Ficting and Facting. McKenzie Wark, RIBOCA2—2nd Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art 2020
Miķelis Fišers, In-finity, 2020. Commissioned by the 2nd Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art, RIBOCA2. Courtesy: the artist and Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art. Photo: Hedi Jaansoo / Andrejs Strokins
RIBOCA2, the 2nd Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art, titled and suddenly it all blossoms and curated by Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel, looks to reenchantment as a frame for building desirable futures—reimagining ways of being human in a context of deep ecological, economic, and social mutation. Against cynicism and political despair, transforming fear into possibility and peril into exuberance, the biennial seeks alternative actions, thoughts, and narratives for alternative futures. Initially planned to open on May 16, 2020, with a five-month duration and weekly talks, performances, and poetry imagined with Sofia Lemos, RIBOCA2 associate curator of public programs, RIBOCA2 was reformatted into a feature-length film introduced by a series of weekly online talks and conversations available on RIBOCA’s website.
Mousse will publish a range of contributions over the upcoming months, offering readers abridged versions of selected talks.
SOFIA LEMOS: Today, it appears that the world’s democracies are caught in a sort of circuitous slippage between facts, opinions, and beliefs, with scientific data taking the back burner over nontruthfulness, deception, and deliberate falsehood. We believe that artistic intervention might be one of the spaces where we can look for methods and techniques that allow us to perceive facts versus fictions in more nuanced ways. Situated knowledge and positionality have become a widespread response to Enlightenment-inherited, so-called scientific objectivity over the past four decades. We believe that our current era urges us to consider new models and new ideas for pursuing global justice and democracy. And I couldn’t imagine a more suited thinker to help us envision how an aesthetic education might guide us in truth making.
McKenzie Wark is the author of numerous books, including this year’s essential reading Sensoria: Thinkers for the Twenty-first Century (Verso, 2020); Reverse Cowgirl (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents, 2020), a genre- and gender-bending book of auto-fiction and ethnography of the self; and Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse? (Verso, 2019), an exploratory field guide to life in the ruins of environmental catastrophe, pandemics, and technological transformation. She’s also a professor of culture and media at the New School in New York.
In the following exchange, Wark looks at facts and fictions as practices and shares with us her multidimensional critical approach to knowing the world by opening connections between intellectual silos, from media ecologies and political economy to postcolonial debates and information technologies.
MCKENZIE WARK: To think about fiction is a really curious and slightly sneaky commission, given that I don’t write fiction at all. I would like to begin by thinking about how we think categories like fiction in the English language, and how this varies between different cultures. The etymology of some of these words we use are strikingly Latinate, which means that they do resonate, at least through other European languages, but you may map them differently depending on what language you live in.
Fact and fiction, in English, would be the two things to juxtapose: a fact is true and a fiction is not. But there’s a weird way in which both words refer to similar sorts of concerns in terms of their origins and etymology: they’re both practices. Fiction comes from fictio, fingere, which means to shape—clay, for example. The word “fiction” comes from making. Interestingly, so does also “fact,” or “factum,” which means event, a thing that happens. There’s a little more agency in fiction than fact, but they’re both actions, events in the world. So there exists a slippage between those two terms. Since I always like to play with language, what if rather than “fact” and “fiction,” we think about “ficting” and “facting”? What if we reengage the acting sense of those words, so as to think them as practices that do things?
It interests me to investigate why we have prejudice against fiction in certain contexts. Maybe this is an Enlightenment inheritance, or maybe we could think of the Enlightenment as a kind of fiction about facts. There’s an overarching narrative sense to the Enlightenment that makes the discovery of facts appear to be the good story, but there is an interesting slippage to be found there. Sometimes we need a fiction to hold facts together. Maybe we can never actually separate them. Reconstituting the relation between facting and ficting might be our goal. We think of the Enlightenment as a fiction about facts, with one of its aims being sorting fact from fiction through method, with science as its shorthand. A loss of faith, interestingly, in the fiction of science as able to reliably generate facts is where we’re at today, probably elsewhere in the world but particularly in the United States. Undoing and counteracting this process presents a huge ideological and cultural problem: having to defend a fiction about science as a good way to produce facts. It does work, this fiction of science, even if it hasn’t always worked, and even if there are problems with how that happens in practice. But the “skeptics” are right about its weak point: that it rests on a fiction, on ficting.
