Walter Benjamin and Post-Truth

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Marco Schneider and Ricardo M. Pimenta*


The post-truth phenomenon, characterized by the fact that beliefs weigh more in the formation of public opinion than evidence and rational arguments, widely available and accessible, results from a socio-technical update of old fascist practices of disinformation, produced for decades by the cultural industry and more recently on digital social networks, with terrifying effects.

To understand and contribute to the fight against the phenomenon, we return here to the Thomist definition of truth, Walter Benjamin's concept of history, Albert Camus's allegory of the plague, Agnes Heller's notion of faith and Castro Alves' denunciation of the nautical slave trade. .

The truth

In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas, inspired by Plotinus, defined truth as the adequacy of reality and understanding, which can be translated as the correspondence between things and understanding.

The problem with the definition is not that it is incorrect, but that it is not true enough, if only we keep in mind the linguistic turn in twentieth-century philosophy about the performative, expressive, and constitutive relations between language and any conceivable understanding of reality. We know today that language is not only referential, nor a transparent instrument of communication: signifier, signified and referent are never found in perfect and definitive coupling; it is polysemic and structures our sense of reality, even our unconscious, if we agree with the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Reality, whatever it may be, is only thinkable, comprehensible, conceivable, communicable, through language.

However, recognition of the fact that language mediates any possible relationship between things and understanding does not resolve the problem of truth. Therefore, and bearing in mind that our objective is not exactly to solve it, but to bring it back to the center of the contemporary ethical, political and epistemological debate, as a necessary movement to criticize the post-truth phenomenon, we consider the hypothesis of that the simple Thomist definition of truth remains useful as a starting point for combating unfounded beliefs, whose falsity is demonstrable, especially when articulated with Benjamin's concept of history, Camus's allegory of the plague, the notions of alienation and faith, by Heller, and Castro Alves' powerful denunciation of the nautical slave market.

We weave the threads of this skein.

The story

Seven centuries after Thomas Aquinas defined truth as the adequacy of reality and understanding, Walter Benjamin writes in his 1940 essay About the concept of history: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of exception” in which we live is actually the general rule. We need to construct a concept of history that corresponds to this truth. […] with this, our position will be stronger in the fight against fascism. The latter benefits from the circumstance that his adversaries confront him in the name of progress, considered as a historical norm. – The astonishment with the fact that the episodes we are experiencing in the XNUMXth century are “still” possible is not a philosophical astonishment. It generates no knowledge other than the knowledge that the conception of history from which such astonishment emanates is untenable.”

The “state of exception” Benjamin was referring to was Nazi-fascism. The aforementioned “astonishment” resulted from a mistaken understanding of history, based on an evolutionary and linear conception of “progress”, shared by positivists, social democrats, liberals and vulgar communists of their time (different from the philosophical astonishment, which produces knowledge). From this perspective, a monstrosity like Nazi-fascism could not happen in the middle of the XNUMXth century, an era of science, progress, reason.

On the other hand, those seriously schooled in historical materialism, like Benjamin, were not naively surprised. Because, for them, Nazi-fascism was a somewhat predictable reaction (surprising only because of its extreme and grotesque character) of certain fractions of the ruling classes – allied with segments of the petty bourgeoisie, the lumpesinate and the most alienated groups of workers – against the growth of organized revolutionary movements, in the midst of the crisis of capital and the imperialist conflict of the first half of the 1920th century. Thus, between the beginning of the 1940s and the end of the XNUMXs, fascism and Nazism grew as brutal updates of old forms of oppression, generating a “state of exception” about whose nature the “tradition of the oppressed teaches us that […] is actually the general rule”.[ii]

The plague

In 1955, a member of the French resistance in World War II, future winner of the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature, the Algerian writer Albert Camus defended his novel Plague (1947), in a letter to Roland Barthes, against his accusation, according to which the novel was too abstract and, therefore, situated “dehors de l'histoire” (out of history). Camus replied that Plague it was not only about the (then) recent historical phenomenon of fascism, as everyone would have noticed, but also about the permanent historical risk of its rebirth, a risk whose awareness should make us vigilant.

Recent events in world politics suggest the relevance of this plague allegory. In that regard, Plague reminds us that, like the bacillus of the great plague, fascism can be reborn, because its entropic potency would not have been destroyed once and for all, if it ever could be, despite its apparent defeat in 1945.


Bearing this in mind, and insofar as one of the hallmarks of fascism is its ability to mobilize irrational affects and beliefs on a large scale, to better understand this phenomenon we turn to a study by Agnes Heller, in The daily life and history, in which the Hungarian philosopher, a student of Lukács, associates faith with prejudice and alienation. For her, faith is the affect of prejudice, an expression of alienation, which “is always alienation in the face of something and, more precisely, in the face of the concrete possibilities of the generic development of humanity”.

