Against facts

The acquittal of the officer who murdered Philando Castile is as unsurprising as it is unbelievable. It’s exactly the same grotesque spectacle that we’ve seen played out so many times before – but it wasn’t supposed to be. This time was supposed to be different.

Castile was pulled over for a routine traffic stop; he allegedly “fit a profile” or something, like, we all know what was really going on there, but the point is that the officer was just going through the usual checks and had no reason to expect an altercation. Castile was compliant, but he knew he had a problem: he was carrying a legal firearm, and he knew that if the officer saw it unexpectedly and got nervous, things could easily become unmanageable. So he did literally the only thing he could: he disclosed the existence of the weapon and proceeded carefully. And then he was shot to death.

In every previous case of this nature that has attracted mass-media attention, there has been some kind of controversial factor for people to argue about. Eric Garner and Alton Sterling were engaged in illegal activity; Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown allegedly assaulted their killers; Tamir Rice was supposedly brandishing a toy gun. None of these provide actual good angles – at the very least, they all require you to argue that minor transgressions are deserving of an instantly-applied death penalty without trial – but they’re all technically something. It’s broadly conceivable that a person of honorable intentions could make the good-faith argument that these were individual tragedies and not indicative of a widespread social calamity. But when you make an argument of the form, “if the victim engaged in certain behavior, then the killing was justified, so there’s no real political problem,” you are implicitly conceding that, had the victim not engaged in the proscribed behavior, then there is a real political problem.

That’s why the Castile case was supposed to be different. Castile committed no crime and did everything right, so there is simply nothing available on the “if” side to lead to the “then.” In which case the battle lines should have been drawn differently. The “all lives matter” crowd should have had no problem taking Castile on as a martyr and rallying for reforms to prevent such unacceptable occurrences. This should have been the thing that overcame the perils of “race relations” and provided an example that everyone could agree on. But of course there was no such reconciliation. The sickening thing about this case in particular was that nothing mattered; everything remained as it was and the same vile story was recited yet again, and yet again faded away with no conclusion in sight. The unavoidable inference, then, is that the facts of the case simply do not matter. Everyone has already decided what they believe, what policies they support and what catastrophes they are willing to countenance, and nothing is going to change that. And of course one must be honest enough to apply the same standard to one’s own side: had definitive evidence emerged that Michael Brown really did rob a convenience store and then bum rush a cop, that wouldn’t have changed the substance of the critique or the need for political action. In no case, then, are the facts of the situation ever relevant. There is only ideology.

There has been a great deal of recent lamentation over “fake news” and “alternative facts,” and one must concede that this is largely justified. Politicians certainly are a craven pack of liars, and people in general really do have problems getting their heads around the fact that facts are facts. But if we’re talking about politics, what we ought to be talking about is the connection between facts and political action, which is whence arises the problem: there isn’t one. Getting the facts right doesn’t help, because facts don’t matter either way to people’s political opinions. This sounds terrifying, but it actually makes perfect sense. Politics is about how we want the world to be, not how it currently is. Deciding on a political opinion means deciding in which direction you want to move. The value of facts is that they tell you how to get to what you want; they tell you where you are in relation to your goal. It’s entirely possible, perhaps even easier than not, to design counterproductive policy, in which case your actions will end up moving you in the opposite of your desired direction. Adherence to facts is how you avoid this problem. But this only becomes relevant after you’ve decided what it is you want.

The situation is often portrayed as a matter of novel facts spurring people to action. That is, everyone already believes in peace, love, and understanding, but they don’t know about the many injustices regularly taking place, so they simply need to be informed that things are going wrong in order to start doing something about it. This is wishful thinking. What the facts clearly demonstrate is that the revelation of facts doesn’t change people’s political opinions. At the end of the recent O.J. Simpson docudrama, there’s a moment when Johnnie Cochran sees then-president Clinton on TV talking about the need to address systemic racism and revise police practices, and he’s terribly gratified that the truth has finally come to light and that something can now be done about it. What’s striking about this is that people said exactly the same thing when the same issue recently started to be documented guerilla-style via smartphones and social media: now that the truth is unavoidable, things have to change. But what we’ve seen is that in neither case was this actually the case. Obviously, Rodney King and Mark Furman didn’t precipitate a solution to the problem, or we wouldn’t still be talking about it. But the current situation, where far more facts about far more dramatic occurrences are available on a daily basis, has seen no greater effect. All those cases listed above, plus others that have received equal attention and many more that have been forgotten or lost to the news cycle, were not the result of a single spate of increased attention. The issue has been risen on a regular basis over the course of many years, and the situation has never changed.

This is why the current fetish for “fact-checking” is largely misguided. It is not due to factual ignorance that people form harmful opinions. It’s much closer to being the other way around: people come to believe ridiculous things when those things align with their pre-existing ideology. Adherence to the facts can’t change this, because you have to use ideology in order to understand facts in the first place. A big table of numbers doesn’t do anything for you until you analyze it with political intent. In fact, “fact-checking” itself is a result of the same dynamic. Sociologically speaking, it’s pretty clear that the actual function fact-checking performs is liberal escapism. The people who check fact-checks are not those who require the information, but those who wish to reassure themselves that they are the good people for believing what they already believe. Liberals have already decided – in advance of the facts – that they’re the “rational” ones who “believe in science,” and the act of fact-checking allows them to perpetuate this belief.

More specifically, fact-checking as political activity is the result of a category error. It is indeed the news media’s job to report the facts and correct lies, and policymakers’ job to account for the real facts rather than the facts they wish were true. But the vast majority of us are not engaged in the activities of either journalism or policy-making, whereas all of us are permanently engaged in the activity of advancing values. Indeed, it is often our moral responsibility to ignore facts in favor of the truth. This is necessary because the world is a complicated place. It really is true that there are laws on the books prohibiting discrimination, and that there are scholarships and other programs aimed primarily at aiding black people, and that claims of disadvantage generally get sympathetic hearings in the media, and that Barack Obama was elected president twice – by healthy margins, even. But none of these facts compel the conclusion that we shouldn’t care about racism anymore.

