The unraveling of factfulness and the political ontology of representation

One of many things I liked about Nervous States was how Will Davies recovered representation as a matter of political ontology. There’s something more fundamental here than how specific representatives operate within specific systems. Political representatives act on behalf of others, depending on representations of those others as they do so. What Žižek conceives of as declining symbolic efficiency means those representations lack the force they once had, with their meaning contested and their implications denied. Davies uses a different vocabulary to analyse this and helps make the notion more concrete than it tends to be in post-Lacanian political theory. Factfulness has begun to break down as an institution, with the capacity of facts to adjudicate arguments and establish consensus in a state of continual decline. Davies offers some extremely specific reasons for this, such as the regionalisation of inequality undermining the plausibility of national statistics, a growing cultural pessimism grounded in physical suffering and social media unravelling the depersonalisation upon which factfulness depends. But he manages to retain the broader horizon of the institution itself breaking down through these many vectors. This combination is why it is such an impressive book.

The problem is that the decline of factualness tends to be self-reinforcing because the tendency of experts to ‘hurl more facts at these disturbances’, as Davies memorably puts it, embodies precisely the feeling which factfulness expressly repudiates. Once the social (dis)order gives you reasons to look for post-factualness, evidence of its inexorability can be found everywhere. It begins to seem that behind every lofty pronouncement of a professional or expert is a self-interested and emotional creature, dressing up their concerns in lofty rhetoric which pretends to speak on behalf of everyone. For all leftists like myself (rightly) seeking to resist the institutionalised cynicism of public choice theory, examples of this suspicion being accurate are nonetheless too widespread to make a categorical denial plausible. I’m not sure I agree with Davies in his characterisation of this in terms of the breakdown of the distinctions between mind/body and peace/war. But thinking with these distinctions has certainly helped him put his finger on an unraveling of which we can see traces all around us yet which resists easy articulation. If we have spent recent years in a ‘pre’ we cannot yet name then understanding this unravelling must be a crucial part of accounting for what comes next.

I was thinking of this when watching The Other Side of Everything, a powerful new film by Mila Turajlic which tells the political story of Serbia through the story of her mother Srbijanka Turajlic and the apartment she was born in. The mathematician Srbijanka was a leading figure in the movement which led to the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević in October 2000. The film shows her caution at the fall of the regime and her sense that it was political responsibility rather than more desirable representation which was necessary to ensure that what came next would prove able to live up the hopes invested in it by the movement which had fought so hard and for so long. I found myself preoccupied by this caution about hope expressed by someone who provoked so much hope in others, itself borne out in the political pessimism which the film explores amidst a modern Serbia in which the current president was Milošević’s minister of information.

Throughout this time Srbijanka lived in an apartment arbitrarily divided at the birth of the communist regime in Yugoslavia, split down the middle by security forces redistributing accommodation and divided by a door which went unopened for decades in spite of the constant availability of the key.  The lived experience of representation (or its absence)  haunts the film and its political ontology animates it, with Turajlic expertly integrating moving domestic footage, the historical archive and remarkable street scenes to produce a nimble film as visually engaging as it is thoughtful. It left me with a sense of hope in representation being its own undoing, as the expectation that things would change undermined the movement which overthrew Milošević as they took practical action to try and bring this change about. I stress this is a sense, as opposed to an analysis of a hugely complex political history which I’m aware I barely grasp. I look forward to reading analyses of this film from people who understand the events depicted in it much better and more directly than I do.

To get to grips with the political ontology of representation is imperative and I suspect it can be done more directly with art than it can with theory. The unravelling of factualness leaves our vocabulary inadequate for making sense of the discursive predicaments we now confront in political life. Take the example of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (slightly irritating radio 4 profile here) whose election has provoked great hope in the American left. It is a monumental achievement as a 29 year woman, the youngest ever elected to Congress, came from nowhere on a radical left platform regarded as absurd by mainstream political commentators.

There are two extreme reactions to this, what Bourdieu called thought stopping clichés, liable to distort debate through the gravitational force of their own conceptual laziness. On the one hand, the election of Ocasio-Cortez can be greeted with enthusiasm as events encourage the belief that by simply electing new people, the right people, we can bring about the change we seek. On the other hand, her election can be greeted with a cynical sneer that points beyond representation to the system in which those representatives  work, inevitably reinforcing and reproducing whatever their personal intentions. The former is naive and likely to produce disillusionment, the latter is cynical in the ideological sense of facilitating passivity while congratulating oneself on seeing through the illusions which bind others. It clearly matters who gets elected and what they promise to stand for but the question is how it matters. Once we turn to actually existing politics, it is much harder to recover the political ontology of representation than it is if we are exploring how we live our lives in a way utterly shaped by representation yet continually disappointed by it. It must ultimately be a collective task but the crowd is a fragile thing and we will alway return back to our lives at some point in the gathering.