In a vigorous critique, she defines the capitalist system as the most intense form of alienation in history, presenting the following arguments: “Alienation exists when there is an abyss between human-generic development and the development possibilities of human individuals, between production human-generic and the conscious participation of the individual in this production. This abyss did not have the same depth at all times or for all social strata; thus, for example, it was almost completely closed during the flowering periods of polis Attic and Italian Renaissance; but, in modern capitalism, it has deepened immeasurably”.

One of the most infamous expressions of this capitalist deepening of alienation was Nazi-fascism; before him, it was the nautical slave trade.

the slave trade

In 1869, Castro Alves published the slave ship, eleven years after the transcontinental submarine telegraph cables transmitted their first message from Europe to the USA, a message of praise to the heavens, under the same seas over which slave ships sailed shortly before. The poet, as is well known, addresses those same skies with scandal, inflamed by the horror of trafficking – extinct nineteen years before the publication of the book –, which indirectly financed telegraphy, the great-grandmother of digital social networks.

Proclaimed the corporate telegraph message: “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth, peace, good will to men”. The young abolitionist poet was indignant: “Lord God of the wretched! / You tell me, Lord God! / If it's madness... if it's true / So much horror before the heavens?!”

We will insist here on the relationship between the horror on and under the seas, bearing in mind the double connection between slave ships and telegraph cables, or, in a more general sense, between the exploitation of labor and technological development under capitalism: although corporals and slaves were not exactly transported by the same ships, they were transported by the same or related capital. Furthermore, these nightmare commercial journeys also allowed for the maintenance and establishment of new forms and technological structures of exploitation.

A little over a century later, new cables would be spread across the world, replacing the telegraph and establishing the informational and communicational infrastructure that a few years ago we called cyberspace. Roughly speaking, along with the emancipatory possibilities present in this networked digital territory, we must not ignore the fact that it remains anchored in a system that is not “virtual” at all, but very real.

As Ricardo Pimenta recalls in the article The Roughness of Cyberspace, submarine cables and large servers continue to show an old form of socioeconomic domination and control: from the monopoly of the technology necessary for the production and circulation of material goods to the monopoly of the technology necessary for the production, circulation and capture of information on a global scale, which plays a decisive economic and political role in the global political economy of infocommunications, as well as the mass press, radio and cinema since the beginning of the XNUMXth century. From the telegraph to the internet, it is a set of technologies whose social use remained and remains in dispute between libertarian and reactionary forces, along with other intermediary actors of the political spectrum.[iii]

Information ethics and post-truth

Our approach to information ethics relates it to epistemology and politics. First, insofar as we take epistemology in a broad sense, as the study that aims to distinguish knowledge, objective and rational, from opinions and beliefs, fictional and irrational. Ultimately, while this is by no means a canonical definition, we understand it to be about truth and lies.[iv] Second, because truth (whatever it may be), opinion and beliefs are always, though not only, expressions of social power relations. Its main political dimension is in the social struggle between enlightenment and mystification, which, ultimately, refers to the struggle between freedom and oppression.

We do not intend to always place the truth on the side of science and opinions or beliefs on the side of lies, because science can be wrong and opinion or belief can be objective and rational. That is why we said that epistemology aims to distinguish objective and rational knowledge from fictional and irrational opinions and beliefs.

And, in fact, we can find good or bad knowledge in science and opinion. Plato, in dialogue Menon, states that the difference between episteme (science) and doxa (opinion) is not exactly the distinction between truth and lies, but between a type of knowledge that critically reflects on itself, which aims to establish its logical basis, its foundations, and a more practical, utilitarian type, which is not concerned with these efforts. . As these efforts are not guarantees of success, we can have false postulates of science and true opinions.

However, serious science has a rigorous commitment to producing true knowledge through argumentative and self-critical disputes, in principle committed to the ideal of rationality and objectivity, unlike opinion. There are, in fact, doxas scientific and critical thinking in popular culture, but the former are not rigorously scientific beyond appearances, and the latter tend to be, despite appearances.

If epistemology deals, then, ultimately, with the so-called scientific ways of distinguishing, producing and substantiating true knowledge (that is, objective and rational) and refuting the false, and politics, with freedom and oppression, considering the central role what clarification and mystification occupy in this dispute, epistemology and politics are therefore central and connected issues of information ethics.

Now, reason and freedom are the most radical ideas of the Enlightenment. The concept of Reason, unlike instrumental reason and mere understanding, is necessarily universal, but not necessarily contradictory with particular or singular forms of understanding, except in superficial approximations, if we think dialectically.

