One of the things that I’ve found most stunning, that in certain ways I somewhat regret, is my claim that fictions are real. Now there’s something about me that seems to create a ruckus wherever I go– and that’s been above all true of my pronouncements on this blog –but there have been few things I’ve said that have generated more heat than this thesis. Now for any materialist I would think this thesis would be obvious. If you’re a materialist then you’re committed to the thesis that all things are, well, either material or void. Fictions aren’t void, so that entails only one option: they’re material. Just as the materialist is obligated to give some sort of account of how a fish can move through water (given that water is a material thing and material things tend to resist) and just as a materialist must account for how its possible to see something (given that things are “over there” and there can only be some interaction if there’s some material connection– hence Lucretius’ theory of simulacra as “films” shed by bodies), the materialist is obligated to account for the reality of fictions. Put a bit differently, the materialist is obligated to account for the material existence of fictions.
Well this thesis, a year or so ago (I never have a very good sense of time) created a controversy. To this day I think Ian Bogost is the only person who shares my sentiment, and him perhaps in a more radical way than I. We’re both promiscuous in our ontologies in this way, feeling that the more beings, even Popeye and Unicorns, the better. Yet the Lacanian in me, noting the heated response this thesis generated for months on end– and there continues to be sneers against this thesis –is trained to sense that there must be something here. Given the response to the suggestion that fictions are real, given the acrimony this innocent suggestion generated, it seems that this thesis must have hit on either a) an important libidinal dimension of the Real in the world of theory, or 2) hit on a symptom haunting phallosophy and the world of (critical) theory. And in this regard, I would suggest– in, no doubt, a self-serving way (if I’m not my own hero who else will have me as a hero?) –this suggestion hit the real of the disavowed dualist foundation of critical theory. If this thesis generated such a ruckus then it would be because critical theory is often premised on a strong distinction between the domain of mind and culture on the one hand, and “reality” on the other hand. Here the world of mind is treated as a domain of representation that is unreal while the material world is treated as the world of reality. The question is then how to sort between those representations that correspond to reality and those representations that are purely a product of mind (fictions). This thesis is the necessary matrix of all existing critical theory, in that so much of critical theory consists in denouncing fictions, illusions, false apprehensions, on the basis of a model of the real.
However, the point not to be missed is that this way of approaching matters is based on a miscount. It is here that we encounter the disavowed dualist foundations of much critical theory. For what the critical theorist here fails to count as material is their own representations. These representations– as figures such as Dawkins and Dennett have taught us under the much (unjustly) maligned theory of “memes” (perhaps this constitutes a fifth blow to human narcissism after Copernicus, Darwin, Freud, and OOO) –are not nothing. No, they too must be material entities that really exist in the world because they certainly aren’t void. So how do we account for this.
For years, along these lines, my mantra has been that texts aren’t simply about something, they are something. In other words, texts should not simply be understood in their referential and modal dimension, but should also be understood in their sheer materiality as entities, like animals, humans, rocks, and neutrinos, that circulate throughout the world. This is at the center of what I mean when I say that fictions are real. I am not making the claim that there is a person that exists like a human, named Popeye that I could marry, that has amazing biceps, that grows stronger when he eats his spinach, etc. No, I am making what I believe to be the obvious and common sense thesis that the cartoon Popeye ought not simply be understood as what it is about (its referential dimension), but also in terms of what it is (a material entity circulating about the world).
I believe this thesis is rife with all sorts of important theoretical and practical consequences. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it does it make a sound? The realist in me says “yes!” Does it produce effects? No! And this is the entire point. If we’re real materialists things have to circulate, they take time to circulate, they must connect in order to produce effects. This is the Lucretian teaching… That there is no real connection without material interaction. Sometimes, I think, our sense is that the very event of an idea having taken place means that that idea has come to pervade the entire world immediately, as if action at a distance were possible. As writers and thinkers this crushes us because we think (or I think) to ourselves “why bother, others have said this, others have pointed this out, therefore there’s no point to repetition. There’s nothing new here!” We are such bad materialists in these moments because we forget that things must circulate and that perhaps our role is to function as radio transmitters or “servers”, passing these things on a bit to others. Ideas, memes, fictions have to travel throughout the world. And often our role as activists and critical theorists is either to promote the circulation of certain “fictions” or to destroy them. Is this really so controversial? Would we be so concerned with ideology, for example, were it not material that produces real effects? We might balk at the idea of promoting certain fictions, yet is not a utopian idea, the idea of a life that no one has yet lived, a “fiction”? Aping Meillassoux’s thesis that “God does not exist, but could come to exist” (a wacky idea, I think), we could say that certain fictions imagine things that do not yet exist but that could come to exist. Realist materialism needs to go so far as to affirm modal materiality: the reality of possibility, yet only where possibilities have become real materialities; which is to say, conceivable.
