Mark Fisher – Flatline Constructs (1999) [OTF001]

Origins of Theory-Fiction is a new series of blog posts/short essays exploring some of the critical texts of the emerging question of the embedded and stacked relationships between text and concept, fiction and “reality”. The purpose of this series is to gesture towards a concrete, working definition of the term theory-fiction, without being prescriptive, reductive, or exhaustive. As well as identifying some of the foundational theoretical works and literary hybrids to which this label has been assigned, this series will also examine key individual works of image, sound, and writing that allow us to further understand this provocation, and to test the limits of its usefulness and applicability. The titles of each of these posts is not necessarily the title of the theory-fiction under discussion, but rather the provocation for thinking about the theory-fictive mode. There is also no significance to the numbering or order of their production: they can be read independently or in any order desired.

Mark Fisher. Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction (1999), available online at

How appropriate, that the most important textual resource for examining the genre-concept of theory-fiction – perhaps the only full-length treatise on the subject to date – would relegate its primary definition of the term to a footnote in one of its final chapters? (Doesn’t this always seem to be the way?) “It might be worth a parenthetical note here”, Mark Fisher finally admits, in Chapter 4.4 of Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction, “making some attempt to unravel what’s at stake in the emergence of the – new? – mode, theory-fiction”. This unravelling is of a term defined largely by the work of one philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, and the many pitfalls and entanglements that have resulted in the variegated readings and misreadings of this work. Taking the most straightforward, “cold” reading of the orders of simulacra which informs Baudrillard’s (often controversial) social analysis – this being theory-fiction as a dialectic of two distinct and straightforward categories, “theory […] on the side of the real and fiction […] on the side of the imaginary” – makes little sense, and is borne out of a presupposition in which “reality” is singular, stable, and objective. Baudrillard’s work, on the other hand, suggests two possible reconfigurations of the conceptual and fictive modes. Fisher:

  1. Fiction as theory. This option further subdivides: (a) Fiction in the form of theory (fiction that uses, or incorporates academic conventions: examples here include T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Nabokov’s Pale Fire). (b) Fiction performing as theory. This, potentially, could include any fiction offering theoretical resources of some kind.
  2. Theory as fiction. This is theory presented in the form of fiction. The most well-known exponents of this mode – Nietzsche, Kierkegaard – are hardly new. At its most radical, what is at stake here is more than the disguise of theory as fiction, or fiction as theory, but a dissolution of the opposition itself. Two, related, claims, one descriptive, the other prescriptive emerge from this: (1) all theory is already fiction; and, (2) theory should abandon its assumed position of “objective neutrality”, and embrace its fictionality. But something happens to fiction here; it is no longer, simply, on the side of the imaginary.

Moving beyond both the first-order of simulacra (metaphor, resemblance, parody) and the second (representation, equivalence, pastiche), it is Baudrillard’s third-order simulacra which is most clearly associated with the categorical smearing that defines theory-fiction as a question, or “mode”. The feedback between fiction and reality under the third order, Fisher shows, occurs on the same plane of consistency: no transcendence (or psychological projection), only immanent foldings and unfoldings (implexion). Take cyberspace as an example. Beyond, of course, its globally distributed material infrastructure, where is it? Answer: it is not simply in “this world”, nor does it constitute an entirely delocalised “other” world (where it would be incapable of affecting this “first” world). Rather, cyberspace “constitutes a fold in the world that is nevertheless a real production – an addition – to the world as such.” Cyberspace therefore is not a copy of the real world, but a constituent part: it can never step outside of the world to a vantage to conduct its tracing. This is what theory-fictions are, according to the Baudrillard-Fisher definition: implexed hyperobjects which produce hyperreality. (We must be confident, however, in our understanding of hyperreality not as an explicit “death” of objective, singular reality, but rather of the death of the fictional as a discrete mode of ontologisation: “it is fakery – not reality as such – that is impossible now.”)

