The Intellectual Situation
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?