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The Fictive Imaginary and the Real-liart of Language

Dimitar Kambourov


When an art is appointed keeper of human secrets, it is in danger of losing its character as self-evident. This happens when the language of the art becomes questionable, i.e. unfamiliar or unnatural. Some arts, the visual ones for example, are able to sell their problematic status. Others, like music, are protected by the interpretive character of their reproduction. If literature was not still associated with literacy, it would have already lost its place in the orbit of general education: under some pretext, say of lag, it would have given way to a less cumbersome medium.

Thus, although all classic arts face difficulties today, literature’s situation is perhaps most dire. Literature seems to be losing prestige in its traditional spheres of influence - from pleasure and leisure to ideology and lore. It is tacitly ignored as neither intriguing nor intricate enough: it is too slow, difficult, and laborious for its uncertain payback. Indications for the recent crisis appeared as early as the late 60s and 70s with the massive advent of the new media. Ironically, while this development was taking place, the rising Babel of theory was alleging that and demonstrating how any discourse is actually built on its literary blind spot.1 This honor was not unexpected by literature, since the entire theoretical project from the formal turn of the century through its well-structured middle up to its deconstructed end.

The question Who is to blame? for the crisis already pointed to its most believable culprit: theory. True, literary theory rarely bothered with this century’s literary legacy. Dazzled by its own inventions, it contributed, blindly or mischievously, both to the estrangement and blurring of its subject: on the one hand, literature was reported everywhere, while on the other, its complexity puzzled even the very practitioners of theory. The effect of its elaborate omnipresence was an intimidated readership, encouraged to give up any claim to understanding what literature is about. If there was something certain, it amounted to the conviction that literature has little to do with the readers themselves despite their passion for using it as a mirror. A hallmark of postmodernism, the theory that used to manage the triumph of literature appears now to be culpable for the fall of its Hyperion2. In effect, it was either muted (by the general accusation that it was blinded by language), or tamed (by the particular agenda of the various politics of identity).

In fact, the empty chair of theory lured lots of prospective occupants, but Media Studies and Cultural Studies seem to be the most likely candidates. However, being recently thrust into the limelight, both still lack theoretical density and technical elegance. Literature and its subsidiary studies have been (perhaps somewhat rashly) taken to be the most naturally convertible3.

Nowadays, when theory seems to be withering away and literature is on the wane, there is a noticeable demand for approaches that would still privilege literature and its studies. A new perspective has chosen a radically non-political starting point. Acknowledging the dwarfed socio-cultural status of literature and abandoning its former legitimizing forms (autonomy, mimesis, world-making, etc.), it seeks to it seeks to establish a common ground between literature and the anthropological equipment of human beings. Literary anthropology then endeavors to find the unique point that distinguishes literature from the other media, thus providing it with a new historical necessity. It seems that the fact literature is losing ground against other career choices has inspired Wolfgang Iser, one of the most renowned living literary theorists, to embark on an anthropologically targeted literary project.

In The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology (1991)4. Iser tries to develop a rescue program for literature which, it turns out, has always already been saved, yet failed to notice it. Very much like Göthe’s Deus ex machina saving Margarete, Iser implies that to mourn the sad end of literature is untimely, not only because its death is always yesterday’s news, and still strongly exaggerated, but also because literature as a medium of writing has a secret magic wand, helping it to locate our makeup, which makes the competing media incomparable to it. Although it has lost its significance as the epitome of culture, which allowed it to be taken for granted, literature enacts human plasticity, manifesting itself in a continual repatterning of the culturally conditioned shapes5. It is propelled by the (human) drive to take shape, to become present to oneself, i.e. not only to be, but also to have oneself6. Literature simulates access to the inaccessible by inventing possibilities, manifesting itself as an extension of man.

Perhaps some would find the postulation of plasticity the epitome of human nature as both essentialist and ungrounded. Others would be asking whether this book is aimed at the anthropologically or to the literary oriented public. Another group would discern in the project a perfidious literary subversion of the authority of anthropology. The absence of the usual literary terminology would raise doubts in the minds of others.

What has been gained by this allegation, however, is too thrilling to be discarded: a non-metaphysical road that will allow humans to meet themselves through literature in their vain and yet exciting attempt to obtain their authentic I. For we do not have ourselves in the sense that we are not supposed to know what it means to be; hence, our deviations and transgressions could be conceived as a strife for a transcendental viewpoint towards ourselves, an impossible one since we cannot stop being in the midst of change. Thus, any boundary-crossing circumscribes the territories of the world left. Any leaving proves to be an arrival, and yet we fail to arrive at the same place, since departure changes both sides. The banal motif of searching and finding ourselves has been reformulated substantially: the impossible authenticity is neither a drawback nor a doom. It is a structural effect of an anthropological predicament and literature is acknowledged to be its most adequate realization. For it never tires of repeating the same vain exercise of our self-seizing, of bringing time to a stop. For reasons that will become clear, literature is said to be a perfect instrument for rehearsing our instability, for staging our inability (and unwillingness) to constrain ourselves to just being as well as to metamorphose beyond the sway of memory. As a result, literature and human are enclosed within a self-sustained quasi-transcendent system of mutual contextualization.

For contemporary liberal trends, such a counter-metaphysical road is humanistic goodwill, which quite often leads, because of the firm ground slipping away, to the essentialist fall7.On the other hand, one might be disappointed to learn once more that literature sheds light on human nature. Plasticity, however, is not to be relegated to a pedestrian truth: it is an operational concept that is to be unfolded in a dynamic process of the interplay of mutually contextualizing notions.It is but a starting point towards a heuristics of human self-interpretation through literature. Itpostulates two essential preconditions: “1. Such heuristics should not be taken from other disciplines and imposed on literature. 2. They should, even if they are constructs, be linked to those human dispositions that are also constituents of literature. These conditions are met by the fictive and the imaginary. Both exist as evidential experiences, whether these involve lies and deceptions that take us beyond the limits of what we are, or whether we live an imaginary life through our dreams, daydreams, and hallucinations.”(p.xiii)

The anti-metaphysical stasis between anthropology and literature is extended by the introduction of the fictive and the imaginary as key concepts, or rather, as operational mechanisms at work within the text. Along with the real, they generate another self-sustained system, created out of an equipoise of elements that make each other possible.

