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Žižek on Fiction

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek said the following in respect of fiction (specifically, in the context of cinema): “I know it's a fake, but nonetheless I allow myself to be emotionally affected.” I’m not certain we have sufficient control over the emotional effects of fiction for the word ‘allow’ to be appropriate, but Žižek is certainly correct that knowing that something is ‘fake’ need not rob it of its impact.

Žižek  is one of a small handful of philosophers in the contemporary continental tradition who seem close to where I am coming from with my own fictionalism, although his Lacan-inspired psychoanalysis is something I find a little tiresome. In The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Žižek remarks that fictions “already structure our reality. If you take away from our reality the symbolic fictions which regulate it, you lose reality itself”. This is very nearly something I would write on the subject! He talks of the vacuousness of presenting a choice between illusion and reality, and instead asks for something that would enable the perception of “not the reality behind the illusion, but the reality in illusion itself.”

Precisely my claim in respect of fiction is that we need to appreciate the role fiction has in relating us to the world around us, and that indeed we cannot understand that world without fiction. The belief that we can is a leap of unfaith that will distort any notion of the real beyond all recognition.


Towards Videogame Aesthetics III: Against Interpretation

Up on ihobo today, the final part of Towards Videogame Aesthetics, in which I slam Alain Badiou into Susan Sontag and see what survives. Here’s an extract:

In 1964, literary theorist Susan Sontag published an influential essay entitled 'Against Interpretation', which argued that the twentieth century was suffocating the power of art beneath an obsession with interpretation… She stated: "By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art", and asserted that "the merit of these works certainly lies elsewhere than in their 'meanings'." Although she was certainly not thinking about games as part of her criticism, it carries forward comfortably into that arena. The limp reviews that pass as standard in the context of digital games really do reduce these art works to content – namely feature lists and basic descriptions of play.

You can read the entire piece over at ihobo.com. More game aesthetics later this year!


Moorcock on Fiction

Moorcock Prolific author Michael Moorcock passed through Manchester late last year on a book signing tour. I caught up with him and asked him some questions about his books, fiction and the connection between stories and ethics.

Chris Bateman: In Death is No Obstacle, you said to Colin Greenland: “I believe morality and structure are very closely linked. The moral of a story is implicit in the structure. The choices the characters make that move the plot along are the choices of the moral fable, for good or bad.”  Do you believe this is true of all storytelling?

Mike Moorcock: I can’t say I believe it’s true of all story telling. It’s true of a lot of generic fiction, though. I think there is a case for finding an ethical element in the structure of all stories.

Chris: You suggested in the same book that adopting masks is a natural next step for a writer, saying “After you’ve been a mythologizer, you become a mummer. You start to come up with simple stock characters of your own, your own portrayals of vice and virtue, and you use them in much the same way.” Is this another way morality connects with storytelling – the characters themselves embody virtues and vices?

Mike: You can add this element to a story if you’re trying to tell as many stories as possible in a narrative. My object is to do that – carry as many ‘readings’ or stories on a single narrative. You inherit every kind of narrative so far created and, depending on your level of ambition, you can try to include as many as your structure will bear. Jerry Cornelius is a real character with real motives and an inner life but he also knows he’s a character in fiction and I also make him a member of a Commedia troupe, so he represents certain qualities – with a nod to Moliere or Jonson – and also becomes something else in his ability to choose roles for himself.

Chris: So how do the characters connect with questions of morality? Simply via the decisions characters make?

Mike: Knowing decisions in the case of Cornelius characters. Other characters in other stories can be, like Pyat, entirely unknowing and that lack of knowingness is itself a quality of the character.

Chris: On the subject of mythologizing, I want to ask you about megatexts, the term Charles Segal coined to describe the Greek myth cycles taken collectively. ‘Megatext’ is now used to refer to any coherent fictional world in genre fiction – like your own Multiverse, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld or for that matter, the setting for Doctor Who.  In your own books, you seem to view all fiction (and indeed, all of history) as a kind of megatext. Do you see all the assumed boundaries between fictional worlds as essentially optional for writers? (Even your literary fiction crosses into your fantasy fiction via minor references).

Mike: I wanted to get myself to a point where I could tell stories which were both literary and drew on genre. No point in discarding a potential method. I think I achieved that in some Cornelius stories (which of course are amplified by Pyat sequence just as that sequence is amplified by the Cornelius stories among others).

