Saturday, September 09, 2006

Fiction, Conspiracy Theories, and Reality

The speculation was made in the comment section of this post a week or so ago whether the advent of fiction and popular culture creates a vulnerability to people believing conspiracy or other surpassingly unlikely theories. This intrigued me, and I have puzzled over this.

The general premise: No, fiction has not made us more likely to believe such things, but film may have.

While the novel proper did not appear until the mid 18th C (Pamela, Tom Jones, Robinson Crusoe), fiction in the sense of invented stories had been around as far back as we know. Drama, epic poetry, and folk tales each create their peculiar believability in the audience. While each is different from the novel and from each other, I can’t see how the new form that we call fiction is a significantly more intense experience than the stories that came before. People identify strongly in theater, especially religious theater; cultures more than half-believe in the creatures which inhabit their folk tales.

People do believe novels at the expense of reality. I was extremely annoyed at Phillip Yancy while reading his What’s So Amazing About Grace? In a teaching about radical grace, radical forgiveness, and how it works to change the hearts of men, he made much of Jean Valjean. It’s fiction, you idiot! The author can make the characters do whatever he wants! Victor Hugo may indeed be capturing something about human nature and illustrating it well. But his characters are not evidence for what human beings are likely to do. Shakespeare captures some nuances of power and relationships beautifully, and can cause us to see and reflect about human nature. But his characters are not evidence of human nature.

Yet there is nothing to suggest that the novel has led to an increase in this sort of unreality. I chose Shakespeare intentionally for that purpose, as his work well predates Fielding, but has a similar effect.

We have also the evidence from the rest of society. The rise of the novel parallels the industrial revolution and enormous gains in feeding others and keeping them healthy. If the novel were that damaging to our understanding of reality, why would it coincide with our increasing mastery over nature?

Story, by its nature, subtly replaces our view of actual events, and affects perception of later events. Story simplifies events for easy storage in memory. It may distill reality or obscure it. There is nothing new about this.

Photographic and audio reproduction are a different matter.

Each advance in photographic and audio technology intensifies plausibility, however. I suspect our very neurology drives this. The way our eyes have learned to see and ears learned to hear over a thousand generations conditions our responses. Technology deceives our senses into the response “this is real.” The first photographs and recordings were regarded as eerily realistic when they first came out, though we find them highly artificial now. Moving pictures, talkies, and the addition of color each enraptured audiences in their turn, not because they were technical marvels, but because they were “so real.”

The brain sorts it out over time, so that repeat viewings do not fool the mind so thoroughly. At each repetition, however, the story embeds itself with deeper reality. I have no way of measuring such things, but I suspect that the “brain-tricked” aspect and the “story” aspect embed into the personality differently.

As an aside, the watchful mind learns to further sort audio and visual into other categories of credibility. That looks like it was shot with home video equipment, we think, and that gives some film clips a heightened authenticity – war footage and amateurs recording tragedies – while others have their authenticity undermined by the aura of unprofessionalism. The network news programs 60 Minutes and 20/20 exploit this trick. Clandestine and non-studio footage seem very real because they fool the brain into thinking they are unedited. We believe we are getting the unposed, straight story. Which is immensely silly of us. When does photojournalism lie? Always. Always. That is not an MSM criticism but a description of the limitations of film. The camera points in one direction, and that direction is chosen by a human being, Context is always missing. A skillful filmmaker can provide sufficient context – but can just as easily supply false context. If the cameraman/editor provides no context, then we make it up ourselves, from our own assumptions.

It is a commonplace criticism of ourselves that “what happens on TV is more real to some people than their own experience.” This is truer of all of us, perhaps, than we would like. A young woman going hiking with her boyfriend informed me that they were of course going to bring handguns for protection. “Didn’t you see Deliverance?” Uh, bears might be more of a worry, miss.

Film does not just influence the people who weren’t there, but the people who were, as the carefully-chosen details provide a semblance of reality that overrides our defenses enough to strengthen the case that the film’s narrative makes for reality, even at the expense of our previous narrative (As see, my recent post “Evocation.”).

All this is coming to a head again this weekend with the controversy over The Path to 9/11. As with Fahrenheit 911 a few years ago, political types are well aware that a movie that is (or imitates) a documentary will determine how many people store the entire 9/11 narrative for years. It makes little difference to me – I won’t be seeing the former and never saw the latter. The attempts at censorship are revealing and a bit chilling, but they are understandable. We all would like to control the narrative of political events. But it matters greatly whether we actually move to take control of them by silencing others.

