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A Post-Truth Presidency in a Post-Truth Age

There has always been only an imagined legitimate, reason authorized footing to our ordered, functioning democracy, whose order and functioning have now been slipping since January 20, 2017 9:00AM. In our post-truth world, reasoning has slipped.

Nevertheless, the very dramatic visibility in cyberspace of our disorder and our dysfunctionality exhilarates those who see “the order of things” open and vulnerable to their personal opinions. The popularity of the personal in the U.S. has discounted the need to study political and economic ideologies, a neglect that has culminated in the election of a Reality-TV celebrity as president. Such neglect is the most consequential failure in American education, one we still fail to see.

The integrity and authority of the personal is also only imagined, for the personal is, as always, never personal but always caught within an array of outside forces that shape it in ways both damaging and unforeseen. In short, we may ignore our market driven economic theory or the political ideology that fronts it, but neither is ignoring you. Or your “personal” opinion.

In a society in which one ruling force is at work, despite a fervid clash of differences churning on but none that questions in any serious way this ruling force, the personal is, as Chomsky alerts us, mostly manufactured. The power of a wildly out of hand Market Rule is the force that gives us what we reckon as our own personal determinations of meaning and value, our own path to truth, our own words, which we presume are sticking close to the bone of reality.

I am sure my words here, and the supplementing to follow, can find support and even detailed confirmation in our social media. After all, if President Trump can find support for or launch a search for confirmation for anything he tweets,  then it should become clear to a reader that no words, neither mine nor the President’s, can now be brought to ground in a universally accepted way as either true or false.

We have had in the past more faith in our credentialed voices of authority than we have now when all such credentialing seems orchestrated by. . .? Steve Bannon calls it “the administrative State,” a regime of order than has left all of Trump’s supporters on the discard pile. . . until he comes to rescue them.

We can reasonably expect that Trump and family will, now or later, be caught with their hands in the cookie jar; and that Bannon’s “economic nationalism” will crash and burn at the starting gate. However, we cannot reasonably expect that the populist turn to personal opinions as final arbiters of truth and reality and their attendant turn away from any other authority, including a non-partisan reason,  will vanish when the Trump circus leaves town.

Before we went post-truth, we had faith that words captured reality, or, more precisely, referenced reality through the agency of reason in a totally reliable way. What was called a postmodern approach argued that words were not tags inherent in reality nor was reality tagged with words. The connecting of word and world was a cultural enterprise, which means that our worldly power arrangements are in a constant battle as to who is to fix word to world.  Reality is in the packaging and the branding.

One of our new Trump instructors as to what anything means, Kellyanne Conway, alerts us to “alternative facts.” These are not rival interpretations of facts but a rivaling on the level of fact itself. “It’s raining.” “It’s sunny.” The two facts cannot be derived from the same situation. I unpack what Conway is implying in this fashion: You can attach differing realities to words and thus alternative facts will emerge from those differing realities. Words float; they are up for grabs and she is telling the non-Trump world that from now on this is the way — the Trumpian way –word is attached to world. And that is the new world we are in so accept our facts or wind up on the hit list.

That world of Trumpian control of language and meaning is now being played out to the roaring approval of his fans and to the dread of everyone else. Perhaps Trump as the Humpty-Dumpty who is to tell us what anything is to mean  has already peaked and is now after a couple of months in decline.

But what of the damage done? How then to proceed to handle this grassroots attachment to the post-truth skepticism regarding truth?

Gilles Deleuze tells us “to interpret is to determine the force which gives sense to a thing.” “Thing” here expands to idea, or an event, or a time, or a person. Word and world are linked in our minds in a way that suits the priorities of this force, which may have many tentacles through which it exerts its power.

How do we break free? The first step is to stop digging for Truth as we hope it will be expressed on one side and not another. What we are after is a true revelation of the conditions and circumstances shaping a linking of word and world, shaping a narrative of truth being represented. As defined in physics, we are looking for the force that causes a change, but here, not in objects, but in thinking, and not in adaptive thinking but thinking that has been kept in place by an uncontested force.

Truth seeking here lies in disclosing the play of that force, detecting what it seeks to hide, discount, or destroy, and then detaching oneself from that force while weighing and perhaps adopting what it has denied.

You can call this a post-truth path that is liquid, in motion, leading to discovering truths that are likewise liquid and in motion. Every form of organization seeks to eliminate a disruptive noise and so is in a perpetual state of re-organization, of change.

