Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Cultural Imperialism and the Ends of Empire: Iain M. Banks's Look to Windward

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Cultural Imperialism and the Ends of Empire: Iain M. Banks's Look to Windward

Article excerpt

MUCH OF THE CRITICISM ON IAIN M. BANKS'S CULTURE NOVELS HAS focused on the question of whether the Culture can be considered a utopia. The Culture--an intergalactic civilization managed by sentient Minds and characterized by a post-scarcity economy, immortality for those who choose it, and a near-absolute ethic of freedom of choice--on its surface seems to be the ideal place to live. Despite the society's many appeals, however, all six of Banks's Culture novels to date--Consider Phlebas (1987), The Player of Games (1988), Use of Weapons (1990), Excession (1996), Inversions (1998) and Look to Windward (2000)--have in some way focused on protagonists who are not content with the Culture's values. Carolyn Brown reads the Culture as a complex heterotopia rather than as a blueprint for utopia, while Simon Guerrier suggests the novels are examples of Tom Moylan's critical utopias in which "the interactions between utopian and non-utopian models ... are problematised" (36). William Hardesty sees in the series an ongoing tension between a master narrative of benevolent imperialism and counter narratives that problematize this position, a reading similar to Tim Middleton's contention that Banks's Scottish heritage is important for understanding the Culture, given that nation's grasp of the damaged and distorted identities that come with being colonized. I have argued elsewhere that the Culture novels are limited as a model of utopia because their version of posthuman identity too easily falls into a disembodied fantasy of transcendence, a liberal humanist ideal of self, which disavows ethical responsibility. (1)

In this paper, I want to look at the Culture's connections with liberal humanism from a slightly different point of view, emphasizing the importance of capitalism as the economic form of liberal humanist democracies. The very model of the body and subjectivity that grounds liberal humanism is economic in structure, an ideal of "possessive individualism" as C. B. Macpherson has argued. Macpherson points out that the philosophical roots of liberal humanism are based on a vision of the human as defined by ownership of one's body and a definition of freedom as freedom from connections to others, the freedom to appropriate the world by one's own labor, without obligations of reciprocity. As N. Katherine Hayles points out, Macpherson also notes that this model of self in which "ownership of oneself is thought to predate market relations and owe nothing to them" provides a "foundation upon which those relations can be built, as when one sells one's labor for wages" and thus is a false ideal, retrospectively created by market society; in actuality "the liberal self is produced by market relations and does not in fact predate them" (Hayles 3). The importance of market society is a crucial, yet under-acknowledged aspect of the liberal humanist model of self. Banks's utopia is posited as a society of post-scarcity and so the strong connections between liberal humanism and capitalism are muted in his novels, made irrelevant by the fantasy of material abundance produced by the labor of machines who cannot be alienated from their products because they are not sentient. Nonetheless, the imperialist implications of the Culture's tendency to intervene in the affairs of other races--one source of ambivalent assessments of its status as a utopia--are best understood through this economic lens. I will argue that the last Culture novel, Look to Windward, reveals most clearly the economic basis of the anxieties around imperialism that inform Banks's work.

Look to Windward is dedicated to veterans of the first Gulf War (2) and begins with the same quotation from The Waste Land which served as a source for the title of the first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas: "Gentile or Jew / O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, / Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.