Joanna Kavenna and Peter Pomerantsev discuss freedom of speech, the prescience of Borges and the ironies of big data.
When we met recently, Peter, for a BBC programme about Orwell’s 1984, we were asked for a contemporary version of the Orwellian line about the future as a jackboot stamping on the human face forever. I was very struck by your answer – the jackboot being flogged to the poor human afterwards online – horror merged with absurdism, and general doom converted into elite profit. This brought me to something that concerns me greatly – and you write about it so well in This is Not Propaganda – how we’ve moved from Cold War to information war. Shoshana Zuboff calls this instrumentarianism: a vast system in which information about everyone is gathered, constantly, as we all move around online and then – once we are fathomed and supposedly known – we are nudged, urged and coaxed towards certain buying preferences, voting preferences, perceptions of reality. This leads us to old philosophical questions about free will and determinism – how do we have any real knowledge or freedom when we move in this falsified environment? – when governments and corporations are fervently engaged in behavioural modification, when information is so often impossible to distinguish from disinformation? Who can we trust?
That’s a great question about trust – it’s very topical. We see this dip in trust to institutions, media and so on. I suppose the simple answer is that we trust those we do things with in a common project. Like in those awful team and trust-building corporate weekends where they make people do dreadful games and challenges together, so they learn to trust each other in critical situations. I think for the media to be trusted again it has to prove itself useful. It’s not enough to say you are the fourth estate, you have to prove you make a difference. It’s no accident people trust doctors and firemen the most.
I recognise what you are saying about free will, and describe the attempts of various spin doctors to claim they have power over it in my book. I get how this might work in theory, but I also see a more immediate risk in this line of argument. The claim that we are entirely manipulated by online algorithms is a way of avoiding responsibility, an excuse to deny our own free will. Take Syria – or to be specific, the agony of those who provided masses of evidence of horrific war crimes, only for the public here to claim they didn’t know what was going on because some Russian bots muddied the water. Aren’t people desperate to get rid of free will and the responsibility that comes with it? In the USSR everyone knew a lot more about Soviet crimes than they were willing to admit, and chose to shut their eyes. Later, they claimed they were just conned by propaganda.
What social media manipulation does undermine is the dynamic between the idea of freedom of speech and manipulation. In the twentieth century we had this notion that the more ‘the tongue was set free’ the greater the resistance to power, whose aim was always to censor. Now, social media encourages us to express ourselves as much as we want, everyone has their own social-media megaphone, but our words and behaviour are then used to target us with propaganda. So the more you speak, the easier power can envelop you. The propaganda might be relatively lame for now, but the very logic undermines my trust in a whole set of assumptions and stories (maybe myths) about the battle of freedom versus censorship, and self-expression versus authoritarianism. What does that resistance mean? Isn’t that what you try to explore in your book? What was your answer?
Yes, I agree about the dangers of lassitude, the feeling that everything is so fake that we lose impetus, stop trusting anyone, including even ourselves – and you write well in your book about this fear that ‘I’m not who I think I am – one’s complete dissipation into data that is now being manipulated by someone else.’ I was also very interested in what you wrote about your father, how in Soviet Russia it was hugely subversive for him to represent a subjective vantage point at all. Now, as you say, we’re positively encouraged to ‘express ourselves’ and the confessional mode is a global cyber-norm. Our deepest confessions are channelled into the big data churn and monetised. This changes their meaning, and I was struck by something Christopher Wylie said about how Cambridge Analytica created ‘psychological profiles’ of 230 million Americans, then wanted to work with the Pentagon: ‘like Nixon on steroids . . .’
