In a recent article published in The Baffler, Tom Whyman suggests that we should not be as opposed to the “post-truth” era that so many insist is dawning upon us in the age of Trump and Brexit. Indeed, Whyman insists that what many consider the indubitable truth is really nothing more than a set of claims that benefits a small empowered group at the expense of the majority of humanity (that is, an ideology.) And in pointing out that what is presented as truth is often nothing more than an attempt to deceive exploited people so that they cannot even admit that they are exploited–much less to actively resist that exploitation–I think that Whyman offers a valuable reflection.
However, the way that he discusses the term “reality” raises a number of concerns for me, and points to a serious problem that I think has infected a lot of contemporary discourse. Perhaps the most offending passage comes with the sixth paragraph as Whyman discusses the work of Herbert Marcuse:
For Marcuse, “reality” is constructed by means of the Freudian reality principle, through which the infant psyche learns to delay gratification in response to the fact of scarcity. This process forges the ego from a portion of the id, and as the infant develops it leads in turn to the formation of the superego, in the first instance through the child’s dependence on its parents. Over time, the superego absorbs “a number of societal and cultural influences,” causing it to “coagulate” into “the representative of established morality.” The superego ends up enforcing the demands of what Marcuse calls the “performance principle,” which is his term for the “prevailing historical form” of the reality principle. In short: the superego, one’s “conscience,” acts to enforce prevailing social norms.
On the one hand, this strikes me as a wonderfully concise synopsis of Marcuse’s central point (not being a scholar of Marcuse, I can’t vouch for its accuracy–but as someone interested in social theory, it strikes me as insightful and useful). But the way in which Whyman uses the term”reality” here immediately caused me consternation (I should be clear that I do not know whether this terminological vagueness is present in Marcuse or whether this is Whyman’s own addition.)
Whyman presents two options for understanding reality: the first is the more common idea, that reality describes that set of existing circumstances which have their existence or being independent from any mind and which constrain human thought and action. Whyman questions this conception by claiming that what is often presented as reality is really little more than slick propaganda:
Imagine if it wasn’t really “true” that your landlord owned your flat, and you could stay indefinitely without paying rent. Imagine if it wasn’t “true” that your boss was paying you to fulfil any particular duties at work, and you could spend your time there playfully doing whatever. Imagine if the laws of physics didn’t bind you, and you could simply flap your arms and fly to the stars.
The first “alternate reality” he presents is really a critique of the concept of property–Whyman is suggesting, I think, that we could create a different set of social relations, a different way to decide how to disburse scarce resources. Such a claim need not question the idea of reality in general, but simply suggests that the building blocks of the real can–and should–be rearranged to meet human needs.
The second alternative above, however, seems to me to move in a different direction. Here, Whyman seems to be moving from the revolutionary towards the utopian. And in the final suggestion, he moves towards science fiction. And it is this juxtaposition that is concerning. That Whyman seems to think that to question reality in the first sense is no different from questioning it in the second or third suggests a seriously deficient conceptual analysis on his part. It seems that, fundamentally, he is working with a binary, discrete understanding of the term “reality”–either reality is just what those in power says it is, or it’s nothing at all. This warped and overly simplistic way of thinking, which strikes me as a sort of metastasis of the rule of the excluded middle, renders Whyman’s piece, which begins with such a worthwhile impetus, deeply misleading.
For Whyman, the options before us are stark and irreducible: we can either accept the status quo, or commit to a Quixotian project of simply fantasizing our way out of difficulty. What is perhaps most perplexing about this suggestion is how thoroughly un-Marxist it is. Whyman suggests that Marcuse offers the prefect synthesis for Marx and Freud, but for Marx, the economic base was, and would always be, the reality which defined the political and cultural options that humanity could truly act on (the possible “superstructures”). By de-coupling Marx from this realism, we get an odd creature, a sort of inverse, positive-thinking ersatz Marxism that strikes me as simply an opium of the people for the 21st-century: imagine what you want and ignore your material circumstances.
