The Democratic Party’s Incredible Concern for the Future

If you’re like me, you’re incredibly concerned for the future of our nation.

That’s how Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez begins his personalized “Dear John” letter introducing the Official 2019 Democratic Party Survey. I’m not a card-carrying party member but my father John Sr. was — the Survey form even includes his DNC membership number in the upper left corner — and I still get mail meant for him even though he passed away nearly five years ago.

If you’re like me — pulling the empathy string; incredibly concerned — heightening the affect; our nation — invoking tribal identification and ownership. The future — not the present, which is already a source of concern; not the past, as in “make America great again.” The future is, presumably, a code word for progressive.

I’m not accustomed to posting on political topics here on Ficticities. But the future is fictional, a temporal vector that exists only in the imagination. Not just thinking about, worrying about, and predicting the future but actively attempting to shape an alternative future according to policy specifications — that’s a kind of Ficticity, the attempt to craft a future ecosystem whose reality depends not solely on material conditions and forces but also on collective imagining. So I’m curious about the contours of this ficticitous future that’s purportedly being shaped by DNC operatives and Party members.

The Survey consists of ten structured questionnaire items, followed by a short free-form space in which you, the respondent, are invited to share your ideas on how the DNC and Democratic candidates can win in future elections. The survey wraps up with an appeal for financial contribution — A gift of $25 would be a tremendous help!.

But back to the top. What sorts of future-oriented question are posed in this survey? Most interestingly to me, do the questions reflect the futuristic concerns and plans animating the progressive wing of the Party? I used to write questionnaires for a living so I know that, by posing questions about certain topics while simply ignoring other topics, a survey can bias the results even without cheating on data collection and analysis. Each question in the Party Survey follows a similar format: Which of the following items is most important to you, do you find most troubling, etc.? Respondents have about 10 options for each question to choose from, with the opportunity to check up to 3 or 4 options for each question. So the general impression is that it’s a fairly comprehensive and open-ended instrument for polling the Party membership. But I’m particularly interested in options that aren’t included in the checklists  — options that are either ignored or suppressed in an attempt to mold the Party platform.

First question: Which domestic issues are most important to you? Okay, without looking at the options, what are the domestic issues of particular importance to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party? Here are a few off the top of my head:

  1. Achieve universal healthcare via Medicare for all or some other single-payer system.
  2. Reduce climate change via rapid transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
  3. Reduce economic stratification and increase equality by raising taxes on the ultra-high income brackets and/or on the ultra-wealthy.
  4. Reduce discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation.
  5. Open borders for immigrants.
  6. Make college education free.
  7. Establish guaranteed universal income.

No doubt there are more progressive planks, but that ought to do for present purposes. Also, these seven issues are merely progressive, modifying the status quo incrementally. They’re not radical agenda items in the sense of overhauling the political or economic system, not full-on socialistic or communistic or direct-democracy anarchistic.

Now let’s look at the actual response options listed in that first survey question about domestic issues. How well do the options address my sample menu of seven left-wing concerns?

Universal healthcare and single-payer. There are two relevant Survey response options. The first, Securing universal health care and reducing prescription drug costs, goes partway, but it stops short of the single-payer idea. Universal healthcare could be achieved via patchwork changes in the status quo combination of private sector employer-financed insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, and out-of-pocket. It could be argued that universal health care is a concern whereas single-payer is a specific policy intervention for addressing that concern. Maybe so, but reducing prescription drug costs is a specific intervention, and it’s bundled into the Survey response. The second Survey response relevant to universal healthcare, Protecting Medicare from privatization, again reinforces the status quo rather than calling for systemic redesign.

Climate change. Relevant Survey response option: Combating climate change, building a clean energy economy, and securing environmental justice. Okay, that’s pretty good, though something like “averting imminent climate change disaster” might be more reflective of being incredibly concerned for the future. What about building a clean energy economy: does that mean creating government jobs in wind and solar, or extending subsidies and low-cost government loans to for-profit energy companies? Probably the latter. And what is environmental justice?

Redistribute wealth. The Survey item says Raising wages and restoring economic opportunity for the middle class. That’s not a progressive position.

Equal opportunity. Guaranteeing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights is okay. No mention is made of women or race.

Open borders. The offered response — Fixing our broken immigration system and ensuring families aren’t separated at the border — is decidedly middle-of-the-road.

Free college education. Relevant Survey item: making debt-free college a reality. It’s gesturing in the right direction, though debt-free isn’t the same thing as free-free

Guaranteed universal income. This is an issue that’s not addressed in the Survey responses.

