Monday, 10 November 2008

How Can Social Science Study Fiction? Reading Delany's Early Forays into Criticism

In “About 5,750 Words,” Delany argues that the common content/form distinction is, particularly when examining science fiction, both nonsensical and harmful. Any content, he claims, is inextricably bound up in its form and, in fact, it is the very specifics of form (words and their structuring) that give rise to what is commonly referred to as s-f content. It’s an issue which seems particularly interesting for studies not concerned with literary criticism, but looking at (for example, organizational) themes raised by a given piece of work.
For the most part, such studies are clearly framed in terms of content, disregarding the question of form altogether. Books such as Good Novels, Better Management (Czarniawska-Joerges and Guillet de Monthoux, 1994) and Lost in Space (Kitchin and Kneale, 2002) devote very little attention to literary aspects of studied works, and yet it is obvious they constitute important contributions to their field of study. It seems, thus, that there is at least some demonstrable merit to separating literary work content from its form of expression.
At the same time, there might be some enticing reasons for paying greater attention to the interdependence of language and expression when examining the latter. Ideas are expressed and thought through language, and any form of representation (including interpretation) is cognate with translation. And, of course vice versa (Steiner, 1975/92). Well presented ideas are, of course, more persuasive, where “well presented” involves embedding in the context familiar to the reader—a concern of a fiction as well as academic writer.
And, of course, the ideas we end up discussing are the ones we find persuasive (or particularly appalling). Which brings up another of Delany’s points about literary criticism—passing judgement is a necessary part of any critical process, and intellectual honesty requires the critic to reveal his or her judgement. Does this commandment extend to the organization theorist examining works of fiction? More importantly, should it?
This, finally, rouses the beast of representation and reflexivity, much like the core questions underlying much of contemporary anthropology and ethnography (Geertz, 1973; Van Maanen, 1988; Behar, 1993). What is the role of the examined/presented text in the context of organizational reflection? How much of the reading process does the researcher need to reveal to the reader? Where does this revelation of the interpretative process turn into self-obsession?
Predictably, I am left with little in the way of answers, except for a resolve to keep asking myself whether examining the language of the works I interpret can bring any new insights into my analyses. I can only hope to come to more definite (or, at least, binding) answers on a case by case basis when interpreting particular (rather than abstractly posited) works, looking for insights on particular issues.

Behar, Ruth (1993) Translated Woman. Boston: Beacon Press.
Czarniawska-Joerges, Barbara and Pierre Guillet de Monthoux (eds, 1994) Good Novels, Better Management: Reading organizational realities, Chur: Harwood.
Delany, Samuel R. (1968/77) “About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words” in: The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. New York: Berkeley Publishing.
Geertz, Clifford (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
Kitchin, Rob and James Kneale (eds, 2002) Lost in Space: Geographies of science fiction. London: Continuum
Steiner, George (1975/92) After Babel: Aspects of language and translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Van Maanen, John (1988) Tales of the Field: On writing ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

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