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Science Fiction as Theory Fiction

What happens when fiction (itself) propagates, contaminating the Real?

—Mark Fisher[1]

The problem in any domain of culture—knowledge, morality, art—can be understood, as a whole, as the problem of the boundaries of that domain.

—Mikhail Bakhtin[2]

In Just Gaming, a series of conversations with Jean-Loup Thébaud, Jean-Francois Lyotard considers the gap between theory and fiction:

Is there a real difference between a theory and fiction? After all, don’t we have the right to present theoretical statements under the form of fictions, in the form of fictions? Not under the form, but in the form.[3]

Lyotard’s question is mostly rhetorical and yet shines a light on an issue that haunts the fraught space between theory and fiction. The issue is particularly salient when it comes to science fiction, a genre that is characterized by figuration, fabulation, and the production of concepts. The copula “science fiction” itself is oxymoronic: if theory offers us cognitive tools to process philosophical conundrums about the state, personhood, etc., then surely the fictional, at best, plays a minimal role in this process, perhaps as a kind of space of simulation, narrativity, and poesis. Yet both theory and fiction are forms of techné, and they operate in complementary ways as forms of knowledge production. In other words, the irony here is that the more we think about what distinguishes fictionality from theoretical speculation, the faster we begin to see how the one merges into the other, and it is science fiction, as a genre that reverses these codes, that provides us with a crucial tool: the productive entanglement of theory and fiction. What can be gained from reading speculative fiction as theoretical discourse and vice versa? Is it possible to conceptualize “theory fiction” as a genre, and if so, what can this new genre teach us about the aesthetics of modernity?

In order tackle these questions, the central organizing idea of the following remarks is that viewing the development of “theory fiction” as a subgenre of science or speculative fiction more broadly, through a global lens, uncovers an alternative genealogy of modernity. This essay begins with early examples of theory fiction in the twentieth century, such as W. B. Yeats’s A Vision and the works of Walter Benjamin. Following these writers, late modernists such as Jorge Luis Borges and Clarice Lispector amplified the possibilities of theory fiction as a form. Finally, the essay takes a look at the works of writers of theoretical and speculative fictions, such as Octavia Butler’s Dawn, Paul B. Preciado’s Testo Junkie, and lastly, Reza Negarestani’s “petro-fiction” Cyclonopedia. Recognizing theory fiction as a crucial development of modernity opens new ways of understanding not just science fiction but also the fraught line between theory, fiction, and speculation—the increasingly distorted border between fact and fiction.

Before delving into the subterranean modernist history of theory fiction, it is worth pausing here to consider a useful distinction between fictional works that use the garb of theory and theoretical texts that avail themselves with the possibilities of fiction, as elaborated by the late Fisher. Fisher identifies, firstly, fiction as theory, as fiction (or poetry) that “uses, or incorporates academic conventions” and cites that high modernist vade mecum The Waste Land and the postmodern academic pirouettes of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire; secondly, he considers theory as fiction and provides as examples Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard (Fisher, Flatline Constructs, 1, 2). “What is at stake here,” he writes of this secondary mode, “is more than the disguise of theory as fiction, or fiction as theory, but a dissolution of the opposition itself” (155–56).

Fisher’s distinction is not only a useful taxonomy but it also begins to unpack the idea of theory as a kind of speculative fiction. It is worth noting that the word theory itself is etymologically grounded on words we commonly associate with the science fictional endeavor: contemplation and speculation. More to the point, during the modern period, genres like theory and fiction become confused, and this leads to the creation of hybrid literary forms. To echo a key figure in the development of Fisher’s theory-fictional thinking, Jean Baudrillard, the task of thinking during modernity and postmodernity is marked by the transgression of boundaries and reversibility of codes—in this case the reversibility of theory and fiction.[4]

