Post-truth: A new Faustian pact

25 September 2017
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‘In post-truth regimes, what has been lost is the moral or ethical principle that keeps expression faithful to the truth of what people see, think or feel.’ Nilgün Tutal discusses a famous work of performance art in communist Yugoslavia to show how harmless the concept of truth has become in the face of contemporary authoritarianisms.

‘I have a terrible problem with truth. I can’t imagine what will follow the telling of it. I see everything stopping and the spoken truth, like some avalanche, blocking all roads forward and back.’

 Steve Tesich, Karoo, 1998

The western world has invented a new term to explain the oddities experienced in politics and the media since 2016: ‘post-truth’. The term is used to state that politics in particular has lost its truth, or that it has invented its own ‘truth’. Before we start to trace the history of the concept of ‘post-truth’ back to the end of the 1990s and examine how it achieved a new public visibility at the start of the 2000s, let us first look at what meanings it contains.

It is immediately apparent that the prefix ‘post-’ indicates that something has come to an end. Political post-truth is the new truth of politics, or the transformation it has undergone. This transformation entails the removal of truth, authenticity, integrity and sincerity from the canon of political values. What has been lost is the moral or ethical principle that keeps expression faithful to the truth of what people see, think, or feel; the concern of a narrator to remain faithful to what they relate or witness, and not to sacrifice sincerity or honesty.

In short: post-truth means the severance of truth from its reflection in the human mind; no one cares about remaining faithful to the events or emotions that they witness; truth as linked to objectivity no longer bears witness to its own verity.

What has come to an end? What kind of wasting disease has infected the truth?

A performance by the artist Sanja Ivekovic in late-1970s Yugoslavia can help to answer this question. Ivekovic’s work attempted to reveal the link between dictatorial regimes and the truth. If we can understand this link, then we may get a firmer grasp on the ‘novelty’ of post-truth.

Masturbating against Tito

Sanja Ivekovic’s famous performance Triangle took place during an official visit to Zagreb by Tito on 10 May 1979. There are three linked people in the piece: the artist, sitting on the balcony of her flat on Savska Street; General Tito, passing by in his official car, accompanied by motorcycle escorts; and a security guard who is ensuring the general’s security from the balcony of the Westin Hotel opposite the artist’s flat. From his balcony, he is the only person who can see Ivekovic. At street level, the people of Zagreb have gathered behind barriers to witness the official parade.

Sanja Ivekovic’s performance ‘Triangle’, Zagreb 1979. Source: unknown

The performance proceeds as follows: when the vehicle bearing Tito appears on the street, the artist steps onto the balcony. With a book in one hand and a bottle whisky in the other, she takes a seat on the balcony. She then pretends to masturbate. Since there is a wall on the balcony preventing any view from below, the guards on duty in the street below cannot see. However, the policeman on hotel balcony is able to observe Sanja and, on the basis of what he sees, comes to the conclusion that something peculiar is happening. He informs his colleagues of the situation by radio. Immediately, Sanja’s doorbell rings; the security guards tell her that ‘the presence of people and objects on the balcony’ is forbidden and that it is ‘obligatory to come inside’.

Ivekovic’s work aims to show how power identifies those who remain outside its spell, that it can observe them and inspect them, and if it wants will not hesitate to impose ‘legal’ measures on them. The power of government to influence individuals who are beyond its control, or who fail to display absolute loyalty, extends both to individuals’ private lives as well as to their lives within a completely restricted public sphere. In addition, as a feminist artist, Ivekovic was oppressed as a woman by the sovereign power; her private life was invaded. The artist challenges power with three ripostes: she mocks the government’s official pomp, raising the bottle as if to say ‘I drink to Tito’s magnificence and rule’; she stresses her presence as someone who continues to read despite the banning of thought; and she ‘occupies’ the public space of male sovereignty by masturbating while drinking that most male of drinks, whisky.

As we try to examine the question posed by the work as to where the truth lies in relation to power, perhaps we can better conceptualize what it means to speak of ‘the end of truth’. In particular, there are those who hid from the truth within the crowds, yet believed they remained themselves. And there is a Tito who redoubled his own strength in the reflection of the admiring gaze of hos devotees. It cannot be said that Tito was concerned with the truth. All the security forces knew was to preserve the great leader from malicious looks. They took it upon themselves (knowingly or unknowingly) to suppress the truth itself. Only the artist remains concerned with the truth. She gazes not at the crowd and those who legitimize repression, but at Tito. What she sees is a picture of a regime of pressure and control; this is the truth. The work seeks to expose what the spellbound gaze does not see (or what it chooses not to see) in power. Ivekovic wants to show that what would shake both the crowd and Tito (in an echo of the avalanche in the phrase of Steve Tesich) is that which sits repressed behind the pomp, truth.

