Do we need truth? This may be the most interesting of many interesting questions raised by Eric Gans’s latest Chronicle, “Civilization in Crisis?”: “Today as at the first human scene, the primary purpose of symbols is not to tell the truth, but to permit human survival.” The truth may be necessary for certain scientific and technological purposes, but otherwise “humanistic truth-telling” is something we can hope will survive, but may, we would have to concede, be inimical to human survival. My proposal that “parrhesia” be seen as a fundamental political concept to originary political thinking makes the question of truth unavoidable. Whatever takes place on the originary scene is not a revelation of truth in a propositional sense—but it’s not a lie, either: presumably, the scene only “takes” because there is actually an object of desire in front of the group. We could all willingly delude ourselves into sharing a belief in something false, as in the “the king is wearing no clothes” fable, or the “gentle giant” Michael Brown legend, but it’s a lot more economical and stable to share a belief in something that’s actually there. Still—there are other possible “economies” of truth. The inner circles of the left presumably know the truth of the Michael Brown case, just as Stalin no doubt knew that Trotsky wasn’t plotting with the Japanese to attack the USSR. Maybe a lot of leftists know they are spreading lies here, and just don’t care because they believe they are combatting a greater evil, and bigger, more vicious lies, coming from their enemies on the right. Truth still provides a kind of anchor if you know you are deliberately lying—it may even be like telling kids stories about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. The victimary lies we are discussing here don’t seem particularly “noble,” but if they provide the only way of managing the unbridgeable gulf between those secure within and those barred by their own incapacity from the increasingly “symbolic” economy, then they are noble enough. So, truth might be something, and even essential in its way, but not the main thing—not the thing to build a civilizational politics on.
I would add that the alt-right, in taking up the nationalist cause of (in particular) those working class whites displaced by the globalizing economy over the past 35 years ascribe this development to the self-interest of elites to an extent well beyond what the facts merit—there’s a bit of a stretching of the truth here as well. A lot of us remember the late 70s, when we had the national economies, strong labor unions, and relatively high wages for the white working class so many yearn for today, and if we remember it honestly we also remember how unsustainable it was. The unions priced the workers they represented out of business, the collaboration with unions and governments made the giant corporations increasingly inefficient and unprofitable, liberal urban policies (and liberal politicians were not only empowered, but made a single ruling party by default by the union-corporation-government troika) turned America’s cities into dystopian hell-holes. (The situation was even worse in the UK, which is perhaps why they produced somewhat superior punk rock.) The technological breakthroughs over the past few decades, including those in finance, were more than a ruling class conspiracy to to undermine the “native” middle class and provide the rulers with access to more pliable global sources of labor (even if they have had that effect)—they did, in fact break through the logjam of the late-70s “malaise” while generating, inevitably, a whole new set of problems. Much of today’s “ruling class,” a member of which spoke at the Republican National Convention, was not “to the manor born” but is rather comprised of people (like the founders of Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, PayPal, Twitter and Apple) who actually invented things no one had imagined before and lots of people wanted. Donald Trump might be able to compel/persuade Apple, say, to produce more of its products in the US, but there’s a good reason he doesn’t make that promise regarding any of the other companies listed in my parentheses, because they don’t (except for the declining Microsoft) don’t really produce much of anything at all in the traditional sense. There is a great deal of disruption here that cannot be blamed on anyone, even while, like any large-scale disruption, creating a huge vacuum that can only be filled with some kind of resentment. For things to have gone this wrong for so many people, someone must be stealing something big.
