In the long-awaited third and final part of our interview, we discuss the disaster in the southern U.S., blogging, fantasy vs. realism vs. magical realism and the value for progressives of international law.
ALPHONSE VAN WORDEN: You're blogging at Lenin's Tomb! I want to know how you're enjoying it.
CHINA MIÉVILLE: Well, it's nice to have an outlet for the occasional rant. I admit though that it i) gives me performance anxiety, and ii) creates a sense of obligation and guilt. That's not necessarily a bad thing, I'm just saying. I'm going to try to do one tonight, in fact.
AvW: What's your topic?
CM: It's a follow-up on Hurricane Katrina. Nothing very surprising - this is one of the problems of blogging, I rarely think I'm saying anything the readers haven't thought of - but I'm just obsessed with this story, can't leave it alone.
JOHN PISTELLI: Well, it's just a catastrophe. It's such sorry proof of the mess we're in.
CM: It's beyond belief. I find it more shocking than 9/11. It's shaping up to be a major crisis for Bush.
AvW: Do you feel it is a bit empowering though? Blogging? Contributing to the instant pool of reaction?
CM: I don't know - it's felt to me like something I couldn't not do, occasionally - sometimes there's, you know, a formulation, a thought, or something that you really want to get out there. It's the sense of it being too frustrating not to. So it's empowering in that sense - that to not do it would be disempowering. I wish I thought I was telling people things they didn't know, or adding to the sum of knowledge, rather than just expressing things in a certain voice. But there you go.
JP: Why does it inspire guilt? Guilt that you're not writing a novel?
CM: yes but also guilt that if I start on a certain topic, I have a certain responsibilty to follow it up, hence Katrina.
AvW: Yet I have noticed lately that the blogsphere is this massive reply to the television; it’s not a question of new information but the volume of the rebuttal of the interpretation, the collective refusal of that hegemony
CM: Yes. That troubles me. I'm not saying anything about Katrina (for e.g.) that most of the left aren't saying. [Update: That may not be the case any more - see here] What do I think I'm adding. I don't know. I just feel I can't not.
AvW: But without its contribution there is not this real challenge, this volume, it seems like something to me.
JP: Yes, I agree.
CM: OK I'm persuaded. I do a good thing.
AvW: People don't feel alone screaming at the tv; they feel plugged in to a collectivity. Validated.
CM: good then. I don't know if I'll ever do some 'theory' blogging. I occasionally want to do a blogpost about international law, and that's not really right for lenin's tomb, so I may find another clearing house. Also thoughts on fiction.
AvW: Well here we are.
JP: Hey, Long Sunday es su casa.
AvW: But first a question about the short stories. Looking For Jake. Several of these stories – “Go Between” and “Entry from a Medical Encyclopedia”, others, you abandon the strict pulp genres of your novels and take up the literary fantastic. Was this a deliberate decision; new genre, new thing?
CM: No not at all. Partly because the distinction between the 'literary' fantastic and the pulp genre is slippery at the best of times. Also because one of the things you have the opportunity to do in a short story is to indulge a mood, an idea, a sensibility, rather than worrying too much about plot. So that makes it feel more 'literary', because you have the surreal/strange/dreamlike, but without the necessity of shots-ringing-out and the cavalry riding in. Then the next thing you know, people are comparing you to Borges. Cool. (Fantastic + plot = pulp. Fantastic - plot = literature. Discuss.)
AvW: So you didn't say okay I'll put metaphor to work in this other way? and was this an issue with the marketing?
CM: Good question. I think there are stories – “Foundation”, “Go-Between” - where the metaphor is very self-conscious. But they still have the literalism of that metaphor… which I think of as a genre - though not uniquely pulp - sensibility
AvW: Is that serious, those equations?
CM: I don't know - the equations were just musings. Certainly they do deliberately like trying to market it as 'literary', but they try to do that with the novels too a bit. Though I think they're pitching harder in that direction now.
