Maria Elena Torres-Quevedo | 7 July 2017.
The post-truth era, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a culture in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” (OED), has been marked by a right-wing appropriation of poststructuralist discourse. Kellyanne Conway’s claim of “alternative facts” invokes both Jean François Lyotard’s belief that truths should be plural and local, and Michel Foucault’s concept of “subjugated knowledges” or “le savouir des gens,” defined as “knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity […] unqualified, even directly disqualified knowledges […] a particular, local, regional knowledge, a differential knowledge incapable of unanimity” (82). The relationship between poststructuralism and the Trump administration’s refusal of truth and facts has been repeatedly noted (examples here, here, and here). Stephen Colbert, professional satirist of the right-wing, gave a different name to this phenomenon long before the Trump administration came into power, namely “truthiness,” defined as “the belief in what you feel to be true rather than what the facts will support”. Indeed, The post-truth era has highlighted the dangers of eschewing the notion of truth altogether, exposing how easily the public can be swayed by arguments that tap into their social anxiety and biases, regardless of conflicting evidence.
Such a troubling exploitation of social bias by the far right, not only in the United States but also exemplified by the Brexit campaign in the UK, has led much of the left to call for a return to the altar of “science” and “facts,” a position that suggests the existence of pure, universal truth and objectivity. This directly contradicts the longstanding scepticism within the humanities regarding claims to truth and objectivity; the advent of poststructuralism highlighted the interaction between “truth” and power, as well as the fact that bias inescapably informs every human pursuit, science included. The work of poststructuralists has lead scholars to be suspicious of transcendental truths or metanarratives. The post-truth era, on the other hand, seems to confirm what many have long believed: that postmodernism as a discourse appropriates the concept of marginalisation whilst doing nothing for those that are actually marginalised.
Arguably, however, regardless of the Trump administration’s abuses of epistemic power, a poststructuralist perspective towards claims of truth and objectivity is still essential. Indeed, it is not just white, male, poststructuralist philosophers who have voiced such a position, Feminists and writers of colour have raised similar concerns about truth claims. Jane Flax highlights how such a perspective can help feminists, insisting on the fact that “transcendental claims reflect and reify the experience of a few persons, mostly white, Western males” (48); Patricia Hill Collins likewise argues that “No one group possesses the theory or methodology that allows it to discover the absolute ‘truth’ or, worse yet, proclaim its theories and methodologies as the universal norm evaluating other groups’ experiences” (234-235); and Marysia Zalewsiki suggests that “what has masqueraded as truth is largely an exercise of power” (26). As these quotes suggest, poststructuralism is a school of thought that works to remove the powerful’s monopoly on the concept of truth. Despite the perversion of poststructuralism caused by its recent association to the politics of oppression, it is in fact a powerful philosophical tool for marginalised groups. I would suggest that now, more than ever, we need a philosophical resource that enables us to resist the ability of power to reify certain perspectives as universal truths.
Given this situation, we are faced with pressing questions, chief among them: how can we navigate the line between being suspicious of truth claims and accepting any and all statements as equally valid? It is important to note that there is a difference between being a liar and taking a poststructuralist philosophical position regarding epistemology; poststructuralism admits multiple truths as a means of challenging and redistributing power, whereas the post-truth era is arguably characterised by the ossification of falsehoods presented as “facts” on the basis that they are politically expedient to the already powerful. In other words, while poststructuralism strives for a pluvial milieu, the post-truth era relies precisely on one perspective being held above all others; while those in power may appropriate the discourse of poststructuralism (using terms such as “alternative facts”), there is only one set of “facts” that informs their policy: the one that justifies their ends. This situation is not, in fact, something new, but an age-old marker of authoritarianism, whilst poststructuralism is a school of thought that inherently opposes authoritarianism. Rather than an instantiation of postmodernism, post-truth is the Enlightenment devoid of any aspirations towards justice, human equality or liberation. The Trump administration should make us angry not because “truth” is gone, but because as a construct, it continues to be wielded as a weapon of oppression.
Maria is a PhD student in English Literature, focussing on contemporary American life writing through a postmodern feminist lens. She previously studied at the University of Seville and Cornell University. Her research interests include gender, identity politics, the intersection of narrative and identity construction, and genre theory.
Article edited by Vicki Madden.
Lyotard, Jean-François. “Excepts from The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.” A Postmodern Reader. Eds. Hutcheon, Linda and Joseph P. Natoli. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993. 71-90. Print.
Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and other Writings 1972-1977. Trans. Colin Gordon et al. New York: Pantheon Books. Date. Print.
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Boston, Massachussets: Unwin, Hyman, 1990. Print.
Waugh, Patricia. Feminine Fictions: Revisitng the Postmodern. London: Routledge, 1989. Print.
Flax, Jane. “Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist Theory.” Feminism/
Postmodernism. Ed. Linda Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1990. 39-62. Print.
Zalewski, Marysia. Feminism after Postmodernism: Theorising through practice. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.