Book Preview: "Agnotology and Fake News" chapter

story © Michael Betancourt, August 5, 2019 all rights reserved.


Here is a preview of a chapter from my new book, The Digital Agent versus Human Agency.

Agnotology undermines epistemic procedures creating a specific impact: it affirms and expands a malleable and controlled marketplace (both physical and intellectual) that enables the production-consumption dynamic to collapse into the aura of the digital and the fantasy of equivalence where all potentials are not only allowed, but interchangeable in a logic of substitution and replacement that destroys meaning and significance. A diagnostic understanding of this process is the first stage of challenging and undermining its impacts on political discourse. Agnotology employs a mutually reinforcing cycle of erasures and indeterminacy that undermines all challenges to the established political economy. The paired images in Figure 4.1 demonstrate agnotology: the top image is a screenshot from Fox News broadcast on August 8, 2012 where the numbers being presented are confusing and uninformative; the bottom image is a “fake news” graphic that circulated online in May 2014 where the direction of the chart is inverted, creating an impression that the numbers shown are declining rather than increasing. Both graphics are examples of agnotology, but in antithetical ways: top creates confusion through fradulent reportage, but bottom produces a more powerful agnotological affect once it has been unmasked as a fake that was never broadcast. Instead of undermining the crdibility of Fox News reportage, this graphic challenges the validity of top by raising the question about whether it was real or fake as well. These impacts give the fantasy of equivalence a specific valence for agnotological processes that become apparent in “fake news” through their claims that established reportage—such as the common knowledge that Fox News often broadcasts false and misleading graphics—is equivalent to conspiracy theories and well-documented facts are dismissed as inaccurate. This conflation of fact and non-fact is typical of agnotology, but reaches a particularly dramatic scale with the source of these dismissals: “fake news” it is a term specifically employed by United States President Donald Trump to attack any information he disagrees with. However, it is not his invention—the term has been used since the 1890s to identify falsehoods, misinformation, and spurious news. The nature of “fake news” depends on there is being ambiguity about the demarcation between “fake” and “non-fake” news where they cannot always be distinguished. In 2016, the founder of Snopes, David Mikkelson discussed the issue of “fake news” in relation to the factuality and reliability of news in general, noting that “fake news” exists as part of a larger set of issues about credibility, veracity, and documentation:

Unfortunately, that phenomenon is commonly being referred to as a “fake news problem,” a term that itself may be nearly as misleading as the issue it seeks to address. Certainly, the online world is full of fake news—fabricated stories set loose via social media with clickbait headlines and tantalizing images, intended for no purpose other than to fool readers and generate advertising revenues for their publishers. Many fake news purveyors claim to be working in the field of “satire,” but their work is not satirical by any standard definition of the term: it isn’t ironic or arch or funny, it doesn’t prompt debate of social issues by holding them up to derision, it doesn’t ridicule any particular set of human follies or vices. In short, it “satirizes” nothing other than the tendency of many people to accept false information presented to them in a news format as if it were real news (a tendency deliberately encouraged by so-called “satirists” who publish their work on sites that are deliberately designed to resemble those of real news outlets, that mimic the trademarks and URLs of legitimate news organizations, that hide fabricated stories amidst real news items, and that bear no disclaimers or tags identifying the content as humor).

Mikkelson, D. “We have a Bad News Problem, not a Fake News Problem” posed November 17, 2016.

What Mikkelson identifies, “the tendency of many people to accept false information presented to them in a news format as if it were real news” is agnotology. Dismissing the simulation of “legitimate news” in the fashion he does is an intentional fallacy—that the professed intent to satirize the gullibility of audiences is reliable. To conceive of “fake news” as simply “alternative view points” on issues of factuality and logic demonstrates the fantasy of equivalence is a superstructural part of digital capitalism, one that is essential to the maintenance of agnotological processes, blocking any objections as illiberal impositions; agnotology exploits a reification of abstract principle as instrumentality. “Fake news” is a diagnostic that demonstrates the structural role and foundation of agnotology in enabling and defending challenges to unfettered semiotic production.

Figure 4.1
[TOP] Misleading labor statistics shown on Fox News, August 8, 2012;
[BOTTOM] Fake news graphic created by Twitter user @darth that spread through social media in May 2014.

