R. Kelly and the Politics of Truth

Using Foucault's regimes of truth to try to make sense of R Kelly's continued success.

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Mantle Image Truth Slippery Malte Sonnenfeld
Truth is a Slippery Thing. Malte Sonnenfeld (2018)

 

“I deal with facts, and if you’re going to make these types of accusations, then, you know, then let’s test them [in a court of law] and find out if they’re true–and we’re going to find out they’re not true cause there is no evidence of them… Every one of them [Kelly’s accusers] are lying, everyone of them… There is no evidence any of this stuff happened.” – Steven Greenberg, R. Kelly’s criminal defense attorney

 

“There is a battle ‘for truth’, or at least ‘around truth’... a battle about the status of truth and the economic and political role it plays.” – Michel Foucault

 

 

As R. Kelly sits in a federal jail in Cook County, Illinois awaiting trial on an almost endless flurry of sex crime charges,1 the 52-year-old singer must be wondering where it all went wrong. Why, after 30 years of remaining almost untouchable, do people no longer believe him? For a time, he seemed to be a famous individual who had merely been accused of rape, sexual assault, and pedophilia–but, at least he was innocent until proven guilty. Now, his reputation seems to have shifted: he is seen as an infamous rapist and pedophile who just so happens to be a popular artist. What happened?

 

It is here in this perspectival distinction–between the accused famous person and the infamous abuser–that we might answer the question for Kelly by focusing on regimes of truth. In this sense, we are not concerned about the individual truths or facts that can be discovered or excavated and therefore definitively determine whether Kelly, for example, is a rapist and pedophile. When talking about the regimes of truth, we’re talking about the political relations surrounding truth, relations that regulate or allow statements of fact to be imbued with a truth-content that itself reinforces the rule or norm responsible for regulations in the first place. By first examining regimes of truth we can then understand why it is that Kelly was able to remain successful despite decades of allegations of abuse, sexual assault, and pedophilia swirling about; and, perhaps more importantly, why the stories of his survivors are beginning to gain traction in society dismantling the tower of success where Kelly dwells.

 

 

Truth and Its Competitions

We must start by looking at facts. By facts, I mean any statement with the potential for what is known as a truth-value. A statement is true if it discloses the state of affairs of any particular thing, event, etc. If a statement does not disclose the state of affairs, then we say its truth-value is false. If I am walking in the sweltering heat, ridden with thirst, and I see a pond in the distance, its truth-value is determined by my own empirical aptitude. If upon closer inspection, however, I determine this pond is actually a mirage created by the heat, my original statement does not become false: it was always false to begin with and it was always true that there was no body of water in this location. This is demonstrative truth, a theory of truth whereby truths are true regardless of time and place. Demonstrative truths are hidden and need to be discovered or excavated from our ignorance. Furthermore, they are ahistorical, regardless of whether you’re an ancient Egyptian priest or a modern-day quantum physicist, a fact like “The sun is hot” would always have an ideal truth-value. It is assumed that these truths become progressively clearer, and we become more certain of a fact’s truth-value as time passes.

 

However, demonstrative truth is not the type of truth we are interested in here. We are specifically looking at regimes of truth, a term coined by philosopher Michel Foucault. “A regime of truth is… the strategic field within which truth is produced and becomes a tactical element in the functioning of a certain number of power relations.”2 In other words, when analyzing truth, we must be willing to admit that truth is political and has an historical and economic value within a socius, a value demonstrativeness fails to reveal.

 

An ancient Egyptian priest and a modern day quantum physicist fundamentally see the world differently because the power relations they are invested in are different. The sun is hot for both, but the reasons are different: for the former, the sun is hot because of the inherent goodness and life-giving qualities of the sun god Ra, while for the latter, the sun is hot because of hydrogen atoms being fused together forming helium and releasing enormous sums of energy. The truth of the seasons, of weather, of plagues and famines, of death, of the whole context of meaning which defines one’s world-views are different for the ancient priest and the quantum physicist. These relations have different meanings, techniques, and procedures for determining what is true and what is not.

