Benjanun Sriduangkaew and J. Moufawad-Paul, Methods Devour Themselves: A Conversation. Winchester: Zero Books, 2018; 143 pages. ISBN: 978-1785358265.
Reviewed by Devin Zane Shaw, Douglas College.
Philosophy, at least in the Continental traditions, frequently engages with works of art and literature. Art has been often viewed, since the era of German Romanticism and Idealism, as a privileged form of cultural production with implications for the concept of freedom: Schelling, for example, argued that art pointed toward the productive and creative dimensions of freedom, absent in Kant’s duty-bound concept. It has been of interest to historical materialists, since Marx famously asked in the Grundrisse, “is Achilles possible with powder and lead? Or the Iliad with the printing press, not to mention the printing machine? Do not the song and the saga and the muse necessarily come to an end with the printer’s bar, hence do not the necessary conditions of epic poetry vanish?” (Grundrisse, 110–111) And more recently, philosophers such as Badiou and Rancière (among many others) have analyzed art, artistic production (or work), and spectatorship for their political-emancipatory possibilities. These interventions extract art from its (assumed) place in social life for several reasons: to challenge philosophical dogmas about history, interpretation, and meaning; to construct aesthetic or literary theory; or—as indicated already by the ways that philosophers have focused on freedom or politics—to “mine deep fictional troves for analogical ore” for philosophical problematics. (8)
While the dialogue between Benjanun Sriduangkaew and J. Moufawad-Paul takes place in the wake of these prior engagements, Methods Devour Themselves is a unique intervention in the fields of philosophy and literature. Aside from a foreword by Moufawad-Paul and an afterword by Sriduangkaew, the book alternates between three short stories by Sriduangkaew and three essays by Moufawad-Paul. Rarely does it happen that an artist or writer carries out a sustained conversation with a given theoretical intervention through art (in this case, science fiction) and not wearing the hat, as it were, of the critic or theorist who reflectively theorizes about the literature that serves as the terrain and object of interpretation. Whereas Moufawad-Paul responds through theoretical analysis, Sriduangkaew interjects in fiction.
The title of the book is drawn from a passage in Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (specifically Markmann’s translation). In the Foreword, Moufawad-Paul notes that the purpose of the collaboration is to challenge a number of philosophical problematics while pushing the critical boundaries of science fiction writing and criticism (boundaries which have been challenged elsewhere by Sriduangkaew herself, as a critic and author). He writes:
The collaborative nature of this project—and the ways in which our methods devour each other so as to eke out a liminal space that is both and neither story and essay—might permit interrogations and contestations that cut across our respective ways of knowing. (11)
I can only speak to the ways that such a conversation might cut against unexamined methodological prejudices of philosophers. One such prejudice readily holds that between theory and literature, the theorist directs the conversation or becomes the authoritative voice; theory becomes the interpreter, fiction the interpreted. This concern is all the more pressing, given that the distinction between interpreter and interpreted is marked by the intersections of race, gender, and class (See also Lewis Gordon’s remarks on auto/biography, authenticity, and race in Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought). Since Moufawad-Paul does not contribute fiction of his own, and Sriduangkaew—aside from the afterword renouncing the interpretive privilege of authorial intent—does not intervene as critic, we must conclude that the liminal space between their respective contributions is one in which both critique and fiction drive the dialogue, challenging the prejudice that theorist is ultimately authoritative. That is, aside from the first of Sriduangkaew’s stories, which was previously published and serves as the impetus for their conversation, her subsequent interventions function to interpret and reflect upon Moufawad-Paul’s. In what follows, I will attempt to read Moufawad-Paul to describe Sriduangkaew’s work and vice versa—a reading that I hope opens that liminal space in which methods devour themselves.
