Biomedical Explanations and the Fear of Fiction
a unified theory of something my friend sometimes says
My friend Mitali, of this substack, often says that I hate “biomedical explanations.” The term is something of a misnomer—for one thing, I obviously believe that the biomedical sciences are an essential lens through which to understand the world but also, more pertinently, because the phenomena that fall under the label of “biomedical explanations” aren’t always linked to biology or medicine at all. But I know what she’s talking about—I know a biomedical explanation when I see one— and I know it has something to do with neatness and with smugness, with a desire to have one’s mind blown in some superficial way without actually interrogating or dismantling or reimagining any entrenched worldviews.
Why should I bother defining this little term my friend invented, and why should you bother reading about it? I’m bothering because the Biomedical Explanation (or, shall we abbreviate, the B.E.) is an increasingly inescapable, even dominant way of communicating information. There’s something in the makeup of the B.E. that almost guarantees it will circulate on the internet, and I want to know what that is—to understand this increasingly ubiquitous explanatory mode about the world, rather than merely recognize it, so that I can begin to figure out where that ubiquity is coming from. To define the B.E., then, I’m going to try and tease out the family resemblances that knit together a series of otherwise unrelated examples.
Example 1: The Salem Witch Trials
Mass hysteria and horror, neighbors turning on neighbors, young women convulsing and seeing visions, were merely the result of blighted rye crops. Those teenagers ate wheat that made them shake and seize and see things that weren’t there. Lacking scientific knowledge to contextualize this sickness, their wider society freaked out, like the provincial idiots they were, and concluded witches were to blame, and started burning people at the stake. Simple as that.
The Salem Witch Trials/Blighted Rye story is a classic example of the B.E, and it demonstrates something essential, which is that an explanation can be a B.E. without being false or even apocryphal. As far as I can tell, there’s reasonable evidence that the strange behavior of those young girls in colonial Massachusetts had something to do with corrupted food sources. What bothers me is not the claim itself but rather the quippy, Snapple cap way this information is usually deployed: not as a new layer on an already-layered history, but as a silver bullet that demolishes every other layer.
The Salem Witch Trials B.E. also re-situates the foreign as familiar, at the price of complexity. If everything was just a big misunderstanding, caused by the Salemites’ scientific illiteracy, then we moderns needn’t contort ourselves into the uncomfortable position of understanding these strange cultish people of the past. Instead we are allowed to remain in a vocabulary we understand, never straying from our own contemporary lexicon.
The B.E. delights in distancing and in simplifying. But that’s not all—the B.E. also condescends to all non-simplified explanations. Can you believe how complicated those people thought things were, when it was actually so simple? And if you waste your time and energy overthinking it, attempting to put the witch trials in context or understand the minds of those involved, then you too are a sucker, wasting your time, sweating as you contort yourself to see the past when you could with little effort at all remain in a fetal curl here in the present.
Example 2: Mythical Creatures
Mermaids, yetis, ghosts, vampires, dragons, unicorns, giants. Medusa, centaurs, the Loch Ness monster—the whole mythical bestiary, the entire pantheon of polytheistic worlds—was, quite simply, a mistake. A trick of the light. Long ago, this narrative goes, when people didn’t yet have access to glasses or contacts or Lasik, they’d catch blurry sight of an oddly-shaped cloud or a tree or a rhinoceros and conclude, stupidly, that it must be some sort of magical being (here’s a compilation of people speculating about this, some more facetiously than others, but the idea is all over the internet: I was spurred to write about it after seeing a TikTok making this very claim). If only they’d had an optometrist, the thinking goes, they wouldn’t have had to worry about all that made-up shit.
Like the Salem Witch Trials B.E., the Mythical Creatures B.E. demonstrates a real belief that people in the past were dumb—not even because they were sometimes violent religious fundamentalists (in the case of Salem) or because they were sometimes prone to flights of whimsy (in the case of mythical creatures) but entirely because they lived in the past, and lacked the technological and scientific resources we currently have. In other words, more of that distancing I talked about before. Also, both explanations take a situation which surely had multiple causes, a number of cultural and physiological and geological factors running together, and reject them all in favor of just one. So: in addition to its distancing and simplifying tendencies, the B.E. insists on a single-factor cause.
But these two examples, the Salem Witch Trials and the mythical creatures, share another characteristic—and it’s this last element of the B.E,, I think, that truly pisses me off.
