The post-truth days of gauche engagement
On November 9th, I rolled out of bed, lit my two-burner and set the percolator to boil, opened the side doors of the van I live in, and squinted into the sun — which had, as Obama would affirm a few hours later, rose.
Writing this now I wish there was a word like squinting for the same sort of adjustments early-morning ears make. It took several moments of inactive listening to recognize that a Muslim man was talking about feeling terrified because NPR was playing from the truck I was squeezed behind in the pull-in of a Red Rocks NCA campsite, and that I wasn’t dreaming. When I asked it was in a whisper and my voice cracked: “Who won last night?”
The girl whose truck was playing NPR replied in a whisper as well: “Trump. Trump won.” (Is there a word to describe the tone of voice one takes due to dreams departed?)
Is it telling that, like with the other great American tragedy of this still-new century, my conversations about it have all seemed to begin with a description of where we were when we heard the news? A few of us are in the living room, rapt. A few more are in the kitchen, cutting the flag cake. Is it telling that, staring into the haze of the desert and feeling as dissociated as ever, Trump Tower on the horizon gleaming too-gold in the early morning sun, the date was 11/9?
On the day after the election, an NYT editorial explained his rise as fueled by “a fierce and even heedless desire for change,” and claims the change has placed the nation on a precipice. N + 1 frets that the victims of the fall are a certain style, a mode of discourse: “There is now an emphatic separation between those who write the words and the necessary fraction of people who must be moved by them in order to change our politics.” On “This American Life,” Ira Glass asks when truth became the anti-cool. In my mind, I’m referring to this month (this year, the rest of our lives) as After-Trump. I’m finding it easy to reel in this moment as though it was wake, reading every article like it’s a elegy.
We entered this century without any great words. Re-reading old notes on the end the of revolutionary ages (or, the 1980's), I came across a quote scribbled in an old journal: “However, they won’t say: the times were dark. Rather: why were the poets silent?” And I’ll add: when did we lose the will to listen?
In 1968 Georges Pompidou’s statement on the collective revolts unraveling in the streets of Paris was that “rien ne sera plus comme avant.” In those same years, Cuba and Indochina were undergoing national liberation struggles; Hungary and then-Czechoslovakia were undergoing anti-bureaucratic struggles; and the majority of Western, imperialist nations were fighting anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian struggles of their own. It’s so easy to sentimentalize these golden years of belief and struggle. And then one must ruminate on what the world spit out in response: minimalist 1980's tech, mass incarceration, and Facebook.
The 1960's were, perhaps, the last historical moment we’ve known in which genuine, radical belief was a possibility. I don’t want to make the claim that it was the end of intelligence as cool, but I will claim that it was the end of the hip intellect. The only way for the Western intellectual to responsibly respond to the burgeoning of 1960's feminist, post-colonial praxia was for the stereotypical Western intellectual — who was inevitably a white male from an imperialist state — to get the hell off of the pedestal.
This is fine and well (and fucking necessary). But this decentering comes with a cost: 1968 “signaled the twilight of the ‘prophetic intellectual’: the celebrity writer or thinker who claimed to possess privileged insight into the course of history and who prescribes the line of march for the benighted masses”. No longer could the writer sit on the ramparts and claim to understand their truths, nor could he walk among revolutionaries and profess to know their trajectory.
For centuries, the intellectual had reigned as king for the masses (certainly since the rise of literacy, but I wonder how much pop-cultural sway Plato’s philosopher-king held for centuries before that (1)).
It’s simple and neat to imagine a network in which the old white intellect steps off his throne and some newly diverse and differently-gendered geniuses stepped right in. That’s not the way history happens. When a system of power is decentered, the center isn’t replaced. The network becomes more diffuse. Sources of power and knowledge become more nuanced in order to fill in the gaps. When the intellectuals of pop-culture dropped the mic, they created a new paradigm in which intellectuals couldn’t meaningfully speak up anymore. What they were saying, in essence, was that the Self could reign uber-alles.
