News vs. Fiction: Reflections on Prognostication (1984)
1. Missives of Doom
Oft expectation fails, and most oft there
Where most it promises, and oft it hits
Where hope is coldest and despair most fits.
Shakespeare, All's Well That Ends Well
Recently Dr. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, author of The Population Bomb, Extinction and other important studies, sent me his projection for the year 2030 - less than 50 years from today. As Dr. Ehrlich sees it, "80 million more people are coming here for breakfast, lunch and dinner," and he recommended that I take a part in the work of Zero Population Growth. A few days later, Captain Jacques Cousteau wrote me to express his alarm at the pollution of the ocean, which might cause the melting of the ice caps, drastic changes in global temperature and the exodus of coastal populations inland, where they will encounter famine, chaos and disease. Capt. Cousteau set no date for the worldwide catastrophe, since, as he put it, one cannot "describe being tossed about in an oncoming cyclone," but he advised that I take a part in the work of the Cousteau Society. In the following days, I received letters from presidents of organizations advocating a sane population policy, immigration reform, planned parenthood, voluntary sterilization and negative population growth, each of whom voiced dire concern for the future in terms of millions of physically, mentally and spiritually stunted human beings. Separately, each letter confirmed my pessimistic thoughts about the future, yet taken together gave rise to a perverse optimism. Clearly if all of them were true, some were false, since only one future will occur. For example, if people flee inland from putrid waves of poisonous surf, as Capt. Cousteau foresees, illegal immigration to California will surely abate, reproduction of the natives conceivably will drop and fewer people will being coming to this spot for supper than Dr. Ehrlich predicts. I need only consider the forecast of a major earthquake in California before the end of the century to cancel all other predictions for the state, as well as the organizations which make them. But if the San Andreas Fault holds firm, and the Pacific waves of filth not sterilize the surfers, what disastrous future should I pick? And on what basis? Dr. Ehrlich, after all, did not really write to me. His letter was photo-processed by ZPG and mailed to me three times; but since I have never contacted ZPG, it addressed not me, but my name. (1) Sad to say, Capt. Cousteau and all the others but the last were equally unacquainted and impersonal. They must have acquired my name from Negative Population Growth (to which I once sent $10) on the calculated probability that I would make a donation. The fact that I did not was no doubt subsumed in a predictable percentage of negative responses, so in a sense I fulfilled a function of the future and validated their prognostication. But if they could predict the non-involvement of a certain number of names, could they fail to foretell the success or failure of their mission, and with it the falsehood or the futility of their initial prediction?
Prognostication, I thought, is a paradox. It presumes to predict the future, but not the reaction to the prediction. World destruction is inevitable, unless we apply all our efforts to stop it. World utopia is inevitable, but we must help it through the birth pangs. We can change the movement of history, but we must all move in the opposite direction. We can't change the movement of history, but we can delay it by failing to understand it. There are forces dependent on human will, but we must will other forces. There are forces independent of human will, but we must align ourselves with them. We are surviving today, but on the basis of unconscious principles; so we must make conscious tomorrow the principles for our survival. We anticipate, we predict, we prognosticate our future as a sort of surplus activity accumulating from past and present. If we really knew what we were going to do, we would not have to consult megatrends; if we really knew the megatrends, we would not have to plan what we're going to do.
Wilt thou reach stars,
because they shine on thee?
Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona
Prognostication must be inevitable, but not all alike. I was intrigued by the double premise of my impersonal missives of doom, and I thought it might be worthwhile to list all the ways I could of looking into the future. Particularly since I've been writing a novel set a modest five years ahead. Some methods of prognostication (Greek pro + gignoskein = "to know in advance") struck me as older than others, so I attempted a sort of genealogy, without a pretense of demonstrable truth. The ways that I found were ten - actually a few more, which I forced into the preferred number.
1. Instinct (Forecasting-1). Intelligence in the universe is unconscious, and prior to man protoverbal. Without a known plan, it builds up hierarchies of processes with interconnecting systems, some of which are incorporated in the living creatures produced. (2) The intelligence in plants, animals, natural processes. The repetition in tides, seasons, generations. The earliest intelligence of man instinctually assumed that things would repeat - cycles, revolutions, millennia. Modern intelligence changes the names - trends, projections, prospects. What else but instinctual anticipation, raised to the level of eschatology, can explain the importance the world has attached to the dates 1984, 2000, 2001? (3)
2. Prophecy. Dependence on cycles, anticipation of a millennium, invokes good or bad forturne, divine will. Prophecy expresses this will as a revelation, usually in the form of a promise or warning. The prophet hears the words of the gods which others can hear but faintly, or not at all. When even he cannot hear them, the gods must be coaxed by divination, sacrifice or augury. (4) Should this fail, the grand plan must be read by the tossing of bones or dice. (5) Today prophecy is replaced by "precognition" (the Latin equivalent of prognosis), and the grand plan by a daily horoscope amusement. With the atomization of society and the increase of doubt, everyone becomes mantic, a questionable prophet of his own future doom.
3. Mythmaking. Mysteries remain, and men transmit their explanations over generations to serve as guides to the individual stages of life. The events of life are meaningful, predictable, but beyond a single person's ken. Myths relate us to the collective experience. They are laughed away as mere fairytales and are recognized as soulpiercing truths by one and the same mortal.
4. Predetermination. Having perceived order in the universe, man conceives it as self-enclosed, self-sufficient and self-perpetuating. Once an atom is set in motion, it has a track to follow, as does a man. God becomes the first mover. The universe takes the form of a machine, described by Euclid and Newton, which God might interrupt with a miracle, but not constitutionally alter. Enter the scientific method: cause and effect, the programmable utopia (Chernyshevsky), the implacable law (Malthus). The reductivism of Darwin, Marx and Freud. When reality spoils the scheme, then the theory of relativity, the uncertainty principle and the laws of probability take its place. One way or another, in large matters and small, we must know in advance what will happen.
