Facts – Alternative Facts – Post-Truth – Truth, Composing, 23/01/2017

I’ve kept thinking about that project on the idea of post-truth that we’ve been tossing around the Reply Collective. There’s one approach that I want to explore for this piece – I thought of it over the weekend, and I want to mull it over with some folks to see if it has legs.

Here’s how it came to me, first of all.

Pictured: A collective experience of truth-expression.
So I was at the Toronto Women’s March to protest Donald Trump’s existence Saturday, and I saw plenty of signs mocking the idea of ‘post-truth.’ In a very basic sense, this is the opposition of truth and lies.

* I wish I’d gotten a picture of it. They were good and sarcastic, just like a lot of what I saw during the march.

In one dimension of the ‘post-truth’ problem, that looks like it’s all it comes down to. A trivial assertion of lies by government figures. The press secretary blatantly lies about the facts – how many people attended Trump’s inauguration – and chastises the White House press corps for their outlets’ honesty instead of reporting what they were told to report.

We told you what we wanted you to say, says Sean Spicer, and I paraphrase – and it was your moral failure and your disloyalty to the office of the President for not doing what you were told.

The most popular followup was Chuck Todd’s Meet the Press interview with Kellyanne Conway. Anti-Trump Twitter particularly blew up over Conway’s contention that, “We presented you with alternative facts.”

Orwellian? Most definitely. But ultimately, Orwellian doublespeak is trivial.

Reactionary contempt for critics now has free reign.
Even the typical recourse to postmodernist thinking about the slippery meanings of language is ultimately trivial. It’s a mere stereotype that ‘postmodernist’ attitudes and philosophies imply that there is no truth and there are no facts. Or rather, that facts are defined solely through discourse.

So factuality becomes no longer about what is and isn’t the case. It becomes a matter of duelling visions of the world – a pro-Trump set of facts means enormous inauguration crowds and violent protestors, while an anti-Trump set of facts means anemic attendance and police brutality on the streets of DC. One is an alternative to the other, and you’re free to choose between them as you’re inclined.

So you’re stuck with the oversimplified, misunderstood popular understanding of postmodernism. If you want a philosophical investigation into what post-truth can be to produce something more interesting, more useful than this, you need a different direction.

Inside the volcano.
Here’s that different direction.

Ask yourself: What truth do the women’s marches demonstrate? We are talking about a demonstration, after all.

We have a set of facts that can be described in propositions of language – statements about women’s needs, fears, vulnerabilities, and strengths; statements of political and moral beliefs that oppose them to Trump’s presidency and what it represents in wider society; biographical timelines and events in the lives of the people in the march and the wider anti-Trump movement.

While all those statements may be true, you have to ask whether they’re adequate to the situation. If you were to list all these statements, would they alone suffice to describe – completely – what the marches actually demonstrate.

A set of statements leaves out the visceral power of a person’s experience itself. The emotional and mental impact of material events in your life on your own person, personality, and subjectivity. It leaves out the force of what shapes your character, even as it describes that shape and its changes.

A cinematic philosopher.
The closest I can come to naming this kind of visceral, material, truth-in-unfolding-experience is to riff on a term from Werner Herzog – ecstatic truth. A kind of truth that’s beyond factuality, and communicates a deeper truth than an isolated fact of the matter.

An ecstatic truth communicates the power of forces that shape subjectivities and situations of life. Such a truth is the majesty of an Antarctic mountain range or the peaks of Mount Erebus and its bubbling crater. And such a truth is the terror of being lost in the jungle, with violent armies around every corner.

Such a truth is also the yearning for dignity of a poor immigrant lost in the desolation of his new country. Or the bliss of giving in to evil.

It is the human experience of sublimity, but recognizes that the sublime can appear not only in terrifying or awe-inspiring natural formations and phenomena. Sublimity is also in the daily experiences of human lives.

An incredible power can come from communicating that sublimity.

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