Tuesday, May 16, 2017

SCIENCE FICTION AS COUNTER-MAPPING: Notes on Norman Kemp Smith's Kant: Radical Alterity, Trauma, and Science Fiction

Science fiction and Kant both helped me see the world as radically 'other.'  Science fiction: I've always been a fan.  Kant: I wasn't a fan until I read Roberts (2015).  Through reading Kant (1989), I'm acquiring a set of tools for seeing the world as radically other, heightened by my concurrent reading of science fiction.  Two questions emerge: 1. Is the realisation that the world is nothing other than one's a priori projection onto it a traumatising experience? 2. Is science fiction inherently about trauma?

Without having read The Thing Itself, these questions would not have emerged.  At the same time as I've been cultivating a kind of cognitive estrangement through my building relationship with TTI, another question has flowered beneath the first two, and this is: is the estrangement/utopia SF offers a 'way in' to examination of subaltern experiences of contact and colonisation?  In other words, can SF be used as a tool for analysing coloniser/colonised, settler/disspossessed, native/alien dichotomies?  At the inflection point of each of these dualities lies a trauma, and science fiction, I would argue, offers a set of narrative strategies and tropes for their deconstruction.  Le Guin (2002) is a key reading in this regard, offering a literal counter-map of two worlds in juxtaposition, each seeing the other as its own moon; each seeing themselves, in anthropological discourse, as 'the people.'  (It is my unevidenced contention that Massey's For Space is channelling The Dispossessed in its political focus on anarchism as an ideal political form, and in its emphasis on heterogeneity as an inherent good).

I'm slowly circling around to what all this might mean for counter-mapping, contrapuntality, and indigeneity.  I'm proposing to devote a section to the following trialectical conjunction:

Indigeneity -- Trauma -- Science Fiction

I'll start with the right hand connection (Trauma -- Science Fiction).  There are certainly traumatic episodes in TTI, to the extent that it drives the plot of the book.  Another obvious one would be Slaughterhouse Five, in which Billy Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time as a result of his traumatic experience of the Dresden bombings (something Vonnegut himself experienced) (Vees-Gulani, 2003).  Everything about The Dispossessed is somehow traumatic, from Shevek's (double) forced displacement, to the existence of the two opposite worlds in the first place, and the origin of that binary construction.  Other examples will undoubtedly abound (this is an excuse for me to read a lot more science fiction!).  

Links between indigeneity and trauma are not hard to find.  The two 'set-pieces' I'm examining in my forthcoming Contrapuntal Cartographies are the northern highlands of Scotland; and indigenous/northern Canada.  Evidence of trauma comes from readings of literature, from Scott (Waverley, Rob Roy, Heart of Midlothian, Redgauntlet) and Boyden (Three Day Road, Through Black Spruce, The Orenda); I'm adding to this list indigenous/Scottish science fiction (Taylor, 2016; Dillon, 2012; Wilson and Williamson, 2005).  These will be constructed as counter-mappings.

The last piece of the puzzle then is: is science fiction counter-mapping and, if so, what are its specific resonances for indigenous and subaltern subjectivities and resistances?  What kinds of mappings flow from the extraordinary nova science fiction produces?  In what ways are these inherently 'indigenous', or relevant to subaltern experiences of cognitive dissonance, displacement, and erasure?  To what extent is it OK to say that we (white British people) understand the indigenous experience because we've read War of the Worlds, and were traumatised by it (albeit metaphorically)?  Would it really be like that?  Was it?

Is it ok to posit Kant's categories of space and time (separately) as a priori structuring of the world, subjectivity, and knowledge?  Does the fact that I am, after all, a white Euro-Canadian man make a difference, or offer an excuse, a way out?  Or was Kant just right?  I can't help but think Kant was significantly correct, and got it right so to speak, to the extent that philosophers after him only refined or revised the findings of the critique (at least up to Foucault).  At the same time, science fiction, post-modern genre par excellence (Jameson, 2005), lets us see the world including practically all of its revolutions at once (as in a kind of Borgesian Aleph, once we get into it), and the world as radically other admits of other ways of seeing beyond those circumscribed by Kant (1989).  



