Category Archives: Fictional worlds

Translation and Incomprehensibility

Every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will  modify the future.  – Jorge Luis Borges (1964)

In a post-modern, post-structuralist or relativistic frame of reference the foundations of knowledge are considered lost – historical origins, ranged against the infinite, are endlessly compromised through the regression of shallow meaning into random form and relation.  A traditional response is a constructivist philosophy – the belief in the construction of environments from socio-cultural elements – constituents without foundation.   But in such a cosmos, even if communication is possible, as the Sophistic school’s founder Gorgias asserted (Gorgias, Encomium to Helen), understanding is not.  If infinite possibility provides endless alternatives for the manifestation and interpretation of the world, and no structural or contextual common ground, then commonality of mind and meaning are also very rare or impossible events.

Although in a semiotic paradigm the number of potentially relevant texts is limitless and meaning open-ended, signs are cosmological elements of the first order, and not merely referential of more substantial planes of reality.    They are involved in physical, metaphysical and epistemological systems from which comprehension is constructed rather than merely descriptive of them.

As a result traditional modes of verification and proof (ineffective in any case in consideration of relativism) are abandoned.  The normative epistemological order is reliant on the symbols, grammar and lexicon of a clearly defined language for conceptualisation and expression of proof, and is therefore confounded by the dynamic involvement of aspects of the semiotic system with the physical and conceptual.  Traditionally, truth is derived from a process in which observation of ‘actual’ phenomena leads to conceptualisation of patterns, which are expressed, considered, disseminated and debated through language, or through mathematical symbols. But in a semiotic paradigm language and symbol are involved in the world as a mode of actuality rather than a distinct abstracted system for human expression.  Signs and objects are inter-related, effective of one another, and without clear sequence or absolute distinction.

This is generally an expression of relativism in that consideration of objects, forces, and concepts must be measured (or described) with attention to the possibility of the existence of distinct frames of reference that distort one phenomenon in relation to another.   But it is at odds with a relativistic perspective in the sense that further consideration must be given to the distinct frames of reference in which the denotative, descriptive operators – signs and texts – the elements and worlds of the semiotic aspect of the cosmos – are not merely representative indicators of ‘real’ objects and forces or thoughts and events.  Instead, the signs used, for example, by physicists in the description and definition of temporal, spatial, and energetic sites of inquiry are involved with and affected by those elemental forces and phenomena.  In this context the semiotic approach can be expressed in terms analogous with quantum physics, although some of its concepts – for example – Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy (Heisenberg, 1956) – are subverted by extension into an additional dimension.   The principle, for which Heisenberg is best known, asserts that (in a general sense) on the micro-cosmic scale the observation of any event – or object –  is distorted by the act of observation. (Heisenberg, 1956)  In the context of a semiotic paradigm this iteration of the statement can be recast: either the observation or naming of any event is affected by the act of naming or observation.

A more specific statement of Heisenberg’s principle is that the attempt to measure any one aspect of an event distorts the measurement of another aspect of the event.  Again this statement is an expression of relativity, and bears analogy on several levels with semiosis.  A semiotic paradigm suggests that distortion inherent in the measurement of physical phenomena – time and space, matter and energy – can be considered either as a quasi-physical quantum phenomena or an effect of the complex interaction of the objects under consideration and their signs and definitions  (or the interaction of various forms of the objects, including their signs and definitions) through the medium of observation and representation.

In a particular sense the semiotic approach is therefore disruptive of the Aristotlean hierarchy of discursive forms that distinguishes dialectic – the academic language of truth – irrevocably from rhetoric, or the language of power and poetics, the semiotics of beauty and the sublime. The privileging of the signs that imply meaning and comprehensible arrangement in the world as legitimate elements as ‘real’ as those of the physical universe subverts the conception that a particular vernacular or lexicon has a veracity that supersedes others.

In an Aristotlean epistemology the dialectic – language concerning truth –  provides the means for the expression of the universal laws pertaining to objects that are not malleable by their secondary signifiers.  But in a universe in which semiotic laws are applicable, these laws are applicable to all elements, each of which can be considered object, quality, or sign.

From this perspective the normative mode of defining material objects can be considered akin to the translation of elements into another frame in which normative physical laws do not apply, where they can be treated independently, disembodied elements suspended in conceptual and semiotic abstraction.  But from a perspective from which all frames are of equal veracity no definition is ever final or certain, because there is no region of the world in which elements can be drawn into in which they can then be manipulated in abstraction, distinct from the effects of other realms.   Instead, translation invokes a sense of infinite regress.  A semiotic paradigm, invoking similitude, involves the appreciation of relation without privilege of type, and provides, as Foucault says in his book The Order of Things  ‘an abundance of resemblance’ (Foucault 1966, p29) from which new and valid associations can always be drawn.  Any original reading of a text or communiqué can be translated on or continually deconstructed in accordance with ‘accidental’ translations between the original ‘intended’ iterations and versions altered by passage into a different moment, or context, or tongue.

