Thinking About Thinking In The Age Of ‘Post-Truths’ – OpEd

There is an overdose of talk these days on the word “post-truth” and “fake news” and the way the corporate media especially is trying to make the discourse of relativism par excellence go viral true to its ethos of profiting from reporting about conflicts. From “all the news that’s fit to print” we now have “all the views that count as equal truths.” Anything goes as well as long as they sell, in an age of the globalization of packaged and branded nothingness. Daily, especially when one is living in America and chose to be watched and washed by television, consume the news, get amused by the programs, entertained by Hollywood, transformed into televisual and online consumers, get informed by newscasters and talk show hosts in parallel-talks arguing at each other, or even simply be made to doze off by the hundreds of cable and non-cable channels, one is confronted with cruel choice of accepting “truths”.

We continue to live in a world deeply mediated by the corporate media that is now mutating in all forms: from those emanating from the regular TV broadcasts to the self-aggrandizing personal podcasts others create in the age of post-humanism and intelligent machines. The media and the way truth is “epistemologized” or how they are produced – through sound bites, click streams, fake-reproductions, or even sensationalized and viralized — is mediating and, in fact, creating us in ways we still do not know how and to what effect.

Herein lies the complexity of the world we live in. Herein lie the need, I feel, for introspection and the occasionally to “leave our mediated self,” or the Platonic Allegorical cave we are forced into en masse. Now is the time look at what we have been made to become by the words, thoughts, concepts, and definitions we consume. This is a complex task understandably: a paradox of absurd proportions. How do we get out of the “Reality-defining language” we are in – this “prison-house” and look critically at the crystal-ball that is “us” or “we” or “I” and find out the process of how we become “constructed”? In other words, how do we “step out of ourselves” and see who we are or what we have become and then, ask the question, “what then must we do”?

Absurd.

That is the word to describe my proposition above. But engage in a phenomenological inquiry on the nature of cognition we must. Below are my thoughts on the phenomenology and the dialogics and dialectics of “truth production” I propose we need to look at in order to at least question what we know or made to know. I shall draw examples from the culture I grew up in as well as examples of how concepts become ideologies and installations shaping institutions in Malaysia. My interest is in the process of truth-construction and how they define social-relations of production.

The self as a text, hypertextualized: a book of signs

We are a book of signs. We are also living in a book of signs. We must learn how to read it.

“Read, in the name of thy Lord who created thee, from a clot (of Blood).”

This foundational and genealogic Quranic verse suggests the importance of reading. We can interpret this as reading being more than an act of understanding; that reading is an act of knowing, naming, de-constructing, and reconstructing the world.

What are we to read in our lifetime? How are we to live a life that has been pre-determined by the ideological framework that awaits us at the point of departure from that clot of blood?

“Man, in a word, has no nature . . . what he has is history,” said the Spanish thinker Ortega y Gassett.

“Cogito ergo sum (I think; therefore, I exist),” said the French mathematician Rene Descartes.

The Western tradition suggests that circumstances and historical-materialism create the conditions of human existence. This seems to suggest to the idea that we must use our mental capacities to master our environment and the possibilities that await us, provided that we recognize the structures of oppression we are in.

This seems to further suggest that to exist, as a “free human being” one must first be aware of the visible and invisible systems created by other human beings. One must be aware in order for his/her existence to be one of “being and becoming” and in order for the human self to live with its own “global positioning system”. These sayings suggest the idea of “reading” the signs and symbols of the world we inhabit. They ask us to understand the significance of language we use, the culture we inhabit, the ideologies our consciousness are shaped by, and the way we as human beings are “produced and reproduced” by those in control of the historical march of “progress”.

But how are we to read, what is the history of our existence, and how is the human self-degenerating?

Many have labored on with this issue – philosophers of the Eastern and Western worlds, from ancient times to the frontier thinkers of the post-modern tradition.