5. Historical determinism. History invested with a moral purpose. Class conflict instituted as the basic process, the masses blessed, the exploiters damned. Philosophy is pragmatized, religion secularized, wrong thinkers vilified, right thinkers deified. Predictions are promoted with propaganda, five-year plans and thought control; mistakes are eliminated by doublethink, newspeak and the memory hole. Activists treat the dogma as a game plan, while revisionists reduce its predictive value to a position of wait and see. (6)
6. Extrapolation. What works in one place must work in another. From prehistory to history, from continent to continent, from planet to planet. The earth evolved in a solar system - there are other solar systems. Intelligent life requires stereoscopic vision, complex limbs for work and locomotion, a body for provisioning energy and a brain for efficient control, so we can expect to see these features in spacemen from other worlds. We peer to the end of the universe and behold the reflection of our own face.
7. Data analysis (Forecasting-2). From small to large, from large to small. Statistics, birth and mortality rates, demographics, public-opinion polls - all assume that percentages of human processes can be predetermined with negligible plus or minus degrees of error. One problem is contamination of data: if people find out the prediction, they may change their behavior and disprove the projection. Or the prophecy may be selffulfilling: they may cause the result. In any event, unpredicted reactions to the forecast can be reabsorbed as "feedback" leading to more refined analysis. (7)
8. Determination. The impatient doer predicts the future by making it happen. Yet, however forceful, he is not omniscient and not the master of all events. As Tolstoi pointed out in War and Peace, the leader cannot issue commands to account for every contingency: he has real power, but no knowledge where it will lead. Thus Napoleon, Hitler, American policy in Vietnam, where as one soldier put it, "We never lost a single battle, yet we lost the war." (8) In daily life this method is used by the person "looking out for number one," expecting "to profit from the coming bad times," planning "to survive and prosper in the next war or revolution." (9) There is a pacifist, communal version: We can end world hunger, we can abolish war, we can make friends with the Russian people, "if only we really try." (10) All these doers refuse to accept the frightening possibility that no one is in control - of himself, his people, the world. As Stephen Vizinczey put it: events converge on a time and a place; each time has a place and each place has a time; increase either and you decrease control: time + place = chance. He advises his reader to aim for an immediate goal in the next few minutes. (11)
9. Scenario making. Aware of the folly of outright prediction, thinkers in think tanks design alternative versions of the future as contingency plans, so that a recognized situation may be met with a maximum of preconceived thought. Paragon of the method is Herman Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable (1962). From Pentagon scenarios of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) the method has spread to the wider society in the form of alternative press statements, courtroom tactics, football gameplans. The problem is that without a real test, a real situation, the method may multiply into infinite scenarios in the attempt to account for all contingencies. When the test comes, all the prepackaged scenarios but one collapse, and this one fits but unevenly. In science fiction, visions of the future proliferate into mutually exclusive scenarios, each shredded in turn by the slow forward grind of reality.
10. Straightforward projection. Common sense tells us we'll have more of the same - more good, more bad, and if problems pop up we'll fix them. This is the working model for most of us in our daily affairs, the government in its foreign policy and the news media in its world coverage. The rub is that developments in human society do not proceed from A to B to C. As James Burke graphically demonstrated in his book and television series Connections (1978), an innovation in one area sets up conditions which trigger innovations in other areas. Technological growth is zigzag, exponential and obliterative of the past. In literature, the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky hinted at the same thing when he stated: "Not from father to son, but from uncle to nephew." Those who rely on common-sense projections open themselves up to a lifetime of surprises.
In addition to these ten types of prognostication, I should mention the more general rapture of the future which sets tasks and goals for the future without a specific method of determining what that future will be. Its basic tenet is a super-prediction: Unless there is more preparation for the future (i.e., more prediction), there will be individual and societal disorientation, confusion and chaos threatening the very existence of mankind. (13) To forestall this outcome, the futurologist makes the necessary proposals. For the individual: new studies, new lifestyles, checklists of progress with emotional plusses and minusses. For society: new forms of education, councils of the future, futuristic training villages. We must teach our youth to map probable futures, institute committees to select preferable futures and change politics to facilitate possible futures. This rapturous vision has the same value for the individual as a Ben Franklin list of good and bad deeds, a Lev Tolstoi diary of activities planned for every hour of the day, an enthusiastic scribble of New Year's resolutions. As for society, it founders on the axiomatic "we." "We" must anticipate, "we" must plan, "we" must decide. "If only we all..." (14) Such futurological we-mongering has lost contact with reality. The nation is not a homogenous community of "we," but a plurality of contending interests and antipathies. The tribal feeling of "we" erupts only in war and revolution, electrical blackouts and sports stadiums - and even then with contention. The social commentator infected with a rapture of the future lacks any method, any philosophy, and within the year proves himself as out of date as a headhunter snapped by a Polaroid.
The uncomfortable fact is that omniscience cannot be had in past, present or future. A part cannot understand the whole of which it is a part: a self cannot define itself without becoming a second self, a mind cannot discover the mind of which it is the expression, an eye cannot see the eye without making itself a reflection, nor concentrate on a point without blurring the periphery. Therefore, an individual cannot comprehend the mass, a contemporary cannot surmount the age, a mortal cannot circumvent the immortal. All knowledge is preliminary, and our conception of the future premature. In such a state of affairs, each new fact impresses us with its thingness, its graininess, its reality. This reality may confirm our predictions, and a high score of confirmations - our method, but we cannot honestly believe that before a specific event we know what will happen. Thus, whether it confirms or crushes our expectation, each event brings a surprise - a little one in the first case and a big one in the second. And the broader our outlook, the more concentrated our focus, the more surprises we experience as the future bombards us with unforeseeable, unstoppable happenings instantly converted into the immediate present.
