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Recent political developments have made the notion of 'post-truth' ubiquitous. Along with associated terms such as 'fake news' and 'alternative facts', it appears with regularity in coverage of and commentary on Donald Trump, the Brexit vote, and the role – relative to these phenomena – of a half-despised, half-feared creature known as 'the public'. It has become commonplace to assert that we now inhabit, or are entering, a post-truth world.
In this paper, I issue a sceptical challenge against the distinctiveness and utility of the notion of post-truth. I argue, first, that the term fails to capture anything that is both real and novel. Moreover, post-truth discourse often has a not-fully-explicit political force and function: to ‘irrationalise’ political disaffection and to signal loyalty to a ‘pre-post-truth’ political status quo. The central insight of the speech act theory of J. L. Austin and others – that saying is always also doing – is as indispensable for understanding the significance of much of what is labelled ‘post-truth’, I’ll argue, as it is for understanding the significance of that very act of labelling.
Keywords: post-truth, speech acts, Trump, brexit, Austin
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