Review of Fictioning: The myth-functions of contemporary art and philosophy

Fictioning: The myth-functions of contemporary art and philosophy
by David Burrows and Simon O’Sullivan

Paperback | £29.99 | 576 pp. | 2019 | 86 b&w illustration(s)
ISBN 9781474432405

Reviewed by
Edith Doove
April 2019

Fictioning’s structure seems at a first glance very neat and straightforwardly organized – three main sections each divided into two subsections with four to five chapters, covering what the authors indicate as the three myth-functions of contemporary art and philosophy: ‘Mythopoesis to performance fictioning’, ‘Myth-science to science fictioning’ and finally ‘Mythotechnesis to machine fictioning’. Within this seemingly clear structure however all hell breaks loose. This is certainly due to what the publisher describes as the “rich constellation of recent philosophical perspectives – including those associated with the speculative and ontological turns, non-philosophy, residual and emergent cultures, decolonisation and the posthuman” and its “moving through counter-cultures, performance studies, continental philosophy, anthropology, afrofuturisms, feminisms, science fiction, cybernetics, neuroscience, artificial intelligence research, electronic music and other digital practices.” This whirlwind of references, of which the 26 pages long bibliography is evidence, is further combined with what the authors state as the book’s “necessarily different methods and speeds, operating on a variety of registers”, which they feel is due to the fact that it is a collaboration. Burrows, a Reader in Fine Art at the Slade School of Fine Art, and O’Sullivan, Professor of Art Theory and Practice in the Department of Visual Culture at Goldsmith College, also regularly collaborate with several others as Plastique Fantastique, a collective that they describe on their website as “a mythopoetic fiction – an investigation of aesthetics, the sacred, popular culture and politics –  produced through comics, performances, text, installations and shrines and assemblages”, which has clearly informed the current publication.

‘Fictioning’ here alludes to “an open-ended, experimental practice that involves performing, diagramming or assembling to create or anticipate new modes of existence” and thus not to fiction writing per se, but the book turns out to be just as unputdownable as the best novel you can lay your hands on, or as hypnotic as Plastique Fantasique’s tunes for that matter. Almost written as a philosophical whodunit, the book ‘accelerates’ the reader through to the final outcome only to find herself at the end of the book together with the authors back at the beginning, as they, and I, still have questions. This looping back complies with what Burrows and O’Sullivan find to their own surprise is the “anamorphic aspect of the book”, being both an academic survey, but equally “a document of a journey, or itself a performance”, referring in a final note to Holbein’s paintingThe Ambassadors where a certain confidence about culture, knowledge and education is undone through the hidden, anamorphic skull.

As the kind of fictioning that is discussed by necessity moves away from what is already known, this fascinating and enriching journey, or performance, is strongly future-orientated and thus maybe not surprisingly influenced by Deleuzian notions of becoming, including the interest in a ‘people to come’. At the end of the journey, or if you want at the beginning to stay in keeping with the book’s tupsy-turviness, Burrows and O’Sullivan are refreshingly not too certain about things to come. Along the way they have not been afraid to tread on dangerous terrain, which especially seems to be the case with Prometheanism and its potential consequences, but as they state throughout the book, it is rather through affective fictionings and not through rule-bound philosophies that they suggest a people to come can emerge.

If there is one point of critique I might have then it is the poor quality of the illustrations. The authors mention more often than not relatively obscure artists and the small black and white illustrations don’t do these justice. On the other hand, you could see the book, as I have done, as a companion that urges you to look up these artists and emerge yourself in their fictioning worlds. Especially in the cases where Burrows and O’Sullivan mention sound artists, even larger or colour illustrations would obviously not suffice anyway and so I ended up, for instance, turning Sun Ra on as a soundtrack which is extensively referred to in their chapter on ‘Afrofuturism, Sonic Fiction and Alienation as Method’. His free jazz style, questioning known structures and instead promoting endless creativity and expression in pure awareness of a current state of affairs, is in more than one sense illustrative of what this volume tries to do (listen for instance to, amongst others, his ‘Space is the Place’ or ‘Nuclear War’). Maybe an accompanying blog or website could be a solution that would also allow for a flexible extension? But for now, I’ll just take another ride and start from the beginning.