Sunday, October 06, 2013

The Topic of Exchange Between Human Beings

This has been my favourite piece of fiction of the last few weeks: Omar Aziz's "A Discussion Paper on the Local Councils in Syria." Calling Aziz' urgent and practical paper, shared posthumously among revolutionary organisations across Syria, a "fiction" may seem derogatory, as if I were calling it a lie. But I mean the word in its richest sense: an imaginative extension of real circumstances, a carefully-structured narrative of potential change. Signifiers of reportage are common in work published as fiction, from Daniel Defoe's cross-genre work to Jennifer Egan's use of PowerPoint in A Visit from the Goon Squad, setting up a framework for the reader's reality-testing. Even (or perhaps, most especially) speculative fiction employs the language and even layout of the newspaper or the scientific report, as - magisterially - in Christa Wolf's "Self-Experiment: Appendix to a Report" (jstor sign-in required, alas).
But what if we take the reverse proposition for consideration? That part of the work done by essays, science experiments, and even news articles, is that they are fictions: not only in the Frankfurt School sense that they emerge from (and cannot stand outside) social constructions, but if we imagine them as, like all human acts, powerful wish-fears. And beyond that: as proposals for realisation within the imagination first. When we read about a new scientific development or proposal for a government bill, or even the agenda for a meeting, we envision/construct/imagine it ahead of its taking place - or imagine its implications and consequences for ourselves and others. Even watching actuality, we are in the realm of fiction (not as in Baudrillard's negatory "welcome to the desert of the real" take, only): we are interpreting others' emotions, putting forth hypotheses, seeing around the edges of the frame.

It's this imaginative action that I'm so drawn to in Aziz' paper: that it so powerfully connects pragmatic reality with utopian ideology. In particular, the repeated articulation that the actions of revolution form revolutionary subjects. You can't, he suggests, pre-claim yourself as revolutionary, or deny that others are revolutionaries: it's a doing, not a being. In fact, its only being is in action: it finds its form and meaning through the strategic collectivities - talking, thinking, imagining together - that he proposes. We need fictions to help us walk out in fear, and to change the story as told by the government and media.

But most stories of revolution focus only on violent ways of becoming, or on the traumatic violence that causes a collective or individual break, or on the heroic individual (often forged in violence) -- and not on the collective and interconnected social formations that emerge from this, or how. We are socially conformed to narratives shaped and paced by adrenal charge, or to a verisimilitude that is stylised to the point of caricature. Who wants to read a bunch of people sitting around in a room talking - even if what they're talking about is what, as Aziz argues, replaces the security of the state, the fear of whose loss (even though the security itself is unequal and faulty, if not entirely a fantasmatic construction) is what keeps people from engaging in revolutionary action?

Educator Paolo Freire proposed a distinction between organisation and control that's as useful a way of thinking about how an artistic experience works on us as readers/viewers as it is of thinking about how the state works on us. Hard and fast distinctions between fictional and factual writing, with negative and positive values attached respectively, are where state and aesthetic control meet. This is pervasive in Anglocentric thinking (although frequently attributed to totalitarian Soviet 'socialist realism'). The recent, much-hyped-by-liberal-writers findings by Emanuele Castano and David Kidd, that literary fiction improves readers' empathy (compared to genre fiction) is a peculiar example of this: under the guise of claiming value for fiction, it actually solidifies unhelpful distinctions (literary fiction is a genre, and not all of it is well-written or psychologically accurate because it universalises) - but also remands the work of art and literature to the zone of affect.

Or rather, disconnects affective intelligence from political and social intelligence. The idea that fiction makes us feel and factual writing makes us think is a way of preventing us from really doing either. The topic of exchange between human beings is never purely empathic or purely political: it's where subjectivity and sociality meet. We need to think with both.

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