The universal application of this idea is, paradoxically, the source of both irreconcilable uncertainty and the foundation of truth in the semiotic mode.   A cosmology in which all systems are capable of mutual collapse, in the sense that they are indistinguishable on an elemental level, carries this axiom of indeterminacy and inconclusiveness into every moment and frame, irrespective of whether the foundational site of inquiry is the material micro-cosmos of quantum physics, the symbolic manipulation of mathematical equations, or the sub-structural ‘grammatical’ rules of language.

Definite meaning is unachievable, since at the closest point of definition elements and meanings become mutually indistinct before a single term can be reached.

But if all systems can be devolved through consideration of the interaction of the frames of object, thought, and sign, to a degree in which the signs, concepts and objects become indistinguishable (a stage at which, for example, the meanings of ‘form of expression’ and ‘expression of form’ coincide) there is an indefinable residual form, (perhaps better described as  ‘           ‘, since it is as inherent in this text as any other and in a page as much as any other frame).  This axiological residue that defies particular description is ubiquitous, and by its general nature the composite and opposite of all particular frames of reference.

The principle implication is that a paradigm epistemology suggests that indeterminacy, far from a source of distortion is instead the source of the resonance between disparate frames of reference that signifies truth on a level in which aesthetics and veracity inhere. Although beyond the bounds of overt expression, elemental, sub-structural truths can be sensed from the naming or description of related frames source of an elusive, indefinite and obscure order of truth that is the object of semiotic inquiry.

Heisenberg’s uncertainty is immaterial where sense is derived in this way not from object but from relation.  Meaning is drawn not from the understanding of one element as causative and therefore a proof of another, but is inherent in recognition of relation, likeness, and difference between elements. Truth – or verisimilitude – derives from cumulative association – from the resonance of one set of symbols terms objects and concepts with another through structural similitude.   And in this system meaning itself is inherent in the determination of an external environment  – comprehension, or apparent comprehension wherever found, implies proximity, or clarity, or gravity – verisimilitude of some kind between elements and patterns of relation.

In one sense in this context of semiotic fundamentalism all texts are translations.  The methods used in translation from one language to another (according to the normative understanding of ‘language’) and from one era to another can be applied to dialects of significantly greater proximity in a geographical or historical sense  – or those that distinguish class, generation, or sub-culture.

Since ultimately any communication implies a sense of translation between irreconcilable frames of reference – two distinct networks of meaning, with distinct structure and referents – the paradigm of translation can be applied to any communication in consideration of the gulf between one consciousness and another, or even between aspects of one mind.   And since the same structural phenomena govern aspects of the transition from one era or one moment to another the macrocosmic order of language across millennia is related to the microcosmic order of intertwined lexica within a single cultural and linguistic group.

Generally, the effect of translation is the compounding of the distortion or refraction of history. In this sense, the availability of a text is contingent upon it having been copied and re-copied, interpreted and re-interpreted, through the centuries since its composition.  The translation required for comprehension of an ancient Greek or Latin phrase or text, rendered into English a century ago, is one example of the refractive effect of the history of text and language, even when in relatively close proximity to one another in geographical or historical terms.

This phenomenon of historical filtering can be brought to bear in consideration of the effective limits on the availability of ideal translations of ancient texts.  By virtue of indeterminacy the distance between an ancient text and its translation or an object and its observation on a chronological scale is indistinct from the infinite distance between two sequential moments.   But the historical distortion of texts can be reduced to a practical and readily observable level in consideration of particular intervening moments or events of particular influence and effect.

This paradigm for indeterminacy of understanding is evident in the translation of individual texts but also on a broader level in the interpretation of one culture’s translation of a particular historical moment by another. The modern English speaker’s received version of Classical culture filtered through a prism of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century British consciousness is one significant exemplar.  This filter is based not only on the causal and unconscious influence of Classical culture on later times by virtue of inheritance, but on the great conscious passion of the English-speaking people of this time for the culture and society of the ancients.  As a result a set of distorting presuppositions are invoked for negotiation, even before similarly reductive axioms of the early 21st Century can be applied.  This prism of received history has a further dimension in that many of the words in our own language derive from the neologisms of the same much later European culture, based on Classical roots.

Specific esoteric consequences of the received inheritance of Western culture (but drawn from outside Western culture) could be said to be evidenced in the instance the ‘vimana’ or ancient aircraft of India, described in the ancient Vedic texts and other works concerning the cultures of the ‘Far East.’ (Childress, quoted by Shand, 2000)   Vimana of many different types are described – some that ‘flew with the speed of the wind’ and ‘gave forth a melodious sound.’ (Childress, quoted by Shand, 2000)

“An aerial chariot, the Pushpaka, conveys many people to the capital of Ayodhya. The sky is full of flying-machines, dark as night,but picked out by lights with a yellowish glare.” (Mahavira of Bhavabhuti, quoted by Shand, 2000)

