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October 2, 2017 | by  | in Interview |
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Interview with James Meffan

“Every now and again you’ll hear a plink; that is the hole in my ceiling which is steadily dripping into the bucket at the back — the university has run to three buckets for me which is quite nice,” Dr James Meffan told us as we sat down for an interview with him. He is a lecturer for the School of English, Film, Theatre, and Media Studies, and we spoke to him about representation, and some of the dilemmas that occur every day in talk, in stories, and art. We also talked about the expectations we have for fiction, where the creative art of make-believe storytelling meets the real life social and political contexts that authors and readers occupy, and wondered: are there limits to what we can say?

 

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We thought we should start with what it is to represent. The OED provides numerous definitions: To present the image or appearance of; to resemble. | To constitute; to be, form, amount to. | To serve as a representative example of (a group or class); to typify, exemplify, or stand for, esp. in a specified context. |  Of a picture, an image, etc.: to portray, depict, show. | To bring clearly and distinctly before the mind or imagination; to describe, evoke, conjure; to imagine, conceptualize. What does this word mean to you, and how do you relate it to literature?

You’ve trawled through the OED, which is always a great place to start. In the popular use I suppose we’d say that representation produces a kind of life-like depiction of things. It could be verbal, pictorial, could be bodily through acting. The magic of semiotics is that we can use material of a different order (from what it is used to represent), and yet we can bring before people things.

So language, and I’ll focus in on language, might make present something which is necessarily absent e.g. hey, there’s a saber-toothed tiger over the brow of the hill, look out! That’s why we need it, that’s why we want it. The matter of necessary absence is interesting. Under what circumstances do we need to represent?

In the world of literature and the arts, the ideal is that the very process of representation is productive of something valuable. The history of the discussion of art is often a discussion about what that value is. Do we need this? Fictional narrative is a large part of what we consider literature, and since its beginning fiction has been troubled by the question of its truth status: should we promote the telling of lies, making things up? Is that a good thing? Weren’t we all taught as children that telling the truth is the thing we should aim at?

 

There’s a distinction being drawn between representation as communication, to bring before us something that isn’t there (but exists somewhere), and then fiction which is the deliberate crafting of something that is untrue…

The imagining (the bringing before us) of something that isn’t there, not just because it can’t be there, but because it isn’t there at all.

 

It seems to change the ethical responsibilities, if the thing wasn’t there in the first place?  

Certainly. We tend to operate under the assumption that there are responsibilities that come with calling something non-fiction. And to be clear, that responsibility is not the promise of absolute truth, because no one can promise the truth. It’s a promise of sincerity, that you will make every effort not to mislead, that you won’t deliberately lie or misrepresent.

 

New journalism (which is influential on a lot of feature writing today), to quote one of its practitioners, Tom Wolfe, was centered around the idea “that it might just be possible to write journalism that would… read like a novel.” It combines elements of fiction with the reportage of fact, where the goal is to come closer to a “truth” through devices like the representation of interiority — something unheard of in conventional reportage. By presenting itself as journalism, would you say it’s trying to circumnavigate the ethical responsibilities?

The expectations that come with something being marked as non-fiction is often talked about as a compact, a kind of tacit agreement, between the producer and the receiver. A tacit agreement that nothing will be materially falsified. But people seeking to produce true and convincing accounts quickly realise that the innovation of fictions, particularly the innovations of point of view, of attempting to inhabit consciousness as well as representing the material surface of things, seems to draw us towards the potential of a clearer, more compelling, maybe even a greater, truth.

One of the paradoxes of literature is the idea that, in its decision to free itself from those constraints of the compact of truth telling, it actually frees itself up to do something that seems more powerful and more authentic. It’s not surprising to me that practitioners of non-fiction want some of that, that they say: “now that I have the superficial facts, let me try and inhabit the experiential dimension. The person I wish to represent is dead. Let me imagine what it was like to be them — what was going on in their mind?”

A new compact is developed — nothing is substantially falsified, but a number of things are added which on the basis of evidence seem fair enough to imagine. Of course that takes us to a very murky area, and a potentially problematic one.

 

György Lukács says: “If literature is a particular form by means of which objective reality is reflected, then it becomes of crucial importance for it to grasp that reality as it truly is, and not merely to confine itself to reproducing whatever manifests itself immediately and on the surface.” What is the relationship of realism to what we’ve been talking about?

One argument used to justify the production of fiction is that the serious writer, the credible realist writer, will pay sufficient attention to the details of the world. Their fictional creation will be constrained by some of the material facts of the world outside. It would become incredible, would lose its plausibility, if it strays too far from what we know about the world and the way it operates.

Writers like Nadine Gordimer from South Africa, following Lukács, have pushed for an idea of fiction which has this kind of fidelity to the reality out of which it arises. And that the demands on a particular kind of fidelity grow more pressing the more politically heated and ethically challenging the specific situation.