Nevertheless, the large number of barbarities committed in the name of freedom and progress by the so-called civilized peoples, self-proclaimed holders of reason, with emphasis on colonialism, imperialism, the two Great Wars and the ongoing environmental collapse, partially justify the option of the so-called postmodern thought of refusing these words, reason and freedom, in capital letters, proclaiming a more modest, pluralist ethics, politics and epistemology, of the order of the singular and the particular. On the other hand, this same refusal makes it fragile in the face of post-truth as a totalitarian result of socio-technical updates of fascist informational practices, disengaged with truths and the Truth, enemies of freedoms and Freedom.

We should add that, just as the definition of truth is not easy, neither is that of freedom. On the other hand, we think it is not very difficult to affirm what could never be: lies and oppression, precisely the political and epistemological essences of fascism. Because fascism – more than any other known social system – deliberately, grossly turns lies into truths, political and economic oppression into the right of the strongest, the richest, the “pure master race” over the weak, the invalid, the “ inferior,” in his own mystifying terms. In addition to its perverse character, it does so without any rational foundation.

Nazi-fascism is a pure example of what truth and freedom can never be.

Goebbels' famously blunt statement, "Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth," perversely exposes the core ethical, epistemological, and political information problem of fascism, whether the original or its contemporary approximations. A lie that becomes true for public opinion is ideology, in the negative sense of the term, as a false consciousness that rationalizes (albeit crudely) and legitimizes exploitation, through generalizations, ignorance or simple lies, converted into belief, into faith. ; in its limits, as in the Nazi case, but not only in this case, it legitimizes even the physical elimination of civilians in terrifying numbers, directly or not.

No matter what the Nazis said, just it was not true that Jews were the cause of communism and capitalism, despite the existence of influential Jewish capitalists and communists. It was not true that there was a Jewish conspiracy to conquer the world. The Nazi plan called the “Final Solution”, about the extermination of all Jews, in addition to being ethically an abomination, cannot be taken seriously, not even on its own terms, because, even if it were successful, it did not it would in no way stop capitalist exploitation, nor the growth of real socialism. However, repeated lies, misinformation, become truth for so many people, as public opinion, as beliefs, as prejudice, as faith, that they become a material force, in place of serious theory.

About faith, the Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller, as we saw briefly above, understands that it is the affect of prejudice. This affective element is fundamental to understanding fascism.

For her, one can only understand prejudice based on everyday life, from the traits of everyday life: momentary nature of effects, ephemeral nature of motivations, rigidity of the way of life, thinking fixed on empirical and ultra-generalizing experience. We arrive at ultra-generalizations by stereotypes. Overgeneralizations can come as much from tradition as from attitudes that oppose it.

Another source of prejudice is conformism, which she distinguishes from the notion of conformity:

Every man needs […] a certain amount of conformity. But this conformity becomes conformism when […] the conformity motives of everyday life penetrate into non-everyday spheres of activity, above all into moral and political decisions.

For Heller, the (contingent, that is, not necessary) genesis of prejudices lies in provisional judgments, Heller argues: “The provisional judgments refuted by science […] but which remain unshaken against all the arguments of reason, are prejudices. […] We always have an affective fixation on prejudice. Therefore, the Enlightenment hope that prejudice could be eliminated in light of the sphere of reason was illusory. Two different affects can link us to an opinion, vision or conviction: faith and trust. The affection of prejudice is faith.”

At this point, Heller develops this important distinction between faith and trust, and prejudice is the differentiating element. The analysis is developed on three levels, the anthropological, the epistemological and the ethical, with the basic function of the others remaining at the anthropological level.

At the anthropological level, faith refers to individual particularity and trust to conscious individuality; in the epistemological, faith is knowledge that resists knowledge and experience, while trust is based on knowledge open to change; finally, on the ethical level, the hallmark of faith is emotional intolerance; that of trust, the potential openness to tolerance.

Prejudices, moreover, constitute an indispensable system for threatened social cohesion: “The system of prejudices is not essential for any cohesion as such, but only for threatened cohesion. Most prejudices, though not all, are products of the dominant classes, even when these intend to […] have an image of the world free of prejudices […] The foundation of this situation is evident: the dominant classes want to maintain the cohesion of a social structure that benefits them and mobilize in their favor even men who represent different interests (and even, in some cases, the dominated and antagonistic classes). With the help of prejudices, they appeal to individual particularity, which – due to their conservatism, their self-indulgence and their conformism, or also because of immediate interests – is easily mobilized against the interests of their own integration and against the praxis. oriented towards the human-generic”.

The cohesion of bourgeois society was, from the first moment, more unstable than those of antiquity or classical feudalism. For this reason, the so-called group prejudices (national, racial, ethnic prejudices) only appear on the historical plane, in their proper sense, with bourgeois society.

The contempt for the “other”, the dislike for the different, are as old as humanity itself. But, even in bourgeois society, the mobilization of entire societies against other societies, through systems of prejudice, was never a typical phenomenon.

On the other hand, the dialectical element present in Heller's thought prevents her analysis from leading to dead ends, because although she recognizes the impossibility of a complete elimination of prejudices, "eliminating the organization of prejudices in a system" remains, in her view, something feasible: “[…] prejudices could cease to exist if the particularity that functions with complete independence from the human-generic disappeared, the affection of faith, which satisfies this particularity, and, on the other hand, all social integration, all groups and every community that feel threatened in their cohesion”.

We believe that such a disappearance is by no means utopian, since the idea of ​​a society in which each man can become an individual is revealed as a possibility, can configure the conduct of life by himself, and in which particularity ceases to function " independently” of the generic-human. “In such a society, false provisional judgments would not be suppressed, but adherence to them, dictated by faith, would disappear, that is, their crystallization into prejudice would disappear. […] But […] as the possibility of raising oneself to the condition of a real individual is given only to each singular being (which in no way means that every singular being becomes an individual), then it becomes evident that prejudices cannot be totally eliminated from social development. But it is possible, in return, to eliminate the organization of prejudices into a system, their rigidity, and – what is most essential – the discrimination effected by prejudices.

We propose to think about post-truth, the Word of the Year 2016 of the oxford dictionaries, also through this lens. Post-truth is “an adjective defined as 'relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief'.”[v] Post-truth also has a very important socio-technical particularity: the fruit and source of massive circulation of disinformation, ubiquitously and with very fine social capillarity, in mass niches, thanks to the somehow articulated performances of the cultural industry and artificial intelligence. applied in algorithms and robots, promoting new ways of capturing and direct feedback of likes[vi], by monitoring the facebook likes and all forms of surveillance of browsing and message exchanges on digital networks, including purchases and movement in the non-digital space.

In other words, while the Cultural Industry can propagate “appeals to emotion and personal belief” on a large scale, algorithms and robots are capable of producing even more surprising effects, also on a large scale, but for different groups of customers and with more precision. . These devices identify and reinforce beliefs, opinions and tastes, through ubiquitous processes of digital surveillance, of the Google, Amazon, Facebook etc., in order to gain adherence and increase circulation among users of social networks on the Internet for the same causes.

In a digital age, the deluge of data crosses time itself, compressed between nuances of the present (increasingly fleeting) and the future (increasingly urgent, more sudden). Time loses reflexivity, its passage being oppressed by accelerated and ubiquitous ultra-technological informational traps. It is in such a scenario that the misinformation that fuels post-truth is produced. Post-truth then becomes capital, political and economic, both increasingly controlled by those who regulate the production, circulation and consumption of information.

In this new information game, the manipulation of time also becomes a means of exploitation and an agent of propaganda and disinformation.

The phenomenon of post-truth therefore makes it legitimate to rescue the Thomist notion of truth as a correspondence between things and understanding. We add that what mediates truth and understanding is information, which is, among other things, the activation of the power of language – at the limit, towards enlightenment or mystification, freedom or oppression.

There is not space here to go much deeper into the debate around the limits of the Thomistic definition of truth, if we only keep in mind, as seen above, the linguistic turn in twentieth-century philosophy. However, if we start from the definition of truth as the correspondence of things and understanding, but go further, keeping in mind Hegel's (2010) distinction between understanding (more particular, superficial and fixed understanding) and reason (deep, dynamic and universal understanding , in mutually constitutive dialectical intercourse with the particular and the singular), and between (contingent) existence and (necessary) reality/effectiveness, in their historical developments, then we risk re-elaborating the Thomist definition in new, perhaps promising, terms: truth becomes if the correspondence between reason and reality / effectiveness, in a dynamic dialectical relationship, mediated by language, both as a structure and activated in information, together with the subjects' non-discursive life experiences, with their loads and singular non-linguistic informational processes: experiences, perceptions, emotions, actions.

Going a step further, we also propose to articulate this notion of truth with the historical dialectic between social being and social consciousness. Once the division of human societies into owners and non-owners of the means of production is established, and with it the division of labor (and its fruits) between command and execution, the struggle against or in favor of freedom has become the leitmotiv of historical reality, its engine, the main mediation between being and social consciousness. Now, given the centrality of the division of property and labor in this struggle, another name that can be given to it is class struggle.

Truth, then, as the correspondence between reason and reality, in a dialectic mediated by language (as structure or activated in information) and by the set of non-discursive life experiences of the subjects, which in turn has the class struggle as its main mediation between being and social consciousness, refers to Benjamin's ethical, political and epistemological proposition about how history should not be conceptualized only as a non-fictional evolutionary narrative sequence of any factual (existing) historical event, pointing to a better future (the progress ), based on an empty concept of time, but as a non-fictional explanatory narrative, whose focus is the events of a special temporality, which reveal the struggle for or against oppression as the essential reality of social existence in its internal contradiction, in its own rationality, with new and rich concepts of time, especially messianic time, to which we will return later.[vii]

Columbus! Close the door of your seas

Castro Alves (1847-1871) published in 1869 the slave ship. The last sentence of the poem is: “Columbus! Close the door of your seas!”

Why should Columbus close the door to his seas?

We are all well aware of the contradictions of Western hopes and the calamities that have occurred during the past three centuries. The black market in slaves of the XNUMXth, XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries was probably the most abject example of these calamities. The poem by Castro Alves vehemently denounced the movement of this market, the nautical slave trade. Perhaps this can be taken as a metonymy of the worst results of the XNUMXth century contradictions, somewhat like Auschwitz in relation to the XNUMXth century: two extreme expressions of the plague of prejudice and oppression.

We are going to reproduce below some verses of the poem by Castro Alves, for its unique beauty and expressive power, and as a corollary of the arguments that we developed above, mainly because the events of the poem were contemporary and related to a great socio-technical achievement of information, the telegraph network intercontinental submarine transport – which became possible, in some way, due to the nautical traffic of black men, a necessary part of the international division of labor and a great source of profit in the ascendant period of capitalism.

Paroxysm of alienation and brutality in this ascending phase, both slaves and cables crossed the seas transported by ships with similar purposes: to serve the owners of capital at the time, considered the international division of labor in force. For modern black slavery, as we all know, mainly served North and South American plantations – cotton, tobacco, sugar, coffee – as well as other lucrative extractive activities and trade at this point: silver, gold, rubber; and submarine cables were strategic for the transcontinental exchange of commercial information, including for the configuration of the international exchange.[viii]

In times of new capital, there are new forms of colonization. And pointing out the telegraph episode seems instructive to understand in perspective the genesis of how informational capital, in the form of data, has become one of the most intense means of exploitation today.

Castro Alves' poem begins with the image of a ship sailing swiftly across the indistinct blue of sky and ocean. The poet expresses his desire to be an albatross, “eagle of the seas”, to see the scene up close. As he approaches, however, the horror of the nautical slave trade emerges:

[…] But what do I see there… What a bitter picture! 
It's a funeral song! … What dismal figures! … 
What an infamous and vile scene… My God! My God! How horrible!


It was a dantesque dream... the poop  
Which of the lamps reddens the glow. 
In blood to bathe. 
Clink of irons... snap of a lash...  
Legions of men black as night, 
Horrendous dancing...
Black women, suspending to the tits  
Thin children, whose black mouths  
Waters the blood of mothers:  
Other girls, but naked and startled,  
In the whirlwind of drawn specters, 
In vain longing and grief!
And the ironic, strident orchestra laughs... 
And from the fantastic round the serpent  
Make spirals... 
If the old man gasps, if he slips on the ground,  
Screams are heard... the whip cracks. 
And they fly more and more...
Caught in the links of a single chain,  
The hungry crowd staggers, 
And cries and dances there! 
One raves in rage, another goes mad,  
Another, which martyrdoms brutalize, 
Singing, moans and laughs!
However the captain orders the maneuver, 
And after gazing at the unfolding sky, 
So pure over the sea, 
It says of the smoke among the dense fogs: 
“Shake the whip hard, sailors! 
Make them dance more!…”
And the ironic, strident orchestra laughs. . . 
And from the fantastic round the serpent 
Make spirals... 
Like a Dantesque dream the shadows fly!… 
Shouts, woes, curses, prayers resound! 
And Satan laughs!…”


Lord God of the wretched! 
You tell me, Lord God! 
If it's crazy... if it's true 
Such horror before the heavens?! 
O sea, why don't you erase 
With the sponge of your vacancies 
From your cloak this blur?... 
Stars! nights! storms! 
Rolai of immensities! 
I swept the seas, typhoon!

The end of the slave trade in Brazil occurred in 1850, with the enactment of the Eusébio de Queirós Law. Although he exerted pressure for its end (it is said that for commercial reasons), England profited a lot from it between the 1,5th and 10th centuries: “Estimates are that at least XNUMX million Africans were transported from Africa to America by vessels departing from Liverpool. This contingent consists of more than XNUMX% of the total number of slaves sold that are known.”[ix]

This profit certainly contributed to the Industrial Revolution, which favored the creation of the transcontinental submarine telegraph, the great-grandfather of the Internet.

Almost simultaneously, the slave ship sailed through the seas under which long-distance communication was established in real time, in the first form of transcontinental telegraphy:

The invention of telegraphy by Samuel Morse in 1843 spurred the idea of ​​laying cables across the Atlantic to utilize the new technology. The American Charles Field and the British Charles Bright and the brothers John and Jacob Brett founded a company to lay the first intercontinental submarine telegraph cable.

The following year, two ships, one British and one American, carried 2.500 nautical miles (4.630 km) of cable from Ireland. The cable broke when about 750 km had already been launched. A new attempt was made in 1858 and a new break occurred when only 250 km had been launched.

Still in 1858 there was a third attempt. This one was successful, the ships left the mid-Atlantic and reached ports on opposite sides without any occurrence of breakage. The message "Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth, peace, good will to men" was sent.

This success was, however, short-lived, as a few weeks after this pioneering success, the cable failed due to problems with the voltages used. Only 8 years later were reliable operations guaranteed in this communication between North America and Europe.[X]

Thus, as we know, three years after the start of reliable operations, Castro Alves published the slave ship, whose final verses are:

Auriverde flag of my land,
That the Brazilian breeze kisses and sways,
Banner that the sunlight encloses
And the divine promises of hope...
You who, from freedom after war,
You were flown from the heroes on the spear
Before they had broken you in battle,
That you serve a people in a shroud!…
Atrocious fatality that crushes the mind!
Extinguish at this hour the filthy brig
The trail that Columbus opened in the waves,
Like an iris in deep water!
But it's too infamous! … From the ethereal plague
Arise, heroes of the New World!
Andrada![xi] Tear down that banner of the air!
Columbus! close the door of your seas!

Benjamin's idea of ​​the “messianic force” also claims, in its own way, that Columbus closes the door to its seas; he also claims, in his own way, "Arise, heroes of the New World!" . This flow runs through all ages, but some of them have a glimpse of Messianic time.

“Messianic time” and “messianic force”, in Benjamin, do not represent warmed-up idealistic theological utopias, but a rereading of Jewish messianism in its most inspiring materialistic terms, as a necessary expression of the human potency never to submit, once and for all. , to oppression, and hopefully to overcome it once and for all, at least in its most brutal forms. It is an expression of the creative and combative human need for freedom, solidarity and even sensuality.

In the words of Benjamin: “The past carries with it a mysterious index, which impels it to redemption. For are we not touched by a breath of the air that was breathed before? Are there not, in the voices we hear, echoes of voices that have become silent? Don't the women we court have sisters they never got to know? If so, there is a secret meeting, scheduled between the previous generations and ours. Someone on earth is waiting for us. In this case, as in every generation, we were given a fragile Messianic force to which the past appeals. This appeal cannot be rejected with impunity. The historical materialist knows this.”

Why does the historical materialist know this? Because: “The class struggle […] is a struggle for gross and material things, without which refined and spiritual things do not exist. But in the class struggle these spiritual things cannot be represented as spoils awarded to the victor. They manifest themselves in this struggle in the form of confidence, courage, humour, cunning, firmness, and they act from afar, from the depths of time. They will always question every victory of the dominators. Just as flowers direct their corolla towards the sun, the past, thanks to a mysterious heliotropism, tries to direct itself towards the sun that rises in the sky of history. Historical materialism must be alert to this transformation, the most imperceptible of all.

The "messianic time" is the anticipation or realization of the "sun that is rising in the sky of history". In less poetic terms, it means the glimpse or realization of the end of the practice of the most violent of social processes, the transformation of subjects into objects, of human beings into things, the matrix form of all other violence.

Put in those terms, it is an idea that has its roots at least in Kant. Kant claimed that we must categorically forbid the reduction of subjects to objects, because it blocks their inner powers of freedom, that is, of achieving the good will to act in accordance with reason.

Hegel was the first to think about this problem and its possible solution in a socio-historical perspective, concluding that this good will, or, in his terms, the free will that wants free will, can only be made effective through laws and institutions that allow and favor their flowering.

The necessary critique of contradictions between Western “grand narratives” and the traumatic historical events that vindicated them should not lead us to abandon what is still just and true in universal Western hopes for freedom and reason. However, most of intelligentsia of today does not seem to be seriously committed to this totalizing perspective. On this point, we are shamelessly weak, theoretically and practically, in comparison with the great critical thinkers and strategists of modernity.

Final considerations

Certainly all cultures, with their particular world views, have faced and still face, expressed and still express, lived and still live, discursively and extra discursively, the drama of good and evil, which encompass truth and lies, freedom and oppression, with all its complex gradient. However, the accumulated knowledge that we have allows us to see the whole in a broader perspective. And with an urgent appointment.

The philosophy of the subject, of the I think from Descartes to Kantian critiques, replaced the traditional metaphysical ontological question about what is real with the epistemological problem about what we can know, which has become hegemonic in academic philosophy ever since (Ilyenkov, 1977). We advocate here the importance of reintroducing the question of what reality is into the serious debate, starting from the metaphysical notion of truth as correspondence between things and understanding to reformulate it in terms of correspondence between reason and reality, mediated by language and by the set of non-discursive experiences of the subjects, in their historical dynamics, which has the class struggle as its leitmotif.

We did so because we understand that the post-truth phenomenon makes it vital to insist on the obvious fact that not all narratives are equally true or even acceptable, with many of them being extremely and deliberately false and harmful. We need rational criteria to distinguish between the two, and political strength to prevent the hallucination from driving public opinion.

Our culture, in its critical aspect, seems incapable of facing the ongoing entropic informational developments without first overcoming postmodern relativism and its denial of “grand narratives”. Its fragmentary concentration on identity politics, whose value we do not deny, is an expression of this. The necessary critique of traditional “grand narratives” should not lead to their complete rejection. On the contrary, perhaps we need, more than ever, new, emancipatory and compelling “grand narratives”. And we must enrich them with all kinds of particular cultural mediations and unique experiences, but we must articulate these unique experiences and particular mediations into new – carefully and effectively developed – universal emancipatory programs.

We define information in this article as activated language, as the actualization of language potency, whether in oral speeches, written texts, movies, digital memes and so on. Reality is a discursive and extra-discursive experience, as well as a presupposition of the referential function of language itself, which cannot be based on prejudices or beliefs, but rationally and empirically.

Language is both a dynamic structure for the production of meaning, creation of the human-generic, and a vehicle for our feelings and thoughts, particular and singular, enabling some intelligent relationship with the world, or the opposite; through information, it is also performative, expression, communication, practice. If language is a human social creation, when and where the social world is strained by class struggle, language and information will be both an expression of that struggle and weapons in the midst of it.

It is naive to think that disinterested performative games of information – production, records, circulation, access, retrieval, organization, use, etc. – make up the bulk of the information field. We must not ignore that powerful social forces control its technologies, legal and unspoken rules, even its popular uses, to some extent. Not understanding these facts leaves us unarmed to fight against the revival of fascism in its media and digital post-truth form. So new and powerful Goebbels (and their allies), with their newspapers, television channels, algorithms, digital surveillance devices and bots, will win the discursive battle, and not just this one, through their dismal performance. Unfortunately they are already winning.

This poses a very serious informational ethical challenge. Because the fascist plague bacillus is growing, even in the most unexpected corners of “civilization”, through innumerable ways and ways, mainly digital, of repeating lies, false referential information, which support forged beliefs and sometimes blind faith, which ideologically legitimize , while ignoring the increasingly entropic processes of reification under way. From the concentration of fortunes, to a point where few individuals own the same as billions of others, to new spurious marketing strategies to win elections around the world.

Fascism, taken in a broad and allegorical sense, as a plague, as the paroxysm of violence, irrationality, particularism, oppression, brutal extermination of human beings, a set of stupid beliefs, has always been present, with varying intensity. The world's oppressed, as Benjamin denounced, have always lived under violence and abuse; but modern Western civilization's hope of evolutionarily overcoming the entropic power of this plague is perhaps weaker than ever.

One of the main ethical and political challenges of today is the post-truth, in all its bizarre varieties, spurious rationalizations, fragmentary and almost ubiquitous victorious expressions, of the multiple contemporary forms of belief and faith that sustain a structurally excluding and unfettered social system. exit, without even understanding its meaning. This problem, and any ethical theorizing that ignores or avoids it, are symptoms of the fascist plague bacillus rebirth.

Do we have any realistic and rational hope pointing to a brighter future, even to reducing the ongoing calamities? The fact that calamities are the rule, as Benjamin reminds us, does not relieve each generation of its particular responsibility.

We are living in a strange kind of hedonistic nihilism, masked by the omnipresent dramas of the culture industry, narcissism of the Facebook and foolish and often dangerous chatter in the whatsapp. We are faced with the destruction of the future as a spectacle, in the Youtube and in so many dystopian American films about wars, comets, zombies, plagues and so on, a phenomenon that is so reminiscent of the aesthetic exaltation of war by Italian futurists / fascists in the first decades of the XNUMXth century.

Is this dominant nightmare aesthetic, combined with the lack of hope and strategy, rational and realistic, for a better and common life between human beings and the planet, not a symptom of the rebirth of the plague? Shouldn't we focus our practice at this point? Shouldn't this symptom, catalyzed in today's celebrity of the notion of post-truth, alert us that the repetition of lies – misinformation, dangerous beliefs, largely ignoring even the most obvious and well-known references – has gone too far?

The slave trade and Auschwitz are the poisonous fruits of the central contradiction of the Enlightenment, a formal project whose victorious strand, on the right of the political spectrum, subtracted from the republican humanist imperatives of freedom, equality, fraternity the necessary radical transformations in the bourgeois property regime, indispensable to make them universally effective.

The perpetuation of this regime and its chaotic consequences make the contradictions between the singular (individuals), the particular (social classes and other social, religious, ethnic, national groups) and universal interests (humanity) increasingly entropic. Only the idea of ​​“messianic time”, as the effectiveness of its concept, points to the overcoming of this contradiction.

The degeneration of the Enlightenment into positivism is at the center of the Brazilian flag: “Order and progress”. The Temer government reactivated this sentence as its insignia, replacing the two previous ones, from the deposed Workers' Party government: “Brazil, Educating Fatherland” and “A rich country is a country without poverty”.

This discursive substitution was accompanied by a general change in official policies, with emphasis on the diversion of precious pre-salt resources, public health and education services to privatization, along with the privatization of other key public sectors. Order and progress, in contemporary Brazilian reality, means handing over natural resources and public assets to private interests, especially large transnational corporations, allied to the destruction of social rights, the repression of social movements, the fight against critical education.

In addition to the notable social advances produced by the deposed Workers' Party in Brazil, its government had serious problems and contradictions, including the involvement of some of its members in the most common corruption, although in demonstrably lower numbers than members of other parties, in particular those who supported the coup.

On the other hand, the kleptocratic plutocracy (or is it plutocratic kleptocracy?) in Brazil, with its old and new actors, is once again fully coherent, in the particular terms of the instrumental rationality of its neoliberal project. Its contradictions relate only to who gets most of the booty or escapes from prison.

Faced with this scenario, we must update Benjamin's strength and pursuit of messianic time against the empty time of positivism and neoliberalism, beyond postmodern relativism, very vulnerable to the plague bacillus. By doing so, perhaps we can contribute to making Castro Alves' statements effective: “Colombo, close the door of your seas!” Not for all Western thought, but for imperialism, fascism, neoliberalism, post-truth.

*Marco Schneider is an adjunct professor at the Department of Communication at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF).

*Ricardo M. Pimenta is a professor at the Graduate Program in Information Science (PPGCI/IBICT-UFRJ).


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[I] This article was originally published in English on International Review of Information Ethics, in 2017. This is a revised and expanded version, unpublished in Portuguese.

[ii] There are controversies regarding this so to speak generic use of the term “fascism”. It is argued that one should not lose sight of the specificities of the phenomenon in its historical singularity, despite the various traits that it shares with other previous and later authoritarian regimes. See, for example, Boron (2019) and Boito Jr. Without ignoring this argument, we understand that, for the purposes of this exposition, it is important to highlight what there is in common between the fascism of the 1920s and 40s and emerging political trends around the world today, especially those whose success, even if provisional, seems to largely due to what we call the socio-technical updating of old fascist informational practices.

[iii] We do not mention television here for two reasons: it had not yet become popular in the 1930s and 1940s, nor is it the focus of this analysis. Nevertheless, it should be noted that it was perhaps the most influential ideological reproduction device of the second half of the 2016th century, still occupying a prominent position today. For a deeper understanding of the debate surrounding TV in particular, and the development and social use of technologies as a whole, see Williams, XNUMX.

[iv] Epistemology, although it avoids resorting to the notion of “truth”, due to its metaphysical burden, is concerned with the criteria that allow the production and definition of scientific knowledge, that is, rational, objective and non-deceitful. Would it be absurd to define this kind of knowledge as true? 

[v] See

[vi] The notion of taste capture was originally developed in Schneider, 2015. (This book is available in PDF for free access at this link)

[vii] From the translator's note of an English version of On the Concept of History, which we also consulted for the preparation of this work: “Jetztzeit was translated as 'here-and-now,' in order to distinguish it from its polar opposite, the empty and homogeneous time of positivism. Stillstellung was rendered as 'zero-hour', rather than the misleading 'standstill'; the verb 'stillstehen' means to come to a stop or standstill, but Stillstellung is Benjamin's own unique invention, which connotes an objective interruption of a mechanical process, rather like the dramatic pause at the end of an action-adventure movie, when the audience is waiting to find out if the time-bomb/missile/terrorist device was defused or not).“


[viii] In an interview given to one of the authors of this article, in Cuba, Armand Mattelart (2016) mentions a book, whose title he did not remember, by Manuel Fraginals, about which he informs us: “The book is very interesting. It is a history of the construction of the sugar economy. This book inspired me a lot, because it shows how the telegraph and the submarine cable, at the end of the XNUMXth century, were decisive in the configuration of the international exchange”.

[ix] See Hashizume, 2013. Available at:🇧🇷 Accessed on 04.01.2019/XNUMX/XNUMX.


[xi] José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva (Santos, June 13, 1763 – Niterói, April 6, 1838) was a Luso-Brazilian naturalist, statesman and poet, known by the epithet of Patriarch of Independence for his decisive role in the Independence of Brazil.

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