By E. J. Westlake
After the 2016 US presidential election, Diane Rehm hosted a discussion on the reflective mood in journalism following the surprise upset of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. After other guests pondered ways of getting the truth out over the din of fabrications, one journalist, Trump-supporter Scottie Nell Hughes, declared “[t]here’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.” Hughes went on to explain that Trump’s tweets were true for Trump supporters, and “people that say facts are facts, they’re not really facts.”
Indeed, one thing that the past election cycle has revealed is the widespread mistrust of the discourse of the perceived elite (the state, the wealthy, and intellectuals). First theorized by Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition, the incredulity toward metanarratives arose as a result of the epistemological crisis created by the paradox of scientific knowledge having to rely upon narrative for its own legitimation. While potentially liberating in terms of resisting regulation of gender, race, and sexuality, this incredulity can also result in the creation of alternative narratives by anti-science and anti-democratic crusades. In the age of Trump, the “post-fact” era has been accelerated by information siloing vis-à-vis social media. As Hannah Arendt noted, “[p]hilosophical truth, when it enters the market place, changes its nature and becomes opinion.”1 And since the election, the post-fact universe has folded in on itself a number of times, with skeptics on both the Right and Left incredulous that a hostile foreign power has used our incredulity, and attempts to expose “fake news” labeled as “fake news.”
Scholars on the Right point to the rise of postmodern thinking as the reason for the advent of a relativism so slippery that a fundamental truth has been lost. Even a few Left-leaning publications have joined the outcry, as evidenced by Harrison Fluss and Landon Frim’s dire warning in a piece in the Jacobin, citing Lyotard, Derrida, and Foucault and an end to Enlightenment thought as culprits in our ultimate undoing.2 However, Duncan Stuart resists this facile reasoning:
From a pragmatic point of view, one may wonder why it matters if we can or cannot blame postmodernism for Trump. However, the rise of Trump has quickly become a convenient excuse for dismissing large parts of modern intellectual discourse. It seems important to point out the flaws in this, for if we are to blame postmodernism for Trump, we will be blaming a phantom for our concrete problems.3
Stuart asserts that postmodernism, after all, grew as a reaction to fascism. Incredulity toward metanarrative is not the same thing as the disregard for truth.
If we turn again to Arendt, however, the seeds of a post-fact society come into focus. Before the rise of totalitarian regimes in Europe, she noted, were the conditions that allowed otherwise reasonable people to reject the truth:
The masses’ escape from reality is a verdict against the world in which they are forced to live and in which they cannot exist, since coincidence has become its supreme master and human beings need the constant transformation of chaotic and accidental conditions into a man-made pattern of relative consistency. . . . Totalitarian propaganda can outrageously insult common sense only where common sense has lost its validity.4
Economic disparity, endless war, displacement, and homelessness create a populace of people who feel left out of the decisions that upend their lives. A coherent global narrative that blames immigrants, queers, Jews, and the intellectual elite restores meaning, where before there were only senseless, arbitrary forces. Facts are useless, because they do not fit into the system of representation within which the individual lives.
That some of us were caught by surprise two years ago has created a vacuum in our scholarship. Understanding representation and its material consequences is an urgent project, more urgent than time will actually allow. I heard this urgency at the recent ATHE conference themed “Theatres of Revolution: Performance, Pedagogy, and Protest.” Scholars, artists, and activists spoke passionately about the power of gesture, the utility of acting, the effects of digital technology, the rethinking of pedagogy, and the necessity of subverting the gaze. Jennifer Parker-Starbuck and I decided that it might be efficacious to include these voices, still in the earliest stages of thinking about a post-fact world, into a section of “provocations”—an interrogative that will spur a desperately needed conversation about what we are to do now. I want to emphasize that these pieces are not meant to become the regular practice of Theatre Journal, but that extraordinary times call for extraordinary decisions. These first pieces are excerpts of what will only eventually become fully completed and peer-reviewed essays. I alone solicited and approved them. I am grateful to the scholars willing to take such a risk in order to move this discussion along.