I think this is a question of knowledge as power, that old but endlessly relevant phrase. There’s a story by Borges called ‘The Aleph’ – in which the narrator finds the Aleph in his friend’s basement: a ‘small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance’. When he gazes into it, he sees and knows absolutely everything – he becomes omniscient. At first he’s intrigued, but then he gets depressed because he realises nothing will ever surprise him again. Our global tech companies and associated governments have reached an Aleph point of knowledge and influence – an algorithmic Aleph. This knowledge is used to generate massive profits for a small elite, to control populations in tech-totalitarian countries such as China, to watch and influence voters in ostensible democracies, i.e. the US. But there’s a mismatch: algorithms are mathematical and humans aren’t. Pythagoras knew this, so his perfect numbers are divine, celestial – and opposed to earthly, mortal chaos. You ask about my novel Zed and that’s really what I was writing about in it: this mismatch, and the tensions that emerge as a result, and how tech utopians seek a kind of algorithmic heaven-on-earth, which is impossible. And how this converts humans into anomalies in a perfect system – but a mythical Pythagorean system, which can’t fully exist in the world. So we are real in an unreal reality, which we’re told is really real and that we’re actually unreal. Like Platonism gone digital . . . It’s all very weird and I also had a ‘what if?’ in mind – what if one day all of our rich, quotidian unknowing seeps across this unreal reality and becomes the thing it predicts and summons – the anomalies take over and everything is reversed entirely.
I often think of what happened when the Berlin wall came down and Stasi spies were trying to destroy the evidence of their mass surveillance programme. In January 1990, demonstrators took over the MfS building in Berlin-Lichtenberg, securing the records. These people had been watched, known and tyrannised for years – and suddenly they seized control of this knowledge. These reversals are very important – and this returns us to what you say about trust – it’s also important to retain our faith in the radical and revolutionary potential of knowledge, but it has to be trusted knowledge, not fake ‘alternative facts’. I think this moves us into debates about freedom of speech as well – we need to know that people are being honest with us in order to know them fully, to forge a conversation with them. Yet we also have the associated problems of proven liars masquerading as ‘straight-talkers’ and all that fakery, and also as you write there are the cyber-trolls citing freedom of speech while disrupting elections with calculated lies. What’s your view on this?
I was just in Georgia, at a conference about journalism and storytelling, taking part in a panel on the future of protests . . . and as fate would have it I landed in the middle of the biggest protests Georgia has had since the current government came to power. ‘We spend five years trying to get people to come out on the streets, now one Russian guy puts his arse down on a chair and we have thousands out,’ an opposition activist told me. The ‘Russian guy’ was a Communist-Orthodox Russian politician who had controversially been invited by the small pro-Russian parties, and when he sat down in the chair of the Speaker of Parliament it caused outrage (Russia occupies a fifth of Georgia, and is yet to relinquish its imperial harassment of the South Caucuses).
Everyone in Tbilisi was very excited about the protests, which have already won important gains: the Speaker of Parliament resigned; the electoral system will move to proportional representation. But the protesters also struggled to articulate a greater narrative about their aims. This was a contrasted to the protests at the end of the Soviet Union and then in the Colour Revolutions in the early 2000s, where there was a bigger story about rights and freedoms – a geopolitical story too. Fighting for freedom of speech was a big part of that. But over the last two decades we’ve seen that story collapse, those values co-opted and rendered empty. Freedom of speech, for example, has been hacked as an idea: it’s now used by the far-right to justify harassment of minorities; by regimes who employ cyber-militas to hound opposition, or as a tool of information war. We now see censorship enacted not through stifling information, but through flooding people with so much information the truth gets lost. For those still fighting for ‘democratic’ ideals it’s complicated how to respond. Is one meant to call for ‘censorship’, after decades spent fighting against censorship? My book covers the collapse of the sustaining stories of democracy, and the disappearance of the future glimpsed after 1989. But my instinct is to turn back to my parents, who were Soviet dissidents, in order to find a time when the struggle for rights and freedoms still meant something. In a politics where there is no future, and where Putin/Trump/Farage pump out bullshit-nostalgia, I want to find something real in the past in order to have a way to address the future. You’ve done the opposite, turned towards the future . . . how did you end up making this decision? What did you want to achieve?
