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).


The problem with representational politics: a feminist agenda

“…When truth is too traumatic to be confronted directly, it can only be accepted in the guise of fiction.” [1]

What kind of justice can we achieve through representation alone? Very little to none. Our daily lives and our fictional worlds are enmeshed in the neoliberal system of both value and meaning, which monetizes identities. Representation is a facile solution: change the fiction and reality will morph to mirror the art. But what does a black James Bond or a female Doctor from Gallifrey really do? Justice is irreducible to token appreciation on a symbolic level. So why write about geeky fictional worlds at all?

To understand why we can meaningful discuss fictional worlds, I must first turn your attention to the nonfictional battleground, material and symbolic, over representation and over the feminist project. I submit, rather unoriginally, that a feminist vision must foreground labor and race over gender to affect the women whose situations are the most in need of equalizing.

Why’s everyone so mad at representational politics?:

Representation has become something of a sticky subject, on all sides. From a Conservative perspective, representational issues exist in a performative call-out culture, where well-to-do liberals prove their virtue via political correctness. From a leftist perspective, representational issues are a token symbolic issue which detracts from more important political projects of social equality on a material level. Finally, from the Liberal perspective, representation and politics semantically collapse into one another.

“White lady feminism,” as Second Wave feminism is often called, is all about representation. “More women in the boardrooms,” they say, “more female prison guards and senators!” This kind of feminism seeks equality at the highest echelon of society, the reasoning being that highly-placed women will produce meaningful change for the women “below them.” This kind of “trickle down feminism” is deeply flawed, however, ignoring key issues of labor and race by focusing its impact on socially empowered women rather than deeply disenfranchised ones. Inherently, this kind of feminism recapitulates existing power relations rooted within roles of masculine authority under neoliberal capital. How could a true feminist project not dismantle such a system?

Representation as a praxis of intersectionality:

I know we are all sick to death of think pieces peppered with buzzwords like “intersectional.” I know we do not need another “liberal elite” online touting its importance. Nonetheless, intersectionality is an undeniable and material experience, that must be addressed. The dichotomy of symbolic and material issues is a false one.

The 2016 U.S. presidential election demonstrates this point exceedingly well. Many democrats, myself included, felt deeply betrayed by the white college-educated women who voted for Trump en masse. The endemic issue of “white lady feminism” is it whiteness: these women overwhelming voted in the interest of “whiteness” instead of in the interest of “womanhood.” The varying lives, issues, and political projects of women in our country alone should be more than enough proof that there is no universal experience of womanhood, and that white feminism is hegemonic at best, and neocolonial exploitation at worst.

The “trickle down” political project of many white feminists demonstrates what Judith Butler means when she says that, “Women can never be … precisely because they are the relation of difference.” [2] Butler is deconstructing the usefulness of the category “woman” as a universal experience, a fundamental and essential way of being which can be said to unite all women together in global sisterhood.

This myth of an essential sisterhood of women is at the foundation of the white feminist agenda: by helping white women, they are helping all women. The experience of womanhood, however, is by no means universal or exclusive; while gender is a highly visible axis of our bodies, race just as visibly marks the body in social spaces. Creed can also be highly visible, especially for women whose religions prescribe modesty vestments by which their belief system can be identified (hijabi women, Orthodox Jews, and some North American sects of Christianity come to mind).

Reconciling symbolic and material battlegrounds:

So why do I still care so much about these fictional worlds? Why do they matter to me, and to so many people? Is it because I too am a crypto-white-feminist? I am well-positioned to be one: graduate educated, white-passing, from a well-off suburban background. Sure, I’ve only earned a wage and never a salary, but I’ve always had the financial safety net of a family able to provide for me. How is my project not “white lady feminism” when I stand at an ostensibly “white lady” intersection?

My feminist agenda is focused on labor, race, and gender, in that order. Why does my feminist project put labor and race before gender? How can we even call this a feminist project at all? Why must a feminist vision put labor and race before gender?

