Interview With Jane Singleton
An Interview with Jane Singleton
"On Politics and Science Fiction”
Henry Thomas, The Journal of Fictional Literature
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(Note: An unpublished article by Jane Singleton which complements and extends
the discussion pursued in the following interview will be included in the Fall
2006 issue of the JFL)
Born in Perth, Ontario, Canada. Singleton has travelled extensively throughout Europe and Asia. She has been translated in five languages and was granted a B.A. in English and comparative literature from Carlton University in 1992. Co-founder of the Science Fiction Network she continues to pursue interdisciplinary projects that challenge the traditional boundaries of communities as they deal with advancements in technology. J. T. Singleton lives in Toronto, Canada where she resides with her two children Sam and Cole.
JFL: The writings of Marcuse have become, for you, as well as Becker and others a touchstone for radical thought. You seem to see a connection between some of your characters and revolutionary acts. How do you approach these revolutionary ideas in your fiction?
JS: I use theory as a form of social resistance through fiction. Orwell did this to great effect as does Ursula Le Guin. It was also my pathetic attempt to avoid criticism for being too didactic (laugh). You don’t have to be part of the Frankfurt School to be able to posit ideas of discord or variance in currently held notions of “fact” or “truth” as it relates to political agendas and I don’t profess to embrace any particular ideology. All societies historically have been dysfunctional to some degree. There will always be a disenfranchised proportion of the population in every political system. Part of this results from cultural misunderstanding of the other. Between disparate social landscapes, there are the untouchables and the affluent, and all the social strata in between. Some of the struggles we see today are sussed out through representations on TV conveyed through “political discussions” on CNN or other agenda laden media. This is very dangerous to democracy or other free societies because the full violence done to those without power (usually in the 3rd world), goes unnoticed and unreported, often by the powerful perpetrators of such violence. These representations remove us from community engagement and organizing, our own local environment. I am very fortunate to live in Toronto where there is a small community that has refused to be part of the larger globalized world (at least to the extent that it can). There are many activists and artists living in my neighbourhood and this helps to drive the creative impulse.
JFL: It's clear from your work that language and writing have become sharp tools for re-visioning human society and humanity's place in the larger scheme of things. Much of that re-visioning, at least in the last ten years, has been inspired by new forms of feminist principles. Your goal, you say, is always to subvert, creating metaphors for the future. How do you see this playing out?
JS: It’s true that as of late third wave feminism has been troubled by the multiplicity of viewpoints of difference and other. Characters are extensions of the author – those who attempt to deny this become hypocrites because voice is still framed by the imagination of the writer. That is not to say that the self, the writer, is not compromised by all the Freudian notions of ego or repressed desire etc. Inevitably whatever notions I have about feminism would express themselves through my creative practice but even this is met with a certain critical questioning. When I wrote “Xenobiotics”, in 1990, I was toying with the idea of a future where people would be transformed by surgical procedure, where so many resources were injected into the medical establishment that everyone was altered. Androgyny became the “norm” but class became even more problematic. City budgets were redirected to health care instead of programs like child poverty or other social programs, while the gleaming palaces of medicine stood in all their glory. Body augmentation was the ultimate status symbol. An androgynous society is, perhaps, more interesting than our gendered society but at the same time, androgyny is also a step towards homogeny, not difference.
JFL: What got you into science fiction writing?
We always get in trouble when we speak in these all knowing terms of origins or some metaphysic that proceeds everything we know. This was taken up by postmodern theory in the 1970’s – 80’s. One of the greatest things about science fiction is that ideas are not fixed. Imagination has free reign to create to posit meanings and invent new ways of seeing. I think this is also true of fantasy writing and metafiction. The thing I like about these genres is that they borrow from the way societies order themselves, in present or past reality, (at least within the frame of reference that I am familiar with). These socio-political trajectories are, complicated by a hypothetically constructed future, where they become problematic. For example environmental problems will persist as long as populations keep growing for instance, so the question becomes what will the world look like in 200 years and so forth.
How has postmodern discourse affected your work?
