Verrit and the End of Intelligibility
A rapturous science-fictional feeling permeates the late-capitalist mindset, now more than ever: a feeling that the technology of our politics and the technologies by which we rationalize our worldview will be enough to succeed and win political power. These technologies encourage the feeling that our social reality can be managed and organized as a rational system. Metrics, statistics, and algorithms are the tools with which our politicians build these rationalizing systems on the basis of an empirically-accessible reality. These tools depend upon a utopian vision of social progress as a merely technological process. Wielding them, neoliberal politicians have linked political success to ensuring the stability of this reality. And yet reality has a way of catching up with you, we hear.
Peter and Leela Daou’s Verrit project is a recent step made on this premise of a purely empirical vision of political reality: an effort to embed in a perfunctory Wordpress wrapper a claim on objective truth. It was immediately and widely maligned upon launch, and its hollowness is self-evident. A grasping for order and authority hasn’t ever had a more neatly cyberpunk emblem than the “Verrit code.” The Verrit website is a parade of JPGs putting forth petty ideological statements with a veneer of objectivity and authority.
Look at the buzzwordy specter that Verrit was meant to confront: “fake news.” This term has bounced around between both parties since the 2016 presidential campaigns, to condemn a perceived biased dishonesty in the media. The term only exists on the premise that the media’s job is to do “real news;” that objectivity is an achievable goal. Democrats and Republicans alike are still doing ideological business in the husk of managerialism, wherein each thinks their perspective will be won out by an objective accounting of events. But bias in what is reported and how it’s reported is unavoidable — every perspective carries with it implicit ideological weight. “Fake news” still has traction, but the admission of the basic fact that objectivity is a dangerous lie has not been made (in fact, people get fired for making it).
As Trump shows us the miserable depths obtainable in the name of ideology, it’s almost understandable that what passes for the mainstream left has shriveled so thoroughly into a position of whining appeal: to decorum, to the “slow boring” of purely managerial politics, to economic realities, and to a flat picture of empirical truth. Verrit is a particularly egregious example of this cry for relevance–it is a claim on empirical reality itself. Surely if the metrics can tell our politicians which schools are failing, which hospitals should close, and who to cut from social welfare programs then the same empirical truths must ensure their eventual victory over the anomaly of right-wing populism. All of these efforts operate on the premise that the arc of history bends towards justice: that politics will become obsolete as history proceeds in a direction understood by the neoliberal intelligentsia, step by step like so many iPhones. 2016 should have been the year that myth collapsed.
Verrit is a part of an ancient tradition of desperate attempts to ground political reality in an intelligible foundation. Before late capitalism’s managerial politics, hegemonic understandings of the political have been supported by other unassailable notions: historical laws, human nature, the divine, and the scientific. These notions form the core of normative assumptions about humanity, society, culture and morals. These assumptions about the world operate as the common sense of our political present. For example, Verrit operates within a normative logic that empirical truth can take the place of ethical decisions about how to exercise political power in our society. This supposes that only those with the right knowledge and the right truth have valid political opinions. Yet efforts to make political questions about nothing but objective truth only serve to reinforce existing hierarchies of political and institutional power.
The 20th Century contained unprecedented bloodshed in the conflicts between various essentialized ideologies and nationalisms. The promoters of a politics of statistics and measurements tell us that the only way to avoid such catastrophes is to trust only the data and to exclude all ethical questions from our politics. The so-called opponents of so-called totalitarianism tell us to mistrust any politics that aims to change the world. Any politics that asks ethical questions about society is an attempt to change their pessimistic and absolute understanding of human nature: only facts, data and rational systems can save us from the terrors of ideology. Yet politicians have used these absolute notions of humanity and a rational global order to drop inconceivably expensive weapons on some of the poorest people on earth. How can we consider that asking ethical questions of politics is the source of this violence and oppression when we do not consider the overall questions of how political power is legitimated? Perhaps instead of searching for a new intelligible, unassailable truth around which to construct a politics, we should embrace a politics that openly dissociates itself from such claims about reality.
The absolute horizon of what is knowable and relevant to human beings is the socio-political world: human beings don’t have access to any objective reality beyond that limit. There is no access to be had. We believe that there is no need for a fully intelligible reality as a foundation for politics, and that the very idea of such a reality inevitably becomes a myth in the service of power. Beyond the horizon of what is socio-politically knowable, there is endless unintelligible mystery that is available for speculation, but from which no conclusions about the best way to organize or manage human society should be drawn.
The world made to feel secure and stable by a politics of facts and intelligibility is over. Our response to its collapse should be a grounding of our analysis in an intentional ethical worldview. While many argue that an ethical politics is the key ingredient in the toxic cocktail of totalitarianism, we instead posit ethical questions as the basis for a democratic politics that goes beyond the narrow limits of representative and party politics. This project is not grounded in any claims about objective reality, but would determine what kind of society is ethically just by means of an ongoing dialogic process. An empirical vision of reality only rationalizes a politics of hierarchy or inequality.
Why fear an unintelligible world? We need no illusions of understanding, nor assurances that there is an answer to be found to the question of how to organize our society. There is only us.