Truth in the Time of Facebook
Last month, I posted an article onto an acquaintance’s Facebook timeline, one who happens to be an ER nurse in Oregon. The article itself was less an “article” in the way my father, a veteran journalist, might define it; instead it was more of a brief, four-sentence report about a series of eleven tweets sent out by an Asian-American doctor in Portland. The tweets explain the relative frequency with which Dr. Esther Choo encounters white supremacist patients who refuse her care, despite her years of experience and education at top medical institutions. In posting the link onto this person’s timeline, I sought to invite conversation: I asked if she, a third-generation Mexican American, had ever experienced something akin to Dr. Choo’s descriptions. “Eh. This is a fake news story, obviously,” came her reply. “Not saying the incident mentioned never happened, it’s likely it did, but the article itself is filled with such bias it makes me cringe.”
In the moments after her reply was posted – and indeed, in the weeks since – I have pondered the concepts of “bias” and “fake news,” and the conflation of the two as apparent in this person’s words and among the political right more generally. The notion of “fake” news dialectically implicates the existence of “real” or “true” news, and attempts to neatly separate the two can quickly devolve into an existential quandary: What, exactly, is real? What do we mean by “truth”? Philosophers, of course, have steadily deconstructed the notion of “truth,” articulating its close ties to power and calling for the rigorous examination of anything proclaiming the label of veracity. Nietzsche, for one, decried truth as little more than a “movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms,” simultaneously an ever-shifting, ephemeral target and a worn, tiresome construct, not unlike “coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins” (117).
Foucault makes explicit the link between conceptions of truth and the political realm in articulating the contours of “regimes of truth,”
the types of discourse which [a society] accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true (131).
Gramsci, too, is deeply concerned by the inseparable linkage of truth to power, reminding us that what is popularly called “common sense” is, in fact, not objectively discernible; rather, so-called “common sense” – that which may seem so undeniably true as to be obvious – is a product of ideology and is thus determined and maintained by the classe dirigente, the ruling class.
These reconceptualizations of truth, each of which complicates the existence of an objective reality, enjoy unprecedented (if not total) acceptance in our postmodern era, and this has ushered in another complication: the usurpation of the tools of critical theory in the service of sowing doubt. Over the course of the past few decades, says New York Times writer Casey Williams, the conservative right has used the language of critical theory, and most prominently the notion of subjectivity, to “muddy” civic discourse concerning issues like climate change. Indeed, scientific consensus is not the same as objective truth, and the gap between these constructions is precisely where climate change deniers suggest we wait and rest, until we know for sure. As Williams puts its, “…the parallels between Trump’s attacks on accepted knowledge and critical philosophy’s insistence that we interrogate truth claims suggest that not all assaults on the authority of facts are revolutionary.” Indeed, the troubling ways in which such attacks are used to foreclose any further discussion of matters directly related to the well being of the populace suggests that “[i]t is not just the ideas that require to be confronted but the social forces behind them and, more directly, the ideology these forces have generated” (Hoare and Smith, “The Study of Philosophy”). Thus, it is not enough to simply critique individual arguments promulgated by the fascist strain embedded within American politics; we must also consider how to confront the ideological underpinnings of these arguments.
But where to begin? How are we to answer those who use the slipperiness of truth to justify their inaction in the face of pressing social, political, and economic concerns? One possible response might be found within the realm of art. Last summer, a sculpture was plucked from its relative obscurity along Antelope Valley Parkway and installed directly west of the Sheldon Museum of Art. The piece, Wind Sculpture III, is by Yinka Shonibare, a London-born, Nigeria-raised, London-based visual artist. Shonibare’s body of work explores race, class, and nationality as dynamic (never static) assemblages, as well as the messy incoherence of that which we might call “culture.” In addition to Wind Sculpture III, the Sheldon Museum has another Shonibare piece in its collection, a photographic, slyly subversive recreation of a famous Goya etching entitled The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (America). Both pieces exemplify the artist’s proclivity for deconstructing notions of authenticity through his trademark use of bold patterns and his subtle nods to the history and legacy of European empire and colonization.
