Language, Truth, and Political Viability: Derek R. Ford and Paolo Virno in Conversation

Pundits and philosophers alike would have us believe that we now live in a “post-truth” era. As the political Right enjoys a period of relative control over “the discourse,” dominating their respective electorate’s concept of truth as a coy, destructive agenda intended to erase “traditional values”, what must the Left do in order to not merely resist, but produce a viable political movement?

Derek R. Ford, an educator and activist, in a new piece for The Hampton Institute, suggests that in an age which (seemingly) finds itself resistant to “truth,” the task is not to defend a preexisting truth, but the creation and actualization of new truth. It is a matter of subverting the discourse through invention. Language is the productive faculty of a new truth or set of truths which create a new world. “Political struggle isn’t really about an existing truth but rather concerns the formulation of new truths and, more importantly, the materialization of those truths.” The illusion is not the possibility of truth itself, but truth as preexisting, something static and ignorant of new contexts. Ford continues probing this illusion with a question: If this is a post-truth era, at what point in time was truth existent and viable for all? As an example, if our President and his ilk suggest that critical journalism is “fake news,” thereby signifying the reality of a post-truth era, at what point in our collective history was commonplace, liberal politics not an exercise in propogating fiction as some form of truth? In other words, it is liberal bourgeois fancy to believe an era of “truth” existed prior to this new era of “post-truth,” as the very concept of an age beholden to a preexistent, static and unquestionable truth could never be determined.

Ford, rightfully so, does not deny the possibility of truth nor the benefit of appealing to truth in political discourse. Rather, his claim is that political viability—whereby truth is fashioned, declared, and materialized through struggle—is a subjective response toward fiction as a commodity-of-truth, something preexistent to be offered within the “marketplace of ideas” that derives itself from the illusory idea of static truth. As Ford writes, “The truth is always framed and contextualized, and so we need to ask what certain truths are doing in certain moments, what their material effects will be.” Truth is material, intimately connected with the world and the actions of actually-existing human beings. It behooves those of us concerned about the political strategy of the Right to counter their claims with new truth, truth that finds its being in substantive action. This is the central claim of Ford’s piece: truth and political struggle depend upon invention, the creation of new truth as a subversion of existing discourse, not the defense of an illusory, static and preexistent truth.

The question now becomes whether it is possible to create or invent new truth, and if so, what significance does the act of invention have for political action? We must now turn to the Italian Marxist philosopher Paolo Virno for the answer.

In his book Déjà Vu and the End of History (Verso, 2015), Virno suggests the distance between potential and act is the foundation of history, of historicity as such, and yet within the capitalist era, the distance between the two is subsumed and distorted, creating a false and burdensome perception that potential has no inherent ability to invent, only to reproduce something that has already occurred. The experience and phenomenon of déjà vu is the historical being attempting to reconcile the possibility inherent to potential and the “remembered now” which seemingly dictates potentiality. “The excess of memory, which without doubt characterizes the contemporary situation, has a name: the memory of the present…What is excessive is not per se the split in every instant between a perceived ‘now’ and a remembered ‘now’, but rather the fact that this split has become fully visible.” In the experience of déjà vu, one mischaracterizes the actual “now” for a remembered “now” which limits one’s understanding of potential as always-already present to create the future in the act.

Virno suggests that our contemporary situation finds itself struggling to reconcile the (apparent) disconnection between potential and act, seeing as the past (within capitalism) dictates potential. “The hypertrophy of memory, from which the consumption and blockage of history derive, is made up of deja vu. People for whom the present seems wholly dependent upon the past, like an echo of the original sound, are no longer historical (they are now incapable, that is, of carrying out genuinely historical actions).” In other words, if potential is entirely dependent upon the past, then the act has, in some sense, already occurred. Nothing is original, therefore within the capitalist framework, the distinction between potential and act within time has become illusory. In relation to Ford’s contention that the Left must create new truths, Virno’s explication of the problem is helpful for the purposes of crafting a materially viable politics. If potential “exists” before the act, but is not exhausted by the act itself or any combination of actions, and if potential is not dependent upon the past for its own presence and viability, then the possibility of creating something new now becomes a radical reality. Virno goes on to forcefully clarify his thesis: “But no authentic past is of such considerable authority as to impose such a dependency. No sequence of events that has really happened deserves to be emblazoned with the title of an untouchable, binding archetype.” The past as history does not dictate the present as potentiality. In the present moment, the “here-and-now”, potential and act are joined yet never exhausted by the other, creating the future, not reproducing the past.

Much of Virno’s academic work centers on the philosophy of language, whereby language is understood as comprising of both potential (the ability to speak) and the act (utterance as such, systems of signs, etc.), yet language is not wholly contained by one or the other. For our purposes here, language is the key element of producing a subversive new truth, one which finds its materialization in attainable actions. In the act of speaking, I utilize the potential of the capacity-to-speak, yet my speech does not exhaust the potential, but instead demonstrates its limitation once performed. The faculty as such remains impenetrably infinite, even while the act demonstrates its own limitation when using the productive capacity-to-speak. Virno writes, “The crucial point here is not to daydream about a potential without acts — far from it. Rather, it is to accept that acts do not fulfill potential, and do not offer a faithful or even only approximate version of it: they are not, in sum, realized potential.” Upon speaking, the productive capacity-to-speak remains present, yet infinitely unconsumed. The act of speech actualizes the potential as such and simultaneously pushes the capacity into the recesses of infinite potentiality.

If the Left captures both Ford’s and Virno’s suggestion—namely, that political viability depends not on preexistent truth or past events, but the productive capacity-to-speak new truth into existence—a pathway now opens to achieving political victory over and against the Right. Only by realizing the inherent potential of language as productive without exhausting potential as such will the Left find a solution to its reliance upon past events to dictate present action. Capitalism and liberal bourgeois discourse would have us believe that politics is eternally dependent upon the past, the past as truth, in order for justice to materialize. However, not only is the past not truth, but truth depends upon the productive capacity of language to be made present here-and-now.

It is time we reclaimed our capacity-to-speak as the “capacity-to-invent” that which is necessary for liberation.