You can dig up a real fact from somewhere or other to support basically anything. For example, false rape accusations really do happen sometimes. There’s no point in arguing whether any one case is valid or not; to fall into the trap of arguing the facts here is to fail to press the issue. The question of whether to treat rape as normal and false accusations as anomalies, or the other way around, is only answerable by ideology. You can’t engage with the issue until you’ve made that choice. (Equivocating doesn’t count as engaging with the issue; it counts as ignoring it.) And you can’t let the numbers make that decision for you, either, because you have to decide what the numbers mean. It’s true that there are more rapes than false accusations, but it’s also true that, even on the highest estimates, the vast majority of women never experience rape. The vast majority of black people never get murdered by the police, either. The numbers themselves don’t tell you what matters. Rape doesn’t become an issue once the number of occurrences rises above a certain threshold. It becomes an issue once you start caring about it.

A strong potential counterexample here is global warming. This seems to break the script: it’s genuinely novel information that could not have been reasonably foreseen, and it requires us to change our behavior and beliefs in ways that would not have been necessary without it. As Naomi Klein has it, it “changes everything.” So what’s crucial to note is the people who do “accept the facts” on global warming – who, in fact, loudly and self-importantly trumpet their fealty to the scientific consensus, as though that were something to be proud of – and the fact that what most of them are doing is basically nothing. Funding renewable energy and tweaking regulations do not come even close to addressing the true scale of the problem. The reason actions such as these are the ones being taken is that they are the ones that fit within the existing liberal-capitalist framework that basically every world leader adheres to unquestioningly. And on the other side of the ledger, liberals never seem to consider the fact that there are reasons that people resist facts. If someone encounters a fact once and ignores it, it’s pretty irrational to imagine that “explaining” the same thing to them over and over again will have any additional effect. Rather, the relevant logic is quite simple: if you believe that capitalism is a moral system, then it cannot be the case that capitalism is going to destroy the planet. It must simply be a case of certain groups gunning for competitive advantage, because that’s what happens under capitalism, and capitalism explains everything. And of course you wouldn’t be able to solve the problem with government intervention in any case, because government intervention always produces results inferior to the “natural” actions of market forces. Ideology determines both which facts are acceptable and which actions are possible.

Furthermore, you don’t actually need the facts of global warming to make the right argument here. The problem follows directly from the general logic of capitalism. Economics has a concept called “externalities,” which refers to the effects of a trade that aren’t accounted for within the trade itself.1 A better way to understand this is that capitalism basically means that rich fucks set the agenda, and they aren’t going to account for anything that doesn’t affect their pocketbooks. Other people getting polluted or regions of the planet becoming uninhabitable are just going to end up being the cost of doing business. So if you already oppose this arrangement ideologically – if you believe that resource use should be governed democratically such that the resulting decisions take into account their effects on everyone involved – then you’ve already solved global warming. Conversely, if you believe that rich fucks should be allowed to allocate resources autocratically, but that the government should be empowered to mitigate the consquences of those decisions, then you will never be able to solve global warming, no matter how cleverly you design policy or how tightly you cling the facts to your chest, because you have already made the values-based decision to give the fox VIP access to the henhouse.

In short, facts are real, but that’s all they are. By themselves, they’re inert. If you want to apply force to something, you can’t just gather up a bunch of chemicals and expect them to leap up out of the beakers of their own accord. You also won’t know which chemicals you need until you’ve drawn up your plans. And even then, nothing will happen until you actually build the bomb.

 


  1. A professor of mine once quipped that his introductory Econ textbook had five pages devoted to externalities and five hundred devoted to the rest of economic theory, and that it should have been the other way around, since what “externalities” actually means here is literally everything in the world other than basic economic theory. 

Bubble babble

I’m entirely certain you’re well-acquainted with the idea that “media bubbles” are a big problem right now, effecting disinformation and perverting ideology and generally destroying society in an orgy of postmodern technological mediation. Certainly, there is cause for concern; unlike in the past, when everyone had complete correct information that they used to make fully rational decisions, nowadays humans have somehow become closed-minded and parochial. The figure of the barely-informed loudmouth shouting his kneejerk opinions into the public square represents a truly new development in history. And now that bad things are happening in politics, which has never been the case before, it’s clear that something must have gone horribly wrong.

No, okay, so I’m super annoyed about all the hyperventilation, there’s nothing more obnoxious than small-minded arguments against small-mindedness, but there’s also a real issue here. The internet certainly is generating a world-historical amount of garbage data, and political polarization really has increased to an extreme degree. The fundamental dynamic at issue here is what pretentious people like to call “epistemic closure.” When one’s sources of information or methods for evaluating it are limited in some fundamental way, certain areas of knowledge become inaccessible – or, worse, only accessible in the wrong way, such that the formation of inaccurate ideas comes to be considered true knowledge. Fox News will never give a sympathetic hearing to an idea like universal single-payer health care, so if that’s where all your information comes from, you can never develop an informed opinion on this topic. It’s important to realize that this is an absolute constraint; it’s not that it becomes harder to get to the truth, it’s that it becomes impossible. This is the double-edge of the Enlightenment ideal: since there’s no such thing as divine wisdom or whatever, you cannot form correct ideas without accurate and comprehensive information, regardless of how smart or conscientious or committed you are.

Now, one of the few positive results of the 2016 election is that no one is any longer laboring under the delusion that there’s any kind of “unbiased” source that can be relied on for complete information. “Traditional” news sources simply represent one particular set of biases. There’s plenty of issues on which they’re incapable of informing you. Most obviously, an enforced centrist perspective will fail to understand a situation where the “center” is falling apart and all new growth is happening on the “extremes” (that is, it will understand the situation incorrectly, as a “breakdown of communication” or a “legitimacy crisis” or whatever). So the popular response to this is the idea of a “balanced media diet.” The worry is that the internet allows and/or forces people to self-sort into ever more polarized communities, so you have to make the effort to seek out sources that oppose your existing beliefs. The villains then become “algorithms” that deliver pre-polarized information, or “cult-like” communities that suppress dissent.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The most important source of epistemic closure is our finitude as physical beings. Simply put, there are only so many hours each day you can spend reading shit, so it’s more than a little odd to argue that people should be spending more of said hours reading things they believe to be more wrong. If you could really read everything, and also spend the requisite time to analyze and distill it all, then sure, that would solve the problem. In reality, though, you have to choose what you’re going to care about, and any choice you make is going to define a particular horizon. If you’re a feminist, for example, you could spend half of your time reading feminist sources and the other half reading anti-feminist sources, and this would give you a “balanced” perspective, in the sense that you’d understand what’s going on on both sides. But this understanding will necessarily be shallower than the one you’d get by focusing your time on one side; you’ll miss deeper arguments and distinctions and internal diversity. For one thing, you might come to believe that there are only “two sides,” which is not the case. Anyone who knows a second thing about feminism knows that its herstory is coated with blood spilled by many thousands of vicious internal disagreements. One way to get over feminist dogmatism is to read more anti-feminism, but an equally effective option is to read more feminism. There isn’t one choice that “works” and one choice that doesn’t. There are different choices that have different effects. Some bubbles are bigger than others, but you can’t not be in a bubble.

