Politaesthetics Dept.

One of the things I heard bruited around during the recent dust-up over the Hugos was something generally spoken by people who were either avowedly apolitical, or clandestinely reactionary (and sometimes not even aware they were being so). The line typically went something like this: I don't care who wrote a story, I care whether or not it's good.

It took a while for me to figure out why this line bothered me so much, and it required a trip back to none other than Barrows Dunham of Man Against Myth. In the chapter entitled "That You Cannot Mix Art And Politics", Dunham averred that it is all but impossible not to make political statements, that every statement worth making in a work of art has some kind of political alignment associated with it. (Now that I think about it, this is the fountainhead from which sprung my own recent assertions that all entertainment is art whether we like it or not.)

When I applied that analysis to the statement above, I saw why it went begging. To say "I don't care who wrote a story" in this context amounts to demanding that the entire real-world context that informs a piece of work, and its creator, be selectively ignored. It matters that Samuel R. Delaney was black (and gay); it matters that "James Tiptree, Jr." was a woman. Not in the sense that they automatically get points simply for being those things, but because those things affected them, and their works, in the real world where they really did write their work and really did put it out in front of other people to be read.

I don't doubt that most of the people who say "I just care about a good story" are being anything but honest. For most of us, that is all we care about. But for it to be used specifically to respond to talk of how things could be more inclusive — there, it's hard to see it as anything but a disarming tactic. It's the literary version of "Some of my friends are black," and it plays every bit as disingenuously to attuned ears as the tone-deaf latter.

What the people replying in this vein are missing is that talk of getting better representation for different kinds of people, marginalized ones, in creative fields (or in any field, really) is not aimed at them as a scold of their tastes or lack thereof. It's not personal. I suspect it can seem that way, and I know there are more than a few people who mean well that make it sound that way. But the main motive is not to single out specific people and make them feel guilty for existing. (Not that such a tactic would accomplish much, anyway.)

The insincere few who say they don't care about politics are, I suspect, really saying something else: they don't want things that are free of politics, but rather free of politics they disapprove of. They want political positions that align with theirs, and render themselves invisible and unchallenged (and unchallengable). Roger Ebert would routinely get bombarded with people lambasting him for "injecting political opinions" into his movie reviews, and those people inevitable turned out to be reactionary blowhards getting splinters in their undershorts over some statement Ebert made to the effect that it would suck less to be nicer to each other once in a while. (This line of discussion also helped put the lie to the idea of "objective criticism"; every critical work is a product of the POV and, yes, politics of the observer, and we would be all better off if we owned up to that upfront and got it out of the way.)

If there's discord in aesthetics, I suspect it's not between Left and Right, but between people who let their politics inform their work constructively and intelligently, and those who simply use it as fuel for screeds. The former are happy just to reach people in some form; the latter are going to be forever disappointed by everyone who's not signing on to the mission.

I find politics just as tiresome and annoying as many other people do; that's a large part of why I mostly don't bother to chime in with my $0.02 on the subject here. But I also know political things are (largely) inevitable and indispensable. We don't have to all become rebels at the barricades, but we do have to be aware that we don't get to shrug off the context that shapes our lives.

The "apolitical" person is not free of political pressures, god love her all the same. She has simply chosen a way to be rendered all the more invisibly helpless in the face of them.

Tags: politics science fiction writing

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the category Uncategorized / General, published on 2015/09/03 10:00.

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