Theorists of post-modern politics

« previous post | next post »

I was surprised to learn that Scottie Nell Hughes has a broadcast communications/political science degree from the University of Tennessee at Martin, rather than a degree in literary theory from Florida International University. This makes her ideas about the relationship of texts to states of affairs all the more remarkable, since she has apparently developed them independently of Stanley Fish, rather than under his guidance.

Here's the most recent evidence of her theoretical sophistication:

The segment that has everyone talking is transcribed below. The program's host asks about the claim that Donald Trump's tweets about millions of fraudulent votes were lies:

Host: I know you've been listening since the top of the program
and I'm sure you've heard James Fallows talk about
that Donald Trump has
put out there in tweets in things he's said
what do you make of that?

and Ms. Hughes responds:

SNH: well I think it's also an idea of- of- of an opinion and- and that's- on one hand I hear half the media saying
that these are lies
but on the other half there're many people who go no it's true
and so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch
is that people that say facts are facts
they're not really facts
everybody has a way- it's kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half full water
everybody has a way of interpreting them
to be the truth
or not truth there's- there's no such thing unfortunately more of facts
and so mister Trump's tweet amongst a certain crowd a large
uh a large m- a large part of the population
are truth
when he says that millions of people illegally voted
he has some ((fa- and see-)) in his- amongst him and his supporters
and people believe
they have facts to back that up
those that do not like mister Trump
they say that those are lies and there's no facts to back it up

For a more hifalutin version of the same perspective, see my post "Formality and interpretation", 2/8/2009:

I've been reading Stanley Fish's 1989 collection of essays, Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies. It's not yet clear to me what he's for, exactly — I'm reminded of the old joke about the post-modern gang leader who makes you an offer that you can't understand — but it's clear what he's against, namely the idea that texts have meanings:

The objective facts and rules of calculation that are to ground interpretation and render it principled are themselves interpretive products: they are, therefore, always and already contaminated by the interested judgments they claim to transcend. [Consequences]

This is not a small point, in his view:

It might seem that the thesis that there is no such thing as literal meaning is a limited one, of interest mainly to linguists and philosophers of language; but in fact it is thesis whose implications are almost boundless, for they extend to the very underpinnings of the universe as it is understood by persons of a certain cast of mind. [Introduction: Going Down The Anti-Formalist Road]

The "cast of mind" in question is, roughly, science and the idea that rational inquiry can lead towards truth — the whole Enlightenment project.

So we seem to be entering the era of post-Modern politics — but at this point, Scottie Nell Hughes is its theorist, while Stanley Fish is busy explaining to us how not to win arguments. Same ideas, smaller audience.

Update — I'm not sure that Mr. Trump is fully up to date with the theory — he uses the term "euphemism" in a way that suggests he still believes in the pre-post-truth idea of literal meaning:

Actually, if we're going to pretend to be accurate in that tiresome old-fashioned way, he said "euphenism" rather than "euphemism":

It's not clear whether in his interpretive community euphenism means the specific rhetorical device of synecdoche described in that clip, or the more general practice of what he's called "truthful hyperbole".


  1. AntC said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 1:33 am

    SNH: there's no such thing unfortunately more of facts …

    And yet when the host brought in Glenn Thrush, Ms. Hughes engaged in fairly conventional terms of bringing forward evidence for how 'illegals' might get to vote — even accusing the media of not apologising for some mistake. (If there aren't facts any longer, what could they have to apologise about?)

    [(myl) Perhaps "apologize" is a euphenism for "acknowledge that her side won"?]

    Or perhaps she thinks there's two sets of rules: the media must observe facts and evidence. (Presumably Fox News/Breitbart are excused.)

    Whereas for Trump/surrogates, a tweet is evidence enough. Then Ms. Hughes wasn't thoroughgoing in her position: her response to a challenge from 'the media' should be merely to repeat the tweet, and connect to the emotion it represents.

  2. Graeme said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 4:56 am

    I interpreted her as saying Trump followers lend his utterances credence. Not the same as a belief in their 'factual' content but an investment (hope he is a change agent for the good) or deferral of to authority (tough white bloke).

