Friday, November 16, 2018

Approaching philosophy as a speculative fiction author

Two days ago I had the brilliant opportunity of giving a skype guest lecture in Michael Rea's undergraduate class on Science Fiction and Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. Michael invited me to speak to his students not in my capacity as a philosopher but in my capacity as a Real, Live Author (a capacity which I still find a bit boggling that I have!), to speak to his students about the ways in which philosophy feeds into my writing and how my writing feeds into my philosophy. He asked that I speak for 15-20 minutes, and then there'd be a Q&A, both them to me and me to them. It was an excellent hour and a quarter full of living discussion from which I came away with many thoughts about things I'd never considered before, and I thought I'd write up the brief notes I had for my kick-off presentation, as well as put together some lists that I promised the class during the course of class.

In advance of the class, I had them read Kate Elliott's blog post, The Omniscient Breasts, on the problematic internalisation of the "male gaze":

A problem arises when people write and/or read without knowing or realizing they are writing and reading exclusively from the perspective of a male gaze. When this perspective has been internalized as the most authentic or real perspective, it can subsume and devour all other perspectives because it is treated as the truest or only one.

Why does this matter? Because:

Stories told through a female gaze are just as valid, just as true, just as authentic and universal. And they are just as necessary, not just for women but for men, too.


A fortuitious series of events also lead me to read this interview with Sheri S. Tepper in Strange Horizons a few days before giving the talk, and many of the topics discussed in it informed what I wanted to say.

Notes for my presentation

Topic: Why is my reading/writing spec fic relevant/important to my being a philosopher?

  • Brief intro: Who am I?
    • Writer since age 4. 10 year gap while I wrote a PhD/established an academic career.
    • Picked up writing again in 2014; started submitting in 2015. Since then, I've had 9 short stories or pieces of flash fic published or forthcoming. I'm currently in my 3rd year participating in NaNoWriMo
  • Practical aspects: The first way in which integrating the practice of reading and writing fiction into my philosophical research is beneficial is a straightforward practical one: It gives me concrete philosophical research questions to try to answer.
    • What is "creation"? What is being created? "If creation is important to something or someone or is going to become important, then all subcreations of it are also important. Everything is important. There is nothing so unimportant you can ignore it or destroy it with complete impunity." (Tepper interview, op. cit.)
    • What are fictional characters?
    • Truth in fiction.
    • Emotions and fiction.

But this is a rather low-level reason to integrate philosophy and reading/writing fiction: Any of these research questions I could perfectly well engage in without engaging in the production or consumption of fiction; it's just that certain aspects are highlighted or more interesting to me given that I do.

I want to contrast those pragmatic/practical aspects with two other types of aspects which I think are intrinsically tied up in the production and consumption of fiction, and cannot be dealt with separately.

  • Epistemic aspects:
    • Thought experiments: What if?
    • The opportunity to explore ideas (through writing) without having arguments for them.
    • But stories are arguments, and arguments are stories. (see here, here, and here).
    • "Things done in imagination have meaning in the world. Faery is imagination, right? Things done in imagination are transferable to reality. Promises made there can become real." (Tepper interview, op. cit.)
    • We cannot get from here to there without having an idea of what there looks like. We cannot start working towards the future we want to make real until we have a way of conceptualising what the future could be like. Fiction helps us imagine that.
  • Moral aspects:
    • No one is ever persuaded by argument alone. We need stories to persuade people.
    • Every choice matters: In fiction we can chose whether to perpetuate problematic social structures. "The male gaze occurs when the audience, or viewer, is put into the perspective of a heterosexual male." (Laura Mulvey, quoted in Elliott's post, op. cit.). Kate Elliott and the "homosexual agenda": "to him, a sexual gaze was by default a male gaze".
    • "All of the stories are necessary": Necessary how/why?

The Q&A section of the class covered a tremendously wide spectrum of topics, from the very practical questions of how can we shift mainstream media (movies and books) when everything comes down to money; how do we deal with mainstream media where the narratives of the stories (e.g., strong female leadership in the new Star Wars movies) are in conflict with the actual production of the stories (how many women in executive/production roles in the making of the movies?); how do we talk to our friends, families, colleagues about these internalised defaults; how much should we, as writers of fiction, care about how our words might be used against us or misunderstood?

A few specific points came out that I though were really perceptive. One person asked if there were anything like a trans gaze (as opposed to a male or female gaze), and if I could recommend any stories that center that. I'm not sure if it makes sense to speak of a trans gaze (as opposed to, e.g., a nonbinary or genderfluid one), but I could certainly give them recommendations for stories that center trans characters and trans authors. I have elsewhere enthusiastically reviewed a collection of short stories by trans author Ana Mardoll, and I recommend them enthusiastically here. I also recommend the detailed and unending work that that Bogi Takács does, writing, editing, and promoting spec fic by trans authors. They are the editor volumes 2 and 3 of the Transcendent: The Year's Best Transgender Speculative Fiction anthologies (volume 2; volume 3; checkout the rest of Lethe Press's trans and genderqueer fiction), and they also review speculative fiction widely and have a very helpful index of author demographics: Bogi Reads the World. (Follow them on Twitter for more recommendations.)

Another person, who has read enough of my reviews of short SFF fiction for to know of my resistance to 2nd person POV, wondered if there was a connection between that and the problematic centering of the male gaze. I thought that was really perceptive, because I'd never put the two together but I think there's something there: I don't really like 2nd person POV because it feels too often like I am being told what to do and what to think and what to feel, and I resist this very strongly. But in a sense, centering the male gaze when the reader is themself not male is similarly problematic -- I am forced into viewing as an object something that I do not want to view as an object. This is certainly something I'd like to pursue further.

Finally, people asked what, concretely, they can do to fight against the problematic structures that are sadly all too entrenched in contemporary SFF media. My best recommendation there was to read the transgressive stuff and to recommend it widely. SFFReviews (linked above) provides one means of identifying stories to read; but I also promised the class a list of mainstream SFF journals that are publishing stories that push back against problems and are freely available online. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it will give people more than enough stories to start with:

All in all, an excellent experience, and no one seemed to mind too much that -- because I was skyping in from my bedroom -- I got photobombed by two different cat butts and a 7yo.