When it comes to the emergence of theoretical fictions, Baudrillard’s statement points us to the central role played by that genre of reversibility par excellence: science—or more broadly, speculative—fiction (SF). In synthesis, it would be impossible to recognize theory fiction as a genre without the crucial development of SF, and more importantly, SF has always already been theoretical. As Carl Freedman argues in “Science Fiction and Critical Theory,” “the conjunction of critical theory and SF is not fortuitous but fundamental.”[5] In Freedman’s Marxian analysis, utopian literature is a subgenre of SF (a concern that echoes Ernst Bloch’s utopian Marxism), and that links it—beginning with Thomas More—to a long line of speculative and theoretical writings. In a highly productive move, insofar as it anticipates the conceptual development of theory fiction, Freedman grants that while the writings of modernist writers like James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and even Sigmund Freud’s theoretical fictions could be considered SF, it was only possible to do so “until it was strongly embodied in a large amount of work explicitly published and marketed as SF” (189). Through a kind of retrospective reasoning, the identification of SF as genre in the second half of the twentieth century allows the critic to recognize science-fictional antecedents in the past (such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein).

A similar retrospective reasoning allows one to view speculative modernist and postmodernist texts (what we are calling here theory fictions) as a subgenre of SF: explorations and excavations of possible conceptual worlds. Ultimately, for Freedman, the “identity of the genre lies neither in chronology nor in technological hardware, but in the cognitive presentation of alternatives to actuality and the status quo” (197).

Born decades after the dawning of SF as a marketable genre, the current vogue of theory fiction can be traced back to the work of the “Cybernetic Culture Research Unit,” formed in the late 1990s at the University of Warwick (though it quickly parted ways with any semblance of institutional affiliation). As they write in their “Communiqué Two”:

To us it never seemed that the real articulacy of the left academic elites was in any way superior to the modes of popular expression which were either ignored or treated as raw material to be probed for a “true” (ideological meaning) by white middle-class intellectuals.[6]

The CCRU distanced itself from traditional modes of academic inquiry, advocating a form of theorization (“pulp theory/fiction hybrid”’) that blurs the line between theory and fiction, as well as the boundary between the real and imagined—a process they name “hyperstition,” broadly defined as “fictions that make themselves real,” and as “the use of signs to produce changes in reality” (35). More to the point, the CCRU nods elsewhere to Butler’s science fiction classic “Xenogenesis novels, for their tentacled aliens, gene traffic, and decoded sex” (10). It is therefore clear that science-fictional precursors are important to CCRU’s self-conscious conceptualization of theory fiction as form.[7]

Put another way, and this bears repeating, theory fiction is an inherently hybrid form, both aesthetically and chronologically. The elaboration of the genre, like SF itself, is born out of the retrospective logic of historical emergence: CCRU’s conceptualization of the genre of theory fiction allows one to see previous literary works as harbingers of the form itself. To write theory fiction is thus to embed oneself in a long genealogy of modernist and SF conceptual experimentation.

In a more recent elaboration of CCRU’s aesthetics vis-à-vis modernist literature, Amy Ireland considers Yeats’s occult system of gyres in A Vision—his hybrid blend of poetry and occult musings first published in 1925. Reading the system Yeats (and his fellow unnamed author, his wife George Yeats) created critically, Ireland analyzes it as a kind of early theory fiction. “Grasped from the outside,” Ireland writes, “the strange hydraulics of the gyres describe a fatalistic set of inversions and returns that ultimately furnish a rich resource for augury.”[8] The gyres are an archaic form at the heart of the modern, a trope in keeping with the anti-Enlightenment tendencies of high modernist poetics. Within modernity’s linear chronopolitics, the modernist writers often figured a regressive form: the spiral. Or in Ireland’s formulation:

The modernist imperative to “make it new” ostensibly refuses the closure and insulation against shock expressed by cyclicality . . . yet retaining archaic arrangements and betraying its prevalence in the popular imagination via the emergence of the time loop as a key archetypal trope in twentieth-century science fiction. (4)

This formulation names two urges: the modernist command to novel forms of perception, and the science fictional theorizations of temporal loops, the one collapsing on the other in what amounts to the central dialectic at the heart of modernity. In the work of a canonical modernist poet like Yeats, one finds an arcane system, and more importantly, the hybridity, and chronological tensions, that are at the heart of SF and theory fiction.