It’s interesting that you raise Borges. I think we all end up thinking through him, as he anticipated so many of our dilemmas about the internet, knowledge, identity, replicability, libraries. One of the tools we use at work to analyse what’s going on inside social media is called ‘Crimson Hexagon’, which is a term taken from Borges’ room in the infinite library that opens up all the other libraries. So the tech entrepreneurs who created this tool align themselves with Borges too! I wrote a long Guardian essay about Russian information war, based on his story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’: in the essay I discover a Russian army manual on information war, and it starts creating apparitions of information war everywhere I look, and I get swallowed up within them. I sat down and reread a bunch of Borges when I began to write This is Not Propaganda. For me this was again about reaching back to a past and looking at it afresh for the future. I feel we need to reorder the canon of the twentieth century so it can help us with the present. And then Borges rises far above Joyce/Hemingway etc., or whoever else is the canon at the moment.
Ha, that’s so true about Borges and really I think about him all the time. Another of his stories that I often return to is ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ – which as you’ll know basically advances the idea of the most unreadable novel of all time. I guess we could all nominate candidates for this dubious accolade, but Borges imagines a novel that doesn’t merely describe a person’s life, from birth to death, but describes all the possible lives of that person. Each time the path forks, the character in Borges’s imaginary novel takes every possible path, and so sometimes in the novel he is alive and sometimes he is dead. These auto-magical tech companies and governments give us the impression the path is forking and we can choose where we go but this is an illusion because we are urged towards specific paths each time. Borges’s point is that if a person is free then the garden of forking paths is immeasurably vast, and the more freedom the individual has, the more unreadable and mad the novel of their life becomes. That leads to a further question: what kind of garden do we want, if we’re in the garden of forking paths? A vast wildness, full of twists and turns, paths we can take, paths we can reject, based on our own knowledge of the world? Or, a small, regimented garden, with very specific paths leading to – er – Starbucks? So yes Borges is always there already, that’s totally true, and it’s very interesting that you were swallowed up by information while thinking about ‘Tlon’. The end to your Guardian article is also Borgesian – as you wonder if the very piece you’re writing is also part of the Kremlin’s plan.
I agree as well about reordering the twentieth century canon – definitely! I grew up reading what we now call ‘Modernists’ – Robert Musil, Joyce, Hemingway as you mention, Woolf, Mansfield, John Dos Passos, H.D. etc. They all write about the technological advances of their era and how these transform consciousness and experience – the advent of flight, mass travel at great speeds, vast skyscrapers appearing in teeming cities, monumental crowds. I’ve always been fascinated by that movement, but of course in the last twenty years we’ve lived through the digital revolution, which has altered society and experience in new ways. It’s very recent – it was only in 2004 that Google launched Gmail, which changed all our previous notions about privacy in correspondence. In the same year Facebook was launched. Now we have Facebook’s cryptocurrency with its almost farcically self-parodying name – Libra. The whole thing is so knowing, and blithely subverts itself while achieving an amazing sort of omnipotence. This is an immense challenge for everyone – how to live in this new reality? The further challenge for plaintive little novelists in our age has similarities to the challenge the modernists were dealing with as well – how to write about this totally new reality? A reality, furthermore, that evolves in ways that seem beyond-satirical, beyond-fictional, all the time. But tell me – how would you answer your own question about reordering the canon? And who are the contemporary authors and artists, in your view, who have found a way to respond to the digital revolution?
I think writers have a further challenge too: which is bound up with these questions of fake news and freedom. You write about the troll farms citing freedom of speech in order to continue spewing out poison and influencing elections, and how this has – to use your phrase – ‘hacked freedom of speech’. This raises significant questions about how to regulate this evidently corrosive and deliberate interference in democratic elections, without destroying freedom of speech altogether. The trolls you describe create a ‘black mirror’ reality, where everything is sucked into a void of non-meaning, which presents itself as truth when in fact it’s the nightmarish opposite. So the whole thing is menacing, and very serious. Then there’s a question of what happens to narrative? Any form of narrative, in fact, but including deliberately ‘faked’ works of fiction. Do they get ‘hacked’ too? Yet of course Borges is right, that these wildly unreal fictions have a lot to say about overarching philosophical questions of freedom, knowledge and even reality, paradoxically enough.
