Monday, January 6, 2014
The Fictionalization of Theory
Over the past half-century, the West has witnessed what I refer to as the “fictionalization of theory.” This process is necessarily related, in a dialectical fashion, to the “theorization of fiction.” Most of us would infer that the latter means the theoretical treatment of fictional texts; however, it cannot preclude the infiltration of fiction by theory, or the gradually increasing appearance of theoretical treatment within fiction itself – an OFL, Occupy Fiction Literature, the subsumption of fiction by theory. The fictionalization of theory, on the other hand, describes a reversal of the infiltrative process; that is, rather than theory occupy fiction, fiction begins a parasitic takeover of theory. This is no more obvious than in the very recent phenomenon known as, appropriately enough, theory fiction, of which Reza Negarastani’s Cyclonopedia is perhaps the most obvious example. While this brief description does not claim to offer an explanation of the phenomenon – the “fictionalization of theory” – it does attempt to offer a conceptual/historical view of the phenomenon.
Most scholars recognize Martin Heidegger as the last true Western philosopher, or practitioner of that laudable field known as Philosophy. After Heidegger, according to literary critic Fredric Jameson, the Western tradition witnessed the birth of something called theory. This phenomenon, distinct from philosophy, was attributed mostly to the emergence of French poststructuralism (as it was later termed) and was characterized by a variety of intensely abstract regimes that all sought to properly account for various cultural institutions from language to history, psychology to gender, and many theorists found themselves on opposite sides of equally various methodological fences: deconstruction or Marxism, psychoanalysis or historicism? The disagreements are innumerable; but most (if not all) of these theoretical programs shared the following commonality: they all were intensely concerned with what philosophy was about, and how philosophy – or philosophies – approached its object. In short, theory became an attempt to organize and critique philosophy. Amidst profoundly new cultural developments, from cybernetics to cyberpunk, theory became philosophy’s way to redefine (and re-identify) itself for the modern age.
Although not apparent at first, one major component of this reassessment was the implementation and/or administration of a decidedly fictionalist methodology. Many brands of theory concerned themselves with popular culture, fiction and cinema, on a level far beyond traditional philosophy. This is perhaps most apparent in French poststructuralism, and in the methodologies of figures such as Derrida, Lacan, and Baudrillard. Derrida’s “Plato’s Pharmacy” plays upon the very notion of the text as storytelling – speech versus writing – and participates in the Greek myth in order to develop its theory; Lacan’s illumination of ethics in psychoanalysis only comes out through a close reading of Antigone; and Baudrillard’s work frequently references science fiction, J.G. Ballard and others. Baudrillard’s most famous work, Simulacra and Simulation, even opens with the following epigraph:
The simulacrum is never what hides truth – it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The simulacrum is true.
The epigraph is said to be found in Ecclesiastes; but no such quote appears anywhere in the Bible. It is a craft of fiction. Baudrillard states the influence of fiction for his theoretical approach more profoundly in Symbolic Exchange and Death when he clarifies that the only way to combat contemporary “hyperrealist” culture is via “some form of pataphysics, ‘a science of imaginary solutions’; that is, a science-fiction of the system’s reversal against itself at the extreme limit of simulation, a reversible simulation in a hyperlogic of death and destruction.” If this sounds confusing and unreasonable, it is because Baudrillard is already participating in the science-fictional process he espouses.
While literary criticism and analysis emphatically takes fiction – books – as its object of study, developing 20th-century theory increasingly deploys fictional instances as examples of its abstract models, as though fiction already beat theory to the punch and has performed its methodologies in an aesthetic fashion. But contemporary theory, I believe, exhibits its own brand of obscurantist aesthetics, which some have misinterpreted as a flaw or difficulty of the texts. In contrast, I claim that obscurantism is not something that we must overcome or resolve, but something that should be incorporated as part and parcel of the theoretical work being done. That is, the obscurantism itself contributes to the goal that the theorists have in mind. In this way, however, a distinction should be maintained between what I am calling “theory” and what has been traditionally called “philosophy.” While philosophy is not always easily accessible, it typically maintains a level of textual and cognitive logic that avoids contradiction or paradox; or, at the least, attempts to overcome paradox. Theory, in contrast, revels in paradox. In the words of Philip K. Dick, the paradox “does not tell; it points. It is a sign, not the thing pointed to.” Paradoxes must be read in new ways, and in different ways than traditional logic has told us; more specifically, they should be read as expressions of formal limitations.
