The Information Essay

Just as this is an age of great wealth inequality, it is also an age of great inequality of knowledge or, more exactly, factual information. For all its democratic potential, the fact-filled internet has only heightened the pre-Google asymmetry between those, on one side, loyal to Baconian methods of patient, inductive gathering of facts — the ways of the card catalog and the archive, of the analysis and evaluation of empirical data — and those, on the other side, who didn’t need to read Foucault or the Frankfurt School to nurture a suspicion that positivist orders of knowledge mask a hierarchy of power in which they are meant to occupy the lowest rungs.

It’s the Republican Party’s deliberate disinformation strategy, more than any properties inherent in so-called information technologies, that has created these two parallel Americas. In one of them, weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, climate change is a patent hoax, and the Laffer curve is the most basic truth of economics. As for the inhabitants of the other universe — “the reality-based community” of old-fashioned skeptics and empiricists, frequenters of public and university libraries, readers of the New York Times and of Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker, avid perusers of Harper’s Index and WikiLeaks — we possess ever vaster quantities of mostly accurate facts, and not much sense of what to do with them. Data data everywhere, and not a thought to think! Outside of a hedge fund or the CIA, there aren’t too many places where knowledge is power. Much of the time, intellectually and politically, knowledge is powerlessness.

The division between empiricists and fantasists is clearest in politics. But it’s beginning to enter literature. Dickens in Hard Times made fun of Gradgrind — “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these girls and boys nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life” — and there is a way in which, until recently, information and what used to be called “imaginative literature” were usually understood to be addressing themselves to the right and left hemispheres of the brain instead of the political spectrum. Lately, however, there has also come to be a literary expression or embodiment of liberal empiricism, an emergent literary Gradgrindism that deserves analysis.

Apart from glimmerings in early forebears — Flaubert in Bouvard and Pécuchet, Dickens himself in Bleak House, a few chapters of Moby-Dick, and most famously Zola — the informationization of literature became most clearly visible in what we’ve called “the research novel” of the 1980s and ’90s: the fact-flaunting of writers as diverse as Sebald, Tom Wolfe, and Don DeLillo, whose brilliant but failed Cosmopolis gave us Eric Packer, a portrait of the artist as a hedge-fund tycoon and obsessive gatherer of facts. As James Wood observed in 2001, ‘knowing about things’ has become one of the qualifications of the contemporary novelist. Still, the research novel mostly subordinated its facts, even as these increased in density, to plot and character. What we begin to glimpse in recent years, especially in “literary nonfiction,” is something different: the evolution of a style that resembles “information for information’s sake,” in something like the art for art’s sake of 19th-century French decadence. What can this new literature of information be saying? The nature of facts is supposed to be that they speak for themselves. The nature of literature of course is the opposite — that it always means more than it says. Maybe the new literature of information can tell us something about our relationship to facts that the facts alone refuse to disclose?

The dossiers of documents, the montages of objects, in magazines like Harper’s or Cabinet, stage first of all a deliberate refusal to use the information they display for any other purpose, like persuasion or synthesis. Information, they suggest, is the very thing itself, self-sufficiently eloquent — no embellishment or commentary required. These fact-heaps feed our appetite for what practitioners in these genres like to call reality, something said — by David Shields for instance — to be in short supply.

The absence in these texts of anything resembling argumentation is itself a tacit kind of advocacy. The assemblage of information (Wikipedia and WikiLeaks being collective examples of the form, and Jonathan Lethem’s famous essay-of-quotations being an individual one) promotes the cause of Roland Barthes’s open form, where meaning-making is fundamentally a readerly rather than writerly activity. It also brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s over-cited proclamation that montage is “useless for the purposes of fascism” — because it doesn’t predigest reality, in the manner of propaganda. The liberal empiricists’ idea is that facts, naked and massed together like the human beings in those Spenser Tunick photographs, serve the cause of political and intellectual freedom, because facts don’t tell you what to think. They report, you decide.

In the best of the empiricists’ works, information for information’s sake becomes information for art’s sake. Consider the following passage from the opening of Moby Duck, Donovan Hohn’s book-length essay, which, eyes wide open to the epic irony of its title, sets out to chart the ripple effects of a spilled shipment of rubber bath toys. Hohn ends up detailing a thoroughly engineered world, in which there’s even an expert analyst to explain why the eyes painted on the rubber ducks are positioned like human eyes:

We know that twelve of the colorful containers stacked above deck snapped loose from their moorings and tumbled overboard. We can safely assume that the subsequent splash was terrific, like the splash a train would make were you to drive it off a seaside cliff. We know that each container measured forty feet long and eight feet wide and may have weighed as much as 58,000 pounds, depending on the cargo, and that at least one of them — perhaps when it careened into another container, perhaps when it struck the ship’s stays, perhaps as it descended to high-pressure depths — burst open. We know that when it left port, this ill-fated container had contained 7,200 little packages; that, as the water gushed in and the steel box sank, all or most of these packages came floating to the surface; that every package comprised a plastic shell and a cardboard back; that every shell housed four hollow plastic animals — a red beaver, a blue turtle, a green frog, and a yellow duck — each about three inches long; and that printed on the cardboard in multicolored lettering were the following words: floatees. thefirstyears. from6months. expert developed. parent preferred. 100% dishwasher safe.