We can see the filling of the vacuum created by unintended effects by various resentments as a kind of mythical thinking. All events have an unintended dimension, which is intolerable for us humans—we must saturate that space with intentions. I will here again call attention to Gans’s analysis in The End of Culture of the emergence of myth as an “explanation” of ritual that, as I put it in a previous post, “anthropomorphizes” the early human groups by ascribing intentions and therefore responsibility to more actions and on deeper levels. The figures in the ritual become, to use E.M. Forster’s term, increasingly “round” characters, and so do the people worshipping and imitating them. This mythical thinking lays the groundwork for the Big Man, who becomes the roundest character of all (until we get to God, who is so round that His center is everywhere and his circumference nowhere). We still do this—culture still abhors the vacuum of the unintended—but how do we do it? Gans, in The End of Culture and elsewhere, is positing a kind of historical learning process, whereby mythical thinking generates ever more incisive and inclusive anthropological insights—otherwise, we could hardly speak of “mythical thinking” from a presumably “post-mythical” perspective. Even if we can in this way track something like “progress” from early myth to modern social science, insofar as more and more activity can be accounted for and new forms of activity imagined, are we getting closer to some kind of “truth” here or, as many postmoderns would have it, or are we ultimately just mythicizing in ways more appropriate to our own conditions?
Those of us committed to the originary hypothesis, which makes a higher kind of truth claim than the other human and social sciences, must recoil from such a conclusion. But I think we can find grounds for resistance to this “postmodern” conclusion in the very notion of “unintended consequences.” If our most powerful desire as “symbolic” creatures is to saturate historical events with intention, realizing that doing so leads inevitably to conflict (to the attribution to others of so many injuries that we could never be done counting them and seeking to exact retribution) and that therefore we must concede that consequences often, maybe always, outrun the intentions informing the acts that produced them, represents a form of intellectual and moral discipline. Fine, let’s say that—but is it the truth, or just another convenient fiction? Well, in the space of the “unintended,” we can find consequences to which many acts, many of them at cross purposes to each other, have contributed. To say that what person or group X did in 1920 led completely, inexorably, and with full knowledge aforethought to what happened to group Y in 1960 would require deliberately ignoring and suppressing all reference to what anyone else did in those years, including members of group Y. We can always bring more intentions into our analysis, and we can make the inter-play of intentions consistent with our increasing knowledge of events. If many groups (and many individuals within these groups) acted in ways to generate the consequences under consideration, then we can try to untangle the various intentions and the ways they all played out in their interactions—we could argue about it, and hypothesize whether the actions of group Z made a “large” or “small” contribution to the outcome. But we could only argue about such things if we assumed we would thereby be getting closer to conclusions we would all be more likely to agree on, and that future inquirers, with more information at their disposal, would be even more likely to agree on (even clarity on what is worth disagreeing on is progress in this respect). Once, in such inquiries (which in ancient times it was the purpose of institutions called “universities” to promote), we realize that we don’t even know how our present inquiry would affect the process of saturating the social space with intentions, that is, once we can’t tell whether our conclusions would help “our” side or not, we could only be searching for the truth. At any rate, such epistemological modesty and rigor is appropriate if all we can really do is defer the most imminent crisis caused by our own epistemic pride.
Some notion of the truth goes back to the beginning of language, but it is only with the reframing of the imperial Big Man by Greek and Jewish antiquity that the Truth becomes central to morality and culture. At this point we don’t have true and false claims about specific facts and events, but an assumption that larger and highly consequential Truths lie “behind” such everyday truths. I think that these larger truths are curtailments of the Big Man’s power. Once resources and the means of violence are centralized by the monarchs of the ancient empires, it would seem obvious to attribute all events, human and natural, to the God-Emperor—the God-Emperor brings the sun and the rain, defeats his enemies provides peace and prosperity to his loyal subjects, and so on. The emperors no doubt had their own advisors who told them at least some truths, but the bigger Truth, that the sun and the rain come independent of the emperor’s intentions, that prosperity depends upon the efforts of those who will benefit from it, that his enemies might in fact defeat him, meaning the emperor himself might be an instrument of some larger purpose are all truths spoken in defiance of the emperor. If the emperor’s power was thereby curtailed, everyone else’s power and imperial desire might thereby be stimulated—the truths about us all, truths of “human nature” regarding our rivalries and unattainable desires, are then discovered and made a common possession. “Truth” as we understand it, then, as something worth dying for, is grounded in an understanding of the limitations of our intentions, precisely as those intentions are unleashed. And, of course, the very origin of propositional truth lies in the declarative sentence, which tells someone making a demand or issuing a command that some reality makes the fulfillment of that demand or command impossible. Truth, then, is always about discovering what we can’t completely know or do, what we must discipline ourselves to accept, even if as a precondition for rectifying the situation. We need truth, especially in a world of sovereigns, to resist being consumed by self-destructive fantasies.
