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A prehistory of post facto, East and West

Perhaps the truth is not something one can have, but it can and must be sought, writes American historian Marci Shore in this essay.


Postmodernism was mainly designed by the left as a protection against totalitarian ideologies, but today it has been appropriated on behalf of a shrinking right-wing totalitarianism. Is French Literary Theory Blamed? And can the philosophy of dissent developed in communist Eastern Europe prove to be the antidote?

In 2014, Russian historian Andrej Zubov was kicked out of his Moscow professorship for comparing Putin's annexation of Crimea with Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland (1). Two years later, at a festival in the post-industrial Czech town of Ostrava, Zubov spoke to a large audience about the historian's task. "My dolzhni govorit 'pravdu," he said. We should speak the truth. This statement sounded peculiar, even old-fashioned, especially when uttered with Zubov's bass voice. Especially the use of the Slavic word true – truth – invoked without any reservation or prefix, evoked memories of a bygone era. Who still believed in the truth?

The end of The End of History arrived at the same time as the end of the belief in reality. The world of the Cold War was a world of warring ideologies; in the 21. For centuries, both American capitalism and post-Soviet oligarchy employ the same public relations specialists as gangsters with political ambitions. As Peter Pomerantsev described it in Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, it became to distinguish between truth and lies in Russia in the 2000 century pass. In this enlightened world, "everything is public relations".

Reality TV has redundant the old distinction between the fictional and the real. The truth is a limitation that has been overcome: Post-truth has been named "word of the year". In Washington, the White House shamelessly defends its "alternative facts." Initially, American journalists were surprised: they had been trained to confirm individual pieces of information, not to deal with a flagrant disregard for empirical reality. The New Yorker captured the desperation with a satire about the fact-checker who fainted with exhaustion after the Republicans' debate. He had to be hospitalized; reportedly he was never replaced (2).

Crisis Times "Eternal Questions"

In every crisis, a long Russian tradition asks two "eternal questions". The first: Kto vinovat? Who's to blame? The postmodern critique of the ontological stability of truth inadvertently helped create a state of opportunity for post-truth now exploited by oligarchic regimes on both sides of the Atlantic? Is French Literary Theory and its "Narcissistic Obscurantism" Responsible (3)? "I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face," wrote Michel Foucault. "Do not ask who I am and don't ask me to stay the same (4)." It was not always suspicious that literary theorists like Paul de Man and Hans Robert Jauss – both of whom had a personal interest in creating distance between their youthful himself during World War II and his academic after the war – so passionately formulated a philosophy about the inconsistency of the self and the non-existence of the stable subject, stable meaning and stable truth? Does not Jacques Derrida bear any of the responsibility of Vladimir Putin?

The second eternal question: Chto shared? What needs to be done? Is there an antidote to postmodernity? Where can we find it?

"Postmodernity" has a history. It did not originate from the great nothing but rather from "modernity", which European historians have traditionally dated from the French Enlightenment of the 1700 century. In the beginning, God was simply pushed aside and assigned a minor role as human reason occupied the main scene. '' Sapere Aude! '' – '' Have the courage to apply your own reason! ' – this is the Enlightenment motto, "which Immanuel Kant wrote in a famous phrase (5). Later (in the 1880 years, to be exact) God was completely killed (speculatively by Dostoevsky, definitely by Nietzsche). Now the philosophical importance of compensating for a castrated – and eventually nonexistent – God became even greater. God had provided epistemological, ontological and ethical functions; his death left a huge void. Much modern philosophy can be described as an attempt to replace God, to find a way to absolute truth in God's absence.

For Husserl, giving up the truth meant giving up the ethics.

