An Essay Featured In Belonging Again by O.G. Rose
The Trance of Believability
On the Mechanisms of Fiction and Society
Describing James Wood’s skepticism about “hysterical realism,” Lee Konstantinou writes that ‘ “hysterical realism” fails for Wood because its too rapid accretion of interesting detail breaks the trance of believability.’¹ “The trance of believability” is a beautiful and eloquent phrase that I think is helpful for understanding numerous issues today that are critical for us to grasp. Though primarily a literary consideration, I believe our approach to books can relate to our approach to society at large, and this way, literary considerations can also be sociological.
If we don’t believe in the courts, they have no power to enforce their decrees. If we don’t believe we can trust the media, then the media will have no power to influence us. If we don’t think our government is just, then we’ll ignore it when it preaches fairness. If God ceases to feel “given” to us, it’s hard to live like God is real without thinking about if God is real, slowing down our practice. In other words, “the trance of believability” has a role to play not simply regarding books but regarding many of society’s most important facets. What can break the trance is what Habermas called the “legitimation crisis” and the collapse of “givens.” When it no longer feels “given” that Capitalism and democracy are the best socioeconomic combination for the world, then “the trance of believability” is broken, and people begin questioning if the “narrative” works, for they no longer feel like they are “in it” (though perhaps for the better).²
If at the end of the story aliens show up without warning, if a plot tension is resolved deus ex machina — if action is “poured in from the top,” as Dr. William Wilson would say — then “the trance of believability” is broken and the story fails. Likewise, if suddenly there’s a 2008 Financial Crisis, if the invasion of Iraq fails to arrange a functioning democracy, if extreme candidates begin succeeding in national elections around the world, then suddenly the “legitimacy” of Western society is thrown into question, and for good and for bad, “the trance of belief in society” is broken.
If tomorrow aliens were to unveil themselves to the people of planet Earth, then suddenly everything we think and believe would be thrown into question, and then like Don and George in To Turn the World, we would have to learn to live with the resulting existential uncertainty. Our worldviews would lose their solidness and start to “melt” (to allude to Marx): the ability of anything to put us in some “trance of believability” would be lessened. Though not as extreme as an alien invasion, events like Brexit, Trump, the rise of China, and the like cause a similar “melting” and destabilizing of our worldviews, which causes an existential anxiety which can make totalitarianism appealing (as expanded on in “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose).
Societies and stories are similar in how they work and fail. Like a story, a society that fails to maintain in its people “a trance of believability,” of legitimacy, is a society in decline. We must believe in our societies if we are going to work to keep them, as we must believe in a story if we are to be changed by it. Yet, at the same time, people in a trance are people at risk of not critically thinking, and where critical thinking is lacking, all kinds of problems can arise (as discussed throughout the works of O.G. Rose). Stories that work are ones that maintain their believability in the act of reading them, though afterwards we might then examine the texts critically. Societies are different though in that they (hopefully) don’t have an ending, so when should we determine it proper to “step out” of society and be critical about it (so that moral atrocities don’t occur, so that we aren’t susceptible to “black swans,” etc.)? Won’t any “stepping out” risk the legitimacy and believability of the society?
Traditionally, colleges are the space in which people can “step out” of society and be critical about it, and if this criticism is constructive as opposed to purely deconstructive, colleges have a valuable role to play (even if they must necessarily exist in a tension with “normal” society — the tension is good and dialectical). Unfortunately, today colleges themselves have lost legitimacy and the people’s trust, making many people in society unwilling to listen to the valuable criticisms that can come from universities, as colleges have become unwilling to take seriously the valuable criticisms that can come from outside the universities. The dialectic is breaking down, making what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” more likely on both sides (because though “the trance of believability” is important, if it’s absolute and never questioned at all, it can become dangerous). That said, another way we can maintain a “trance of believability” without it becoming a liability is to maintain “radical openness” and to avoid the temptation of realism, but that must be discussed later on.
