Author: Andre Ling
Chapter 9 is a challenging and remarkable exploration of what Latour terms the beings of fiction. It is challenging, quite simply, because it demands that the reader accord reality to something so readily opposed to what is generally considered ‘real’ – and this entails a certain amount of conceptual acrobatics. It is remarkable because it purports to do for language, meaning and the symbolic what has just been done for nature; that is to reveal an amalgam and use Latour’s razor to separate out the different modes of existence that it conceals. In my view, it is, in a sense, one of the most important chapters of AIME. If you can go with it, your playing field just got very large indeed.
By now, readers will have understood the importance of prepositions, which indicate the orientation proper to a mode of existence; that give meaning, sense and direction to the trajectories we trace through networks of heterogeneous beings. Prepositions prime us to encounter beings in the correct mode, the mode that will allow those beings to be judged on their own terms, thereby avoiding category mistakes. It is not surprising if the mind boggles at sentences such as this: “in this inquiry, trajectory, being, and direction, sense, or meaning, are synonyms.” It is as though ontology and epistemology have collapsed into each other, which is not surprising if we remember that, for Latour, what are commonly referred to as objects and subjects are merely mutually-constituted opposing poles on a continuum fabricated through specific kinds of practice [REF]. However, we are also warned that “if everything makes sense, this does not mean that everything makes signs.” Sense corresponds to the trajectories of modes, whereas a sign would be a particular mode of meaning (i.e. existence) that would “form a sort of regional semiology and ontology proper to a particular mode.” It is with this in mind that Latour takes us on an adventure into the weird world of fictional beings. Doing so will entail a rejection of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities (the former essential to beings themselves, and supposedly knowable only through science, the latter experienced by the subject and lacking in objective reality). Similarly, the idea of a unified reality (the res extensa or nature) opposed to multiple divergent (“mental, social or collective”) representations (all restricted to a cordoned off world of language), will be revealed as a second-rate solution to a problem that demands more subtlety and nuance.
The term “beings of fiction”, Latour insists, “does not direct our attention toward illusion, toward falsity, but toward what is fabricated, consistent, real.” Rather than accept the position that fictions can only be “incapable of truth,” his inquiry proceeds by asking the opposite: what might, instead, make them capable of a their own particular truth. First, these beings must be granted a reality that is not merely ‘interior’, belonging to ‘imagination’ or the ‘suspension of disbelief’ inside “the human mind”. Rather, they must be shown to possess a certain exteriority, one that Latour aims to trace through an exploration of works of art, which “impose themselves on us after imposing themselves on those responsible for their instauration, for the latter are more like constituents than ‘creators’.” As opposed to mere products of imagination, we are told that beings of fiction “offer us imagination we would not have had without them” (emphasis mine). Rather than the painted canvas or a piece of music constituting a plane onto which subjectivity is projected, to fill it with meaning, “the work demands that they, insignificant amateurs, brilliant interpreters, or passionate critics, become part of its journey of instauration.” Such works “engender multiple subjectivities” but they also demand that we “learn how to make ourselves sensitive” to them. As such, works of art – which “populate the world” – require a certain subjective investment for them to attain their full existence:
“To say that beings of fiction populate the world is to say that they come to us and impose themselves, but with a particular wrinkle: as Souriau pointed out so rightly, they need our solicitude […] But if we don’t take in these beings, if we don’t appreciate them, they risk disappearing altogether. They have this peculiarity, then: their objectivity depends on their being reprised, taken up again by subjectivities that would not exist themselves if these beings had not given them to us. It’s weird, yes…”
To reveal the workings of these beings of fiction, Latour takes us on a whirlwind journey through the history, sociology and anthropology of art. What he finds remarkable is the manner in which these diverse fields of study have traced out the contours of works, sketched them out in all their detail. What we find is an almost endless network of materials and patrons and audiences and trends and venues and so on, with every detail adding to the richness of it.
