“As reality creates itself, unforeseeable and new, its image reflects behind it into the indefinite past.”

A few useful terms for artistic research
Karin Harrasser

Once upon a time, a fairytale was told over the centuries, time and again, in the chronicles of the Global North. It is about how brave men learned to trust their senses and changed the senses in the process. There are many famous scenes in this story. One is the scene with René Descartes, who enters the stage of philosophy wearing a mask, which hides the blush about his own performance and his stage fright—masking physical signs with created signs, and soon he will neatly sort the human things into active and rational res cogitans and passive and dumb res extensa. Enter the opponent: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz insists, on the contrary, that there are transitions between sensual perception and thought. He is interested in the borderzone between the materiality of the body and kingdom of ideas, between the tiny perceptions and deep thoughts. Meanwhile, the natural scientists of the Royal Academy are sitting in a salon listening to the wood worms. Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle debate the existence conditions of the vacuum, while Johannes Kepler fights for the release of his mother Katharina, who has been accused of witchcraft. In this brief montage we can observe how the senses are isolated and enhanced: first off, sit still, use apparatuses, stare through microscopes and telescopes; then take the complete world into the laboratory, dissect, encase, presort the objects of research; or, on the other hand, go out into the world with a camera, fetch rectangular segments of the world, and standardize them. The story is about producing immutable mobiles, to not just heuristically presume the bifurcation of nature but to advance it technically and epistemologically, and subsequently to constantly reduce what is then called nature to a resource, to a commodity: raw materials, labor force, increasingly human nature as well, cognition and affect become optimizable resources. Now and again, there is, however, resistance and dissenting voices, if nothing else from the arts, but all in all it is quite chipper. Sometimes things get out of hand—bombs explode, space shuttles crash, rivers overflow their banks, vast areas are exposed to nuclear radiation. The catastrophe possesses a sublime charm, it causes a stir; but otherwise nothing much happens. In the mid-twentieth century a kind of philosophical guerilla organization formed, people who came from the sciences and adhered to the modern search for truth, but now also counted the victims of the desire for truth. People who do the math and find that the price of truth is sometimes too high; people who ask whether there isn’t another form of research possible and who want to perform a new piece in the ruins of the Enlightenment. They are of the opinion that the roles should be recast and firmly believe that not only humans will play a role in this new piece, that new sensibilities are needed, and that the duration of the performance will last much longer than the deadlines of human history indicate. But the first task would be to make it clear to the storytellers, the scientific community, that the current performance is a fairy tale, one that constructs reality and is about the supremacy of the Global North. Their epistemological models being: fairytale reason, speculations against the probable, situated knowledges, fantastic precision.

Fairytale Reason

In 1931 the film critic and critical theoretician Siegfried Kracauer wrote a review in the evening newspaper1 about Albert Einstein’s popular science lectures on physics. The scientist seems like a fairytale teller, he writes, when he spoke to his predominantly infant and female audience. That sounds disrespectful, but it wasn’t meant negatively: Einstein astounded his audience about things that were fully taken for granted in the everyday perception, Kracauer observed. We simply assume, for example, that dry sand is soft and wet sand is hard. But the explication of the formulas and laws that revealed why it is like that in no way strengthened this blind trust. Quite the contrary: The material world transformed into a highly improbable entity, everything was placed in a dubious light, one shivered inescapably about its continued existence. “It was no longer the sand that one casually walked upon as hitherto, it was a sand shone through from within.”2 Einstein’s explanations were illuminating in such a fantastic way that they were capable of unfolding a new reality. Kracauer called it “fairytale reason” and explained: “if they had done the same [like fairytale reason] and absented themselves from reality: reality would have no choice but to follow it.”3 The ground slides under the feet, the hardness grade of reality becomes questionable, and not through the evocation of a fantasy world but through skillful scientific rhetoric that permeates matter. Fairytale reason is capable of destroying everyday perception. Kracauer compares Einstein’s lectures with Kurd Laßwitz’s physics fairytales, namely his fairytale Seifenblasen [Soap Bubbles], which was published in 1887 for the first time.4 Laßwitz, one of the co-inventors of the science fiction genre, developed a scenario in which two people are shrunk by an apparatus (microgen) to the point that they can walk on a soap bubble. And their sensory abilities augment accordingly: Their notion of time adapts to the world of the soap bubbles—three seconds in earthly dimensions takes several million years in the soap bubble world. Laßwitz uses cinematic means, time lapse specifically, to illustrate the relativity, or better said, relationality of time. At first the human visitors are not totally in sync with the Saponiens (the soap bubble inhabitants), so things like the growth of a tree seem like a water fountain to them. Only when they accelerate to the time of the Saponiens do they see happenings at the same speed they do. There is little space here for the further adventures of Uncle Wendel, but what I find significant in Kracauer’s fascination with this physics fairytale is the provocation that science fiction instills in the perception of the stability of realities: The sheer imagination that there could even be another world, Kracauer maintains, is a fundamental resource of the arts and sciences, knowing that the qualification of the Saponien adventure as a “fairytale” can curtail the efficacy of the narrative, even make it a cornerstone of reality, as it is. On the way back the visitors to the soap bubble also lose their notes, so their stories seem unbelievable and they cannot provide a cultural history of the Saponiens, rather just a fairytale. Perhaps we can also understand Kracauer’s later interpretation of history as a science with a difference in a similar way: In his view, historiography, this twin of science fiction, is capable of reconstructing the lost causes of the past in this tension between document and story, in such a manner that their unrealized potentials become a compelling argument and not just an option among many, like Einstein’s explanations of physics, which force the material world to rescind its hardness. The fairytale alone does not have a compelling character, as it is routinely discarded into the realm of fantasy; reason alone is too intertwined with a positivist concept of science for it to be critical.

So the expression fairytale reason points to a certain relationship between facts and fictions, between documentation and fabulation. This relationship preoccupied Kracauer, as already indicated, in his posthumously published book about history,5 in which he examines the relationship between the obligation to refer to documents and storytelling in historiography. He found sources for his concept of history not just in the ranks of historians but also among filmmakers and writers. Proust and Kafka are prominent in the book. It is well known that Kracauer also dealt with the relationship between facts and fictions, documentation and fabulation in his Theory of Film.6 Here film is fairytale insofar as it creates a new reality when it records the physical reality. Documentation and fiction convene in film and historiography just as rationality and imagination do in fairytale reason and the magic spell: a speech act, an aesthetic act, which compels the re-perception and re-interpretation of reality with all of its impositions.

Speculations against the Probable

Which notion of the speculative can be placed alongside fairytale reason? My suggestion would be to consult the Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers, who defines speculation as follows: “that which imposes a duty or a constraint (contrainte), that which engages thought (qui va engager la pensée). Or, in other words, the touchstone of speculation is not the probable but the possible.”7 Speculation, in this sense, is not about the extrapolation of the present or betting on probable processes; it has to do with a retroactive allegiance, an operation in Future II: Speculative thinking has to measure up with the possibilities that it will have brought into being. The term “obligation” (in A. N. Whitehead’s usage) introduces a concept of the speculative, which has little to do with the everyday understanding of speculation as a fiction distanced from reality or as something said spontaneously and subjectively. Speculative thinking systematically intervenes in a reality in which it remains embedded. Speculating is not an abstract overcoming of problems that are produced by some hard reality, rather it is an entanglement of problem and solution, of things and words (of the actual and virtual), and refers to a reality that is constantly in flux, and subsequently to a future that cannot be anticipated. The speculative, in this sense, has an imaginative dimension and closely aligns—as with fairytale reason—science and fiction. At this point, one is reminded of Michel Foucault’s definition of fiction: On the one hand, it is “the verbal nervure of what does not exist, such as it is.”8 Hence, fiction describes that which is as something that could also be different. On the other hand, Foucault refers to fiction as a type of distancing between the interior and the exterior, between the world and the words. In an age when probabilities are speculated on the stock markets in order to control the present, there is a lot at stake with an aesthetic-philosophical practice of the speculative, with speculations on the improbable, which is obliged to the possible in the present. While speculation on the probable results in a poor infinitude of the same, speculation against the probable heralds a multiplication of presents, a multiplication of improbable possibilities, an expansion of the horizon. Stengers sympathizes with Henri Bergson’s insistence that the real creates the possible and not the other way around. Bergson developed this notion with a view to the contingency of historical events. Once when he was asked how he imagined the literature of the future (after the war), he answered that he would write it himself if he knew it. Later he expressed his response more systematically:

As reality creates itself, unforeseeable and new, its image reflects behind it into the indefinite past; it finds itself having been, for all time, possible; but it is at this precise moment that it begins to always have been possible, and that’s why I said that its possibility, which does not precede its reality, will have preceded it once its reality has appeared. The possible is thus the mirage of the present in the past; and since we know that the future will wind up being the present, as the mirage effect continues relentlessly, we say to ourselves that in this present, which tomorrow will be the past, tomorrow’s image is already contained, although we can’t quite grasp it.9

In this light, the description of reality in the mode of speculative thinking would be the practice of revealing a reality that multiplies improbable possibilities in the present.

Situated Knowledges

Modern science compels a particular perception of reality, yet it pretends that it is not a magic spell, rather like the eye of God, a mirror floating above it. This might summarize the departure point for Donna Haraway’s essay Situated Knowledges10 from 1988 best. In the essay the effects of constructing this surveying standpoint and the derived controllability of a “passive nature” are contrasted with the concrete involvement in a now historical, asymmetrical order of knowledge. Haraway does not argue to abandon scientific virtues but for the need to limit the validity of occidental truth claims. Truth claims come at a price, they are not cheap. The essay does not stop at demonstrating the interestedness and situatedness of an allegedly uninterested knowledge; it attempts to arrive at a perspective and practice, which allow for a skeptical and competent participation in questions about science and technology. However, Haraway’s call for a method of “diffraction” of scientific knowledge11 and for strong objectivity in the form of a “partial perspective” demands, first of all, a reflexive examination of the conditions in which knowledge is formed. This concerns epistemological assumptions, institutional and economic interests, media and technologies of knowledge production, but also representations (images and narratives) of knowledge. Haraway developed this approach to knowledge by disengaging with the god trick of occidental science—hence, divorcing the observer position from its discursive-material entanglements and instead reinforcing multiperspectivity, interestedness, positioning, and even partiality. Situated knowledges and partial perspective mean attaining clarity about one’s own entanglements in occidental orders of knowledge. However, knowing about the historicity of one’s own perspective is not relativism but relationality and self-restraint. Situatedness requires the explication of the partiality of every searching gaze and opens a path—similar to the contemporaneous Actor-Network-Theory in Paris—to consider objects of research as idiosyncratic participating actors. Situatedness also entails being concerned with real problems, which are pragmatically important in a given situation and for which there are (also) scientific yet no undisputed solutions. The result of such science can also (in turn) be science fiction, but at least a science that takes into account its fictional and narrative elements; or also slow science, a science of interpretation, of translations, of stuttering, a denser fabric of knowledge—or, as Haraway simply puts it: better science.

But what does partial perspective mean in a world in which local problems are systematically enmeshed with global dynamics? After all, local problems are coproduced by supraregional, economic, and scientific-technical processes and thus cannot be resolved locally. A prominent example is the increasing abuse of the rain forests to serve a global market of oil, soy bean, and chopsticks consumers. When global responsibilities are called upon by regional politics, it currently (still) leads to irritations in the international political scene—for example, when Ecuador demanded international financial support for the protection of the Yasuní National Park from the oil industry. Almost all of the current disputes in knowledge politics—to put it pointedly—are based on a similar structure: Global technoscientific economic conditions produce local disproportionate discrepancies and asymmetries, which provoke political actions that mobilize heterogeneous forms of knowledge and communication. Haraway therefore speaks explicitly about situated, localized, and at the same time worldwide projects, which produce a common world, which is inevitably only in parts a shared one.12 Generating situated knowledges therefore implies a sensitization project, which opposes the immunization project of modern science: To become sensitive about power relations, one’s own blind spots and ignorance, about now-historical exclusions, incompatibilities, elusive actors, about nascent common partial worlds. That the genres of natural sciences and humanities, in their restriction to but a few channels, legitimate knowledge models, and agents, are insufficient to do this is quite obvious, which prompted Haraway to not only campaign for decolonial, artistic-activist projects in her latest book but to start writing science fiction stories on multispecies kin-making.13 Poiesis, world-founding, is a scientific project we should not leave to scientists alone, as their epistemological tools do not go far enough to capture the cascading effects of scientific action. Here the arts cannot just fulfill an assisting or compensating role, rather they must confidently fight for their situated approach as a better science.

Fantastic Precision

In many ways Haraway’s approach is reminiscent of a method that she—with little surprise—does not refer to. In The Man Without Qualities Robert Musil calls it “fantastic precision.”14 He distinguishes it from “pedantic precision,” such as that of courtrooms with their long deposed truths, which can become reactivated, always and everywhere (and also: immutable mobiles), but also from the reductionist processes of mathematico-physics. In contrast, the sense of possibility is developed as a genuinely artistic method in The Man Without Qualities. Just like fairytale reason and situated knowledges, the sense of possibility does not ignore reality or facts, it builds up a different relationship to them, a relationship in which objectives and paths of action multiply, fan out, become unclear, and where constrictions and factual constraints become apparent.15 According to Musil, “pedantic precision,” on the other hand, keeps to the products of fantasy, as it is subject to the misunderstanding that humans behaved in a rational manner, hence are transparent toward themselves.16 Yet the sense of possibility means more than including strategically disregarded or subjective motivations into calculated actions. It invents alternative figments to re-evaluate the supposed “reality” and to trace possibilities within it, which hitherto have remained undiscovered. Hence, the sense of possibility does not simply mean fishing in troubled waters. “The man with an ordinary sense of reality,” says Musil in the famous passage, “resembles a fish that nibbles at the hook and does not see the line, while the man with the kind of sense of reality that one can also call the sense of possibility pulls a line through the water without any notion whether there is a bait on it or not.” Musil replaces the purposefulness and alleged factuality of “the life nibbling at the bait”17 with a concrete practice—albeit erratic or poetic at first—that occupies and structures space. And precisely for this reason the procedure of “fantastic precision” is more true to facts than mere material logic. It is a richer procedure as it reaches beyond a positivist notion of objectivity by taking into account the reality of human imagination, including all of its side effects.18


Fairytale reason, speculations against the probable, situated knowledges, and fantastic precision pertain to cultural science and artistic research knowledge practices, which explore their own conditions of possibility and reach, more or less cautiously, into the realm of the fictional and speculative. They are processes of diversification and complication that continually pose questions: about knowledge interests and conditions, about procedures, media, and vesting conditions, about the validity and representation forms of knowledge. Whatever one wants to call the result of a systematic doubt about the stability of knowledge and reality, which couples with proposals for a different world in the actual, such an attitude goes hand in hand with a process of sensitization for the organized form of knowledge, for forms of representation, narratives, images, diagrammatics, and persuasion strategies. Among the visions of the world, modern sciences—with their diverse visualization technologies and persuasive narratives—have developed extremely powerful forms of representation, but when you analyze them formally or rhetorically, they can be exposed as being dependent on historical precedents and bound to certain bodies. This can be achieved not just by the history of science and cultural science but also by the arts, when they break open conventional forms of depiction and narration and sensitize us to the fabricated nature of expression through the exposure of the form.

There is a contemporary fairytale documentary film that, in my view, seems to follow this program quite consequently. The 2015 film trilogy Arabian Nights by Miguel Gomes is about neoliberalism in Portugal; it deals with the real estate crisis, rising unemployment, the treatment of refugees, and the collapse of welfare state institutions. It reports about the losses, the war profiteers, sorrow and hope by combining the fairytales from One Thousand and One Nights with documentary material. On the one hand, fantasy figures, turbans, and oriental costumes appear at implausible points in the stories about shipyard workers, factory employees, and village communities; on the other, the life stories of the portraited people are narratively framed as fables from One Thousand and One Nights. Take, for example, a scene in Volume 2: The Desolate One titled “The Tears of the Judge.” It is about a public trial set in an amphitheater with an apparently simple case: A family sold furniture that belonged to the inventory of a rented apartment and is thereupon sued by the owner. The mother immediately admits that she is guilty, but then a complicated story unravels about the embroilments between local existential worries and global financial capital. Many threads lead to a Chinese investor, who is represented by his lawyer—but he is not “guilty” either, rather he just took advantage of investment opportunities that the Portuguese government had offered him. A djinn appears, whose intervention had escalated things beforehand, and in the end everything hangs around the neck of a single deaf mother, who was robbed of 140 Euros and saw no other way out but to get the money illegally. The thief of the 140 Euros, however, left a note behind in which he asks for forgiveness and understanding: Everyone needs money, and you can only get it at the cost of others.

In my opinion, this type of storytelling brings more reality to light than realistic storytelling, namely the chains of effect of the endlessly diverse and complex interconnections of wealth and suffering, which characterize our present time. Only fairytale reason has enough power of imagination to envision the oppressive realities of the interlinked, invisible, brutal powers of global capital at work in the twenty-first century. However, a fairytale reason that is aware of its others (the instrumental reason as well as that which is denounced as unreason) must be complemented by fairytale institutions (in the film a tribunal that invites horses to the hearing) that know about its others (namely its power effects), but are still reliable, remain available. It is also about not leaving the changes of the world to capital, the great liquifier.

But fairytale reason and fairytale institutions can take on an even more fantastic, more glamorous and wilder form. Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day19 is not least about the strange temporality of the twenty-first century. The airship Inconvenience with its crew—including a philosophizing, speaking skydog—can travel through time on light and thereby prevent the worst from happening on occasion. After 1500 pages of western, inventor novel, pornography, and world war drama, the crew of the Inconvenience team up with a group of militant women. Under the motto “invisible yet present,” they unite their strengths in order to fight for the good of things from now on. There’s a lot of partying and sex, an egalitarian community invisible to the human eye develops on board the Inconvenience, which soon resembles a flying city. The motley crew takes these intergalactic and transtemporal adventures as a pilgrimage, it is in search of unintentional, selfless good, in search of grace. They don’t find it anywhere, but the crew is certain that “it is there, like an approaching rainstorm, but invisible. Soon they will see the pressure gauge begin to fall. They will feel the turn in the wind.”20 The future is already present but invisible.

This is why my proposal is to conceive artistic research as both problem-centered as well as fantastic and situated. Problem-centered in the spirit of Donna Haraway’s credo Staying with the Trouble. Troubles, the problems of the twenty-first century, are so multifarious and widespread that they must be approached from different angles, and their medial and aesthetic dispositions must be examined in the same way as their technoscientific and colonial entanglements. The problems must also be situated in the sense that one must maintain an awareness that scientific and non-scientific forms of knowledge are not totally incompatible, but due to historical reasons they are evaluated differently (for instance, that knowledge and belief are separated) and thus must constantly be examined in their chains of effect. However, for me, artistic research also means being speculative in the sense that the investigation of a problem generates a sensorium for emerging subjects and agents. For the sciences and the arts of the twenty-first century are going to have been relational and not relative, and they will continue to come up with tricks to transform the world into another right before our eyes. For the better and for the worse.

Published in
Franz Thalmair (Ed.): Kunstraum Lakeside — Recherche | Research,
Verlag für moderne Kunst: Vienna, 2019.

1 Siegfried Kracauer, “Außerhalb der Universität,” in FZ 2.10.1931 in Werke in neun Bänden. Band 5.3: Essays, Feuilletons, Rezensionen, ed. Inka Mülder-Bach (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 2011). Translated for this publication.
2 Ibid., 657.
3 Ibid.
4 Cf. Kurd Laßwitz, Seifenblasen. Moderne Märchen (Düsseldorf: ULB, 1890). For an English version of the first chapter of Soap Bubbles – Modern Fairy Tales, see: “On the Soap Bubble”, trans. Noel Middleton, Bewildering Stories, http://www.bewilderingstories.com/issue432/soap_bubble.html (accessed on Mar. 6, 2019).
5 Cf. Siegfried Kracauer, History – The Last Things before the Last (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969).
6 Cf. Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960).
7 Isabelle Stengers, “Un engagement pour le possible,” Cosmopolitiques 1 (2002): 27–36, here: 30. Translated from German for this publication.
8 Michel Foucault, “Distance, Aspect, Origin,” in Tel Quel Reader, eds. Patrick French and Roland Francois Lack (London: Routledge, 1998).
9 Henri Bergson, “The Possible and the Real,” trans. by DVM, bergsonian.org, http://bergsonian.org/the-possible-and-the-real (accessed on Mar. 6, 2019).
10 Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3. (autumn 1988): 575–599.
11 Cf. Astrid Deuber-Mankowsky, “Diffraktion statt Reflexion. Zu Donna Haraways Konzept des Situierten Wissens,” Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft 4 (2011): 83–91.
12 Cf. Donna Haraway, “The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others,” in Cultural Studies, eds. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler (London: Routledge, 1991), 183–201.
13 Cf. Donna Haraway, Stay with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
14 For a more detailed report in German: Cf. Karin Harrasser, “Treue zum Problem. Situiertes Wissen als Kosmopolitik,” in Situiertes Wissen und regionale Epistemologie. Zur Aktualität Georges Canguilhems und Donna J. Haraways, eds. Astrid Deuber-Mankowsky and Christoph Holzhey (Vienna/Berlin: Turia & Kant, 2013), 241–259.
15 Cf. Joseph Vogl, On Tarrying, trans. Helmut Müller-Sievers (London: Seagull Books, 2011).
16 Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities I, trans. Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser (London: Secker & Warburg, 1953), epub.
17 Ibid.
18 Ibid.
19 Cf. Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day (New York: The Penguin Press, 2006), epub.
20 Ibid.