In a sense, the most authentic argument for inquiring into the truth is the one that leaves aside the question of what the truth is good for. Gans’s almost Straussian conclusion, hoping for a space “in the shadow of victimary ‘correctness’” might be all we could hope for and, maybe, as inquirers, all that we really need. But this is all very abstract—we’re not living in monasteries, after all. What do you do when confronted by the lies? You must at least be grateful to those who discover for us that they are lies—the prosecutors and witnesses, for example, in the Michael Brown case, who did their jobs as officers of the court and fulfilled their responsibilities as citizens and thereby exposed the lies. But if you’re grateful to them, you must be sorry if they are denounced, if they lose their jobs, become “non-people” (none of that, to my knowledge, happened in this particular case, except, very significantly, to Darren Wilson, the exonerated officer in question, who has been essentially blackballed from American society, but it has happened in many other cases to people who just did their job and told the truth, and will surely happen in many others)—your gratitude must take the form of at least wanting to help them, to expose the lies, built upon the previous ones, that have destroyed them. The SJWs are not really capable of an orderly process of what is in essence a system of human sacrifice—that is, they cannot assure us, as could the Aztec kings (or priests) of old could, that a certain number of victims will slake the thirst of the victimary gods (say, 10 Darren Wilsons a year) and that we could otherwise go about our business with a conscience sullied but not completely charred. No—the SJWs are a bringing their show to a workplace, a neighborhood, a TV station, a school, a company, a local government, an institution, near you. You will, or your children will, surely have to decide whether to help spread the lies (and heap slander upon their victims and those who rebut them) or to combat them, and trying to figure out which will be more likely to extend the life of our civilization a bit longer (based on what evidence and analysis?) is at best an evasive way of deciding which to do. It seems to me better to further anthropomorphize ourselves by combating the lies while acknowledging the contribution our own desires for social peace, for an image of virtuousness and feeling of superiority to others, flawed social theory (or mythicizing) and mislaid guilt (all attempts to saturate the intentional space) have made to the lies. If we are going to have faith in something, let it not be in idols or BS, but in the possibility that economic gaps will be addressed in ways we cannot yet imagine. (Although we should, of course, make every effort to imagine them, reducing what must be attributed to “unintended” ever further [but also, thereby, paradoxically increasing more of the unintended].)
It also seems to me that those who combat the lies will be far better defenders of civilization—why should those who consider the West an enterprise indelibly tainted by “ascription” fight against others who also despise the West? Just as little, though, can we expect vigorous defense to come from those who think the West is fine but, for the sake of social stability, we shouldn’t mind all kinds of vicious lies being spread by the disenchanted and those who manipulate them politically. Such cynicism is demoralizing and contagious (that would mean that the truth is energizing, because it either confirms the promise of the sovereign order or frees you you pledge allegiance to a more worthy one). You can tell soldiers that you’re sending them to war not to protect the country, or to defend freedom, but because it’s the best way of modulating current levels of global resentment—but don’t be surprised if they come back and vote for someone a lot worse than Trump. (The same goes for telling policemen they are not battling crime, defending the innocent or preserving order, but keeping resentments within the limits we have determined, never you mind how, acceptable.) More simply put, to try and take a “systems perspective” from within the system is epistemic arrogance (no one is in a position to “do the math”)—defending the truth is the only modest alternative. Telling the truth, as you see it, is the one thing everyone can do. The sovereign should be happy to hear it, but if not, well no one can tease out all the possible consequences. Going along with a bit of this lie here, and that lie there, while trying to sneak in a bit of inoffensive truth here and there, is just too complicated. It may be that a qualified defense of a hypothetically contained Left seems better than the alt-right alternative, and that, indeed, is the choice—but not only is the question of whether the Left is more of a vaccine than an immunological breakdown an open one, but presuming that you have the Left in a box is the very thing, as the folk wisdom of the horror movie genre informs us, that proves that the situation is not under control at all.