By Roberto Orsi
Every book is imbued with the name of God, and we have anagrammed all books in history, without praying […]. What our lips said, our cells have learnt. What have my cells done? They have invented a different Plan, and now they are going their way. My cells have invented a history which is not everybody’s history. My cells have learnt that one can be blasphemous by anagramming the Book and all books. So they have learnt to do with my body. They invert, transpose, alter, permute, create cells never seen before and with no sense, or with a sense which is contrary to the right sense. There must be a right sense, and wrong senses, otherwise one dies.
Diotallevi, one of the characters of Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) pronounces these words on his death bed, confessing the mortal sin of manipulating words and thoughts without due caution, and piety, but also posing the uncomfortable question of whether there should be a right sense, and somehow also a limit to imagination.
In the wake of Brexit and the ascent of Mr. Donald Trump as US President, numerous Western media and intellectuals have elaborated or embraced the view that current political events are shaped by the spread of misleading or utterly fake information, particularly operated by alternative news channels, mainly through the internet. Political debates are therefore no longer based on any truth or factual accuracy, but on “post-truth”, whereby truth is simply abandoned as a shared ground whereon opinions should successively be constructed. The right sense has been lost, and so the sensitivity to questions of truth, with all the political consequences.
Unfortunately the matter is far more complex than it appears, and this way of framing the issue of post-truth is problematic at best.
It is worth starting from the very idea of “facts”. Although fact-checking and “having one’s facts straight” used to be one of the pillars of civilised political conversation, particularly in the US, the very category of “facts” has never been particularly stable. There are facts and facts. Whether the author of this piece is wearing a blue tie while writing this very sentence is not the same as the fact that anthropic activities are causing climate change, even if both are labelled as “facts” in common speech. Politically interesting facts are, with some exceptions, almost never of the simple kind. This has been known for very long time, even in a context, such as that of Anglo-Saxon philosophical culture, where the reputation of empiricist approaches has remained high over the centuries.
British historian E. H. Carr famously wrote:
The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation. (What is History?, 1961)
The journalist is in essence an historian of the contemporary. The work of both is partially similar: both need to select their facts and organise them into some kind of narrative, coherent and convincing enough for their publishers and prospective readers. The work of both can be, and usually is, highly politicised, although the professional historian has the luxury, sometimes, of allowing for less politicisation depending on how relevant a certain matter may be for broader contemporary debates. Both do not have to invent from scratch those perspectives, contexts, and narrative frameworks in which the facts will eventually fit: they are usually readily available in the form of established editorial lines or historiographical theories respectively.