Saturday, April 21, 2007

Reality Finishes Last

In his own introduction to reality, Representing and Intervening, Ian Hacking calls Austin’s reflections on “real” “the best brief thoughts on the word.” What is there to think about? What if the problem of reality were posed like this: Why should we, and how could we, ever come to focus on what by definition needs to be taken for granted? Hacking’s answer that “the concept of reality is a byproduct of a fact about human beings” (131). For Hacking, that central fact is human beings’ creation of representations: “first there is representation, and then there is ‘real’ . . . and much later there is a creating of concepts in terms of which we can describe this or that respect in which we have similarity” (139):

The first peculiarly human invention is representation. Once there is a practice of representing, a second-order concept follows in train. This is the concept of reality, a concept which has content only when there are first-order representations.

It will be protested that reality, or the world, was there before any representation or human language. Of course. But conceptualizing it as reality is secondary. First there is this human thing, the making of representations. Then there was the judging of representations as real or unreal, true or false, faithful or unfaithful. Finally comes the world, not first but second, third or fourth.

A logical outline would go like this: 0. (reality); 1. representation; 2 or 2-3. comparison, and the concept of reality; 3 or 4. “Finally . . . the world,” reality and its concept. Hacking’s narration is subjective—not 0-1-2, but 1-2-0(3). Thus he evokes the character of reality mimetically, by insinuating its presence (reality is a feminine shadow); he withholds reality until he has presented representation, comparison, and the invention of the concept of reality. Challenged by an imaginary protester, Hacking agrees that it “was there” all the time, “of course.” Textually, though, it was not there. And even after Hacking confirms that reality “was there,” he doesn’t write as though it were here. Instead, he recapitulates. A series of local comparisons; value added, “reality, or the world.” The incidental nature of reality recalls the offhand, arbitrary, rhetoric of realism familiar to literary critics. Hacking helps to verify what the reality effect is miming: if offhand bits of rhetoric convey reality effects, that’s because reality itself is only a byproduct.

Image: store window, jewelry district, Los Angeles

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