Factiness: Lifespans of and Pissing Matches over

March 13, 2012

John D’Agata, “author,” and Jim Fingal,” fact-checker’s” The Lifespan of a Fact is an initially intriguing, often funny, sometimes intellectually stimulating dialogue in the Socratic mode between a famous writer and Professor of Non-Fiction Writing (University of Iowa) and a lowly intern (who I think went to Harvard), that sadly often devolves into a testosterone-driven pissing match where the lofty and literate D’Agata is reduced to lines like: “tread very carefully asshole” and “Jim, seriously. Chill the fuck out.” And inevitably, “Wow, Jim your penis must be much bigger than mine.” This beautifully designed book that gracefully centers D’Agata’s startlingly lovely word-play about Las Vegas, suicide and “the misplacement of knowledge in pursuit of information” within a prose-frame built from the master and student’s supposedly linear conversation about each and every factual misstep of D’Agata’s essay, paints Fingal as a nattering, bean-counter of a Philistine who just might agitate any artist to such writerly and pedagogic lows. But given that the whole enterprise must be as carefully crafted for rhythm, feeling, flow, and sensibility as is the very essay under question, the intrepid feminist reader is forced to wonder why this (un?) self-aware press (or fall?) to boyish juvenalia by the field’s leading expert (“John: Yeah, I’m the immature one”),  such that a very funny but serious disquisition between two very smart and literate men about the nature of truth, facts, fiction, and contemporary writing becomes too often little more than a schoolyard brawl, at least as far as John’s language use goes. Which is perhaps really to wonder why embroilments in truthiness degenerate so quickly into the male (and stupid) mode.

As dignified lady YouTube scholar myself—a position as silly and serious as any of those introduced thus far—it is certainly my belief that truthiness is the normative mode of discourse online, by the erudite and not so, by both the talented and untutored.

I’ve argued many times, speaking as A Professor of Fake Documentary Truth, that once a mode of parody becomes normative and unself-aware, its radical possibilities for estrangement or commentary (or as D’Amato says so well, its ability “to break us open, to make us raw, to destabalize our understanding of ourselves and of our world so that we can experience both anew, with fresh eyes”) become defanged. Now, certainly factiness has not taken over “journalism” to quite the extent that it has “documentary”—which is to say that our socially-networked play with images seems to carry a slightly different license than what we might have available with words. So that The Lifespan of a Fact might still be a little bit different between books and films, essays and YouTube videos, and between blogs and gifs.

I found myself in a similar place when I read David Shield’s Reality Hunger, contemplating this difference in thinking, and timing, and writing and making when one works with words rather than images, and when one does so as a MAN or better yet as MEN. I really loved D’Agata’s essay, and admired Fingal’s steadfast cheekiness, but as the outside (or framing) story of their dialogue continued across the book’s 123 pages, and neither of these characters changed (or grew up) a whit, learned from each other, or enjoyed the fruits of knowledge sharing and dialectical method, I found myself skimming Fingal, annoyed by D’Agata, and ultimately truly uncertain why such smart guys could be so unaware of or unopen to feminist epistemological method.

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