The works of Derrida have had an enduring influence on my work. This is also true of Barbara Johnson or Linda Hutcheon. Derrida's thought for understanding the political and its relation to political theory through language. I like the way he passes through language and swims against the accepted currents of philosophy, which have come from a patriarchal tradition. Derrida attempts to delineate how metaphysics influences the political field, temporality and teleology inherent in concepts such as democracy and the public sphere and its implications. He mischievously intervenes through the quandary of ethical, juridical and political positions -examining ideas of forgiveness, justice, sovereignty, cosmopolitanism, fraternity, and violence. In this, he is perpetually custodial. Something that I attempted to write about in a short story “Custody.” The idea that society was being “taken care of” by some type of omni presence, which took over from a supernatural force that promised to reveal all.
How do you think writing mirrors society?
Does it? I mean I suppose you could think of Poe’s “is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream”. Does free will exist? Writing merely stands in for reality or circumstance. The idea of a mirror stipulates that reality can be duplicitous but writing can’t possibly take its place – we find ourselves trapped in a world now where these stand-ins are overwhelming our readings of nature. The process of biological investigation has become the radical other, outside of what we are. There was that quotation from William Gibson years ago where he said the future is here it’s just not popularized yet. It’s a bit deterministic. In my science fiction writing, it is a remote viewing of the future.
It seems like you have environmental concerns that are expressed throughout your writing. Could you give an example of how this is relational to present concerns for change?
Many people ask me that very question. The only thing I can say is that everyone has an agenda all writing is political to some degree it perpetually delays a current reception of knowledge. Right now nature does not have a voice – it is being gobbled up at an exponential rate as we feed some kind of Freudian death drive – the idea that we must repeat through shopping to belay our fears—to give us a high like storing nuts for nuclear winter. This is problematic because society is doing this and loosing something else namely a difference in biodiversity. The investigations of nature will never be complete but usurping it to provide the products that provide comforts of today will never replace how the world is in its present incarnation through processes of evolutions and relations.
How does The Typographer interfere with our reception of accepted knowledge?
In some ways we have come to a point as a society where nothing seems to be “real” special effects can deceive anyone easily, the exclusion of imagery about a far off war perpetuates it. People have come to realized they have been lied to by governments or corporations and these lies represent a danger to life on the planet. The Typographer uses this current situation to comment on these things by showing what they might look like in the future. Most science fiction writings convey an idea with regards to a dystopia feminist science fiction included. There is either some kind of cleansing war that has taken place to wake us up or; a disaster that somehow we have managed to survive. The Typographer is about both of these things but beyond this, it becomes something positive a penultimate utopia with a necessity for rebellion.
You seem to mix history and fiction. What do you attempt to do through this exercise?
Absolutely nothing (laugh). No I mean this is only inevitable. Our brains are hardwired for nostalgia because of the way we represent our situations in relation to the past. So there is a future anterior in the writing even though I attempt to eliminate it. I often draw on past scientific invention using it to express a lineage of production or commodity fetishism. This can be a useful tool for constructing a story. What often happens is that the fiction is propelled forward because it is easy to play off these “advances” or these “breakthroughs”. A writer’s voice attempts to explicate circumstance by positing a viewpoint. This is even apparent in the slippages of deconstructionist who in lectures talk about “their” metaphysic even as they attempt to deny this. Ultimately we do project voice to articulate ideas. It is in these contradictions that allow for criticisms of why and how we have come to see the world in the pale of late capitalism. The wholes created in arguments are something we can investigate and attempts to posit new meaning.
“The medium is the message” that over used quotation from McLuhan is still very relevant. I think it was stolen from Freud and his technological prosthetics the idea that the tool is an extension of the self, taken up again by Derrida in Archive Fever. There is a (pro)(re)gression of ideas and I don’t mean historicistically. I mean that “it follows that” – literature, theory, criticism all becomes entangled in the discourses of history. For there to be deconstruction there has to be a shift of ideas, even if many of these notions within the western canon seem always already contradictory.
JFL: Could you speak about the importance of failure?