Chris: Can you name any writers who set precedence for this attitude prior to yourself?

Mike: I would say P.G.Wodehouse has created a kind of megatext, just as Charles Hamilton did with his various sequences, but that’s probably the least complicated use of ‘megatext’. I realised early on that I could create further stories simply by using the same characters in a new story – sometimes a radically different kind of story – bring light on ideas from as many sources as possible. I used to think in terms of diamonds and refracted/reflected light. Mother London’s form is in my mind that of a 3-dimensional diamond.

Chris: The sort of interrelations in a megatext seem difficult to plan in advance.

Mike: Ideally each text should be able to stand alone yet gain depth and complexity in the light of the other books. I understand how Balzac came to produce the Comedie Humaine – it happened naturally as he realise he could bring the same characters into different stories. Zola was a little more knowing but I suspect the original earlier stories were spontaneous. Powell in Music of Time was far more conscious from the beginning, I think. And rather less effective or interesting because he lacked the width, if you like, of a writer like Balzac.

Chris: You mentioned in Death is No Obstacle that there is no science fiction structure – do you still believe this?

Mike: I suppose there are formulae for different sorts of SF story but they’re all melodramas. They generally begin with a mystery and end with a solution – and perhaps another mystery. As far as I can see, at least, from the ones I’ve read.

Chris: I wanted to ask about your opinions and attitudes toward philosophy in general. In Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse, the “cavalry” arrive in the form of a Lancaster bomber full of existentialist and non-foundationalist philosophers. You have Speed Camus, Sparks Wittgenstein, Wrong Way Heidegger and Absolutely Absolutely Kierkegaard (as well as transfinite mathematician Georg Cantor bringing up the rear). Are these the philosophers that you have connected with in particular? Or is the crew of the ‘Faith, Hope and Anxiety’ just there for a wry joke?

Mike: A joke echoing their jokes perhaps? The original comic has many references to existentialism in titles which were frequently missing from the collected version. The comic also amplifies, clarifies stuff in Blood and The War Amongst the Angels. It also shares a notion of the multiverse as ‘scales’ partly based on Mandelbrot’s theories.

Chris: Talking of Blood: A Southern Fantasy, The Second Ether setting which first appears in this book seems to represent a return to your roots in pulp storytelling. In Multiverse, the ultimate enemy in the First Ether is the Grand Consumer, the Original Insect, a mythic projection of  global consumerism presented as pulp sci-fi. Do you see this as more than a political allegory, perhaps also as moral allegory? Indeed, do you believe politics and morality can be separated?

Mike: I don’t think they can easily be separated. Certainly we see the actions of politicians in a moral light. I think there’s a near-metaphysical model I have in mind, too. Law and Chaos represent temperaments, ways of looking at the world, systems of behaviour and so on. In Blood and the others I’m looking at the conflict between these systems. That’s why I was so anxious to show that they were not simply different terms for Good and Evil. You can achieve Law through evil means or Chaos through the best of motives. My ideal state is where they are in balance.

Moorcock’s latest book is Modem Times 2.0, a new Jerry Cornelius story, published by PM Press, ISBN 978-1604863086.


The Authorized Stories

bbcnews1 Are fact and fiction opposites? Or variations on a theme?

In prop theory, only certain imaginary games are authorized for any given prop. But for specific props the authorized games do not just specify what is fiction (i.e. true in the fictional world of the game) but assert a claim to fact. For instance, if we watch a news report, the film we watch is a prop just as much as any artwork, and has its own imaginary game, fictional world and so forth. The only difference between this and a fictional story is that the fictional world of the new report is also authorized as fact.

We can easily confirm this: we could watch an identical report as part of a movie and it would be fiction, so the prop itself (the report) does not distinguish between fact and fiction. Everything we imagine is the same in both cases. But the news report, by virtue of being presented as news, gains the authority to be believed as well as imagined. Walton says “what is true is to be believed, what is fictional is to be imagined” but I would say “whether it is fact or fiction, it is to be imagined; if it is authorised as fact, it is also to be believed true”.

What I find fascinating about a news programme as a prop is just what is authorised as fact: there is “news” i.e. stories about death, injury, violence, disaster, crime, war, crowds, anger, money, power, technology and knowledge, but also “sport” and “weather”. We do not think twice about this, yet sport is reporting the events of imaginary games (i.e. sporting matches) as factual, that is, lending authority to what would otherwise be ‘just a game’. Similarly, the weather forecast is authorised as fact, even though it is obviously far closer to fiction (as anyone who has tried to rely upon the Met office for an accurate prediction of the British weather will attest!).

