The Centre for the History of European Discourses was incorporated in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities in August 2015.

The information in this website is therefore out of date but retained for archival and staff purposes.

Title: ‘Speak the Truth’

Damian Cox, University of Queensland and Michael Levine, University of Western Australia, Saul Newman, Goldsmiths University of London
 
Speak the truth, but leave immediately after.
--Slovenian Proverb
 
There is a perennial temptation in philosophy – and outside of it – to become weary of well-worn philosophical controversies. But attempts to transcend the terms of philosophical controversy fail much, much more often than they succeed. Professor Jay’s attempt to work around the question of the fundamental normative status of political mendacity is one that, we think, is likely to fail. It is not at all clear that what Professor Jay has done is to justify, or even try to justify, lying in politics in the robust, surprising, or meaningful sense that his book title (The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics) suggests. For example, those who claim that lying, along with other forms of mendacity witnessed in the Bush and Blair and Howard regimes, undermine freedom and democratic politics, might well complain that Jay runs the risk of obfuscating the nature of their objections. What could it mean to find a virtue in mendacity? To say that there is value in conditions generative of mendacity is not to say that there is value in mendacity itself; or that there is virtue in the exercise of it. To say that there are dangers in reflex and uncritical accusations of mendacity is not to say that there is any virtue in laxness towards mendacity, particularly towards manipulative forms of it. To say that lying in politics, as in one’s personal life, may, on occasion, be necessary, wise or just, does nothing to justify the rampant Machiavellianism or self-serving lies so prevalent in both democratic and totalitarian regimes.
Our primary interest is not in defending a normative stand against political mendacity and the public culture that encourages and rewards it. Our primary interest is explanatory. What explains complacency in the face of gross and obvious political mendacity? Why is it that in the face of knowledge of bald faced lies and what has resulted from them, leaders and citizens continue with things as they are? In recent times, the remarkable fact that many people deny that such lying has occurred is as much in need of an explanation as the question of how Bush and Blair have managed largely to get away with using transparent fabrications as grounds for extreme and reckless responses to terrorist threats. And how, in anything that purports to be an open and democratic society, can the citizenry care so little about this?
Arendt clearly recognized the significance of the gross lying in politics that we see today. However she also claimed that the origins of lying in politics are found in the nature of lying itself. One might interpret this as the claim that lying is an ineliminable feature of imaginative communicative practice. On our view, this is an unsatisfactory explanatory approach. Much of the origin of lying in politics and turning away from reality –blatantly ignoring or explaining away certain facts etc. – is to be found in group psychology.
 
 
 
Title: ‘Dark Knights: Exploring the Deceptive Heroics of Philosopher Kings, Princes and Übermenschen
 
Kim Huynh, Australian National University

Plato’s philosopher kings, Machiavelli’s prince and Nietzshe’s Übermensch are among the most infamous figures in Western political philosophy. Their shady reputations grow in large part out of a shared willingness to deceive. Philosopher kings deceive in order to maintain stability and virtue within the polis. From this perspective, society is underpinned by certain myths which, while not technically true, have nonetheless become imperative for people to prosper. Nietzsche’s Übermensch has also dispensed with comforting illusions, particularly of a religious nature. However, the Übermensch has an ambivalent relationship with truth. While believing that the vast majority of people are incapable or unwilling to grasp the ultimate vacuousness of human existence, the Übermensch retains an impish desire to puncture orthodoxies and thereby toy with the prospect of social disintegration. Machiavelli’s prince asserts that the ultimate amorality of politics makes it necessary for the prince to act immorally. The prince must lie and deceive in order to secure stability and glory for the city-state. Indeed, the honesty and virtue of all citizens rest on his capacity to be mendacious and cruel. This paper compares and contrasts these alluring figures in the context of contemporary Australian politics (including case studies of John Howard, Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd) and popular culture (concentrating on the Hollywood action blockbuster Batman: The Dark Knight). By bringing together and analysing these individuals, ideas, stories and events, the paper considers the value of truth and honesty in politics.
 
 
 
Title: ‘Maintaining Self-Images: Self-Deception and Self-Belief in the Public Sphere’
 
Fiona Jenkins, Australian National University
 
In her essay ‘Truth and Politics’, Hannah Arendt thinks about a modern form of lying which is a destruction of the reality the traditional liar merely falsified. The substitution of images for reality that takes place here need not be fully deliberate and pulls even those who are its inventors into the mesh of belief. Without the government literally ‘deciding’ what everyone should believe, “gigantic interest organizations have generalized a kind of raison d’état frame of mind such as was formerly restricted to the handling of foreign affairs and, in its worst excesses to situations of clear and present danger” (Between past and future, 253). If deliberate lies once sought to deceive the enemy, and were deployed in states of emergency, the modern political lie is a self-deception and the enemy is shifted within; those we convince – and all too easily - are ourselves, while those who gainsay the images and contest their spell must not be heard.
 