    Given 60% of actual electors view him unfavourably, he'll need a heck of a honeymoon t sustain the fictions he spins.

  3. maidhc said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 5:20 am

    It's the triumph of advertising. It's like a "hearty man's soup". What does "hearty" mean now? It's been overused so much that it doesn't really have a meaning any more.

    Now many more words are going to be drained of meaning and just used as slogans that only represent membership in some tribe.

    We are witnessing the end of the Age of Enlightenment. Whether the Scientific Method will survive is also a question.

    However the origin of the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Method was something that was championed by an educated elite. We may have to return to our roots.

  4. bks said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 7:45 am

    If you want to know the distance from the earth to the moon, ask a young child for a truly unbiased opinion.

  5. Marc Hamann said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 10:22 am

    I have to say that I have a more charitable interpretation of what Ms. Hughes was saying that doesn't require that there are no such things as facts in any context.

    I think she is making the simple observation that *in politics*, what facts you accept as valid are heavily conditioned by your ideological beliefs and party affiliations. That seems pretty uncontroversial to me, and not a new phenomenon.

    Even in other contexts, not all "facts" are created equally. "The sun will rise tomorrow in the east" is pretty solid, based on extensive shared experience, but "There is a Universal Grammar" is either true, false or undetermined depending on your personal standards of evidence, reasoning, and intellectual affiliations. Should be no surprise to anyone who has studied any field enough to be an "expert".

    Coming back to politics, it is a truism that all politicians lie, and "the other guy" is always the biggest liar of all. We just have a particular "other guy" under discussion here. I see nothing new or substantive in this discussion beyond this.

  6. Cervantes said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 11:34 am

    We are witnessing the end of the Age of Enlightenment. Whether the Scientific Method will survive is also a question.

    Readers of a certain age might have felt the same way (or similar) in the McCarthy era, the Reagan era, the Gingrich era, and the Bush II era — just to name a few periods in recent American history wherein the forces of ignorance, pig-headedness, and selfishness were previously ascendant.

    [(myl) The Stanley Fish essays I quoted are from a collection published in 1989, of essays written over a decade or more before that. So this is nothing new.]

  7. Geoff Nunberg said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 2:50 pm

    Wm Makepeace Thackeray got there first:

    Ah, sir — a distinct universe walks about under your hat and under mine — all things in nature are different to each — the woman we look at has not the same features, the dish we eat from has not the same taste to the one and the other — you and I are but a pair of infinite isolations, with some fellow-islands a little more or less near to us.
    The History of Pendennis, Ch 16

  8. Cervantes said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 3:32 pm

    Wm Makepeace Thackeray got there first

    But solipsism pre-dates Thackeray by 2300 years, give or take a few!

  9. Bloix said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 3:33 pm

    With just a bit of clean-up:

    "Mr Trump's tweet amongst a certain crowd, a large part of the population, are truth when he says that millions of people illegally voted"

    This is not "the world looks different to different people." This is, something with absolutely no factual support, a pure lie, is true because people believe it.

    "Those that do not like Mr Trump, they say that those are lies and there's no facts to back it up."

    Only those that don't like Trump call these statements lies. Ipso facto, if you call them lies, you don't like Trump.

    I have run into this myself with powerful people in work-place situations. There is no such thing as truth. There is only loyalty.

  10. Paul Kay said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 4:03 pm

    As AntC pointed out, Ms. Hughes first denied the possibility of truth (or falsehood) and then argued strenuously for the truth of Trump's claim. Reminds me of something my mother used to say: "I never borrowed your pot; besides it had a hole in it when I got it; and what's more I returned it in perfect condition."

  11. Bloix said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 4:12 pm

    PS – this has nothing to do with Fish. Fish imagines a world of disembodied intelligences who argue because arguing is what they do. This is about the use of coercive power to silence adversaries and render them powerless. It's quite common in totalitarian societies for people to be forced to believe ridiculous things. Not to pretend to believe them – pretense will out – but to really believe them. And the more totalitarian the society, the more ridiculous the things are that you have to believe.