Leading off this discussion is a short piece by Meredith Conti on the phenomenon of casting mass-shooting victims as “crisis actors.” She asks us to consider the potential for embracing the performative. Jon Rossini, who as part of the “Latinx, Indigenous, and the Americas Graduate Class” roundtable, examines the mapping of hemispheric studies and how to prompt students to consider who has agency and who is left out when mapping out the curriculum of study, a discussion that is painfully relevant at a time when the discourse over borders means separation, deportation, and genocide. Margaret Litvin discusses the strategies used by Syrian theatre artists to examine representations of Syria and Syrians in Europe and to, hopefully, push back at an ethnographic gaze.5 Naila Ansari shares a letter she wrote to her son about staying safe as his black body moves through spaces policed by a society that views that body as a threat. She asks what gestures of resistance and protest are available to the black body, how they are documented, and how we might use our gestures as scholars to create a space of compassion. Susanne Shawyer explores the connection between durational performance and durational protest, such as the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common, which was in existence for nineteen years in the UK.
Finishing off this section of provocations is John Fletcher’s essay “Deepfakes, Artificial Intelligence, and Some Kind of Dystopia: The New Faces of Online Post-Fact Performance.” He takes up the discussion of online digital performance and the effect of the “deepfake,” where anyone can be made to appear to be saying or doing anything, on our perceptions of reality. Fletcher comes to the startling and compelling conclusion: “humans have never really cared about facts.” What then are scholars and activists to do? He urges us to become conversant with a technology that has increasing influence over our lives.
The three full essays in this special issue follow, beginning with Tony Perucci’s “Irritational Aesthetics: Reality Friction and Indecidable Theatre” on “Reality Frictions” in the political pranks in three European performances. The electoral campaigns of NO99 and Christoph Schlingensief and Wunderbaum’s Stop Acting Now all reveal the turn-of-the-millennium turmoil and transformation in European politics. Perucci invites us to explore what the parapolitical reveals about representation in politics, and to consider what such an opening can offer us as political agents.
Lisa Jackson-Schebetta, in “Forms of Truth: Testimonio and Democracy in the Theatrical Lives of Bojayá,” analyzes the potential of testimonio performance as she considers the work of Teatro Varasanta. The company created Kilele, an account of the Bojayá massacre of 2002. Collectively created and performed by an ensemble after conducting dozens of interviews and workshops with residents of Bojayá, Kilele offers a form of truth making that “stands in persistent contrast to official or state narratives that would erase, alter, or subsume the experience of marginalized citizens.”
Finally, Taylor Black’s essay, “The Numbers Don’t Lie: Performing Facts and Futures in FiveThirtyEight’s Probabilistic Forecasting,” examines the casting of political forecasters as soothsayers, and how our reading of them as such influences our own electoral behavior in ways that have unexpected consequences. Black focuses on the example of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, a forecasting site celebrated for its accuracy in predicting electoral outcomes. The author uses examples of the soothsayer in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Macbeth in order to illustrate the disastrous consequences of acting on what one believes are predictions of the future.
My esteemed colleague Rustom Barucha noted in an email when we discussed this issue some months ago, amid the turmoil of government intimidation and suppression of members of the university community where he teaches, that he hopes that we have not yet reached the “post” of post-fact: “The one ray of hope could be that we have not yet succumbed to any illusion of a ‘post-fact’ state of affairs. Of course, the fragility of the ‘we’ needs to be kept in mind.” My sincere hope is that this special issue will help to promote the conversation that is already beginning to take place, and that these essays will urge us to consider where we go from here. To return to Arendt, what kinds of truth testimony can artists and scholars create, and who are the “reliable witnesses” that she requires?
1 Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” New Yorker, February 25, 1967, available at https://www-newyorker-com-proxy-lib-umich-edu.chain.kent.ac.uk/magazine/1967/02/25/truth-and-politics.
2 Harrison Fluss and Landon Frim, “Aliens, Antisemitism, and Academia,” Jacobin, March 11, 2017, available at https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/03/jason-reza-jorjani-stony-brook-alt-right-arktos-continental-philosophy-modernity-enlightenment/.
3 Duncan Stuart, “Make Postmodernism Great Again,” Demos, June 14, 2017, available at http://demosjournal.com/make-postmodernism-great-again/.
4 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harvest, 1973 ), 352 (Kindle edition).
5 Litvin’s paper at ATHE included an appeal for Hazem Azmy’s IFTR memorial fund, which I wanted to include here, as her work and the panel at ATHE were haunted by Azmy’s absence (https://gogetfunding.com/hazem-azmy-iftr-bursary-award-fund/).