Historical texts include depictions of these variously styled planes in passages describing “The Seven Rishi Cities”  a septet of capitals of an empire of about 15,000 years ago, ruled by “enlightened Priest-Kings”, and situated in what is now Pakistan, northern, and western India, (Childress, quoted Shand 2000) Among the vimana detailed are “‘ahnihotra-vimana’ with two engines, the ‘elephant-vimana’ with more engines, and other types named after the kingfisher, ibis and other animals.”   (Childress, quoted Shand 2000)  One interpretation of the Sanskrit term vimana is that it is derived from ‘vamana’, or  “he who is able at three strides to take measure of the entire earth and heavens.” (Thompson, quoted Shand 2000)

In the era in which the sub-continent was significant to the English as the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire, and in which its culture was translated through the distorting filter of coloniser contemplating colonised subject, there were no aircraft, nor was such technology likely.  Although the texts revelatory of high technological cultures of the past were available, the cultural bias and conceptual limits of the English together prohibited their comprehension. The misinterpretation of ancient scenes and battles as mythic and therefore merely ‘fictional’ is reflective of arrogance in the assumption of superior ingenuity and ‘advancement’ on the part of a culture in fact encountering the limits of its understanding.   In a sense a fantastical narrative interpretation of ancient Indian texts is revelatory of the nature of the gods, myths, wars and demons of the West as much as any Eastern deity.

“Cuka, flying on board a high-powered vimana, hurled on to the triple city a single projectile charged with all the power of the universe. An incandescent column of smoke and flame, as bright as ten thousand suns, rose … When the vimana returned to Earth, it looked like a splendid block of antimony resting on the ground.” (from the Mausola Purva, quoted Shand 2000)

Further references to technologies unknown to the British of the Raj are more easily comprehended by the Western inheritors of Victorian culture in the modern era of carpet-bombing and atomic weaponry:

“Gurkha, flying in his swift and powerful Vimana, hurled against the three cities of the Vrishnis and Andhakas a single projectile charged with all the power of the Universe. An incandescent column of smoke and flame as bright as the thousand suns rose in all its splendour…An iron thunderbolt, a gigantic messenger of death, which reduced to ashes the entire race of the Vrishnis and the Andhakas….The corpses were so burned as to be unrecognizable. The hair and nails fell out; pottery broke without apparent cause, and the birds turned white….After a few hours all foodstuffs were infected…. To escape from this fire, the soldiers threw themselves in streams to wash themselves and their equipment…”   (from the Mahabharata, quoted Shand 2000)

The translated extracts of ancient texts cited here represent a re-translation and re-interpretation in the context of twentieth and twenty-first century science and technology of a conception developed in an era when descriptions of devices and scientific disciplines available through historical texts to those in the East were incomprehensible to their colonisers. Despite modern efforts to correct the inherited misinterpretations arising from the archaic interpretations of Victorian scholars of phenomena and ideas such as sophisticated aircraft and relativity (recognisable in  passages of the Vedas concerning astronomy and cosmogeny) persist in Western consciousness.

In the context of public expression and dissemination of philosophical and historical discourse, pervasive misinterpretation and distortion can be seen to be enhanced by overtly commercial and cultural considerations of low interest and demand, resultant costs, and copyright.  Copyright provisions, and the extent to which they are observed, rarely restrict the availability of ancient texts in their original languages.  Where intellectual property does not apply a human predisposition for dissemination seems to prevail – large collections of classical texts are available at sites like Perseus Digital Library 1,which are searchable, and codified for hyper-textual navigation.  Over the decade or so that the Internet has been in common use, though, the growth of access to research materials online has been mitigated by commercial imperatives.  Recent translations of ancient texts into modern languages are controlled by copyright and to a large extent the legislation is observed.  Where English translations of classical texts are freely available, rendering them accessible to online analysis, they are often out of copyright, and not written in contemporary prose.

The negotiation of linguistic and cultural distortion of ancient texts, however, is aided by the diverse tools and instruments for the translation of ancient languages available through software and online.   The best of these programmes and sites, such as the The Perseus Digital Library  the Etymological Dictionary Online 2, Suda On Line 3 and the online journal Demos  – Classical Athenian Democracy Online 4 provide lexical and linguistic resources based on the accumulation of references to and instances of ancient words, together with definitions and grammatical guides.   These facilities are more useful than machine translation engines available for translation between modern languages, which operate on the order of phrase and sentence.  Ancient languages are more often translated at the level of word and phoneme.  The increasingly availability of different iterations of classic texts also facilitates their comprehension.  Consideration of several translations of a text is ideal, and keeping for reference two preferred translations, from disparate sources in time or culture, or in different styles and of different political intention allows for the cross-reference of interpretations.

