The Structure of Fiction and the Emergence of the Other-Than
IN THIS ARTICLE
In this essay, I will analyze the structure of fiction, arguing that this structure is a duality that rests upon a spirit that defines and propels fiction in reality. This spirit, which I refer to as the Other-than, is the metaphysical embodiment of radical change that seeks to emerge in reality. The structure by which this spirit of fiction emerges, however, depends on two components- the Imaginative and the Written. The Imaginative is the divided and individuated form of the Other-than that is imbued within each work of fiction and is therefore incapable of ideological influence; the Written, as inherently ideological, is the form through which the Imaginative is made intelligible. I argue that together, these two form an antagonistic relation in which one, the Written, envelops the Imaginative and thus regulates and suppresses the radicality fundamental to the spirit of fiction. This necessarily produces escapism, which is the ideological output and interpretation of fiction. However, this suppression is never completely successful, and I lastly argue that the individual experiences the sublime when she connects with the Other-than, merging her very being with the Other-than and thus producing inspiration, which is necessary to bring about the Other-than in reality and combat the many problems of capitalism that ideology attempts to deny.
It is an understandable result that fiction, when defined, often derives its existence from its opposition to nonfiction. This opposition- the supposed polarity between fiction and nonfiction- reflects the deeper, more fundamental categories of the imaginary and the real.1 This dichotomy seems to suffice as the foundation for theoretical analyses in a variety of fields regarding fiction. For example, a fictional piece can be defined as “one in which the characters, places, events, objects, and actions referred to are fictional rather than real” (Sageng et al. 187), which essentially reinforces this opposition. However, such definitions, although sufficient for expositions in which the actual nature of fiction is immaterial, fails quite spectacularly when further scrutiny is warranted.
Thus, we come to the purpose of this paper in the form of a simple- but profound- question: what does fiction entail and what is its structural composition? While the question regarding what fiction is is outside the purview of this essay, it is crucial that we first define what differentiates fiction from nonfiction. As Gregory Currie (1990) puts it, any theory of fiction:
To this end, nonfiction can be defined as any account of the objective. In other words, nonfiction attempts to faithfully reproduce events that happened or elucidate concepts attached to reality. It is in this sense that nonfiction can be categorized by its adherence to history; through this, nonfiction necessarily presupposes the legitimacy of the past.2 However, this dependence on history also entails that nonfiction is tightly controlled and regulated in a manner that ensures the ontological state of nonfiction. It is in this sense that nonfiction has an obsession with that which already is- it has an obsession with the real. History, by definition, firmly defines nonfiction by cementing the existence and subsequent succession of events as forever certain.3
Given this inherent dependency, it would seem then that fiction is contrasted and defined, not merely in its antithetical stance to nonfiction, but in its rejection of the ontologically certain. In other words, fiction exists in an antagonistic relation to history; inherent to fiction is the outright rejection of the ontological through its utter incompatibility with the past. From this we see human creativity in full display and varying degrees of attachment to the world, from realistic works that could easily happen (but nevertheless reject the past and therefore the present to a degree) to speculative fantasies that seek to fully sever themselves from any semblance of reality.
However, another question arises from this concept of fiction, namely from what fiction derives its existence. Nonfiction, with its adherence to ontological certainty, derives itself from the history of reality and its subsequent manifestations in the form of facts. Thus, fiction cannot emerge from the same source as nonfiction; it must be elsewhere. Certainly, it could be said that one influences the other (historical and realist fiction comes to mind), yet this mutual influence should not be conflated for a mutual source. For no matter how much a work of fiction seeks to emulate reality, it must always contain something intrinsically different that keeps it contained within the realm of fiction- there is a difference between historical fiction and a history textbook.
Furthermore, if nonfiction and fiction are inherently anathema, then it must also be the case that the sources of each exist in polarity as well. Thus, given this structure, I will investigate in the next section the structure of fiction by first defining and expanding on the spirit that exists in fiction in the form of the Other-than. Next, I will argue that fiction is composed of two essences due to the ascendency of ideology in the modern world- the Imaginative and the Written- that together produce works of fiction that are inherently contradictory and antagonistic. Moreover, I focus on the disparate power of the Written, which, through the ascendency of ideology and the means by which it shapes reality, regulates fiction so as to produce escapism. Lastly, I will focus on the sublime, or the direct product of the Other-than and the individual that occurs within the process of engaging with and experiencing fiction.