For context, Gordimer mounted this argument in 1980s apartheid South Africa. The enemy then was clear and present. The injustices were obvious and undeniable. Racism, she says, is evil in a simple, old testament sense. There can be no justification for it. The job of fiction writers is to speak truth to power. And speaking truth to power, she insists, involves being true to the location, being open about the contours of the political situation. Under these conditions, specificity is important; you can’t reduce the detail to broad truths that universalise the situation. This is just one example; historically there are plenty of arguments about responsibilities that are attached to fiction no less than non-fiction.

 

In that same segment quoted above, Lukács goes on to quote Lenin: “In order to know an object thoroughly, it is essential to discover and comprehend all of its aspects, its relationships and its ‘mediations’. We shall never achieve this fully, but insistence on all-round knowledge will protect us from errors and inflexibility.”

When Lukács says it’s of “crucial importance for [literature] to grasp that reality as it truly is,” he seems to be pointing towards what you’re talking about with Gordimer and the realist insistence of speaking truth to power. The Lenin quote, however, is more interesting, in that it perhaps outlines the goal of the novel to map what is a complex and incomprehensible economic and social system for an individual.

To know in its totality…

 

Yeah.

The “reality as it truly is” is the sticking point. It’s an admirable aspiration. The simplistic version of how language works is that there are things in the world, and that we need a representational system for when those things can’t be present, to represent them. On this account, language simply applies a set of terms to things that already exist. But…

From a human perspective, the “fact” that the world is full of trees and rocks and the sky and sea and so on, it seems like an irrefutable truth. What problem could we possibly have with that as an understanding? The world exists independently of us experiencing it. But when we peer closely at the process of definition, we frequently arrive at grey areas. Most of our definition proceeds according to the logic of noncontradiction. In order to define, say, a tree, we are defining it against that which is not tree. But what is the status of the bark that has flaked off — it was incontrovertibly tree at one point but is decomposing and becoming soil. And what is the status of water which enters from the soil by the roots, and exits through the leaves via transpiration? Where are the limits of things?

This is sort of fairly banal first year philosophy… but what it does suggest is that the system of divisions that the system of language seems to recognise may in fact be substantiated or brought into being somewhat arbitrarily by the system of language, not the other way round.

 

The problem with realist representation is that it implies there’s a world you can get to?

It suggests that there’s a reality in the things in themselves which exists independently of the observer and the systems that the observer brings to codify and to communicate, to share, the subdivisions that break the world into things. Focusing on the impact of consciousness on the constitution of objects moves us from ontology to phenomenology, the philosophy of phenomena.

Where does phenomenology get really difficult? When we start bringing in human consciousness. Considering consciousness as constitutive rather than simply reflective of phenomena takes us to the heart of the area that you’re describing as the ethics of representation.

Arguing the toss about whether a chair is an adequate word for that particular object is rather arid — and readily resolved through mutual agreement; we just agree to follow certain conventions of terms and their definitions. When it comes to personal experience, the question of adequacy becomes more pressing. What counts as adequacy in the representation of personal experience (which is, after all, the primary domain of much fiction)?

 

In the Afterthought podcast you did with Forethought, you mention an article by Yassmin Abdel-Magied that criticised (author of We Need To Talk About Kevin) Lionel Shriver’s claims that, because fiction is “self-confessedly fake,” there ought to be no restriction on what experiences and characters that authors can imagine. Abdel-Magied writes, “It was a monologue about the right to exploit the stories of ‘others’, simply because it is useful for one’s story.” She draws a comparison between Shriver’s perspective of fiction to her wider political context: “The kind of disrespect for others infused in Lionel Shriver’s keynote is the same force that sees people vote for Pauline Hanson. It’s the reason our First Peoples are still fighting for recognition, and it’s the reason we continue to stomach offshore immigration prisons. It’s the kind of attitude that lays the foundation for prejudice, for hate, for genocide.” What do you make of this?

One response here is that it would be fine if there was a level playing field, that everyone could have their stories heard and could pitch their different representations, misrepresentations, bad efforts, good efforts. If everyone had equal opportunity to counter what they took to be misrepresentation with better representation then I suspect that the question of adequacy would not seem so pressing. But what we appear to have is an excess of stories about certain groups of people and a deficit of stories of others. People point to significant effects of these imbalances (such as the normalisation of some sorts of experiences and the marginalisation of others) and so questions of cultural access rights have become politically important.

There is no theoretical limit on the diversity of stories that can be represented, but there remains a question of who will be heard, and who determines this. This in turn influences the kind of stories that readers accept as plausible or valuable or true. When we hear a certain story, we make an assessment about its plausibility or credibility, and we like to think that we have a great antenna for the truth itself. But it may simply be that something “has the ring of truth” because it accords with other representations we’re already familiar with — it sounds like the right kind of story. “Truth” in narrative may appear through a circular, self-affirming process. The problem then: how do we open the doors of publishers, and thus the attention of readers, to a greater diversity of stories? This enters political debates as people recognise that their narratives have been suppressed along with their options.