The quest for this path was a quest for a bridge: from subject to object, from the inner to the outer, from consciousness to the world, from thinking to aries. Epistemology (the study of knowledge, of the conditions of knowledge) now dominated philosophical studies. Above all, we needed epistemological clarity and certainty that we could have knowledge of the world, or else we would be condemned to alienation. Hannah Arendt described the "melancholy of modern philosophy" in the absence of anything and anyone that could guarantee the correspondence between thinking and being. She blamed Kant (whom she loved) for shattering the classic identity and consciousness of the world without leaving anything we can hold on to. Hegel's philosophy, in turn, was an answer to Kant's and represented an attempt to restore this broken device. Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski and Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller both characterized the story Hegel tells in Phenomenology of spirits, as a consciousness Bildungsroman: We move dialectically through history towards one telos which carries with it the promise of ultimate reconciliation: between subject and object, consciousness and the world, thinking and being (6). But no one could be sure, Arendt wrote, on whether Hegel's attempt to reconstitute "a world now shattered into pieces" gives us "a residence or a prison for reality" (7).

The vulnerability of the objective truth

There was another aspect of the problem: In European modernity, truth was not only difficult to reach, but increasingly vulnerable to politics. Arendt emphasized that it was not all truth that was vulnerable to politics, but especially "objective truth". She distinguishes this from philosophical truth, which can be understood as truth we can acknowledge beforehand through the use of our own reason, regardless of experience: 2 + 2 = 4, for example, or Kant's categorical imperative, which dictates that a human should always be used as a goal and not as a means. So what is vulnerable to politics is the objective truth – afterwards, empirical truth, or experience-dependent truth. For the objective truth will always carry its original possibility. Two plus two must always be four, but it was not necessary for Germany to invade Belgium in 1914. The events could have turned out differently. The German invasion of Belgium is a fact a posteriori. (For Kołakowski, it is precisely the original, infinite possibility of empirical reality that we find existentially unbearable: the lack of a higher imperative for things to go as they do (8).)

While politics had always been a threat to actual truth, Arendt explained, the pre-modern, "traditional lie" was modest compared to modern political lies. The traditional lie had two distinctive features: first, it should never "literally deceive everybody; it was directed at the enemy and was meant to deceive only him ». Thus the truth always found a refuge, albeit only in the liar's self, who was aware that he was lying. Second, the traditional lie was only concerned with "particulars [and] a falsehood that makes no attempt to change the whole context – tears, as it were, a hole in the fabric of factuality. As every historian knows, one can spot a lie by noticing incongruities, holes, or the junctures of patched-up places »(9).

Not knowing the truth does not mean that it does not exist.

The modern lie, on the other hand, did not allow any refuge for the truth, since the liar also deceived itself. Moreover, the modern lie was no longer a figment of the structure of reality. "Modern political lies are so big that they require a complete rearrangement of the whole factual texture, the making of another reality, as it were, into which they will fit without seam, crack, or fissure," wrote Arendt (10). In this new reality, there were no more things to uncover. This is the only way to understand it 20. century totalitarian ideologies on: as seamless reconstructions of reality. They offered a great story, a story that was perhaps untrue, but which nevertheless possessed its own narrative arc. They offered a transcendental key to our history and our lives by making them a seamless, whole context.

The end of the big stories

However, the ideologies that enabled totalitarianism did not live forever. (Bolshevism, writes Yuri Slezkine in his epic saga about the Bolshevik elite, was a one-generation phenomenon (11).) By destroying the notion of socialism with a human face, the Warsaw Pact invasion of Prague marked the beginning of the end of the great stories. In or around 1968, Marxism lost its foothold. "I define postmodern as incredulity towards meta-narratives, ”wrote the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard a decade later (12). Postmodern philosophy was largely inspired by the moral desire to never again fall for the great narratives, for the seamless reconstructions of reality that had enabled totalitarianism. If modernity was the attempt to replace God, postmodernity began when we abandoned it, accepting that there was neither God nor any viable surrogate.