I wonder what you think? The portrait you create of your father, writing his works of fiction, and the seriousness and danger of that enterprise, made me think of authors such as Chan Koonchung and the Russian absurdists. They all use the fictional nature of their work as a necessary defence – because what they’re doing is so very dangerous, as with your father – they’re satirising regimes which will potentially disappear and murder them. They can only write about the horrifying reality of their society while claiming their work is ‘mere’ fiction – as Chan Koonchung does in The Fat Years, when he pretends he’s writing sci-fi when really he’s writing about contemporary tech-totalitarianism in China. Or, as Daniil Kharms does in his supposed ‘fairytales for children’, which are brilliant parables of the insanity and absurdism of life under Stalin. The real absurdist is Stalin, and everything is inverted, and that’s the tragic irony of Kharms’s work.
This brings me to your question about going into the future rather than into the past. Why set a novel in the future, what’s the purpose? I think it’s partly to explore ‘what ifs?’ – to speculate about possible futures. What might happen if we continue along this path? The other way I thought of what I was doing was that it was all set in a parallel world, just a little removed from ours. Writing in a parallel world means you can define the rules, and take aspects of our own reality and exaggerate them a little. As Enrique Vila-Matas writes, we get used to the familiarity of our situation, our quotidian reality, and we stop noticing its strangeness, its outrageousness, because it’s the normality we wake to each morning. In fiction you can push at a supposedly permanent edifice, and exaggerate. It’s a bit like when you look into one of those bathroom mirrors that magnify everything enormously. Things look quite grotesque, but then you start seeing all sorts of things you don’t normally notice – you see the constituent parts that make up a face, rather than the ordinary composite view. This is what Gogol does in ‘The Overcoat’, or Kafka in The Trial, or Woolf in Orlando or Philip K. Dick in Ubik or Lem in Solaris – or as mentioned, the Russian Absurdists and Chan Koonchung as well. There’s a driving philosophical purpose to all their work: what is this reality? What on earth is this insane society we are encouraged to believe is sane? So I’m very interested in that tradition. And that’s one possible answer to your question about writers from the past who speak to our present – this tradition of weary, ironic absurdism, which exaggerates reality to the point where things seem unrealistic, but actually this is because the society itself is raving mad.
But tell me more about what you write here: ‘in a politics where there is no future, and where Putin/Trump/Farage pump out bullshit-nostalgia, I want to find something real in the past in order to have a way to address the future.’ That’s such an interesting point about the fake past, and how that evokes our friend Orwell once again – with his idea that if you control the present you control the past, and if you control the past you control the future. Is this their game do you think? Why do you think these appeals to an allegedly golden past are so politically effective? The bullshit nostalgia, as you put it so well, is also completely out of kilter with the bullshit futurism of many governments and aligned tech companies as well – what’s going on there, in your view?
Also – concerning your recent trip to Tbilisi – what is the future of protests, do you think, if the ideals of 1989 have been vanquished, as you say, and that possible future has disappeared? And if I asked you to create a ‘what if?’ then what path do you think we are going down, and how do you envisage the coming world?