This paragraph, like many of the 117 others in the essay, is as much concerned with telling the story of what we know as it is with recreating the moment the ducks went overboard. The precision of weights and measures illustrates several propositions simultaneously: 1) these are knowable facts, obtainable by research; 2) the author has done the research, establishing his authority as an agent of knowledge, even as his gracious “we know” makes it seem as though the facts he’s assembled are commonly available knowledge, not the result of a well-earned expertise; so that 3) what authority he has derives from this ability to let common facts speak through him. But there’s also something else going on.

The numbers Hohn cites, discrete and intelligible, though large, hint at a much more enormous scale, which might be called “the infinitely large,” which in turn evokes what we know of the total daily goings-on of global manufacture and transport (although it’s never directly said that we know this, and surely we know it in a different way than “we know” what it says on cartons of rubber animals). Not only is the globalized world infinitely large, then; it is infinitely small, bounded by a single logic. Dishwasher safety is the perfect bathetic note for Hohn to strike about these rubber duckies, not just because of the easily available irony — safe for dishwashers and kids, destructive of the world in which those kids will grow up! — but because our lives are poised between these two scales: a hyper-controlled small private space, fit for a tale of the tub, and the macro-space of the oceans, where Leviathan — or Capital — sports and dives as the oceans acidify and a new continent of plastic assembles itself in the Pacific.

Hohn’s OCD style builds an almost perfectly detailed miniature universe. He even reproduces most of the classified ad section of a small-town Alaskan newspaper in which news of the washed-up bath creatures first appears. Yet as he reconstructs the world out of carefully salvaged bits of knowledge, an epistemological anxiety overtakes both him and the reader: who knows what to do with all this knowledge? Such data points plot no arc of Enlightenment, in which the more we know the freer and more capable we become. Instead, the more we know the more helpless we seem. Hohn writes movingly of the beach combers he meets on his research excursions, and appears to identify himself, the fact collector, with their pursuit, like Milton’s Jesus comparing philosophers to “children gathering pebbles on the shore.” The impression you get is of fragments from some unknowable, exploded whole.

This disconnect between knowledge and power can be sensed even more clearly in  another book-length essay, John D’Agata’s About a Mountain (note the flatly empirical title), which is also about nuclear waste disposal, teen suicide, and the general propensity for human self-annihilation as expressed by Las Vegas. A typical passage:

If the temperature of the Sun is, as The Effects of Nuclear Weapons estimates it is, about 25 million degrees Fahrenheit, and if five times that amount is 125 million degrees Fahrenheit, and if the temperature at which a human body combusts is 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, and if such a blast of heat would reach their bodies, ten miles away from the site of detonation, in approximately four and a half millionths of one second, and if pain impulses in the human body are believed to travel 382 feet per second, and if all of this is shorter than the time it takes to climb by elevator or to climb by foot or to climb inside one’s own private mind above the city’s lights — looking down at them from the stratosphere for one final view — then it is more than likely that in the event of a nuclear strike on the nearby National Stockpile, just a few miles away from anyone in Vegas, the minds of most Las Vegas residents in the path of that blast would literally not know that they were being destroyed until sixteen hundredths of one second afterward.

D’Agata, like Hohn, embraces what might be called “the empirical sublime.” Unlike the traditional, Kantian sublime, which supposedly restored us to a knowledge of our own freedom of will and mind in the face of the infinite and amazing, here the entire vast machine of knowledge serves only to remind us that we’re trapped within an inescapable totality. Most of the aspects of life D’Agata focuses on are aspects that we know a lot about, without knowing enough for instruction to make a difference. No one, it turns out, knows of a safe way to dispose of nuclear waste that, in some cases, will remain radioactive for up to a million years, and, ultimately, as much as we know about the mind, we can’t prevent certain people from killing themselves. It seems telling that both D’Agata and Hohn’s books are ecological in theme, ecology being the realm in which knowledge of how to avert disaster has had least effect on public policy. The mastery of facts, these books suggest, will only get us to the point at which information turns into poetry, which notoriously makes nothing happen.

