The Unwelcome Guest, or The Force of Falsity
Post by Timothy Barker (School of Culture & Creative Arts, Glasgow University) and Maria Korolkova (School of Design, University of Greenwich)
Fake news, misleading political slogans, the use of information as a weapon, interruptions to communication flows, imperfections of knowledge as a result: these are not new phenomena, but they have started to become the most noticeable characteristic of the use of communications media in the twenty-first century. To begin to think about this condition, to begin to explore the uncertainty produced by both purposeful and accidental misleading communication, a good place to start is with two figures that have been instrumental in conceptualising the role of noise in communication: one in the field of engineering and one in the field of philosophy.
Claude Shannon was working on his now famous Mathematical Theory of Information when he was looking for a way to describe the uncertainty of information that equates to noise. Taking his lead from John Von Neuman, Shannon described this function as entropy (a word that, as Von Neuman points out, is surrounded by its own share of uncertainty) (Tribus and McIrvine 1971). Shannon uses the language of thermodynamic, which explains how energy is lost as heat, to describe the way information can be lost as noise. This shift in thinking signified nothing less than a new way to conceive communication channels in terms of the levels of uncertainty that they are capable of dealing with. It also signified an important concept that can be used in coming to grips with the new political realities of noise.
In the distinct (but related) field of philosophy, Michel Serres uses Shannon but gives us something altogether more radical. He tells us that any philosophy of communicative realities need not start from the attempt to uncover dialectic relationship between sender and receiver but should completely refocus attention on Shannon’s uncertainty function and the way that communication functions as the sender and receiver are united in a battle against noise. Any model of communication for Serres always involves three parties: the sender, the receiver and a third that seeks to interrupt communication, to introduce a miscommunication.
Serres asks, how does one enter into communication with another? The answer that he offers is that for information to be transmitted and to take on meaning it necessitates a backgrounding of noise; it is only via its differentiation from noise that information is able to exist at all. For communication to take place it needs to paradoxically exclude that which it necessitates (Harari and Bell in Serres 1982: xxvi). In Serres’ work, communication is never just between two people, but always involves an excluded third, a figure who is capable of manipulating information and introducing noise. ‘Communication is a sort of game played by two interlocutors considered as united against the phenomena of interference and confusion, or against individuals with some stake in interrupting communication’ (ibid.: 67-68). Serres asks us to explore the terrain of, and possibilities for, communication when we have entered a world in which the ‘third man’, the individual who has a stake in interrupting communication, is no longer excluded, like an unwelcome guest, but actually becomes the agent in charge of directing communication. The unwelcome guest becomes the host. This does not necessarily have negative connotations, though often it does, but can sometimes be positive and productive.
If we assume that imperfections and mistakes are our creative forces, some reassurance comes from Umberto Eco. Eco situates mistakes in the very centre of language. He sees the possibility of making mistakes – which takes many forms throughout his writing – deceiving, misleading and indeed lying – as the main feature of human language. ‘A dog doesn't lie. When it barks, it means there is somebody outside’, he once noticed in an interview (Mos: 2011). A possibility of misleading through language is what makes us human.
In Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (1998), Eco embarks on a journey of finding a perfect human language. Perfection here does not mean the absence of mistakes, as one might think – quite the opposite. What Eco (2000: viii) discovers on his journey – is a mistake, what he calls ‘a force of falsity’: ‘I wanted to show how a number of ideas that today we consider false actually changed the world (sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse) and how, in the best instances, false beliefs and discoveries totally without credibility could then lead to the discovery of something true (or at least something we consider true today).’
World history is largely based on these mistakes, becoming no more than a theatre of illusion. Take Columbus, who discovered America in a mistaken search for India. Or an example most dear to Eco himself – the case of Gabriel de Foigny and his language-building ambitions. Attempts of creating a universal language, formulated solely by human ingenuity, proliferated in the mid-twelfth century. Artificially constructed by the power of human mind, the new language was supposed to be as perfect as human thought could make it. However, Foigny invents a language that cannot work, as he invents it deliberately to parody other languages. What is important to Eco in this story is that in doing so, Foigny ‘helps us see (probably beyond his intentions) why, on the contrary, the imperfect languages we all speak work fairly well’ (ibid.).
