The Limits of Estrangement

by Joseph Brooker

This is a slightly revised version of the introduction to a panel discussion hosted by the Centre for Contemporary Literature, 2nd March 2017, in which I was joined by my colleagues Mark Blacklock, Caroline Edwards and Mpalive Msiska This brief document summarises some thoughts I’ve recently had about literature and the contemporary, and is presented as the opening of a critical conversation: an invitation for others to develop, substantiate and improve on these ideas.


1: Politics

We are used to the idea of a contemporary era characterised by change and challenge, but in the world of society and politics the last year or two have presented more surprises than usual; even shocks. Just to stick to the most evident and pressing: the surprise of the vote for the UK to leave the European Union last June, and its ongoing effects; and the surprise victory of Donald Trump in the US election in November, and the ongoing effects of that event. (We can bracket, for now, Leicester City's dismissal of manager Claudio Ranieri, which Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp considered an equally shocking and inexplicable event.) Both these events currently seem endless in their capacity to produce effects: in other words there hasn’t been a day that they haven’t dominated the news agenda in some new or continuing way. The night before this panel took place offered, in the UK, another controversial vote in the Upper House of Parliament, followed by Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address.

The effects of the Brexit vote are large and controversial, and will not be addressed further here. It is the US situation that I think has more to do with the mood announced in our title. Put succinctly, my main prompt for this panel was the idea that the new political situation in the US has advanced us into a position where reality seems closer than it did before to science fiction, or to dystopia, or to surrealism, or some other kind of dark fantasy. In one way, when written down in black and white, that proposition looks excessive and itself unrealistic. Yet the idea has been pervasive for some 3 months now.

Here are just three instances to illustrate that point. On election day itself, in November 2017, Sophie Gilbert wrote in The Atlantic that ‘many […] writers have been compelled to sketch out their visions of a Trump presidency, and while their scenarios have differed when it comes to specifics, all of them fit neatly into the category of dystopian fiction. From mass deportations to child soldiers fighting wars with Mexico to a nation whose only news source is the Trump Network, these speculative portraits of the future take the candidate’s documented policy proposals and consider what they might actually look like if enacted.’ In late December, Tom Engelhardt in Salon responded to Trump’s choice of senior officials with the question: ‘Can you doubt that we’re in a dystopian age, even if we’re still four weeks from Donald Trump entering the Oval Office?’ And shortly after Trump’s Inauguration a month later, the Guardian assembled a panel of commentators to comment on the following scenario: ‘Since Kellyanne Conway spoke of ‘alternative facts’, Nineteen Eighty-Four has hit the No 1 spot in Amazon’s book sales chart. So, is the age of Newspeak here?’

In December 2016 I convened a panel of colleagues for our MA students, addressing questions of post-war and contemporary literature. There, my colleague Mpalive Msiska offered a response to this new global situation, speaking of a sense that previous forms of creative response seemed outmoded, or even seemed to have been taken on by those in power. Then, in January 2017, my colleague Mark Blacklock and I were at a conference about politics and performance, hosted by Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Theatre and taking place on the day of the Presidential Inauguration itself. A sense emerged for us that day, too, of a change in politics that might require academic critics to question some of their intellectual models. For instance, Aoife Monks of QMUL pointed out, academics since the 1990s or so had emphasised the potency and transgressive pleasures of performance, often against stability, identity and continuity. Yet it seemed suddenly as though performance and instability were the tools of those in power, rather than themes that could be used against them.

To some extent, I thought, this reprised an old debate from the 1980s, about whether, in the age of Ronald Reagan and MTV, theoretical attempts to destabilise truth, reality, chronology or teleology were subversive of the dominant order or supportive of it. It would be too ambitious to try to resolve such questions in the abstract. But it did strike me that we had entered a moment in which the questions re-emerged with a force that seemed more urgent than usual. The day after we had chewed over these propositions, they were emphatically reiterated by the controversy over ‘alternative facts’. Trump’s Press Secretary Sean Spicer addressed the media with statements that appeared to contradict the evidence of people’s eyes. People reached for their Orwell, and quoted from Nineteen Eighty-Four the passage about how 2 + 2 might equal 5. We seemed indeed to be plunging back into a time when ideas of epistemology, of the nature of truth and reality, became politically charged.

