“Objective mendacity prevails world-historically in this age. In our time, everything that is not really great is fake.”3’
As Benjamin was developing his critique of epistemology, he also intended to write a treatise on the morality of lying and truth telling, a project from which we have a series of fragmentary notes. Although he does not get far with this project, he does arrive at a startlingly original conceptual innovation along the way: the idea of objective mendacity (objektive Verlogenheit}, a kind of pervasive dishonesty that does not fit under the normal schema of truth and lie. “It is not the subjective lie for which an individual would be held clearly responsible.”40 Elsewhere he adds: “Untruth connected to correctness and/or good faith is what makes up ‘objective mendacity’ in contrast to a (good or bad) subjective lie.”41 The problem he sets up is clear enough, even if the full implication is not: to investigate a kind of ‘lie’ that is pervasive and systematic, that cannot be attributed to any individual agent, even though it may well be consistent with subjective sincerity or good will, and possessed with accurate knowledge. Still, even if the individual is not responsible for this objective mendacity, the very term ‘mendacity’ implies a kind of moral and not merely epistemic quality, a sense of moral responsibility that belongs not merely to the individual, but to the social context, as well as a sense of moral responsibility to become critical of the objective context that begets the lie. As we investigate Benjamin’s elusive philosophy of truth, it is necessary to keep this notion in mind as the most fruitful oppositional term.
In order to grasp this notion of objective mendacity, it will be helpful to consider what is missing from the ordinary notion of a subjective lie that deserves attention:
• In the model of a subjective lie, one person is possessed of truth and another is not. To the extent that one person has the knowledge and the power in the situation, the other is taken as the innocent victim of deception. But we could conceive of a lie in which the responsibility is mutual. For example, the dictator who presents racist propaganda finds an audience that is too easily influenced, too willing to believe what is presented without any scrutiny. The model of deceiver and deceived breaks down. Instead, there is a mutually reinforcing will to believe, in which the audience’s tacit approval is what motivates the speaker.
- • Accurate factual statements can be used in a misleading way. One can present a mix of factual and non-factual claims that point towards a conclusion, but leave out other countervailing facts that would undermine the conclusion. Perhaps one knows these facts and withholds them. Or perhaps one does not even know the countervailing facts because one has only sought supporting facts. In this case, the facts may be accurate and presented in good faith, but still, reasoning is motivated in a way that demonstrates a lack of will to understand the truth.
- • Our pursuit of facts or our collection of arguments is always partial and often motivated by a set practical purpose. The facts that we collect give a partial view of the world that mirrors our intentions. In this sense, our ‘will’ is involved in what we know and do not know. And often, the practical purpose that guides what information we seek is a practical purpose shared by a group of people or given from a hierarchical chain of command. In this latter case, the falsity of our partial view of the world is ‘objective’ in the sense of being embodied in social institutions that have lasting power.
In this context, Benjamin compares the truth to a snake: one may not simply go up and pet it; one may not walk near it without being ready to look it in the eye “with the gaze of a magician.”42 In a like manner, Benjamin argues that one should not claim truth or look for truth in the speech of others without a relentless will to truth. “If facts are touched by someone without such a will to truth, then there arises a pollution and constipation of life.”4’ The snake metaphor has a wide variety of implications: it is our very will to learn that allows us to be deceived, especially when this will is only partial and tied to a limited purpose. That is, we want to acquire some understanding of the world, but just enough to suit our purposes. In acquiring just enough information to suit our purposes, we absorb a variety of notions, some accurate and perhaps some inaccurate, some with evidence and some without. But even the accurate facts are only an incomplete picture of a complex and evolving circumstance. Then we communicate this partial view of the world to others, not with a will to deceive them with outright lies, but perhaps with a will to bind them to our own partial understanding of the world.
This notion of objective mendacity has a special significance for Benjamin because of the way it cuts across the normal conceptual dichotomies governing both epistemology as well as moral debates on truth telling, and he implies that it has a special significance in social and political critique: “(Objective mendacity) prevails world-historically in this age. Everything that is not really great, is fake (unecht) in our time.”44 Benjamin wrote these notes for a study on lying around 1918-1920, a time during which he is wrestling with the problem of how one of the most educated and scientific nations in the world could at the same time embrace a
Benjamin’s Truth 95 particularly toxic pseudo-scientific, racist discourse. As Benjamin argues, there is a certain kind of lying in which sincerity goes along with a stubborn will to self-deception. There is a need for a layer of criticism that focuses on the way in which lies gain the upper hand through a proliferation of evidence that is motivated.