3. Fantastic Reality
Truly, if you pursue some fact of real life, even one not particularly striking at first glance, and if only you have the strength and the vision, you will find in it a depth which is lacking in Shakespeare.
Dostoevsky, "Two Suicides," Diary of a Writer, Oct. 1876
It seems that certainty increases as we draw back to the present, the arena of all our real actions. This present is conceived as broad and continuous, a sort of breathing bubble in the fluid of time. It retains the immediate past and seems already to contain the most immediate future - that future constantly impinging, slipping across the border and becoming established fact. That is, the future as news. Each morning the news refreshes itself and at points throughout the day; we attend to it and react to it, feeling it within our grasp. Perhaps here, on the brink of the future, yet still as it were within the present, we can manage our lives, our society, our world. Not so much by prognostication, as by the speed of our reaction to events, and by our awareness of the time. Each person acts in his own way: one makes a capital investment, another requests a donation, a third dispenses birthcontrol pills, a fourth contains a riot, and I write fiction. As previously mentioned, the letters of concern for the future came as I was writing a novel. At the same time, as chance would have it, I had come in my daily reading of Dostoevsky to his Diary of a Writer (Dnvenik pisatelya) for the year 1876. The conjunction of the two seemed fortuitous, the letters posing the problem of dealing with the time, the Diary providing a historical example. With this work Dostoevsky, an avid reader of newspapers, created an entirely new literary form in order to keep abreast and even ahead of events, month by month sharing with his subscribers all the things that concerned him, all things seen, heard and read, all the major issues of his time and place. His concerns sound remarkably modern: deterioration of the family, dependent status of women, child abuse, cruelty to animals, destruction of forests, threats of war, social apathy, legalistic immorality, suicide, reality and fantasy. Writing furiously to meet deadlines, Dostoevsky nevertheless did not merely report the news or provide a running commentary, but rather philosophized through the news, shifting the focus from incident to society, from Russia to Europe, from present to past to future. At one time a personal reaction, another time - a social analysis, a third time - a fictional work. Always, in whatever form, he sought the chief idea in an event, its essence, its reality. "I have my own special view of reality," he wrote to a friend, "and that which the majority call exceptional and almost fantastical, for me sometimes constitutes the very essence of reality." (15)
With his monthly journal Dostoevsky attempted: (1) to advance literary, social and philosophical arguments; (2) to keep abreast of events by the speed of his reaction; (3) to cope with the mass of events by penetrating to their essence; (4) to discover the exceptional and fantastic twist that sometimes reveals a hidden reality; (5) to make an impact on the time - the present, immediate future and long-range future. In this latter intention he realized that he could not predict any specific events. He was too well aware of the quirky, uncontrollable nature of everyday reality:
Never will a novelist present such improbabilities as those which reality presents to us every day by the thousands, in the form of the most ordinary things. No fantasy could think it up in any other way. And what superiority over a novel! Just try it, compose an episode in a novel... and next Sunday a critic, in a feuilleton, will prove to you clearly and triumphantly that you are raving and that in reality this never happens and moreover never could happen, for such and such reason. In the end, you will be ashamed and agree with him. But then you get [the newspaper] Golos (The Voice), and suddenly you read in it a whole episode... At first you read with surprise, horrible surprise, so that even while you are reading you do not believe anything; but you come to the end, put away the newspaper and all at once, without knowing why, say to yourself: "Yes, this is the way it should have happened." And another will even add: "I had a presentiment of this." (16)
Yet though he could not predict the specifics, Dostoevsky believed he could catch the general sweep of the time. In answer to the perennial demand to portray reality "as it is," he objected: "There is no such reality at all, and there never had been on earth, because the essence of things is inaccessible to man, he apprehends nature as it is reflected in his idea, proceeding through his feelings; consequently, you must give greater vent to the idea and not fear the ideal." (17)
With such a flexible, yet controlled response to his time, Dostoevsky could write journalistic articles keen in their topicality, yet lasting in their relevance to a civilized society. Such is the account of the Advocate Spasovich, who by the act of humiliating a little girl on the stand successfully defended her father against the charge of beating her brutally. (Feb. 1876, chap. 2.) Dostoevsky could also incorporate the news of his day into imaginative fiction, such as the story "The Meek One" (Krotkaya), where he combined newspaper reports of various suicides into one most pathetic suicide and imagined wordforword the inner monologue of the man who had caused it. (Nov. 1876.) And he could turn his sociological analysis into a religious ideal, prophesying that the people of the soil, embodying the moral virtues of selflessness, receptivity and love, would lead Russia into an era of brotherhood and freedom, awakening the whole of mankind into a realization of Christ's way. This ideal, like the kingdom of heaven on earth, or the free communist society, was not necessarily disproved by events, but postponed by its believers beyond the life of the prophet to an ever receding future.
