On Power, Truth, and Living Statues


The second-place essay for the 2013 Hannah Arendt Prize.

The Hannah Arendt Prize in Critical Theory and Creative Research is an annual prize competition for those interested in the juncture of art and creative research and in the principles at the heart of the arts and humanities, including sense-based intelligence; the reality of singular, nonrepeatable phenomena; ethical vision; and consilience between inner and outer, nature and reason, thought and experience, subject and object, self and world.


Above, photograph of Hannah Arendt, NYC, 1944. Courtesy of the Estate of Fred Stein.

On Power, Truth, and Living Statues

by Marc Lombardi

Power is allergic to the truth. When I say power, I mean the powers that be. I mean the systems, networks, and resources that wish to determine the character of their constituent environment without allowing their environment to determine their character in equal measure. Power responds to the truth in a manner fundamentally similar to any other organic body that encounters an element that threatens its ecological niche; that is to say, it is in the very nature of power to attempt to dispel truth from its environment.

If we assume an antagonistic relationship between power and truth—and, indeed, we do—then what reason would anyone have for siding with the truth? Do we have any resources for understanding why anyone would favor the truth besides the empty imperatives of moral philosophy? Practically speaking, the grand narratives of ethics (e.g., duty, fairness, equality, justice, and so forth) actually offer far less guidance for directing the course of our lives than their more modest counterparts in moral psychology (e.g., temperament, habit, and sentiment).

It does indeed seem reasonable to consider truth-telling as an expression of a particular sort of ironic temperament; that is to say, there are some amongst us who by their nature act in advance of the presence of evidence, suggesting that their actions are worthwhile. Indeed, it is impossible to do anything whatsoever without some touch of irony; after all, an action amounts to such only insofar as its consequences are not wholly predictable. By this definition, we are all ironists to a degree, but some are considerably more ironic than others to the extent that the awareness of the likelihood of their own futility does not prevent them from acting.

It is important to remember that there are persons who can maintain this ironic moral temperament throughout much of the course of their lives and in nearly all relevant registers of experience. Naturally, I believe that it is to our common benefit that such persons exist. Our moral ironists show us that power fears the truth even when and where that fear seems particularly irrational and inexplicable. However, I am fairly certain that such persons are quite rare at the present moment; moreover, I find it quite unlikely that such persons ever existed in great supply, and, indeed, I doubt whether it is possible for any society to generate a great number of moral ironists.

As significant as our moral ironists are as examples, it is my belief that if we are truly interested in moral questions, we ought to be interested in understanding the typical case along with the atypical. So then we might ask: But what of those who tell the truth not solely out of irony? Why do they do it? And when we ask this question, the sort of answer we desire is, once again, not an answer that justifies moral action from above. If you are interested in what it means to act morally in your own way and in your own life, then an account that appeals to you in terms that you cannot experience is of little use.

The account we must give is one that reaches beyond irony (as very few of us can maintain our moral irony indefinitely) but which is still expressible within the position of radical uncertainty, which is indissociable from any and all efforts at practical action. It is my belief, queer as this may sound, that there is indeed a natural law of truth-telling whose character is both detectable and expressible within the lives of the persons who experience it.

In no way will recognizing this law’s contours allow us to escape from our innermost feelings of futility, despair, and sheer uncertainty concerning the consequences of doing anything whatsoever. Even if we could manage such an escape, we would not want to go through with it. If it cannot transcend the need for irony, then what does this so-called law have to offer? Only a sense of promise, whatever that may be worth.

The promise found in the act of telling the truth, as desperate and tragic a promise as it may be, is that if truth can infiltrate the constituent spaces of power thoroughly enough, the allergy will prove fatal for the host. The law is this: Power faces a forced choice where and when truth situates itself at a place that disrupts necessary motion. At such a point, power decides—it has no choice but to decide—either (a) to change the most fundamental terms of its organization so as to allow the allergen to remain there where it stands or (b) to marshal the entirety of its organization toward the purpose of expelling the allergen. In either event, truth will have fundamentally changed the coordinates of power.