Dillon, Grace (ed.).  2012.  Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction.  Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Jameson, Fredric.  2005.  Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London and New York: Verso.

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

Le Guin, Ursula.  2002.  The Dispossessed.  London: Victor Gollancz.

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

Taylor, Drew Hayden.  2016.  Take Us To Your Chief and Other Stories.  Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntyre.

Vees-Gulani, Susanne.  2003.  Diagnosing Billy Pilgrim: A Psychiatric Approach to
Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five.  Critique.  44:2, 175-184.

Wilson, Andrew, J. and Williamson, Neil.  (eds.).  2005.  Nova Scotia: An Anthology of Scottish Speculative Fiction.  Mercat Press.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Notes on Norman Kemp Smith's Kant: On the Thirdspace of the Table of Categories

Kant (1989, page 113) produces a table of categories with four parts, each part of which has three elements.  It is presented in quadrants (spatially), but this is not necessary.  What is important to note is that, though we are well into that part of the Analytical (as opposed to Dialectical) Critique there is an inherently dialectical aspect to the Table that Kant notes in a somewhat self-congratulatory way.  Here is the table:

Of Quantity

Of Quality

Of Relation
-Of Inherence and Subsistence (substantia et accidens)
-Of Causality and Dependence (cause and effect)
-Of Community (reciprocity between agent and patient)

Of Modality

On page 115, Kant notes "this table of categories suggests some nice points" with respect to his construction of a priori knowledge categories which, in addition to space and time, form an exhaustive list of a priori knowledge.   In other words, space, time, and the categories is it.  Now, this is meant to be analytic (not dialectic), but Kant notes on page 116, that the third term under each of the four categories is actually a combination of the first two.

So, for example, "thus the concept of a number (which belongs to the category of totality) is not always possible simply upon the presence of concepts of plurality and unity (for instance, in the representation of the infinite)..."

Soja (1996) might have called the third term of each category a Thirdspace, but this would be to construct it as dialectical (or trialectical for Soja).  But Kant denies that the categories are dialectical, because they are part of a priori knowledge (along with space and time as noted above).

The point here (as Roberts, 2015 has pointed out) is that the table of categories has a distinctly subjective look about it, that also appears to be quite obsessively concerned with symmetry.  To psychopathologize (again with Roberts, 2015) for a moment, it almost has an OCD look about it.

The final chapter of The Thing Itself is called "The Professor [Necessity]", and it takes the perspective of Kant himself (the thing Himself) in his final days, and it is agonizing to be inside Kant's consciousness (this is a correct representation I think).

TTI also structures itself according to the twelve sub-categories by naming each of its twelve chapters after one of Kant's headings, a nice touch to a very heterogeneous novel, and one that applies a nice unity overall to a quite fragmented narrativity.  One of the funnier (for me) parts of the novel is the deconstruction of the number (12) of categories Kant produces, with an alternative of seventeen proposed by the protagonist AI with whom Charles has extensive conversations towards the end of TTI.

All of this to say that, as I enter the Transcendental Deduction section of Smith's Kant (and what a work of literature it is!), I am firmly of the conviction that not only have many after Kant failed to produce anything close to as rigorous (quid juris) or right to expound the organon of their analytic to justify the relation between a priori concepts and its objects; but that Kant himself is firmly under a kind of dialectical illusion with regard to his table of concepts (but perhaps not so much with respect to space and time).

I'm continuing to read (and be critical of) Massey (2005) at the same time as I write this, noting that she is often in the grips of a canon she thinks of as an organon (instrument), in my opinion.  To wit (Massey, 2005, page 80), "that far from standing for the stability of representation, real space (space-time) is indeed impossible to pin down."  The anti-representational rhetoric gets turned up again, but there is that hubristic human geographical claim to be able to access the thing itself (REAL SPACE) glaring through.

All of this will be appearing in my forthcoming academic monograph Contrapuntal Cartographies, due on shelves in 2019, published by McGill-Queen's University Press.


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

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

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

Soja, Edward. 1996.  Thirdspace.  Malden and Oxford: Blackwell.