Although we fear that in a post-truth world “anything goes” and that everything is whatever it means to each one of us personally, “anything goes” within a defining contest which also defines the personal.

We might think that in a world in which no establishing reference outside the fray of our disputes exists, or can be recognized by all as an adjudicating presence that therefore anything goes. The upshot seems to be that no authority exists to condemn my story as fake and yours as true.

However, because we live within the values and meanings, priorities, presences and absences that we ourselves have created we are never, at any moment, in a place whereby anything goes. And so, anything goes within the constraints of time and place. Anything goes within the hyperreality of both online and offline worlds, in which the advertising of hatred and phobias, of fake news and alternative facts, and of an ever expanding offering of artificial needs and desires meld intimately into what we delusionally call our inviolable personal opinion.

Our “personal” is constrained in this fashion, and therefore what anything means is subject to how we ourselves are already disposed by those worldly constraints to find meaning.

Our “I” is thrown into a world already kicking along within its ruling priorities which we absorb as we develop. To what degree we can create a personal story free of the all the stories around us, a story that has no story roots outside our own genius, is unknowable but most likely the answer is: Not at all.

We are therefore free to choose not within an unbounded domain of choices but within what time and place offer us. Where and when we are has much to do with who we are. We may personally choose money making college majors but American market culture has been there before us. The Chooser has always already been chosen.

Thus, it seems that a first step in measuring conditions that shape truth stories must be directed to the self, to uncover the roots of our likes and dislikes. To shut that interpretation down at the gate is to assume that one has an autonomous being in the world, that one is self-creating by virtue of free choices that are free because one chooses them to be free.

Once again, what we have here is a rigorous, ongoing pursuit of the truth of one’s self and its interrelationship with the world. From that awareness, we can presume that destructive and hateful narratives unraveling the interrelationships of self and world will be campaigned against.

We can no longer hope to prove anyone’s words false in a mutually recognized and accepted way. But we can trace the play of forces shaping their realities, expose strategies of power and the ends they seek. Exposure of these strategies of power in such a way as to expose formative forces, from subtle persuasion to manipulation, is the methodology of a post-truth world.  Once we get beyond the illusion that we are autonomous, free to choose subjects impervious to what we are “whatever” about, this methodology allows us to do politics in a post-truth world.

Right now, the anxieties and fears of a post-truth world  result from our illusions of individual autonomy and also the defensive methodologies of refutation.

We hold the view that a reasoning recognized by all would settle all disputes, would refute false connections of word and world, and would display to everyone’s satisfaction which facts are real and which alternative. We also hold the world itself as a validating point of reference outside our political battles to which we can refer to as a mutually accepted adjudicator. Once again, we trust that the false narrative can be refuted. Democrats are in search of the Voice with such superpowers who can do all this while disciples of Market Rule continue to weaponize that Rule without fear.

In our post-truth condition, we witness the presence of opposing narratives and the absence of any mutually accepted means of refutation.

That, however, is not the condition in which the scientific method finds itself. It is a condition that has overwhelmed culture but not science, although we now see that a cultural disdain for all authority has spread into the domain of science. Tthe post-truth defection from reason and any form of authority has entangled the scientific consensus regarding, for example, climate change in the “But whose truth is it?” skepticism which invades our broad cultural domain. The scientific method holds onto us tightly; the best that deniers can say is that the results of the method are yet inconclusive. This is a view that holds in the U.S. and nowhere else.

If we use a strategy of searching for the forces at work here, we immediately ask: In whose view? In the view of those heavily invested in fossil fuels, those who see no reason to jeopardize their profits because of a planetary crisis they will not be around to experience. This motivation is not ignoring the scientific method but merely evoking skepticism already active everywhere in American culture. It is also drawing on the force of pragmatism, as deeply embedded in the American cultural imaginary as the illusions of individual autonomy. A dystopic future caused by global warming is a kind of theoretical abstraction; profits now suits a priority given to pragmatism in the U.S.

What our strategy discloses is that if we focus not on which side has the truth but rather on what forces stand behind these truth stories, what force, as Deleuze writes, is giving to something an aura of what seems meaningful, true and real to us, then if truth is in awareness, we know what is true. We have observed the contesting arena not only in terms of its combatants but also in terms of the who, how, why, when they got there.