Understanding the agnotological dynamic operative in “fake news” draws attention to fundamental problems of knowledge, semiotics and interpretation where the production of ambiguity and the production of meaning are conceived as essentially mutually-exclusive procedures: to create a meaningful statement requires a discursive structure where ambiguity is radically reduced; in contrast, while definite meaning emerges from limitations upon ambiguity, the meaningful statements of art are (paradoxically) those where the ambiguity (or, more accurately, multivalence) plays the strongest role. It is through the production of multivalent forms—works where several potential meanings simultaneously emerge in a work, sometimes at differing “levels” of interpretation—where ambiguity enables an instability of interpretation that require more careful consideration and demand critical insight for their coherence. Consider the statement:

“The sky is blue.”

This statement presents information that is often accepted/regarded as being “true” even though it is also obviously once dependent on a conditional factuality: there are many situations where the sky is not blue, such as at sunset (when the sky is typically a varied collection of reds, yellows and oranges), or at night when the stars are out and it is black, as well as on a “grey day,” which means the sky is grey too. Aphorisms like “Red sky at morning...” are premised on the idea that the sky is not blue, and yet we are willing to accept, even regard the statement “The sky is blue” in an axiomatic fashion, something to accept without qualification even though we know it is often otherwise. This example is instructive about how we engage with factuality and the variable degrees of facticity in statements, providing a simple instance where we accept and consider the statement to be factual even though we simultaneously know that it is heavily contingent, and often (at least half the time) demonstratively untrue: at night, the sky is not blue, whatever color it might be.

Ambivalence undermines interpretation, eliminating potentials rather than creating new possibilities. This uncertainty is the opposite of indeterminacy (ambiguity) since it precludes the movement from potential to potential in a denial of their status as alternatives. This zero-sum game depends on equivalence where each potential stands equally to its opposite: all potentials cancel each other resulting in stasis. While the normal experience of ambivalence is to be drawn in two contradictory directions simultaneously, the pathological version of ambivalence pulls apart by the contradictory impulses, confusing and destroying meaning—this destructive collapse is the goal of agnotological processes. Consider another statement:

“Doggedly the collie chewed the bone.”

This statement is an example of the rhetorical effect antanaclasis: we take “doggedly” at first figuratively then literally. Understanding the meaning of this statement requires interpretation to move between the figurative—an action performed in a dog-life fashion—and the literal—as an action preformed by a dog. The duplicity of these meanings creates a play that is rhetoric: the dog can only perform a typically dogly action in a dog-like fashion. The statement invites the possibility of supposing that a dog might chew a bone in a not-dogly fashion. The movement between the figurative and the literal comes with the opposition of dog-acting-like-dog and dog-acting-like-not-dog. The poeisis of this transformation is playful, unthreatening, yet it belongs to the same shifting protocols of interpretation and engagement that agnotology exploits: the low-level instability of meaning in this statement, much like the conventionality of “The sky is blue” masks an underlying reliance on external knowledge to render the statement coherent—not just in the meaning of individual terms, but in their transformative arrangement and shifting meanings. The contextual, indexical and relational dimensions of interpretation all rely on established frameworks of accepted information, and it is these framework’s ambiguous application that agnotology exploits, coupled with the centrality of discourse in arriving at a hierarchy of reliability that is definitional for “fact.” The difficulty and complexity that arises from how we understand even a simple statement such as “The sky is blue” or “Doggedly the collie chewed the bone” is only compounded when expanded to more contentious topics. The formal nature of “fake news” is not non-factuality, but indistinguishability—an inability to separate fact from falsehood—a reflection of equivalence.

This innate ambivalence is a reflection of the ambiguity of perceptions, and which epistemic procedures serve to minimize, but cannot eliminate, enabling the particular attacks on the episteme that define agnotological processes: the fundamental uncertainty about how the world is constituted and what models are appropriate to interpret it justify the relativist arguments whose sophistry defends agnotology and the concomitant attacks on the processes and procedures of epistemological knowledge. The emergence of the “fake news” in the United States during 2016, then continuing towards dominance in 2017 and 2018 demonstrates the political applications of agnotology, quite apart from its structural role in maintaining digital capitalism. In being used for obviously political ends, agnotology reveals its foundations in equivalence: a social relations and assumptions, whether between instances of ‘type,’ qualitatively distinct actions, or in divergent forms of immaterial (intellectual) labor are symptoms of the expansive semiotic processes of digital capitalism.

