The selection of the term “post-truth” as the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2016 serves as an important cue for critical thinking about the epistemological instability of the global political climate in the present. Defined as “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, “post-truth”, and its particular noun, “post-truth politics” gained wide circulation during the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential candidacy and subsequent presidency of Donald Trump in the United States (Oxford English Dictionary, 2016). Amid the lies, scandals, “alternative facts”, allegations of “fake news”, leaks, hacks, and conspiracies that have characterized this political moment, a second term emerges as a seeming answer to the problems posed by post-truth politics: “woke”. Also shortlisted as 2016’s Word of the Year, and used primarily in the phrase, “stay woke”, woke was initially popularized during 2013’s Black Lives Matter protests, and gained widespread use on social media in the following years. Referring to a rigorously maintained state of alertness regarding social and political issues, wokeness seeks to function as the light cutting through the thick fog of lies and deception in the age of post-truth politics. The concept of wokeness, and its relation to (post-)truth, deception, and conspiracy is my specific area of interest for my proposed doctoral research.
In its present usage, wokeness simultaneously refers to two clashing states of consciousness. Used in its original context, wokeness refers to a deeply embodied and active sense of awareness, particularly related to issues of injustice. Within months of the term’s circulation on the Internet however, the term also took on an ironic meaning, used popularly in memes to poke fun at individuals who had seemingly missed the mark in an attempt to awaken their consciousness. This latter definition of wokeness is interesting in that it functions in clearly demarcating the forms of knowledge, belief, and representation that can be socially qualified as truth from those that get dismissed as lies, conspiracy, or paranoid illusions. Here, wokeness thus functions both as an ideal of socio-political consciousness to aspire toward, but also a particular aesthetic that serves in creating the boundaries between consciousness and deception, facts and lies, and ultimately, truth and falsehood. Using the widespread circulation of the term woke in recent years as a departure point, my proposed doctoral research seeks to examine the process through which discourses of truth, knowledge, and consciousness are aesthetically produced in the public sphere. To do this, my research will be examining how themes of social awareness, political engagement and truth, as well as secrecy, post-truth politics, conspiracy, deception, lies, and paranoia have been depicted across a wide range of media such as television, cinema, popular music, literature, and social media in post-9/11 North American popular culture.