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.