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.