Blog Post

Returning to Order through Realism

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

A “call to order” is taking place in political and intellectual life in Europe and abroad. This “rappel à l’ordre” has sounded before, in France after World War I, when it was directed at avant-garde artists, demanding that they put aside their experiments and create reassuring representations for those whose worlds had been torn apart by the war. But now it is directed toward those intellectuals, politicians, and citizens who still cling to the supposedly politically correct culture of postmodernism.

This culture, according to the forces who claim to represent order, has corrupted facts, truth, and information, giving rise to “alternative facts,” “post-truth,” and “fake news” even though, as Stanley Fish points out, “postmodernism sets itself against the notion of facts just lying there discrete and independent, and waiting to be described. Instead it argues that fact is the achievement of argument and debate, not a pre-existing entity by whose measure argument can be assessed.” The point is that postmodernity has become a pretext for the return to order we are witnessing now in the rhetoric of right-wing populist politicians. This order reveals itself everyday as more authoritarian because it holds itself to be in possession of the essence of reality, defining truth for all human beings.

This return of realism is evinced by the public careers of some contemporary intellectuals, also referred to as “realists” or members of the “intellectual dark web,” such as the psychologist Jordan Peterson, the neuroscientist Sam Harris, and philosophers like Christina Hoff Sommers, among others. Although some of these thinkers would object to being categorized as new realist or politically conservative, they all seem to oppose postmodernism’s neo-Marxist linguistic turn and its conflict of interpretations, which holds that everything that exists is only the correlate of a subject that conceives it. The problem with this postmodern stance, they claim, is that it has denied thought any rational access to things in themselves, allowing apparently unfounded discourses on scientific objectivity, traditional values, and gendered essences.

But these thinkers, as Bari Weiss points out, are determined to emphasize the “biological differences between men and women” and to demonstrate that “identity politics” is a threat to our social fabric. This is why Sommers, for example, opposes those feminists who still “be­lieve that our society is best described as a patriarchy, a ‘male hegemony,’ a ‘sex/gender system,’” with her “factual feminism,” which is based on a data-driven approach. These data, interpreted by the American scholar, indicate that most feminists exaggerate the plight of women while ignoring that of men.

But critics of this return to realism—from Simon Critchley to Slavoj Žižek and Gianni Vattimo—are consistent in reminding us that this realist philosophical approach has long been surpassed and superceded and that the need for realism appears to be a “closure that reassures and stifles at the same time.” Vattimo believes its roots can be found “in a psychological discomfort rather than in a strictly conscious demand.” The “need for reality is neurotic,” ultimately an “effect of ressentiment,” of the “tedious qualities of old dogs and men who have long been kept on the leash.” The problem with this stance is that whoever does not submit to the asserted reality is automatically incorrect, on the wrong side of reality, and perhaps even on the wrong side of the border.

In order to resist this political and cultural movement it is important to remember that when Kellyanne Conway, counselor to U.S. president Donald Trump, used the phrase “alternative facts” to defend a false statement we were not entering a new age of alternative facts but rather another age of alternative facts. These successive ages of alternative facts arise from our naïve enthusiasm for objectivity, transparency, and free speech. This naïveté today belongs to those “rational” people, as Bruno Latour says, who still continue to believe “that facts stand up all by themselves, without a shared world, without institutions, without a public life, and that it would suffice to put the ignorant folk back in an old-style classroom with a blackboard and in-class exercises, for reason to triumph at last.”

But as scientists and linguists explain there is no “neutral observation language” that can erase human differences. These differences are not the source of our problems but rather the only possible route to their provisional solution. Facts, information, and data by themselves do nothing. “Facts remain robust,” Latour continuous, “only when they are supported by a common culture, by institutions that can be trusted, by a more or less decent public life, by more or less reliable media.” In the age of alternative facts, facts have been framed, that is, stripped of all the interpretative, institutional, and social support they once could count on.

As we can see, alternative facts or “fake news” are a consequence not of postmodern philosophers’ claiming the indispensable role of interpretation in comprehending the world but rather of the return to order that thinkers of the intellectual dark web are helping impose. The problem of identifying thought as a mirror of reality is that freedom is also framed. This is why Donald Trump’s wall on the Mexican border, ban on Muslims, and hostility toward the facts of climate change are not meant to create a “state of emergency” but a condition without emergencies—where nothing can emerge from the overwhelming order. Difference, change, and cultural others must be avoided as disruptions of the safety that order is supposed to represent.

In order to preserve freedom from external impositions it is necessary to denounce the alliance between these thinkers and right-wing populist politicians. This alliance is at the origin of a patriarchal obsession with the so-called natural order and the politics of hate that now also drives a growing anti-feminist and anti-queer campaign. While gender theory, as Judith Butler recently reminded us, “simply seeks a form of political freedom to live in a more equitable and livable world,” its opponents instead demand that we all be “kept on the leash” so that freedom does not disrupt the ongoing return to order. The “biological differences between men and women” that Jair Bolsonaro, Matteo Salvini, and Viktor Orbán praise is founded on this order, and appeals to it exploit rather than confront ongoing social resentment.

Santiago Zabala's picture
Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. He is the author and editor of over ten books including Why Only Art Can Save Us (2017), Hermeneutic Communism (2011, coauthored with G. Vattimo), and editor of The Future of Religion (2005) by R. Rorty and G. Vattimo, all published by Columbia University Press and translated into several languages. He writes opinion articles for the New York Times, Al-Jazeera, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. His forthcoming book is Being at Large: Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts (2020).