New Literary History 31.4 (2000) 649-664
[Access article in PDF]
Political Science Fictions
Walter Benn Michaels
"A civilization," Samuel P. Huntington says in his well-known essay, "The Clash of Civilizations?" is "the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have, short of that which distinguishes humans from other species." 1 Huntington, of course, is not interested in what distinguishes humans from other species; what has made this essay well known is its claim that "world politics is entering a new phase" (CC 67) and that in this "new phase," it is "cultural" difference, the difference between humans understood as the difference between civilizations, that will be the primary source of conflict. But the wording of the definition, with its suggestion that not only the differences between humans but also the differences between humans and "other species" are essentially cultural, suggests how powerful the notion of culture as the site of difference has become. Even in texts devoted to imagining "others" a good deal more other than Huntington's Confucians and Muslims, even, that is, in those texts where the other is imagined as belonging to a different species, the idea that otherness is essentially cultural has seemed increasingly persuasive. In Orson Scott Card's Ender Quartet, for example, the new xenologers who have replaced the old anthropologists still do work the anthropologists would have recognized as their own: they study the "culture" of three-foot-tall aliens who look a little like pigs with hands until they metamorphose at maturity into trees. 2 And while they are studying "piggy culture," the xenologers worry about whether the very act of studying the culture will "contaminate" it. Understood, then, as the study of culture rather than as the study of man, anthropology is unaltered by its transformation into xenology. But, of course, the idea that the differences between humans and others can now be thought on the model of the differences between humans and humans means that many other things are altered. Which is only to say that, whether or not Huntington is right about the details, about how many cultures there are and about how to describe them, once creatures who look like pigs and turn into trees are understood above all as culturally different from humans, then what Huntington calls a "new world" definitely is being created.
Science fiction, of course, is relevant here because science fiction would seem to be almost generically committed to noncultural, in other [End Page 649] words, physical difference. The otherness of the alien is the otherness of its body and, in fact, this insistence on the physical difference between human and alien may be deployed not only against the Huntington-style idea that differences are essentially cultural but also against the idea that the differences between humans--insofar as what matters is physical difference--are in any way important. In Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy, human beings of different races are forcefully reminded of the irrelevance of their phenotypical differences by the fact that they are being asked to breed with aliens who look like sea slugs with limbs and tentacles. The difference between black and white skin looks pretty insignificant compared to the difference between humans and walking mollusks. Butler herself is African American, as is Lilith, the chief human character of the trilogy, but from this perspective it might be argued that one of the points of the trilogy is to render racial difference irrelevant or, more generally, by dramatizing the difference between humans and aliens, to render all differences between humans irrelevant. Perhaps we could say that in science fiction the choice between imagining aliens as physically different from humans and imagining them as culturally different from humans should be understood as a choice between ways of imagining not the difference between humans and aliens but the difference between humans. To insist that the difference between humans and aliens is physical is to insist on the insignificance of differences between humans; to insist that the difference between humans and aliens is cultural is to insist on the importance of differences between...