Friday, May 12, 2017

3. Horror Theory: Towards a Post-Fact World



In the previous two posts we reviewed Lovecraft’s use of conventional techniques to create verisimilitude in his stories.  In particular, “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Call of Cthulhu were examined.  Lovecraft’s intent—his communicative intent—was to instill in his reader an ever increasing level of anxiety, paranoia and horror.  This is likely a very common purpose among creators of horror entertainment.  But perhaps Lovecraft was also attempting to persuade his readers to adopt or at least seriously consider his cosmicist world view.  But do we in fact “live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity”?  Is Lovecraft’s view of reality true?

The techniques used in fiction to establish believability are essentially the same as those used by journalists, politicians, corporate leaders, institutions, scientists, bureaucrats and pretty much anyone else vested with the power to disseminate official information.  Insofar as literature conveys the truth about the human condition—while media outlets are permeated with “fake news”—is it still necessary to distinguish between the two?  For example, can the reports of the mainstream media be considered a form of electronic pulp fiction, infotainment intended for quick and unreflective consumption, but also having an intent?

With all that, is it possible to feel comfortable with the growing realization that we are now in a “post-fact” world, that our new found realities can contain “alternative facts”*?  It is a sensibility that is congenial to your humble blogger’s religiosity and enthusiasm for horror—which is all of a piece, cognitively speaking.  In my view, which may be less and less in the minority, “the facts” and objectivity in general, are vastly over-rated.  Even if we could agree on what the facts are, we would only select from among them the ones that support our world view or ideology, and discard the ones that do not.  This is because reason serves belief, as Thomas Aquinas noted centuries ago, and not the other way around.  Some facts are better and more useful than others; some are no good at all.

A fact requires consensus—we all have to agree that it’s true—and a consent—we have to be willing to submit to some authority that ratifies the accuracy or truth of the fact. Thus using a fact is an appeal to authority or serves to establish an authority on some matter.  Whoever has all the facts, has the last word in some dispute.  This seems true of objectivity in general: that it is called upon by some presumed authority or expert to shore up what is essentially a political decision. 

Of course, no one has all the facts, not even the fact-checkers—and who checks them?  So it is relatively easy among humankind in more tumultuous times to withdraw consent, ruin the consensus, and so unravel objectivity and along with it, authority.  We have all the facts we need.  All that remains is to select from among them the ones that serve our beliefs about the world and the people in it.  Thus facts and objectivity, frail invalids at best, even during periods of “Enlightenment”, can fall sloppy dead when deprived of consensus and consent, and with them authority and reality itself.  Indeed, our reality is formed through the consent of the governed.  But the anxious insistence on facts and objectivity appears to be mostly preposterous monkey-business, to me at least.

It seems that the challenge in our society right now is how to interact with others whose frame of reference, version of reality, and preferred set of facts is completely different from one’s own.  Culturally speaking we may be moving away from an era of relative rationality and so-called Enlightenment thinking and back into the Romantic sensibility of the 18th and 19th centuries—a kind of cycling back to more emotional and subjective ways of experiencing the world.  Readers may suspect that this writer leans toward the latter mode.  It seems more genuine to me.  And it may be that approximately half of this nation also leans in this direction, or will soon. 

There are admittedly some hazards in this:  The Romantic period was a time of intensive cultural development, but also of horrendous violence.  It is hard not to see the potential for these upheavals, driven by passion and ideology, in contemporary events.  Calexit?

Even for the more objective among us there are problems with idolizing data while ignoring the need to re-evaluate the assumptions, emotions and beliefs that drive their collection.  Bret Stephens, in his now infamous editorial, (“Climate of Complete Certainty”, New York Times, 4/29/17) rightly pointed out how the presumed authority of facts can lead to certitude, and then a dangerous hubris.  This presumed authority of facts also contributes to the arrogance, inflexibility and lack of imagination displayed in the ideologies of both the right and left. 

Stephens was discussing attitudes about climate change research, but a similar dynamic can be seen at Berkeley—now the “graveyard of the first amendment”—and in the worldwide reaction to the evil encroachments of globalism.  It can also be seen in the earnest but totalitarian-creepy removal of Confederate flags and statuary from southern state capitols: as if the removal of words, emblems, idols —and hence memory—will magically prevent the re-emergence of the ideas that produced them.  There is certainly an element of magic and conjuration in how we handle the facts, how we hide or display evidence.

At this juncture it is impossible not to recall the opening words of H.P. Lovecraft’s apocalyptic prose poem, “Nyarlathotep” (1920):

I do not recall distinctly when it began, but it was months ago.  [Possibly November 2016—edit.]  The general tension was horrible.  To a season of political and social upheaval was added a strange and brooding apprehension of hideous physical danger; a danger widespread and all-embracing, such a danger as may be imagined only in the most terrible phantasms of the night.

Readers familiar with this short work know that the author goes on to depict the violent end of society and the world, at least as we have come to understand it.  A new set of facts, a new reality is imposed by the arrival of a conquering authority:  “Nyarlathotep…the crawling chaos…I am the last…I will tell the audient void…”

Words to live by!

The violence we see on American campuses, and in political discourse around the world right now reflects this attempt by one side or another to control the debate, cull the facts, and so control a reality, or protect one, or create a new one.  What the debates about free speech on campus, and objectivity in the media are really about is who has authority to select preferred facts and create a preferred reality.  It is reality, or some group’s version of it, that is ultimately at stake.  Hence the violent reaction.

In my view, it would be more productive to dispense with concern for accuracy or factuality or objectivity and focus on intent.  Not whether some item is truthful, but rather what purpose is served by its mention.  Why is certain information, whether true, false, complete, incomplete—it does not matter—provided in a particular context?  What purpose does it serve?  Whose interest does it serve?  My inner Machiavelli does not want to know the truth—how quaint: as when Pontius Pilate cynically asks “What is Truth?”—but rather how effectively the intent was served.  Thus truth, whatever that is, is what is most useful to believe.

We have seen how H.P. Lovecraft and others have used verisimilitude, suspension of disbelief, and cognitive estrangement to substantiate and give form to the nightmares they create for their readers.  Despite the frenzied re-construction of national boundaries around the world, (among them “the Wall” on our southern border), the lines that divide objectivity from subjectivity, fact from fiction, and true from false are dissolving rapidly, inextricably mixing elements of each. 

Why shouldn’t all sources of “official” information use the same tools horror writers do when they persuade us to believe in outlandish terrors?  Aren’t we already using them to create social, economic and political horrors for each other?  H.P. Lovecraft offers this choice at the beginning of “The Call of Cthulhu”:  “…either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”  Why not the second option?

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*“Alterative Facts”—Kelly Ann Conway’s Orwellian but reasonable classification of data that do not support a preferred narrative.  It is fascinating that the term “narrative” is used so often in the news now to describe competing partisan versions of reality, as if rival fictions are being written for the public to consume along with books, feature stories and TV shows.

Thinking about H.P. Lovecraft’s attempts at verisimilitude brought to mind a number of philosophic questions—all generally epistemological—that have been dealt with in earlier posts.  For further bloviation about objectivity vs. subjectivity and the nature of “expertise” see also: