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The Terrifying Ambivalence of Theory-Fiction

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I want to talk about theory-fiction, an obscure practice that has been around for a while but has recently reared itself back into view. While we could take this to mean theory heavy pieces of auto-fiction such as I Love Dick or, according to the unflattering assessment of the critic James Woods, the hysterical realists1 (works such as those by D. F. Wallace, Don DeLillo and Zadie Smith), I think this is too limited a perspective. These are all works that attempt, or are understood to have attempted, to attain some definition as literary fiction. And even those that were met with the disapproval of the (literary) establishment at first are still comprehensible within the discourse of the prestige arm of commercial publishing.  

What I want to focus on instead is the other edge of this practice. The space where it is only sometimes necessary to appear as a book (or even, in these post-digital times, a Reddit forum). The space where fiction bleeds into reality, where it can be thought of as really more of a porous abstract engine that we use to energize the structures of day-to-day life; giving it a form in which we can function. The thing is that practice is built on theoretical foundations that some consider irresponsible and perhaps downright wrong, however, I think they are more accurately described as terrifyingly ambivalent. That said, I think this is an ambilence we need to get to grips with if we are to navigate our present moment.

To do this, however, we need an object on which to hang some rather dusty postmodern theory from Jean Baudrillard. Something that can allow us to see this theory’s enduring relevance, even while it’s out of fashion, and something on which to “break its spine” allowing it to escape the notion of the book and enter the world. This is of course, fake news and the Gulf War.

The Gulf War, As You Know It, Did Not Take Place.

Over the last few months, I have had a great many conversations with people about the spectre of living in a post-truth world. As I write this, it seems to me, that the term itself seems to have gone into recession, as it is tied up with other terms like fake news and alternative facts. While I share many of the concerns of those I talk with about this, I cannot help but adopt a somewhat contrarian stance of asking: What is new about this?

To me, this seems like the stipulations of postmodern theory hitting the mainstream in a far more substantive way, than they did back in the 80s and 90s when the intelligentsia started using the word postmodern as a way to scoff at contemporary pretension. Today, we can see those who previously thought the “postmodern condition” was little more than an academic parlor trick, have started to feel the sting of a discourse that treats their conception of reality with incredulity. This is not novel to those who have never been allowed into the powerful positions of discourse; the poor and the disenfranchised. The only reason we are being told that fake news and alternative facts are new, is because they are finally affecting those whom have held the power to construct discourse: the establishment press and politicians.

To say that what we call truth is no more than a social construct is a reasonable conclusion to reach, when you have just watched something as clearly constructed as news footage be referred to by a politician as the truth.

What concerns me is that, if we too easily buy into this explanatory narrative, we may confuse the propagandistic effects of fake news and alternative facts with the actual underlying causes that are required for them to be effective. Because, while I’m happy to concede that facts and underlying realities exist, I think we flatter ourselves unduly if we think our discourse has ever really been composed of them.  

What a time to be alive.
What a time to be alive.

For example, back in the early 90s, the late post-modern French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard wrote an essay, part of a series written during the Gulf War, entitled, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. At the time, many were outraged by what they saw as a relativist game about the construction of truth being played with something as serious as war. Lives, they asserted, were literally at stake. While it is true that the essay is provocative, taking, as it does, such a willfully obtuse position, to characterize it as asserting some sort of crass relativism derived from the mediatized nature of modern life is disingenuous. Rather, what Baudrillard is arguing is that the thing we call “the gulf war” is a simulacrum, an image without an original object, produced as propaganda. Images in forms that do not depict with any reference to reality the suffering and murder resulting from the mere push of a button miles away.

When war is conducted by so-called democratic nations, the population bears some of the ethical responsibility as the population cede their sovereignty to politicians who enact policy and violence. We can quibble about the amount of complicity or coercion at play but, if we want to play a numbers game, it is fair to say that sovereignty is something we willingly hand-over.  After the lessons learned from the uproar caused by the Vietnam war (first televised war), the ‘military-entertainment complex’, to use musician and philosopher Steve Goodman’s2 term, worked to ensure that war could only be viewed in palatable packages. It is in this historical context that Baudrillard argued that the Gulf war did not take place.

