Travelling Theory in a Parallel Universe

in Fact & Opinion

by Mina

Academia is always sprouting new theories like a rabid hydra. Deconstruction and Derrida may have been all the recent rage, but my interest was caught by a theory that slipped in with much less fanfare: travelling theory. Basically, it looks at how other theories spread, grow, change form, thrive or fade away. To my surprise, I found an excellent illustration of this theory in a sci-phi / fantasy novel. But more on this in a moment: first, I must blitz you a bit with, yes, theory. I promise to be as concise as possible.

To travel, a theory must cross cultures, sometimes taking a ride on the back of a different language. One theorist, Hillis Miller, stresses that a theory will be read and understood differently by a non-native speaker reading the theory in its original language (where s/he will interpret it his/her own way and based on his/her level of competence in the original language) or in translation (where s/he will interpret someone else’s interpretation). The room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation is, of course, huge.

The main proponent for travelling theory is Edward Said. In his opinion, theory travels well because theory is ‘conceptual and generalized’ and is not tied to a particular time, place or situation. However, the language of a theory is tied to a particular language and culture. A theory that has travelled does bring with it ‘the culture of its originator’. We will now ‘appropriate’ his theory. By that, I mean we will take this theory, examine it from various angles and turn it into something that is ours. Let’s also do something high-brow articles aren’t supposed to do – have frivolous and irreverent fun!

I found my own starting point by combining a science-fiction novel by Iain M. Banks and Said’s mobile theory. To summarise ruthlessly, Said identified four stages of travel for a theory: the point of origin, the distance traversed, the conditions of acceptance or resistance, and transformation. After such travel, a theory may be greatly diluted (domesticated theory) or magnified and strike a new direction (transgressive theory). For Zhang Longxi, another theorist, the most important stage is the point of destination or the point of origin in reverse. Basically (to overuse this word some more), he focuses on how a theory has been transformed by its destination to meet the needs of the point of destination.

Iain M. Banks writes science fiction for the ‘thinking man’. His books are beautifully constructed and complex. His novel Inversions struck me as a particularly good parable for travelling theory, especially if we focus, like Zhang Longxi, more on the point of destination. The novel is set in a primitive world reminiscent of medieval Europe, a common enough trope in fantasy. Its inhabitants are unaware that they have been visited by people from ‘The Culture’, an advanced post-scarcity interstellar civilisation. In the novel, the stories of two characters, ‘the Doctor’ and ‘the Bodyguard’ (my capitals), occur at the same time but in different lands and without overlapping in any way. It is only through the tales told by the Bodyguard to a sick child that the reader realises that these two characters come from a distant, more advanced civilisation and that they are cousins.

It is the tales that the Bodyguard tells which bring us to travelling theory. In the utopian world he describes, two cousins who are also friends argue about a theory: one cousin (who we can surmise to be the Doctor from the clues left for us in the novel) believes that it is the duty of a more advanced civilisation to help more primitive civilisations and ‘make life better for them’; the other cousin, the Bodyguard (identified again from the clues provided by the chief narrator) feels that more primitive civilisations should be left alone to make their own way. To intervene or not to intervene, that is the question; a debate which we often find in science fiction, going no further than the Prime Directive in “Star Trek”, where the crew of the starship Enterprise are not permitted to intervene in local matters just because they are the more advanced civilisation. It is perhaps easier to shift such a thorny debate into outer space than to discuss the realities of colonialism in planet earth’s history. To return to the theory the Doctor expounds in the Bodyguard’s tales, we could call it the ‘Theory of Beneficial Intervention’, i.e. a belief that the more advanced civilisation can and should intervene for the better of the primitive civilisation.

The Doctor actively strives to change the society in the land she visits by influencing its king and his advisors for the better. She remains the outsider throughout but does indeed seem to sow the seeds of peace and scientific ‘progress’ before disappearing. Towards the end of the novel, the author hints that she is an agent of ‘Special Circumstances’, a covert organisation whose aim it is to send operatives to influence events in the civilisations bordering ‘The Culture’. The Bodyguard does not actively strive to change the land he visits but limits himself to being part of its society and reacting to events as they occur. He fails to protect his ruler (the Prime Protector), who is assassinated, and, even worse, he allows a civil war to erupt. As far as we know, he is not supported by any external organisation; he reminds us more of the lone cowboy searching for adventure in the Wild West.

