The Imagined Present by Louis Armand

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THE IMAGINED PRESENT

Louis Armand

1.

In an attempt to establish general criteria for scientific discourse, Karl Popper famously invoked the term “falsifiability.” Any statement that can be demonstrated to be true, can be falsified; and it is the possibility for falsification that distinguishes science from “mere” fiction, since in the realm of fiction there is no formal criterion of verifiability. Indeed, fiction—as Hans Vaihinger earlier argued—represents precisely what is unverifiable. And since it is not verifiable, neither is it falsifiable. This dualistic view of discourse, however, exposes itself to a number of important ambiguities, which are both definitional, but also foundational to what science and the literary arts are taken to be.

Such considerations began to emerge explicitly during the Renaissance, when the modern idea of science was in a process of evolution but had yet to fully separate itself from aspects of magic and divinity. The alchemical writings of Cornelius Agrippa, for example, reflect a marriage between rationality and speculation that is mediated by a poetical function of language. Here, formerly occult irrationalism becomes a conjuring of higher truths, of universal knowledge, by way of words of power; magical formulae providing man with dominion over nature.

An important meditation upon these themes is to be found, among others, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, likely written around 1610 and increasingly seen as one of Shakespeare’s major works. In this play, Shakespeare examines the relationship between knowledge, power and illusionism. The alchemist’s art is here transformed into a science of the virtual; Prospero, the play’s orchestrating “Ego,” is presented to us as one possessing power, through knowledge, of a world comprised of spirits, mystery and illusion, yet founded upon a material reality.

In Shakespeare’s play, Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, exhibits magical powers derived from exceptional learning. Like the contemporary alchemists, Prospero’s knowledge rests upon the possession of certain books. These books, like the treatises of Agrippa, or the mysterious Voynich Manuscript—combining natural science, astrology, and various herbal recipes and formulae—promised mastery over nature. In Shakespeare’s play, such “nature” is represented both by the “elements” and more symbolically in the figure of Caliban, son of the witch Sycorax and Prospero’s slave. In some interpretations of the play, Caliban stands as a type of Id to Prospero’s Ego; the occult counterpart of an emergent rationalism.

It is tempting, for these reasons, to see in The Tempest a type of allegory of a changing status of language; of the relationship of a nascent scientific discourse to the realm of the fictional and the fantastic; truth to untruth; knowledge to the previously unknowable; proof to rhetoric. It is a casting off of an historical benightedness and a turn towards a future Enlightenment.

2.

Ordinarily we tend to think of science as precisely that domain of “systematic and formulated knowledge” (OED) from which fiction must be excluded. In the domain of science we encounter—in place of mere speculation—terms such as “conjecture,” “hypothesis,” “model,” “theorem,” “experiment.” It is possible, for example, to speak of a “calculus of probability”; of an “uncertainty principle”; of “complexity” and “indeterminacy.” And yet, within any scientific description we also encounter the necessary use of metaphor and analogy; in short, a whole poetics. In so doing, we find ourselves in a zone of ambiguity, between “science” as such, and “philosophy” and “literature.”

It has always been a feature of science that its capacity to know is ultimately determined by its capacity to represent what is presently unknown. This takes the form of testable hypotheses. An hypothesis, as Henri Poincaré remarked, is first and foremost a type of generalization; it provides an overall framework upon which to structure a world view. Such hypotheses present science with a dilemma, since until they are proven they are possibly false—indeed, in this provisional state, they are no more than elaborately constructed fictions. And yet hypothesis is absolutely necessary if science is to proceed in anticipation of experimental proof or observable fact.

The question of the epistemological status of fiction has evoked a great deal of debate. Strong positions have been taken especially against a type of cultural relativism, in which the differences between science and literature are obscured in the name of the unity of fictional discourse. It is argued, to the contrary, that the use of fiction and hypothesis obey strict rules from the point of view of finality and justification, which forbid us to consider fiction and hypothesis as equivalent.

