Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A pre-history of post-truth, East and West. By MARCI SHORE

Postmodernism was conceived largely by the Left as a safeguard against totalizing ideologies. Yet today, it has been appropriated on behalf of an encroaching neo-totalitarianism of the Right. Is French literary theory to blame? And can a philosophy of dissent developed in communist eastern Europe offer an antidote?

Kto vinovat? Who is to blame? ‘Blaming is irresponsible’, Agnes Heller answers, ‘It is responsibility that should be taken. It is responsibility that must be taken.’ In eastern Europe, the philosophy of dissent was a philosophy of responsibility. ‘Patočka used to say,’ Havel wrote in ‘The Power of the Powerless’, ‘that the most interesting thing about responsibility is that we carry it with us everywhere. That means that responsibility is ours, that we must accept it and grasp it here, now.’

In 2014, Russian historian Andrei Zubov was fired from his Moscow professorship for comparing Putin’s annexation of Crimea to Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland. Two years later, at a festival in the post-industrial Czech city of Ostrava, Zubov spoke to a large audience about the task of historians. ‘My dolzhni govorit’ pravdu’, he said. We should speak the truth. This declaration – all the more so when uttered in Zubov’s baritone – sounded quaint, even old-fashioned. In particular, the Slavic word pravda – truth – invoked with no qualification and no prefix, suggested a bygone era. Who believed in truth anymore?

The end of ‘The End of History’ arrived together with the end of belief in reality. The Cold War world was a world of warring ideologies; in the twenty-first century, both American capitalism and post-Soviet oligarchy employ the same public relations specialists catering to gangsters with political ambitions. As Peter Pomerantsev described in Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, in the Russia of the 2000s, distinguishing between truth and lies became passé. In this world of enlightened, postmodern people, ‘everything is PR’.

Reality television has rendered obsolete the boundary between the fictional and the real. Truth is a constraint that has been overcome; ‘post-truth’ has been declared ‘word of the year.’ In Washington, the White House shamelessly defends its ‘alternative facts’. At the beginning, American journalists were taken off-guard: they had been trained to confirm individual pieces of information, not to confront a brazen untethering from empirical reality. The New Yorker captured the desperation with a satire about the fact-checker who passed out from exhaustion after the Republican debate. He had to be hospitalized; apparently no one replaced him.

In any moment of crisis, a long Russian tradition poses two ‘eternal questions’. The first: Kto vinovat? Who is to blame? Did postmodernism’s critique of the ontological stability of truth unwillingly create the conditions of possibility for ‘post-truth’, now exploited by oligarchic regimes on both sides of the Atlantic? Is French literary theory and its ‘narcissistic obscurantism’ at fault? ‘I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face,’ wrote Michel Foucault. ‘Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same.’ Was it not always suspicious that literary theorists like Paul de Man and Hans Robert Jauss – each of whom had a vested personal interest in disassociating his youthful wartime self from his post-war scholarly self – elaborate so passionately a philosophy of the inconstancy of the I, the nonexistence of a stable subject, stable meaning, stable truth? Does Jacques Derrida not bear some responsibility for Vladimir Putin?

The second eternal question: Chto delat’? What is to be done? Is there an antidote to postmodernity? If so, where can we search for it? ‘Postmodernity’ has a history. It came not from nowhere, but rather from ‘modernity,’ which in Europe historians have traditionally dated from the eighteenth-century French Enlightenment. In the beginning, God was merely sidelined, relegated to a minor role as human reason took centre stage. ‘Sapere Aude! “Have courage to use your own understanding!” – that is the motto of enlightenment,’ Immanuel Kant famously wrote. Later (in the 1880s, to be precise), God was killed off entirely (speculatively by Dostoevsky, definitively by Nietzsche). Now the philosophical stakes of compensating for an emasculated-turned-nonexistent God became still greater. God had fulfilled epistemological, ontological and ethical roles; his death left an enormous empty space. Much of modern philosophy can be described as an attempt to replace God, to find a path to absolute truth in God’s absence.

The search for a path to truth was the search for a bridge: from subject to object, inner to outer, consciousness to world, thought to Being… read more:

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Articles on ideology in East Europe