What other issues are addressed in the Survey response options? Voting rights, gun laws, reproductive rights, Social Security, public schools, criminal justice and incarceration — mostly these are calls for securing prior gains while extending them incrementally. To be fair, there is room at the bottom called Other, which is fill-in-the-blank rather than checkbox. But the blank space is big enough to write in maybe half a dozen words.

I’ll not continue with the rest of the Survey questions and response items. The general tenor is clear: the Democratic Party road to the future will be built largely from middle-of-the-road planks, with limited gestures directed toward the left wing. I wish I’d kept last year’s Survey so I could compare response options to see if there’s been any discernible leftward tilt. My recollection though is that the 2018 Survey was pretty similar to the 2019 edition.

Clearly the DMC’s main agenda is getting Democratic candidates elected. The 2018 elections saw a swing to a Democratic majority in the House. While some progressives won, they did so in districts that were already strongly progressive; for the most part the shift in balance of power was achieved through nominating and electing moderates. Trump’s popularity remains strong among his core constituents, but it has declined across the board since he took office. For the most part Trump won by taking states that nearly always vote Republican in presidential elections, while taking enough swing states — WI, MI, PA — to achieve Electoral College majority. Given Trump’s declining popularity, the DNC probably figures that it can recapture those key swing states, plus a few more, merely by riding along with popular disenchantment with Trump and his cronies. There’s no need to champion a radically more progressive agenda when the moderate platform is likely to turn the trick. Trot out a few media-savvy and attractive progressives who can placate the left wing of the Party, keeping them from splintering off into third-party territory. Find at least one presidential candidate who conveys a modicum of charismatic appeal. But the Party’s tacit expectation is that the future is going to look a lot like the present and the past. Based on recent trends it’ll likely be the Dems’ turn next time around. Play it safe, hit the swing states with moderation, and start planning the inaugural gala.

Reciprocal Attention Economy

More rummaging through the attic… In a recent post I noted that my old blog Ktismatics gets about ten times as many hits per day as does Ficticities, even though I’ve not written a new Ktismatics post in nearly five years. Take yesterday for example: as of 2:30pm there had been 1 page view here at Ficticities and 31 page views at Ktismatics. Though disappointed that my new stuff hasn’t garnered much of an audience, I do find it gratifying to discover that texts I wrote years ago continue to attract readers.

What sorts of texts are they? Between October 2006 and March 2014 – the seven and a half years during which Ktismatics was an active blog – I put up 977 posts. Here are Ktismatics’s greatest hits for 2018, the top fifteen posts in terms of numbers of views so far this year.

  1. Derrida and the Metaphysics of Presence (842 views). Accumulating far more hits than any others, this post explains in layman’s terms a theory expounded by philosopher Jacques Derrida.
  2. Charolastra Manifesto (519 views). This post reproduces a document that appears in Y Tu Mamá También, a 2001 film by Cuarón.
  3. The Shining by Kubrick, 1980 (414 views). Five screengrabs from the movie, with 105 comments discussing it.
  4. Does Atonement the Movie Betray the Book? (410 views). A bit of a critique of the 2007 cinematic treatment of McEwan’s 2001 novel.
  5. The Divine Irreference of Images (293 views). This, the third post I ever wrote, refers to and expands on the first subheading in the first chapter of philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s 1994 Simulacra and Simulation.
  6. Mors Ontologica (225 views). This title refers to the chemical name of a street drug called Substance D in Philip Dick’s 1977 A Scanner Darkly.; the post compares Dick’s book favorably with the 2006 movie The Departed by Scorsese.
  7. Melancholia by Von Trier, 2011 (191 views). Three screengrabs with 187 comments discussing the movie.
  8. WR: Mysteries of the Organism by Makavejev, 1971 (182 views). Five screengrabs with 21 comments discussing the movie.
  9. The Color Purple by Spielberg, 1985 (170 views). Five annotated screengrabs with 23 comments discussing the movie.
  10. Office Space by Judge, 1999 (167 views). Five screengrabs, no comments.
  11. Mythical Truth, Mythical Reality (149 views) Here I was critiquing the possibility that a text can be true without being factually accurate.
  12. The Unconscious God of Lacan (148 views). An exploration of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s famous contention that God isn’t dead; he’s unconscious.
  13. The Science of the Concrete (144 views). Refers to and elaborates on the first chapter of Claude Levi-Strauss’s Savage Minds.
  14. Doppelgänger Theory in Colossians 3 and Romans 6 (142 views). An exegetical investigation of the Apostle Paul’s contrast between the “old man” and the “new man.”
  15. Coraline by Selleck, 2009 (142 views). Four screengrabs with 26 comments discussing the movie.

It’s notable that 9 of the 15 biggest hitters, 8 of the top 10, are about movies. Fandom. Four interact with philosophical texts — more fandom. One interprets Biblical text — still more fandom. The only post from this year’s 15 greatest hits that isn’t explicitly about a particular movie or text is number 11, the one exploring mythic truth, a concept that refers to particular kinds of text, especially religious ones.

