Wednesday, 23 January 2008

A propaganda of the truth

From Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy by Stephen Duncombe (The New Press, London and New York, 2007, p 20):

For years progressives have comforted themselves with age-old biblical adages that the "truth will out" or "the truth will set you free," but waiting around for the truth to set you free is lazy politics. The truth does not reveal itself by virtue of being the truth: it must be told, and we need to learn how to tell the truth more effectively. It must have stories woven around i, works of art made about it; it must be communicated in new ways and marketed so that it sells. It must be embedded in an experience that connects with people's dreams and desires, that resonates with the symbols and mythologies that they find meaningful. The argument here is not for a progressive politics that lies outright, but rather for a propaganda of the truth. As William James once wrote: "Truth happens to an idea."
I've just started Duncombe's book, but I'm finding many of his ideas resonating with some thinking that I've done about the construction of truth as a practice of storytelling - the side who tells the better stories possesses a stronger claim for truth. See here for more details of this, basically a discussion of ideological framings used by political actors (politicians) in their performances of policy, with a discussion of version 1.0's The Wages of Spin wrapped around this. Duncombe is far more explicit in his call to embrace dreams and fantasies, and I look forward to seeing where his analysis travels.

6 comments:

Alison Croggon said...

Funnily enough, a lot of my vague ponderings at the moment are around this area. None of have quite coalesced beyond a certain restlessness, but I am carefully working my way towards the obvious, as always...

Born Dancin' said...

Sounds like an interesting read. Although: I'm not sure if I'm reading it wrong but there seems to be a little slippage in Duncombe's argument there - doesn't he switch between arguing that 'truth' is constructed by the better storyteller and arguing that 'truth' is already out there, but the better storyteller knows how to convey it more effectively. The latter seems to maintain a distinction between truth and lies, while the former suggests that the distinction is a fallacy - ie the liar is the one whose story isn't as convincing. The James quote is more supportive of that, of pragmatic truth. Duncombe seems less committed to that position, though.

David Williams said...

Hi Born Dancin', and thanks for your comment. I'll confess that I'm only in the intro of the book, and can't speak definitively about all of the nuances of his position. However, in setting up the frame of the investigation, he posits that generally speaking, progressive thought is wrapped up in outlining facts, what in this quote is described as truth. If only we find out the facts, what is tangible and provable, then we will be able to effect change. Its an Enlightenment position, in which reason is taken as the ground for any serious discussion of politics. What Duncombe is suggesting seems to be that in focusing so much on 'truth' and 'the facts', progressive politics has largely neglected the force of fantasy, and the powerful appeal of dreams. He even suggests that the left and right have swapped positions in contemporary politics - the right being the ones to state: "I have a dream".

A lot of this is familiar ground, and is concerned with the framing and imagining of the future. George Lakoff is another thinker working in a similar area to this, with some very useful ideas around the positive framing of facts in order to makes convincing claims for reality. See for instance his book 'Don't think of an Elephant', which has a very useful appendix entitled 'How to talk to conservatives'. For artists, this can also serve as a means to speak to media generally, and I've found it very useful in this sense. Ghassan Hage has been writing about truth and reality in what he describes as 'warring societies', and on a slightly different angle, David McKnight discusses the overarching narratives and visions for the future of competing ideologies in his book 'Beyond Left and Right'.

I think in the end, the goal is to tell the truth to power in a powerful manner, and that artistic practice can serve an important function in this. In a recent article on documentary theatre in the journal TDR, Carol Martin noted that: "Politicians spin facts to tell particular stories. Theatre spins them right back to tell different stories." What I hope is that we can get better at telling better stories. More convincing truth-telling, drawing upon dreams and facts, blending together into something rich and strange.

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