Call For Workshops and Papers


Brest, May 25-28, 2011

Hélène AJI, Le Mans
Pierre GUERLAIN, Paris Ouest Nanterre

In the 1970s, Hannah Arendt published an article entitled “Lying in Politics.” Dealing with the revelations contained in the Pentagon Papers she wrote: “Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings.” Machiavelli, as is well-known, recommended the resort to ruse to the Prince. Arendt’s quotation is an invitation to go beyond the rather trivial level of lying in politics and to analyze the role and the responsibilities of scholars, academics or intellectuals in their field or discipline. As far as Arendt is concerned, philosophers or historians have a duty to tell the truth, a duty which is the basis of any intellectual activity. This duty toward truth implies not only not telling lies but also ceaselessly tracking down error and fighting against it. Error, misunderstanding or misreading are other antonyms of truth which do not simply amount to lying. Every scholarly discipline is involved in this constant correction of error, as well as confronted with the persistence of truth’s elusiveness.

This might apply to a variety of fields. It is thus striking that at the same time as Arendt is reflecting on lies in politics, Michel Foucault is led to ponder the reliability of witnesses, especially when they confess to crimes and their confession unfolds and transforms itself according to secret motives: Foucault calls forth a team of researchers to analyze Pierre Rivière’s memoir, in a task at first sociological and judicial but which soon turns into a close textual reading. Together, historians, sociologists and literary scholars look for a different truth hidden in the sentences and words that coat Pierre Rivière’s project. The surface of the text proves more opaque than expected, since the truth value of a text comes to depend more on its corresponding to a set of conventions than on its fittingly accounting for a series of facts. Along with Finnish philosopher and logician Jaako Hintikka, French poet Jacques Roubaud asserts that truth is related to the terms of a contract between agents, is then conventional, and in literature and the arts based on the demands of genre.

It follows that interrogating the concept of truth may take many forms. Every scholar has to face the problem of establishing the truth in his or her area of competence. In history there is a debate, which has been going on for several decades, about the very possibility of reaching “truth” and about the fictional aspects of historical writing. The postmodern challenge that meta or grand narratives have to face was met by a serious defense on the part of historians who do not want to give up the fight for truth. Thus in 1994 three US historians (J. Appleby, M. Jacob et L. Hunt) published a book under the explicit title of: Telling the Truth about History. Every discipline or field of study has to meet this challenge and interrogate the possibility of establishing or defining “truth” and to analyze the conditions under which the formation of knowledge is possible. Thus thinking about truth in this case amounts to an epistemological reappraisal within each discipline. Truth then is not the opposite of lying but rather is a superior truth that replaces a partial truth.

In this perspective, Tzvetan Todorov’s concepts of “vérité d’adéquation” (truth adequate to its object) and “vérité de dévoilement” (truth as unveiling) can prove to be particularly propitious and complementary. They are all the more functional when Todorov’s theorization also applies itself to literary works, particularly to the Gothic short story where the imagination is busy travelling back and forth between uncertain facts, and a frantic quest for truth, for reliable and final histories, which endlessly elude the subject, and send him back to his doubts. How could one consider the truth in discourse beyond the clinical reading of texts as symptoms of a subjectivity at work? Truth may be mobile, migrating to other loci, in authorial intention, in creative processes, in Poe’s famous philosophy of effect, drawing our attention away from the text to look at its surroundings. Poems, novels, plays, films might then need to be read, watched and heard while taking into account the conditions of their genesis, production, and actualizations.

The apparently more trivial level of truth as a fight against lies has special meaning in academic or political contexts: in academia (as well as in fiction) the issue of plagiarism comes to mind; in politics truth and propaganda have been arch enemies since the beginning of political activity. Plagiarism and propaganda of course interfere with research and scholarly activity. In law the hasty and disingenuous interpretations of a Professor like John Yoo which legitimate torture lead to the issue of truth and the relationship between the powers that be and academia. In the fields of sociology, criminology or political science the competition of think tanks and the production of pamphlets purporting to be academic research also pose the question of truth and its establishment. The pseudo-science of creationists has structural equivalents in social sciences for example with the pseudo-sociology of pundits or experts in the employ of ideological organizations or foundations. Thus one can think of the debate around The Bell Curve, a book written by an academic (R. Herrstein) and a journalist (C. Murray) who was a pseudo-sociologist of crime, which attempted to give scientific legitimacy to racism. The fight for truth is necessarily a fight for the quality of academic production and must tackle pseudo-science in whatever field it is produced whether by think tanks or incompetent reporters. The battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary people launched by the new official propaganda known as public diplomacy also exists in various forms in many academic fields where conflicts often are emotional rather than rational. Geopolitics, or more generally political science, are a case in point. New forms of economic or political censorship which make the search for truth harder can also be studied in this context.

Michael Kammen in his book Visual Shock suggested the setting up of a history of controversies in the world of art. It might be possible to establish a history of assaults against the truth or of controversies in social science. Some controversies are of the scientific kind in that they precede the establishment of truth, however transitory it may be, they are part and parcel of the fight against error whereas other controversies take place between the fighters for truth that academics are or should be and the propagandists, marketing or PR specialists working for various institutions. Here truth and bad faith appear as radical opposites. When the arts and letters become the stage of entrenched battles between schools, around the issue commercial success or popular recognition, between the supporters of “transparency,” and those of the “hermetic” text, when one wonders who might hold an aesthetic truth against others, and who might stand for ethics, the question of counterfeiting is raised, and along with it the issue of artistic value. Are the advocates of the popular, or those of the intellectual, in the truth? Can one really hold by this dichotomy?

As examples of presentations that could be given in Brest in May 2011 one could refer to the difficulty of establishing the truth in the Rosenberg affair in the 1950s, or in the case of US interventions in Cuba, Vietnam or even Iraq, or tackle the controversy over the causes of urban crime and the resurgence of social Darwinism in the public sphere. The role of Internet, both its opportunities and the dangers it represents for genuine scholarship is another area of possible investigation. One could also tackle the future of the humanities or the role of the university in the quest for truth in a changing political and social environment. Questions such as “have Cultural Studies given up the fight for truth or even the idea that truth is achievable?”, or “has post-modernism made the very concept of truth obsolete transforming social science into a branch of fiction?” could also be asked. The function of theory could also be re-examined for theory is both an absolute necessity and a danger when it is ossified in ideological systems and ready-made thought. The very relevance of truth in literature and the arts, the mutability of its definitions, the ethical impulse to hold onto some truth, will be questioned. These conflicts and these interrogations address the several aspects mentioned above: they show the usefulness of tracking down lying and falsehoods but they also constitute an invitation to question and challenge the methodological bases of all discourses as well as their social, political, technological, aesthetic and ethical objectives.

Workshop and/or paper proposals both to Hélène Aji and Pierre Guerlain by September 30, 2010.