The Friction of Faction

The Friction of Faction (and the fiction of fraction)

            It must be a burden to be the same, to bear the mark of sameness rather than that of difference. That I am as another, and thus the expectations that this other has of me are merely that which I have of her and nothing else, must appear uninteresting at the least, if not an outright waste. For who am I that I must be thou? Am I only thus, is that what I am fit for, fit to be? And who are you to make such a demand upon me? At once, who am I to declare myself as the goal of your action, or of your very being? Sameness is our human condition, but it is one which is filled with shame and resentment. And so, we seek the difference within the sameness, the diversity in the homogeneity. And we do so with a desperation which has of late become a fetish. What once was the default – this small group is ‘the people’, is what is human, and everyone else is something else – in our time becomes a contraption. If the default was a fault of misrecognition and parochialism, a severe and ultimate understatement of the species-reality, then is it surely not the error of modern global society that we tend to overstate our case?

            Or is it the same question merely scaled? For in declaring difference to be the de facto condition, over against sameness, are we not reiterating, though with by far a more cosmopolitan sensibility, the original fiction of faction? Distinguishing ourselves based on inherited traits, phenotypic and not accrued, and then even, perversely, remarking upon their degradation – this repeats, though in an obverse manner, the antique atmosphere which surrounded the stigmata, the ‘mark’ which denoted a slavish caste and thus nature; one has cancer, one is a cancer survivor and so on – appears not only shallow but as well too easy a thing. It avoids the question, as we have stated elsewhere, of the ‘who’; who am I? Such avoidance behavior seems the norm in our day, and we must then ask, why am I as a person something to so stringently avoid? Is it because I fear being reduced to sameness? And if so, what would this imply? Would I thence vanish without a trace of my being anything at all, simply because of my own humanity?

            In a society which is structurally unequal, and wherein opportunity odds are unevenly distributed, many, if not most, might appear to have small means afforded to them to distinguish themselves. We each of us might have a small circle, and are ‘known’ to be this or that within it, but are unknown beyond it. Schutz has famously outlined the topography of the social selfhood. My knowledge, of myself, of others, of society and of history etc. can be mapped, with sufficient accuracy but also intended metaphor, as with all cartographic representations. From the highest peak of intimacy – never quite closing in upon itself since there are things, perhaps unconsciously understood, once again, by way of distended and sometimes absurdly drawn-out metaphor, of which we are otherwise unaware – to what Schutz referred to as the ‘hinterland’ of awareness, and beyond which lies only the unknown for now, or, perhaps yet the absolutely unknowable, my Dasein is surrounded on all sides by relative degrees of knowledge and ignorance. The two are by no means mutually exclusive and, as people change throughout the life course, I can also say with an odd confidence that all the confidences in the world do not permit me to state with utter certainty either self-knowing or comprehension of the other, no matter how intimate. ‘I thought I knew you’ is thus a cliché plaintiff, whether appearing in a lover’s tiff or deathbed confessional, between trusted work colleagues or less trusted political bedfellows. In a word, knowledge of the other is not so different than is self-knowledge.    

            This is so because at base, we remain after all the same thing, to ourselves and to others, and it is the headlong flight from this species essence that entangles Dasein in and as a skein of social roleplays and normative presumptives. The fraction of what we do know, about ourselves, others, or again the world at large, must be ledgered against what we merely tell ourselves we know. This fraction contains its own fictions. The ‘personal fable’ is, anthropologically speaking, perhaps the most common. It can be considered a cultural item only in social organizations known to practice it in their sameness, and through some thematic variations, to indeed assert this sameness as a general intent. I am not the ‘son of eagle’ in order to make fraternal a cultural whole, but rather as a fabulous construction, though one vouchsafed by a Cree shaman, which reasserts my individuation. But if I were an indigenous person, this mark would be an effort toward the homogenous. Yet in confirming my identity in his cosmology, this shaman was not thus conferring upon me an indigenous status. For him, it merely affirmed, with some astonishment on his part, as I recall, the wider reach of forces that are generally beyond the human ken. This is a relic of the universe enchanted, and has no place in modernity. He knew this, I knew this, and yet.