Yet some questions arise. Why should plasticity be a trade mark for literature only? Why should the other arts and media be deprived of the gift to be anthropologically germane? Does the interplay of the fictive and the imaginary pertain only to the art and medium of literature, and why? And vice versa: if literature is to be the elect, why should the fictive and the imaginary so neatly fit it, so perfectly conform to it? What is the scope of the concept of literature then, if the fictive and the imaginary are to form its anthropological analytic? What argument could be raised for reducing literature mostly to its theatrical role (the ushered in disquieting flood of theatrical metaphoricity of staging, enactment, masking, role-playing and even plasticity, cunningly forgetful about its customary context), as if theatre is literature’s internal gestalt, archetype, model? If the above interplay between the real, the fictive, and the imaginary is the condition of possibility for literary anthropology and theatre is let in, what prevents cinema and music-scenic arts from being treated as modes of literature? And since they are not, and actually the analytic in question is anxious to exclude them, how could such a massive segregation in favor of literature be vindicated, moreover when anthropological questions are at stake?

Although the project announces itself as literary anthropology, the internal logic is that literature here is a certain mode of interplay between the real, the fictive and the imaginary. It means that any kind of art or discourse that provides the above interplay and thus enacts the same anthropological self-exegesis could be grasped as literary. This is a crucial issue which the project bypasses since it offers no explanation as to why it is only literature that covers the necessary conditions. The problem is even more difficult in light of the absence of any reference to the specific sign-system or meaning-production of literature. Instead, two chapters are dedicated to philosophy on and of fiction, and to the cognitive aspects of imagination. Examples from theater are not excepted, yet poetry is reduced to one example. On the other hand, there is no reference to cinema and the other continual fictional arts. We are left to presume that the here promoted idea of literature includes theater but generally excludes the non-fictional poetry, as well as all visually spoiled fictions (but than what about theater?). A more liberal assumption would see the project as dealing with the modality of literature, whose plastic boundaries correspond to the general spirit of Iser’s literary anthropology.

It would be difficult, or rather too easy, to answer all these questions, if one fails to grasp what is really at stake here. For all these questions would be avoided if the heuristics was a bit more literary specific, that is, if the project had the slightest tendency for making concessions to the current mainstream.

We are confronted with a project whose main strategy is to provide a new literary analytic. The key-concepts on which it relies are the fictive, the real, and the imaginary. The fictive is said to be of paramount importance as it is a kind of intermediary between the real and the imaginary: it crosses the boundaries of what it organizes (external reality) and of what it converts into a gestalt (the diffuseness of the imaginary) and thus leads the real to the imaginary and the imaginary to the real. By selecting elements from the real, combining them within the text, and disclosing the as-if-ness of the world represented in the text, the fictionalizing act crosses the boundaries of the determinate given. On the other hand, the constructed world appears to be modified to a meaningful gestalt and here the imaginary is giving flesh to the abstract intentionality of the fictionalizing act. Therefore, the fictive fulfills its mission by providing the key-structure of boundary-crossing. Any fictionalizing act contains or rather produces such crossing. In this respect, overstepping and outstripping also become key-figures. The entire variety of terms is meant to keep us aware of the most subtle aspect of this act: this is neither a going-beyond, nor any form of transcendence; the fictionalizing act provides the co-existence of the new world and the world left behind the crossed boundary. Thus, any act of boundary-crossing is simultaneously a dual countering8; instead of annihilating the world left behind, it re-actualizes it by the very act of abandoning it. If a boundary-crossing is actually an act of circumscribing the remaining world, the chance for a world to appear hinges on its withdrawal.

Now, could we apply this general scheme to Iser’s own project? Could we ask about the status and the function of his basic concepts? Iser often reminds us that fictions and their acts of fictionalizing also play vital roles in the activities of cognition and behavior, as in the founding of institutions, societies, and world-pictures. Unlike such non-literary fictions, the literary text reveals its own fictionality. We could then ask what is the status of fiction in his own project. It is an open question of whether his project stays closer to literary self-revealing fictionality, or to the masked fictional nature of cognition. Yet even if it is semi- or quasi-hidden, it is possible to ask what is the intention of Iser’s fictionalizing. Why does he select from the referential world and combine exactly the concepts of the real, the fictive, and the imaginary? And more specifically, which is the world that appears to be activated through the act of its boundary-crossing? Even if we would hardly pose such a question to a project theoretically protected by leaving intention aside, Iser’s endeavor entitles us and actually encourages us to ask it9.

As should be clear by now, Iser’s anthropological fiction seems to be anxious to overstep and thus to re-actualize the failed project of literary theory. This is a fictional gesture that both strives to construct its own analytic in a strong resistance to the abandoned world of theory, and by looking at it from a critical perspective, to imply an imaginary synthesis, or rather an interplay between the outstripped design and the one it brings to life.

By his literary anthropology W. Iser hardly expects to heighten literature’s rating. Nor does he believe that his critical vocabulary and analytic will be widely assimilated even in the small world of the profession: his project is consciously wayward and astray from the mainstream of the media-and-culture political economy of the recent humanities. This project should be assessed as a utopian gesture, whose main point is indirectly to criticise the mainstream by the dual countering between the counter-metaphysical efforts of theory and the positively-minded intellectual legacy of phenomenology. To the opportunity to stick to fashion, W. Iser prefers a silent provocation by the very productive efficiency of his apparently dated and backward apparatus. His fundamental work driven by an inspiring idea was perhaps made to gear up in proliferation of writings whose general perspective towards literature has overcome the closure of the theoretical mind. The impression that his construction is self-enclosed and curbed is but an appearance. The perfection of this meticulous elaboration, in which the absences are as important as the things displayed, is strikingly open and even susceptible to both criticism, afterwriting and co-operational interplay. This project is made to be outstripped and overstepped rather than to be followed by cohort proselytes. Iser outstrips theory for a phenomenology, overstepped before by theory, supplying the necessary tension for bringing about the event of a non-transcendental and hence anthropological phenomenology of literature.