Karl Marx was not timely when he wrote that "everything that is fixed melts to air". In the middle of the 1800 century, the observation was premature. Modernity, explained the Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, aimed to replace the pre-modern fast with something even more solid and lasting. Postmodernity (which Bauman calls "fluid modernity") wanted to melt the fast. His second wave modernity no longer seeks solid ground, but embraces the volatile, smooth, precarious, fluid. "Flexibility," Bauman wrote, "has replaced solidity as the ideal condition to be pursued by things and affairs." Meanwhile, God is still "on His protracted leave of absence." (13)

The experiment is specified

What is so seductive about postmodern theory – as historian Tony Judt put it – is precisely its "insistence on subverting not just old certainties but the very possibility of certainty itself" (14). Now we give up the attempt to find a bridge between subject and object, the inner and outer, thought and being. We give up the idea that there is a holistic order that unites the particle with the universal, a stable structure that connects our individual selves with the world. As French philosopher Jacques Derrida told us, structures need a center, an anchorage, be it God or a godsend, a way to limit the otherwise endless game between the signifying and the signified. "There has to be a transcendental signified," Derrida argues, "for the difference between signifier and signified to be somewhere absolute and irreducible. (15)" But this center – this "transcendental term" – is precisely what is missing, what does not exist and cannot exist. The implications are both destabilizing and liberating. In the basic text of deconstructivism, Derrida writes: "The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and play of signification infinitely. (16)"

For Derrida, "play" represents openness and an embrace of diversity. Because there is no center, any God or godly place that holds the world structure together, all words, opinions, truths and texts will undermine themselves; the elements they contain are in tension with and negate each other. Meaning is never identical to the self, but rather always fluid and moving, incomplete and self-undermining, both different and exposed, different from what it was before and from what is to come. The relationship between words and things is not fixed: Words are always in play with each other, so that an unlearned and adopted truth will never exist. Life is not a closed structure. Closed structures do not exist; life is constantly moving.

And this is important: For Derrida, the very existence of the "transcendent term" was already a totalitarian threat. Its absence is a happy sign of health (17). Absence does not leave us with a deficit of meaning and truth, but rather with a surplus. For Derrida, the word "game" was not meant to trivialize our lives and our relationship with the world. On the contrary, the game became an affirmation of our creativity, our freedom and our responsibility. Derrida's deconstruction – the paradigmatic postmodern philosophy – was not intended as fatalistic nihilism, but as provocative exhilaration. A rejection of any absolute truth claim would protect us from totalitarian terror. Derrida insisted that deconstruction had always represented "the least necessary condition for identifying and combating the totalitarian risk." (18)

But this fluid quality, this openness to endless possibilities, also entails a delusion that deprives us of a secure reason to stand on, a condition Arendt describes as Soillessness. For if absolute truth does not exist, and reality is constructed only through a discourse consisting of the term in play with each other, does there exist any reality whatsoever that we should feel connected to, invest in, trust, care for? Bauman argues that "multiple authorities" is a contradiction; in practice it means the same as no authority (19). Are infinite opinions and infinite truths the same as no meaning and no truth? After the belief in Marxism died down, the Eastern European thinkers who were still living under communism no longer believed in the breakthrough of nihilism. They feared what Czech dissident Václav Havel described to his wife Olga as "nothing, the modern face of the devil." (20)

Havel wrote the letter to Olga in March 1981, from the prison he ended up shortly after assuming the role of spokesman for the human rights dispute Charta 77. Among the other two original advocates was the highly regarded Jan Patocka, who was a quarter of a century older than Havel. Patocka and Derrida both came from the same German philosophical tradition: Hegels Bildungsromanconsciousness, Husserl's phenomenology, Heidegger's existentialism. In the 1930 years, Patocka had studied with both Husserl and Heidegger; he was one of Husserl's last students. In 1949, at the Charles University of Prague, he had a groundbreaking lecture on Hegel's Phenomenology of spirits; he had also translated all of Hegel's works into Czech. The aging Czech philosopher had always stayed away from politics. He was neither communist nor dissident; he was an academic and thinker who, after being ejected from the university in the wake of the 1968 invasion, organized underground seminars in private apartments, where he and his students read Heideggers Aries and time over and over again as they backfired with the meaning of the individual sentence and continuously translated from German to Czech. Now Patocka said he was willing to join Havel to represent the Charter 77. Within a few days, the secret police came to both of them. Patocka's health was impaired; he did not survive the interrogations.

