Understanding post-truth times to navigate the Anthropocene: An interview with Michael Kilburn

by Meghie Rodrigues
This interview follows the panel “STS for a post-truth age: comparative dialogues on reflexivity (I)”, held at the EASST/4S Joint Meeting in 2020. The session had several discussions intersecting disinformation, post-truth and the way we deal (or not) with some of the greatest challenges of our time, such as the Anthropocene. Michael Kilburn, professor of Politics and International Studies at the School of Arts and Sciences of Endicott College in Massachusetts (USA), posed a series of questions around “the avant-garde of a global crisis of civilization” in the thought of Czech politician Vaclav Havel. He also brought about how some of Havel’s ideas to deal with crises in a post-communist regime can help us think of the current ecological crisis we face in the present.

In your presentation at the 2020 EASST/4S, “Living in post-truth in the Anthropocene”, you chose the words of Czech playwright and former president Vaclav Havel to conduct your line of thinking. Havel was the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, an icon of the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Why did you choose Havel to think of post-truth and the Anthropocene? What can we learn from him to help us navigate the crisis that brings post-truth and the Anthropocene together?

The first link is the conference was supposed to be held in Prague — and I’m familiar with Havel’s work, so it seemed to be a nice connection to make, especially because of the conference’s theme, “Locating and timing matters”… so it seemed like a good place to start. Also, I was very impressed and struck by the interdisciplinarity in science and technology studies (STS), being new to the field. Havel, in a sort of ad hoc fashion, represents that, too: he is best known as a playwright, and was always interested in the Humanities. 

He was born in a bourgeois environment but couldn’t enjoy it because of political turmoil: first, the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, then the communist regime rose to power. He wasn’t able to study Humanities at university like he wanted because his family was a “class enemy”, so his options were rather limited. He managed to study civil engineering and later worked as a technician for a chemical laboratory and later got other working-class jobs until he ended up in a theater as a technician (and later became a playwright). So Havel, in a way, embodies STS, with his philosophical, humanistic tendencies but also draws from his experience. He met lots of different, interesting people from whom he could learn from and thus built his self-education in a sort of “soup” to understand the world. So I thought he would be a good figure to explore.

Also, the panel was about post-truth. I teach American politics and we’re struggling with many issues around that term. In Havel’s time, the condition of what he calls a post-totalitarian regime was the greatest challenge — to which he suggests should be faced with the living in truth, a capital T “Truth”. And it would be interesting to bring him forward to the present and think of the current scenario. Havel dealt with ideology in his writing — but how to deal with this “ideology 2.0” or wherever we are right now, where truth has so many suspicions around it? 

Havel doesn’t give us any answers [on how to deal with post-truth or the Anthropocene]. The historical context shifted, he died ten years ago and finished his philosophical works three decades ago. But one thing that might be useful for us today is his idea of hope. The idea that even in the most desperate circumstances — like communism seemed to him at the time or the Anthropocene seems to us today — there’s still hope for change. There may be a way out if we change our way of thinking. We once believed the Cold War would go on forever, but in the end it didn’t. Life ultimately is bigger than the “system”. It precedes it and will continue after it’s gone. So trying to fix things by engaging directly with the system is to validate the system itself, and it really narrows the field of vision. Whereas if you just see the system as a symptom of a larger problem and try to work around it might be better. Maybe our way to survive the Cold War despite all despair and cynicism was to focus on life itself. 

In his 1979 essay “Power of the Powerless”, Havel makes a difference between the “objectives of life” and the “objectives of the system” – the system being, in the case, a society he strongly wished would come out of the communist regime (but would take at least another decade to do so). He said Eastern Europe was living under a “post-totalitarian regime” at the time. What is this regime he talked about and how is it related to the notion of a post-truth society?

The “objectives of life” and the “objectives of the system” was a strict dichotomy to Havel. When he referred to the “objectives of the system” he was talking about the post-totalitarianism system, which was one example of all other systems — or architectonics of power, which was a bad thing (and it’s curious because he couldn’t have imagined he would become president years later). They were trying to boil things down to their own essence. Science in the 1960s was pretty much about simplifying things — there wasn’t as much appreciation for chaos, interdependence or intersectionality. Science has learnt a lot with complexity, especially with the environmental sciences. It’s learnt that perhaps just isolating the active ingredient of a plant to get a compound for a pill is not enough. Maybe it should be in combination with its organic context, and that’s what makes it effective. Science has got there, but maybe politics hasn’t yet. 

So when Havel talks about the system, he means anything that reduces complexity to its most probable state. And if individuals are more complex than the system, then they’d have to be forced to conform. That was definitely true in the communist system. It is curious because they construed communism to be like a science — like marxism was supposed to aggregate the scientific laws of history. And if the individual doesn’t fit the system, there’s something wrong with the individual because you can’t question the system. This was the situation Havel was in, questioning systems thinking, and comparing it to the aims of life, which sought to be beautiful, diverse, organic, complex — at the individual and systemic levels. So to him, any system would strive to reduce complexity and thus, would be automatically anti-beauty, anti-poetry, anti-ambiguity. To him, all systems are dehumanizing. 