When social legitimacy and believability collapse, people are at risk of falling into what Kierkegaard called “infinite absolute negativity,” a term Kierkegaard lifted from Hegel. If I understand Kierkegaard correctly, I associate the IAN with “eternal regression” and the idea that irony can always ironize irony, ironize ironizing irony, etc., as cynicism can be cynical about cynicism, cynical about cynical cynicism, etc., as anti-politicians can be against anti-politicians, against anti-politicians who are against anti-politicians, etc. and so on. Like Nietzsche’s concern that we had ‘unchained the earth from its sun,’ Kierkegaard warns that if irony is “unchained” from constructivism criticism and becomes nihilistic and deconstructive, there is no stopping it. Likewise, if deconstruction is “unchained” from the “affirmation” Derrida stressed he wanted deconstruction to ultimately be “toward,” then deconstruction will deconstruct any and everything, leaving nothing except a hovering force that will deconstruct whatever new tries to emerge (a perverse Genesis 1:2 comes to mind).
Irony, deconstruction, criticism, politics, religion, etc. — seemingly everything must always be “toward” something positive if it is to avoid “eternal regression.” In other words, everything must be “for” something, not just “against” things. We cannot just define life in negative terms, and we cannot define ourselves just in terms of what “we are not,” even though this is much easier than saying “what we are” (for then we have to be exclusive, for one, which risks upsetting people, not capturing our full self, etc.). Kierkegaard saw irony, comedy, and the like as being tools that could be used to infinitely and absolutely negate us, and warned that these tools must always be used for the sake of questioning values for the sake of establishing better ones, not to just do away with them. Irony that could not present better alternatives — or that was not obligated to do so — was dangerous.
David Foster Wallace was an example of an artist who understand the profound dangers of irony, postmodernism, metafiction, and self-reference, and thus came to fight for a “new sincerity” — to bravely stand for something and be at risk of standing for something wrong. Writers like John Barth came to be seen as dangerous to Wallace, and I believe for good reason: a smiling nihilist is someone who starts the world down a path of eternal regression, a path that descends forever while becoming increasingly difficult to backtrack. What happens on this path is de-legitimation, the rise of Trump, the collapse of social cohesion, and eventually, to allude to James Davison Hunter, “the shooting begins.”
Like colleges, irony, cynicism, etc. are in the business of questioning “givens,” institutions, and the like, and are necessary and valuable to keep us from falling into “thoughtlessness” and “the banality of evil.” However, for Wallace and Kierkegaard, there is a big difference between “constructive irony” and “deconstructive irony,” “constructive criticism” from “deconstructive criticism,” etc., and if society gave into the temptation to do what was easy and less risky and engaged only in “deconstructive irony, criticism, humor, etc.,” then society would inevitably suffer “infinite absolute negation.” Once the “trance of believability” was broken, once “givens” were destabilized and legitimacy lost, there would be no gaining them back, and thus nothing to keep us from falling into the hole that would suddenly appear beneath our feet when we finished sawing apart the boards under us.
On a closing note, please do not mistake me as saying the deconstruction, criticism, irony, and metafiction should always be avoided and that they never have useful roles to play. All of these can entail positive and necessary forms: metafiction can be used to enhance story versus replace it; critique can be used to find and correct faults versus be purely deconstructive (distinctions should be drawn between Hume’s skepticism and general deconstruction, as attempted in “Deconstruction Common Life” by O.G. Rose); irony can be used not just to mock sincerity but to highlight the nature of reality so that we can learn to live better in the world; and so on. Irony, metafiction, etc. are necessary for purifying, critiquing power, and helping elevate art, but negative practices must ultimately feel a responsibility to affirm. Destruction must always enhance, for it is innately dangerous, and if it is not used with reverential fear, it will likely become a Pandora’s Box. At the same time, the only way to find hope is by digging to the bottom of the box.
Givens and legitimacy can oppress minorities, but is this a necessary evil to avoid social fall into “infinite absolute negation” (and how easy is it for the majority to say it is)? I think there is an alternative — “openness” — one we can learn from reading books, though admittedly it might be idealistic to believe the majority will ever put this alternative into practice. Furthermore, the alternative requires understanding something strange: realism isn’t realistic; realism always reflects a fragment of a whole.
When reading a book, we often determine its believability relative to how realistic we think it is: if we think, in the real world, Southerners don’t sit around discussing Kant, then a book that consists of Southern characters doing just that is a book we’d likely argue isn’t believable. We tend to conflate “believability” with “realistic,” and though these terms are similar, since humans cannot know everything, it’s actually not possible for humans to know what totally constitutes reality, and thus they end up defining believability relative to what they think is believable and real. And if how we read influences how we live (as I would argue it does), this risks discrimination, bigotry, oppression, and the like.