Related earlier topic History Becomes Lost But Is Found Again By The Beatles.


Old Wacky Hermit said...

My husband had a friend who was absolutely convinced that shrimp in the wild are orange because he saw a shrimp once in a Tom and Jerry cartoon and it was in the sea and it was orange. My husband, who grew up with his mom cooking whole shrimp, insisted that raw shrimp are gray and they only turn orange when cooked. The man could not be convinced even by an eyewitness, because he Saw It On TV-- and in an animated cartoon, no less.

I've made a point of telling my kids over and over that some of what they see on TV is not true.

David Foster said...

In his unusual book "In the beginning was the command line," Neal Stephenson distinguishes between textual and iconic forms of knowledge. The latter might include films; it also might include contrived experiences such as Disneyland. One of his points is that you can argue with textual knowledge but not with iconic knowledge.

I'm not doing justice to the thesis here, and have been meaning to do a post about it. You might find the book interesting--it's in the "computers" section of the bookstores, but it's really broadly about metaphors and their influence on the thought process.

ELC said...

Thanks for noticing my little thought and improving on it. I linked you back.

I have some other thoughts I might drop off from time to time. :-)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thanks, David. I'm putting it on my Amazon wish list.

Anonymous said...

One thing that struck me as odd in the days after 9/11 was Bush saying "We will not tolerate conspiracy theories [regarding 9/11]". Sure enough there have been some wacky conspiracy theories surrounding the events of that day. The most far-fetched and patently ridiculous one that I've ever heard goes like this: Nineteen hijackers who claimed to be devout Muslims but yet were so un-Muslim as to be getting drunk all the time, doing cocaine and frequenting strip clubs decided to hijack four airliners and fly them into buildings in the northeastern U.S., the area of the country that is the most thick with fighter bases. After leaving a Koran on a barstool at a strip bar after getting shitfaced drunk on the night before, then writing a suicide note/inspirational letter that sounded like it was written by someone with next to no knowledge of Islam, they went to bed and got up the next morning hung over and carried out their devious plan. Nevermind the fact that of the four "pilots" among them there was not a one that could handle a Cessna or a Piper Cub let alone fly a jumbo jet, and the one assigned the most difficult task of all, Hani Hanjour, was so laughably incompetent that he was the worst fake "pilot" of the bunch. Nevermind the fact that they received very rudimentary flight training at Pensacola Naval Air Station, making them more likely to have been C.I.A. assets than Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. So on to the airports. These "hijackers" somehow managed to board all four airliners with their tickets, yet not even ONE got his name on any of the flight manifests. So they hijack all four airliners and at this time passengers on United 93 start making a bunch of cell phone calls from 35,000 feet in the air to tell people what was going on. Nevermind the fact that cell phones wouldn't work very well above 4,000 feet, and wouldn't work at ALL above 8,000 feet. But the conspiracy theorists won't let that fact get in the way of a good fantasy. That is one of the little things you "aren't supposed to think about". Nevermind that one of the callers called his mom and said his first and last name, more like he was reading from a list than calling his own mom. Anyway, when these airliners each deviated from their flight plan and didn't respond to ground control, NORAD would any other time have followed standard operating procedure (and did NOT have to be told by F.A.A. that there were hijackings because they were watching the same events unfold on their own radar) which means fighter jets would be scrambled from the nearest base where they were available on standby within a few minutes, just like every other time when airliners stray off course. But of course on 9/11 this didn't happen, not even close. Somehow these "hijackers" must have used magical powers to cause NORAD to stand down, as ridiculous as this sounds because total inaction from the most high-tech and professional Air Force in the world would be necessary to carry out their tasks. So on the most important day in its history the Air Force was totally worthless. Then they had to make one of the airliners look like a smaller plane, because unknown to them the Naudet brothers had a videocamera to capture the only known footage of the North Tower crash, and this footage shows something that is not at all like a jumbo jet, but didn't have to bother with the South Tower jet disguising itself because that was the one we were "supposed to see". Anyway, as for the Pentagon they had to have Hani Hanjour fly his airliner like it was a fighter plane, making a high G-force corkscrew turn that no real airliner can do, in making its descent to strike the Pentagon. But these "hijackers" wanted to make sure Rumsfeld survived so they went out of their way to hit the