The following proposal was accepted to the 2017 MLA Annual Convention in Philadelphia, PA. Panelists were selected by invitation and from an open CFP. The session was also chosen as one of the year’s Presidential Theme: Boundary Condition sessions by Kwame Anthony Appiah. I’m posting it here as an example of a successful MLA proposal.
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SCIENCE FICTION AND THE LIMITS OF COUNTERCULTURE
Special Session Proposal | MLA Annual Convention | Philadelphia, PA | 5-8 Jan. 2017
Accepted (see MLA Program)
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Sean A. Guynes (Ph.D. Student, Michigan State University), Session Organizer and Chair
James Campbell (Associate Professor, University of Central Florida), “How Counter is Your Culture?: Limitations on the Queer in Dangerous Visions”
Isiah Lavender III (Assistant Professor, Louisiana State University), “Racial Warfare and John A. Williams’s Captain Blackman”
Patrick Whitmarsh (Ph.D. Student, Boston University), “Proverbs for Paranoids: The Limits of Counterculture in Philip K. Dick and Thomas Pynchon”
Maia Gil’Adi (Ph.D. Student, George Washington University), “Beyond the Countercultural: Monstrous Desire in Latina/o Science Fiction”
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This special session opens up a conversation about the well-documented relationship between science fiction (SF) and various leftist/anti-oppression countercultural movements since the 1960s, when the literary New Wave of genre authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, and Samuel Delany, to name a few, began to dovetail with more recognizably literary authors who used science-fictional elements to explore the possibilities of alternative realities. Bringing four new approaches to the countercultural technologies of SF over the last five decades, the prospective panelists agree that SF not only embodies various countercultural movements but also exposes and challenges the limits of those movements.
This session builds in spirit on two sessions hosted by MLA 2016—“How Stellar Got Its Groove Back: Feminist Voices in Diasporic Afrofuturism” and “Cli-Fi: Climate Change and Narrative Fiction”—that addressed the political significance of SF as it is currently, and has been historically, mobilized to countercultural ends. Recent articles by Madhu Dubey in Social Text (2015), David Huebert in TSQ (2014), and Sarah Ann Wells in Global South (2014); the edited collections Green Planets (2014), Black and Brown Planets (2014), and Gender, Race, and Science Fiction (2015); and this year’s monographs The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics by Ramzi Fawaz (2016) and Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction by andré m. carrington (2016), attest to the mounting scholarly interest in SF’s countercultural potentialities as they are manifested in a wide range of political locales. Rather than focusing on a particular movement, this sessions offers a way to think SF across countercultural movements. In doing so the panelists place discrete moments in the history of anti-normative politics in the larger context of the subversion of American postwar social and political consensus.
SF is increasingly a topic of urgency among literary and cultural scholars, the genre or “mode” generating its own conferences, book series, journal special issues, and even job calls. This session recognizes that the widespread interest in SF, and in claiming authors not typically considered genre writers as SF writers, is fueled by SF’s unique historical position in the literary field as that literature defined, in the words of Darko Suvin, by its powers of “cognitive estrangement”—that is, extrapolative worldbuilding. Attending to SF as a transgressive literary space for the reimagining and remaking of gender, racial, and sexual orderings, the session embraces the convention’s presidential theme of “boundary crossing.” But the panelists also break from the bounds of the countercultures they describe; they push back against, and in the process demonstrate the failings of, individual counterculture movements.
James Campbell begins the session where the New Wave and its explicit ties to the counterculture begin, with Harlan Ellison’s story collection Dangerous Visions (1967), juxtaposing two stories, one by Samuel Delany and the other by Henry Slesar. Each story places queer figures quite differently in relation to mainstream heterosexuality: Slesar’s images of queerness merely parody heterosexuals, suggesting a fundamental lack in homosexuals, while Delany’s offers a queer subjectivity that breaks from sixties homosexual subculture to imply, at a time when such implications were rare, that (queer) sexualities change with culture, are ultimately a product of time and place. Campbell draws attention to the counterflows of the newly radical SF, where on the one hand writers like Slesar eschew intersectional political thought while others like Delany puncture the boundaries of the newly counterculture SF even as such boundaries are being established
Turning from developing notions of queer toward the black racial politics of the seventies, Isiah Lavender III expands on the work of his recent book Race in American Science Fiction to locate John A. Williams’s Captain Blackman (1975) in the tradition of Afrofuturism, setting the novel outside its typical frame in the canon of the Black Arts movement. Lavender shows how, through comatic and drug-induced hallucinations that allow the protagonist to travel through time fighting white-on-black violence from 1775 to the novel’s present, Williams aligns himself with Black nationalism in envisioning a black radical politics of self-determination founded on a platform—to borrow trauma studies scholar Kali Tal’s phrasing—of killing all the white folks. Lavender, following Campbell, suggests a simultaneous limiting of, and movement beyond, established countercultural modes and methods of rebellion.
Where the first two papers address countercultures beyond the white mainstream of drug, hippie, and sex culture associated with the youth rebellion of the sixties and seventies, Patrick Whitmarsh turns his eye on Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (1977). Published toward the historical end of mainstream American counterculture, Whitmarsh argues that both novels offer critical depictions of the cooptation of countercultural values by bureaucratic institutions. Both texts, Whitmarsh maintains, present darkly inverted visions of the new sex and drug cultures, suggesting malign motives behind politically subversive behavior. But rather than imagining the futility of countercultural behaviors, Whitmarsh argues that Pynchon and Dick’s novels provoke and attempt to expand counterculture’s boundaries through their science-fictional exploration of Cold War paranoia.
Maia Gil’Adi ends the session by transposing the ideas thus developed into the contemporary moment, by addressing the ways in which current authors critique and borrow countercultural ideas born in SF of the sixties and seventies. Gil’Adi brings the session’s inquiry into the limits of counterculture to the present by articulating the fictions of Ismael Galvan, Junot Díaz, and Colson Whitehead as literary responses to the changing political situation in the U.S. for Latinx immigrants, their families, and the policies that most impact their lives. Gil’Adi shows how contemporary authors revise and revitalize the unfulfilled promises of sixties movimiento through science-fictional means.
Thinking inclusively about SF as both a genre of popular fiction and as also a mode of literary expression that ranges from the so-called lowbrow to the highbrow, this session proposes that SF is central to the project of literary worldmaking, capable of exposing the limitations of revolutionary social and political thought while at the same time extrapolating the possibilities for life and action beyond those bounds.