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The Age of Mimesis


To this day, I'm still not sure why the instructor was trying to get us to discuss mimesis in our advanced greek grammar class. It can't be blamed on the need to escape teaching us subordinate clauses for awhile, because we were reading the new testament, and that has only the simplest kind if any. None of us were english majors, and none of us had read any Aristotle yet, whose writings on mimesis have remained influential. We did know the basic meaning of the word "mimesis" though, from our continuing study of ancient greek. The definition in my electronic OED describes it well, "representation or imitation of the real world in art and literature." Alas that we had not had a chance to learn about Seo-Young Chu's thought-provoking book on mimesis in literature, Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation1. Her book would have equipped us to better appreciate the role of mimesis in all forms of writing and art, and to understand that our class that day had gotten wildly off-topic.

In origin, Chu's book is a gently rewritten version of her PhD dissertation in english, where she takes up three tasks. First, to show that science fiction is mimetic in nature, not a denial or absence of representation or imitation. Second, to reveal that all forms of writing, including non-fiction, are similar to science fiction in their application of mimesis. The third, awkwardly tacked on task, is an attempt to argue that allegory is not science fiction. The link between the first two tasks, and a critical part of the theoretical basis for Chu's greater argument, is the notion that the point of mimesis is to render the unfamiliar understandable. As she notes early on, "...I conceptualize science fiction as a mimetic discourse whose objects of representation are nonimaginary yet cognitively estranging."2 If we are having problems understanding something, however abstract or literal it may be, it will be difficult for us to create a representation of it. Practically, Chu is arguing that all writing is "science fictional" in the sense that no art can simply represent anything or idea as it is. It's just that the more realistic the object of representation is, the more clear the subsequent representation, so representation is translucent.3 This should not be surprising, because no language is a perfect mirror of the world either, as Anna Wierzbicka's ongoing linguistics research reiterates. To check whether this is a proper understanding of Chu's point, I spent some time unpacking what a "cognitively estranging referent" is. She discusses this critical detail on pages 9 to 10 in a way that eschews tables, an unfortunate decision because they would have helped the reader.

The discussion of "cognitively estranging referents" is built around a series of statements of this kind: "Surrealism, for example, is a type of science-fictional mimesis whose cognitively estranging referent is the phenomenon of dreaming."4 So, here is the first version of the table that I worked up to help me make better sense of her discussion.

Type of Science Fictional Mimesis Cognitively Estranging Referent
surrealism the phenomenon of dreaming
utopianism the ideal polity
detective fiction the mystery of ratiocination
slipstream the partially virtual reality of living in a mainstream hypermediated and rendered half-surreal by technology
magical realism the hybrid nature of realities lived in postcolonial spaces
fantasy the prodigious working of the imagination
gothic/horror the occulted yet irrepressible unconscious
young adult supernatural fiction adolescent subjectivity

I confess to being unable to take some of these definitions quite seriously, not because they don't reflect truths about the genres, but because the thesaurus levels were so high. So here is the second version, with the thesaurus levels dialled down a bit.

Genre Puzzling Phenomenon or Idea
surrealism the phenomenon of dreaming
utopianism the perfect organized society
detective fiction the mystery of formal reasoning
slipstream the nature of a reality made up of both physical action and actions mediated by computers
magical realism the hybrid nature of realities lived in internally colonized societies
fantasy the remarkable working of the imagination
gothic/horror the hidden yet irrepressible unconscious
young adult supernatural fiction being a teenager

To be fair, this is obviously not all about dialling down the thesaurus. I have serious doubts about Chu's characterization of magical realism, specifically because of the reference to "postcolonial," an adjective I don't believe is applicable to anything yet, least of all to what I have read of magical realism so far. However, magic realism is a complex genre, so there is more to be considered, perhaps in a different essay. Still, this is quite solid in terms of examples to build her argument with, and she does not stop with these. For her more detailed discussion, Chu takes up five examples all from works generally labelled science fiction, each covered in a separate chapter.

Cognitively Estranging Referent Example Mimetic Representation
the globalized world spaceship Earth
cyberspace in the 1990s the bridge in William Gibson's works
war trauma involuntary time travel, alien telepathy
post memory han, a korean form of grief genetic transference of han-filled memories
robot rights bestowing humanity on non-human entities

The ringer is the fifth one, "robot rights." The problematics of it are considered in Gerry Canavan's 2012 review of Chu's book5, which at only 6 pages and written with minimal jargon, is well worth reading. I am going to make some related points to Canavan's in the course of exploring some of the implications of Chu's approach, and how this is all related to the current age of mimesis. To get started, let's try making up a fresh table of Genre-Referent pairs. The practice is going to come in handy.