The source of fiction exists where certainty does not- it lies outside the bounds of history. This is not to say that fiction and nonfiction exist in a strictly defined duality that is defined in its strict rejection of the other. On the contrary, fiction cannot exist in strict separation from the nonfictional, for its comprehensibility is largely based on our ability to understand it. This epistemological connection necessarily stems from our own understanding of the world through our experiences in it. That being said, it is far too often the case that the ontology of fiction is directly and haphazardly explained away in its relation to reality, invariably conflating the existence of fiction with its reference to nonfictional entities. This conflation produces a wildly inaccurate picture in which fiction derives its existence purely in its opposition to history. In this sense, fiction lacks much of its creative and explanatory force, acting as a category which is defined not by the presence of anything but rather in the absence of ontological certainty- its entire existence is merely the negation of certainty. This certainly does not seem to be the case, for fiction is often conceived as the product of a purposefully creative effort. I therefore posit that the nature of fiction- that which makes fiction fiction- stems from its rejection of history through its source: the Other-than.
By the Other-than, I am referring to the spirit which resides in fiction and carries with it the radical possibility to change the current state of existence. All works that are fictional share at least one general trait in that they must reject the ontological certainty that is the fundamental characteristic of reality. In other words, all fiction must be open to some degree of subjective interpretation which necessarily arises from this rejection. As Jonathan Culler explains:
Given the rejection of ontological certainty characteristic of the real, it would seem then that the inherent structure of fiction is incomplete in that multiple interpretations of a work of fiction seek to become the interpretation of that particular work. However, in this state the work is immune to ideology and its subsequent domination precisely in the sense that the work is not a work of fiction with a specific interpretation but rather works of art with multiple interpretations- the work is in the process of becoming rather than being. Invariably, however, a particular interpretation of a work of fiction indeed comes to dominate the discourse, and the interpretation, which was once a manifestation of the Other-than, becomes “real” in the sense that it is rigidly structured and therefore incapable of the dynamism inherent to fiction. It becomes inoffensive and conducive to the current socioeconomic order and thus becomes incorporated in reality as another means of reproducing ideology.
The Other-than presents itself as this incompleteness in fiction. Yet, it cannot actualize itself in the world alone, for it lacks such interpretive power. In this sense the agent is imbued with the tremendous responsibility of injecting herself into the work of fiction; fiction can be “completed” and bring about the emergence of the Other-than in the world only through the concerted actions of agents. Interpretations are the crucial means whereby works of fiction are either acceptable to the current order or radical in its rejection of it and are, therefore, indicative of different worlds, each of which compete with the status quo that defines the actual reality.
These different worlds of fiction therefore are necessarily presupposed by the Other-than, for it is only through reference to this essence that fictional worlds become possible in the first place. Yet, this would mean that the Other-than cannot be said to be materialist by nature, for materialism is the embodiment of ontological certainty in which the Other-than cannot exist. Rather, in its constitution in which it contains infinite possibilities of radically different worlds the Other-than entails a metaphysical essence- one that denies the certainty of reality through its literal separation from it. This rejection is imperative, for it is through a constant set of certainties that ideology flourishes and takes hold. By declaring fiction to be a manifestation of materialist derivation fiction is necessarily placed firmly within the world and thus loses any possibility to criticize and assess it. In other words, if fiction is from the world, then it necessarily contains ontological certainty within it. This certainty does not necessarily mean that every fictional entity or concept exists in reality. However, it does mean that such entities are ontologically structured and silenced by a reality which grants it ontological status in its very rejection of its existence.
