Lemmings

Fiction is dead. But don’t mourn its passing, the novel”—a word literally signifying “the new”—enjoyed a healthy run. Displacing romantic epics as the dominant genre of literature some 250 years ago, novels were a key part of the bourgeois shift toward realism, showing life matter-of-factly instead of according to an ideal vision. Abandoning the classical tradition of forming language according to poetic rules, novelists claimed to craft a transparent window onto the world. Fiction became the means by which the growing middle class learned to construct itself, creating habits and tastes appropriate to life within a bourgeois nation-state.

Today, non-fiction replaces fiction. Biographies, memoirs, histories, and self-help books increasingly dominate the bookstore. Television sitcoms and one-hour dramas give way to 24-hour news, reality television, celebrity biographies, cooking shows, history and science documentaries, as well as an endless stream of pundits. Ours is a world of harrowing real-life drama, how-to decorating shows, impossible-but-true trivia and perpetually happy news. While the novel was fiction’s most direct form, documentary film and video are the primary media forms for non-fiction narratives. Just as lyrical epics were collectively created and experienced through endless retellings, novels thrived in the detached meeting of an individual author with an individual subject through the pages of a printed book. Documentary films and videos, on the other hand, deliver an immersive experience of the real, putting the viewer, as much as possible, into the event itself. More than that, documentary films and videos promise the purported traces of the real in the form of light reproduced from film or magnetic tape that were once in turn, exposed to photons reflected by the object of the documentary.

The transparency of the novel was its own most cunning fiction, an artificial construction for putting modernity into an easily comprehensible form. So it is for non-fiction as well. Released in 1924, Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North was the first feature-length documentary film. Flaherty spent months living among the Inuit in an attempt to better understand his subject, but in order to make the story of the Eskimos appealing to viewers, he fictionalized many aspects of Nanook and his family’s lives, making them seem quainter and more backwards than they really were. When critics learned that Flaherty asked Nanook to hunt using spears as his ancestors did instead of the gun he was accustomed to, they accused him of taking liberties with the truth. Flaherty defended his method, arguing that to catch a thing’s true spirit, the filmmaker has to distort it.

Ever since, the barren landscape of the polar regions has attracted documentary filmmakers eager to test their mettle in a reality their audiences will never experience first-hand. The Academy Award winning 1958 documentary White Wilderness, part of Disney’s True-Life Adventure series, returned to the same general location and method pioneered by Flaherty, using animals to make the story of the frozen North coast less threatening and thereby easier to comprehend. To make the film, nine photographers spent three years on the documentary in Alberta, a temperate and landlocked province of Canada.

After Eskimo children told the photographers the urban myth that lemmings undertake dramatic migrations culminating in mass suicide leaps off cliffs at the edge of the sea, the photographers decided that the compelling story, true or not, had to be told. They imported lemmings, small rodents not native to Alberta, placed them on snow-covered turntables and filmed them from various angles to create a sequence depicting migration. To create the most famous sequence of the film, the photographers herded the lemmings over a cliff into a river cropped to look like the ocean while the narrator announced: “A kind of compulsion seizes each tiny rodent and, carried along by an unreasoning hysteria, each falls into step for a march that will take them to a strange destiny. ... They’ve become victims of an obsession”—a one-track thought: Move on! Move on!”

By providing a script for life in extreme environments, such films make the banality and misery of nature entertaining and amusing. They tame the unimaginable sameness of the most inhospitable parts of the Earth, forming it into easily comprehensible stories for distant audiences in comfortable theaters and warm homes. This process continues today. In 2005, March of the Penguins became a worldwide hit by depicting the lives of pairs of emperor penguins as a love story. Although in the American release actor Morgan Freeman narrates the story of the penguins, in the original French version, director Luc Jacquet represented the emotions of the pairs through voice-overs by male and female actors. This film, too, has been criticized by scientists for its rampant anthropomorphism. Its detractors argue that many of the most moving moments, such as when the penguins appear to grieve over a broken egg or a doomed chick, are merely Terry Schiavo-like instinctive reactions that appear cute but demonstrate no real sign of emotion or understanding.

To be sure, these are only limit conditions, useful to us for unveiling the process by which “true-life” stories are told. But documentaries not only permeate television channels, their strategies infiltrate our lives. The rise of our fascination with non-fiction is accompanied by our dawning awareness that reality is itself scripted, created according to the conventions of fictions. As in Nanook of the North, White Wilderness, or March of the Penguins, fiction does not so much disappear as it is sublated into reality.

Our contemporary fascination with the documentary does not mean that we take the world as it is, but rather reminds us that what appears to be reality itself is invented. Slavoj Zizek has written, “…it is not only that Hollywood stages a semblance of real life deprived of the weight and inertia of materiality”—in the late capitalist consumerist society, ”real social life’ itself somehow acquires the features of a staged fake, with our neighbors behaving in ”real’ life as stage actors and extras... [T]he ultimate truth of the capitalist utilitarian de-spiritualized universe is the de-materialization of the 'real life’ itself, its reversal into a spectral show.” In our hyper-saturated media environment, the real is constructed by media, and anything constructed by media is made real.

Believing that reality is scripted gives us bounds. If there is an order to things on reality TV, then it must be so in our lives. If there is an underlying author, we are relieved of the responsibility of having to make all of our own decisions. If reality can be edited, no action is irrevocable. We take comfort in knowing that we share in the same problems as others and that problems like our own are worthy of media coverage. Everyone’s lives become equal to everyone else’s. Like the novel or the documentary, in order to tell a compelling story and to make our world comprehensible, we preplan, script, and edit our lives, thereby making a compelling story out of the drudgery of everyday life. After reading an article about trouble in relationships, we throw a wrench into our own. The resulting problem has to be worked out, thereby relieving monotony while making us feel like a part of something greater. Perhaps, documentaries even suggest, our lives might be of sufficient interest to be capitalized, sold to the highest bidder as the basis for smash Hollywood hits.

In order to keep going in a world where every desire and every decision is valid, we have to creatively bring a sense of order to our lives. Non-fiction allows us to believe that the stories we tell ourselves about our existence have meaning and importance. The stories of the brave Nanook, the determined lemmings, and the loving penguins are models to aspire too, offering hope that like filmmakers in the polar regions, we too can make sense out of the banality of everyday life.