Sunday, July 7, 2013

Fiction and Ontology

Ontology is one of those words whose use mark the user as someone who has taken more than a few philosophy classes. Etymologically, it means the study of the existence of things. Not particular things, but the thing-ness of things, what marks off the existent from the non-existent, and why there is anything at all rather than nothing.

Once you step into the realm of ontology, words take on meanings that are often diametrically opposed to their colloquial meanings. "Realism" refers not to a hard-nosed, calculating approach to social affairs, but a robustly starry-eyed Platonism, for which the forms or ideas of things are real, more real in fact than those with which we clothe ourselves and brush our teeth in the mornings. "Materialism" refers not to a grasping acquisitiveness, but to the conviction that the stuff of the universe takes precedence over any notion that could be formed about it--and the most militant of materialism in this sense is often, though not always, coupled with radical egalitarianism in social affairs.

I have a tentative hypothesis, that to the extent that genre labels mean anything more than crude market segmentation--and they do mean that, but I am guessing that they can and often do mean more--they serve as indices of the ontologies operant within a piece of fiction.

My preferred fiction to read tends to be that in which multiple ontologies conflict, or in which the predominant ontology of the narrative undermines itself along the way. Fiction in which different characters adhere to different ontologies and come to blows as a result, or in which a character's professed ideology and that implied by his or her actions are divergent, or a character's ontology proves to be literally true in a way that turns out to be disastrous.

Readers who wish to assess the degree to which I write the sort of fiction that I prefer to read unfortunately have a limited set of published pieces from which to judge at this point: "Moose Season" (from The Big Click) and "One-Sided" in Things You Can Create. (More coming soon; announcements pending.) If you don't think I have, it's fine to say. It is a hard kind of fiction to write.

The potential for that kind of fiction exists within and around any genre. The relationship between genre and ontology is not singular or isomorphic. A genre maps to a probability-space of possible ontologies that tend to center around a fundamental thesis.

For example, the genre of horror may have multiple ontologies, with the locus of the horror existing in obscure corners of the universe, in characters' psychological substrates, or in a malfunctioning social order. Yet the fundamental thesis each of these types of horror-ontology is that there are forces and powers that intrinsically surpass human understanding, which are either malevolent or destructively indifferent. It can be argued that the ur-text of horror (in the English language, at least)--the text with reference to which which all subsequent manifestations can be read as a commentary--is not Poe or Lovecraft, but a single line from Shakespeare's Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." (And indeed Hamlet contains within itself several of the tropes that are characteristic of later manifestations of the genre: spirits, madness, incest, collapsing families, mass murder.)

Just as Aristotelians differentiate between the ordo essendi and the ordo cognoscendi--the order in which things come to be and the order in which they can come to be known--there is a difference between how genres manifest in the history of literature and how readers come to be aware of them. To a certain extent the ordo cognoscendi of a genre will vary factically from reader to reader, though it may be possible--with the disciplinary tools of history, ethnography and literary criticism--to discern common patterns that may be grouped by language, nationality, ethnicity, generation, gender and class. For example, my first conscious awareness of the potential for horror in literature likely came through Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, followed shortly thereafter by the works of Roald Dahl. A scholar could determine how common that is for U.S.-born English-speakers of my generation, and how much it may have been conditioned by my being male, Jewish, the child of an abusive Greek immigrant father and a mother whose literacy exceeded her formal education.

The phenomenology of fantasy as genre is harder for me to trace than horror. Let me explain with an anecdote. I had to have been six years old at the time, as my parents were separated, we were living with my grandparents, and they had just gotten cable. My younger brother was watching the kids' show Pinwheel on Nickelodeon. There was an animated sketch in which a young child climbs into the sky, grabs a star, and brings it back down to earth with her. When the star withers and starts looking rather sickly, she climbs back up and returns it to its proper place. I was furious. "This is ridiculous!" I ranted. "Even if you could get up into the sky, a star is a super-hot ball of gas," (I didn't know yet to call it plasma) "with all the atoms fusing together. She'd be all burnt up before she ever touched it!" At the time I was reading a great deal of science-fact books, in all possible areas, and not long thereafter I would discover science fiction. It was not that I was absolutely, precociously opposed to any manifestation of imaginative capacity. But I could no longer stomach flights of fancy that neglected facts that had been well-established through the scientific method, and this change had come upon me far earlier than I suspect it does for most other people.

I am thus poorly situated to discuss the ontologies of fantasy, except through a reconstruction of childhood states of mind with which my experience is either second-hand (from observing the development of my own child) or at a farther remove (i.e., via the findings of developmental psychology). What I will preliminarily call naïve fantasy depends on the survival into late childhood and even adulthood of habits of mind that are characteristic of early childhood, such as intentional and attributional fallacies. Consider an experiment in which an adult leaves the room, an experimenter then changes the location of a hidden object, and the child observes this change. Up to a certain age, the child will believe that the adult, upon returning to the room, will also know the true location of the object. As the child develops a Theory of Mind, i.e., an emergent understanding that other minds may not know or perceive all that the child knows or perceives, the experimental results will change. What I want to suggest is that for many people, perhaps even most, the development of this Theory of Mind is never entirely complete. The fact of something being known by someone implies that it is intrinsically knowable, if not through direct observation then through some occult connection. Perhaps the knowing being is no longer one's Mother, with her "eyes in the back of her head" (a lie that mothers in my family have been telling small children for generations), but an omniscient deity, or a gnome, domovoi or jinn hiding in the corner. It manifests in vestigial fashion whenever one person says of another that they "should have known" that someone was experiencing some unvoiced emotional distress.

