Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Fake News and “Postmodernism”: The Fake Equation

William E. Connolly
Author, Aspirational Fascism: The Struggle for Multifaceted Democracy under Trumpism

Everybody knows the first, fast moving story. During the 2017 electoral campaign in the United States a series of blogs spread Fake News, fake items about a candidate or party designed either to convince the base that they had committed horrible deeds or to counter evidence based assertions about Trump with one manufactured out of thin air to sow doubt and cloud the credibility of the first claim. These smears, many emanating from Russia and Cambridge Analytica, often finding expression in facebook, ran in tandem with endless repetitions of the Big Lie Scenario by Donald Trump. The latter are designed to create a media reality that would allow the aspirational fascist to reshape actuality until it slides close to the lies being spread. The fast moving situation points toward a probable crisis in which Trump, having prepped the base with lies about a Mueller hoax, fires or severely restricts Mueller, most Congressional Republicans stand by passively as the others cheer him on, and the fall into a kind of fascism distinctive to America depends upon whether a mass of citizens place militant pressure upon the regime. I wrote about those emergent dangers in a short booklet that came out in late 2017.
    This post explores a side light of this overall issue, perhaps important to the academy. Since neither Fake News nor Big Lies is based on solid evidence, some pundits, think tanks and academics have asserted that postmodernism or social constructivism launched the fake news parade. They did so by saying that there are no pure facts, that facts are soaked in prior interpretations. They had thus already undermined confidence in inquiry governed by simple facts. One essay from the Hoover Institute entitled “Fake News: Postmodernism By Another Name”, takes this tack. A Guardian article quotes Daniel Dennett, the deterministic philosopher of species evolution, to say a similar thing.[i] Some of my colleagues have asserted it.
     Often the Duke University scandal is invoked in these pieces, an instance a few years ago when Duke Lacrosse players were punished for a rape that did not occur. That example may resonate in these circles because it lumps together postmodernism with a demand for “political correctness” that are rather at odds with it, perhaps because both supporters of political correctness and constructivism tend to identify with the political Left in a broad sense of that term.
    The first thing to say about this equation, of course, is to remind people that Fake News and the Big Lie Scenario preceded the advent of postmodernism. A second thing is to attend to differences in affective tone and purpose that inform the two practices. Fascists assert Big Lies dogmatically and rancorously to smear opponents and to gain authoritarian power so that only the ruler’s word becomes legitimate; postmodernists--who often deny our ability to reduce competing metaphysical interpretations to one candidate alone--typically probe alternative interpretations to open a plurality of views for wider consideration. This fundamental difference between one ethos of dogmatism and another of presumptive generosity is, of course, not noted by accusers. Perhaps because one party making the charge holds an ethos of presumptive generosity in utter contempt. And because those positivists who seek to pin the blame for fake news on postmodernists often themselves fail to note how differences in ethos or sensibility make a difference to both public culture and political inquiry.
    I do not identify as a postmodernist of social constructivist, though I have been called one on occasion by people whose list of theoretical alternative is confined to two or three slots. It is essential to resist the insertion of Fake News, Big Lies and authoritarian dogmatism into democratic processes. It is also important, however, not to allow the responses to such an accusatory culture to return automatic hegemony in the academy to positivist notions of fact, explanation, and objectivity that have been subjected to severe critique for a few generations. If positivism (and its surrogates) is to make a comeback it must not be based on a fictive equation between postmodernism and Fake News. So let’s proceed.
    Some facts are well supported by evidence from several perspectives. You don't allow either Fascists or wide eyed constructivists--if any constructivists are indeed that wild--to say that all facts are equally ghostly, subjective or "fake". It is a fact that the United States invaded Iraq; it is also a fact that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before that horrendous invasion, despite what the Bush gang asserted. It is also a fact that a glucose reading of over 180 for a long period of time is apt to foster severe health problems. Three well supported facts.
    At a higher level of complexity, someone might insist either that the sun rotates around the earth or that the classical Newtonian theory fits the way of the world in itself. In the first case a well-rounded theory grounded in evidence of multiple sorts can be invoked to correct that insistence, even though unaided perception does support it. In the second instance, tests guided by quantum theory and newer instruments unavailable to Newton can be summoned. They involve, first, electrons forming wave patterns that collide (the two slit experiment) and, second, observations of a simultaneous change between two previously entangled particles now separated by millions of miles (entanglement or nonlocality). Together quantum theory and the tests linked to it correct Newtonian theory.
    To be objective in these latter instances means to conform to the most refined theory available in relation to tests that deploy sophisticated instruments. Thus to call C02 induced climate change a Chinese Hoax without advancing sophisticated evidence to overturn the evidence based consensus among climate scientists is to propagate Fake News.
    This complexity does mean, however, that what was objective at one time, say Newtonian theory, may become less so at a later date through the combination of a paradigm shift in theory, new powers of perception, tests with newly refined instruments, and unexpected changes in natural processes themselves. The emergence of new theories and tests, as Lorraine Daston and Peter Galliston emphasize in Objectivity (Zone Books, 2007) does not reduce objectivity to subjective opinion. It is a mistake to say that the sun revolves around earth, as Spinoza knew when he corrected the common sense of his day grounded in a conjunction between everyday experience and Christian theology.
    But what counts as objective may shift, if and as a new theory joined to new events, refined instruments and tests points to anomalies in a previous theory somehow resolved in this one. Such a shift involves an array of complex exchanges, theoretical formulations, and refined modes of observation, as has been occurring now in the debates between genocentrism, epigenesis and symbiogenesis in biology. Amidst these exchanges, however, partially shared standards of factuality and objectivity can be invoked that exceed radically the evidence free assertions embodied in Fake News and Big Lie Scenarios.
   Let’s now move to more complex and contestable terrain, the terrain, perhaps, think tank drones have in mind when they hold constructivism responsible for a culture of Fake News. The figures to be invoked now would not call themselves constructivists or postmodernists. They are speculative philosophers who respect the traditions of science and cultural studies as they also strive to challenge classical notions of explanation in them in this or that way. According to Alfred North Whitehead and Gilles Deleuze, some facts are both real and simmer with potentialities to become other than they are. Such facts are more than themselves. A genetic mutation may harbor diverse potentialities of gestation; one rather than others may find expression when it resonates with the specificity of an unfolding embryo. Or a student may place one or two far hazy ideas into competition with a dominant political theory. One of the former may then become consolidated out of that simmering facticity, as it drives others into obscurity. No Fake News here, but a process of emergence that renders facticity complex.
     It is unwise to cling so strongly to flat notions of facticity and objectivity that you rule out automatically the onto-intuition that real uncertainty and real creativity periodically arise in the world. This is precisely the territory that Alfred North Whitehead and Gilles Deleuze explore, while retaining commitment to evidence based inquiry in the senses adumbrated above. Do positivist drives to equate Fake News with postmodernism seek to rule this latter possibility out before it has been subjected to live experimentation?
    Consider, then, Whitehead’s notion of “the scars of the past”. Often enough, Whitehead says, two partially unformed potentialities may simmer in an evolutionary process or the thinking of an individual or group. One becomes consolidated out of the mix (decoherence). However, the partially formed fork on the way that was not taken may fester again in a fecund future situation that calls it up again. He says “a feeling bears on itself the scars of its birth; it retains the impress of what might have been but is not. It is for this reason that what an actual entity has {in the past} avoided as a datum for feeling may be an important part of its equipment.” (Whitehead, Process and Reality, 226-227)
    So, you fell for this potential lover over that one; or you supported one claim to a right over another potentiality that was simmering in a cloudy way. The festering fork Not Taken continues to subsist as a nodule of arrested thought-imbued energies. A new situation may activate that incipience again. In something like the way a new event can activate an old, slumbering memory. What is roused now, though, is a previous pluripotentiality rather than a consolidated memory; (many neuroscientists now think that memory recall involves subliminal reconstructions of the past). Out of subliminal movements back and forth between unconsolidated elements of the past and a new situation of uncertainty a creative formation may emerge. A new work of art may be shaped. A new responsiveness to plants may arise. Or a new sensibility of nontheistic gratitude may be staked out, lodged in between atheistic coldness and theological devotion. It is too much to say that you intended the new result from scratch. If a clean intention had preceded the result there would be no creativity in the event. It also may be too little to say that it just emerged from nowhere by chance. For no creativity would be in play in that either.

