The truth play

Truth telling and performance in a post-truth world

Even amid a so-called post-truth era, truth telling is seen as a virtue. But what does it mean to tell the truth? Rather than simply reporting what we earnestly believe, telling the truth is a way of navigating the world we have chosen to live in, writes Steve Fuller. 

In a world where we have imperfect access to the truth, should we say what we truly believe or say what we think is likely to lead to the truth? What follows should be read as a case for the latter as indicative of the moral psychology of the ‘post-truth condition’. We shall see that a commitment to the truth is less to a specific goal, let alone a state of the world, than to a direction of travel within a world that one has chosen to inhabit.

The different courses of action implied in the choice should be intuitively clear. The former is about sincerity, rendering our souls transparent for others to see and judge for themselves: We may turn out to be wrong, but at least we correctly asserted what we believed. The latter is about some other psychological state that renders our souls more opaque to others – and perhaps even ourselves, if it becomes the general way we live.

It starts by assuming that our personal beliefs are probably wrong, or perhaps even that what we believe doesn’t really matter. Rather, what matters is that we contribute as best as we can to knowledge of the truth, understood perhaps as some long-term collective project, in which we only play a part.

Rousseau used writing to give shape to otherwise amorphous states of mental animation, which then underwent codification and refinement through his literary emulators.

In that case, our task is simply to ‘own’ whatever we assert, which is to say, take responsibility for their consequences, ideally by having anticipated them. All of this can be done with sufficient imagination and will, regardless of any settled beliefs behind the performance. ‘Authenticity’ is a good name for this state of mind, especially if glossed as ‘authorization’ or ‘walking the talk’.

In the history of philosophy and literature, Jean-Jacques Rousseau is often seen as having ushered in sincerity in self-expression, which cultural historians associate with the transition from ‘Enlightenment’ to ‘Romanticism’ in Western sensibility. Rousseau’s widely read autobiography and novels clearly inspired others to write about their own personal feelings and beliefs in an explicit manner. Rousseau’s literary innovation is frequently presented as naming states of mind previously unnamed or even rendered unnameable, especially against the backdrop of religious proscriptions against their expression.

However, an alternative view is that Rousseau used writing to give shape to otherwise amorphous states of mental animation, which then underwent codification and refinement through his literary emulators, resulting in the sort of facticity enjoyed by what we call the ‘emotions’ today. Starting with William James at the end of the nineteenth century, evolutionary psychologists have regularly raised doubts about whether those named emotions uniquely capture particular states of mental animation.

That Rousseau is credited with having first mapped the mind as if it were spiritual real estate, which then others like James subsequently questioned, is an irony that was not lost on Jacques Derrida. In his magnum opus, Of Grammatology, Derrida focused on Rousseau’s early work, Discourse on the Origins of Language, which subtly subverted the Biblical account of divine creation by the ‘Word’ (logos).
Whereas God supposedly dictated order into being out of chaotic matter, the humans that he supposedly created ‘in his image’ have used language mainly to separate people from each other, their common world and – so it would seem – even their own mental states, resulting in a humanity beset by conflict at many levels.

Marx adopts and expands for his own purposes the legal term ‘alienation’ that Rousseau uses in this context. But more to Derrida’s point, if Rousseau is taken at his word, then the actions performed in his own writings – their rich articulation of humanity’s interior life – would seem only to contribute to our already fallen condition. Certainly Rousseau’s bottom line was that it would have been better had we never developed language; hence his valorisation of the illiterate ‘noble savage’.

No matter how many stage directions are provided by the dramatist in the script, they too are only part of that structure. There is still everything for directors, actors and audiences to do to make that script come to life.

But maybe Rousseau should be judged solely by the actions performed by his writing, regardless of his own harsh crypto-theological views about the human condition. In that case, we can set aside both Rousseau’s nostalgic primitivism and Derrida’s ironic play on it -- and simply grant that Rousseau scripted the emotions into existence in the manner of a dramaturge.

People then had to learn to muster the feelings commensurate with owning the emotional language they would now speak. Those feelings might come from anywhere in an individual’s training and experience. One’s ‘emotional authenticity’ would rest primarily on the ability to make the scripted words come alive for others, so that one is recognized as ‘possessing’ those emotions. Romanticism was basically an outworking of Rousseau’s script in all spheres of life, resulting in the emotional infrastructure through which we routinely experience life today.

The great early twentieth century Russian dramaturge Konstantin Stanislavski invented what is now popularly known as ‘method acting’ in just this frame of mind. Stanislavski was held in uniquely high esteem in both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union because he believed that, in principle at least, everyone had within themselves the psychological resources to play any dramatic role through a combination of proper study (of the script) and reflection (into one’s soul). His aim was for the audience not to be able to tell that the actor is acting at all. The words and deeds performed on stage should appear as if the actor were their original author. This is arguably the ultimate triumph of something reasonably called the ‘democratisation of sentiment’. In principle, paupers could play princes and vice versa. After all, how many of Robert De Niro’s fans know – or care -- that he comes from a family of artists?