This is why blaming the internet or “algorithms” or whatever misses the mark. Like, I don’t enjoy defending tech assholes, but they really just aren’t relevant to this situation. There is a sort of consumer rights issue here; people should be able to find out how their feeds and things are being customized and change them if they want to. But arguing that search results should be more “responsible” is arguing the opposite: it’s arguing for non-transparent corporations to have more control over what people read. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that most people talking about this are only thinking things through from their side. They see lots of “bad” articles floating around, and they feel like “someone should do something,” so they imagine that Google can somehow code social responsibility for them. Practically speaking, though, you can’t make that kind of a distinction in general.1 “Misinformation” is a value judgment made by the end user. If you write an algorithm that adds more articles about global warming to the feeds of denialists, that same algorithm will necessarily also add more denialist articles to the feeds of people who believe in global warming. You can’t have it both ways. Rather, trying to have it both ways is exactly how things get fucked up. Someone at the New York Times gets it into their head that they have a “liberal bias” that needs to be corrected, so they hire an Islamophobic global warming denialist to write opinion columns. Problem solved.

People want to read things that accord with their beliefs, and – this is the important part – they have good reasons for doing so. The reason feminists, for example, disprefer reading misogynist diatribes isn’t because they’re offended or whatever, it’s because they believe feminism to be true, and they’re obviously more interested in reading things that are probably true than things that are probably false.

You don’t just automatically start understanding things once you’ve read broadly enough. You have to process the information, and how you do that – and why you’re doing it – is going to affect what conclusions you end up with. Like, there is a problem with certain types of feminists spending all of their time yelling at Bad Things and not actually developing their ideas. But if you’re one of these people, and you decide to “broaden your media diet,” all that’s going to happen is that you’re going to find more things to yell at. It’s going to strengthen your existing biases, and that’s going to happen regardless of what it is that you’re reading, and the reason for this is because it’s what you want. This isn’t even a bad thing, because the only way this is not the case is if you lack the ability to critically analyze information, which is, um, a somewhat worse situation to be in. If your goal is just to avoid being wrong, then you might as well not read anything. But if your reason for reading things and drawing conclusions is to do something with the information, then you can’t just wait around until you’re “sure,” because that’s never. In order to actually get somewhere, you have to take a stand somewhere and start moving, which will necessitate rejecting opposing ideas. Breathing underwater requires a bubble.

I’m not just applying this to my own side, either. The fact that people believe all kinds of weird conspiracy theories about the Clintons makes perfect sense, because the Clintons really are classic amoral political schemers, so if you’re opposed to them, it’s more accurate than not to assume that they’re up to some shady shit. Besides, liberals believe whatever nonsense people come up with about Trump, too. It’s the same thing. This is the normal way human communication works.

It does remain the case that the normal way human communication works is badly, and that real lies have real consequences. If you believe that Planned Parenthood is literally dismembering infants and selling their body parts to, uh, somebody (I’m not deep enough into this to know whence the nationwide demand for baby torsos supposedly originates), your advocacy on the subject is going to be somewhat more zealous. But learning the actual fact that only X% of Planned Parenthood’s expenditures go towards abortion-related services doesn’t change the moral calculus of the situation. If abortion is evil, then a little bit of it is still evil. It’s certainly worthwhile to correct lies, but you can’t fact-check your way around morality. If abortion is actually moral, then Planned Parenthood’s particular operating details don’t matter. An organization that spent 100% of its funds on abortion and sold the remains for ice cream money would be a moral organization. Focusing on the nuts and bolts here means dodging the real issue, and this is generally the case in political discussions. Even if Clinton really did use her secret email server to help the Illuminati plan Benghazi, the actual question at hand remains which policies we prefer to advance as a society. In general, misinformation does not add a unique problem to our existing difficulties in figuring out how to talk to each other. It makes things worse, but it’s not itself a crisis.

What is a crisis is when these sorts of discussions become impossible, when an enforced “healthy diet” drains the flavor from the world. When you’re stuck reading nothing but “respectable” media sources, that’s when you have a real problem, and extremism is the solution to that problem. It’s what makes new things possible. Which means that, yes, even the recent explosive growth of rightist extremism has to be understood as a positive development. InfoWars may be maximally false, but if you don’t have InfoWars, you also don’t have the truth. The fact that people have these beliefs is a bad thing, of course, but given that they do, it’s better for them to be out in the open. I mean, their agenda hasn’t actually changed, right? Reagan talked pretty on the TV, but his whole cut-services-and-fellate-corporations deal was exactly the same thing as what the current government’s up to right now. People lately have been praising Bush Jr. for talking nice about Islam, but he was doing this at the same time that his administration was turning Muslims into America’s new Great Civilizational Enemy; Trump is just picking up where he left off. Those situations were worse than the one we’re in now – rather, those situations are why we’re now in our current situation – because there was more obfuscatory rhetoric that had to be disentangled before you could get at what was really going on. This is now less of a problem; we’re getting closer to the point where people actually know what the stakes are.

It’s comforting to imagine that there’s a “middle ground” where we can all get along peaceably, but there’s not. Extremism doesn’t create disagreements, it reveals the disagreements that were already there, because people have real disagreements. Pretending this is not the case prevents anything worthwhile from ever happening. We don’t want a society where there’s “reasonable debate” about sexism, where half the time the Hyde Amendment is in place and half the time it isn’t. We want a society where sexism doesn’t exist. We want everyone trapped inside the feminism bubble, permanently.

