Critical Theory And The Supposed Post-Truth Era: The Ideological Reaction

The tools that critical theory provides enable the undermining and subversion of established structures of power–political, cultural, discursive, technical, material, governmental, architectural, scientific, moral. They expose ideological pretensions and foundations, thus making it possible to see that all that is seemingly permanent and absolute may rest on evanescence. on historical contingency and accident and luck; they enable a corrosively suspicious response to any claims to political virtue. Critical theory is subversive; it should induce a kind of vertigo of possibility, one tinged with both fear and excitement; moreover, if the kind of critical position it points to is available for all dominant systems of cultural and political and intellectual formations, then it should also induce a fierce counter-reaction to its ‘revolutionary’ possibility, a co-opting of its ‘tools’ to be used against it. That is the least you would examine of any sophisticated ideology with a track record of survival; the ability to utilize the features of its opponents to undermine it.

The current brouhaha about how postmodernism made the Donald Trump presidency possible, by clearing the decks for fake news and alternative facts and truth-free daily briefings for the White House Press Corps and Pinocchio-inspired press spokespersons, by inspiring disrespect for ‘truth’ and ‘justification,’ is part of this counter-reaction. It is perfectly predictable; when those in power are subjected to the critique that their claims carry with them their pretensions to power, that they are invested with their own selfish material interests, that their philosophies are but their autobiographies, they will use those critical tools against the critique itself.

The suggestion that tools of critical analysis, the ones used to unmask pretensions of power, are the ones used to prop up an authoritarian regime that plays fast and loose with ‘facts’ and ‘truth’ and all of the other components of a realist, respectable, scientific, naturalistic epistemology is a reactionary one; and a predictable one too. It is of a piece with all those claims that point out problems with the form and content of protests; never the right time, never making its points in the right way, or speaking at the right volume. When directed at critical theory, this reaction says that your kind of protesting, its form, its methods, its techniques have resulted in the creation of a new and deadlier political and cultural monster; cease and desist with your critical analysis at once. It suggests that our tools are being used against us; we should lay them down at once; we should exert no other form of critical analysis to help us make political, cultural, or epistemic judgments. We should have known all along what was coming at the terminus of this ‘critique’: the claim that power in place should not be criticized, that critique has gone bad.

The perfect predictability of this ideological maneuver makes its deployment unsurprising; the personnel recruited for it–philosophers and journalists–are also the expected ones. Their easy acquiescence might be a little worrisome, of course, but all kinds of resistance breaks down when power comes calling.

Brave Analytic Philosophers Use Trump Regime To Settle Old Academic Scores

Recently, Daniel Dennett took the opportunity to, as John Protevi put it, “settle some old academic scores.” He did this by making the following observation in an interview with The Guardian:

I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. You’d have people going around saying: “Well, you’re part of that crowd who still believe in facts.””

Roughly, postmodernism brought you Donald Trump. If only Trump voters hadn’t read so much Deleuze or Derrida or Spivak, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are now. Dennett has now been joined in this valiant enterprise of Defending Truth and Knowledge by Timothy Williamson who makes the following remarks in an interview with The Irish Times:

No philosophical manoeuvre can stop politicians telling lies. But some philosophical manoeuvres do help politicians obscure the distinction between truth and falsity.

When I visited Lima, a woman interviewed me for YouTube. She had recently interviewed a ‘postmodernist’ philosopher. When she pointed at a black chair and asked ‘Is that chair black or white?’ he replied ‘Things are not so simple’.

The more philosophers take up such obscurantist lines, the more spurious intellectual respectability they give to those who try to confuse the issues in public debate when they are caught out in lies. Of course, many things in public affairs are genuinely very complicated, but that’s all the more reason not to bring in bogus complexity….

Obviously it wasn’t mainly postmodernism or relativism that won it for Trump, indeed those philosophical views are presumably more widespread amongst his liberal opponents than amongst his supporters, perhaps most of whom have never heard of them. Still, those who think it somehow intolerant to classify beliefs as true or false should be aware that they are making it easier for people like Trump, by providing them with a kind of smokescreen.

In the course of an informal Facebook discussion, I made the following responses to Dennett’s remarks (which I described as ‘very silly’):

[We] could just as well lay the blame on the very idea of truth. Perhaps if truth wasn’t so exalted so much, we wouldn’t have so many people claiming that they should be followed just because what they said was the truth. Especially because many lies really are better for us than some truths. Perhaps we would have been better off seeing what worked for us, rather than obsessing about naming things as true or false.

Fascist insurgencies like the ones here in our country are not relying on post-modern critiques of truth and fact to prop up their claims; they need only rely on something far simpler: the fact that talking of truth and facts grants them an aura of respectability. The elevation (or demotion) of this political debate to a matter of metaphysics and epistemology is to play their game because we will find these pillars of ours to actually rest on sand. Far better to point out to proponents of ‘alternative facts’ that these facts will not help them send their kids to school or cure their illnesses. Let us not forget that these ‘facts’ help them in many ways now: it finds them a community, makes them secure, gives vent to their anger and so on. I’ve never liked the way everyone is jumping up and down about how some great methodological crisis is upon us in this new era, which is entirely ab initio. People have been using ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ all through history and using them to achieve political ends.

