Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The nocturnal side of reason

"The injunction to practice intellectual honesty usually amounts to sabotage of thought." -- Theodore Adorno.

"The one who says 'Don't lie!' has first to say, 'Answer!' and God did not give anyone the right to demand an answer from others. 'Don't lie!' 'Tell the truth!' are words which we must never say to another person in so far as we consider him our equal." -- Milan Kundera.

The problem with the concept of "post-truth politics" is not just what it implies about "pre-post-truth politics". Strictly speaking, the concept is a category error. It is not truth, but facts which have been found wanting.

The very category of a ‘fact’ as an objective measurement of reality, which can be extruded from ideology, has taken a knocking since the credit crunch and subsequent economic malaise. Expertise, as Michael Gove reminded us, has made us sick. Its seeming commonsensical neutrality stands exposed as merely the prestige of the ruling ideology. Sir Humphrey Appleby can sound like a technocrat only for as long as the ends to which his techniques are crafted are taken for granted. Sam Kriss puts the point aphoristically: "a politics consisting of facts and nothing else isn’t politics, but management." And the managers have lost face.

"Post-truth politics" is just what we have been living under. The "monstrous worship of facts," as Wilde called it, the tyranny of technique, is an avoidance of truth.

In a narrow sense, it is possible to question whether a given statement is true or not -- that is, whether it is factual. But what would it mean to ask whether liberalism, socialism, or fascism were factual? Each of these discourses can organise a set of factual claims in their support, but their truth or falsehood seems to reside elsewhere, in the register of desire. When politics obscures this, when we can no longer inquire as to the truth of the discourse by which we are governed, our politics has become "post-truth".

How this situation came about is not obscure. Politics can only be a matter of management, rather than struggle, if one side is comprehensively and crushingly victorious. What one should say about 1989 and all that, is not the communism was finally defeated, but rather that its long-standing defeat was confirmed, and immediately registered in a drastic contraction of the horizon of possibility. As Enzo Traverso puts it, "an entire representation of the twentieth century," in which the disasters of the age were the ground on which revolutionary hopes were built, fell apart.

All that was left in the history of the victors was tragedy, and the sanctified victim. Struggle was hitherto nothing but an unfortunate (if sadly necessary) prelude to the Shangri-La of neoliberal capitalism. This was the "end of history" -- and, it was suggested with a degree of grave-tramping relish, thank god that's all over.

In such circumstances, it became permissible to say anything, even the truth, without it making the slightest bit of difference. Because politics had moved beyond the dimension of truth. This was sometimes called "post-politics" or "post-democracy", but "post-truth politics" is just as adequate.

It is not even necessarily the case that there has been a metric increase in the volume of political lying of late. It is simply that there has been a shift in political imaginaries. The ideological context in which we evaluate truth-claims is such that, while fewer people are likely to be taken in by fuzzy satellite imagery of weapons laboratories, proportionately more people are likely to be taken in by the idea that Mexican immigrants are rapists.

In the era of the 'war on terror,' there was much ado about a threat to reason posed by nefarious Islamists, poststructuralists, conspiracy theorists, and assorted leftists. There were various books by 'muscular liberals' extolling an historically disembodied, fetishistic version of the Enlightenment as the unique saleable property of 'Western civilization'. We could easily believe, then, in all sorts of strange and false stories, including about "al-Qaida" -- the blackhole into which all global problems were compressed.

And if the lies we tell, and believe, have changed, it is useless to respond to that with mournful nostalgia for the very recent past. According to Lacan, someone who lies on the couch is always operating in the dimension of truth. One can speak factually all day long, in an empty fashion devoid of (or rather, avoiding of) subjective truth. This is part of the resistance to analysis. As soon as one lies, however, one creates. And there is no creation without desire. Once you start to lie, you tell the truth about your desire -- perhaps in the only way that you can, through displacements and metaphors.

The lies we might tell about immigrants, for example, tell the truth about us. If we are not able to say, "any amount of immigrants is too many, and we should sadistically and brutally punish them for being here," we can instead massively exaggerate the numbers, identify migrants as 'illegals' and 'bogus', and scapegoat them for sexual assault and violent crime.

This is, of course, one reason why it is often useless to approach political argument like a debating society. One can correct false statistics, but people are neither simply deceivers nor deceived. They are, even when lying, operating in the dimension of truth. Correcting a lie, however necessary in its own right, does nothing to get to that other place, the place of desire -- and as such, by itself, it leaves the lie intact.

I have overstated the case. I have not been strictly factual.

The "comprehensive" victory of capitalism has always been provisional and conditional, and always at the mercy of its own internal dysfunctions. For capitalism to be fully victorious, it would have to become invisible, and even the most accomplished ideological illusionist will never pull of a feat like that.

It has also never been the case that one can say anything without making a difference, otherwise there would be no need for such comprehensive surveillance systems. No one would go to jail for the things they say, if the things they said made no difference.

It would also probably be child's play to demonstrate that the rate of variance between political claim and fact is much higher in the era of Trump, Farage, and Le Pen. They, after all, are exactly not technocrats: they aim to replace the monstrous worship of facts with the monstrous worship of power. In Lacanian terms, theirs is a master's discourse, not a university discourse.

But in pointing this out, I am also insulting my readers. To hedge like this, I have to tacitly assume that my readers are literal-minded, gullible, uncritical fools. As if they couldn't discern a rhetorical exaggeration, and understand its purpose in raising the stakes: as if they had never read a novel or heard a joke. Either that, or I'm behaving as if I'm frightened that an authority will chastise me for speaking so loosely. In either case, I'm intimidating myself.

Both the spectral mass and the presumed authority by which we might be intimidated are figures of a technocratic imagination, of the dictatorship of facts -- which is just another way of talking about the despotism of the fait accompli, the tyranny of the victors. We have to live under this dictatorship, it seems, because any challenge to the accomplished fact is a dangerous populist temptation, liable to incite the ignorant and call down punishment from wise overseers.

To be 'strictly' factual is, in a manner of speaking, to be deferential. It is to be loyal to a state of affairs, and the state of thinking, in which these facts obtain. It is in this sense that Adorno thought that a certain kind of obsessive intellectual honesty might simply boil down to intellectual conformity, resulting in an inability to think anything new. To really think, it seems, one has to stop being intimidated by facts.

As though any discussion, to be rigorous, has to have a surplus of play, of invention, excess, inversion, and transgression. "To test Reality," Wilde said of paradox, "we must see it on the tight-rope. When the Verities become acrobats we can judge them."

The nocturnal side of reason is the dimension of political truth. It has to do with what Adorno referred to as "pleasure and paradise," and the dreamwork by which we are able to articulate it. It is about the reason for our reasoning, the desire that sets logic in motion.

In the hard language of neoliberal thought, it is assumed that we already know what we want. There is only one legitimate desire, and that is to maximise utility -- where a 'utility' is anything that could be useful to us, from a pressure cooker to a romantic relationship. And if all political questions boil down to different ways of regulating how we come by the things we do, then deciding what we really want is never a problem. The question of desire is foreclosed. The dimension of political truth is shut down.

But truth will out, one way or another. And "post-truth politics" is nothing but a symptom of its re-emergence.