    What happens, Whitehead speculates, is that a previous fork not taken now resonates awkwardly with a new situation until a new possibility is ushered into the world out of the encounter. The new entity might be a new concept to be explored further in relation to others, a new work of art, a new political strategy, a new faith, or a proposal to add a new right to the roster of consolidated rights. Of course, the new event may overwhelm a thinker too, wiping out the promise of creativity in ways Whitehead may not emphasize enough.
    Whitehead’s theory of how creativity unfolds contains speculative dimensions. Not everyone will buy it, particularly those deeply invested in the prior ontology that everything actually in the world now must in principle be explicable all the way down. But his exploration is susceptible to a mix of philosophical explorations and living experiments. After absorbing it, for instance, you may find yourself attending more closely than heretofore to that uncanny threshold through which new ideas periodically bubble into life. Or you may ponder anew the intuition many people share that we do sometimes participate in real creativity.

     This speculative philosophy breaks simultaneously with positivist notions of simple facticity, postmodern resistance to metaphysical speculation, and the pursuits of Fake News, Big Lies, and mass manipulation inspiring aspirational fascism. It sustains together a certain respect for factuality, appreciation of objectivity, real creativity, and the role of speculation in thought. 
     A credible case can be made that sometimes something new emerges out of resonances back and forth between a cloudy fork from the past that was not taken and a current encounter. Such a speculative philosophy can be contested, of course. Nonetheless, the case for real creativity it sustains speaks to the artistic and aesthetic dimensions of life without either reducing everything to mere subjective constitution or flattening objectivity into the barren worlds of positivism and rational choice theory. All three of the latter traditions fail to appreciate the complexity and wonder of the world.

[i] See Victor Hansen, Fake News or Postmodernism by Another Name.

And Chen, “Is Postmodernism Responsible for Fake News?”



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