The lens of theory fiction also affords a novel way of reading the literary output of Benjamin, one of the most enigmatic modernists of the early twentieth century. His theory fictions might be said to be philosophical and theological documents where it is not altogether clear where the boundary between the two ultimately lies. We might call these theoretical fictions “modernist mythologies,” insofar as such a thing is possible in interwar Europe. The fictional drive of his endeavor is sometimes there in the surface, such as in his One-Way Street and his unpublished Berlin Childhood memoir. But can we gain something if we consider a famously abstruse text like “On the Concept of History” to be a theory fiction, or even science fictional, in however vague a form? While “On the Concept of History” is an excavation and critique of modernist historiography, the angel of history, whose face is turned toward the past, is nonetheless driven by a “storm [which] drives him irresistibly into the future.”[9] One would be hard-pressed to find a more eloquent image for the science-fictional enterprise, a textual endeavor that faces the past even as it tries to imagine the future.

Benjamin’s text famously begins with a theory fiction of sorts: the play of the puppet and the dwarf. For Rolf Tiedemann, it is perhaps this tension between these two images that colors the entirety of Benjamin’s influential reflection. Tiedemann writes:

The stigma of philosophical language, which since Aristotle has almost always been a language of concepts is that it does not extend to mimesis. Images, on the other hand, to the extent they were admitted into philosophy at all, attempt to make direct use of mimesis. Naturally, they thus take on the concomitant risk of ambiguity.[10]

Here we have yet another way of conceptualizing theory fiction: as a text that transforms mimesis into concepts and vice versa. Or put another way, theory fiction collapses and thereby straddles the line between metonymy and metaphor.[11] It is this very razor edge along which Benjamin’s philosophy moves, as well as his fiction.

Toward the end of the third chapter of his dizzying text, The Rings of Saturn (which itself can be considered a sort of theory-fictional travelogue) W. G. Sebald includes a scintillating commentary on Borges’s deeply enigmatic tale, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” After recalling a disturbing event in which he sees a couple having sex on the beach, “like some great mollusk washed ashore . . . to all appearances a single being, a many limbed, two-headed monster,” Sebald’s narrator launches his readers into a detailed description of Borges’s text.[12] Since “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is itself concerned with the effects of mirroring and mirror worlds, Sebald’s inclusion creates a mise en abyme or nesting effect in the very structure of his narrative. In a move that echoes the copulating couple, Sebald’s narrator recalls the mysterious remark evoked by Borges’s counterpart in “Orbis Tertius,” Bioy Casares: “the disturbing thing about mirrors, and also the act of copulation, is that they multiply the number of human beings.” While it is “unclear whether Uqbar ever existed,” the fictional “Tlön” becomes progressively more real in Borges’s story, devouring the so-called real world: “already the history of Tlön has superseded all that we formerly knew or thought we knew; in historiography, the indisputable advantages of a fictitious past have become apparent. Almost every branch of learning has been reformed” (69–71).

Purportedly found only in Casares’s copy of the Anglo-American Cyclopedia, the entry “Uqbar” is in many ways at the center of Borges’s story. With this gesture, Borges draws a scission between the “real” world of Buenos Aires in 1935 and the fictional world of Tlön. In other words, Borges’s short story is a theory fiction tout court. This is hardly surprising, considering the speculative bent of the Argentinean writer’s oeuvre. Not only are Borges’s story usually structured as fictional documents, but a number of his paradoxical little tales (“On Exactitude in Science,” “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” and “The Garden of Forking Paths”) have also been used by countless philosophers and theoreticians, like Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, among others.