We may see, however, that “equivalence of fictions” is not the same as recognising an equivalence of discursive structures.

During the late eighteenth century, Jeremy Bentham formulated an important “theory of fictions” in which fiction is regarded positively as an unavoidable and indeed indispensable product of all discourse—as distinct from Francis Bacon’s view of fiction as a superstitious “idol.” Bentham recognised the necessary similarities between the conjectural form of scientific method and so-called literary language.

Developing this line of thought during the late nineteenth century, Hans Vaihinger, in his Philosophy of As If, specified an array of instances in which fictive thinking lends comparative impetus to biology, mathematics, physics, philosophy, psychology, and jurisprudence. Although Vaihinger makes distinctions between different kinds of fiction—classifying them as “abstract,” “schematic,” “symbolic,” and so forth—all of these are reducible to the sequence of thought encapsulated by the “as if” as a foundational structure of discourse in general.

Additionally, Vaihinger argued that science, in a strict sense, is speculative, since we can never really “know” (or directly experience) the underlying reality of the world. Rather, we construct systems of thought (as well as of indirect observation) and act “as if” these correspond to an objective reality that, in ideal circumstances, could be known or experienced. The world view presented by science is, for Vaihinger, ultimately constructed upon certain fictional foundations, even if it is a highly coherent and effective one. This view reflects the practical reliance of science upon hypothesis, but also the dependence upon indirect verification (everything from highspeed photography, to x-ray, to the Large Hadron Collider). Meaning that much of what underwrites our reality cannot even be represented by means of analogy. Often, science is concerned with what, for us, remains fundamentally unknowable—if by knowable we also mean representable to experience.

Vaihinger’s theory of fictions, which begins with a consideration of knowledge and hypothesis, attempted to address questions of human subjectivity, and the preponderance of individuals to employ psychological fictions to mediate their experience of “irrational” social realities.1 The forms of simulation encountered in hysteria, for example, point towards a functional equivalence of reality and fiction at certain crucial points, echoing not only the methodological dependency of science upon a philosophy of “as if,” but also the status of this “as if” as foundational for the scientific method and its forms of verifiability.

Where the philosophy of Vaihinger and the realm of “science fiction” most productively intersect, however, is with regards to the domain of the unverifiable. Just as a “literature of the possible” must necessarily evoke the limits of the impossible, so too the generalized form of hypothesis must also evoke a type of irrational counterpart. Vaihinger argued that fiction forms a class of hypothesis not subject to ordinary criteria of verification; not merely because such fictions are patently false, but because certain hypotheses concern problems for which there are no rational solutions.

3.

Science fiction, as a literary genre, might consequently been seen as an exploration of irrational solutions. While it is often considered to be fantastic, many of the representative works of so-called “science fiction” can be viewed as comprising a literature of ideas—a literature that explores alternative possibilities to known reality, based upon past, current or “future” science.

When Hugo Gernsback coined the term “scientifiction” in 1926—the year after John Logie Baird invented television—it was in the context of an emerging new wave of popular technological consumerism that would reach its height after the war in the consumerism of 1950s America. In the period between the wars, science entered into everyday life in entirely unprecedented ways. By the time terms like “science fiction” and “sci-fi” appeared in the 1930s and 1940s, the popular awareness of science had been transformed. This continued a trend from the late nineteenth century, when the term “scientific romance” was used in Britain to describe work by writers such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. And we may trace the evolution of science fiction as a literary genre through the various stages of the Industrial Revolution, linked to the popularisation of scientific discovery from the early eighteenth century onwards.

Of course, it can be argued that “science fiction” emerged when science did. Between the appearance of Aristotle’s To Organon in the 4th century B.C. and Bacon’s Novum Organum in 1620, there was no strict disunity between what, today, we call science and what we broadly call fiction. It was Bacon—regarded by Voltaire as the father of experimental philosophy—who insisted upon the dissolution of myths and the substitution of facts for “fancy.” The sovereignty of man, he argued, lieth in knowledge.