Imperfection, for Eco, is the condition of our existence. What is this power that leads us on this path of mistakes and in the end becomes the main engine of history?
Eco’s contemporary, Russian formalist critic Victor Shklovsky, explains this power through the privilege of creativity. In 1981, at the end of his career, Shklovsky publishes a book entitled Energy of Delusion: A Book about the Plot. The first expression from the title comes from a famous phrase by Lev Tolstoy mentioned in his correspondence with the Russia philosopher and critic Nikolai Strakhov in 1878. ‘Everything seems to be ready for writing,’ Tolstoy (cited in Shklovsky 2007: 36) wrote,
for fulfilling my earthly duty, what’s missing is the urge to believe in myself, the belief in the importance of my task, I’m lacking the energy of delusion, spontaneous energy that’s impossible to invent. And it’s impossible to begin without it.
There is a certain history in the interpretation of this concept. Shklovsky’s colleague Boris Eikhenbaum considers this energy of delusion to be a part of the universal sequence of events, which, according to the phrase by Tolstoy, all depends on the writer’s creative activity (Eikhenbaum, 1935). All events in this world are interlinked, and the role of the writer is to guess the links, to intuitively catch the energy of their movement, and to keep moving oneself. Shklovsky, on the contrary, focuses on the second part of the phrase – for him, not the energy, but delusion is the integral part, a building block of knowledge, which in turn is a part of creative process.
Shklovsky equals delusion to the free search within the creative process. This search requires enormous time and effort. ‘To think through a million of possible connections in order to choose 1/1000 000, is terribly difficult’, another phrase by Tolstoy, serves as an epigraph to Energy of Delusion. However, it is worth the effort. It is a search for truth in a novel, and a search for truth in life. In the first drafts of Anna Karenina, Anna is an ugly, fat, graceless woman, as Shklovsky describes it. As the work on the novel progresses, Anna becomes beautiful and graceful, Tolstoy finally comes to terms with the character, the writer confesses that Anna becomes his adopted child. Through the mistakes and imperfections of the first draft, Tolstoy found his true heroine, the truth of the novel, and, as Shklovsky (2007: 39) claims, the essence of true creativity:
The history of literature is the history of search for heroes. One can also say that it’s a compilation of the history of delusions. And no one will contradict the fact that a genius isn’t afraid of getting lost, because talent … demands delusions, for it demands strain, nourishment, material it demands a labyrinth of linkages into which is has been called to investigate.
This embracing, almost worshipping attitude towards delusions, mistakes and imperfections – an attitude deeply rooted in the fake-news-free eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and adopted as a methodology of research by such critical minds of the twentieth century as Serres, Eco, and Shklovsky – is perhaps something that could be transferred to the hoax of our age. Being more attentive to imperfections, understanding mistakes as the hosts of communication systems, following Serres, or following Shklovsky, as material of the everyday from which all is moulded, can produce a powerful energy – if not to counterbalance contemporary ‘toxic’ narratives of faux and distrust, then to accept and adopt them.
Moss, S. (2011), ‘Umberto Eco: ‘People Are Tired of Simple Things. They Want to Be Challenged’, The Guardian, 27 November.
Serres, M. (1982), Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, Baltimore/London: John Hopkins UP.
Serres, M. (1995), Angels and Modern Myth, NY: Random House.
Shklovsky, V. (2007), Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot, trans. by Shushan Avagyan, Champaign, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press.
Tribus, M., and E.C. McIrvine (1971), ‘Energy and Information’, Scientific American 225: 179–88.
Tolstoy, L. (1953), Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (1828–1928), v. 61, 410-411, Moscow, Leningrad: Goslitizdat.
Eco, U. (1986), Travels in Hyper Reality: Essays, Chicago: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Eco, U. (2000), Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, London: Phoenix.
Eikhenbaum B.M. (1935), ‘Tvorcheskie stimuli L’va Tolstogo’, Literaturnaya ucheba, 9: 43.
Galloway, A., E. Thacker and M. Wark (2014), Excommunication: Three Inquiries in Media and Mediation, Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press.