Literature of fact
November 16, 2002 8:50 AM   Subscribe

'Literature of fact' The high wall which seperates fact and fiction has a small door in it through which people can step. A piece which discusses how someone writing a supposed eyewitness account of an event always tends to fictionalise, even unconciously, in order to make the subject interesting, the idea being that just because a book is in that section, it might not actually be completely non-fiction.
posted by feelinglistless (12 comments total)
'What Happened on Lexington Green: An Inquiry into the Nature and Method of History' is a fine text for teaching teachers how to teach history. It contains dozens of brief descriptions, eyewitness accounts, reports and recollections of a single event: "The shot heard round the world."
Seemingly, almost every detail of the event varies, to the point where one is forced to make a judgement call of what actually happened--and it leaves you to wonder what other events of history are just colorful constructs, not representative of the reality of the thing in question.

And, remember, that this is the *objective* information that is in question. How bad does it get when it is subjective information; and when the two are intertwined?
posted by kablam at 9:28 AM on November 16, 2002

kablam: I don't understand your last paragraph. Anything described by humans is subjective information. The only objective information would be a film of the event (and even then you'd be depending on somebody's subjective choice of where to put the camera and when to start and stop filming).
posted by languagehat at 9:51 AM on November 16, 2002

Not at all. The statement "The ship 'Titanic' sunk after hitting an iceberg" is an objective statement. But to say that it "sank *like* a rock" would be subjective.

The former statement can be parsed for criticism on objective grounds: Was 'Titanic' a ship? Did it 'hit' the iceberg or 'otherwise impact it'; or did the iceberg 'hit' the ship? And, did it 'sink'? Using the criteria for objectivity of "reasonableness" and accuracy compared with known information, the statement is objectively factual.

The latter statement doesn't stand up to such parsing, for though the ship *may* have sank like a rock, the same could also be true that it sank like many other things--and yet, not accurately *like* the other things. But "sort of" like a rock, etc. A subjective opinion.
posted by kablam at 10:16 AM on November 16, 2002

can i make a confession amongst friends? i once made up an eye-witness account to an accident. as far as i can tell, i didn't realise i'd made it up til later, when i started thinking about what i'd written and how i couldn't actually have seen what i described...

(fwiw it was just two cars that hit each other, no-one was injured or anything, if that makes it any better)
posted by andrew cooke at 2:06 PM on November 16, 2002

Actually, "The ship 'Titanic' sunk after hitting an iceberg" is subjective. Here's why (and I know most people won't agree with me on this).

You have never seen the Titanic, you were not there when the Titanic sunk, and you can't say that it was sunk by an iceberg. You were told these facts and accepted them.

It's theoretically possible (though not likely) that there was no Titanic or iceberg, or if there was a Titanic, that it was hit by something else. We accept that it was brought down by an iceberg, because that is what we are told.

But that truth is subjective, the only way for each one of us to objectively know that the ship was sunk by an iceberg would to have been there, otherwise we have to accept subjective accounts (not to mention factor in the fact that eyes often lie).

Basically, there is no objective reality (a handful of paragraphs can not truly do this idea justice).
posted by drezdn at 2:13 PM on November 16, 2002

ps couldn't the titanic have been a mass halucination plus an unfathomly unlikely quantum fluctuation? strictly, yes. "the titanic hit the iceberg" is not tautological, so it's truth requires some kind of supporting philosophy (maybe i'm the only person alive, imaging everything....). this is the big horrible squishy mess that a whole chunk of philosophy (epistomology) get's bogged down in and never escapes - in the end you just give up and get on with life anyway...
posted by andrew cooke at 2:14 PM on November 16, 2002

andrew: Don't feel too bad -- that kind of thing happens all the time (which is one of the problems with the idea of "objective" eyewitness reports). I remember reading an account by a baseball fan who for years had cherished a vivid childhood memory of sneaking away from Thanksgiving dinner to listen to the Dodgers play in the World Series until one day it came to him -- the World Series was long over by Thanksgiving, so it couldn't have happened that way! (And I may be making up the Thanksgiving part; all I'm sure of is that it was some occasion that was incompatible with the October schedule of the Series -- Christmas, maybe? So this comment is another example of the fictionalization of reality.)
posted by languagehat at 2:22 PM on November 16, 2002

In the early nineteenth century, Richard Whately took on some of these issues involving evidence and representation in his satirical Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonaparte (an attack on Hume's essay on miracles).
posted by thomas j wise at 3:29 PM on November 16, 2002

Recommended reading for those interested in literary journalism (once known as new journalism): Art of Fact.
posted by brittney at 8:04 PM on November 16, 2002

This is an interesting link, and an important subject. The linked article wanders a bit in discussing it, I'm afraid.

I was struck by the passage from Orwell. It reminded me of a feature of scientific papers. Near the end, the paper's authors will often include a paragraph or two in which they state their study's limitations, how serious those limitations are, how strongly they feel the reader should take their conclusions, and what future research might be undertaken to address those limitations and clarify their study's conclusion. Owning up to the fact that your study is imperfect (and virtually all studies are imperfect in some way) and frankly discussing its weaknesses is considered good form in the scientific community. But you rarely see it in journalism.

Part of the subjectivity of experience comes from the weakness and malleability of human memory. To add to andrew's and languagehat's examples, one of the most famous examples of false memory occurred in the life of Jean Piaget, the famous child psychologist. Read about it here (scroll down 4 paragraphs).
posted by Slithy_Tove at 12:02 AM on November 17, 2002

One of my favorite literary examples of self-referentiality is from the conclusion of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 ("Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day"), "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."
posted by brittney at 2:22 AM on November 17, 2002

Er, that comment was meant to go here. Whoops.
posted by brittney at 9:07 AM on November 17, 2002

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