            Even so, the rush to difference is itself majority fictional. The camaraderies of the faction, the dividing up of what is in camera already a clique – why would one care to ‘identify’ someone else at all; are we now all our own detectives? Is the prevalence of detective fiction in our entertainment giving us a sense that we must not only own our own actions but as well with some visage ashamed own up to them? – are artificial in the face of living and dying the both. And the conflict that seems also so desired and desirable and which can only be attained by overdoing factionalism, of making fractious the fractions of our fellow humans who would surely, in an ideal world, be more like us than anything else – the other headlong flight in evidence, that away from traditional social roles in non-Western cultures, is testament to this – is mainly a fictional conflict. In fiction, if there is no conflict there is no story. What then, we might imagine, would be the story of humankind without that same conflict? What would people truly live for? Is this why the yet-radical ethics of the Koinonium is still so rarely in evidence?

            But history is not fantasy, even if it too contains its fraction of fiction. Reality, social through and through when it comes to human perception, is also not a fiction. That it sometimes rests upon fictive kinships is no argument against its reality function. The sleight of hand of fiction is that though it is not real, it comes across as if it were. There is no real danger here as long as we keep our heads; this there is a story and this here is history, this over here is theater and this right here is dramaturgically inclined social relations, this out there is fantasy and this in here is who I am, who I really am. And even if I cannot know myself in the entirety of my being – I change over time, memory falters, pride is present, the pitch and lens of the generalized other shifts gradually across generations – nevertheless at any one time I retain the Gestaltkreis of a whole self, the personhood who I am, mine ownmost being. Is this being so paltry that I daily seek to forget it, avoid its presence, fictionalize it and divide it into fractions of itself, join it to external faction, seek the ‘friction of the day’? No, rather it is our inability to accept ourselves for who we are as human beings that promotes the fiction that we can be something else. Yet each of our replacements contains much more phantasmagoria than was originally self-present. We have in fact inverted the cartographia mundi of the self, and now dwell in the very deepest of trenches, unseen as a being, unseeing as a person. Perhaps the quite intended paradox of desiring identity difference is such that we can no longer be identified at all.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, social theory, religion, aesthetics and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Autobiography in Fiction

Autobiography in Fiction (when the author isn’t quite dead)

            An old friend of mine recently read one of my short stories and noted how I had used my own first name as the narrator’s, the only time I have ever done so. “Did this suggest that you saw yourself in his role, or that part of the story was something that happened to you personally?”, he asked. These are two intriguing questions, and admittedly, they put a flea in my ear to examine my entire corpus of fiction in response. The perduring question that backdrops them is of course, ‘how much reality is there in fiction?’, and that in general. The source-point of such reality, however much of it may or may not be present, is itself problematic; personal memory. Asking if the reader can trust the writer is not so different than asking if the writer can trust his own experience. Indeed, my experience of writing fiction is that it is a form of waking dream, so there may well be as much of the unconscious life in the text as there is conscious memory of waking experience.

            However this may be, such questions remain, and each author, in her desire to become a discursive label rather than a mere person, must confront them in some manner or other. For myself, I began by listing each of the moments where I had quite calculatingly borrowed from my life experience. This kind of material is specific, at first not metaphorical and not to be interpreted as anything but the most convenient of plot devices. Such an overview produced more than I had imagined, and while I have never written the much-vaunted ‘autobiographical novel’ – D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, for example – I am guilty of pilfering autobiographical memory in a lesser sense – along the lines of, say, H.G. Wells’ Tono Bungay, by way of contrasting case. My early novella used a setting from my childhood that I knew well. My first novel used two outré experiences I actually had to help set its partially phantasmagorical tone. Certain characters in short fiction were gently based upon this or that person I had known, more or less well. In others, I placed a part of myself, named or unnamed, in the role of observer, or principle actor. In one short, I was an aspiring writer who lacked commercial success, for instance. In my first mainstream novel, About the Others, many dream-sequences were personal memories, and the protagonist is a retired professor who is too sure of his own profundity. Hmmm, all this sounds vaguely familiar. In my second such effort, the novel The Understudies, one of the three principles is, once again, a retired professor and philosophical author, though this time one full of self-doubt rationalized by a nostalgic sexual swagger. My blushes, Watson.

