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Truth, Transmission, and Tradition
Morad Farhadpour

Let us begin with a court of law, a topos which has been the origin of many philosophical concepts. The oath taken by every witness in the court is a ritual that must be enacted for the sake of ‘truth’ itself. This ritual consists in uttering three statements, with your right hand on the Bible: “I swear to tell the truth, [to tell] nothing but the truth, and [to tell] the whole truth.” The function of the last two parts is, clearly, to set limits. One can mix the truth with lies, or leave some part of it untold. So the last two statements are necessary to make sure that nothing has been added or subtracted from the truth, because only in this way we can become certain that ‘the witness has told the truth.’ But then, what is the function of the first statement? Does it not seem to be redundant? A negative answer, by implication, has to bring out this hidden function through analyzing the relation between ‘truth’ and ‘the telling of truth.’ However, the interesting point is that such an analysis actually has to deal with the very essence of truth itself. The redundant first part refers to something more than the empirical consciousness of the witness or his awareness of his actions. Here an example might be useful. Consider the trial of a famous ‘Mafia boss.’ Every one knows that he is responsible for murders and many other acts of organized crime, but no one dares to tell the truth. However, what is known in the register of public knowledge, or the symbolic sphere, is beside the point; someone (for instance his accountant, as is usually the case in crime movies) must stand up as a witness and tell the truth to the court. For this reason the first statement is even more significant; it makes ‘the void of the symbolic’ visible to all (just like ‘the little boy’ who shouted “the emperor is naked”); it also produces an empty space in which truth can take shape or be heard.

This proves that ‘telling the truth’ and ‘truth’ itself are essentially interdependent, each one entering the constitution of the other as its essence. However, the two sides never become identical. Telling has its own dialectic which connects and yet keeps it separate from truth. What makes such a paradoxical relation possible, is the mediation of time. The time of telling is different from the temporality of truth; while the former must be understood as a part of that great flow of time we call tradition, the latter is only a bridge between eternity and the Benjaminian ‘now-time.’ In fact, Benjamin’s essay on Leskov, which bears the title of ‘The storyteller’ (Benjamin, 1969), presents us with the very constellation in which ‘truth’ and ‘the telling of truth’ locate each other. According to Benjamin, telling a story creates a desire for retelling it in the heart of listeners. Every story demands to be retold. And yet this desire is not a psychological phenomenon, a collective unconscious yearning, or a manifestation of the need to create and maintain a community of ‘home-made’ values, myths, or customs. This desire to retell a story is rooted in its truth-content. One can even go further and add that it is the desire for truth itself, the desire for telling and retelling the truth ad infinitum. There is no doubt that every story somehow changes when it is retold; every new storyteller leaves her or his finger prints on it. And yet, it remains the same, or rather, eternally returns as the same story. This ‘return’ is the essence and truth of that kind of human experience which is called tradition. Benjamin’s essay is directed towards the revelation and redemption of this truth.

The above argument, in a sense, is a repetition of Jacque Lacan’s famous dictum: “Truth has the structure of a fiction.” But it has no intention of identifying truth with narrative. Such an attempt is very dangerous and confusing, (despite the fact that it is very much demanded by almost all theoretical discourses of our time.) On the contrary, one must resist this temptation for the sake of truth itself. This resistance, inevitably, leads to a drawing of lines and a categorical indifference towards a whole range of questions related to the concept of meaning. And this indifference includes all of them: whether those that are concerned with the ‘recovery’ of a supposedly lost meaning[1]– i.e. the ones Paul Ricoeur gathers under the name of a ‘hermeneutics of reminiscence of symbols,’ where we can go from the literal sense of the signs to their symbolic significance and thereby maintain our ‘faith’ beyond the naivety and unscientific beliefs of pre-modern Christians —or the questions that deal with the ‘meaninglessness of la condition humain’ and the ‘illusions of the subject’ which have been baptized by the same author as ‘ the hermeneutics of suspicion.’ Both sets of questions aim at filling the voids left by wounds of truth in the social body. In fact, even if, following Adorno, we take hermeneutics or interpretation to be ‘the idea of philosophy’, we shouldn’t forget “that the idea of interpretation in no way coincides with the problem of ‘meaning,’ with which it is mostly confused.”(Adorno,p.126 ). The question of meaning, together with its losing, recovery, construction, deconstruction, or even its ‘meaning’, has often functioned as a continuous distraction for thinking. It is always a question of more meaning, less meaning, loss or lack of meaning, ambiguity of meaning, and so on. This obsession with meaning and its results—e.g. relativism, relative impotence of thinking, depoliticization and considerable growth of universities all over the glob—is not solely a philosophical phenomenon; it is enough to replace ‘meaning’ with ‘expression’, as Samuel Beckett did in his interview[2] with Georges Duthuit, to get an accurate picture of situation in the realm of Art.(2)