Coming out of the Enlightenment is not just a version of knowledge that’s science, but also a kind of facticity in fiction, connected to the production of the inverse of science—the novel. It’s maybe a much less direct kind of connection, but the notion that there would be a fiction that has the factual qualities of everyday life and emotions that people can experience strikes me as the other side of the Western Enlightenment inheritance. Enlightenment is a ficting about fact, but it’s also a kind of facting approach to fiction. We like our books to be filled with details that are recognizable descriptions of the world, and that’s the thing that validates it.
The unpicking of this dual inheritance is sometimes referred to as a “postmodern” moment, which is not a very helpful term anymore; it’s become a kind of right-wing meme. A critique of science is folded into that category, yet a slightly different one, namely science studies, for instance in the work of Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway, who try to look for the residues of ficting in the scientific enterprise. To what extent do fictions, from particular situations in everyday life that people with an interest in the production of science have been drawn into, need to be found? Even if science’s ambition is a universal knowledge that doesn’t imply any particular human subject, it never quite reaches that. It’s actually useful to be able to situate where a particular knowledge comes from, and understand that the subject that produces it is in fact not universal. Science was, for example, for a long time a bunch of white guys who had certain fictional assumptions about the world built into their object of study, considered as evidence.
A parallel critique of culture that we would need has to do with the awareness of always having a residue of facting specific to circumstances in a culture, and the awareness that culture is actually not free. As a parallel to science studies as critique of the fiction of the production of fact, we probably need a kind of cultural studies that we could think of as a critique of the factuality of the production of fiction. We can envision them as parallel enterprises (and I’m slightly straining to characterize the second one) that need to come together in ways we haven’t quite figured out yet.
What might be thoughtful ways of unpicking situations that cleave facts from and to fiction? I’m using an old-fashioned English word, “cleave,” one of those wonderful Derridean words that simultaneously means a thing and almost its opposite. To cleave is to hold on to and to separate from at the same time. The cleaving of a fact from a fiction is something about which one really needs to invent practices, something that art could now do. It would be an art practice that’s creative and critical, that would have a speculative dimension and an experimental one—ficting and facting.
This would not just play with the paranoid reading of a certain kind of production of knowledge. Let’s move out of the Foucault era! It was partly what the work of the late Bernard Stiegler was about. He wanted to attend to the long loops of the pedagogic as forms of mediated production of moments of individuation for subjects and groups. That strikes me as powerful and worth exploring as an alternative to a constant, paranoid reading that only finds fiction in fact, and usually fictions that have power attached to them. The aim is to explore a little bit more extensively the production of a counter-knowledge where facting and ficting have a different relationship.
It does seem like a moment when we have too many bad fictions. I don’t know if this is unique to the United States. I suspect not. People in the US are believing crazy conspiracy theories, like some kind of immersive game that a huge population has found itself attracted to, from the Protocols of Elders of Zion to Flat Earthers. There’s a certain charm to some of that because it seems harmless, even largely inventive, and if it didn’t become implicated in how people think about other issues in the world, like vaccines and climate denial, you’d find it a delightful fiction. But the stakes are too high for that, the dangers of this ficting too real.
Why do we end up with such a huge problem in the relationship between practices of facting and ficting? I honestly don’t know. I can’t generate facts about that, but I can generate a speculative story. I can “fict” my way through it, if you like. There’s a kind of merging of the technics of ficting and facting at the level of the media infrastructure, at the level of cultural use of media at certain times of the day. We’re doing everything through the same interfaces on our phones and computers, whereas before, there would have been some separation.
It was not accidental, although it now seems strange, that there was a whole industry of building game consoles that looked completely different from computers, even though those two devices could do pretty much the same things. One was supposed to be on a desk to work on, the other was supposed to be in the living room to play on. We used to have separations between some technologies, or separations between times when certain things would be used, or genres. There’s been a collapsing of a lot of those boundaries given that now you can access any media at any time.
For a lot of people, work is no longer nine-to-five. It stretches throughout the day and night. So you’re looking for little moments when you can take a break, and this happens by way of using the same devices to interact with both the ficting and the facting. So maybe there’s a technics involved in how we end up confused by which one of those is which. For example: getting all of the actual news from the comedy version of the news show—entertainment.
