THE CONSTRUCTION OF REALITY IN THE POST-TRUTH AGE
In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries declared ‘post-truth’ as the international word of the year. It was selected from a shortlist that also contained words like ‘alt-right’ and ‘Brexiteer’, whose relevance for the political turmoil of the year was evident. Yet the appeal of the term post-truth was undeniably stronger: this was a word that promised to make a career as the expression of one essential trait of an age. The ‘post-truth’ syntagm first appeared used with the current meaning in a 1992 article in which an American journalist made a pioneering observation referring to a certain “spiritual mechanism” through which we have come to “denude truth of any significance”, thus transforming ourselves into “prototypes of a people that totalitarian monsters could only drool about in their dreams” (Tesich, 1992).
Recent historical events have showed us that the erasure of all substance from truth is best achieved when the distinction between fact and fiction no longer exists. A series of social phenomena have largely contributed to this, among them, most prominently, fake news and their implied corollary, the production of alternative facts or realities. For many, what is referred to as an alternative fact is nothing more than a stylistically disguised lie. It resembles many other euphemisms that have penetrated contemporary cultural discourse: parallel truth, nuanced truth, counterfactual statements, strategic misrepresentations, selective disclosure, etc.
The pervasive presence of such discursive legerdemains that are meant to hide and denature the real facts is a symptom of the ethical erosion of a society increasingly built on lying and pretence. One might even speak of an “alt.ethics” (Keyes, 2004) – an alternative moral system which allows one to lie without being affected by guilt or by remorse and in which dissembling is no longer considered necessarily wrong or dishonest. This is the result of the relativization of truth in our society. This relativization has been sanctioned by the tenets of poststructuralist deconstructionism. It has been further enforced by the now omnipresent and omnipotent new channels of virtual communication where, in the absence of any institution that could establish filters, belief in truth has become almost impossible. Under such circumstances, people tend to disregard what others say and hold tight to their own, sometimes parochial, convictions.
“We live in one world only, not in two”, John Searle (1995) confidently stated, while arguing that it would be a fallacy to equate truth and reality, since the structure of reality and the structure of real representations can never be isomorphic. What we need to take into consideration is the idea that reality does not predetermine at all the modes in which it can be described. Various vocabularies can be constructed to describe the various aspects of reality according to various objectives. Social reality is an intersubjective phenomenon that should be grounded in a series of verified facts, widely accepted as true. In the post-truth society in which the search for truth matters far less than the presentation and reception of what goes as truth, the classical schemes involved in the construction of reality are fundamentally altered. It is no longer demonstrable facts that legitimate the knowledge constituting the foundation of the symbolic universe people share, but data. Numerical approaches use data in algorithms which constitute the basis for the justification of opinions and judgments. Semiotic processes are heavily influenced by subjective perception and by the pervading manipulation of emotionality. The old consensus on what objective reality is can no longer be attained. There is no more clear black and white separation between truth and falseness, but only shades of grey and matters of taste.
Language is now, more than ever, the supreme instrument in the creation of that reality in which we imagine we live, a reality which can also be seen as “hyperreal” (Baudrillard, 1981). Hyperreality is a reality that has lost difference and reference by equating the real with the models of simulation whereby that real is produced. Simulation implies a disturbing absence at the core of signs that are deprived of any representational value. Images that used to be reflections of a profound reality gradually turn into icons that are their own pure simulacra, with no relation to any reality whatsoever. And when the real has become impossible to find, the possibility of illusion is also compromised. All we are left with is a parody world within which discourses endlessly compete for primacy and in which power entirely and dangerously depends on rhetorical means.
Is meaning and value still recoverable in a post-truth age? How can we counteract discursive manipulation? How can we correctly identify the vested interests behind what is made to look as innocent heart-breaking emotion? In what ways can specialists in any epistemological field restore the authority of truth and facts? What discursive strategies can be adopted that should teach humans how to defend themselves from the dangers of all sorts of propaganda and disinformation? In what ways can arts and literature still help us recover and enhance our humanism? What perspectives can offer us valuable clues while we deal with the degrees of verisimilitude of post-truth realities?
We invite specialists in such fields as linguistics, discursive analysis, literature, communication studies, cultural studies, sociology, arts, philosophy, journalism, digital humanities etc. to contribute papers addressing problems related to the issues presented above. The following topics are suggested, but by no means should they be considered exhaustive:
- The role of language in the construction of post-truth meaning
- Data, information and knowledge
- Truth and truthfulness in contemporary discourses
- The manipulation of emotion in the media
- Truth versus opinion/interpretation in the post-truth society
- The role of humanities in the recovery of meaning and value
- Ethics and post-truth
- ICT (Information & Communication Technologies) and post-truth
- The role of numerical devices in creating or denouncing falseness
- Social media and the propagation of post-truth attitudes