Tracing the origins and continuity of meaning through language is a powerful semiotic tool of verisimilitude – a means by which similar physical, metaphysical or historical effects can be described through consideration of different aspects of a phenomenon under inquiry. Different modes of comprehension and associated discursive modes are invoked.  The tracing of relationships between common qualities through the distinct arcs provided by these different frames of reference results in the discovery of  further commonalities and consonance between meaning, symbol, and material and social effect.  Common distortions and deviations, even where they confound clear determination of meaning, are indicative of broader structural harmonies.   The object of these semiotic lines of research, as with historical or geographical inquiry, is recurring patterns of force and relation between elements and strata of the world and worlds in interaction.

The semiotic paradigm is disruptive of the normative order, in which the absolute spatio-temporal frame of reference is one aspect of a definite universal structure against which ephemeral, transient forms are measured.  The grammatical and conceptual architecture that supports the idea of the primacy of ‘space’ and ‘time’ or ‘force’ and ‘body’ as elements that provide a cosmological foundation on which all other phenomena are based is challenged by relativistic uncertainty, which can be reconsidered in the semiotic context as the ultimate indeterminacy inherent in the definitions of these terms.

If the normative paradigm can be described as strategic, in the sense that an ideal position on universal forms is adopted and maintained, and then applied to all new situations as they arise, the semiotic paradigm is tactical, in that in each or moment or observation or text must be considered a distinct dynamic frame of reference.

In the context of semiotic inquiry, in which truth is constructed from the tracing of relationships between elements, and the coherence of these arcs with those that can be traced between elements of other frames, this process is that by which all worlds are constructed.   From a fundamentalist materialist perspective the consideration of additional elements is pre-contextualised by those foundational elements integral and common to every frame.  But in the semiotic paradigm a frame of reference is understood as a composite of coincident threads of force, object, sign and meaning, which are apparent by virtue of their mutual effect on one another.  The most fundamental elements – which are akin to those recognised in the classical paradigm as fixed, super-structural forces and eternal, metaphysical and ethical elements  – are instead those found to have the greatest resonance and ubiquity across distant frames.

In a sense this is an alternate articulation of the extended relativism inherent in consideration of a semiotic paradigm. From this perspective a new frame of reference can be characterised as a distinct language or lexicon by which a particular world-view is realised and comprehended.  One conception of this language is as a particular instance of the infinite range of all potential languages, which conception itself is also expression of the infinite range of all possible combinations of all potential elements, where all elements can be manifested in one form as signs.   In this broader milieu no particular lexicon, such as that of a physical science or of mathematical and geometric principles, is more prescriptive of the entirety of reality than any other.  Instead each is a localised discursive phenomenon that provides definition for a particular set of relationships between a cultural group and the environment it inhabits.  Each is intertwined with and ultimately inextricable from other tongues local to the same culture, and to a lesser extent with other cultures which are in one sense or another proximate.  The ubiquitous structure by which all of these frames could be said to be related is apparent in each in the corruption of the meaning of distinct terms that results from any effort to definitively describe foundational terms.

From the relativistic or semiotic perspective, the notions of clarity and distance are redefined, since the absolute measures by which these terms are usually rendered sensible are dissolved. The conception of proximity through resemblance of any order might determine or coincide with spatial and temporal horizons.  Or space and time might be dispensed with entirely.  Alternately the spatio-temporal universe can be split for purposes of inquiry into the different temporal frames of author and character in a fictive realm.  From this perspective the extent of the region proscribed by the clarity of local phenomena and the ‘visibility’ of distant elements is consonant with the limits of comprehension.   The ‘proximity’ of a particular spatio-temporal frame to other frames of reference occurs by virtue of the mutual resemblance of their elements or signs.  The clarity with which a particular frame is experienced from a particular vantage point is dependent upon the resonance of similar elements, particularly where they are arranged in recognisable combination.

In this context morphological and etymological investigation of rhetorical, literary, and theoretical texts and symbols provides an opportunity to consider the consonance of disparate phenomena that are reflected and intersecting similarly in disparate historical moments.  The effect is a process that bears comparison with methodologies employed in the recent discovery of planets orbiting distant suns through the measurement of a gravitational wobble or irregularity evidenced in solar bodies. Where semiotic modes of veracity are considered in relation to the confirmation of historical and political phenomena, the common disturbance of two threads of the semiotic tapestry represents a kind of political gravity. Where intersecting octaves from different aspects of historical frames of reference are seen to be similarly affected, the coincident effect of a third body can be inferred through resonance between different manifestations of its effect.   Applied to historical inquiry in this way semiotic paradigm has the potential for the revelation of hidden aspects of even an ancient milieu.

One way in which the specific attributes of the absurd are relevant in this sense to historical inquiry is in the consideration that discovery of the deepest and most obscured currents in language and culture is derived from the comparison of ontologically and metaphysically distant worlds and frames.  In a semiotic perspective all the senses of ‘distant’ and ‘near’ have equal meaning, and the coincidence of different senses of proximity have an interactive and cumulative effect upon perception.   But within the structure of any particular frame the relationship drawn from the most distant points of consonance that can be found are the definitive metaphysical concepts that from a semiotic standpoint have the closest analogy with the definite underlying physical and axiological principles of a fundamentalist paradigm.

