Nonfiction as Lens: Another Take on the Truth Question

June 16, 2016 § 14 Comments

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Corinna Cook

By Corinna Cook:

My friend Bridget, at the end of the essay in which I call her Marion, ends up in a tree. Specifically up on some high, thin branch, like a bird. It has to do with the bent-over way she makes music and the frailty of her body, but it also has to do with the way my friendship with Bridget makes me feel like a dumb stump. Though of course I’m not a tree and Bridget isn’t a bird, and her name certainly isn’t Marion. True or false? True, of course. The essay isn’t devious, it’s just dreamy.

But I notice that when something is true, the specter of falsehood is always there at the table, bony mouth already opening, claiming some part of the conversation.

Do binaries always drag their other halves around like this? I don’t know, but I do find Niklaus Luhmann, German sociologist and systems theorist, was interested in related questions. His reflection on autopoiesis led him to the idea of “coded” systems. Every code, for Luhmann, is some kind of binary structure—true/false is just one example—and the code, whatever it is, determines how that system reacts to perturbance.

So if you think of a coded system as a kind of pond, anything you toss in—a stone, a rubber ducky, a copper coin—would make its splash according to truth and falsity (or whatever makes up the pond’s binary structure). That is, a true stone would perturb the glassy surface in one way and a false stone in another, irrespective of size, weight, the arc of the toss, or even prevailing winds.

Same with the ducky and the coin: their splashes in this pond would specifically reflect their truthness and falseness.

True/false, incidentally: that, according to Luhmann, is the code for science. So this must be what’s going on when we focus on the nonfictionality of nonfiction, scrutinizing an essay’s truths, sometimes even clogging conversation with the suspicious, well, does it even count as nonfiction?—though we’ve set out to talk about literature, this question perturbs and thus activates the system of science. Since truthiness is half of a binary code informing a major system, the notion of falsehood kicks in automatically.

But the binary that’s useful in science is, I submit, of dubious service to literature, for it’s not art’s project to lie. And I can’t, at the moment, think of any art or genre that claims falsehood. Imagination, sure. Surreality, hyperreality, fantasy—yes, yes, yes. But none of these are properly understood as false. Metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche are among our basic literary tools. Hyperbole, irony, personification, imagistic juxtaposition, even the objective correlative—none of these tools are for lying. We use them to communicate.

Of course, probing and challenging genre boundaries is a valid, even stimulating, exercise. But in nonfiction discourse, this particular line of inquiry often takes over. Why? Maybe because, in Luhmann’s terms, we have a pretty straightforward systems problem: too many activated at once. I think of a cartoon rocketship’s control panel now, odd red lightbulbs blinking out of sync with an attendant overlay of dissonant beeps and bells.

Yet for categorization (read: library organization) purposes, does it even count as nonfiction? is a crucial question. Still, is there a way the term “nonfiction” could serve beyond these implied thumbs-up/thumbs-down, yay/nay, qualified/disqualified, on the shelf or off it, true/false stakes?

If yes, maybe we have to skyhook the practical, organizational impetus of genre. This is what I propose: maybe we can treat “nonfiction” selectively—sometimes as a genre, but also sometimes as a lens of reading. Doing so might pacify the science system, soothe and lull it into a state of non-perturbance … allowing us to sidestep, if only temporarily, its true/false binary code.

In other words, as readers, if we have to ask an essay, are you true? Are you true enough to call yourself true? Let’s reorient and also ask that essay: what is the nature of the truth you theorize, or what is the nature of the reality into which you inquire? Or even, what truth do you reveal? And furthermore, what use emerges for your notion of truth?

I enjoy considering nonfiction as a lens like any other to polish and peer through—at any text I wish, discovering what it helps bring into focus—because when discussion of truthiness wears thin, it’s only natural to lower the lens of nonfiction down from the discursive eye and place it back in the tray. It’s quite safe there alongside the feminist lens, the postcolonial lens, and so many others. All are protected from dust, upright in their black velvet slots, like silver-rimmed rows my childhood optometrist kept in his most-opened drawer.

It was, after all, his sculpting of my vision (which is clearer, one…or two?), that revealed to me the architectural precision with which a tree trunk divides into limbs, into branches, and finally into the skyward twigs among which I perceived my friend Bridget, toes curled onto the thinnest perch.


Corinna Cook is a lifelong Alaskan currently chipping away at a PhD in English/Creative Writing at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her nonfiction appears here and there, including Flyway and Alaska Quarterly Review. She is currently working on a collection of essays about northern sorrows and friendships.

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