The Dissonance Machine
Part I: Critical Truth
Truth is everywhere under attack and must everywhere be defended. This may be most visible in the U.S. political context, where an astonishing array of affective assocation and capital investments has been mobilized to destabilize truth’s continuity. The idea that one can depend upon the truth, that truth has the ability to solve political contention, and that expertise has more value than does inclination: all these ideas are themselves profoundly at risk, held only by an increasingly powerless class. Truth has become an essentially contested concept, in the terminology of W. B. Gallie. 1
This should not be mistaken for a natural evolution. Various forms of truth – telling have come up against an increasingly centralized and coordinated set of media and political apparatuses, ones specifically designed to promote dissension. Government propaganda services, whether paid for by specific state entities or naturally converging along forms of information advantageous to certain governmental parties, have strategically sought to undermine those who are dedicated to truth above other ends: academics, scientists, intellectuals, and journalists. By portraying them as partisans and political actors, these propaganda services have taken aim at the foundations of truth itself.
Think about the truth of geophysical global climate change. A large portion of capitalism and political power has, for the past two decades, turned itself against the scientific consensus of anthropocentric climactic effects, aiming to sow doubt and symbolic opposition to one of the most threatening global catastrophes facing us. Because facing the truth of climactic change implies a recalibration of the profit motives of the extractive industries, it must be denied. I don’t mean to underplay the seriousness of this, as oil and gas don’t merely underpin our transportation networks, but also everything from plastics to fertilizer. But the shifting denialism of those who control much of the world’s capital – e.g., there is no climate change; climate change is happening, but it is not manmade; manmade climate change is occurring, but the earth has undergone this before; it may be unprecedented in its speed and extent, but we have the technological means to control it – makes it clear that the truth of the unfolding disaster is being assiduously avoided and refused.
And climate change is merely one example among many others. Delegitimizing real events as “fake news” serves not merely to delegitimize the occurrence itself, but to call in to doubt the possibility of ever accessing truth. Creating false balance, as though any one point of view is equal to another, regardless of the facts or logics underlying them, allows money and performance to eclipse verity. Pretensions toward expertise, as when political actors produce documents which look very much like economic reports and political analyses but lack any of the necessary technical ability or apparatus, can be passed off as legitimate social science. In each case, independence is undercut; expertise is ignored, sophistry overshadows reality.
So what does it mean to live in a world where dedication to the defeat of one’s enemies trumps intellectual consistency or empirical reality? “Telling it like it is” has replaced truthtelling – that is, avoiding the shopworn platitudes of common parlance and instead speaking aloud the loosely concealed prejudices of an aggrieved population. “Saying the quiet parts loudly” is the overt verbalizing of the congealed assumptions of dominant patriarchal whiteness, the ability to say in public what had been reduced to living-room whispers concerning sexuality, immigration, protestant Christianity, settler colonialism, Semitism, and race.
So-called “intuitionism,” – the sense that something should be right, rather than its basis in logic and empirical reality – has hijacked democratic practice. Though dissumulaiton and obstruction have always been a central part of politics, the contemporary world allows for collective feelings to replace even the most basic connections to reality. This move from fact to factish collective emoting encourages the spread of stories, histories, and so-called journalism which “feel right,” alongside the ignoring and dismissal of actual data and stories which disprove them.
This post-fact politics has led to a strange kind of floating inconsistency, one which perplexes and confuses the reality-based community. Accepted knowledge no longer has to follow even previous assurances. What was presented as fact yesterday has little bearing on what is asserted today. Even consistency, the fundamental precursor to truth, has been eclipsed. This moves us from the traditional position of lying as the opposite of truth. Even good liars have the ability to keep their rationales and stories straight. We are faced with a new kind of nontruth, one which does not even pretend to hide its own dislocation from logic and causality.
We now live in an era of what Orwell described as doublethink, the mode of political indoctrination which allows for contradictory interpretations to be held as mutually legitimate.2 Don’t mistake this as the project of merely one President, or one media outlet, or even one party. The inclination to think doubly is not clearly a project of the right, or of capitalism, but of any system which needs a pliant and elastic populace. For there is something about the fundamental operations of untruths which allows them more power than truth, not to mention more velocity.