  12. Morgan said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 9:59 pm


    Your "coercive power" will not be the same as others' "coercive power ". The beliefs you see as being forced upon people will not be the same as the beliefs others see as being forced upon them. And those doing the forcing will be different people.

    Hold true to your beliefs, and someday you may be a leader of the alt-whatever.

  13. ryan said,

    December 4, 2016 @ 12:56 am

    I don't like Trump. But the woman is actually making a sarcastic lament, not an assertion. Saying "there are no facts any more" to lament the way the opposition denies her facts. The core of her complaint is this:

    >he has some ((fa- and see-)) in his- amongst him and his supporters
    and people believe they have facts to back that up

    In other words, Trump thinks there are facts to back up his claim, but others simply dismiss this as lies. Alas, there's no such thing as facts because the other side dismisses facts as lies.

    On this issue, I believe Trump is fairly far from the truth.

    Yet, I work in an election office. Non-citizens do cast ballots. I've generated the voting records of non-citizens to provide as part of naturalization background investigations. Millions? Dubious in the extreme. But it would be easy to prevent it from happening at all. Dems have played politics with it too, blocking access to databases that would allow effective cross-checks. "It's not necessary. Non-citizens don't want to vote … the risk is too great …" That's wishful thinking.

    I've seen contests decided by vote fraud (though non-citizens were not involved). I've been helping to develop such a case for the last two years, and the prosecution will go public shortly. These things are difficult to tease out and then prove out sufficiently to bring to trial. There's something utterly fatuous in the things I see written in the national press about vote fraud – "only such-and-such number of convictions." I think of the woman I found voting early and then on election day, the guy who voted in a presidential election in Arizona and in my jurisdiction. The two who voted in Michigan and in my jurisdiction. None of these have gone to trial, the reason, I believe being that the elected prosecutor felt they ran 'counter-narrative.' She didn't want to be a Democrat prosecuting vote fraud while Dems everywhere are saying it basically doesn't exist. The Arizona guy tried to vote again in our governor's race by mail ballot. We rejected it. He emailed complaining bitterly about his rights, likely lawsuits … I wrote him back a terse note mentioning his vote in Arizona two years before. Let's just say we were not sued. He may never face prosecution, but I'm glad he knows he was caught.

    Too much of our politics is about pretending the other side is beyond the pale, has no shred of truth behind what they say, and our own side simply tells the unadulterated truth, the "facts." It's a self-delusion and a pernicious one, on both sides. Whenever you start to think "she won't face the facts that I know for certain, because I've read it in the Times …," you should probably start to re-examine your own myths.

  14. Terry Hunt said,

    December 4, 2016 @ 3:34 am

    Marc Hamann said,
    "Even in other contexts, not all "facts" are created equally. "The sun will rise tomorrow in the east" is pretty solid, based on extensive shared experience . . . ."

    But the sun does not rise in the east: it's the horizon that drops. (Hat-tip to Gene Wolfe.)

    Both assumptions and contexts matter – I suspect a lot of political polarisation is intensified because the two sides use different conceptial contexts without realising it. Often, of course, the ambiguity is deliberate and "a lie runs round the world before truth has put its boots on." (Hat tip to Sir Pterry.)

  15. Bloix said,

    December 4, 2016 @ 9:15 am

    Morgan- what I mean by coercive power is the power to coerce – but firing you, or cutting off access to opportunities, or destroying your career. Show loyalty, or you're toast. There's a good example of this fact-free way of operating in the NYT this morning- Trump's selection for National Security Advisor, Gen Michael Flynn, told his subordinates at the Defense Intelligence Agency after the Bengazi attack in 2012, that the attack had been masterminded by Iran and it was their job to prove it. Didn't matter that there was no evidence for it and it didn't make any sense. This kind of relationship to the truth has nothing to do with Fish and is a lot more like the Reichstag fire.

RSS feed for comments on this post