Science Fiction World Building in a Capitalist Society: An Interview with Dan Hassler-Forest (Part Three)

HJ: You write in your chapter on Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones: “Fantastical capitalism instead expresses a worldview in which there is no outside, no future, no alternative. Its storyworlds aren’t utopian, because they lack the ability to imagine a future that is fundamentally different, let alone better. But they also aren’t traditionally dystopian, because their dark worlds aren’t warnings of what is yet to come. Instead, they constantly reiterate what is considered a basic truth of neoliberal capitalism: it’s a harsh world, in which nice guys finish last.” Can you explain a bit more how and where this philosophy surfaces in these two series? In what ways might the focus on world-building and transmedia extension serve this function of closing off alternatives rather than simply expanding the scope of the story?  

DHF: The reason I picked those two storyworlds as illustrations of “fantastical capitalism,” which is my term for the kind of “post-ideological” storytelling we seem to be seeing so much of in the age of global capitalism, is that they both function as contemporary transformations of Tolkien and Star Trek. The ways in which they both foreground a kind of gritty visual realism, and feature plots full of abrupt narrative U-turns and surprise deaths, gives them what Raymond Williams would call a structure of feeling that resonates with the cultural logic of global capitalism.

On the one hand, we recognize and respond to the residual characteristics of the genres’ iconography and narrative patterns; but on the other, they have also attracted massive new audiences because of the uncanny ways in which they seem to reflect the social and political dynamics of our own increasingly precarious and unstable world. I think those elements are very obvious in both those franchises, and they seemed to me helpful lenses through which one might approach some of the ways in which fantastic fiction has come to absorb and reflect the cultural logic of global capitalism.

While there are of course big differences of tone, style, and genre between Game of Thrones and BSG, they both have a similar dynamic, at least in the sense that their popularity seemed to derive on the one hand from having richly drawn and appealing characters in a fantastic but very “realistic” storyworld, and on the other from their thrilling ability to constantly upset audience expectations. Ned Stark’s beheading at the end of the first book/season of Game of Thrones served a very similar function as Adama being shot in the chest at the end of BSG’s first season: it radically undermines the sense of safety and stability that is so often grounded in patriarchal power as a signifier of continuity. Therefore, as fantastic transmedia storyworlds, I think they resonate so strongly with post-9/11 global capitalism because they reflect a social and economic context that is similarly unpredictable, crisis-prone, and precarious.

In terms of closing off alternatives, I think BSG is a very illuminating example of the paradoxical way in which transmedia world-building both opens up expansive imaginary empires while simultaneously diminishing fans’ meaningful participation: first, showrunner Ronald D. Moore ended up producing such an onslaught of supplemental material for the franchise that precious little time or space was left for fans to create their own expansions. (Suzanne Scott has very cleverly described this as fan culture’s transformation from “Do It Yourself” to “Download It Yourself.”) And then of course they ended the series’ narrative with a finale that, again, seemed designed to seal off the storyworld from further expansion and interference. And thirdly, the show also appeared in a context of what Matt Hills has called “just-in-time fandom,” where release and broadcasting schedules, the creation of transmedia supplements, and the constant tsunami of media news imposes severe limits on our ability to participate meaningfully, because we have to work so hard to keep up with everything.

HJ: In some ways this closing down of alternatives is ironically part of what allows people to describe such genre programs as “quality television”: that is, it gets expressed through the moral ambiguities, fatalistic plots, and ensemble casts that often are what gets added to the mix to appeal to elite audiences. You provocatively describe this process as a kind of “gentrification.” Do other possibilities open up if we look at more “low-brow” or even “trashy” programs? Your example here is Spartacus.

DHF: I do think so – or at least I really hope they do. After nearly two decades of ubiquitous “quality TV,” I certainly find myself growing increasingly skeptical and disenchanted with broadcasters’ transparent attempts to appeal very directly to the most privileged viewers. So whenever I hear someone saying that we live in a Golden Age of television, I hear in this the structural privileging of elitist notions of style, narrative forms, and media hierarchies. So in the same way that some of the most radical and subversive genre fiction was either produced outside of the cultural mainstream or appropriated by subcultural communities, I wanted to explore what a radical political perspective on less “tasteful” genre fiction might yield.

I then became fascinated by the Spartacus TV show in the first place because it rejects the usual ways in which boutique cable dramas now give us sex and violence couched within an atmosphere of cultural and artistic legitimacy. So on The Sopranos or Deadwood or Game of Thrones, you’re guaranteed to get lots of boobs and blood, but it’s never presented as gratuitous.

Spartacus takes the opposite approach and really revels in elaborate images of sex and violence, but also always stages this in ways that comment on how the show shamelessly sells this back to you as entertainment. It really works in the same way as the best kind of pulp fiction: providing visceral and “trashy” thrills, while at the same time being very smart and political about it. So even though Spartacus clearly wasn’t made as a political text, its low-brow cultural status gives it a lot more opportunities for subversion because it’s sort of flying under the radar.

But then I also realized that this is also a limitation when you start looking at how fantastic fiction and popular culture can translate to political participation and anticapitalist activism. When you look at what’s going on within organized Spartacus fandom, it’s really all about those superficial elements of the show: the big fights, the romance, the costumes, etc. So while it’s a very interesting example of a certain kind of radical politics at work in a TV show, it’s also not something that’s being picked up outside of a certain very small circle.

