Veritable Truth

February 2016
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Peter Pomerantsev. Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. (Public Affairs, 2014.)

Die Wahrheit ist dem Menschen zumutbar.1
Ingeborg Bachmann.

While reading Peter Pomerantsev’s book, I tried to imagine the world encapsulated by the book’s title (that’s how felicitous and maddening it is): nothing is true and everything is possible. A state like that, if you think it through, ceases to even be any sort of state at all, and suggests overall mental chaos. Overall chaos is the destructive image of totalitarian horror par excellence. Mental chaos is its heart of darkness. Even the image of sheer hell has two dominant but contradictory visions: one is the notion of methodical, unending, well-organized and perfectly regulated sadism, a baroque, painstaking, supremely effective maximization of suffering; the other is precisely the notion of an abyss of chaos. The first is a comprehensive scheme; the second is the complete absence of structure. You can choose which of these two visions is more horrifying: the solid ground of guaranteed suffering or a certain chasm, a complete abyss.

But instead of the image of sheer hell, which the fantasy of the radical embodiment of the condition spelled out in the book’s title should have evoked in me, I was struck by this thought: if “nothing is true and everything is possible,” then that really means neither the former nor the latter. Because Pomerantsev’s formulation can also be read like this: everything is untrue and nothing is possible, nothing is truly possible. In other words, if all of this is falsehood, then no real possibilities exist at all. And not only in the sense of the age-old liar paradox, and not in the sense that “in the end truth is always somewhere,” but above all because it is precisely under the condition of all-encompassing falsehood that the possibilities are far from infinite, so “far from everything is possible.” What’s more, it is precisely when there is an absence of truth that the possibilities are not simply limited: they lose their meaning, so they cease to be “possibilities,” morphing into overall “impossibilities.”

But this does not seem to be exactly what Peter Pomerantsev is talking about in this book, nor in all his talks, lectures, and accompanying interviews. Likewise, this is not what we are talking about at all.

2.

Both Peter Pomerantsev’s book and its main thesis, spelled out in its audaciously nausea-inducing title, have struck at the very nerve of our time. It seems that this “nerve” can be identified as horror at the notion that truth might not reveal itself, at the specter of the absence of truth as a certain modus of the world’s existence, which has either already happened or is happening now, and which will define it for an unforeseeably long time. In other words, as the fear that truth and “truly” might not appear. That all its criteria – and therefore the criteria of reality – will turn out to be degraded, eroded, and disregarded. The fear of a sort of collective and global Alzheimer’s, of total “spatial disorientation.” All of this could – though only at a first, mistaken glance – be reminiscent of Heinrich von Kleist’s “Kant crisis,” from which he never fully recovered; or the “Kantian”-esque crisis of young Törless in Musil’s eponymous novel. It is as if an abyss is opening beneath us from the realization of the relativity, or even illusionarity, total artificiality, or “constructedness” of any truth. Like the realization that the seemingly useful bridges we use to cross over all sorts of fissures are suddenly falling apart right under our feet.

But the condition suggested by Peter Pomerantsev’s title is of a different nature. It is not an...

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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka