Post-Truth and Parafiction

 

Note: Posting this for next week since classes are over for this week.

As Carrie Lambert-Beatty remarks in her article, “Make-Believe: Parafiction and Plausibility” (2009), fiction is an important category in art post-1998 (54). Parafiction, as Lambert-Beatty describes it, is a genre of fictiveness in which a work of art has one foot in fiction and the other foot in the real (54). Contemporary artists have launched campaigns for imaginary products, hacked museum audio tours, staged a marriage proposal, created false archives, and more (Lambert-Beatty 54). Playing with the pragmatics of trust, these parafictions formed deceptions that achieved truth-status for some people, some of the time (54). Though they altered the worldviews of participants, sometimes in truthful ways, they always did so by way of untruth (Lambert-Beatty 54). Parafictions, like alternate reality games, are pervasive. Para-fictional entities are bounded in space and time to those who confront them in-the know; for the maker of a work or an “insider,” the boundary between truth and fiction is clear. For the average “viewer,” parafictional games operate outside of the magic circle; they infiltrate reality and capitalize on the presumption that one what sees is true. Unlike alternate reality games, the ones who know the rules are the ones who aren’t playing; those outside the game are the gamers.

Parafictions overlap with post-truth by appealing to personal belief; for a para-fiction to be accepted as truth, it needs to find root in what the average person finds to be plausible. As McIntyre notes, in “Trumpspeak, belief is a signal of the truth” (168). In the context of McIntyre’s article, the public believes that a statement is true, thus signalling to the deliverer that there is truth in what he/she/they have said. In Parafiction, belief signals to the spectator that what the deliverer said is true; the believability of the project consequently signals the success of its falsehood to the creator. In other words, conventional processes of post-truth and parafiction have inverse processes of reception. This is all to say that post-truth might be understood to derive in part from the authority of the speaker, thus translating belief in someone to trust in something, whereas para-fictions succeed by way of the authority of their objects and fictions, thus translating belief in something to trust in someone–the creator of the parafiction. McIntyre notes that post-truth earns its title when practitioners try to “compel someone to believe in something whether there is good evidence for it or not” (McIntyre 12). Parafiction involves no such persuasion; in parafiction, the objects serve as good evidence and thus compel; believability comes before belief rather than the other way around.

In some sense, all artworks create fictions; they ask viewers to suspend belief in their everyday realities to enter the narrative or logic of the artwork. Artworks of this sort however, declare themselves as such. Though it is unlikely that any artist is completely unaware that their work creates or embodies “another world,” parafictional artists are highly aware of this fact and try to conceal it by capitalizing on common sense. Common sense holds that what we see is real; “reality” isn’t always truth, however, and it is this which makes parafictions pervasive. By blending reality and fiction, revealed parafictions force viewers to confront that reality does not equal truth, and that fiction does not equal unreality. In other words, parafictioneers rely on common sense to perpetuate fictions rather than to quell them. Detractors from post-truth rely on the opposite function of common sense; it is common sense which they hope will persuade the viewer that what is incorrectly presented as reality is blatantly fiction (McIntyre 155).

Needless to say, post-truth is seen, at least by a sizeable portion of the population, as an enemy to be defeated. The danger in post-truth, as McIntyre frames it, is not only that “we allow our opinions and feelings to play a role in shaping what we think of as facts and truth, but (also) that by doing so we take a risk of being estranged from reality itself” (172). Despite the seemingly complementary rather than parallel forms of post-truth and parafiction, parafiction is in danger of realizing the same effects. Lambert-Beatty notes that being “taken in” by a parafiction is both epistemologically destabilizing and humiliating (82). In other words, it confounds what is and isn’t true about the world and causes the mind to allow for untruth to perform the same effects as truth. As Lambert-Beatty finds: “parafictions in general are performative, in that they affect or produce something rather than describe or denote it” (61). Like alternative facts, or other forms of post-truth parafictions persuade if not by intent then by proxy to what Stephen Colbert termed, “truthiness.” How, then, is parafiction to be defeated? McIntrye recommends supporting critical thinking, promoting investigative reporting, and calling out liars as tactics in defeating post-truth (161). These same tactics would backfire in a parafiction; in “calling out” a parafiction, one makes even more apparent its potency and efficacy. Parafictions after all, are expected to deceive temporarily whereas post-truths are arguably treated as lasting interventions.

Perhaps the more pertinent question is whether we should want to abolish para-fictions. Parafictions, unlike post-truths, have most often been used to promote a neutral viewpoint or content rather than conveying an overtly political, often conservative message. This for one, draws attention to whether “post-truth” can have positive applications rather than merely negative ones; is it inherently a negative to live estranged from reality, or can a step back from reality allow one to form and work towards, greater, more positive goals? As an example, two artists, Eva and Franco Mattes, who go by 010010111010101101.Org, created a convincing replica of the Vatican’s website where they made a variety of alterations, including one which worked the acceptance of abortion into archived encyclicals (60). Now, I do not claim that this was the most convincing alteration made, but it is a compelling example of how a parafiction can capitalize on some overlap with post-truth to work towards liberal rather than conservative causes. By promoting acceptance of abortion via a fictionalized proxy of authority, the artists’ fiction presumably achieved some level of truth status if for a limited period of time. Nonetheless, the parafiction would have effected a change in the certainty of those who bought into it; their belief systems would have been shown to be more fragile than not.

This is all to ask whether parafiction can be used as a strategy to combat post-truth. Parafiction doesn’t rely on blind belief in authority figures; rather, through its ultimate revealing, it causes one to question whether what one sees and hears is really the truth or whether it is merely an artifact of reality. If, as McIntyre claims, post-truth has roots in the evolution of cognitive irrationalities, then might revealing just how faulty rationality is contribute to the public’s ability to recognize that that which has the appearance of truth need not necessarily earn that title? To what degree can causing people to doubt their own sense of what is fact and fiction be a productive endeavor? We live in a society that is still defined by binaries: yes or no, true or false, fact of fiction. The move away from dichotomy, however, is sprouting. The increasing authorization of “they” as a gender category draws attention to how “he” and “she” are no longer satisfactory ways of seeing the world, much less ways of embodying it. Can we learn, as a public, to be objective observers of a reality which includes both truths and falsehoods? How would our way of being in the world change if we became skeptics of the process whereby data is converted into knowledge?

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