Matthew Scully graduated with a PhD in English from Tufts University in 2018. Since graduating, he has been an affiliated faculty at Emerson College for five years in the Department of Writing, Literature & Publishing and the Institute for Liberal Arts & Interdisciplinary Studies. Last week, the Zoon Garden Team reached out to have a conversation with him about fiction’s role in shaping truth.
“Perhaps because of my training in literary studies, I always approach questions of interpreting the media and ‘truth’ in terms of the problem of reading,” says Scully. “In any given reading encounter, the reader might interpret the object being read in any number of ways. There is rarely (if ever) just one, ‘correct’ reading. At the same time, however, there are certainly bad or wrong readings.”
Scully maintains that in humanity’s search for truth, the first step is defining what “truth” actually is. “If by truth we mean something absolutely ‘objective,’ or something essential, or universal, then I don’t believe such a thing exists,” he says. “But if we retool our sense of objectivity to refer to something that refers to collective, social, and historical processes, to material facts of existence, and to communities of sense and understanding, then truth becomes more relevant as a category.”
Zoon Garden: The Decline of a Nation attempts to express “truth” through allegorical language, using fiction as a means of portraying material realities. This is something literature does constantly. As a result, we construct our understanding of life through the fictional worlds we inhabit.
“Our relationship to whatever we call material reality is always necessarily mediated by fictional, representational, and narrative structures,” says Scully. “The stories we tell ourselves, or the stories we’ve inherited (whether consciously or unconsciously), structure our relationship to the world.”
According to Scully, these fictional worlds and expressions of “truth” always return to questions of knowledge and power. “Stories not only help us make sense of ourselves, but also help us understand and constitute a community that persists over time,” he says. “Stories are able to reveal to us different ways of being in and different modes of knowing the world. They can reframe what is thinkable and perceivable. The kinds of stories we construct can therefore interrupt narratives of domination and oppression.”
So how can we seek out sources which interrupt narratives of oppression and division? If objectivity is impossible, how can we strategize to seek out information that accurately reflects our material reality? For Scully, the answer involves skepticism, critical thinking, and asking active questions.
“We always need to ask, who’s speaking?” says Scully. “Who is the audience? And, perhaps even more important, who funds the venue from which this speaker makes their claims?”
By thinking critically about our country’s prevailing narratives, we can reconstruct our vision of what the United States can and should be – and with time, perhaps decrease polarization.
“Amidst our ongoing global crisis, which, as is always the case, affects the most vulnerable populations unevenly and disproportionately, it is even more necessary that we come up with better narratives, narratives that disturb the working of inequality rampant in society,” says Scully.