So interesting you mention The Fat Years, which I was reading while in China, and feeling quite pseudo-daring as I scrolled through it on my Kindle in Beijing (where Jeremy and Hannah were, incidentally, my gastro-guides). It’s a novel about disappeared time – no one in the novel can remember a crucial month in Chinese history – but also about how time itself is disappearing. What I find so strange about digital is what it does with time. Content is immanent, whether old or new (Borges again). Facebook seems to squeeze, flatten and loop time in its feed. Compare it to newspapers, that appeared daily with the date at the top, then are thrown away and replaced with new ones, all part of an ordered time, and part, too, of a sense that history is going somewhere. That’s gone. You mentioned the protests this month, from Tbilisi to Hong Kong, but what strikes me about them is how they don’t seem to be part of a greater historical narrative, of a march towards democracy. They seem sporadic and niche, without claims to universality. Of course I don’t blame this all on technology: ‘Facebook destroyed time’. It’s been happening for a while, and I saw it emerging in Russia in the 1990s and early 2000s, pre-internet. There it came from the sense that all ideas for the future had crumpled: first Communism, then democratic reforms. I meet Russians in my new book who tell me the West caught up with this sense of the collapse of historical progress after the great crash of 2008, though one could also find many other moments. Social media both articulated that sense and then intensified it.
So my turn back to the past is a way to find a sense of progress again. What can I find in the struggles for democracy in the twentieth century that makes sense today? When ideas like ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘rights’ have been ‘hacked’? There are some ways, I think. The way we can’t see how algorithms shape our sense of reality, have no idea about how our data is used to manipulate us and by whom, is actually a form of censorship. There is a rights framework to use in the fight against online manipulation and disinformation. Not about taking down content, but in revealing the means and methods of how the information weather is created. At the moment we are like Caliban on Prospero’s magical digi-island – a situation you satirise so well in Zed. What worries me is that the discourse around regulation even in democracies frames the question in a censorious way, about the need to take down ‘harmful but legal content’ (that’s how the UK White Paper describes disinformation). This is firstly a somewhat authoritarian way to think about information, and secondly completely misses the point about the internet. It’s the amplification of content and the algorithmic architecture guiding behavior that matters, not content. We need, for starters, to make the internet transparent and interpretable: so people can see what material has been promoted, by whom and how, why algorithms feed you one thing and not another. It’s a first step, but once we have established that then we can at least empower people online, and start building a new public sphere.
But I’ve found other interesting things in the Soviet past that pertain not just to rights but to the idea of the self. Soviet artists lived in a world where the concept of the self was aggressively occupied by the state, where privacy was scarce. One way to oppose that was to rebel and revel in impressionistic first-person narratives, like my father did, celebrating what the Communists spat on as ‘bourgeois art’. But my father lost interest in that sort of writing when he got to the West. In conditions where the self was not under such immediate attack, impressionism didn’t feel vital. And since then we have social media that encourages self-expression, only to transmute our speech into data that is used to influence us. So impressionism and self-indulgence become downright cheap and self-damaging.
But there are other Soviet traditions which seem exciting to me today. The work of the Moscow Conceptualists looked for ways to find the self in a world of Soviet representation. I visited a Kabakov exhibition at the Tate just when I was drafting the book, and it inspired me hugely. I was really struck by the way he took different Soviet representations of Soviet identity, tore them apart, and seemed to be looking for the real person in the gaps. The art critic Boris Groys (if I recall this right) argues that Kabakov is actually a realist, though of course at first glance he is a post-modernist. He is looking for a way back to reality through the mass of manipulated representation. Could that be a mission for art and fiction today?
That’s absolutely right about time – the sense that everything is flattened online, and we lose a sense of the past being distant, because everything can be instantaneously accessed no matter when it was placed online. Also the whole ethereal/eternal thing changes our sense of time as well. When we’re online we feel incorporeal, and so our cyber-experience seems to be non-material and timeless – it’s quite Cartesian – but then it’s an illusion because hours have passed in ‘real time’ and we’ve been in a cyber-elsewhere . . . It doesn’t feel like time spent in the body, even though the body has been existing in time.
One more thing about The Fat Years – which I read very non-daringly in Hong Kong (where it isn’t banned, unlike in mainland China). There were brave people however coming over at the time from mainland China so they could buy and read physical copies of that novel, even take it home with them. Any interested authority in China can ascertain immediately if someone downloads a banned novel, yet if someone buys a hard copy using cash then this is harder to trace – until facial recognition comes in fully I guess. I was very moved by how eager people were to buy that book, by the significant risks they were taking in order to read it.
