Revolution, or Rethinking Truth and and Fact in Arendt-Brendan Flynn10-03-2011
In order to think the crucial question which inspires this essay— that is, “who today stands outside of politics and can tell the truth?”—we must reexamine the status of the political itself. In order to do this we must also rethink the relation of fact to truth. Arendt conjoins these terms with the concept of “factual truth” which, for her, “intend[s] no more than to say what is.”[i] The question is: do they really exist on the same plane? Does fact, the simple presence of “what is” (a presence which of course can be spoken or repressed, extolled or denounced) have the same status as truth, or is there an indeterminate topological heterogeneity between the two. Isn’t it the case that fact makes its appearance against the backdrop of a temporal situation rife with contradiction, whereas truth is always a militant engagement with the fundamentally open nature of any situation, and in which fact will necessarily assume a particular meaning depending on what stance is taken vis-à-vis this openness?
To get a sense of the ways subjectivity is involved in this discussion - crucial as the concept is for any examination of the question who can tell the truth – it is worth visiting Arendt’s remarks on the political in Ancient versus Modern society. Writing in The Human Condition, Arendt recalls Aristotle’s exclusionary notion of the political which, significantly, she says “formulated the [then] current opinion of the polis.” She states that “according to this [Aristotle’s] opinion, everybody outside the polis—slaves and barbarians—was aneu logou, deprived, of course, not of the faculty of speech, but of a way of life in which speech and only speech made sense and where the central concern of all citizens was to talk with each other.[ii]” For the Greeks the very condition of the political was a fundamentally split society. Within the social whole stand those for whom speech is the considered expression of sense and reason (this speech and the subjects who articulate it constitute the polis) and those whose speech is barely more than a simple motor function. The latter are quite literally outside of politics; they round out society but are simultaneously incapable and prohibited from political life.
In such a situation, it is not disingenuous to state the facticity of a citizen or a slave. Each really is what they are in their simple immediacy, the facticity of their being revealed in any number of symbolic designations. To take a historical example, then, the (factual) actions of a Spartacus make present the truth that barbarism and injustice are the necessary conditions of a slave-owning society. This truth is introduced retroactively. From the present standpoint of the citizens against whom a Spartacus rebels, his acts, embedded as they are in the facticity of the situation, can only appear as egregious violations against the order of things which is grounded in a deliberate series of rules and laws and are in no way unjust. Spartacus’ actions speak the truth, and the political consequences are obvious. Think of the obscenity however of grounding the truth of this revolt in the fact that he was outside of politics (which he was in the most radical way possible, in a truly ontological sense). On the contrary, the truth of that situation was heterogeneous to its facts, and could only come into being through a violent subjective engagement.
This example holds, though things are more complicated in Modern society.
According to Arendt the division which organized Ancient society is in Modernity displaced and internalized into the realm of the private since all are formally (legally, publicly) equal. Essential difference sheds its essentiality and becomes simple private particularity. Difference becomes interest which is free to re-present itself on a universal political stage. But it is this formal universal freedom and equality which makes the question of truth so difficult today.
This approaches the unique force Arendt attributes to the non-fact, the lie, in contemporary democracy. In pre-Modern society, where politics does not formally involve everybody and friends and enemies are essentially demarcated, the lie is a lie to an Other. “The traditional lie concerned only particulars and was never meant to deceive literally everybody.”[iii] Free speech, increased transparency and universality however ensure the impotence of this form of deception. The Other cannot be deceived so long as I know the truth, since truth is no longer something that can be partially withheld. Conservative critics of democracy, as Arendt notes, have long voiced precisely this complaint. It is what leads her to the ominous conclusion of “the undeniable fact that under fully democratic conditions deception without self-deception is well-nigh impossible.”[iv] This is how Arendt accounts for the uncanny efficacy of Modern propaganda, or the lie which has been able to establish itself as truth.
But what if the problem is even worse than this appears? What if it is not the lie but in a strange twist the fact which today is responsible for so much confusion? While we are desperately in need of facts today, what we need even more is an analysis of why they fail to resonate in the ways we might imagine. One reason for this is that today facts are immediately inscribed into competing narratives which fail to approach the truth. Global Warming is easily used as an example. Facts confirming its existence are constantly presented by prestigious scientists and institutions, yet to date no systematic political initiative which would seriously address and respond to this fact has been enacted. Yet how much of the debate remains caught between notions of legalistic corporate and personal responsibility on the one hand, and simple skepticism about the need for such measures regulating this responsibility on the other? Obama wonders aloud whose butt he needs to kick for the BP ecological catastrophe. But who wonders whether market conditions under capitalism, in which companies are constantly compelled to increase their profit revenues lest they be taken over by the competition, made the BP incident more or less inevitable, a necessary consequence of the rational cost-saving measures all corporations must take in order to survive? The fact of the catastrophe and its consequences are well known to all—the lie does not play. However the truth of this fact is systematically ignored and repressed. Fact is not so much absent as its meaning and force determined in advance.
Are we to resign ourselves then to the inefficacy of fact? Wikileaks is proof enough that this is far from the case. What Wikileaks exposes is precisely the way power is, under normal circumstances, able to take a cynical distance from fact, able to treat it in precisely the way Arendt suggests, namely, as a matter of opinion whose plausibility is always minimally called into question. This situation is expressed by what Lacanians call fetishistic disavowal, the “I know very well (that my country secretly bombs and illegally detains human beings in my name), but nonetheless I continue to act as if I do not know.” What Wikileaks courageously exposed is that this minimal but crucial distance that prevents one from subjectively assuming fact is not possible when one is confronted with the official, unfiltered directives, memos and reports of the State itself. Suddenly, fact is jarringly ripped from the mirage of false antagonisms it normally finds itself in (for instance, between liberal-parliamentary-capitalism and terrorism or totalitarianism), leaving us to potentially draw more radical conclusions.
The consequences of Wikileaks (where six weeks separate the release of the diplomatic cables from the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali’s flight from power) are instructive. As has been noted, most were already aware of the widespread corruption and inequality which the Wikileaks documents revealed. Yet this revelation made us confront the falseness and inadequacy of the typical “neutral” actions taken to combat these problems. When facts of inequality and oppression are perceived to be fundamentally rooted in corruption, the mode of engagement predictably calls for apolitical investigations which can perhaps lead to political solutions. But in this way the “apolitical,” non-governmental organizations are caught-up in the process they seek to combat. The irony is that from their “apolitical” perspective the widespread demonstrations and movements which ultimately manifested in the “Arab Spring” can easily be seen as similarly apolitical irruptions of irrational violence that bypass the proper democratic channels.
We are forced to conclude from this that there is a partiality to truth itself, or that it is only from the standpoint of an engaged subjectivity that Truth emerges. Where the “neutral” gaze of a non-governmental organization sees the violence of an unauthorized movement taking place outside of legitimate institutions, the people at Tahir Square constitute themselves as the Truth of a movement antagonistic towards the state of things. In such an open situation there can be no guarantees. There is only, like a Spartacus, an event which emerges that suddenly displaces the previous meaning of the facts on the ground and out of which Truth and its possibilities simultaneously arrive.