In this sense underlying conceptions and associated discourse linking distant civilisations or distant frames could be considered the richest in potential for discerning the assumptions inherent in our own culture.

So defined is our modern global Western culture by the characteristics of precursors of antiquity that it is impossible in some instances to distinguish those attributes of a culture that might be described as universally human (and therefore naturally common to the Ancient Greeks and ourselves) from those that are particular and therefore indicative of a specific relationship between the modern West and the Classical age.  Despite the millennia of time between the two cultural paradigms,  political, cultural, social, mathematical, musical, and metaphysical concepts coalesce in a particular historical moment that bears particular resonance with our own.  Though the modern world is more substantially defined by a high degree of technological manipulation than the ancient era, and although the modern state could be said to be more genuinely representative in its superficial democratic forms, it can be argued these disparities are in part the product of phenomena that have their theoretical germination in antiquity.

The most overt method of drawing comparison between disparate historical, geographical, or lexical regions is in the tracing of octaves between particular loci by virtue of the resemblance of their signs. A review of the central symbol ‘Democracy’ that binds ancient and modern political institutions (see Appendix – DHMOKRATIA)  reveals a complex range of possible interpretations, and a range of historical circumstances in which the ‘true’ nature and origin of democracy might be sited.

Such a review is firstly a confirmation that orthodox rhetorical and discursive strategic and tactical modes have deep historical origins.  In this sense the coincidence of ontological, narrative and temporal themes is an opportunity for placing the absurd as a mode of literary discourse in a political and historical context, tracing its antecedents, and the comparison and contrast of its tropes with those of a convenient rhetorical orthodoxy.

Consideration of the term ‘democracy’ is firstly revelatory of the traditional interpretation – of a symbol representing a potential ideal and egalitarian state towards which a society strives. The overt elements of the Myth of State in the modern era – the performance of elections, and the constant reiteration of simple verbal representations – signify, from this traditional reading, a benevolent, open system of governance with comfortingly deep and ancient roots.  But an alternate reading of the events that surrounded the introduction of the Athenian form suggests that even at its inception the symbol was employed cynically by one faction of the ruling nobility in order to gain the sympathies of the commons.   This critical interpretation is suggestive of a Marxist prism, since Athenian state democracy is seen as a convenient illusion masking conventional class divides.  It is also indicative of a mode of rhetorical and political deceit recognisable in modern forms of political discourse.

A third thread that emerges from an investigation into the substantial body of literature on the theme of political evolution in Ancient Greece is the demonstration of a proliferation of democratic experiments concurrent with the Athenian model that is our specific symbolic precursor.  This model provides a parallel with a modern heterodox interpretation of democracy as a mode of self-governance that is essentially pluralistic and by definition beyond the control of any one interest or ideology.

Inquiry into the origins of the semiotics of democracy suggests that in both ancient and modern societies democracy and its associated symbols and concepts are an aspect of polarised discourse of both state and heterodoxy, employed both in the service of stability and cohesion and in the disruption of autocratic or tyrannical power.  These common symbols are equally indicative of a deep consonance between the rhetoric and politics of the Classical and the modern eras, by virtue of which each is a potent site of inquiry for investigation of the other.

The diffuse range of available interpretations that flow even from morphological investigation into the single sign ‘democracy’ suggest that rhetorical, ontological and epistemological conceptions and discourse in the classical Greek culture in which our political system originates are a rich source of material on these themes with powerful resonance for the modern world.  Discursive modes of rhetoric and narrative still relevant today were pertinent to the ancient world, and as in the modern era were intrinsically related with particular political interests and ideology and ultimately determined by metaphysical and ontological systems at the heart of belief and culture.

The disappearance of history into myth at a time roughly concurrent with the Classical era can be seen in one sense as the merging of metaphysical levels denoting different modes of understanding in the distant mists of time – a process that again invites analogy with stars and dust.  At the edges of ‘known’ or ‘documented’ history discourse undergoes a paradigm shift. ‘Evidence’ gives way to speculation, written texts give way to oral tradition and science is preceded by myth.  In one sense this arrangement can be seen as the interpretation of the modern West of a critical historical moment of transition.

From the Aristotlean perspective – or a modern scientific perspective – this shift reflects the emergence of a dominant conception of truth that is a departure from the uncertainty of an indefinite theistic and mythic prehistory.

From a critical perspective, though, this is a particular interpretation of a historical moment of transition that is open to re-interpretation in a temporal and extra-temporal sense. The relegation of semiotic or narrative modes of truth to an epistemological and spatio-temporal fringe represents the historical displacement of one discursive, metaphysical, and ideological paradigm by another, suggesting that the advent of the classical era represents the disruption of the authenticity of narrative and semiotic modes.  In terms of a different mode of proximity, in which the spatio-temporal arrangement of the cosmos is determined by a primary order of ideological loci, the loss of scientific or evidential clarity in history represents the relocation of a de-privileged mode of discourse to a physical as well as conceptual periphery. Alternate modes of discourse, which proceed by the discovery of consonance and verisimilitude rather than certainty and fact and are represented in rhetorical tropes and styles distinct from those of the Aristotlean paradigm of definite understanding, are in this model deprivileged in that they are in all senses distant and not a part of an ordered present.

