“What Do We Know?”

In the February–March 2017 issue of Mousse, I published “What Do We Know?,” an essay about art in the so-called post-truth era, philology in the op-ed pages, the comparative merits of The Purge: Election Year and Hamilton: An American Musical, the likelihood of political promises being enforced via blockchain, and what might be lost if we strive to Make America Ancient Greece Again. The essay considers works by Victor Klemperer, Paul Ramirez Jonas, Zoe Leonard, Adam Curtis, Paul Chan, and Giorgio Agamben. The essay is currently only available in the print edition, but here is the beginning (and here is a PDF):

Late last year, following Donald Trump’s promotion to the most powerful office on the planet, the artist Paul Chan published “New No’s”, a postelection free-verse “protest against the drift of American society towards what is most un- American.” He wrote: “No to clickbait as culture / No to news as truths / No to art as untruths / … No meaning without meaning / No means no.” To me, this signaled a tectonic shift in culture as a response—perhaps the only viable response— to the desecration of language and disregard for empiricism that are Trump’s hallmarks.

Perhaps battle lines are needed. But can we decry dissimulation in general without giving up the right to fabricate, falsify, impersonate, and otherwise use words to deform and disfigure the world? After all, we can’t quarantine politics—which ideally hinges on the credibility of speech—from brands of art and entertainment that are inclined to skewer popular notions of sincerity, transparency, and, well, “meaning.” Instead of striving to Make America Ancient Greece Again, I wonder, as I skim the torrent of articles questioning the role of art and artists, if we might seek a balance between premodern politics and postmodern sensibilities.