A Brief History of Post-Truth Society
In today’s Guardian there is a review of the book The Making of the President (that is, Trump) by the notorious “ratfucker” Roger Stone, who I’ve had occasion to mention in the past in connection with the” creepy clown” or Trickster archetype. There is a kind of fraternity of such types — the dirty tricksters — in contemporary politics, including the Australian “political operative” Lynton Crosby. Mr. Stone insists, like Kellyanne Conway’s justification of “alternative facts”, that people today have “a choice of truths“. So, Ms Conway’s “alternative facts” wasn’t a momentary aberration or a transient lapse of reason. It’s deliberate and in the nature of post-modern politics. It’s one of the chief features of the “New Normal” (or Adam Curtis’s “Hypernormalisation“).
Here, I want to explore how this situation reflects the fragmentation and disintegration of the personality and consciousness structure of modern man in duplicity, as examined also by Jean Gebser also in The Ever-Present Origin.
I have an anecdote of my own about that. I once attended a political meeting where a man started espousing opinions that were clearly fascistic and untruthful, which I duly pointed out. He was somewhat offended that I would contradict his counter-factual ravings with the reasonable facts. Instead of countering with any facts at all, he simply stated: “Don’t you understand that it’s my opinion!” It’s what we call “opinionated”, I suppose. But I was somewhat taken aback by that indifference to reason or fact, for he was basically stating that “truth is what I believe to be true and nothing otherwise”.
In point of fact, his “opinions” weren’t even his own. He had assimilated them as a kind of package deal from what we now call “alt-right news sites” of the kind Mr. Stone lauds as sources of “alternative truths”. And since then, I’ve encountered many more like him who demonstrate what I’ve called “the arrogance of ignorance” but which might also be described as “the monological mind”.
By “monological mind” I mean, in part, the certitude that there is but “one best way” of thinking or doing anything — as Jacques Ellul once described it in his critique of the technological system, which is fairly typical of the authoritarian or totalitarian personality. Monological is to be contrasted with the dialogical. But more to the point, the monological mentality is one that is, as it were, auto-entranced and tautological. It arises in the morning telling itself who it is and what its world is like, and it goes to bed at night telling itself who it is and what its world is like. Nothing contradictory is allowed to enter into this charmed narrative cycle of auto-suggestion that makes “opinion” synonymous with “truth” because one’s very identity, and even sense of reality, is bound up with this internal monologue that functions much like a computer programme — an analogy that is rather apt in describing Lewis Yablonski’s notion of “robopathy” as noted in the last post.
In other words, the monological mind and the bubble of perception are two aspects of the same process.
Now, we tend to hold that “post-truth society” is a suddenly emergent aberration, but its origins lay largely in the First World War and the development of propaganda as an organised social and psychological technology, along with the emergence of “mass society” in and through mass warfare and the subsequent development of the idea of “total war” or that politics is war by other means. The history is rather clear that propaganda for war subsequently morphed into post-war “public relations”, “public diplomacy”, “perception management”, “branding” and so on, largely through the work of Edward Bernays, whose 1928 book Propaganda justified and rationalised the uses of propaganda for peace-time and for the reorganisation of post-war society (Bernays is also one of the chief subjects of Adam Curtis’s lengthy but excellent documentary The Century of the Self). This entire period from 1914 to 1945 marks the disillusionment of the intelligentsia and loss of confidence in the optimism of the Enlightenment. And it’s really after the First World War that what we call “post-modernism” (or “post-Enlightenment”) begins along with grave doubts about the value of democracy. Although there was no shortage of those who wrote extensively about an emerging problem during the interwar years — critics such as Stuart Chase — alarm bells started ringing mainly in the 50s, during which decade a very extensive literature of concern and alarm about the fate of democracy and of the human condition started to emerge along with a lot of dystopian projections for the future — works like Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950), Roderick Seidenberg’s Post-Historic Man (1957), William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956), Joseph Seldin’s The Golden Fleece (1963). and, of course, the many works of Vance Packard which already anticipate what we now call “post-truth society”. Those are just some that I’m familiar with. But then by 1973, Arthur Herzog published The B.S. Factor in which he argued that “faking it” had already become a way of life, followed by Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (1979), then Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (who also got it wrong, in my view, and not just because it had nothing specifically to do with the “American” mind).
