Architecture in a 'Post-Truth' World
by Gabriel Fuentes
In “Post-Truth Architecture,” a thinkpiece published online by the Architectural Review on December 20th 2016, Steve Parnell criticizes the media for enabling a “post-truth” society for which, to quote the Oxford Dictionary definition, “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” As a cultural and aesthetic discourse, architecture is certainly not immune. Citing social media’s capacity to satiate the populist desire for instant gratification as architecture’s biggest problem, he asserts: “Buildings may be constructed on the building site, but architecture is constructed in the discourse.” In other words, the fact of building on the ground—its material-ontological reality—is, or at least should be, conditioned by the truth of its discourse.
But such faith in discourse to lend architecture an ethical dimension grounded in truth begs the question: What constitutes the discourse itself? If truth is legitimized in relation to fact, how is architecture’s discourse constructed and distributed in a “post-truth” world where the relationship between truth and fact is increasingly opaque, ambiguous, and distanced? These questions—questions that will no doubt come to consume architecture in the age of Trump—are not only infrastructural in the sense that they address the structure-giving forms that condition what Keller Easterling calls contemporary matrix space, but are also profoundly political and aesthetic in that they share a concern for how discourse about and around architecture—what can be perceived and said about it—is produced and consumed publicly.
Hence in order to contemplate architecture in the age of Trump, it is necessary to acknowledge the aesthetic and political dimensions that bind truth to fact. A “post-truth” world is not a world beyond truth; it is a world in which truth is partitioned, claimed, and valued against motivated dispositions toward fact. In this political reality, truth floats aesthetically in front of fact, acting as a surface that reveals, conceals, and/or otherwise distorts the factuality of things for selfish gain. Truth, in other words, is not given but practiced—that is, authored and disseminated intentionally as deictic representations of the world. For better or worse, such truth-claims gain meaning and agency through the infrastructures that configure the relational and representational dimensions of communication (linguistic or otherwise). The medium is indeed the message, but who is the message for? What kind of message is architecture willing to engage...or not?
In the age of Trump, architecture must reckon with a “post-truth” world by sharpening its critical and disciplinary capacity to practice truth ethically—to plug into, reconfigure, and reorient the infrastructural matrix space that conditions its objects, discourses, and dissemination platforms toward the common good. It must be critical but productively so. Armed with formal, spatial, and organizational savviness, it must learn to operate cleverly, and at times covertly, in the space between truth and fact, disrupting the distance between them along the way. It must push beyond mere negation into what Jacques Rancière calls dissensus: an aesthetic disruption in the sensible order that binds “post-truth” to power.
*Published in LOG 39, Winter 2017