 

Contrary to theories of demonstrative truth, Foucault was adamant that truth and power are connected, and that truth is profoundly historical. For Foucault, the truth is invented, sustained, legitimized, and extended through technologies, methods, and laws that are intrinsically political. When understanding what it means to be political, we recognize “politics has to do not only with institutions, but with the complex and constitutive field of power relations within which we ordinarily live”;3 power relations which provide meaning to our lives today, but would perhaps seem alien to someone from the medieval period. For these reasons, we can say truth is not eternal; it is not something discovered or excavated from a realm outside our own. Truth is malleable, and it is an invention. Furthermore, the truth is not true in-itself nor does the power of truth reside in truth alone. Foucault says, “Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power.”

 

The obvious question arises: ‘doesn’t this just render all truth as relative and therefore meaningless?’ ‘Is Foucault saying that objective knowledge about the world is impossible?’ Not exactly. Objectivity means that objects are available to social inquiry, and the type of inquiry that is socially acceptable is precisely determined by regimes of truth. Our contemporary regimes of truth are strongly dominated by the rigorous certitude of scientific discourses. If a detective is asked to determine who murdered a man, she may ask witnesses who were present at the murder, gather fingerprint and DNA evidence to send to a laboratory, and collect any video recordings from the scene of the crime. These are empirical methods of obtaining information, often with very strict procedures in place to guarantee the accuracy of results, all socially accepted ways of obtaining knowledge in our contemporary scientifically-based regime of truth. Now, if instead of doing the above, she sought out the advice of a psychic or performed an ancient divination ritual to determine who committed the murder, she would be seen as engaging in unacceptable methods of inquiry in our contemporary Western world. Thus, a regime of truth “is the site where truth names the constraints and modalities required of both subject and object to enter the positivity of reality and engage in a set of possible relations.”

 

 

A Return to R. Kelly

Why focus on Kelly? His story provides a useful vehicle for analyzing how different regimes of truth function. Known as the Pied-Piper of R&B, Kelly is a famous singer with multiple Grammy winning hit songs and incredibly successful collaborations with other artists. Some of his songs, like “I Believe I Can Fly,” have gained such widespread appeal, so as to be woven into the social fabric itself (e.g., at churches, proms, family gatherings, graduations, weddings, etc.). This is someone we want to like and we want to wear their artistry in our everyday lives; for many people, Kelly is the type of figure whom it is inconvenient to dislike or abhor because of the effects their art produces in us. Kelly generates a type of truth precisely because he is a popular individual with power. As a result, Kelly has remained successful for three decades despite a long pattern of alleged abuse of underage girls.

Mantle Image R Kelly
R. Kelly via Lean-Op on Flickr

 

In discussing Kelly, his apologists remind us that he is innocent until proven guilty and that Kelly won his previous court case in 2008. This presumption of innocence is supposed to guarantee that a judicial subject has the right to exist unimpeded by the state. We are told we must suspend judgment until after a new trial has occurred.4 We are reassured that the purest truth, or a truth that is true in and of itself, can only be found within the framework of the due process of law. Kelly and other apologists would like you to believe that the negative truth of the judicial system is a higher form of truth waiting to be discovered; that the truth of the judiciary system is not itself controlled by regimes.

 

Due process of law guarantees a minimum of three things occur before the government can infringe upon a judicial subject’s right to life, liberty, and property. Due process means you are given formal notice of charges against you, have the opportunity with legal counsel to rebut said charges, and for the entire trial to be judged and decided by neutral decision makers like a judge and impartial jury. In the judicial system, due process is the magic armor of legitimacy that enshrouds the trial allowing a (theoretical) form of truth to develop. Rape apologists decry this ‘era of #MeToo,’ where alleged rapists are tried, convicted, & executed not by the cold, disaffected–almost sterile–judgments of the judicial system but by the public body itself, in what crime journalist Diane Dimond described as “Salem witch hunt-era tactics.”

 

In the CBS News interview with R. Kelly, Gayle King made the statement, “The past is relevant with you and underage girls.”
 