AvW: Very provocative really in terms of hinting at the dangers of plot.
CM: Yes but but but I also think that in the _absence_ of plot, the fantastic very easily risks becoming too introspective, it loses the literalism, and starts being conscious of itself, and becomes mannered.
AvW: Do you think about a different audience? An audience not in need of plot?
CM: Not really - the readers of the 'fantastic' are so voracious in their reading of anything in that vein that they'll read Borges and Stephen King and William Hope Hodgson and Lovecraft and Murakami in the same sort of way
AvW: What do you like in that vein? Besides Borges?
CM: Gogol. Ballard. Calvino (some, though less as I get older). Bulgakov. Cortazar.
CM: but I like the genre writers of shorts just as much.
AvW: Do you think there is an English fantastic? A specifically national thread of the fantastic? Or British?
CM: I think you can make a few generalisations that have enough of a purchase that it's not an entirely useless category, though very hedged around. So when people say, for eg, that Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is 'very English', we sort of know vaguely what they mean, kind of a bit. Then there's stuff about for example the specificity of the Scottish fantastic - there _does_ seem to be some vague thing shared by James Hogg and Alasdair Gray. Very hard to put your finger on what. I wouldn't set too much store by these categories - I wouldn't quite dismiss them out of hand either. Like all categories they're arguments. And I think you can have them, plausibly, particularly when you historicise. There is _definitely_, for eg, an 'English' fantastic of the late 60s and early 70s. The New Worlds writers do have a certain feeling to them.
AvW: There seems to be a continuum of the fantastic which takes the uncanny from whimsy to terror.
CM: Yes I think that's true. Though I think there are certain forms - nonsense and whimsy, in particular - which are sort of hollowed-out versions, which, by virtue of being always-already-not-believed, are distinguished from the fantastic, by virtue of knowing it's not really real.
AvW: And your stories participate in a variety of positions on that continuum. Perhaps it is intellectual to emotional I mean. The story of the wormword has intellectual effects; “Foundation” is very disturbing.
CM: I'm not conscious of all these distinctions, I have to say - to me all the stories are primarily born of a feeling of mood. Some I know are political, others less so, but it's always mood that spawns them. Not conscious of them _when writing_, I mean. Later, you sometimes see it.
JP: Along the lines of plot/genre, you've called the Bas-Lag novels an "anti-triology". This is, I assume, a response to the telelogical plot structure (quests, etc.) of much popular fantasy, but isn't it also contiguous with an older realist tradition, Balzac or Faulkner writing all those novels set in the same "universe", as it were? It just occurs to me that the the modern sf/fantasy novel takes over what was, a century ago, seen as the realist novel's function: world-building. What do you think?
AvW: (I thought Bas Lag was a gesture to Balzac)
CM: Two things. i) On the specificity of the 'anti-trilogy' - It wasn't just three books in the same universe. It's also that the three books constitute an argument, a manoeuvre. They're standalone, but they do develop, and articulate an overall hopefully non-teleological dynamic. Iron Council is itself alone, but is also, for those who care, Iron-Council-after-The-Scar-after-PSS. ii) I think your point about 'world-building' is excellent. My intuition would be that it's a function of the phases of bourgeois thought. Back then there was still a job to do in ideologically containing, conceiving, the world. It was up for grabs, it was new, it was burgeoning, it was _aware of its own existence_. I think part of the reason that it is very hard for me to conceive of a truly great Liberal novel for the last few decades is because more or less definitionally they'd be novels that take the world at its own claims. They take it for granted. That I think is partly what Trotsky's after when he says that 'art that loses a sense of the social lie' is what 'becomes mannerism'.
JP: Yes, there's no modern Dickens or Tolstoy
AvW: Jonathan Franzen is now shooting himself.
CM: My work here is done.
AvW: This must be an odd tension though in 'world creation' within lingering realist traditions…and in some ways your novels are more classically realist than what remains of that tradition. A paradox Zizek would love, realism lives on in the fantastic.