HJ: You write, “The storyworlds inhabited by zombies and cyborgs are post-historical in the sense that they lie not only beyond capitalism, but beyond traditional conceptions of human agency.” So, can we imagine a politics without agency? Are these stories too abstracted from our current reality to enable us to imagine viable alternatives to them? Why do the human characters so often revert back to older, more patriarchal or tribal forms of social structure in response to the threat posed by these nonhuman agents?

DHF: I didn’t mean to suggest with this sentence that we can have political thought or action without agency, though I can see how it can be understood in this way. What I emphasize in this chapter on radical posthumanism is that the models of human identity and agency that we’re most familiar with tend to be embedded in the traditions of liberal humanism. Posthuman theory seeks to break away from those humanist traditions because of the oppressive binary structures they entail. In the book’s last chapter, I use the zombie and the cyborg not so much as actual alternatives to our social reality, but as fantastic ways of understanding and negotiating the posthuman turn.

Both those tropes offer very different but complementary perspectives on the concept of the posthuman. The zombie gives us the contradictory figure of the undead: animated flesh devoid of reason, and organized as a threatening horde that also represents a paranoid fear of (proletarian) collectives. Capitalist culture has a long history of vilifying and demonizing collective social forms and celebrating the individual, from Robinson Crusoe to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Walking Dead.

As a vital form of anticapitalist theory, posthumanism breaks away from the Cartesian subject and capitalism’s entrepreneurial individualism, and explores forms of agency and subjectivity that are multiple, diverse, contradictory, and collective. So the zombie presents both our anxiety about a posthuman future, as we see human survivors clinging desperately to older forms of social relations, while also sometimes exploring new alternatives and “zombie consciousness.”

Still, I would say the zombie isn’t a very attractive role model if we want to think through the more positive implications of radical posthumanism. The cyborg, as an “impure” hybrid of the organic and the mechanical, the “authentic” and the “artificial,” the human and the Other, is therefore probably a more relatable trope. Of course the cyborg is a familiar figure in queer and feminist theory, thanks mainly to Donna Haraway’s groundbreaking work.

But I also found it a particularly helpful example of radical political theory in the context of fantastic world-building, and drew in this chapter on Janelle Monáe’s series of sf concept albums, in which she is constantly in an in-between state, both as a human artist and performer and as her alter ego, a time-traveling android from the twenty-eighth century. In her work, you don’t see the constant retreat into older, more comfortable or even “primitive” human forms, but an embrace of technology, otherness, and posthuman multiplicity that I find very helpful and tremendously inspiring.

HJ: You correctly note that much writing on transmedia world-building -- including my own earliest definitions -- stress “continuity” or system building. But you end the book with appeals to hetroglossia and multiplicity as providing better models for realizing the potentials you identify in these series for social change. So, what models do we have for opening up more space for exploring alternatives? You talked about the “muddled” nature of many of these series, which some fans would argue comes about from the lack of attention to continuity and coherence. So, does the “muddle” make the contradictions visible? Do various forms of appropriation and remixing offer ways to more fully realize and engage with those alternatives?

DHF: That’s a great question – and a very difficult one! The process of writing this book actually began with an article that I wrote about Janelle Monáe and the Bakhtinian “heteroglossia” of her Afrofuturist storyworld. So one of my starting points was the idea that there is something fundamentally political about the creation of mappable, “rationally” organized, complex storyworlds with their various canons, narratives, characters, etc.

What I found so appealing about Monáe’s work was that all of it is profoundly multiple, always frustrating our desire to see order, structure, and reason. Studying her work, the cultural legacy of Afrofuturism, and alternative approaches to world-building helped me understand the political and ideological aspects of fantastic storyworlds a lot better, and provide a provocative and endlessly enjoyable puzzle without a solution.

But I also don't’ want to suggest that this more radical type of world-building, which I relate back to Philip K. Dick’s famous essay about worlds that are constantly falling apart, is the only model for exploring alternatives. Some of my favorite sf authors, like for instance Octavia Butler, China Miéville, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Nnedi Okorafor, have created elaborate fantastic storyworlds that are politically radical in many ways, without necessarily becoming muddled or totally “centrifugal.” And as I try to make clear in the other chapters, most (if not all!) fantastic fiction is ultimately driven by a creative and imaginative desire to imagine social and political alternatives, which is hugely important cultural work irrespective of any individual storyworld’s politics.

So even though I think there’s something very interesting about those “muddled” storyworlds that refuse to make sense, either because authors like Dick or Monáe have designed them that way, or because of fandom’s uncontrollable participation, I don’t think that other forms therefore lack that kind of political potential.

What I’ve tried to do with the different case studies in the book is to show how these storyworlds are grounded in contradictions, and that our interaction with them creates a dialectical movement that can be enormously productive. And even though I do think that fan culture currently seems to heading in a direction that is more collaborative than resistant, it is still up to us to correct that movement and find new ways to break free from Empire’s gravity. Like Hardt and Negri’s work on global capitalism, my book is also intended not so much as a critique, but as a call to arms – and I hope it will be read and interpreted in that way.

Dan Hassler-Forest works as Assistant Professor at Utrecht University's department of Media and Cultural Studies. He has published books and articles on superhero movies, comics, transmedia storytelling, adaptation studies, critical theory, Afrofuturism, and zombies. He co-edits the journal Science Fiction Film and Television with Sherryl Vint and Gerry Canavan, and the book series Transmedia: Participatory Culture and Media Convergence with Matt Hills. His most recent book, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Politics: Transmedia World-building Beyond Capitalism, will be published in August 2016. Dan loves to play the ukulele and still dreams of someday mastering the banjo.