When facts become concerns

How might philosopher Bruno Latour help us navigate fears of Trump and his gameshow vision of America?

By Jonathan T.D. Neil

Donald Trump. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Why so much surprise and exasperation at the charges of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ coming out of the American chatter machine? Why has the divide over whether or not to take our new president ‘seriously’ or ‘literally’ marked out some new partisan DMZ? Haven’t we been confronted with all this before? It was just over a decade ago that we were exposed to the postmodernism of American politicians tearing down a different set of grand narratives. Remember Donald Rumsfeld, the epistemologist, offering lessons on ‘unknown unknowns’? Or Karl Rove, the metaphysician, schooling journalists on the naïveté of ‘reality-based communities’? As Bill Clinton said, I guess it depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.

We are back on similar ground, it’s just that today the politicians have Twitter.

Before succumbing to this morass of fear and loathing, it’s worth recalling Bruno Latour’s 2004 essay, ‘Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern’. Latour was writing in the wake of those spurious claims about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in Iraq, but his essay is really a coming to grips with the legacy of critical theory as well as Latour’s own role in the rise of ‘science studies’ and its commitments to revealing the ‘social construction’ of things that people once took as givens, such as the laws of physics, and that comforted the Western psyche as it remade the world in its own image.

Latour notably targets the cycle of ‘critique’ itself, whereby, in a first move, mere objects, plain facts, are shown by the critic not to have any causal agency of their own but to be blank screens onto which naive subjects project their own interests and desires; then, in a second move, those subjects’ interests and desires, the fetishes of the naive, are themselves revealed to be nothing but manifestations of deeper, more structural forces – history, sociology, geography – which, by the way, are only ever visible to the omnipotent critic.

Like all great television personalities, like all matters of fact, Trump was whatever we wanted or needed him to be: an oaf, an asshole, a champion, a winner

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because this movie was just run again, and the American public bought front-row seats (never the best in the house). Trump was one such mere object, a matter of fact in the New York society world and then in the unscripted television world, where his brand and status seemed well aligned. The Apprentice was where the vulgarity of network TV met the vulgarity of the people’s (alleged) billionaire in that most vulgar of formats: the gameshow. Highly mediated but well circumscribed, Trump’s vulgarity did not need explaining. It was just there. Self-evident. Like defining pain by kicking a stone.

Like all great television personalities, like all matters of fact, Trump was whatever we wanted or needed him to be: an oaf, an asshole, a champion, a winner. Like facts, he was the answer. And then he won the presidency, and the oaf, the asshole, the winner had to be explained. So began the second move: it’s not that anyone really wanted Trump as president, they were just responding to the rising power of an urban elite, to a globalism in which they weren’t taking part, to an unfinished and unconfronted history of racism. Leave Trump alone. It’s the people who are oafs, assholes, and – because they got their man – winners.

Of course it is just coincidence that Latour’s essay was published the same year that The Apprentice debuted. That’s just a vulgar fact, and as far back as 2004 Latour was telling us that the facts don’t matter.

They still don’t. To matters of fact Latour opposed matters of concern – ‘gatherings’ is the word he uses, gatherings of ideas, forces, players and arenas in which ‘things’ and issues, not facts, come to be and to persist, because they are supported, cared for, worried over. The gatherings that we have seen of late in response to the rise of that one vulgar fact named Trump are just the first flowering of our realisation that we must rally around such matters of concern: ‘things’ such as liberty, law, justice and truth – aggregates and practices that are in the greatest need of care today.

From the March 2017 issue of ArtReview. Get every issue with a subscription