Dispatches dares to note the obvious: we live in strange times, friends.
The strangeness is everywhere and seems to be spreading with viral ruthlessness through the social/cultural/political body, seeded in a mindless Twitterverse, sowing ignorance and confusion, and creating a loud cultural noise that is impenetrable to reason. Truth was the first thing to go. Not some big, fancy metaphysical Truth, not some kickass Truth that you could tie the Real onto and know it would still be there tomorrow. Emerson saw through that a long time ago (Gladly we would anchor, but the anchorage is quicksand), and there’s no going back. No, it’s the very concept of truth in its simplest form – the state of that which is the case, the result of accurate representation. How big was that crowd? Once upon a time we could just count and arrive at the truth. Once upon a time . . .
It does get complicated. It is not just a problem made critical by the current evil clowns frolicking in Washington DC. The knowledge of the quicksand is part of the continuing disintegration of aging modernity’s creaking conceptual structures. The tsunami of new modes and forms of information and its distribution has devastated modernity’s modes of information distribution. And not just the shrinking attention to newspapers and other traditional modes of truth-telling (what they now call long form information – i.e. more than 40 characters), but the social imaginary significations and forms of life that gave rise to and sustained them. The world in which newspapers were a necessity and made sense as a way to inform and organize the new democratic bourgeois political class has gone the way of steam powered looms. The historic informed electorate composed of autonomous individuals who evaluate issue-related information in order to elect the most qualified candidate to represent them is now little more than material for stand-up comedians.
The Greek word for truth—aletheia—is well-known in certain circles through Martin Heidegger’s use of it to challenge the representational theory of truth. For the Greeks, he argued (and Heidegger could not get enough of the Greeks), truth was unconcealment or disclosure. Something is there, in other words, but you haven’t seen it yet. Martin will help you. Current discourses of various groups who identify as “right” or “left”, often small but loud formations on university campuses, tend to walk a line between Heidegger and representation in their relation to truth. The truth is here and if you aren’t here too, you just haven’t seen it. Yet. They will help you.
Truth has its own non-Greek roots in another order of relation that comes out of the Saxon and Germanic forests. Heidegger, for all his appeal to “nature” and “soil”, could not escape his attraction to the angular containment of the agora. At Dispatches, we tend toward the confusion of the forest. Not in some rugged outdoorsy kind of way, but in a hanging-out-in-icy-mountain-rivers-trying-to-psych-out-the-fish kind of way, or a frequenting-fenced-in-off-leash-dog-parks kind of way. We are more inclined toward the Saxon than the Greek: triewð (West Saxon), treowð (Mercian), and the Proto-Germanic treuwaz before them all speak to fidelity rather than ontology. Faithfulness, loyalty, pledge, good faith all circulate around and feed into the roots of truth in this sense. No unveiling of that which was hidden. It’s all about testimony. It’s either faithful, loyal to its pro-vocation, its calling forth—or not. In this arena, many different, even conflicting and contradictory truths can face each other undiminished in their truthfulness.
This is poetry’s truth.
This confrontation goes on within each poem, as well as between poems—a concatenation of truths co-existing in a 12+ dimensional field, Emerson’s hard words from “Self-Reliance”: “Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.” Poetry is composed of Emerson’s hard words. Its potential, its soul, its mission, its responsibility, its particular untranslatable knowledge all flow from that. “I John saw/I testify,” H.D. wrote in The Walls Do Not Fall. That is the truth poetry knows. That’s why poetry will always testify against totalitarianism in any form and arena.
The totalitarian knows only one truth, the truth they cling to for whatever reason justifies their clinging. And they need no justification beyond their promise of “justice,” whether for the taxpayer, the white race, this or that identifiable community. They are above the law, because, as Hannah Arendt pointed out in The Origins of Totalitarianism, totalitarianism “can do without the consensus iuris because it promises to release the fulfillment of law from all action and will of man; and it promises justice on earth because it claims to make mankind itself the embodiment of the law.” No disagreement allowed. If you don’t buy into their truth, they will try to shut you up, drown you out, frighten you into silence and submission with threats to your career and your friendships, with slanderous accusations. If you try to open conversation on difficult moral issues, issues where uncertainty is the only ground to be found, they will subject you to interrogation by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but all dressed up in tweed (or plaid flannel), smiling banally while softly condemning you for serious thought crimes.
Totalitarianism does not know political boundaries. Our old pals, left and right, the gift of the architecture and social world of the 18th century French National Assembly, have become the stuff of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. The “right” is now the property of gamer-boy misogynist cults, terrified goons desperately clinging to the smallest patriarchal white privilege, and a nut-bar Christian rump that will knowingly vote for a pedophile if he will maintain the persecution of gays, lesbians, and the transgendered. Meanwhile, the social justice “left” has become a terror machine for intimidating people into accepting their Truth while making sure no others can be heard over their screams. The “right” then gets to disguise itself as a martyr for “free speech,” while their real program flies under the radar, masked in the noise generated by scholastic arguments over how many angels can dance on the head of free speech. A red herring if there ever was one – it’s not about “free speech,” guys – it’s about the freedom of the imagination and open inquiry. It’s about whether the University should become the instrument of moralized, totalitarian terror. Meanwhile, in our insular North American poetry field, the avant-“left” has transformed itself into a corporate structure sustaining the careers of a few bull-goose careerist poets, who are quick to use the dynamics of that terror machine for their own purposes.
In this sad state of affairs, both the so-called right and the so-called left have become little more than totalitarian gangs battling each other for control of media attention and the monopolization and colonization of public discourse.
A pox on them all, Dispatches says. Speak to us today in hard words, and tomorrow speak to us in hard words, and we will speak back in hard words. Anything less is a travesty of the truth.