Unbounding the Field/Note
From the Series: Speculative Anthropologies
One zone that SF and anthropology share is that of the field: an assemblage of spaces and experiences that exceed the writer’s final product. The field is an ongoing area of debate and discussion for anthropologists, particularly as a hybrid social-scientific and story plot-space (see Gupta and Ferguson 1997; Amit 2000; Faubion and Marcus 2009). Several posts in this series point to SF as a mode of experimental field-making. Here, I reference them while taking a fresh look at Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren. This book has been lauded and critiqued as speculative fiction, but it is also a work in and of a speculative field, precisely because it foregrounds other modes of field perception and noting. As the contributors to this series point out, SF writerly fields are both speculative settings and the result of social/spatial research. They invoke forms of experience-far-out, challenges to social-science categories like the city, and ways of noting social engagements with emergent as well as seemingly unreal worlds.
David Valentine argues that attending to SF’s practical presence in his interlocutors’ worlds calls anthropology to account for its rationalist bias against speculative evidence. This bias can, he notes, delimit anthropology’s attention to the “transformative nature” of actual and imagined experiences with nonearthly outer spaces. But Valentine’s critique also implicates dominant voices in SF, who have a history of trying to police the field’s speculative boundaries. Few books exemplify the unbounded SF field, and reactions to it, more than Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren. Delany, famous as a black queer writer turned English professor, released Dhalgren for publication in 1974. I say release rather than wrote, because as an exercise in speculative field-making, Dhalgren freed itself from sci-fi’s topical and writing conventions.
Delany’s white male peers declared Dhalgren brilliant and terrible, but what if its abstruse ouroboros of a story was never the point? The book presents the postapocalyptic urban drift of the Kid, a trackless wanderer in the decomposing city of Bellona. The Kid is literally noting his way through the world in a notebook he is given by a woman he has sex with in the opening scene. Beginning to write where she left off, the Kid becomes nonseparate from the notebook itself and, in the end, writes himself into a version of the book’s opening scene as if transubstantiating himself onto the page. According to Dhalgren’s detractors, this leaves it without a real, discernible plot or trajectory.
Thank goodness. Because when I read Dhalgren while doing fieldwork, I found an internal coherence familiar to those who are trying to make an anthropological field out of the unbounded lived worlds they traverse (see Olson 2018). Dhalgren makes field-sense. It takes place in the amorphous shifting of a city-as-field, and it reads as a methodological primer for open-field perception. As Taylor Nelms writes, “the city” is always a plurality of urban actuality and expectation. Nelms recounts how he re-visioned his notes on economic life in Quito by overlapping his experience with that of speculative writers Italo Calvino and China Miéville. In doing so, Nelms did not perceive a field of clearly defined differences but an open space of intertwined alternatives. This required paying attention to a field of alternate subjectivities and actions, rather than one of cleanly divided and predictably dualistic differences.
While I was reading Dhalgren in the field, I didn’t look for a plotline because it covered a field of raw shared experience. Delany had won two Nebula awards for previous novels, but Dhalgren was criticized: its protagonist isn’t a developmental hero and its urban setting isn’t alien, just alienating. Bellona is inexplicably falling apart and burning up, filled with human and nonhuman denizens acting randomly—or rather, real people-without-plots. The Kid roams, filling his half-burned notebook with partially transcribed dialogues and sumptuous descriptions of the city’s repetitively dull and unfathomable activities. Scholars (e.g., Tucker 2004) have written about how the Kid’s notebook appears to contain sections of the actual book as if it is the book itself, and have suggested that the book indexes Delany’s own extensive notebooking practice. The notebook that William Gibson called Delany’s “recombinant city” is clearly the book’s perceptual pretext, a place where snippets of experience mix. Dense detail interleaves with thin fragments; rich phrases are as good as whole stories.
Dhalgren reveals the raw data of social science fiction, showing how the field of any ethnography is made through the author’s attention to orders and disruptions, to direct and indirect evidences, and to accounts as well as speculations. As Elizabeth Reddy points out, interlocutors use speculation not just as a conceptual practice but as a tool. And anthropologists can too. Patricia Markert and Jeremy Trombley treat the Twilight Zone as a legitimate field within which to take notes about the real U.S. place that inspired it. They see reading speculative fiction as a way to train fieldworkers to hold assumptions about spatial realities in abeyance.
Speculative fiction can also be a source for methods coursework. Graduate students often worry that they don’t know how to write fieldnotes, but Dhalgren demonstrates the bridging between description and self-awareness that fieldnoting requires. The book also attends to actions and intentions rather than causalities and trajectories, to writing rather than composition, and thus to the field’s multiplicity of interacting actions. Delany’s Kid writes:
Actions are interesting to watch. I learn about the actors. Their movements are emblems of the tensions in this internal landscape, which their actions resolve. About-to-act is an interesting state to experience, because I am conscious of just those tensions. Acting itself feels fairly dull. . . . Acting is only interesting as it leads to new tensions that, irrelevantly, cause me to act again. But here, beneath this gigantic light, with the cardboard-backed phone pad covering the hole in my jean knee, that isn’t what I want to write. I write. I take my thumb from the ballpoint’s button. I work the pen up till my fingers (hideous?) grip the point. I begin.
The lesson is: take note of speculative fiction’s open field. As the Kid says: “[I] took some blue paper to the back steps, put the pine plank across my knees and wrote and wrote and wrote.”
Amit, Vered, ed. 2000. Constructing the Field: Ethnographic Fieldwork in the Contemporary World. New York: Routledge.
Faubion, James D., and George E. Marcus, eds. 2009. Fieldwork is Not What It Used to Be: Learning Anthropology’s Method in a Time of Transition. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Gupta, Akhil, and James Ferguson, eds. 1997. Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Olson, Valerie. 2018. Into the Extreme: U.S. Environmental Systems and Politics Beyond Earth. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.