I agree entirely that so many of the attempts to solve the massive problem of faking and untruth in the West are themselves autocratic, and restrict people’s freedoms further. Being watched to the extent that is now usual is a form of being demonised, punished preemptively – it is like living in a tech-panopticon. Definitely – we need a rights framework, and to reverse the gaze, so we can know and watch the watchers, as it were. Also I think it’s important to counter the idea that this tech-panopticon is the inevitable outcome of our technology. Just because someone has the technology to build a building, they don’t have to build a panopticon . . .
I’m so glad as well you’ve mentioned the Kabakovs. Their use of fictional personae and alter egos is brilliant, and I love that piece ‘Not Everyone Will Be Taken into the Future’: ‘. . . only a few will be taken. Those whom the headmaster chooses – HE KNOWS WHOM –’ It encapsulates so much about authoritarian regimes, how they self-perpetuate, how they silence people now and later. Also again about reality – who gets to define it, and to decide what will be ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ as well, now and potentially forever. Also I like the Kabakov idea about private and public work, how under a tyrannous regime it’s vitally important to have a hidden self, an underground – authentic – self. This leads us back to ideas of privacy again, and the reality of authentic experience. You mention realism and I think that’s absolutely right – that each one of us is trying to find an authentic reality, our own unique version of reality. We are buffeted by general reality, ossified conventions, faked realities, pseudo-truths. The Kabakovs’ fragments or Gogol’s ironies are a form of resistance to this – they favour the fragile individual, who matters infinitely even though he or she is endlessly defeated. This might well mean that the mass surveillance project is ultimately doomed, like all enterprises of ideological utopianism. It’s doomed because it can’t encapsulate that beautiful, fragile individual, with their unique moment of existence on earth. And, despite everything, all the utopian schemes, the major question that we face is the old question of all that elliptical art, all those works of testimony and notes from underground: Whose reality? Who decides? Who is the judge?
This is why maybe your book is actually optimistic: though it’s dystopian it also shows how, however hard techies try, algorithms can’t capture all of a human essence. My favourite character is the Mark Zukerberg equivalent, the man who controls the world’s most powerful tech company, and who is constantly trying his own algorithms on himself in his desperation to find the perfect lay. And never quite does. So your book is full of examples of people escaping algorithms: through madness, murder, love and all other things that turn out unpredictable.
While I was writing my book I was thinking about how one writes someone’s portrait through their data. The way we describe people always reflects the dominant ways of knowing the self of the time: whether it’s looking for something in their childhood that is meant to have defined them, as so many films and books did in the high-point of Freudianism; or through the consumer goods they acquire as various critics of capitalism have done (Perec in Les Choses; Easton Ellis in American Psycho). Can one now draw someone’s portrait just through their data? How many times they touch their iPhone screen, how they scroll, the punctuation they use when texting, their searches, times and rhythms of posting, likes, shares and the rest. And if we did that, then maybe the ‘real’ person would emerge in the gaps in between. Yuri Lotman, the great Russian philologist, concluded at the end of his life that the real meaning of things happens in the gap between different words in different languages for the same thing. So the real ‘chair’ appears in the space when you take the word for chair in different languages and see what’s left . . .
Moreover, as far as I could ascertain, there is no one company that considers all our data at one time, it’s all little squiggles of different stuff sold to different companies by data brokers. No one is actually interested in YOU, the way totalitarian regimes were, they just care about one behavioural trait or another that is relevant in big data models to help sell you something. So not so much panopticon as being torn apart into little bits, the individual chopped up and scattered. And is ‘you’ the stuff that’s left over? What no data broker cares about?
