Should we stop intellectualising pop culture? A view from early science fiction

A few weeks ago an article came up on my Google augmented feed of articles related to things I’ve searched and the headline caught my eye: “Stop intellectualising pop culture” by Janan Ganesh writing for the Financial Times. I was granted the good fortune of reading the whole article due to the publications current paywall suspension (sigh) and I think the article did exactly what it was supposed to do: it put my back up. I toyed with dilemmas about rising to the bait and ultimately landed on the view that there is a prevalent tide against cultural critique and artistic legitimacy which can’t just be ignored away.

Ganesh presents his argument as a reaction to Dune (2021), castigating critiques and audiences for investing such a film with meaning. He sees no irony in the fact that the article is sprinkled with sentences which do just that:

I even detected one smirk in its po face: characters liken fear to a “little death”, which director Denis Villeneuve must know is French slang for orgasm.

Janan Ganesh not reading meaning into scenes from Dune.

The general thesis is that since the start of this century people have been intellectualising territory they should not, and have not before: pop culture; and this is because of rising rates of University level education. It’s not hard to see this as the author’s personal grandiosity manifest – I don’t like it so it must be silly, see what happens when you educate the proles? But, is this phenomenon really as new as we might think? Is thinking a little deeper about popular science fiction a useless pastime? Taking this as a springboard (rather than, say, the equally relevant previous post on the influence of SF on Silicon Valley), below are some early examples of spaces carved out by science fiction, and how they were gloriously aggrandised.

  1. Looking Backward (1888)

Looking backward: 2000 to 1887 (1888) by Edward Bellamy was as a piece of utopia fiction a hugely popular, a best-seller in its time. According to Wikipedia, in the United States alone there were over 162 Bellamy Clubs to debate and negotiate the socialist ideas the book introduced. The novel transports the reader over a hundred years into the future into the year 2000, where the capitalist economy has long since melted into a socialist utopia underpinned by the nationalisation of private property and industry. People live without waste in simple luxury, working for the good of society and the pride of their contribution rather than competition. The Bellamytes, followers of the book and its ideas, had meetings, forums, a magazine and even ran for office. Bellamy, on the other hand, claimed he had simply wanted to write a “literary fantasy, a fairy tale”.

Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887

2. News from Nowhere (1890)

William Morris’s News from Nowhere is in many ways a direct response to Bellamy’s Looking Backwards. Where both writers presented utopias with broadly socialist ideals, Morris was more interested in the craft and creativity of the humble artisan rather than the nationalised machine industry Bellamy presents. Morris, in his review of Looking Backwards, directly criticised Bellamy for presenting “the machinery of life” and thought ideas such as a retirement age of 45 to be unrealistic and impractical. So in News from Nowhere, we see a different way forward: one in happy rural settings where work is based on a variety of endeavours fulfilling to the subject, where the pursuit of simple beauty is the goal and institutions such as education and marriage are radically reimagined. Morris did not directly inspire the same following that is apparent in the Bellamytes, but the influence of the aesthetic and ideals continues to this day.

3. The War of The Worlds (1897)

Most will be familiar with the cultural impact of the work by H. G. Wells, due to the number of adaptations it has inspired. The tale of Martians coming to earth is well known as a being taken seriously enough by the public during Orson Well’s 1938 radio version that many (including my grandmother) started packing for the impending invasion. The War of the Words also, however, inspired Robert H Goddard to develop rockets which ultimately led to the Apollo program’s Moon landing.

The War of the Worlds

4. J. A. Etzler’s The Paradise within the Reach of All Men, Without Labour, by Powers of Nature and Machinery: An Address to All Intelligent Men (1833)

This one isn’t strictly science fiction, but under scrutiny the boundaries between fictional utopia and proposed future can blur so far that it may demonstrate a point. Etzler presented a technological utopia which was certainly fantastical in elements, claiming that with some tweaks machinery of his age could provide more than enough for all of society and will free man from labour (and its related problems). The truly visionary aspects of his work are the presentations of a future based on the power derived from nature: solar power, water power, wind power. In an age presided over by coal he believed that renewable energy was the truly democratic power source. Though Etzler tried and failed to create colonies based on his futuristic ideology during his lifetime, his thinking on science and nature inspired Henry David Thoreau among others in pursuit of harmony with our natural environment.

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