Related to this are the beliefs that if something happens, it happens "for a reason" or because something has been done by someone; and that if one can imagine something being done, then it can be done. Thus the line between "realistic" fiction and fantasy fiction is particularly permeable: A fiction that described only characters who never lapsed into fantastic attributions of knowledge or agency to others, or beliefs about the possibilities of the world that were not consistent with fact, would be a fiction without emotion or conflict. The difference between fantasy fiction is that in literary realism, the fantastic is present but policed. Characters--and readers--are punished for holding to their fantasies, but only insofar as those fantasies do not correspond to those that are politically hegemonic at the moment of the fiction's articulation.

This is why it is anachronistic to refer to ancient myths, fairy or folk tales, or classics of religious fiction as "fantasy." When they were written, Prometheus Bound, The Mabinogion and Paradise Lost were no less realistic for their authors and intended audiences than the novels of Balzac and Tolstoy were in the 19th century. (It is also one of many reasons why "magical realism" is problematic as a genre label: The ways of life of subaltern peoples are stigmatized as "magic," while the alchemy of everyday life under the rule of capital presents itself as "realism.") The possibility of a cleavage between fantasy and realism first emerges with the Enlightenment. No wonder then that the earliest examples of fantasy fiction are associated with the Romantic movement. The ontologies of fantasy cluster around the thesis that "All things that can be imagined are possible." This is quite distinct from the thesis of horror ontologies, for which things are not as potentialities but as actualities, independent of their being known or even imagined.

Naïve fantasy selects a certain set of potentialities to present as actual, and develops from them a more or less richly imagined world. It does not discard the distinction between the imagined and the real, but plays with it much in the way that my five-year-old daughter employs the word "pretend," to signify something that exists not in a way that can be touched and seen in every day life but does exist insofar as it is elaborated in a daydream or a game. Thus, it is very unlikely that a piece of naïve fantasy will engage in the kind of ontological conflict that makes for the sort of fiction I most want to read. (That is not to say that it is not worth reading: It may be lushly written, with complex characters and interesting plots. For many readers--good readers--that is what they are looking for. It is not what I am looking for.)

The rupture between fantasy and realism resulting from the Enlightenment, however, has also made possible a kind of fantasy that operates in the subjunctive mode, under the standard of "as if". It estranges the reader from the expectations of realism in order to illuminate an aspect of present-day reality that otherwise could go unnoticed. Kafka's "Metamorphosis" is not describing a world in which young office workers transform overnight into hideous insects: If that were all it had done, it would be trite and dull. Yet I imagine that anyone who has once read that story, and then had to wake up in the morning to get ready for a particularly mind-numbing white-collar job, has imagined their thin legs waving in the air over their upturned, reddish-brown carapace. As Samuel R. Delaney wrote about science fiction, "It's a kind of writing that, at its best, can help you learn to ask questions". This suggests, therefore, that science fiction "at its best," is like this kind of subjunctive fantasy in some respects. There may well be other kinds of writing that have this property of helping one "learn to ask questions." If science fiction is distinguishable from subjunctive fantasy, either as a subtype or as a distinct genre, then the distinctions must be in the realm of ontology, and thus in the approach toward the questions.

It would be easy if we could delimit science fiction from fantasy if one could define science fiction as speculative fiction which "accepts the scientific world-view." The problem with this is that there is no such thing as a single scientific world-view. There are several world-views which are more or less compatible with scientific methods of investigation. For example, mathematical realism--the belief that mathematical concepts exist independently of the minds that comprehend them--is an example of the kind of metaphysical realism (Platonism) referred to above; it is commonplace among mathematicians and many theoretical physicists, yet could not be further from the pragmatism one finds among most practicing natural scientists, or the constructivism one is more likely to find among psychologists and neuroscientists. Toh Enjoe's Self-Reference Engine, which I reviewed a few months ago, is an excellent example of the type of fiction that can puts this sort of ontology into play, but it is far from the only kind of fiction which could be called science fiction.

Provisionally, I would say that science fiction is distinct from fantasy in that the delimitation of possible beings is accepted. It clusters not around the thesis that "all things that can be imagined are possible," but that "it is possible for things to be otherwise than they are." In the realm of ontology, this emerges historically in the form of the various polemics against Leibnitz's Theodicy and its theory that this is the "best of all possible worlds" because it is the only one. (I could therefore make a case for Voltaire's Candide as the urtext of science fiction. That would have to be a separate essay.) Possibilities are endless, but they are not limitless. One can reach for the stars, but one can not grasp them in one's hands. The space within which the fiction writer can work with possibilities is that in which scientific hypotheses remain contentious, subject to further testing and refinement. Note that this does not rule out the possibility of near-future or alternate-history science fictions: Since the sciences that attempt to explain human action and the development and change of societies are those that are least formalized, those in which hypotheses are most likely to be colored by ideology and data are most equivocal, one need not travel thousands of years and light-years away to elaborate other possibilities.

This is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of the subject--far from it--but a provocation to thought and debate. Think a bit on your favorite genre, writer or story, and think: Does it have a singular ontology, or does it set ontologies in conflict? How would you begin to articulate those ontologies?

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