So my reading is about to follow the project’s own trajectory. But since my reading tends to reflect on this act of overstepping in a less optimistic way, I would try to assess to what extent Iser’s project follows its own project. Most probably, the moments of deviation could be used as starting points for outstripping his own project in a new fictionalizing act. It is interesting, for example, to see whether the theoretical focus on language will emerge under a disguise in Iser’s endeavor to do away with language and linguistic issues when it comes to considering literature.

Following the intention to question Iser’s project through the instruments it offers, let us try to imagine what each of the key-concepts stands for in the world of theory. Here we will not have occasion to go beyond the three central terms, so we will concentrate on their implications in a counterpoint with the overstepped world of theory.

As we have already mentioned, literature is distinctive because it reveals its own fictionality through genres, through historically restricted conventions, all of which are said to be of a non-verbal character.

Modern literary theory owes its self-stripping device to the Russian formalists; literature was recognized to be the only discourse that denudes its own techniques. The same motif has been preserved throughout the decades finding its fullest realization in the context of rhetorical reading and deconstruction, which describe literature as the only discourse referring to its own rhetorical status. In contrast, the rhetorical aspects of other discourses, remain hidden, denied or dismissed for reasons similar to those of concealed fictionality.

By the same token, the Yale critics and their followers were hunting up the tropological aspects of narrative and fiction; according to their mentor, Paul de Man, every narrative structure is guided by a figure or a system of figures, so there was no need to draw a line between rhetorical and narratological territories as the latter belong to the former. Under this peaceful assumption the usual process of rhetorics devouring fiction and narrative has been evolving. Now Iser retaliates by relegating the rhetorical mechanisms to a subsidiary effect of the fictionalizing act, or by reducing them, after Nelson Goodman, to expression and representation.

Such a gesture is logical and justifiable, yet its corollary implications are of greater interest. By replacing an all-encompassing rhetorics with a fictionality, setting in motion the whole conceptual framework, the project reverses the perspective. For fiction dealing with reality in an interplay with the imaginary has little to do with the interplay between literal and figural, metaphor and metonymy, allegory and symbol, semiology and rhetorics , finally, between the reference and the phenomenal, if we restrict ourselves to Paul de Man’s main topics. The world of tropology is a world closed and detached from the phenomenal one: reference transforms the outside world into a linguistic framework of relations and thus enthralls it, no matter how plain or literal the referential intention initially was. In fact any figure’s reference can only underline its discontinuous difference from its referent. Instead, fictionalizing builds its world on the interplay and inter-penetration between the given or possible worlds. Instead of acknowledging a specific logic of the world of words, it assumes that all phenomenal or linguistic worlds work under a common constructive principle (in this case, the interplay between the fictive, the real and the imaginary) which eventually fossilizes them into a gestalt of accomplished meaningful visualized determinacy. A new act of fictionalizing always breaks the tranquillity, yet just for a while, as a new imaginary world brings back the peace. The unsettling requirement to speculate whether it is a phenomenal or verbal world drops out and a general phenomenal principle takes over.

In effect, through fictionalizing we supersede the semiotic-rhetoric and thus have a reality twice regained: first, the referential world is preserved through the act of its outstripping, and second, the interplay between the fictive and the imaginary “shows that the referential realities of the text, having proceeded from possibilities, revert to possibilities in order to allow (and condition) the emergence of other worlds”(234). Thus, the fictive, the real and the imaginary team up to cope with the most problematic aspect of theory: its refusal to compare or overlap, let alone to merge the logical and operative structures of the phenomenal and the verbal world. If we are allowed to operate in the same manner in any world, be it real, verbal, or vaguely imaginary, then the notorious act of boundary-crossing actually is not much of a crossing. The fictionalizing act could shatter for a while the serenity of the real by imposing on it intended deformations, which work as a sign for something else. By entangling the imaginary into the process, however, the semiotic-rhetorical activity is put back under constraint and the play of the signifier is tamed into a vision of a world. “Undoubtedly, the text is permeated by a vast range of identifiable items, selected from social and other extratextual realities. (...) Because this act of fictionalizing cannot be deduced from the reality repeated in the text, it clearly brings into play an imaginary quality that does not belong to the reality reproduced in the text but that cannot be disentangled from it. Thus the fictionalizing act converts the reality reproduced into a sign, simultaneously casting the imaginary as a form that allows us to conceive what it is toward which the sign points”(2). It “endows the imaginary with an articulate gestalt,” providing the imaginary with “determinacy”, “an essential quality of the real”(3). The impression is that the imaginary imposes an act of normalization and naturalization over the fictive, that through the concept of the imaginary, constrained by meaning-and-vision, any of the subacts of fictionalizing and the very act (of fictionalizing) in general seem to be tamed. But since the imaginary is intentionally incorporated into the fictive, it is rather a principle of self-imposed reality.

The notorious discontinuity between worlds and systems has been overcome by a substantial return: intention does not have time to reflect on its failure as the imaginary imposes upon it a world, a totality furnished with a meaningful vision of consistency. Thereby, the literary, possibly infinite process of meaning-production is overstepped by a world with a visually-invested and thus phenomenal determinacy. The act of reading with the epistemological difficulties implied (the incongruities between the worlds involved because of the inconsistencies among their co-functioning logics) is replaced by the reader’s finite activity, tending to round up a total picture. The regained control over literary meaning-production relegates this medium of writing to a device for a visually comprehensible imaginary whole. Instead of a deferring difference challenging both the contrast and the identity, we receive a positive difference providing the simultaneity, the dynamic oscillation of the mutually exclusive, and eventually the aesthetic potential of this tension10. As is well known, the ideological implications of aesthetics stem exactly from the intentional or intuitional mixing of the verbal and the real, reference and phenomenality. At this point, the implicit phenomenological commitment of the project restores its aesthetic implication.

