Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Thin Redline: Truth in Retreat

The line between truth and fiction has been blurring into a murkier and murkier swamp for many years now. It is one of the central tenets of a postmodern world – once the foundations of truth claims are laid bare and we recognize the inherent flaws in language, reality becomes but an illusion, a construct that is in constant flux. Floating signifiers fill our lives, changing form and meaning from one news cycle to the next as the world begins looking more and more like the one represented in The Matrix. And caught in the middle is the majority of the population, unsure what to believe. Rather than living in a state of constant confusion, however, many than turn to “faith” that their position is right. While the words of Ludwig Feuerbach were aimed at religion, they seem particularly pertinent here:

“But for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, appearance to essence . . . truth is considered profane, and only illusion is sacred. Sacredness is in fact held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.” (Preface to the second edition of The Essence of Christianity (1841))

As I have mentioned on this blog before, recent research has shown that conservatives only strengthen their resolve (and political positions) when provided with evidence that undermines those positions and arguments. And I would be apt to believe that many liberals think exactly the same these days. To conservatives, nothing Obama says or does can possibly have any virtue, and the same can be said of the last several years of the Bush Administration (though I think the liberals have a point in this regard). In a broader sense, the advent of new technologies that were supposed to open the world up to people are often used as a filter, to ensure that no opinions, arguments or scientific facts that disagree with you reach your eyes or ears. Many, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, actually think this is a good thing, allowing us to sift through the news and find only that which interests us. But that same convenience also undermines the central tenets of democracy, which demand a public that critically engages with issues, that remains informed and that is willing to debate their own opinions with those that disagree with them (Bill Maher). Is it really surprising that political insularity is at its highest point in decades…or maybe ever…given our inability to listen and talk to one another today?

To get back to Feuerbach, how is his argument about religion and a society “which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, appearance to essence,” relevant to contemporary American society, 174 years after the book was published? I think it actually perfectly captures the collective conscious of our nation in the contemporary, confused epoch we inhabit. Going through the arguments one by one: 1. The Sign to the Thing Signified: we live in a world of signs, constructed and reproduced for maximum effect (usually to sell something, whether it be a product or a lifestyle), creating the spectacle society that Debord so aptly described (You Tube Video). It no longer matters if the deeper significance matters, all that matters is that we have said that it matters. 2. The Copy to the Original: we don’t actually experience the news as raw sensory data, but always through some mediation (e.g., a news outlet, a tell all book, made for TV movie, news documentary or fictional adaptation). Just looking at the Super Bowl as an example – we first have two weeks of hype where the game is broken down from every possible angle, every player given a profile in multiple sources, short documentaries compiled and the place of this game in the larger history of the sport debated. The day of the game there is the pre-pre show, the pre-show, the halftime show and the endless postscripts on the game, all surrounded by the color commentary throughout the game. All of this tells us what to think before we ever have the chance to decide for ourselves, before the entire event is repackaged and presented to us as a more accurate copy than even the original itself. Beyond this, we have the endless recycling of our favorite stories, in sequels, prequels, reboots and adaptations (notice how many of the top films this year fit one of those four categories: Box Office Mojo, and then go back over the past several years). 

3. Representation to Reality: in the contemporary epoch, representation has replaced reality as the key conceptual framework from which our subjectivity sprouts and flourishes (or flounders, depending on your perspective). Everything is a representation of something else, a signifier to attach meaning to and then debate endlessly, before moving on to the next topic a day later. Mad Men is not a TV show, it is the very embodiment of what a TV show can and cannot do, a statement on our collective discontent, a historical recapturing of the moment advertising became the lingua franca of America and an “event” in the Badiou sense of the world. Elections are not attempts by the people to enact democracy, they are horse races between candidates whose images often trump their platforms and whose victory or loss symbolizes a dramatic shift in the political landscape (until the next election when that dramatic shift happens all over again in a different direction). And reality itself is merely the representation of some ideological position, untied to that which it represented to begin with (reinforcing Manet’s three paradoxes of art – the mutual exclusivity of reality and representation, design and representation and abstraction and reality). 4. Appearance to Essence: has anything more apt ever been written about American culture in the 21st century? It is true that Feuerbach knew nothing of our world, but this phrase seems to capture everything that is arguably wrong with our consumer driven world today. It doesn’t matter if Kim Kardasian is a greedy fool with little to offer the world, her appearance apparently captured some deep longing in the American public and we should thus follow every idiotic thing she says or does, along with all the other venal and untalented celebrities who bought or slept their way (on video) into our hearts. It doesn’t matter if Hollywood, Disney, McDonald’s or a host of other huge corporations are destroying the lives of our children, they make really cool looking stuff. The Super Bowl may be the biggest game in the world, but it is really just an excuse for us to watch “good commercials” with a few annoying athletes in tights occasionally interrupting the fun. The Oscars might be a chance to celebrate the film industry and its “best,” but somewhere along the line just became the most watched fashion show in the world each year. Every holiday moved from a time for loved ones to spend together and reaffirm their connection to an excuse to buy, buy, buy and hope you don’t get killed in the stampede to get that 10 percent off Chia Pet at the local Wal*Mart.

The end of the quote arguably offers the most important point: “truth is considered profane, and only illusion is sacred.” Isn’t this the essence of the world we live in today? Truth is simply a lie told by someone else to confuse us and challenge our own long held, monolithic beliefs. A few examples from just the past few days should demonstrate the point. The first is yet another Republican Presidential candidate ignoring science to feed their constituents hunger for illusion, in this case Jeb Bush. The third Bush to run did admit that global warming is happening, but then claimed that scientific research does not clearly show how much of the change is due to humans and how much is from natural causes. The second comes from the world of entertainment, where it was recently divulged that actress Rebel Wilson, of Pitch Perfect fame, is actually 35 not 29. This apparently caused an uproar across cyberspace, where critics pretended that most of our celebrity culture is not based on constructed personalities and narratives. God forbid a woman lie about her age! Third is the continued rankling that goes on around sexual assault on college campuses, most recently the result of some lazy reporting by a Rolling Stone writer but an ongoing issue among our male-dominated mainstream media for as long as it has existed. The statistical evidence is relatively clear, reinforced by a study by Brown, that more than one in five women face sexual assault while attending college (almost 1 in 5 if we use their rather limited definition). Debate continues as if the issue is overblown, when we probably don’t even know its scale, given the reluctance of many to report incidents lest they suffer the wrath or indifference of their administration. Rather than look for solutions, we thus continue to debate the validity of a mountain of data – which, or course, is also true of climate change. Finally, Rand Paul ended a marathon filibuster purportedly trying to block the Patriot Act reauthorization of spying that actually appeared to be little more than political grandstanding. After 10-hours at the pulpit, he conveniently left the floor just in time to ensure that the vote and Senate business would go on undeterred by his delay the following day. This is just the latest political act in an election season that should see an endless array of them, reminding us that politics is more about image and illusion than substantive attempts to represent the will of the people, or their interests.

The old line “ignorance is bliss” might seem appropriate in explaining this phenomenon, but I think it runs deeper than that. It is not ignorance per se, just ignorance to ideas that inconveniently contest your own. It is willful ignorance to the advances in truth seeking that have been made over the past three centuries or so; a return to the preliterate age, where faith and mythology reigned supreme as the only way to make sense of a wondrous universe. Now we have the tools to make more sense of that universe, but are largely unwilling to use them unless they confirm what we already believe. Truth lies quivering in the corner waiting for the next confederacy of dunces to come along and beat it to a pulp. And even if it doesn’t exist in absolute, universal terms, the struggle to let it out of that corner appears like a worthy endeavor.

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