Borges’s works are in many ways a sample of what is a deep tradition of speculative fiction, the wondrous, the fantastic, and the theory-fictional in Latin America. Beyond the influence of writers of the “wondrously real” like Alejo Carpentier, one might characterize Lispector’s novels as “science fictions of the soul.” The real mystery at the heart of Lispector’s “meta-novels” is the disappearance of being: they stage the theoretical struggle of a subjective voice as it struggles to define itself in a metaphysically veiled world. As philosophico-fictional hybrids, texts like The Passion According to G.H. and Agua Viva in many ways augment the boundaries of both theory and fiction. In the words of Fisher, literature like Lispector’s “passes from a concern with unreliable narrators and partial perspectives, to a thematics that centers upon fiction itself and its ability to construct worlds” (Flatline Constructs, 148). Agua Viva is a particularly vibrant example of this tendency. Populated only by a voice sending missives to an estranged lover, Lispector’s text gravitates around its narrator’s search for what she mysteriously calls the instant, or “it.” In a passage that veers from the sacred to the profane, Lispector’ narrative voice writes to her addressee:

A fantastic world surrounds me and is me. I hear the mad song of a little bird and crush butterflies between my fingers. I am a fruit eaten away by a worm. And I await the orgasmic apocalypse . . . In this dense jungle of words that thickly wrap around whatever I feel and think and live and transform everything I am into something of mine that nonetheless remains entirely outside me. I am watching myself think. What I wonder is: who is it in me who is even outside of thinking.[13]

Not only does this passage exemplify the overall tone of Lispector’s prose, but more importantly it also highlights the self-consciousness of a text that travels in and out of theory and fiction, as if gasping for air. In her search for this “outside,” the narrator of Agua Viva invites readers to truly contemplate the hyperreal and the almost unimaginable weirdness of being alive, the uncanniness of writing and thinking.

Beyond Latin America, the genealogy of theory fiction is a truly global affair. For instance, the aforementioned (and hugely influential) Dawn by Butler, Samuel R. Delany’s exploration of a multigender future in Trouble in Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia, and more recently, Preciado’s Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, as well as the philosopher Rena Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials are singular cases. For starters, Dawn and Trouble in Triton are particularly prescient in the way they tackle issues like transspecies forms of belonging and the relation between power, gender, and sexuality. “Being-ness” is transient in these fictional universes, in a way that anticipates contemporary concerns about genetic manipulation and personhood.

While not strictly in the same science-fictional line as these novels, Preciado’s Testo Junkie, with its combination of gender theory and autofiction, is nonetheless a theory fiction that tackles similar themes: namely transgender sexuality, as well as power and knowledge structures, as it explores contemporary sexual politics, in both theory and practice. “This book is not a memoir,” Preciado writes in the introduction. “This book is a testosterone-based, voluntary intoxication protocol, which concerns the body and effects of BP [Preciado first published the work under the name “Beatriz Preciado”]. A body-essay. Fiction, actually. If things must be pushed to the extreme, this is a somato-political fiction.”[14] Veering in between chapters that detail the narrator’s body’s transformation under the effects of testosterone and illuminating asides on the history of twentieth-century sexuality and its distinct Foucaldian regimes, Preciado’s text becomes a veritable theory fiction of the self: “The body no longer inhabits disciplinary spaces but is inhabited by them . . . This moment contains all the horror and exaltation of the body’s political potential” (79).

And it is explicitly to the relation between horror, or rather abstract horror, and theory fiction to which we now turn. In what is perhaps the most famous or infamous theory fiction of contemporary culture, Negarestani’s  Cyclonopedia is a deeply hybrid work—it is heteroglossic as Bakhtin would say—dealing with the geopolitics of oil, with what the texts calls “Hidden Writing” and with the Outside: the horror of the outside, “an openness in the sense of being laid, cracked, butchered open”[15] As a petrofiction, the text is a “found text” insofar as the work’s female protagonist has been invited by “Reza Negarestani” to Istanbul, where she finds more questions than answers: the manuscript of a supposedly deranged scholar—Hamid Parsani—whose main thesis concern is to describe oil as a sentient entity. Adding a layer of hyperreality to the proceedings, Negarestani includes references to what once was a real site on the internet, “Hyperstition Abstract Dynamics.” We read, for instance that “Parsani’s manuscript evoked a feverish excitement in Hyperstition’s laboratory as the discovery of these notes on the cross of Akht . . .  coincided with one of Hyperstition’s theoretico-fictional projects” (15). It is hard to do justice to the complex labyrinth of Cyclonopedia. Suffice it to say that it is a work that coils back in on itself and that coaxes its readers into complicity. Consider the text’s discussion on exhumed demons and xenolithic artifacts as Cyclonopedia’s ars poetica: “Autonomous, sentient and independent of human will, their existence is characterized by their forsaken status, their immemorial slumber and their provocatively exquisite forms” (223n4).