The first piece and impetus for the conversations is Sriduangkaew’s “We Are All Wasteland On the Inside,” situated in a world in which modern-day Krungthep (Bangkok) has collided with the mythic forest of Himmapan, resulting in the “former laws of space and time are degraded, subjected to a new totality sutured from the alterities of Himmapan.” (29) In describing this world, the narrator reflects on the dystopian totality of Krungthep-Himmapan:
There’s nothing magical about Krungthep. The writers and artists were wrong, and what once resided within their fantasias and imagination are now everyday—everywhere. Metaphor and allegory no longer serve, having turned literal overnight. Even the statues and stencils in Suvarnaphum have come alive, adopted as vessels for the creatures they once depicted as fictional. What is the point of words on pages, or nielloware etchings or delicate carved ivory, when the genuine articles are full of voice and viscera? (19)
Citing this passage, Moufawad-Paul draws the analogy that Himmapan has captured imagination much in the way that capitalism has captured the political imagination of the global metropole. He is not the first to make this kind of claim; his analogy is situated through an analysis of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, and Fisher’s analyses draw from Fredric Jameson, who once noted that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. While much of the discussion, from Jameson to Fisher, aims to identify aesthetic practices and social forms that resist and subvert capital, Moufawad-Paul turns the analysis around and focuses on post-Marxist theoretical production. Another way to formulate the problem is that the “capitalist imaginary replaces the truth of the ‘socialism or barbarism’ antinomy with this groundless maxim: ‘capitalism or Stalinism.’” (39) The threat of Stalinism or totalitarianism, as diagnosed in so-called leftist or progressive political philosophy, nonetheless functions as theodicy for capital: while capitalism has its flaws, the alternative is worse.
The particular alternative that Moufawad-Paul advocates is a fighting party constructed through a critical assessment of the Russian and Chinese revolutions such as the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The antinomy that separates Moufawad-Paul from other leftist theorists, then, is Party or Movementism (social movements oriented toward dissent but presumably not taking power). While I agree that the academic left has overstated the significance of movementism, and I agree that the anticapitalist struggles he describes warrant our critical attention and engagement, I still think that this conceptual antinomy is too sharp—verging toward something like Jodi Dean’s assertion that any movement that does not aim to seize power is merely “politics without politics.” Contemporary antifascism, for example, appears to drop out of the picture, since it does not organize within typical party parameters but it also rejects the symbolic performativity, naive liberal civility, and consumer-driven boycotts of #resistance. Given that both liberals and the alt-right white nationalists readily peddle the utterly ridiculous myth of “totalitarian” antifascism (that antifascists are the real or just-as-bad-as fascists), the radical left must not cede ground on the militant political and historical legitimacy and autonomy of antifascism; with it our own political practices are at stake. We could likewise trace similar longstanding tensions between communist parties or Marxist theorists and Indigenous anticolonialism on Turtle Island.
These concerns cannot be resolved, of course, in the space of a book review. But similar themes animate Sriduangkaew’s short story, “Krungthep is Onomatopoeia,” which follows Moufawad-Paul’s first contribution—ending, as he notes, with historical hope through solidarity. The reader is immediately drawn to the repetition of “Krungthep” as the world or space of the story, though where in “We Are All Wasteland” the name designated the collision of the mythical forest Himmapan and the modern-day city, in “Krunthep is Onomatopoeia,” the name refers to a “shipworld,” cast into the distant future, which suggests an ark that escaped (what is presumably) ecological and social collapse on Earth. As Moufawad-Paul notes, “the setting is reasserted as a space that might exist beyond the norms imposed by the capitalist imaginary. Anxiety is thus shifted into the realm of historical meaning.” (70) And in his intervention, “Living in Amber: On History As A Weapon,” he examines the futurity of revolution and solidarity via Walter Benjamin, Fanon and Samir Amin.
I will conclude by examining several ambiguous elements of “Krungthep in Onomatopoiea” that remain unremarked upon in Moufawad-Paul’s otherwise compelling interpretation. It strikes me that Sriduangkaew’s story functions as a political cipher much in the way that Brecht’s admittedly much more didactic The Measures Taken does; interpreting the story says as much of the political commitments of the reader as it does the text.