Socrates taught people to ask questions so that they may be free from the state and from the gods created by the Athenians, Plato suggested the principles of ethics, metaphysics, poetics, and through ‘The Republic’, wrote what utopia is.

Modern philosophers of the Western tradition – Nietzsche, Locke, Hobbes, Mann, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, Santayana, Habermas, Sartre, Foucault, Lacan and Derrida – continued the legacy of defining what free human beings ought to be.

The texts of the Judeo-Christian traditions, of Chinese and Hindu philosophies, and of other grand and subaltern voices have spoken on the need for the human self to be recognized as the highest form of existence. These texts have also explained the relationship between the human being and the universe he/she inhabits.

How might human beings be totally free in the entire scheme of human control?

Foundations of a dialogical self

I think we now ought to understand what the foundations of civilization are and understand the complexities of the structures of human control. If we understand what the creative, critical, and ethical foundations are, we might be able to read the society we live in better.

We might even have to labor less on the question of for example, “how to reduce corruption in society” or “how to make politics more ethical” or “how to educate citizens to become more obedient to the dictates of the state”.

These questions have their own unique history. We must learn to ask the right questions.

From our understanding of the foundations of civilization, we can then comfortably explore what it means to be free and to be liberated from the prison of structures that have been erected by those who own the means of economic and intellectual production.

We can then understand how language can free or shackle us by the very nature of language as part of the system of signs and symbols. We can then understand the maxim “language is power” and whoever owns the language owns the knowledge to control others, or that whoever is in power can further produce systems of control through the use of specialized knowledge.

From our understanding of the foundations of knowledge and the tools to explore issues of power/knowledge/control, we may begin to examine the structures that oppress us and others and learn to be critically aware of unique spaces of power and knowledge we inhabit or to understand the “cartography of our existence”, so that we can then fully appreciate the thoughts we possess as a human being who is born free.

We therefore must first learn to “read”, in order to be free.

Dialogical thinking, as the Russian philosopher and linguistic theorist Mikhail Bakhtin might agree, will prepare us with the foundations of building new ideas and breaking new frontiers in the way we conceive what life might possibly be.

Dialogical thinking can help us examine the way we think what history can alternatively be, as in the manner many counter-factual historians might think.

Many of us have the urge to learn how to demystify age-old dogma, recognize faulty styles of thinking, and analyze flawed systems of perceptions. The urge to de-construct can be turned into a set of principles we can adopt on our road towards becoming a thinking being and on our road towards “illuminations”.

The phenomena of globalization, the repudiation of technology, the control of resources in the hands of the global few, the increasing fragmentation of nations and the rise of “post-modern post-industrial tribes” is making this world an increasingly complex place.

Signs and symbols

We were born into pre-designed economic conditions and systems. In traditional societies, we were born as agricultural beings. In modern societies, we were born into structures defined as “modern”.

In this age, we are born into Homo Cyberneticus (Cybernetic Beings), especially when we declared ourselves inhabitants of a Malaysian Multimedia Super Corridor living in the intelligent cities of Cyberjaya and Putrajaya.

In Malaysia for example, the economic design is one of an amalgamation of post-colonialism and Oriental Despotism, a legacy of nationalism and laissez faire economic structure and superstructure. We inherit these structures from the historical march of dominant economic ideologies chosen out of political preferences.

The knowledge we acquire is dependent upon/tied to the economic condition. The more sophisticated the ideology, the more hegemonic would be its impact on the way we acquire knowledge. We define our existence from this ideological point of view.

Following Rousseau, we were already born in chains; chained by the ideology of the political and the economic condition. The spiritual belief system is also of our own construction; based on packaged knowledge of myth and magic and manifestations of the nature of economic practices transplanted from faraway lands. This manifestation becomes culture.

The synthesis and interplay of narratives, myth, and political-economic structures become culture; as we see in the culture of the nomads of the Bedouin desert as well as the “post-industrial” nomads of Silicon Valley, California.