Type of Science Fictional Mimesis Cognitively Estranging Referent
romance the phenomenon of falling in love with an abusive person
historical narrative how people experienced events in the past
steampunk alternative paths for the british empire
mythology the origin of the world and reality
superhero fiction what it's like to be a deity
alien abduction the experience of animals trapped and used for experiments
alien invasion the experience of Indigenous peoples invaded by outsiders
android/robot stories the experience of slave owners no longer able to maintain their power over slaves

This is a fun, if disturbing exercise. I don't find romance novels in the english sense6 palatable, but never quite appreciated their sinister nature until I identified this referent. It also reveals why Chu's tacked on task of arguing that allegory is not science fiction(al) makes no sense. These are all allegories, and contra Tolkien, they are to be disliked not in general, but when they are hamfisted and clumsy.7 On the other hand, it may be that Chu is focusing on the standard definition of "allegory", which my trusty OED says means "a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one." The crux then, would be that the science fictional representation is anything but hidden and is not intended to be. This still doesn't work as an argument though, because the meanings in science fiction can indeed be hidden to the reader, especially if they can't make out the cognitively estranging referent for some reason. Chu's discussion of "robot rights" is itself an excellent case in point. Fortunately, this does not neutralize the broader argument, although I am puzzled that it made it into the final book.

That said, Chu's treatment of "robot rights" is especially bewildering because excellent work had already been done to unpack the tangled meanings in robot and android stories, including exegeses of Asimov's vaunted "three laws of robotics." Alessandro Portelli wrote a paper on the topic in Science Fiction Studies in 1980, noting "The Three Laws are thus shown to be much more than controls over a potentially dangerous artifact: they are a strategy for controlling productive labour, for keeping the labour force docile."8 Edward James, in his classic paper "Yellow, Black, Metal, and Tentacled," recently reprinted in Black and Brown Planets reminds us that Asimov's robots "seem to function as the equivalent of blacks" and "...the Three Laws restrain robots, just as the slave owner expected (or hoped) that his black slaves would be restrained by custom, fear, and conditioning to obey his every order."9 Of course, pulling this thread draws in other uncomfortable questions about racism, but also an entire amazing genre of science fiction writing: afrofuturism. Afrofuturism is the genre reflected in the "alien invasion" entry in the previous table, an approach to science fiction that recognizes alien invasion stories as retellings of the encounter between "europe" and "africa." Its Indigenous counterpart has been exploding with stories, games, and animated works since at least the mid 2000s. The explicit purpose in both futurisms is to insist on the acknowledgement of two key facts: black and Indigenous peoples are fully human, and they have many futures. Part of the challenge when dealing with such material is that it is unavoidably political. In general, Chu's text is remarkable in its apolitical stance, even though taking up these currently more controversial genres would have added significant reinforcement to her work.

The absence of any notice of politics in science fiction, even to say, "and we won't be talking about this" is even more glaring towards the end of the introduction. After explaining how science fiction and lyric poetry are similar in that each pushes language to its limits in order to describe the nearly indescribable, Chu remarks:

As noted earlier, "science fiction," unlike the modified noun "scientific fiction," is charged with lyric voltage generated by the shock of catachresis [word misuse]: the noun "science" has denotations and connotations that clash energetically with the denotations and connotations of the noun "fiction." At the same time, the etymological resonances of "science fiction" suggest that the voltage generated by the catachrestic joining of "science" and "fiction" is itself a generating force. "Science" comes from the Latin verb "sciere," "to know." "Fiction" comes from the Latin verb "fingere," "to make by shaping." Science fiction, in other words, equals the making of knowledge. This equation calls attention to the universal epistemological work that science fiction performs. To make something available for representation is to make it knowable.10

I don't quite know what to make of the laboured writing style here, which almost overwhelms the point she is making. Knowledge isn't given, we create it, and a key creative method we use is science fiction writing in its many guises. Word "misuse" and the resources of that much maligned genre, lyric poetry, are vital to making knowledge. Indigenous peoples have been patiently explaining this for at least centuries to the lost europeans who managed to blunder into their communities. Resistance to the notion wherever a community has tried to enshrine a belief in platonic forms or divine pronouncements is to be expected. It's scary to take responsibility for what we know. Who would want to admit that android/robot stories are about the putative experience of the slave owners, not the slaves? Or that romance novels almost exclusively depict women being entrapped in abusive relationships where they can never actually tame and reconstruct the abuser? Still, let's not run away from the uncomfortable. Instead, let's use this new understanding of the role of mimesis in science fiction and science fiction in knowledge production, and their ever-present potential for political statement to consider the current explosion of mimetic activity, also known as "the mainstreaming of fandom."


Despite many fond hopes, science fiction writers are no better at predicting the future than anyone else, apart from simple truisms such as "there will be a future" and "there will still be diverse sorts of people in the future." To my knowledge, not one predicted the mainstreaming of fandom, which among other things is one last orgy of capitalistic exploitation of a market for toys, bobbles, and general branded junk nearly invisible to the world barely twenty years ago. The merchandising factor, and the accompanying efforts to make former "kid's stuff" like comic books and dolls marketed to boys respectable are merely the most visible and advertised aspects. The genuinely important, and much bigger part, is something else entirely: the achievement of public social respect by at least a part of the population who found themselves persistently labelled "geeks," "nerds," and "fans."

