Jerry Weinberg used to insist that non-fiction must be a fictional notion, since all writing gets filtered through a writer first. Some so-called non-fiction seems more self-reflective than others, and perhaps this observation supports his point. Few authors, I suspect, ever get through to the bottom of writing anything without stumbling upon an unexpected, sometimes unwanted participant: self.

Likewise, Cyberneticist Heintz Von Foerster insisted that objectivity qualifies as a delusion that one could have an observation without the trouble of including an observer. The presence of an observer engaging in the observation nudges the notion of objectivity nearer the subjective end of the scale, a relative value rendered in rather definite terms. Since no observer can be certain of just how they filter what they report they observe, we might just be better off remembering Weinberg’s Insistence: non-fiction can’t exist.

This provides no convenient excuse for cynicism, for we never were quite as innocent as the cynic might insist. There seems a vast difference between willful fiction and the inadvertent, inescapable kind. We can and we do try to approach objectivity, and most every writer, even I, can testify to the angst experienced when I show up in the middle of what I intended as pure reportage.

Perhaps, we might better understand reportage as an impure product, intended to be read with skepticism. Not to discredit the author, but to give him a little credit for being human and therefore incapable of producing objective observation.

The writer might help his readers by editing out some improbable little words, ‘is’ being the most prominent candidate for omission. Two little letters, one impossible word, ‘is’ asserts an absolute, as if the observer has discovered the key to objectivity. Of course, ‘is’ discloses more about the observer than perhaps any other word he might choose. It strongly suggests a non-reflective writer who believes he sees what no one could possibly see; what is.

The writer might be wisely counseled to replace every ‘is’ with ‘appears to be’, or some derivative thereof. ‘Might be’, ‘could be’, ‘suggested strongly to this observer’, any of these substitutions might improve the objectivity of the piece because they disclose the presence of a potentially biased observer reporter, rather than some transcendent presumed know-it-all one.

I see gross violations of the ‘is’ caution in every newspaper, nearly every story. The reporter speaks as if he was not present while observing, and keeps his unholy distance while reporting on his observing, too. He’ll cop the byline without owning his deepest influence on what’s written there.

Writing, like painting, seems to mean what the reader interprets from it. The reader becomes the observer in the moment of interpretation, and the observer holds the inescapable responsibility for deriving meaning from whatever he observes. Should the writer attempt to swipe that responsibility by dressing up his own observations in ‘is’ language, the reader might easily fall under the delusion that they are simply absorbing facts rather than interpreting observations. There are no simple facts in the observing biz.

We might make meaning together, but we seem to need some uncertainty to accomplish this end. When I see a headline touting what another recent study ‘says,’ I might be excused for believing I’ve tapped a mainline channel into absolute truth rather than subtly manipulating myself, for I cannot escape my responsibility to observe skeptically, with warranted uncertainty, and make meaning for myself.

A study says, huh? No scientist worth his lab coat would ever report that a study says anything, for studies adhere to a protocol that forbids such rash conclusions. In science, studies suggest or infer, the meaning always in some doubt. We might eventually decide to hold such provisional truth self evident, but only as a shorthand convenience. The scientist, perhaps the most scrupulous observer around, works hard to retain awareness of his own potential influence on his own observations. He seems to know that nothing is except what we’ve agreed might actually be that way. An assertion might be better acknowledged as an agreement, a decision, a deliberate conclusion, rather than a simple observation of fact. The eyes lie, though the eyes seem to have it much of the time.

Further, excising ‘is’ language enlivens writing. Without the questionable benefit of this absolute, the writer must reply upon richer representations: how it feels, looks, smells, tastes. The old thesaurus might get dusted off, and the reader might get to experience the world as the writer experienced it rather than how it simply was. The best writers reply upon this simple skill to connect with their readers.

Grad schools seem to insist upon omitting the observer from writing, as if Joe Friday were in charge, wanting ‘just the facts.’ The graduates of these schools go on to produce reports and white papers as if the observer were nowhere around. The dry, distant, disembodied results require no meaning making. They stand as if factual rather than the greatest works of a nearly worthless fiction genre, observer-less observations, signifying nothing but a persistent delusion.

©2014 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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