The patterns themselves might naively be read as traditionally “African” in origin, but it is precisely this assumption that Shonibare wishes to complicate: “The fabrics are not really authentically African the way people think," Shonibare has said. "They prove to have a crossbred cultural background quite of their own. And it’s the fallacy of that signification that I like. It’s the way I view culture – it’s an artificial construct."
The vibrant fabrics on display in Shonibare’s works – evident in the hand-painted overlay of Wind Sculpture III and on the 19th century coat and knickers worn by the sleeping subject in The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (America) – originated not in Africa, but in Indonesia. As the story goes, enterprising Dutch sailors of the 19th centuries sought to mechanize the time-consuming fabric printing processes of Indonesian clothiers, copy the patterns, and sell the pieces back to the locals at lower prices. Indonesian buyers, however, were not particularly interested in these Dutch-produced fabrics, though the patterns proved to be popular among various peoples along the western coast of the African continent.
Shonibare deliberately invokes this history in his incorporation of these fabrics, and in so doing, asks us to contend with the fundamental instability of the constructs of nation, culture, and authenticity. We are too often in the habit of forgetting the muddled trajectories of our individual and collective pasts, and this habit, according to Nietzsche, enables us to believe we understand truth. “It is only by means of forgetfulness that man can ever reach the point of fancying himself to possess a ‘truth’” says Nietzsche. “If he will not be content with empty husks, then he will always exchange truths for illusions” (116).
There is a lesson here, I believe, for those who decry the “fakeness” of information and who employ the tools of postmodernism to this end: if we are going to deny the “truth” of news reports, climate science, and other’s experiences because “everything is biased” and/or “nothing is true,” then we’ve also got to acknowledge the relative fakeness of, say, the flag to which we pledge our allegiance, as well as the nation behind it. We must also critique the hegemonic “truth” of the gender binary, as well as heteronormative “truths” related to human sexuality. In other words, these critical tools cannot be selectively applied only to truths that make us uncomfortable. Shonibare’s work, with its rigorous attention to deconstructing notions of culture and nation, is perhaps an example of how even the most comforting and intimate social constructs deserve scrutiny.
Twenty-four hours after my initial Facebook post, the whole mess had blown over. In my overly earnest zeal, I attempted to tease out what, exactly, my acquaintance had meant by “fake news,” posting two follow up comments full of question marks and mitigated qualifiers: “Might this be what you meant?”; “Perhaps this is what seemed biased, in your estimation?” Then, in what is surely some sort of Facebook miracle, her own Facebook friends came out of the woodwork and wrote comments in support of Dr. Choo’s story. “I know Esther Choo personally and she is awesome,” wrote one. “I have no doubt that she has unfortunately faced the bigotry that she described.” “Esther is absolutely amazing and I can definitely echo what she has said,” commented another Facebook user. “I have had patients not want me to treat them because I'm black.” These people and others, none of whom I know personally, flooded the comment section of the post, generally affirming the “truth” of Dr. Choo’s tweets and assuring my acquaintance of Dr. Choo’s integrity.
The tone and volume of these replies, I think, might be read as attempts to push our mutual friend to contend with some uncomfortable and inconvenient dimensions of the story. They challenged her decisive dismissal of another’s experience, and in so doing, laid bare her illusion of truth for what it was: an empty husk. Similarly, when we encounter Shonibare’s Wind Sculpture III, we might be tempted to admire its aesthetic quality – its undulating curvature, its daunting scale, the vibrancy of its checkerboard pattern overlaid with gold mandalas – and nothing more. However, were we to peel back a few layers, we may become privy to something that, if not better than our illusions is, in the end, more sustaining.
Foucault, Michel. Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977. Pantheon, 1980.
Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci: Ed. and Transl. by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. International Publishers, 1992.
Hoare, Quintin, and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. International Publishers, 1992.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Nietzsche Reader, ed. by Keith Ansell Pearson & Duncan Large. New York & London: Wiley Blackwell 488 (2006).
Williams, Casey. “Has Trump Stolen Philosophy’s Critical Tools?” The New York Times, The
New York Times, 17 Apr. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/04/17/opinion/has-trump-stolen-philosophys-critical-tools.html?mcubz=0&_r=0.
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (America) by Yinka Shonibare
Wind Sculpture III by Yinka Shonibare