Identity politics, artistic autonomy, and a disappearing SF Story

It all began with a silly, transphobic meme [image right]…Then came the story, “I sexually identify as an Attack Helicopter,” which first appeared in Clarkesworld (Jan 2020 issue), but caused a huff among certain hypersensitive readers who claimed it was insincere, inauthentic, and insensitive to  transgendered people in the same spirit as the original meme. After all this nail-biting angst and triggering the story was finally removed at the request of the author. (Archived version here). Then came the national commentary, which was often insightful as it was swift, with WIRED magazine weighing in with…

The notion that the story was written by someone who agrees with the transphobic sentiment of the original meme caught hold. Some felt the author was likely to be a “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” (commonly known as a TERF) because of how Fall talked about gender and dysphoria and the experience of being trans.

They were utterly wrong, the TERFs weren’t on the scene: the author was herself a trans author and was writing from personal experience. The Atlantic offered a much more insightful view that WIRED in its piece on the story, “The Talented Victim is not the Point“:

The left, as distinct from the right, has long dominated high and low art. To its credit, it has used that position in part to tell humanizing stories about historically marginalized people that increase understanding and empathy. America is a more inclusive place as a result. But I don’t know that a salutary tradition running from the films of Sidney Poitier to Will and Grace to Transparent and beyond can endure if Millennial creators and succeeding generations allow their art to be policed by the most essentialist, intolerant voices; or if they are persuaded that deleting a piece of fiction is more ethical than discussing it in the open if anyone at all feels harmed by it; or that it is wrong to truthfully relate one’s own experiences if they are in tension with political orthodoxies.

This hits the nail on the proverbial head, and is the part that worries me most–the idea that we can and should just “cancel” whatever fails to jibe with our group’s own sense of political/ethical righteousness. To some extent I do think that, in abandoning the idea of “art for art’s sake” in favor of “art for politics’ sake” has a damning effect on our sensibility. I think this because, as the Marxist critical theorist Theodor Adorno pointed out, “Insofar as a social function can be predicated for artworks, it is their functionlessness” (AT 227 via SEP). That is, the singular function of art and literature is to remain a functionless space where “works” can be created without some “rational purpose” or political use. Otherwise, truly creative work cannot exist because it has been assigned some socially predetermined aim (profit, political propaganda, or therapeutic benefit) and become a tool for one class or another. Only in such a sphere of autonomy can real art, art with the power to  alter our vision, survive.

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