"Fandom" is a convenient umbrella term, but it is also deceptive, because it implies homogeneity that doesn't exist. The most commonly acknowledged founding fandoms are predominantly science fiction-based, despite the early communities spawned by the now ever popular Sherlock Holmes and Alice in Wonderland. However, fandom was not quite respectable even in its proto stages in the victorian era, because it was associated with the cheapest printed works, with a few exceptions, and of course, sports. The victorian era had penny dreadfuls, cheap circulars, and numerous magazines providing novels in affordable instalments and a range of short stories. Within a hundred years, there were still magazines but now there were also cheap paperback novels, and of course, comic books. What they all had in common was not necessarily their audience or the (perceived) quality of their content, but their definition as consumables not to be taken seriously. If they were purchased and read, their fate was to be disposed off immediately on being finished. Anyone who took the trouble to save copies or follow their stories more seriously was considered at best rather strange. The "consumptive" aspect is quite consistent, and applies equally to toys. Toys were once exclusively for children, at least officially, now not necessarily. Even strategic relabelling tricks don't quite hide the slippage, as racks of dolls for boys show up in comic book stores where the sight of a person below the age of twelve is rare. "Sports" were not constructed as consumables. Instead, they were constructed as "relationships" and a site of male-bonding, and so were rendered respectable for male adults, although they could slip past the edges of respectability if their associations with the working class or betting became too strong.

The fans of other than sports have succeeded, at least in part, in overcoming the stigma of their interests, although this has worked out best for mainly a white male subsection of fandom so far, and if it weren't for the determined efforts of Fanlore and An Archive of Our Own the pioneering women fandoms would have been elided all together. More importantly, fans have forced the recognition that the various "popular culture" works that they follow, curate, and add to via the whole range artistic pursuits, is important. Neither fans nor anyone else is a passive recipient of "popular culture," and the various works falling under that rubric aren't meaningless. It takes only a few minutes of searching online to find fans' accounts of how they used their preferred genre of works to cope with various life problems and make sense of new circumstances. This is not exclusive to fans, as many people of various religious faiths can attest. The key difference, as already noted, is the social status of the materials they are using and what level of participation they can take in interpreting and creating those materials.

These developments shouldn't surprise us at all, having traced Chu's arguments already, especially her contention that science fictional writing is a means to make what is difficult to represent understandable. We can extend this from writing to other forms of storytelling art, from sculpture and music to paintings and movies. In times of real or perceived intensive social change, it's reasonable to expect to see an accompanying expansion in mimetic activities by which people both make sense of what is new and revise their understanding of the old.11 So while the semi-serious claim "geeks rule the world!" is obvious hyperbole, something important is going on. An extraordinary number of people are busy attempting make sense of what is happening in the world, and they are doing so in public ways, with the expectation of sharing what they know with others. Furthermore, people are competing over which interpretations and models, which sorts of stories, will be accepted as valid and useful for the future. The folks most used to believing themselves in charge of determining who creates knowledge, what counts as knowledge, and whether knowledge gets created about certain topics at all are being thoroughly challenged and discomforted. If science fictional writing and art making more generally are as tightly tied to the creation of knowledge as Chu suggests, then the mainstreaming of fandom and its current struggles with the existence of oppression within it, exemplified by the wild attacks following even the mildest challenge to "the default narrative" is no trivial phenomenon. We ignore it at our peril.

  1. Chu, Seo-Young 2010 Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  2. Page 3.
  3. Page 5.
  4. Page 9.
  5. Canavan, Gerry 2012 "Review of Seo-Young Chu's Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation," e-Publications@Marquette, Marquette University, October 1.
  6. By in the "english sense" I mean what in north america are called "harlequin romances" and in britain "mills and boone" novels. To my knowledge this genre does not exist in parallel form in other languages.
  7. My strong suspicion is that when Tolkien declared his dislike of allegory, he had his tongue planted at least partly in his cheek. Simplistic, bludgeoning allegory is horrible, and even the roman à clef can't be saved by its occasional use to express dangerous political ideas. Tolkien did not build the Lord of the Rings as a singular, blunt force allegory. It knits together a diverse pile of more or less blunt allegories, which he leaves space around for you to ignore them, or not. Whether this worked or not is another question.
  8. Portelli, Alessandro 1980 "The Three Laws of Robotics: Laws of the Text, Laws of Production, Laws of Society," Science Fiction Studies 7.2: 150-156. This reference is on page 153.
  9. James, Edward 2014 (reprint of the 1990 original) "Yellow, Black, Metal, and Tentacled: The Race Question in American Science Fiction," 199-222 in Black and Brown Planets: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction, edited by Isiah Lavender III. Jackson: University of Mississippi. This reference is from page 212.
  10. Chu, page 75. This quote is a good illustration of why I think not much rewriting was done to the text before its publication as a book, which is a real shame.
  11. The current fad for handmade goods and relearning arts and crafts, sneered at in the media as it often is, may in fact be another expression of this effort to make sense by mimesis.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Saturday, June 4, 2016 23:26:32