Of course, this answer will prove to be rather controversial, as most, if not all, will argue that there simply is no need to develop a theory of fiction based on a reliance on metaphysics. For example, a popular theory, which Currie refers to as the pretense theory, places the debate regarding fiction in the purely linguistic intentions of the author:
This view is supported by many scholars, including John Searle, who writes that the author engages in a “nondeceptive pseudoperformance which constitutes pretending to recount to us a series of events...the author of a work of fiction pretends to perform a series of illocutionary acts, normally of the representative type” (325). However, proponents of the pretense theory place far too much importance on language and the intentions behind them, failing to take into account the means by which ideology reproduces itself through language and placing far too much stock in the assumption that language is neutral in terms of its origins and uses. As Louis Althusser (2001) states:
Thus, language is a means by the dominant class to exploit workers by producing a consistent standard that is the status quo. Athusser (and his inspiration Lacan) thus assert that language cannot merely be assumed to be a tool, regardless of importance or relevance. Rather, we must be wary of the use of language as a form of domination, and any analysis that accepts this presupposition must itself be critically analyzed. Fortunately, my theory does not assume what pretense theorists do, placing the foundation in the realm of the metaphysical and thus, placing it outside of the bounds of language and therefore ideological control. Certainly, it is true that the means through which the Other-than emerges is inherently ideological, yet the placing of fiction in the metaphysical means that the source of fiction is beyond ideology and therefore can be a source for genuine human liberation. Lastly, this is not an argument against the content of the argument and its merits as a theory, but I believe that the pretense theory and its adherents suffer from a dispositional bias against metaphysical notions, making it highly unlikely that any would entertain the notion that any sort of spirit or being would manifest itself in and through fiction.
The Structure of Fiction
As the bridge, fiction has two components to it. Much like the Cartesian dualism (1993) that has influenced philosophy for centuries, fiction itself is composed of two essences- the Imaginative and the Written. The bifurcated structure of fiction is largely due to the nature of fictional content, which always refers to a world other than the one we have now.
The Imaginative is said to be the Other-than of a particular fictional work: the compromised form of the Other-than in reality. The Imaginative is the individualized embodiment of the Other-than in each and every fictional piece. It is important to note that this individualization is due to the utter domination of ideology in constructing reality. The Other-than cannot simply emerge in toto because ideology dictates that it must be in order to exist at all. This necessity for ontological definition comes in the form of language. Indeed, it is only through language- through which the Other-than becomes structured- that any concept can be made intelligible at all. Yet, ideology can be assured of its own existence only insofar as the words used signify some sort of ontological certainty; whether they refer to things that are actually possible is immaterial. It is due to this that fiction for the most part is quite compatible with reality. For in this form, fiction is simply an extension of reality itself, albeit one that does not constitute the same ontological necessity as reality, and the division between fiction and the “real world” is merely illusory.
However, the introduction of the Imaginative does little to solve the problem regarding ideology, namely how it is possible for the Other-than, in the form of the Imaginative, to emerge in the world. As previously mentioned, the Other-than cannot simply materialize in reality- it can only do so through a structured and structurizing medium. It is precisely to this concern that we must examine the Written.
By the Written I mean the means whereby fiction presents itself in the world. The Imaginative may produce the spirit that is inherent to all works of fiction, but it is the Written that acts as the corporeal body through which that very spirit seeks to emerge. However, to say then that the Written is also derived from the Other-than is misleading at best, for the Written always already is. As the Written partakes in the need for ontological certainty through both function (as a vehicle for fiction) and form (the type of vehicle for fiction), it is itself beholden, not to the Other-than, but to ideology. If the Imaginative represents fiction’s antagonism to ideology, the Written represents its acceptance of it. Whereas the Imaginative contains the essence of the Other-than that is not susceptible to ideology, the Written, as ontologically dependent on and structured by ideology, pertains to the structure through which the Other-than presents itself to reality.
In this manner, the Written acts as both the cause and effect of ideology, seeking to ensure that the Imaginative is always diluted in its radical nature. In other words, the Written seeks to constantly dominate the Imaginative through the rigid enforcement of the boundaries separating the world of the Imaginative from reality. Accordingly, the Written, whether through speech or physical media, takes full advantage of the restrictions imposed on the Imaginative by relegating the Imaginative to the space strictly within itself. Thus, the work of fiction is “contained” within the Written and therefore requires nothing outside of itself to be meaningful. It is in this sense that fiction needs only to refer to itself. For example, take the notion of a fictional book. It certainly can be said that the book is nothing more than a collection of paper with words that together produce a delightful story to be enjoyed. However, once we take the actions imposed on the reader physically (flipping the pages, reading in a certain manner, etc.) and structurally (for example, having the ability to stop reading and “pick off” where you left off at a later time), we begin to see that these actions are highly unnatural and are therefore to be contrasted with reality and the natural. In this manner, the Written constantly reminds the reader that the work of fiction is not real and, in doing so, denies power to the Imaginative and the subsequent possibility for the reader to be inspired to act.