The power of the powerless

Half a year later, a subway courier delivered Havel's essay (dedicated in memoriam to Patocka) to Adam Michnik, the editor of a Polish Samizdat magazine (dissident publication, ed. note). The essay, which bore the title The power of the powerless, was to become an iconic text for the Eastern European dissent movement. The anti-hero i The power of the powerless is a regular vegetable merchant who every morning dutifully hangs a sign with the inscription "Workers in all countries, unite!" in their shop window. The vegetable trader has no particular enthusiasm for the ideals of communism – towards the end of the 1970 years no one does. Everyone who sees the sign understands that no longer expects the world's workers to unite, yet the vegetable trader, like everyone else, continues to hang the sign. But does he ultimately have a choice? If he refuses, he can be seduced, arrested, persecuted. Probably his family will suffer too. Children can be denied access to the university. The vegetable dealer, Havel tells us, lives in bad faith (although he does not use the French term). He lives in bad faith precisely in Sartre's sense of the term: bad faith as self-deception. The vegetable trader is lying to himself – though not about his belief in communism. He knows very well that he does not believe in communism. No, the vegetable trader is lying to himself about his own powerlessness. 

In what way does this sense of powerlessness represent a form of self-deception? Havel answered with a question: Why will all these unpleasant consequences hit the grocery store if he takes down the sign? After all, no one believes in the sign's message anymore. Everyone – including the vegetable merchant himself – knows that the emperor is naked. But these unpleasant consequences emphasize that the hanging of this sign is nevertheless extremely important to the communist regime. If all the vegetable vendors one day took down the signs, it would actually be the beginning of a revolution. So the vegetable trader is not so powerless anyway. On the contrary, he is quite powerful: it is the vegetable traders who let the game continue in the first place.

Closed structures do not exist; life is constantly moving.

Havel accused the greengrocer of living on a lie. The vegetable trader's inability to live in truth is a moral defeat: He is guilty of maintaining the same system that oppresses him. That he lives on a lie, that everyone lives on a lie does not make the truth disappear, Havel insisted, but demoralizes only those who live an inauthentic life. Havel's assertion opposes the postmodern twist; no propaganda, no matter the amount, blind rituals or bad faith can dissolve the ontologically real distinction between truth and lies.

It is no coincidence that Eastern European dissidents talked so often about the truth as if it were something tangible, as something just as firm as a key piece. Havel was not alone in his conviction that the ontological reality of truth was proved by the ontological reality of the lie. By centering a dissent's philosophy on the distinction between truth and lies, Eastern European dissidents drew not only on philosophical references from Central Europe, but also on a rich tradition of Russian literature. After the 1968, the Communist regime recalled Dostoevsky's grand inquisitor who had only one secret: He did not believe in God. For Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gogol, Tolstoy and others, it meant writing a quest for the truth of human existence. In the wake of Stalinist terror, Russian philosopher Nikolaj Berdyev wrote an essay titled The paradox of lies. Berdyev claims here that the lie was the state that opened up the rise of totalitarianism. In his experience, the lie was an expression of the deep deformation of human consciousness; As a result of this deformation, individual consciousness escaped more and more from the world. (21)

The truth is no subjective illusion

A Polish film from the Solidarity era – which in itself was a contribution to the philosophy of dissent – sheds light on the essential difference between modern communist totalitarianism and Putin's postmodern Russia. IN The interrogation (Hearing, 1982) takes place in a Stalinist prison. The great Polish actress Krystyna Janda plays Tonia, a young nightclub singer who is suddenly imprisoned, accused of helping the enemies of the People's Republic of Poland. Her interrogators insist that she is the mistress of an anti-communist spy. Tonia understands nothing: The interrogator's version is pure fiction, and she refuses everything. The hearings continue and the prison guards torture her. Gradually Tony's resistance breaks down; gradually, she accepts increasingly larger parts of the fictional narrative.