Dostoevsky serves as a paragon of the writer concerned with his time, and his methods would answer most questions for me were it not for a peculiar twist of our own. In his time, Dostoevsky could pick out the most significant story and reveal its hidden essence. On the basis of a single political murder, he could develop a huge prophetic novel, The Devils (Besy, 1872). And although suicides in Russia appeared on the increase, he had time to comment on nearly every one. This situation, I believe, does not apply to our time and place, where a suicide attracts no individual attention and anonymously fills out bulging statistics. Twenty years ago, our nation was appalled by the report that apartment dwellers in New York City had watched while a women was knifed to death on the street and had not moved an inch to help her. The Kitty Genovese case seemed a crystallization of social apathy, entered the textbooks of sociology and inspired madeforTV movies. Today, crowds cheer the murderer, neighbors join the rapist, passerby laugh at the corpse, and business goes on as usual. (I can cite reports for each of these items.) For a writer today, it is impossible to pick the worst, most characteristic alleged incident. Impossible to invent outrages against the human spirit which could match the charges filed daily against freedomloving Americans released on their own recognizance. Such is my opinion, but then I am not Dostoevsky, and theoretically someone as sensitive as he could grasp the all-time worst, most characteristic event encapsulating the ruin of our society. Or could he? Aside from the worsening of our times, which some blithe spirits might contest, there is a quickening of the pace, which few today would deny. What is the writer to do, especially one without his own daily column, his own monthly journal? Slavishly follow the grisly course of events, only to fall behind in energy and inventiveness, all the while suspecting that his work will be shunted aside by the lifestory of one of the criminals, as told to another failed novelist? Here the example of Dostoevsky, with his one-man philosophical-literary journal, seems an impossible dream.
4. The Acceleration of Events
I find it difficult to imagine works by Lev Tolstoi based on good sanitation. I find it difficult to imagine readers really excited by such a good, sanitary Tolstoi.
Evgeny Zamyatin, "The Goal"
There was a reason why I set my novel five years ahead. My thinking was this: it would take a year to write, another year to find a publisher; in the third year the book would come out in hardcover, and in the fourth year in paperback. Finally, in the fifth year, a movie producer would buy it, and professors would assign it to their classes. At that fond date I did not want it to be behind the times. Therefore, my task was set: to ignore the dross of my day, the blather of airhead celebrities, the media hype of problems beside the point, and to concentrate on the constituitive factors, the signals of future developments, the essence. In short, to keep a bit ahead of the news. As I have indicated, this task proved beyond my abilities. Recognizing, for example, that we live in a society of random violence where each plays roulette with thugs, I hit on the idea of including real, but slightly altered news items in the novel, so that my hero would hear on the radio and read in the papers only this kind of report. I opened the local section of the Press-Enterprise and saw on a single page three separate accounts of unidentified bodies discovered along the highways. Again, in the novel, I wrote a scene with a dozen emotionally disturbed children learning to ride a horse, intending by this to emphasize the increase of abused children in our society. This intention was validated, but dwarfed by the case of the McMartin Preschool of Manhattan Beach, where teachers were charged with molesting, raping, terrorizing and photographing for pornographic purposes more than a hundred children for a decade. Again, I sent my dogcatcher hero to China, where I planned for him to answer questions about dog pounds, the overpopulation of pets in the USA, etc. A week later I read in the Los Angeles Times of a campaign against dogs in Beijing, where gangs of conscientious citizens were chasing strays and bludgeoning them to death with clubs. If I could not equal any specifics, how could I compose the configuration - the world five years hence with all of its social and electronic dysfunctions?
The problem is not quite the same which Dostoevsky tried to solve. There is not only the eternal onrush of the future, but a quickening of the pace. By this I mean two things: an acceleration of events and an acceleration of news. For the first, I cite all those charts of the timetable of evolution, where man is seen to appear in the last tiny colored strip; all those imaginary clocks where the age of the earth is reduced to twenty-four hours, human history to the last halfsecond, and the industrial revolution, automobile, jet airplaine, nuclear weaponry and miniaturization to progressively smaller fractions of that last halfsecond. And to living memory, which can look back over the better part of the century and see a new technological environment for each generaton, almost for each decade. In his book, Future Shock, Alvin Toffler sums up the situation with his concept of the 800th lifetime:
If the last 50,000 years of man's existence were divided into lifetimes of approximately sixty-two years each, there have been about 800 such lifetimes. Of these 800, fully 650 were spent in caves. ... Only during the last six lifetimes did masses of men ever see a printed word. Only during the last four has it been possible to measure time with any precision. Only in the last two has anyone used an electric motor. And the overwhelming majority of all the material goods we use in daily life today have been developed within the present, the 800th, lifetime. (18)
No doubt future shock was felt by an ancient province conquered in turn by the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, yet on a worldwide scale, the statistics confirm our sensation of accelerating change. As Toffler shows, speed itself has speeded up, from 8 mph in 6000 B.C., to 13 mph in 1825, to 100 mph at the end of the century, to 400 mph in 1938 to 18000 in orbiting space capsule of 1970. (19) Similar horrific statistics are given for the increasing production of print, the multiplication of scientific discoveries and the consequent increasing ignorance of each individual in respect to the total output. Our breathing bubble of the present is shooting through the fluid of time, and though we may seek security in memories of the good old days or in wish-fulfillment fantasies, we cannot escape the sensation of perilous, revolutionary speed, exceeding not only our anticipation, but also our imagination. Fiction pales before fact. In the popular media a maximum effort is made to convert news into docudramas, novels of fact, topical hit songs as quickly as possible - can it be not only to make money, but to tame the news, to make it conventional? Interesting items in the newspaper, in fact, are no longer available to the inspired Dostoevskian novelist: the rights to them are purchased, sealed and handed to a hired hack. But even five days after Jonestown, when the instant book on the involuntary mass suicide was stocked at eyelevel on the supermarket stands, the news looked stale, a dreary print-out of the features already supplied by the newspapers, magazines, radio and TV, and the accustomed public turned to fresh horrors. As for writing a fictional work which would expose religious cultism in America, it would hardly serve any purpose. A careful psychological probing, of course, would take many months and could hardly command wide appeal.
