Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Credo quia autobiographicum

Imagine reading the following:
My assessment of the Exxon report has nothing to do with the accuracy of its accounts. Some news agencies have fact-checkers poring over every sentence, which would be to the point if the report were a scientific study, a genre that is judged by the degree to which the factual claims being made can be verified down to the last assertion. This, however, is an advertisement, and while advertisers certainly insist that they are telling the truth, the truth the genre promises is the truth about themselves — the kind of products they sell — and even when they are being mendacious or self-serving, they are, necessarily, fleshing out that truth. [...] Advertisers cannot lie because anything they say will truthfully serve their project, which, again, is not to portray the facts, but to portray their product.


Do I believe any of this? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that Exxon does, and that its readers feel they are hearing an authentic voice. I find the voice undeniably authentic.
I should hope that any of us would find this assessment absurd. Whatever weight and importance we might give to the effectiveness of advertising, to the likelihood of its claims being accepted by the public, we would not then abdicate our role as critics simply because the advertisers say the "truth of their genre" is a weird, subjectivist self-truth. (It's highly doubtful that that's even what advertisers think -- they aren't interested in levels of ontological truth but in moving units by convincing people their [oftentimes shabby, useless] product is indispensable.)

Nevertheless, this is the stance Stanley Fish thinks we ought to take towards autobiography, and in particular Sarah Palin's Going Rogue. In the end, he finds Palin's "voice" "undeniably authentic," although he can't say how he would potentially distinguish between this authenticity and a shlock-ridden Hallmark commercial. It just strikes him as being so, presumably because it makes good use of a few autobiographical rhetorical tropes and "fulfills" its generic function. The acceptance of, and pleasure felt at, something merely because it does "its job" ought to strike us as strange: handguns and undersea plankton are effective machines, but I don't desire them. Perhaps Fish is just unquestionably accepting of generic autobiographies because he likes them: de gustibus non est disputandum. But why we should also feel this way is never explained.

Perhaps it's because doing so would require Fish to actually be critical and take a stab at what the content of Palin's vision is: "folk wisdom, regional pride, common sense, distrust of rhetoric, love of country, family, freedom, and the beauties of nature" are basically meaningless without further specification -- I "love my country," but presumably in a way very different from Sarah Palin (or at least from how she presents herself as loving it). Furthermore, do Sarah Palin's words, her beliefs, seem to match up with her actions? Who cares, says Fish: attempting to compare the Sarah Palin of reality with the Sarah Palin of her own lofty words would do violence to the sacred generic laws of autobiography. Never mind that the real purpose of the book may be to sell a pile of horse crap with a bow on it as a political package to dupes. No doubt Fish would tell us that "all" autobiographies aim at this -- who are we to say that Palin's autobiography is any more deceptive than, say, Barack Obama's? (Quick answer: they may both be, which is why we're continually so fucked as a nation.)

An interesting form of review, and a disgraceful one.