Post-Truth and why its not all Bollocks #Essay #Archive

I am speaking to an acquaintance in the crumbling posterior of a pub when it occurs to me that the post-truth monologue coming at me is an attempt at grasping what is beyond their realm of ‘the known’. Instead of post-truth being some sort of contemporary phenomenon of talking political shit, the ‘post’ in post-truth can also be pulled from its implication of ‘coming after’.

That means not seeing it as a contemporary episode in history that comes after an episode based on ‘truth’. ‘Post’ can be read as beyond the truth. Not beyond a previous episode in history centered on truth, but beyond truth itself. Where I am equating ‘truth’ with what is known, and what is known to institutionally agreed knowledge.

In this sense, I understood that the person sharing their post-truths with me were trying to make sense of what was not empirically known to them. In short, the normative institutions of producing and sharing empirical knowledge were not adequately making sense of the complexity of the world. For my interlocutor there was a gap between what they understood such institutions should be able to know and tell them and ‘the crazy world out there’.

My problem comes when the gap is filled by a particular brand of post-truth. This is when you fill that gap by believing that knowledge is known, but being with-held from you i.e. conspiracy theories. This is to lose any belief in institutional knowledge and turn to a particular kind of ‘alter’ post-truth explanation that promises answers.

In sum, ‘normative institutionalised regimes of truth’ propose surety, whilst post-truth recognises peoples experiences of the failure of this surety and make promises around this acknowledgement.

Maybe the Donalds can help

I believe we should not fall into the trap of focussing on post-truths as wrong, but see that post-truths are a reaction to the subjugation of ‘other’ knowledge, the result of which is one particular promising (as in it makes promises) post-truth actually filling the gap my pub friend felt existed.

With these points in mind I think the now less famous Donald — Rumsfeld —  should be considered. Specifically when he mentioned the difference between known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns.

I posit that my pub acquaintance was not so much, not interested in empirical knowledge -known knowns- as the term ‘post-truth’ implies. Instead, by default they were rejecting those who portend to hold a monopoly over converting unknown unknowns into known knowns, by joining another particular epistemology of converting unknown unknowns into known knowns. This epistemology being the one espoused by the more recent Donald. One that thrives on pretending to reject the ‘truth’ establishment, and promise its own (post)truth. In fact its just a parasitic knowledge.

But why all this now? To answer this let me introduce you to a missing phylum of knowledge that Rumsfeld forgot; the unknown knowns. Post-truth is a species of marginalized knowledge found in this phylum.

Let me explain.

My pub goer was fed up of his ‘gut feeling’ being poopooed; knowledge they knew, but knowledge that was not recognized by ‘the establishment’. This made it an unknown known, to the degree that it is not only not acceptable — known — to ‘the establishment’ but my interlocutor also could not quite bring themselves to believe they they knew it— in their head — either. Thus such knowing is shit and shit does not belong in the head, but the gut.

But, where can my partner in pints turn then with this gut feeling sometimes seems to make sense of the world? Evidentially such people will not go to ‘the swamp’ of politicians or to ‘fake news’. Importantly though, they also do not go to ‘establishment experts’. Why? Like the politicians and journalists, professional experts have all been tarred with the same brush; overwhelmingly a face of positivist or schooled knowledge.

Positivist empiricism emphasizes the known knowns, but has become stuck in using it as the only lens through which to view the world. However, only a small insight into the world comes into focus through the lens of what we know we know, or by extension through known unknowns: what we know we don’t know. My pub plonker is not satisfied with that. Neither am I.

So where do they turn? To answer this I will plug post-truth back into history and answer: why now? I posit that post truth -broadly speaking- occupies a space between the institutions of Religion and Science. A gap that needs filling because what it means to be human often means trying to grasp, trying to make sense, trying to imagine the impossible. As another partner — this time in wine — put it ‘People need to believe in something otherwise we are lost’. When I pushed for what they meant by lost, they revealed ‘We have a culture, rules, you need those, we are losing that, without them what are we…’ I won’t continue with the anthropocentric and racist analogies of what one apparently we might be otherwise.