This characteristic is a discounting of imagination. The word imagination tends to carry a certain connotation of cutesiness and coziness. It’s often associated with small children. But when I say that B.E.s discount the imagination, I mean it in a broad sense: I mean that they avoid considering the murky gulf between the factually correct and the factually wrong, the scientifically enlightened and the scientifically unenlightened. Interpretation, metaphor, inventiveness, perspective, and play are left unaccounted for.
People in the past may very well have literally, factually believed in dragons and whatever. Sometimes, poor vision probably caused them to think they were literally seeing things they were not. At times, they may have pinned a poorly understood and novel trick of the light, a blur in the distance, onto a preexisting folkloric fabric. But the smugly simplifying B.E. essentially takes the position that folklore itself—indeed, most fiction produced throughout human history—is nothing but a byproduct of poor eyesight and worse critical thinking. The folkloric fabric, in this worldview, does not actually exist: it’s all just a pile of pins, if you will. There is no accounting for narrative, for imagination, for humans’ capacity for inventiveness and storytelling and entertainment.
There is also no accounting for variance in cosmologies. The individuals who launched the Salem Witch Trials weren’t just missing an important piece of information that we enlightened viewers now possess. Rather, they inhabited a cosmology totally unlike our own, in which witchcraft was as much a part of the ecosystem as rain. They navigated what must have been a terrifying imaginative landscape, in which they saw themselves suspended over a burning hell, in a fragile colony on the edge of what they saw as a vast wilderness. Their worldview was not simply lacking in scientific knowledge or clear-headedness. Rather, their imaginative lives were different, and comprehending that differentness takes real intellectual work that the B.E. believes itself to be above.
Both examples I’ve given so far concern the past, but if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to offer another that has nothing to do with history, and yet very much remains in the realm of the B.E., precisely because it so boldly ignores the inevitability of others’ imaginations.
Example 3: Improvisation
Very very very frequently, somebody on the internet will claim (often incorrectly or baselessly, but sometimes with reason) that a given TV or movie scene was improvised. This little fact is relayed rhapsodically: to improvise is better and more authentic and more impressive than to memorize lines written by a writer. These claims are based partly on discounting the screenwriter’s imaginative capacity, obviously, but it also seems to me to discount the actor’s—not because improvisation isn’t a real and impressive skill cultivated by performers, but because the valence of these claims generally seems to be that the actor is literally inhabiting the part they play. In other words, they aren’t exercising artistry by crafting a fiction with skill and purpose—they’re effortlessly becoming someone else, speaking almost memoiristically as that other person. Fans often like this, because it suggests that the narrative they’re obsessed with is kind of real. The character exists, insofar as the actor playing them is not really acting, not really employing their imaginative mind, at all.
This is symptomatic of a more widespread animosity toward the fictional that is in the air right now. First-person fiction, or realist fiction generally, is assumed to be barely-disguised memoir (and memoir or autobiography is assumed to be totally unfiltered, uncorrupted by style or artistic choice). This is especially true when the writer is a woman or a person of color. Meanwhile, many people, certainly many publishers, are suspicious of authorial attempts to inhabit the mind or experience of another—we see this not only with discourse about appropriation from dominant groups, but also with its inverse, an insistence that writers from marginalized backgrounds narrativize that background and avoid straying from it. Furthermore, much contemporary Anglo-American fiction is basically allegorical, the idea being that the story should simply explain something that is true through the guise of something that is not. Or maybe the problem isn’t totally contemporary, but merely exacerbated by certain contemporary structures in publishing and in algorithmically-driven social media. After all, Susan Sontag protested this allegorical mode, writing that “A work of art encountered as a work of art is an experience, not a statement or an answer to a question. Art is not only about something: it is something. A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world.” Taken on its own terms rather than as an “answer to a question,” fiction (and art more generally) is weird and confusing and arouses suspicion. At times, people seem not merely disapproving of it, but completely unable to comprehend its existence: hence the B.E., which always posits a world where the imaginative and fictional simply aren’t present.
The B.E. rejects the complexity of human imaginative life, whether expressed in cosmology or folkloric tradition or artistic expression, in favor of reductive, oversimplified, single-factor explications that cast human agents as unreflective machines. It is rooted in a fear of the fictional and a genuine disbelief in the existence of the imaginative realm. It’s the wheat, it’s the eyesight, it’s the improv: it’s anything but a conscious mind among other conscious minds.
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