In this paper I set these reflections in relation to Judith Butler’s discussion of censorialism in the US public sphere, as it recovered its self-image and sense of ‘invulnerability’ post 9/11. Integral to her analysis is the post-traumatic exercise in the US of the public capacity to establish the meaning and value of lives, to generate stories that often took the form of idealized obituaries, at least for those who ‘belonged’ to the nation. However, Butler’s interest also concerns the refusal of the obituary, politically loaded practices of obliteration signalling that a life cannot be mourned, that it is ‘ungrievable’. A death in this case, ‘did not take place’, because a life bore no image that would grant reality.
 
For Butler, I argue, the production of what ‘does not take place’ or what ‘has not taken place’ is not only a work of violence, but mis-locates and squanders political freedom by directing it toward the maintenance of a past and present self-image. This secures a sense of right or entitlement, which correlates as self-belief with the self-deception of which Arendt speaks, and charts one dimension of the performativity of lying.
 
 
 
Title: ‘It’s Easier to Lie if You Believe it Yourself: Derrida, the Modern Lie and Lying to Oneself’
 
Marguerite La Caze, University of Queensland
 
In ‘History of the Lie: Prolegomena’, (2002) Derrida examines Hannah Arendt’s discussions of the modern lie in politics. Modern political lies are ‘so big that they require a complete rearrangement of the whole factual texture.’ (‘Truth and Politics’, 1993, 253) They involve deception and self-deception on a massive scale. Derrida takes up this distinction, stating that this kind of mystification ‘is at once less and more serious than the lie. Less serious because no one has, in bad faith, sought to deceive anyone else. More serious because the absence of any transcendent referent, or even any meta-interpretive norm, makes the effect of the operation not only difficult to measure and to analyse, but fundamentally irreparable.’ (2002, 65) Derrida appears ambivalent about the question of whether lies in politics should be judged morally, as he says that lies have an ‘irreducibly ethical dimension’ (2002, 29) and yet notes approvingly Arendt’s treatment of the history of the lie ‘in an extra-moral sense’. As Martin Jay suggests, a more systematic treatment of lying that discriminates between lies is needed to address these kinds of issues. (1999) My paper examines these dimensions of greater and lesser seriousness in relation to the question of ethics and ethical judgement in political life. 
 
 
 
Title: ‘At the Limits of Lying in Politics: the Case of Radovan Karadzic’
 
Justine McGill, University of Sydney                                            
 
“So there is a physical reality we all see with our own eyes, and he's able to launch a story which obliterates what we see with our own eyes… The fact that it has nothing to do with reality doesn't matter to him at all. That people catch him lying every step of the way doesn't matter. He has built a wall, as I've said, between the truth about himself and his own, and himself - his consciousness… that is Karadzic, that's who Karadzic is. If the physical reality does not correspond to his claims, then the reality should watch out.” – Marco Vesovic (writer, poet, and former friend of Radovan Karadzic)
 
Radovan Karadzic is a startling example of a politician whose career crucially depended on his remarkable ability to tell people lies to which they were willing to listen, even when the gap between reality and rhetoric was glaringly obvious. In this paper I draw upon Locke’s theory of personal responsibility and Nietzsche’s analysis of truth and lies in order to ask whether, as a politician, Karadzic is best seen as an exception or as the point at which the “truth” of lying in politics becomes visible. Should the concept of personal responsibility be applied to draw a line around Karadzic’s practice of lying, and cordon it off, conceptually, from the white lies of democratic politics? Or would this be to tell yet another lie in order to avoid confronting a difficult reality - one that will not be recognised or addressed unless we are able to resist the fabulous power of political lies?
 
 
 
Title:Lying in Politics: Attempt at a social-philosophical sketch’.
 
Martin Weber, University of Queensland
 
Lying can only be a successful strategy relative to the preliminary trust invested by the ‘lied-to’ in presumptions of truthfulness. The functions of lying, whether merely tolerable, actually justifiable, or ultimately pernicious, obtain hence within relational constellations, in which expectations regarding standards of truthfulness, however heterogeneous, obtain. Pacta sunt servanda serves me as an access point for interrogating aspects of such relational constellations. I draw on examples from the literature on intercultural encounters in order to tease out the inter aspect of international politics. The expectations of indigenous populations to have treaties honoured by settlers, traders, or colonial powers are in turn rooted in a politics of disclosure, and expectations, practices and protocols regarding the latter on both sides. Based on a brief reconstruction of this, I want to argue that our discussions of lying in politics have been, by and large, focused in terms of the problem of the ‘double contingency’ (the classical formulation of the ‘problem of other minds’). The constitutive role of a politics of disclosure is, however, only intelligible by dealing more explicitly with the problem of ‘triple contingency’; in the final part of the paper, I attempt a preliminary discussion of what this might mean for ‘putting lying in politics in its place’ without recourse to the impugned paradigm of ‘Truth’ as that which ends debate.

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