The Prague spring was an attempt to escape the dehumanization of the system in place then — it was what they called “socialism with a human face.” They tried to do the Perestroika in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and it was beautiful — but it freaked the soviets out, who crushed the movement with an attempt for “normalization”, trying to go back to the “normal” pre-Prague spring as if it had never happened. But it had. And this attempt is what he calls the “post-totalitarian regime”. He was not saying totalitarianism was over, but it had evolved to something else — a bit more sophisticated than communism 1.0, a system that obliged people to comply. But once you recognize you’re being morally compromised, you can’t do it anymore. And that’s the role of ideology — it allows you to maintain your dignity by allowing you to lie to yourself, and it’s a big price to pay for people with principles. 

As to its relation to post-truth… that’s an excellent question and I haven’t figured it out yet. It seems to me there are two sides to it. Right now, post-truth is usually referred to as an epistemological crisis. Everyone used to agree on what the truth was — so that when someone lied, you could call them on it. It seems like you can’t do it anymore because truth isn’t the reference point it once was. The communists were terrified of being found out, exposed in their ideology. In the communist regime, power and truth were the same thing. So they cracked down pretty heavily on dissidents that could expose them. So I guess they were fostering some sort of post-truth regime by then. 

And this comes to what we have in place today. Trump for example, has no epistemology. It’s Trump’s world. He doesn’t understand the difference between a truth and a lie. And still he’s got 42% of support in this country. Probably we have almost half of the population living in a post-truth world as well. Conspiracy theories and QAnon give people something to believe in — something that is totally disconnected from a shared reality. Are we living a break or an evolution of what we consider the truth to be? I am not sure, but looking closely, there’s nothing new in the way populist leaders handle the truth. They had to recycle several things (from neofascist movements, for example). It’s a kitschy pastiche of old ideas. And maybe what defeated those old ideas will defeat them again. In the end of the day, facts are stubborn things — one can deny gravity and jump off a building and see what happens…

In that regard, there’s a recent piece for the Financial Times in which economist Noreena Hertz makes the case for the epidemics of loneliness that is feeding the vortex of extreme right-wing populism in the West. She recalls Hannah Arendt and some of her ideas in The Origins of Totalitarianism in the sense of ideology as a means for isolated individuals to regain and “rediscover their purpose and self-respect”. To Havel, ideology is a technology of power that demands conformity and acquiescence. Where do Havel and Arendt meet in today’s society?

It is interesting that they seem to have different views on ideology, but there’s a lot in common, too. Havel does talk about how seductive ideology is and how people can find power in it. Most people are quite at home in joining a club or a gang — you give up some of your individuality. And this is a weak point of his theory of living in truth. He had the idea that you could forgo ideology but express yourself living in an authentic community. 

I think Arendt was also anti-ideological — she talked about the importance of truth, integrity and standing up to ideology. Certainly her life experience spoke to that. But Havel saw all ideologies as illegitimate. And I think Arendt saw many of them as evil, but also that they were not necessarily illegitimate: they were immoral, but they functioned very well and were very attractive to some groups. 

In your presentation you mention that Havel’s critique of ideology did not really work in real life – his anti-political approach to politics proved to be not effective enough in running a government and a country. So anti-politics is very possibly not the best path to face the Anthropocene, which is a political problem par excellence. What alternatives do you see to facing the Anthropocene today?

My first point is: we don’t know yet. We’re trying to solve questions to which we don’t even have language to formulate, much less institutions to deal with them. We’re trying to solve a present and a future problem with the tools of the past. Anti-politics might be unworkable — and Havel himself learnt to do politics later on. 

It’s not just simply about keeping carbon emissions low. We cannot solve the problems with electric cars — we cannot change our lifestyles enough to solve this problem. Maybe the ultimate answer might be that this problem is going to solve us. Because… even calling it the “Anthropocene” is too anthropocentric. There’s a great article in The Atlantic by Peter Brannen, “The Anthropocene is a joke”,  in which he wasn’t denying the science or that the Anthropocene is here — but he said it’s ridiculous to call it the “Anthropocene”. It’s too self-aggrandizing for us. Geological epochs are normally millions of years long, and the Holocene just started a few thousand years ago. 

Maybe a lesson I take from the geologic time perspective to think of the Anthropocene is that we’re a very small part of the whole system and maybe have done more damage than we can fix. Maybe the only solution is to let the environmental system play out. We have created hyper objects (like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch) that are way beyond our current technology and capacity to solve them. Maybe the only hope I can pull from this is to try to reimagine what it means to be human and see ourselves as part of a system — and manage to integrate ourselves to it, like mycelium, which are totally integrated with other life forms, even at the cellular level… and then let the system adjust. And maybe even get comfortable with the idea that there might not be a place for humans in the post-Anthropocene. 

The post-Anthropocene has got to be post-anthropocentric.