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Jean-Pierre Cléro, Essai sur les Fiction



Jean-Pierre Cléro, Essai sur les Fictions,
Hermann, Paris, 2014, 570 p.
Arab Kennouche (Paris, France)

In this pertinent ambition to expand his theoretical concerns, Jean-Pierre Cléro notes first that there has traditionally been very little epistemological investigation into the very notion of fiction without falling into a sort of general fictionalism, a position subject to harsh criticism in the field of the sciences. Cléro’s concern essentially relates to the need for a sound trans-disciplinary theory of fictions, one which would overcome the too classical opposition between object-depicting language and objectless fictions, the latter being characterized by the absence of objects in discourse. Another interest expressed by Cléro relates to the link fictions erroneously establish with truth and error. As a matter of fact, any fiction is bound to be perceived through the lenses of truth and falsehood but without ever absolutely making one prevail over the other, as fiction itself partakes of some elements of reality while simultaneously conveying the idea of a fictitious presence. As a bolt-notion, fiction, notes Cléro, may account for a certain part of reality without compulsorily engaging in a truth-condition relationship. It seems that for him fiction entails other ideas like constructability and utility, which incline towards the acceptance of fictions outside the scope of a truth/falsehood relation. This in turn makes it possible to think about fictions on the level of values, which also have to be determined. Acceptance without belief seems to open the way for an ethical approach in theorizing fictions. Throughout his book, Cléro articulates his attempt to discuss the possibility of a theory of fiction through the works of Jeremy Bentham, pointing to the relevance of the notion of utility in extirpating the vagaries of fictions perceived from the realm of truth. Far from trying to extract logical elements in mathematical, literary and scientific fictions, Cléro claims that fictions are liminal beings in ambiguous relations with truth and falsehood, as their fictitious traits do not necessarily lead to a fallacious meaning. Cléro thus explains how the notion of truth can be analyzed through the prism of Bentham’s utility.
Apart from the few attempts to theorize fiction started by C. K.Ogden in 1932 (through the etymological heritage of the Latin Fingere, opposed to Facere, as well as the failed contribution of John Stuart Mill who mistakenly transformed Bentham’s theory of fallacies into a
theory of judgment), the project of a contemporary and well-founded
theory of fiction has lagged behind other developments. Or, as it seems,
the very idea of fiction harbors in itself all the obstacles that such a project would encounter. A definition of fiction is at first sight full of difficulties. Cléro explains how the social contract in political philosophy, despite being fictitious, serves the purposes of legitimate government for
the governed people who act “as if” it was true. Such an unreal contract
operates on the level of reality when it provides some kind of utility.
The problem raised by Cléro is related to the nature of these efficient fictions. Do they cease to be fictitious because they are efficient? This recalls another efficient fiction, Hume’s continuity of objects, where the
impressions released by such objects are always discontinuous. Our discontinuous perception of objectivity allows us (through fiction) to per-
ceive objects as having a continuous substratum. Another example of efficient fiction is the idea of a unified “I,” or the illusion of a substantial
self, which is believed to be true, although fallacious. When Leibniz
constructed a coherent space, it was also through a fiction, the useful idea that space is inherently the substratum for any object. In mathematics, rectifications, corrections are made possible through the use of fictions, as in the case of infinitesimal fragments of space that are deemed to function as zeroes. Apart from being useful, Cléro argues that fictions produce their own rationality. The notion of probability, another fiction since it deals with nonexistent objects, can produce a highly rational calculus, as well as a whole system of values with an efficient influence on human activity. Therefore, as Cléro remarks, an object’s ontological
status has no necessary relation to its efficient and productive effects within the human sphere of activity. An intermediate state of existence does not preclude per se the possibility of an effective perception of reality. Even in the field of experience, fiction becomes unavoidable in order to describe an “as if” existing item for the perception of movement. The ontological perception of movement is realized through its fictional construction.
Cléro also ascribes to such a fictional existence of movement a capacity of substantification applied to a mere ratio between two objects. This in-between may be called movement, a term that is understood on the ontological level, and from which any further rationality or mathematics can take its point of departure. As a matter of fact, Cléro wishes to survey the objective links that such fictions as the question of the indivisible in mathematics, or physical movement, or the fictitious social contract in political philosophy, or even the fictitious psychological self-identical “I,” have in common. Bentham discarded in his classification of fictions what he named fabulous entities, whereas Cléro is ready to accept such tales as Robinson Crusoe as pure fictions on account of the “as if” criteria encountered in the life of the hero. Defoe acts or writes as if he was himself told about the details of his character’s life. Likewise, Diderot‘s nun did not exist but the book invites the reader to ponder her real existence in a way that may make him consider her life as “true.” Beyond the Benthamian tool of substanfication, Cléro lists several other procedures for the construction of fictions. Building a set of contradictions will have the effect of releasing useful truths. There is another way of obtaining truthful effects by simply putting forward an absurd judgment based on false assumptions, expecting that the latter will bring forth some truths. Montesquieu would build up ideal constitutions in order to examine their possible effects on society. With the Galilean-Cartesian approach to fiction, Cléro argues, only a few elements are retained to account for the possible actualization of a fiction. A line is never perfectly straight, a thread is never fully extended, but they are artificially perceived as such for the sake of explanation. Abstraction may also be efficient in eliminating all the fuzzy parts of an idea to build a fiction out of stable elements. Generalization would remove every peculiarity through the use of language in view of constructing a total fiction. The totalizing effect of generalization leaves no space for analysis since contradictions are left unresolved. Singular entities must not, however, be taken as real because they would escape the fictional effects of generalization. Peculiarities or individual entities can only be apprehended by a fiction which is a general idea. Cléro also determines how ideologies may be efficient in transforming reality. Here again, the erroneous aspect that we can perceive in them is insufficient to thwart their effects. Error is productive even if it is unconscious in the ideologically formed person.