For those who see the absolute power of the nation as the pharmakon of social ‘diseases’, the only threat to the survival of the totalitarian regime that derives its strength from this fake existence is truth. This is why it is suppressed and forbidden. That is why those who try to reveal the truth are persecuted, imprisoned, sentenced to death. For totalitarian regimes, the truth is a threat that must be imprisoned behind walls or buried in graveyards, along with those who can see it.

If the truth, which totalitarian regimes saw as a disease, ever managed to emerge, it would be passed from mouth to mouth, gaining a strength that could bury absolute power under its own spell. The regime would be destroyed and the search for a new political consensus would emerge.

Praise of ignorance

The concept of post-truth shows the parlous state into which the truth, from being a force that could overthrow totalitarian states, has fallen today. First used in the 1990s and then famously in 2016, the concept of post-truth refers to a new phenomenon in democratic or (even if only apparently) democratizing nations. What is the difference between post-truth as a structural quality of political regimes of our age, and the truth that totalitarian regimes battled to repress?

Alongside the globalization of the economy and the weakening of the nation state, the public has come to believe that the political, economic and cultural elite has abandoned them to their fate. The view that the new media give everyone the opportunity to express themselves as they wish has become widespread; there is supposedly no longer any obstacle to the expression of truth. This has led to the spread of populist politics and to the widespread acceptance that populist policies represent the ‘truth’ and are thus beyond critique.

As a result, the public ceased to demand that their politicians speak the truth. The popular feeling of abandonment became a resource that was well understood by populist political forces and easily exploited for their own political gains (even if, of course, this was not openly expressed). Thus, truth was pushed into the background and replaced by emotion, passion and belief.

The assertion that the new media order formed in a transparent society strengthened the assumption that the truth could be reached whenever and wherever it was needed. This media order, however, makes it impossible to actually follow the traces of the truth, because of an information system that is obliged to continuously repeat and renew events, making public and political memory a shambles of half-built structures.

As we have seen, totalitarian regimes also used a mass sense of abandonment among the public for populist goals. During those eras, public resentment towards intellectuals ran high. But, because Enlightenment thought was not in the disarray it is today, the mass did not shamelessly oppose intellectuals or artists with its own favorites; social movements that believed that education and culture allowed people to understand the reality of their lives were able to draw crowds.

In Turkey today, ignorance is sanctified and that intellectual ability is deplored, even regarded as disgusting. We witness the adulation of the self-satisfaction of the ‘ignorant’ mass. When we are told that the truth can be accessed with ease, no one believes that the truth is being destroyed. And when truth is told, those with political and media power no longer have any difficulty convincing the masses that it is a lie. Politics and the media populism can imprison truth within the ideology of social transparency. When, despite everything, the truth does emerge, it is seen as a plot by those who wish to destroy social order (terrorists). The truth cannot muster the power to shake a system of oppression and violence.

What the term post-truth openly expresses is that the truth no longer has the power to provoke political scandals. When political and economic corruption is revealed, no one thinks it is necessary for the offenders to be punished. Anyone making such a demand is branded an anti-establishment liar.

All power to the liars

The term post-truth has begun to be used in relation to two recent events.

The first, Brexit, was Britain’s embarkation on a separation from the European Union; this initiative became a reality when 52 per cent voted yes in the June 2016 referendum. But as the Brexit project turned into a dead end, it became harder to understand what the referendum had been held for. An appeal was made to the people’s will on the assumption that the people had such a will. The public convinced itself that it had the power to decide when it did not, or was deceived by the political order that treated it as if it had such a power. In advance of the referendum, lies were told and then afterwards disclaimed. When independence campaigner Nigel Farage admitted that the promise to bring back the 350 million euros allocated to the European Union every week was a mistake, none of his supporters were shocked.