CM: Well I think part of the problem with the modern 'liberal' novel is that it often tends not to conceive of the totality of social life: instead it abstracts one element (stereotypically the middle-class family), and universalises it. By contrast, fantastic fiction that 'world-creates' creates a world - a totality. So whether or not it explicitly spells it out, there's a sense that an economic problem conceived of as background and the romantic plot foregrounded are part of the _same universe_. That's what the classic 19thC realist novel also did. Of course the _bad_ fantasy novel proposes an utterly unconvincing totality, one with elements that we viscerally know to be present, absent.
AvW: "The totality of social life" has perhaps just become unspeakable, inadmissible. Because its revelation would require some urgent action. One cannot just propose it without some alternative; its too horrid.
CM: absolutely. It's not debatable. these days it's not even really conceivable. But even to propose it *positively* is to posit an alternative, because it becomes positable rather than just _the world_. So capitalism's triumph isn't its explicit ideological triumph but its rendering itself invisible. In a sense, every time a capitalist mentions capitalism, it's a chink in their armour.
JP: Do you think the magic realist novel confronts this question in a meaningful way?
CM: Magic realism...I'm very torn about it. I suppose very crudely I'd say you have to distinguish between 'high' MR, and the second and third generation. The problem is it becomes mannerism incredibly quickly. There's a particular fabular logic and even register which is a kind of highbrow twee, which MR lends itslef too. There’s also the issue of definition. Is Bulgakov MR? Murakami? Borges? To generalise, I confess, as a voice it makes me slightly uncomfortable. Too self-conscious.
JP: There's also been a bleed from magic realism into fantasy proper, hasn't there? Urban fantasy, John Crowley, Gaiman, etc. Perhaps that's part of the definitional problem.
CM: Yeah. But again I'm slightly uneasy with the terminology here. I mean, what Gaiman does is integrate myths in what I think is a very classic way, but his genius is that it's a classicism _aware of_ revisionism, rather than revisionist proper. Crowley does a very strange, risky thing of being deliberately american-twee-folksy. And mostly getting away with it. I think any of these can be called Magic Realism, but you have to make the argument.
JP: Right. Well, I just finished Crowley’s Little, Big and I don't know what to say about it at all.
CM: Yes I was very torn about that book. I preferred Aegypt
JP: I'll have to read that one.
CM: Though I admired Little, Big.
JP: Yes, the prose is amazing. But something doesn't work.
CM: In my experience people tend ultimately to be either Crowley-ites or M.John.Harrisonists. I love Crowley, but Harrison is my man.
AvW: International law question. Okay so obviously a big thing now happening is the catastrophe stage of what has been broadly accepted - however irrationally - as an international order, with this extremist Bolton basically coming out and stating what has been the tactit US position. How do you see this? Any opportunity hidden in this disaster?
CM: Yes. I don't think it's nearly as clear-cut as it's often depicted. I've just written an article touching on this in the Harvard International Law Journal (46,2): 'Anxiety and the Sidekick State: British International Law after Iraq.' The thing with the US position is that it's split. For every Richard Perle and Bolton, the international-law nihilists, there's a John Yoo, who's a careful international lawyer, articulating neoconservatism in IL terms. The American ruling class has always had a stronger vein of nihilism than most ruling classes, but the notion that the neocons have simply instituationalised that nihilism is much too simple. There's a great Marxist legal theorist, Anthony Chase, who's written about how in many respects this has been the _most_ 'juridicalised' imperialism of the last few decades. Even in the nihilist camp - because the American right _are_ split - there's inconsistency. Here's an exmaple: Bolton, in his obviously deliberately obstructive set of 'amendments' to the proposed new UN structure, his *very attempt to bolster US unilateral power* in the eyes of the neocons *against* the UN, uses the UN as a legitimation. He inserted, in the proposals talking about how bad violence is and how it should never be used, an amendment that said 'except to further the aims of the UN'. Modernity is a national-juridical system, so imperialism will articulate itself in, among others, juridical ways.
