Thought From the Outside: Post-Truth and Cambodian Political Theater

By Casper Bruun Jensen

Post-truth, the post-factual, alternative facts. In the wake of Donald Trump’s campaign and election as president of the United States, these terms swirl around the social media and public sphere with increasing frequency. Trump’s blatant disregard for the category of facts, if not for reality itself, perplexes and infuriates his many opponents. One hears the refrain “We are entering uncharted territory.” At stake is a challenge to the long-cherished notion of speaking truth to power. If power refuses to listen, what would be the point of scientific knowledge? Just think of the unheeded warnings against global warming.

What might political life in Cambodia tell about this situation? Located around 9000 miles from Washington D.C, the modus operandi of politics in Phnom Penh confronts us with some of what Michel Foucault called “thought from the outside.” A glance at this thought might help put into sharper focus what is, and is not, unprecedented about the current American situation. For what this thought is “outside” to is, among other things, the idea that the normal state of affairs is one where scientific facts balance or constrain political power.

A bit of exposure to the Cambodian outside offers a forceful reminder that the speak-truth-to-power nexus is not only a distinctly modern ideal but also an idealization

Though factual assertions are also made in the Mekong region, nobody would think they operate as a check on power. Scientists and activists present facts that have no listeners and inform no policies. This, of course, is not an unknown occurrence in the West either. Meanwhile, local government officials circulate fabricated facts (such as rates of “forest coverage” that include rubber plantations) produced to obtain global environmental funds.

To understand this disregard of facts, it is relevant to recall the infamous killings of intellectuals in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge. Since then, the country has been run by prime minister Hun Sen, a low-ranked Khmer Rouge officer before he defected to Vietnam. Gaining power and riches despite having no more than a few years of schooling, Hun Sen has never exhibited much interest in building up Cambodian higher education.

Cambodian political culture has, of course, much longer legacies. The political scientist Stephen Heder has described it as a form of political theater. As originally characterized by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, such theater works through displays of power and magnificence that “perform an ontology to make it real.”  Wrapped in “florid boastful assertions,” decisions are exhibited in front of the public as acts of pure agency emanating from the ruler. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the dynamics of decision-making are shrouded in secrecy. I have heard an NGO interlocutor compare the back-stage of Cambodian policy to the “dark web.”

Ironically, it would appear from these descriptions that, rather than Cambodia gradually ascending toward the transparency of modern Western states – which is the hope of international development organizations – the US is becoming more like a theater state. Yet, in contrast to Donald Trump who generally appears to have little regard for history, Hun Sen encourages a revisionist textbook history that casts him as a reincarnated Angkorean King.

Cambodia cannot be charged with being “post-factual” since the state never pretended to rely on facts in the first place. But we might also query how much leverage can be gained from the charge of the post-factual in the U.S. Has there been, actually, any point in American or European political history where facts played the properly respected role ascribed to them by scholars worrying about post-truth? After all, as science and technology studies have long pointed out, “facts” have always been impure, politicized entities. In regard to STS, it is more than a bit curious to observe recent reversals among those who speak on behalf of facts. During the 1990s “science wars,” the physicist Alan Sokal sarcastically invited fact-doubting constructivist “postmodern” scholars to ‘transgress the boundaries’ of gravity from his high-rise apartment. In the mid-2000s, Bruno Latour—a “postmodernist” in science warriors’ eyes—began worrying about the deployment of “social constructivism” by climate deniers. By 2016, we seem to have come full circle, as various erstwhile (social) constructivists look back nostalgically to the time when truth and reality was respected.

A bit of exposure to the Cambodian outside offers a forceful reminder that the speak-truth-to-power nexus—speech that conveys unpleasant facts to the powerful and the expectation that such facts must be acknowledged by those in power—is not only a distinctly modern ideal but also an idealization. It never held sway in most places, and it managed to do so only tenuously in the West. From this perspective, current lamentations in the United States over the loss of the power of the factual appear like backward projections, nostalgic recollections of the past as it never was. It certainly never was that way in Cambodia. But, the historical record suggests, neither was it anywhere else.

With reference to Epimenides’ Cretan liars paradox, Michel Foucault once wrote that the simple assertion “I lie” was “enough to shake the foundations of Greek truth.” Today, inversely, Euro-American political thought appears shaken by the public success of Trumpists’ insistence, against all evidence, that they do not lie. What seems to be at stake, however, is not the actual political regard or disregard of concrete facts. It is, rather, the basic assumption that truth and lies provide a relevant contrast for moral-political conduct.

In the US today, the question is whether it remains possible to maintain the distinction between facts and fiction, truth and lies, as politically relevant or whether it will succumb to the onslaught of “alternative facts.” In Cambodia, the question is whether it will be possible to introduce that distinction as politically relevant for the first time. One is a question of holding on to something that never really existed; the other is a question of pushing something that has never been. In both cases, we are likely to witness the emergence of new forms of knowledge and power—and the relations between them—quite different from right-thinking, liberal—and modernist—suppositions.

Casper Bruun Jensen is a senior researcher at the department of anthropology, Osaka University. His current work examines how Mekong delta futures are modeled.