Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

A Conversation with Constance Penley

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

A Conversation with Constance Penley

Article excerpt


KH: A lot of the work that Constance Penley does is about gender technology and imagining technologies. Because this is a conference that focuses on science fiction I'd like to addresses technology and the body, including your current work on pornography and on the lessons the academy can learn from female media fans. Going back the title of your book NASA/ TREK, you'll notice it has a slash--yes, so significant to those of us who study fan fiction, in which the slash implies a sexual relationship between the two icons. Hence the subtitle Popular Science and Sex in America. The title also divides your thought into three different realms: NASA is the nonfiction take on popular science; TREK is the fiction; and when they have sex together they get porn.

CP: Almost nobody knows this, but originally the book was supposed to be titled Popular Science and Sex in America and it's a look at women in space, with space as a stand-in for the role of science and technology. I wanted to look at what's on our minds about women and space, science, and technology as seen through a real science institution: NASA. However I treat NASA completely as a folklore/popular culture institution in my book, making it amenable to a cultural studies analysis. The second part of the book is what's going on in our minds about women in space in a science fictional institution: Star Trek fandom and especially slash fandom. And then the third part of the book was going to be on the impetus behind science and science fiction, focusing on Biosphere 2.

KH: Yes, I remember you talking about that in the seminar I took from you at the University of Kansas while you were working on NASA/TREK.

CP: The reason that didn't end up in the book and it ends up just being the two parts ... to me it's like the phantom limb of NASA/TREK, all the Biosphere 2 research. That project out in this huge greenhouse in the Arizona desert and the Biospherian--the poor men, poor women who were employed by Biosphere for two years--had all been part of what I will call an intentional community rather than a cult, and it had all been funded by Ed Bass's millions of dollars. And it was an intentional community that was devoted to science, engineering, theatre, and cooking. They had a bus that they would go around and present plays: one of their plays was about building an off-world colony. Anyway, in trying to understand this history of crazy white people going out into the desert, I am looking at all the fascinating homegrown American religions. So many of them utilize science in their names if not their theology: Christian Science, the Church of Religious Science, Scientology, Spiritualism. Even the Black Muslim myth about the origin of white people: a black scientist was doing an experiment and it went awry, and these mutant white people came about. I was also very interested in the Latter Day Saints, because when I was doing NASA/TREK I found out that NASA is completely full of Mormons. Two heads of NASA had been Mormon. And so I'm doing all this research on the Latter-Day Saints and I had no idea that in their theology they don't go to a heaven when they die, that they go to actual planets. And I thought, oh, of course they were going to do NASA.

KH: You don't even need to die, right?

CP: So, I'm interested in the way women--like Mary Baker Eddy--figure prominently in these homegrown American religions that thematize science, and I concluded that this was one of the ways that women in our culture who are disenfranchised from science and technology were able to kind of make a role for themselves in spite of that. So I got waaaaayy into this research, and my editor at Verso, Colin Robinson, said, "You're getting a little too far into this cult stuff, you know." And right then there was an attempted takeover of Verso by the Unification Church. The Moonies were trying to buy it. …

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