Far from Baudrillard being the relativist that the mainstream opinion caricatured him as, it was, in fact, the mainstream that could be seen as the relativists, relying as they did on the public understanding of war-as-image or simulacra, rather than the war itself, to maintain public consent to inflict violence. To say that what we call truth is no more than a social construct may be a reasonable conclusion to reach when you have just watched something as clearly constructed as news footage be referred to by a politician as the truth.

Baudrillard had a fancy name for this kind of thing that refers back to something but that has no original referent, he called them third order simulacra. This is, for the majority of people, what the gulf war was. It is an intercut juxtaposition of Saddam Hussein looking menacing, news reportage footage of cruise missiles launching from ships, burnt out tanks and terrified displaced Iraqi faces, followed by a close up of the sunglasses of an American soldier, which bleeds into George H.W. Bush speaking to camera from the Oval Office. These fragments are all parts of the a war that took place in the Iraqi gulf in the early 90s. But the thing most of us call the gulf war is the collected images of media packages, not the war itself. What these images refer to is ultimately nothing, and yet this is the basis on which we make decisions. Decisions based on a fiction, like votes or other political engagement or apathy, that shape reality.

(The) Cybernetic Cultures Research Unity Did Not Take Place.

According to Mark Fisher, a major consequence for Baudrillard of the cultural shift to the field of third order simulacra was the elimination of the distinction between fiction (particularly science fiction) and social theory. While we could say that there are fictions that play more strongly into this new relationship theory, I think it is clear, even if it is often disavowed, that theory has for a long time been entwined with fiction. Theory here is not about laying out a prediction that can be tested with experimentation, rather it is an attempt to narrate empirical experience.

This line of thinking lead to the emergence of a practice that explicitly positioned itself as theory-fiction. While earlier writers, such as Bataille, Nietzsche and Sartre had attempted to use fiction to develop a philosophical project, these works often served as illustrative, where they fiction served the philosophical project. In the 90s, however, theory-fiction, a practice built out of the shaky ontological foundation of postmodernism, attempted to collapse these things into one another. Where the writing of theory could fictionalize and produce reality. In short, this method was built from the understanding that our ideas about reality, our theories of it, came out of fictions. Fictions we used to act and shape reality. However, formany of theory-fiction’s practitioners, the fictions that we lived with in the 90s and even now had not kept pace with our strange new world.

CCRU
CCRU

Key to the development of what is considered theory fiction today was, the institutionally disavowed, CCRU (Cybernetic Culture Research Unit), a group of students, lecturers and researchers from the University of Warwick’s philosophy department throughout the 90s. More than merely a banal research cluster, CCRU attempted to collapse themselves into an entity that was both singular and multiple, through experimentation with drugs, their interpersonal relationships, music, technology and writing. They produced enigmatic texts that, while they may have become somewhat kitsch now, at the time turned theory into a fiction of the real. For example, this extract from the text Swarmachines;

 

There is no doubt anywhere that matters: simply facts. Debate is idiot distraction, humanity is fucked, real machines never closed-up inside an architecture. Schizo-capital fission consists of vectors dividing between two noncommunicating phyla of nonpersonal multiplicity. First pyramid structures control structures: white-clown pixel face, concentrational social segments, EU-2 Integrated history horizon. Second, Jungle-war machines: darkening touch densities, cultural distribution thresholds, intensive now-variation flattened out into ungeometrized periphery.

No community. No dialectics. No plan for an alternative state.

This is madness. But madness that should not be confused with uselessness. Especially when the object you are trying to describe is, for most of us, incomprehensible. Rather than pretending it was possible to “make sense” of a world in the process of technologically dissolving the boundaries that defined the individual and underpinned the late capitalist culture that persisted after the end of the cold war, with these texts CCRU shifted theory into a fictional register so as to approach a field of research that was both tantalisingly obvious but also beyond the analytical tools of quotidian discourse. That being discourse between individuals as opposed to the immanent discourse of an ever approaching cybernetic future.

