“Facts may not create the rhythm that we want, but they reveal the quirks, the gorgeous imperfections, of life”
–Cheri Lucas Rowlands from her blog post, That Thing I Wrote That Wasn’t True: On Facts, Memoir & John D’Agata
Cheri Lucas Rowlands, in the above blog post, discusses the ethics of truth-telling in non-fiction narratives. The subject of her post is a controversial book–The Lifespan of a Fact–by essayist John D’Agata, which is compiled of interactions between himself and fact-checker Jim Fingal. The book began over some inaccurate claims D’Agata made in an essay about a Las Vegas suicide.
What draws me to this post is how Rowlands narrates the scandal. She blends in her own experiences of writing a memoir and the sometimes internal struggle to embellish or make up events to enrich a story. To distort those facts or to ignore them, she argues, does a disservice to their important role in shaping the narrator as a person, as well as the reader.
The tension between fact and fiction in literary narratives raises a cumbersome question for me: Why–not how–do we have an innate impulse to demand accurate representations of reality, whether in memoirs or scientific journals?
The sense of being bamboozled by a person’s lie leads us to insist punishment, or exile from our community of honest brokers of reality. While reading Rowlands’ post, though, I realized that her struggle–a very human struggle–is with trusting the subjective experience of an event, whether our own or someone else’s.
This is problematic for scientific discourses, and will be explored throughout my writing on To See Science in the future. The more I explore rhetorical issues, the more I’m convinced that the communication of anything–so long as language (an irrational and messy mechanism in the first place) is used–will never be able of transcending individual subjectivities to deliver unobjectionable Truth. Ultimately, it is discourse that constructs the truth about something (just as Michael Foucault postulates about the definition of insanity being a cultural construct, not an empirical, universal reality: Madness and Civilization). The actual phenomenon never changes, only our relation to it does.
Taking an extreme view of this, like Edmund Huserl, it doesn’t matter if the earth rotates around the sun or not because our experience of it will always be what grounds us in a sense of reality, which is ultimately reflected in language (e.g. why we still say that the sun rises and sets).
But what if we all adopt this view of truth and reality that says an authentic experience is that last word on fact?
I don’t think it is totally true to say that we demand truth because we will miss out on the intelectual benefit of having factual knowledge about some phenomenon. Instead, we desire the truth because we understand–intuitively–that if some one says that something is true, then it has the power to construct a world view. This world view informs attitudes. And attitudes guide behavior. Our behavior, ultimately, reflects a combination of what we know experientially against what we are told is true.
If this process is accurate, then indeed we face an ethical problem whenever we speak or write. Thus, even science, when it ascribes a certain metaphor to a particular phenomenon (e.g. the concept of invasive v. native species, which is not supported biologically but is rather a sociopolitical conception of nature), must be held responsible for the social and environmental implications its construction of reality has.
This may just be food for thought, but it is something we are a part of every day. The language we use, the stories we tell, and the science we believe are all a part of our personal identities and the way we engage the world around us; so it’s worth a little philosophizing–albeit in a blog.