The False document reference article from the English Wikipedia on 24-Jul-2004
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False document

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A false document is a literary technique that attempts to create in the reader (viewer, audience, etc) a sense of authenticity beyond the normal and expected suspension of disbelief. That is, it wants to fool the audience briefly into thinking that what is being presented is actually a fact. This not to be confused with a mockumentary, an admittedly fictional film done in the manner of a documentary.

In practice, the device takes a very simple form. The work of art (be it a text, a moving an image, a comic book or whatever) usually is composed of or includes some piece of forgery. The false document effect can be achieved in many ways including faked police reports, newspaper articles, bibliographical references and documentary footage. The effect can be extended outside of the confines of the text by way of supplementary materials like badges, ID cards, diaries, letters or other objects.

The moral and legal implications of false document art are, by necessity, complex and perhaps insoluble. The difference between a great artistic achievement and a stunning forgery is slim. Sometimes the false document technique can be the subject of a work instead of its technique, though these two approaches are not mutually exclusive as many texts which engage falseness do so both on the literal and the thematic level.

Table of contents
1 Origin of the false document technique
2 False documents in art
3 False documents, fakery and forgery
4 False documents in theory
5 False documents in fiction
6 Hoaxes (are they art or not?)
7 False documents in politics
8 See also
9 Sources: or, false documents as a field of study

Origin of the false document technique

The technique is chiefly associated with postmodernism, but is both older than that movement, and also encompasses art pieces and activities outside of the scope of art usually considered part of any "artistic movement." One of the earliest examples of the technique is the 18th century French novel The Nun, by Denis Diderot. It was begun originally not as a work for literary consumption, but as an elaborate practical joke aimed at making a wealthy philanthropist give support to a spurious cause.

It seems to grow out of the epistolary novel but has more in common with the newspaper serial from which it draws most of its technique. The conceit is most commonly used where a heightened sense of authenticity is required for the desired effect of the story to be maintained. Blurring the line of reality and fiction is an important component of horror, mystery, detective and fantasy narratives because they wish to engender in a reader a sense of wonder, and of danger, both of which need to feel more present then a typical narrative form would allow. For this reason, false documentary techniques have been in use for at least as long as these literary genres have been around. Frankenstein draws heavily on a forged document feel, as does Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and many of the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire is a particularly elaborate variation.

False documents in art

Orson Welles' F for Fake is a prime example of a film which is both about falsification (art forgery and the journalism surrounding art forgery) as well as having falsified moments within the film. The movie follows the exploits of a famous art forger, his biographer Clifford Irving, and the subsequent fake autobiography of Howard Hughes that Irving tries to publish. The issues of veracity and forgery are explored in the film while at the same time, Welles tricks the audience by incorporating fake bits of narrative alongside the documentary footage.

Another artist who has run afoul of the technique is the artist JSG Boggs, whose life and work have been extensively explored by author and journalist Lawrence Weschler. Boggs draws currency. He draws with exceptional care and accuracy. But he only ever draws one side. And then he attempts to "buy" things with the piece of paper upon which he has drawn the currency. His goal is to pass each bill for its face value in common transactions. He buys lunch, clothes and lodging in this manner, and his bills after the transactions are complete fetch many times their face value on the art market along with accompanying evidence (receipts, photos and the like) which prove the veracity of the actual transaction. Boggs does not make any money off of the much larger art market value of his work. He only exists on the profit of the actual transaction. He has been arrested in many countries, and there is much controversy surrounding his work.

Mostly, however, the technique is employed in more mundane ways that hark back to its nineteenth century origins. Whether or not a particular piece of art is a false document, or is using false documentary techniques in a central way, is of course arguable. Usually, the character and extent of the use is examined.

False documents, fakery and forgery

Documentary filmmaking, and other attempts at actual documentation, can wittingly and unwittingly participate in the form as its goals of authenticity are so closely aligned with direct false documentation (that is, in both cases there is an element of authenticity and an element of narrative fudging). In Schwarzenegger's Pumping Iron for example, Arnold talks about how his father died in the months preceding a major body building competition. He uses this anecdote to illustrate how important the final months before a competition are to truly dedicated bodybuilder. He says that, though his father's funeral was set during the penultimate month, he did not attend because he could not be distracted from training. However, in the companion book it is revealed that as the time of printing, Arnold's father had not died. It does not say the story was a lie, it merely provides contrary evidence. Schwarzenegger was executive producer of both the film and the companion book. It has been theorized by Professor Sally Robinson that Schwarzenegger was intentionally undermining his own narrative, effectively creating a mildly self-deprecating re-examination of his own obsessions for perfection at any cost. In the end, whether Arnold intentionally fabricated the story for a desired effect is left to the audience.

False documents in theory

False documents in fiction

Several fiction writers use the technique of inventing a piece of literature or non-fiction, and refering to this work as if it existed, often also quoting from the work, while it in fact does not exist at all. The following is a list of such fictional documents:

Hoaxes (are they art or not?)

See also hoax.

False documents in politics

See also


Sources: or, false documents as a field of study

False documents were recently the topic of a graduate level seminar in the humanities at the University of Michigan. The seminar was taught by Professor Eileen Pollack. While the form has existed for at least two hundred years, focused study is fairly recent.


See Also: forgery, literature, literary technique, falsification, frame tale, conspiracy theory, urban legend, fictional guidebook, questioned document examination, epistolary novel