The structure of the development of the historical-materialism of things can be read from the nature of the development of culture and its interplay with technology and the development of human consciousness. Culture may become belief systems. Belief systems in turn become neutralized through the installation of ideologies based on dominant inscriptions.

We consume whatever that is termed as history; memories based on recollections of human experiences, archived by human beings and written by those “who know how to write” and “those who own the pen.”

We are taught packaged knowledge, through the process of education as social reproduction and the process of schooling as a deliberate attempt to indoctrinate and tame the mind, so that these minds will not rebel against the structures they are born into.

Creatures of perception

Let us now look at some examples in Malaysian history of how institutions and ideologies shape the human self. I shall draw examples of how we have become creatures of perception, constructed by signs and symbols of the institutions that reproduced us.

During the early days of the elitist and British-modeled Malaysian school Malay College Kuala Kangsar, for example, children were taught packaged knowledge based on what was then the beginning of Eton-styled education system. That was the dominant installation of the British ideology.

Later in the 1970s, the Maktab Rendah Sains Mara system installed an educational ideology based, among others, on the model of the Bronx School for the Gifted in Science using an American-styled curriculum.

There were also models of indoctrination using Islamic-based principles of teaching and learning. One can go farther back in history and analyses how Christian missionary schools were built to have the minds reproduced according to the designs of the producers.

Another example will be the development of vernacular schools and ideologies based on race and ethnicity dictates the development of the self.

In the heyday of the “Islamization process” in Malaysian politics, then minister of education prepackaged an “Islamic” version of knowledge and called it The (Malaysian) Integrated Curriculum or Kurikulum Bersepadu to indoctrinate children into believing what political reality is about and to ensure his truth and the aligned truth of a prevailing doctrine be broadly disseminated.

Much later, in the heyday of Malaysia’s conversion into an “Information Age” society, educationalist pre-packaged knowledge by introducing other means of disseminating truths and educating by designing Smart Schools (aligned with the demands of the Information Age).

In the Muslim-dominated states of Kelantan and Terengganu and in other similar Malay-Malay economic belts, other forms of schooling and indoctrination rule. Those in power and in their capacity to design systems of control install stronger structures of control; control of the minds of children who possess the ability to become frontier thinkers.

Human creativity is curbed to ensure that dogma will reign. Regimented truths are systematically forced into the curious young minds. These truths are borrowed from faraway lands and disseminated through specialized language.

Such are regimes of truth we have created out of our political-economic conditions. We must learn to read the meaning of how our learning institutions have produced us, as well as the power structures that produce such regimes of truth.

In all these examples of the social and ideological construction of reality, where would be the source of knowledge that? Where is locus of control of the production of “truth” oftentimes crafted as Official Knowledge and force-fed into human consciousness through schooling, training, and indoctrination?

We ought to be more interested in the history of questions rather that their utility primarily. In the following paragraphs with further reference to the case of hypermodern Malaysia, I expand this notion of genealogy over structurality. However, I can only provide more questions.

Seeking out the history of questions

We live in interesting times with questions concerning our existence.

How are human beings controlled by those who own the means of intellectual and economic production? How does power, in its raw and refined form, operate in our society? How is it dispersed? How is power sustained? How is truth produced? How is truth multiplied?

Still more questions plague me.

How is the self constructed? How are we alienated? What is inscribed onto the body and into the mind, in the process of schooling? How is human imagination confined and how might it be released? How is the mind enslaved by the politics of knowledge? How is historical knowledge packaged? How do we define our existence in this Age of Information?

Still more questions:

Who decides what is important in history? What is an ideal multi-cultural society? How has our ideas of multi-culturalism influence the way we live our lives? What historical knowledge is of importance? What tools do we need to create our own history?

And as I grow older, there are even more questions:

How is the individual more powerful than the state? How is a philosopher-king created? How is justice possible? Who should rule and why? How are we to teach about justice?

And finally, how might we realize a democratic-republic of virtue – one that is based on a form of democracy that is meaningful and personal?