The ‘object’ in objective mendacity is a social objectivity, a context between people. Thus he writes: “Objective mendacity is this: not recognizing the situation of decision.”45 That is, the agent of the lie is not one person, but multiple people who relate to a situation in a dishonest manner and support each other in doing so. This interpretation is not to deny the agency of the individuals within the situation, or to claim that the moral critique cannot fall on them. Benjamin stops short of saying that the situation itself is what is mendacious, for that would project a moral quality onto something that is not capable of any agency, and it would thus mystify the notion of objective mendacity. But he directs our attention to the way in which the agent of the decision relates to the situation, and argues that it is here that a certain fateful kind of mendacity might emerge. Indeed, in the snake metaphor he faults those who approach the situation without a sufficient will to truth. A person may act subjectively in good faith, and yet not even try to recognize the situation as one that makes the subjective intention dishonest in a deeper sense. It is not merely the lack of knowledge of the situation that constitutes mendacity, for one cannot speak of a lie where there is an utter lack of knowledge, but the mendacity resides in the lack of a will to understand the situation. For example, a civilian in Nazi Germany might claim not to know about the concentration camps, and in some cases, this might not be a lie. But behind this subjectively honest statement, there is an element of objective mendacity, a failure to regard all of the known facts and all of the elements of agency in a proper context, a willingness to believe in an overall narrative that deserves deeper scrutiny.
Although Benjamin’s notion of objective mendacity offers a promising direction for social critique, it is hard to give a full development to this concept to which he devoted only a few fragmentary pages. The essay on the morality of lying never materialized. Nevertheless, Benjamin’s notion of objective mendacity finds a more developed form in the work of two of the most important thinkers influenced by Benjamin, Adorno and Arendt, but of whom find more of a chance than Benjamin to witness and write about the Nazi movement and the moral restitution of Germany after the war. It is not clear whether they were explicitly aware of Benjamin’s brief unpublished study on lying, but their own reflections on the role of lying in Nazi Germany help us to make better sense of what is meant by objective mendacity and how it could be applied to social critique.
In her great study The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt argues that one of the most powerful political discoveries of the Nazis was a new form of lying, which she would refer to as ‘modern lying.’ Hitler discovered that:
A lie must be enormous, i.e. when you are not content to lie about factual data within a factual context that is left intact, whereby the intact facts already uncover the lie, but instead cast such a web of lies around the entire factuality that all of the individual constituent facts replace the real by a fictional world, coherent in itself.46
The fascist dictator does not merely lie, but seeks to construct a whole alternative worldview, a whole history, and then to refashion reality itself so that there is no trace of an alternative narrative. The lie becomes a cohesive reality through its sheer size and ambition, but also through the violent elimination of anyone who would contradict it. In this sense, this lie becomes ‘objective’ through its sheer power and scale, as well as its power to alter the facts.47 But Arendt additionally followed the problem of mendacity into the mentality of the followers of fascism, through her study of Eichmann as a paradigmatic figure, and it is perhaps here that we can sense the greatest echoes of Benjamin’s notion of objective mendacity. In her view, Eichmann’s troubled relation to himself and his actions became symptomatic of the very nature of modern evil. She sees him as neither a fervent believer in Nazi ideology, nor as a mere petty criminal trying to deny his way out of his actions, but as someone incapable of thinking in an enlarged way about what he did and experienced. His inability to think takes on a moral dimension in her account, because it does not derive from intellectual limitations, but from an unwillingness to see himself as accountable for his role as a thinking agent within the social whole. Her diagnosis that he was evil even while being strikingly normal and dutiful within his context echoes Benjamin’s suspicion that the mendacity particular to modern culture is such that only what is ‘truly great’ and possessed of a will to truth could resist it. That is, objective mendacity arises more from inaction and conformity within a certain dishonest context than from action. Even more than the great lie of the dictator, the unthinking functionality of Eichmann shows the way in which mendacity can become objective in the sense of being instantiated in socially accepted norms and institutions rather than in the particular willfulness of an individual. To put it another way, if we follow Arendt’s diagnosis, the falsity in Eichmann is not in the way that he intentionally hides or distorts a known truth, but rather in the way that he unquestioningly accepts the duties and purposes that prevail in the social institutions around him.