            Suffice to say, that after such a cursory examination of the presence of the author in his work, there was much to be accounted for, even at the level of plot. But what of that of metaphor and meaning? Dare I ask, given the lay of the lexical land thus far? That youth figure prominently in most of my fiction, that their task is one of coming of age, of confronting injustice, of working through their own conflict and building character quite literally, might suggest that I myself am yet undergoing a similar self-understanding. Youth becoming adults is a veritable leitmotif in my corpus. Youth learning to live, to love, to gain community, encountering danger and death, are recurring themes. Youth unjustly treated, even ill-treated, at the hands of adults, and that same youth becoming political, dangerous, engaged in self-styled campaigns of justice, thinking little of parricide or what-have-you, on their road to a higher freedom. The pre-Barthes literary critic would pause in wonder at it all; does this author desire to relive his youth in a more noble manner? Or is he yet still a youth in vital areas of his own character?

            Far more so than general non-fiction, let alone scholarly work, does fiction expose the reader to the writer, and that for better or worse. Some authors manipulate this dynamic in their favor, by posing as far more experienced or worldly than they actually are or ever were. There may well be a vicarious element to fiction that is more the act of the writer than that of the reader, though we do not as often think of it this way. And it is the case, perhaps tellingly, that writing fiction allows the author to purvey not only his desires upon a public, unsuspecting or no, but also, more radically, his vision. It is this latter that dominates my own fiction; not desire vain so much as perhaps demythology in vain. I generally write agenda fiction, so by that standard alone, it can never be understood as art, that aside from not being myself an artist. Such an agenda could be interpreted, however, as giving voice to much that is absent in my own existence, more pointedly than even the wider reality of its lack in our shared world. If Nietzsche, somewhat self-effacingly, tells us that, after all, ‘the philosopher has only his opinions’, then what mere fiction author could say more?

            Such a two-front examination of fictional narrative, on the one hand, deliberate borrowing from reality for plot decoration or device, for character sketch or place setting and, on the other, the inveigling of the authorial unconscious into the very fabric of the literary textile, has one further insight of note: that we ourselves as human beings live a dual existence. At once, we are waking selves charged with the socius’ diktat to perform as normative a set of roles as we can muster to ourselves, and somewhat in spite of this or even because of it pending circumstance, we are as well all that which social norms seek to deny. It is through fiction, literary or no, that the writer explores the fluid dynamic which exists between these existential states; the one attempting to be graceful but the other perhaps approaching grace itself.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, aesthetics, religion, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Truthful Fiction, Fictional Truth

Truthful Fiction, Fictional Truth

            World Game, the ruling force, blends false and true.

            The ever-eternally fooling force, blends us in, too. – Nietzsche

            A god now made an animal does not suggest forbearance. In our resentment, we thus resent the truth; happenstance and death. But in our enduring creativity, we do not merely suppress this state of affairs, at its most base, the ‘human condition’, but imagine attaining a novel godhead. This striving for a new divinity is the source of not only the historical religious world systems, but of all imaginative works of the human consciousness. Its fictional content belies its truthful form.

            Let us take a famous macrocosmic example, oft repeated in the microcosm of the human relations. In ‘Acts’, it is related that not only has the dialectic of tradition and revolution been uplifted in and into the ‘Holy Spirit’ – a synthetic conception of the thetic ‘old God of morals’ and its antithesis, the ethical God on earth – but that this new force has generalized the original thesis to apply to all human beings. The Gentiles are also saved or at least, savable. For the first time, at Antioch, the term ‘Christian’ is applied to this new community of believers, some few years before Paul’s letters to the Galatians and thus about 15 years after the Crucifixion. Though this is not the first time such a dialectic which blends fantasy and reality appears in the history of religion, it does represent the advent in the West of the utter democracy of divinity and the equally infinite goodness of grace. The fact that this is new is oddly and even ironically underscored by the fiction that it was forecast in the tradition.