farthest point in the building from where Rumsfeld and the top brass are located. And this worked out rather well for the military personnel in the Pentagon, since the side that was hit was the part that was under renovation at the time with few military personnel present compared to construction workers. Still more fortuitous for the Pentagon, the side that was hit had just before 9/11 been structurally reinforced to prevent a large fire there from spreading elsewhere in the building. Awful nice of them to pick that part to hit, huh? Then the airliner vaporized itself into nothing but tiny unidentifiable pieces no bigger than a fist, unlike the crash of a real airliner when you will be able to see at least some identifiable parts, like crumpled wings, broken tail section etc. Why, Hani Hanjour the terrible pilot flew that airliner so good that even though he hit the Pentagon on the ground floor the engines didn't even drag the ground!! Imagine that!! Though the airliner vaporized itself on impact it only made a tiny 16 foot hole in the building. Amazing. Meanwhile, though the planes hitting the Twin Towers caused fires small enough for the firefighters to be heard on their radios saying "We just need 2 hoses and we can knock this fire down" attesting to the small size of it, somehow they must have used magical powers from beyond the grave to make this morph into a raging inferno capable of making the steel on all forty-seven main support columns (not to mention the over 100 smaller support columns) soften and buckle, then all fail at once. Hmmm. Then still more magic was used to make the building totally defy physics as well as common sense in having the uppermost floors pass through the remainder of the building as quickly, meaning as effortlessly, as falling through air, a feat that without magic could only be done with explosives. Then exactly 30 minutes later the North Tower collapses in precisely the same freefall physics-defying manner. Incredible. Not to mention the fact that both collapsed at a uniform rate too, not slowing down, which also defies physics because as the uppermost floors crash into and through each successive floor beneath them they would shed more and more energy each time, thus slowing itself down. Common sense tells you this is not possible without either the hijackers' magical powers or explosives. To emphasize their telekinetic prowess, later in the day they made a third building, WTC # 7, collapse also at freefall rate though no plane or any major debris hit it. Amazing guys these magical hijackers. But we know it had to be "Muslim hijackers" the conspiracy theorist will tell you because (now don't laugh) one of their passports was "found" a couple days later near Ground Zero, miraculously "surviving" the fire that we were told incinerated planes, passengers and black boxes, and also "survived" the collapse of the building it was in. When common sense tells you if that were true then they should start making buildings and airliners out of heavy paper and plastic so as to be "indestructable" like that magic passport. The hijackers even used their magical powers to bring at least seven of their number back to life, to appear at american embassies outraged at being blamed for 9/11!! BBC reported on that and it is still online. Nevertheless, they also used magical powers to make the american government look like it was covering something up in the aftermath of this, what with the hasty removal of the steel debris and having it driven to ports in trucks with GPS locators on them, to be shipped overseas to China and India to be melted down. When common sense again tells you that this is paradoxical in that if the steel was so unimportant that they didn't bother saving some for analysis but so important as to require GPS locators on the trucks with one driver losing his job because he stopped to get lunch. Hmmmm. Further making themselves look guilty, the Bush administration steadfastly refused for over a year to allow a commission to investigate 9/11 to even be formed, only agreeing to it on the conditions that they get to dictate its scope, meaning it was based on the false pretense of the "official story" being true with no other alternatives allowed to be considered, handpicked all its members making sure the ones picked had vested interests in the truth remaining buried, and with Bush and Cheney only "testifying" together, only for an hour, behind closed doors, with their attorneys present and with their "testimonies" not being recorded by tape or even written down in notes. Yes, this whole story smacks of the utmost idiocy and fantastic far-fetched lying, but it is amazingly enough what some people believe. Even now, five years later, the provably false fairy tale of the "nineteen hijackers" is heard repeated again and again, and is accepted without question by so many Americans. Which is itself a testament to the innate psychological cowardice of the American sheeple, i mean people, and their abject willingness to believe something, ANYTHING, no matter how ridiculous in order to avoid facing a scary uncomfortable truth. Time to wake up America.

Anonymous said...

I'm always amused that someone comes along and proves Thomas Szasz wrong.

Not everyone exhibiting symptoms of paranoia are receiving treatment.