Fact, fiction and fetish
What is the relationship between fact and fiction? This question has a long history, but in the age of so-called fake news and the manic speed of social media, it has taken on a renewed urgency. What follows are my very sketchy attempts to sort through this question.
Fact and fiction are usually mutually opposed. We take one to be true, and the other to be false; one to be genuine, authentic and given, the other to be a tissue of lies, a collection of fakes and a pile of deceits.
Yet this opposition is a fairly modern one. It is also pretty arbitrary. Fact is in fact semantically and etymologically related to fiction. The former derives from the Latin root, facere, to make, to do. The latter, from the Latin fictionem , "a fashioning or feigning," which in turn comes from the verb fingere "to shape, form, devise, feign," originally "to knead or form out of clay," suggesting the relationship of fiction to handicraft. Fact and fiction thus entail acts of making and doing, giving shape to events as well as to the makers of such events.
Interestingly enough, both fact and fiction are also related to the word "fetish" which is from Portuguese feitiço, "charm, sorcery," the same as the Spanish hechizo and Italian fattizio: "made by art, artificial, skillfully contrived." All 3 Romance language words are related to the Latin factīcius, "factitious" which again harks back to the twin notions of fact and fiction. In addition, "fetish" suggests something of their potential to awe and inspire, fascinate and fool. As fetish, fact and fiction can have a powerful hold on those who seize and are seized by them.
We can see this potential in the fact that fiction, once believed, can become an article of faith. It can become true to one who subscribes to it, demanding loyalty to the community of other believers. In this sense, we can think of religion and the nation to be made up of sublime and tragic fictions designed to make sense of fatality and mortality. As Benedict Anderson once said about the nation, it has the magic to transform chance into destiny, providing a narrative for a collective life beyond individual deaths, while providing a moral language with which to distinguish good from evil.* Powerful fictions are powerful precisely to the extent that they furnish the foundations for solidarity and shared beliefs. And to this extent that such beliefs are fetishized – held to be unassailable facts that exercise absolute authority over one’s life – they would also include a belief in the necessity of common sacrifice in face of common enemies and a commitment to their annihilation.
But there is also a sense in which fact is seen as truth only when opposed to fiction. We can see this in European medieval and early modern notions of fact. Facts, for example, are synonymous with what actually, as against what could have, happened. In the context of the law, facts are always the facts of the crime and the guilt incurred in their commission. Hence, the common expression, "after the fact."
Legally then, facts are crucial for establishing the evidentiary basis for ascertaining guilt and innocence. As integral aspects of a juridical apparatus, they are meant to deliver justice while at the same time contain criminality by defining and designating the criminal. Facts are thus an assemblage that furnishes the basis for social redress. For this reason, they are instruments for discipline and punishment of those individuals pronounced guilty by those with the privilege to say so.
Indentured to the law, facts then serve the interests of knowledge and power in the production of the guilty individual and the discourse of "criminal types" – so-called outlaws (like drug addicts) which are seen to be sub-human and thus undeserving of recognition, much less human rights. Thanks to facts, law individualizes crime at the expense of their social context in order to reproduce social order and hierarchy. Fetishizing facts for the sake of justice, the law invests in structures of injustice.
In the wake of Descartes, facts became the prelude to truth.
From this critical perspective, truth is never obvious. It must necessarily submit itself to the doubting subject and so to the processes of investigation and verification. Such processes include the experimentation with and the mathematization of factual occurrences, their qualification from mere sensory phenomenon, their quantification and their application to the world at large.
In the same vein, among modern historians, a fact can never exist in isolation or in an endless series, as in a chronicle. Rather, they are subjected to critical appraisal. Their sources must be verified, their significance contextualized, and their effects and meanings subject to interpretation and re-interpretation. For historians then, facts are not yet the truth, but the necessary building blocks for approaching the truth. But because truth itself changes with the emergence of new facts along with the uncovering of spurious ones (e.g., forgeries), the very act of interpretation is always already a revision of earlier interpretations. Debates over the meaning of facts, much less their provenance is open-ended so that historical truth is endlessly contested.
What does all this tell us? To me, this suggests that fact and fiction are both related not only to the fetishism of power but also to the question of truth. This is really what is at stake: what is the truth? More important: what is our relationship to truth? What does it mean to tell the truth? What kind of practice is truth-telling?
To know the truth is to be enlightened and therefore to be free. But to be free is also to be bound to the duty of truth-telling. Seen from the perspective of truth-telling as a practice with real material effects, writing necessarily becomes a political and ethical act. It is ethical to the extent that it entails governing one’s conduct in such a way as to speak the truth. It is political insofar as speaking the truth entails a certain risk and confrontation with those in positions of power.
The philosopher Michel Foucault has written about the ethical and political task of truth-telling that every act of writing entails. He reminds us of the Greek notion of truth-telling called parrhesia. What is parrhesia?
For the Greeks, it was less a metaphysic of truth, as if truth was something transcendent, but a pragmatics of truth telling that, above all, requires risk and courage. It entails showing and telling everything, holding nothing back even and especially when it is dangerous. Usually this means addressing someone greater and more powerful than yourself, and so incurring the risk of their violent response.
Foucault sums up the concept of parrhesia in the following way:
"So you see, the parrhesiaste is someone who takes a risk… If, in a political debate, an orator risks losing his popularity because his opinions are contrary to the majority's opinion, or his opinions may usher in a political scandal, he uses parrhesia…. Parrhesia, then, is linked to courage in the face of danger …More precisely, parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself). In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy." **
From the perspective of parrhesia, the relationship among fact, fiction and fetish raises a number of questions: How do you write truthfully in whatever genre you are writing? What makes for a truthful fiction that exposes the pretenses of power or reveals long-hidden problems? How does it allow for the repressed to return and to be addressed? What makes fictions powerful truths that people risk their lives for? Under what conditions must we confront these powerful fictions? How do we inquire not so much into their veracity as to their effects on our lives?
How can we fashion new fictions and to what ends – for example, fictions that convey the resistant social facts of mutual caring and compassion in the face of dominant political fictions that insist on the need for murderous vengeance and summary executions? What other kinds of fictions can be spun from the contingent, fragile facts of our humanity? Indeed, in the face of capitalist predation and climate catastrophe, how can such fictions put in question the limits and the power of certain ideas about humanity in relation to the non-human and the natural? Finally, how to turn the fetish of violence inherent in the fictions of power into the truth-telling practice of caring for the self and the other in all its otherness? – Rappler.com
Vicente L. Rafael teaches at the University of Washington in Seattle.
*See Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, London: Verso, 1983.
**See Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 15-16. For a fuller treatment, see Foucault, The Courage of Truth: The Government of Self and Others II; Lectures at the Collège de France, 1983—1984, trans. by Graham Burchell, NY: Picador, 2012.