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The Regime of Opinion

About: Myriam Revault d’Allonnes, La faiblesse du vrai. Ce que la post-vérité fait à notre monde commun, Seuil


The present era tends to blur the line between the true and the false. Democracy, which is based on the conflict of opinions and hence the horizon of a common truth, is consequently compromised. Yet for Myriam Revault d’Allones, this threat also hangs over the imagination.

Myriam Revault d’Allonnes’ reflection on the transformation of our democratic societies is now taking pride of place in her protean body of work. With her last book, La faiblesse du vrai. Ce que la post-vérité fait à notre monde commun (The weakness of truth: What post-truth does to our common world), the philosopher analyzes the erasure of the distinction between the true and the false, and, beyond that, the process of falsification of reality that this erasure allows. Her argumentation unfolds along original paths, as she proposes to raise anew the question of fiction and of its relationship to reality, convinced as she is that the imagination maintains a decisive link with action—the power-to-do—which can be summarized as follows: There can be no action without imagination.

In this discursive framework, post-truth [1] fundamentally challenges the possibility of building a common world, that is, it represents a major threat to democracy. Drawing on Aristotle, Arendt, Ricoeur, Foucault, and Protagoras, the author seeks to convince us, in five thought-provoking chapters of great conceptual precision, that there are good reasons for loving democracy at a time when humans give reasons—bad ones, of course—for not caring enough about it.

Political Truth: The Status of Opinion

Revault d’Allonnes begins by taking stock of the situation, i.e., that of the age of the “posts.” Indeed, the post-truth era, defined as that in which facts become a matter of opinion, and therefore hinder the possibility of argumentative debate, is only one element of a larger whole wherein democracy is an empty shell. What awaits us, what is perhaps already with us, is indifference to the truth and the abolition of its normative value. This blurring of the line between truth and falsehood is expressed in the notion of “alternative facts”: It is now permissible to disagree with the facts (as proclaimed by Sean Spicer, a member of the Trump presidential team). One should not, however, misunderstand the nature of this transformation. We have not entered an era of generalized lies, but one in which “the distinction between the true and the false has become inessential” (p. 34). We can now deny the reality of a fact in the presence of those who witness it. This phenomenon is radically unprecedented, at least since the denial of the Jewish genocide by the Nazis.

How can one interpret these strange realities in the light of the tumultuous relations between truth and politics? M. Revault d’Allonnes makes a crucial distinction between rational truth, which belongs to science, and factual truth. The latter is at the heart of her thinking, because once denied, factual truth becomes a simple opinion disconnected from reality. To understand the scope of this disconnection, it is necessary to start from Aristotle and the distinction he made between the true and the probable. This question is paradigmatic of democratic functioning. Indeed, in democracy, the purpose of deliberation is to establish the truth of proposals, which, although they may not pertain to a logical axiom, must be “decidable.” [2] It is the very spirit of democracy, of what the Greeks called isegoria (the equal right of all to express an opinion), to allow all opinions to be expressed, quite simply because dialogue, which is consubstantial with the exercise of democracy, implies the possibility of contradiction. Without conflict of opinions “the life of the polis would be empty.” [3]

But once the adversarial debate has taken place, as happens during a trial, a truth is legitimately established. To be sure, this truth could have been other than it is since it is contingent, unlike epistemic truth, which belongs to necessity. However, as Revault d’Allonnes rightly notes, what matters in democracy is to reach a shared judgment, which allows humans to build common ground. The author thus borrows the value of plurality from Aristotle—a lineage that also includes Arendt, who insisted

“on the distinction between the search for absolute truth (that of the Platonic philosopher) and the conditions of the political judgment performed in the common world, in and through the exercise of plurality” (p. 45).

What is probably less expected is the role Revault d’Allonnes attributes to Machiavelli. This role stems from the fact that the Florentine thinker attacked a philosophical tradition that, like Plato, wished to submit the political order to the canons of speculative reason. But this explanation remains partial. The author sees Machiavelli as a “great educator,” that is, as

“he for whom the ‘effective truth’ of politics lies in an intertwining, an interlacing, or, better still, a co-belonging that de facto deconstructs the binary vision of the all-powerful master vs. radically powerless subjects” (p. 70).

Contrary to Machiavellianism, which implies an identification of politics with evil, Machiavelli’s work reveals the truth of politics in the revaluation of the status of opinion. Thus, Machiavelli shares the concern to build a common world—a concern that is deeply challenged by the dissolution of the boundary between the true and the false or, if you prefer, by the fact that the truth no longer matters.

As pointed out earlier, factual truths are vulnerable. All the more reason to safeguard them against the lies that betray them and the propaganda that distorts them. But the task is difficult because, ultimately, these truths, which “impose themselves and are beyond agreement and consent” (p. 78), are anti-political, that is, they do not pertain to opinion. The representative [4] nature of political thought thus “comes into tension with the constraining evidence of truth” (p. 79), be it epistemic or factual.

