Friday, January 25, 2008

You can't handle the truth

I recently read an insightful if flawed analysis of the Iraq War and post 9-11 deployment of power in what the book suggests we still need to call “The Society of the Spectacle.” Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle In A New Age of War also talks very specifically about the condition of contemporary American power.

But as the book went on, I felt increasingly sick of the truth. I don’t mean sick of the facts, though the facts are sickening, even as they’re fascinating. I mean, instead, sick of the concept of the truth and how it gets used in the world.

The Society of the Spectacle, of course, and the U.S. and international corporate and government leaders who are temporarily in charge of it, claims constantly to speak the truth. The militant Islamist vanguard, which is at war with the western spectacle and does so significantly by trying to create a spectacle of its own, according to Afflicted Powers, claims constantly to speak the truth. And the authors of the book, brilliant leftist political analysts, are also themselves invested in speaking the truth. But at least their book is a genuine attempt to understand rather than a claim about truth that doesn’t wish to understand and purposely violates understanding.

Those who think of themselves as The Left have in recent years developed a new debate about the truth. Some of them, Terry Eagleton for instance, claim that in giving up the insistence on truth, the Left lost a chance to gain more genuine authority in the world. They criticize writers like Foucault and Derrida for criticizing the concept of truth. Foucault argued that human societies don’t move forward in the direction of greater truth or an always more benevolent progress, but use the concept of the truth in order to establish and develop disciplinary systems. Derrida criticized the concept of the “center elsewhere,” which is to say all claims about truth that insist that those who make the claims aren’t the source of the truth but have seen the truth already out there (often beyond the world) and are simply relaying it to us. Both Foucault and Derrida therefore appear to reject rhetoric that claims the truth for itself. And this position seems, lately, to some on the left, an abdication of the responsibility to describe how things actually are happening in the world.

Both Foucault and Derrida are still arguing and trying to establish points, however, and in so doing there is still a claim to truth in their work (as there is in mine here). But it is another kind of claim to truth, one that critiques the rhetoric of truth.

Of course, Foucault and Derrida described a great deal about how things happen in the world. And they did it very well, although of course they were wrong sometimes, perhaps even often.

Those on the Left who criticize them often describe very well a great deal that goes on in the world, but of course they are also wrong sometimes, and perhaps even often.

Whether you feel a need to reclaim the power of the truth or to undermine the very notion of truth, you will be wrong sometimes. Which means that you don’t speak the truth.

Anymore than I do.

There are claims to truth that are transparently false, and there are claims to truth that are genuine attempts to understand, and that difference matters a great deal. Some genuine attempts to understand understand more than other genuine attempts to understand, and that difference also matters a great deal.

It’s hard to live in a world dominated by organized murder and robbery. It makes it no easier to have people constantly coming into the room, on televison, the internet, or in person, telling a truth about the world that isn’t true. A world of liars, con men, information junkies, misinformation junkies, the self-deluded, the self-serving, the judgmentally earnest, the pious, the mindless, the vicious, the kind, the wonderful, and the brilliant, all rushing around madly, trying to force everyone to listen to their mad, lying truths.

Much too frequently, belief in the truth manifests itself as a kind of insanity.

If the Left needs to reclaim the power of truth, that’s not because they are necessarily speaking the truth, as indeed they cannot purely be, but because the concept of the truth is a lie so powerful at this time that no one can do without it and succeed.

But seizing the power of a lie in order to do good is a little too much like seizing on dark magic in a fairy tale to do the same. It may give power to those who seize it, but the chance of it doing good seems much slimmer. Since it’s a lie, in the long run it’s most likely to be deadly.

(Black magic and a white lie)

There will never be a time when the truth reigns on earth. Anyone who wants to live a live worth living should celebrate that fact, since the idea of any kind of pure truth is fundamentally anti-life. But there may be a time when less lies are told in the name of truth, and less lives destroyed through its misuse.

Many will say, but how can we deal with lies, distortions, misperceptions, half-truths and much else if we have no standard of truth against which to measure and expose what’s false? A crucial question, since while there may be no absolute truth, that hardly rids the world of lies.

What we need, it seems, is a notion of truth as partial rather than absolute, as insight rather than obfuscation. Insight allows us to understand more clearly, but not absolutely and certainly not finally.

A concept of truth, then, as fundamentally situational. Not beyond conditions, but lodged in them. Not the answer to conditions, but as something that allows us to understand the sources of conditions, and where those conditions are tending.

But for what purpose?

What if we defined Truth as an insight that, were people able to act on it, social conditions would improve. Falsity would then become an insight that, were people able to act on it, social conditions would worsen. Truth would then be no more than an insight with the potential to make the world better.

But for whom, and in what way? The status of “better” remains open to question.

No matter how sick one may become of it, it seems that the problem of the truth is one we haven’t yet learned to do without. But maybe we should.


tmorange said...

a response that ened up being quite lengthy can be found here.


mark wallace said...

Tom, there's a lot to say about the issues you raise. For now I would say several things briefly.

My review of Afflicted Powers appeared in XCP: Crosscultural Poetics. I may put it up on my blog at some point, and I'd be happy to send it along to you. Basically I thought the book was so-so, with great insights often side-by-side with overreaching.

