A Modest Proposal and Metarepresentationality:
Gauging the Truth-Value of Narrative
Doctoral Candidate, English
UC Santa Barbara
Literary critics often comment on the British Enlightenment’s preoccupation with the truth-value of fictional narrative. Such preoccupation is judged to be historically inevitable in the context of the late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century advance of empiricism and the unprecedented increase in and diversification of the published material—arguably, the first stage of the modern explosion of the mass media. It appears, moreover, that eighteenth-century writers exploited and fueled their audience’s bewilderment by manipulating the cues pertaining to the ontological status of their stories. Legend has it that a certain bishop died believing that Jonathan Swift’s AModest Proposal—the treatise that advocates eating Irish babies—should be taken at its face value. Daniel Defoe most solemnly assured the readers in the prefaces to his Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders that these were "true histories"—unlike other "fictions" published at the time; Samuel Richardson presented his novels as edited collections of authentic familial letters.
The purpose of my presentation is to demonstrate that we can gain a richer understanding of the eighteenth-century writers’ experimentation with readerly expectations by inquiring into the cognitive foundations of the emotional response provoked by such experimentation. I will proceed by clarifying and elaborating the three following points: 1) The strong emotional response—ranging from delight to anger—that accompanied and encouraged (emotions sell!) the eighteenth-century experimentation with the ontological status of narrative could be seen as a "zeitgeist-specific" articulation of anxiety about one’s ability to gauge quickly and effectively the truth-value of a given text. 2) The cues that allow the reader to gauge the truth-value of a given text differ from one situation to another—what remains constant is our predisposition to look for such cues and to react emotionally when we perceive that our current "cues-interpreting" framework may become unreliable. 3) The functioning of this predisposition is not limited to a particular culture or a particular medium (cf. the currently growing concern about the truth-value of information posted on the Internet), and it is grounded in the cognitive mechanism of decoupling, that is, of storing the information in the "conditional" format that allows its further re-interpretation and the subsequent full or partial rejection or assimilation.
top of page