There is an elephant in the room. Well, no, maybe elephants. So many of them. So many that the significance of each is somehow diminished to the bare minimum and now each elephant appears to be far less significant than it actually is. Elephants disguise themselves as submissive chihuahuas. There is nothing abnormal about the room. If only seemingly.
Let’s talk about some of these elephants.
I have been recently thinking in particular following two questions. Has American democracy begun to erode under the administration of what John Oliver calls a “pathological liar” with “a well-documented 40-years history of bullshit”? In a context whereby the liar and his aides are creating alt-facts and their political discourse leads to the situation in which the discourse itself is replaced by demagogy, in what way our reality is reshaped and how does such reshaping change what we can think, do and essentially be?
The erosion of democracy is perhaps a judgement that we make retrospectively. It is difficult to determine whether or not our democracy is eroding when we are in the midst of the process. We might predict it. We might sense it. Yet, we do not know until our society actually becomes something other than democratic one. At least, a number of philosophers, theoreticians and historians, reflecting upon this issue, have put forward two arguments that are relevant to my questions. First, tyranny is more likely to be established out of no other regime than democracy, because ‘whatever one wants’ democratic license creates a vacuum for a would-be-tyrant to seize her/his momentum. Second, the beginning of the erosion of democracy is often marked by a crucial moment in which politics takes its course towards uncharted territory and often such a moment is election (again, this can be judged only in retrospection), but the whole process is very slow. The erosion seldom happens very quickly.
Modern Western political life is based on a common understanding of reality and shared principles of how power is legitimated and distributed. Any political discourse, which is taken seriously, is articulated within this already framed reality and upon those predetermined principles of power. If a discourse goes beyond the horizon of this framed reality, if it disregards the principles, then, it usually is labelled as at best cynical or conspirational, and at worst gibberish or bullshit. We basically shrug it off, saying ‘ah, it’s a little too crazy to be taken seriously, isn’t it?’ It was the case since 1945. The nationalist far right did not hijack conservative parties. The radical left never assumed entire control over labour parties. And our polite society was (and perhaps still is) convinced that it could safely allow extremists to fester without them actually assuming real political power.
It was the case, but it no longer is.
The extremists, those whom we once relegated to the margin of politics for more than 70 years, have taken control over politics now. Nick Cohen explains there are three types that dominate extremist movements: crazies, cynics and creeps.
The true crazies are always at the bottom of the heap. Cynical propagandists stoke their righteous fury, without which the extremist movement would collapse. Creeps rise to the top, in extremist movements as elsewhere. They are cynical, too, of course. they know how to manipulate their base. But they must show signs of authentic craziness as well or their grip on leadership would weaken and others would take their place.
A creep is now in power and cynics are now manipulating the fate of not only one of the most powerful nations in the world but also other nations. We are not yet sure whether American democracy is actually eroding, but at least we are sure that the scope of political discourse has changed. Kinds of discourses, once labelled as gibberish, are now taken seriously – or we are forced to take them seriously. Principles of how power ought to be legitimised and distributed, axioms of political life, are now publicly disregarded (think the infamous tweet of ‘so-called judges’). Like it or not, we are now living in the Trumpland – some people literally, others metaphorically.
Philipp Rotner summarises what is going on in the Trumpland.
He has created chaos, divided us, coarsened our public discourse, stigmatised the most vulnerable among us, surrounded himself with people who are manifestly unfit for public service, appointed cabinet members who are hostile to the very departments they have been selected to lead, and lied his head off.
A creep, cynics who work for him, and the new political condition they have created within a month – this new condition, which by the way is constantly developing with leaks, revelations, misleading comments, reactions, and counter reactions, is already something that we are not familiar with.
What is more disenchanting about the whole experience of this new unfamiliar condition is that we have begun to lose confidence in what we think is normal. The Trump administration challenges not only the established politics and political discourses, but our reality more generally. While the approval rate of the administration is historical low, and despite all these women’s marches and mass protest against the infamous Muslim ban, it is also true as some polls suggest that quite lots of people are supporting the administration. I know, it is puzzling. So, we are now experiencing the ‘ok, fuck, my reality isn’t really the reality for them’ moment.
