Giving the Lie to Truth: The Rupture of Totalities in Political Life

The idiom “to give the lie” means simply to prove something false. Thus, to “give the lie to truth” could mean, simply, to prove something that is perceived or taken to be true is, in fact, false. However, the phrase is sufficiently ambiguous that it could convey the alternative meaning that truth itself, the very notion of truth, could be proven false – and this again carries a double meaning in that there may be no “truth” to speak of or, conversely, that the way in which we have heretofore conceptualized truth is faulty, and that a new concept of truth is being called for that – forgive me – would be closer to “the truth.” The phrase then, so simple and elegant at first glance, has led us into the most basic and primordial questions of philosophy and communication: what is truth, and how can I communicate whatever truth there may be?

The impetus for this question certainly stems from the political immediacy of the search for truth.

Before wading into such a seemingly intractable thicket, I want to draw out yet a further implication of this phrase that has still not been attended to, and this is the troublesome idea of the gift; that a lie “has been given” to truth, understood either idiosyncratically or in its whole. What can it mean to “give a lie”? I do not quite intend the question, “who gives it?” though that may perhaps be interesting. But rather, is it “given” in the sense of being a priori. That is, does the truth, however we may conceive it, contain within itself already the germ of its own dissolution? If to give the lie means to have been proven false, then the lie has already been given in the very thing itself – it has already been present and only been made apparent in being given. In what way has the lie been given, and to what truth? This question will be taken up in the remainder of my remarks here.

The impetus for this question certainly stems from the political immediacy of the search for truth. When the communicative apparatus of the state peddles in “alternative facts” and “fake news” and the people are turning to ever more fractured and isolated forms of news media, both in print and on digital platforms, the question of truth and the lies that may be given it becomes a pressing one that we must consider earnestly. If we still hold to some possible idea of social good, then this question is a matter of the greater good, the good of the whole. But this has precisely been the problem. There is ample evidence in an array of polling outcomes tracking the polarization of U.S. politics that the very notion of what is “common,” and who among us represents the “whole” have been issues driving a wedge between us. When one side expresses an ideological affinity to diversity as a good in itself, and the other perceives diversity as an existential threat bordering on genocide, there is little doubt that questions of our commonality and unity as a whole for whom good could be accomplished in truth are paramount concerns.

The Internet and newsprint enclaves established from largely ideological positions are remarkable in their efforts at totalization. That is, they offer their subscribers what Jean-Francois Lyotard referred to as a “metanarrative.” Now, the tension evident here is that we are supposed to be living in, or perhaps suffering through, the postmodern condition, which, according to Lyotard, is marked by a chronic “incredulity to metanarrative.”[1] On the one hand, we have perhaps developed an incredulity toward a predominant metanarrative on offer – one that I tentatively label as a neoliberal one that attempts to paint the status quo of post-industrial late-stage capitalism as “the end of history,” to borrow the title of paradigmatic expressions of this metanarrative written by Francis Fukuyama.[2] One of the key strategies of interpreting recent political developments in post-industrial societies – the Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States – involves some form of the argument that huge portions of society are fed-up with the status quo, perceive that it is not working for them, and have attempted in their own ways to reject those institutional players who are perceived as having had their hands on the levers of power for too long. So, in the United States, so-called “outsiders” like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are both seen as having benefited from the rejection of the neoliberal order, though rationalizations for each candidate are wildly divergent as are the concrete policy proposals proffered by each politician.