The consequence of the Written’s domination of the Imaginative is that this very domination is seen as a natural element of fiction as escapism. Escapism as defined by Merriam-Webster is the “habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine” (emphasis mine). Through its escapist characteristic, fiction plays the crucial role of allowing the contradictions of capitalism to not only exist, but to exist as a fundamental truth. Rather than the political and social agitation that societies would surely face in the light of these utter contradictions as Marx had predicted, fiction has allowed the disaffected masses the means of another alternative- the means of escaping reality rather than changing it.
By removing the individual from the collective consciousness, even if only temporarily, fiction has perverted the Other-than by settling for its emergence, not in the realm of the current reality, but in the world of the purely nonreal. Insofar as the Other-than is in this imaginative realm,w the contradictions which Marx stipulated would force the overthrow of the bourgeoisie are contained and even allowed to flourish, for the unquestioned ascendency of the Written and the imposition of boundaries ensure that these contradictions of capitalism have no means of emerging in reality. In fact, escapism in fiction delegitimizes any attempt to translate the Other-than in the world precisely due to the forced coupling of the Imaginative with the imaginary, tantalizing the reader with the Other-than while simultaneously reminding her that this Other-than is simply not real. It is, after all, “only” fiction. Thus, the dominance of the Written produces escapism, which in turn produces a disembodied reaction in which agents lack the power to act meaningfully in order for the Other-than to emerge in the world. They thus reject the power of the Other-than and enthusiastically accept and encourage the highly ideological structure of fiction to the extent that one expects a fictional work to be escapist. Through this “manufacturing of consent'' (Heywood 1994), fiction is stripped of its radical vestiges and clothed in the inoffensive garment of the already-accepted.
The Written structuralizes the Other-than, providing the means whereby the Other-than emerges in the world. However, no aspect of the Written, in its various manifestations is ironclad- it is not a law. No work of fiction, no matter how well it can be made tame through its structuring, is capable of completely masking the Other-than, for by its very nature of depending on things outside of our reality the Written cannot completely cover up the Other-than.4 In this manner, fictional entities and concepts are in a rather convoluted position in reality; in its quest for certainty fictional units must necessarily be defined (that is, made singular and thus capable of definition in relation to other entities) alongside the nonfictional. This is the main mechanism of ideological control and regulation of the Other-than once it emerges: fiction and those which dwell within it are subject to definition, but in a manner that is wholly consistent with ideological certainty. Thus, these entities are defined, but never in a manner that exposes their radical nature. They are mitigated and portrayed as nonsensical, a distinction that itself implies that the Other-than is anathema to the work of “serious social activists.” All too quickly, humiliation replaces inspiration.
The Written thus has two objectives that it accomplishes as the result of its very existence: to ensure that fiction is structured and thus always reliant on ideology to shape and define it and to ensure that the Imaginative is always restrained and curtailed. The Written has the greatest potency and influence on fiction that is especially designed to be a form of entertainment and nothing other than that. Trashy romance novels and hyperbolic spy thrillers happen to come to mind. However, even in these forms the Imaginative is still present- there is a direct connection to the Other-than, albeit weak to the point of near extinction.
It should be noted that the Imaginative and the Other-than are not synonymous- the structure of fiction must necessarily include an Other-than that is only a fractional and fragmented representation of itself through the Imaginative. Thus, each work of fiction, although itself embodying the spirit of the Other-than, is nevertheless limited, both in power and ability. And alone, a work is quickly engulfed by the Written: it fails to stand against its own structuring and eventually collapses in itself and transforms into a work devoid of the Other-than; it has turned into an ideological asylum. Thus, the Imaginative, although powerful due to what it represents, is nevertheless limited by the individuation of ideology. A work of fiction is, after all, a work of fiction and not the work of fiction; the Imaginative represents the limitations imposed on literature by an ideology that reproduces itself through the individuation of objects. Literature, as a presence in the world, must accept this limitation in the form of the Imaginative.
