Wednesday, May 13, 2009



The Poetry of Information

In article about their creative writing program (Valley News, July 23, 1998) students in Iowa (America's oldest and most prestigious academic writers' workshop) remember well Jane Dystel, a literary agent based in New York City, who was brave enough to had "hard-edged, almost cynical" discussion with them stressing that "non-fiction sells better than fiction." For the majority of young writers, in Dystel's opinion, nonfiction offers a more direct (not to mention a more profitable) way of connecting with readers and publishers than fiction.

Does this pronouncement indicate that fiction is dead, or that, in a world absorbed with here-and-now issues, people no longer have time for works of the imagination? If so, who is to blame, and for what?

What is a non-fiction, and why has it become so popular? Non-fiction didn't just appear overnight. Even that most fundamental text of Western culture, the Bible, is still revered by many as a literal biography of God, and thus may be seen, in its original conception anyway, as the first work of "non-fiction." Perhaps the question we should ask is: Why do people need stories fulfilled by real facts? Is it possible that humans have always possessed a biological need for information, a need for which our "information age" serves as a kind of hothouse? If such an idea seems simplistic, it may nevertheless be worth investigating whether biology (when philosophy is silent in this matter) can account for the failure of fiction to hold our interest in today's world.

Myths, legends and fairy tales are the basis of our culture's intellectual heritage, and the origin of our imaginative literature. Long before moveable type was heard of, parents told their children stories to make them sleep better, but also to install in the software of their tender minds basic "data" about good and evil. By repeating the old stories from one generation to the next, down through the ages our foreparents installed the archetypal "icons" on the "desktop" of our minds. Our genetic heritage provides us with basic software, but specific "applications" such as moral and aesthetic values may be "accessed" only during childhood and especially so called "insealing period". This sense of values originally came to us through stories.

Even as adults, we need fairy tales to revamp our mental software. In response to our rapidly accelerating need for information, these ancient stories are nowadays put more and more to the task of making sense of our hi-tech, high-stress, hyperpoliticized modern milieu. As an outgrowth of proliferating scientific knowledge, science-fiction first appeared as a rapidly emerging and growing literary form in the second half of 20-th century, but as a popular genre it endured only briefly, for most science fiction was ultimately perceived as fanciful excursions into imaginary landscapes, most often taking place in far-flung galaxies, with no "practical" application to "real life."

On the other hand, such fanciful epics as Steven Spielberg's movie, E.T., offered a novelty to our thinking about the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Before, we had only two options: 1. We are alone in space; 2. We are not alone, and moreover whoever else is out there is probably strange, hideous, and malevolent. Spielberg's message was that we are not alone, but that E.T.´s are just as good as toys for our kids. This kind of information is a great healing for all of us under permanent threat about violence and disasters rolling on us daily from a whole spectra of media.
The sci-fi movement gradually abandoned its "scientific" novelty in favor of components that are popularly recognized as "fantasy". This is likewise a dead end, but may serve as a point of departure for contemporary non-fiction, which tend to change a form too - for a creative non-fiction. We have noted that non-fiction is as old as the Bible, so why is it so popular now? Why does it attract us as readers as well as biological beings? The answer is information. Unlike species ruled by instinct, the human animal must constantly adapt to his environment by seeking information. Information was an essential part of our survival in the past, and remains as much a biological necessity as ever.

Why is information so essential? Literature is a forever incomplete self-portrait of humanity, an idea refined by each new generation of writers. Yet, despite the relentless activity of our publishing industry, and the fully-stocked "fiction"-sections at our bookstores and libraries, the reader's biological imperative to master his environment through information is seldom addressed in the context of "literature," as if our quest to learn from what we read expressed only an occasional wish for romantic escape, a frivolous journey among antennaed space aliens or Hyperborean heroes. But are not both the creators and consumers of literature biologically programmed to use what they know? How, after all, has humanity been able to dominate Nature, if not by its biological drive to acquire information? What has been our greatest advantage in the battle against larger predators, if not our ability to seek and preserve information, and to use it judiciously?

The Battle of Midway is a more recent, if perhaps unlikely example of what I mean by our biological imperative for information. In June 1942, the United States had nearly lost to the Japanese in the Pacific. But America had one formidable weapon -- its intelligence service. Through its Office of Special Services (OSS), the Americans learned precisely where, when, and how many Japanese units were likely to fight for possession of Midway Island. The U.S. Navy's victory at Midway marked a decisive turning point in the war with Japan.

First conclusion: Search for information is one of our basic evolutionary reflexes to events that could affect our lives. Now, this information is at a further and further distance from us (look at the Midway from the point of view of the U.S. mainland), and yet we are increasingly interested in reading about it and to having reliable facts about them at our fingertips. Our need for information is conditioned by a basic evolutionary reflex to assert control over our surroundings. We reflexively check everything new that comes our way in order to decide how to react to potential disturbances. Each individual instinctively reacts to any disturbance in one of two ways: fight or flight. In the past, this reflex enabled human beings to survive, and remains an indispensable part of our mental equipment. Language puts us in touch with our world, and makes us an inextricable part of it. From that time we are not only human beings, we are forever "human information beings".

(to be continued)

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