Post-truth could herald the real end of history – we must ensure it doesn’t
Now showing at the London Barbican’s Curve gallery, Incoming is an exhibition by photographer Richard Mosse. It uses military imaging equipment to depict migrants seeking entrance to Europe and the “incoming” fire aimed at the regions they have migrated from.
In stately style, Mosse’s work removes both migrants and military personnel from the constant churn of mediocre journalism and calls out for people to come together on the level of our common humanity, where universal truth is also to be found.
This makes Incoming the best possible antidote to the feuds over “post truth” which have dominated in the media during the past few months. In the aftermath of last year’s electoral upsets in Britain and the US, there was a tit-for-tat spat which I and many others entered into vigorously.
In one corner, were the disappointed Remainers and Hillary Clinton supporters who claimed that millions of Leave/Trump voters were living under the influence of “fake news”, in a “post-truth” world that was impervious to the facts.
In the other, Brexiteers, Trumpeters and some such as myself who supported neither Brexit nor Trump but who argued that it is the political elite which has failed, rather than ordinary people’s powers of discrimination, and that terms such as “fake news” and “post-truth” have been bandied about in order to displace the elite’s inadequacy onto the masses.
Birth of the Millennials
I have not changed my position, but I am also aware that complaining of “elitism” does not constitute a sufficient response to the current situation. It is a situation that has crystallised in the Brexit vote and the election of President Trump, but these events are the outcome of a lengthy process which dates as far back as the birth of the Millennials.
During the time it has taken the Millennial Generation to more-or-less mature, so much has changed that traditional position-mongering is bound to be found wanting. The Millennials’ formative experience has been “the end of history”.
Strictly speaking, this declaration, issued by Washington insider Francis Fukuyama after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, was far from accurate; rather, history unfroze when Cold War anti-communism ceased to be the organising principle of an American-led status quo.
Nonetheless, the concept of “the end of history” is still valuable if we see it as an abbreviated turn of phrase which really refers to the demise of historical thinking; an end to the era in which most people thought of themselves as makers of history, with the capacity to shape the world anew according to their understanding of the common good.
Similarly, “post-truth”. Used as an underhand attack on “the deplorables”, post-truth is itself deplorable. But the term becomes useful if we read it as shorthand for life after the pursuit of truth – that is, a way of life in which there is apparently no way to separate fact from fiction.
Fact or fiction?
Seen in this light, post-truth emerges as the corollary of the end of history; together these terms define an era in which pursuing the truth hardly seems pertinent because however hard you look, and even if you find it, you cannot expect to change anything, anyhow.
Given the collective fact-checking nous of the internet, the proportion of the populace which really cannot distinguish reality from fantasy, is likely to remain limited. But even if the vast majority has not lost its common sense, it is becoming less clear how much we all have in common.
Would-be unifying projects, from the “war on terror” to the Big Society, are regarded with suspicion, along with the very idea of the universal. More readily credible are the opposite but complementary trends towards hyper-localism (stay put and shut out the rest of the world), and hyper-globalism (travel the world but without touching down long enough to feel any friction).
These trends are identified as the “somewheres” and “anywheres” in David Goodhart’s newly published The Road To Somewhere. In different ways, both trends reflect the “postmodern” hostility towards grand narratives, and both were oft-praised when largely confined to the middle classes and their immediate clientele. But now that the “plebs” are in on the first of these, as journalist Melanie McDonagh points out, it is casually condemned as parochial.
A new ‘hunger for wholeness’
Thankfully, the narrow horizons of post-historical thinking are partly offset by a wide-eyed “hunger for wholeness” – historian Peter Gay’s pithy description of alienation and the complementary yearning for fulfilment in the service of something greater.
A “Hunger for wholeness” is evident today in the vast numbers of people constantly uploading their everyday life onto social media, in a forlorn attempt to lift it above the level of banality.
It was present in the popular response to the London Olympics and Paralympics, when the mass of spectators transfigured a relatively small number of elite athletes into the representation of all humanity (at our very best). It may be discernible in today’s “populist” revolt against elites, which, for all its celebration of local particulars, has already become so widespread that it cannot but point towards the universal.
In such circumstances, perhaps there is a need new kinds of popular culture capable of capturing the defining characteristics of particular news stories and bringing these to the level of abstraction where our common humanity is to be found. So art, journalism and perhaps something in between, might help to reconstitute the general public.
The point is to ensure that “the end of history” and the age of “post-truth” become the bookends of a brief hiatus in the long sweep of human history-making – not the twin towers of a corrosively postmodern condition.