So perhaps the postmodern condition is marked not so much by an incredulity toward metanarratives as such

So perhaps the postmodern condition is marked not so much by an incredulity toward metanarratives as such, but rather a generalized incredulity toward the predominant neoliberal metanarrative and has resulted, not in the rejection of metanarratives outright, but rather in the proliferation of a variety of competing metanarratives among which people feel compelled to choose. The results are an ever more strident epistemological tribalism in which whatever facts cannot conform to the chosen metanarrative are abandoned or written off as “fake” or “alternative” precisely because they are counter to the desired metanarrative. Please note that here the metanarrative is desired – an actual judgment concerning its truth is postponed indefinitely and replaced by a stalwart assertion that the preferred one is simply true apodictically and without question. My position on this is proven by the very circularity of rationalizing contrary evidence as being falsified or inauthentic on the grounds that it is un-interpretable from within the context of the metanarrative itself – the metanarrative is never questioned and contrary evidence is contrary precisely because it cannot be fit within the metanarrative. The enclaves are totalizing to the extent that nothing can possibly be the case that cannot fit within the paradigm, and thus any claim external to the logic of the metanarrative must de facto be inauthentic, false, and moreover, a threat to the desired order. Indeed, the condition of the lie is contained already in the truth itself – the lie is given by truth analytically through its apodictic certainty, which is maintained uncritically and without question.

The adopters of these alternative metanarratives engage what Deleuze and Guattari[3] describe as a minor literature and occupy what I have subsequently developed in terms of an underground discourse.[4] This is to say that the dogmatic adherents of an alternative and totalizing metanarrative adopt for themselves the major terms functioning within the discourse of the master narrative – for instance: “freedom” is a term granted a value of the highest order. And yet, the deployments of the term among various enclaves are effectively exclusive of each other. Thus, the result is a high coefficient of deterritorialization – the whole concept of freedom as such is brought into question by the proliferation of mutually exclusive applications of the term throughout a multiplicity of underground discourses. Even one such discourse is capable of bringing the term into question, as the dominant classical liberal concept of freedom as “autonomy,” which considers the subject as free precisely because they are the self-legislators of the one universal moral law becomes disrupted under the sophomoric American libertarian notion of the lawless subject whose freedom is constituted simply by the ability to do whatever one “wants” where wanting is no longer ruled by a universally normative will. The disruption is exacerbated and carried to an extreme with the ever-widening multiplication of discourses operating underground, outside the explicit domain of the neo-liberal order. The result is that “everything…is political,” as Deleuze and Guattari observe, because the application of everyday terms that the general population has heretofore taken for granted become hotly contested and the site of an apparent “culture war” that struggles for the heart of society and the power to determine its terms.[5] It becomes impossible to have isolated quarrels over the minutiae of a legal statute or about the appropriate way to ritualize a particular aspect of public life. At this stage, the most minor infraction balloons to take on a collective value, and the slightest event seems fraught and paradigmatic of the general disruption – the deterritorialization – of the cultural norms that to this point had been presupposed. The removal of one statue from a park is an assault on the whole cultural heritage. An attack on one becomes an attack on all, but the totalization occurring within a given enclave does not permit the permeation of any given enclave with values or terms from another. What I call a “double orthodoxy” is at work.

The double orthodoxy is constituted by the fact of the neo-liberal orthodoxy, which represents the disrupted metanarrative, and its coupling with the heterodoxy of the underground discourses. The doubling is achieved when the heterodoxies begin developing and conforming to their own internal orthodoxies – the orthodoxy within the totalized heterodox operating underground, beneath the master discourse whose terms it adopts and reconfigures. The appropriated terms take on a subversive meaning through their appropriation. Such reformation and reconfiguration amounts to a parody of the term through a break with its formerly authorized usage that is asymmetric. The break is achieved by an element added by the underground discourse, which appropriates language by mediating it through a third term. Thus, the idea of “justice” become “social justice,” (as if justice was itself not previously social) which is itself parodied by yet another underground discourse, becoming a term of derision on the right who caricature the left as “social justice warriors,” which is always a derogatory deployment of the concept of justice. The value of “justice,” once seen as a pillar of Western society, and of America particularly (think here of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”) is now seen as a bad thing and those who advocate for justice on behalf of another are uniquely un-American in the eyes of the right; which itself is parodied and appropriated in the form of the alt-right.

Truth becomes nothing other than “true for me” and such a truth is essentially assertoric.