The fictionalizing act, considered above, runs through three stages: those of selection, combination and self-disclosure. Selection is meant to fashion the purposeful connection with the referential world. Since the fictional selection is guided by an intention, it is neither in the referential world, nor is it simply something imaginary: it is a “transitional object” and thus a preparation of an imaginary quality for use. Its eventful actuality allows the imaginary to reconstitute and accomplish the selected pieces of reality and thus to impact the real. The process of combination lies on the same boundary-crossing, this time it is an intratextual play between the contexts and conventions brought through the selection and those imposed by the very act of combination. A suspicion appears that there is no clear difference between the act of fictionalizing and the act of reference: each of them intentionally selects and combines elements and pieces of reality. It is true that the act of self-disclosure insists on the as-if-ness of the world represented in the text; but due to the arbitrariness, reference also implies that the referents have to remain outside so that we can operate with their conceptual (ideal) and verbal (material) reflections. Since the fictionalizing act converts its realities into a sign for something other than themselves, and the act of reference keeps apart the things and words, the two acts seem to converge.

However, the fictionalizing act again proves to be phenomenologically impregnated: its act of self-disclosure in the same gesture differentiates it from and subdues its as-if world to the status of an analogue. Here a constant principle of this analytic emerges: if the fictive provides the differences and boundaries, the imaginary is to blur and erase those differences, engulfing them into a possible imaginary world resting upon the same principle of determinacy. Those imaginary worlds could compete with the real one or at least raise suspicions about the imaginary character of the real one, but all of them hinge on the same principle11.

Since any fictionalizing act accomplishes itself by introducing the imaginary, the fictionalizing is not to be delivered by the general effect of the imaginary12.Thus, in the same gesture, the literary text reveals its fictionality and undoes it by a world-analogue, which is meaningful, determinate, and visually perceptible13.Therefore, the difference produced by the fictionalizing acts appears to be compensated for or rather cancelled by the ensnaring effect of the imaginary, which in the last analysis simply multiplies the structure of reality. Being deprived of the capacity to invent and generally confined to elements and principles of relating that precede it, the imaginary easily falls into the banality of sameness. Conceived like this, the imaginary definitely lacks imagination.

We have already mentioned that the fictionalizing act is to replace the combined efforts of the acts of reference, of grammatico-logical relations and their rhetorical subversion. It is already clear that by staking on the fictive, the project saves reality as a source and model of self-sufficiency and thus implies a phenomenologically grounded model for conceiving of the newly born world(s) of the text. Thus the fictionalizing capacities of literature seem to be entirely sufficient to outstrip the theory world with its linguistic semiotic-rhetorical obsessions. Why should then an anthropology of literature demand the imaginary14, this generally outstripped piece pre-modernity15.

The first question should be what has been gained by introducing anew the old concept of the imaginary16.

Yet the logic and the conceptual framework of the project allows us to imagine fictive operations with the elements of the real that are going beyond or beside their predetermined role. In other words, we may ask what is the imaginary status of the imaginary, what different or perhaps already implied and programmed fictionality this element introduces17. Let us then re-enact the game that the fictive of the book is playing with the notion of the imaginary.

As we have already alleged, the fictive stands for the intended reference to the real. In this perspective, the problem between the real and the fictive is not of oppositional matter (true/untrue, sincere/insincere). The problem is that the intended reference of the fictive to the real, be it true, sincere and honestly mimetic, be it untrue, insincere and mischievously wrenching, does not possess that control over the meaning production of the constructed sign system that an intentional act presupposes and preconditions. The project tacitly concedes this uncontrollable and an unintended additional discrepancy between the real and the fictive by introducing the figure of the imaginary.

The imaginary is evoked to cover the unintended effects which the allied efforts of the real and the fictive cannot control or account for. To be sure, the imaginary is summoned to fix those malfunctions of the couple reality/fiction, which have made it an inefficient analytic. It is called in to cover the insufficiency of the real-fictive analytic. For it is entitled to fill all fissures and gaps that have remained after the real is relegated to the feeble and fragile intentionality of the fictive.

Which are those gaps? In the first place, the very difference between reality and the real after its fictionalising. The intentional endowment of the fictive is not enough to cover the profound inconsistency and even unrecognizability of a fictionally treated reality. The mechanisms of selection, combination and self-disclosure are prudent instruments for transforming the given into a new world, encompassed by a reliable boundary. Yet to always hold those mechanisms accountable will be unfair since often the mischievous conduct of the borrowed pieces of reality is not their fault: It is an effect of unintended and uncontrollable relations, in which they have been trapped within the text.

Therefore, another element is required in order to hold back the otherwise elapsing control over the process that is taking place between the real and the fictive. To put it simply, the imaginary is called upon in order to fulfill the general scheme of keeping language out of the spotlight; or, which is the same, to keep language under the sway of the intentional act of fictionalizing. The imaginary has to make the dangerous, recalcitrant relation with the real look as if everything is under control. For the imaginary is expected to provide the fictive-real relation with imagination, which in the final analysis is readability and meaningfulness. The side effects of the fictive-real relation now are said to be under the jurisdiction of the imaginary. Just because the literary text does not remain in its undecidable helpless condition but fictionalizes its own discrepancy with regard to the real and language, it could be considered a self-reflecting entity which always keeps the final word for itself. The gains of such hidden fictionalization of the imaginary are huge and numerous, yet the most important is that language and reference, tropology and figurativity are taken back under the sway of the fictive, i.e. under the auspices of intentionality, fictionality, narrativity, theatrical metaphoricity, and, in the final analysis, of the identitary unity of phenomenality and phenomenology (huh???).