It would be really, really cool if in the following historical moment there was this new wave of liberated individuals doggedly getting after small-press alt-lit. and joining coalitions and diversifying their media. Instead, we got Myspace. And then Facebook. And then Twitter. And then Pinterest. And then Instagram. And then online dating. And then we got poets winning Nobels for lines like: “I seek serenity, I seek truth joined with happiness, my own inventions,” and “The world is a radiant stain that I am swallowing. Day is dawning, but I don’t believe it. I get up, doubt everything. The world is a stain on the mirror.”
And then we got Trump.
Like Obama said: the sun still rises. Our stun still rises; it shouldn’t. Some mornings, you wake up and suddenly, you’ve become the stain on the world. Some mornings, you wake up to the sad fact that truth has become an invention of the individual and is contingent upon his dirty, dirty happiness. And then Trump appoints his cabinet members. And then I realize that the wall isn’t “going up”: it’s been up. It’s the wall between the Self and the Truth. It’s the mirror on the wall.
My favorite article (2) about this disaster ends:
Already Peter Thiel, oracle of the new administration is quoted telling the media that it is wrong to take Trump literally, that his screaming supporters long ago understood that ‘the wall’ and the ‘Mexican rapists’ and all that were merely a form of symbolic language, not proposals but a ritualistic enactment of a rite, a rite that would give power back to these people. That rite has now been accomplished, and the rest of us live now under its disastrous sign.
Is this the disastrous sign? The intellectual performed a big mic-drop all over the pages of the 1970's and the echo’s still reverberating in academic articles today; the individual lives in the echo chamber of the self and only listens to her own breathing. The mirror gets fogged. Of course white people still hold power in this country. This month, on 11/9, they made damn well sure that you and you and you KNEW that they still do.
Some mornings I wake up and feel damn heavy about the obligation of my Self reigning uber-alles in its responsibility to not fuck shit up in some dire, glaciers-crumbling-into-the-sea-at-an-unprecedented-rate-and-still-I’m-dealing-with-White-guilt kind of a way. Some mornings I wake up and ask myself when was the last time with genuine sorrow and longing to change I got on my knees and all of a sudden it’s become really, really important to know the answer to that question.
The royal ‘I’ — the one that bleeds every month and cries sometimes (like everyday) and bruises easily — doesn’t want to be the sign for this symbol. (3)
Aforementioned Nobel-winning poet (his name’s David Huerta and he’s actually lovely and makes more sense to me today than ever) has also said these really poignant things:
“I stand up to speak and what I get is apoplectic silence, a swollen, threatening sky of lips.”
People are taking the streets and it’s so scary to watch because we know intrinsically, having been borne into this century, having undergone the insidious rites of passage it necessitates, that to speak maybe doesn’t make you heard; that to organize maybe only makes you easier to oppress; that there are no spaces big enough left for all of us to occupy.
And: “Winter in my mouth, wordy way of shutting up the external outrage of discourse.”
And yet it somehow seems, still, more important than ever to act — that perhaps our inbred impotence isn’t a good enough excuse to not give a damn. The impulse to speak still inhabits our little revolutionary-by-nature American hearts, our eyes still starry from a decade of social science classes.
If we are indeed faced with the task of living in post-truth, After-Trump, anti-intellectual times — than maybe my voice — our voices — will never reach the disempowered masses that voted for Trump. Because what’s the least hip of all is creating a newly empowered class of white folks that live far away from the coastline. Because these people have a right to hate the “revolution,” because indeed its aim is to dismantle their power. They’re not going to listen. The normalization of rage — of their voices shouting louder, again — is real. We’ve all been recipients to it already. But — and this is the kicker — we cannot beg anti-establishmentalism without being damn proactive about what we’re establishing. I can’t.
And so the question remains: what does it look like to access power in A.T. America?
There are probably heaps of things to learn about and act on in terms of creating (or protecting) policy-level progressive change. But alas, my brain’s woefully theory bound. I want to know what I as an individual can do to reclaim symbolic power: to avoid being a subject — subjectified and subjugated — in Trump’s America; to avoid becoming, as it were, “another brick in the wall.”
