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22 November 2013

The Assassination of Truth

I submit to you my contribution to the cacophony of JFK-assassination-anniversary-related stuff.

When we teach social theory, we inevitably have to wrestle with the dreaded "P" word: postmodernism. It's a tricky theory, even for the highly educated, so it can be daunting. Most students want a birthday for the postmodern era. I think the best we can do is to say that it was mid-twentieth century. I think a good candidate for a more specific date, however, would be today's date: 22 November 1963. I like to claim 31 October 1517 as the birthday for the modern era. When Luther posted his 95 Theses on the church door, he was unwittingly setting into motion a set of events that would come to demarcate modernism. Flash forward 446 years, and we see that forward progress shattered. My claim here is that the shooting of JFK made starkly evident the fact that there was no longer a single Truth; there were now many truths, and our lives, once intimately interconnected, were now fragmented in ways that could not be undone. There were several accounts of the events, most of which were irreconcilable, and there were several photographs and films of the events from different perspectives. Let me be clear that I am not arguing that shooting so horrific that it caused some kind of existential crisis. Instead, the transition into the postmodern era was driven by an unraveling of the plausibility structure underpinning the shared story on which people had previous agreed (or, more accurately, had been coerced into accepting). Technology probably played an important role. In both Dealey Plaza that day and in public life more generally, there were more cameras, more open mics, quicker news wires. The public's general rejection of the official story of the assassination can be read in part as the decline in trust of institutional narratives; people simply weren't willing to swallow wholesale what they were told by the government or their churches or their parents.

One reaction against the official narrative is to embrace alternative narratives. Conspiracy theories are attempts to recast the postmodern inconsistency in traditional modernist terms. There aren't multiple truths or narratives; there is one narrative that has been hidden. In the transition from the modern to the postmodern, the semblance of The Truth, inexplicably absent, can be pretended in the conspiracy theory. Ironically, the seeming incongruity of conspiracy theories is the last vestige of modernist congruence.

See here and here for my previous posts on conspiracy theories.

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