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Contemporary politics and the retreat from reality

Sandy Hook kids

The Bush administration bequeathed a toxic legacy for contemporary politics. Most obviously in their mobilisation of war with Iraq, Bush and Cheney decided policy first and then manipulated intelligence to fit their framework. They weren’t the first politicians to mould facts to ideology, but the deep-rooted cultural disdain for the “reality-based community” exuded by their conservative political apparatus is something we continue to suffer under. And we can see disturbing traces of it in different national contexts.

Prior to Christmas we were horrified by the slaughter of 20 children and six adult staff at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut. For those of us not beholden to the power of American gun culture (so well pictured in Zed Nelson’s Gun Nation), the obvious first thought was that surely this massacre – on top of the Virgina Tech shootings or the Aurora cinema killings or any of the gun crimes that leave 12,000 Americans dead each and every year – would finally lead to substantive change. Obama has been praised for finally taking a bold stance in opposition to the NRA and others, but how radical is banning automatic assault rifles and limiting ammunition clips to a mere 10 bullets? When handguns, the number one weapon in US gun crime, are not even mentioned in these new proposals, reality seems to have gone missing once again.

BoM map

In Australia it is the devastatingly hot weather and resultant bush fires that show how up conservative contempt for reality-based policy. Australia’s climate has changed sufficiently that the Bureau of Meterology has had to extend its temperature scale to 54C and illustrate this extreme with an “incandescent purple” on its maps. After Sydney recently recorded its hottest day in history, few doubted that the international scientific consensus on climate change was being played out in the increasing probability of extreme weather events, even if climate change couldn’t be tied to singular happenings. Few that is, except the conservative opposition who are likely to win government in a landslide later this year. While whole towns burnt, the acting opposition leader Warren Tuss followed his absent boss Tony Abbott (ironically off volunteering for his local fire brigade) and declared no one should jump to conclusions about the role man-made climate change had in these catastrophic fires. Tuss was voicing the long-held belief among Australian conservatives that “climate science is crap.”


In the UK the conservative disdain for data is most evident in the coalition government’s ruthless economic austerity programme. While the Tories love to berate others for engaging in “class war” when they seek a minor redistribution of wealth from high earners to those who need a social welfare net, they have no hesitation in deploying their own class rhetoric – ‘shirkers, skivers and scroungers’ versus the ‘hard working’ – to divide the working poor from those who have lost their jobs or suffer disability. And yet any rational assessment of where money goes – the lost £70 billion through tax evasion versus the £1 billion of welfare waste – shows the cynical nature of the conservatives approach (aided and abetted by so-called liberal democrats of course).

All of this paints a bleak picture for 2013. How can the conservative ideologies of contemporary politics be contested? And how can they be contested visually? We live to a large extent in a political culture where denialism is a powerful force, and it is a force that too much journalism, still beholden to false notions of objectivity that require balance between competing viewpoints even when one of those viewpoints has at best a tenuous relationship to evidence, either furthers or allows to fester.

It would be good if this were the year that visual journalists redoubled efforts to take on the big issues with powerful pictures supported by clear evidence for the larger stories that need to be told. It would be great if visual journalists read and followed the critical ethos for a new journalism espoused by Jay Rosen:

The outlines of the new system are now coming into view. Accuracy and verification, fairness and intellectual honesty – traditional virtues for sure – join up with transparency, “show your work,” the re-voicing of individual journalists, fact-checking, calling BS when needed and avoiding false balance.

Of course, there is – especially for those of us with post-structuralist philosophical commitments – no easily discernible, singular, uncontested reality. There are no facts beyond dispute or arguments immune from contestation. No group has privileged access to the truth. Reality has to be narrated and narratives are inherently constructed. But some stories have more support than others, and the “concordance of evidence” favours some positions over others. When anyone flies in the face of such evidence it’s time to get angry and insist that we won’t stand for such BS.

Photo credits: 

Sandy Hook: Photo provided by the Newtown Bee, Connecticut State Police lead children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., following a reported shooting there Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Newtown Bee, Shannon Hicks), via Business Insider.

Australia: Bureau of Meteorology, via Damian Carrington’s Environment Blog, The Guardian

UK: Conservative poster via @billybragg

2 replies on “Contemporary politics and the retreat from reality”

Lots of interesting thoughts Philip, and as you say, I’ve been over this ground a number of times, and hold a different view. I won’t rehash that here, but will point to my essay “Why Fight” (available on this site) and the opening chapter of National Deconstruction as places I work through my position in more detail.

A very nice, thought provoking piece to start the year (albeit with rather dark subject matter!). I have a few comments as I think this raises a whole load of really interesting questions:

While it’s true that a nuanced, epistemologically relativist social theory of knowledge does not preclude the kind of hearty, thorough *evidentialism* that we so desperately need — no part of scepticism or constructivism necessitates cynicism or nihilism — I don’t see much in the poststructuralist canon (as I understand it) that provides the theoretical resources for such a discussion. The very notion of evidential ‘support’ is not a positive concept that I’ve encountered in poststructuralist writing. Indeed, the very notion implies the kind of epistemological commitments that such writings go out of their way to avoid. That isn’t to say that poststructuralist writings do not deploy evidence; of course they do, your own work included. But the *theory* with which this evidence is articulated tends to be stuck in a critical, narrowly relativist register of admitting that its own account is one theory among many and that it is just ‘keeping the discussion going’ in Rortyean fashion. Consequently, such accounts generally claim no greater epistemic authority than being one legitimate voice within the discussion.