But for many, the beginnings of modern science fiction reside in such works as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the earlier writings of Voltaire and Jonathan Swift. Both Micromégas and Gulliver’s Travels are reflections upon ideas previously expressed in Bacon’s Novum Organum in which the concept of una scientia universalis explicitly links knowledge and political power.

In this light, it is possible to see “science fiction” as continuing a long tradition of utopian and speculative literature. But it is also for precisely this reason that “science fiction” itself remains a term subject to very broad interpretation, to the extent that it may even be said to represent a metamorphosis of historical genres.

In his 1973 collection of writings, Strong Opinions, Vladimir Nabokov famously observed that if a “strict” definition of “science fiction” were to be applied, it would be necessary to include Shakespeare’s The Tempest—alongside, presumably, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Cyrano de Bergerac’s Voyage de la Terre à la Lune, among countless others.

But while The Tempest itself is concerned, in large part, with the relationship between knowledge (scientia) and art, it also reflects upon ideas of political utopia, power and justice in ways that have been seen as anticipating the concerns of industrialisation and the post-industrial “society of the spectacle,” whose themes have since born upon the technological future of mankind as a whole.

4.

Borrowing its title from a line in Shakespeare’s play, Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, Brave New World, offers precisely such a futuristic vision of technological utopia and social engineering; a vision which Huxley’s contemporary Bertram Russell conceded “is all too likely to come true.” Like The Tempest, Brave New World treats of the relationship between knowledge, illusion and the power of reason. Unlike Shakespeare’s play, however, Huxley’s novel is a savage critique of the idea of benevolent science and bio-technological progress. In this “brave new world,” the perfectibility of man has given way to the abolition of the human, where man’s existence becomes an enslavement to the technocratic “rationalism” of eugenics, social Darwinism and the “spectacle” of progress.

Huxley’s nightmare of “universal happiness” exposes the contradictions of utopian thought linked to the emancipation of man from the so-called irrationalism of nature. We are confronted with the terrible realisation that utopias are not merely political fictions but always threaten to become real. “Life,” as Huxley’s epigraph announces, “marches towards utopias,” and it is the task of humanity to discover the means to avoid their definitive realisation. Here, art and fiction are not only the guiding imagination of science, but its homeostatic regulator, guarding against scientific excess, reminding us that scientific “progress” ultimately serves its own ends and that these ends are not always compatible with the idea of humanity.

In The Tempest, Shakespeare, borrowing from Montaigne (among others), also reflects upon the possibility of an ideal society governed by reason. The microcosm of Prospero’s island is a working hypothesis of such a utopia, organised around the singular idea of a “real” accession to power. It represents a type of dictatorship of “pure reason,” with its vanities, its narcissism, its overweening ambition to universality. The illusionism vested in knowledge—in una scientia universalis—is relinquished only at the point at which Prospero leaves his island and returns, from exile, to the realm of political authority.

The authoritarianism of Prospero’s “science” exposes itself in its hidden counterpart, hinted at in the figure of Caliban, representing a completely different kind of utopia from the one promised—but never realised—by Prospero’s invocation of una scientia universalis. It is a utopia, as Montaigne says, which “hath no … knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate, nor of politike superioritie.” In this illiterate paradise there is no falsehood. Yet nor is there scientific truth. It is an archetypal Eden which explicitly excludes knowledge, culture or techne politike, and yet underwrites Prospero’s own utopia and becomes, historically, the object of a whole series of ideologically inflected “sciences” from the Renaissance to the present.

5.

In the twentieth century, with the increased prevalence of new information and communication technologies, and of mass mechanized warfare, many writers no longer viewed “science fiction” as representing a domain of literary utopianism, but rather a state of affairs reflecting a technocratised reality. We might think of George Orwell’s 1984; Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots); or even Fred M. Wilcox’s 1956 film Forbidden Planet in which Shakespeare’s Caliban reappears in the form of a robotic “id monster” (reason’s nemesis).

