Is it possible to have a post-truth way of knowing? Is this a greater problem than the “psychotocracy” that a Trump/Bannon regime is creating?
“Trump’s ignorance is not just an absence; it is a rich, intricate and entirely separate universe of negative information, a sort of fertile intellectual antimatter with its own gravitational pull.”
David Brooks, “The Coming Incompetence Crisis,” The New York Times, April 7, 2017
The absence here is reason, as we know it within the Western Tradition of Rationality and Realism; the “intellectual antimatter” is the presence of a confounding way of knowing with the troubling name, “post-truth.” Whether or not there is a way of knowing that is paradoxically post-truth, it seems clear that we are all being drawn into it. The view that each of us is the sole authority of what anything is to mean fits an American cultural imaginary regarding individual autonomy.
What is especially appealing to Trump’s followers is the bold way he replaces any authority with his own thinking, which he tells us is better than anyone’s. A second order of observation reveals that such thinking is, as Brooks writes, “a sort of fertile intellectual antimatter,” revealing an errant subjectivity not responding to conditions outside itself.
This personal psychopathology is not synonymous with a post-truth awareness, which Trump did not launch but rather exploited. Instead of drawing us into cultural narcissistic solipsism, the results of our post-truth turn may lead us closer to interpreting the “active forces” shaping our narratives of truth.
“There are no facts, only interpretations.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Last Notebooks, 1888
The “community of the agog,” as Brooks refers to our present situation, is not the offspring of a sudden, explosive event, although Trump’s surprising victory was all of that. We have been on our way to a post-truth world since Nietzsche wrote:
What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms — in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions. (“On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” 1873)
The question as to “Whose truth is it?” drove the postmodernizing wave that had its end in the arts but has continued as a major strategy of our millennial ways of knowing, most especially demonstrated in marketing, advertising, and politics, which thrive in the spin zone of hyperreality. The post-truth ambiance is most clearly visible in our social media as arguments, now demoted as narratives, clash without respect of any adjudicating authority beyond personal opinion.
Before we went post-truth, we had faith that words captured reality, or, more precisely, referenced reality through the agency of reason in a fashion reliable enough for us communicate across wide divisions of wealth, ideology and personality. What was called a postmodern approach argued that 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 link word to world. What is visible all around us is that the authority of truth consensually agreed upon or even empirically validated has been replaced by a belief that each of us is free to choose our own facts and derive our own meanings. I am “whatever” about your facts and you are “whatever” about mine, a chilling attitude that replaces dialogue and dialectic.
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. To those already abiding the Trump way, “alternative facts” translate as “my facts,” which are impervious to any outside deconstruction.
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?
“To interpret is to determine the force which gives sense to a thing.”
Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, c. 1962.
The French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze traces the way we bring the world to meaning, that is, the act of interpretation, is a creation of force external to ourselves. “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. Deleuze is not focused on countering assertions of truth on one side or another but on the back story of each, seeking to expose the conditions and circumstances shaping a linking of word and world, shaping a narrative of truth being represented. As defined in physics, the force that causes a change, but here, not in objects, but in thinking, is the focus. Thinking that has been kept in place by an uncontested force for so long as to establish a tradition testifies to the endurance of that force, its persisting hold on us.
Truth seeking here lies in disclosing the play of that force, detecting what it seeks to hide, discount, or destroy, and then working strenuously to detach oneself from that force while weighing and perhaps adopting what it has denied. There is a careful science here in discovering within our human “worlding” what are the agents and conditions that bring anything to meaning.
Those agents and conditions invade science itself whose detachment from our “worlding,” cultural enterprises rely upon a method that has not escaped our post-truth disdain for all authority. However, it is not a post-truth tying fact to interpretation and interpretation to surround forces that undermines empirical and rational methodologies. Rather, it is the collapse of both fact and interpretation inward to personal determination, will and freedom to choose which corrodes all ways of knowing. Our post-truth ambiance directs us away from the illusions of personal autonomy and toward the “active, interpreting forces” around us and operating in us.
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. The post-truth world we have entered can no longer be considered in pursuit of “a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude,” and this attitude disrupts the authority of ways of knowing upon which American democracy was founded but are dissolving.
“Power is everywhere’ infusing what we say, what we know and packaging us in ‘regimes of truth.'”
— Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 1991
The modus operandus of the journalist to neutrally report in our post-truth climate now drives us into our interminable battles as to whose facts are being cited. What we know is derived from the ways we know and the focus should be on these. What we report on are the conditions, which are, as Foucault, in the wake of Nietzsche reminds us, established by power. Both the observer and the observed are embedded within arrangements of power that prioritize our fact finding missions but not our interpretation, our disclosure and measuring of such arrangements and their relationship to our knowing the world in one way and not another. What we have here is an extension of investigative journalism beyond bringing to light what is dark. Every truth story in a deeply divided society on the brink of either autocratic or psychocratic rule is infused by a corrupting and determining power.