In my view, saying that “some stories have more support than others, and the ‘concordance of evidence’ favours some positions over others” goes *beyond* merely ‘keeping the conversation going’ — it takes us into the realm of epistemology proper and a step or two outside the comfort zone of any acknowledged ‘poststructuralist’ theory that I’ve ever read. This argument does not, of course, invalidate anything but, if it is correct, it imparts a theoretical burden — it demands that we acknowledge the inadequacy of what we had previously relied upon and endeavour to go beyond it.

Essentially what you seem to be calling for is what Latour (who isn’t generally understood to be a ‘poststructuralist’, although his thought is certainly related) calls ‘political epistemology.’ All epistemology, for Latour, is political because epistemology isn’t just about how or why we believe what we do — it’s not a neutral theory about the basic mechanics of knowledge; rather, it’s about what we *should* believe and how we can make others believe what we think is *right* (in every sense of the word). The most obvious kind of political epistemology is the ‘demarcation criteria’ of scientistic philosophers of science — of what gets to count as science (and thus be valid) and what doesn’t (and what is consequently invalid). But it runs far deeper than that.

As I see it, you can’t have ‘evidentialism’ without a discussion of what does and (importantly) *does not* count as evidence and this requires active endorsement of particular standards — a political epistemology or ‘political metrology,’ if you will. It requires the progressive institution of a collective epistemological reality. This reality is inevitably contested — indeed, scepticism and contestation are its very conditions of possibility — but it must also be built up, endorsed, promoted, reinforced, rationalised, validated — not *just* cut down, scrutinised, picked apart and deconstructed. It must be *active* — in that it creates, circulates and promotes new ideas and instruments — and not just *reactive* — in the sense of picking up on existing discourses and subjecting them to scrutiny. And this brings us to perhaps the biggest challenge for poststructuralism: the need to interrogate the purposes and the *limitations* of ‘critique’ and ‘critical theory’ in general — of the need for something besides and beyond (or in addition to) these practices.

Latour’s new book, coming out in English soon, on ‘modes of existence’ talks about the need to rediscover *trust* in institutions, such as science. That is basically the issue: evidentialism requires a kind of epistemic institutionalism, a collective epistemological project based not just on scepticism but also on trust, on belief. This institution needn’t be ‘scientific’ but it needs to be definite *and* exclusive. It needn’t dispense with ‘anything goes’ as such but it needs to recognise that such epistemic anarchism is but an initial step, logically prior to a more formal sorting process that includes and excludes, legitimating some knowledge claims and delegitimating others. It can no longer be enough to just ‘keep the conversation going’ by adding one more voice to the mix. *That* plays straight into the hands of the climate denialists and the gun fetishists, etc. who relish, embelish, exaggerate and exploit epistemic division and uncertainty so as to extract political advantages. Unvarnished epistemological relativism — in the sense of rendering all knowledge claims formally equal — is incapable of issuing the necessary clarion call for ‘evidence’ because what evidence *is* requires a definite idea of what it *is not*, which implies an exclusionary distinction.

So, perhaps it’s time to reconsider those fusty old epistemology-obsessed modernists who undoubtedly gave us the wrong answers but were nevertheless asking the right questions… They were wrong in arguing that epistemological validity — i.e. ‘Truth’ — was singular, universal and transcendent but they were right in understanding the political need for socially validating some knowledge claims over others. They were wrong in making the validation criteria — ‘Reason, Science,’ etc. — abstract and accessible only to the elites but they were right in understanding that such epistemological criteria are politically indispensible.

We live in an age of ‘cynical reason,’ as Sloterdijk put it; or, in Latour’s words, we live in an age where critique has been ‘miniaturised’ — that is, perfected, instrumentalised and woven into the fabric of everyday life such that we scarcely even notice it. The tools and techniques that were constructed for the struggle against power have been internalised by the powerful and turned against resistance itself, hitting it square in its very conditions of possibility. For both these guys this political fact indicates the inadequacy of poststructuralist theory, as received. I tend to agree.

I know that you, David, have been over similar ground in your arguments in print with Colin Wight et al. As I recall you argued then that epistemic validation should be found in ethics rather than epistemology, strictly speaking. I’ll shut up now since this is already more essay than comment, but I think it suffices to say that I don’t think that ‘ethics’ alone does the job. The concept of political epistemology seems to me to be a more fruitful avenue, precisely because neither half of the phrase is reducible to the other — it must be both political and epistemology. If ‘evidence’ is to have meaningful, positive political force within a poststructuralist understanding of the world, something like Latour’s ‘institutions’ (or perhaps Badiou’s ‘Truths’) are called for. I see room for them within poststructuralism in general but it is just that — room, empty space yet to be filled.

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