UPDATE: Graham wrote me the following this evening:

I’m not sure why you think I don’t believe that dreams can’t be made real through transformations such as recording them. I’ve said the opposite many times.

It would thus appear that we’re in broad agreement and were talking about distinct issues. It’s always gratifying to discover that a disagreement isn’t really a disagreement at all!

Today, in a thread on Reza’s Facebook page, Robin wrote:

OOO=popeye riding a unicorn, reading a pop science book, with a lava lamp on his head.

I’m not sure if Robin intended this as a mocking criticism or not (it certainly seems that way), but it is an issue worth discussing. Rhetorically Robin’s point seems to be that OOO endorses the existence or reality of fictional entities (and that we engage in pop science). The idea would be that we don’t draw any distinction between fictional and mythological entities such as Popeye and unicorns and material entities like stars or neutrinos. Over at Object-Oriented Philosophy Graham responds to this characterization as follows:

In my position there’s an absolute difference between real and sensual objects. Popeye riding a pink unicorn with a lava lamp on his head would almost certainly not be a real object. (You never know, of course. We’re not omniscient. But I agree that such an entity almost certainly doesn’t exist.)

However, this same Popeye must be accounted for by any ontology worth its salt. Why? Because imaginary things are not utter non-beings. They don’t have independence from the one who is conceiving them as real objects do, but they’re not just nullities or holes of nothingness. I don’t think Raskolnikov is a real object either, but millions of people have read Crime and Punishment and been influenced by it. Raskolnikov needs to be accounted for by ontology.

There’s more, so make sure you read the whole post. As Graham notes, we differ on this issue. I have mixed feelings about Graham’s position here. In my view, the capacity to produce differences is an index of the real. If something can produce differences then it is very likely real. Note, when I claim that the ability to produce differences is an index of the real, I am alluding to an epistemological criteria for counting something as real, not an ontological criteria for what makes something real. Why is this important? This is important because ontologically something can be real or exist without producing any differences with respect to us or anything else. In other words, it is not the production of differences that constitutes the reality of a thing. Rather, the production of differences is merely how we determine whether or not something is real.

read on!

By this criteria, anything that produces differences deserves, I think, to be called real. If that’s the case, then Popeye and unicorns deserve to be called real because they produce all sorts of differences in the world. This is where all the fracas starts. “Popeye is real?!?!” exclaims the hard-nosed materialist, “how could you possibly claim that a fictional being such as Popeye as real! You moron! You’re the worst kind of sophist! You must believe in Popeye riding a pink unicorn reading a pop science book with a lava lamp on his head!” I can claim it because Popeye produces all sorts of differences or effects in the world. However, when I claim Popeye is real, what am I claiming? I am certainly not claiming that an entity like Popeye exists out there in the world in the same way that Reza exists out there in the world. Popeye doesn’t eat, he can’t prepare spinach, he can’t read pop science books, he can’t punch me, he doesn’t catch fish or sail boats, he can’t make decisions, he doesn’t have emotions, etc., etc, etc. Popeye does not have the sorts of powers that Reza or I have, but nonetheless he does have a substantiality qua fiction that produces real differences out there in the world. I am not sure why this point is difficult to get or accept. Most of us generally accept that if something produces effects then it has causal powers, and that if something has causal powers it is a being. If that’s the case, then why would we make an exception for fictional entities?

Here I think is where I begin to part ways from Graham. Graham argues that fictional entities are sensual objects that exist within real objects. A sensual being is a being that only exists on the interior of a real being. Put a bit differently, Graham’s thesis is that real beings have substantial and independent being in their own right, whereas sensual beings have no independent or substantial being. Destroy the real being that contains the sensual being and the sensual being is destroyed. By contrast, if someone destroys the sensual being of me– for example, my daughter ceases to think about me –I, nonetheless continue to exist.

While I certainly understand Graham’s point, it nonetheless does not seem to be the case that semiotic entities function in the way he describes. I can readily agree with Graham that the dream I had last night is a sensual being that has no existence apart from me and that ceases to exist when either I am destroyed or when I cease thinking about. However, it seems to me that matters change significantly when I commit this dream to paper, record it, or otherwise preserve it in some medium or other. At this point, the dream passes from being a sensual object and seems to become a substantial entity in its own right. It becomes a material being that circulates throughout the world no matter who might be thinking about it.

My interest in fictional entities isn’t really about fictional entities. Sure, it’s fun to drive those of a scientistic turn of mind that claim that the entities studied by science are the basic furniture of being bonkers with claims that Popeye is a real entity; but that’s not really the issue. For me, the interesting issue pertains to the ontological status of semiotic and symbolic entities. What is the ontological status of language, constitutions, charters, money, myths, texts, films, narratives, social categories, etc., etc., etc.? Semiotic entities are strange because they’re neither quite subjective nor quite objective. A law, for example, is certainly not like a rock. It doesn’t appear to be localized in space and time like rocks are. It doesn’t seem to be an individual thing in an ordinary sense. Yet it also doesn’t seem to be something that merely exists in the mind or imagination. In a number of respects, laws are every bit as objective as frigid air capable of causing frostbite. They are real constraints in the world that people must navigate. Likewise, social categories (or what hacking calls “interactive kinds) such as “terrorist” or “schizophrenic” (or, more mildly, your credit rating) are not merely descriptors in the world, but have real effects on the people they befall. They are embedded in all sorts of institutions and institutional practices that have significant impact on both how we experience ourselves and our action in the world around us.

In The Origins of Greek Thought, ethnographer Jean-Pierre Vernant talks about, among other things, how Greek law underwent a significant transformation when people began inscribing it in the walls of the marketplace. When law was no longer something brought into being through speech but was inscribed it seemed to take on a new reality. Vernant speculates that this act of inscription played a key role in leading the Greeks to consider the existence of things such as eternal universals independent of mind and speech. Something about that inscription transformed law into a real entity in the world.

For me the point would be that these semiotic beings are real entities in the world that exist independent of minds or individuals. When I say something like “the Flying Spaghetti monster is real” I am not making the claim that what this myth refers to is real, but the claim that the myth itself, as a text, is a real thing that circulates throughout the world producing all sorts of effects. It plays a role in organizing collectives of human beings in particular groups, thereby contributing to the production of associations. It plays a role in producing disassociations, pushing others apart (those put off by the myth and how it pokes fun at creation stories) etc. The point is that it’s a real factor in why people act as they do and do what they do. And here I’m left wondering were it not the case that classifications, myths, ideologies, etc., not real features of our world producing real effects, why would we spend so much time critiquing these things and trying to, in many instance, destroy them?

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