What is needed, then, is a conceptual understanding of how these inconstant forms of untruth can operate: what keeps them alive, moving, and changing. Most importantly: how do they relate to one another? For it is clear that a massive network of corporate media, online community, and international disinformation keeps these untruths operational – a set of media apparatuses which are not reducible to one another but which nonetheless operate in some sort of conjunction, some mode of mutual intensification. Alongside one another, these untruths resonate.
Part II: Resonance
Resonance operates formally, a recognition suggested by Kracauer, formally introduced by Deleuze and Guattari, extended by William Connolly, and continuously developed by other theorists interested in discovering the political operations of affect, ressentiment, and production. This is a resonance machine – a set of mechanisms which, while ostensibly unrelated or even opposed, begin to reinforce and influence one another. This happens over systematized time, a temporality which loops and reintigrates patterning: something commonly known as rhythm. Differing rhythms operate against and through one another, drawing each other into consonance. Together that which was separated becomes coincident, that which is coincident becomes coordinated; that which is coordinated becomes unified.
Siegfried Kracauer noted that propaganda, in order to function properly, must affect the viewer in contradictory ways. In his unfortunately relevant Propaganda and the Nazi War Film, he notes that fascist film must operate using polyphonic techniques. “Propaganda currents arising alternatively or together,” he argues, “thus impose on the spectator a kind of psychic massage that both eases and strains him at the same time.”3 Through this medium of massage (the terminology that Marshal McLuhan will steal without acknowledgment two decades later), “the polyphony achieves its structural function of preventing his escape.”4 So when an image becomes vivid, the music fades; when the news-reel commentary intensifies, both the visual field and the music lessen. This constant release and intensification operates on the viewing subject to capture attention – “those oscillations, if they really could be maintained, would make him indifferent to truth or untruth and isolate him from reality forever.”5
For Deleuze and Guattari, the form of the state governance was developed as to coordinate a vast variety of functions. We should not think of state power, in other words, as the monopolization of violence, in the sense that Max Weber argued, but rather as a machine of coordination. “The state,” they argue, “is not a point taking all the others upon itself, but a resonance chamber for them all.”6 Even in a totalitarian system, they continue, “its function as a resonator for distinct centers and segments … couples ‘resonance’ with a ‘forced movement.’”7 Resonance is not causality, nor is it that “forced movement” – it is, instead, the unforced plangencies which allow seemingly disparate and disconnected propulsions to work together.
One example of resonance, outlined by the theologian Philip Goodchild, was the original installation of the London Millennium footbridge across the Thames in London.8 In its original form, the bridge was meant to be responsive, to have give, to be able to very lightly sway in the wind, weather, and traffic which make up the life of a bridge. This seemed appealing – traditional bridges too often seem static and overbuilt, constructed for a time of stability and induration. But once put into action, the bridge began to show a lively nature. Its sways and echoes began to become actants with the people walking along it. As the bridge shook in minor ways, it affected the pace and step of those crossing it, gently nudging them to fall into step with the bridge (and with one another). As the pedestrians synchronized with the bridge, the bridge’s wobble strengthened, reinforcing the walkers’ paces. The result: an army of crossers in lockstep, a bridge swaying beyond controllability, a synchronous, mutually-reinforcing emergence demanding rythmic dominance.
Connolly traces out the ability of a resonance machine, especially one supported by capitalism and media, to operate ideologically and affectively. In his book on American political thinking, Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, Connolly notes the obious incompatibility between a system designed for an amoral accumulation of capital in the hands of an very few and a theological set of commitments to poverty, meekness, service, forgiveness, and agape. Capitalism and Christianity are formal enemies, each ultimately dedicated to the delegitimation of the other. On the one hand, value is wealth and capital and expense; on the other, value is poverty and goodness and modesty.
And yet in the contemporary ideascape of the United States that serves as Connolly’s object of analysis, these dedications work alongside one another: they support the same political candidates, turn to the same news and entertainment sources, despise the same enemies. Connolly does not view this as capture (as if the corporate wing of the Republican party knowingly manipulates the ignorant masses through religion). Instead, “spiritual sensibilites, economic presumptions, and state priorities slide and blend into one another, though each retains a modicum of independence.”9 This “state-capital-Christian assemblage,” as he terms it, relies on a number of qualities: capitalism’s ability to absorb and transform differing modes of opposition, Christianity’s relentless plasticity in its workings and reworkings, the U.S.’s state form’s constant self-legitimizing through and against violence.10 In each case, there is a simultaneous reliance upon and purported independence from the workings of both of the others: for example, the state is imagined as profoundly separate from (even hostile to) religion and financialization, while in reality drawing upon itself as the source of both sacred nationalism and monetary security.
