The late Michel Foucault argued variously that the autonomy of language, that the very rules of discourse could neither be reduced to vagaries of the speaking subject nor the whims of the political, economic or social forces, but also, that there was an inextricable connection between power and knowledge. The configuration of knowledge, of what could be known, was determined by fundamental assumptions, by ideologies, visible and invisible, which then determine the very questions that can be asked within any given society. In one sense there is a presupposition of the inherent power and construct of discourse itself, one that is indissoluble from reality – e.g. that language and discourse mean something and have a fundamental grammar. On the other hand, there is a recognition that ‘power’ or perhaps in lay terms, events, circumstances and the general milieu, determine the rules of what can be known, of what can be asked and, to some degree, of meaning itself.
The argument was that even with the necessary tension and flux in the meaning of things, there is, or at least was, a presupposition that discourse has rules. It has a grammar and an ethic tying it to a meaning, whatever that meaning might be. The grammar and ethic of discourse are a priori assumptions, ones that did not require conscious recognition. I am not sure this still holds true. The word salad that currently constitutes public discourse and the seemingly post-scandal, post-truth nature of political reality suggests that perhaps the autonomy of discourse, its very grammar and ethic, have been shattered; that there are no longer rules that ground the language to any shared reality, and thus, there is no accountability inherent to its structure. Meaning is not only fluid, but it is no longer relevant, at all. It appears that we have embraced fully Stephen Colbert’s concept of truthiness – a notion that defies truth, redefines it rather, to mean whatever one wants it to mean.
Although many are quick to point out the authoritarian nature of the current trends in political discourse, there may be something even more sinister at play. In some sense, we are seeing the dissolution of humanity from the shared reality that forms the rules of discourse. Court cases (Citizen’s United) and legislation (personhood) over the last decade obliterated accepted definitions of being human and blurred the line between action and intention. These decisions effectively unmoored discourse from its humanity and grammar and, for all intents and purposes, any ethical obligations. What we are seeing now, is a result of those events. When humanness can be considered everything from a few cells to an artificial legal construct such as a corporation and when one’s thoughts and intentions carry equal weight with actual actions, then there can be no shared reality because anything or nothing can simultaneously be considered human and the reality of actions has no prominence over an interpretation or supposition of intentions.
Within this framework, the lies and dissimulation represent not just a political strategy to gain power and disabuse the country of its perceived rights and privileges, but in some fundamental way, it represents the death of humanity as a conditional factor in language, and by association, its ethics. With no consistent definition of humanness and no distinction between thoughts and actions, neither language nor behavior have accountability to humanity, because it no longer exists, and no obligation to truth or facts, because intentions are malleable and open for interpretation. When the rules of discourse become unmoored from humanity and the grammar of actions, everything else is unmoored too. The meaning of things, e.g facts and truths, are irrelevant. The very construct of ethics and ethical behavior dissolves. Up can be down, or not, depending upon ‘what’s in our hearts’. Within this construct, no lie, no act, no scandal can be too egregious as to merit sufficient outrage for action, particularly among those who benefit, because the ethical anchor of language itself, humanity, and the rules discourse, the grammar that demands some connection to a material and mutually agreed upon reality, have been severed.
On the flip side, there is nothing preventing corporations or organizations or even individuals from doing whatever the heck they want in the pursuit of profits or ideologies. There is no need for regulation if there is no humanity to protect. Similarly unhinged and thus unnecessary is the concept of human rights. And since intentions carry as much weight as actual actions, when or if culpability for egregious behavior can be sought, money and power afford the ability to control the discourse and outcomes favorably, perhaps more so than they do already. The dissolution of the autonomy of language portends not a simple authoritarian power grab per se, but rather, the total disintegration of the power structures that keep corporations and other corrupting entities in check. What we have now is a power vacuum, one that emerged not from a violent overthrow of a government, but from subtle and not so subtle changes in the definition of things.
This is a very dangerous path, one I am not sure how we circumvent.
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