Cléro also points to the role of language in the theory of fiction.
The grammatical form of language makes it possible to construct fictions “as if” they existed. Language’s ability to build fictitious entities
upon the prerequisite of real entities gives the author of fiction the ability to take for real things that have no existence. The intrinsic relations
of meaning between the real and the fictional entity maintain the fiction
in the vicinity of truth and reality. The entity’s fictitious character depends on the nature of the relation it holds with the real one. Cléro, following a Benthamite argument, explains how a fictional entity can fur-
ther develop into new fictions, like the movement of movement. However, language alone cannot be the focus of fiction without considering
its users and their intentionality. The intention to abuse or deceive
someone introduces a clear difference between error and falsehood. As
regards the role of language, Cléro aptly asks whether the intention of
the language-user is completely disconnected from the essence of fictional discourse, or whether there are intrinsic elements of fiction within
language. He can then perceive the dialectical relation that fictions have
in themselves. Is Descartes’ new world of principles and laws, or of hurricanes, a world of fictions when confronted with the real one, or is the
real world a mere fiction, being unable to explain unknown phenomena,
when faced with the world to come? Besides, Cléro has it that fictions
enable man to overcome contradictions. In the aporetical delimitation of
selfhood and otherness, given that it is impossible to feel something on
the level of absolute otherness without involving the self, the fiction of
sympathy allows for a temporary overcoming of these contradictory entities. Sympathy is a fiction which allows for reciprocal understanding of selves outside the grip of a critical theory attempting to define the possible limits of selfhood and otherness. But is Sympathy real as Hume supposed, or is it fictional as Bentham argued? Is Sympathy an acceptable fiction or not? What is to be retained in a theory of fiction? Imagination, affects, symbolic language? Fiction represents a means for stabilizing contradictory relations, as the fiction of identification, to take one
instance, overcomes the problem of a given or constituted human nature.
Fiction is a third term which gathers into a single construction the contradictory elements of two possible entities. Whether human nature is merely given or, conversely, only constituted, identification enables us to explain one aspect of human nature.
Another aspect of the theory of fictions lies in the relation between
the symbolic and the affective, Bentham having drawn attention to the
symbolic forces concealed behind perceptions. Once again fictions capture the entanglement of affects and symbols, maintaining them or dissolving them to the detriment of an acceptable theory of fiction. However, even if rational utilitarianism may vanish under the spell of symbolism, since it is not conceivable to account for a society merely in terms of pleasure and pain, it is still the expression of defective control, as Lacan asserts, and this allows Cléro to pin a possible theory of fiction to the very concept of Authority. Cléro, echoing Hume, comes to question the notion of pure analysis, as most concepts are intermingled with or rooted in others. These congeneric concepts may lead to another kind of intertwining of values. Pascal’s problem of shares cannot be solved except with the help of close notions like justice and equity. As a structure, a fiction can be theoretically set forth in the double perspective of values syntonized with affects. Therefore, a mind is inclined to accept a fiction not on account of its objectivity but rather on the relations it bears to kindred values and affects introjected into it. But how then does authority make some fictions more acceptable and less fallacious than others? On which value does a fiction establish its ability to be accepted by the mind confronted with concurrent values such as pleasure, utility, truth…?
Is there any hierarchy of values or a value of value? Would authority be the one prominent figure among all the other values? Bentham explained how authority was the exemplar of fiction in opposition to the use of reason. Authority opposes the idea of causality and may enslave reason to impose a noun or even a representation. Being self-constituted, authority can enter into language and make the mind obey a sign more successfully than physical force could do. In the field of concurrent values, authority plays a decisive role. As a dynamic process, a theory of fiction based on authority is characterized by the pretension to truth while at the same time deriding the idea of truth, as one value among
other concurrent ones. How to escape the dogmatism of truth? Does authority really prevail over other values such as utility and interest?
Cléro seems compelled to distinguish between force and authority.
Even ill-grounded fictions may prevail over more established ones if
their power of authority is greater. Force may destroy any kind of superior authority to which it is not related. The paradoxical relation of authority with force perceived as a unique and prominent value capable of determining other values casts light on the acceptance and predominance of some fictions over others. Authority is at the core of the acceptance of a given fiction and force can provide more authoritative power than authority itself, since authority in its essence would not require force. Cléro’s aim is to avoid the critique of fiction that Kant would have advocated so as to establish an a priori analytical chart of fiction.
He would rather plead for a more cultural and introjective stance based
on the acquaintance of the mind with all the dimensions of fiction. The
principle of mirroring perspectives in a game of productive values and
affects would be the condition for a cultural approach to fiction.