Here’s my three part list: (4)
- How are we constituted as subjects of our own knowledge?
The knowledge I have in my brain is what determines how I think/feel/respond to every issue/idea/human I come into contact with. My whole being is a collection of untraceable influences from every bit of media or interaction or physical experience I’ve ever had. The knowledge I collect in my head is what has power over my relationship with the world and my conception of my own possibilities within it.
2. How are we constituted as subjects who exercise or submit to power relationships?
Why is America still waging war over fossil fuel? Why is beef still a staple of the American diet when we know that raising cattle is the primary cause of rising levels of methane in the atmosphere? Why the fuck is Rush Limbaugh a major voice in my country? Why are black men more effectively murdered by today’s police than they were when lynching was legal? Why do we never reflect on the ways we alternately repress or care for our muslim brothers and sisters every time there’s a “terrorist” attack? Why do so many Americans expect to be coddled and have their feelings cherished now that they wish to flee Trumpland, but migrants from Somalia and Syria and Iran and Iraq and Pakistan and Turkey, or the citizens living in dictatorial Russia or China — all of these Others — are expected to quietly swallow their situation and resign themselves to embitterment? To what extent am I being honest and vulnerable with these truths and letting them impact my Self? To what extent have I been embedded with the social power that allows me to ignore them and keep these truths from impacting my life?
3. How are we constituted as moral subjects of our own actions?
I can’t see the future, but I know it’s watching me. And that, for me — for now — is enough: to justify symbolic action, warm bodies in the streets, hearts yearning for poetry — minds yearning for Truth as a new form of moralism.
Here’s one last sweet anecdote about what it looks like to reify (or renthrone) oneself in our individualized, atomized times (this one for sure’s my main man Foucault) in the name of something other than the Empire of the Self:
The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered not as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment in the possibility of going beyond them.
To live in A.T. America is to be tasked with looking your American self (in the pluralistic, globular, all-three-hundred-million-plus-of-us sort of way) in the mirror. It’s to understand the new structural limits soon to be imposed upon us, and dare to imagine the world beyond and outside of them. It’s to imagine the space outside of those limits that you and your community and maybe even people outside of your community can hope to inhabit those hopeful spaces. It’s to recognize that the critically-minded self being vigilant about altering the discourse and disrupting flows of power is real and big and is the way that change happens in the 21st century: in the cracks, in the most nuanced of ways, in the smallest little rootlings branching out of this chaotic rhizome of a world order we’ve inhabited. It’s to demand from yourself, from the people around you, from every interaction you have, and from every piece of media that you consume, the truth. Even if it hurts. Especially when it hurts.
1. Then again, am I aloud to wonder about the existence of a pop-culture in pre-industrialized times?
2. I’m kidding myself that picking favorites at this point could possibly mean a thing: it’s picking favorites from the losing team; pretending as though my pompous-as-fuck choice in consumed media as decidedly less-accessible, more academic, more red — matters. I digress.
3. Quick lesson in my use of bougie-ass semiotic language — namely symbol and sign — for those of you who don’t know and for some reason give a damn about anything I have to say: the late 20th C saw a rise in this way of thinking called semiotics, which basically claimed that there’s this duality to the way things are represented, and how that representation relates to meaning — aka knowledge — aka power — in the world. For a long time, basically all of the time, there’s been this objective world and then humans showed up and gave things words. Fast-forward however many millennia and now, because of various sociological, sociocultural factors, the SYMBOL — the way a thing is referred to — holds more power than the SIGN — the actual thing to which it is referring. So: Trump speaks of the “wall” symbolically. That symbol holds more political power than the not-yet existant pile of bricks on the one hand, or the people affected by it on the other (both “the sign”). Ya feel me?
4. I found this list in a college journal; it’s almost certainly plagiarized. Does plagiarism hold more, better symbolic power in our post-truth times? (It’s probably Foucault.)