Thus, the Written is inherently rational, structuring itself according to the dominant socioeconomic narrative. In doing so, a strict dichotomy emerges which seeks to separate the world of facts (the objective) from the world of fiction. In this sense the word fiction itself seems to imply a negative connotation, one that implies an individual’s flight from reality and thus, impractical and unhelpful. This connotation is certainly not a coincidence- ideology demands certainty of being, whether in function or form. As the Other-than is never structured, it can never be regulated and defined by the institutions and mechanisms of ideology. The domination of the Written leads exclusively to escapism, in which the Other-than becomes imprisoned and confined to the story itself. Rather than cementing that important connection between the Other-than and reality, escapism circumvents this relation by severing the individual’s ties with reality, so that she may “get lost” in the stories in which she wishes herself to be a part. In doing so, the reader is not so much combatting ideology than acquiescing to its dominance, and the Other-than loses the means of actualization.
This acquiescence comes in the form of self-deception, or the subconscious control of ideological domination in the form of self-regulation. As John Longeway (1990) states:
Thus, escapism provides the ultimate means of repressing the Other-than and the possibilities inherent to fiction. It is in this manner that ideology operates both within fiction through its very structure as well as without through the psychological and phenomenological repression of the individual.
On the Sublime
At this point, one might reasonably wonder how the Other-than can emerge in the world at all, given the supreme position of the Written in structuring and mitigating every means through which it can emerge. In fact, it would seem that Written produces fictional works with ontological certainty to the extent that the line between fiction and nonfiction would have to be removed and redefined. Yet, it should be noted that the Written, although dominating, is not omnipotent; it is not capable of guaranteeing the subordination of the Imaginative through the simple fact that the Written (and ideology) is incapable of penetrating the realm of the Imaginative (and Other-than). It is true that ideology can minimize the possibility of contact with the Other-Than by individualizing the Other-than in the form of the Imaginative, yet it can never dictate the essence that is inherent to fiction. Thus, ideology can, at best, only establish the improbability of the emergence of the Other-than, not its negation, and it is through this improbability that the reader can encounter the Other-than by experiencing the sublime.
The sublime is the result of one’s seeing through the cracks of the Written and making that emotionally unsettling connection with the Other-than. In other words, it is the utter yearning for the actualization of the fictional narrative in reality. In this sense the sublime is a pure sensation, always affective by nature and therefore incontrovertibly inexpressible. This utter yearning is itself a desire ontological in nature, for through such a yearning the current reality is made unpalatable. The sublime thus brings about dissatisfaction with the current state of reality- a dissatisfaction with ideology. This dissatisfaction assumes the form of a rupture in which the individual realizes the inherent flaws in the current reality and forces one to ask why things are the way they are and what the world could be.5 In other words, the sublime brings about a deep desire- rooted in ontology itself- to produce a world other than the one at present. It is in this sense that the sublime is the main vehicle through which the Other-than forces itself in direct confrontation with ideological reality.
However, the sublime, although powerful and raw in its exposure to the reader, is itself hindered due its lack of structure. As it is affective, the sublime can never be concretized, either as a theory or a concept, but neither can it be conveyed to others. It is a purely subjective experience, one that demands the totality of the individual but never through the collective. This explains why it is that fictional works engender such varied individual emotional responses rather than a collective agreement. Yet, in a rather ironic sense, this very subjectivity inherently hinders the ability of the sublime to be collectively experienced. In other words, the sublime, although itself free from the totalizing effects of language, faces the inability of itself to be known through social relations, a problem that the Other-than can overcome.
Thus, yearning that the sublime entails manifests solely in individuals in a variety of manners as a direct result of the subjective experience of the sublime, some more keen on acting on their experience with the sublime than others. These individuals, the Inspired, are acting on their experience precisely because they must act on it, for the sublime- in its inherent connection with being- threatens to dissipate the moment it is experienced. As mentioned earlier, the Other-than can only exist in the world in a fleeting instance, for as soon as it emerges it must be structured in order to be understood.