I'm aware of the idea that the left needs a new myth, or counter-myth, to challenge the world views being promoted by the Bush agenda and by corporate capitalism more broadly. I have mixed feelings about it:
1) If it's compelling but a lie, I'm skeptical about its power to help. But also 2) I think the myth may already exist: it involves compassion, equality, democracy, democratic sharing of resources, all of which put together might be described as concern for the well-being of others as well as of ourselves.

In short, the two myths may be: self-interest vs. concern for others. And self-interest seems to have won that battle long ago, if indeed there was ever a battle at all.

I've sometimes thought that the mythic solution might be to suggest that self-interest and concern for others are not automatically opposites. But the problem with that idea is that it may already be too nuanced for the kind of so-called mythology that we're discussing.

Stan Apps said...

The most amazing (of many amazing) sentences in this post is:

"If the Left needs to reclaim the power of truth, that’s not because they are necessarily speaking the truth, as indeed they cannot purely be, but because the concept of the truth is a lie so powerful at this time that no one can do without it and succeed."

That is, as far as I can tell, completely true. One thing that helps in defining it as completely true is that I don't necessarily want it to be true.

It seems accurate.

There are truths that are not eager to influence us: unpopular truths. I suspect many unpopular truth-claims are true, whereas comparatively few popular and appealing truth-claims are true. Which is, of course, just what the Jack Nicholson line suggests.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mark. This is a wonderful post, filled -- intentionally -- with all the contradictions and aporias that make the question of truth so vexing.

I certainly don't have any answers, but I did come across this sentence of George Oppen's in the newly published Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers: "But a philosophy which is not a search for truth: is -- as philosophy -- condemned to dishonesty from the root." The dishonesty is in not admitting that one wants or is searching for the truth; the difficulty is in specifying just what one means by the truth. Oppen, in his Daybooks, seems to waver between a kind of strict empiricist definition of truth and a Heideggerian notion of truth as disclosure -- as "aletheia," as your pie-chart denotes, so it's not as if he had the answer.

I do, however, want to affirm, with Oppen, that it's the search for truth that matters; giving up on that search, in the kind of smiley-face nihilistic way so prevalent in our post-post age, is the path of dishonesty, because even the smiley-face nihilist believes they're right, that their position is true, even though they won't choose that word.

I agree with you that truth is mostly a matter of recognizing the limits of our abilities to claim what's true, which is what that real radical of modernity -- Kant -- was up to from the start. The difficulty is getting people -- including ourselves -- to recognize those limits and to step back from claims we know we can't honestly make.

Paul Naylor

mark wallace said...

Stan and Paul, I really appreciate these thoughtful comments.

No doubt, as you both suggest in various ways, one crucial issue here is the difference between the concept of the truth as used in sincere philosophical and historical investigations, and truth used as a form of manipulative public rhetoric.

Paul, speaking for myself, I don't think I'm either a Heideggerian or a strict empiricist when it comes to truth, although I'll grant that I don't even quite know what a strict empiricist of truth would be. I'd probably take more like a view out of Wittgenstein and say that the concept of truth is a function of what people agree to make it. One has more say about that, of course, when one is closely involved with the person or persons with whom one is constructing truth. The farther you step outside those spheres, the more you encounter the wildly divergent concepts of truth that make for such a morass. And I wouldn't deny that there are real limits on the notion of truth as a shared construct, in the sense that one can only make so far what one wants of, say, an ocean, before the ocean has a response. But maybe that would be to suggest that we need to consider non-human elements as relevant to the dynamic of truth.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mark. I do agree that we're working with two notions of truth here -- one philosophical and one of "manipulative public rhetoric," but I'd also like to add that we wouldn't be able to discern the latter if we weren't grounded, at least implicitly, in some version of the former. How can you know you're being lied to if you don't have a sense of the truth?

I'm intrigued by the final idea you broach, about the possible need "to consider non-human elements as relevant to the dynamic of truth." I'd argue that your second paragraph follows a path Wittgenstein was himself trying to follow. Although you initially attribute a consensus theory of truth to Wittgenstein, you just as quickly admit where that falls short, which Wittgenstein did as well. Bob Plant, author of Wittgenstein and Levinas, writes about a kind of "minimal naturalism" in Wittgenstein that grounds, however tentatively, his notion of truth and the ethics that derives from it. I think that's right; although Wittgenstein never works such an idea out explicitly, I always feel the tug of the physical earth on all that he says.

So I sense in your comment, and in Wittgenstein's philosophy as a whole, a desire to move the question of truth out of the arena of anthropocentrism. Truth, then, would be something we construct out of our conversation with the social and natural communities in which we live.

Finally, another nugget from the Oppen Daybooks: "Everything can be explained except the truth."

Paul Naylor

Meg said...

Problem is, most people don't like the truth sir. That does not however, make it a lie.

"There are people who worship Allah to gain His Favors, this is the worship of traders; while there are some who worship Him to keep themselves free from His Wrath, this is the worship of slaves; a few who obey Him out' of their sense of gratitude and obligations, this is the worship of free and noble men." -Ali ibn Abi Taleb, May Allah be pleased with him.

Tom said...

After all, isn't truth merely an eclectic mix of fact? Is not truth simply the butrass in which we support our beliefs?

Want a different truth? Simple - just choose different facts.

Good post.

Tom Desrosier