This is the truth that must be acknowledged. All the things that people are so concerned about these days – political polarization, ideological extremism, the speed and diversity of information, the dethronement of traditionally respected sources of various kinds of authority – are the things that are, in spite of everything, going well. There’s no way to “fix” this, because it’s not broken. What was broken was the “end of history” bullshit that convinced people there were no fights left to be had, and that situation is now better. We are more confused now because we are closer to the truth – we have, in at least some sense, stopped lying. This is what has to happen. Getting the ocean without the roar of its many waters is not a real option. The real options are: retreat or advance.

 


  1. From a technical perspective, the reason this can’t work is that you have to write the code before you know what data it’s going to be run against, so you would have to be able to predict what information is going to be true or false before that information has actually been generated, meaning you can’t rely on the details of the information itself, meaning you can’t actually be making a real judgment as to whether it’s “disinformation” or not; you can only be relying on contextual coincidence. And if you try to get around this by using human intervention, all you’ve done is appointed an arbitrary, unaccountable person to act as an arbiter of truth, which is obviously several steps backwards. 

Our haunt

The revelation that Tony Schwartz was the exclusive author of The Art of the Deal, with Donald Trump providing only indirect thematic inspiration, has been nagging at me ever since that first tweet. Of course, I use the word “revelation” ironically; it’s always been terribly apparent that Trump lacks the capacity and focus to read an entire book, much less write one. But that’s exactly what’s bothering me: it is obvious that Trump did not write this or any of “his” other books, and yet they are still referred to as books “by” Trump and quoted from as though the words therein emanated from Trump himself in any capacity at all. In short: why is everybody constantly lying about this?

Consider, for example, this article, wherein the author not only assumes that the words in The Art of the Deal are Trump’s own, but actually attempts to mine the particulars of their phrasing for insight into Trump’s personal psyche:

Notice the specificity of his observations, his eye for certain details. Notice the irrepressible joy, almost awe, he experiences and expresses. Notice how loving, wistful, aroused he is, by the play of surfaces. It’s hard to believe he’s faking any of this. It seems, to me at least, quite real.

This analysis cannot hold, for the very simple reason that Trump did not write the words being referred to here. That is, Schwartz probably wrote this based on some sort of story or description he got from Trump, and maybe this really is how Trump is, but it’s still bad analysis. It ignores the real situation. It’s fake news. The fact that it “seems real” is exactly the problem: it is a lie that is easy to believe.

So what this means for The Art of the Deal specifically is that it’s essentially Trump fanfiction (without the “fan” part); given its inherent mendacity, it is worthless as evidence (and this probably applies just as well to everything else that has Trump’s name on it). Similarly, it’s been widely acknowledged that Trump’s inaugural address was written by Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, and this presents the same problem. Those words were not Trump’s, and yet they are taken as evidence of what Trump personally thinks and believes. And Trump is not a confounding case, but rather the clarifying example here, because it’s rather apparent that he doesn’t think about or believe in a whole hell of a lot beyond his own surface-level aggrandizement.

So of course this phenomenon is not limited to a single series of hype-building hackworks; it is one of the basic properties of the culture that we inhabit. We routinely attribute things to people who did not originate them. This applies not only to ghostwriting in general, or to political speeches in general, but also to pop songs, where analyzing a song written by a committee and composed by a robot supposedly reveals to us the performer’s personal convictions, and to celebrities in general, whose stage-managed public appearances are tugged and prodded for evidence of appropriate ideology, and to technology, where Steve Jobs is given credit for the work done by a variety of different designers and engineers employed by Apple Inc. (to be clear, this is not to insist that someone like Jobs, or like a pop singer, contributes nothing, but simply that a lot of the stuff attributed to them is stuff that they had no real hand in), and to corporations in general, where CEOs are lauded for “spearheading initiatives” that earn them their golden parachutes on the way out, and, yes, to society itself, where workers, the people who actually do the things, are treated like a big dumb lump of human inertia, while living disutility generators like Thomas Friedman go jetting around the world in the guise of “thought leadership.” So this isn’t fine-print pedantry. It kind of matters.

Admittedly, there’s an extent to which this is all shorthand; that is, by “Trump says” we consciously mean “it is the collective public opinion of Trump administration officials that,” but there’s also an extent to which we are falling for our own con. If you seriously think that every anti-Trump protestor and/or commentator understands fully that Trump is the symptom and not the disease, you’re kidding yourself. As above, lots of people are taking what’s happening right now to be representative of Trump as a person rather than a result of the general political situation as opportunized by specific schemers of Bannon’s ilk. For example, “Trump’s” budget proposal, among other things, was poached pretty directly from the Heritage Foundation:

“When we were on the campaign, for Trump’s speeches we would pull stuff from Heritage budget documents and make the arguments that Heritage was making,” Moore said. “I think it’s very accurate to say that a lot of these ideas … even some of the arguments they make, some of the rhetoric is almost verbatim from Heritage.”

If you don’t know this, you are not capable of opposing the entity that is actually doing the things that you are opposed to. And Heritage has been around; it had a major influence on Reagan’s presidency, for example. So this isn’t one misdirection happening right now because of social media or whatever; it is the ongoing cause of everything that has been happening, all along.

We all learn in school that Issac Newton said he was only able to see what he saw by “standing on the shoulders of giants” but we learn this at the same time that Newton himself is drilled into our brains as the lone-genius inventor of physics, as a Great History Man. So we often think we understand the distinction here – nobody will, when pressed, actually claim that Jobs plucked the iPhone fully-formed from his brain – at the same time that we unconsciously assume that things really are that simple (that plucked-from-the-head reference is from mythology, i.e. the stories out of which we construct the underlying assumptions that we use to understand the world). Because of course both things are true: nobody’s a lone genius, but people do make real individual contributions. I’m not saying the relevant dynamics are always obvious, or that it’s never safe to elide the details (I’ll admit to making this very elision myself), but to simply assume that everything with the Trump brand name stamped on it emanates directly from the addled brain of the man himself is to accede to the fantasy that people like Trump attempt to flatter themselves with, and to abandon the truth. We are attributing authorship of the situation to the person who is in reality nothing more than a name on a dust-jacket.

Worse, this is exactly the trap that these people want us to fall into. The whole point of someone like Trump is to function as an attention heat-sink, leaving people like Bannon and organizations like Heritage free to operate in the shadows. The only way to stop these things is to exorcise the animating spirit; otherwise, the same forces will return to possess the next media-friendly stooge who wanders in looking for applause lines. Failing to get this at least half-right is what allows for someone like Trump to get up on a stage and say “I alone can fix it,” and for people to believe him. And the opposing view, that “Trump alone can break it,” makes the same mistake and results in the same ineffectuality. We should try to avoid this. It’s the kind of thing that could come back to haunt us – I mean, more so than it already has.

Masquerade

I’m not qualified to comment on the specifics of the Elena Ferrante situation, but there’s a particular aspect of the response that I feel requires some elucidation. Rather than addressing the personal implications for Ferrante herself, or claiming that her identity is simply not relevant to a particular understanding of her work, many people seem to be going quite a bit further. They are claiming that it is wrong for this information to be available, that we ought not know it, and they are making this point in terms of criticism. They are saying that the correct critical posture is to choose to operate with less information. They would rather the information not exist at all; they would rather be lied to.

This broader issue has been in some contention recently. It’s become quotidian to hear that we’re in the middle of a “war on truth,” that the Information Age ability to “choose your own facts” is literally going to destroy the world. We’ve seen, for example, Newt Gingrich claim that it doesn’t matter what the crime statistics actually are, that as long as people feel like there’s a lot of crime, then extreme repressive measures against it are justified. Obviously, politics is a different matter than lit crit, except not really, because there isn’t all that much of a distinction here. The point of facts in policy is to come up with an approach that will affect the world in the way that it’s supposed to, and the point of facts in criticism is to come up with an interpretation that accords with reality in the way that it’s supposed to. This is why we’re not allowed to live in our own individual fantasylands; it’s what the truth is for. So if we really believe that there’s a problem here, then our only available response is to start taking the truth more seriously. This means respecting it even when it is ugly or vulgar or cruel, even when it has inconvenient consequences, and even when it is revealed by bad people with ulterior motives. The truth either matters or it doesn’t.

Now, part of what Ferrante is trying to do with herself is to react against the trend wherein, to grossly oversimplify, the conversation surrounding a work of art tends to supersede the work itself. The most important argument in favor of pseudonymity is that the work itself is what matters, and that the identity of the writer can only be a distraction, or at best the subject of a separate biographical interest. This is a half-truth. Certainly, there are writers whose status as famous writers is more important than anything they actually write, and certainly this is disgusting. The situation where, say, Dave Eggers is like “HEY GUYS I’M WRITING A BOOK ABOUT SOCIAL MEDIA” but then there’s nothing actually in the book is the worst possible situation. So if Ferrante’s work represents the inverse of that, then she’s doing a great job.

But the idea that a work can “speak for itself” in an absolute sense betrays an unjustified dedication to purity. The fear is that knowing the sausage-making details behind the words will rob them of their beauty, break the spell. This is backwards. It’s true that the only possible source of meaning for a text is the text itself, but it’s a fantasy to assume that we can just lift this meaning straight out, that context is a distraction rather than a necessary tool for doing the work of extraction. Hence, the point of identity is not that it can matter, but that it must. If there is beauty to be found, it must be found in the sausage.

And, indeed, this is already being done by the very people who are so concerned about not doing it. Ferrante’s identity and the context in which she was writing were already being taken into account. The term “anonymity” is being thrown around a lot here, but that’s not what’s going on at all. Elena Ferrante has been publishing pseudonymously and not anonymously. This may sound like a pedantic distinction, but there’s a real difference. Pseudonymity allows the reader to draw connections between works of the same author, to trace the development of themes, etc., hence there is such a thing as “an Elena Ferrante novel” regardless of her physical identity. It allows for the development of a persona. It is only under the condition of anonymity that a work speaks purely for itself – and because any work must be encountered in some kind of context (not to mention, it must be understood in terms of an existing language with a specific history), this condition is impossible to meet.

So, because Ferrante was never anonymous, people already knew that she was a woman living in present-day Italy, and this is already a lot of authorial context. If she had instead had turned out to be a black man who had lived in Compton in the 1980s, that would pretty obviously have initiated a comprehensive reappraisal of her work, right? And we didn’t actually know before that that wasn’t the case. Perhaps, as things happen, Ferrante’s real identity won’t add anything to people’s estimations of her work. But if this turns out to be the case, it can can only be because her readers were already making the correct assumptions – there’s no such thing as not making assumptions. In which case the revelation of her identity is still valuable information, because it confirms that what was being understood about her work was in fact correct. To take the most obvious example, if someone read one of her books and assumed she was female because they thought that a man could never have portrayed women’s social dynamics so accurately, then what that person has now learned is that they were right. They shouldn’t feel attacked; they should feel validated.

Furthermore, Ferrante has given interviews where she has explained herself and her writing process and commented on her stories, which is to say she’s done the exact thing that her supporters insist not be done. She has tied her work to an identity and made it about her. (Similarly, she seems to have deliberately chosen covers for her books in order to produce an intended effect, which is not how that normally works, and which suggests an intended interpretation.) I mean, look at this:

“Where do I start? In my childhood, my adolescence. Some of the poor Neapolitan neighborhoods were crowded, yes, and rowdy. To gather oneself, so to speak, was physically impossible. One learned very early to have the greatest concentration amid the greatest disruption. The idea that every ‘I’ is largely made up of others and by the others wasn’t theoretical; it was a reality. To be alive meant to collide continually with the existence of others and to be collided with, the results being at times good-natured, at others aggressive, then again good-natured. The dead were brought into quarrels; people weren’t content to attack and insult the living—they naturally abused aunts, cousins, grandparents, and great-grandparents who were no longer in the world.”