In more than one Ktistmatics post I made reference to Jonathan Beller’s 2006 The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle. From page 181:

Increasingly, part of the value of the commodity, be it a painting or a Hollywood star, comes from the amount of (unpaid-for) visual attention it has absorbed.

When I wrote a post about Y Tu Mamá También I was doing unpaid labor, directing readers’ attention to the movie, to the director, to the producer and distributor. But the movie is also doing free work for me, drawing its fans’ attention to my post, to my blog, to me. Reciprocal attention economy.

In grad school I did some predictive statistical modeling of how often published scientific research articles are likely to be cited in subsequent years’ publications. Bottom line: if you cite a lot of studies, and a lot of other researchers also cite those same studies, then your study is likely to be cited frequently in turn. In my last post I quoted a passage from A Separation, a 2017 novel by Katie Kitamura. On the book’s back cover are four blurbs by novelists, each attributed to so-and-so, author of Such-and-Such. I’d read all four of those blurbists’ featured such-and-suches: if you like those novels, you’ll like this one, and vice versa. Reciprocal attention economy.

Site Stats for 2018

In 2018 Ficticities has had just over a thousand page views, or about 3 per day. I’ve published 94 new posts on Ficticities this year — about one every 4 days.

So far this year my old blog Ktismatics has had more than ten thousand page views, or about 31 per day. I haven’t put up a new post on Ktismatics since March 2014 — nearly 5 years ago.

Standards of Anarchy


A couple of days ago Jonathan Erdman wrote a comment on one of my posts, and my reply to his comment has extended itself so much both in time and in length that I’m putting it up as a separate post. In his comment Jonathan wrote:

Another possibility as regards anarchist-leaning writers…..Anarchistic folk tend to be difficult to herd together — for any project… The original philosophical anarchists were called “libertarians,” in truth the two terms were synonymous. In any event, anarchistic folk tend to be very independent and opinionated. Again, not easy to get them to commit to a large-scale movement… I also tend to believe that markets work, on a small scale. So, my idea of anti-capitalism would be more along the lines of Ebay: bring together the collective works of all the authors of the world and let them run their own massive publishing house, with no Jeff Bezos to skim billions of profits off the top.

There are three established mechanisms for herding individual writers together: the traditional publisher-bookstore apparatus, the edited literary magazine, and the online platform. In theory the writers could have self-organized any or all of these herding schemes; in practice it’s typically been imposed on them by managers, operations people, marketing people, investors. Amazon is like that: the writers and readers could have banded together to create a collective anarchist platform, but they didn’t. Now it’s too late: Amazon holds a monopolistic stranglehold, and it’s well-positioned either to crush alternative models, or to buy them out, or to imitate them and beat them at their own game. The writers might see themselves as anarcho-libertarian entrepreneurs as they send out inquiry letters to agents or submit short stories to magazine publishers or self-publish novels on Amazon, but they’re being herded nonetheless.

I’m picturing an Amazon-like platform for short fictions — there are some out there. Writers self-publish their own stories on the platform, readers look through the offerings to find what they like. Let’s assume that no money changes hands: it’s all open-access. Writers write from whatever passions motivate them, and they respond to the call of the audience as they see fit. No doubt an emergent order would arise from this anarchist swarm, not necessarily in the pyramid shape of commercial fictions but in a kind of N-dimensional clustering, with writers and readers who share particular interests or tastes finding one another and generating enough critical mass to form an asteroid, a planet, a solar system… But it’s a big universe, so there’s plenty of room to expand before either the singularity collapses everything back down in its black-hole gravitational field or entropy splits everything back apart into isolated atoms floating in the void.

Like you, I find that sort of emergent order idea appealing. What draws me to a more collective form of anarchism is a concern for excellence. The converging forces pulling together a totally bottom-up self-organized system would seem to involve the interplays of passion and calling, of supply and demand, unencumbered by the external constraints imposed by the owners and managers. It’s a kind of laissez-faire capitalism without the money and top-down organization, the invisible hand freed from the shackles of capital. Or maybe like democracy without political party apparatus and lobbyists and big-money campaign contributors.

It’s not certain that unfettered bottom-up democracy would turn into mob rule, nor that unfettered capitalism would generate a bunch of commodified junk. I am, however, concerned about a possible loss of excellence, overwhelmed by the mediocre tastes of the herd. Writing options would be generated as variants on what already achieves popularity, not on what ought to be or even what could be. So too with judgment: it’s a matter of deciding among the options on the table rather than comparing those options to some sort of standards.