The alternative genealogy of modernity and speculative fiction I have sketched above allows one to see aesthetics and mimesis as the shadowy doubles of conceptual arrangements and to grasp that it is theory fiction—as a hybrid genre—that brings this relation from out of the shadows. Theory fiction stays with the trouble of the fictional and fills the empty forms of the conceptual—it gives them relief.

In closing, theory fiction is global not only in the sense that it is being, and has been, practiced all over the world and in disparate literary traditions but also because these texts are “worldly” insofar as they dismantle the divide between thinking and figuration. As Negarestani explains, “Philosophy is . . . a recipe to construct otherworlds,” and its task is that of “revealing new world-versions and life-forms.”[16] These authors invite us to contemplate and speculate—to theorize—the fictions that structure conceptual arrangements and to think about new ways of seeing the world through radically hybrid forms. If it was once possible to imperiously delimit, on the one hand, the Anglo-European tradition as the site of thinking and philosophy and on the other, the Global South as the space of fantasy and fabulation, theory fiction dismantles this reductive framework. Furthermore, while chronology often structures how we think about aesthetic exchange between centers and peripheries, and while modernist forms often haunt the aesthetics of the Global South, this hybrid conceptualization of theory fiction is a practice aimed at decentering the history of literary modernism. From modernist speculation to hybrid postcolonial texts, theory fiction flattens hierarchical cartographies. Through this melding of metaphor and concept, theory fiction produces new schemes as well as novel ways of thinking planetarity, the global, and the infinite task of possible worlds.

Notes

[1] Mark Fisher, Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction (New York: Exmilitary Press, 2018), 138.

[2] Mijail Bajtin, Teoría y Estética de la Novela, trans. Helena S. Kriúkova and Vicente Cazcarra (Madrid: Taurus, 1975), 30. Translation mine.

[3] Jean-François Lyotard and Jean-Loup Thébaud, Just Gaming, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 5.

[4] Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication, trans. Bernard Schütze and Caroline Schūtze (South Pasadena, CA: Semiotex(e)), 67–68.

[5] Carl Freedman, “Science Fiction and Critical Theory,” Science Fiction Studies 14, no. 2 (1987): 180–200, 182.

[6] CCRU, CCRU: Writings 1997–2003 (Falmouth, MA: Urbanomic, 2017), 9.

[7] For an ecumenical and extensive—though by no means exhaustive—list of texts one might consider to be theory fictions, see Gregory Marks, “A Theory-Fiction Reading List,” List,”https://thewastedworld.wordpress.com/2018/11/03/a-theory-fiction-reading-list/.

[8] Amy Ireland, “The Poemenon: Form as Occult Technlogy,” Urbanomic 2017, https://www.urbanomic.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Urbanomic_Document_UFD027.pdf, 3.

[9] Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in Selected Writings, Vol. 4 1938–1940, trans. Harry Zohn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 392.

[10] Rolf Tiedemann, “Historical Materialism or Political Messianism?: An Interpretation of the Theses ‘On the Concept of History,’” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith, trans. Barton Byg, Jeremy Gaines, and Doris L. Jones. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1989), 175–209, 177.

[11] I am indebted to Adam Stock for this point.

[12] W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, trans. Michael Hulse (New York: New Directions Books, 1998), 68.

[13] Clarice Lispector, Agua Viva, trans. Stefan Tobler (New York: New Directions Books, 2012), 60.

[14] Beatriz Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era (New York: Feminist Press, 2013), 12.

[15] Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (Melbourne: re.press, 2008), 120.

[16] Reza Negarestani, “The Human Re-cognized, the Lifeform Re-made,” Parasol 5-Zones (2021) https://centreforexperimentalontology.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/parasol-5.1.pdf, 50.