Failure and to some extent ignorance go hand in hand. Without failure there could never be change nothing to measure against. In terms of ignorance the idea that we are oblivious to some idea or consequence cause and effect is interesting because if you realize that this is the case then you can go beyond the limitations of what you think is correct about a given assumption. You presume to know nothing. The very idea of an expectation is moot there is only investigation and it never ends. But this is not like being trapped in a hell. Derrida talks about it as a free play of the world and the innocence of becoming as does Nietzsche. It becomes something liberating freeing us from convention and preconceived philosophies and social conventions.
JFL: But if everything is suspended in this “Aporia” how do we proceed to challenge conventional binary thinking?
I don’t think it means that everything has to be challenged, certainly, it is cautionary, but it doesn’t prohibit us from moving forward politically sometimes if something can’t be brought to resolutions it hinders political engagement. All the while, a less considered idea still makes its mark on the planet. A question left open gives us pause. The Chinese say that change equals opportunity. That is to say that through failure one could attain a better state of being in the world. I cross out being because within philosophy it is problematic, let alone psychoanalysis. I actually think deconstruction has more to do with Buddhism than philosophy but this would be another discussion.
JFL: There seems to be a concern about waste in your fiction. Why did you choose this topic?
Waste is a prominent component of today’s society. In the fiction I posit the notion that nothing is wasted because it ends up being used in building construction or used for food. Even ideas that are discarded all the slips, prejudices and mistakes are archived because the storage medium is so great. This still tells us something about ourselves. Most of what people put into the trash or recycle bins on their computers is still ghostly coded on their hard drives. This is shown in The Typographer where repression, slips of the tongue and mistakes are archived. Like silences these discarded parts of language become important.
JFL: I was wondering if you might discuss your notions on academic scholarship.
As you know I received my B.A. in comparative literature at Carlton a while back. I think education and the academy fulfill many duties within society in general. Some critics say you can’t really teach someone how to write or pursue any creative practice. I think this notion is only partly true – what the academy does is to surround you with people who can provide feedback, point you in the right direction and give you the time and support needed to create. I certainly would not have turned out to be a writer had it not been for the institutional support I was granted back in the late 1980’s. People under estimate higher learning, which is often reflected in the amount of support from government and business at least as it exists in Canada. The University teaches all kinds of tricks for “making it” within a competitive business environment, which is often oppressive cultural atmosphere. Einstein once said that imagination is more important that knowing. As a society we sometimes forget that culture often colours life it breaths excitement into living – sounds like a commercial doesn’t it? I’m sure that will be used a some city slogan in the future. Come to Blah blah where the culture breaths excitement! I could be a “cultural economist”; if there is such a thing.
For me writing is a visual art. I have to imagine or see something playing out to get an idea to expand on. If you look at text itself it’s visual symbols conveying meaning. The transference of an idea through negative and positive space on the fibres of paper. THEY CAN SHOUT AT YOU or they can be quiet and whisper meaning behind your ear – they can punctuate with force – words are critical or agreeable or timid or strong they can be all manner of things. This is not to say they are priviledged. I think concrete poetry is interesting like ASCII art it draws the parallel between image and writing. This is one of the things that makes the various visual languages of art so interesting – many artists have investigated mark making. The deconstructionists look at writing as such – what do we do with all of these marks and the warring forces at work in the text? It is an exercise never finished like doing a perpetual Richard Simmons workout every single day of your life, a hell for sure because of its deconstructive death drive. Great now I’m going to have to ponder that one for several years. (Ha)
Do you ever worry about the “it’s been done before” syndrome—the idea that you could write about something that some other sci-fi writer has already imagined?
I used to worry about this a lot but at some point you just have to let go and write. If it fits into the story and can seem plausible to the reader then go with it. Just let it flow like stream of consciousness. What I set about to do now is construct the poetry of the book and then put the puzzle together – even though more often than not it still remains a puzzle, but that’s OK too.
The Typographer is the first in a trilogy about a futuristic dystopia set in the 23rd century. Her latest book, the acclaimed Alterations (2006), is a historical look at forms of social control including the modern propaganda model, which won the Helen Simpson Memorial Prize. The Fabricated Universe (2004), a recent collection of short Science Fiction writing is a compendium of work dating from 1997 to the present.