Maye China is different with its social credit score, the attempts to rank someone through a composite of all their behaviour recorded online. That system seems to want to see the ‘whole’ individual. But then we are in the paradoxical situation that the only place where the individual still matters is within a regime that wants to restrict individual rights as much as possible . . . Is humanism only possible as the opposite of oppression? The Fat Years feels to me like a late Soviet, even a late Czechoslovak novel, with its tragi-playful riffs on humanity, rooted in treasuring truth and memory in the face of government-imposed amnesia. It’s a book with an obvious point of resistance, and a somewhat late Soviet one, what some critics call Ost-Modernism. Ai Weiwei too would fit right in with the Moscow Conceptualists of the 1970s. I’ve seen quotes from Chinese dissident writers who say that they read East European 1970s dissidents as their own literature, as they have no Chinese tradition to turn back to that helps to make sense of this sort of resistance.
But if the Eastern European dissidents are still relevant in China – are they here? Is 1989 still relevant? In my book I turn back to that period, to see what we can still glean from it. Anything?
I love what you write about gaps. Absolutely and completely. It’s the tragi-comic irony of our insane contemporary reality: that there is this torrent of information about everyone, and at one level it says almost nothing about anything that really matters. And reality is in the gaps. We aren’t binary – 0 or 1. We’re, if anything, like qubits, endlessly in a state of indeterminacy, in danger all the time of succumbing to decoherence. So the wild absurdity of everything – the infinite quantities of data that never quite portray anything real – is so ironic. I think the Internet of Things will pose further questions about that – because it will further blur the boundaries between real and virtual. But reality will still be in the gaps, because who/what can ever encompass the whole thing, the beauty and terror and chaos? And that’s like a digital version of the old Althusserian idea of interpellation and how we’re always hailed as something, ‘mother/father/young/old/man/woman’ etc. and how this never represents our full existence. It’s interesting how despite the crazy morass of allegedly personal data there is still a gap. And the Facebook version of the human soul is a cartoon caricature, compared with the deep, unknowable being of one finite mortal.
That’s another reason why your project of returning to the past is so resonant because this aspect of experience doesn’t alter at all – it just sometimes gets obscured and again ‘hacked’ – but there’s always that profound tension between the fathomless, fragmentary individual and the society that seeks to categorise and delimit them.
That makes me think about the power to reassemble, if the portrait is created even in this unreal sense. Yes, that’s right about fragments and as you say the Chinese government social credit scheme reassembles all these fragments, to score individuals for ‘trustworthiness’ – with the meaning of that word defined by the Chinese government. Selected categories of behaviour are identified as ‘bad’ and ‘good’ and there are particular penalties for spreading ‘false’ information (with wildly ideological terms used in pseudo-law to suggest something allegedly objective). The individual is ‘scored’ – and their movements are restricted accordingly, including the 23 million Chinese who by the end of 2018 had been denied flights and train tickets: ‘Once discredited, limited everywhere.’ So loaded, ideological terms such as ‘false’ being used to set numerical – and supposedly objective – parameters.
That turns us back to our world, where parameters are also set, despite our relative freedom compared with Chinese citizens. When you have infinite reams of stuff, and fragments of information about people, you can effectively combine that into any pattern, any whole, depending on how you set the parameters. It’s like when we look at the constellations and there are billions of them and we could create almost any pattern but then our society tells us there’s a big dipper. But it’s also a saucepan. And if you add a couple of stars and take off a couple, it could be a silhouette of my great aunt Jessie. So who sets the parameters for the pattern, if the fragments are combined? We now have Trump in front of an audience that is chanting ‘Send her back, Send her back’ – and there’s a question then of what a politician of his ilk does with a vast retrospective database of information, as well as all the further information being gathered in the present. How does he set the parameters, when he delimits and categorises people, what patterns do those parameters identify? Thinking about your point about the internet collapsing time, do autocratic leaders collapse time as well – reset the parameters and retrospectively indict people? When there’s an almost total ban on abortion in Alabama, for example, what happens to all the reams of information about and opportunities for surveillance of doctors who have, in the past, practised abortions legally, as well as doctors in the present who resist the ban?
