Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Sherlock Holmes's Breakfast: Or, A World Full of Holes.

In philosophical literature on the nature of fictional worlds it’s striking how often Sherlock Holmes serves as the example. It's presumably more than coincidence. It's probably something to do with detective trick of building stories from scattered clues and traces, a rough analogy with what we do as readers, passing beyond the hieroglyphs to the ghostly persons demarcated therein.  And  crime scenes, as sites of a disappearance - as perhaps novels always are. But anyway, I recently came across two passages about fictional worlds, from two rather different philosophers. First, Slavoj Zizek:

Or think of the way the universe we reconstruct in our minds while reading a novel is full of 'holes', not yet fully constituted: when Conan Doyle describes Sherlock Holmes's flat, it is meaningless to ask exactly how many books there were on the shelves--the writer simply did not have a precise idea of it in his mind. What, however, if--on the level of symbolic meaning, at least--the same goes for reality itself?

Then we have Daniel Dennet in Consciousness Explained. After reporting on a particularly vivid episode of conscious experience, he writes (of himself but in the third person):

There are plenty of unrecoverable but genuine facts of the matter about which of these details got discriminated where and when by various systems in his brain, but the sum total of those facts doesn’t settle such questions as which of these he was definitely, actually conscious of.. and which were definitely in the background.. . Our tendency to suppose that there has to be a fact of the matter to settle such questions is like the naive reader’s supposition that there has to be an answer to such questions as: Did Sherlock Holmes have eggs for breakfast on the day that Dr. Watson met him? Conan Doyle might have put that detail into the text, but he didn't, and since he didn't, there is simply no fact of the matter about whether those eggs belong in the fictional world of Sherlock Holmes. … There is simply no fact of the matter about whether in the fictional world of Sherlock Holmes, the world constituted by the published text we actually have, he had eggs for breakfast.

Now, we are familiar with ways in which fictions can turn in on themselves. Schulz’s Father spinning his incomplete creatures while being such a creature himself (the Father as a figure for the author). Or folding the reader inside the text as, I think Poe does in ‘Man of the Crowd’, where the man following the stranger is a figure for the reader following the story.

But in Zizek and Dennett, quite the opposite happens. In both cases, the ‘holes’ of fiction are not confined to books. Indeed, the ‘holes’ in the fictional universe serve as something more than analogues for the incomplete nature of the universe we actually do inhabit.
Let’s take an example from Dennett, the ‘Phi’ phenomenon:

.. if two or more small spots separated by as much as 4 degrees of visual angle are briefly lit in rapid succession, a single spot will seem to move back and forth.[..]In an experiment where “the two illuminated spots were different in colour [..] the first spot seemed to begin moving and then change color abruptly in the middle of its illusory passage toward the second location.

There would be questions we couldn’t ask about the chromatic and other properties of this changing spot, precisely because there isn’t a spot; questions we couldn’t ask about the 'movement', because there is no movement. Or if what we take to be the 'self' is a kind of spun-story, rather than a permanent substance, there are impermissible questions in the same way that there are with regard to Sherlock Holmes's breakfast. 

The phenomenal world we inhabit, in other words, consists of all kinds of ‘Phi phenomenon’, which are the product of all kinds of ‘real’ processes (as the novel is the product of the typewriter) which we can’t simply turn round and look at. And these phenomena are ‘full of holes’ in the same way that a fictional world is.

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