This article was written on 30 May 2013, and is filled under Theory.

The Taste for True Stories

We see Spielberg's film for the promise of the true Lincoln hidden by the image.

We see Spielberg’s film for the promise of the true Lincoln hidden by the image.  Photo Alexander Gardner / Wikipedia Commons / Public Domain

The idea of a true story functions as a fantasmatic inducement almost without equal.  Movie studios like to green light projects that have a basis in actual historical events, and when they releases these pictures, they inevitably emphasize that the films are not just fiction but depict a lived reality.  Even filmmakers play a part in this fantasy by often including the phrase “based on a true story” or “based on actual historical events” in a title card at the beginning of their films.  Quentin Tarantino ironically mocks this practice in Django Unchained (2012), but this irony works only because the practice is so widespread.  The controversy that surrounded Tony Kushner’s screenplay for Lincoln (2012) stemmed from his departure from historical fact concerning the vote for the 13th Amendment, and it bespeaks our investment in true accounts in relation to fictional ones.  Some prominent figures in Connecticut experienced his failure to relate accurately their Representatives’ support for the Amendment as a psychic violation.  Fidelity to factual events matters so much because we invest ourselves in what a truthful depiction portends.  Despite the prevalence of unprecedented special effects that render the screen ever more distant from our everyday experience of social reality, the depiction of reality continues to occupy a privileged position in our fantasy structure.

The idea of the true story plays such an important role for the psyche not because it reflects our everyday experience but because the true story promises what everyday experience obscures.  When we meet the Other within our social reality, the encounter takes place within a context that establishes a relatively rigid set of rules that govern the possibilities of the encounter.  For instance, the social codes of a work environment prevent workers from screaming profanities at co-workers or from masturbating in their cubicles.  Even in an epoch of casual office attire, the unwritten codes that determine how we interact constrain the possibilities for encountering an Other acting outside these constraints.  We don’t see a naked Other but a denuded one, an Other absent the manifestation of desire that would rip this Other out of its symbolic situation.

But the problem with our fascination with true stories is that such stories hide the structure of desire that they utilize.  Our desire doesn’t seek the truth but the desire of the Other—an object that has no true existence.  As long as we commit ourselves to true stories, we miss the structure of desire that finds satisfaction in the failure to find its object rather than in successfully accessing the true.  As the social order becomes increasingly mediated and illusions of immediacy become more and more rare, the appetite for the true story will grow.  Moral indignation about excessive exposure will only have the effect of augmenting this growth.  The only possible response lies in the act of properly locating our satisfaction and identifying its source in the repetition of failure.  When we align satisfaction and the failure to see the authentic desire of the Other rather than the successful glimpse of this desire, we free ourselves from the trap of the true story.  We gain the possibility of seeing the virtues of the fiction.  It is the fiction that is the true path to the real.

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