Toward a Non-Conceptual Fantastic

The Topography of the Non-Conceptual Fantastic

The topography, themes and myths of the fantastic all work together to suggest a movement towards a realm of non-signification, towards a zero point of non-meaning, and a valueless realm devoid of human reference or concern. The represented world of the fantastic is of a different kind from the imagined universe of the marvelous or the uncanny, and it opposes the first’s rich, colourful fullness, and the latter’s internal obliteration of the real, with relatively bleak, empty, indeterminate landscapes, which are less definable as places than as spaces of the impossible, as white, grey, or shady blankness’s. The fantastic, moves us towards the non-conceptual.

Unlike faery, it has little faith in ideals, and unlike science fiction, it has little interest in ideas. Instead, it moves into, or opens up, a space of possibilities without / outside the cultural or symbolic order. It strips us of our anchors in either secular of religious systems of meaning, allows the unknown to shock us into new forms of awareness and modes of being. Distortion, deformation, the disintegration of our normal modes of apprehension and reasoning release and trigger the darkness in objects, things, and entities to reveal itself through anamorphic displays of disgust, grotesque, and macabre formlessness and namelessness. Unlike marvelous secondary worlds, which construct alternative realities, or the uncanny psychological realms of repetition and death, the shady worlds of the fantastic construct nothing and leave us in the abyss of uncertainty in-between the marvelous and uncanny unable to choose one or the other. They are empty, emptying, dissolving. Their emptiness vitiates a full, rounded, three-dimensional visible world, by tracing in absences, shadows without objects. Far from fulfilling desire, these spaces perpetuate desire by insisting upon absence, lack, the non-seen, the unseeable.

The subversion of western metaphysics – of epistemology and ontology – is at the heart of this new fantastic. No longer bound by consciousness and the eye, concept or affective relations, set adrift from knowledge, comprehension, and reason which are all bound to the gaze, to the ‘eye’ and the ‘I’ of the human subject whose relation to objects is structured through the field of vision. In fantastic art, objects are not readily appropriated through the gaze: things slide away from the powerful eye/I which seeks to possess them, thus becoming distorted, disintegrated, partial and lapsing into invisibility. Objects suddenly have a life of their own without us, a weird mode of being that cannot be known but only suffered.


Conceptualism is the view that cognizers can have mental representations of the world only if they possess the adequate concepts by means of which they can specify what they represent. By contrast, non-conceptualism is the view that mental representations of the world do not necessarily presuppose concepts by means of which the content of these representations can be specified, thus cognizers can have mental representations of the world that are non-conceptual. Consequently, if conceptualism is true then non-conceptualism must be false, and vice versa. This incompatibility makes the current debate over conceptualism and non-conceptualism a fundamental controversy since the range of conceptual capacities that cognizers have certainly has an impact on their mental representations of the world, on how sense perception is structured, and how external world beliefs are justified.

The point is to ask if concepts change our perception of the world, or does the world change our perceptions by way of nonconceptual engagements? Is the world substantial and fixed, or does it continually change and metamorphosize depending on our mental make up? Substantial formalism or Desubstantialized formlessness? Is the world One and Continuous or Two and Self-Divided? Immanent or Transcendent?

5 thoughts on “Toward a Non-Conceptual Fantastic

  1. I think I get the distinction between the NC-fantastic and the marvellous and uncanny, but I’m still wondering about the link with the nonconceptual. It can’t be because the NCF is indescribable since it is described in the relevant fictions. I wonder if it is because we are dealing with notional worlds that don’t mesh together as worlds. Their phenomena are not connected by rules, there is no horizon in which knowledge of such places can be integrated – in a sense, they are the imagine of a kind of anti-totalising thought.

