A labor of fiction: how and why unreal things matter.

In a context of severe economic inequality and political unrest, one might easily conclude that discussing fictional worlds is a waste of time, better spent pursuing meaningful action towards a concrete end.

When I think about my aspiring career deconstructing and reassembling these already abstract entities, fictional worlds (Are they art? Communication? Product? Zeitgeist?), I wonder if I should be focusing my energy on more “serious” issues. As someone who labors over the oeuvres of others, I can’t help but feel a bit like a meta-intellectual leech. Can this kind of labor ever be a politically relevant praxis?

Last week, I shared my concerns that representational politics divorce labor politics from race and gender issues (on the grounds that one is a “material” issue, while the other is a “symbolic” one).

A clear critique presents itself:

Fictional worlds are not real, and therefore can be neither vital nor important. At best, they can only reveal oblique truths about what is indeed real, and worthy of attention and labor.

Let us linger on the present ontological claims:

  1. There are mutually exclusive planes of being, real and unreal,
  2. Which define different types/tiers of being.
  3. Being which is real is superior to being which is unreal.
  4. Accordingly, the unreal cannot reveal the real in-itself.
  5. Only the real in-itself is a worthy object of attention and labor.

What are we to make of this? How can abstracting about unreal objects center labor in my intellectual project?

Work on fictive worlds does not increase employment, it neither raises annual income nor provides better union protections. Rather, meaningful political action must happen in the real.

The real is full of living beings and inanimate things; it is material. The plane of the real is ready-to- and present-at-hand, always understood in relation to its context and apparent purpose. By contrast, fictional worlds are always only ready-to-hand; as things made only for us, they are always within the context of their purpose in relation to people.

If the real is where actual being happens, then it is where the political world of beings and labor must happen as well. By comparison, what can fiction do?

On making things, or the problem with the real:

Applying the metaphor of “carpentry” from speculative realist Graham Harman, Ian Bogost describes the philosophical project of making things, which “entails making things that explain how things make their world,” [1].  Bogost identifies “carpentry” as philosophical lab equipment, constructed as an operable theory, experiment, or question in the mind, and then externalized. Via carpentry, we have access to both putting theory into practice and to practice as theory. Fictional worlds depend upon a similar philosophical carpentry, as things formulated solely in the mind.

With carpentry, unreal objects are really not so different from other, very real kinds of things. Works of language, practice, knowledge, and science “never leave abstraction behind;” real though it is, the concrete is “condemned to using abstraction to target, name, know, attain and appropriate it,” [2]. The more we examine real things, the more obvious the networks of both practice and theory are needed to constitute them. The problem only mounts when we turn our attention to the relations of things:

If we are to believe in the “vicarious causation” of speculative realism, then “things never really interact with one another, but only fuse or connect in a locally conceptual fashion,” [3]. By this logic all things—material and immaterial, vital and inanimate, real and unreal alike—exist (in its primary mode: relation) through purely conceptual, often metaphorical adjacency.

The relation of all concrete things is abstract by its very nature. The suffusion of language into a plane of event, context, and objects presents further problems for distinguishing between the real and the unreal. Always already ready-to-hand, fictive realities exist for no reason other than for us. The unreal is always understood by its purpose. The real, on the other hand enjoys no such clarity.

Rather than being defined by purpose, “real objects are locked in impossible tension with the crippled descriptive powers of language, and … unbearable seismic torsion with their own qualities,” [4]. While unreal objects exist in the movement between theory and practice, real objects exist in the stalemate between the two. If the real is “stuck,” so to speak, then the unreal is a more fertile ground for scholarship, description, categorization, and metaphor.

The reducibility of “fiction” to “abstraction,” under the auspices of the unreal, is a necessary formation in the use of philosophical carpentry. Fictional worlds collapse practice and theory: narrative, aesthetic, electric, chemical, generic, sonic—fictive genesis considers and applies abstractions at many levels of execution. As theory and practice are mutually constitutive planes, so too are those of real and unreal. Neither reducible to the other, yet impossible without their coexistant.

Laboring over the unreal:

Beyond any philosophies of access, fictive realities are also objects in their own right, equally existent as an unreal object as the real objects of hammer, banana, computer chip, mountain, electron, and so on. But how can we align this posthumanist ontology with solipsistic concerns about labor and fiction? What kind of labor ethics can be based in a worldview that denies the very primacy of humans and their labor?

To borrow the tools of object-oriented ontology, we must first acknowledge fictional beings, their relevance in the world of real and unreal existence, and their relation to our own labor as equal things in-the-world with our own selves.

Returning to “carpentry,” just as a cabinet cannot be made without a blueprint, there can be no making of the real without the making of the unreal; realness depends upon unrealness via abstraction. This is what Bogost means by “things making their world,” through a complex series of relations under the project of OOO.

Harmon has pointed out that discourse (relation by language) indelibly alters the real, warping it under the descriptive power of language. The unreal resists linguistic pinning-down, provides the tools of our abstractions, and empowers us to create. Consequently, the project of fiction presents alternative and nonhuman visions of being otherwise unavailable. Fictional worlds offer fish, robot, chicken, toy, and insect utopias, or at least alternate ways of being. Judith Halberstam explores such ideas dissecting the silly, the low, and the frivolous:

The dream of an alternative way of being is often confused with utopian thinking and then dismissed…. And yet the possibility of other forms of being, other forms of knowing, a world with different sites for justice and injustice … should not be dismissed as irrelevant or naïve, [5].

The same can, and should, be said of unreal objects. Unreal ways of being are dismissed as quickly as utopian ones, in favor of a status quo which can be identified as real (despite its dependence upon many unreal abstractions).

The essential project of labor is productive genesis. Fiction is both of the real, wherein labor exists, and of the unreal wherein abstractions about labor and the products of real labor intertwine to form new modes of being.

Unreal things are ready-to-hand, reliably laboring towards a purpose, as they were always already invented by us and for us. If one purpose of fiction is to build an alternative economic way of being in-the-world, the purpose of revolution will be ready-to-hand in fiction.

Unrealness, and by extension fiction, reveals to us undiscovered ontological alternatives. Labor over the unreal (and its relation to adjacent labor, leisure, production, and consumption) is an avenue for the discovery of alternate modes of being, of nonhuman abstractions, and of visions for the future. A real object, an unreal object, and a product of labor, fiction sits at intersections of theoretical and practical being, straddling notions of production and consumption, of labor and leisure. Fiction can serve as the bridge between the real and the abstract relations of labor.

There can be no fiction without labor, just as there can be no worker’s utopia without the recursive production of things. We must not only make things, but make explanatory things, ones that give credence to a world made of and by things.


[1] Ian Bogost. Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis: 2012, (93).

[2] Louis Althusser. Philosophy for Non-Philosphers. Bloomsbury, New York: 2014, (67).

[3] Bogost (2012: 111).

[4] Graham Harmon. Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy. Zero Books, Washington: 2011, (27).

[5] Judith Halberstam. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, Durham: 2011, (52).

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