Friday, September 11, 2015

Fact and Nuance 2

There's has been some good discussion in the comments to my last post, which I think is worth moving into a post of its own. Randall Westgren wants to know about the boundary between fact and nuance, while Jonathan Mayhew, pulling in the opposite direction, is not sure that nuances are usefully contrasted to facts. (Thomas Presskorn took things in a somewhat inside-Basbøll direction with his "pangrammatical" question—a reference to the work I've done on my now-retired other blog. I'm always happy to defend that style of thinking, but I can't really demand that anyone follow me there. Those who are interested can perhaps start with this post, which actually touches on Randy's question.)

Roughly speaking, I said to Randy, nuances are the stuff of poems and novels and facts are the stuff of science and journalism. That's not to say that you can't have facts in a novel or nuances in a field report. It might be more accurate to say that novelists and poets pride themselves on getting the nuances right, whereas scientists and (though I sometimes wonder!) journalists pride themselves on getting the facts right. But everyone deploys both fact and nuance to achieve their ends. Norman Mailer says that "a fact is a compression of nuance". Conversely, we can say that a nuance is the surface of a fact. That is, we can't have one without the other, but we can be interested in one over the other.

Jonathan, however, pointed something out that made me see that in making this distinction I'm actually reifying nuances, turning them into "things", individual existences. "Nuances," Jonathan reminds us,

are subtle differences and distinctions, and can pertain to either facts or non-facts. For example, it is un-nuanced to say the Franco killed Lorca. It would be more nuanced to describe in factual terms what actually happened. Which factions of the Right wanted him dead, exactly? Being nuanced means being more fine-grained, less simplistic, and, in many cases, more factual as well.
Jonathan also points us to a recent paper by Kieran Healy called "Fuck Nuance", which will be the subject of part three of this series (on Monday). I want to deal with what Jonathan and Healy have in common, namely, the definition of "nuance" in terms of "subtle differences" and "shades of meaning", which, as Jonathan rightly points out, make them inapt as correlates or complements of individual facts. Shouldn't I use some other term to denote the fleeting, perhaps "subjective", side of facts. Wittgenstein's "aspects" might do.

My somewhat self-serving answer is that I need the fact/nuance distinction in my reading of Mailer's writing, especially his journalism of the 1960s. I believe that Mailer was working with almost explicit "phenomenology" that attempted to restore "nuance" to a world of "fact", dominated by science and (non-literary) journalism. But I have to remember that nuances aren't recoverable as such. They aren't sights, sounds and smells that we have stopped noticing because we're too aware of the facts beneath or behind them. A nuance is always between one thing and another, it's where one experience (of a color or an emotion) "shades off" into another. The question, then, is what are nuances fundamentally differences between.

It's probably not really "things" and I'm reluctant to say facts. (The difference between one fact and another is probably just another fact, as I think Jonathan's "Who Killed Lorca?" example is intended to show.) So I'd venture that nuances are always differences between images. But this can all get quite subtle, quite shady—"nuanced", if you will. After all, if I'm going to say that a smell is "nuanced" insofar as it is a difference between images of facts it could, precisely, be the difference between the olfactory and the visual image of the rose.

I use smell as an example advisedly. Mailer's book about the moon landing ends with a touching scene in which Mailer, with "the pain of all these months of a marriage ending and a world in suffocation and a society in collapse", goes to visit a rock that had been brought back from the moon and finds an objective correlative for his emotion in the "hermetically tight glass bell" that keeps him from, yes, smelling it. "All worship the new science of smell!" he says. "It was bound to work its way trough two panes of glass before three and a half billion more years were lost and gone." That, he would argue, was an attempt to find the "nuance" in his encounter with the moon rock, rather than merely to state the fact of its presence here on Earth.

Mailer's critique of modern politics was also that it had lost nuance.

[A] President suffers intellectual horrors. His information is predigested—his mind is allowed as much stimulation as the second stomach of a cow. He is given not nuances but facts; indeed, he is given facts not in whole, but facts masticated, their backs broken. (PP, p. 2, my emphasis.)

Elsewhere he says that, "A fact is a compression of nuances that alienates the reality," though that's actually a "strong" (Bloomian) misreading of Mailer's sentence, which corrects what I think is a typo.

Back in 2009 when Barack Obama became President, I (somewhat grandly, for all concerned) tried to approach his presidency as Mailer approached Kennedy's. And so I took issue with what I thought was a poor joke he made about Rahm Emanuel by riffing on Mailer's jab at an anecdote about Kennedy. "The worst story I ever heard about Jack Kennedy was that he sat on his boat one day eating chicken and threw the half-chewed bones into the sea," says Mailer (PP, p. 101). He presents that story, we might say, as a fact: Kennedy threw chicken bones into the sea. Then he explains: "Throwing a chicken bone into the sea is bad because it shows no feeling for the root of death, which is burial. Of course Kennedy might have muttered, 'Sorry, old man,' as he tossed the bone. That is the difficulty with anecdotes. One cannot determine the nuance" (PP, p. 102). He says "the nuance", i.e., he talks about nuances as individual states or moments or experiences, not as shades of difference. I believe he's talking about the nuance of the fact that Kennedy threw bones into the sea.

Like I say, I'll continue this on Monday. There's some work to be done here in distinguishing literary nuance from both sociological theory and journalistic fact. I thank you for your patience.

1 comment: said...

One more pebble to toss into the smoothly operating machinery of discourse: last week, I used the phrase "fraught with nuance" to describe an account of a particular decision process/line of reasoning. Your post compelled me to search the phrase on the WWW. I shouldn't have...