The lack of structure means that the Imaginative can only be conveyed through a specific sensation- the feeling of the sublime. The Imaginative is utterly affective, and can never be conveyed, for in doing so the sublime becomes structured and thus the sublime collapses into mere emotions; given these limitations, the sublime is content with the experience of itself. By itself, the sublime is the purest expression of the Other-than, and thus the sublime can be characterized by the pure and utter necessity of the individual to act on the experience of the sublime. For the sublime strikes at the very heart of being, and the failure to act would mean the negation of being itself- death. The nature of the Other-than, if taken in its entirety, is the total and utter rejection of reality in favor of a new reality- one that embodies the Other-than in its purest and most unadulterated form. This new reality is utterly incapable, however, for to even imagine it would be to taint such purity with the remnants of the current world: this reality is always precluded by language.
The American Writer David Foster Wallace once said in an interview that “...good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable” (Zahl). A little later, Wallace elaborated:
What Wallace was referring to can be conceptualized as the Other-than- that fiction which allows for the deeply spiritual connection between the individual and the possibilities that can only be brought about through her. In so many ways, fiction holds the key in refuting the supposedly ironclad and “natural” logic of ideology. As I have argued, fiction holds such power in the form of the sublime, which inspires the individual in profound and truly radical ways. In doing so, the individual inexorably transcends the reality of ideology through the Other-than, and thus helps to bring about a world that is immeasurably better than the one we currently have.
Thus, we see fiction as something more than a simple categorization of “real” and “imaginary.” Through the Other-than, we find that the dichotomy is actually more akin to a conflict within the real, in which the reality we currently live with and the possibilities inherent to the Other-than seek to become the sole narrative with which we live. Which will emerge: the world of ontological certainty, in which human suffering and exploitation simply are, or a world defined by the possibilities of changing these problems and producing a new world that demands a new logic? And that, ultimately, is the question the spirit of fiction places upon all those who enjoy it.
Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. NYU Press, 2001.
Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Currie, Gregory. The Nature of Fiction. Cambridge University Press, 1990.
"Definition of ESCAPISM". www.merriam-webster.com. Retrieved 5 June 2021.
Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy. Hackett Publishing Company Incorporated, 1993.
Heywood, Andrew (1994) Political Ideas and Concepts: An Introduction, London, Macmillan.
Lewis, David. “Truth in Fiction.” Philosophical Papers Volume I, 1983, pp. 261-275, doi:10.1093/0195032047.003.0015. Accessed 18 June 2021.
Longeway, John L. “The Rationality of Escapism and Self-Deception.” Behavior and Philosophy, vol. 18, no. 2, 1990, pp. 1–20. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27759220. Accessed 16 June 2021.
Sageng, John Richard, Hallvard J Fossheim and Tarjei Mandt Larsen. The Philosophy of Computer Games. Springer Science & Business Media, 2012.
Searle, John R. “The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse.” New Literary History, vol. 6, no. 2, 1975, pp. 319-332, doi:10.2307/468422. Accessed 16 June 2021.
Skorin-Kapov, J. (2016). The intertwining of aesthetics and ethics: exceeding of expectations, ecstasy, sublimity. Lexington Books.
Zahl, David. “Comforting the Disturbed and Disturbing the Comfortable (According . ” Mockingbird, 9 Apr. 2014, https://mbird.com/literature/comforting-the-disturbed-and-disturbing-the-comfortable-according-to-dfw/. Accessed 15 June 2021.
1.) This essay will not deal with the imaginary and the real in relation to truth. For a detailed analysis on fiction and truth, see David Lewis (1983).
2.) It should be mentioned that philosophical essays are often developed through examinations of historically derived ideas and concepts.
3.) Facts are themselves derived from history as well, for it is the passage of time that hypotheses are eventually legitimized by their confirmation or rejection.
4.) By definition, any work of fiction that can do so is not fiction.
5.) Defining the sublime with a rupture is not itself a novel concept. For a different theoretical analysis of rupture, see Skorin-Kapov (2016).