But this is supposed to be a post on Eileen Joy. I got sidetracked. As I listened to her gorgeous talk at The Public School this evening (and The Public School is a very beautiful thing that you should all support and try to participate in, in some way or other) I realized that Joy and I have a profound affinity on these issues. And here I eagerly anticipate her article on these matters as well as the book she’s writing with Jeffrey Cohen on what an object-oriented literary criticism might look like. Like me, Joy wishes to emphasize that texts aren’t simply about something, they are something. And she wishes to think about what this reality of texts might imply.
Now I’ve had a devil of a time trying to develop the implications of the thesis that texts aren’t simply about something but are something. Joy takes this thesis home. What she emphasizes is the way in which things are both gatherings and how they gather other things. So here, in my view, one of the lessons to be drawn from Joy’s thesis– or rather one of her proposals given that she talks about her enjoyment of certain projects as “laboratory experiment” –is to investigate both 1) how are texts gathering of things (how can we bear witness to the plurality of entities that go into the production of a text), but also 2) how do texts gather other things together in new ways. In Deleuzian terms, how do texts function as “dark precursors” that conjugate divergent series together and relate them in new ways (this will be the topic of my talk for a lecture series at University of Minnesota later this month, for a series entitled “Rhetorical Bodies”)? In other words, what difference does a text make? And here, if I emphasize the reality of fictions, then this is because they are a limit case of certain types of entities generating new modal possibilities. Put in yet other terms, how do texts generate new collective entities? How do they gather entities? Here we require assemblage analyses, analyses of affects, analyses of power, analyses of the effects of signification, analyses of the ethico-aesthetic sensibilities generated by these gatherings, and much more besides.
As I listened to her talk I was reminded of a crucial distinction in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: The distinction between the factory and the theatre. In his notorious pronouncement that “the unconscious is a factory not a theatre”, Guattari was more true to Lacan than Lacan himself was to Lacan. In his doctrine of truth Lacan had contested the reigning “Freudian” thesis that interpretation represents the formations of the unconscious. Rather, Lacan had argued that the truth of an interpretation consists not in whether it represents the unconscious– the unconscious is an intersubjective process, so this is impossible –but rather in the effects that the interpretation produces. Does new material emerge following the interpretation? Is the symptom displaced onto new symptoms? Do symptoms dissolve? Do new desires emerge? These are the measures by which Lacan evaluated the truth of the interpretation. Like Badiou’s “truth-procedures”, truth is not something that precedes interpretation, but rather that which follows interpretation. It is what will have been, not that which hits what has been. Indeed, the activity of analysis is not something that discovers what was already there, but, following the logic of apres coup, produces something that will have been.
Guattari captures the essence of this position in his distinction between the unconscious as a theatre and the unconscious as a factor. The unconscious as a theatre is reterritorializing, always striving to bring the subject, the analysand, back to some (usually gloomy) past. By contrast, the unconscious as a factory is productive, generating something new. Here forms, affects, meanings, and ways of life are not already there, but are rather something created and invented in the course of analysis. Interpretation, analysis, free association– read Guattari’s beautiful journals, you’ll be surprised at how traditionally free associative they are –create something new, they don’t return (as in the case of Hegel’s famous definition of essence as that which was always-already) to something that was already there. Where a theatre says “everything represents something else”– recall Melanie Klein’s sad interpretations of her young boy… “The tunnel is Mommy, the train is Daddy. See how the train goes in the Tunnel?” “Your boss is really your father, see how this conflict recapitulates that conflict?” –Guattari’s unconscious is inventive. It creates something new, it is a path towards a new life, new set of desires, a new set of affects. It is a factory, not a theatre. And here we should ask not what a signifier represents, but what it does. Unfortunately too many of us want theatres… And we see this repeatedly in academia when so many fearful souls remark “isn’t this what X said?”, as if the important thing is to maintain the reference to the past.
So as I listen to Joy’s talk, I think to myself that she’s asking “what would it mean to approach the text as a factory rather than a theatre? What sort of practice would we have to develop to see texts as factories and approach them as factories and, to ape Heidegger’s “lassen sein“, to let them be factories?” The great thing about The Epic of Gilgamesh is that after 3000 or more years it still signifies as a text. It is still able to function a factory, despite the fact that we know little of its context. Isn’t this the problem with New Historicism? It wishes to gentrify the text, to turn it into a theatre, to reterritorialize it on its alleged conditions of production. It treats the text, therefore, as a mere effect, refusing the text as something, as something capable of creating effects. As Melanie Doherty continuously reminds me, Deleuze and Guattari, in A Thousand Plateaus, say that “a book is a little machine”. What would it mean to abandon that notion of interpretation as “theatre of representation” and to approach text in its thingliness as a machine capable of producing things? Are we prepared to approach texts in terms of their productive power?