All the same I’m skeptical of the standard-setters and the tastemakers, the elite who separate the sheep from the goats. Who anointed them; by what standards are they rendering judgment; who holds them accountable? In a republic the voters, the elected officials, and the government appointees are all held accountable by laws and the Constitution. Capitalism too is held accountable to laws and regulations. But as we well know these standards are subject to interpretation, to selective enforcement, to change. In a post from February 2018, also inspired by a comment from Jonathan Erdman, I wrote this:

So let’s say I’ve already actualized my potential to be a novelist by actually writing a novel. Am I justified now in professing myself to be a novelist? Or, in making the profession, am I offering my response to a higher calling, issued by some standard beyond myself, a standard to which I aspire, an actualization of a potential that resides not in me as writer but in the standard, in the sacred order of the True Fiction?

I agree that anarchists were originally libertarians, but typically with a collective orientation toward ownership and management, as opposed to the individualism that tends to dominate contemporary use of the term. “Anarchy” doesn’t mean lawless; it means leaderless. Laws and standards can be promulgated and enforced by collective agreement, rather than being pushed down everyone’s throats by the authorities.

I’m not advocating some sort of eternal ideal of beauty and justice against which every work is measured (and inevitably found wanting). Surely standards too can change: they can emerge bottom-up from a free democracy or a free market. They can also descend top-down from a political and economic Olympus.

In my posts on this website I’ve been reluctant to render any sort of judgment about the short stories I’ve read. It’s not that I harbor no opinions; it’s that I wanted to engage those texts on some other dimensions. My sense is that, when most people finish reading a text, they quickly arrive at an opinion as to whether they liked it or not, whether they thought it was good or bad. It’s nearly instinctive. Consciously or otherwise, people compare the new text with what they’ve read in the past, not just specifically but generally, as a sort of composite image or template. Some readers are able to make explicit the evaluation criteria they’ve abstracted from prior readings, from discussions with friends, from reviews. These templates and standards, built and refined on an ever-expanding experiential base, shape the experience of evaluating an actual text. But the standards and templates aren’t actual texts; they’re products of memory and imagination and thought. I.e., the standards and templates are fictions.

So I’m interested in exploring these fictional criteria by which people judge actual fictional texts. Readers spontaneously render judgments even if they can’t make their evaluation criteria explicit. Writers want to know what readers think of their work even if the opinions aren’t well elaborated. The Bestseller Code (2016) described a self-learning AI that was able to predict bestsellers based on variables it abstracted from data on previous bestsellers — these variables constitute a kind of bottom-up set of standards emerging from the marketplace. I’m curious also about the more top-down standards imposed by editors and publishers, the vetting process by which they decide which texts readers actually get to read. Maybe by understanding judgment — the comparison of actual fictions with fictional abstractions — from both the bottom up and the top down, some sort of meaningful convergence could result.

 

Son of Strands

In the last post I revisited Strands, a possible project idea from the early days of Ficticities. Back then I abandoned the project as weak tea that can’t be brewed, but based on subsequent experience I’m reconsidering. So, walking it through by example, here’s how a new issue of Son of Strands might take shape…

Strand. Let’s say that the topic for the upcoming issue is “Funeral.”

Request for Manuscripts. Son of Strands will be listed in online registries of short fiction magazines, issuing an open call. In addition, specific individual requests might be extended to writers whose work the publisher/editor admires or who’ve had pieces previously published in the magazine. Writers finding their way to the Son of Strands website are presented with an issue-specific call for submissions: Funeral, in this example. Consider the various elements that surround a funeral: obituary, announcement, hearing the sad news, organizing the funeral ceremony, prep/presenting the remains, gathering the mourners, wake, cortege, hymns/readings, eulogy, interment, etc. The deceased can be a human or a group of humans, an animal or a species, an inanimate object or an abstraction; the funeral can take place in this world or some other world, in the past or present or future. You can write a story, a fragment, a list, a lyric, a lamentation, a dream, a theory, an instruction manual, etc. Any mood is appropriate: reminiscent or absurd, realistic or weird, adventurous or introspective. The 2,000 word maximum is a suggestion rather than a limit.

Manuscript Vetting/Editing. The call for manuscripts might elicit hybrid writings intended specifically for this publication and this issue — texts that might be difficult for the authors to shop around to other magazines if they’re rejected by Son of Strands. Consequently it would seem preferable that a manuscript selection policy be adopted that operates according to an iterative revise-and-resubmit cycle rather than the usual binary logic of accept/reject. How many individual texts make up an issue of the magazine? The magic number I have in mind is 14, which might add up to around 15K words. Is it fear of success to be concerned about receiving too many manuscripts? They could each be published separately online of course, but Son of Strands wants to focus attention not just on individual pieces but on the issue as a whole. Maybe two separate issues on the same Strand?