Belief in a loss-of-agency enables agnotology—because agnotology increases uncertainty about what is known while simultaneously decreasing the potentials for effective action. These qualifications do not change our sense of the factuality of this statement, and that quality is important to the question of how we understand and engage with agnotology which declares fact and falsehood equivalent epistemic and ontologic positions, a reification of the semiotic production of digital capitalism and its instrumentalization of the state of information. “Fake news” exploits this relativism that emanates from the state of information, beyond all considerations of validity, empirical reality, or dialectical opposition: an equivalency reified in the idea of information-as-data that conceives social, political and cultural meaning as an instrumentality that renders all ideas and political positions identical.

The group of works identified as “fake news” designated by the term and the information those works present serves agnotological paradigms: not the issue of fact or falsehood, but the designation itself. In this regard, the term “fake news” behaves in the same way as the explanations that “conspiracy theories” provide. It offers illusory models that make sense of the world by reinforcing the individual’s established biases (often by providing an account that supports implicit, internalized, or established beliefs). The convergence of agnotological procedures in the production and maintenance of “fake news” and “conspiracy theories” becomes apparent with the fabrication of false stories to discredit real ones, as when Washington Post reporter Stephanie McCrummen challenged a “source” named Jaime Phillips about her false story of sexual abuse by Republican candidate Roy Moore, who at that time was running for Senator in Alabama during 2017. Phillips’s story was designed to undermine other, credible accounts of abuse by Moore, in effect providing political support for his candidacy by discrediting the already known and publicized allegations of crime (sexual assault and abuse). The “sting” attempted by Phillips and discovered by Washington Post reporters is not an isolated case: during the Moore campaign, automated “robocalls” claiming to be from the Washington Post and offering payments to women willing to make false claims of abuse were made to Alabama residents. These phone calls themselves are agnotology—they are a systemic attempt to raise questions about the validity of Washington Post reportage already published on the charges against Moore. Whether these formal attempts to create uncertainty were discovered (“caught” might be the appropriate term) or succeeded is irrelevant—the fact of the calls reveals agnotology. They attempt to put the reportage in doubt; their existence demonstrates the link between agnotology, “fake news,” and the political agency necessary for democracy. The purpose of these robocalls, much like Phillips’s “sting,” is to invalidate the reportage of crime for a specific political purpose: to elect Roy Moore to the US Senate (the campaign failed). Agnotology challenges reportage in these cases by offering a network of potential interpretations that undermine the validity and trust in reportage itself. This same pre-emptive process of undermining information as “fake news” is immediately apparent in the attacks on any potential results of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Donald Trump’s campaign and any support/interference in the election by the Russian government. The event-being-interpreted is conceived of as false, as “misinformation,” in advance of its reportage.

This purpose is consistent. “Fake news” is designed to challenge belief in any (specific) reportage. Decisions about fact and falsehood become a reflection of the innate biases of the human audience, rather than a logic employing truth in its analyses. The destructive impacts on democratic processes, and discourse generally are obvious. The role of agnotology in attacking the epistemological procedures of news for political reasons is not new; in “fake news” the role of equivalence becomes self-evident: it is the presentation of “alternative ‘facts’” to support a denial of crime in the Moore case, demonstrating how “fake news” and agnotology are mutually reinforcing tendencies within digital capitalism, neither independent nor separate. The link between agnotology and the fantasy of equivalence is a symptom of the same underlying protocol, which Mikkelson’s article implicitly suggests (it is titled “We Have a Bad News Problem, Not a Fake News Problem”). The moral relativism sometimes ascribed to the state of information—the belief that truth and false are interchangeable common or “fake news” for example—involves ignoring the role that mutually exclusive potentials (paradoxes) have in defining limits. Its emergence is understandable as a product of the superficial relativism surrounding the state of information: factuality is only one dimension of this information space. The fantasy of equivalence intervenes in relativist thought to propose (and support) a belief that truth and falsehood equivalent, a denial of their material differences. When applied to mutually exclusive concepts this fantasy reveals itself as an ontological analogue to the epistemological erasures specific to agnotology in which the nature of things—their essence—is denied in support of implicit socio-political effects, such as the soothing affects of believing that one’s position is valid by arguing against all evidence to the contrary. This relativist equivalence enables different groups to have their “own,” very different facts unconstrained by logic or verification protocols.

“Fake news” is an attack on the capacity to identify the nature of things, rather than their significance and meaning, arising from and supports the moral relativism created by agnotology; however, it has a very different affect than the propaganda familiar from fiction, such as “Doublethink” proposed by George Orwell in his novel 1984. Agnotology does not require the direct transformation of materials that creates propaganda and obscures the “truth,” instead proceeding as a proliferation of alternatives rather than as a falsification familiar as propaganda. The challenge agnotology presents through “fake news” is a dismantling of factuality, rather than its occlusion which Orwell so ably describes:

This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound-tracks, cartoons, photographs -- to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct, nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary. In no case would it have been possible, once the deed was done, to prove that any falsification had taken place. The largest section of the Records Department, far larger than the one on which Winston worked, consisted simply of persons whose duty it was to track down and collect all copies of books, newspapers, and other documents which had been superseded and were due for destruction. A number of The Times which might, because of changes in political alignment, or mistaken prophecies uttered by Big Brother, have been rewritten a dozen times still stood on the files bearing its original date, and no other copy existed to contradict it. Books, also, were recalled and rewritten again and again, and were invariably reissued without any admission that any alteration had been made. Even the written instructions which Winston received, and which he invariably got rid of as soon as he had dealt with them, never stated or implied that an act of forgery was to be committed: always the reference was to slips, errors, misprints, or misquotations which it was necessary to put right in the interests of accuracy.

Orwell, G. 1984

Those “corrections” that overwhelm the “truth” in Orwell’s novel bear no resemblance to the activity of agnotology; they are its opposite: the presumption that only a singular version can be allowed gives any alternatives to it a precarious difference—in deviating from the authorized version of “facts” their differences become important, ostensibly and inherently assuming the appearance of dissent. The centrality of agnotology to “fake news” separates it from previous forms of propaganda, disinformation and misinformation. Agnotology acts to eliminate the potential for any dissent, not through coercion as Orwell’s active destruction requires, but by erasing the possibility of distinguishing the “official” from the “alternative” by putting both versions into a state of ambivalent factuality. The resulting control arises in the vacuum of agency this uncertainty creates, and the role of affective/emotional decisions that come to replace logical reflection, which are readily manipulated and directed. The maintenance of a range of choices and the superficial retention of individual agency separate it from the historical propaganda, disinformation, and misinformation that attempt to supplant, disguise, and hide the “facts” from their audience. Unlike these processes, agnotology arises as an affective exploit of a plurality of opinion and the consensus-building process that are central to democratic discourse, disrupting it through an attack on the foundations of how that process operates; it mirrors the semiotic production that dominates digital capitalism—in the database (every position no matter how different is equally valid as data). Instead of one version being more credible than another, agnotology renders all versions equally uncredibile—their factuality comes to depend on pre-existing beliefs which discount alternatives in advance of their proposition.

Agnotology’s epistemological and ontological challenges originate with the fantasy of equivalence. This initial, structural denial of distinctions in historical capitalism between skilled/unskilled laborers severed human agency from production, setting in motion a process of erasure where the distinctions between known and unknown, knowledgeable and ignorant, fact and fantasy all come to mirror the conveniences of capitalist equivalence for value production. The initial externalization of intelligent action that is definitional for the shift to industrial production enables the uniform conception of labor’s activities in terms that foster its mechanization and later replacement with digital automation. These changes emanate from the internal ordering created by this political economy where the separation of agency and production depends on alienation—becoming apparent in political disillusion, social estrangement, a reduced sense of control, and ultimately the distrust of governance. The operative protocols making this expansion possible are fundamental to industrial production and the serial production of interchangeable “instances of type” expanding alongside digital capitalism into new domains. This superstructure organizes all of capitalist society with a simple, inexorable and expansive logic: the embrace of both “fake news” and “conspiracy theory” as explanatory practices that reveal the arrival of Jean Baudrillard’s hyperreal:

It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself, that is, an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes. [...] All the hypotheses of manipulation are reversible in an endless whirligig. For manipulation is a floating causality where positivity and negativity engender and overlap with one another, where there is no longer any active or passive. [...] We are in a logic of simulation which has nothing to do with a logic of facts and an order of reasons. Simulation is characterized by a precession of the model, of all models around the merest fact. [...] Everywhere, in whatever political, biological, psychological, media domain, where the distinction between poles can no longer be maintained, one enters into simulation, and hence into absolute manipulation—not passivity, but the non-distinction of active and passive.

Baudrillard, J. Simulations trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman (New York: Semiotexte, 1983) pp. 6-58.

The role of established knowledge in semiotics provides the basis for Baudrillard’s critique that addresses the evaluation of information through the internalized “models” provided by past knowledge and experience; what his analysis does not provide is the potential for empirical processes to undermine these internalized models, since while all knowledge does derive from the structural ordering of established expectations, those evaluative methods are not static and the models they create are not fixed. It is only when confronted as an agnotological process that his proposal of the hyperreal (and thus simulation) collapses distinctions: this affect of equivalence serves a particular role in the political economy—it renders dissent unimportant, effacing all positions as identical—making fact and falsehood become the same, irrelevant. The resulting hyperreal is unconstrained by legal and social controls that could restrict its valorization based in semiotic production (utilizing autonomous systems and databases created through pervasive monitoring). Digital capitalism aspires to render the state of information as an instrumentality of control, denying all choices through their equivalence, enabling this hyperreal to become more than mere rhetoric. Because all choices have equal value to the surveillance that accompanies this immaterial production, valorizing social behavior proceeds without constraints. “Fake news” is the transposition of this facture to the political, the internalized wielding of agnotology to destroy political challenges and the potential for consensus.

The appeal of the conspiracy theories that agnotology authorizes (fueled by “fake news”) lies with how these theories apparently resolve a trio of affects: existential anxiety (the feeling of safety and control over one’s environs), epistemic uncertainty or ambiguity (understanding the world), and the individual’s status in social relationships (maintaining a positive self-image and membership in a particular group). These factors function in tandem as mutually reinforcing supports for the agnotological paradigm against challenges by denying the validity of alternatives, making it robust and enabling the denial of any information that produces cognitive dissonance. This reinforcing cycle of ideation exploits and reinforces the alienation that initially lead to their embrace, a “trap” in which additional information is assimilated or rejected using the agnotological paradigm as validation.

Direct challenges to evident factuality—what are commonly denied as “fake news” by the Trump administration—brings Groucho Marx’s comment to mind, “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” The “moral relativism” assumed by “fake news” reveals its basis as a fundamental extension of how affective labor acts to suppress dissent. Agnotology disrupts the political domain by undermining the ability to identify “lies, damned lies and statistics” (misinformation and false information) by forcing its subjects into a balkanizing political discourse of non-communicative, opposed groups whose ability to compromise is challenged by their ideological beliefs ratified as incompatible sets of “facts.” This instrumentality depends on a reification of the fantasy of equivalence: it refuses the distinction between immaterial claims (whether semiotic or based in surveillance) and the material reality of their physical implementation, fragmenting and compromising epistemic (and ontologic) procedures. For example, journalist Michelle Mark’s reportage about the Trump administration policy of separating parents from their children when they illegally cross the US boarder is precisely an instance of this process in operation, a news story that makes the “moral relativism” at the center of agnotology obvious:

As controversy rages over the Trump administration's family separation tactic, a number of different government officials have contradicted one another in explaining what exactly is going on with migrant families at the border—and why. The Trump administration recently implemented its new “zero-tolerance” policy, which criminally prosecutes migrants who illegally cross the US-Mexico border and separates them from their children. While some officials have proudly owned up to the policy and argued that it’s necessary to deter illegal immigration, others have shied away from describing family separation as a policy. As critics have pointed out, not all of these explanations add up. Officials are simultaneously denying that a family separation policy exists, and arguing that it’s a deterrent for illegal immigration.

Mark, M. “Trump officials keep contradicting each other trying to explain why they are separating screaming children from their parents at the border” Business Insider June 19, 2018

The combination of a denial-it-is-happening and simultaneous assertion that it provides deterrence (implicitly admitting that it is happening) demonstrates the impacts of equivalence immediately. The social dimension of this erasure of human lives from the consideration of policy brings the “moral relativism” into consciousness through the conflicting and mutually exclusive claims made in its defense. The apparently schizophrenic responses the Trump administration presented over a period of several months only reveal themselves when their claims are compared to each other: Whitehouse Chief of Staff, John Kelly claims the policy is a deterrent; Attorney General Jeff Sessions justifies the policy as appropriate using the Christian Bible; President Trump claims the policy was created by his political opponents; Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen claims no such policy exists. All of these divergent statements are offered as factual descriptions of this policy by their presenters; the cognitive dissonance between these statements cannot be easily resolved if they are all accepted as factual; however, to interpret these responses as a series of modulations (changes of position) designed to defend and deflect criticism does not resolve their conflicts, merely elides them via an imposed, interpretive “context” that ignores and naturalizes their agnotology; this dismissal of cognitive dissonance refuses to acknowledge the significance of their self-evident contradictions. To argue these contradictions reveal an evolving position, or are evidence for incoherent leadership, excuses them, relegating their cognitive dissonance to being an “uninformed” position instead of a tactical action. That resolution ignores the simple situation that what has happened with this particular scandal is no different from the responses and conflicting positions apparent throughout the Trump Presidency. That each government official provides a distinct response independent of all other responses given in the past is precisely the point; the agnotological effect these contradictions generate is purposeful: which response is valid? None of them are, or all of them—their purpose is not to inform but confuse the possibility of knowing any answer to the question with a reasonable degree of certainty. This ambivalence about fact is what enables agnotological processes to disrupt challenges and eliminate agency because there is no clear course of action to take. This raising of doubt is how agnotological effects manifest, not as misinformation, but through ambivalence, contradiction, and invalidation/denial of what is already known. The confusion these different statements creates provides a justification and superficial validation for terming any information presented about the program separating emigrant parents from their children as “fake news.”

Agnotology has serious impacts on political discourse and directly undermines social accountability. It becomes impossible to demand change when the existence of whatever is being challenged is itself in doubt: agnotology transforms dissent into a debate over the definitions of terms, their applicability, and in its most extreme cases, questions of ontology—deflecting the dissenting challenge into an engagement trapped in questions of discourse. Physicist Richard Feynman’s observations about the dynamic relationship between experience and knowledge relies explicitly on the assumption of epistemic protocols that are valid; however, in shifting to a model of knowledge based in the individual capacity for comprehension and observation, agnotology becomes an inevitable challenge that undermines and is justified by the same emiprical approach:

There is no authority who decides what is a good idea. We have lost the need to go to an authority to find out whether an idea is true or not. We can read an authority and let him suggest something; we can try it out and find out if it is true or not. If it is not true, so much the worse—so the “authorities” lose some of their “authority.”

Feynman, R. The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist (Reading: Perseus Books, 1998) p. 21

The “need to go to an authority” Feynman describes is the traditional approach to knowledge as received fact. Shifting from this historical system of received and unquestionable knowledge to empirical protocols ushers in the potential disruption of agnotology since the nature of knowledge is dynamic rather than fixed. What agnotology does is accentuate the inherent instabilities of this process to the point that it prevents the desired verification from happening; thus, the possibility of an instrumental response that changes the situation disappears in the exaggeration of the ambivalences inherent to this “empirical” approach. Becoming caught in the contradictions and addressing the confusion they create eliminates and redirects the dissent into actions which may not (most likely will not) result in changes to the status quo. This process, whose debasement Feynman’s observation explains, is how agnotology disrupts any challenges when they do emerge—in spite of acknowledging their own instability, epistemic protocols and knowledge systems play a fundamental role in dissipating opposition—they justify the agnotological refusal to settle upon a conclusive response, instead proceeding into balkanized arguments which cannot be resolved.

The proposition of “fake news” arises from an underlying convergence of paired denials: one epistemological (agnotology), the other ontological (equivalence), deployed politically as vehicles for consolidating power and authority. This same fantasy of equivalence between commodities inflects the entire conception of the productive process, applying not only to the products of that process, but to the labor, materials employed, and exchange values created. Agnotology offers only pessimistic prospects for change: this protocol creates learned helplessness, a mental state that surrenders its agency before being attempting to act. “Fake news” reveals a fantasy of equivalence whose “relativism” conflates antitheticals—facts and falsehoods—to justify any action performed by eliminating debate; “fake news” eliminates dissent and converts challenges into “conspiracy theories” (discredited epistemological arguments) whose evidence is invalidated in advance, disrupting any attempt to alter the status quo. The only response to a dominant regime of agnotology is refusal to accept the willful creation of ambivalence and uncertainty through concern with the superstructures that produce and reinforce the agnotologic process—their political basis—rather than an isolated examination and evaluation of claims individually; their treatment as unique instances of solitary pieces of misinformation does not undermine agnotology, it enables it by accepting the foundations of consensus are in doubt. The issue is not the “truth” of a claim, but the ways it dis/ables agency, and who benefits from this breakdown. This action requires a positivist assumption that evidence and knowledge—however necessarily incomplete—can produce inductively valid conclusions.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  August 5, 2019  all rights reserved.

All images, copyrights, and trademarks are owned by their respective owners: any presence here is for purposes of commentary only.