Such operational logic of the imaginary is exactly the ideological one. Yet the imaginary could be rescued by its ideological susceptability if we reconsider it as the capacity to interpret, or rather to read the semantic tensions between the (possible) intentions and the actual effects of the fictionalizing act. If we imagine the imaginary as the faculty to read rather than to round up, to interpret rather than to contemplate the gaps outside the fictionalizing reference, the alleged fundamental structure of boundary-crossing would lose its ersatz-difference and will take on a quality it badly needs: the difference of otherness, the difference of the inhuman.

Now it is time to reconsider the initial selection of the key-concepts. As we have seen, their common regime manages to overstep the basic claims of the theoretical approach at the expense of weakening its constant figure of boundary-crossing. The concept of human plasticity thus endures a reduction to the old concept of the human consciousness whose structure corresponds to the structure of the world over there. As flexible and complex as it is, fictionalizing implies the acts of story-telling and lying, whose common structure suggests that truth is pregiven and available for common use. Not least because the imaginary is generally kept apart from the psychoanalytic tradition, it suggests that everything, at least everything in the literary text, is under human control, provided by the productive interplay between the fictive and the imaginary. Their common regime is eventually confined to the notion of boundary-crossing, which implies that we are dealing with well-charted, rounded worlds with clear borders and internal identities, whose overstepping is but to allow us to settle down in newly-fashioned identitary worlds. Such high-level competence and multifarious awareness, such reliable intentionality of any act of literature both over- and under-estimates our capacities to be in a world which is not ours.

Literature, therefore, could be conceived as a unique instrument for gaining awareness about the insufficiency of our boundary-, space-, world-modeled thinking. Literature hardly offers a profound understanding of the world outside or inside us; it rather alerts us for the failing correspondences between the words we write down and the worlds we wrap up, i.e. between the phenomenal and linguistic principles commanding our minds. This is a fairly banal, worn out attitude, but its critical potential surfaces every time literary language is encouraged to conform to an alien pattern. Because the realli-art of language, that real art, and liar, and trail of the reality, is not a natural thing, or at least literature is prone to support such suspicions. The fact that we are immersed in it easily conceals the simple fact that through it we are permanently exposed to the radiation of a difference verging on the inhuman. We are well aware that language articulates things not meant and in a sense unthinkable, let alone imaginable. I do not imply some high or heavy modernism here: its intentional nonsense more often than not drags it back into the field of the all-too-human self-overcoming. Short constructs (such as poems) with a relatively perfect grammatical and logical structure are more pertinent here. They resist understanding due neither to the complexity of their language, nor to the referents it refers to; rather, the act of reference cannot avoid the emergence of an unintended figuration and its proliferating overwhelming effects.

The persuasive power of Coleridge’s phrase that if we understand a flower we would probably understand the universe today would be perhaps rated higher in its most literal, physical, genetical, biological sense. But such literal sense supplements a literary interpretation, as the phrase to understand a flower is already a figural construct, whose reading, if it is well done, promises a lot. The results of such a reading would most probably have more to do with the scientific exploration of the flower against the background of the universe than with the phenomenal constraints of an automated consciousness. If the appropriateness of literature to the historic, political, and scientific exigencies of our day is at stake, fiction and narrative are not satisfactory operators as they never stop propelling the same scheme of man’s acting in a more or less pregiven world under clear rules and predictable exceptions. As that reading manages to overcome the all too human eventfulness of the active boundary-crossing, the fictive is to be treated mainly as a linguistic operation stepping out of anthropomorphism, extremely persistent when the story (or history) is in the focus. To understand a flower is very much the same as to figure out the story in The Usual Suspects, although this is a film, not literature. Therefore, if the inhuman is the capacity of human beings to think and treat otherness without relegating it back to themselves, literature, through its way of operating with the evasive simplicity of language, requires devising of reading techniques, whose results are irreducible to the given determinacy of the world over there. By showcasing the incommensurability between linguistic and visual aspects of a world or a work, be it a poem or a movie, literature implicitly makes a plea for new epistemological models which are reading-based, rather than visually-rooted; continuations in a closed self-engendered proliferetion of nonpregiven context, rather than contemplations in the context of a pregiven matrix.

Now does it mean that our unwillingness to expel from literature the semiotic-rhetorical productivity of language imply an unacceptability of literary anthropology? The openness of the anthropological project permits criticism of its implicit anthropomorphism and tacitly calls for an anthropology making inroads into the inhuman. Actually, such implications are discernible in the concept of the imaginary. The project uses its key-concept in two rather different and competing ways. The more evident - that of the recurring ideological structure of the meaningful vision - was already discussed. Yet, as we already inferred, the imaginary is the unavoidable third element in an analytic made out of concepts like the fictive and the real: its insubstantial negativity manages to (re)cover the exigencies of the unintentional productivity, of the aimless eventfulness of language. The imaginary, therefore, is meant not only to comply with the general scheme of the fictionalizing act but also, by its insubstantiality verging on nothingness, to stand for the emerging unreadability of the fictionalizing, whose general figure tends to be the reified personification, or if we follow Iser’s terminology, a nullified, canceled intention.

As abstinent from definitions as it is, the project nevertheless at times puts the imaginary closer to the notion of an otherness that defies articulation, symbolization, representation, abstraction, division, differentiation, etc. Be it steadily placed in an imaginary origin, be it structurally co-existing with its eloquent other, in its different variations (Kristeva’s semiotic, Lacan’s real, Castoriadis’s radical imaginary, etc.) this notion resonates with the oddly spread combination of resentment and excitement with regard to the situation of the human as Homo Symbolicus. Such a notion often comes to be a back exit for theoretical projects thus pointing to the restrictions of their method and object. Before any definition, this notion plays the role of a background negative concept, whose inaccessible fullness may seem rather empty. Yet this emptiness often comes to be illusory. This full/empty otherness is allowed and introduced into the system in order to silence and to eclipse the real other of the project: its internal blind spot, its leverage point of self-overturning. The validity of the scheme is often due to the efficiency of this fictive otherness, this inhuman antidote introduced into the system. This is not an action that is always consciously intended or clearly schemed. Its presupposed function, its fiction, may be innocently positive. Yet the effects of this function 'happily' covers the internal gaps or anticipated failures of the proposed analytic.

