Big Echo

Critical SF

Interview with Natalia Theodoridou

Natalia Theodoridou is a UK-based media and cultural studies scholar, and short story writer. Most recently she has published “The Birding: A Fairy Tale” in Strange Horizons, “The Rains on Mars” in Clarkesworld, “Bone Music” in The Cincinnati Review, “The Nightingales in Plátres” in Clarkesworld, “Every Black Tree” in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and “Fixer, Worker, Singer” in Shimmer . 

The central conceit of this issue of Big Echo is that Capital is a science fictional text. If you have any immediate thoughts on that (good idea, bad idea, obvious idea, stupid idea) we’d love to know them. If you would prefer a more focused question, I just had a conversation with Cory Doctorow in which he argued (with nuance) that Marxism was inherently (even essentially) techno-utopian, that it sought social transformation through technological revolution. Would you agree with that position?

I think that all philosophical writing is science fictional in the sense that it offers up new technologies for thinking. This is going to sound simplistic, but it makes for a good analogy: once you see Marxism’s point about capitalism, you can never unsee it, in the same way that once you’ve understood the concept of scrolling or swiping on a touch screen, you can’t forget it; your relationship with the screen has changed, to the point where you might even come to expect scroll/swipe/touch-ability from every screen, eventually even from every surface. It alters the interface through which you interact with the world.

But yes, I do agree. The logical conclusion to which Marxism leads is a post-scarcity society in which technology enables fair living. However, that doesn’t mean that you cannot be Marxist while also being a pessimistic technophobe, especially when it comes to art (see Adorno, for example). You shouldn’t, in my opinion, but you could. Perhaps Adorno misconstrued Marx, or perhaps he was Marxist in some respects and not others (or we could even abandon the idea that people are coherent wholes governed by consistent thought).

Also, even though I agree that Marxism was techno-utopian, I would like to point out the determinism in that position, which, while maintaining the importance of class unity, fails to account sufficiently for cultural difference and intersectionality. Intersectionality, however, should not erase class in favour of other forms of oppression, as is the case when it is used to advocate for a more humane capitalism. More on that later.

I just read a short essay on Capital at 150 by Radhika Desai in which she argued that the two most significant contributions of the book were that it historicizes capitalism and gives us a method by which we can understand that history. Is that a fair reduction of the text? And to what extent is the SFnal project historical as much as futurological? I am thinking here especially of “The Nightingales in Plátres”

I’m not sure what the SFnal project is, because that formulation implies a sort of ideological or at least aspirational homogeneity (or even coherence) that I do not think exists, and which cannot exist in the wild cultural diversity from which SF now emerges. That said, I would like to break down the question a little: I do not see as sharp a distinction between historical writing and futurological writing as the question implies.

I would like to borrow from Hayden White’s historiographical work (Metahistory, 1973), which described history as a verbal structure that adheres to literary genres and utilizes literary devices. So you can read, for example, certain national histories as romantic dramas of self-identification that culminate in present triumph. Nations are then retroactively projected as essences that emerged deterministically (as in a romance) rather than, say, as constructs that resulted from specific socio-political and economic conflicts in which the vast majority of people are trapped and exploited (as in a satire).

So, in my understanding, one of the things Marxism did was expose the fictional framing of capitalism up to that point as a teleological tale of triumph. In doing so, it re-framed capitalism as simply one chapter in a different genre of history.

You know, I like how, in Greek, “history” and “story” are the same word. It makes the connection between history and fiction harder to miss.

Now, to address Desai’s essay specifically: I found the following particularly apt: “Such social sciences couch everything in simple present tense – parties do this, governments to that, inflation does this, unemployment does that forgetting that parties change over time, no two episodes of inflation or unemployment are the same and the actions of historical agents change the terrain of the further unfolding of history. The historical work of necessarily national classes, parties and states in managing capitalism’s contradictions through domestic and international actions were written out of the script. Nothing could be farther from Capital.”

Indeed. The present tense strips practices from their historical specificity, making them appear eternal. To connect this back to art, Nelson Goodman’s famous reconceptualization of the question “What is art?” as “When is art?” (Ways of Worldmaking, 1978) brings to the fore precisely such concerns. This strategy of making ahistorical pronouncements about how things, including art, go is how modern mythologies are born: money makes the world go round, working class people don’t read, science fiction is escapist. It is known.

I am intrigued by your idea to discuss “The Nightingales in Plátres” in this context, but of course you are right. It is a story in which the future is predicated on the past in a very intense way, because it is about trying to make sense of the world through canonical texts (i.e. historical artefacts) and intertextually. To me, texts are technologies, they are machines for thinking, and as such they can also be weapons. To remember Deleuze (“Postscripts on the Societies of Control,” 1992), “there is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.” I think that we could easily read that as “only for new texts.”