What is very interesting is that the only glimpses we have of the point of origin of the Doctor’s Theory of Beneficial Intervention, i.e. the civilisation known as ‘The Culture’, are the tales told by the Bodyguard. In fact, ‘The Culture’ is never referred to directly; the reader will only know of its existence from the other novels written in this universe by Iain M. Banks (which reminded me of A Horse and His Boy, where C.S. Lewis writes a story completely within Narnia). The two narrators (the doctor’s assistant and a concubine) are part of the local primitive cultures with no knowledge of ‘The Culture’ and only a partial understanding of the motives driving the Doctor and the Bodyguard, thus they have no awareness of the theory under dispute and are not biased for or against it. It is as if the rat in an experiment were to tell you the story from his point of view, with no knowledge of the experiment and its variables. This offers us a view of the travel of a theory from the bottom up and not from the top down, as is more customary. It also makes the point of destination far more important than the point of origin.

The symbolism in the main characters’ names is very clear: the Doctor is a ‘missionary-soldier’ who wishes to cure the malady presented by a primitive culture and the Bodyguard wishes to protect its right to be its primitive self. On the surface, the Doctor’s Theory of Beneficial Intervention would seem to have been vindicated by her. She leaves behind a society moving towards long-lasting peace, greater social equality and scientific progress. The Bodyguard leaves behind a society dissolving into chaos and civil war. However, it is not as simple as that, the deeper ramifications of both stories would point to a more subversive role for travelling theory.

It could be argued that the Doctor simply made a good ruler better and speeded up a process that would have occurred with or without her. She sowed the seeds on an already fertile ground and was, at best, not a revolutionary, only a catalyst. The Bodyguard, despite his belief in non-intervention, does change one small event: he saves the life of a child. This child goes on to become the ruler who brings peace to his land, after its descent into civil war, and gains renown as a scholar. Since his own father was only interested in fighting and maintaining power, and was not a scholar, it raises the question of where this ruler learned about the possibility of peace and stability if not from the tales of a utopian land once told to him by his father’s bodyguard.

Despite his ‘resistance’ to the Theory of Beneficial Intervention, the Bodyguard communicates this theory to the child who will one day become a ‘good’ ruler, suggesting that acceptance or not of a theory has nothing to do with its method of transmission. This would further suggest that resistance to a theory is as important as acceptance of it because it encourages the transmission of the theory. A theory may travel by trumpeting its virtues through active debate, e.g. the Doctor’s long discussions with the king and his advisors, or through texts, e.g. the notes the Doctor leaves for her assistant. However, it may also slip in quietly through the back door through a small action saving one person’s life or through a tale, a myth or a parable, which may be interpreted in unexpected ways.

The irony of the novel is that the Bodyguard ultimately proves the Doctor’s theory right in a more convincing manner than the Doctor herself (he also goes on to become a successful trader and what better way to encourage peace than through trade?). In other words, regardless of the origin of the Theory of Beneficial Intervention, it takes root in the primitive world described by Banks because two rulers who are fully part of that world see the merits of the peace and stability resulting from its application in their respective societies.

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A Short Bibliography:
(if you wish to hit yourself with some heavyweight theory)

– Hillis Miller, J.
(1996) “Border Crossings, Translation Theory: Ruth”. In: The Translatability of Cultures, Figurations of the Space Between, Sanford Budick and Wolfgang Iser (eds.). Stanford University Press, 207-223.

– Said, Edward W.
(2000) “Traveling Theory Reconsidered”. In: Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, Harvard University Press, 436-452.
(1983) ”Traveling Theory”. In: The World, the Text and the Critic, Harvard University Press, 226-247.

– Zhang Longxi
(1992) “Western Theory and Chinese Reality”. In: Critical Inquiry, 19, 1, 105-30.

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Bio

Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s “The Day of the Triffids” at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She has published “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.

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