By assuming that the function (the fiction) of the imaginary in the book is to cover the uncontrollable, going well beyond the intended discrepancy between the real and the fictive, I mean to disjoin the supplementary functions, which the imaginary might play in Iser's project. The positive function of the imaginary is to permanently reimpose a mode of world-making borrowed by the phenomenal[ly conceived] structure of the given world, and thus to cover the rifts, to fill the gaps that produce language's exile from a literary analytic. By doing the latter, however, the imaginary restores and implants into the structure of the project an emptiness, a negativity, a nothingness, which verge on (if do not come from) the inhuman, i.e. that unintended and uncontrollable aspect of language-the [un]readable18.

Thus the boldest and most devoted figure of Iser's book appears to be the most controversial. Iser gets rid of language as the alpha and omega of the literary text, an uneasy task which should be pursued unswervingly for any concession to language eventually leads one into the abyss of language. Even the simplest compromise stemming, say, from the evidently verbal character of the textual play would weaken the resoluteness of the project to preserve the horizon of world conformity19.The last card the project has up its sleeve seems to be the imaginary. Thus, the three concepts are chosen to be at least an imaginary of a non-linguistic nature of literature20.

Iser’s literary anthropology is striving to reconcile a pre-theoretical, pre-linguistic literary 'pre-Socratism' with the bravest Postmodern abysmal phantasms of a disillusioned, demystified, non-authentic human being, a project which resists transcendental optimism, yet hinges on one's ability to act out transgressions. The somewhat sacrificial gift of making your own language get rid of itself in pursuit of a more generally valid and thus integrated understanding is a rare gift which deserves deep respect and admiration, which we owe to the brightest minds who re-assemble the disjoined body of intellectual history.

Along with it, it is perhaps high time our civilization abandoned Protagorus’s dictum (namely?) in order to come into closer contact with the paramount other of the inhuman. Or at least with the inhuman we, the human beings, are allowed to produce: certainly genetics, astrophysics, economy, but also literature. For literature is probably the space where language performs the dual countering of the worlds would-be given determinacy with our defying any determinacy un(for)givenness.

Iser’s literary anthropology bargains on language - the language of the inhuman - for its effective upgrading.

* * *

When God undertook the Creation, it is plausible that He has possessed THE perfectly intended intention, as well as THE ultimate imagination, encompassing all the possibilities, as He was THE utmost real. Thus, if we imagine the Creation as an act of fictionalizing ex nihilo, i.e. of the most supreme plenitude of the Divinity, we are to expect THE ultimate control over the product.

Yet God first created and only then did he consider the result. In the end, when it turned out that the wreath of Creation was 'not good', it was too late as the first human couple had already digested God’s trick - the ability to make a difference between creation and interpretation, between the act of fictionalizing and the act of reading your fiction.Although the latter cannot exist without the former, it elapses its control except for the rejection or banishment of the creatures. Thus after God who had been reading his creations as good and finally made His capital mistake, the Capital Mistakes discovered that they were naked, which was bad, but also good in a sense, although their previous reading (if their total innocence may have to do with reading) was much different. From that moment on they would never be certain about their readings and, despite the good intentions and the immense imagination, they will never be actually aware whether they are naked when they are undressed, and whether the fig leaf covers the gaps of such uncertainty. And their reading is right to be wrong.

The story of Prospero is that of a ruler who was punished for being too obsessed by his imaginary projects taking him astray from the real. A simple plot took advantage of his fictive reality as a king and succeeded. So we see a Prospero an outcast on the isolated island which he amends through the magically reinforced power of his imagination. The world outside becomes totally subservient to his thoroughly intended imaginary/fictive interplay, hence the metamorphoses of the revolting slave Caliban into the only remarkable character there. After having imposed his fictionalizing power that gives flesh to the play, Prospero breaks the magic rod and enunciates his famous words about the dreams and matters that matter. Prospero chooses to stop overstepping and outstripping the God(‘s world) and to return to It, to the World and the Word with their uncontrollable but blessed and blissful evasiveness.

Yet maybe not that blissful as Shakespeare, after one last attempt, is said to have repeated Prospero’s gesture of giving up his gift and stopped writing.

What brings the above stories together is a common paradigm, which gives birth to numerous fictional versions with a depressingly recurring finality. Actually, the above stories could be taken as restaging the hero/trickster couple. By way of further illustation, we may add two other couples snatched from high culture and mass culture. The case of children is argued by such polar works as Goldings The Lord of the Flies and Home Alone III, whose single achievement was to be worse than Home Alone II. Strikingly, the endings are paradigmatically identical.

The children in the novel are rescued and there is no sign betraying the drastic events they have acted out on the isolated stage of their island: boys will be boys and the destructive tribal blood rituals they have been working out as well as the value accomplishments of hierarchy, priority and order are dispatched to a vague legend or a fading dream. So the de(con)structive, meaning-eating power of their world-fashioning bricollage, made out of the worlds their brains and bloods know, is left behind and the great world order summons them back to the places allocated by the family, society and a kind of irrational but established as natural role-structure that keeps them children, whatever it might mean. Apart from the fact that it is a warning, it is early to say whether it is a laud or a lament of civilization.

In the same vein, when the young hero at the end of the third Home Alone hangs on his father’s neck and accepts a toy-car, a pathetic gift for his ingenuity, along with it he gets back his infant world and a place in it. The dangerous, funny and foolish world of his solitary world-war is outstripped and the conventions of the role-hierarchy are reestablished. The father is supposed to look somewhat simple-minded and blind but still the boy is happy to have him that way. There is a faint wink at the beholder that the whole story was but a farfetched fiction and it is time to go home, back to the real. Yet the sweet harmony is so disgusting that the reality now seems to be even duller than the burlesque before.