The power of truth is the power to stand still there where power requires flow, movement, variance, accommodation. When truth refuses to move, power must move it or move around it. The force required to compel an immobile body to motion is always greater than the force required for the immobile body to remain still. For power to show its superior force is always and at once for it to show its inherent weakness; it is to show that, proportionally speaking, the truth that refuses to move is always stronger than any power that must preserve motion at all costs.

The marshaling of force to move the immobile is the history and counterhistory of law, architecture, rhetoric, technology, and public art. There where power cannot tolerate the truth, it makes it into a statue. This is power recognizing its own weakness, acknowledging its limits, and making the tactical decision to route around what force cannot move. A statue is a skeleton of truth.

Power is motion. Motion requires space, coordinates, time, and force. Truth disrupts all of the dimensions of motive power; to disrupt any of power’s motive dimensions is to disrupt them all. Truth resets coordinates. Truth stops the spatialization of time, if only for a moment. Truth makes force assert itself. And, perhaps most significantly, truth turns space into place. The power to move is no power at all when streets, hallways, corridors, freeways, arteries, ports, pipelines, lanes, channels, bridges, rivers, and transmission lines are blocked, clogged, cut off, and/or interrupted. Any space that must remain open for the preservation of power through motion is a potential chokepoint. The only thing that truth ever needs to do is to stand still in the right place.

The paradox is this: If truth becomes itself only by ceasing to move, how can it possibly remain alive? Indeed, when truth stands still, it does so only by risking its own death. The central question, then, is not how truth becomes itself—for the answer to that question is always “by any means necessary”—but where. Truth is alive there and only there where it is in power’s way. Where and when it is truly in the way, power itself cannot afford to let truth die—at least not then and there—for if truth can die on its own terms, in the right place, and of its own volition, then the limits of power are there for all to see. When truth stands still in the right place, power has no choice but to move it, even if that means causing a greater disruption.

Where and when it is out of the way, where and when it is no longer contested, where and when it is no longer situated in a space that power requires be kept open, truth ossifies. A statue is a record both of a truth’s victory and of its defeat; ultimately, it is neither. Power is what it is because it can move truth out of the way but it does so only at tremendous cost. Statues are as expensive as they are necessary. Every statue is a concession.

Statues provide a place: for people to meet; for networks to form; for breathing new life into ossified truths; for the gathering and staging of new truths; for the sharing, dissemination, and re-imagination of tactics, strategies, and maps; for moments of respite from power’s ceaseless motion; for experiments in the search for new coordinates. We are grateful for our statues but not everyone can, will, or should become one. The truth becomes a living thing only thanks to the fallible vitality of those who gather at the statue’s base, free it from its quarantine, and return the truth back to its rightful place—there where it is most in the way. Statues are only worth respecting when and where they stop traffic.

About the MA in Critical Theory and Creative Research

The MA in Critical Theory and Creative Research (CT+CR), the first of its kind in the U.S., is an accelerated, 45-credit, seminar-based program (one year + summer intensive) that prepares students for opportunities at the intersection of art, theory, and research. Located in the metropolitan heart of the Pacific Northwest, a center of creative risk-taking and social experimentation, the program combines the study of critical theory as a mode of socio-political critique and creative research as a process-driven form of inquiry, pushing both theory and research in new directions within the context of a 21st-century art school. The program is devoted to people and ideas and to a rethinking of the present and future of cultural production; of arts-based research and research-based arts; of curatorial practice, documentary, and the Archive; and of social and political reconfiguration in relation to major sites of contemporary contestation. See additional information on the MA CT+CR Program page. Founding Co-chairs: Anne Marie Oliver and Barry Sanders.

— Posted on 09/22 at 11:31 PM

Share this story: