Tim O’Brien and the ’90s postmodern patient zero
Turn back the clock to the most unironic ironies, to halcyon days: a distant landscape populated with plaid and Dr. Martens-donning teens and tweens. Blockbuster stores are thriving, proudly located on Main Street. Simultaneously colorful and grungy, the ’90s represented a new counterculture rebellion, a relentless repudiation of the establishment and a universal truth. Emerging out of the hyper-consumerist ’80s and post-Watergate eras, young adults in the ’90s re-examined their relationship to their government, their corporations and their ideologies, morphing and adjusting their personal creeds accordingly. Feelings and emotions took precedence over fact in describing the new, increasingly gray, morally suspect world. The vaulted American Dream became less of an aspiration and more of an imposition. The ’90s marked the advent of accepting “truth” as subjective.
One can use O’Brien’s seminal work on Vietnam to observe a transition in American thought and belief. His work best encapsulates the ’90s disillusionment and ill ease with the establishment and mainstream narratives. No other written work holds government and ideology suspect like Tim O’Brien’s classic “The Things They Carried” (1990). The novel interrogates the notion of a universal “truth” and questions the institutions that claim to know what is “true.” His novel functions as a postmodern patient zero, a template by which secondary school teachers teach subjectivity.
After documenting and following a series of soldiers, giving insight into their personal narratives and war experiences, Tim O’Brien undermines his own “truth” with a legendary chapter titled “How to Write a True War Story.” Within that chapter, Tim O’Brien effectively promotes false truths and fiction as the best way to transmit experiences that cannot be put into words. He writes, “Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness. In other cases you can’t even tell a true war story. Sometimes it’s just beyond telling … True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis ... It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.”
O’Brien’s insistence on sensory perception, claiming “the stomach” as the best truth receptacle, prioritizes feeling over fact. By manipulating and mixing fact and fiction in his novel, O’Brien establishes fact as fiction. The “crazy” truth requires the fictitious “normal stuff” to “make you believe.” There are no true facts in the same way that there is no truthful fiction. Everything and everyone is subject to subjectivity.
O’Brien’s treatise on subjective truth would echo through America over the next three decades.
The postmodern emphasis on feeling in “The Things They Carried” foreshadows 2020’s complete rejection of reality and objectivity. After the disruption of Vietnam, the emergence of video news and rampant financial uncertainty, the American public lost faith in objective truth. Objective truth, or the attempt to evoke truth as an unshakable, immutable value comes off as naive and shortsighted. As a patient zero, a taught template for understanding subjectivity, O’Brien’s work forecasted the success of fictitious truth and popularized it. The American public no longer finds the concepts of truth and facts persuasive.
The erosion of objective truth is also in part due to the increase of news options available to the American public. In the ’90s, new television stations and news outlets emerged, changing the way “truth” and fact were projected to the American people. Originally, Americans received their news from a trifecta of three large media outlets: NBC, ABC and CBS. All news sources reported the same information. By the mid-1990s, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC fully emerged onto the scene, facilitated by an overhaul of telecommunication laws called the Telecommunications Act of 1996. With the cable industry deregulated, news channels became more targeted, laying down the architecture for the 21st century’s diverse and hyper-saturated news market. By the 2000s, cable news focused on emotional resonance as a more real and more representative “truth” than the “real” objective truth, manipulating interviews and statistics to provoke audience reactions.
Starting officially in 1996, Fox News radically changed the landscape of cable news. The network was created with the intent to present news with a specific narrative; a digestible, targeted analysis of headlines. One of its first shows, The O’Reilly Factor, was pre-taped, unlike previous live news programs. The producers were able to edit and preview the content. The show was ahead of its peers in tactically curating Fox’s nightly news for its audience, choosing provocative stories that promoted the network’s agenda. The channel's nightly news concentrates on aggregating and sorting news, choosing which headlines and world events to highlight.
This process of selected news cycles became more heightened in the 21st century, in which the rise of the internet and social media allows for a more rigorous and specialized curation of news. Now, in 2020, algorithms calculate an individual’s interest in content and news, providing the individual with more of their chosen poison. Individuals can easily and unintentionally self-segregate themselves. The Pew Center reports that 20 percent of Americans receive their news often from social media in 2018, a 2 percent uptick from 2016. This statistic is worrying, considering the subjective (and often untrue) reporting of modern platforms that prioritize their own specific “truth” and mission over any vague concept of what’s fair and objective.
The ’90s has a rocky relationship to objective “truth” as shown in Tim O’Brien’s novel. Though his investigation of subjectivity only explicitly applies to inexplicable concepts, such as war, the suppositions of his argument remain.
Does an embracement of “gut feeling” best uphold authenticity? Does an objective truth exist? Does a subjective truth exist? Can our understanding of truth further deteriorate into uncertainty? These questions, raised in the 1990s, linger in the new age of American media that is heralded by technological innovation and ideological exhaustion.