If we accept that posing the ‘question of truth’ is a possible—probably the only possible—way out of the above impasse, then we have to go back to that same court and look more closely at its ‘legal ritual.’ There are basically two ways to analyze the relation of truth to its telling. One can begin with truth itself and then relate it to the telling of truth as its ‘fictional structure’; or one can follow the opposite path and starting with the telling try to reach the truth. However, despite their opposite direction, in both paths our guiding star would be Benjamin’s encounter with Kafka. In one of his letters to Gerhard Scholem, Benjamin (after dealing with Max Brod’s book on Kafka as the first product of ‘Kafka Industry’) writes:


Kafka eavesdropped on tradition, and he who listens hard does not see…Kafka’s work represent tradition falling ill… [He] was far from being the first to face this situation. Many had accommodated themselves to it, clinging to truth or whatever they happened to regard as such, and, with a more or less heavy heart, had renounced transmissibility. Kafka’s real genius was that he tried something entirely new: he sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to transmissibility.  (Benjamin,1994, p.565)


Transmission is just another name for tradition or the retelling of truth. Its difference from truth itself is the same as the difference between ‘the subject of enunciation’ and ‘the subject of enunciated’. This difference is a central issue not only in linguistics and literary theory but also in philosophy. It has been considered under many names or titles, from ‘the ontological difference between Being and beings’ to the linguistic difference between langue and parole. It is not accidental that Benjamin calls Kafka a ‘failure’ in that very same letter. One could go further and say that Kafka – in opposition to the glorification of failing, finitude, or being-toward-death in all versions of Existentialism – failed in a double sense; and indeed this double nature guaranteed the truth of his failure. To be an artist, according to Beckett, means “to fail, as no other dare fail, that this failure is his world and shrinking from it is desertion, art and craft, good housekeeping, living…I know that all that is required now, in order to bring even this horrible matter to an acceptable conclusion, is to make of this admission, this fidelity to failure, a new occasion [for creating art-works].”(Beckett, p.21,emphasis added) With Kafka we are actually faced with ‘this fidelity to failure’ rather than failure itself. And that is why his failure or ‘art’ is a double one. It is a division of a division, a line that divides and passes through everything, including itself. But how is this ‘double failure’ related to truth and the (re)telling of truth?

There is no doubt that universality is a necessary property of any truth, but not in the sense of creating a whole. In other words, if the proposition p is true, one couldn’t say ‘p’ is true for all,’ but rather (using Lacan’s concept of ‘not-all), ‘no human being is (ontologically) unable to understand or act upon ‘p’ as a truth.’ Truth is not a universal that subsumes every individual case under itself; it is more like a line that splits everything and divides everyone into two parts—thereby, turning her into a subject(of truth). This line is nothing but the ‘Apelles line’ (which according to Agamben is the correct reading of ‘apoll(i)nische Schnitt’ in Benjamin’s Arcades Project, [N7a,2] ), a line that turns back and divides itself while splitting everything else.

Kafka’s truth or failure introduces a void into ‘good housekeeping,’ or perhaps, into ‘living.’ Yet, due to its double nature, it also divides this void. If we name this void ‘the place of truth,’ as opposed to the solid viscosity of the place of living, then we must find a name for the division of this void itself, for the failing failure or the fidelity to failure. Besides proving the immeasurable philosophical significance of Beckett and Kafka, such a name should also bring to light the primacy of telling and retelling over the truth itself; that in the trial of the ‘boss,’ the testimony of the witness is not just more important than the lies he or she adds to the ‘truth’ or the parts that remain untold (probably, in the interest of the witness), but it is the very essence of truth, or, the truth of truth! Now we can understand why Kafka sacrifices truth to its transmissibility. This is not just another version of the ‘ontological difference,’ or the primacy of enunciation over what is enunciated; it shows that without this idea of a self-splitting line there can be no universal truth. In other words, the negative power of any universal can not be directed solely toward the particular, its continuous existence depends on self-negation. The telling of truth not only encourages its retelling but necessarily requires it. In order to elaborate, let us have a look at another essay which deals with the question of ‘the universal’ and its relation with truth.

