ONE ATTRIBUTE of this year’s presidential contest that has not gone unnoticed by the press is the apparent insouciance with which the candidates have gone about embellishing their records, denying the embellishment when confronted, and outright fabricating nonsensical facts, all without seeming to suffer any consequences when their lies are called out by the mainstream press. As Michael Barbaro wrote in the Times, “Today, it seems, truth is in the eyes of the beholder — and any assertion can be elevated and amplified if yelled loudly enough.”
How are we to understand this apparent growing disregard for reality, the ubiquitous presence in politics of an attitude or practice denoted so memorably by Stephen Colbert as “truthiness,” in Webster’s definition the “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts of facts known to be true”? Is this perhaps the result of the dismaying rise of cultural relativism, born in the twentieth century and now coming home to roost? Such was Dick Meyer’s conclusion in a commentary he wrote in 2006 on the occasion of Merriam-Webster declaring Colbert’s coinage the Word of the Year. Truthiness, Meyer writes, “is perfect for the times in every way. It is a fake word invented by a fake person, Stephen Colbert, the comedian whose character, Stephen Colbert, parodies cable news talk shows on his own cable show, ‘The Colbert Report.’” Truthiness, Meyer goes on to claim, “is the definitive cultural and comedic acknowledgement of moral relativism.”
If we take a second look, though, we should see right away that Republican presidential candidates are no more moral relativists than are the true believers of the Christian Right that they pander to. While they may be opportunists in their cooptation of certain political positions, those positions constitute the polar opposite of relativism. The reason truthiness has become such a convincing descriptor in early twenty-first century political life is not because of a widespread realization that one’s moral beliefs are culturally and historically determined, but because of a sharp increase in both the proportion of people who believe that their beliefs are direct expressions of reality, and the intensity with which they hold and defend those beliefs. Truthiness, in other words, is not an effect of the rise of relativism; it is an effect of the proliferation of fundamentalism. And fundamentalism is a symptom of today’s medialogy, the term we use for the concept of reality determined by a culture’s dominant medial form.
The new medialogy is already once removed from the reality concept implied by the prior medialogy, since its prima facie content is now the level of the material media that preceded it: books, bodies, images, and identities are injected with the aura of the real and endowed with a special authenticity. Objects that had become copies of an ineffable real emerge as things in themselves with no further regression required. They are already real and hence require no transcendent reference to ground them. This reification of what had been relegated to the status of copies is the basis for an unconscious fundamentalism that spreads to all walks of life.
In such a medialogical context, the state as the copy of national substance loses that anchoring in the real and becomes a groundless thing, a hollow shell that dissolves into diverse ethnic and religious identifications. Individuals cease to experience themselves as partial perspectives on a shared common ground, and instead start to conceive of themselves as the direct expressions of a particular identity that becomes all important. In the conditions of the new medialogy, the individual is an unanchored island of solitude connecting via the media to others he or she conceives of as conjoined members of a community with unfettered access to the truth. And as these fellow travelers are always apparently in the minority, others are demonized as at best deluded, at worst, agents of a sinister plot.
Noliberalism, the economic model of the new medialogy, profits from this state of affairs. The medialogy’s concept of reality, where erstwhile copies are now things, promotes an endless war of unanchored identities; the notion of the commons abandoned, a new commons develops, not “underlying” those identities but “above” them, unseen, syphoning off profits at unprecedented levels on a global scale. Terrorist fundamentalists strengthen rightwing isolationists, who demonize immigrants and hence further reify national, ethnic and religious difference. Governments aren’t weakened, though; rather, the constant threat of an irrational other bolsters “democratic” regimes that are little else than symbolic cover for oligarchies whose purpose is the creation and maintenance of rules leading to greater syphoning power.
This picture is reminiscent of the “reality” revealed in the movie The Matrix when the virtual reality program that humanity is plugged into is disrupted: thousands of isolated minds each plugged into its own screen, all feeding a system none of them is aware of. And make no mistake about it: the system of global capital benefits from humanity not realizing its common ground or its common plight. In this sense, sociopolitical phenomena like the rise of right wing, xenophobic parties and candidates in the US and Europe; the apparently ubiquitous threat of terror attacks, often committed by home-grown extremists; or the dramatic rise in school shootings in the US since the nineties, are not disparate cases, examples of a world devolving into chaos. Rather, they are tightly interconnected pieces of a machine that is functioning with great precision, even as it multiplies death and destruction.
Think about a terror organization like the inaptly named Islamic State—inapt because it has neither the attributes normally associated with a state nor is its organizing principle Islam in any theologically recognizably form. In fact, what ISIS most resembles is an online community dedicated to a particularly noxious perversion—like those frequented by the so-called cannibal cop who fantasized online about killing and eating women—the difference being that its members take the next step and carry out the grim fantasies they encourage in one another.
Indeed, this is what we’re missing when we point out the racist discrepancy involved in denoting any violence perpetrated by Muslims as terrorism while refusing to use the same term for the shootings committed by non-Muslim white males, despite their often explicitly racist and misogynist reasoning in the manifestos they leave behind. Yes, these are essentially the same as the acts of terror committed by ISIS, but not merely because of the hate that inspires them. They are structurally congruous acts because they are symptoms of a medialogy in which disparate islands of solitude meet in a virtual space to commiserate and share their fantasies, thereby lowering the threshold to enacting these fantasies and hence creating a new reality.
This theory also helps us solve the puzzle of why radicalization fails to track accurately with socio-economic oppression. Many of the young men who kill and blow themselves up come from well-established middle class families. Their allegiance to radical groups is similar to the adherence of the other, isolated young white men to the cult of the black duster. They believe it is about history, religion, and culture, but it is not; it is about an entirely constructed identity whose online proponents proffer it as a solution to all their pain.
This is not to say that there aren’t real social and cultural factors underlying the fragmentation of groups according to ethnic and religious identity. France’s failure to offer equal opportunity for the full economic integration of its citizens is absolutely central to the sense of exclusion, of being strangers in their own nation, that so many young men of African and Near Eastern descent growing up in the banlieue feel. As George Packer reports, “Banlieue residents joke that going into Paris requires a visa and a vaccination card.” And this is true of young people who are French, born in France, and speak only French. But again, it is vital to note that the alienation of the banlieue is not founded on a positive, historical identity.
The banlieue as a brewer of extremism and the rise of nationalism in contemporary politics are symptoms of the new medialogy. Categories such as class, nation, religion, or ethnicity have all migrated from the position of copies referring to ineffable substances, and are now self-sustaining, self-referential identities floating free of any history other than fragmentation and alienation.
Such is the ground of fundamentalism. Not a return to the substantial reality of the past, but the frantic desires of an unmoored present. Fundamentalism is fragmentation.
Note: This article is based on the forthcoming book by David Castillo and William Egginton, Medialogies: Inflationary Media and the Crisis of Reality (Bloomsbury, forthcoming in 2016): http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/medialogies-9781628923599/