It has often been said that America had to imagine itself into existence; less often remarked is the corollary, that America is, in a very real sense, merely a story the nation tells itself. That makes the US singularly subject to the meanings of words, to the fetishised language of the founding documents. But now it is a country arguing that a constitutional amendment beginning with the words “well-regulated” prohibits regulation, one whose supreme court ruled that a corporation is the same as an individual. This is Humpty Dumpty through the looking glass, proclaiming that words mean whatever he says they mean. “The question,” as Humpty tells Alice, is “which is to be master – that’s all.”
When we lose track of whose version of a story to trust, paranoia ensues. It seems no coincidence that we find ourselves in an epistemological crisis several years into what is frequently described as a “crisis in the humanities”, the very subjects that devote themselves to epistemological systems: language, literature, history, philosophy. The destruction of epistemological foundations creates the crisis in knowledge.
For Arendt, imagination is where politics lives: the capacity to imagine ourselves as other than we are is the predicate both for lying and for political action. Democracy is the politics of the possible, rather than of the inevitable or coercive. Political and cultural rhetoric creates the conditions for its own realisation: thus we can only save ourselves if we tell the truth. Democracy relies on foundations of shared truths, because the social contract depends on mutual trust. “This is not who we are,” Joe Biden repeated throughout his campaign. To a certain extent we are what we do, not who we say we are (“action is character,” as F Scott Fitzgerald once observed). But performative language complicates that distinction. In insisting “This is not who we are”, Biden also creates the conditions to change who we are, to become who we say we wish to be.