The Non-Existence of Nonfiction
In my book Narrative Madness, edited by Katie Fox, I showed that nonfiction is an impossibility since every text and utterance requires the invention of a fictional speaker who is never the whole person; it filters meaning through the speaker’s or writer’s name, uses narrative language which influences perception and behavior, relies on man-made symbolic code, necessitates the selection of subjectively interpreted facts while overlooking vast amounts of information, organizes information in artificial ways, redirects the future through a present discussion of the past, acts upon world, community and self rather than merely reporting on them, involves imperfect mindreading and empathy games, utilizes preexisting forms and genres which affect content and meaning, channels voices of predecessors who have previously used the language and textual resources, constructs a reader or listener, and requires recreation and performance by the actual reader or listener.
It is all fiction. All of it.
In English, we do not even have a direct word for nonfiction. We describe it as what it is not: fiction. Fiction is a story that is “not true,” so nonfiction is “not not-true.” “Not not-true” is not the same as true, I assure you. If you ask a man whether he loves you and he answers, “Well, I don’t dislike you,” I would not buy an engagement ring and a house. In spite of what your teachers have said, the negatives do not cancel each other out.
In an informal survey of fifty-nine languages (using Google Translate), only six languages have direct words for nonfiction as a thing in itself, rather than the negative of another concept. The Welsh word means “factual” and the Thai word “documentary.” Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian call nonfiction “popular science,” extending the name of one genre to encompass all nonfiction. The Swedish word facklitteratur means “trade” or “departmental” literature, or writing about a particular subject, again stretching a term to include other forms of nonfiction. The remaining fifty-three languages define nonfiction by what it is not: “fiction” or “fantasy” or “art.” Fiction precedes and defines nonfiction.
However, I am not trying to erase the line between fiction and nonfiction, just smudge it. I admit, of course, that certain accounts resemble events more closely than others. Some historical chronicles, for instance, are more factually accurate. On the other hand, historical fiction can represent the emotional and social impact of the event more effectively than a historical treatise. They both have their validity. The question we should ask, then, about a text or utterance should not be “Is it true?”, but “How is it true?” and “How true is it?”
Fiction is also a fiction, an artificially constructed word, derived from the Latin fingere, “to fashion or form.” Originally, according to The OED, “fiction” meant “the action of fashioning or imitating.” If fiction imitates, we must ask what it feigns.
Reality, of course! And who fashioned our concept of reality? Plato, when he proposed the ideal. In other words, reality came into existence when the great philosopher said it wasn’t as real as the ideal. As with nonfiction, reality is defined by what it is not.
Reality, then, is another arbitrary word describing an artificial concept. And what a concept! Supposedly, language, narrative and art describe and decorate the real world, but they are separate from it. They are not real. Let’s consider this for a moment. What would humans be without language and story? A naked, two-legged animal wakes up in the grassland and . . . what? I cannot go further for I would have to chase this beast with language. I would have to tell a human story about how this being is not a human, for “human” is a linguistic, narrative construct. A human is an animal that creates social ties through symbolic narrative and defines itself by those stories. Take away these things, take the word “human” and all it implies, and we are no longer human. Remove narrative and what you are left with is not reality, but a bizarre and terrifying void – void because you cannot imagine it or describe it without using narrative language, which is not considered part of the real world!
You are not buying it, I see. You insist the world around you is real and slap a table as proof, yet you are not interacting directly with the world, but with a model of reality your brain has created, argues philosopher Thomas Metzinger, drawing on the work of neurobiologists. You think reality is real because you “cannot look at the construction process. It’s too fast, too reliable, too robust . . . You don’t see the neurons firing in your brain. You just see what they represent.” Reality, then, is just a mental simulation, and our brains “virtual reality generating devices.” He calls this overpowering experience “the phenomenology of direct realism,” the illusion “that you are directly in contact with the world and that what you experience is real.” Consciousness, he claims, is a window separating us from the world. It is transparent because it conveys information to us, but we cannot see consciousness itself: “We are unaware of the medium through which information reaches us, through which information about the world penetrates our minds, and, because this is so, conscious experience is an invisible interface” (Metzinger). Consequently, he says, consciousness and the self are illusions.
Not only is reality a simulation, but simulation has completely supplanted reality, argues poststructuralist Jean Baudrillard in “The Precession of the Simulacra” (1981). Symbols, he says, once corresponded to external objects in a one-to-one relationship. For instance, imperial purple, made from a rare and expensive dye, meant “royalty.” If any commoners wore the color, they were punished. At this time, the image was “a reflection of a basic reality” (Baudrillard 1736).
From this world of direct representation, society has passed through three levels of simulation, or orders of simulacra. In the first, from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, the rising middle class adopted aristocratic symbols of wealth and prestige. A person no longer needed to be “noble” to own a palace. At this stage, the symbol “masks and perverts a basic reality” (Baudrillard 1736). In other words, signs were used to obscure and alter the existing class system, rather than to represent it.
In the second level of simulation, from the Industrial Revolution to the nineteenth century, manufacturers began mass-producing symbols in factories. The image was no longer a representation of reality or even a copy. Images referred instead to other images; signs gained meaning from their relationship to other signs. The top hat did not mimic a symbol of royalty; its meaning came from its relationship to other hats: the derby, the fedora, the panama or the boater. To acquire status symbols, all people needed was money. At this level, the sign “masks the absence of a basic reality” (Baudrillard 1736).
In the third stage, since the twentieth century, simulation has replaced reality. Rather than using images to represent reality, copy it or obscure its absence, contemporary simulators mold reality to fit the symbol. They “try to make the real, all the real, coincide with their simulation models” (Baudrillard 1733). Marketers no longer sell consumers what they need or desire; they create the need. In an introduction to Baudrillard in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2001), we read, “We are so precoded, so filled from the very start with the images of what we desire, that we process our relation to the world completely through those images” (Baudrillard 173). At this stage, the sign “bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum” (Baudrillard 1736).
Human beings have always filtered experience through narrative, modeled their lives on myths and legends, but now we have so many stories that we live our lives “as if within quotation marks, as if playing a part in a movie. The student who is starting college, for example, has so many images of college students (from movies or TV) in mind that his or her way of being a student will inevitably be patterned in response to those preexisting images” (Baudrillard 1731). Even if collegiates resist the stereotypical role, they are still affirming the image because the stereotype informs their behavior: “I am not like that.”
We not only replace reality with simulation, but also use simulation to hide the loss, Baudrillard claims. Amusement parks, entertainment plazas and miniature golf courses exist to hide “the fact that the real is no longer real” (Baudrillard 1741). Disneyland “is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when if fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation” (Baudrillard 1741). Compared to this wonderland of hyperreality, or exaggerated simulation, the rest of the Los Angeles seems authentic, even though the city is “nothing more than an immense script and a perpetual motion picture” (Baudrillard 1741). Walking down a street in L.A., we find a Tudor cottage next to a bungalow next to a Spanish villa next to a concrete castle. Californians wear sporting clothes even when they are not playing sports. Americans disguise themselves as movie stars, adventurers, surfers, Bohemians and gangsters. While Baudrillard’s observations may be especially accurate for America, they are becoming increasingly so for all countries. You can find children from hill tribes in Thailand wearing Mickey Mouse t-shirts and baseball caps, changing in a flurry into traditional costume when the tour buses arrive.
The Reality of Fiction
What am I arguing? Am I trying to demonstrate the unreality of reality? Many others have done so, including Plato (to whom I am deeply indebted).
No! Quite the opposite. My purpose is not to disprove reality, but to show that the distinction between fiction and reality is artificially created by narrative language.
Everything we can refer to is fiction, yet fiction has material existence; therefore, it is real. Cervantes’ novel is as substantial as a brick. Doubt me and I will hit you over the head with it. The book has changed the course of literature, educated and entertained. It has altered our understanding of authors, narrators, heroes, perception, memory, history and reality. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are real. I can talk about them and you know whom I am discussing. I can carry on conversations with them in my head and so can you. I will passionately defend the nobility of Don Quixote and the wisdom of Sancho Panza against anyone who dares bad-mouth them, so watch what you say! (I actually got choked up when I wrote this.) I love these men of ink and paper as much as my family and friends.
Why do I care so much about fictional characters? “Caring about anybody takes energy,” Blakey Vermeule writes in Why Do We Care about Fictional Characters? (1910), “and when we care about fictional people, the costs seem unlikely to be recouped. Why should we spend attention on people who will never care about us in return?” (Vermeule 12). We love fictional characters because we animate them in the same manner we animate the real people in our lives. Don Quixote and the fictionalized version of my father that I carry around with me are made of the same substance, and I interact with them in the same ways.
Although there are different modes of reality (Don Quixote and I exist in different forms), everything is real. Everything we can paint, picture, mention, describe, symbolize, challenge and deny has material presence as electricity in the synapses of our brains or as a symbolic representation in speech, writing and art. If I say, “The gramophone snail does not exist,” I bring the musical mollusk into existence. It may be a dream, but dreams “do not lack reality,” said professor of science and society Richard Doyle. Referring to dreams while sleeping, as well as religious and drug-induced psychedelic experiences, Doyle insists they “are real patterns of information” (Silva and Doyle). Just because something happens in your head doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
We understand people, places and events through our narratives, but our narratives also give substance, depth and texture to reality. Movies such as Elvis’s Blue Hawaii (1961) would seem empty if there were not a real Hawai’i lending glamour to the film. We watch the movie, thinking one day we may actually go to the islands. But when we are in Hawai’i, dancing on the beach, we say, “This is just like a movie!” Reading J. R. R. Tolkien, I remember hikes I have taken, but when I climb a mountain, I imagine Middle Earth. Watching science fiction, I think of the astronomy I have learned, but when I look up at the stars, I see spaceships. Teaching Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930), I try to convey a realistic picture of San Francisco in the 1940s, but when I give tours of the city, I point out the fiction in the landscape! The world makes the myth, and the myth makes the world.
Symbol, language and narrative are essential to our reality system. They are how we comprehend and construct world, society and self. A more complete definition of reality, then, must include fiction. If we admit that fiction is real, then reality, an artificial fiction, becomes real again.
If we acknowledge that dreams, consciousness and reality are simulations created by the biological processes in the brain, then can’t we just say these processes are real? If we could simulate reality by copying the same processes, then we must admit that reality could be a simulation, but even so, wouldn’t it be real patterns of real information? If symbols envelop us completely, if they affect our perception and behavior, can’t we take one step beyond Baudrillard, one step past Plato, and just call everything “reality”?
From a fictional work, you see, I have deduced the universe.
Recognizing that reality is fiction and fiction is reality will not cure your narrative madness, but the realization will give you more freedom to reconstruct yourself and your world. We may be “trapped in narrative,” in the sense that we cannot think outside of language and story, yet storytelling is our primary means of interacting with and reforming our environment. True, narrative language is a filter, at best a “window,” but those words are metaphors. Narrative language does not separate us from the world. In fact, it connects us. It plugs us in. So, don’t take the words “window” and “filter” literally.
For that way lies madness.
Baudrillard, Jean. “From The Precession of the Simulacra.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. 1732 – 1741. Print.
Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. Don Quixote de la Mancha. Trans. Charles Jarvis. Ed. E. C. Riley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Print.
Plato. “From Republic.” Trans. Robin Waterfield. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. 49 – 80. Print.
Metzinger, Thomas. “The Ego Tunnel.” TedxRheinMain. Youtube.com. 2 February 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.