Friday October 6, 4:00-5:30 pm in Room 242, Graduate Faculty Building,
New School for Social Research, Manhattan. Derrida gives a paper entitled

History of the Lie

under the auspices of the Hannah Arendt/Reiner Schürmann Memorial Symposium,
which takes as its theme

The Legacy of Hannah Arendt

Introducing the paper, JD refers, of course, to Nietzsche before launching the first conceptual qualifications: the lie in its classical determination is not an error; to tell the true history of the lie is to presuppose absolute knowledge; but lies cannot be reappropriated by true history. To formulize an approach which will try to be true (no lie) thus ought to give the lie to the lie...

The lie is an intentional act, a series of statements that the liar knows to be false (in view of the addressee). This intentional act aims to deceive. Assuming that "we" have at "our" disposal a reliable concept of the lie, it would not suffice to distinguish it from its status in other cultures, it is to be distinguished also from its own historicity. A history of the concept of the lie must be supplemented by a history of the lie in its effects and by a true history of lies in general.

Before beginning to begin, JD will have admitted that he is not capable of telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Moreover, he will not even tell all that he could tell about what he can think of lie and truth. Then, two epigraphs. One from Hannah Arendt's essay Truth and Politics which appeared in the New Yorker, one from her later text Lying in Politics of 1971, printed in the New York Review of Books. "Lies have always been considered important tools in politics." - "It is only in our modernity that the lie [...] has become complete and finite."

But if history is full of lies, how can the lie itself have a history? It would have been too simple to oppose absolute lie and absolute knowledge as ends of history. The terms of sanctity (it is a duty not to tell a lie) used by Reiner Schürmann indicate what is at stake: the lie is both historical and not historical. [Kant will be inevitable in this nexus, and you can remember what JD has had to say about Kant, so I won't type that in right here, nor all the contemporary (French-American) exemplification about Chirac, WWII and the veracity of States.]

If ethical responsibility resides in performativity, we need a problematic not of truth but of testimony. Interestingly enough, some years before Arendt, Koyré suggested that the distinction of true and false is important, but reversible. Totalitarian regimes are founded on the lie, but the more a political machine lies, the more it makes the love of truth its programme.

There follow some incisive remarks about the Machiavellian concept of second-degree lying (telling the truth to those who will not believe it because one knows they won't and wants to deceive them in this manner), about the secret as threat to the res publica, and about the demand that everybody tell the truth by which totalitarianism dons a democratic face.

One ought then to remove history from moral denunciation, address the media in their mechanisms of iconic substitution, delimit the other of the political, and sketch programmatically the performativity of lying in view of political action. If, as Arendt has it, the politician is a man of action, he needs the capacity to lie. To tell the truth is what has been and what is, but not what will be. The politician as actor wants change. If our ability to lie is fundamental to human freedom, there would be no history without the possibility of the lie.

In Arendt, however, JD has found no concept of witnessing; he finds her psychologically confused and logically incompatible with classical concepts of truth (the self-deception theme for instance is treated without any reference to Freud or Heidegger). Truth, for Arendt, is stable, and must always be revealed; truth is the indefinite survival of the stable. Evidently, this calls for a number of deconstructive readings. Is the lie an absolute vice?

Be that as it may, nothing and no-one will be able to prove the existence and necessity of a history of the lie. Thus far JD, my notes. This is the stricture of media: though they always lag, their speed is still increasing. And as the speed increases, it becomes less and less and less evident which to believe: because there is no time to react, filter, assess, analyse. Can you believe your eyes?

These notes © by Peter Krapp