This disruption of the normative spatio-temporal structure of the material plane demonstrates that commonality between inquiry into ancient mythic discursive and ontological and mythic paradigms is revelatory of deeper orders of common culture and tradition that underpin the superficial symbolic relationship between two distant eras.   Common semiotic elements reflect ancient and modern political discourse around democracy, but are also indicative of deeper metaphysical divisions expressed through distinct political and rhetorical forms.   And in this case, the philosophical foundations of the Western State can also be seen as an important archaeological site of inquiry for semiotic research.

In the particular context of the current topic under inquiry, the coherence of these discursive and metaphysical themes in the historical moment of the inception of the modern state provides an ideal platform for research, since the absurd can be characterised as the most extreme expression of the collapse of the disparate discursive and metaphysical regions they describe.

The Aristotlean corpus, composed in the Fourth Century BCE, a century and a half after the time of Kleisthenes and the inception of democracy in Athens, is chronologically as well as conceptually proximate to the point of critical transition between dominant modes of discourse and understanding defined as the Classical era.  A critique of Aristotle’s theoretical architecture as a part of an inquiry into literary discourse, centred on his rigid categorisation of discursive and methodological disciplines, provides a point of departure from this normative perspective and contrast for the consideration of alternatives.

Aristotle’s divides between rhetoric and dialectic – between persuasion and investigation – and between rhetoric and poetic – between persuasive language and poetic language –  are relevant in literary, ontological, and epistemological contexts. His categorisation of discourse imposes limiting conceptual boundaries between ostensibly disparate fields of knowledge in the West and has contributed to the privileging of certain modes of inquiry and persuasion. These permanent categorical boundaries have stood for thousands of years and particularly infuse civilisation at the practical, applied level, where revolutions in metaphysics and cosmology have had a greatly reduced effect.

The Organon, the orthodox arrangement of the central texts of Aristotle, has been preserved, with other surviving works, for a millennia in Western libraries, after its ‘rediscovery’ via Arabic scholars.  In the East, another interpretation of classical philosophy, in which the works of Aristotle were also significant, had broad implications for the development of Moslem and particularly Sufi metaphysics and rhetorical theory. (Sheikh 1970)  But in the West Aristotle’s  divisions between rhetorical and dialectic, and rhetorical and poetic modes of discourse and inquiry have been preserved within political and cultural orthodoxy.

The critique of Aristotle’s theoretical architecture as a part of a discussion on the revitalisation of alternate epistemes, centred on his categorisation of discursive and methodological disciplines, is relevant in consideration of orthodox and heterodox narrative and rhetorical forms, and in the extension of these themes to consideration of the metaphysical that are associated with particular rhetorical paradigms.  But there is an additional dimension to this site of inquiry, in that the critique focuses the researcher on issues of epistemology and inquiry such as political alignment and intention, the political use of language, and the limitations imposed on research of origins in our own culture by the particular and exclusive nature of our cultural traditions.

The critical problems for the researcher of the influence of the essentially cohesive Aristotlean paradigm are firstly the influence of this paradigm on the researcher, through language, myth, and institution, and secondly Aristotle’s extrinsic influence on research itself through effect in a broader cultural and institutional context.

In one sense the tendency to accept any particular tradition or mode of inquiry as universally applicable might itself be described as Aristotlean.  From within a civilisation founded on the Aristotlean paradigm it is impossible to establish the extent of its universality.  Like the impact of Hellenic culture itself, this translated, powerful theoretical platform is infused with culture and civilisation in ways that are ancient as well as modern, oblique as well as transparent, and both formulaic and haphazard. Where the site of inquiry is the rhetorical manipulation of history and belief, a researcher’s involvement in the same epistemological systems distorts veracity.  An essential indeterminacy is inherent since clear comprehension is confounded by reliance for analysis on the systems of knowledge under analysis.

In this sense an etiological and hermeneutic compromise can be discerned that raises the possibility of intellectual colonisation – or at least inadvertent self-parody – and a glimpse of conceptual horizons.  Even at the level of choice of language, it is difficult to avoid a degree of self-parody when using words such as  ‘academia’, ‘hypotheses’, and  ‘analysis.’  One alternative is to refer to ‘The Academy’ when referring to modern research to denote awareness of the specific rather than universal nature of the orthodox Western tradition.  But given the influence of a particular mode of though on the conduct of research and inquiry, it can be assumed the efforts of a Western researcher to entirely exclude the paradigm would be ultimately self-defeating.

Although a narrative approach to rhetorical inquiry focuses on the absurd as device rather than genre, and concerns a rhetoric that purportedly subverts the Aristotlean paradigm, an immediate academic instinct is to devise a categorical hierarchy in which the absurd can be situated.