What is necessary here is not to marshal better arguments for one of the two sides that Whyman presents, but rather to realize that the very structure of argumentation that he offers is mistaken: there are more than two options on the table. We can both affirm that there is a reality which constrains us and yet also affirm that this reality is flexible enough to yield a more human and liberative society. If we begin by accepting the framework that Whyman offers, however, such a possibility is foreclosed upon before we can even consider it.
Most of all, what is needed is sound conceptual analysis–sustained reflection on the terms we use–and then conceptual synthesis–recognition of the way in which our understanding of any given concept shapes the way we understand concepts related to it. By simply employing our terms without reflecting on them, critiquing them, and developing them–and this is what I think Whyman does in this piece–we understand little and achieve nothing. It’s far too easy to allow a dichotomous mode of thinking to colonize our imagination. Whyman seems to engage in a simplistic, knee-jerk reasoning: the inverse of my opponent’s position must be true. But in fact, the inverse of my opponent’s position is awfully similar to my opponent’s position, just turned inside-out; in seeking freedom from oppression and exploitation, we actually reproduce its form even if we negate its content. What is needed is something genuinely different.
I hope to have shown above the error in Whyman’s mode of reasoning; wanting to explore the ways in which public discussions of truth and reality often offer only propaganda, he short-circuits the full discussion before it can even begin. Though he offers the beginning of a cogent critique, that critique never develops, since what he offers in place of what he opposes is little more than its negative-image. What would greatly enrich his argument is simply a less-vague sense of the word “reality”. Whyman employs this term without adjective or qualification, and this leads to a problem for the reader: what, exactly, does Whyman mean by this word?
On the one hand, it seems that at times he means by “reality” something more like “perceived reality”; that is, he seems to be pointing out that how things actually are and how they may seem to any particular observer can be quite different. On its face, I think this is hardly even controversial. A more stringent and perhaps more controversial–but still, I think, very sound–claim would go slightly further: since the reality discussed by any individual or community is always reality as perceived by that individual or community, the reality we talk about can never be reality-as such. This will ruffle some feathers, no doubt, but it’s a position well-attested by a range of philosophers: not only Immanuel Kant, C.S. Peirce, Edmund Husserl, and Emmanuel Levinas–but also a deeper lineage of critical thought that stretches back to the Stoics.
Understood in this way, reality–the “real” reality–is always, ultimately, beyond our grasp to fully determine. But, importantly, this is not the same thing as saying that reality is somehow unreal or utterly absent. It is important to be able to critique our perceptions of reality–and even to go as far as to realize the radical implications of this–without allowing this critique to collapse into a naive anti-realism. Unfortunately, the history of philosophy from the late-19th century on shows that there is a lineage of thought that seems to make precisely this error, confusing the unavailability of any total certainty about reality with the conclusion that reality must simply be absent, false, and meaningless in any sense.
Thus, Whyman seems to counter what we might call call a naive perceptual-realism–“what I see just is real”–with the aforementioned naive anti-realism–“since what I see isn’t necessarily the real, there must be no real”. Presented this way, I hope it is not hard to see how the latter position is really just the inverse of the former; both take perception itself as the unquestioned starting-point. But the impact of postmodern thought should be to question perception, not reality as such. Whyman ultimately fails to do this, as far as I can see, and thus falls into a trap that seems to have befuddled many other thinkers (Nietzsche, Sartre, and Boudrillard all come to mind as probable examples, though of course this claim is not without controversy).
But real and valuable critique of the ways in which the perceived reality of the powerful is used to oppress others can only come about if we get comfortable occupying the awkward middle place between these two naivetes. We must be able to both recognize that our perception fails to meet reality as it is, and yet also admit that there is some reality that nonetheless constrains us, even if determining its full details remains beyond our ability (for a technical approach to appreciating this, the first third of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is of immense, if at times opaque, value). Living in this space will begin to show us new ways of thinking about our world and ourselves, and will also begin to reveal new options for how to organize our common life. Anything less is simply to repeat the old ways while calling them new.