June 13, 2024

On The Philosophical Backdrop Of “Alternative Facts” And “Fake News”, Part 1 (Carl Raschke)

The following is the first installment of a two-part series.  The second installment can be found here.  This article was recently presented at the international meeting of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Phänomenologische Forschung (German Society for Phenomenological Research) in Vienna.  The conference theme was “Fact, Facticity, and Reality”, or how philosophy can understand new media culture.

The digitally mediated world which we have come to inhabit has been increasingly described by pundits and critics alike as a “post-truth” world.  The power and prevalence of so-called “fake news”, doctored photographs and videos, misleading memes, virulent half-truths, and ever-present, decontextualized bits of information targeted at certain audiences with the sole aim of inflaming emotion, or stoking outrage, raise the crucial question of what such words as the Greek aletheia, the French vérité, the German Wahrheit, or the English “truth” could possibly mean nowadays.

Philosophers throughout the ages have always understood “truth” as the conceptual gold standard, the “general equivalent” against which all syntactic constructions or language games can be gauged.  The so-called “correspondence theory of truth,” based on the principle of mimesis, or the presumption that all representations must ultimately come as close as possible to serving as replications of the original, is as old as Plato and finds its last, most elegant rendition in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, Logico-Philosophicus, published in 1921.  Husserlian phenomenology, beginning with the sixth Forschung of his Logical Investigations, sought to short-circuit the correspondence theory, by arguing that truth is a pure “intuition” (Anschauung) of  the immanent relationships between the structural components of a given concept.

And Heidegger in his later writings went even further by pressing the case that the problem of truth must not be framed in terms of conceptualization, or re-presentation at all, but through a “meditative” (andenkende)  stance of the philosopher toward Being itself, allowing “what is” (was ist) to simultaneously “reveal” and “conceal” itself.

In his famous critique of Husserl in his early work Speech and Phenomena Jacques Derrida cited for the first time the elephant in the room, which those who assiduously pursued the problem of truth seemed to have scanted.  The “elephant” in this instance was the Husserlian notion of the sign as having a double function, whereby “signification” involves both “expression” (Ausdruck) and “indication” (Anzeichen).  Husserl’s distinction, which he first set forth in volume one of the Logical Investigations, was quintessential to his larger project of what he dubbed “phenomenology.”

As most commentators on Derrida’s critique of Husserl have emphasized, the latter’s thesis that the “indicative” aspect of signification, inherent in linguistic communication as a whole, is largely irrelevant to the production of “meaning” (Bedeutung), runs up against both the complexity and creativity of human discourse as a whole.  In the wake of Wittgenstein’s earlier discovery that “meaning” cannot be located in some kind of transcendental repository of ideal contents, but only in the pliable, rule-based generation of language as a “form of life” (i.e., as a system of praxis), Derrida sought to show how the Husserlian premise of a duplicity within the process of signification was seriously misguided.  Derrida insisted, in fact, “that the difference between indication and expression” is “functional or intentional but not substantial.” Furthermore,  “all discourse, insofar as it is engaged in a communication and insofar as it manifests lived-experiences, operates as indication.”(96)

Derrida’s rejection of an underlying “expressive” realm of meaning, which Husserlian phenomenology prioritized in its effort to resolve what Foucault notoriously termed the “empirico-transcendental doublet”, was something more consequential than a sophisticated stab, following Nietzsche’s suggestion, at “reversing” Platonism.  Nor was it a clever means of making an end run around the correspondence theory of truth.  Derrida’s sally against the Husserlian notion that the “truth” of a proposition lay in the disclosure of its immanent ideality, which at the same time could never be disentangled from “lived-experiences”, arose against the backdrop of the ubiquitous “linguistic turn” in twentieth century philosophy.