With the first slice of the razor we grant fictions their own mode of existence. But we must continue wielding our razor if we are to distinguish this slippery mode from others. Like all modes, existence is the “extension” of a particular being, a prolongation of its “being”. But how are we to properly understand the persistence of beings of fiction? Here’s Latour:
“I suggest situating it, quite classically, in a new way of folding existents so as to make them the blueprint for a kind of expression that nevertheless cannot be detached from them, a mystery that the hackneyed theme of form and content signals but does not analyze.”
And so the “raw materials” can be made to produce something that is somehow folded in them. This folding of a being of fiction into its “ raw materials” is precisely what characterises all those technical beings [TEC.FIC] that we have populated our world with, from mobile phones to corkscrews. If we focus on the materials, we will never find the figure that (and I risk this word here) ’emerges’ from them. On the other hand, the figure cannot exist without these materials, and the price that must be paid for their preparation (exacted across extensive networks of heterogeneous beings).
This is invention, novelty locked up in funny little beings, fictions, that art sent out on a mission into the cosmos in search of a target they may never reach. Each little fictional being aimed at a something that might not have been there to continue the relay by means of which the figure can – in at least one sense – persist. These figures can be understood as ‘distributed materials’ that ‘hold together only as long as the disturbance continues’. It is by no means guaranteed, however, that the figure forms, that it works; there is a certain composite of the materials and the figure that is required for the figure to hold, for its truth to be expressed. On the other hand, all this depends critically on the manner in which the figure and its material are held together; the more strongly you hold it, the more strongly it will hold you.
And there is no ‘external judge’ at work here. Rather, “what is true verifies itself […] by a quite particular path of verification;” objective criteria cannot be established and yet all criteria can equally not be abandoned. Thus, those who would speak of the truth of the work discover themselves subject to its normative power, which it imposes on its constituents on its own terms and can, thereby, be prolonged a moment longer. But the work does more than that: it engenders them as audience and author alike.
Latour sums this point up like so:
“If we call the beings of fiction fictive or fictional, it is not because they are false, unreliable, or imaginary; it is, on the contrary, because they ask so very much from us and from those to whom we have the obligation to pass them along so they can prolong their existence. No other type of being imposes such fragility, such responsibility; no other is as eager to be able to continue to exist through the “we” whom they help to figure. In a sense, the beings of reproduction may be the ones they resemble the most [rep · fic]”
But perhaps what gives beings of fiction their true comeuppance is their promiscuity. Indeed, we would be short-changing ourselves if we kept fictions in isolation from the other modes. Indeed, fiction lends its curious powers of figurative communication to all the other modes and in doing so unleashes semiotized beings across all the modes. These beings of this mode
“… have a kind of ubiquity that allows all the other modes to figure their own reality for themselves. What fiction does for technology and metamorphoses—it folds and reprises them—will be done by all the other modes with the help of fiction. Without figurations, no politics is possible— how would we tell ourselves that we belong to any particular group? [FIC · POL]; no religion is possible—what face would we put on God, his thrones, his dominions, his angels and his saints? [FIC · REL]; no law is possible—fictio legis being indispensable to the daring passage of means [FIC · LAW]. Still, this doesn’t mean that we live in a “symbolic world”; it means, rather, that the modes lend one another certain of their virtues”
The fecundity of scientific invention can be linked to the crossing of beings of fiction and beings of reproduction (something Stengers traces in detail in Cosmopolitics II). “How can we speak about remote galaxies, particles of matter, upheavals of mountains, valleys, viruses, DNA or ribosomes without having at our disposal characters apt to undergo such adventures?” Indeed, “no science is possible, and especially no abstract science, unless the world is populated by these little beings capable of going everywhere, of seeing and submitting to the most terrible trials, in place of the researcher trapped in her body and immobilized in her laboratory.” But of course, in the case of ‘science’, these beings of fiction are required to “bring something back,” from their excursion. The data that is generated, for example, through some kind of experiment requires the fictional figure to faithfully hold it together in a coherent manner. It is for this reason that a scientific fiction (a factish?) can be said to be well made, or not. These beings work precisely because when they are sent off, they bring something back. Whereas the figures of science must return, there is not a similar need for those of fiction. However, there is nothing fundamentally different between the figures of science and the figures of fiction; they are just made to relay in different ways; they are made of the same stuff.