Inadequate answers

Throughout the course of my study on the origin and fate of this society, I have learned how much the work of these people have contributed to the social construction of the Malaysian self and the democratic ideals that this nation aspires to realize.

I have learnt what the early philosophical journeys of the Malays look like, what kind of statecraft was practiced what the metaphysical system of this group constitutes, what form of social-humanism is to be fought for, what a Malaysian social justice may mean, what a multi-cultural Malaysian might look like, and finally, what brand of nationalism must be embraced in an age wherein “the Centre cannot hold”.

I want to explore the history of the questions asked and to find out how we arrive at this or that historical juncture. I believe these questions will help us go back to the origin of things and in the process, to understand the world in which we live.

I believe that these questions can help one way for human beings to go back to the Centre and its Primordial Nature, through what Rousseau calls “sentimental education” or, to explore, as the Indonesian poet W S Rendra once said in his play ‘The Struggle of the Naga Tribe’, the “world within and the world without”.

Through these questions, I believe one can break free from the shackles of domination and release the imagination. And as Rousseau continues: “Man is born free… and everywhere He is in chains”, and that the first language he needs is the cry of Nature.

Transcultural flow of ideas

Based on a thesis I produced on the origin of Malaysia’s new city of Cyberjaya, I am currently further developing a “social theory of how nations develop and hypermodern as a result of transcultural flow of ideas and in the process of developing, how the human being loses its essence, gets alienated, and become conditioned by the system of signs and symbols; by its genealogy, anatomy, chemistry, and its cybernetic properties”.

Ideas dance and do the hip hop and flow gracefully from one nation to another; from the mind of one group of people to another, from a nation at the Centre to the peripheries and the hinterlands. But in their dance, there is always the beauty and the deadly persuasion.

It is believed that in this age, we are born into a matrix of complexities, and we will spend our lifetime understanding it, possibly escaping it, and consequently constructing an understanding of our Existential self.

We are born to be makers of our own history. In this world without borders, are all essentially, transcultural citizens differentiated only by our national identity cards and our passports.

What comes after “Post-truth”?

In today’s world of multiple truths of knowing as well as the speed of technological diffusion of “truths” we ought to increase our effort in developing the human mind and in the teaching multiple perspectives of knowing not only to learn more but to critically examine further claims and assumptions bombarded onto us.

At the end of our writings, I hope we can name the inherent contradictions between our existentialism and the world of cybernetics we inhabit.

Still, my question is: What’s after “post-truth” then and how do we live an intelligible life without starving for knowledge yet drowning in information that keeps growing out of the womb of “Post-Truism?

Dr. Azly Rahman

Dr. Azly Rahman

Dr. Azly Rahman grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and multiple Masters Degrees in the fields of Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies and Communication, and currently pursuing a fifth in Creative Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia and global issues. His writings have appeared in scholarly forums in China, Australia, Europe, Indonesia, Malaysia, Denmark, Finland, and the United States. His 25 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He has edited and authored seven books; Multiethnic Malaysia: Past, Present, Future (2009), Thesis on Cyberjaya: Hegemony and Utopianism in a Southeast Asian State (2012), The Allah Controversy and Other Essays on Malaysian Hypermodernity (2013), Dark Spring: Essays on the Ideological Roots of Malaysia's General Elections-13 (2013), a first Malay publication Kalimah Allah Milik Siapa?: Renungan dan Nukilan Tentang Malaysia di Era Pancaroba (2014), Controlled Chaos: Essays on Mahathirism, Multimedia Super Corridor and Malaysia’s ‘New Politics’ (2014), and One Malaysia under God, Bipolar (2015). He is currently working on his eighth book, on Gifted and Talented Education in Malaysia, honoring a prominent educator. He currently resides in the United States where he teaches courses in Education, Philosophy, Cultural Studies, Political Science, and American Studies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CLOSE
CLOSE