The theme of this issue, “Reality and Its Alternatives,” puts me in mind of a popular piece of graffiti from the late Sixties: “Reality is for people who can’t handle drugs.” A college sophomore when I first encountered it, I found it a mildly amusing jab at the Zeitgeist. Today, recalling where I first read it (in the men’s room of a humanities lecture hall), I can’t help imagining what might have been a fitting companion graffito: “Reality is for people who can’t handle postmodernism.”
To be sure, postmodernist thought was then only beginning to catch on in the American academy. With students mounting the barricades to protest the Vietnam War and other capitalist-imperialist perfidies, the more radical fringes of the professoriate were still largely engaged with various flavors of Marxism. But in less than a decade PoMo would rule, as philosopher Jean-François Lyotard declared in his totemic 1979 book, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Varieties of poststructuralist and deconstructionist thought in the humanities and social sciences, many of French provenance, were by then casting deep suspicion on all systems, traditions, canons, ideologies, and “grand narratives” claiming privileged access to truth and reality, which themselves were rendered suspect, along with objectivity and facts. Nietzsche’s declaration that “there are no facts, only interpretations” had become dogma, as had the corollary that truth is only what the powerful deem it to be.
One might expect that postmodernism would have given rise to a restive, possibly revolutionary cohort. But the late Boomers, Gen-Xers, and early Millennials who imbibed postmodernism in the university turned out to be, on the whole, a remarkably placid elite, taking their places in the financial, corporate, entertainment, education, and media worlds with astonishing docility. If they had acquired anything lasting from their exposure to postmodernism, it was a suspicion of all forms of authority, a suspicion that could easily lead to cynicism, distrust, and even resignation. If truth is merely truthiness and nothing more than an instrument of power, well, what can you do about…anything?
That is a broad-stroke picture, of course, and one that exaggerates postmodernism’s dominion even in the academy (as Lyotard himself later sheepishly admitted). But while it’s a mistake to overstate the role of ideas and intellectuals in shaping the contours of a cultural moment, it’s fair to say that postmodernist ideas worked through American and other late-modern cultures like a subtle but powerful solvent, further weakening faith in institutions and figures of authority and loosening the bonds of trust that hold a society together. Postmodernist ideas comported nicely with extreme forms of identity politics, for example, ultimately undercutting the possibility of shared interests, shared truths, and even a shared vision of the common good. Without such commonalities transcending partisan differences, partisanship would become nasty and eventually infect the practices and institutions of democracy. Furthermore, it soon became evident that postmodernist skepticism was being exploited far less by champions of liberal democracy than by a crop of authoritarian leaders who “weaponized” relativism, truthiness, and fake news to discredit critics (particularly those in the press) and consolidate power. All of these developments give ample reason to reconsider those once bedrock notions of reality and truth, to explore how and why they became vulnerable, and to ask whether a new concern with realism might be staging a comeback.
That is precisely our aim in this issue, beginning with historian Sophia Rosenfeld’s look at American political history in terms of its recurrent contestations of truth. Struggles over what is true and who defines it have been present since the earliest years of the republic, but as she argues in “Truth and Consequences,” the problem today “stems from the growing sense we all have that even hard evidence of the kind that used to settle arguments about factual questions won’t persuade people whose political commitments have already led them to the opposite conclusion. Rather, citizens now belong to ‘epistemic tribes’: One person’s truth is another’s hoax or lie.”
Popular culture—at least as much as high-culture academic postmodernism—has done its part to degrade reality, most dramatically, explains media critic and scholar Martha Bayles, through the rise and spread of the television reality show. Without the ubiquity of the reality show formula and particularly its trashier forms, Bayles writes in “Reality Made Me Do It,” “it seems unlikely that so many people would equate ‘being real’ and ‘telling it like it is’ with spilling ugly secrets, flaunting rank egotism, attacking personal morality and social norms, and exuding contempt for the opinions and sensibilities of others. This cultural turn is dismaying enough, but as this kind of behavior comes to define what is honest, authentic, and true, it becomes more difficult for free and democratic societies to push back against the looming threat of a full-fledged surveillance state, a digital Panopticon.”
Our relationship with the abidingly real—including the true and the good—has an emotional as well as intellectual dimension, argues philosopher Christopher Yates in “The Loss of Longing in the Age of Curated Reality.” Part of our problem with reality today is the way advertising and marketing “curate” reality in ways that cheapen it into objects of immediate desire rather than something toward which we can address our longing. Restoring a true concern with longing, he suggests, may be the way back to the kind of reality that thinkers as diverse as Plato and Kierkegaard held dear.
Why is concern with reality and realism returning in philosophy and other humanistic disciplines? Philosopher Paul Nedelisky gives some plausible reasons in his essay “Reality: A Shopper’s Guide.” He also explains some varieties of contemporary realism, concluding with his own preference for a more coherent picture of metaphysical reality, one that he believes addresses such obdurate phenomena as consciousness and life itself better than do any naturalist forms of realism.
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” declared the Bard, but how seriously do we take dreams? What is their role, even if highly personal, in dealing with the reality we share with others? Humanities professor S.D. Chrostowska, in “Trajectory of a Dream,” pens both a personal and critical essay on dreams and the legacy of the surrealist movement, showing that surrealism was anything but an effort to deny reality: “Although surrealists do not appreciate the vulgar acceptation of surreal, and cheer when dreams and waking life intersect, they do not wish, any more than do you or I, for the real to be ‘surreal’ indeterminately. For them, surreality is reality that is subversive, droll, extraordinary—a defense against overwhelming uniformity, drudgery, and pain. It is not a matter of denying what exists, but of adding to it. ‘The dream,’ as Gérard de Nerval (one of surrealism’s great precursors) put it, ‘is a second life.’”
The many expressions of the human quest to understand reality and live by truth are rich and diverse, and far more sustaining than postmodernist take-downs made them seem. Taking reality seriously won’t be the instant panacea for current social and political ills. But without a concern for reality and truth, the prospects for addressing those threats seem doubtful indeed.