            In the bourgeois marriage, the thesis of the man runs headlong into the antithesis of the woman, generating a synthesis in the child. The child is neither and yet is also both. Its fact is its novel existence, brought about by the Aufheben of conjugality. Its fiction is that it ‘belongs’ to the parents, but in all creative work, including the birth and socialization of a child, an equal element of fantasy must be in play. For to only acknowledge the factual conditions of mortality and finiteness, of difference and uniqueness, would be to put the kibosh on trying to do any of that creative work at all. It would place us as species-being back in a pre-Promethean landscape of shadow and even terror. But there is also no lack of danger in the means by which we give a future to ourselves. In both macrocosm and microcosm the same risk thus presents itself: what if the fiction overtakes the truth?

            If so, in the first, we have religion instead of faith, mere belief without enlightenment; and in the second, we conjure only loyalty in place of trust, fear instead of respect. So if it is truly said that humans cannot live by truth alone, neither can we completely abjure it. The material conditions of human life, the ‘bread’, is by itself not sufficient to become fully human. The ‘faith’, imagination, creativity, fantasy, fiction, is what not only fulfills our desires in some analytic sense, but also completes our being in that existential.

            What then is ‘truthful fiction’, or ‘fictional truth’? I don’t think we can entirely make them discrete. Myth is accepted as nothing but fiction, and yet it contains elements of truth, not only about the human character, however hypostasized, but also about the cosmogonical aspects of our shared world. Myth responds to the perduring and sometimes perplexing duet of questions that challenge us through our very presence in the world; how has the world come to be, and how have I come to be in that selfsame world? Mythic fantasy supplies us with an autobiography writ larger than life. It is not to be read as either history or as a ‘mere’ tall tale, but is rather that synthetic form which uplifts and conserves all that is of value in both the thesis of fact and the antithesis of fiction. It is very much then a ‘truthful fiction’, and, looking at ourselves in its refracted but not distorted glass, its function and its form as well come together for us in an almost miraculous mirror.

            Contrast this with the meticulous mirror of nature that is provided human consciousness by science. If myth is our shared ‘truthful fiction’, then I will suggest here that its iconoclastic child, science, is our equally collective ‘fictional truth’. Historically, science was the synthesis of myth and life, of imagination and experience. It too is thus a dialectical form, even a syncretistic one. Its truth is well-known: the only consistent and logical understanding of nature that we humans have at our current disposal. But its fiction is that it has completely vanquished the imagination, not so much from the source of its questions, but rather from its methods, and particularly from its results. It is a myth, for example, that the cosmology of science is not also epic myth. It is a fiction that science overtakes the fictional to maintain its human interest. Like the God that entered history, suspending for all time and for all comers the sense that divinity by definition is a distant and alien thing, the idea that science exits that same history is equally a fantasy. For science, like myth, is a wholly human production and thus relies as much upon our imagination and ingenuity throughout its process, from question through method to result and thence explanation. It is especially evident that in scientific explanation, there is a concerted and historically consistent effort to efface all traces of mythic sense, replacing them with a hard-nosed experiential sensibility. The fact that even evangelical educational rehabilitation centers targeting youth advertise only ‘evidence-based’ therapies – whatever other more dubious practices may be present therein – is but one example of the astonishing success the fiction of science has generated for itself.

            Just so, if it were not for the fact that ‘fictional truth’ is so available for even the non-believer to utilize should remind us of nothing other than the soteriological generalization recounted in ‘Acts’. Authors who have written in the history of science, especially those who speak of its origins and its early development, from the Miletian School to the Copernican Revolution and onwards, are, in part, repeating the act of cosmogony, of Genesis, and within these actions, the process of the dialectic. This is not to say that there is, or can be, nothing new in the world. The synthetic term, the apex of the dialectical triangle, is justifiably seen as a novel form, performing a hybrid function; at once reminding us of reality while providing the means for a being defined by its finiteness to live on in its face.

            Thus we should not regard the sometimes annoying, even disturbing, blend of fiction and truth as an impediment to the greater experience of life or even to the lesser knowledge of that life as experienced. The ‘world game’ is assuredly afoot, its mystery far outstripping any detective adventure born of and thence borne on the imagination alone. That ‘we too’ are part of its yet mysterious mix, its blithe blending of our beings into both a history of acts which are not our own and a biography which very much is, however much we sometimes attempt to avoid its action, is, in the end, the most blessed of gifts that any divine animal could imagine for itself.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 55 books in ethics, religion, education, aesthetics health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.