I’m All Right, Jacques
Since everyone knows that ‘postmodernism’ means ‘anything goes, nothing is true, everything is permitted’, the latest outbreak of unmitigated flagrant prevarication from the new inhabitant of the White House has engendered an unseasonable tsunami of the threadbare ‘see what happens when postmodernists blah blah blah’ fustian and twaddle. I thought — having lived through it once in the 80s and 90s, when Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s evasiveness and lies were blamed on the likes of Derrida and Foucault — this canard of popular rhetoric had flown north for good. Honestly, can you imagine W. sitting in a classroom at Yale reading Of Grammatology and saying, ‘I understand this well enough to put it into practice by claiming that there actually are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq’? Honestly?
Of course, the ironic advantage of the ‘blame it on the French’ trope is that it plays on exactly the ignorance and the suspicion of complicated ideas that fund the post-truth propaganda brigade. And the denunciations of Parisian intellectuals come, to a large extent, from the same constituencies who support the political fraudmongers.
Let’s take a slow, deep breath and recollect a few things (we won’t call them ‘facts’, lest someone have a seizure).
- • Politicians did not invent ‘lying’ only after reading Discipline and Punish. Emperors, tyrants, kings, presidents, premiers, prime ministers, duchi, and Führer have propagated bald-faced lies pretty much as long as there have been political leaders.
• Has anyone read Machiavelli lately? Or the Bible?
• Perhaps somebody is confused and thinks that French theorists developed a complicated positive rationale for lying. Not much to say about this except ‘if you care so much about truthfulness, I strongly recommend that you read some of the relevant sources carefully and base your ciritcism on, you know, something they wrote rather than your general impression of rilly compluhcated stuff’.
• To the specific point: are there ‘facts’ any more? Sure there are. Sorry to pop your ballon. But ‘facts’ may be more complicated than you want them to be — even the most obvious, most basic, most fact-y facts. Many matters one or another of us wants to call a ‘fact’ has been questioned by thoughtful, intelligent people on the other side of whatever aisle. Simply calling it a fact doesn’t advance an argument, nor does insisting in a loud voice that it really is a fact. Calling something a ‘fact’ works only if one’s interlocutor agrees, in which case it’s trivial.
If we disagree about whether X or Y is a fact, we may just shout at one another and call each other names. Or, more productively, we can specify the reasons we regard X as a fact. We can cite the studies on the basis of which 97% climate scientists assert that the earth’s temperature is rising to dangerous levels, and our interlocutor can say… whatever it is people say when 97% of scientists think they’re wrong.
• What if, instead of getting our undergarments knotted, when we want to talk about ‘facts’ we were to talk about ‘evidence’ instead? We know from the start that ‘evidence’ is a contested category (ask Johnnie Cochrane and Marcia Clark); but we can argue about evidence, about what it is and what it isn’t, about which evidence outweighs what). Talking about evidence leads us into arguments, the good kind, the kind where we exchange ideas and interpretations, the kind that can clarify the premises we are starting from, the warrants on which we’re relying, the pros and cons of the various interpretations of things on which we agree.
Philip K. Dick famously defined reality as that which, when you don’t believe in it, doesn’t go away. That should do well enough for ‘facts’ as well; if you don’t step off a ten-floor building expecting to waft gently to the ground, we can safely treat gravitational attraction as a fact (even though gravitational attraction is a lot more complicated than we learned in secondary-school physics — if I wanted to, I could write a little piece about ‘there’s no such thing as gravity’, but I don’t have the energy and someone might think I actually was arguing that there’s no such thing as gravity).
Does that mean everything is only someone’s perspective on facts (no ‘facts’ as such)? Maybe, if you’re in an actual argument about whether something counts as a fact. But no, not if you and your interlocutor both stay on the safe side of tenth-floor roofs, both eat apples but not arsenic, both wash with (mildly alkaline) soap rather than battery acid.
Getting back to the number of people at the US presidential inauguration on Friday, let’s set aside the terminology of facts for a moment. We can talk about evidence that the National Mall was more crowded Saturday than Friday: photographs, use of the public transit system, eyewitness accounts. If we agree that some of these count as evidence, we can weigh and compare the bits of evidence to see whether we can come up with agreed ‘facts’. But if, hypothetically, you refuse to acknowledge anything I introduce as evidence — my photos are faked, even if they come directly from the federal government itself, my transit statistics reflect a big, huge sale on waterbeds at a local department store and not the Women’s March, the eyewitnesses are all liars — then the language of reality or factuality doesn’t do any work any more. But that’s nothing whatsoever to do with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak or Jean-François Lyotard.
Let’s ask ‘evidence’ to do some of the heavy discursive lifting. And let’s start by asking what evidence there is that French theory is in any way more implicated in contemporary political codswallop than is the time-dishonoured tradition of lies and the lying liars who tell them. Show me a single reason to think that there’s more of a connection between Bill Clinton and Baudrillard than between Clinton and the dozens of other elected officials who have lied about having affairs. Show me a trace of evidence that Deleuze and Guattari influenced the Bush and Blair administrations’ determination to sex up reports on the missile capabilities of Saddam Hussein’s government. Show me a single reason to think that the world was more inclined to truthfulness in the days of Richard Nixon, or John Profumo, or Joe McCarthy, and that French theory can be implicated in that decline from honesty.
I can wait.
* Note: I am not a French person, or a fully-credentialled philosopher, and although people who know about me in a general way often associate me with ‘postmodernism’ I have no stake in being regarded as ‘a postmodernist’ nor even in composing an apologetic for a thing you might call ‘postmodernism’. I care about careful reading and thinking, and I have been positively impressed by many writings that casual observers lump together under the artificial category heading of postmodernism, but my interest and allegiance depends solely on the extent to which so-called postmodern ideas help me explain philosophical and theological puzzles I encounter.