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    • You put the nail on the head: since concepts try to fix meaning, try to mediate the world and lock it down into a concept/relation, either on the side of episteme or ontology it enters the abstraction as abstraction and thereby as knowledge. While non-conceptual is neither sense (empirical) nor intellect (modal) based, and is no longer bound by human mediation (i.e., could be nonhuman relations, without concept or mediation under conscious forms of substantial mediation, etc.). Obviously as you say it: fictionalizing this, or putting it into words is an impossible feat, a part of non-knowledge rather than knowledge which is conceptual or propositional based through and through. It comes back to Kant’s problem of the noumenon: it’s an impossibility to speak it, because to speak it is to falsify it with human forms of knowledge bound by reason, etc.

      What I’m suggesting is somewhat like the spectral materialism of Meillassoux which breaks with the tradition of ‘sufficient reason’ that everything must have a reason or cause, and that would lock it down to a propositional statement of that reason or cause. What happens when there is no reason or cause in an event, happening, or history so that if knowledge is always historical (i.e., after the fact, not before: a trace of the event by way of reason or cause), then what happens outside the boundaries of this reason or limit test? What I’m suggesting in using the non-conceptual fantastic is that one is bound to either reversing Kant (Deleuze) or absolutizing him (Hegel).

      What if as Quentin Meillassoux suggests we start from traditional science or fantastic fiction, we can decompose it by tilting the world toward – what he terms, extro-science and pursuing this enterprise of degradation toward a less and less inhabitable world, making the tale itself progressively impossible, until we isolate certain lives that are tightened around their own flow in the midst of gaps. Life mentally experiences itself without science and, in this ever more accentuated divergence, perhaps discovers something unprecedented about itself or about science. An eidetic variation pushed to the point of suffocation, self-experience in a non-experienceable world. A precarious intensity would plunge infinitely into its pure solitude, with only an environment of rubble in which to explore the truth of a worldless existence.

      It’s these gaps that cannot be reduced to either knowledge (i.e., marvelous or uncanny), but must be rendered nonetheless even though non-conceptually they cannot be bound to sufficient reason. Yet, by isolating the flows in these gaps we begin to make the invisible visible, render by way of decomposition and degradation (i.e., loss and excess) this non-conceptuality. The sense of pushing “to the point of suffocation, self-experience in a non-experienceable world.” Bataille and Land among others only tap into this vein by way of the Summa Atheologica and A Thirst of Annihilation. Much needs to be done with these early notions of the Impossible and Non-Knowledge etc.

      Thinkers such as Tim Crane, Brian O’Shaughnessy, and others in perception philosophy put forward non-conceptual and non-propositional forms of consciousness, etc. From Tim Crane’s The Contents of Experience: Essays on Perception (note: this is a snippet, just to show others are thinking through these notions and that it is more philosophical bric-a-brac than completed project; and, as you can see far from agreements among analyticals either):

      Another web pointer for Crane:

      As he states:

      How can a thinker’s state have the content that a is F without the state ‘involving’ the concepts a and F? The best way to answer this question is to focus on the idea of ‘possessing’ concepts. In the case of states with conceptual contents – like beliefs – we can say that in order for a subject to be in these states, the subject has to possess certain concepts. Likewise, we can say that in order to be in a state with non-conceptual content, a subject does not have to possess certain concepts. But which concepts? It would be too strong to say that being in non-conceptual states does not require having any concepts at all – this issue should not be settled by the very definition of non-conceptual content. Rather, we should say that for a subject S to be in a non-conceptual state with content P, S does not have to possess the concepts which S would have to possess if S were in a conceptual state with content P.

      If we call these concepts the concepts which are ‘canonical’ for P, then we can say that a state with non-conceptual content is one of which the following is true:

      in order for a subject, S, to be in a state with a content P, S does not have to possess the concepts canonical for P.

      The idea of concepts canonical for a certain content is just the idea that there are concepts which essentially characterize a given content (Cussins 1990: 382–3). The content expressed by the sentence ‘snow is white’, for example, is essentially characterized in terms of the concepts expressed by the words ‘snow’ and ‘white’.

