The critical utopia vs. the consumptive picaresque

Three things make a post, as we used to say. Here’s Yuval Noah Harari — whose book(s) I really need to make the time to read in full — being roundtabled at Teh Graun:

The key issue is that because our power depends on collective fictions, we are not good in distinguishing between fiction and reality. Humans find it very difficult to know what is real and what is just a fictional story in their own minds, and this causes a lot of disasters, wars and problems.

The best test to know whether an entity is real or fictional is the test of suffering. A nation cannot suffer, it cannot feel pain, it cannot feel fear, it has no consciousness. Even if it loses a war, the soldier suffers, the civilians suffer, but the nation cannot suffer. Similarly, a corporation cannot suffer, the pound sterling, when it loses its value, it doesn’t suffer. All these things, they’re fictions. If people bear in mind this distinction, it could improve the way we treat one another and the other animals. It’s not such a good idea to cause suffering to real entities in the service of fictional stories.

Meanwhile, Kim Stanley Robinson has a new book out, and is saying things on the promo circuit along the lines of [via MeFi]:

The space of stories we can imagine constrains the space of political solutions we’re willing to include in the Overton window. Vivid, engrossing tales about the best natures of humans overcoming the worst are a weapon against despair and cynicism — and may be the necessary precondition for the survival of our species.

I believe this, too. Indeed, there’s a sense in which I must believe it; it’s my life-raft, and it’s my star to steer by. It’s something I can do.


But it’s hard to keep the faith when you know that there’s an entire industry based on understanding how to push people’s narratological buttons, and that when it’s not working to put a gloss on whatever half-baked policy clusterfuck is playing out this week, that industry is profitably engaged in such activities as working out how to squeeze the maximum profit out of a junk food addict by using their own body’s instinctive responses to nutritional imagery against them. That we can consider this a regrettable yet nonetheless unavoidable feature of our ethical landscape is about as clear a sign of the moral vacuum that passes for the heart of capitalism as one could ask for; a misinformed and manipulated choice is not choice, but charlatanry. (Cf: Brexit, etc etc.)

Given I’ve gone and linked that depressing piece already, here’s a bonus nugget of narratological theory from the world of food marketing:

Food imagery is most visually appealing when the viewer’s brain finds it easy to simulate the act of eating, for example, when the food is seen from a first-person perspective. This is rated more highly than viewing food from a third-person view…

We wring our hands over “fake news”, and so we should—but what “fake news” harbingers is the fact that the ubiquity and intensity of marketing and advertising have so successfully normalised a narrative tradition based on bare-faced pandering, deceit and seduction that we’re becoming unable to tolerate exposure to any story that doesn’t flatter us, the sovereign individual, protagonist of our own first-person picaresque of consumption.

And that goes for me as well as for you, and for the left as well as the right—for me and you and left and right are also only stories, after all.

No one is to blame; everyone is complicit.

Poor scribblers!

Truly dissatisfied persons, maybe more than anybody else, take a large proportion of their experience from books. Or they find they can double their experience, and make a second pass at the day-today, by writing it down. Poor scribblers! Such people are closest to a solution, and yet to everyone else they seem to be using up time, wasting life, as they spend fewer hours “living” than anyone, and gain less direct experience. Serious reading often starts from a deep frustration with living. Keeping a journal is a sure sign of the attempt to preserve experience by desperate measures. These poor dissatisfied people take photographs, make albums, keep souvenirs and scrapbooks. And still they always ask: “What have I done?”

From “The Concept of Experience”, by Mark Greif (Against Everything, Verso, p85)

The present tense and the present tension

Present-tense narration is now taken for granted by many fiction readers because everything they read, from internet news to texting, is in the present tense […]. Past-tense narration easily implies previous times and extends into the vast misty reaches of the subjunctive, the conditional, the future; but the pretense of a continuous eyewitness account admits little relativity of times, little connection between events. The present tense is a narrow-beam flashlight in the dark, limiting the view to the next step—now, now, now. No past, no future. The world of the infant, of the animal, perhaps of the immortal.

Ursula Le Guin (p261, Words are my Matter, Small Beer Press)

The empathetic function in fiction

We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader. You make a rarefied place (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties – the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off); and then welcome the reader in. She can’t believe that you believe in her that much; that you are so confident that the subtle nuances of the place will speak to her; she is flattered. And they do speak to her. This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.”

And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up too.

George Saunders, ganked from Teh Graun.

Postmodernism and “post-truth”

I’ve noticed a revival in a minor but persistent trope of late, namely the habit of blaming postmodernist philosophy for somehow creating the current breakdown of societal consensus (a.k.a. “post-truth politics”). Here’s an example from someone who’s definitely big enough to know better, Daniel Dennett:

Dennett: Philosophy has not covered itself in glory in the way it has handled this. Maybe people will now begin to realise that philosophers aren’t quite so innocuous after all. Sometimes, views can have terrifying consequences that might actually come true. I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. You’d have people going around saying: “Well, you’re part of that crowd who still believe in facts.”

Interviewer: My understanding of postmodernism – and you’re a very prominent atheist – is that in the absence of a single meta-narrative, which is God, you had competing narratives…

Dennett: Yes and one’s true and the others are false. One of those narratives is the truth and the others aren’t; it’s as simple as that.

I’m going to charitably assume that Dennett, like most of postmodernism’s tireless detractors, has simply read little or none of it. I will admit to not having devoured the entire canon myself, but in none of what I have read did I encounter the idea that it was “respectable to be cynical about truth and facts”; rather, I encountered numerous early investigations into what was an already-existing phenomenon regarding the normalisation of cynicism about facts, particularly (though far from exclusively) in political discourses. Postmodernism was not dogma but diagnosis; blaming Foucault for post-truth politics is akin to blaming your death on the doctor who tells you you have cancer.

Indeed, without postmodernism posing those very questions, we’d likely have never ended up taking such a close look at cognitive bias — which is, after all, a pretty good psychological model for explaining the postmodern condition. (Indeed, it’s worth recalling that, while postmodernism was having its heyday, research psychology was largely devoted to optimising the science of making people buy shit they didn’t need; in doing so they developed countless strategies for the framing and manipulation of data, and weaponised the rhetorics of persuasion before gleefully offering them up to the highest bidder. None of which contributed to growing cynicism about facts and truth at all, of course. *rollseyes*)

The point of postmodernism is not and was never “there are no facts”, the denial of an objective reality. The point is that facts are unevenly distributed across a metamedium which distributes half-facts and falsehoods with equal facility. The point is that the whole-truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth objective reality is by definition inaccessible to the subjective experience of individuals; there is far too much to know for any one individual to know it all.

The point is that he who controls the distribution of stories controls the stories themselves.

Admittedly, there was some celebratory stuff about the smashing of metanarratives, as Dennett’s interviewer bravely brings up. And I suppose he’s kind of right, in that it helped shape a culture wherein it was respectable to question authority (though there’s a linear causality there which, as a card-carrying postmodernist, I find troubling; it seems just as likely that postmodernist thought could have been shaped by a culture of questioning authority).

But there’s nonetheless a vast difference between critiquing the concept of truth and critiquing those who declare themselves truth’s arbiter… and I suspect that Dennett’s identification with the latter role informs his anger. His rejoinder to the interviewer is a collosal tell, in a way: this is supposedly the most influential philosopher in the United States, and he’s reduced to Daddy-knows-besting a journalist with the temerity to ask an informed question about a colossal and complex topic which he’d written off with a brief and flimsy falsehood. He tells us that there is truth and there are lies, and that he can tell the difference, but he will not — perhaps cannot? — tell us how to distinguish them. Indeed, if we struggle to tell the difference, he has no patience with our weakmindedness.

So tell us again, Daniel: where exactly does this deep-seated division and demagoguery in American culture come from, hmm? To borrow from another philosopher: you can’t see the postmodern condition for the same reason a tourist stood in Trafalgar Square can’t see England.


(I am also amused at the suggestion that postmodernism was ever fashionable or respectable outside the very rarified circles of academic sociology, having never read a positive word about it anywhere outside of the academic literature, with the possible exception of late 80s and early 90s UK music journalism — and it didn’t exactly get an easy ride inside the academic literature, either. But the funny bit is that it’s nonetheless quietly gone and become a huge part of how we understand our world, even if we don’t use the sociological lexicon. Pariser’s interminably successful “filter bubble” concept? It’s just a simplified model of the media mechanics of the postmodern condition… and you can barely spit without hitting an op-ed headline that includes it.

Facts only become truth once they’re packaged in a way we find palatable. You’d think a philosopher who hangs out in Silicon Valley would get that by now.)

Science fiction, science fact, and all that's in between …