AvW: But these thrusts here - the delegitimation and legitimation - are certainly not even of near equal force.
CM: Does that mean there's no ideological shift? No. This is a very interesting time for IL, a time of enormous philosophical uncertainty. But the slightly pat notion that the neocons are 'against law' is too simple.
AvW: Perhaps the events offer an opportunity for greater clarification...the 'UN' as something, but not really what it was
CM: I'm not so interested in whether or not the US wants to legitimate the *UN* particularly - but that they can't think outside of juridical categories. Or at least, you can, but the juridical categories are always already there. The nation-state _is_ an international-juridical presence (among other things). the notion that it can exist outside of IL is simply wrong-headed....
AvW: For the massive NGO industry, for example, dedicated to the use of IL for reformist or horror-managing purposes, the tool is weakened almost useless now. They need to do realpolitik
CM: They always _did_, though. There are two poles to IL:...
AvW: Yes, but there was a little middle ground where this was a tool. As long as it served 'stabilitiy'
CM: (This is Koskenniemi's great insight) - the pole of 'apology' - realpolitik - and the pole of 'utopia' - cosmopolitanism. They have _always_ worked in both tandem and contradiction, one then the other being stressed. Certainly right now, 'apology' is particularly strong in IL. I'm not sure what you mean by 'a tool'. If you mean that IL was a tool for _us_, I'm sceptical of that. Its use has always been highly, highly problematic for us. I don't say there's _no_ way of articulating progressivism through IL, but that it's a very unstable strategy, always and intrinsically, and more so than through domestic law.
AvW: But how much different from domestic law? are differences of degree though at some point not qualitative, when we are talking about humanity's means of self protection? It is domestic courts which enforce IL, much of it I mean.
CM: Exactly. The 'subjects' of that law are rarely progressive political subjects, to put it crudely. And also because it is a law without a superordinate authority a 'progressive' IL decision will be unenforced, contested, rendered toothless. You can see this _exactly_ in the situation when the ICJ says the Israeli wall is unlawful. Given that Israel says 'fuck you' and the US says 'this is unhelpful, fuck you' *and the Palestinians explicitly say* 'this is great, but we're not going to push this *at a legal level* because we know nothing will happen, and because we don't want to use up our chips, and therefore what we'll do is use this *extralegally* as a way of swaying public opinion' while that may be a *moral* triumph, it's hard to see how it's a triumph for *progressive IL*. In fact it's progressive *precisely to the extent that it self-stalls as IL*.
AvW: But you are saying that this is not historical but inherent in IL; that it never would have carried more prestige with the Israeli court if not exactly force. Even in the two superpower world. That is it’s IL itself and not the consolidation of power. I'm not diagreeing personally; just being a bit of devil's advocate
CM: Yes. I'm not saying necessarily that the same decision wouldn't impact Israel differently, sometimes more, sometimes less: but that that would be a function of history, not IL.
AvW: Yes. Which is the case for domestic law as well.
CM: IL itself is part of the problem: it is an expression of capitalism, the same fucking capitalism that got us here in the first place. Yes, now there is a bit more room to try to use domestic law as a progressive tool: but not because domestic law is ontologically different: but because of our access to it. We can deploy it against exploiters/states.
AvW: So in a sense this kind of PR meltdown of IL may be an opportunity of which people might avail themselves.
CM: Yes, absolutely. Precisely. And there are some radical international law scholars who've been saying this. Example...
AvW: The attackers are the last line of defenders.
CM: There was a debate between progressive, even radical, IL scholars, who signed a letter against the war in Iraq, saying it was 'illegal', and David Kennedy, a radical IL theorist who said 'the more honest thing would be to say "IL is no help here"'. Even the letter signers said 'even if there was a UN resolution [still possible at that time] the war might still be immoral'. In which case, *why are we denouncing it in legal terms*? The first Gulf War had UN backing.