No one has met every Southerner, and thus no one knows absolutely that there doesn’t exist a group of Southerners who enjoy discussing philosophy in their Georgian accents. No one has met every teenager in Virginia, and so no one knows there doesn’t exist a brilliant girl on a farm somewhere who’s writing the next Ulysses. Certainly, perhaps we can have a sense that generally speaking, young teens don’t know astrophysics, that Mexicans don’t celebrate Swedish holidays, that men fail to understand what women go through, and so on, but that is very different from saying that individuals who stand in contrast to these generalities aren’t realistic or cannot exist. In fact, to decide who we can believe in and who we can’t based on our understanding of generalities would be closed-minded and even bigoted.
Peter Berger in A Far Glory makes a fair point though for why we aren’t completely misguided to “generally speak” about certain groups of people; on guessing the nature of a random person hiding, Berger writes:
‘Remove the screen, and what comes out may be a deconstructionist from Harvard who is a / fierce Evangelical and a fervent Republican who drives a used Cadillac from one pro-life rally to another. As a sociological I cannot say that such a figure is impossible; I can say that this is unlikely […] And, once again, a different set of probabilities would apply to an individual whose occupation and income place him or her in the working class.’³
Race, gender, location, and the like all tend to correlate with certain worldviews, interactions with culture, and so on — to assume x of y person because y falls under category z is generally a fair strategy. However, modernity today ‘is a gigantic movement from fate to choice in the human condition,’ and we pride ourselves today in being open to diversity and celebrating it.⁴ But in my view, our critiques of “realism” and “believability” can conceal a prideful closemindedness.
Similarly, in daily life, if I don’t think it’s realistic that people can function off four hours of sleep, when my husband tells me that he’s fine after only sleeping that long, I probably won’t believe him (and thus put him in a dangerous situation where he has to regain my trust, as discussed in “On Trust” by O.G. Rose). If I don’t think it’s realistic that people could make a career out of the arts, then I won’t believe in my son when he tells me that he’s going to make it as a painter. If I don’t think it’s realistic for a woman to lead a company, I won’t believe my friend will succeed when she begins to climb the corporate ladder. Hence, what I believe is realistic informs what I think is believable. Ultimately and ironically though, it’s not possible for my realism to actually be realistic, seeing as I am finite and can’t ultimately know much at all.
Reality isn’t my understanding of it, even though my understanding might be to some degree accurate. Hence, what I understand to be “realistic” cannot be equivalent to the world: reality is never realism. No, it is not possible for me to function without a “theory” about what constitutes reality and realism, as it is not possible for me to function without confidence (even if certainty is mostly impossible, as discussed in “On Certainty” by O.G. Rose). Yet the fact that my realism never encompasses all of reality means I should always be ready to have my idea of what constitutes reality shifted and reshaped relative to new phenomena and encounters. I should always be humble, and yet how we learn to read books and experience art often teaches me to be the exact opposite, a habit-forming tendency that can have real life consequences.
We generally know that trying to fit people into boxes based on what we think is realistic and believable about them is socially unjust, but we tend to do just that without a second thought when it comes to books and art in general. We are quick to claim a character isn’t realistic, or that something isn’t believable, when in the real world this would be deeply offensive. Granted, there is a reality (even if we can never be sure that we know it accurately), and so likewise there are indeed valid rules of art and character development that make some creative work and moves poor in comparison to others. If a character is kind three-quarters of the book through and suddenly is cruel without reason or explanation, though possible, this would be a poor direction for the novel to follow. Likewise, if aliens were to appear in a fantasy book, if in a historical novel Abraham Lincoln was hyper-energetic and bubbly, etc., these would constitute errors and deserve criticism. However, if characters were introduced that liked rap music yet lived on a farm, were Mexican but voted Republican, never graduated from high school yet read Kant, and so on, we shouldn’t be so quick to decide these kinds of people aren’t “realistic” (as if they can’t exist). Doing so may say more about us than the talents of the writer.
