Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Political Function of the Modern Lie - Alexandre Koyré (1945) // John Keane - lying, journalism and democracy


NB: This is a line of theoretical and sociological inquiry crucial for an understanding of the contemporary world, and which has been neglected (in the main) by political scientists and historians. Alexandre Koyre (1892-1964) was a Russian-born philosopher and historian of religion and science. His 1945 essay on The Political Function of the Lie was used by Hannah Arendt as a source for insights into her study of the origins of totalitarianism. Some observations and extracts are supplied below, along with links to Koyre's original essay, as well as a 2010 lecture on lying in journalism. They are worth reading, as a reminder that the deceitful and intimidatory atmosphere of our times is rooted in political phenomena that were commented upon decades ago - DS
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A highly perceptive analyst and a close reader of Alexandre Koyré, Arendt described totalitarian regimes as being “secret societies established in broad daylight.” (see Koyre, pp 296-7). By imitating the apparatus of secret societies  without ever trying to keep their own goals a secret, these movements, just like secret societies, suppress dissenting opinions and seek to “safeguard the fictitious world through consistent lying,” as manifested, for example, in the Nazi’s “racial selection,” the Bolshevik’s “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and the infallibility of the leader.. (Julia Kristeva, Hannah Arendt, 2002, p 137) 
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Download Koyre's essay here: The Political Function of the Modern Lie : (extracts): 
The initiated, the members of the elite, by virtue of a kind of intuitive and direct perception are aware of the profound innermost thoughts of the leader, know the true secret aims of the movement. And so they are not troubled a whit by the contradictions & inconsistencies in their chief's public utterances: they know that these have only one object: to deceive the crowd, the enemy, the "others," and they adulate the leader who manipulates and practices the lie with such skill. As for the others those who believe they evince by their belief that they are insensible to contradictions, impervious to doubt, incapable of thought. Koyré: The Political Function of the Modern Lie, (p 298-9)


The study of the secret society has been singularly neglected by sociologists. Even if we do have comparatively ample knowledge of the secret societies of equatorial Africa, we know nothing, or next to nothing, of those which existed and still do exist in Europe. Or, where we do know their history, we are still ignorant of the typological structure of these groups, whose importance was recognized by almost no one but Simmel. (p 294). 

NB: See The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies; Georg Simmel; American Journal of Sociology; Vol. 11, No. 4 (Jan., 1906), pp. 441-498. Available on JStor, for those who have access. DS

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we live in times of rising sensitivity among publics to lying and that, in consequence, some old and vitally important perennial questions to do with lies and truth and power and the role of journalism in a democracy are making a comeback. Inspired by a recent range of global controversies, for instance to do with weapons of mass destruction, WikiLeaks and climate change, pseudology is suddenly fashionable and commentaries on the subject of lying are flourishing. It has become conventional to quote the work of Plato on noble lies, or Kant‟s discussion of whether it is justified to save the life of a friend by telling a lie (he didn‟t approve of that), or more usually to draw upon the writings of Hannah Arendt stimulated by the publication of the Pentagon Papers. 

But it was the Russian-born philosopher and historian of science Alexandre Koyré who was the first contemporary writer to pose new questions about the activity of lying: to ponder its changing historical significance and to emphasise the potentially catastrophic consequences of political lying in the age of media-saturated democracy.1 His treatment was not only careful, sophisticated and unsettling. Its strengths and its weaknesses should ensure that it retains great relevance today.. - John Keane, Keynote lecture at the Journalism Education Association of Australia Conference, Sydney, 2010). Download the lecture:  John Keane - lying journalism and democracy


see also
Tom Phillips - China seeks to eradicate 'vile effect' of independent journalism

The Supreme Court, Gandhi and the RSS