By the end of the film, we never got to know the true story. Which of these men in the Stalinist interrogator's narrative may have been Tony's lover? Was one of them a spy, and was Tonia aware of that? And yet we understand that There is a true story. Not knowing the truth does not mean that it does not exist. In other words, at the end of the film, the confusion is epistemological, not ontological. Truth continues to have a stable existence regardless of whether an individual has access to it. 

The interrogation represents the modernist position: God is dead, but that does not mean that the truth, even under a totalitarian regime, is a purely subjective illusion. The postmodern world begins when we take the step from epistemological to ontological uncertainty. It is now that we give up the belief that there is such a thing as a stable reality under or among our constructed narratives. Post-truth on the other hand represents the postmodern position: "You have your facts – we have alternative facts." "Everything is PR." Now we live within a seemingly endless number of seamless alternative realities, all with their own alternative facts. Pomerantsev describes Putin's Russia as a world where nothing is true and where everyone readily accepts it. In a review of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible describes the Ukrainian essayist Jurko Protsjasko the truth as a border. Not recognizing the truth is the same as not recognizing boundaries. This non-recognition, writes Protsjasko, "never ends well." (22)

From embrace of responsibility to disclaimer

Derrida himself believed in hospitality, friendship, forgiveness. He was no moral nihilist. Today, however, the ideas that arose in the leftist's critical sensibility have been reconfigured as a rightist's weapon. The philosophy that Derrida launched as an embrace of responsibility has been appropriated as a disclaimer. From an historical perspective, there is a certain irony in the fact that post-facticity has moved from east to west, from Moscow to Washington. Here comes Derrida himself with a suggestion: Among his favorite concepts were pharmakos, an ancient Greek word that can mean both poison and cure. Today, Eastern Europe may prove to be pharmakos: the source of the poison and the source of the cure. (23)

Kto vinovat? Who is to blame? "Blaming is irresponsible," replies Ágnes Heller. «It is responsibility that shouldnt be taken. It is responsibility that must (24) »In Eastern Europe, the philosophy of dissent was the philosophy of responsibility. IN The power of the powerless Havel writes: "Patocka used to say that the most interesting thing about responsibility is that we carry it with us everywhere. That means that responsibility is ours, that we must accept it and grasp it here, now. (25) »The Polish philosopher Krzysztof Michalski, one of Patocka's last students, came up with something of the same when he wrote:« Life and history do not go independently of our participation, like a carousel of at will. "(26) Man can only be identified as" the subject of history ". (27)

Chto shared? What needs to be done? Patocka insisted that although there is no substantiated, stable meaning out there that one can find, the search for meaning is our responsibility. "Humans can't live without meaning," he wrote. Maybe the truth is not something you can ha, but it can and must sought (28). Kołakowski was also strongly committed to this position, writing: "Husserl believed that the search for certainty was constitutive of European culture and that giving up this search would amount to destroying that culture. Husserl was probably right. (29) »Kołakowski argued that the unsuccessful outcome of Husserl's passionate pursuit of absolute truth was inevitable:" The problem of the bridge is insoluble; there is no logical passage. (30) »Stating the truth meant giving up the ethics.

In one of their recent conversations, 2008, Adam Michnik asked Havel: "What advice would you give young people today if they ask you: How should I live?" "The fundamental imperative," replied Havel. "Live in truth." 

Permission for republishing is granted by Eurozine.
Copyright © Marci Shore / Public Seminar / Eurozine 

Watch Joshua Yaffa, "Putin's New War on 'Traitors'", The New Yorker (March 28, 2014), online:; Андрей Зубов, "жто уже было" Ведомости (1. March 2014);

Andy Borowitz, “Fact-checker at Republican Debate Hospitalized for Exhaustion,” The New Yorker (January 16, 2016).

Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (New York: Penguin 2005): 481.

Michel Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge, translated by AM Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972): 17.

