Lately, I’ve been considering how I might combine three of my great interests – ethnography, journalism, and storytelling – to forge an alternative career path for myself. Given my recent preoccupations, Nathan Dobson’s short but thought provoking analysis on the role of “facts” in journalism caught my attention.
In addition to the discussion about how “facts” are treated like commodities in the accumulation of journalistic capital (in the form of “credibility”), I also think it is important to consider in more detail the way the distinction between facts and their representation play out in the contemporary news media. Dobson alludes to this when discussing how the peddling of ostensibly “pure” facts allows the journalist to remain hidden, as if the existence and circulation of journalistic facts were not dependent upon human action. In my view, this problem is highly relevant given contemporary media coverage (or non-coverage) of the atrocities currently playing themselves out all around the globe – whether it’s state-sponsored terror in Libya, mass killings along the U.S.-Mexican border, or the horrific mutilations and murders that continue to plague the Congo.
My first significant encounter with the problem of treating “facts” as unadulterated pieces of information entirely separable from their representation comes from one of my favorite ethnographies – Michael Taussig’s Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man. Taussig recounts his struggles as he tried to sift “fact” from fiction in accounts of the atrocities that took place during the Amazonian rubber boom. Most of what we know about the violence and terror of the rubber boom comes from two sources: Walter E. Hardenburg, an American writer who fell into the hands of armed thugs hired by the Peruvian Rubber Company to terrorize Columbian traders, and Roger Casement, an Irish national who served as British consul. After a series of articles written by Hardenburg reporting the abuses appeared in print in Britain, the British government sent Roger Casement to the region to investigate.
What is most striking about the accounts of these two men is the stark contrast in the way each of them chose to represent the “facts.” Hardenburg basically put to print rumors (themselves a fantastic blend of fact and wild speculation) that had already been put to print in local newspapers. His own observations were conveyed with a dreamlike power, emphasizing the grotesque nature of the violence and the hallucinatory atmosphere created by the ensuing terror.
Hardenburg’s accounts of the ritual of violence and terror that characterized the rubber boom competition for labor came across as sensational, surreal, and melodramatic. Yet, as Taussig asks, is it not possible that the sensational, the hallucinatory, the melodramatic were all an inherent qualities of the terror being described? How do we really know whether to locate these qualities in the representation of what was taking place or in how things were actually being played out on the ground?
In any case, Casement based his account on actual interviews with people in the region and ended up writing a strictly realist account in defense of the Indians. Although he was disgusted by what was going on, he nevertheless did not conclude, like Hardenburg, that this was a case of senseless brutality. Rather, he claimed there was a logic to the horrific tortures and killings, which he attributed to the competition over scarce resources – in this case, labor.
The stark contrast between these two accounts, Taussig notes, is instructive because it points not only to the dangers of succumbing to such fictional realities but also to what is inherently dangerous about making naïve appeals to realism in our accounts of them:
“Whereas the former consists of fragments of narratives (stories, vignettes, rumors) woven around, permeated by, and chiseled into mythic ones, Casement’s stories are more numerous and better substantiated. But despite and because of its studied facticity, Casement’s report served not so much to puncture the mythic character of the situation as to render its terrific reality. In other words, Casement simply reinforced the mythic character by substantiating it with facts – he supplied facts that only reinforced the fictions” (Taussig 1987:75).
Most journalists assume a world neatly divisible into “real” facts and our representations of them. If the accounts of Hardenburg and Casement illustrate anything, it is that this division is itself a fiction. Hardenburg conveyed rumors as matters of fact; Casement’s report (in contrast to his diaries, I should note) conveyed facts as entirely separable from the unreal atmosphere of ordinariness that characterized the testimonies from which they came (most of the report was based on accounts given by 30 blacks contracted from Barbados to act as overseers).
The tendency to make fetishes out of facts and the refusal to recognize representation as a source of experience is, as Taussig points out, dangerous. When it comes to the representation of such fictional realities, whether ethnographic or journalistic, we might do well to ask, as William S. Burroughs did, what facts could have possibly given rise to such legends. But, perhaps, Taussig is on to something too when he suggests that we should also be asking what legends give rise to such facts. Our retelling of their telling is fraught with peril because in adding to the chain of storytelling our representations unwittingly risk becoming part of the extra-official means by which terror is manufactured and circulated.