 In her brilliant essay on comedy, ‘The “Concrete Universal’, and what Comedy can tell us about it,” Alenka Zupancic argues that Comedy as a form of art is the best representation for Hegel’s notion of ‘the concrete universal’. As she says, in epic and tragedy the subject, respectively, narrates and enacts the universal, but “in comedy, the subject is (or becomes) the universal, the essential, the absolute. Which is also to say that the universal, the essential, the absolute become the subject”( Zupancic, p.181). The crucial point is that the movement or negative power of comedy is the movement of the universal itself, or in other words, it is ‘the universal in becoming.’ Comedy shows us that even a king or a president can slip, fart, or do a lot of foolish things (like calling himself ‘we’ or massacre a people to bring them the gift of ‘Democracy’); this is its ‘negative power’. However, true comedy does not do this by showing us ‘the human face’ of these ‘great individuals’ who are the embodiment of the universal substance of society. For what is really funny is not the repeated falling of a baron in a puddle of mud; this is a conservative ideological trick to encourage   “an identification with the baron as Ego-Ideal…We identify with heroes’ weakness, yet their higher calling (or universal symbolic function ) remains all the more the object of respect and fascination ( instead of being the object of comic laughter)” (Zupancic, p.181). According to her, in true, subversive comedy we laugh not at the poor, demented chap who believes he is a king, but at a king who believes that he really is a king, or in fact, at the universal institution of kingship and its flaws, shortcomings, and contradictions(Zupancic, p.184). In this way the gaps and flaws in the subject are transferred to the universal.


However, what has been disregarded in this otherwise excellent essay is the fact that the gap in the universal is nothing but an absent particular; or to put it in simpler terms, when the king or baron slips, he too suffers physical pain and shame. He may break a leg or even die with a fractured scull! Of course this does not turn the comedy into a tragedy, but it proves that the price for the becoming of the concrete universal is paid by the suffering subject. In fact, whether or not in a case like this (which brings out the resentment that may have been there) the comedy turns into a pathetic tragedy or a tragic comedy, is not the real issue. The point is, if we take the becoming of the concrete universal as truth – as Hegel does—then it is obvious that the comedy must be retold. Its telling, as Zupancic has shown, is the best way to approach truth; but without its retelling by the subject, it never reaches the essence of truth.      


 Transmission or tradition, as a self-negating, self-dividing universal line, is the very name we were looking for. Incidentally, this line of thought may provide an answer to that very old ethical question which as a result of the stringent thought of Immanuel Kant (or perhaps, his rigid cast of mind) has become famous: should we tell the truth to a murderer or a Gestapo officer who asks us to reveal the hiding place of someone he wants to torture and kill? If transmission or tradition is the true name of truth, then corresponding to the double failure of Kafka, we must prove our fidelity to truth by telling it twice. First we tell the truth which has ‘the structure of a fiction,’ then we retell it by dividing and breaking up this ‘structure’ (or as Lacan might have said, by ‘traversing this fictional fantasy’). The second time is not merely a formal repetition of the first in another register, a ‘negation of negation’ that leads us from an abstract to a concrete universal. It negates the content of the first universal and not just its form. This means that the gap, split, division, or whatever, which constitutes the universal is produced through negating or destroying a particular; or the retelling of truth that is the constitutive gap in the telling, is the one that leads to death. The ethical answer to the Gestapo officer has two parts: first you tell him that you do know the refuge of the person he is looking for, and then you (re)tell him nothing, the nothing or the void that has divided-constituted your first telling of truth.




- T.W. Adormo, “The Actuality of Philosophy”, in: Telos, Nr. 31 (spring 1977).


- Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas, University of Minnesota Press, London 1993


- Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller”, in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, Schocken Boooks, New York, 1969, pp. 83-109.


- Walter Benjamin, The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940, ed. G. Scholem and T.W. Adorno, University of Chicago Press,1994.


-Georges Duthuit, “Three Dialogues”, in: Samuel Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Martin Esslin, Prentice Hall of India, New Delhi, 1980.


- Alenka Zupancic, “The ’Concrete Universal’ and What Comedy Can Tell Us About It” in, Lacan, The Silent Partners, ed. Slavoj Zizek, Verso, London 2006.



[1] In fact if we accept G.Agamben’s interpretation of Frued’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ in his book Stanzas (p.20), then melancholy can be seen as a way of obtaining a lost object or lost meaning which has never existed ! And Ricoeur’s hermeneutics or his attempt to recover ‘lost’ religious meanings, does sound rather melancholic.



[2]  This is how Beckett puts it :”The much to express, the little to express, the ability to express much, the ability to express little, merge in the common anxiety to express as much as possible, or as truly as possible, or as finely as possible, to the best of one’s ability”(p.19).


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