Once again I find a parallel in the literary experience of Russia, where a few decades after Dostoevsky the waves of revolution accelerated events and made new demands upon writers. After October, the notion that news was more exciting than art was advanced everywhere, both by uneducated new writers and opportunistic old hands. Every artist had to deal with it, and in the theater of Vsevolod Meyerhold a play might be interrrupted by a motorcycle shooting down the aisle, up a ramp and onto the stage, where the Red Army messenger would announce the news from the front. Pageants of the Revolution and Civil War were enacted in the streets, and proletarian writers insisted that novels must move into the factories, express the pathos of construction, the "new reality." (Curiously, restagings of the classics enjoyed a vogue, much like the BBC productions which today serve our country's cultural needs.) Of all the extreme literary manifestoes of the twenties, the argument for fact over fiction attained its zenith in the statement of Sergei Tretyakov, spokesman for the New Left Front of the Arts (Novyi LEF), who won everlasting glory for himself by declaring the daily newspaper superior to Lev Tolstoi. He wrote:
The sufferers among us are whining: Where is the monumental art of the Revolution? Where are the "broad canvasses" of the red epos? Where are our red Homers and red Tolstois?..
We have no reason to wait for Tolstois, for we have our own epos. Our epos is the newspaper...
The entire anonymous newspaper staff, from the workers' correspondent to the lead reporter - this is the collective Tolstoi of our day...
How can there be any talk of some War and Peace when every morning, as we grab the newspaper, we in effect turn a new page of that astonishing novel which goes by the name of our modern life. The dramatis personnae of this novel are its writers and readers - we ourselves. (20)
Tretyakov wielded little influence. In fact, he was attacked by Party critics and eventually liquidated in Stalin's purges. Yet at the end of the twenties he enunciated an attitude that had been growing since the Revolution: the primacy of fact over fiction, pragmatic task over imagination. The Party, while destroying some of its exponents, accepted factualism as an essential ingredient of literature, which when guided and shaped by the proper ideology would produce inspiring works of Socialist Realism. During the first five-year plan (1928-32), brigades of writers were sent to construction sites to describe the building of socialism, fictionalists were set quotas the same as daily reporters. Most of this scribbling has entered the history lists of Soviet Russian literature and is inflicted only on Soviet high-school students and foreign specialists, but from among the hundreds of titles one exception shines bright as a work filled with energy, excitement and the quickened pace of its time. It is the novel Time, Forward! (Vremya, Vperyod!), completed in 1932 by Valentin Katayev. Here a competition for pouring cement at the construction site of a chemical combine sets the stage for a lively picture of workers rushing over wooden planks with barrows of gravel, sand and cement, casting short radial shadows crisscrossing each other, counting their mixtures against the clock and the previous record.
At the same time that Katayev was writing his hallelujah to industrialization, a lesser-known writer by the name of Andrei Platonov was working out his own approach to the reconstruction of society. In his novel The Foundation Pit (Kotlovan, 1930), he described the building of the future utopia - a housing block for the proletariat, where the pit grows ever deeper and the workers live in a shack. Here the communist ideal does not motivate men identically and produce a sterling team effort, but rather moves through the mind of each individual believer. The narrative is slow, belabored, working out the thoughts of the hunchedover diggers.
These two approaches to the "new reality" make a striking contrast. Katayev is swift, easy, one-dimensional. His characters may be of various sorts, but existentially they are all the same. The reality posited beneath his text is firm, discernible, exploitable. The world is challenging, but conquerable by energy, will and right understanding, while reflection, doubt and day-dreaming will only waste time. Platonov, on the other hand, is strange, difficult, rough-edged. Each character has his own attitude and destiny, his own eccentric understanding of the world, and no one understanding is taken as right. Reality is consequently fragmented into as many truths as there are individual minds, yet uniformly serious and necessitous. Platonov creates a world of infinite original constructions of reality, countless private agreements with nature and life, driven by a never fully revealed universal mechanics, where the chief physical experience is want and the chief mental activity is delirium. A "cruel and beautiful world," as he titled one of his stories. By the standards of his day, Katayev best caught the tempo of revolution and matched the onrush of events. Platonov was out of step, quirky, disturbing. Katayev was accepted for publication and celebrated. Platonov was rejected and pilloried. Time, Forward! enjoyed critical acclaim, entered literary history and anthologies. Kotlovan passed decades in oblivion and was published only recently outside of Russia. Comparing the novels today, more than fifty years after their writing, one cannot fail to distinguish the vital difference. Katayev is an interesting historical document. Platonov is literature.
So then, it would be easy to conclude that in times of rapid change the work which comes closest to journalism, reportage, news, stands the best chance of success in its day and may qualify for a historical document in the future, while the work which explores less familiar areas of reality and creates its own fictional form may fail in its day, but aspire to immortal posterity. At this stage the question becomes one of a presumed "test of time," which must overcome popular taste and sneak past the gatekeepers of the media. And there the matter may stand, as regards the acceleration of events. But this was only half of the problem.
5. The Acceleration of News
The window on the world can be covered with a newspaper.
Stanislaw Lec, Unkempt Thoughts
Are there more murders today, or more reported murders? More suicides, or more recorded suicides? More homosexuals, or more declared homosexuals? For the social statistician, the true figures perhaps can be found. But for the ordinary citizen, more reports equal more events. The instantaneous registry of every newsworthy event in the world, its storage, retrieval and reproduction by an international communications network, has not produced universal understanding and harmony as visionaries of the past presaged (Edward Bellamy, Velimir Khlebnikov). On the contrary, it has made each citizen of the planet into an impotent atom, powerless to stop explosions of human misery or even to slow down the furious round of sensational thrills. How can the writer, especially the fictionalist, stand against this stinging swarm of tragedies, this minute-by-minute attack of athletic diversions, this onslaught of happy endings with little kids and their doggies from the other side of the globe? One method of defense is to recognize that the news is a phantom. Many things occur in the world, and no one can know every one. The news is a grill predesigned to sift the flow of events. On the basis of certain assumptions about public interest and need, the grill admits discrete incidents and lets pass the overall flow. (21) Editors arrange the incidents admitted as newsworthy in an order familiar to us all: international news (disruptions, protests, terrorist attacks and wars); national news (governmental press releases, criminal cases, obituaries, activities of beautiful people); economic news (stocks and statistics); sports news (all sorts of games, stats and interviews); and finally the human-interest story (sweepstakes winners, eccentrics, pandas and little bunnies). These categories are constantly reshuffled to produce the top story, the continuation, the closing story, and an attempt is even made to keep track of the overall flow in the form of an abbreviated "in-depth" report. Nevertheless, most developments in most countries escape notice until they match the grill, then the news provides maps of Vietnam, Iran and El Salvador to bring the public up to date. Likewise, the ongoing work of major scientists, inventors and artists attracts no attention, but the results may receive mention at an awards ceremony or in an obit. Thus the news calms us by giving a familiar shape to the ever-impinging future, yet at the same time alarms us by singling out shocks and surprises, keeping us ignorant of the formative forces.
Not too many years ago, Marshall McLuhan, known as the "media guru," predicted the "global village" and its social effects, but already his predictions seem tame. By its instantaneous omnipresence, the media environment creates the illusion of an eternal continuum of news, existing here and there in sight and sound and print, and shared by all as a daily vicarious experience. In this uniform, predictable, self-enclosed world, distinctions between art and life, fact and fiction, past and present are obliterated, or at least made inoperative. The writer who maintains these distinctions finds himself at a disadvantage, in tune with the heritage of human thought and creation, but cut off in silence and obscurity from the social structure of his day.
Once it was possible to isolate ordinary life from art - that is, the moments of life spent while not experiencing a work of art. It was assumed that the time spent on a work of art was in some way worth more than an equal time of ordinary life: the artist took more time to produce his work than for the recipient to receive it, or by his genius packed more intelligence into it than another person could gather on his own in the same amount of time, and so there was a profit. If not, the game was not worth the candle. But today, the average American spends morning to night in the midst of artistic products, whether of the supermarket or museum variety, whether in public or private. As Toffler puts it, modern man spends almost all of his waking hours taking in "coded messages," many of them "artfully fashioned by communications experts." (22) He may read the newspaper or a magazine as much as an hour a day; he hears countless songs in cars, elevators, telephones on hold, dentist chairs, psychiatric waiting rooms; and he watches television seven hours and five minutes every day of the year. (23) Consequently, raw experience - that is, uncoded, unfashioned, unaccompanied activity - is reduced to the sleeping hours, and daily life comes closer to a walking dream. As a rule the recipient of art compares not his own experience and thoughts to the artistic work at hand (e.g., "Dallas"), but rather another work of the same variety (e.g., "Dynasty"). Since art itself is cheapened in its mass replications, comparison is therefore made between a range of unworthy objects. On the other hand, the artist himself can narrow the distance between art and life by speeding up his production, and by means of computer, word processor and minicam produce a product in nearly the same amount of time it takes to consume it. Or he can transmit raw experience immediately as an artistic product (e.g., "An American Family," PBS 1973), with the result that the raw experience, aware of the camera, becomes an act. It would seem that time is saved, but only for the artist. For the recipient, the weaker the distinction between art and life, the more time is lost.
When art and life are fused, distinctions of form cease to matter. A book can become a movie, a movie - a book. A commercial can become a hit song, a hit song - a commercial. A gospel can become a musical. Within the convertible forms, the genres become convertible. A tragedy can become a comedy, a comedy - a tragedy. A news story can become a fictionalized drama, a fictionalized drama - a news story. The roles in the convertible genres of the convertible forms themselves become convertible. An actor can become a director, a director - an actor. A movie star can become a writer, a writer - a movie star. Actor, director, writer, producer, politician, president - all are convertible in every direction, save that a sports star can become everything else, but an out-of-shape celebrity can convert only to a friend of sports stars, a participant in beer commercials with sports stars and so on, but not to an actual athletic competitor. The touchstone of convertibility, the magic key to success, which converts the actress Jane Fonda into a politician, the politician William F. Buckley into a novelist, the scientist Carl Sagan into a television producer, the comedian Rodney Dangerfield into an actor, a beer salesman and a singer in the video of his own record, is celebrityhood - known in the trade as "recognition value." (24) The lure is held out to every aspiring writer: get recognized, and you can do anything, develop and display your talents (even those you don't have yet) through the fullest range of human potentials. All you need to do to gain celebrityhood is pass through one or another of the media portals, providentially guarded by the keepers of the stencils. At the gate of fictional literature, whatever the genre pathway (sci-fi, detective story, horror, romance), an editor-clone holds the stencil which you are expected to match: a thin, dried husk of the nineteenth-century realistic novel, fed as the mass communion wafer just before the movie in the necropolis of the entertained zombies.