I am particularly curious about the theoretical and philosophical elements of your work. Might you say a word or two about how you use such elements for inspiration, framing or style?

I think the theoretical underpinnings of my work are implied in the rest of this discussion, but I can expand on a few points.

First, I do not see a distinction between theory (or philosophy), and practice, in the sense that theorizing and philosophizing (and thinking) are practices. I tend to turn abstract nouns into verbs in order to avoid the a-historicization of practice, no matter the field. So I am interested in doing theory and in what theory does--or, rather, what people do with it and with philosophy.

Second, fiction is often my way of working through questions or points I stumble upon in my forays into critical theory and philosophy. I have a background in Drama and Religious studies and my PhD was in Media and Cultural Studies. So, “The Nightingales in Plátres,” for instance, was about leaps of faith. I’ve always found faith in religion incomprehensible, and yet I’ve met and lived with people who absolutely and completely had faith. This presented me with a paradox, an aporia, a point at which my world and their world paralyzingly did not cohere. That’s where the story came from.

Similarly, my Choice of Games project is about the mediatization of individual experience. “Android Whores Can’t Cry“ used Buddhism-inspired practices of thinking as a way to work through issues of selfhood. “The Emptiness Machine“ was prompted by Baudrillard’s neighbourhood, described in Simulacra and Simulation (1981).

My writing tends to be eclectic and intertextual. I think one of the exercises that excite me the most when exploring characters is the occultism of creating a person that appears coherent while also believing firmly in the idea of the self as pastiche, as a series of constantly shifting positionalities.

Is it possible to write about the future without fetishizing technology?

Sometimes I find it helpful to point out that technological fiction (or speculative fiction that focuses on technology) is only one strand of science fiction. SF does (and in my opinion should) include the social sciences (and where the line is between social sciences and the relatively new iterations of humanities like cultural studies or media studies is debatable). So if writing about the future is the purview of what we understand as science fiction then yes, one can absolutely write about the future without fetishizing technology, because there are myriads of other potential foci for that future-facing fiction to center on.

How would you characterize the political or ideological origins of your fiction? How has your political trajectory changed over time? Would you characterize your project as revolutionary?

I am and have always been somewhere on the Left, anti-capitalist and anti-fascist, edging closer to anarchism the older I get. However, my Left is a Left with a very specific history and cultural context that is very hard to describe without going on a long and complicated tangent about the political history of modern Greece.

One of the failures of the Left in Greece has been its inability to grasp intersectionality while maintaining ideological and political integrity. This can be partly explained by the specific history of the development of identity politics, but I think there are ways to couple identity politics and Marxism in radical ways. I am adamant about the importance of intersectionality in political practice, but I think it is crucial to ask: intersectionality to what end? To end oppression, yes, but what is it that enables oppression and on what is it premised? I cannot find an answer that doesn’t point back to capitalism (via notions like family, patriarchy, the nation, the race, and so on). So, for me, intersectionality is fundamental to better unite against capitalism; it is necessary in order to build better solidarity. To paraphrase Flavia Dzodan, my anti-capitalism, like my feminism, needs to be intersectional, or it, too, will be bullshit (see also Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” 1989).

What would you characterize as the most exciting developments in contemporary SF writing since you have been participating in the scene? How do you see it proceeding?

One of the things that brings me the most joy is the gradual breakdown of the boundaries between speculative fiction and “realist” or “mainstream” or “literary” (or whatever other inane term you prefer) fiction. This is not about being vindicated as a “genre” writer. I’m putting “genre” in scare quotes here because “literary” is not a genre. It’s like insisting you have “no politics” or “no ideology” in your fiction--what makes your politics and your ideology invisible to you is that they are the dominant politics and the dominant ideology. Neither is it about gaining legitimacy in the literary scene or anything like that. I think, or I hope, that the breakdown is the result of a growing realization that what’s being framed and represented as reality, and which representations are deemed realistic, is ideological. In fact, this is exactly what ideology is about: the totalizing denial of its own existence, suturing over anything that might give away that it does not completely match the world. “Realism,” in this sense, is just another word for the dominant ideology in artistic practice, just another mode of engaging the world--like “objectivity,” that “unauthored voice of the bourgeoisie” (Fiske, Television Culture, 1987). This is what I see in “SF” and “F” and “weird” that is becoming more widely embraced: a loosening of our anxious grip on what constitutes the accepted (and acceptable) limits of reality, a realization that, by having reality framed for us by others, we are at the same time being framed. In all senses of the word.

this is a footer