Friday, January 25, 2008

truth and lies

[ their nihilo-political sense: a reply to mark's post found here.]

hi mark,

your lead image is particularly timely for me, as today while driving the outskirts of nashville i saw a sign in someone's frontyard that is quite common in those outskirts as i first experienced them months ago: it reads, "eyes on jesus."

now this is of course terrible advice to give someone whose eyes should more properly be on the road. however, if you keep your eyes fixing on jesus (wherever he may be) while you're behind the wheel, you may well see him very soon -- from your vantagepoint inside a totaled automobile!

which is another way to say that if you believe strongly enough your faith will probably be rewarded: He will come to those who believe. (non-believers need not apply.)

which leads me to turn a phrase, a truth if you will, made popular by the seinfeld character george costanza and manifest with a vengeance by this current administration: it's not a lie if you truly believe it. another way of saying it's true if you believe it.

but, says the enlightened liberal humanist, what about facts? yes, there's this whole tricky business about facts. "the left," if it's possible to speak in such terms, has been in the curious position of asserting an antifoundationist epistemology (via foucault, derrida and the like) while at the same time insisting that its politics are born out by the facts (on global warming, evolution, globalization, u.s. foreign policy, etc.). i realize i may very well be talking about two lefts here, one academic and one political; regardless, neither's agenda has been well served.

meanwhile, the right has pulled a very shrewd and efficacious double move: first, it has embraced (or simply mimicked) antifoundational rhetoric when it suits its aims, on global warming and evolution and the like (what are facts and theories? they don't really prove anything, nor do they completely remove all doubt...); second, it has understood the power of the spectacle (again a tool of critique originally devised by the left) and used it to construct a whole series of interconnected myths that many people find compelling. (radical islam has proceeded in this fashion as well.)

in short, while the left was pronouncing the end of grand narratives, the right happily picked up those pieces and ran with them.

you hit the nail on the head, mark, when you write that
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.
i'm curious tho how you see the afflicted powers argument comparing or playing out with respect to your claim here; they write that
If the Left is to survive as a political entity, it seems to us that its great (theoretical) task is to think this atavism and new-fangledness together, as interrelated aspects of the world system now emerging." (13-14)
how do they think this through, do you have a sense?

call it what you want: meaning, value, truth, whatever. but whatever it is, it appears to be indispensible. which is why "the new atheism" of hitchens, cockburn and others i think is hopelessly naive. i include the "end of faith" narrative of sam harris as well: people should just stop believing, altogether. yeah, good luck with that, pal.

stephen duncombe puts the problem quite well in his book Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy"
The problem comes down to reality. Progressives believe in it, Bush’s people believe in creating it. The ideological inheritors of the May ’68 protest slogan “Take your desires for reality” are now counseling its reversal: take reality for your desires. Conservatives are the ones proclaiming "I have a dream."
he says if the left is going to make and inroads with its agenda it is going to have to learn and use the power of spectacle. which is an interesting argument in is own right. essentially it's that it doesn't matter if "the facts" are on your side, you've still got to have a myth that resonates with people. and of course that myth should not be a complete lie, but it cannot be complete truth either. it has to be, as you say, a situational or situated truth.

i mean the flat earth and a geocentric universe were situated truths: they worked fine until "better" ones came along. but don't think that people were sold on that "betterness" right away: a lot of bloodshed had to happen first.

as we are seeing now unfortunately. your question "But for what purpose?" points precisely to what nietzsche described with such great accuracy and insight in the notes on european nihilism that were collected in the will to power.
For some time now, our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect. (3)
the upshot of this, though, has to be positive, as deleuze maintains for example (whereas debord and his spectacle remain at the level of passive nihilism as i read him). nietzsche again:
For why has the advent of nihilism become necessary? Because the values we have had hitherto thus draw their final consequence; because nihilism represents the ultimate logical conclusio of our great values and ideals--because we must experience nihilism before we can find out what value these "values" really had.--We require, sometimes, new values. (4)

1 comment:

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.