Thus the only distinction between fact and fiction is that what is fact is authorised to be believed as true, as well as being fictional. Rather than fact and fiction being polar opposites, fact is simply a different kind of imaginary game, that which has the authority to make a claim to truth. Fact is not the opposite of fiction, but a different kind of fiction.


Alain Badiou's Truth

badiou Is truth a static state that can be determined, or is it something beyond such mediocrity – an eternal and invariant quality that can only enter into the world via a rupture into the state of affairs?

I have only just begun to explore the philosophy of Alain Badiou, firstly via Ian Bogost’s adaptation of the French philosopher's work in Unit Operations, and secondly via Badiou’s magnificent Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. The latter book is the kind of account that one disagrees with on almost every single point, but still adores the thought processes it puts in train. Great philosophy is exactly about this kind of inspiration, whether by illumination (Socrates for Plato) or by opposition (Hume for Kant).

Central to Badiou’s philosophy is his unique conception of truth. For Badiou, truth does not occur in the context of knowledge at all, which (broadly following Nietzsche) is relegated to “opinion”. He sees knowledge as ultimately fragile, subject to change, and encapsulates this perspective in the iconic figure of the encyclopaedia. Although Badiou to my knowledge has said nothing about the Wikipedia, the state of infinite and constant flux this community-managed site endures is a perfect example of this fragility, of why knowledge cannot make a strong claim to any kind of universal truth in and of itself.

But Badiou is not a relativist, and believes in an absolute and eternal truth – for him, what constitutes truth must be so under all circumstances, which is why knowledge fails to qualify. As a result, truth enters into the world for Badiou not as a state but as a process, or more specifically as four (and only four) processes: love, politics, art and science. He claims that truth itself is almost impossible to recognise as truth, but it can become briefly discernable for a passing moment in what he calls an event. The event is a rupture in the current circumstances (what Badiou terms the state) caused by an awareness of what is missing from those circumstances. The event is a glimpse of the void inherent to any given state.

Having experienced such an event, a subject is created who has a chance to affect the world by remaining faithful to the event of truth they have encountered. This fidelity to an event is a key part of Badiou’s ethics, and everything that Badiou considers evil is some kind of distortion of the event – either by the event being a distorted simulacrum of truth, by betraying the truth (i.e. giving up on what one has glimpsed) or by causing a ‘disaster’ by trying to force that image of truth as absolute. Provided the subject remains loyal to the event they have a chance to introduce that truth into the state of the world, by ‘naming it’ into worldly situations.

It is hard for many people, myself included, not to see Badiou’s truth condition of science as being equivalent to Kuhn’s paradigm shift. Furthermore, it is impossible for me not to see Gianni Vattimo’s adaptation of Kuhn to art in ‘The Structure of Artistic Revolutions’ in Badiou’s truth condition of art, especially since the example he provides of Haydn has precisely this timbre. The absence of any mention of either Kuhn or Vattimo in the part of Badiou’s work I’ve currently explored feels almost rude. Extending this basic idea into politics is easy, and adapting it to romantic love is charming – the idea that when we fall in love it is a “paradigm shift” in our experience of the world is quite beautiful.

A problem with Badiou’s approach, however, is that it has a highly confused relationship with religion. Badiou declares it as an axiom of his ethic of truths that ‘there is no God’, but this is a problematic claim: one cannot move out of the domain of religion by invoking theology, even if one is using atheology. Furthermore, his motivation seems to be to shut down Levinas’ ethics by denying the Altogether-Other, which Badiou correctly recognises is the “ethical name for God”. Yet Badiou goes on to show how Levinas’ concept of alterity is the absolutely certain state of being. This seems to be intended to block Levinas, but it has the opposite effect – it shows how Levinas’ concept of God (which is not in any way a conventional God-concept) is indeed as fundamental as Levinas claims. One certainly might claim that an imminent God is not evidence for a transcendent God, but it’s a weird claim that the certainty of a particular imminent conception of God will block an ethical system founded on such a conception. Only by resorting to an axiomatic stance on God does Badiou maintain his case – and this is precisely the leap of unfaith.