This is deeply disturbing, but then as you write there are some causes for optimism. The Soviets you mention, and the Chinese writers like Chan Koonchung or yes artists like Ai Weiwei are all transfixed by that idea that there is something real beyond the fake surface of their society – life is elsewhere, to return to another writer from the past, Kundera. And now this is a vital absence in our data-slaw. Also – while we’re thinking about causes for optimism – you wrote at the very beginning of our exchange about establishing trust, and creating communities of writers that people trust to tell them something meaningful, not just to fake it. And there have been many people, by the way, who have mentioned your work to me and said, ‘His writing on Surkov and Putin totally changed the way I thought about Russia.’ So that’s important.
To return like a super-fan to Orwell, I often think about his description of writing from a ‘desire to push the world in a certain direction’, and how important that is, because otherwise you get pushed in a certain direction anyway. That takes us back to the Kabakovs again – why does the headmaster decide the future, and who the hell is he? So all the writers and artists we’ve been discussing are pushing back, resisting forceful ideological inducements which are presented – fraudulently – as objective truth. They are trying to advance the fleeting, subjective, fragmentary reality of the gaps. Their politics is one of radical uncertainty – against tyrannical certainty. Then again as Barthes said, it’s absurd, the aesthetics or politics of uncertainty are absurd in themselves. So that’s why everything becomes so ironic, on the other side of manipulative certainty. But that recurring struggle makes me tentatively optimistic, I guess.
Should we be edging towards a new type of non-fiction? My interest, like Groys’ Kabakov, is to find a way to describe reality. But how does one do non-fiction when we simultaneously struggle to agree on a shared reality, yet ‘reality’ is so easy to record in so many ways with new digital tools, from data collection to Instagram? Non-fiction writing is challenged by the iPhone the way photography challenged art.
Non-fiction’s last great breakthrough was the new journalism of the 1960s, where journalists started taking on the conventions of nineteenth-century novels and early modernist stream-of-consciousness and interior monologue. Ben Judah’s This is London is a good example of someone working in that mode today. And any number of non-fiction books that try to do the late nineteenth- /early twentieth-century novel in non-fiction.
But is it enough?
In order to scramble through to reality, does non-fiction need to enter its own post-modernist phase? Or rather Ost-Modernist, as our aim is, like the late Communist Eastern European novelists and the Moscow Conceptualists, to use fragments to tease out reality, not simply to say ‘reality doesn’t exist’. That attitude has long been co-opted by nasty politicians: if reality doesn’t exist, argue Putin-Berlusconi-Trump, then why does it matter if I lie, and what’s the ‘real ground’ from which you can argue back at me?
Our job has to be find a way back to the real ground.
What will this mean in practice?
A first step is to open up the position and craft of the narrator, show how we put together reality. Non-fiction writers (like documentary makers) spend a lot of effort taking bits and bobs of testimony and observation, and knitting that into a seamless whole. As if it was a smooth thing. Enough! Let’s show the fragmentary nature of the knowledge we have collected, put our own relationship with the protagonists in the middle of the material, declare our biases. I think the podcasters at This American Life are good at this. They point out how they chased interviews, how they missed an important question and then called the protagonist again. By creating that transparency of process, and showing the vulnerability and sketchiness of collecting reality, so much more reality emerges. Let the reader into your process, and trust can appear too – as I wrote at the start of our correspondence, trust appears when you welcome someone into collaboration. I don’t, by the way, mean we give up on storytelling. Just a more transparent process of getting to one. And of course the risk with this approach is narcissism – it could become about the narrator instead of the material. That would be terrible.
Secondly, collide genres. There is no one genre (memoir, first-person reportage, data crunching, academic analysis etc.) that represents reality. But by colliding different ones, reality will emerge in the friction between. I think that’s what you and I have talked about a lot re Kabakov and so on. And we can learn so much from those artists.
Of course what I’m doing now is somewhat self-promotion, as these are the things I tried in the book. But now I feel I wasn’t brave enough. I should have done more.
Photograph of Joanna Kavenna © Alexander Michaelis