The linguistic turn by itself had fostered the pseudo-Kantian “constructivist” conceit that the “real” is the projection of language itself, rather than the other way around.  Derrida’s de-constructivist parry was aimed at tacitly demonstrating that the philosophical obsession over countless generations with ascertaining once and for all that which goes by such names as “reality”, “objectivity”, or the “world” per se was ultimately derived from what he could label a “metaphysics of presence.”

Derrida’s critique, in effect, sought to locate German idealism – and by extension Husserlian phenonemology – with its focus on “consciousness” as the starting point for philosophical reflection within the history of the metaphysics of presence.  “Presence” – Derrida’s term for what the Aristotelian tradition referred to as “Being qua Being” – could, as Heidegger had stipulated a generation earlier, manifest itself in “subjective” as well as “objective” modalities.  The subjective modality Derrida characterized as “self-presence.”

The most important outcome of Derrida’s early attempts at surgically dissecting what was wrong with Husserlian phenomenology was his realization that “writing” or “inscription” (écriture) is exposed as the long-sought tertium quid of philosophy that allows us to dispense with the empirico-transcendental doublet tout à coup and to let go of the ancient preoccupation with clarifying the relationship between words and things after all.  At the same time, Derrida rarely, except in certain rhetorical instances and in a very curious way in his four essays on art collected in the volume entitled The Truth in Painting, gave serious attention to the problem of truth.

That is because the whole enterprise of “deconstruction” derives from the insight that “meaning” is not something inhering in an ideal or transcendental realm, or one that can be functionally defined as the coherence of the formal properties of a signifying matrix.  On the contrary, meaning is the output of the dislocations (espacements) generated through the process of textual revision and interpretation.  Meaning arises through the temporal distancing of one act of signification from another.  Thus, as I have tirelessly and somewhat futilely reiterated to my students, the word “deconstruct” can never be a transitive verb.  One does not “deconstruct” a text.  The text deconstructs itself through the automotive practice of reading and writing.  It is indeed, as Derrida stresses in Speech and Phenomena, the “indicative” or bedeutunglos procedure of linguistic communication in its untold variances and permutations that carries the freight of what we have in mind when we invoke the term “signification.”

This brief and rather superficial summary of what has always been at stake in not only Derrida’s contributions to the philosophical canon, but also in the post-structuralist revolution overall, highlights in a somewhat oblique manner what also must matter to us in a “post-truth” environment.  Of course, the trendy locution “post-truth” is also in key respects simply a clever trope for what has historically been known as “conceptual relativism,” an idea that is as old as the ancient Cynics and Sophists, let alone the Madhyamika schools of classical Buddhism.

What has made the locution more compelling and ever has been the ubiquity in our day and age of digital communications and the way in which new media have empowered billions of ordinary people not merely to self-publish, but to become accomplished con artists.  The saturation of the mind on a daily basis with mischievous memes and fragments of misleading information aimed at capturing instant attention as well as seducing assent through the manipulation of our cognitive biases has forced the discipline of philosophy, which is the “love of wisdom” rather than the lust for emotional gratification, to sustain itself in an increasingly hostile set of surroundings.

The tone was set by Baudrillard in the early 1980s with publication of his Simulacra and Simulation in the early 1980s.  Baudrillard can be considered the first academic philosopher to grasp the epistemological import of popular media, even though he died in 2007 just as the age of social media was aborning.  Baudrillard’s well-known account of the “hyperreal” in which the the integral relationship between cognition and reference dissolves into what he termed the “precession of simulacra” still to this day provides the most compelling and cogent theoretical template for understanding the ubiquitous effects of digital communications.