Issue Editing. Putting the individual pieces together into an issue will be like assembling a sculpture from found objects, an abstract mosaic, a cubist painting, a Frankenstein monster. Each piece, while possessing its own unity or integrity, won’t be framed in isolation from the other pieces. Each piece is also a fragment or shard. Is it possible to reassemble the shards into the lost whole to which they originally belonged, like putting together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle or reassembling a shattered Grecian urn? Assuredly not. The edited assemblage will accentuate the jagged edges and the angular facets and the misfitted junctures — a creation among the ruins, a mid-apocalyptic creation. The issue might include a brief Intro about the issue topic — Death — and the assemblage. At the end there might be a single topic-related Interview question to which each author crafts a very brief response. A concluding Contributors section will include hotlinks to authors’ websites, recent publications, etc.

Formatting. The issue will be published in an online open-access format. Most online litmags emphasize the individual texts while losing sight of whatever holistic aspects the texts collectively comprise. Son of Strands’ formatting will accentuate the issue-ness while also highlighting each piece separately. Some litmags emulate the look and feel of a print mag, with readers turning virtual pages to work through the entire issue from front to back. The emulation format respects issue-ness, but it makes it hard for a reader to flip to a specific text within the compilation. Maybe the way to go is to publish the entire issue as a single “post” on the website, but with a navigable Table of Contents, a page break between each individual text in the issue, and an easy way of navigating between individual texts.

Distribution. Distribution will be open access and online: no print versions. The magazine acknowledges and links to each contributing author publicly on social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc). This way of promoting the authors’ work will let their friends and associates know about Son of Strands, hopefully luring them to read their friends’ pieces and maybe more of the issue as a whole.

Next Issues. The unifying thematic strand might go upstream from Funeral to Death — cause of death, bedside confession, last words, last rites, murder scene, forensics, autopsy report, etc. — and downstream to Afterlife — pearly gates, zombification, loved ones’ reminiscences, reading the will, trust funders, discovery of secrets, etc. These three issues could be further edited and consolidated into a single compiled ebook.

Toward Postcapitalism. The issue-specific themes, explored via the assemblage of disparate fragments, bespeaks an ambiguous apocalyptic world, a jagged reality that’s either falling apart or pulling itself together, a mad scientist’s laboratory where something “post” might bubble up from the beaker. The big-tent inclusiveness of its short fictional texts extends the realm of creation beyond the traditional narrative limitations upheld by commercial publishing. The editorial commitment to revise-and-resubmit, the emphasis on the issue as a coherent collective text, and the direct correspondence of publisher/editor with authors all point toward the possibility of authorial collaboration in writing, editing, and publishing. Open access supports the decommodification of fiction. The continuity of topics and the movement toward ebook compilations opens up the possibility of collectively editing, publishing, and distributing single-author open-access ebooks.

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So here’s the problem. I like this scheme. In fact, I like it so much I can imagine writing the whole freaking issue myself, and doing it in less time than it would take me to solicit and edit a compilation of texts written by other writers. But if I wrote it myself, who would read it? The multi-author compiled work would reach out via social media to 14 writers each issue, and at a second degree of separation hundreds of the authors’ online friends and followers would be alerted. With twelve issues per year, Son of Strands could reach thousands potential readers, not counting word of mouth and reblogging. But if I write 12 issues in a year I’ve got the same handful of friends who might be interested enough to take a look.

So suppose I go ahead and launch Son of Strands as editor-publisher of a compilation of short fictions written by others. Suppose I manage to get one issue out, then follow it up with a second issue, and a third. Writers like it; so do readers. As far as I’m concerned proof of concept has been established; the pilot testing phase is ready to transition into full production mode. Time to hand the machinery over to somebody who actually finds enjoyment and fulfillment out of turning the same crank over and over again. Meanwhile, I’m ready to try something else. That’s why I set up Ficticities as a laboratory in the first place: I’m not an ops guy.

Still Stranded, But Maybe the Tide is Rising

A year and two days ago I started the Ficticities website, intending for it to serve as a laboratory where readers and writers collaborate in designing, building, and testing prototypes for an alternative postcapitalist fictional reality.” After three weeks of online theorizing and speculating I thought I was ready to go. The pilot project was to be called Strands. As I described it in a post from early December 2017:

Strands will be issued as a series of compiled volumes, each published as an e-book, in which contributing writers edit, select, and format one another’s manuscripts. Each edition will be organized around a unifying premise or thematic element – a “strand” – that spans diverse genres and styles. Incorporating a wide variety of texts into a thematically focused compilation can limn the intertextual vectors by which insular fictional zones are drawn together into cities, worlds and universes, linking writers and fellow explorers on collaborative trajectories that might not otherwise have been apparent. Writers are invited to contribute manuscripts in which one or more of the unifying strands is implicated in some way. All forms of text are appropriate: short stories, fragments of longer works, essays, reviews, memoirs, poems, plays, recipes, sermons, prophecies, ecstatic utterances, manifestos, jokes, fake ads, fake news, experiments, simulations, formulae, lists, outlines… The big-tent inclusiveness of Strands is compatible with the way fictions are already written, since arguably every novel incorporates non-fictional content. It’s also an attempt to recapture some of the broad original meaning of fiction as “that which is invented or imagined in the mind.”

