JOHN W. CAMPBELL’S QUARTER TURN: √-1, cognition and estrangement (2)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Laruelle’s « quarter turn » has its precedent in science fiction. In his recently published book « ASTOUNDING: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction » Alec Nevala-Lee notes:

The September 1971 issue featured the short story “On the Nature of Angels,” the last piece of fiction that he ever wrote. Campbell proposed that the soul was a complex number in which the variable b stood for the level of sin. No one knew the exact level at which a spirit became good or evil after death, so it would be best, he said, “to keep our soul’s b value as close to zero as possible.” (ASTOUNDING, 379).

Taken at face value this story appears to be a silly tongue-in-cheek thought-experiment, but I think that as a metaphor it describes something of the genre of science fiction itself. and of non-philosophy.

The superficial « humorous » level comes from the moralistic description of the imaginary axis as giving the level of sin or grace. However, this complex number could also be seen as determining the respective values of imaginary estrangement and real cognition. This would provide a formula for defining the difference between science fiction (defined by Darko Suvin as « the literature of cognitive estrangement ») considered  as escapism and as speculative fiction:

Campbell had wanted to be an inventor or scientist, and when he found himself working as an editor instead, he redefined the pulps as a laboratory for ideas—improving the writing, developing talent, and handing out entire plots for stories. America’s future, by definition, was unknown, with a rate of change that would only increase. To prepare for this coming acceleration, he turned science fiction from a literature of escapism into a machine for generating analogies (ASTOUNDING, 8).

Thus Campbell writes in the short story not only of a quarter turn, as Laruelle does, but of a limit to respect beyond which lies mere escapism, and within which the analogies of speculation remain productive:

Scientists have proven, however, that if the soul’s end-of-life b component is less than some number, E, the resulting « eternal » wave function will represent a « good » spirit, with a positive eigenvalue. Conversely, if b exceeds E, the soul will become an « evil » spirit (John  W. Campbell, On the Nature of Angels, Analog, September 1971, 160).

The question of the value of E, the escapist limit, is an important one, for both Laruelle and his followers. I have argued that most of the « performance » philosophy elaborated by the Anglophone disciples of Laruelle go beyond E into escapist idealism.

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