AvW: But take the Palestinians. It’s really the need to retain the appearance of a legal order which has prevented their being expelled finally, perhaps exterminated; there is no US permission for this in dramatic fashion.
CM: I disagree. I think this isn't because of law, but because public opinion, particularly in the Middle East but elsewhere too, would not put up with it. I absolutely don't think that it's IL that saves them. Having said which...
AvW: Not because they'd mind; there still remains this kind of need for an appearance of rules and humanitarian law, even if only to use it as excuses for invading countries to protect
CM: I"m not saying that IL doesn't become a self-perpetuating ideology - it _does_ have such elements, and the US would much rather do things that are hard to legally denounce. So in that very weak way, it may be a defence. ...
AvW: But what is the relation of 'public opinion' - the display of a respetc for it - and IL? Certainly this is one single question
CM: But that's hardly systematic. And in any case, they'll articulate their attacks *also* in legal terms. So as a defence, IL is not trustworthy
CM: Well, public opinion is certainly not *distinct* from IL - IL is a factor in it. But it's not systematic, and not systematically progressive.
JP: So the alternative is action within individual states? On something like Iraq, or Palestine? Attempting to influence leaders, vote them out?
CM: I think 'the main enemy is at home' - you focus your efforts where you have the sharpest presence. Our best bet to get the troops out of Iraq, for e.g., isn't to go to international court, but to keep mass pressure on the streets. Influence them by making them scared of mass pressure, maybe.
JP: Yes, I agree with that. It may even be working
CM: Voting them out is only useful if there's someone you can vote in with an alternative policy. Which there often isn't.
JP: Right, Hillary on the horizon here in the US.
AvW: I think one has to find avenues to interfere with the profitability
CM: I'm a Marxist - obviously I think the ultimate answer is a fundamental grass-roots radical change, a revolution. But I'm still very pro bits-and-pieces change along the way.
AvW: The expanding IL area is contract law not humanitarian law and rules of war. This has its own edifices, not the UN, and has to be enforced more systematically although with accomodations to power. And this reflects the trend in domestic law as well. It seems the tendency of law itself is not only of course to protect capital, but to actually phase humanity out of the picture of what the existence of order/prosperity etc even is.
CM: This is very interesting. There are two points. i) Yes, the economic edifice, 'private international law', has become very important, and has started bleeding into the traditionally separate 'public' IL. That's actually a double-edge sword for Private/contractual IL, because it imports certain categories of 'public' IL in a kind of backwash. But in any case, 'public' IL has always been predicated on contract law: that's the category that Grotius mobilised to make his 'freedom of the seas' argument much more sophisticated than its first iteration. But yes, right now - with issues of TRIPS, WTO, Doha, etc etc, trade/contract/private IL is very important, and the theory of it is getting more political, thankfully. And ii) actually I don't think I have a second point. 'Humanitarian' law has waned massively since its high point in 1999 (Kosovo). It's been replaced with a kind of 'new traditional' IL, based on old-school categories of sovereignty, but with a few rhetorical flourishes.
AvW: Who is you think the most important theorist addressing intl contract law?
CM: Hmmm. I"m not really placed to say, to be honest. I like Fiona Macmillan's work, but I'm no expert on this stuff, so there are probably others too.
JP: Let's look toward the future. Right now you've got Looking for Jake out, and the forthcoming article in Harvard International Law Journal. Is there another novel to come?
CM: Yes, I'm finishing a novel right now. I've finished the first draft. An analogy occurred to me, as I stared at this beautiful, fucking messy thing. When a cat gives birth to a kitten, it then licks all the manky crap off it for an hour. So the transition from first to second draft: I have to spend a month licking afterbirth off a kitten.
JP: That's a great analogy.
CM: I thought so. Thank you. It's hideously accurate-feeling.