Through this process, the composite selfhood which we call identity learns. “The affect-imbued ideas that compose [identities] are installed in the soft tissues of affect, emotion, habit, and posture, as well as the upper reaches of the intellect. Once installed, these sensibilities trigger preliminary responses to new events…particularly so when complementary dispositions loop back and forth in a large political machine, with each constituency helping to crystallize, amplify, and legitimize one set of dispositions displayed by the others.”11 People’s identity – relations become coordinated, and those coordinations play to great effect on the health and planning of the polity they take over.
These orientations can operate on a national scale, with great distances between those so oriented. At times these resonances seem like the idea of “spooky action at a distance,”12 much beloved and abused by contemporary philosophers who always thrill to the newest discoveries in radical quantum mechanics, where actively disconnected interests simultaneously arrive at coordinated goals. At other times these responses infiltrate one another very specifically, as when powerful corporate interests use evangelical Christianity to undercut gendered insurance rights or when pastors overtly celebrate the free market while decrying the commercialization of the sacred. What a resonance machine does, above all, is allow and even help coordinate these various forces, even those putatively opposed to one another, into a non-centralized yet immeasurably powerful set of identities, attentions, and legitimations from which there appears to be no escape. The machine in the United States which coordinates capitalism and Christianity is merely one of thousands of such organizations (albeit a highly visible and readable one). But an immeasurable number of such machines are possible, many already extant. Any time that putatively dissociated commitments operate together, note the mechanic components which allow them to resonate.
Back to truth. While at times truth can be captured by, and even empower, political resonance machines, it more often works against them. Resonance machines, when they break, do so by coming up against truths. These may be economic and capitalist, or planetary and geological, or familial and psychological, or bodily and sensorial. Sometimes this leaves the mechanism without power, deprived of its generators; on other occasions, this may strip the frictions that make machinic connections possible; at still other times, the mechanisms themselves are stopped cold.
Truth acts, in other words, as a dissonance machine: a mechanism which constantly throws off. In more than one way. Obviously, truth “throws off” in the sense that it disrupts resonance machines: it disturbs their efficient operation, their attempts to make all surfaces smooth. This function instantiates truth’s embodiment, its unknowability, and its permanence. This is why truth seems to philosophers (wrongly, but one can understand the impetus) as the be-all and end-all of discussion, the stopping point, the ace in the hole. Truth wins, because nothing can get around it. Once Socrates gets his interlocutors to admit the truth of his argument, they must admit the falsity of their own. Truth is the ground upon which everything else stands, and when a resonance machine bites into it, the resonance machine often loses.
But truth “throws off” in a second, even more particular sense. It produces: new connections, affliations, things and logics. It brings forth new parallel tracks, different potentialities, possible actions. This function is generative, potential, emergent. When a truth is discovered, it makes the future anew. This is most obvious in scientific truths: when gene inheritance is theorized or the proton named and described, the world is opened not only to other explanatory models but to genetic engineering and the splitting of the atom. Those activities, in turn produce further truths, some of which translate into proven hypotheses and others to historical events.
Science is only one case among many where truth generates. To accept “as true” certain scientific, social, or humanistic insights allows for the building of vast castles. Some become so foundational that we forget their original construction: trade into capital into supply and demand into the field of economics. Some of these become forgotten as their original truths fall into disfavor: the miasmic theory of disease into zymotism into the study of microzymas. Some become tools of oppression: racial difference into antimiscegenation laws into Jim Crow. Some emerge in different and contradictory ways: internal brain difference into phrenology, on the one hand, and internal brain difference into targeted cranial aciurgy. Some are still up for debate: the unconscious into the mirror stage into interpellation. But in each case, a theoretical claim to truth allows for the creation of a vast field of debate, study, experiment, and implication.
This second way of “throwing off” also points to an infinitude of empirics. No totalized and systematic capture of truth will ever be possible; truth and reality will always generate excess. Though knowledge will always strive toward absolutism, it will always fail. Each insight into truth generates new conundrums and dissonances. Any unified field theory, which brings all forces within one theoretical umbrella, will always prove insufficient. Any interpretive framework will lack the capacity to determine and explain each image, each event. No matter the capaciousness of your sausage-maker, the truth will make it jam, overflow, break. The truth will set you free, even when freedom is what you most struggle against.
Both these kinds of “throwing off” – that of obstruction and that of excess – describe how truth operates as dissonance machine. The geographers Sam Page and Jason Dittmer have used this expression of “dissonance machine,” but in a different way: their interest is in the affective energies surrounding Trumpism, energies which they see as potentially capturable by a left-populism.13 They are not wrong in their analysis (though they may be wrong in their hopefulness), but I here aim for a more fundamental connection between the epistemological, the ontological, and the political. To spell out the ways in which truth dissonates, I turn in this conclusion to four particular dissonance machines: the pluralism of William James, the non-determinative nature of truth, truth as opposition, and generativity.
a. William James, the most important philosopher at the beginning of the 20th Century, remains best known for his theory of radical empiricism called, by him, “pragmatism.” As a consequence, his epistemological insights are generally folded into the pragmatic canon: truth is merely its “cash-value,” in his infamous terminology. A given conceptual conditionality allows us to do what it allows us to do, and we retroactively consider it truth. This seems to many a etiolated idea, one lacking in much purchase or possibility.
But James was also the great theorist of pluralism, the rendition of the multiverse as a manifold of potential and agonistic engagement.14 Pluralism seems to belong to the realm of being, of ontological categorization. But what if it is considered as an epistemological precondition, even a desiderata? It would be related to James’s pragmatic dictum that ‘the ‘true’ is only the expedient in our way of thinking, just as the ‘right’ is only the expedient in our way of behaving,” and yet it would exceed that insight – it would mean that there are multiple, various, and different ways to be expedient.15
When analytic philosophers consider truth’s plural nature, they examine it under the rubric of alethic modality, the likelihood that sentences can be true in a multiplicity of ways (e.g., as correspondence or as entailment). Philosophers such as Corey Wright and Gila Sher argue that ontology has a plural basis, but continue to worry that such indeterminate foundations make for poor philosophy.16 This presumption – that philosophy itself, in order to be right, must ultimately cohere in a universalist and normative way – undercuts the very insights that their work allows.
Instead, following James, note how each truth develops further truths and non-truths. Note how the operations of the dissonance machine develop a variety of different practices and strategies. Truth can be in particular spaces, or at particular times, and not in or at others. Plural truths demand context. They require history. They act differently toward different ends.
In each case, it is vital to stop thinking of truth as radically singular. It is, instead, to take seriously Nietzsche’s rendition of truth as “a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms,” but, unlike Nietzsche, not as a criticism. Truth’s mobile army opens potentials. Yet the one thing this army cannot do, is decisively win.
b. This leads to the second recognition of truth, of its Non-Determinative nature. Let’s return to the idea of “fake news,” which highlights our misunderstandings of truth’s operations. Think, here, of common presumptions as to what truth does. The assumption is that truth operates as a fire-extinguisher: in the fact of a untruth (for example, a news article meant to reinforce a common prejudice), an actual and well-resourced fact will chase down that article and manage to extinguish that lie. Thus, newspapers and websites can be developed to factcheck and analyze various claims, and – ultimately – the truth will out.17
Clearly, this profoundly misunderstands the operation and transmission of nontruth. Only to journalists, scientists, and philosophers does the need to track down, isolate, and publicize truth operate as a prime directive. This conception belongs to what Rosi Braidotti calls the “judges and managers of truth and the clarity fetishists.”18 Even there we should have doubts – the scientists and philosophers who have long debated colonialism or animal rights or human disability seem strangely drawn to those facts which underpin their intrinsic outlooks; journalists tend to work for institutions dedicated to normalization (of capitalism, for example) and internalize those values. More importantly, most people do not seek truths in those senses; they instead are drawn to accretions and emanations of facticities and stories.
So what to make of an aesthetics of reception (to use the terminology of Hans Robert Jauss) as it applies to truth?19 Primarily, that looking at truth as a victory is misguided. Philosophers do not always win. They may even make terrible kings. The scholar of epistemology might look elsewhere than the rules of formal logic, even if that proves difficult in the current academic milieu. She or he might look instead to the implications of the truth in terms of massification, where the proliferation of information takes the form of swarm or horde. Or look at truth in terms of virtuality, where the openness of truth allows for modes of self-legitimation and self-creation. Or look at truth in terms of abundance, where it operates as a site of potentiality. In each case, the development and transmission of untruth is neither understood as the opposite of truth nor is it effectively opposed by regimes of truthtelling.
c. So what are the oppositions of truth? This is the third task: to reconceive the nature of truth’s oppositions. Truth is not only opposed to faith (which seeks stability) and tradition (which seeks stasis) but also to science (which seeks replicability) and even philosophy (which seeks universality). It clearly has an oppositional relationship to metaphor or simile, which are seen as fictionalizations. But it also opposes the literal, which presumes a clear connection between language and epistemology. “Most attempts to define the metaphorical take for granted a fixed domain of literal meaning which then serves as a stable point of reference in contrast to which the metaphorical can be determined.”20 If truth, as Nietzsche points out, operates along lines of social meaning, then the literal is itself an untruth.
Put simply: Truth undermines unity and consensus, in that it disturbs and interrupts the smooth operations of collectivity. Whether the sensus communis agreeing on a value judgment, scientists seeking a unified field theory, or philosophers clearing away the rhetorical underbrush to discover the singularity of being, truth introduces new wrinkles, unanticipated complexities, and procedural obstacles. Truth, like reality, always exceeds its alleged limits.
Claims to total truth – whether that of documentary, archive, or brute facticity – must always be questioned. They always contain their conditions, the violences of their production: racism, colonialism, normativities of gender and desire, ways of seeing embedded in histories of oppression and subjugation. But this is not to say that their oppositions are not real as well. Importantly, they often contain far more than they know, not only traces of resistance and contestation, but the profound overflow of their attempts to constrain and delimit. The people, the events, the ontic capacities in them also have their own power and presence. They undermine claims of completeness.
Truth’s ultimate opposition, then, is to culmination and solution. The end of iniquity, the end of physics, the end of interpretation, the end of history: such ends may have purpose, but they never cease. political contestation, theoretical argument, and meaning dynamics will continue. Truth’s resolutions, while clear (certainly certain interpretations or techniques prove wrong) are never total: other debates and further renditions continue. Thus while it is somewhat proper to think of truth as a process of closure, its real power comes from elsewhere. It comes from geniture.
d. Fourth, and finally, truth should be understood as generative and vital rather than static and formal. But what is being generated? Clearly, contestability; but what more?
This essay began with a full-throated verbal defense of truth as critical in contemporary times. It was strongly meant. But it also visually this with an aphoristic set of critiques of the uses of truth. They, too, are correct. Though this seems paradoxical, it is contradictory only so if we collapse truths into their being critical. Truth is critical, but it is also more; it assists in critique, but it does more; it opposes lies, but it does more. Truth’s generative nature makes it a source of instability, a fount of possibility, a productive and reproductive germination.
Karen Barad gives us some of the language for this: in Meeting the Universe Halfway, she speaks of diffractive understanding, taking from Donna Haraway the importance of diffraction.21 Unlike critique, which predominantly aims to undercut and expose, diffraction multiplies, effects, and affects. It interlocks. It induces and suborns. We do not generally think of generation in this way – as destabilizing, as pluralizing, as teeming. We usually prefer a neat line of cause and effect. But generation, in its abundance, diffracts. And to understand truth, we must cultivate a diffractive understanding.
Diffraction, at root, is a wave form. A diffractive pattern (say, when lightwaves travel through two slits) is not particulate, not a set of outcomes. It is, instead, an overlapping series of intensities and dis-intensities, where wave patterns, traveling across one another, distribute in rhythmic configurations. In some spaces, these wave forms cancel one another out; in others they hyper-intensify.
Diffractions emerge from trouble, from facts on the ground (or in this case, slits interfering in the beam). That trouble is the beginning of generation. That trouble starts things. That trouble is the truth which interrupts. That trouble is dissonance.
So – to summarize the four components of truth as dissonance machine: truth’s plurality, its non-determination, its oppositions, and its generativity. Truth is not a determining lodestone; instead it is the forking of the path. We need to stop thinking of truth as a state. We need to stop thinking of truth as a thing. We need to stop thinking of truth as a unifier. Instead, we should recognize truth’s operations, its abilities to block or intensify. We need to utilize truth – not as an empty metaphor, but as the instauration of the variegated, mobile, growing, and very, very hard-to-understand world in which we live.
Kennan Ferguson is Associate Professor in Political Theory at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. His books include All in the Family: On Community and Incommensurability (Duke UP, 2012) and William James: Politics in the Pluriverse (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).