This underground orthodoxy, emerging from the appropriating parody of the major discourse and heterodox to it, provides the dogma by which its adherents can operate in bad faith. This occurs first in the ability to put off an authentic decision regarding what is true.[6] It withholds the gift of the lie nascent within the totalizing tribal episteme. It also denies the other their intention, their projects for themselves. The “social justice warrior” is denied the actual projects unfolding from their concernful dealings within the world and are instead rendered as the flat “other,” the enemy in an ideological battle. Thus, both the other and the adherent are denied their nature as a being-for-itself and reduced to pawn with a role to play in the struggle for cultural supremacy, a reduction which itself facilitates the postponement of the decision one must make regarding the veracity of the ideological commitment, and by which the lie is circumvented and passed as truth.[7] Both the adherent and their opponents are denied their potential to be otherwise than the orthodoxy dictates and are reductively circumscribed within its totalizing limit – a limit which is not to be transgressed, which is not permeable to the discourses occurring outside it, and which is insulated from any criterion that would give the lie to it, thereby bringing into question its affirmed apodictic certainty. Truth becomes nothing other than “true for me” and such a truth is essentially assertoric. It is the circularity of the assertion of truth as true, a circularity that can ultimately be legitimized only through force. It is a fundamentally fascistic idea of truth in that it attains truth through political violence, by force of lawless will and not through the negotiations of discourse or dialectic.[8]

The communication of truth requires that these totalizing ideological enclaves be broken open and made permeable. Where truth-as-totality operates with a closed border of absolute demarcation that delimits an assertoric and circular apodictic of force, the openness of truth as such demands a permeability that enables its verification and tests its authenticity. It is an openness that calls for decision and in which my projects as a for-itself cannot be postponed nor given over to dogmatism. The orthodoxy is always in question.

The problem remains that this yields an uncertainty that drives people into the arms of simplistic totalizations in the first place. It is unease and anxiety over the questions that give the lie to something we believe to be true but which may in fact be false that inspires the bad faith observed within ideological bubbles. In these uncertain times, we share the crisis faced by the Lord Chandos in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Ein Brief. He writes, “I could no longer grasp [people and their affairs] with the simplifying gaze of habit. Everything came to pieces, the pieces broke into more pieces, and nothing could be encompassed by one idea.”[9] But we must face this crisis and stare soberly into the pieces without hope of their unification.[10] The truth lies in their complexity. The very dissolution gives the gift of the lie to the totalization achieve through force. It is a force that breaks itself in turn, its closed circularity unable to draw sustenance from the outside and, without the openness to truth that will sustain it through transformation, consumes itself at last and is exhausted.


[1] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1984): xxiv.

[2] Fukuyama, “The End of History” in National Interest no. 16 (Summer 1989): 3-18; and Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, (New York: The Free Press, 1993).

[3] Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, translated by Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1986), 16-19.

[4] Irven, “Being and Literature: The Disclosure of Place in Modernity” (PhD diss., Purdue University, 2016), 25-42.

[5] Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka, 17.

[6] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, translated by Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington Square Press, 1984), 97-98.

[7] Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 101-103 and 107-109.

[8] Adorno and Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, translated by Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002), 67-68.

[9] Hofmannsthal, “A Letter” in The Lord Chandos Letter and Other Writings, translated by Joel Rotenberg (New York: The New York Review of Books, 2005), 122.

[10] Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, translated by Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage International, 1991).

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer. The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002.

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage International, 1991.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Translated by Dana Polan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1986.

Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. New York: The Free Press, 1993.

—         “The End of History” in National Interest no. 16 (Summer 1989): 3-18.

Irven, Donovan. “Being and Literature: The Disclosure of Place in Modernity.” PhD diss., Purdue University, 2016.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1984.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Washington Square Press, 1984.

Von Hofmannsthal, Hugo. “A Letter” in The Lord Chandos Letter and Other Writings. Translated by Joel Rotenberg. New York: The New York Review of Books, 2005: 117-128.

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