Continuing from my previous post, Brian Phillips has an article, writing for MTV News, entitled “Shirtless Trump Saves Drowning Kitten: Facebook’s fake-news problem and the rise of the postmodern right.” (Funny title, that.) I navigated to the article via Alan Jacob’s post at Text Patterns (on my blogroll). Let me consider each in turn.

After chuckling that Phillips is directing his analysis to the wrong audience, an admittedly elitist response on my part, I must further admit that the article is awfully well-written and nails the blithe attitude accompanying epistemological destruction carried out, perhaps unwittingly but too well-established now to ignore, by developers of social media as distinguished from traditional news media. Which would be considered more mainstream today is up for debate. Maybe Phillips has the right audience after all. He certainly gets the importance of controlling the narrative:

Confusion is an authoritarian tool; life under a strongman means not simply being lied to but being beset by contradiction and uncertainty until the line between truth and falsehood blurs and a kind of exhaustion settles over questions of fact. Politically speaking, precision is freedom. It’s telling, in that regard, that Trump supporters, the voters most furiously suspicious of journalism, also proved to be the most receptive audience for fictions that looked journalism-like. Authoritarianism doesn’t really want to convince its supporters that their fantasies are true, because truth claims are subject to verification, and thus to the possible discrediting of authority. Authoritarianism wants to convince its supporters that nothing is true, that the whole machinery of truth is an intolerable imposition on their psyches, and thus that they might as well give free rein to their fantasies.

But Phillips is too clever by half, burying the issue in scholarly style that speaks successfully only to a narrow class of academics and intellectuals, much like the language and memes employed by the alt-right are said to be dog whistles perceptible only to rabid, mouth-breathing bigots. Both charges are probably unfair reductions, though with kernels of truth. Here’s some of Phillips overripe language:

Often the battleground for this idea [virtue and respect] was the integrity of language itself. The conservative idea, at that time [20 years ago], was that liberalism had gone insane for political correctness and continental theory, and that the way to resist the encroachment of Derrida was through fortifying summaries of Emerson … What had really happened was that the left had become sensitized to the ways in which conventional moral language tended to shore up existing privilege and power, and had embarked on a critique of this tendency that the right interpreted, with some justification, as an attack on the very concept of meaning.

More plainly, Phillips’ suggestion is that the radical right learned the lessons of Postmodernism (PoMo) even better than did the avant-garde left, the latter having outwitted themselves by giving the right subtle tools used later to outmaneuver everyone. Like other mildly irritating analyses I have read, it’s a statement of inversion: an idea bringing into existence its antithesis that unironically proves and undermines the original, though with a dose of Schadenfreude. This was (partially) the subject of a 4-part blog I wrote called “Dissolving Reality” back in Aug. and Sept. 2015. (Maybe half a dozen read the series; almost no one commented.)

So what does Alan Jacobs add to the discussion? He exhibits his own scholarly flourishes. Indeed, I admire the writing but find myself distracted by the writerly nature, which ejects readers from the flow of ideas to contemplate the writing itself. For instance, this:

It turns out that the children of the ruling classes learned their lessons well, so when they inherited positions in their fathers’ law firms they had some extra, and very useful, weapons in their rhetorical armory.

In precisely the same way, when, somewhat later, academic leftists preached that race and gender were the determinative categories of social analysis, members of the future alt-right were slouching in the back rows of their classrooms, baseball caps pulled down over their eyes, making no external motions but in their dark little hearts twitching with fervent agreement.

Terrific capture of the classroom culture in which teachers are steeped. Drawing identity politics more manifestly into the mix is a fairly obvious extrapolation over Phillips and may reflect the results of the presidential election, where pundits, wheeling around to reinterpret results that should not have so surprised them, now suggest Republican victories are a repudiation of leftist moral instruction. The depth of Phillips’ and Jacobs’ remarks is not so typical of most pundits, however, and their follow-up analysis at some point becomes just more PoMo flagellation. Here, Jacobs is even more clearly having some fun:

No longer did we have to fear being brought before the bar of Rational Evidence, that hanging judge of the Enlightenment who had sent so many believers to the gallows! You have your constructs and we have our constructs, and who’s to say which are better, right? O brave new world that hath such a sociology of knowledge in it!

This goes back to the heart of the issue, our epistemological crisis, but I dispute that race and gender are the determinative categories of social analysis, no matter how fashionable they may be in the academy. A simpler and more obvious big picture controls: it’s about life and death. My previous post was about geopolitics, where death is rained down upon foreign peoples and justifying rhetoric is spread domestically. Motivations may be complex and varied, but the destruction of people and truth affects everyone, albeit unevenly, without regard to race, gender, religion, nationality, etc. All are caught in the dragnet.