At times, this has been D’Agata’s stated intention. He does not claim that the art essay, like Sidney’s poetry, aims to delight and instruct. “Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art?” he asks in The Lost Origins of the Essay, another omnium-gatherum that suggests the answer to be the latter. Except, as D’Agata shows, “to receive information” can be equivalent to the experience of art. It’s difficult to read works like About a Mountain and Moby Duck and not see them as superbly unavailing artifacts of a culture that doesn’t know what to do with everything it knows (while the know-nothings know just what to do). These are “Mandarin” texts, in the sense that they are written for the enjoyment of a certain group of people expected to appreciate the artfulness of the collected information, and breathe a quiet sigh of despair at a form achieving its natural limits. They flatter the education of their readers, who are expected to draw the right conclusions from all those ducks in a row. Harsher notes of outrage, or clarion calls for political action or self-improvement, would be jarringly out of place in this kind of essay.

Writers the likes of D’Agata and Hohn have revealed to us what previously only some cracked poet could have conjured, namely the despair experienced by the facts themselves as they go to waste in a society that won’t act on them — that could save itself, but refuses to learn how. Still one misses, in these ironic Gradgrinds, the generous anger of Dickens. Artists and essayists should not be expected to carry alone the burden of combating a disinformation machine of the scale and complexity of the new Know-Nothing Party. Yet even the most explicitly political acts of data gathering and collecting, like WikiLeaks, can succumb to a contemporary ideology of the self-sufficiency of information. This involves a mistaken expectation that if all known knowns, in Rumsfeldian parlance, were somehow made democratically available, it would trigger a chain of events, like D’Agata’s nuclear stockpile explosion, leading to justice without the pangs of revolution. (What passivity the fantasy of revelation allows us!) But information alone, like technology alone, won’t lead us into a promised postpolitical land of enlightened technocracy. Ideological battles must still be won or lost: “The Tigers of Wrath are wiser than the Horses of Instruction.” (It’s another fact that at current rates of attrition the last wild tiger will die in 2023.)

This is totally infuriating. If we wanted to see a computer beat everybody, we would have watched chess. And why has all the trivia gotten so — unimportant? You used to be able to learn stuff from Jeopardy!, like: Who was Ayn Rand?

So we’re up, tripping over feet, and out the double metal doors. There’s a red “On Air” light illuminated above the studio down the hall. Judging by the din coming from that direction, nobody with a headset is going to notice if we slip in and find a place — like, here, in the stadium seating on the right, next to this guy who’s singing along to the theme —

Whoa! Those blacks and purples, and the rotating lights, and the crazy audience, it’s like some kind of nightclub, crossed with high school choir, all in an S&M dungeon . And that blond guy! Wasn’t he a huge rock star a few years ago — or, like, a host of Entertainment Tonight?

A redheaded fireplug from Tennessee has been called as the next contestant. She’s dancing around, while her mother and sister sit on the platform blinking. “Tina Honig, get ready to play Don’t Forget the Lyrics! Your choice, in the category ‘The Sixties,’ is Charles Manson’s ‘Your Home Is Where You’re Happy’ or Marvin Gaye’s ‘Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)’! The band’s going to play, you’re going to start singing, and when the music stops, you’re gonna fill in some lyrics and win that five thousand dollars! Now, what’s it going to be?”

“Well,” says Tina, “I’m really into the music of serial murderers, but I kind of prefer Manson’s earlier work. And Marvin
. . . like my boyfriend was always singing this ‘life’s unfair’ soul stuff, he played that song constantly — and I downloaded his whole iTunes to my computer before I dumped his ass! So I’m going with ‘Makes Me Wanna Holler’! Wooooo!”

“All right! Ricky Minor — hit me!”

A sinuous bass line and rattling snare emanate from the band.

Inflation — no chance
To increase — finance
Bills pile up — sky high
– – – – – –.

“Six words to fill in, Tina! For five thousand dollars!”

“OK . . . Finally got a piece of the pie-ie-ieeee!”

“Ooh . . . sorry. That’s from the Jeffersons theme. And seven words. How many volts do we have for Tina?”

BZZZZZZZSHZZZAT! Electricity makes a blue coil around the poor woman as she falls writhing to the stage. Her hair smokes.

“That looked like five thousand volts, audience! Whoa, we are not playing! Who’s our next contestant?”

We poke our seatmate. “Is this normal?”

“Ratings were low, so they brought in some elements from the Japanese edition,” he pants, not taking his eyes off center stage, from which the stretcher-bearers are now departing. He bellows: “More Buck Owens! More Jandek!”

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