First and foremost, it needs to be said, my politics are not, nor should they ever be read as, a “celebration of putative victims.” [3] So why do I insist on this hierarchy of labor, race, and gender? Color- and class-blind feminism actively empowers the extant racist and classist hierarchies. Singling out the category of “woman,” without parsing out any of her material circumstances, produces an understanding of womanhood that most closely reflects concerns and desires related to maintaining the cultural capital distribution within the status quo.  Whiteness, wealth, cisgenderedness, and heteronormativity are the inherent outputs of an intersectionless feminism.

Compared to directly aiming to help women generally, addressing labor and race issues is a better way to improve the conditions of poor women and of women of color. Women “at the bottom” of multiple intersectional hierarchies receive very little support from “women-first” feminism.

Feminism must reintegrate the symbolic and the material. A feminist utopian project must include all three: labor, race, gender. Each of these embodied facets is ideologically tied to our personhood, while also having an incommensurate material impact on our lives. Gender—closely tied to the politics of desire and of sex—creates space for LGBTQIA+ issues and agendas within the feminist project. As a queer and white-passing woman, however, I truly believe that feminism must place labor and race at the foreground of an intersectional politics for women and by women.

Class, and therefore labor, have become divorced from issues of the subject because: 1) unlike physical traits like race and sex, it does not appear to emanate from the body, but to act upon it; 2) it has clear and quantifiable material consequences. We easily forget that class is an embodied, visible experience as much a part of someone’s day to day experiences as their skin color and physiogamy.

Race and gender live in a discourse of symbolic battlegrounds, by contrast. Occasionally, we are able see past the false dichotomy of symbolic and material issues. Racial discourse in America is such an example because of the very material consequences of dehumanizing racial ideologies that encouraged and excused violence against black bodies.

But if class and race are so important as to precede the gender in feminism, why talk about gender at all? The gendered body is a fundamentally crucial part of understanding labor and race, though it must be put after both. Gender is a recognized category of social distinction that we ignore no more easily than someone’s skin color or their specific physiogamy. Our bodies, and the highly visible social categories which they index, produce and reproduce our relations in-the-world. For example, white, heternormative, cis-male middle-class spaces are fundamentally not “neutral” spaces; rather they occupy a highly recursive and specific category of immense intersectional distinctions of race, desire, sex, gender, and class.

Feminist fiction:

One could say that my whole feminist agenda is an exercise in class privilege. In our contemporary neoliberal context, where culture is industrialized and the self is commodified, representation has borne the brunt of paralleling corporate branding within theoretical discourse. By this I mean that the self is branded and is also adjacent to brands, both metaphorically in their ideos and also literally, through material product-based brands.

Discussing the symbolic does not mean ignoring the material. Fictional worlds and geeky subcultures may seem like purely symbolic battlegrounds, but in truth no such space exists. Political battles, feminist manifestos, and fictional worlds must continue to chip away at the false dichotomy of material and symbolic issues.

Discounting the importance of fictional worlds eclipses the role of symbolism with that of materialism, to the detriment of both. Fictional realities allow us to peer behind the curtain of our societies, and project our utopian visions into the world. These seemingly frivolous concoctions of imagination provide an avenue to “make claims for alternatives that are markedly different  from the claims that are made in relation to high cultural archives.” [4]

Represenational politics are themselves not an evil. As a scholar, I feel obligated to do justice to the contemporary cultural discourse, which at this moment continues to center representation as modality. We do not have to throw out representation. But we cannot satisfy ourselves with it either.

[1] Slavoj Žižek. Less Than Nothing. Verso Books, New York: 2013 (23).

[2] Judith Butler. Gender Trouble. Routledge, New York: 1990 (25). 

[3] Heather MacDonald. “Revisionist Lust.” The New Criterion May 1997 (17).

[4] Judith Halberstam. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, Durham: 2011 (20).