During the 1920s and 30s, the rise of fascism exploited a wide-spread form of technological irrationalism and utopianism, sustained by a massive project of pseudo-scientific propaganda. In reaction, during the period following WWII we encounter increasingly radical elements in “science fictional” writing—including the work of novelists like Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, and behavioural scientists like José Delgado, author of Towards a Psychocivilised Society. These works respond in conflicting ways to the belief that social ills, including the abuse of science represented by the Nazi holocaust, may be remedied by means of new forms of ethics, education and social engineering.

The advent of the “space race,” following the launch of Sputnik by the USSR in 1957, and further dramatised by the Apollo lunar mission in 1969, served to erode many of the conventional distinctions between science and “science fiction.” Meanwhile, by the turn of the millennium we encounter in film and literature a proliferation of near-futuristic scenarios based upon existing conditions of urban degradation, ecological catastrophe, globalisation, the Cold War, cyberspace, and the all-pervasiveness of the military-industrial complex. Anticipating the spread of the internet, bio- and nanotechnologies, and new forms of artificial intelligence, these “fictions” project a futurism that does not transcend the present but collapses back into it, exacerbating not overcoming our contemporary circumstances of individual alienation, manufactured consent, over-population, and the decline of essential natural resources, in a world dominated by competing extremisms.

As William Gibson has remarked: if in the past society has had access to fully-imagined cultural futures, this is because in the past technology placed us in a relation to a present of greater “duration.” Today, science fiction achieves its particular status of increasing realism because more and more we are made to understand that, as Gibson says, “we have no future because our present is too volatile … We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios.”2

6.

If we are to speak, then, of science fiction as a “literature of possibilities,” we need to do so in the realisation that our changed technological circumstances render any point of view upon the present state of affairs more provisional than ever.3

As science evolves further into the realm of the virtual and the “post-human,” science fiction tends increasingly towards the pragmatism of strategies for survival. Today, it is no longer the future but the imagined present that stands as the horizon of our “brave new world.” A world no longer verifiable through science, but which is instead an ongoing construction, a human abstract, married to a type of scientific sublime, like Frankenstein’s monster or Huxley’s “savage.”

And it is here that fiction, previously Id to the Ego of rationalism, reveals itself as comprising not a deviation from truth but truth’s foundation as the possibility of a critique.4 It reflects that realm of the imaginable in which ethics remains possible in a world of technological automata, and through which an otherwise purely scientific truth obtains a moral dimension.

About the Author

Louis Armand is a Sydney-born writer & visual artist who has lived in Prague since 1994. He has published seven novels, Abacus (Vagabond, 2015), Cairo (Equus, 2014), Breakfast at Midnight (Equus, 2012), Clair Obscur (Equus, 2011), Menudo (Antigen, 2005), The Garden (Salt, 2001) & Canicule (Equus, 2013). In addition, he is the author of ten collections of poetry – most recently, East Broadway Rundown (2015), The Rube Goldberg Variations (2015; both from Vlak Records), Indirect Objects (2014) & Letters from Ausland (2011; both from Vagabond), & Synopticon (with John Kinsella; Litteraria, 2012) – & of a number of volumes of criticism, including Videology (LPB, 2015) & The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey: Culture after the Avantgarde (LPB, 2013). His screenplay for Clair Obscur won honourable mention at the 2009 Trieste International Film Festival. He is is an editor of VLAK magazine.


1 Ideas which echo those of Charcot, Breuer and Freud concerning hysteria—in which psychosomatic illness is recognized as indistinguishable from “conventional” illness.

2 William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (2003), 59.

3 Through science, however, we have become accustomed to certainties which are, so to speak, both timeless and tolerant of contradiction. Certainties that possess the adaptive qualities of fiction, and which we may indeed treat as forms of discourse into which the unknown and the indeterminate are constantly assimilated. In this sense, “science fiction” might describe a mode being with possibility. It points to the way in which literature describes a “philosophy of life”—a means of understanding what it is we are constantly on the verge of becoming.

4 Science may contradict ideology but it cannot critique it.

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