The very next day I abandoned ship. I was concerned that the call for submissions would be nearly indistinguishable from so many others, and with no track record to draw on Strands would likely not receive high-quality manuscripts. That was before I began reading short fictions published in online open-access literary magazines. New litmags pop up continually, with no stronger credentials or vision than Strands would have offered, yet those magazines don’t seem to suffer from a shortage of submissions. But I harbored other, deeper concerns:

The main point of Strands isn’t to provide yet another venue for writers to publish their short fictions; it’s to chart an alternative course that leads toward the formation of writer-controlled syndicates for publishing long fictions. The Strands publication format is too cautious, too incremental, too concerned with veering so slightly from the main channel that writers barely have to adjust their trajectories. The alternate route needs to veer more decidedly off the main shipping lanes, and its intermediate destinations need to look more like anarcho-syndicalist publishing houses than do the nicely edited and formatted compilations of short fictions envisioned in Strands. Back to the charts and astrolabes…

At the time I deemed it important that would-be writers board the ship already understanding and endorsing Strands‘ explicitly postcapitalist and anarho-syndicalist charter. Subsequently I discovered how hard it is to find fiction writers who explicitly  entertain such notions. Just because NASA hasn’t found evidence of life forms on other planets doesn’t mean they’re not out there somewhere. As the old saying goes, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” There might be writers out there who would want to collaborate on designing and testing postcapitalist fictions, but I just haven’t been very successful at detecting them. I knew going in that I might have a hard time finding fellow travelers, mostly because I’m not well-connected with other writers and because I have no alluring authorial reputation of my own that would pull other writers into my force field. It’s entirely possible that many if not most fiction writers are as interested in postcapitalist alternatives as I am but are just as isolated, making them hard to find by me or anyone else. It’s also possible that I’m all but alone in the universe, one of the few writers who has much interest in conducting collaborative explorations of an imagined postcapitalist fictional universe.

Or maybe it’s just not that important to endorse a particular socioeconomic ideology when you’re trying to write a short fiction. I’d been busy designing a distinctly postcapitalistic project top-down from first principles but, as I observed in my last post, most open-access litmags and fictional texts are compatible with postcapitalism. Maybe it’s better to pursue a more inductive, bottom-up approach: set sail with a minimum of baggage, charting a general direction rather than a specific course and destination, then see how the winds blow and the currents flow.

Or maybe both top-down and bottom-up. Or middle-out. Establish a short-term destination and set a provisional course. If and when we arrive, figure out where to go next and how to get there. Or lower the life rafts and abandon ship.

Next post I’ll sketch out Son of Strands.

 

Postcap Shortfic Litmags: Affordances

Aspects of a literary magazine that could generate affordances compatible with a postcapitalist ecosystem:

Open Access

Selling commodities one at a time to consumers is the essence of a capitalist economy. I’m not saying that writers and publishers shouldn’t be compensated for their work. Grants, contributions, co-ops that purchase on behalf of collectives — any number of alternative compensation schemes could be envisioned short of full-blown communism. Maybe one or more of those alternatives will take shape, at least on a limited experimental basis. Meanwhile, the decommodified open-access format for literary magazines is already up and running, with plenty of writers and publishers willing to work for no pay while offering readers free and unlimited access to content. Let’s go with that format, which would be compatible with most postcapitalist compensation mechanisms.

Vetting and Selection

Evidently it’s important to writers that the short fictions they submit to literary magazines be deemed worthy of publication by a qualified arbiter of good taste. It could be argued that upholding the protocol of “submitting” one’s work for judgment to authorities is antidemocratic and elitist — that readers individually and collectively are best qualified to decide what’s worth reading. But capitalism is already responsive to people’s choice — it’s called consumer demand. And the readers of short fictions published in open-access literary magazines are few and far between, with no feedback loops to tell the writers how many readers saw their work or what they thought of it. Of course the publishers, just like any other sort of boss, can be co-opted and corrupted: by tradition, cronyism, groupthink, power, ambition, laziness, incompetence… Besides, the tastes of tastemakers aren’t necessarily reliable — no doubt there’s a lot of variation between publishers as to whether a particular text is worthy of publication. The writers themselves should know whether their stuff is up to snuff, but in most endeavors people tend to overestimate their own excellence while simultaneously craving external validation.

