction.  Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Roberts, Adam.  2014.  Get Started in Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy.  London: John Murray.

Roberts, Adam.  2015.  The Thing Itself.  London: Victor Gollancz.

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