And yet, the legitimacy of opinion is based on facts. The danger, therefore, is that factual truths will turn into opinions. We are in the presence of a perversion of democracy: the reign of equivalence and indistinction. Yet, in a world where the distinction between the true and the false has been erased, conflict no longer has a raison d’être, and the absence of conflict undercuts democracy:

“Insofar as ideological thinking is independent of existing reality, it looks upon all factuality as fabricated, and therefore no longer has any reliable criterion for distinguishing truth from falsehood.” [5]

A Philosophical Rehabilitation of Fiction

The last chapter, “Fiction and the power-to-do,” is a continuation of a previous book, Le Miroir et la Scène: Ce que peut la représentation politique (The Mirror and the Stage: What Political Representation Can Do; Seuil, 2016), which, also in the lineage of Aristotle and Arendt, evoked the possibility of departing from the constraints of reality, that is, of conceiving other worlds—ones imagined by utopian writings in their function of challenging the existing reality. This philosophical rehabilitation of fiction, this “heuristic force of literature” (p. 112), these imaginative practices together allow us to perceive, from an “elsewhere,” the richness of the societies in which we live:

“This entails reaching, via the creative potency of language and the power of fiction, the world of experience, the ‘life-world,’ which is like the original ground, like the primordial layer in which all sense-bestowals are rooted” (p. 113).

A world from which the imagination has disappeared would deprive humans of the exercise of their abilities:

“Far from the loss of world implied by indifference to the truth, the imagination cannot bear the weakness of the truth and is even less able to tolerate its abandonment” (p. 132).

From this perspective, one understands the paradigmatic reference to 1984, in which Orwell does not limit himself to describing a totalitarian system. 1984 is a nightmarish world from which the imagination itself has vanished because of the inability to distinguish between fact and fiction. The link between truth and imagination is therefore crucial: The weakness of the truth defuses the power of the imagination.

To save our common world, then, “true” and “false” must remain operational categories. To renounce our ideals of truth and objectivity is to abandon our power-to-do to the powerful, for whom these ideals have now become useless.

The Uses of Foucauldian Thought

Was it necessary to draw on Foucauldian thought to buttress this remarkable analysis of democratic functioning? No doubt M. Revault d’Allonnes retains the best of Foucault’s philosophy:

“In introducing the idea of a ‘regime of truth,’ Foucault rightly considered that truth was neither ‘outside’ nor ‘without’ power, and that it was ‘of this world,’ produced under various constraints and inducing regulated effects of power” (p. 92).

According to the author’s argument, it is legitimately a question of exploring the conditions under which a discourse emerges. But the meaning she gives to the term “regime of truth” seems nevertheless quite removed from the relativistic use Foucault made of it (a use disputed, it is true, by Revault d’Allonnes). Indeed, for Foucault, “‘truth’ [the quotation marks are his] is circularly linked to systems of power which produce and support it, and to effects of power which are induced by it and which, in turn, reproduce it. ‘Regime’ of truth.” [6] This “regime” is constituted by an epistemic system (the rules for justifying statements) and by the power apparatuses in which it is embedded. Thus, it is not the facts that constrain us, but the “regime of truth” of the society to which we belong.

Can Revault d’Allonnes, a determined opponent of relativism, subscribe to an “epistemology” that makes no room for the distinction between being true and being considered true? This question is especially relevant since the author directs, on another level, important criticisms at Foucault. These criticisms can be summarized as follows: Whereas understanding the nature of democratic functioning entails placing oneself in the tradition of Protagoras (this is also the opinion of Francis Wolff in the aforementioned article), Foucault joins the Platonic camp by considering as

“an alteration or a perversion resulting from democratic practice that which, for Protagoras, is the latter’s main characteristic: the permanent risk of judgment, of the ability to judge that defines all citizens” (p. 102).

She therefore rightly emphasizes “the blind spot in the thought of Foucault,” an author who has shown

“little interest in the truth regime of modern democracy, wherein citizens’ ability to judge is constantly exposed to the transformation of de facto truths into opinions” (p. 106).

In my view, this fair criticism renders enigmatic the reference to Foucault.

This point of divergence must not overshadow the essential fact that M. Revault d’Allonnes offers a powerful, original, and concerned analysis of the future of our democracies. We can only fervently hope that her power of conviction can alert to the ethical and political effects of this deadly blurring of the line between factual truth and opinion—a blurring which, by destroying the possibility of a common world, prepares the way for the reign of barbarism.

Reviewed: Myriam Revault d’Allonnes, La faiblesse du vrai. Ce que la post-vérité fait à notre monde commun, Seuil, 2018. 144 p., 17 €.

by Alain Policar, 6 May

To quote this article :

Alain Policar, « The Regime of Opinion », Books and Ideas , 6 May 2019. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL : http://www.booksandideas.net/The-Regime-of-Opinion.html

Nota Bene:

If you want to discuss this essay further, you can send a proposal to the editorial team (redaction at laviedesidees.fr). We will get back to you as soon as possible.

Footnotes

[1Following Harry Frankfurt, this can be defined as indifference to the truth: “Bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are” (Frankfurt, On Bullshit, 2006).

[2See Francis Wolff, “Démocratie et vérité,” Manuscrito, Revista internacional de filosofía, 6 (2), 1983, see especially pp. 164-171.

[3Ibid., p. 168.

[4By representative, the author expresses the idea that “we form opinions and judgments by keeping in mind (my emphasis) the positions of those who are absent” (p. 79).

[5Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (cited by Revault d’Allonnes, p. 90).

[6“Entretien avec Michel Foucault,” in Dits et écrits, Gallimard, 1978, p. 160.


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