Printed magazines face page constraints: each additional text selected for publication increases incrementally the costs of duplication, storage, and transportation — costs that either the publisher or the purchaser has to absorb. But online magazines aren’t hampered by these material limitations: the online platform or downloadable file can expand enormously with minimal impacts on storage space or access time. Yes, each additional published text requires more effort devoted to copyediting and formatting, but the vetting process that weeds out texts is time-consuming as well. Why not eliminate the artificial restriction on the length of each issue, which in an e-publishing context seems mostly a holdover from capitalistic practices of artificially limiting supply in order to increase prices? On the other hand, readers’ time is limited, so publishing every manuscript that’s submitted would likely prove overwhelming to the readers. For readers the vetting process serves not so much to limit supply as to focus demand, bringing to their attention those texts most worthy of their time.

So let’s tentatively accept that the submission/acceptance vetting tradition is something that most fiction writers and readers want, and that the process of evaluating merit needn’t be inimical to postcapitalism.

Periodical Compilations

The traditional publishing practice of bundling multiple short fictions into a single periodical issue emerged as a practical exigency: printing, copying, and distributing bundles of texts is more cost-effective than dispatching fictions to readers one story at a time. Online publishing obviates the logistical pragmatism of compilation, since individual texts can be posted as soon as they’re ready. And with open-access distribution there’s no need to impose a cumbersome per-story payment scheme on would-be readers.

Are there other reasons for a postcapitalist publisher to uphold the compilation rather than the individual text as the unit of distribution? I can think of two. First, if a compilation is assembled for thematic rather than pragmatic considerations, the publisher can explore ways in which a fragmented and libertarian fictional universe might converge on meanings and aesthetics that link otherwise isolated writers, readers, and texts. Second, by pulling multiple authors into a single compilation, some sort of solidarity, however short-lived, might be cultivated among writers, a solidarity that might give shape to an economy and an ecology that’s not dependent on investors and bosses to coordinate workers into production lines.

Ficticities

Short fictions published in online open-access magazines tend to take the form of stories — narratives about characters passing through situations. But of course fiction encompasses a much vaster territory than that. According to Wikipedia:

Worldbuilding is the process of constructing an imaginary world, sometimes associated with a whole fictional universe. The resulting world may be called a constructed world.

But worldbuilding isn’t limited to imaginary worlds; it happens in the actually existing world as well. There’s a material substrate to be sure, but humanity has built so many layers of artifice on top of it that most of us spend much of our time living in a reality that’s the product of countless imaginations. Sometimes I think the job of a postcapitalistic fiction is to write worldbuilding texts that can serve as simulations for replacing, in whole or in part, the actually existing world that we presently occupy and that seems on the verge of collapsing around us. In an early Ficticities post I wrote a couple of posts about fiction’s place in the world:

What happens to an idea once it’s been acknowledged as a fiction? First it will be dismissed as unreal, irrelevant to practical concerns. Then, maybe, the fiction will acquire entertainment value as a made-up story, to be read or watched as a temporary diversion from the day-to-day ordeal of grappling with the real world. Even serious fiction, so-called literary fiction, serves real-world functions: as a non-threatening way to practice empathy, for example, or as a means of gaining insight into the world, into the people who populate it and, perhaps especially, into oneself.

This partitioning off of fiction from reality is a death trap, not only for fiction but for reality as well. Fictions are transformed into coping mechanisms, like weekends and happy hours and self-help groups. Sometimes fictions operate as pressure valves to keep people from exploding, at other times as stimulants to help them avoid sagging into inertia. Fiction becomes incorporated into reality, assigned its proper subservient role in keeping things moving along smoothly. And with fictions partitioned off as entertainments, the what-is of actually existing reality becomes reified, immunized from the what-is-nots – the vast and depthless expanse of possibilities and improbabilities and impossibilities on which the actual floats like a rowboat on the ocean…

It’s not fiction’s job to be the scapegoat, reconciling society to its own unintended consequences, to the collateral damage it inflicts on the innocent and the guilty alike while trying to engineer a better world through goal-setting and action plans. Neither is it fiction’s job to entertain the reality engineers when they’re taking a break. It’s not fiction’s job to instruct its readers in how to be more successful reality engineers by illustrating what can go right or wrong in various hypothetical scenarios. It’s not fiction’s job to redeem the facts of the world.