As already noted, “Krungthep in Onomatopoiea,” takes place in a future distant enough from our own that one of the characters, Suranut, is a historian who studies social movements from the late twenty-first to early twenty-second century. Suranut interacts directly with two other characters in the narrative, Pilot (referred to in the shipworld by her profession, but who reveals to Suranut that her name is Gullaya) and the AI or “cortex” of Krunthep, who is omnipresent throughout the shipworld. The narrator also mentions another agent in the story, an administrative council whose decisions conflict with those of the cortex. This conflict (along with the reckoning that Pilot remains in debt to the shipworld) suggests pace Moufawad-Paul that some degree of class struggle remains in the shipworld, despite the fact that the character Suranut explains that her historical work in part memorializes those militants who sought and brought about a world that had dispensed with forms of kinship organized by cisheteropatriarchy to a degree that it would be unthinkable to return to the oppressive structures of the previous forms of kinship. Suranut is not entirely satisfied to memorialize; the narrator notes that she had studied the original Krungthep and knows that the shipworld lacks sky. The shipworld, as noted later in the story, “is like living in amber. It’s stasis. Something has to change or break.” (58) By contrast, Suranut desires to see the sky on the post-collapse Earth:
A sky suggests possibility, opens up infinity, cannot be measured. A sky is vaster than the shipworld which is enormous but has precise limits….These thoughts have consumed her since an age she could comprehend what sky meant, what its presence in the old media of Earth entails, what its absence in the shipworld declares. Its absence, the shape of no and cannot. (47)
It is the sky of which she dreams when first summoned by the cortex to meet with Pilot, who was part of a previous expedition to Earth that turned catastrophic, resulting in the deaths of her shipmates, Archivist and Scout. After their deaths, Pilot plotted a suicidal trajectory toward a star, only to be rerouted back on a collision course with the shipworld. The denouement of story occurs when the cortex leads Suranut and Pilot (or Gullaya) back to the crash site on the shipworld’s skin. It is the only point of exit; the cipher, as it were, for the reader. Gullaya—in those final paragraphs the narrator shifts to the pilot’s name rather than Pilot—pushes against the imperfect repair at the impact point, toward the other side the “umbral space” of the binary star system the shipworld inhabits. She’s stopped by Suranut for the breach would kill her, too. When Gullaya claims that Suranut’s intervention is the cortex’s victory, as Pilot’s life but also debts remain,
“No,” Suranut says, steering the pilot from the away that is irrevocable, “I think you did. Now it’s my turn to earn my purpose. Shall we introduce ourselves? You’re Gullaya, the pilot. I’m Suranut, the historian who wants to see the sky, and I’m here to help you want to see it again. (63)
At this moment, the political imagination of the reader is put to the test. If the reader interprets the plot in terms of linear progress, Suranut’s “introductions” that conclude the story and interpellate Pilot as Gullaya signal the victory of individuality against the impersonal forces of the council and the cortex, the latter who at one point in the story interjects that, “There is no me.…You are communicating with an intricate set of heuristics, but that is not a self. Function is its own justification and essence.” (51) But on this reading, the actual dialogue between Moufawad-Paul and Sriduangkaew in Methods Devour Themselves grinds to a halt; in Moufawad-Paul’s terms, the plot then retrogresses back into the capitalist imaginary. Instead, like Moufawad-Paul, I read the conclusion as a moment of hope through solidarity. Life on the shipworld was one of stasis rather than transformation. Ironically, the ultimate triumph of individualism would have been Gullaya’s death in umbral space, the only possible action imagined by Gullaya as breaking stasis before the introduction of solidarity and hope. To see sky is the moment of possibility through solidarity, the one that would, by the narrative’s own logic, upend all the social relations on the shipworld. And here, precisely, the reader can measure where their political imaginary stands.
If “Krungthep is Onomatopoeia” suggests the possibility of imagining a world outside of capitalism, and thus also some degree of anxiety concerning historical meaning, it also produces some degree of, to borrow an inflection from existentialism, anguish for the reader. For reading implicates the reader’s political imaginary, much in the way that Sartre once claimed that reading is an act of freedom. Sriduangkaew concludes: “what I would like is that the dialogue between my fiction and his [Moufawad-Paul’s] exploration will exert the same force on the reader that it did on me.” (133) And thus the dialogue that is Methods Devour Themselves becomes a conversation.
Additional Works Cited
Fanon, Frantz (1967), Black Skin, White Masks, (tr.) Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove Press).
Marx, Karl (1973), Grundrisse, (tr.) Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin).