BY Vivian Sky Rehberg in Opinion | 01 SEP 11
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Issue 141

Truth or Dare

The dangers of reducing everything to a text

BY Vivian Sky Rehberg in Opinion | 01 SEP 11

James Frey, 1992

Throughout the late 20th century, the migration and consolidation of post-structuralist theory into cultural production dealt a decisive blow to notions of authenticity and universal truth, challenging the authoritative voices that upheld such ideals and the empirical realities they claimed to represent. This was a long time coming. In his 1873 essay ‘On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense’, Friedrich Nietzsche had already described truth as nothing more than ‘illusions which we have forgotten are illusions’. Truth, he asserted, is ‘a moveable host of metaphors, metonymies and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical and binding.’ In the late 20th century, aesthetic appropriations and historical recontextualizations, identity politics and institutional critique all worked to slacken those bonds, while responding to specific, historically grounded, cultural and political urgencies. Their initial impulses and frameworks were as diverse as their legacies, but one thing they arguably shared was a drive to chip steadily away at ‘regimes of truth’, defined by Michel Foucault as the mechanisms of power that produce, regulate and sustain discourse within a particular society.

This revelation of a multiplicity of truths (now considered relative) and the critique of their representations (now perceived as constructs) have inspired several generations of artists, thinkers and writers to question truth, but did not unfold without a backlash and a share of scandals. These occurred mainly outside of the art world, where the phrase ‘blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction’ gets my vote for the most hackneyed of the early 21st century. In 1996, the ‘Sokal hoax’ reverberated in the hallowed halls of academia when respected American professor Alan Sokal published his article ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’ in the cultural studies journal Social Text, only to subsequently reveal that the entire thing was a fabrication. Sokal wrote his article in order demonstrate the absurd lengths to which one could take Postmodern critiques of scientific knowledge, and the dangers that lie therein. The hoax suggested that distinctions between true and false collapse when everything is reduced to a text or to discourse, and raised ethical issues around authorial and institutional integrity and credibility, Sokal claimed, in order to shift focus to the more important social and political questions surrounding scientific discoveries.

In the literary realm, a spate of faux-memoirs, including those written by Margaret B. Jones, James Frey and Herman Rosenblat about, respectively, their experiences as a foster child and gang member in South Los Angeles, an alcoholic and drug addict, and a Holocaust survivor, have more recently spurred controversy. Like Sokal, these authors presented their accounts as unembellished, though based on moving true-to-life experience rather than academic evidence, and they successfully duped their American publishers and the public of readers, at least for a time. Once their deceptions were exposed (Random House, which had previously refused Frey’s manuscript when it was submitted as fiction, offered readers a refund; the film adaptation of Rosenblat’s story was scrapped), the media that had been previously taken in by the drama of the lives depicted, without checking the facts, granted equal credence to the authors’ displays of contrition. It’s easy to adopt a moralistic or cynical attitude about the motivations behind a deception that so occupies an individual’s life, and the authors’ justifications for their lies can be difficult to take at face value. (Personally, I’m more fascinated by the amount of energy and time one would need to mobilize to maintain the façade.) These defences range from a benevolent desire to adopt the position of the witness and speak for others, in order to inspire hope, to that of the lie as an effect of trauma or addiction.

One of the outcomes of these scandals has been the market consecration of the literary genre of the semi-fictional memoir, or autobiographical fiction, both of which have always existed. Recognizing this makes it easier for everyone: questions of trust are suspended, verification is no longer necessary, publishers, marketers and critics risk less embarrassment if they are fooled. If truth is reduced to an autobiographical construction, how does one actually measure it? Does the author really even need to be the author? Should we evaluate this genre according to its creative merits, such as its capacity to render factual information vivid through the use of literary tropes and experiments with narrative? Does the veracity of a story matter more when a personal narrative is explicitly linked to historical events, such as the Holocaust, or war, or revolution, than when it concerns the life of one person, a family and friends?

While we can pretty much agree that it doesn’t matter whether Lady Gaga and Slavoj Žižek are best friends or not, we are somehow much more offended that the Syrian blogger ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’ turned out to be a married American man named Tom MacMaster. While the latter claims he was only trying to reveal what it would be like to be a lesbian in Syria (because he would know what that’s like, right?), the maintenance of his female character ‘Amina’ spun out of control when revolts began to surge earlier this year in Damascus. Confronted with real, live, geo-political conflict and the imperative to report the facts, MacMaster had to invent an exit strategy, which involved his alter-ego being abducted by the armed forces. His imposture quickly unravelled to the dismay of those who had followed and corresponded with a person they thought was Amina.

Common sense used to dictate that if you could not trust the source you could not trust the information. Have those tables turned? I wonder how our cultural predisposition to believe in these semi-fictions or wholesale inventions – let’s call them misrepresentations – might affect our capacity, for example, to believe in the factual trustworthiness of the politically sensitive documents leaked anonymously via WikiLeaks? In 2005, Stephen Colbert, the American comic who poses as a conservative broadcaster of a popular television programme called The Colbert Report (and as arch-rival of Jon Stewart, who presides over his own left-leaning spoof news programme, The Daily Show), produced a regular segment, ‘The Word’, which he devoted to the neologism ‘truthiness’. Colbert began by mocking dictionaries and encyclopaedias as ‘elitist’ and as ‘all fact and no heart’, but his main targets were US politicians whose double-speak and capacity for invention emblematizes the real divide between ‘those who think with their head and those who feel with their heart’.

Regimes of ‘truthiness’, which are invested in maintaining power via ignorance, seem to have fully encroached on ‘regimes of truth’. Perhaps the creative interest over the past decade in archival practices, documentary and realistic modes of representation, and the revitalization of historical narratives is a symptom of that. This state of affairs may inspire a crisis of belief that results in greater differentiation between fact and fiction, or not. In the aesthetic realm, self-reflexive explorations of identities, styles, genres, history and memory are absolutely authorized and encouraged, as is the shuttling play between subjective (feeling) and objective (thinking) points of view. So, when it comes to the renewal of critiques of misrepresentation, for the next 20 years I’ll be holding out for the artists to keep us vigilant.

Vivian Sky Rehberg is a course director of the Master of Fine Art at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She lives in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.