At other times I think that postcapitalist fiction should acknowledge that resistance to the already built world is futile. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about absurdist fiction:

Kids don’t always play to win; sometimes they just play. No goal to be pursued, no tactics to accompish the desired goal, no instrumental agency for deploying tactics, no well-defined outcome, no exultation in victory or desolation in defeat, no lessons to be learned on how to play better and win next time. Aimless play — it seems to escape the boundaries of the training ground, where children acquire the skills and attitudes necessary to achieve success, not just individually but also for those who benefit from their achievements: parents, societies, investors. Jokes without punchlines, stories that diverge from well-defined linear plots and character development, activity without production. Maybe aimless play is a training ground for insurgents, exposing them to a different sort of game, a game where the rules aren’t constraints on play but are part of the game, to be altered at will or even discarded; where process is the outcome; where the play’s the thing, play for play’s sake, art for art’s sake; play staying play without getting co-opted into work; where the aggregate of all games isn’t a zero-sum killing field of winners and losers but a playground where everybody wins or, even better, where nobody wins or loses.

It turns out though that the insurgency playground, just like the competitive playground, is owned and controlled by the players of a larger game. They don’t have to win because they’ve already won, don’t have to resist because nothing stands in their way. You can play whatever games you want — in fact you’re encouraged to do so — but you always have to buy the equipment and rent the playing field, to defer to the refs and in the last resort to the Commissioner. Whatever game you play and however well you play it, you’re bound to lose. Even hammerspace is controlled by The Man, letting him rig the game to suit his own purposes.

The situation is ripe for random irruptions of surreal absurdities.

And finally, here are the last paragraphs of a book I wrote a long time ago about Genesis 1, which in a nutshell I interpreted as a narrative describing the creation of narrative worldbuilding:

Our world is suspended across time by a multiplicity of intertwined realities. A powerful engine is at work, weaving alternative futures right under our feet. Sometimes the push from behind is so strong it seems to be hurling us headlong into chaos. At other times it’s as though we’re riding through a flat and featureless landscape with nothing new under the sun. There are, of course, those who resist the collective lean into the future. They may cast their gaze backward upon a prior golden age, but they aren’t abandoning the future – they’re just looking for the right road to take them there. Leaning backward in order to gain forward momentum: sometimes a revival is just what we need to get the juices flowing again.

Some among us pull the slingshot back even farther, before the foundations of our modern civilization, to the era in which humanity first arose. What are the origins of the upright stance and the cerebral cortex, of consciousness and language, of individuation and society, of love and aggression, of motivation and habit, of innovation and its dissemination, of morality and belief? These are the questions that lure explorers back to the origin of our species. On their pilgrimage they peel away layer upon layer of culture that have accrued over the millennia, layers that becloud our vision of what natural man is “really” like. At last these time travelers return to the beginning, when as yet there was no formal government, no economy, no science or art, no architecture, no written language, no religion – in short, no systems of meaning, no realities. Stripped of culture man looks raw – a complex and unique sort of animal, but an animal all the same, sharing the same genes, the same drives, the same communal instincts as the other creatures.

Natural man, newly evolved, full of potential and devoid of artifice – it’s hard not to see him as more real than the civilized poseurs who surround us, who we ourselves are. It’s this very same ancestor of ours, this natural man, this protoman, who in the beginning witnesses the creation recorded in our scriptures. He has no advanced language, no complex thoughts, no distinctly human culture – yet. The ancient narrative documents the first movement of mankind out of the raw natural state. In associating thing with word and word with idea, natural man begins to make sense of the world in a way no other animal can do. He also comes to a realization about himself: I am someone who can make sense of things. The natural world becomes real for the natural man even as he separates himself from that reality. In this initial act of creation natural man becomes fully real, making of himself an artifact.

We have become a complex and pliable species, able to live in an extremely wide range of habitats and to overwhelm virtually all predators. But these aren’t permanent advantages. Complacent nihilism might undermine us until at last through our own artifice we blow ourselves up, at which point some other species will fill the void and take our place as the crown of creation. It’s all a matter of variation and selection and time. All the other species seem to get along fine without any higher or deeper understanding of themselves and the world. Have we reached the point where this insistence on “higher and deeper” is starting to get in the way, because we’re really just a flat and shallow species living in a flat and shallow universe? Maybe it’s time to slip out from under all this baggage so we can get back to who we really are.

But is it possible ever to make return passage across that first frontier without setting aside what makes us human, and perhaps also what makes us godlike? To position ourselves before the beginning, to take the place of the Witness, to watch as the beginning takes shape around us – do we dismiss the work of the Creator, the sheer nerve and imagination of his project, as just so much charlatanry and legerdemain, designed to distract our attention from the empty truth? Or, as in rapt awe we watch the rapidly-unfolding heavens and earth, are we startled to find ourselves walking in the footsteps of the gods?

In brief, the horizons of postcapitalistic short fiction are limitless, though in all likelihood most of them will never see the light of day.