First Book of 2020: Michiko Kakutani’s The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump

Death_of_Truth_KukutaniYes, you’re still with Miss Bates, romance-reader … but the first 2020 book I read was one that come-hithered me for weeks and it certainly wasn’t romance. Coupled with a new year’s resolution to broaden my reading horizons, given the coming election year for my southern neighbours and that Kakutani’s analysis clocks at 173 pages, I thought, this I can do. And I did, reading it with enough attention for it to resonate, in a few hours. In retrospect, I appreciated Kakutani’s connections to post-modernism and deconstructionist theory with the Trump phenomenon and our inability to navigate what is good, what is right, and what is true. I don’t think I learned anything new about Trump’s methods, or appeal that able political analysts haven’t already stated, but Kakutani’s positioning the former and latter within an interpretive model that elicits my unease made this a compelling read.

I knew Kakutani would speak to my inchoate thoughts when I took note of those thinkers whose ideas bolster her argument: Hannah Arendt (especially The Origins of Totalitarianism), George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Philip Roth: “I hope to draw upon my readings of books and current events to connect some of the dots about the assault on truth and situate them in context with broader social and political dynamics that have been percolating through our culture for years. I also hope to highlight some of the prescient books and writings from the past that shed light on our current predicament” (19). If these writers are antipathetic to your world-view, or you’re a keen Derrida fan, Kakutani’s book may not be for you.

Kakutani gives postmodernism and deconstruction credit where credit is due, but clearly holds them to account for harm done. (I loved the first half of Kakutani’s analysis, which highlighted her greatest strength, books and language, and nodded through the second more prosaic, political one.) Kakutani credits postmodernism and deconstruction with “emancipating” “literature, film, architecture, music, painting” in “transformative” ways, by “breaking down boundaries between genres, and between popular culture and high art”. However, argues Kakutani, when “postmodern theories were applied to the social sciences and history … all sorts of philosophical implications, both intended and unintended, would result and eventually pinball through our culture.” Kakutani writes a clear, succinct definition of postmodernism as one that “denies an objective reality [there goes Plato, folks!] existing independently from human perception.” Ah, there’s the rub, for in that dream of the “death of truth”, postmodernism “substitutes the notions of perspective and positioning for the idea of truth … enshrin[ing] the principle of subjectivity” (47 – 48). It doesn’t take long from there to claims of “alternative facts” purporting to be as relevant a stance as any other. In other words, relativism hasn’t done us any favours. Kakutani claims that postmodernism’s liberality is hoisted on its own petard when its foundations are turned against it.

Kakutani believes words matter, language isn’t merely self-referential, and expertise is relevant and authoritative. She goes on to say that language and expertise are under siege, have been since the ’60s, and explain the erosion of civility, disregard of fact, reason, and agreed-upon discourse in American life, and the creeping feeling that the past under Hitler and Stalin, in some perverse, digital way,  is an ever-nearer haunting spectre. Kakutani is concerned with today, but she finds, in her readings, the prescient voices illuminating what ails us. She compellingly and convincingly centres that illness in postmodernism and deconstruction and their children, subjectivity and relativism, as giving Trump and his ilk, in the US and abroad, the tools to appeal to our basest impulses: “With this embrace of subjectivity came the diminution of objective truth; the celebration of opinion over knowledge, feelings over facts — a development that both reflected and helped foster the rise of Trump” (63). Postmodernism and deconstruction rent the cloth of certainties and verities by delegitimizing meta-narratives and offering loopholes to pernicious claims and stances. (Is this Kakutani’s argument’s weakness? A multiplicity of voices and points of view is a laudable, aspirational thing, is it not? Where she might be right is in saying that if not accompanied by an ethic of integrity, then the huis clos she describes transpires. In other words, even the Devil can quote scripture. )

The second half of Kakutani’s analysis focuses on Russia’s manipulation and interference in the 2016 American election (and, rightly, the possibility that other countries have been and/or will be targets of the same). Kakutani doesn’t add anything new to what any NYT, Washington Post, or one of my favourite podcasts, Cambridge-based David Runciman’s Talking Politics, has said. But Kakutani soars when she returns to her original thesis: how deconstruction has opened the door to “the death of truth”. Near the end of her argument, she condemns deconstruction’s “nihilism”: “the efforts of journalists and historians … are futile. It suggests that reason is an outdated value, that language is not a  tool for communication but an unstable and deceptive interface that is constantly subverting itself. Proponents of deconstruction don’t believe that the intent of an author confers meaning on a text” (160). (Here I am, a lowly HS teacher, banging on and on about authorial intent.)

[This comment is just me indulging me: Again, Kakutani stands strong when she turns that lens to literary fiction, more so than politics: “And as the pursuit of broader truths became more and more unfashionable in academia … some writers chose to focus on the smallest, most personal truths: they wrote about themselves” (67). Shudder and ho-hum. The most prescient voice here, says Kakutani, is Roth’s, who finds the “voluntary withdrawal of interest by the writer of fiction from some of the grander social and political phenomena of our times” [Roth] … “to the more knowable world of the self” (Kakutani 67). This is why we can’t have George Eliots. What I loved, petty as this is, about Kukutani’s critique is her witty stab at the most execrable writer I’ve had the misfortune to read, Michel Houellebecq, whose novels she calls “willfully repellent” (156). Snigger.]

Finally, I’m going to geek out on Kakutani because I find reading a compelling, erudite argument, rife with ideas, written with wit and conviction, thrilling. It feeds my liberal arts major reader soul. Kakutani is broadly read, an astute observer, and offers the unique argument that the cultural is as important in determining the spirit of the times as the political and social.

[Favourite lines: In the Trump era, “facts are fungible” (44) and Trump himself is ” … a character discarded by Molière” (16).]

(Michiko Kakutani’s The Death of Truth is published by Tim Duggan Books and came out in 2018. It’s dedicated to “journalists everywhere working to report the news.” I purchased it with funds from my own spinster’s hard-earned means.)

2 thoughts on “First Book of 2020: Michiko Kakutani’s The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump

  1. I was all about post-modernism in grad school, but I frankly don’t think my current brain could handle this book. (Also, thinking about Trump makes me so so tired.) Excellent review though – thinking about the connection between the (I think, important) project of pointing out that there is not necessarily one Truth and Alternative Facts is probably a good thing to do, especially for those of us in liberal bubbles.

    Hope your 2020 is starting well, and looking forward to reading more of your reviews this year!


    1. And I avoided deconstruction in grad school. Did not do a thing for my advancement, so to speak, but I just didn’t want to read literature that way. So, I got my M.A. and stopped there. I think Kukutani’s book is better for not discussing Trump the person and situating him as Trump the personality in a cultural context. Postmo and deconstruction in particular is untenable to political and social life. IMHO, it hasn’t enriched literature either.

      Thank you for your good wishes! I wish the same for you and your SM-denizens.

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