The Collapse of Possibility: The Problem of Aesthetics and Ontology in Science Fiction

But all of this is beside the point: the fact that we can pick out two dominant aesthetics in the visual media form of what is supposed to be a “literature of ideas” is a problem. It indicates, if anything, a lack of ideas. If our options are just a visual vocabulary iteration of the old Star Wars vs. Star Trek debate that no one but the people having it are interested in, we've got problems.

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Reality Gives Way to the Real: The Epistemic Crisis and the Damaging Omnipresence of the Sublime

While the news media sometimes talks about an Epistemic Crisis, or discusses the caustic effect that social media has on discourse, or features a think piece about how kids these days don't share the values of their elders, et cetera, et cetera. This isn't what I'm talking about, or not the whole thing. I feel that we are in a dangerous and critically important period of epistemic uncertainty. To whit, in addition to the examples that I mention, I want to introduce some anecdotes (which is an ironic move as far as proof goes; more on that some other time.)

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"Rebel Woman": on Emma Goldman

I first heard of Emma Goldman at age 16, when I excitedly put on the second album by obscure singer-songwriter Daryl Scairiot, whose work I had found by chance. The first track, “Emma Goldman’s Arrest,” (the link opens in Spotify) is a haunting dirge, celebrating Goldman’s ideas (albeit very loosely), and memorializing… one of her several arrests; which one is unclear in the song. Her life was colorful, and spanned a couple of continents and several countries: of Russian extraction, she lived in the US, France, Germany, Russia again, Spain, and finally died in Canada in 1940.

While the similarities between Emma Goldman, known today as a political polymath of anarchist thought, who wrote on everything from the uses of violence to the theatre, and Ruth Doyle, our brash Bostonian union organizer, might seem tenuous, Goldman’s persona was intrinsic to the way Ruth presents herself. Goldman’s galvanization to political action, a combined result of her social milieu and the Haymarket affair, might easily have served as an influence on a real-life Ruth, as did Goldman’s committed anti-Capitalism and feminism. But Goldman’s real influence on Ruth — other than the arguable possibility that an historical Ruth could have read Goldman’s autobiography, which appeared in 1931 — is Goldman’s reputation as an orator.

In preparation for writing Ruth’s speech in episode 3, I sought out the text of some of Emma Goldman’s speeches, leaning especially on her speeches on patriotism and conscription, to reproduce a rhetorical pattern that would have been familiar to someone from Ruth’s background. Her style is emotional and intense — which isn’t really surprising, given that she described her first experience with public speaking as a kind of personal transport: “The audience had vanished, the hall itself had disappeared, I was conscious only of my own words, of my ecstatic song.” That feeling of political ecstasy is one with which Ruth is intimately familiar, and Goldman’s stature as a writer and a speaker — to say nothing of her involvement with the assassination attempt on Henry Frick during the Homestead Strike — would not have been unknown to Ruth.

Goldman died in 1940, and her reputation waned somewhat, until her rediscovery in the 1970s, but her specter as a figure of political commitment and eloquent warrior against social injustice — even making statements against homophobia and transphobia as early as 1923, in her reported correspondence with Magnus Hirschfeld (which is unfortunately lost). Her commitment, too, to a radical movement that encompasses “freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things” is inspirational to this day — not only in Perdition’s Teeth, but to everyone.

Listen to Chapter 1 of Perdition’s Teeth here