Sept/Oct/Nov 2008


Trevor Butterworth

Jean-Michel Rabaté, Vartan Gregorian Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, bookends The Ethics of the Lie with Jacques Lacan, the French psychiatrist who connected the anxieties of poststructuralism to those of psychoanalysis. At the beginning, we have the proposition, apropos Monica Lewinsky, that Bill Clinton may have been “the world’s first Lacanian president” because, as Lacan saw it, “there is no such thing as a sexual relationship” (and as Clinton tried to explain to a mortified nation, oral sex should be thought of as an aperitif rather than an entrée). At the end, and apropos Pinocchio’s nose, we are told that from a Lacanian point of view, “the lie always keeps something of the structure of the phallus, because the phallus is always like a joke, partakes [sic] of its mythical origins with the ludicrously inflated prosthesis carried on the stage in Aristophanes’ theater.”

One might venture that phallic jokes depend on who’s getting screwed and by whom, and that for women, the punch line isn’t always metaphoric or funny. Nevertheless, if there is a moment of comic relief in Rabaté’s investigation into America’s “obsession” with lying, it is in the image of Clinton as a red-faced Pinocchio, freed from guilt by Lacan only to find himself and the country cast in one big dick joke. Whether you think this kind of reading deft or daft will largely depend on where you stand regarding the literary/philosophical, Continental/Anglo-American divide. For contemporary literary investigation, Lacan is crucial; but for mainstream American philosophy of an analytic cast, he is irrelevant, the argumentative equivalent of a bridge to nowhere. The objections are: Lacan trades in concepts that are either unfalsifiable or nonsensical, and he robs the sciences willy-nilly, squandering his plunder on hermetic cock and bull.

A more grating consequence of the book’s Lacanian preoccupations is philosophical parochialism. I’m willing to entertain a book that argues that America has been “polarized” by lying since the cold war and is increasingly preoccupied with “the phenomenon of lying,” in every sphere of society and culture. Indeed, it’s a compelling theme; but on historical grounds, it’s reckless for Rabaté to produce a book on the ethics of the lie without mentioning any established thinking on the subject. There isn’t even a nod of recognition toward Sissela Bok’s classic, Lying, written in response to the rapid decline in public confidence in civic institutions and expertise driven by the Vietnam War and exacerbated by Watergate. Watergate does provide Rabaté with an opportunity to dip a toe into analytic philosophy, but his discussion of liar paradoxes in formal semantics, and the attempt to reduce mathematics to formal logic, has questionable relevance to Richard Nixon and lying in the everyday world.

So the question becomes whether Rabaté, in the course of dilating on Clinton, the Bush administration, the confabulations of journalists Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass, Lauren Slater’s Prozac Diary, James Cameron’s True Lies (thumbs up), and Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (thumbs down), provides a sufficiently interesting reading of lying to disregard an interpretive framework that has, at best, a dubious purchase on the issue’s substance. The answer is that there is much to tantalize, but little to satisfy. Rabaté seems to be on to something in discussing the Bush administration’s embrace of an ideology of simplism. “In a sense,” writes Rabaté, “the lie is always more simple, and thus always more seductive. When simplism is erected into a state ideology, it is the state lie that dictates politics. The lie is simplifying, and brings in its wake a circular process.”

This sounds good, but it is not pursued in any depth. And without depth, it’s simplism of a different kind. Part of the problem is that Rabaté’s sourcing is, literally, newspaper thin: He relies almost entirely on journalistic accounts, and on one journalist’s book in particular, David Corn’s The Lies of George W. Bush, to frame his analysis. Yet few journalists could write that lying “is the weapon of choice of Republican conservatives” without providing some evidence and argument or get away with suggesting that Ohio was stolen from John Kerry in 2004 on the grounds that an African commentator thought Florida, four years earlier, had the look of a corrupt African election.

This isn’t scholarly argument—it’s dinner-party anecdotage. More to the point, it obviates deep thinking about ethics. Leave aside the question of whether George W. Bush believed in his heart that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and ask whether the mandate of precaution, as articulated by Dick Cheney in Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine, provides sufficient ethical grounds for military intervention (“If there’s a 1 percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon,” said Cheney, “we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response”).

But when does using the precaution principle amount to lying about the evidence? It’s difficult to prove that Pakistani scientists aren’t helping al-Qaeda, so what counts as sufficient evidence that they are? Rabaté just doesn’t seem interested in this kind of analysis. The Ethics of the Lie calls to mind T. S. Eliot’s rebuke of Norman Foerster, an American literary critic: “There is a philosophic training, and it is not the literary training.” Just what literary critics are now being trained to do is unclear; but from a Lacanian point of view, one might say it leans heavily on Aristophanes’s theatrics.

Trevor Butterworth is a regular contributor to the Financial Times.