“Absolutely, no it’s not.” Kelly responded.
 

“Why [is it not relevant]?”
 

“Because, for one, I beat my case,” he stated referring to his 2008 acquittal of 15 child pornography charges. “When you beat something, you beat it. We can’t double jeopardy me like that. It’s not fair to nobody. When you beat your case you beat your case,” Kelly said.

 

The implication here is that because he was acquitted by the judicial system under the rules of due process, this means his viewpoint, his truth is true or vindicated, i.e., not up for debate. His side of the story won the day in court, which gives it a truth-value of true, while the state’s case against him was given the truth-value of false. Furthermore, it is only because “the sentence that condemns or acquits is not simply a judgment of guilt, a legal decision that lays down punishment” but is also “an assessment of normality and a technical prescription for a possible normalization” that Kelly can so confidently declare his past indiscretions as irrelevant to his current predicament. If we were to listen to Kelly’s attorney, we might be led to believe that facts remain in a state of epistemic uncertainty until they’ve been tested in the judicial arena.

 

But is this the function of the judicial system? Does the judicial system create truth-values that are immune to the winds of time? 

 

Again, we can turn to Foucault for assistance. He describes the function of judicial practices as “the manner in which wrongs & responsibilities are settled between men, the mode by which… society conceived & defined the way men could be judged in terms of wrongs committed, the way in which compensation for some actions & punishment for others were imposed on specific individuals.” A judicial inquiry uses these practices to answer the questions: ‘Who did what?’ ‘Under what circumstances?’ ‘At what moment?’ Society expects a certain standard, a process whereby grievances can be assigned as legitimate or not. Only because, ontologically, there is always already an expectation or a possibility of being-guilty toward society (or one’s self), can there be anything like judicial practices in the first place.5

 

Given this, there is a kind of truth-production that occurs from trials, despite the fact that these truths may obfuscate what actually occurred. In some instances, truth-values invented in court can change several times, or, as is much more common, the facts carry multiple truth-values that contradict each other but compete over which perspective is most dominant.6 In the Surviving R. Kelly docuseries, a juror from Kelly’s 2008 trial revealed that despite several women, like Lisa van Allen, testifying to the sexual abuse of minors by Kelly, a juror didn’t like the way she looked or dressed so he disregarded everything she said. This is an instance where van Allen’s facts were shrouded by forms of racism and sexism and then delegitimized.

 

In rare instances, and usually against enormous political power, there are even situations where the truth-value of criminal or civil liability is entirely reversed: for example, the Central Park Five, a case involving five juvenile males–all of whom are people of color. The incident involved a white woman who was brutally sexually assaulted while jogging in New York’s Central Park and left in a coma for several weeks. The five juveniles were coerced into confessing and spent 6-13 years in prison until another man already serving time in prison confessed. His DNA was later confirmed to be that of the woman’s rapist and the five men falsely convicted had their convictions vacated.7 Another example, in the opposite direction of innocence, would be OJ Simpson. He was acquitted of criminal liability for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, but was found guilty in a civil trial for wrongful death. At the time of his acquittal, a majority of black Americans (61 percent) believed Simpson was not guilty; meanwhile, a majority of white Americans (65 percent) believed he was guilty. Racial ideology strongly influenced what facts individuals believed to be either true or false.

 

But why do certain regimes of truth persist for so long? And why are some falling by the way side?

 

Again, we must analyze the power relations surrounding these truths to understand. Foucault describes five different historically significant power relations that characterize truth, and we’ll use the situation of Kelly to explicate these. These power relations center on the types of discourse involved (are we examining a phenomenon using a scientific or juridical discourse), the external pressures involved in a given phenomenon, how a phenomena is communicated through society, the causes of a given phenomenon, and the underlying principles that guide an interpretation of a specific phenomenon.

 

Mantle Image R Kelly Foucault

 

This is how truth is formed. These constraints allow society a measure upon which to designate facts as true or false. These institutions and the power relations that constitute them allowed Kelly’s truth to prevail for three decades: that he isn’t a pedophile or abuser, that his accusers just want money or fame, and so on. This is because Kelly generated a lot of money for record labels and promoters; because it is easier to sweep allegations under the rug, than for other artists to admit they collaborated with a pedophile; because suddenly all the music that is stitched into the fabric of one’s life becomes so problematic as to cause an identity crisis.

 

Yet, the tables are turning for Kelly and other powerful abusers. Society is beginning to believe survivors. The reason for this is because a contrary regime of truth, one which has existed all along, is outmaneuvering the R&B singer’s truth. In recent years, we've witnessed the rise of the #MeToo movement and, despite right wing pushes, a desire to place more validity on the experiences of sexual assault survivors by taking their allegations as seriously as we would allegations of other crimes. The regime of truth in favor of Kelly no longer has the status it once had. We could perhaps trace this not just to the #TimesUp movement, which has insisted and invented the conditions and institutions upon which sexual assault survivors’ discourses are deemed valid (or, at least, more so than previously), but also the #BlackLivesMatter movement,8 and the synthesis of the two movements in the #MuteRKelly movement which specifically focuses on uplifting the voices of black female survivors of sexual assault. We could map out the power relations of this regime as well:

 

Mantle Image R Kelly Accusers

 

The reasons for these changes can only be sketched out at this time by the above tables, but a preliminary answer can be given as to why these regimes are changing. It’s because there is a change of the political, economic, institutional regimes which regulate truth production. Foucault states, “It’s not a matter of emancipating truth from every system of power (which would be a chimera as truth already is power) but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic, and cultural, within which it operates at the present time.” The power of truth is (slowly) being disentangled from the patriarchal power structures that allow a rape culture to invest itself into society.

 

Of course, this battle over the status of truth is not over. Despite his music label dropping him as a client and his inability to perform large shows or tour internationally, Kelly still has his supporters for various ideological reasons. After the Lifetime docuseries finished airing, his streaming numbers doubled. Despite all that, Kelly will still have his day in both federal and state courts. Only history will reveal to us which regimes of truth will prevail; and, even then, those regimes will still be mortal.

 

 

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  • 1. The charges include sexual abuse of underage girls, sex-trafficking, racketeering, production and possession of child pornography, obstruction of justice, and transportation of women and girls across state lines for the purposes of illegal sexual activity, prostitution and soliciting a girl under 18 for sex. Kelly is currently on trial.
  • 2. Daniele Lorenzini, “What Is a ‘Regime of Truth’?” Le Foucaldien 1, no. 1 (2015), 1-5: 3. doi:10.16995/lefou.2
  • 3. Lorenzini, “What Is a ‘Regime of Truth’?” 3.
  • 4. Whoopi Goldberg silenced anyone who attempted to condemn Bill Cosby before he was tried in a court of law, only acquiescing slightly in the aftermath of his conviction. See LA Times, “Whoopi Goldberg defends Bill Cosby amid new disclosures,” on the Los Angeles Times, published 7/8/15. (latimes.com/83954519-132.html)
  • 5. Ontologically, Being-guilty refers to individuals themselves being a locus of accountability, whereby later on they may become guilty or indebted to something specific.
  • 6. There may be an objection that this reduces truth to mere perspectivism. But this is not nihilistic or relativistic perspectivism. Here, perspectivism is fully positive and affirmative. See Leaacta, “Your Truths are No Good Here: A Brief Introduction to Perspectivism,” on Medium, published 6/19/19. (https://medium.com/@leaacta/your-truths-are-no-good-here-81c0a17781af) “Perspectivism is the affirmation of multiplicity in interpretation. Rather than asserting (paradoxically) that truth does not exist, here it is asserted that many truths exist.”
  • 7. Donald Trump took a special interest in this case, calling for the death penalty for the 5 teenagers and even paying for a full-page ad against them. To this day, despite the DNA evidence exonerating the men, Trump maintains they are guilty.
  • 8. Unlike the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and other black liberation movements of the 1960s & 1970s which had a particularly virulent strain of misogyny, #BlackLivesMatter was started by black women and has made sure the discourse that devalues black women is challenged.