The internet complicated our relationship to genre. Genre is about expectations of what kind of frame you’re supposed to put around the thing you are reading, what kind of judgment you’re supposed to apply, how you’re supposed to attend to what you are viewing or reading or listening to. With the internet, there’s a bleeding of one genre into the other, a kind of entertainment version of what would otherwise be formally factually oriented modes of production, which confuses a lot of people as to exactly what they’re looking at. For example: the climate denial, anti-vaxxers, and QAnon movements are based on a whole production of what look like facts, but aren’t, and mimicking forms and characteristics of the fictional forms that hold facting together. They have the aura of factiness that makes them look like the fiction of something other than what they are.
It’s tempting to blame the ficting entirely for this, and maybe there’s a lot to be said for the production of bad fictions. But I want to offer a little caveat: the claim that fiction is always the bad thing has a theological basis. Fiction is the work of the devil, who creates false appearances, while truth is invisible and spiritual or only discoverable secondhand, through a scientific apparatus that’s not immediately visible. So to not believe the ficting surfaces of the world is a key belief, a Christian mindset. The facts might actually be true, it’s how they’re arranged and organized and their relation to the fiction that is the problematic part. I want to be careful of suspicion of artifice and that connection of fiction with the unreal, because it also tends to connect to a faith in nature. Again, an old figure. It’s a faith in nature as also a state of ignorance, the state of Eden before the Fall, as if knowledge were a bad thing that took you away from some essence of the facticity of the world that could be known through some privileged method.
Part of the problem with this vision is that the ficting we aim to be suspicious about is coded as feminine, and the factual is coded as masculine. It tends to privilege male authority and the authority of the voice over the authority of appearances. But this can be enacted also by women. To what extent is there a strain of feminism that wants to reject artifice because artifice equals trans women, such as myself? It becomes a paradoxical claim to the facticity of femininity through direct contact with its facticity as a masculine virtue over and against who you were going to claim are men who are using feminine techniques to produce a false image of themselves.
SL: In today’s realities, how do the notions of post-truth and fact relate to each other? Also considering this idea of how theological currents associate fact with truth, and fiction with artifice. Can we disarticulate these ideas from the building blocks of realities, from metaphysical discourse?
MW: There might be complexity to the connection between post-truth and the notion of fact. Maybe facts aren’t the whole truth. The paradoxical thing about the true is that it might require an element of ficting in order to articulate the facts such that the facts can actually resonate. The problem is to then make the connection. Data in itself doesn’t tell you very much and can also be highly unreliable in all sorts of ways. It’s not a neutrally produced thing; it is selected. To be only critiquing the fictive end is probably not getting us toward productions of knowledge that might become helpful. Maybe we actually need to produce more fiction. Maybe there are other fictions that would help us articulate facts again in a particular way. Amitav Ghosh made that argument in relation to the role of the novel in trying to understand climate change. He thinks you can rearticulate the realist novel to do it, the bourgeois novel. I’m not entirely sure you can. That’s the real problem: What’s the ficting that will hold together certain patterns of facting to which we need to pay attention in consequential ways?
Like the massive climate disruption that is happening all around us. California was on fire last summer as was Australia, my homeland. We’re having terrible hurricane seasons. How do you articulate those facts in ways that make them actionable? That seems to be the reason to think we need ficting. There’s maybe a reason to think of art practices then also as a kind of research and development on how to reweave practices of facting and ficting in useful ways.
What I’m arguing is that the return to an approximation of the world, the return to facticity, to actionable knowledge, requires the production of artifice. One has to move away in order to move back. A transition. There’s a double step in producing forms of perceiving, knowing, and feeling together, and this might be what, above all else at the moment, we should be working on. More than a politics, a knowledge-making practice, even if one could think of that as also a politics.
How do we produce, articulate, and embed in subjectivity ways of knowing through practices of ficting and facting? That seems to me the thing in need of renewal. The vast majority of the ficting and facting that we know about are products of the Holocene, a geological era that clearly has ended. How do you produce knowledge for a different geology? Where would you go to even answer that question? It would seem that Australian Indigenous knowledge in some parts of the country dates back to the late Pleistocene, so there’s already a change in geological era involved in a way of telling stories, in a way of deciding what’s true and what’s real, in ficting and facting, where certain background assumptions about the geological state of the world, the climatic state of the world, don’t even hold anymore. How can we honor that and learn from that?
But how to think that or do that in a way that scales—not for small bands of people but for a planet of seven million people? I think it’s going to take a hell of a lot of artifice to come back to producing a technics that would enable ficting and facting for populations to articulate. The thing that the ficting connects to more than the facting part is desire. Negotiating between the real and desire is what any knowledge has to do, if it’s to be effective at all. How do we bring the artifice of making the artifact, which is, among other things, an art practice? How may this become a praxis in the twenty-first century?