We are then redirected to a particular moment in the history of the moderns when perspective in European art enabled a (misguided) unification of what the artist and the scientist thought they were exploring i.e. a faithful representation of what is out there. Suddenly, science became correlated with the the idea of correspondence as the mimetic resemblance of a model and its copy such that “the real world, the one described by the sciences, then appears to bear an uncanny resemblance to the world depicted in paintings, in the sense that there is an original to describe and a copy that must be faithful to it.” Latour links this to one of the conditions for the notion of res extensa, “a fairly innocent misunderstanding about the crossing between fiction and reference, a scholarly enthusiasm originating in the arts.” Will electrons ever be the same again for me?
With things on one side and faithful copies on the other and no way to reconcile them we cannot discover the sense, or the mode of existence of a particular being – i.e. how it is prolonged. As Latour notifies us:
“To discover the sense is not in the first place to seek the connection between one word and another, but the connection between a word, a speech act, a course of action, and what must be put in its place if the latter are going to continue to have meaning, to make sense – that is, for them to continue to exist. Interpreting meaning is thus not to set aside all ontological questions while isolating the symbolic domain but on the contrary to take up the stray thread of ontology again.”
Perhaps, by now, that great big epistemological-ontological mash up that we noted at the start has been unravelled (at least a little), as we discover our entanglement in diverse modes of existence. And, as I gather Latour would have it, it is only a pluralist ontology that is capable of creating the continuous relays that constitute a trajectory made up of such heterogeneous modes of existence.
Otherwise we risk resting in a domain where the sign and the signified are destined to belong to utterly distinct domains or worlds. Worlds where words or symbols can only connect to other words or symbols, their relation to the ‘real world’ abandoned to obscurity or dismissed into non-existence. All of a sudden, the burden of all meaning, of all sense (and so, for Latour, all the burden of being) lies in an enclosure of words. In this sense, fictions have been expected to define all modes of meaning. This tendency is ‘a second best solution’. But, fortunately we can get out of this quagmire by recognising that we must not mistake one thing for another. For example, a being of fiction must not be confused with a being of reproduction. Instead, we are invited to understand the specific ontology of a being of fiction and the work that it does. After all, a sign only acquires and maintains its validity through it’s ability to establish a continuity between its predecessors and its successors. Just as it is despatched, so it must bring something back, or else it will fail. The nature of what is brought back and to which audience, however, will vary according to the nature of the being of fiction. Against a view that locates all relations inside the “human mind,” Latour proposes the existence of relations between diverse beings. As he insists, “it is the world itself that is articulated.” Our words are just associated with a fraction of these articulations. No doubt, we will need to learn to utter new words.
For, ultimately, it is the articulation of the world that demands our attention and requires that we move beyond the separation of the world into language or the symbolic on the one hand, and nature, matter or the real on the other. After all, it is the very real articulations of the world that we must grapple with, not just the words we have to describe them. A well crafted fiction may be able to bring back facts, but surely it can also conjure up figures – such as Gaia – that demand new modalities of attention, care and concern, new ways of inhabiting this slightly unsettling yet thoroughly exciting new/old world.
So where does this leave us? When I started out writing what turned out to be a rather lengthy summary, I found myself stuck on a phrase in which Latour described the impossibility of summarising a work of art without it losing its distinctive character. As I sought to shorten this chapter review, it struck me that this whole book I’m reading is ridden through and through with beings of fiction. My manner of prolonging it is also a transformation of it, and yet it persists. Have I undermined its distinctive character? Have I added to its texture? Does it still carry enough of itself to stay alive? Or is this one of those fictions that is destined to find no audience, or that will not make the relay? We have seen that while fictions possess their own unique mode of existence, none of the other modes could be what they are without their aid. Which led me to wonder: what would speculative philosophy be without its fictions? What “free and wild creation of concepts” (cf. Stengers’ Thinking with Whitehead) would be possible? The real question perhaps, in this collapsing world, is whether these fictions are up to the task of giving us a better grip. Perhaps we must learn to compose fictions that are up to the task of serving as faithful relays of the hidden articulations of reality – and while doing so, recognise that we are also composing an audience that must become sensitive to them.