by Bram Ieven
We cannot simply think of fiction as the opposite of truth. The reason why this is so clear to anyone who has ever really been moved by a literary work of fiction: whenever we are really moved by literature, then even though we know that what we are reading is fiction, we still feel that its narrative touches upon something essential — if not factual truth, then perhaps a more profound, allegorical truth. In this lecture, Ieven asks the question what happens to this ‘more profound truth of literary fiction’ in a postnational global landscape and in the era of post-truth. Is literature the precursor of post-truth? Or might literary fiction’s claim to truth provide an antidote to fake news and post-truth?
First Movement: Fiction is not Untrue
Tempting as it may be, we cannot simply think of fiction as the opposite of truth. Rather than being untrue or downright false, fiction is a property of stories about characters that do not actually exist and events that did not actually happen. But that does not mean that fiction is untrue.
And indeed, few literary theorist or philosophers of art actually claim that fiction is simply untruth.
Not even Plato? Well, no, not even Plato.
Plato’s famous argument against poetry and against what we today would call literary fiction was not that it is always and under all circumstances untrue; and neither was his argument as simple as saying that people are so gullible and simple that they are not able to make a distinction between truth and fiction and should therefore be kept as far away from fiction as possible. Quite to the contrary, Plato knew very well that people understand that fiction is not true in the literal sense. But he also understood this: even though we know that what happens in a novel is not true in the literal sense – in other words: that it is fiction – whenever we are really touched by a novel the impact this has on us can be much more profound than the impact of rational argument. We then say: “of course I know that all of this is just fiction, and yet…” It is this and yet which I am interested in and which I think puts us on track of understanding the force of fiction.
What is communicated to us through fiction can sometimes speak to us in a way that is unlike anything else; and although we know that the story is not true in the literal sense we also feel that it speaks to a more profound truth, for example that it tells us something essential about life or about communal life. And the force it can exert on us is not to be underestimated – even though we know it is not true in the literal sense.
The fact that Plato understood this very well, becomes quite clear when we take a look at the narrative build-up of Socrates’ last dialogue (which, incidentally is not Plato’s last work). In the Phaedo we witness the last hours of Socrates in his prison in Athens. The dialogue plays with the force of fiction in several respects. For starters, the dialogue, written by Plato, is narrated by Phaedo who mentions that “Plato, I believe, was ill” and therefore was not present. But more importantly perhaps, is the fact that the dialogue unfolds three arguments for the immortality of the soul. Whereas the first two arguments are both rational arguments, the final argument is really not an argument at all but rather a speculative story about the composition of the earth and the structure of the underworld in which souls are recycled. If you think about it, this means that one of the most critical opponents of fiction ends his career as a philosopher with … indeed, a piece of speculative fiction. Here is what Socrates himself has to say about this:
A man of sense ought not to say, nor will I be very confident, that the description which I have given of the soul and her mansions is exactly true. But I do say that, inasmuch as the soul is shown to be immortal, he may venture to think, not improperly or unworthily, that something of the kind is true. The venture is a glorious one, and he ought to comfort himself with words like these, which is the reason why I lengthen out the tale.
When it comes to fiction, then, this is precisely the issue I think: when we are really touched or ‘grabbed’ by a fictional narrative, we of course know it is not “exactly true” but we do “venture to think … that something of the kind is true”. Plato’s real objection to fiction, then, is not that it is simply opposed to truth, but that it appeals to us through our emotions and by working our imagination. And that is what makes art so dangerous. At best, Plato argued, art and fiction are disingenuous ways of bringing us to a certain insights – at worst they lead to moral destruction.
In a sense, I greatly admire Plato’s argument. I admire it for several reasons. Clearly, he understood the role of fiction and its impact on society. It means that fiction is the outcome of artistic imagination; but more often than not, this artistic imagination pertains to something that is happening in society, does tap into a generally held idea, and does tell us something very true about human nature, about human relationships, political causes and what not.
The Commonality of Art
What the argument on the impact of fiction and the so-called ‘deeper truth’ it speaks to indicates, I think, is that literary fiction is a social or communal affair – and not just a personal affair. It is a communal affair, first, in the sense that as Plato realized all too well literary fiction has such a profound impact on its readers that it will inevitably impact society as well. Even more, a whole community can be constructed around fiction. But it is also a communal affair in a more profound, more direct sense. When we are really grabbed by a work of literary fiction, we cannot help but feel that its appeal must be wider than just on us – that perhaps it might even be universal.
The sense of urgency that a work of literary fiction can exude, the suggestion that a deeper truth that lies hidden behind a singular narrative, leads us to believe that “it’s not just me”, that there is indeed a wider appeal that goes forth from this work – that we are dealing here with some kind of truth. It was the German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant who tried the hardest to come to terms with this phenomenon in his philosophy of art. Kant observed that when we find something beautiful, this is not because we have some personal gain in mind. There is, as Kant argued, no “inclination of the subject [nor] … an underlying interest [or] private conditions” that explains why we find certain images beautiful or, in our case, why we are enthralled by a literary narrative. So since there are no “private conditions” that can explain why we are struck by something beautiful we tend to suppose that this aesthetic experience of the beautiful is “grounded in” something that all humans must have. “Consequently,” Kant argues, we believe we “have grounds for expecting a similar pleasure of everyone.”1
This leads us to suppose that while the beautiful (or in our case: literature) is subjective, it is also universal or at least holds universal appeal.
Kant presents us with an interesting paradox: that of a subjective experience which is nevertheless universal. It leads him to conclude that our human sense of the beautiful is grounded in a so-called common sense (senses communis). This common sense, he argues, “is essentially different from the common understanding that is sometimes also called common sense.”
What I appreciate about Kant’s argument, is that he takes seriously that heartfelt experience that art (or the beautiful) appeals to something universal; that, in other words, literature speaks to a deeper truth. I also appreciate the fact that this leads him to develop a theory about the commonality of our senses, his theory of a senses communis that binds humanity together. What I find objectionable, however, is the ultimate conclusion he draws from this. Simply put, for Kant the fact that the beautiful has universal appeal is because it has no conceptual content. So what we hold in common that is revealed to us when experiencing the beautiful, is not a shared concept of how we think about certain things or a set of values that we all hold in common, but rather simply the way our minds functions – that formal phenomenon is really all there is to the mystic senses communis that Kant alludes to.
I want to propose a different approach, which I would call the commonality of art. The reason why literature can give us this deep sense of urgency, is not just indicative of the fact that we have common forms of reasoning and making judgments, as Kant suggest. But neither is this because there is indeed a clearly delineated truth to be found in literature or fiction. Instead, literary fiction tends to touch upon issues that do matter to us, that are about us and our community. Literature speaks to us about what we have in common, but what exactly we have in common will always remain a sight for contestation. In this sense, then, Plato was right: there is a certain uncontrollable vagueness to fiction, which gives it its dynamic and explosiveness. This thing, which we can never quite grasp, is the essence what it means to live in common. This is the commonality of art.
Commonality is usually understood as something that is held in common, something that is shared among the members of a community. The Oxford English Dictionary defines commonality as “the state or quality of being in common with, or shared by, others.” It then adds that this specifically concerns a “community of function, structure, or purpose” a “shared feature.” The commonality of art, I would say, is something that we indeed share with others, community of function, structure and purpose; but the function one of dissensus (a word I am borrowing from the French philosopher Jacques Rancière), of contestation. The function we as a community have in common, and which is so adequately addressed in literature, is a dynamic and contested one.
Committing to it and Owning it
So far, I have approached the force of literary fiction from the point of view of the reader who is brought under the spell of the narrative and the fictional world, characters and events it conjures up before our very eyes. For these individual readers the narrative speaks of a deeper truth which is also indirectly related to society – to community and what it means to live together. On the other side of the literary spectrum, however, we have the author of a narrative – the teller of the tale.
Literature is about more than just writing down a (fictional) story. Literature is about telling the story. This is, I think, what distinguishes literature from writing and what at the very same time explains another and very important dimension of the communality of art.
What distinguishes literature from writing is that it publishes the (fictional) narratives: these narratives become public, which also means that they will start to circulate among the general public. Even when a literary work is unable to have a significant impact on the public sphere in which it takes place, it still remains a public affair. It is at this moment, when writing gets published, that the writer becomes an author.
In that general sense, then, all authorship presupposes a minimal form of social commitment. Even when the author refuses to engage with political issues in any way whatsoever, what still remains a matter of political commitment is the fact that the writer takes ownership over a narrative that is now ‘out there’ in the community, where it will impact its readers to a greater or lesser extent and might cause for public debate. The author has public ownership over his work. The paradox of public ownership lies in the fact that the author can no longer retract her work – she does not own it in that sense: once the narrative is made public is will start to circulate and not even the author is able to control it – but that she will nevertheless have to take a certain responsibility for it – she will have to ‘own it’, as they say. This type of public ownership is typical of modern authorship and it is what makes any form of literary writing committed to a community. This is another sense of the commonality of art.
At the same time, of course, modern literature has been engaged in circumventing, contesting and criticizing this ownership that comes with the modern concept of authorship. More in particular, literature has been engaged in undermining the unambiguity of that ownership. But it has only been able to do so by also allowing that ownership to remain quite clear. So while the author has to take a certain ownership over her work, whenever we are dealing with fiction the author cannot be held responsible for the views held by different characters in the narrative. This may seems like a straightforward observation, but over the past two hundred years this has been a hard-won situation for literary authors. The social and public acceptance that the author of a literary work must own the work as such without ever being able to get pinned down on one of the voices of the different characters that figure in it is a unique situation. It makes the kind of ownership and political commitment of the literary author a very specific one.
To clarify this let me turn to the work of Immanuel Kant once again. This time around I want to refer to a small text by Kant, called “An Answer to the Question: what is Enlightenment?” In this text, Kant distinguishes between private and public reason. Kant writes: “by “public use of one’s reason” I mean that use which a man, as scholar, makes of it before the reading public. I call “private use” that use which a man makes of his reason in a civic post that has been entrusted to him.” We can explain what Kant means by taking recourse to an example. As an author who addresses a “reading public” I can be critical of the existing traffic laws. I could, for example, write an argument against the use of stop signs in public traffic. Here I am engaging with public reason. But once I am out on the road I am nevertheless obliged to follow traffic laws – which also means that I will stop before a stop sign.
Kant’s distinction between public and private reason had many merits at the time. One of those merits was that it ensures the public intellectual of free speech, that is to say the freedom (and even the duty) to speak his or her mind in the public domain provided that he or she will obey the law as a private person. But Kant does not take into account the ambiguous speech of literature, a form of speech for which a public author takes public ownership without that the opinions voiced in the work can be directly ascribed to the author. The problem with the freedom in literature is captured in that famous opening phrase of Roland Barthes’ essay The Death of the Author, in which Barthes asks: qui parle? Who is speaking here?
Although it is a defining characteristic of literary fiction that we cannot ascribe the views, comments and ideas of the characters of narrators to the author, I still think that the author has some sort of public ownership over his work. The question is, then, what exactly the author has ownership of. Here I would once again like to return to the concept of the commonality of art. What the author has public ownership over, is the commonality of the work – that is to say, the fact that her literary fiction contributes to the imagination of community, and at times even can become a dynamic and important image for that community.
In this sense, the commonality of art is not simply about the fact that art shows us what we have in common, not even as a common site of contestation; and so neither is literary fiction simply a representation of the ideas and feelings that live in a community. The commonality of art implies that art engenders a certain commonality, contributes to it and makes it possible. This means that art not simply represents a community, but adds something to that community; art not only represents the imagination of a community but also engenders the imagination of that community.
The author holds ownership over this particular act: her work triggers, and sometimes even shapes, the political imagination of the community.
This role of fiction, of narrative and of imagination in the creation of a community is not limited to literary fiction of course. Quite to the contrary. The public sphere as we know it is in many respect held together by narratives, through the workings of our imagination and sometimes also by fiction. Most communities depend upon such narrative representations and frameworks; our sense of belonging to a community is generated through these frameworks. Imagination, narrative and even fiction are the fabric of community. This is why the British anthropologist Benedict Anderson has argued that “all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined.”2
The book in which Anderson explores this idea, appropriately entitled Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and the Spread of Nationalism, tries to account for the origin and build-up of one specific form of imagined community: the modern nation state. What distinguishes different types of communities, Anderson argues, is not that they are imagined or that they depend upon imagination to take shape, but rather “the style in which they are imagined”3
Nationalism, Anderson then goes on to argue, is a particular type of imagining the community that was the result of “a complex crossing of concrete historical forces; but that, once created, they became ‘modular’, capable of being transplanted, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, to a great variety of social terrains, to merge and be merged with a correspondingly wide variety of political and ideological constellations.”4
What I find interesting in Anderson’s argument, is the modularity of a particular type of imagination: the idea that once historical circumstance have given rise to the construction of a particular way of imagining the community this imagination then begins to have its own force and its can be transposed onto all sort of different domains of life. Nationalism is an example in case: we have a personal attachment to our nationality and to our nation even when, everything taken into account, we also realize quite well how historically arbitrary and intellectually meagre the phenomenon of nationality really is.
For the nation state and its corresponding style of imagining a community (namely: nationalism) to be constructed, however, the breakdown of certain social structures was not yet enough. New material structures and phenomena had to be brought into place and had to be set to work so that new ideas about community could engander. In his study on nationalism, Anderson is particularly interested in the role the printing press and, more importantly, the newspaper played in making nationalism as a particular style of imagining a community possible. What interests Anderson about the newspaper, is that fact that it is already obsolete “on the morrow of its printing.” There is no use in reading yesterday’s newspaper. The fact that the newspaper needs to consumed on the very same day as it is printed, leads to what Anderson calls a “very extraordinary mass-ceremony: the almost precisely simultaneous consumption (‘imagining’) of the newspaper-as-fiction.” And while this ceremony is performed “in silent privacy”, the reader also imagines that others are reading the same newspaper, consuming the same news stories and information about the nation.
What Anderson’s historical analysis of the emergence of nationalism exemplifies, is not only how important imagination is in the construction of a community, but also how important the use of literature and media representations are in facilitating that imagination. Without the ceremonial simultaneity made possible by the newspaper and its particular publishing structure, the deep sense of belonging that is required by nationalism could not have been built up. This task, we might argue, was later taken up by television. In a similar sense, and related to this, we could perhaps argue that the rise of the novel as a specific genre of narrative fiction, is intricately related to the rise of nationalism. Indeed, this argument has been made by literary theorists such as Georg Lukacs, Mikhail Bakhtin, and more recently Edward Said — all of them with some important critical admonitions however.
Post-Truth and rethinking public ownership
So what happens when these media infrastructures are broken down? What happens when, for example, the news sources we consult are no longer focused on the nation itself, but instead function als multinational media-concerns? And what happens when the material structures which these media depend upon are no longer those of the newspaper which is already obsolete as soon as it is printed? This leads to an explosive increase of information and news, and to the possibility of digging up news and stories whenever we want to and wherever we want to. The ceremony of simultaneity disappears and so does the sense of horizontal comradeship that it brought with it. The performative focus on the nation as the primal site for identification also disappears.
The result is that our imagined community is changing its configuration. And the consequences of this transformation may well be just as significant as those of the waning of religion and the rise of the printing press several centuries ago. In other words, if nationalism is a style of imagining the community in conjunction with which a new form of community was developed (the nation-state), then perhaps today we should ask what new styles of imagining the community are emerging.
It seems to me that there is an argument to be made for the fact that our community is changing; it has been changing in a very significant way at least since 1945. That year marks not just the end of the Second World War but also the first big wave of decolonialization. Moreover, the Second World War also served as the cradle of the digital – further developed in the decades that succeeded it only to fully emerge as the defining development of our times since about three decades. This has led to a situation in which the European West is no longer the key player in geopolitical affairs, and this despite its vehement involvement in the neocolonial wars that have been waged over the past few decades.
The postnational political infrastructure that was developed and brought into place after the Second World War, has by now cemented itself into the minds and imagination of most European citizens. But the it has not, I think, been successful in developing a new form of political imagination; it has not been able to craft a form of political imagination that would allow us to imagine a community that goes beyond the nation-state and nationalism. In this sense, despite the very real impact of postnational political infrastructure, the concept of the postnational remains empty.
Similarly, when it come to information structures that have superseded the national newspaper and its specific form of political imagination, we are facing a situation in which these new structures may have led to the breakdown of – but not to a new style of imaginig a community or to a renewed political imagination (not for the largest part of the community in any case). What is certain, however, is that the public sphere that was once established in the wake of the printing press, modern newspapers and so on, has now been significantly altered. The way ot has altered, however, has far reaching consequences. As Ingrid Volkmer has argued, “the sphere of globalized interdependence is no longer ‘out there’ but very concrete ‘right here’ in the way content trajectories are chosen, intersect and relate within the site of a subjective networked ‘universe’, synchronized across devices and always available.” What this essentially means, I think, is that we can no longer escape the public sphere: it is with us whenever we open facebook, youtube, instagram, twitter or anything else. And since these social media play a large part in the internet entertainment complex that has been set up since the late 2000s, virtually all of us use them.
With regard to the newspaper or the television – these were media one could escape from, not just in the sense that we could choose not to own a television, but also in the sense that we could argue and genuinely feel that ‘television is not about us’. As such, we could ignore them; or better yet, the general public could fulminate against it, relishing the feeling that the media ‘don’t understand them’, ‘misrepresent them’, or ‘belittle them’. We cannot do this anymore with social media. Everyone in the Netherlands has them. And even those who don’t have social media are confronted with the polemic debates that the new sphere of social media have triggered among the majority of Dutch citizens. So what about so-called filter bubbles? Yeah, sure. But no, we cannot escape the news. Whatever gets liked goes around and will reach everyone involved. What kind of reaction we have to the news that goes around: we cannot escape the news but we are all in our filter bubbles in which our response to the news (and that of our virtual friends) is always the same. There’s no difference. This is what’s eating away at our commonality.
This, then, is where literary fiction can play a role. It is at this moment in history that it could be rewarding to analyze the genre of the novel through which literary fiction has mostly been practiced over the last two centuries. As I mentioned, the novel as a genre is closely associated with the rise of the nation-state. It is also closely associated with specific narrative structures (Bildung). So how has this contributed to the rise of the nation-state and its political imagination? But also: how has the novel from its outset also criticized the nation-state, being a multilingual, international genre? Finally, to return to the commonality of art, through new forms of writing and literary fiction we might explore a new political imagination, new ways of imagining community and commonality? These are the questions we can and should ask today, when trying to evaluate the relevance and scope of fiction in contemporary society.