Unfortunately, that arena of contesting is now a cyberspace moshpit of 140 character tweets countered or supported by other 140 character tweets in a never ending rolling out of vitriol fragments. The coherence, unity and continuity that any thoughtful exposition must possess has vanished and our “conversation” sinks to the lowest level where faceless voices with masquerading identities lash out at each other, straining for attention in the virtual limelight of cyberspace.

Likewise, what we find on TV, most especially Fox TV, is a speed video game where it is more important to give the appearance of having “crushed” your opponent than pursuing a point-counterpoint argument.

The prevalence of the conjunction use of the word “so” is not actually preparing us for words resulting from or in consequence of what someone else has said but rather as a dismissive “so,” a kind of “whatever” termination. These joists play out on YouTube and selected apps repeatedly, etching into the “free choosing subject” what they will parrot as their “personal opinions.”

Because there is no starting point which is a blank slate but one is always already persuaded to watch Fox and not PBS, click on Breitbart News Network and not Mother Jones and so on, what is deeply etched over time are confirmations of the monologue one is bound into. The ease of the click and the infinitude in cyberspace of faceless voices all filing truth stories makes it difficult for any voice to be heard, rather like the way a sand storm obliterates the identity of any one grain of sand.

The intent of our strategy is not on adding another truth story but rather on disclosing what conditions and what forces shape a truth story. But we are now in an age in which two universes, online and offline, are hailing us, quite different than when “offline” reality was our only reality.

Before we went post-truth, the legacy press, the stalwarts of the Fourth Estate owned the communicative real estate, until challenged by radio and TV and now challenged by cyberspace. We are all, including the Fourth Estate, driven to enter that digital domain or condemn ourselves to irrelevance in the eyes of a rising generation who exist solely online. The struggle for “eyeballs,” for the attention of the most number of people, has expanded exponentially in a very short period. It is difficult to conclude that cyberspace is a public space which promotes the general Welfare but rather a space, so boundless and open, that it is truly chaos, formless, primordial matter that Market Rule shapes to meet its needs.

If we get an opportunity and learn from our mistakes, by which I mean if we survive the Trump presidency, we need to focus on what we can change and leave the un-removable alone.

What I include as un-removable here is all our technologies, present and future. However much Facebook and Google promise to gatekeep/curate their businesses, there is no way of closing Pandora’s Box now that it has been opened. A ubiquitous, smooth working virtual reality technology will most likely remove many of our cyberspace relationships, replacing them with an even more confounding– and certainly distanced —  relationship between ourselves and the world of which we are part.

What we can change can be changed by a strategy of disclosing the conditions of our truth stories. Right now, we pursue an odd tactic of false equivalency in our truth pursuit. This approach misrepresents the amount of force behind opposing stories.

For example, if as much time is allotted to a climate change denier as to a climate scientist, while questioning both without prejudice, you are misrepresenting the reception and allegiance to those views nationwide. By applying scientific style objectivity to broad culture debates assumes recognition of impartiality that no longer exists in a post-truth world.  The misapplication or inappropriateness of the scientific method to much of our political, economic and social debates, does not, however, mean we are weaponless.

Instead of a PBS Newshour interviewer, or any interviewer, remaining neutral while opposing views are treated as if the conditions, which drive them, are equal in kind and degree, what must be disclosed is the motivating background of each view.

What is called for in a post-truth age is a tracing of affiliations and affinities that lead to, say, a narrative supporting trickledown economics, or a narrative connecting government aid as a moral hazard risk, or a narrative determining that a man born in wealth is best suited to understand an harassed wage earning class.

The goal of the post-truth strategy suggested here is to expose the forces that both benefit from unreachable chaos and foment it. And, as in the case when we discover where the roof is leaking, we set out to repair it.

Because forces are both chameleon like and at the same time single mindedly dedicated like a dog with a bone, the processes of revealing how such forces are at work in bringing the world to meaning for us are continuously adaptive. But we are also voices citing an historical record, for the past, as in a murder mystery, is often the place where motivations can be found.

This sort of methodology parallels, but in a different fashion, the Enlightenment pursuit of Truth pursued down that Golden Road with an unchallenged Reason as our guide.

Disclosing the forces, the motivating conditions, that have fashioned the many who are attached to Donald Trump, and remain so, is far different than refuting their arguments with your arguments. Revealing the points at which such motivation intersects the forces Trump brings to bear is a way of knowing that will lead to a consequential “So,” as in “So now we know what to do to save ourselves.”

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Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Travels of a New Gulliver.

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