Immanuel Kant, "What is Enlightenment?" The Basic Writings of Kant, ed. Allen W. Wood (New York: The Modern Library, 2001): 135 – 141.

Agnes Heller, "Contingency", A Philosophy of History in Fragments (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993): 1 – 35, see p. 11; Leszek Kołakowski, Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth, and Dissolution, Volume 1: The Founders, translated by PS Falla (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978): 56 – 80, see p. 60.

Hannah Arendt, "What Is Existential Philosophy?" Essays in Understanding 1930 – 1954, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1994): 163 – 187, citations p. 164.

See Leszek Kołakowski, The Presence of Myth, translated by Adam Czerniawski (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1989).

Hannah Arendt, "Truth and Politics," Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 2006): 223 – 259, quote p. 248.

Arendt, "Truth and Politics": 249.

Yuri Slezkine, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2017): 1176.

Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984): xxiv.

Bauman Zygmunt, Liquid Modernity (Malden: Polity Press, 2012): citations pp. Viii – ix, 55.

Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (New York: Penguin 2005): 479.

Jacques Derrida, «On Grammatology» A Derrida Reader, ed. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991): 31 – 58, quote p. 36.

Jacques Derrida, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences", Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978): 279 – 293, quotation p. 280.

See Derrida in «Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences»: «Turning towards the lost or impossible presence of the absent origin, this structuralist thematic of broken immediacy is therefore the saddened, negative, nostalgic, guilty, Rousseauistic side of the thinking of play whose other side would be the Nietzschean affirmation, which is the joyous affirmation of the play of the world and of the innocence of becoming, the affirmation of a world of signs without fault, without truth, and without origin, which is offered to an active interpretation. This affirmation then determines the noncenter differently than as loss of the center. And it plays without security. »(292)

Jacques Derrida, "Like the Sound of the Sea Deep Within a Shell: Paul the Man's War", Critical Inquiry, vol. 14, No. 3 (our 1988): 590 – 652, quote p. 647.

Bauman, Liquid Modernity, 64.

Václav Havel, Letters to Olga, translated by Paul Wilson (London-Boston: Faber and Faber, 1990), 175 (letter dated 14. March 1981).

Nikolai Berdyaev, "Парадокс Лжи", originally published in 1939: In English: "The Paradox of the Lie", translated by Fr. S. Janos;

Юрко Прохасько, "Истинна Правда," Критика (February 2016); In English: Yurko Prokhasko, "Veritable Truth", translated by Kate Younger, Krytyka (February 2016);

There is no better antidote to Putin's infectious post-factuality – believes Russian fiction literary writer Sergei Lebedev – than the rich Russian literary tradition.

Agnes Heller, "Some Remarks on the Sense of Historical Existence," A Theory of History (London: Routledge and Kegal Paul, 1982): 328 – 333, quote p. 332.

Václav Havel, "The Power of the Powerless", The Power of the Powerless, ed. John Keane (Armonk: ME Sharpe, 1985): 24 – 96, quote p. 80. For Derrida's analysis of Patocka's concept of responsibility, see Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, translated by David Willis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

Krzysztof Michalski, The Flame of Eternity: An Interpretation of Nietzsche's Thought, translated by Benjamin Paloff (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).

Krzysztof Michalski, "Iron Laws and Personal Responsibility," translated by E. Kohák, Cross Currents 7 (1988): 129 – 135, quote p. 132.

Jan Patocka, "Does History Have a Meaning?" Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History, translated by Erazim Kohák, ed. James Dodd (Chicago: Open Court, 1996): 53 – 77, quotation p. 75.

Leszek Kołakowski, Husserl and the Search for Certainty (South Bend: St. Augustine's Press, 2001): 7.

Kolakowski, Husserl and the Search for Certainty: 80.

Václav Havel and Adam Michnik, "Rewolucjo ducha, przyjdź!", Gazeta Wyborcza (November 15, 2008).
Shore is associate professor of history at Yale University.

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