Indeed, the opening statement of Simulacra and  Simulation offers us the generic formula for the generation of signifiers exclusively allotted to the universe of “post-truths.”  Baudrillard writes: “The simulacrum is never what hides the truth – it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The simulacrum is true”.(1)  In the book Baudrillard attributes the quote to the Book of Ecclesiastes, but as he admits in a later interview, the citation was totally fabricated to make a point.(11)

Because the quotation is situated at the top of the opening page, one assumes it can be found somewhere in the Bible itself, and a number of scholars went looking for it in vein.  Baudrillard described the ruse as “a very Borges-like thing to do.”  Just below the quote, in the opening paragraphs of Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard confesses that he takes his cue from the literary artifices of the famous Argentinian write Jorge Luis Borges.  Baudrillard writes in Simulacra and Simulation:

If once we were able to view the Borges fable in which the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the territory exactly (the decline of the Empire witnesses the fraying of this map, little by little, and its fall into ruins, though some shreds are still discernible in the deserts – the metaphysical beauty of this ruined abstraction testifying to a pride equal to the Empire and rotting like a carcass, returning to the substance of the soil, a bit as the double ends by being confused with the real through aging) – as the most beautiful allegory of simulation, this fable has now come full circle for us, and possesses nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra.(1)

Baudrillard goes on in the next paragraph to say that “today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.”  Hyperreality is not an exaggeration of the real; it is the real that has nothing to do with the real, or as Baudrillard famously phrases it, it is a real that is “more real than real.”

What defines the hyperreal is that it is indistinguishable from what we routinely take to be the real.  It is not a “counterfeit,” because there is no measure against which something can be counterfeit.  In contrast with the division of “truth” from “untruth” epitomizing the paradigmatic schema that has shadowed two and a half millennia of Western epistemology, “it is no longer a question of either maps or territories. Something has disappeared: the sovereign difference, between one and the other.”  The real, therefore, according to Baudrillard, “is no longer anything but operational.”(2)

If a fake excerpt from Ecclesiastes can count as the controlling theorem of an entire, articulately drawn out essay, then the argument itself can be construed as spurious as well.  At the same time, that is exactly the “category mistake” that Baudrillard’s deliberate ruse of referentiality seeks to overcome.  Again, the simulacrum that “hides the fact” that there is no truth is the essence of truth itself in a post-truth world.  In certain respects it is an even more sophisticated variant on the liar’s paradox, which has also bedeviled philosophy.  Both the Baudrillard “simulation” of truth as the only “true” truth and the paradox of the liar who tells the truth in claiming he is lying comprise a certain discernment about the “operational” nature of truth as the disjointedness of sign-functions, a point that Derrida makes obliquely in his critique of Husserl.  Indication and expression.

It is noteworthy that Husserl framed his argument, against which Derrida later reacted, as a “prolegomena to pure logic.”  The overriding question is exactly what Husserl thought he was trying to accomplish in the Logical Investigations, which in themselves became prolegomena to the “strict science” he came to characterize as phenomenology.  “Logic seeks to search into what pertains to genuine, valid science as such, what constitutes the Idea of Science, so as to be able to use the latter to measure the empirically given sciences as to their agreement with their Idea, the degree to which they approach it, and where they offend against it.”(25)

In the Logical Investigations Husserl treated the semiotic act as one totally dependent on “indication”, which in turn is contingent on the possibility of linguistic conveyance.  The wider architectonic of the Logical Investigations comes across as an effort to rescue the fledgling enterprise of phenomenological science not only from “psychologism”, but from the kind of “empiricism” that would later become full-blown in logical positivism.  If we can cut through the luxuriant vocabulary and specialized deployment of technical philosophical terms that Husserl employs throughout the work, we come to the realization that his effort to lay the foundation for scientific inquiry as “pure logic” rests decidedly on the same kind of mathesis universalis that Leibniz had tentatively and vaguely envisioned centuries earlier and which Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica at the beginning of the twentieth century sought once and for all to formalize.

The “logicism” of the Principia and the Husserl’s early efforts differed only in method, not in kind.  The promotion of the notational system of symbolic logic found in the Principia may have been far more instrumental in advancing the philosophy of science in the years that followed than Husserl’s baroque compilation of neologisms and cultivated Kantianisms, but the underlying aim was much the same.  It came down to knotty question of what exactly we mean by a “representation” (Vorstellung) in both philosophy and everyday conversation.  The question itself was inseparable from the doctrine of mimesis.