You could say, of course (and with some justification) that “post-truth society” and the closure of the mind within a bubble of monological tautology is nothing new. William Blake had earlier spoken to this closure of the mind in upon itself: “for man has clos’d himself up till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern” (that is to say, the fall into mere sensate consciousness). And what we call here “monological mind”, or bubble of perception, was already known to Blake as “Single Vision” and “the mind-forg’d manacles”. In Blakean terms, what we call “the truth that sets free” and “the facts of the matter” had already become inconsonant and widely divergent which is, I would say, the fundamental aspect of the modern mind’s dis-integration (and one very much at the root also of Iain McGilchrist’s analysis of the “divided brain” and its two rather distinct modes of perception in The Master and His Emissary).
One can also argue the case that the whole parable of the journeys of the Prodigal Son into self-alienation is a parable about the divergence between “the truth that sets free” and the mundane “facts of the matter” that mirrors the neurodynamics described by McGilchrist in the divided brain — the Master and the Emissary which are, in contemporary terms, the distinction made in psychological theory between the “Self” and the “Ego” (or the Soul and the Ego Nature, the “soul” being that which Gebser calls “the vital centre” or “the Itself”).
It’s McGilchrist’s “Emissary” (who is the Prodigal Son) who is also the representative of “monological mind” of Blake’s “Single Vision”.
Nonetheless, the immediate precursor to what we now call “post-truth” (or “fake news”, “alternative facts”, and so forth) was what was described as “symbolic belief” in an earlier article in The Guardian. “Symbolic belief” was the immediate precursor to “post-truth”, and this issue of “symbolic belief” really does highlight a kind of Jekyll and Hyde disintegration of the mind, where what one knows to be true, and what one chooses rather to merely believe is true, are completely isolated and segregated (what Gebser calls “sectoralisation” or “compartmentalisation” of the mind). This, more than anything, illustrates the gruesome nature of a consciousness structure in the throes of its own splintering and dissolution. This matter of “symbolic belief” is not just an issue of the “uneducated” or of popular culture either, but afflicts even the arts and sciences (and especially economics) for which there are plenty of examples. This “symbolic belief” is also what has been called “zombie logic” which is only the clinging to already obsolete patterns of thought and models of reality that have been proven deficient in the face of reality. So, “zombie logic” is just another term for “monological mind” which is tautological in structure. That tautology is what McGilchrist calls the Emissary’s “usurpation” of the primary consciousness of “the Master” (or that which knows rather than that which merely believes that it knows).
There is a book, written by Jane Roberts, whose title I find particularly appropriate: “Dialogs of the Soul and Mortal Self in Time“, and which speaks to the proper relationship between “Master” and “Emissary” modes of consciousness of the divided brain, and the primary distinction between the dialogical imagination and the merely monological mind (or what Buddhists call “Monkey Mind”). It’s not difficult to see this dialogue between the “soul and mortal self in time” in play in Jill Bolte-Taylor’s TED talk on her “stroke of insight” either. Of course, for that dialogue to function effectively, the “Emissary” has to shut up long enough to listen (which is called “letting go” or “inner silence”) and that means interrupting that flow of monologue that the Emissary (or ego-nature) incessantly conducts with itself that tells itself who it is and what its world is like from dawn to dusk, which upholds and sustains its self-image and identity and its corresponding world picture even in defiance of the truth, and does so ultimately to its own harm, self-mutilation, and disintegration into irredeemable duplicity, which was the gruesome fate of Jekyll and Hyde where duplicity ended in the mutual destruction of both.