Peter Y. Paik


On his book From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe

Cover Interview of March 22, 2010

The wide angle

I had not undertaken any scholarly studies of science fiction or popular culture prior to writing this book—my graduate work had focused on the aesthetics of literary modernism.  But the attacks of September 11 led me to embark on a project that would enable me to reflect on the uses and consequences of violence in political life.  Although my book is not a study of how the terrorist attacks have influenced the production of certain films or the writing of certain literary texts, nevertheless, at its heart, this book is an examination of the relentless compulsions that underlie such fateful and destructive endeavors as imperial expansion, the control of access to scarce resources, and the anxious defense of an unsustainable status quo.

The critical approach I take to studying science fiction and political theory stems from my dissatisfaction with the intellectual methods currently predominant in contemporary theory.  Efforts to theorize political life in literary and cultural studies generally take the form of denouncing the policies and critiquing the dominant values of an oppressive state.  Rarely do they gravitate toward a substantive reflection upon what it means to govern a modern state, nor do they face up to the hardships that any actual shift toward a leftist politics would entail.  In either case, what is excluded is the thought of imagining and wrestling with the dilemmas faced by those who are responsible for the fate of a collective.

To avoid the pitfalls posed by the disabling position of permanent critique, in which political responsibility becomes smothered in a discourse of moral indignation and the act of interpreting literary and other texts becomes a predetermined exercise in advocating a radical cultural politics, I chose to undertake my readings of science fiction texts in a theoretical and ethical field demarcated by two extreme, ostensibly contrary positions—the first being the political realism associated with Niccolo Machiavelli and to a lesser extent, Thomas Hobbes, and the second being a politics and ethics of saintliness exemplified by the French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil.

In the former position one finds the hard-headed and ruthless pursuit of worthy and selfless objectives, in which morality is subordinated not to the ambitions of the unscrupulous but rather to the task of achieving independence and security in a world wracked by the ceaseless struggle for power.  Weil, on the other hand, enunciates the uncompromising stance that human action must be guided by a supernatural good, yet in her writings one finds a profound meditation on the crushing power of human cruelty and the vulnerability of all good things to injustice.  The good for Weil must be conceived against the harsh realities of massacres and the spiritual destruction of those reduced to slavery, or else it remains a tawdry piece of fiction.

While Machiavelli’s political realism and Weil’s ethics of saintliness are directed towards radically different ends—patriotism for the former, the well-being of the soul for the latter—both share a fearlessness with which they seek to attain an elusive lucidity regarding human actions.  Contemporary liberal thought is apt to dismiss such illumination as excessively severe.  But the unyielding rigor with which both thinkers examine social reality underscores the fact that reality is not a given but can only be grasped by those prepared to face up to harsh and arduous truths.  Thus, the tension between realpolitik and saintliness enables a detailed reflection upon an unsettling series of themes: the compassionate aspects of tyranny, the unconditional dedication to a loved one that results in total destruction, the choice between empathy and survival, and the sublime freedom that arises from terrible ordeals.

Rather than point out how a certain text fulfills the principles of a certain ideology, my readings emphasize how ideological doctrines are unsettled and their constituent elements torn apart by the narratives that are the object of my study.  The contingent character of our political choices comes to the fore when we can imagine those values we take as existing together breaking apart and recombining into new and unexpected ideological formations.