Of course, we know that we are all living in our own bubble. We tend to befriend with people who share similar values, political views, and aspiration for life, because, well, who prefer to be always opposed, criticised, challenged and admonished? We do not want to waste our time and energy to talk to those we think are irrational, unreasonable, crazy. Besides, it is ‘whatever one wants’ democratic society, right? These crazies have their right to proclaim whatever they want (as long as they don’t really interfere into our daily lives), and at the end of the day, sensible and rational political decisions – our reality – will eventually triumph, right?
Apparently, we were wrong. But I do not call it a delusional thought. Reality is not a mere construction based on what we see. It is a construction based on how we see what we want to see. Our vertigo, this disenchanting moment that we are experiencing, is in part a consequence of us forgetting the fact that reality is in fact what we make of it. There is a multitude of realities. And the multiple stings that the creep in power and his cynical propagandists equip themselves with have effectively burst the comfortable bubble in which we try to hide ourselves.
Indeed, our vertigo directly relates to the age-old, fundamental questions pertaining to the nature of reality itself and the relationship between mind/language/culture and reality. But it is not my intention here to reproduce philosophical discussions of Aristotle, Plato, Frege, Wittgenstein, or Russell. Nor, frankly, do I have a capacity to aptly do so. Instead, I shall consider how our reality is shaped and reshaped under the specific condition that we are all embedded within.
Jean-Francois Lyotard in The Post Modern Condition (1979) famously coined the term postmodernity as the primary characteristic and condition of our time. The postmodern condition denounces any grand, singular narratives for events and things that claim to speak for all of us. Metanarratives are losing their efficacy. Instead, there are now fragmented and pluralised micronarratives. With the technological development and with ever-growing intensity and extensity of global capitalism, the state has lost its status as the primary bearer of political life, the foundation of class division is blurred to the point of losing all of its force, and “the old poles of attraction represented by nation states, parties, professions, institutions, and historical traditions are losing their attraction.” Consequently, societies are reorganised on the basis of growing division of labour implemented through global capitalism, political language-game is pluralised, and truth in science is replaced by performativity and efficiency in the service of particular discourses. (Lyotard prefers this plurality of micronarratives that compete with each other, because these would replace the grand narrative of totalitarianism. Yet, again, competition is only possible in the situation whereby these narratives are articulated under the pre-determined condition. To this end, I think, Walter Benjamin and other critical theorists are a little too naive.) Nevertheless, one inevitable question emanated from this post modern condition is about modality of narrative formation. How do we articulate our micronarrative of politics and political reality today? How do we see what we want to see in this post modern society?
At this juncture, I am thinking about, among many other scholars, Niklas Luhmann and his critical reflection.
“Die Wirklichkeit ist ein Gerucht” – reality is a rumour – is the essence of his argument in his final critical work The Reality of the Mass Media (1996). Of course, we need to enter some qualifications in order to fully grasp his claim.
We do not have recourse to a thing in itself. The world is not disenchanted in the Cartesian sense. From the time immemorial, we know – or more precisely put, creates – our reality by filterating information through various kinds of filters both internal and external to us. As Luhmann writes,
what we know about the stratosphere is the same as what Plato knows about Atlantis: we’ve heard tell of it. Or, as Horatio puts it: ‘ So have I heard, and do in part believe it’.
