Everything you know is wrong

A few months ago I wrote about the slippery nature of truth in personal narrative. Typical level: low to medium.

Fiction was invented for a reason. Reality isn’t “boring”, really, but it is poorly structured, noisy, with obscured causation, and a complete lack of justice. And the final resolution to any problem, no matter how minor or serious? Everybody dies.

Not to give anything away, but pretty much everything we know of as history partakes of the same problem. As far as written evidence goes, it’s all written after the fact, sometimes long after the fact, either by axe-grinding participants in the events or by those who have benefited by the victory of one side or another and are basing their account on the self-serving oral testimony of people who barely remember what happened.

No surprise, photographs are increasingly seen to be made up as well. Chris Bertram of Crooked Timber points me at an account of a famous Robert Capa photo of a dying soldier during the Spanish Civil War: most likely faked, as were various other famous iconic images.

All of the images examined in the article are really images crafted to fit into a prevailing narrative, whether about the fears of a looming European war, the Male Gaze, postwar love among the ruins, or the dignity of the struggle for civil rights. We love things that tell us that what we already believe is absolutely true.

Images too, are contingent and full of distracting non-narrative elements. Really, without narrative support, few of them are readable. Random instants in time are lacking context, past, and motivation, problems made worse by the fact that they are two-dimensional, taken from a certain angle, and have issues with focus and resolution. We see a lot less than we think we see in them. No wonder photographers, through selection, manipulation, and outright staging, try to come up with ones clear enough for us to understand them. Boosting the signal-to-noise ration means focusing on some signals more than others.

The wonder is that we take any of them as at all representative of that annoyingly contingent reality we know is all around us.