The All-Seeing Eye

Musings from the central tower…

Post-RaceFail: A Post-Colonial, Post-Modern Take

RaceFail is supposedly over, yet I seem to hear about it now more than ever.  The fundamental conflict that became known as RaceFail ’09 was over how characters of various races (sometimes called people of color or non-white people) are represented in the science fiction and fantasy genres.  Opinions can loosely be placed along a spectrum of how much responsibility one believes authors have to present diversity in their works, and, when presenting a culture not the author’s own, to get it right.  On one end were those who believed that authors should be more sensitive to issues of race, should include plausible, well-developed characters from various races and cultures, and should avoid using stereotypes in portraying these characters.  On the other end were those who argued that authors have no responsibility and that if fans want their cultures represented they ought to write their own work.

The work of Frantz Fanon suggests an answer that is slightly off this spectrum.  Rather than addressing the issue of the responsibility of the creators of the dominant or colonial culture, Fanon discusses culture as a revolutionary project in colonized society.  According to Fanon, not only should people whose cultures have been colonized or appropriated create their own work, but they must do so if their culture is to survive.  Fanon sees culture as dynamic, as constantly growing and changing, as something vibrant and alive.  When the colonial stamp is put on culture, it solidifies and ossifies, becoming, in Fanon’s words, “the dregs of culture, its mineral strata.”  The colonizers then cling to this snapshot of culture, denying the oppressed people the right to innovation, using the mineral strata of colonized culture to maintain the status quo, which becomes the frame of colonizer and colonized.

Fanon does not believe that mainstream, white, Western culture is an appropriate battleground for decolonization, partly because the cultures of the colonized peoples are marked and can be used to reify and reinforce the colonial structure.  Fanon advises that such culture should not be emulated or aspired to:

So, my brothers, how is it that we do not understand that we have better things to do than to follow that same Europe?

That same Europe where they were never done talking of Man, and where they never stopped proclaiming that they were only anxious for the welfare of Man: today we know with what sufferings humanity has paid for every one of their triumphs of the mind.

Come, then, comrades, the European game has finally ended; we must find something different.  We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe.

– Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

So what would Fanon make of something like I Didn’t Dream of Dragons?  A person from post-colonial India who wants to create a work of colonial literature situated in India but fails because he or she cannot reconcile colonial and Indian cultures?  I think Fanon would ask, why not create something new?  Why stick so slavishly to the rules of colonial and Indian cultures that you cannot create anything?  It is those rules that allow colonialism to function – yes, even the rule that a fantasy novel must contain a tavern, or the rule that no dragon has ever been to India – these are what Fanon was talking about when he referred to the mineral strata of culture.  These are the rules that will always separate, delineate, and mark various people.

Or, put another way, these are the power dynamics that create authors who can’t or won’t write good non-white characters.  Look at the issue of RaceFail from a Butlerian perspective: rather than asking why the authors in positions of power are insensitive to issues of race, we ask what the relations of power are that produce these authors.

Who are the authors of science fiction and fantasy, and how did they come to be counted as such?  In other words, what makes you an sf/f author?  As “I Didn’t Dream of Dragons” suggests, there are certain rules, or tropes, that can serve as identifiers of the fantasy genre: dragons, taverns, princesses, etc.  So an sf/f author follows certain sf/f tropes, certain general fiction tropes, etc.  The author writes a certain way, has a certain number of fans, is published by a certain sort of publisher.  Some of the RaceFail argument centered around whether non-writers even had the standing to criticize writers, which means that there’s even more potentially at stake for deciding who gets to count as an author and who does not.

All this is to say that there exists a certain cultural milieu in which a certain kind of work is demanded and some writers were selected to meet that demand, and so these writers can hardly be blamed for writing the kinds of stories that they are good at writing, that they love writing, and that made them successful.  We have to look at the cultural milieu instead.  Specifically, at what Foucault calls the vehicles of power – in other words, people.  It is people – readers – consumers – who decide what to buy and what not to buy, which in turn tells us who is a science fiction author and who is a fantasy author and who is a nobody who doesn’t count for the purposes of this discussion.  Foucault said that people are not only the vehicles of power, but are simultaneously its point of impact: it is the relations of power that tell people whose work to read and whose to ignore.  Everyone – writers, and readers – is involved in a group relation of power that is responsible for the representation of race in sf/f.

Foucault would say that it is not reasonable to expect the institution of sf/f fandom to offer significant hope for change.  Instead Foucault would rely on “insurrectionary knowledges” – particularly something like a genealogy of the culture of a colonized people – to offer alternatives to the institution.  Remember, the institution works by excluding some people, by placing people in unequal power relations.  Remember, the world of sf/f publishing functions within a capitalist economy.  Foucault and Fanon would probably agree that the only way to win is to play a different game.


June 6, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment