Heuristic Fictions and Literary Technologies


In Dead Minutes, ed. Tom K. Kemp, 2024. Published for STRP Festival, Eindhoven, NL. Link

The speculative conditions of an afterlife have long been used to regulate ethical actions in the human living world. Drawing from Kant, even if actions and decisions target experience in the here and now, the principles guiding those actions derive from the regulative fiction as if our “destiny extended infinitely far beyond our experience,” and as if a God bears witness to judge. Such fictions need not be theologically or metaphysically loaded; rather they operate more generally as a heuristic tool, in the parlance of Kant. Distinct from hypotheses which can be tested in an empirical world, “heuristic fictions” function as vehicle for understanding, by outlining imaginary paths to be taken within the domain of lived experience, but which can never be verifiable known because they “lie altogether outside of reality.”[1] For Hans Vaihinger, these heuristic fictions are consciously false hypotheses; their unreal status is recognized deliberately (and not a temporary erroneous world picture), while the provisional representations generated by them, serves an imaginary utility function, despite having no real ‘truth’ to them.

More than one-hundred years ago in his Philosophy of As-If, Vaihinger extensively catalogued various instances of such heuristic fictions, from the sciences, to ethics, to literature and beyond, demonstrating the way they prepare us for the updating of knowledge, or facilitate the discovery of something hitherto unthought, or unimagined. When considering the history of human thought reveals a strong proclivity for the upholding of epistemological paradigms, regardless of said history being told through a series of revolutionary key frames, Vaihinger’s work, unto itself, paves the way for more contemporary ideas about how it is possible to think ‘that which has not yet been thought,’ such as model-based theories of conceptual discovery.[2] For example, Goethe’s consciously fictive invention of an animal archetype (as if an animal form could be reduced to a single type), prepared the ground for Darwin’s hypothesis,[3] followed by deepened bio-evolutionary work predicated on the impossible existence of infinite populations in order to render intelligible species-level mutations in timescales that defy empirical access.[4] These as-if, heuristic fictions manifest mental models with their inherent frameworks of reference, in order to localise thought-objects according to those frameworks, thus enabling the possibility to situate a conceptual perspective that is unbound to given conditions of the present (be that social reality, or the state of knowledge, etc.). It is from such non-given, yet conceptually situated perspectives enabled by model-worlds, that comparative, (sometimes contradictory) vantage-points can be cultivated to both unsettle and denaturalise the law-like perception of the rules governing a given world that may feel immutable.[5] In this way, the elaboration of heuristic fictions gesture to a post-critical ethos, insofar as it is an activity predicated on acknowledging an entrenchment in, and recognition of the logics of a given world (a critical diagnosis of path dependence), yet by way of nontrivial departure from said world (an abductive prognostics of change). Through an as-if, heuristic fiction, the ludic medium of Dead Minutes echoes such post-critical commitments by facilitating participation in an impossible model-world of the perpetually Dead who are mandated to both envision and enact change for the better. The game-play documentation grants us living-world, non-players a window into the process of abductive departure from given conditions, while The Dead, The Place and The Chorus articulate the configuration of this alter model-world.

The game itself iterates recursively, taking on a computational disposition, despite being paper driven, as well as live-action based. Interaction between The Dead as vital zombies, and with the precise, yet open set of rules, sets off a generative simulation whose uncertain telos is not infinitely possible, but is predicated on what is ideally realisable in reference to the limit conditions of The Place, and its speculative, material transformations over sequences of turn-taking. Such rules that allow for recursive situational mutation, and not mere mechanical repetition, are what Lorraine Daston identified as “thick rules”. Thick rules are those that assume discretion, adaptability and are context-sensitive in their application taking on characteristics of a model, whereas thin rules, in contrast, do not invite space for interpretation, assuming “a predictable, stable world in which all possibilities can be foreseen”.[6] The gamut of rules – from cookbooks to games, from social contracts to algorithmic calculation, seesaw between thick and thin rules without rigid categorization, however as Daston emphasizes, thick rules bend towards universal or general guidance, not because they are “vague or unspecific,” but because they cannot predict all the particular instances unleashed by their rule-models in practice.[7] Just as there is nothing vague about role-playing an unresuscitatable Dead character, nor the miserable initial conditions of The Place in which the group coexists, the thick rule of guaranteed, causal transformability (with consequence) institutes a play-space for the heuristic fiction of morbid hope. Although we may never exit a state of deadness as a thin rule, the miserable conditions within which we persist, are subject to manifold, particular variability within the universal thick rule of intervening causal efficacy.


[1] Hans Vaihinger, The Philosophy of “As-If”, trans. C.K. Ogden (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.), 1937, 273. (Original in German, 1911).
[2] Nancy J. Nersessian, Creating Scientific Concepts, (Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 2008), 10.
[3] Ibid., 86.
[4] Margaret Morrison, Reconstructing Reality: Models, Mathematics and Simulations, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
[5] Reza Negarestani, “What Does it Take to Make Anything at All,” in The Poet Engineers: Reader (New York: Miguel Abreu Gallery, 2021). https://miguelabreugallery.com/the-poet-engineers-reader/
[6] Lorraine Daston, Rules: A Short History of What We Live By, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022), 3.
[7] Ibid., 61.

Patricia Reed, "Heuristic Fictions and Literary Technologies," in Dead Minutes, ed. Tom K. Kemp, 2024. Link