Furthermore, as Badiou’s friend Slavoj Žižek has noted, right at the heart of Badiou’s account of truth it seems as if religion is tacitly operating as a privileged ‘fifth procedure’. Indeed, in Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism Badiou uses Paul’s experiences as a paradigmatic case of the event, and fidelity to the event. In his defence, Badiou has stated that he doesn’t see Paul as a philosopher, and see’s Paul’s experience as “something like the non-philosophical conception of truth”, with Paul offering “a new conception of truth in general”. While Badiou certainly feels he’s made his case here clear, I he may have wildly misjudged the transparency of his account. Don’t get me wrong – I love Badiou’s perspective here. But since I cannot accept as an axiom any claim as to whether there is or isn’t God, my reading of Badiou ends up in a very different space to what is likely intended.

Similarly, Badiou’s claim that there can only be four truth procedures strikes me as problematic – the kind of observation that emerges from laying down a framework and then determining what that framework encloses. I don’t think this is necessarily a problem with his approach, but it needs to be borne in mind, especially since by excluding spiritual truth – as in the case of Badiou’s schizophrenic attitude towards Paul – any event of religious truth must be split weirdly between love, art and politics. This would not trouble me if it did not then seem to reinforce the perceived conflict between ‘religion’ and ‘science’ by denying to the religious aspect of culture just one of Badiou’s truth conditions. (I also feel it silly to restrict ‘love’ to amorous love, as Badiou appears to do, but this perhaps is the erotic soul of the French nation shining through his philosophy!)

There is an irony to the way that Badiou, having attempted to position himself outside of religion, proceeds to provide a philosophy which has as much or more to offer people of faith as it does people of unfaith. Conceiving of the truth as something that exists outside of the condition of the world is begging for a theological reading of the kind that Christianity and Islam inherited from Greek philosophy, and particularly from Plato. Badiou, indeed, allies himself with Plato explicitly, which means all that stands between Badiou's philosophy and believers is a mere mathematical axiom, and as it happens Cantor (from whom Badiou acquires his set theoretical influences) already provides the reverse reading. But then, despite his axiomatic opposition to God, Badiou's unique slant on ethics implicitly supports cultural and religious diversity in a manner that many atheists will find difficult to accept.

Badiou’s philosophy is undeniably radical, and this in almost every sense of the word. It seems to exist almost entirely for the purpose of providing viable support to political radicalism, epitomised in Badiou’s involvement in actions that ‘subvert’ democracy by forcing action on the behalf of individuals in need rather than trying to crank the gears of the system slowly towards change. In this respect, I sense a thematic connection between Badiou and Ivan Illich, and someone who could bridge their two philosophies could create something truly explosive. In the meantime, the capacity for Badiou’s philosophy to underpin the kind of radical activism he himself engages in will be seen by some as a flaw. For me, it is Badiou’s greatest strength.


You Cannot See a Cube

There are few more graphic illustrations of the role of thought in mediating experience that the fact that you cannot see, and have never seen, a cube.

But surely, you may think, I see cubes all the time! Every roll of the die, every sugar lump dropped in the tea, every square-sided cardboard box reveals a cube, and I see things like these every day. True enough. But you do not see a cube, you only see an object that you happen to know is a cube, and thus see it in your mind’s eye as cubic.

In a lecture in 1945, Maurice Merleau-Ponty laid out the matter clearly:

Even the objects right in front of me are not truly seen but merely thought. Thus I cannot see a cube, that is, a solid with six surfaces and twelve edges; all I ever see is a perspective figure of which the lateral surfaces are distorted and the back surface completely hidden. If I am able to speak of cubes, it is because my mind sets these appearances to rights and restores the hidden surface. I cannot see a cube as its geometrical definition presents it: I can only think it.

Once you think about this, you will realise that you could not possibly have ever seen a cube – perhaps the closest you could have come would be to see a square block aside a mirror at just the right angle so that you could see all its facings at once. But you would still then be seeing two distinct perspective figures that would only become one object in your mind.

We do not see the world as it is, we see stereoscopic images of the world and construct them, with the help of our mental models, into objects. But these objects exist in our mind, and not in our eyes, and so I say again that you cannot see, and never have seen, a cube.


Towards Videogame Aesthetics I: Aesthetic Concepts

Over on ihobo today, the first of a three part series entitled Towards Videogame Aesthetics. Here’s a taster:

What would videogames aesthetics be like? Why don't we have something that fulfils this role already? And how would we get a theory that could plug this obvious gap in our understanding of games?

One of my philosophy projects this year is the adaptation and development of resources in philosophy of art to provide the foundation for game aesthetics. Let me be clear: I do not mean aesthetics of the art resources used in games, but an aesthetics of games as games. This will certainly involve the representational elements, such as the graphics in a videogame, or the design of pieces in a board game, but it must involve much more. There is an aesthetic experience within any game that relates to its functional elements, and it is this for which no theory currently exists.

Check out the complete piece over at ihobo.com.


Circus Philosophicus

Circus Philosophicus Graham Harman’s Circus Philosophicus is that rarest of beasts, a philosophical treatise that is also deeply personal. Although it seems to have been intended both as an approachable explication of Harman’s object-oriented ontology and as an attempt to restore mythic vision to the philosophical tradition, it is simultaneously a slightly fictionalised account of the author’s personal journey both through life and throughout the world. As such, it is currently a one-of-a-kind work – as short as the most restrained scholarly essay yet written in an accessible, narrative style that feels oddly comfortable.

The book is comprised of seven myths – six philosophical metaphors constructed to illuminate elements of Harman’s object-oriented thinking, and one final myth concerning the origin of the book. There is a slightly uneven quality to the chapters, in that the direction of the book transforms from distant to intimate. The opening myth, The Ferris Wheel, concerns a colossal structure presented as a thought experiment, and constitutes the most memorable image that the book has to offer. Unfortunately, the connection with the philosophical model it represents is let down by serving the principle role of disputing other people’s models – namely Alfred Whitehead and Bruno Latour – and as such a reader not already somewhat familiar with ontology (the field which studies the nature of existence)  is likely to be left quite uncertain what they are being shown.

However, the second myth changes the style directly into a  more biographical context, which is retained for the rest of the book. The story embedded within this tale of love lost is a Dante-inspired, Hieronymus Bosch-esque fantasy in which the devils of hell throw the pre-Socratic philosophers off a bridge into a pool of molten lead as one by one they fail to meet the challenge set before them. Even if one is unfamiliar with Greek philosophy, there is a charm to the way the fable unfolds that helps raise the appeal of the book above its slightly distanced opening. Harman is revealed here, more than anywhere else in the book, as being more than just a collection of thoughts and ideas. He is shown to be human.

The reader is taken both around the world and throughout the history of the Western philosophical tradition as the various myths are presented in turn. Leibniz’s ideas are connected to a macabre mechanical organ in India; Husserl is vindicated via a ghost story on a Japanese ferry; and Latour – the “enemy” of the first myth, appears as a friend and colleague in the Parisian reverie of the last. There is also a rather curious tale of Harman and science fiction author China Miéville marooned on an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico during a hurricane. This chapter begins with a recitation of the autopsy of the Elder Thing from H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, which despite being entirely out of place seems to fit into the tempo of the work with baroque ease.

I confess to being quite beguiled by the whole endeavour by the time I reached the end of its incredibly short 83 pages, and the afterward – a larger than life account of the origins of the book – is far harder to believe than some of the myths themselves, despite being presented as purely factual! My chief reservation in recommending the book is the uncertainty as to who might enjoy it – since I am far from certain that anyone with no prior experience of ontology will be able to extract anything useful about Harman’s model without having invested in some of his other books. Here again I have a concern, since key terms in Harman’s work, such as tool-being, are referenced only in passing, yet surely the audience for this book should not be expected to have read his earlier, heavier treatises?

But perhaps the point of attempting to “restore myth to its central place in the discipline” (as the blurb states) is to allow some hint of philosophical thinking to be expressed in a manner far more easily grasped. This surely was part of what motivated Plato to use allegory and mythic image in so many of his works. Harman’s myths are perhaps less enduring than Plato’s, and certainly less bold than Nietzsche’s, but they are timely and charmingly presented. I can think of no greater praise than my fervent hope that Circus Philosophicus will encourage other modern philosophers to eschew the arid formalism of the academy and adapt their ideas for a wider audience via allegory and fable. And if it does not, then it can be enjoyed all the more as an oddity, a curio shop for the curious, and, indeed, a circus of ideas.

Graham Harman's Circus Philosophicus is published by Zer0 Books, ISBN 978-1-84694-400-0. You can read his blog at Object-Oriented Philosophy.