My third example consists of a movie, its American remake and a TV series named Nikita after the French film. Actually no matter which version we take - Luc Bessons subtle masterpiece, the remake that pays tribute both to the original and to the American audience, or the incredibly primitive techno-pop of the series - the general implication is that a woman, former criminal turned professional killer, strives to deserve the life of a housewife.

No doubt, the general interpretation I suggest is deliberately fake: the (self)irony of the high versions subverts such a facile reading. Now from the perspective of the high samples, the reading of the mass-products also appears to be a more complicated job. Although the dominant feeling is that of relief, it is mixed with a slight nausea towards the restored reality and a subtle sorrow concerning the dizzy suspense left behind. For with the end of the story our own story with(in) the story comes to an end, which reminds us we have to be home by six o’clock. Thus another reading is more feasible: that the ending with the restored reality principle is the fake one and that the real world, the true life is within the fictive (series of events), within the fiction (as an artifact), and finally within the fictionalizing (as an interpretative act). So the actual ending commits suicide in an act of re-birth of what was preceding by openning it to actual reading.

We may see Isers literary anthropology as dramatically suspended between the world (re)makeup of the displayed movie final and the (re)reading makeshiftof the implied literary non-finito.

Very much like life, literature is elsewhere.




1.  The public image of literature was shattered at the time when literature, through theory, prompted the entire field of the humanities to recognize its own language, rhetorics, fictionality, narration, etc., as epistemic instruments rather than as irrelevant auxiliaries. The period of enthusiasm was replaced by a concern for the authority of the humanities, many of which hastily cut out this dangerous liaison. Yet the harm seems to be already done or cunningly used, so the case of literature appeared to be symptomatic for the gloomy future of the humanities. (back)

2.  It would be farfetched to blame theory for having infected the reading public, but the better part of the new literature has been reset in order to live up to the expectations. The well told story, in the cases it was not altogether forsaken, became so intricately learned, allegoric, intertextual, ironic, and self-subverting, that any identification or empathy seemed dated. The gap between the public and literature was getting deeper and literary studies occurred to be among the culprits. Suspiciously enough, such accusations were broadcast persistently by the competing media. (back)

3.  The transformation of the literary into cultural studies has been taking place in a hardly casual parallel with the proliferation of surveys focused on the narrative and/or fictional aspects of literature. (See for example: Walter Benjamin, Der Erzähler. Betrachtungen zum Werk Nikolai Lesskows, Gesammelte Schriften, II. 2, (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1980); in English, “The Storyteller” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969). Peter Brooks, Freud’s Masterplot: Questions of narrative; Reading for the Plot (New York: Knopf, 1984); La condition Postmodern (Paris: Minuit, 1979), in English, The Postmodern Condition, (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984); Ross Chambers, Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of fiction ((Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984); Frederick Jameson, Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture, Social Text 1 (1979); Mieke Bal, Narratologie (Paris: Klincksieck, 1977); Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978); Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction (London: Methuen, 1983). Narrative and fiction occurred to be quite reliable for the regressive (in a Freudian sense) purposes of the new studies. By placing man in their central or strategic positions, narrative-and-fiction approaches confess an insurmountable humanistic faith. They may question the totality or identity of their anthropomorphic figure, yet by its presence as a character in a story, as a subject in a proposition, as an actant, proper name or psycho-physical determinacy, the fiction-and-narrative trends remain into or rather return to the enlightened but still immature modernity.  Moreover, the new narratology very much abandoned the objectives and strategies of its structuralist predecessor, constraining its efforts to the seductive and persuasive power of narrative. Thus, the media-and-culture approaches have been provided with a reliable explanatory instrumentaria that legitimize their rather simple vision of man: a communal creature susceptible to various ideological manipulations, whose predilections are “essentially” or “politically” predetermined by (their) sex/gender, race, class, ethnicity, etc. Such a political picture presents the human being of the liberal societies as a would-be active chooser of identity images and symbols and thus as a dazzled consumer of goods, products and lifestyles. No doubt, such anthropology suggests those studies as another simulacrum, another market product, whose calculated critical pathos proves to be pathetic in comparison with their collaborative readiness, reinforcing the status quo power structure.  Therefore, the co-operation between the new studies and the literary concern of fiction and narrative is far from being an innocent one: man’s identity is a (self-)imposed construct, a mixture of communal culture and politics, almost entirely deprived of existential or epistemological options. (back)

4.  The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.  Originally published as Das Fiktive und das Imaginre. Perspektiven literarischer Anthropologie, Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main, 1991. (All quotations are made from the English authorized translation). (back)

5. The Fictive and the Imaginary (XI). (back)

6.  “Literature fans out human plasticity into a panoply of shapes, each of which is an enactment of self-confrontation. As a medium, it can only show all determinacy to be illusory. It even incorporates into itself the inauthenticity of all the human patternings it features, since this is the only way it can give presence to the protean character of what it is mediating. Perhaps this is the truth through which literature counters the awareness that it is an illusion, thereby resisting dismissal as mere deception” (XI). (back)

7.  The further one goes the more luring the decoys of essence, substance and nature get. The latter explains why art appears to be indispensable for the new anthropological studies: on the level of its form, construction, and material density, art resists or at least is reluctant to yield to the temptations of the ideal constructs or ideological speculations. Its operational mechanisms, formal procedures, and functioning reflect the non-ideological other of the human way to think and act. It does not imply, however, that the speculation on  art and human plasticity is immunized against ideology. (Not sure what you mean here). (back)

8. “Gegenwndligkeit (SP!) is a  term, introduced by Heidegger in his discussion of the origin of the artwork.” (234) (back)

9.  Undoubtedly, it does not mean more than asking ourselves about the intention of the text, leaving Iser’s personality and biography in peace. (back)