Moreover, with the advent of Western civilization, intellectuals have always been sensitive to the sociology of knowledge. It’s a foundation of philosophy. That it’s grown sclerotic long precedes PoMo theory. In fact, gradual breaking apart and dismantling of meaning is visible across all expressive genres, not just literature. In painting, it was Impressionism, Cubism, Dada and Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. In architecture, it was Art Deco, the International Style, Modernism, Brutalism, and Deconstructivism. In music, it was the Post-Romantic, the Second Viennese School, Modernism, Serialism, and Minimalism. In scientific paradigms, it was electromagnetism, relativity, quantum mechanics, the Nuclear Era, and semiconductors. The most essential characteristics in each case are increasingly dogmatic abstraction and drilling down to minutia that betray meaningful essences. Factoring in economic and political perversions, we arrive at our current epistemological phase where truth and consequences matter little (though death and destruction still do) so long as deceits, projections, and distractions hold minds in thrall. In effect, gravity is turned off and historical narratives levitate until reality finally, inevitably comes crashing down in a monstrous Jenga pile, as it does periodically.

In the meantime, I suppose Phillips and Jacobs can issue more gaseous noise into the fog bank the information environment has become. They can’t get much traction (nor can I) considering how most of the affluent West thinks at the level of a TV sitcom. In addition, steps being considered to rein in the worst excesses of fake news would have corporations and traditional news media appointed as watchers and censors. Beyond any free speech objections, which are significant, expecting culprits to police themselves only awards them greater power to dominate, much like bailouts rewarded the banks. More fog, more lies, more levitation.

  1. Clem says:

    Thanks for pointing to Robert Parry’s article. Transparency might be one of the most important properties available to us going forward. In your view does the Citizen’s United decision from the Supreme Court matter to future ‘truth’ distillation?

    Given recent events, what do you suppose we, you and I, might do as citizens to work toward a better future – or at least one where the truth isn’t stomped upon for material gain?

    • Brutus says:

      I’m certain that Citizen’s United affects the public’s appreciation of truth in that it allows corporations and other deep pockets to create a marketplace for ideas that is vulnerable to being bought off (as opposed to being told off?). By sheer repetition, blanketing media outlets and lobbying politicians, those with the most access have the loudest voices, not those with legitimate claims to authority.

      Does your second question presuppose a solution or merely demand individuals formulate a response? I don’t think we can even begin to steer debate in directions we would like it to take; we can only adopt even greater skepticism against what we’re told and identify information sources that are reliable and credible. Neil Postman recommended long ago that one study semantics; I suppose one could add rhetoric. Navigating the storm of competing claims is easier when armed with some understanding of the language and symbols used.

      • Clem says:

        Apologies for not returning sooner to see your response. And a nice response it is. I should have guessed it might be.

        My second question was an authentic query to see what (or whether) you have something to say on the subject – so a bit short of ‘demand’ – but toward the end that some (many) of us begin to formulate a response.

        I agree this is not a simple issue, and I like the Neil Postman link very much; but I guess I’m a tad less fatalistic in where we might go as this sort of public discourse continues to bloom. In fact you’ve already started a list of possible behaviors to combat this cancer on our polity. People acting on fake news, such as the gunman who shot up the restaurant on the east coast, will bring a palpable reality to the consequences of allowing this bull*#&$ to go unchallenged.

        I suppose I am fatalistic enough to imagine that this sort of dialogue will be with us for far too long. And this is a pity. But at some point (soon enough?) there will be sufficient outcry and demonization of those bad actors who peddle falsehood for their short term gain.

        As an aside – I’m currently working with a set of young folks (millennials if we need a ‘tag’) and I’m struck by the level of gullibility I see. This particular set is not college educated – though I don’t imagine that is as significant as their youth and that the culture they’ve grown up in is trained to do all in microbursts of content: 140 characters, or a sound bite here or there. In one conversation I challenged something being repeated from a tweet with. “That doesn’t pass the sniff test” (my way of leveling some skepticism). This caught their attention.

        So my point in this last paragraph – it’s not hopeless… just difficult. But most worthwhile things are difficult. ask a musician who can improvise :)

  2. […] it seemed perfect for right now. It was the title for a recent essay by the blog writer Brutus on The Spiral Staircase (which I finally added to the “blogroll” links to your lower right after some delay). […]

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