Definitely a case of a writer whose identity is completely unimportant to her work, right? It’s absurd to say that people “didn’t know” who Ferrante was and that they were therefore able to approach her work “without preconceptions”; rather, they were approaching it with a set of preconceptions that they had already implicitly established. Except of course they were, because you can’t not do that, and even if you could not do it there isn’t anything wrong with it in the first place. It doesn’t “taint” the “pure” experience of the work because there’s no such thing as purity in the first place.

So the argument that context diminishes the value of Ferrante’s work is completely untenable, because it was already being placed into a pretty specific context and that wasn’t causing anyone any problems. And this is where the real problem starts, because people are going even further than this, and claiming that the revelation of Ferrante’s identity is an actual attack on the value of her work, that having this additional information somehow delegitimizes it. First of all, if this were actually the case, it could only be because her work wasn’t much good in the first place. Either her work is fragile and dishonest enough that the truth can destroy it, or it is robust and honest enough that the truth can only enhance it. If her work requires an aura of mystery in order to mean anything, then it precisely does not stand on its own by that very fact. So the extreme level of defensiveness on display is deeply unwarranted.

There’s a false dichotomy at work here: either an author’s work is a muddled reflection of their own life and circumstances and that’s all it is, or it’s an entirely abstract pearl of “greatness” that cannot bear contact with the grime of reality. Either a work is entirely defined by its context, or it is entirely defined by its content. Naturally, neither of these is possible. The thing about the term “context” is that there’s always a context, so there’s no such thing as “pure” textual criticism, or indeed “purity” at all. Like, I kind of thought that this was the whole point of the feminist argument against Great Male Author Syndrome, so I’m somewhat confused to see feminists arguing that the only proper way to appreciate Ferrante is to revere her as an abstract Great Author and not to understand her as a person. Surely the point of identity politics is exactly the opposite: to assert that identity must always be accounted for, that the Platonic ideal of the Great Author is a false concept, that universality does not arise despite particularity but rather emerges from it. Surely feminists are capable of working through the complications of identity rather than ignoring them.

And this isn’t really all that complicated; some simple examples should clarify the point. As a young man, Fyodor Dostoevsky was involved in some radical political activity, for which he and his co-conspirators were arrested and sentenced to death. Their sentence was commuted, but they were not informed of this until after they had actually been led out to the prison yard and placed in front of a mock firing squad. So there was a brief period during which Dostoevsky was absolutely certain that he had only minutes left to live. The experience affected him somewhat. There’s a scene in The Idiot where the protagonist, making conversation, describes in detail the final experiences of a condemned criminal. Now, certainly, interpreting this scene as merely Dostoevsky’s description of his own experiences and taking that to “explain” it is the stupid way to go about things. But it’s a far cry from there to view the related biographical information as useless. For starters, this information draws our attention to the scene in the first place; it suggests that it should be read as a significant part of what Dostoevsky is trying to convey with the overall novel. But it also colors our interpretation of the words themselves; it doesn’t tell us what they mean, it remains the case that only the words themselves can do that, but they do it in context, and the more information we have, the better equipped we are to establish a truth-apt context.

Because interpretation is never a simple task. The fact that art only comes into existence via the subjective experience of a reader’s engagement with a text does not mean that it is impossible for a reading to be wrong. It is very much the opposite: it is precisely because of this that the vast majority of readings really are wrong in some significant way. There is always something you’ve missed, or something you’ve misinterpreted, or something that you lack the knowledge to place into context. There are always more paths to take and more ways to walk them, and many of these combinations will turn out to be fruitless. Which is to say we always need help. Biographical information is not our only source of aid, but it’s at least better than random; it’s something that’s close to the text. So it often helps a little, and it sometimes helps a lot. The real point is, if you think you can just shut yourself up with a text and stare at it real real hard and have The Truth rise up out of it, you’re fooling yourself. Such monkish leanings are out of place in a complicated and contradictory world. More than that, if the truth is merely a resource to be marshaled into the service of our existing prejudices whenever we need it, then the truth is worthless. It cannot give us anything we do not already have. In order for the truth to matter, it must be able to attack us; as such, it is our responsibility to fail to fully maintain our guard. To care about the truth is, paradoxically, to insist on being wrong.

So a more appropriate example would be one that actually changed my mind about something. I mean, that’s the only reason any of this matters, right? I’m not an interesting person, though, so you’ll have to forgive me for using a very boring story here. Once upon a time, I encountered a writer who was attempting to make sense of the apparent senselessness of modernity. His writing was hyper-intelligent and dizzyingly fast; he took direct aim at many of the things I was concerned about and struck at them with equal parts unrelenting force and honest humility. It was exhilarating, I felt validated, and I felt certain that I had found a source of answers. His name was David Foster Wallace, and I feel somewhat differently about him now.

The first thing that happened was just that I started to wise up about a few things and therefore began to notice some of the more major holes in Wallace’s analyses. I saw what was wrong with his arguments about the “usage wars” by learning literally the absolute basics about linguistics (pro tip: Language Log is a good website), and I came to realize the deep pointlessness of his McCain profile once I started taking politics seriously. But it didn’t seem like he was just a misguided weirdo; it still felt like he had a bead on the truth. So once this happened, I had to figure out what was going on.

And, well, this is a little embarrassing, but . . . the first thing that I came up with was that he was being ironic. We were meant to understand his arguments as misguided and follow through from there to reach the truth of the situation. Yeah, I know. It kind of does seem that way sometimes, though. Like, in the McCain piece, he spends the whole essay lecturing Young People for not caring about politics, and he also spends the whole essay talking about ad campaigns and shit and avoiding any actual political issues himself (indeed, he is explicitly dismissive of people with actual political beliefs when they inconveniently intrude into his narrative), so when he ends abruptly with the laughably condescending statement “try to stay awake,” it’s hard to imagine that he’s being serious. He’s telling people to stay awake regarding precisely the matter on which he was asleep throughout the entire essay. (And even on the level of personality, everyone who’s ever known McCain says he’s a huge fuckhead, so Wallace isn’t even doing optics right.) It’s ridiculous. So it seems like that has to be the point, right? The thing we’re meant to wake up from is the essay itself – we’re meant to understand Wallace’s approach as absurd and reject it in favor of the actual substance of political engagement.