It is in the hyperreal – the (de)simulation of the world – that enables the memetic (as opposed to mimetic) propagation of the fictional quanta known as hyperstitions (not named as such here). For it is when a particular fiction gains a purchase on the “actual” (but could such a concept be maintained on the plane of immanence?) that it, in the Ccru parlance, makes itself real. There is a parallel here with capitalist realism as neoliberal insurrection: as Fisher later maintained, the genius of such a manoeuvre was to radically invert the collective assertion of reality, such that what was, prior to its realisation, thought to be impossible emerged, a posteriori, as inevitable. Hyperstition assumes both autonomy and agency, but then, so do people assume autonomy and agency in (“undead”) technical machines: “According to Wiener, when confronted with cybernetic machines, human beings found themselves behaving as if the systems possessed agency. Since the systems cybernetics produced behaved at least quasi-autonomously, they naturally gave rise to the belief in non-human (and non-subjective) agencies”. The return of animism and demonism in cybernetic postmodernity is seen by Fisher as an undoing of the psychoanalytic categories of the individual psyche and of an individualistic account of organic life (unsustainable on the single plane of consistency). In their place, Fisher posits Spinozist bodies, defined by their extensions in spacetime and their affects, which fictional quantities are as capable of assuming as “living” organisms.

What, then, is to be made of the twofold definition of theory-fiction outlined above? Clearly, 1a appears ludicrous: “academic conventions” are not what defines theory at all, and a novel is no more philosophical than another simply because it uses footnotes. I would be inclined to support 1b, were it not for the strange emphasis on performance. This is ambiguous, but it seems to indicate a retreat from the third-order back to the first (resemblance). Regardless, the offering of theoretical resources is actually a very helpful descriptor for a broad categorisation of theory-fiction texts that are (ostensibly) conceived in fictive modes. Defined in this way, these kinds of theory-fictions offer more than the concerns of literary theory – themes, perspectives, devices, and the like – and imply a shifting of the contours of the realistic – what the world which “contains” this fiction could possibly be (and indeed, escape from this model of containment in itself).

As for “fiction-theories” (a meaningless inversion of terms, yet equally legitimate to the former alignment), it is again necessary to delegitimise theoretical works using literary conventions as mere resemblances (the Nietzsche-Kierkegaard model indicated above) as sufficient in itself, and to move instead in the direction of the “dissolution of the opposition itself.” It is clear, however, that while for Fisher this move inevitably leads to the “descriptive” claim that theory is already fiction by default, this does not seem to happen in reverse: while hyperreality effaces the grounding for theory to remain objective (therefore always-already inherently fictional), fiction must work hard in order to migrate over to theory. One might argue here that this argument in fact widens the gulf between fiction and theory further, by illustrating that the criteria for each are radically different. There are no ready-to-hand “fictive resources” that theory can simply implement; fiction is instead defined here in terms of subjectivity and the orders of simulation. But perhaps there is a way through this if we consider what is gained as fictions move from one order of simulation to another.

Perhaps there is one more section of Flatline Constructs that could help to clarify the process by which texts become configured as theory-fiction, and this is the difference between metafiction and hyperfiction (in 4.7). For Fisher (via Brian McHale), metafiction operates within the meta-system illustrated by Douglas Hofstadter’s strange loop. This is a superstitional device which embeds or disguises authors within the fictions they have written, giving them the status of characters and helping to bury the origins of the work. In this model, Hofstadter maintains, there is always an “inviolable layer” that prevents the loop from fully closing, and the author of the work from fully disappearing: there remains here, however entangled, a hierarchy. The model Fisher appeals to in the case of the hyperfiction is that of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome, the constantly additive structure which repels unity and overcoding, and the ability to leap out of itself. With the rhizome, hierarchy “is radically abolished”, and fictions propagate instead by infection of the collective imaginary – from within. Using this transition from a first or second-order simulation to a third-order – from metafiction to hyperfiction, from mimesis to “memesis” – could we appropriate a set of fictive tools by which to analyse the Real seeping in? Surely, it would seem, this what a speculative fiction-theory would describe, and indeed, possibly enact.


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