The point is, lost means being unhinged in space with no ground to make sense of what is up and down. In other words, having something like the ground to make simple sense of the complexity of gravity is needed by my friend on which to place a table on which to place their pint. This floating in space, in everything — the vastness of reality — does not fit in the known known, but yet this vastness exists and the positivist known knowners just are not providing a good enough grounding. In many cases even claiming a static fact and by implication assuming the unknown as soon to be known. When its patently not true that that is good enough.

A factual flat ‘ground’ earth is not being asked for, but at the very least some belief that creates some form of flat earth to live on in the vastness of the unknown, where the complexity and vastness of 7+ billion people is the primary unknown.

In step the Monopolies on Grounding

Religion — or perhaps the part of religion without the institution, something like ‘spirituality’ — has played numerous roles in sociocultural life. To put it very crudely, one of the biggest roles of spirituality has been to help people come to terms with the unknown. Religions then being the institutionalization of having a monopoly over the unknown in the form of its priests and adherents having privileged access to knowing ‘unknown unknowns’.

Religion gives you a belief system that helps you navigate a complex and scary world. But crucially it does not limit the world to the known knowns as it does not ask you to ignore the unknown unknowns, until they have been processed into known knowns. Its limitation however is similar to the contemporary institution of Science. It also does not like unknown knowns as they question its authority in their ability for people to develop their own anchors in the world.

The institution of Science has added it own twist, one that may have been learnt from the Romans when they adopted Christianity. This is the reliance on stealing unknown knowns and saying they were unknown unknowns or at the most known unknowns, that now will be appropriately packaged as known knowns. Ridiculing and marginalizing any recognition of unknown knowns or at best consuming them as a tourist as subjective culture. But that is a parallel story.

Let us return to the guts of my pint swiller. They have identified a gap and that gap is currently filled by a particular brand of post-truth. The kind that con-men like the more recent Donald produce. This post-truth is like snake oil. What I am positing though is not, not to criticize and ridicule the snake oil salesman or the snake oil. But ask not just why a lot of people buy the snake oil, but why do they listen to the snake oil salesman in the first place?

Well a small part is that the snake oil salesman has a platform to sell his merchandise from, but that does not actually answer the question as leftist no-platformers (people who protest fascists speaking) would have you believe. That strategy at its best is pointing to the fact that privilege has allowed too many people, like the Donald, to have a platform. Yes his supporters are motivated by not wanting to lose any more of their privilege. But privilege is simply one, particularly horrible, anchor in space. An anchor that tells me I am better than others, and often naturalizes it aka white superiority, or whitewashes history aka ‘British values’ etc… but its an anchor, a grounding in space, a way to make sense of gravity, but not an answer to why people want to be grounded.

I am positing instead that this is simply another anchor that allows my beer bellied friend to have some belief system that does not limit itself to the known knowns. Yes the answer they have chosen also ultimately does not deliver, but at least the salesman is recognizing their problem and promising a concrete wall of a solution.

An empirical epistemology of the unknown knowns

An empirical way to face up to, take into consideration and ultimately embrace the unknown in the here and now, is to directly address the unknown knowns as a way to fill the gap. Not wait around until some mythical point, when it has all been processed into known knowns. However not like the snake oil salesman who has empty promises and steals your known knowns, Religion that gives itself privileged access to the unknown or Science that steals your unknown knowns, all to feed their monopolies.

By definition one way to empirically know the unknown, which is what I am arguing is key — without having to process all the unknown into known knowns — is to also listen to the unknown knowns (Art, Music and Psychedelics contain other efforts).

Another way to phrase this would be to say how can peoples ‘means of production’ of being meaningful be placed back in their hands?

Originally posted on Medium on September 10, 2017.