What is then different about our time is that
Whatever we know about our society, or indeed about the world in which we live, we know through the mass media… On the other hand, we know so much about the mass media that we are not able to trust these sources. Our way of dealing with this is to suspect that there is manipulation at work…
Although what the media delivers to us is not entirely ‘fake news’, we are aware that the media do not deliver the unbiased, unadulterated truth – assuming that there is an unbiased truth – to us. And yet, simultaneously, our view of the world is increasingly made up of and shaped by information that are presented to us by the media rather than by our own experiences. How did we know that Michael Flynn discussed about sanction with Russian ambassador? Through the media that reported leaked FBI information. How did we know that Sally Yeats actually warned the president about the vulnerability of Flynn weeks ago but the president did not take immediate action? Through the media because we do not have any means to directly hear it from Yeats or the White House stuffers. And how did we form our view and make judgement on the issue? Based on the information we get from the media, and commentators and columnists who work for particular media outlets. As it seems, we become more and more dependent on the media to inform us. Why so, despite our awareness and skepticism?
[It is] because knowledge acquired from the mass media merges together as if of its own accord into a self-reinforcing structure… What we are dealing with… is an effect of the functional differentiation of modern society. This effect can be comprehended, it can be the subject of theoretical reflection. But we are not talking about a mystery that would be solved once it is made known. Rather, one could say that modern society has an ‘Eigenvalue’ or an ‘Eigenbehaviour’ – in other words, recursively stabilised functional mechanisms, which remain stable even when their genesis and their mode of functioning have been revealed.
So, the system of mass media is a set of recursive, self-referential programs of communication. And it is not the values of truthfulness or objectivity that determines the function of mass media. Nor is it specific political registers or social interests. What determines and sustains the functions of mass media is its internal code to distinguish information from noninformation. The media selects its information, or else news, from its own code established in its own environment, and communicates news to us in accordance with its own reflexive criteria. Perhaps, we can even go so far as to say that the media is one of the essential cognitive systems of post modern societies, insofar as societies construct the illusion of their own reality. Put otherwise, the media allows societies to process information without overburdening us, it forms a reservoir of possibilities for our actions, and it provides us with a self-description of the world with continuity and coherence, hence a kind of stability upon which our collectivity as well as political reproduction of society are dependant.
The takeaway from Luhmann’s reflection is threefold.
First, Trump is probably the logical outcome of the grotesque convergence of politics and the recursive system of mass media, in which an empty vessel can thrive unchecked by turning bigotry, misogyny, xenophobia, ignorance of science into not only entertainment but also ultimately a new kind of reality. Trump’s demagogy (I don’t even know what he politically stands for) collides rather nicely with the key function of media as a cognitive system that creates a condition of possibility for sustaining the illusion of his and his advocates’ own reality. And this is also why Trump has declared that the ‘dishonest’ media is not his enemy but the enemy of American People – the ‘dishonest’ media obviously serves to sustain the illusion of reality that is different from his.
Second, facts that constitute our reality are construction. We ought not talk about facts without being aware of the process of their construction and the process of how we bracket out, or else forget, the process. And yet, it is wrong to stipulate that everything is relative and anything goes. Of course I remember how excited I was when I first came across this ‘postmodernist’ thought , because relativism seemed, at that time, to offer me the ultimate answer to every conundrum – “Do you see now why it feels so good to be a critical mind? No matter which position I take I’m always right, because everything is relative! Ha!” So, I understand why my students got quite animated when they were exposed to postmodernism, cultural relativism, and deconstruction, and why they thought it’s cool to dismiss everything as construction and blame it to some dude called Jacques Derrida. But the sensation would eventually disappears once we properly digest what these radical propositions actually mean. They are simply un-bracketing-out the process of constructing facts, but not necessarily undermining the importance of facts as the central apparatus to create common platform for discussion.
Finally, if we really want to (re)establish a political platform to change the course of politics, which at the moment seems to lead us to another destructive period, it is not enough to denounce Trump as a pathological liar. Nor is it sufficient to castigate Trump administration’s advisers and strategists that what they call alternative facts are false claims. It is important to understand how their facts are constructed and how they deliberately or otherwise have forgotten the process of the construction, while at the same time always being aware of fragility of our own facts and reality. Perhaps, it’s high time we switched from BBC, CNN and MSNBC to FOX and listen to what according to Trump ‘the honorable people’ have to say.