In art, we can train ourselves to think in ways that in life would be unacceptable, and ultimately when we are adamant about realism and believability, we may just be expressing our own judgmentalism and lack of “openness” more than making a valid criticism of the work. Indeed, as David Foster Wallace noted, ‘it’s very hard to talk about people’s relationship with any kind of God, in any book later than like Dostoyevsky […] Plausibly realistic characters don’t sit around talking about this stuff.’⁵ There’s truth to what Wallace is saying — certainly fewer people may do it compared to the past — but sitting around talking about God and philosophy is pretty much all me and my friends do whenever we get together. Perhaps that makes us unrealistic people, but at least we prove that people like us aren’t impossible. Would a story about people like us be unacceptable? Given the regime of “believability,” it would seem so, suggesting that modern literature, in the name of realism, might be missing something that happens in the real world. Are we better for this? Perhaps.
It strikes me that we feel free to say things about characters in art that we would never dream of saying about real people, statements we perhaps let slip by because fictional characters aren’t real (though do note there was a time when blacks weren’t considered “real people”). Without blinking, we’ll call a woman who likes working as a plumber “implausible” while simultaneously demanding more gender diversity in the construction industry. Perhaps this example no longer stands, but the overall point remains: realism is often just a reflection of our age, preferences, and subjective principles (which doesn’t mean they are automatically wrong, but it does mean we should be self-skeptical).⁶ Ultimately, what we call “realism” can be more an expression of our subjectivity (which hides itself in the act), which though perhaps correct sometimes, risks priming us to think and judge in problematic ways. How we are “toward” art may in fact contribute to how we are “toward” others and the world in general, and if we thoughtlessly discriminate toward fictional people, so habituated, we may be more likely to thoughtlessly discriminate toward real ones.
Our passion for diversity seems yet to translate into our methods of interpretation. Only God knows what is real, and so we should be humble about our understanding of reality and believability. As we should be “radically open” to others (though that doesn’t mean we have to abandon our principles), so we should be “radically open” to art. This isn’t to say we should suffer bad art, as I’m not suggesting that we should be accepting of murderers; rather, what I’m saying is that if our wife says she wants to cut the grass, we shouldn’t assume that since it’s not believable that a woman would want to do that, we conclude that she’s just saying that to make us happy, and thus out of kindness, tell her no. Rather, I’m suggesting that if we encounter Southern teens talking about Deleuze, rather than put down the book because it’s unrealistic, we should wait to see if the story starts falling apart.
We should critique according to principles of art versus principles of believable, though it will take other papers to expand on what constitutes those principles (though I submit to you that there are hundreds of books on “how to write a short story,” some better than others, with the work of Robert Olen Butler as my personal favorite). The same can be said about relationships, politics — just about anything — though perhaps it’s harder to judge things according to appropriate principles, because then we have to learn those principles (like an expert), while all of us have “a sense of believability” just by being alive. But realism isn’t often humble, and it threatens relationships, politics, works of art — perhaps everything. “Being realistic” is never the same as “being real,” seeing as none of us are God, and thus strikes me as a useless category that should be deconstructed and replaced with “openness.” If realism is removed, then I think it is easier to fall into and stay in “the trance of believability,” without which existential anxiety is more likely, relationships can feel forced, art can be more difficult to enjoy, and so on. Yes, “the trance of believability” without critical thinking can be problematic, but though critical thinking has a role to play, realism does not strike me as adding much value: it is more likely to confuse and hinder productivity.
Though “realistic” and “believability” tend to follow one another and are often used interchangeably, the terms aren’t similes. Where realism is absent, believability isn’t gone but rather freer. No one lives without believing anything at all, and if realism was removed in us, our standard for determining believability would be more based on what we encounter in reality, as opposed to what we think is out there in the real world. What we considered believable would be grounded on experience and humility, while when based on realism, our beliefs are based on ideas and judgment.⁷ Fiction is fiction; realistic fiction, most of all.
Realism removes receivability, and where realism is removed, people are more willing to receive reality for what it is as opposed to what people think about it. Granted, none of us can go through life without some idea of reality (and thus realism), but if we hold our realism with an open hand, we will keep what we need to function without risking it becoming a threatening and oppressive force to others. We do this by actively defaulting to reality over our ideas about it, by directing our criticism toward our realism versus anything and anyone who doesn’t align with it. It’s not possible to be utterly without realism, but if we are consciously skeptical of it (but not cynical, as Hume warns we must be careful about), we are more likely to receive reality and believe in it.