Maybe to negotiate between fact and fiction is actually a third thing, which could be a story or could be a concept. The canonical form of narrative is linear, which may be a trap that doesn’t produce useful knowledge. This is David Hume: just because one thing follows another doesn’t mean there’s a causal relationship between the two. There may be sheets or showers of elements happening that stories weave together, and we, from the way stories weave fictions together, imagine the weave of facts in the same way, when that need not be what happens at all. Maybe the world doesn’t actually operate in the way narrative does. I’m skeptical about storytelling, even though I do it; we all do it. But to what extent is narrative ordering a line?
We have access to at least one other thing, which I’m going to call concept. To what extent is a concept a way of organizing a plane rather than just a line of either ficting or facting or a mixture of both practices? To what extent is it possible not just to narrate in a line, but to understand in a field? And is conceptual thinking and writing able to do this? What is a concept? A good fact is mostly true, but about something in particular. This is a limited empiricism—also of narrative. What a concept may do is grab them by the handful and arrange them in a plane. A good concept is slightly true, but about a lot of things. And if one knows that’s what a concept does, one can use it with a certain amount of safety.
The problem is that in certain philosophies or theologies we tended to treat the concept as more true than the sheet of facts and ficts that it arranges, and that theological temptation still runs through philosophy. That’s the temptation in Plato, the temptation in Christianity as “Platonism for the masses”—that the Idea subtends and is more real than appearances, whether they be ficts or facts that it organizes. If conceived as only slightly true, demoted, concepts can have this interstitial quality of organizing planes of what I’m calling ficts and facts, in an act of ficting and facting together.
What maybe gets heightened in the twenty-first century is the question of whether the author herself is a faction or a fiction. To what extent am I the fiction, or to what extent is it a fact that I am this person I claim to be? Now, of course pseudonyms and fake authors have a long history. But there’s an exaggerated sense in which that becomes a problem when you have no idea who you’re interacting with, for example on Twitter. The notion of the “sock puppet” account is now a commonplace. So one has to complicate the diagram in relation to ficting and facting by thinking through also the fict- or factive dimension of the author themselves as something much less verifiable than it used to be, becoming the source of a whole series of problems.
Maybe this is also a way to reconsider the distinction in genre between fiction and nonfiction. Isn’t it curious that nonfiction is defined negatively? As not being the other thing? It doesn’t have a positive specification. I want to play with that a little bit. I have an interest in playing with genres—what you could call auto-fiction and auto-theory. We’re adding “auto,” in the sense of autobiographical, to “theory” as a way of situating it, to bring the knowledge producer into the story and take away the universal abstract subject, the fiction that often claims to be writing philosophy, and specify exactly who and what that body happens to be doing, what its history is.
One recent book I wrote, Reverse Cowgirl, steps out of writing theory as I usually do and into something else. It’s like memoir, but memoir makes claims to the facticity of the author, which auto-theory doesn’t. The self that is writing has a much more fictional quality, something a little more open, less known, less a given “fact.” The strange thing is that both nonfiction and fiction often seem to produce the author herself as a fact, and maybe we should question that. Allow ourselves to think about the fictive nature of who is producing knowledge in the first place. What I can think of is a super interesting auto-fictive work that’s been happening in parallel in the art world. Lauren Fournier has an interesting forthcoming book on that: Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism (MIT Press, 2021). The work Lynn Hershman Leeson did as “Roberta,” for instance.
We might be at a moment of the secularization of the author of the work. Let me make a very simple diagram of centuries of cultural history: there’s a way in which a process happening with roots in the Enlightenment was critically negated with Romanticism, then attempted to be synthesized in Modernity, with a rerouting back to Romanticism in the Postmodern. In the West, we can no longer have a classical art in the sense that it’s not claiming to approximate a model given by God’s creation once the writer or artist becomes themselves the creator. But there’s a way in which that elevates the author or the artist into the status of the father or the God, and ever since, we’ve wrestled with that. To take away that sense of that artist as creator—ficting a world!—might be helpful. In order to think that those are fictive creations of the situations that give rise to them, to further secularize that last piece of the old-fashioned sense of the originator. To have done with treating the author or artist as a fact, who ficts.