The idea of a neutral, disinterested observer, whether a Supreme Court justice, a journalist, or a scientist has lost as much authority in our post-truth world as the idea of a universally respected authority, of any kind. We are not only uncontrollably embedded in what we observe by virtue of the way we observe, which is so very dependent upon “active and interpreting forces,” we are embedded within those forces. Interpretation is a matter of recognizing, measuring and extricating pronouncements of truth from a hierarchy of powers that bring these pronouncements to us as truths.
Because we are ready to fight tooth and nail and even to die for what we believe is true, the interpretive task as Deleuze defines it becomes vital. We are, to great consternation to some, in a post-truth world in which no establishing reference outside the fray of our disputes exists, or can be recognized by all as adjudicating. Our eyes cannot be directed at something in the world without intent already worldly shaped enabling us to see something and not nothing.
Again, this post-truth knock at the objectivity of our reasoning was not instigated by President Trump. Nietzsche wrote the following in 1887:
Henceforth, my dear philosophers, let us be on guard against the dangerous old conceptual fiction that posited a ‘pure, will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject,” let us guard against the snares of such contradictory concepts as ‘pure reason,’ ‘absolute spirituality,’ ‘knowledge in itself’: these always demand that we should think of an eye that is completely unthinkable, an eye turned in no particular direction, in which the active interpreting forces, through which alone seeing becomes seeing something, are supposed to be lacking; these always demand of the eye an absurdity and a nonsense. There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing,’ and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our ‘concept’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity.’
— Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals
If we locate our knowing not in our own autonomous will and locate the idea of truth not in “a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms” but rather in an awareness of what “active interpreting forces” are in play, then if awareness is a way of knowing, we are knowing in a post-truth world.
“Does the appalling character of the man on top matter?”
Paul Krugman, “The Bad, the Worse, and the Ugly,” The New York Times, April 7, 2017
Paul Krugman recognizes that when we put aside President Trump’s personal style, “the substance of Trump policy may not be that distinctive in practice.” “But style matters, too,” Krugman goes on, “because it shapes the broader political climate. And what Trumpism has brought is a new sense of empowerment to the ugliest aspects of American politics.”
Pointing to a personality, however fascinating his derangement may be, as what “shapes the broader political climate,” which is itself embedded in our post-truth cultural Weltanschauung, is giving Trump more credit than he deserves. Trump is a product of our paradigm change, an opportunistic, shrewd player who knows what game he is in, which cannot be said for Hillary, her supporters, all of Trump’s Republican rivals on the campaign trail, and all those surprised by Trump’s victory.
Assuming the individual, Trump, precedes the conditions out of which he emerges is an assumption we are culturally disposed to make. We are culturally programmed to place world as subject to individual will. Ironically, it is this attachment to the personal that brought the Reality TV celebrity to the presidency. Unless we de-cathect from this meme, we will see more pop culture leaders ahead.
The “ugliest aspects of American politics” then emerge neither from Trump nor out post-truth attitude regarding the authority of reason but instead from a steady retreat from the public space and any communitarian concern, which is itself a result of powerful determinants pushing us both into illusions of self-empowerment and personal autonomy and into a war of all against all. We have been made ugly before a post-truth ambiance pushed us toward measuring the impact of all agencies of power in forging what anything in the world is to mean to us.
”While stopping short of giving the president a formal psychiatric diagnosis, the experts called for him to submit to a full medical and neuropsychiatric evaluation by impartial investigators.”
— Richard A. Friedman, “Is It Time to Call Trump Mentally Ill?” The New York Times, February 17, 2017.
So, Trump is not responsible for the ugliest aspects of our dysfunctional society but have his actions and words led us to believe that it is time to call him mentally unfit?
Fear that he is fast creating an autocracy is allayed I think by the fractured, fractious nature of his regime, which means that it is already a failed rather an efficient regime that can really do damage, or great damage. If he does succeed in drawing to him a functional group of loyal apparatchiks that execute his will, manage to de-fang opposition from legislative and judicial branches, and counterbalance resistance with the alternative truths of a deranged authoritarian personality (as defined by Adorno), what results would be a psychotocracy.
Minus all that, what we have for this president’s term is a residency by one man whose illusions regarding self and world are such that he cannot rise to any level of integral accomplishment, least of all that of the successful authoritarian personality. He may be caught with his hand in the cookie jar; and Bannon’s well-laid plans to “deconstruct the administrative State” may lead to a “You’re fired!” decision from President Trump, whose only plan I would bet is to get the cookies and the jar, endless worshipful applause, and his hairdo on Mt. Rushmore.
Our post-truth situation, which began before Trump and will be with us afterward, is, however, very much a real situation that presents us with a way of knowing that can arm us against future imbecilic “regimes of truth.”