Abdel-Magied’s response that the representational order is wide open to white males and white females, like Shriver, but not so open to anyone who is non-white, seems a little simplistic. There isn’t equal access, but the nature of publication has changed radically. Which is not to say that we’re there yet. But there are mechanisms by which people can be heard that previously weren’t possible, using self-publication through the internet and so on.

But how do we take seriously certain kinds of stories? I know that when I was teaching postcolonial literature, within the field there were those who felt that part of the mission (a term with an unfortunate history!) was a kind of affirmative action. Until we institutionalise the teaching and appreciation of unfamiliar stories (of an Igbo tribe in the pre-Christian era, say), until we start bringing them into the institution under the aegis of a department which in effect gives a work the stamp of disciplinary authority (if you’re studying something in an English department you’re invited to think of it as “serious literature”), we won’t open up some of the gateways to that appreciation of diversity.

These two things go hand in hand. On the one hand we need to open up the possibilities of representation and, in the process, that must mean freeing people up to express what they want in the way that they want to. On the other, we must be alert to history and the political situation we all inhabit, and seek to undo certain self-perpetuating loops. The case of women’s writing is instructive: for centuries, the only stories generally considered worthwhile were those with male heroes. Women’s stories — stories about and by women, or which considered the domestic sphere — were perceived as uninteresting. Of course it turned out that they could be really interesting! You just needed to undo the persistent, self-perpetuating, institutional loop that restricted ideas of value.

 

Do you think you can achieve a level playing field of representation under capitalism?

Bringing capitalism into it is useful, because the logic of market-led capitalism says interest is just interest. People feel it or they don’t. “We don’t set the agenda,” say the publishers, “we don’t start by saying we only want to hear white men’s stories. We look at what’s selling and then we comission more of that. If we find another narrative we think is interesting then we’ll publish it.” But there’s a catch-22, and this catch is tied up with the pleasures of familiarity.

So essentially, no, I don’t think a “market-led” approach to representation will deliver a level playing field. But this is not a conspiracy claim. Rather it recognises a flaw in the logic that assumes the market is neutral. The assumption behind market neutrality comes down to individual readers. We like to imagine that we each wield a critical intelligence that equips us for an even-handed encounter with a vast range of texts. But just as the categories we use are not empty signifiers of things that are just there, interest is not just a marker of what is interesting. Our interest is produced by the stuff we consume. We may read out of a drive for difference, variety, innovation, but we also have a desire for familiarity. These drives are held in balance, but under certain conditions we are more likely to favour one over the other.

At the institutional level things can and do change. But equally interesting to me is the changing status — associated particularly with post-structuralist theory — of the status of the reader themself. We have become more self-aware of our own role in the constitution of meaning.

Understanding that we are both constitutive of and constituted by the meaning we derive from text requires us to accept an uncomfortable truth: there is no position of truth outside of language that we seek to one day to step into, with absolute freedom to see things as they really are. Our problem is: how do we absorb ourselves into the fictional world and get something out of it, and at the same time maintain sufficient critical distance to think about the devices the narratives are using, their little rhetorical mechanisms to hook us in and make us feel committed to the outcomes for one character, and our readiness to dismiss as completely appalling and villainous another? If we’re relying on narrative as a kind of counsellor, we’re already in deep shit. One attraction of fiction is finding pattern in a life which, for many of us, is experienced as inchoate and random and chaotic. Is narrative showing us the pattern that is already there, or fulfilling a forlorn wish for meaning that is simply not part of existence? I get why that’s appealing, but is it a good thing to do? Does the appeal of those patterns simply convince us to be inattentive readers of life itself?

 

Perhaps they fix things as they are and make the world as it is desirable?

That’s certainly one possibility. But do self-reflexive novels disrupt that tendency? Not necessarily. One fairly well known postmodern novel, A. S. Byatt’s Possession, played very cannily on the idea that we can be self-aware but still desire the romantic outcome; we still read that novel for the happy resolution of the romance plot. There’s a recognition that we are, “homo fabulans,” narrative beings. Narratives don’t just represent our desires, they constitute our desire, they formulate it in a simple structural form.

But I still want to insist that narrative does have this utopian potential, and it’s when narrative is allowed to be most surprising, discordant, and disruptive to our sense of how it and the world ought to be that this potential is greatest. If we reduce the scope of narrative according to unduly safe, pious representational proprieties, we reduce its capacity to surprise and to change us. If we restrict writers to the way of life they’re authenticated to speak about through experience, where’s the capacity for surprise? I’m quite happy reading novels that are appalling and make use of stereotype because I can see what I’m looking at — I’m looking at the appalling use of stereotype. I can get my thinking going about what I understand stereotype to be, and why I think it persists. Those also seem to be important thoughts to me.

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