The second is the 2016 US Presidential Election. Most of the events or situations described and claimed as true by Donald Trump had not even the slightest relationship with reality. When Trump’s speeches were examined, 70 per cent of the content was found to be untrue. Trump is yet another politician who denies his own lies, alongside the ‘truths’ he constantly establishes in the face of ‘lies’ told by those conspiring against him. Not long after his claim that Barack Obama’s birth certificate was fake, for example, he was able to deny that lie without sparking any scandal.

We often encounter the same thing in Turkey. In the wake of the event officially known as ‘the coup attempt’, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed that he had been ‘deceived’ by the Fethullah Gülen congregation. This did not prevent him from saying during the referendum campaign that, ‘in my political life I have never been tricked, or tricked anyone’. In Turkey, politicians often don’t even bother to remember which lies they told, so as to be good liars; the media regularly fails in its duty to remember and instead confirms the lies; and the public has no particular concern for what they heard one day and forgot the next.

During Turkey’s referendum campaign, there were countless cases of language being bent and broken. For example, it was argued that the vote was not on a change of regime but a ‘system change’ and not on a transition to a presidential system but to a ‘Presidency System of Government’. In the face of the reality that democratic rights and freedoms were being denied, the argument was made that Turkey would become a more democratic country. As public sovereignty was destroyed, it was claimed that the shift to a presidential regime would give the people greater say over governing the country. A structure that would end the separation of powers was presented as an improvement that would bring about a real separation of powers.

The right of those who opposed the constitutional changes to present their case in public was curtailed. Simultaneously, the invitation was made to ‘all the public’ to vote yes ‘whole-heartedly’ to the slogans ‘a strong democracy’ (in fact a strong state) and ‘a culture of conciliation’ (in fact discrimination based on Turkish-Islamic nationalism). The militants who took to the streets for the ruling AKP and nationalist MHP believed in democracy so much that all they could say, when asked what they meant by democracy, was that ‘this will be good for you, you will be freer’. They thus admitted that democracy was a matter of concern only to those who opposed the constitutional changes. So democratic was Turkey’s referendum that the official state television channels, the pro-AKP newspapers and even CNN Türk, part of the Aydın Doğan group, almost fell over one another to refuse coverage to political groups opposed to the presidential system and to give exposure to the government.

The post-truth phenomenon appears to have become one that envelops the world, without discriminating between nations that are democratic or not. The lies of politicians no longer spark scandal when they are exposed. In fact, the liars find their powers increased.

Phobia of the truth

How, then, do present-day ‘post-truth’ regimes differ from the order of lies on which totalitarian regimes were built?

The term post-truth was first used in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War by the screenwriter and novelist Steve Tesich, who had fled the Tito regime first to Britain and then to America. In an article published in The Nation entitled ‘A Government of Lies’, Tesich looked back over thirty years of lies in America. Since the Watergate scandal, he argued, Americans had been phobic of the truth and now wished for ‘our government to protect us from the truth’. Reagan and George Bush (if we recall the 2003 Iraq invasion) were politicians who clearly understood this phobia. For those burning with passion for a ‘stable, secure country that is developing economically’ who were unshaken by scandals (truths), turning a blind eye to lies no longer meant any kind of moral failing.

According to Tesich, during the Gulf War a contract was signed between politicians and the public. Politicians made the people this offer: ‘We’ve given you a glorious victory and we’ve given you back your self-esteem. Now here’s the truth. Which do you prefer?’ The tragedy is that the public was asked to choose between truth and self-respect. Tesich then highlights the difference between totalitarian and democratic regimes and explains how people made their choice:

‘All the dictators up to now have had to work hard at suppressing the truth. We, by our actions, are saying that this is no longer necessary, that we have acquired a spiritual mechanism that can denude truth of any significance. In a very fundamental way we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world. Since we have an eternal belief that virtue in this world is banal, we are foregoing principles that guide us in judging what happens. This is a mechanism that is wonderful because it is stupid. We turn this philosophy into a principle in all aspects of life.’1

Unlike the totalitarian lie imposed on the people by power, the post-truth lie relies on an agreement between politicians and the public. This is the new pact with the devil. It’s time to raise a glass with Sanja Ivekovic: Good luck!

  1. Steve Tesich, ‘A Government of Lies’, The Nation, January 6/13, 1992, 12–14.

Published 25 September 2017

Original in Turkish
Translation by Steve Bryant
First published in Varlik 5/2017 (Turkish version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Varlik
© Nilgün Tutal / Varlik / Eurozine

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