      Why should anyone be interested in the category of non-conceptual content? Why should it be of any more philosophical interest than the category of non-red things? The reason is that intentionality seems closely bound up with having concepts. So it is a substantial thesis that there can be intentionality without possession of (the relevant) concepts (see Intentionality; Concepts). However, simply defining ‘non-conceptual content’ leaves open the question of whether there actually is any. So are there any states with non-conceptual content?

      Varieties of non-conceptual content:

      The definition of non-conceptual content just given applies straightforwardly to some notions of content. States which carry ‘information’ (in Dretske’s (1981) sense) have non-conceptual contents, since a state’s carrying information is a matter of its co-varying in a nomic or reliable way with a certain phenomenon. For example: on this view we can say that a weather vane represents or indicates the direction of the wind. But it is obvious that the weather vane does not possess the concept of the direction of the wind.

      However, it is debatable whether a state’s carrying information is sufficient for the state to have representational content in any interesting sense. For one thing, since nomic co-variation is present wherever there is causation, this theory stretches the notion of representation to the point where it can apply to almost everything in the universe. Another problem is that informational states seem incapable of representing incorrectly; but the possibility of incorrect representation seems essential to genuine representation. Something more must be added to turn mere informational states into states with genuine representational content (see Semantics, informational).

      Two other kinds of state are claimed to have non-conceptual contents: states of the information-processing cognitive systems (for example the visual system) postulated by many psychological theories; and conscious perceptual experiences. Computational psychological theories claim that systems within the brain perform computations: that is, these cognitive systems compute functions by processing representations algorithmically. So the thinker (or the cognitive system) is in certain representational states, or states with content. These representational states are essentially specified in terms of certain concepts, but there is no need for the thinker to possess these concepts in order to be in these states. For example, Marr’s (1982) theory of vision analyses visual information processing in terms of complex mathematical concepts; one need not master these concepts in order to process visual information. So these computational states, if they exist, are non-conceptual (see Mind, computational theories of; Vision).

      The other kind of states which have been attributed non-conceptual contents are conscious perceptual experiences. The general idea here is that in perception many aspects of the world are presented to the perceiver; yet there is no need to suppose that the perceiver has a distinct concept for each aspect of the world which is so presented. Consider colour experience: is it plausible that each of us has a distinct concept for each precise shade of colour we are able to perceive? If it is not, this can be a reason for holding that perceptual experiences have non-conceptual contents: perception has a ‘phenomenological richness’ which is not constrained by the concepts the perceiver has (Evans 1982: 229–; other motivations for attributing non-conceptual contents to experiences are offered in Crane 1992 and Martin 1992).

      Given that experiences have non-conceptual contents, how should this be explained? One of the most detailed accounts has been given by Peacocke (1993: ch. 3). At one level, the content of a perceptual experience is what he calls a ‘scenario’: a set of ways of filling out the space around a perceiver with properties and relations – for instance, with colour and shape properties. The experience’s representational content is given by the scenario, because the experience is correct just in case the actual distribution of properties and relations around the perceiver belongs in the scenario. However, there is no requirement that the perceiver has all the concepts which essentially characterize the properties and relations in the scenario.

      Opinions differ on whether the content of experience is wholly conceptual, wholly non-conceptual, or some mixture. Evans (1982) holds that it is wholly non-conceptual, while Peacocke (1993) holds that experiences can have many layers of content, some of which are conceptual and some non-conceptual (see Perception).

      (Of course the book goes one to try to answer that…)

      Either way my focus has been to push such thought against the intentionalist stance as well… How to describe a world by way of non-conceptual thought, disattached from intentional consciousness?

      (Note: this more idea than philosophical truth as of yet, a lot of thought needs to be done to work through this. And, I’ve only begun to read many of these post-analytical thinkers and the logics of this in American, not Continental (Meillassoux) thought.)

      Meillassoux, Quentin. Science Fiction and Extro-Science Fiction (Univocal) (Kindle Locations 529-535). University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.


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