A recent Guardian long-read piece charted how CCRU used theory-fiction to develop the politicophilosophical school of accelerationism3. This school of thought should not be confused with the traditional leftist view of “sharpening the contradictions”, where agitators help capitalism become more oppressive to instigate a revolution. Instead, accelerationism uses an unconventional reading of Marx and Deleuze and Guattari to argue for the harnessing of the capacity of capitalism to dissolve boundaries (for example, the dissolution of national borders through trade) as a way in which to liberate human potential. And perhaps even liberate it from the human form itself. This is where the ambivalence comes in.

…the stakes are very high when you write something down but, paradoxically, this knowledge renders these stakes absurd.

The odd thing, however, about this type of theory-fiction is that, as an object itself, its influence is slow, even if the phenomenon it describes is ever accelerating. As such, it can be hard to work out where the fiction exists. Is it on the page where a collective effort was made to express inconsummate fragments of reality? Or is it in the moment when the fragments seem to demand to be expressed together? It is almost as if, in attempting to stay faithful to the complexities and consequences that emerged from this environment of fast moving data and porous boundaries, the requisite abandonment of vernacular meant that the work could not spread. Indeed, by taking in and then expressing the experience of rapidly digitizing capitalism the influence of the work of CCRU has been confined to those willing to go along with their seemingly alien mode of thought. These are academics for the most part, although more significantly some have gone on to work in silicon valley…

Write Everything Down.

Years later, a recent example of literary theory-fiction, Satin Island by Tom McCarthy, seems to have caught up to this impulse and found a way to move it to a mainstream vernacular. The work is self-consciously literary but gives shape to a world not unlike the one described by CCRU.

Satin Island
Satin Island

The novel is the story of U, a corporate anthropologist commissioned to write the great anthropological report of the present moment by his employer. However, U is confronted with a problem in the digital present. He remarks that “Bronisław Malinowski, the father of modern anthropology, said: Write Everything Down” as you never know what might be important your research. The problem is that today everything that a scientist or social scientist could note down with empirical confidence is already written down. Not just written down but stored securely, copied and distributed in a format that is infinitely remixable. If the broadcast media could produce third order simulacra, then this must be the fourth order at the very least. Here, quite explicitly the only course of action is narration.

This, as with CCRU, is where we can see theory-fiction as terrifyingly ambivalent. Theory-fiction is a practice that contains an approach to knowledge and the reality that does away with the barometers of meaning we use to define both ourselves, the world and the good. However, unlike with earlier more nihilistic movements, there is no triumph of transgression here, no pleasure or jouissance, because the world it describes would obliterate anything capable of experiencing such things as we know them. With such a view of the world, why not vote for Trump and accelerate the system until there is nothing left but a radioactive mist? That said, from another vantage point the same conclusion could have been reached years ago.

This ambivalent manifestation is, however, but one version of the theory-fiction methodology in operation. As I write this I am aware that I stand at the precipice of rabbit-hole. As the fictional mode can allow anything to come into play and with theory it can become actionable. That said, in the age of nth order simulacra the limited beings that we are may need to come to terms with the notion that fiction really exists and reality is unknowable as anything but, hopefully complex, fictions. Reductions of what is there to something we can narrativize. This means that the stakes are very high when you write something down but, paradoxically, this knowledge renders these stakes absurd. This need not mean we tear everything down, only that not doing so is truly a difficult choice.

  1.  I know this was meant as a jab but I love this label
  2. Interestingly (and more on why later) he earned his PhD at the University of Warwick in 90s.
  3. It is necessary to mention my not mentioning of Nick Land. There simply is not space for a discussion of his work here, despite the fact that a great deal of the ambivalence at play here is down to him. The Guardian article linked to above would be the place to start looking for more information.

Macon has spent the last four years trying to shoehorn Infinite Jest into a PhD about popular music and capitalism. He managed to do this by making it about something called sonic fiction. He is one half of the podcasting team and the reason why the critical theory section is an odd mix of Adorno and Deleuze & Guattari. For many months he was mistaken for a ghost that had decided to haunt the store, but it was just him editing his thesis and/or the podcast. Here he writes about things which might be true or are entirely made up.

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