10.  “Difference is therefore no longer a matter merely of distinction; as an empty space it operates both as a divider and as a stimulus for the linking of what has been divided. These simultaneous countermovements take place as a continual referring of the separated elements to one another; thus difference never disappears through link-ups, and the iteration never ceases. Since the contermovements are initiated by the overstepping acts of fictionalizing, the intratextual difference ensuing from such overstepping does not indicate deferral of origins but constitutes a structure that enables the text to play itself out beyond the boundaries of its own individual world” (p. 229). (back)

11.  The process even gets further when in the chapter dedicated to The Imaginary the interplay between the imaginary and the fictive has evolved, or when Text Play is put under consideration. (back)

12.  It is particularly clear with regard to the act of self-disclosure: reader’s split attitude into one that is simultaneously natural and artificial is in turn bracketed by the usual suspect, the imaginary: the represented world is not a world, but the reader imagines as if it were one, triggering an imaginative reaction to the world represented in brackets, thereby indicating the presence of a purpose that proves to be the observability of the world represented (16). The tension between the attitudes obviously demands resolution, obtained in the meaningful visual accomplishment of a world disclosing its fictionality but never losing its dependence on the principle of phenomenality. (back)

13.  The fictive in the text sets and then transgresses boundaries in order to endow the imaginary with that degree of concreteness necessary for it to be effective; the effect is to trigger the reader’s need to close the event and thus to master the experience of the imaginary (17).  This form of doubling shapes the mobilized imaginary in such a way that the derealized textual world  turns into a guide for the perceptive fantasy which will permit something nonexistent to be visualized as a reality (232). (back)

14.  The question becomes more pressing given that in a lecture (“The Significance of Fictionalizing”) six years after the first publication of the book, the imaginary is erased without apparent losses. Undoubtedly, technical reasons might account for the omission. The discarding of the old fiction/reality  oppositon altogether, as well as the eloquent defense of the imaginary throughout a book entitled not less than The Fictive and the Imaginary notwithstending, the lecture surprises as it does not seem to need any imaginary for fulfilling the same anthropological program. Could we assume that in the meanwhile Iser has withdrawn his confidence in the imaginary?  Barely so.  For, as we see, the imaginary proves to be the basic device for overstepping the boundary of theory. (back)

15.  The imaginary is recruited to a literary analytic where it has not been a central concept for at least a century. The resurrection of a notion as classic as that of imagination is a strategically calculated risk whose justification lies in the intention for tying together the all too deviant points of Modernity. It reminds us that the other two elements in the interplay are not in their innocent youth as well. If they have their both traditional and contemporary justification, however, the status of the imaginary is overtly provocative and intentionally irritating 'to whom it may concern'. (back)

16.  Reluctantly, we are given rather evasive definitions of each of the elements in endnotes, the reason for which should be already clear: "our concern is with its  modes of manifestation and operation, so that the word is indicative of a program rather than a definition. We must find out how the imaginary functions, approaching it by way of describable effects, and this we shall attempt to do by examining the connection between the fictive and the imaginary" (305).  What is said about the imaginary implies the condition of the others as well. It is of crucial importance for Iser to avoid the trap of speaking from a position outside, be it of a discipline, a system or a principle. Therefore, throughout the book he elaborates and carefully enriches a self-enclosed system whose ground, justification and mode of existence are self-sustainable. By avoiding any kind of preconditioning (except maybe of that stipulated 'human plasticity'), Iser adheres to a position philosophically both bold and sound. (back)

17.  The imaginary is made to be the most mysterious element among the others. The book is precociously reluctant to offer a closer look into the nature of the imaginary, simply because such is not available (as we are often reminded.) It needs an agent outside itself in order to take place and the fictive should be its general generator in literature. The imaginary is said to be intangible and hardly intelligible. Its realization automatically terminates it since by this it obtains determinacy, which is also pragmatically implicated. Thus, only literature provides comparatively more favorable conditions for its appearance. Yet we are warned to abandon the naive hopes for Apocalypse or Revelation, when the reveries are expected to enter. Very much like Gaudault, they are meant not to appear, which makes their presence somewhat haunting. (back)

18.  The imaginary thus preserves the most striking effect of rhetorics: that it is a problem of reading that cannot be closed into the language, yet could not get rid of it. (back)

19.  Any unintended effect should be either mitigated (as when Goodmans' expression/ representation couple is sent for to cover the flank of the figurative language) or implicitly relegated to the unintentional nature of the imaginary, which does not harm the general picture. Thus, the alleged discursive character of the real remains undiscussed, yet its extratextual character is encouraged to reoccur. The fictive is announced as inexplicable through linguistic instrumentaria, although it would be only if the fictive implies throughout an intentional proceeding which is hard to be warranted. (back)

20.  Contrary to the first impression, suggesting that the project is a shift from the field of reception to one of production, the book is rather a pussyfooting prolongation of the previous project, known as a theory of reading, now doubled by the act of creation. The suggestion is that the actual act of reading proceeds through stages that are mirroring the crucial points of the production of the literary text. Each of these processes is supposed to take place before and after the language, or at least the extra-linguistic aspects are incomparably more important. Blurring the linguistic elements would help for clearing out the picture of literature, both as a creative act, or production and as an actual act of beholding or of speculation over the beheld. Iser implies that both the reader and the author are playing the game of literature with much bigger wagers than the language-oriented theory imagines, for at stake is the only life of the human which literature spawns to many imaginary possibilities. Thus, the real, the fictive, and the imaginary as well as the whole range of doubling, mirroring, outstripping, overstepping, as-ifness, staging, enactment, and the others are chosen for being not only far away from language but also intimately close to the actual act of reading literature to the occurring in the reader's mind, rather than in the writing of a literary scholar. This aspect of Iser's metaphoricity may be omitted, eclipsed by the horizon of expected sober and sombre German terminology. Yet those words still keep their energetic, dynamic, metaphorical flavour that refreshes the against-language, i.e. against theory theatrical atmosphere of the project.  (This needs to be finished) (back)



© Dimitar Kambourov
© E-magazine LiterNet, 17.02.2000, № 2 (3)