Does what is “set before” us (vorgestellt) in the moments of both perception and conception correspond to, or reflect adequately, what we experience, or is there an essential disconnect of some kind between the two terms of the dyad.  The dyadic cast of the mimetic problem throughout Western philosophy has all-too-often been dismissed as one of “dualism,” one which Plato unfortunately in his rhetoric about “image” and “copy”, together with his condemnation of poets, tended from the outset to foster.  The enduring distinction in Platonism between the “sensible” and the “intelligible” realms also made the disconnect seem more obvious than it actually was.  Kant’s suggestion of a “transcendental” solution to the problem, transposing the Platonic heaven of forms into an earthly thesaurus of “concepts” that can be “synthesized” with sense data, was designed to span the seemingly insurpassable divide between empiricism and idealism, or inductivism and deductivism.  It between became the magnetic north around which all the philosophical ventures in epistemology throughout the nineteenth century came to orient themselves.

But neither Kant’s transcendental, nor even Hegel’s “dialectical”, approach succeeded in settling conclusively the dilemma of how representation “re-presents”.  In fact, the problem of representation ultimately boiled down to what Derrida conjectured is actually intended in the philosophical idiom by the term “presence” (Präsenz).  To “be present” (anwesen), as Hegel had sagely noted, of necessity involves the recognition that something is simultaneously absent (abwesen).   Being and nothingness are congenitally intertwined, not just phenomenally, but also logically.

Although Husserl did not seem at all concerned with such an issue, which might prove merely tangential in logic while remaining rather Delphian when it comes to ontology, Heidegger came up with a truly innovative response to the age-old perplexity by excising it entirely from the theory of mimesis and redefining “re-presentation” as a second-order linguistic intervention that serves to solidify the experience of that which is (Aristotle’s todi ti) as immediate presence.

For Heidegger, the ancient theory of mimesis is transliterated under the impact of modern science and mathematics into the dyad of subjective and objective worlds.  In his 1938 essay “The Age of the World Picture” Heidegger described how “re-presentation” becomes a placeholder in the scientific, calculative epoch for the loss of what we might term “real presence” as the immediate experience of Being.   It is in this transition that Derrida’s “metaphysics of presence” (i.e., presence as re-presentation) comes to dominate.  According to Heidegger, representation “means to bring what is present at hand [das Vorhandene] before oneself as something standing over against, to relate it to oneself, to the one  representing it,  and  to  force  it back into this relationship to oneself as the normative realm.”(131)

The “normativity” of representation, as opposed to the immediacy of Being as presence, contextualizes for Heidegger a Seinsvergessnheit that is as ancient as Plato, but attains its full expression (its parousia, as Heidegger calls it) in modern science and technology.  In a word, modern science and technology serves to fructify the perspective of the ancient Sophist Protagoras, quoted by Plato himself, that “man is the measure of all things” (πάντων χρημάτων ἄνθρωπον μέτρον εἶναι).  If the human perspective alone becomes the “metric” for ta onta (“that which is”), then it also must be identified as the source of all representations themselves.  And over time this metric presents itself as a kind of Sorcerer’s Apprentice, conjuring up chains of signifiers that mysteriously and magically end up replicating themselves, metastatically pushing their way into the domain of meaning itself and crowding out all other semantic markers.

Baudrillard’s “precession of simulacra”, at least from the Heideggerian standpoint, can be viewed as the unavoidable result of metaphysical “forgetfulness” of the meaning of Being and the replacement of the primordial encounter with the system of signs that Ferdinand de Saussure designated as langue and Derrida as the “grammatology” that remains the sine qua non of all signification.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion.   He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society.  Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic (Cascade Books, 2017)Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis (IVP Academic, 2016)Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  His newest book is entitled Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).  He is also Senior Consulting Editor for The New Polis.

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