It will have been noticed that entertainment, no-news, has slipped into the discussion. News cannot be isolated from the media at large, which transmit entertainment. Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World Revisited (1958), faulted previous prognosticators, himself included, with the observation:
They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist countries - the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions. (25)
More recent critics have remarked on the tendency of news itself to become entertainment - for example, Paddy Chayevsky's scathing film, Network (1976), itself turned into an innocuous TV entertainment, intersticed with commercials and consumed by the uncritical viewers. With its increasing homogeneity, the media environment blurs not only the distinction between life and art, but also between news and fiction. An outstanding case in point was the ABC-TV broadcast of the film The Day After (27 November 1983). As part of the pre-show publicity, the network arranged for a public showing of the film in West Germany, where the question of nuclear armament was particularly intense, then reported the reactions of the West-German moviegoers - as news. By the time of the USA television showing, the film had made the cover of Newsweek - as news. Immediately after the showing, ABC held a formal discussion with experts on nuclear warfare, and their responses were reshown by all the networks on the news. The mediocre quality of the film, its artistic phoniness, were occasionally noted, but regarded as beside the point. In the next week, ABC followed its coup with a series of wargame scenarios, using former and present members of government in the fictional roles of president and his staff of advisers. Both The Day After and The War Game then entered the archives, thence no doubt to return as reruns, where fact and fiction are one. (26)
Reruns, repeats, reproductions of every recorded fact and feature in any time and place create the wrap-around of a universal present tense. This morning's news can be seen tonight, yesterday's news next week, and next week's news, if not yesterday, then at least prepackaged and instantly replayable. In this universal present, people are ageless, or rather all ages. Bob Hope has quipped that he can turn the television dial and watch his hairline recede; should he turn the dial the other way, he could watch it fill back out. Here fads and fashions need never go out of fashion, no instant celebrity need ever pass from the scene. Deceased stars perform with living ones to live audiences of some former year, or with laughtracks of presently embalmed cadavers, and only the recipients of the residuals know who's up and about and who's resting in Forest Lawn. If you own a video cassette recorder, you may preserve the favorite film of your youth and keep both it and yourself forever young. Where once great exploits were recorded by memory and shaped by imagination into legend, today they are put on instant replay and trivialized by four different angles. The assassination of JFK can be witnessed again and again on a program devoted to the subject, or in the middle of a variety show, or as part of a fictionalized movie. At the press of a button, the flick of a dial, the consumer enters an eternal present-tense wonderland, where life and art, reality and fiction, tragedy and comedy, actor and human being, living and dead, memory and instant replay are convertible, equally important and equally unimportant.
"Control over communications services," writes Daniel Bell, "is a source of power, and access to communication is a condition of freedom." (27) The same must be said about entertainment services - that is, the industry which produces and transmits plays, films, novels, songs. In the post-information revolution, the two services have merged into a communications-entertainment complex, so that the movie rights to the novel based on the killing, for example, are settled before the body is cold. (In the case of Gary Gilmore, before the body is dead.) This brings the discussion of this paper down to the eternal question of freedom. The would-be novelist today, like the literary greats of the past, must not only contend with the unknown future, the speed of events and a world of illusion, he must choose: to compromise or not to compromise. To match the stencils, prostitute his art and hope to become a celebrity. Or to hold out, experiment, win honor, poverty and oblivion, but to hope against hope for posterity. Or possibly to entertain another hope: that the communications-entertainment complex will eat itself up, convert into unheard Muzak, make itself obsolete. Or, just as a shock in one's private life - such as an accident, a crime or a punch in the nose - can wake a person up to the meaninglessness of most of our public expression, so a shock to the nation might blast away the puffery and set the condition for a vital art. (28)
In the meantime, the instruments of the mass media are diffusing into society, so that the individual consumer can assemble his own electronic den and record and reproduce whatever he wants from the multi-billion-dollar networks. In this way he can create an alternative environment, more congenial to his soul and mind. Collecting his own images and sounds, he can divorce himself from the song in the air, the broadcast in progress. He can recognize that the morning soap, the prime-time special, the late-night talk show are not live events, but pre-recorded reproductions which he counters with his own. With computer and software, he can print out his own writings, his own newspaper, become a desktop publisher. A new time-sense is created, in which the self-conscious individual becomes his own reporter, his own entertainer and critic. Where this will lead I cannot predict - to ever greater social fragmentation, to isolated pockets of culture, to solipsism? However, in our present media environment, I see only three choices: to become an indiscriminate slave to the stimuli of the mass media, to become a discriminate thief of the media in order to create your own environment, or to turn it all off and become a recluse.
All yet seems well, and if it end so meet,
The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.
Shakespeare, All's Well That Ends Well
My intention was to discuss problems which I believe face honest writers, and additionally anyone concerned with the prospects of the future. But I can only make choices for myself. They are: To counter the impending social cataclysms with a modest contribution to the cause of my choice. To counter the mass media with my own alternative environment, my own time. To account all prognostication as fiction, and the news as a fictional grid. To write my own fiction in the attempt to grasp reality. To accept that with the acceleration of events I will often be surprised, and with the acceleration of news I will often fall behind. To expect that my novel will be rejected, but if accepted make little change in the world. Yet to remain inspired by the insight of Dostoevsky, the originality of Platonov, the irreconciliable spirit of Karl Kraus. To have faith in my imagination, because in the worst of times it refuses to be extinguished.
1. Undated form letter, beginning: "You'd better start making some major plans - because 80 million more people are coming here for breakfast, lunch and dinner." Zero Population Growth, 1346 Conn. Ave., Wash., D.C. 20036.
2. Cf. Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (New York: Doubleday, 1966).
3. Note the unfortunate case of Andrei Amalrik. In 1969, returned from Siberian exile, the young Russian dissident wrote the essay Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? (Harper & Row, 1970). His prognosis was war with China, secession of the Warsaw Pact countries and collapse of the Soviet empire. When 1984 dawned, Amalrik himself was not present, having fallen victim to a traffic accident in Nov. 1980, while the Soviet Union was headed by Yury Andropov, Chief of the KGB when Amalrik had penned his wishfulfillment. Andropov himself passed in 1984, but the Soviet Union survived.