At that time, therefore, the Centre for Contemporary Literature decided to hold our panel discussion on The Limits of Estrangement, to open a conversation about how literature and criticism could fit into this scenario. Our event would of course be at the mercy of events by the time March had arrived. But I’m not sure I would say that events in the US since then have calmed down and seemed much more normal than they did in late January. Issues arising since then have included Russian hacking and collusion; the travel ban placed upon primarily Muslim countries, and the mass protests against these; the US administration’s attacks on the media as the ‘enemy of the people’; the continuing cultivation of the term ‘fake news’ to discredit news organizations, from people who, it is fair to say, have themselves been the prime beneficiaries of fake news. And that is to stick only to the US, when there is undoubtedly a lot of strangeness going on in the rest of the world. In a headline the day before the panel, Nigel Farage wanted to expel UKIP’s only MP from UKIP – an action that would reduce UKIP’s Parliamentary representation by roughly 100%. The old phrase ‘You couldn’t make it up’ applies, but someone keeps making it up.


2: Literature

Strange days, then. But let us think a little more about strangeness, and the literary term that involves it and puts it into action: estrangement. The baseline idea here is that it is beneficial for art to offer stories and images that prompt us to rethink our actual reality. More specifically, it may be posited that it is beneficial for art to depict reality itself in such a way as to prompt this rethinking. A good deal of mainstream poetry and realist fiction could sign up to this mission. Within modern literature alone, from Elizabeth Bishop to Seamus Heaney, from Elizabeth Bowen to Alan Hollinghurst, we can perceive attempts to make fictional versions of real objects, places and things which have the effect of – here is another key and loaded word – refreshing our sense of those things in actuality. Much critical value attaches to this mission in a large proportion of literary criticism. It has antecedents in Shelley’s description of poetry as making ‘familiar objects to be as if they were not familiar’ and Wordsworth’s aim to make ‘the strange familiar strange’. And the whole idea appears in tune with Viktor Shklovsky’s classic statement of the theme in ‘Art as Technique’ in 1917, where the emphasis is on literature’s capacity for the defamiliarisation of objects. Shklovsky memorably declared the mission to ‘make the stone stony’: which would mean, to bring out anew its particular character, the quality that makes it what it is rather than something else.

Shklovsky is sometimes thought to have been an influence on the socialist playwright and Bertolt Brecht, among the twentieth century’s major proponents of estrangement in literature. (In fact to talk of direct influence may not be accurate here, so much as an overlap and echo of ideas amid the sometimes intersecting radical literary cultures of Germany and the USSR.) Brecht’s famous Verfremdungseffekt, translated as alienation effect or less often as estrangement effect, was intended to distance spectators from action and stimulate reflection, through the use of elements of production including lighting, acting styles, music, and the juxtaposition of text and image. Now the reflection was politically inflected: to estrange a given social scene through aesthetic means might allow a new understanding of its real-world counterparts, an understanding which could be more critical and foster action. Thus Brecht summarised the appropriate response from a spectator.

I should never have thought so – That is not the way to do it. – This is most surprising, hardly credible. – This will have to stop. This human being’s suffering moves me, because there would have been a way out for him. This is great art: nothing here seems inevitable – I am laughing about those who weep on the stage, weeping about those who laugh.

It was the critic Darko Suvin, in the 1960s and 1970s, who then connected Brechtian thought with science fiction (SF). One of the founders of the journal Science Fiction Studies and a pioneer in the academic field, Suvin offered an influential, impressively succinct and robust definition of SF as a literature of cognitive estrangement. Suvin suggested the way that SF might productively remove us from the normal (estrangement), while doing so in a way that seems somewhat rational and scientifically coherent (cognitive). In offering us a world radically other than the ‘empirical’ one we live in, SF could ‘estrange’ that actual world, place us at a productive distance from it on re-emergence from the capsule of the SF tale. In emphasising the ‘cognitive’, meanwhile, Suvin tried to guard a rational and materialist SF from the less rigorous modes of fantasy and Gothic – a critical gesture which has been much criticized since.

