Believe it or Not!

MATTHEW WAGSTAFFE (M.Arch I, ‘19)

Eye of the needle artwork by Hagop Sandaldjian, exhibited at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, http://www.mjt.org/exhibits/hagop/hagop1.html

The patch of Venice Boulevard that cuts through downtown Culver City is an exercise in the nondescript. Strolling down this forgettable axis of urban sprawl you’ll pass by an auto-body shop, a discount clothing outlet, a real estate agency, a Subway, each place more anonymous than the last. That is, until you walk by one storefront whose name you have not seen before: The Museum of Jurassic Technology.

Stumbling inside, the curious becomes curiouser as you find yourself in a labyrinthine maze of tight, darkly curtained and dimly lit rooms, each of which contains any number of mysterious exhibits: vitrines of models depicting odd occult rituals, a lengthy recording narrating an expedition to track down a rare bat that can fly through walls, microscopes trained on sculptures of pop-cultural figures so miniature they fit within the heads of a pins. Copious wall text abounds. Without question, not all of it can be real—those sculptures in the pins? Bats flying through walls?—but it is, after all, a museum. You exit the building back into the bright California sun, and suddenly those things which had once seemed banal and without interest—the strip mall parking lots and auto-body shops—are exploding with potential significance.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology is a mode of fiction-making that the art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty has labelled the “parafictional.” Unlike traditional modes of storytelling, which are content to “perform [their] procedures in the hygienic clinics of literature,” the parafictional, Lambert-Beatty writes, “has one foot in the field of the real.”[1] Like The Museum of Jurassic Technology, these works typically deploy the trappings of cultural authority—museum exhibits, product release announcements, architectural renderings—to tell their tales, and, notably, they insert these fictions into the actual world, without in any way demarcating where reality ends and the fiction begins.

As outlined above, such works tend to produce an acute sense of estrangement. Having had the elements of our world reconfigured into an oftentimes fantastical narrative tends to skew our perspective of the everyday. Fred Wilson, the proprietor of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, tells of one visitor who, after a lengthy stay with the exhibits, spent a nearly equal amount of time investigating the pencil-sharpener on the museum’s front desk. That being said, parafictions don’t exclusively enlarge our sense of wonder at the quotidian, they also provoke a healthy dose of doubt. If we’ve just been taken in by placards, explanatory models and footnoted museum text—in other words, taken in by some of our most trusted signals of institutional authority—then how is one not to be doubtful of “all other forms of culturally sacrosanct knowledge”[2]?

But what, exactly, is the nature of the doubt induced by parafiction? For Lambert-Beatty, this form of illusionistic play is not your typical postmodern relativizing of the categories of truth and fiction. Instead, she argues, the parafictional work evinces a counterintuitive respect for the means by which knowledge is produced. Indeed, in its painstaking mimicry of the objects and practices whereby facts are created—in its museum placards, its archival photographs, its adherence to citation conventions—the parafictional amounts to an almost anthropological investigation into the conditions of knowledge creation.[3] And so, in Lambert-Beatty’s view, the parafictional’s deceptions emerge as instructional, perhaps even well-meaning: in carefully tracing a fact’s production, the parafictional puts its viewers on the lookout for the ways in which that process can be co-opted and feinted—a useful preparedness in our age of internet ubiquity and outright political lies.[4]

While I agree with Lambert-Beatty’s analysis—the parafictional object is, without question, a deception that aims to instill a productive sense of doubt in its viewers—I wonder if there might be something else to this mischievous form, something a bit more mysterious, a bit mystical even, behind the parafictional impulse. For in the best examples of this kind of work, something more nebulous is achieved than a well-meaning art-theoretical game; something else occurs, something like the collapsing of self that results from the method actor’s total immersion in her role, or something like what happens when an author becomes so invested in her characters that she begins to treat them as real. In other words, parafictions are also incantatory works, trying, through their desperate simulations, to bring some being—or some belief—into the world.

Consider the author Fernando Pessoa. Described in a recent New Yorker article as being consumed by “a metaphysical nihilism,”[5] Pessoa produced little during his lifetime: a single collection of poetry and some editorial remarks in a number of literary journals. Though his particular constitution prevented him from writing publicly, upon his death over 25,000 pages of manuscripts were discovered squirreled away in a trunk in his apartment. Notably, little of this literary output was written under his own name. Instead, the texts were attributed to distinct characters (at least 18 in total) that Pessoa called his “heteronyms.” Not mere pseudonyms, Pessoa’s heteronyms were fully realized fictional personages, complete with their own “biographies, physiques, personalities, political views, religious attitudes and literary pursuits”[6] (viii). It was only through the creation of these fictions that Pessoa was able to overcome the self-doubt necessary to engage in literary production.

Or consider Verzelini’s Act of Faith, a collection of glassware arrayed in a museum display case with an accompanying label. Giacamo Verzelini, the text narrates, was a 16th century nobleman who made a pilgrimage throughout Europe to view paintings of Christ. Upon his return, he produced the glassware in question, each piece of which is a replica of the goblets, bowls and cups Christ held in the paintings. As you can guess by now, this entire display is the work of the contemporary artist Josiah McElheny (though a religious glassblower named Verzelini does actually exist, he never made glassware from paintings of Christ). McElheny, however, did not simply take some flea market wine glasses and archly insert them into his fictional narrative. Instead, he crafted the glasses himself, after apprenticing with master glassblowers in Europe, where he very likely learned the same traditional methods that the actual Verzelini deployed. This same blurring of creator and fiction presents itself in McElheny’s discussions of the piece: McElheny expresses serious identification with the faith of his Verzelini: “[Unlike Verzelini] I’m not a religious person, yet I have a faith, and that is in art, and in the people who are and could be involved in art.”[7] One senses that his embodiment of Verzelini is a means of expressing his own faith in art’s value, a sentiment so earnest that he perhaps could not have spoken it without the aid of his fictional gymnastics.

In the final analysis, as these peculiar writers and glassblowers show us, the parafictional is as much about encouraging a sense of doubt as it is about overcoming doubt, about allowing ourselves to enter a fictional world where we can cast off our despair, where we can hijack the beliefs of a perfectly imagined fictional being and, finally, finally, truly act.[8] That we had to construct and elaborate fiction to do so, may, in the end, not really matter.

 

[1] Lambert-Beatty, Carrie. “Make-Believe: Parafiction and Plausibility.” October. Summer 2009: 51-94.

[2] Weschler, Lawrence. Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

[3] Lambert-Beatty’s explication of the parafictional borrows from Bruno Latour’s accounts of his investigations into the construction of facts: “The question was never to get away from facts but closer to them, not fighting empiricism but, on the contrary, renewing empiricism.” Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry. Winter 2004: 225-248. Print.

[4] Lambert-Beatty’s text was written in the immediate wake of the Bush presidency, and it is disheartening to see how innocent that political climate’s plays with “truthiness” look in comparison to the current administration’s barrage of bold-faced lies.

[5] Kirsch, Adam. “Fernando Pessoa’s Disappearing Act.” The New Yorker. September 2017.

[6] Zenith, Richard. Introduction. The Book of Disquiet, by Fernando Pessoa. Penguin Books, 2003, pp. vii-xxvi

[7] Earnest, Jarrett. “In Conversation: Josiah McElheny with Jarrett Earnest.” The Brooklyn Rail. September 2015: 33-35.

[8] “Faith is the instinct of action.” Pessoa, Fernando. The Book of Disquiet. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.