On a related note, Ali Minai responds to another set of claims against ‘relativism’ made in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Alan Jay Levinovitz:

In fact, it is non-relativism that has generally been the weapon of choice for authoritarians. The weaponization of “alternative facts” may be aided by relativism but its efficacy still relies on the opposite attitude. It works only when its targets accept “alternative facts” as actually true.

What these responses to the Defenders of Truth Against Relativism make quite clear are the following propositions:

  1. So-called ‘postmodern’ critiques are more often than not, the political weapons of choice for those critiquing authoritarian regimes: they serve as a theoretical grounding for claims against ‘dominant’ or ‘totalizing’ narratives that issue from such regimes.
  2. Non-relativism or absolutism about truth is the preferred theoretical, argumentative, and rhetorical platform for authoritarians. Let us not forget that science was a challenge to the absolutism about truth that revealed religions claimed to profess; the Enlightenment brought many ‘alternative facts’ in its wake. Those worked; their ‘truth’ was established by their working. All the mathematical proofs and telescope gazings would have been useless had the science and technology built on them not ‘worked.’
  3. When fascists and authoritarians present ‘alternative facts’ and reject established knowledge claims, they do not present their alternative claims as ‘false’ because ‘truth’ is to be disdained; rather, they take an explicitly orthodox line in claiming ‘truth’ for their claims. ‘Truth’ is still valuable; it is still ‘correspondence’ to facts that matters.

The target of the critiques above then, is misplaced several times over. (Moreover, Willamson’s invocation of the philosopher who could not give a ‘straightforward’ answer to his interlocutor is disingenous at best. What if the ‘postmodernist’ philosopher wanted to make a point about colorblindness, or primary or secondary qualities? I presume Williamson would have no trouble with an analytic philosopher ‘complicating’ matters in such fashion. What would Williamson say to Wilfrid Sellars who might, as part of his answer, say, “To call that chair ‘black’ would be to show mastery of the linguistic concept ‘black’ in the space of reasons.” Another perfectly respectable philosophical answer, which Williamson would not find objectionable. Willamson’s glib answer to the question of whether the definition of truth offered by Aristotle correct is just that; surely, he would not begrudge the reams of scholarship produced in exploring the adequacy of the ‘correspondence theory of truth,’ what it leaves out, and indeed, the many devastating critiques leveled at it? The bogus invocation of ‘bogus complexity’ serves no one here.)

Critiques like Williamson and Dennett’s are exercises in systematic, dishonest misunderstandings of the claims made by their supposed targets. They refuse to note that it is the valorization of truth that does all the work for the political regimes they critique, that it is the disagreement about political ends that leads to the retrospective hunt for the ‘right, true, facts’ that will enable the desired political end. There is not a whiff of relativism in the air.

But such a confusion is only to be expected when the epistemology that Williamson and Dennett take themselves to be defending rests on a fundamental confusion itself: an incoherent notion of ‘correspondence to the facts’ and a refusal to acknowledge that beliefs are just rules for actions–directed to some end.

Susan Sontag on Truth’s ‘Value’

Susan Sontag, in reviewing Simone Weil’s Selected Essays, offers some remarks on the nature and function of truth, and its placement in our schema of intellectual and emotional endeavor. In doing so, she strikes a slightly Nietzschean note:

Perhaps there are certain ages which do not need truth as much as they need a deepening of the sense of reality, a widening of the imagination. I, for one, do not doubt that the sane view of the world is the true one. But is that what is always wanted, truth? The need for truth is not constant; no more than is the need for repose. An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may better serve the needs of the spirit, which vary. The truth is balance, but the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie.

So, the ‘sane’ is the true, but it is not always the most desirable. Truth–as the remark for the ‘need for repose’ indicates–may only represent a kind of quiescence, an accepting of the world as is, an illusory freezing of its vitality. Other kinds of ‘ideas’, which may shatter this calm, disturb this peace, distort the placidity and stillness, may do more, may ‘serve’ us better; they may provoke us and move us to further inquiry, to further activity, to a continuation of our physical and spiritual quests. Later, we learn ‘the truth is balance’, an imagery that confirms the impressions we have been led to form of it: an equilibrium of sorts, a compromise, an arbitration of compelling impulses. Truth is moderation; not always desirable.

And then,:

In the respect we pay to such lives [as Simone Weil’s], we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world—and mystery is just what the secure possession of the truth, an objective truth, denies. In this sense, all truth is superficial; and some (but not all) distortions of the truth, some (but not all) insanity, some (but not all) unhealthiness, some (but not all) denials of life are truth-giving, sanity-producing, health-creating, and life-enhancing.

Here the ‘possession of truth’ entails a denial of ‘mystery’; given truth’s metaphysical standing these may be the most primeval puzzles of all. And taking on board of the truth is ultimately ‘superficial’, the denial of the mystery, the acceptance of the surface baldness of the true statement, the refusal to look further, the happy satisfaction with the bare presentation of the world.

So, truth, in these depictions, becomes a life-denying force. It speaks of the cessation of motion, of resting; the peace it offers is that of the endless repose in the grave. Truth becomes a paralytic dogma; it is literally, the end of inquiry. It thus generates an irony about itself: its pursuit might be life-giving but its gaining might not be.

These remarks’ Nietzschean flavor should be clear, for in them Sontag is doing no more and no less than struggling to find a more appropriate–and perhaps less exalted–placement for truth in our ‘table of values.’