Benjamin’s notion of objective mendacity also finds many echoes in the work of Adorno. He describes the Germans who succumbed to fascism as people who could not lie without believing their own lies, thus capturing the same paradox of good-faith mendacity that Benjamin
Benjamin’s Truth 97 suggests.48 Much like Arendt, Adorno seems to believe in a distinctive kind of modern lying that no longer exactly fits the moral schema of one individual deceiving another. This modern lie is one in which the liar broadcasts that he is lying, makes clear that he has the power to lie, but then challenges the listener to object. In this form of lying, the point is not for the liar to hide the truth but to show that he is more powerful than all of the people who care about truth. And once this form of lying gains traction, the simple prohibition on lying is not enough to gain a critical insight into the nature of mendacity. “It ill befits universal untruth to insist on a particular truth, while immediately converting it into its opposite.”49 That is, if an entire social institution relies on a series of lies, evasions, or delusions in order to continue to function, then it seems misguided to view truth telling for this institution to impose as a moral obligation that the individual has to the other members of society. But even in this context, Adorno notes that we are scarred by the lies we might tell. “A man who lies is ashamed, for each lie teaches him the degradation of a world which, forcing him to lie in order to live, promptly sings the praises of loyalty and truthfulness.”50 Lying might still cause shame in this context, Adorno argues, yet not because of a breached social norm, but because it demonstrates the way in which individuals depend on self-denial in order to fit into the society around them. Adorno has many figures in his thought which place the ultimate locus of untruth or falsity not in the individual, but on the system or social context in which individuals live: for example, he inverts Hegel’s dictum ‘The whole is the true’ into the provocative aphorism ‘The whole is the false.’ He later describes society as a ‘universal context of delusion’ (universaler Verblendungszusammenhang), in order to emphasize the way in which delusions arise not from the intentions of individuals to deceive, nor from the intellectual limitations of people, but from the overall system of exchange and communication that shapes our interactions. It would lead us too far astray here to examine all of the ways in which Adorno plays with the concepts of truth and deception in his examinations of pathological opinion and ideology. But in general, he shares with Benjamin a standpoint that reverses the standpoint of morality from one which critiques individual falsehood to one which critiques mutually reinforcing or systematic falsehoods.
This approach towards ‘objective mendacity’ or even more towards society as a ‘universal context of delusion’ might seem to harbor the danger of a certain kind of moral relativism, especially in the formulations of Adorno. If the problem is not the mendacity of the individual, but a collectivity in which mendacity gets promoted and reinforced as a necessity, then does not the blame shift to such a vague totality that one may no longer expect anything of the individual? And isn’t it then impossible to see who is responsible or how we can make direct interventions to rectify the dishonesty? I believe, however, that Benjamin’s initial move towards the problem of objective mendacity is not meant to be one that pardons the individual for dishonesty or removes the possibility for critical engagement with falsehood, but rather it is a move that is meant to shift the onus of critique. The very term lie, or mendacity, maintains a moral edge. But objective mendacity entails a moral perspective that goes beyond the model of deceiver and deceived and instead looks at the ways in which lies or delusions become innocuous in many social settings, so that one comes to question this very innocuousness. To be sure, Benjamin’s text still speaks of a will to truth and a kind of imperative to think critically about how we deceive and are deceived, and in a sense it makes this will to truth more radical an imperative than merely the formal commitment not to lie.
Objective mendacity then means: our willful participation in a web of lies that are mutual or reciprocal. The speaker and one who listens are equally participants. It is the kind of lie that is ‘objective’ in the sense of being embodied in social institutions and practices that rest on them. One could not refute or cease to participate in the lie without at the same time refusing to be involved in a social practice or institution that has traction. Although Benjamin did not develop this thought experiment deeply, it does seem to provide a valuable way to critique a kind of mendacity that was prevalent in what Arendt would call totalitarian societies, or even more, to look at the way in which untruth prevails in mass culture in general. But what does this notion of objective mendacity teach us about the nature of truth as a counter concept?
‘Objective mendacity’ results when there is a sense of conformity to instrumental goals along with a lack of will to truth. It is also, as Benjamin notes, a ‘world-historical’ force, which is to say, the tendency for certain lies to grow pervasive and unquestioned has a kind of momentum that is particularly strong within the framework of modernity. This points then to the way in which we have to understand truth as a temporal phenomenon and as a suspension of intention. The truth has to be uncovered from layers of mendacity, which gather of their own momentum when we are not looking. As these layers are peeled back, what we find is that it was precisely our intention, what we thought conformed to our view, that was keeping us from perceiving something crucial.