Derrida’s work circles an imaginary point between writing and speech, both of which seem necessary in order to permit the other. Lacan’s semiotic study of the unconscious attests that meaning – that which we presume to speak from – is only created in retrospect. Baudrillard’s particularly confounding model precludes the possibility of any real or original reality; rather, everything is already a copy. Many have criticized these theorists and their work as lacking in logical rigor, or occasionally even as saying nothing substantial at all. This accusation misidentifies what I see as the most useful aspect of “theory”: theory, more than traditional philosophy, is not concerned with ontology, actuality, or reality; theory, in its strongest application, is interested in form.
This is why theorists become topics of study for Fredric Jameson, who seems to be in on the joke. The work of theorists such as Derrida, Lacan, and Baudrillard – even if they do have some intelligent and logical points to make – are worth our time more as literary objects than as philosophical treatises. To put it another way; they are worth our time as explorers and manipulators of fictional form.
The association of theory with forms of popular narrative has only increased with the work of Slavoj Žižek, who often measures the accuracy of his claims by how many concrete examples he can find in popular cinema. Since Žižek, the advent of what has been called “speculative realism” has exploded the relationship between theory and fiction. Despite the severely serious and highly philosophical work done by figures such as Quentin Meillassoux, Manuel DeLanda, and Ray Brassier, several scholars involved in the current “speculative turn” compose what looks more like fiction than theory. Nick Land (who has since abdicated from the realm of speculation and appropriated that of neoreaction) writes in his more recent work about “hyperstitions,” which are (to put it simply) fictional elements that make themselves real. To be sure, some of Land’s writings are admittedly fictional, often expressing his ideas through the imagined researches of fictional scholars or professors. Reza Negarastani expands on this idea in his text Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, which cannot be described as novel, treatise, essay, or possibly even book.
Negarastani’s text turns on its mysterious narrator’s (of which there are multiple – the text itself appears to be mostly comprised of a fictional manuscript) privileging of “plot holes,” particularly as they manifest in “Hidden Writing.” The text relates the notion of geopolitical “( ) hole complexes” (subterranean terror networks) to the instances of plot inconsistencies in narrative texts. The narrator claims that plot holes are not flaws or problems to be fixed – explained, covered over, or dismissed – but openings into the crosshatched layering of plots. This layering is not reducible to layers of meaning, which could all potentially be retrieved through “deep reading”; no hermeneutic process will uncover or explain them. Rather, the schizophrenic presence of plot multiplicity is only activated via the reader’s participation in the narrative. Negarastani tells his readers that to “interact with Hidden Writings, one must persistently continue and contribute to the writing process of the book.” For this specific reason, the text is never reducible to a single authorial voice; and Negarastani introduces this multi-authorial concept into his text, not only through the presence of multiple narrators, but also through the transcription of discussions from online forums which actively contribute to the text’s themes.
The process of decrypting and re-encrypting, of rewriting the text, is not an uncommon theme in much late-20th-century literature. Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves embraces such a concept, as do the short works of Jorge Luis Borges. Meillassoux even engages in such a method in his most recent work, The Number and the Siren, in which he sets forth an innovative and exciting reading of Mallarme’s “Un Coup de Dés Jamais N'Abolira Le Hasard” (“A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance”). Several authors of late have been profoundly concerned with the nature of text, narrative, book, and author, and have attempted their own explorations of these concepts, to varying degrees of success. Ultimately, I believe it is time to stop seeing what the infamous theorists of the twentieth century (Derrida, Lacan, Baudrillard, etc.) have to say about fiction, and to start considering them as fiction; or as, at least, a form of fiction, theory fiction, as Negarastani brings to the fore in his challenging text.
This is merely a preliminary attempt to properly historicize the phenomenon I am identifying as the fictionalization of theory. I currently offer no ontological or conceptual explication of the phenomenon. But I wish to argue, as a final note, that not only is this fictionalization an unconscious historical phenomenon. It is an imperative. Eugene Thacker, an outlying participant in the speculative turn, recently made the claim that philosophy is intimately linked to horror; that is, to the genre of horror fiction. Philosophy, so to speak, is horror.
This assertion is the most explicit acknowledgement of theory as the gradual coming-to-consciousness of a new modern philosophy. As a kind of coming-to-consciousness, theory must be conceptualized as an interrogation of formal limitations. That is, we must read theory – particularly poststructuralist theory – in a dialectical sense, even when it adamantly proclaims its opposition to the dialectic. The dialectic is necessary in order to better understand how 20th-century theory appears as a cultural and philosophical process. I claim that the fictionalization of theory provides philosophy with a necessary perspicuity of form in order to achieve its next logical step: the ability to devise practical and applicable ontologies of the inhuman world. The epistemology of posthumanism is gradually coming into clearer focus. As it does, we will be able to more properly develop ontologies of the Other.