TransAct 30

I am lying.

The ancient paradox of the liar rocked the foundations of the concept of truth and the meaning of language. If we accept that the statement "I am lying" is true, then what it is saying must be false and if we accept that the statement is false then what it is saying is not true, therefore it is not true that it is false, in other words it is therefore true. Contradiction on contradiction, from which there is no real escape even with the construction of various levels of meaning. If we cannot understand the linguistic meaning with the simple help of the opposites of true and false then we must regard language as a social act which does not necessarily allow itself to be captured in either/or decisions but much more with various norms, guides and principles which among themselves can also contradict each other or be violated. That is what is generally known as the pragmatic meaning or the speaker meaning. Language is then seen in a performance context. Instead of requirements for truth, there are requirements for accomplishment; expressions such as sincerity or abuse are part of the analytical inventory. Such models can explain well why for instance apologies which are made in the context of "If it's necessary, then I'll do it" once again further insult the victims of a previous crime on the one hand and signal unbroken solidarity with the perpetrators on the other. It is not only that here the pragmatic speaker meaning is perfectly used and controlled, this can also be denied later depending on political necessity and there is a retreat to an interpretation of expression which is based on a concept of truth independent of context. To remain with the example – the apology has formally taken place – which means it would be wrong in this sense to argue with it on the level of pure words – and the case is closed ("What more do you want?"). Or: since the significance of concentration camps is so drastically changed by the use of the expression "punishment camp" (Straflager) and their unique character and the dimension of the Holocaust thereby called into question, there is immediately an assistant who wants to deny this speech act with, of all things, a (context-less) dictionary definition. The expression "actual meaning" is thereby perverted as far as its dissolution. Switching to and fro between various levels of discourse and interpretation models becomes a central element of this political communication. This switching also works in the other direction, i.e. from a context-less meaning to a speaker meaning. After the elections, as Haider was asked by a CNN reporter to comment on his notorious employment policy in the Third Reich quote, he was so quick to answer that he was quoted out of context that the interviewer did not think to ask in what context such a quote would be less of a problem or no problem at all. While, with his desperate appeal to "judge the government by its deeds", one could still believe Schüssel's wish that linguistic and non-linguistic acts should be separated, it is the strategy of the new right-wing populists to play on these various levels of linguistic and non-linguistic acts, to switch them and play them off against each other with a high degree of flexibility. As a linguist one is overcome by a strange feeling and the question comes up more and more whether the impressive progress made in this subject in the last forty years has not also made a great contribution to the fact that all possible forms of communication training spread a knowledge which makes it possible to suppress the linguistic "What" in favour of a linguistic "How" to an ever greater degree. Object and meta-language can often no longer be separated and the researcher is faced with the question of who is actually sitting in the cage. Progress in this field can always be used in service of the motto, "Say what works", and language coupled with knowledge about it now only serves the advertising branch and production of this effect in the media. The constructed character of the new populist politician type has often been pointed out, how they are produced by media techniques and opinion polls, always flexible and ready to adapt to a new situation, combined with the impossibility of confronting them with questions of identity or "essentiality", as recently formulated by cultural historian Thomas Macho. No "true self", the question "Who are you really?" cannot be put. The central moment between all the changes of clothes and images is the language, which should no longer have a core of truth which would enable it to be attached or anchored to facts. Expression and content must be just as quickly exchangeable as the pronouns "I" or "we". "We" is "I" and "we" can be the "real and upright Austrians" or also all of us, depending in which context the "others" are currently defined. The game with the truth is not, as in Ancient Greece, reduced to a logical paradox, but truth vanishes in the oscillation between discourse positions and strategies, totally adapted to the current requirements of media democracy. Under these conditions the statement, "I am lying" is something like a permanent virtual truth, and one which points to its deceptive character.

Hans Martin Prinzhorn,
linguist, art theorist and curator,

Vienna, May 2K