4. Cf. Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976), esp. Book II, chap. 4.
5. The Valentinian Gnostics, who regarded God the Creator as a subordinate deity, believed each member of the group could have direct access to the higher power through the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, they drew lots to decide who would act as priest, as bishop and as prophet at each of their meetings. Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Vintage, 1981).
6. "Socism is an imaginary social order which would come into being if individuals were to behave to one another within society in complete accordance with the social laws. It can in fact never be attained because of the falsity of the premises on which it is based. Like every extrahistorical absurdity, socism has its own erroneous theory and incorrect practice, but it is almost impossible to establish either in theory or practice what the theory and practice of socism actually are, and to distinguish between them." Alexander Zinoviev, The Yawning Heights, trans. by Gordon Clough (London: The Bodley Head, 1974), p. 9.
7. Jonas Salk, discounting predictions of overpopulation: "I am convinced that a number of factors - pollution, overcrowding, pressure on natural resources - will constitute a feedback mechanism that will reduce the population to a level that is optimal for survival. I think that this mechanism is genetically implanted." "A conversation with Jonas Salk," Psychology Today, March 1983, p. 54.
8. Orwell's vision of an eternal party, able to alter the past and control the future to the extent that 2x2 = 5, is in some ways a debate with Tolstoi. Also with Dostoevsky's underground man, who tries to escape the tyranny of 2+2=4. See 1984, part III, chap. 3.
9. For further titles, such as How To Steal a Job, How To Launder Money, How To Start Your Own Country, write to Loompanics Unlimited, P.O. Box 1197, Port Townsend, WA. 98368.
10. "Beyond War: A New Way of Thinking," Creative Initiative, 222 High St., Palo Alto, CA. 94301.
11. Stephen Vizinczey, The Rules of Chaos, or Why Tomorrow Doesn't Work (New York: McCall, 1969), p. 36. Yet one must agree with Milton Himmelfarb: "The one man Lenin was responsible for the Bolshevik Revolution... Hitler willed the Holocaust." "No Hitler, No Holocaust," Commentary, March 1984.
12. For the most reasonable approach to personal planning, cf. Bertrand de Jouvenel, The Art of Conjecture, trans. by Nikita Lary (New York: Basic Books, 1967).
13. Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (New York: Bantam, 1974), p. 11, 35. Also Jonas Salk, op. cit., pp. 5056.
14. See Toffler's use of "we must," op. cit., p. 437.
15. Letter to N. Strakhov, 26 Feb. 1869, cited in F. Dostoevsky, Sobranie sochinenii v 30-kh tomakh, vol. XVII (Moscow: Nauka, 1976), p. 373.
16. Diary of a Writer for 1876 (March), ibid., vol. XXII (1981), pp. 912.
17. Diary of a Writer for 1873, ibid., vol. XXI (1981), p. 75.
18. Toffler, op. cit., p. 19.
19. Ibid., p. 26. There is a book devoted solely to the accelerated clock, or the new science of chronography: Nigel Calder, Timescale: An Atlas of the Fourth Dimension (New York: Viking, 1983).
20. Sergei Tret'yakov, "Novyi Lev Tolstoi," Novyi Lef: Zhurnal levogo fronta iskusstv (Moscow: Gosizdat), No. 1, 1927, pp. 3438. The writer Mikhail Zoshchenko claimed that the times demanded not a red Tolstoi, but minor forms, such as the humoresque. See "About Myself, My Critics and My Work" (1927), Russian Literature Triquarterly No. 14 (Ann arbor: Ardis, 1977), p. 403. Note also Toffler: "... it may now be too difficult for any individual writer, no matter how gifted, to describe a convincingly complex future." Op. cit., p.466.
21. Donald Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, recently defined the news in terms of various types of "story" - e.g., the hard-to-get story, the well-detailed story, the investigative story, the daily-beat story. As to the criterion of "story," he referred to "public interest." In answer to my question (from the audience) if the press ever tried to determine what the public needed to know, he strenuously insisted on the contrary, yet allowed that he carried "important stories" of "minimal readership." From this and other indications, I surmise that newspapermen do not perceive their own cliches. (The Annual Press-Enterprise Lecture, March 20, 1984, University of California, Riverside.)
22. Toffler, op. cit., p.164.
23. A.C. Nielsen survey for 1983, reported by the Associated Press, 26 Jan. 1984.
24. One sickening example will suffice: "It took the influence of a Jackie Kennedy Onassis to convince Michael Jackson to do the unheard of: bare his soul in a book./ Jackie O., hardly a trendie, nevertheless has been tuned in to Michael's music thanks to kids Caroline and John Kennedy, fans since his Jackson 5 days. Mrs. O. actually renewed an earlier acquaintance with the singer last fall by paying him a visit to California./ She returned shortly after with a book deal from Doubleday, her employer./ The deal (worth well over $1 million) will have Michael and Jackie working exclusively together. He'll provide the life story, poems, drawings and dance secrets; she'll provide the polish as editor. When not hard at work, they can slip away to her favorite Manhattan lunch haunts or browse in movie memorabilia shops, which they've already done as part of their campaign to 'get to know one another better.'/ Expect the fruits of this literary collaboration next spring." Mikki Dorsey & Dawn Baskerville, US, May 7, 1984, p. 35.
25. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), p.2829.
26. What a pity that Peter Weir's film The Last Wave (1977) could not stimulate such nationwide attention, although it is no more fictional than The Day After, much more profound and disturbing, and artistically honest. However, it too lives in reruns and may prove the more enduring vision.
27. Daniel Bell, The Winding Passage: Essays and Sociological Journeys 1960-1980 (Cambridge, Mass.: ABT Books, 1980), p. 43.
28. After the present talk, a voice from the audience advised me: "You should read some of the late and middle Wells, where again and again he has cataclysms that bring the world to sanity."
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