Reading is life; life, reading: how we “take things in” in one area of our life tends to inform all the others. Good reading requires a “radical openness,” a willingness to receive whatever a text presents us with, given that the text maintains its own internal consistency and follows its own rules. Likewise, as especially important in Pluralism, living well requires “radical openness” to others, given that human rights, sacred principles, and the like aren’t violated. Granted, it’s not always easy to tell when a work of art violates its own internal consistency, as it’s not always easy to tell when human rights are at stake in the space between different “first principles” and worldviews, but if we at least understand that — like “normality,” following Foucault — “realism” can be problematic if not tyrannical (for we must always ask, “Whose realism?”), we will be better equipped to discern well.
Realism can be a self-defense mechanism against the insecurity that forms before the unknowability of reality, and if it indirectly teaches us to exercise mental muscles that contribute to discrimination, then there is even a moral impulse to resist it.⁸ Realism can help us have psychological and existential stability, but the cost can be grave. Furthermore, as peace isn’t merely the absence of war, security isn’t merely the absence of anxiety; rather, it is the capacity to stand confidently before what is difficult, terrifying, and anxiety-producing. Though when we are protecting ourselves with realism we can look like we are secure, in truth, we are not: our security is dependent on our environment — contingent, weak. Furthermore, an indirect desire to delete anxiety as opposed to face it can ultimately create anxiety when the effort proves fruitless, for ultimately, in reality being unknowable, anxiety is undeletable and its possibility will always be with us. Realism is a weak and doomed response that is ironically unrealistic, and it has no place either in reading or life. We should choose openness instead: we should hold our hands outward, palms upward, and open our fingers. We should let our world balance in our palm.
In closing, this leaves us with a hanging problem: we need “the trance of believability” to avoid Kierkegaard’s “infinite absolute negativity” (which is basically a deconstructive ‘eternal regression’ of everything we know and love through irony, cynicism, doubt, etc.), but “the trance of believability” can risk “the banality of evil” (which can entail “thoughtless evil” and the “discrimination of realism”). To stop the IAN, we need to be able to posit “affirmative values, ideas, etc.” that feel like “something more” than an expression of individual preference, which means we need “values, ideas, etc. that feel authoritative,” but where there is authority, there is the risk of authoritarianism. How in the world then do we strike a balance? This is basically the question that haunts “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose: how do we find a balance between “givens” and “releases,” “thoughtlessness” and “freedom?” Well, this is a massive question, and gets us into the topic of “Open Objectivity,” which will have to wait until “Beauty Saves” to expand on.
Inspiration from The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, Edited by Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou.
¹Allusion to James Wood, as found in “No Bull: David Foster Wallace and Postironic Belief” by Lee Konstantinou. The Legacy of David Foster Wallace. Ed. Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou. Iowa City, IA. University of Iowa Press, 2012: 87.
²Paradoxically, as discussed in “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose, where there are “givens” and such a trance, people can become existentially stable precisely because they can be “thoughtless,” but this is the state in which people are at risk of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.”
³Berger, Peter. A Far Glory. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1992: 11–12.
⁴Berger, Peter. A Far Glory. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1992: 89.
⁵Lipsky, David. Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. New York. Broadway Books, 2010: 82.
⁶Would a book written today about Russians in 1890 who sat around talking about God be “realistic?”
⁷Considering “Self-Delusion, the Toward-ness of Evidence, and the Paradox of Judgment” by O.G. Rose, realism is judgmental while its absence makes room for assessment.
⁸Similarly, “liking” helps us feel secure when faced with the world: by breaking the world down into things I like and things I don’t, I can bracket out a huge number of phenomena and save myself the trouble of having to worry about them, creating more of a sense of stability. Like “realism,” “liking” runs the risk of closing us off from the world: what I don’t like, I fail to be “open to,” for it fails to meet my standard required for me to do just that. And like “realism,” it’s better for me to do away entirely with the category of “liking,” precisely so that I’m “open” to the world. Paradoxically, when I do so, I’ll find myself liking the world itself more as opposed to my preferences of it.