However, where the hermeneutic complexities of an ontological site of inquiry are invoked, problems of interpretation and ironic self-involvement in are reduced by the conscious apprehension of these limits. Rhetorical and discursive distortions that result from historical, linguistic, and political problems of interpretation are intimately related with the central topic of rhetorical inquiry.

If verisimilitude is found in the consonant relations of distinct frames of reference,  the consideration of the content of Aristotle’s works and the substance of his ideas can be substantiated by consideration of the effect, influence, character, and intention of Aristotle himself through biographical detail extant on his life and what can be interpreted from the style and form of his work.  Another and perhaps more substantial site of inquiry is in the historical treatment of his text. ( See Appendix – On the Organon)

One implication of these alternate lines of inquiry is a kind of humanisation of the theories under consideration.

The modern democratic state – and more generally Western civilisation – can be defined as a particular iteration of human culture underpinned by the specifics of its origins in Ancient Hellene, within which the Aristotlean episteme is a particular, recognisable political and metaphysical construct.

But that those Attic idealists or pragmatists that first brought the term democracy into common usage could conceive of the eventual influence of the symbol is barely conceivable.   The same applies in the case of Aristotle, who could hardly have imagined what his influence might be on a world two-and-a-half thousand years after his own.

The roots of reason and Western thought might be located variously in the works of different thinkers of different eras who can be seen as the principles of a particular dominant metaphysical paradigm. In this context rather than a definite defining work the Aristotlean corpus is properly interpreted one such philosophical pivot or prism.

The suggestion, though, that Aristotle is not himself entirely responsible for the influence of his own metaphysics begs the question raised by Borges in the quote that heads this chapter concerning the role of the researcher in the manipulation of history.


Pursuing this ancient site of inquiry through disparate contexts in which the ancient Hellenic and modern Western worlds coincide not only engenders an awareness of the tension between invention and discovery that accompanies all observation and inquiry, but mitigates against the possibility the invention of a straw Aristotle, or of the projection of a model of Athenian Democracy convenient as a political foil and for the purpose of subsequent deconstruction.

Quick Definition of Fiction

I’ve spent a lot of time in the analysis of fiction – contriving a structure for it to explain fictionality as a kind of text.  This towards the goal of ascribing to fiction a particular rhetorical function, or set of functions.

The intention here is to skip to the end, having come a stone’s throw away in the proper direction.  To describe the rhetorical function of fictional texts as succinctly as possible, with the edifice constructed to do justice to this description lurking in the background.

Against Aristotle (A statement of purpose)

Aristotle argued (according to notes from his lectures, later collated) that there are three distinct kinds of speech or literature.  The first, the Dialectic, is the language of logic, metaphysics, physics, philosophy.  It is language deployed in the search for truth.  Through  dialectic antithesis  is  applied to thesis in a Socratic way, producing Synthesis: superior truth.  This is the foundation of the process by which Reason is applied in comprehending the ‘verse,  and expressing truths about it.

Rhetoric is the second mode of speech, subjected to analysis in the Rhetoric of Aristotle. It is ‘the counterpart of dialectic’, the art of making use of all of the available means of persuasion.  So rhetoric is concerned with persuasion rather than truth, with probability rather than Absolutes.  Rhetoric is the language of law and politics and forensics.

The third kind of speech, or language, is the Poetic.  Because it is distinct from either the Dialectic or the Rhetoric, Poetic language is by definition divorced from both truth and persuasion.

Plato said he would ban poetry from his ideal society.  Aristotle said the proper function of poetry is adornment and flattery.

Today people do recognise the political power of fiction, at least anecdotally (1984 the classic example).  But Aristotle’s categories of language still stand in general in the twenty-first century, as bookshops, libraries, universities indicate.

This, then, is the bone of contention: I want to argue that fiction (not quite the same thing as poetry, granted) does have both rhetorical and philosophical functionality, and that Aristotle was wrong to relegate this mode of language to a tertiary tier (where, perhaps, it could do no harm).  The polemic here, in dramatic terms, is that a simplistic approach to the problems flowing from language to perception of truth is no approach at all.   The division of language into three registers or keys has constrained all the forms of language, weakening their import and utility.

A definition for fiction

Leaving, as indicated, a cumbersome model for explaining the operations of fiction to float beneath the surface, I should at the least give the defition of fiction derived from it.  Fictional texts  have been distinguished by three criteria from non-fiction texts.

i.) Fictional texts are those that reference other worlds (for convenience it is easiest to define ‘other’ worlds as those at which the text is not).

Non-fiction texts reference the world at which the text is.  Fictional texts are those that fail to accurately represent this world: its propositions contradict what is true.  Once the reader notes that the text does not reference this world, a different set of assumptions come into play about how the text should be treated in terms of truth and veracity.

ii.) Fictional texts contain ‘this-world’ propositions

Some proposition in a fictional text is ‘erroneously’ indexed to the world of the text, rather than the world of the content: as though the text were non-fiction at this world.

