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  • Editorial Comment: Post-Fact Performance
  • 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. [End Page xi]

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...


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