How does it feel to be a fiction?
I became a fiction in 2008, which was a year that many things revealed themselves as fictions: “sub-prime mortgage,” “too big to fail,” “regulation of the financial industry,” “the American dream.” That year I concluded a controversial work, Untitled [Senior Thesis], which was my undergraduate thesis project for the art major at Yale University1. About a month before the undergraduate thesis exhibition was to be installed, I gave a presentation on the project to the art department’s senior colloquium. From there, news of the project spread as an early internet viral phenomenon—from the Yale Daily News to the Drudge Report and then to every major national media outlet and several international news sites. As a result, my installation for the project was banned and the project as a whole was denounced as a “creative fiction” in an official statement by the university2.
While this was the first time I was called a fiction explicitly, it was not the first time I felt myself to be one. In the many polite misogynies, casual homophobias, and soft sexual assaults of my youth that I misrecognized as care, I suspected something fake about my own sense of agency, something about myself that would always be subject to interpretations not my own. That a woman’s body and her voice are sites of regulation—base matter or mere material for the production of other meanings—was a thesis both posited and confirmed in the scope of that project. And it remains, in many respects, a focus of my current scholarly and creative work.
Many of us are fictions—both in relation to the histories of subjectivity as well as in tangible ways that shape our everyday engagements with larger structures of power. Many of us have felt our fictive quality in circumstances far more consequential than those surrounding an artwork. Being deemed a fiction constitutes a certain type of erasure, an interdiction of agency, but can also authorize real tangible violence against the body. To put it bluntly: being a fiction can be life threatening. It can lead, as it often does on the larger stage of national and global politics, to intergenerational cycles of poverty, exodus, and dispossession. It can lead, in non-metaphorical ways, to death.
Fiction denotes a position, or lack thereof, within the historical formation of subjecthood. It does not describe an essential state of being; rather, it is a relation of difference from that presumed citizen-subject of the Western philosophical tradition: the white, property-owning, able-bodied heterosexual man who is the “proper” agent of knowledge, capitalism, and law. Insofar as “woman” reads as a mark of difference, she is a fiction—someone who, in the words of Simone de Beauvoir, “is not born but becomes.” Insofar as “black man” reads as a mark of difference, he is a fiction—someone who, in the words of Frantz Fanon, “lacks ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man.”4 While gender and race are two hyper-visible forms of difference within the context of patriarchy and white supremacy, they are neither exclusive nor exhaustive. To be disabled is to be a fiction to inaccessible architectures; to be poor is to be a fiction to capitalist subjectivity; to be indigenous is to be a fiction to colonizing armies and genocidal regimes; to be undocumented is to be a fiction the State. To this end, fiction is the lived legacy of having been silenced, deported, disenfranchised, incarcerated, genocided, sterilized, burned, interned, or lobotomized. It is the gray area that shades the subject’s presumption of an agential self.
People are, of course, not fictions. Not really. Not any of us. Our bodies are tangible, palpable, real. We take up space; we contain truth; we exist. That anybody should be a “fiction” is a requirement of those systems of governance that seek to parse meaning from bare life. In this context, fiction is a monument to an abjected state of being: it covers over that space left behind when real existences are jettisoned from social and political legibility. It marks as it masks the violent legacies of subjugation that form the foundation of subjecthood, at once a suture and a scar. Through fiction, we are mobilized not as subjects, but as objects of discourse within those structures of power from which we have been historically excluded. Note, for example, how in the halls of state and federal governments, a woman’s body is invoked as a site of discipline in the debates surrounding abortion and sexual assault, particularly as the two come together in the right-wing fantasies of “legitimate rape.” Note, how—in the strict gender binarism of institutional spaces such as prisons, school bathrooms, state documents, etc.—the trans or gender-fluid body becomes a site of impossibility, or worse, a site of pathology, criminality, or liability. Note—as there has indeed been a nationwide call to note—the dual-fiction that dematerializes black and brown bodies as specters of criminality and renders them immaterial as victims of police shootings and other state-sanctioned crimes. On the one hand, such fiction authorizes the increased militarization of police forces and the expansion of prisons and border walls; on the other, it absolves and renders “victim-less” the violent action of the State.
That our status as fiction can be revealed as fiction changes nothing. Fictions are not simply effects of power, but endemic to it, making possible that foundational other fiction that is unmarked: the naturalization of the straight white male citizen as the neutral subject of culture, economy, and law. Fiction in this sense becomes a demarcation between power and disempowerment, between who gets called something and who does the calling. It signals, in that contested space between the caller and the called, whose voice we are supposed to trust. In a 2016 talk by Cheryl Harris—in which she discussed the connection between racial and economic subjectivity, and importantly, the role of stolen life in capitalist accumulation—she brought up the question of trust and its racialization. Discussing a recent tumble in the Chinese stock market, which US economic experts and pundits attributed to the Chinese State’s attempt to interfere with and regulate markets, she observed:
The fact that after the worldwide economic collapse in 2008 anybody could be scolded for failing to trust the market is really quite stunning—but it says something about the durability of certain premises and their immunity to facts. This rhetoric also has undertones of a kind of racialized presumption about master and pupil that’s rendered even more ironic given the rickety state of the US economic situation.5
Delving further into the question of “trust”—or more specifically, who succeeds and fails to inhabit it—Harris cited Karen Ho’s sociological work on the role of “trustworthiness” in modern business interactions6, as well as Sumi Cho’s recent critique of the “weak ties” that forge economic relations, such as trust, reliability, and credibility7. Perhaps it is no surprise that both found trustworthiness itself to be gendered and raced. As Harris described:
What’s very interesting and what Sumi points out is that the studies that have been done to demonstrate the existence and I guess viability of these weak ties are all studies that look at the ways in which these weak ties rely on trust, reliability, and credibility—but as she points out all of the studies were basically 99% white and virtually all male. And so the desired traits that bolster and make weak ties possible are actually racially encrypted. These are characteristics that are in fact characteristics of the white male fraternity. And as Ho argues, the market is not a neutral field from which certain people are merely excluded; it is rather constructed through normative assumptions and connections to white male subjectivity and the traits associated with the proper economic subject.8
To be able to be trusted, to be able to testify to fact, to be able to be believed—these are attributes of something more than personal disposition. Many of us know this already: we know that trust is something we will always be earning rather than anything that is ever simply afforded to us, that truth (even about our own bodies) is something we will always be in the process of proving rather than anything we can automatically claim. And we know that this comes at great cost. If trustworthiness can never be ours, can never be decanted from the historically situated identity position from which it arises and to which it attaches—the “white male fraternity”—then we might look to another inheritance. While there is no universal character to exclusion, nothing that wouldn’t elide the multiple and intersecting histories of oppression that people navigate with dramatically different consequences, there is perhaps a resource in the fiction of our shared state of “fiction.”
Following the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election, there has been a lot of discussion over the viral spread of “fake news”: how the advent of social media and Web 2.0 has allowed for its proliferation; how we face a new crisis of information, of trust in media, of truth. Yet as many researchers and commentators have contended, “fake news” is not new9. Rumor, gossip, myth, and tall tales have always shaped the political and social field; they have always outlined alternative pathways for information to circulate. As feminist Marxist scholar Silvia Federici has noted, “gossip” used to refer to the woman herself before it came to name her delegitimized speech—speech that circulated within female friendships, which were becoming an increasing object of suspicion, denounced by the Church as undermining the sacred bond between husband and wife10. Gossip in this context describes the passing of meaningful information between people whose conviviality is regulated: truth in the guise of frivolity. It is a form of speech available to you when you know you will never be believed, when your subject position is itself grounds for defamation. “Fake news,” on the other hand, works through an inversion of this logic. It relies on the embodiment of a subject position that inspires trust, on a neutral journalistic voice unmarked by gender or racial difference, which is already presumed to testify to truth. In this sense, we might understand “fake news” as an appropriation of gossip’s travelling power for the purpose of exposure rather than maintaining confidences or intimacy. “Fake news” demands the light of day, seeking to authoritatively broadcast hidden knowledge into the public sphere for judgment. Nonetheless, I won’t denounce the form—especially not in the name of truth, a name that can never really be mine. Instead, I propose that the mechanism by which “fake news” spreads might be reclaimed in the name of an older feminist epistemology. Viral digital dissemination might be used to testify to the fact of fiction itself.
As an artist, I might have a slightly different relationship to the term fiction than others. It’s useful as a word that describes the generative power of language, a term that has been most effective for me as an alibi. Since the painful experience of being a salacious viral news story, my practice has been invested in creating alibis. Rather than trying to “redeem” myself within those structures of trustworthiness and believability, I’ve decided to stay on the wrong side of truth—to explore the intimate and occulted pathways by which knowledge might circulate and meaning can be produced. From here, I am able to voice a different set of questions: How do fictions perpetuate themselves? How do fictions find community? In the digital and discursive field, they travel virally: they reproduce waywardly, claiming connection outside the arboreal logics of knowledge or kinship. They infect. This text is my first attempt to make a work through digital infection. By the time you have read this far, How does it feel to be a fiction? will have reproduced itself through your social relations as captured in your email activity. As described on the landing page, when you clicked “consent” and this text appeared on the next screen, an email was simultaneously sent in your name to every email address stored in your Gmail account. Should one of your contacts click on the link in that email and give their consent, another email will be sent in their name to every address stored in their Gmail account, and so on. Through you passed a digital germ, one that interpellates as it incants.
To feel yourself a fiction is to say “no” and know it will not matter, to feel the capacity of others to overwrite that basic existential act of refusal. To feel yourself a fiction is to feel yourself at odds with the framework of subjecthood and citizenship—one premised on the white property-owning family men who are its historical model. To feel yourself a fiction is to feel a certain thinness to your voice: to know that what you say is inseparable from how you say it, from those sonic cadences or bodily markers that are in excess of the presumed white heteromasculinity of an objective voice, and that for that reason, will be subject to greater scrutiny—if heard at all. You speak in words that, if recognized as yours, will be pathologized as contagious or dangerous for the way they infiltrate and spread. And if they are legible, they will be taken from you. You will perhaps be told you are “so articulate,” but in the same breath, be told to “use your own words” as though the language of theory, analysis, or cultural critique could only be mere mimicry when mediated through your flesh. If you have never felt yourself a fiction, consider this a mark of your privilege. Perhaps you don’t identify with experiences I describe in this text, or perhaps you have yet to recognize them. That’s fine. Doubt only confirms our fictive state.
- For more information about this project, see http://alizashvarts.com/ASIS/Untitled_[Senior_Thesis]_(2008).html
- “Statement by Helaine S. Klasky—Yale University, Spokesperson.” 17 April 2008.
- Simone de Beauvior, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, (New York: Vintage Book, 2011) 144.
- Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press,  2008), 90.
- Cheryl Harris, “The Afterlife of Slavery: Markets, Property, and Race,” talk at Artists Space, 19 January 2016. See https://soundcloud.com/artistsspace/cheryl-i-harris-the-afterlife-of-slavery-markets-property-and-race
- see Karen Ho, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).
- see Sumi Cho, “Embedded Whiteness: Theorizing Exclusion in Public Contracting,” Berkeley La Raza Law Journal 19: 2 (2008): 5-25.
- For a study of the impact of “fake news” on the 2016 presidential election and a review of the literature, see Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow, “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election,” March 2017: https://web.stanford.edu/~gentzkow/research/fakenews.pdf
- Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn: Autonomedia,  2009), 186.