This means that a text overtly detailing events properly placed at some other world is not fiction.  Which is to say, if a text begins every proposition by saying ‘At some possible world it may be the case that..’ it is not, strictly, a fictional text despite otherworldly reference.

There is a kind of fallacy, then, inherent in fiction, although the ‘error’ serves as a device.  Otherworldly reference is always improperly indexed in at least some statements.  Fictional texts omit operators in sentences. Otherwise, they are non-fiction texts about other worlds.

(ii leads to the difficult question as to why a catch-all statement cannot be used to imply the operator: ‘For all propositions that follow this one at some world it may be the case that..’.  Existing statements in texts do perform this function: ‘Once upon a time..’ at the beginning of a story throws open a temporal vein of possibility across which a vast array of stories have substance.

The best answer I can give is that performing this trick, in this way, is precisely how the fallacy peculiar to fiction is implemented.  In fact, it does not matter whether the general reference to another world or other worlds is included as a proposition in the text or not.  This point of reference is implied (or defaulted to) when what is true in a text is found to be at odds with actuality.

It seems an important facet of fictionality (of course you could start defining it on different premises and learn that different aspects are important) is treating a sequence of propositions ambiguously. As a set of propositions on the one hand; and as a string of individual propositions on the other.  The set of propositions may be identified as fiction by a proposition acting as a modal operator for the entire text, or the operator may be ‘hidden’ in terms of direct reference.  Regardless, the text is evaluated by a reader or at a world, and when some proposition in the text contradicts truth at that world the evaluation of the text as a whole is adjusted.

The evaluation of the set is contingent on the evaluation of individual propositions.  But the individual propositions’ truth or falsity is not dependent on the evaluation of the sequence of propositions as a whole.

iii.)              Properly, fictional texts describe possible worlds

..else there is no corresponding ‘fictional world’ referenced.  A text that depicts an impossible world is an impossible fiction: a kind worth distinguishing from the other.

(fictional texts referencing ‘impossible worlds’ can be seen as fragmentary fiction)

Defining Fiction (addendum – four kinds of text)

The attempt to define fiction for the purposes of this research has resulted in the further contrarian conclusion that ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ are inadequate to the task of properly distinguishing kinds of texts we might want to talk about.

The easiest way to explain this is to set out the four categories of text that could better characterise the rhetorical alternatives.

i.)                  Necessarily true (true at all worlds)

ii.)                Actually true (someworld thisworld true)

iii.)              Possibly true (someworld otherworld true)

iv.)               Impossible (or fragmentary – no world true, except in pieces)

Our terms non-fiction and fiction cover all four of these categories – two apiece. We give the label ‘non-fiction’ to texts with chains of propositions that are  (taken together) necessarily or actually true.

We give the name ‘fiction’ to texts with sets of propositions that are possibly true, or not possibly true. Some or all propositions are inconsistent with the actual world, so the set cannot represent this world.  If a possible world is represented by the text, then it is a fictional world, and the text has a point of reference.  If the text represents an impossible world, then it has no point of reference, and there is no corresponding fictional world.

I described these as four ‘rhetorical’ alternatives for kinds of text because selecting a mode or modes of truth, a kind of logic, is something that authors DO, though not necessarily consciously in these terms.  A text is an argument that asserts certain kinds of truths.  Choosing what approach to take, what strength of argument to put, whether to work from analogy, case study, or theory and generalisation, is a foundational part of constructing an argument.  In writing, an early step in this process is deciding how far the ‘truths of the text’ should be constrained.


Necessary Non-fiction

The most rigorous regime for truth could produce texts true at all possible worlds at once.  Indexed to one world or another a sequence of propositions that only assert necessary truths will always be ‘non-fiction’.  Constraints on propositions for the text are stringent to say the least: only that which exists at every world – is required in order for a world to be structurally sound – can be mentioned.  Nothing can happen that might have gone another way.

This category of texts is really here for completeness, since the task of writing such a text is onerous and as far as I can see the advantage slight.

Actual non-fiction

Propositions in the text constrained according to that which is true at the Actual world.  This is non-fiction of the usual sort.

Possible Fiction

Possible fiction is a clumsy label for the kind of fiction that references fictional worlds.  A fictional text cannot reference the world of the text: some proposition in the text must be false at the Actual World.  A possible fiction references some other world – its propositions are all true at some possible world.

Of course, this is the same as saying that the propositions in a fictional text are possibly true, or that the fiction is possible. Not in the sense that the propositions might after all be true, but in the sense that they are true somewhere.

Impossible fiction

Impossible fiction, then, is the kind of fiction that fails to reference fictional worlds, or any world.  If it wasn’t alread in use for something else, the term ‘utopian’ could apply to these fictions: the worlds described are ou topos – no place. One way to see these worlds, as indicated by David Lewis in the afterthoughts on his brief paper on the status on fiction, is as fragments of worlds, incomplete.