To be sure, a dramaturgy dominated by method acting often deviates significantly from what the dramatist intended, but in the end it is the actor not the dramatist who makes the script real for the audience. Stanislavski described his approach as ‘the system’, which suggests that the dramatic script provides the linguistic structure of a world that both the actors and the audience are asked to inhabit.
But no matter how many stage directions are provided by the dramatist in the script, they too are only part of that structure. There is still everything for directors, actors and audiences to do to make that script come to life. A good general way to think about this problem is to imagine how all of these characters – the directors, actors and audiences – enter a world not of their own creation but which they need to make their own. The Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello was especially good at operating from this premise, notably in Six Characters in Search of an Author.

Theological and post-theological words such as ‘fallen’, ‘thrown’ and ‘abject’ draw attention to the requisite state of mind, which formed the cornerstone of Existentialism as a philosophical movement in the mid-twentieth century. The underlying idea is that our humanity is defined by an awareness of both who we are (the soul) and where we are (the script) -- and the struggle to reconcile the two.

According to Existentialists, people face this task in an implicit way in everyday living – and someone like Jean-Paul Sartre makes this explicit. However, method actors adopt this position as a way of life. The ultimate achievement in this context is that the acting rises above the script to such an extent that the audience believes that the actors could have written it themselves. At that point, ‘acting’ becomes an art of persuasion, if not agitation. It is no longer ‘mere’ fiction. It is a narrative in which the audience is invited to participate for themselves, mentally and perhaps even physically.

Of course, the consequences of such collective identification are up for grabs. Plato anticipated the prospects, which resulted in his notorious censorship policies on drama. In contrast, Antoine Artaud, the great champion of ‘absurdism’, celebrated precisely what Plato feared. Models are available for delving into the matter more deeply beyond the strict confines of the theatre stage. Consider time travelling scenarios, whereby the time voyager must reconstitute his or her identity to ‘pass’ in a radically different environment, always starting from the recognition of the inherent misfit.

Something similar applies to people emigrating from their homeland to somewhere either on or off our planet – or, for that matter, any aliens coming to live amongst us on Earth. Words such as ‘adaptation’ and ‘assimilation’ are often used in this context, but the promise of method acting is that the actor might erase those characterisations from one’s performance, thereby ‘owning’ the stage on which the drama of one’s life now plays out.

The open question, of course, is who will follow the lead of the transfigured person into this new world.

And while the theatre remains the paradigmatic place where method acting works its magic, the great totalizing arenas of life – religion, science and politics – function similarly, even though their ‘scripts’, so to speak, are far from fully written.

A good entry point is Louis Pasteur’s famous saying, ‘Discovery favours the prepared mind’. While he was explicitly talking about his own scientific method vis-à-vis his discovery of the microbial basis of disease, he was also alluding to St Augustine’s observations in the Confessions about his own openness to Christian conversion. From the standpoint of method acting, Augustine and Pasteur already operated from a mental framework sufficiently fluid to enable them to regroup their sense of purpose around a significant event, which scientific and religious epistemologists tend to retrospectively dignify as ‘evidence’.

The result in either case is a self-authorized script that attracts others to participate not merely as audience but as potential actors on the stage whose foundations have been laid: that is, recruitment into the ranks of academia the clergy and the party – in the case of politics – of those who extend the new plot for as long as it goes.

Much of what we mean by ‘leadership’ consists in the initiation of this process of collective self-transformation, whereby the leader first undergoes a ‘Gestalt shift’, whereby his or her feelings and beliefs come to be ‘reorganized’, in the strict sense. But those fluid mental states don’t disappear. In that sense, both the person and the physical reality he or she confronts remain the same. However, the person’s states of mind are now channelled differently due to an event in that environment, which eventuates not only in that person acquiring a different sense of the world but also a different sense of what he or she wants or expects out of that world.

I have described this changed relationship to reality in terms of ‘modal power’, to capture the idea that the person’s understanding of what is and is not possible has altered. Such a self-transformation is reasonably called a ‘transfiguration’, to recall the biblical language used to characterise Jesus’ realization of his divine descent.

The open question, of course, is who will follow the lead of the transfigured person into this new world. The perceived significance of various religious, scientific and political leaders have waxed and waned over time, depending on the ability of others to convert to the new vision of the world revealed by the transfigured person. Can one become players in the new game – and extend the script whose plot the leader has sketched? To those who for whatever reason refuse the game, turn down the script – or lack ‘the will to believe’, as William James’ evocatively put it – the converted may appear delusional, hypocritical or simply fanciful. In the post-truth condition, however, what matters is not speculations about the soul’s disposition but the capacity for role-playing: authenticity not sincerity. To mean what one says is always a prospective not a retrospective judgement of oneself.

Steve Fuller is Professor of Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. His latest book is A Player’s Guide to the Post-Truth Condition (Anthem Press).

Latest Releases
Join the conversation