But of course Wallace also argued rather strenuously against this sort of ironic posturing, so then it must be the case that his argument against irony is itself ironic, and . . . yeah, you can see why this doesn’t work at all. Look, I didn’t really think this was a good angle, okay? It’s just that it was the only thing I could come up with. And that’s the point: I got stuck and I couldn’t come up with a real interpretation because I lacked relevant information. I was operating under the assumption that Wallace was a smart guy who knew what he was doing, that he was An Author, and that he therefore must have somehow been right in a way that I couldn’t see.

What changed wasn’t a revelation or anything, it’s just that I finally put the pieces of what I knew together and realized that Wallace himself wasn’t really a good person, and, while he was certainly talented in some ways, he didn’t have any kind of special intellectual gifts. Which makes him just like everybody else, of course, the mistakes he made were the mistakes that everybody makes, but that’s exactly it: after demystifying his work, I started to see it as coming from a particular perspective, and things started to become clear. I stopped thinking of his stuff as having been written by David Foster Wallace the Renowned Thinker and started thinking of it as having been written by Dave Wallace, a depressed, introverted, desperate human being, and once I started doing that, I was finally able to see the actual words he had put on the page and figure out what they actually said. More specifically, I realized that the reason I had initially felt like he had to be right was that he was similar in some ways to me, which is to say that I was making the same mistakes that he was, and I was taking that fact as confirmation that we both must have been right. Great minds think alike. What I was experiencing was the bad kind of validation: a reification of my own prejudices. My identification with his work obscured my understanding of it.

So the point is not that biographical details compel certain answers, it is simply that we must recognize that there is a question in the first place. This rather unfortunate New Yorker article, while attempting to make the opposite point, makes exactly this point:

“And even if Anita Raja is Elena Ferrante, what does her mother’s terrible persecution during the Holocaust have to do with the books she wrote?”

Yes, exactly! That is exactly the question! Answering that question (not specifically, but in general) is what your job is as a critic. I mean, this is really bizarre. The author calls this an “obvious question,” but that fact that it is a question at all completely negates her argument. Criticizing a revelation on the grounds that it doesn’t explain everything at once is just flat stupidity. The point is precisely that this work can now be done, that these sorts of questions have now become askable. And maybe, as things turn out, the correct answer will be “nothing,” and the whole line of inquiry will turn out to be a dead end, but we can’t know that until we’ve actually asked the questions and done the investigation. You can’t jump ahead and read the end before you start; you have to get through the whole story, as it is written.

See, it’s bizarre that Ferrante thinks she’s mitigating the Famous Author Effect by insisting on pseudonymity, because what she’s really doing is the exact opposite. Hiding the practical aspects of her identity maintains the mystique around her work rather than dispelling it. Of course she’s using a persona, but pseudonymity has nothing to do with that. Anyone who writes anything is necessarily cultivating a persona. Smoothing out your persona into that of a featureless Platonic “Writer” makes it more likely that people will see your work as some sort of emblem of what they think they need rather than taking it as it is, project themselves into it rather than looking at the actual words on the page.

Indeed, this very honest article on the subject admits to doing exactly that:

“With Ferrante’s anonymity, I do not have to feel any hesitations about the entanglement of self and art. It is okay, in essence, to make her work all about me. Without the details of her life, there is no way to know what personal experiences influenced the fiction she creates. I can project as much as I want onto her work without hesitation. In my mind, she has created work that boils down to a few major themes, and I can use those as plot points to create an image of her experiences that is convenient to me. Her work, to me, is what I see in it. And I have learned from it.”

Though her openness is commendable, it’s not really clear what the author is going for here – she seems to be aware that her position is wrong at the same time that she’s defending it – so I guess it’s my job to point out that yes, this is wrong. Fantasy is the enemy of learning, and convenience is the enemy of meaning. Projecting yourself onto art defeats its purpose; if that’s all you’re doing, it can’t give you anything you don’t already have. What relating to a work means, rather, is exactly what that word says: developing a relationship, understanding a work as something other, and then bringing yourself to that new place. The whole point of the truth is that it is outside your control.

Which is why this is wrong:

“They want to make her small, by making her a real person with a real history and real name and real background. They want to assert control over that person, and what it represents, by revealing it.”

It is the exact opposite. First of all, none of this is up to you: people are small, Ferrante does have a real background, her work is the result of a particular confluence of historical and material conditions, and the only giants are the ones in your imagination. More to the point, though, it is precisely through the void of anonymity that you can “assert control” over a work and define it however you want. A person has limitations, but limitations cut both ways: they constrain a person’s claims on the truth, and they also constrain your claims on that person. As we’ve just seen, the people resisting the fact that Ferrante has a real identity are doing so because they want total control over her work – they want it all to themselves. In the absence of limiting facts, you’re free to live in your own imaginary world. What the truth does, functionally, is to prevent you from doing this. It forces you to do what is right rather than what you want.

So yes, there is a sense here in which the truth of identity brings the author “down to Earth” and makes her “small” and “limited,” but these are good things, because that’s where the truth is. On the ground. Down here, not up there. And that’s what the truth is: things aren’t “more true” the more pompous and grandiose they are. True things can be held in your hand. None of this restricts the potential universality of anyone’s work; it’s what allows us to find it in the first place. Being a person doesn’t make you less of a writer, it makes you more of one. As Noreen Malone very succinctly puts it, “being attached to a specific, limited, actual person — rather than an airy abstraction — is only damning if you think there’s something lacking about being an actual person.” Again, it is bizarre that feminists are making the case otherwise. Surely it is feminists more than anyone else who believe that the basic experience of being a person is more important than any abstract social framework.

There is an allowance to be made here for the fact that the readers we’re talking about are mostly if not exclusively women, and we continue to exist in a society that does not really allow women to have their own experiences. It’s entirely understandable that people who have found a rare source of validation will resist any attempted imposition of a different narrative, especially when they are accustomed to such impositions being both unavoidable and wrong. But even if one accepts the value of comfort, which I don’t, comfort can never be enough. Comfort at its best enables you to get by, and if getting by is your goal, you’re a nihilist. The truth doesn’t corral you in to one valid response, but it does establish a line. And you can’t claim honesty or good faith if you’re not willing to allow that line to cut through your comfort zone.