So to what extent is there a ficting and facting of both the artist and the work, the artificer and the artifact, in that sense? Or: What are ways of reweaving ficting and facting together so as to produce actionable knowledge that negotiates between the real side of the world and our desires in such a way that we can collaboratively exist and function in the ruins of this civilization? One that we also really know is over, such that we might start to build another one. For someone like Raymond Williams, the struggle is to democratize that creative capacity. I think the more interesting radical thought—a Situationist one—would be to envision this process as drawing from a common sense of reworking a culture that’s in common possession.
SL: Access to the world, if not all of it, is mediated through the internet. In your book Capital Is Dead, you argue that information has become a new mode of production and has seeped into worldview, which is clear in the Flat Earther and other examples you’ve mentioned. And that increases the idea that there’s no room for opposition on the internet. There’s only room for the affirmation of oneself and one’s group. Considering these bad fictions and the way in which they’re creating larger forms of polarization, distrusting dialogue, and eventually interpersonal muteness and refusal to listen, I wonder if the practices of facting and ficting inform comradely and collaborative action forward against the protocols of the internet and algorithmic governance.
MW: A key problem at the moment is that we choose to believe things that affirm existing ideas about ourselves. It’s very hard to unpick that. (Although as a trans woman, let me bear witness to the “fact” that it can be done.) In a sense, no knowledge really succeeds unless it does articulate one’s desires. Indeed, one of the things one attempts to do as a teacher, and this also goes all the way back to Plato, is to try to encourage the love of knowledge itself, although that can go wrong in all sorts of horrible ways. So, what other paths are available to that kind of connecting of desire to some reliable knowledge of the world?
The internet is structured around short-term kinds of desires—a little dopamine hit of the morsel of fresh information that’s delivered in front of you over and over again. Hard to get anybody to read an entire book anymore. Although I don’t want to sound like an old conservative—we didn’t read the whole back in the day either, to be honest. But: How to articulate desire with the technics that we’re given in such a way that we can feel like people are making progress on articulating their own desires to knowledge?
If you press too hard on the idea that knowledge must negotiate desire, the entire business model of Google and Facebook starts to fall apart. It’s based on extracting a quantifiable surplus that’s actionable out of the production of information, where it doesn’t matter if that’s noise. Which is not too different from how finance works now, where you can trade on volatility and noise just as much as on information. When you find ways to extract a surplus out of information, whether it’s valid or not, whether it’s been ficted or facted, is when you really step into a simulated universe, and also a very volatile one. The paranoid view of it being a hyper-organized matrix doesn’t quite work anymore. But I don’t want to make it seem like the broadcast era was the golden age. Because that was the Cold War, the era of huge, ridiculous consensus fiction, ideology being not a thing you had to believe, but were just coerced to concede existed. In both East and West, your disbelief affirmed it just as much as believing it did, and everybody was obliged to have a relationship to the same story, the same grand historical fiction.
Before, you would have had your little bubble in relation to one consensus fantasy; now it’s little competing bubbles of micro consensus fantasy all in relation to each other. What Hiroki Azuma calls database culture. It’s a matter of self-preservation. You have to hide yourself from what most other people believe and want to talk about, because otherwise you’re not going to function in the world.
So I don’t take the bubble as the problem. Maybe it’s the way bubbles self-constitute, and the fact that we’re never trained how to do it, is more the problem, and also the opportunity for an art practice, a curatorial practice. Maybe curation needs to teach itself, as the practice of ficting and facting a semipermeable membrane for habitable information. And the art as practices of experimentally producing both objects and subjects, extruded out of a world that knows neither. The era of the internet is, I think, not designed to do any of this. The internet’s not designed anymore for the production of knowledge, but rather for the production of surplus information and noise for a new ruling class. What I am suggesting is to try to use an infrastructure that’s not built to do any of this to redesign practices of weaving fact and fiction together, such that we could act in the world and stop ourselves from destroying it. This is hard, maybe impossible. But worth a try.
McKenzie Wark is the author of Reverse Cowgirl (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents, 2020), Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse? (Verso, 2019), and Philosophy for Spiders: On the Low Theory of Kathy Acker, forthcoming from Duke University Press. She is a professor of media and culture at Eugene Lang College in New York.
Miķelis Fišers, In-finity, 2020. Commissioned by the 2nd Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art, RIBOCA2. Courtesy: the artist and Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art. Photo: Hedi Jaansoo / Andrejs Strokins