Is fiction more like the covert violation of the liar, or like the overt violation of the ironical speaker? Unlike the liar, the fiction author doesn’t hide her untruthful intentions: they’re on the book’s cover, or announced by a library classification sticker. When you pick up a Harry Potter book, watch one of the movies, or listen to a podcast discussion thereof, there is no deception – in fact, a proper appreciation of the work presupposes that we know that Harry Potter is a fictional character, made up by J K Rowling. However, unlike in the case of irony, the fiction author’s words have their regular meaning. The apparent flouting doesn’t trigger the expected nonliteral reinterpretation of the author’s words in order to restore adherence to the maxims.
So while we have managed to distinguish irony from lying, the place of fiction in our typology remains unclear. There are two hypotheses to explore. First, we can stick with the idea that both fiction and lying are quality-violating assertions – ie, speech acts presenting something believed to be false as if it’s known truth – and then look for some other feature to distinguish them. Second, outward appearances to the contrary, we can analyse fictional discourse as constituting a different type of speech act, where the usual norms and maxims don’t apply in the first place.
Bunn and Salzer had come to the Whites to lay the groundwork for a study of very old bristlecone wood. Bunn is keenly interested in tracking climate change through bristlecone data. Salzer has long wanted to fill out a comprehensive chronology of bristlecone tree rings, carrying on work that began at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research in the mid-twentieth century. After breakfast, we drove up a narrow, twisting road leading into the Whites. Upon picking a camping spot, we headed to the chief attraction of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest: the Schulman Grove. It includes Methuselah, and was named for Edmund Schulman.
Bunn, the more loquacious of the pair, said, “What is the oldest tree? It’s trivia. Matt and I don’t find it that interesting. It’s unanswerable. A lot of these trees have been dated; a whole lot haven’t.” He paused. “Of course, I get a chill from standing next to something that’s been living in the same place for five thousand years. We can’t begin to comprehend the mechanisms of birth and death on that scale.”
But if humans’ fears that technology would replace them have been unfounded in the past, this time is different. So argues Daniel Susskind, a fellow in economics at Oxford, in his new book, “A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond.” Susskind declares that machines are getting so smart that they’ll soon replace humans at a growing list of jobs, potentially including doctors, bricklayers and insurance adjusters, thus ending what he calls the “Age of Labor.” Without some sort of intervention, he says, the inequality inherent in today’s economy will metastasize into an even greater divide between the haves and have-nots.
They say the rules are: be forgotten, or proclaim myself.
I’m reasonably tired of that game, myself.