So the reason this issue can’t be left alone is that it’s a situation where cake is being had and also eaten. You can’t defend Ferrante as both a fragile human and an untouchable icon. You have to pick one or the other, and we all know what the right choice is. Indeed, that is whence cometh the defensiveness about all of this: these people know they’re wrong, and that is why they are resisting the truth. This isn’t a case where people are trying to impose their own standards on others; it’s a case where people have incoherent standards. If we take them at their word that they want the thing they say they want, then it’s only polite to inform them that they aren’t actually getting it.

On second thought, no, that isn’t the reason. I should be more honest here. I’m not doing this out of principles. I’m doing it because I’m upset. I’m upset about this:

“To fall in love with a book, in that way that I and so many others have fallen in love with Ferrante’s, is to feel a special kinship with its author, a profound sort of mutual receptivity and comprehension. The author knows nothing about you, and yet you feel that your most intimate self has been understood. The fact that Ferrante has chosen to be anonymous has become part of this contract, and has put readers and writer on a rare, equal plane. Ferrante doesn’t know the details of our lives, and doesn’t care to. We don’t know those of hers. We meet on an imaginative neutral ground, open to all.”

It’s difficult to know where to start with something like this. I suppose I’ll be polite and elide the psychological angle. The clearest flaw here is that all of this has absolute dick to do with how much you know about a writer’s personal details. You’re always doing this; in fact, nothing distinctive is actually being described here. So what exactly is the aspiration that the author feels she is being denied? Given the topic, it can only be the aspiration to avoid confounding details, to read unchallenged. This is cowardice. This demand for anonymity is a demand for a security blanket. I mean, come on. You really can’t relate to a work if there are already existing interpretations out there? You can’t feel understood other than by feeling like a special snowflake? You stop being able to relate to someone once you realize they’re different from how you imagined them? You can’t integrate uncomfortable truths into a deeper and more robust understanding? You call yourself a reader?

What aggravates me is that these people think they’re mounting some kind of brave last stand against the Famous Author Effect, when in fact they’re completely in thrall to it. They have so little ability to resist that they cannot imagine being able to relate to a work that actually makes demands of them. They’re so uncritical that they simply can’t function in the face of alternative theories. They’re so desperate for a smooth ride that they insist that a “neutral ground” be flattened out for them before they even step into the carriage.

You know what? I’m still not being honest enough. Calling this sort of thing “love” is viscerally repulsive. It makes me sick. What these people are saying is that they cannot love something that is actually real. They can only tolerate vague abstractions that allow themselves to be molded into whatever shape the “lover” desires. This is not love. It’s fetishization. It’s objectification.

The reason this is all so annoying is that we’re talking about the absolute basics here. I’m not even approaching any kind of radical critical theory. This is just the basic substance of what reading is. I can describe someone as “conniving” or “strategic” or “Machiavellian,” and these all mean different things, but that’s not because of anything that’s “in” the words themselves but because you bring a different set of associations with you to each word. Which means you might end up having to admit that, for example, you have some sort of weird idiosyncratic context that you’ve developed for a word that no one else has and therefore what you think the word is about is completely different from what everyone else thinks, and I might end up having to admit that I don’t know what words mean. There’s no way around this; there’s no “real” meaning. All text is context, and all language is a game. You can’t draw until you ante up.

And it’s actually even more annoying than that, because Ferrante’s fans were already doing this even when they didn’t know who she was, they just want to be able to deny to themselves that this is what they were doing. As mentioned, Ferrante never was any kind of abstract giant; she was always a person writing about being a person, and that’s what her fans were responding to, even as they histrionically insist the opposite. So all they’re actually doing is refusing to take on the responsibility of interpretation. They want to pretend that their initial naive impression of her work was “real.” Nothing is real. But that doesn’t mean there was necessarily anything wrong with that impression, it’s just that we shouldn’t be relying on intentional ignorance to obscure the situation for us. If we assume that the harshness of the truth is in conflict with personhood, we preemptively doom ourselves. We should be able to recognize that any public presentation is automatically a persona, and that a persona is always a shield.

And we must be able to do this and still find meaning in the work itself. The big kind of meaning, the same kind we’ve always been going for. Because that’s the thing: all those times in the past when someone encountered a work and felt the hand of god gripping them by the throat and decided that this could only be because the work was divinely inspired or the product of an inhumanly great talent, they, again, were doing this. There actually was a context and a set of biographical details that they were taking into account and sublimating into their broader understanding. They weren’t “surpassing” that context because they couldn’t; that’s impossible. They were just using a convenient fiction to make the job easier for themselves, to avoid complicating details and alternative interpretations. We can do better. We can do the job the hard way, the right way, and still get it done.

If knowing that Ferrante is a real human person fucks up your ability to relate to her work, that’s your problem. I don’t mean that as an insult, I mean it sympathetically. This is something we all have to deal with, and we have to deal with it regardless of how much specific information we have in each individual case. It doesn’t matter whether it’s something like 1984 that has already been theorized to death and back and then to death again or whether it’s unlabeled instrumental music that you found at random on a dead webpage. You always have to do your own work within the constraints of reality, and you always have to choose where to make your stand, and you always have to recognize that doing so leaves you open to attacks from all sides at all times. There’s nothing radical about any of this; it is merely the basic structure of how criticism works – how it has to work. The alternatives are phantasmic.

What’s scary about this, what people don’t want to accept, is that it’s up to you. There is no one bigger than you who can lift you up and carry you where you need to go. There are, at best, people who are just as lost as you are but who have been to different places and can suggest better directions, and a lot of the time there’s not even that. Progress requires assuming that you don’t know what you’re doing, and then of course doing it anyway. But the thing about the death of god is that god never existed in the first place. We were just pretending, and all that’s happened now is that we’ve stopped pretending. Because the truth is actually true, the only thing that a revelation can reveal is the thing that was always the case, all along. We have always lived in a world without giants, which means that the work that we’ve done has always been our own. It’s not that it’s up to you now, it’s that it’s still up to you. It has always been up to you; you have always been making this decision. Believe in yourself.