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Gabriel Motzkin


Premodern philosophy conceived the relations to the ideal world in terms of transcendence. Transcendence was viewed from three aspects: absolute transcendence, the transcending act, and transcendence-in-immanence. When these are reconceived as the imaginary, the fictionalizing act, and the synthesis of imaginary object and real object, it becomes apparent that these may not have a common origin.

Iser's polemic is directed both against those who derive the fictive from the real and against those who derive the fictive from the imaginary. His main point is that world-making takes place in the cross between worlds: the fictionalizing act makes world-creation possible. While Iser's fictionalizing act is world-creating, it is not self-transcending. The self does not dissolve in the transcending act. There is no ultimate synthesis of the real, the fictive and the imaginary.

Roots of some of Iser’s ideas can be found in Lask, Vaihinger and Husserl. Lask appears in Iser's work via Constantine Castoriadis; Vaihinger is discussed extensively; while Husserl is rarely discussed, Iser’s work presupposes Husserl. Castoriadis argues for the primordial nature of the imaginary as a potential world lying alongside a real one that must be awakened through the fictionalizing act. Vaihinger argued that worlds are only accessible to consciousness through virtual acts that do not fictionalize the real world, but rather realize the fictional world while keeping conscious of its fictionality. Vaihinger developed the notion of a simultaneously double consciousness, a source for Iser’s motif of a consciousness that is transgressive because it can be at two aspects or points of view at the same time.

Husserl argued that consciousness can only reach the world, which is probabilistic, real, and transcendent, by traversing a non-existent realm of ideal meanings. Unlike Lask or Vaihinger, he did not infer either the non-existence of the input (the subjective act of cognition), or of the output (the world that the subject creates), but rather located ideal non-existence in the middle. For Husserl, consciousness has no special sphere. All it adds to this world, as for Iser, is an act. However, as for Iser, this act is not an imaginary act. Reality is not in the world or in the mind but in the act itself. The fictionalizing act is as real as any other act.

A question to Iser: do all acts function like fictionalizing acts? Does the imaginary then only exist for a fictionalizing act? Maybe different imaginaries are available for different acts.

Can we perceive this process? Modern philosophy suggests that this question can only be decided if the question of whether the observer and the observed are part of the same world has been answered. Perhaps observation, however, presupposes boundary-crossing: I could look at myself looking at a picture if I could see from another world back into this one, which means that I could see from one world to another. I could then assert that perception is not immanent, but rather transcendent.

Vaihinger thought that only that self-perception is possible which recognizes the fictional nature of the as-if sphere. Husserl ultimately concluded that while perception derives from self-perception, self-perception requires a hiatus between perception and self-perception. While perception and self-perception are then distinct, either perception or self-perception must be able to cross the world-boundary between inside and outside.

Iser believes not only that perception can cross world-boundaries, like Husserl, but that it always crosses world-boundaries. Crossing world-boundaries, however, does not require bracketing out existence. The fictionalizing act activates the imaginary, which has its own kind of existence.

While Iser hence believes that we can take up a virtual position, he does not believe like Vaihinger that all positions are virtual. It is because we can look out from the picture into the world that I can look from the fictional me into the real me. But if all perceptions are boundary-crossings, and reality then needs the imaginary, does the imaginary require reality in the same way? Does an imaginary me need to become the real in order to look at the imaginary me? Is the imaginary of equal status with the real as world-constituting? If the imaginary does not need to enter the real, does that mean that the imaginary is not bound by the rules of reality? Iser would reply that an imaginary me is bound by the same reality-rules as the real me, even when it seems to violate them. For an imaginary me to see an imaginary me, it must perform the same kind of fictionalizing act as a real me.

Two conclusions. First: the fictionalizing act is directional: away from the given. A return to the given from the imaginary is a boundary-transgression. This directionality cannot be changed: there is no towards in the fictionalizing act; it must always be away. Second, there can be no closure. Oscillation cannot be transcended, since there is no way to synthesize the real and the imaginary. For Iser, boundary-crossing makes world-synthesis unnecessary.

Iser does not base his distinction between worlds on the difference between the way that we perceive the real and the imaginary. Therefore he does not discuss the difference between perception in the real and in the imaginary. But how do we see when we view perception as boundary-crossing? How is that different from perception within a world?

What does it mean to look at an object as part of a painting? It presumes the capacity to see the painting as finite, as having borders. In contrast, when we see the world, we ignore the fact that we are really seeing it enframed in a border. Whereas the fictionalizing act makes the border explicit. We accord truth-value to the fictional border which we deny the real border of perception.

There can be no closure because I cannot integrate seeing a border and believing it is not there, or alternatively not seeing a border and believing that it is there. Border-crossing assumes that I can see myself both perspectivally and aperspectivally, but it does not require some point of view that totalizes all perspectives. Hence Iser turns to play, where everything is to-and fro.

Anthropology recognizes difference because it assumes the ability to adopt different points of view. It educes the assumption of a common humanity from the quite universal capability of fictionalizing, i.e. seeing aspects from different worlds. An anthropology that rejects the possibility of a universal perspective must affirm the universal possibility of boundary-crossing. The question for any postmodernity must be the desirability of difference, not its facticity.



© Gabriel Motzkin
© E-publisher LiterNet, 15.02.2001, № 2 (15)

Other publications:
New Literary History, 31, № 1, Winter 2000.