In the 1970s the critic Robert Scholes – hitherto known for his work on modernism and on metafiction or ‘fabulism’ – turned his attention to SF, and helpfully compared Suvin to Shklovsky’s earlier formulation. Thus of SF, Scholes says:

What is unique to this form of fiction is the way it defamilarizes things [my italics]. In the worlds of SF we are made to see the stoniness of a stone by watching it move and change in an accelerated time-scale, or by encountering an anti-stone with properties so unstony that we are forced to reinvestigate the true quality of stoniness. In Shklovsky’s theory it is the form of the message which restores stoniness to the stone. Because the message is complex, difficult – in a word, poetical – it prevents our habitual response and opens our eyes to the reality of the object. But in SF this estrangement is more conceptual and less verbal. It is the new idea that shocks us into perception, rather than the new language of the poetic text.

Robert Scholes, Structural Fabulation: An Essay on Fiction of the Future (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), pp.46-7.

One further passage from Scholes is helpful, and I thus wish to place it on the table for our discussion. He is proposing the idea that fictions, even when they traffic in strange figures unknown in the empirical world, can aim to comment on that real world from which they have taken their distance. Thus:

The difference can be used to get a more vigorous purchase on certain aspects of that very reality which has been set aside in order to generate a romantic cosmos [for ‘romantic’ here we can substitute a term like ‘speculative’ or ‘fantastic’]. […] Fabulation, then, is fiction that offers us a world clearly and radically discontinuous from the one we know, yet returns to confront that known world in some cognitive way. (p.29)

The suggestion so far is of fiction undertaking speculation, extrapolation, distanciation, all in order to gain purchase on the real. This seems to cohere. The question that continued to puzzle me, though, was: Does this sound like a good vocation for art in the present political era sketched above?

Why wouldn’t it? The short answer must be: because reality is already so strange that it doesn’t bear further estrangement. In a time when you wake up each day to ever more bizarre headlines, does it make sense to turn to fantastic narratives for an estrangement of the real – when the news is doing that?

Here is a way of putting it. Go back to Brecht’s lines and imagine them as a response, not to a play, but to a broadcast from the White House:

I should never have thought so – That is not the way to do it. – This is most surprising, hardly credible. – This will have to stop. This human being’s suffering moves me, because there would have been a way out for him. This is great art: nothing here seems inevitable – I am laughing about those who weep on the stage, weeping about those who laugh.

The logic of the juxtaposition is that reality itself would produce the estrangement, without the need for theatre’s intervention.

In closing, I posit two possibilities.

1: Current social reality is strange enough that fictional estrangement, though valuable in many ways, is not needed to estrange it further. In an estranged world, the one kind of estrangement that might help you is, in effect, the opposite of SF: something like a reassertion of domestic realism, or even a wider social canvas, produced or set before the estrangement of the real world started. To be confronted with that homely domesticity or portrait of society from the recent past will itself function as an estrangement, a powerful reminder of what has been lost.

2: Remember the slogan that many people have used about Trump’s administration: ‘This is not normal’. The slogan, like most things online nowadays, has been controversial in various ways. For one thing, some people say that it is unrealistic to spend the next four years declaring things to be abnormal; in effect, they say that these things are normal or will become normal, like it or not. (The phrase ‘the new normal’ is relevant here and, as something of a paradox, would bear some reflection.) For another thing, people say that ‘this is not normal’ implies that a normality applied before Trump, in a way that is politically naive. After all, many destructive processes have been going on a long time, and we should not now falsely ‘normalise’ those as belonging to a lost period of sanity and stability.

Nonetheless, I think that ‘This is not normal’ is a relevant phrase to keep in mind when thinking about the relation between speculative fiction and the unfolding present. The role of fiction in relation to that world could be to find a way to keep the thought meaningful: to give us a way to appreciate the idea of the contemporary as abnormal, rather than dropping into a docile sense that things have always been this way. That might be a way for the various forms of contemporary fiction to reawaken something of the vocation that Brecht imagined for art.


Resist sign


Image by Lorie Shaull, used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.



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