Jessica Helfand | Essays

The Lying Game

Agence France-Presse—Getty Images

Earlier this week, Nationalist Party protesters in Taiwan picketed their highly disputed political election with doctored images of President Chen Shui-bian: the idea was to depict his shame by representing a faceless leader. It's a powerful image: deeply personal and, for the most part, typography free — a far cry from the didactic and often subversive posters that have long typified the graphic language of protest.

Oscar Wilde once observed that the truth is rarely pure and never simple: but what of the trickery and deception that have come to characterize modern leadership — indeed, modern life? From imperious pundits to incessant propaganda, language remains a slippery platform upon which to argue the merits of an ideal. Language itself is deceiving. And a lie is a lie.

Here in the United States, truth-telling has become an imperiled commodity, with the offenders both too obvious and too numerous to mention. (But if you read only one thing about the Martha Stewart case, it should be Jeffrey Toobin's pitch perfect replay of the trial, published two weeks ago in The New Yorker.) Words have become not only cheap but hugely unreliable. But what about the images that accompany them? Are they rapidly becoming faceless monsters, too? Or do pictures speak louder than words, particularly in a world of empty promises and questionable truths?

The French Nineteenth-century writer Edmond Rostand once described his creation, Cyrano de Bergerac, as liberal, brave and proud; yet Cyrano is perhaps best remembered for an extraordinarily oversized nose. Synonymous with his very name, The Nose is at once a cosmetic aberration and a symbol for a kind of enduring, internal strength. In the end, it proves something of a metaphor for character. "A great nose may be an index," Cyrano remarks in Rostand's classic play, "of a great soul." (Teenagers obsessed with remaking themselves in the image of Brad Pitt would do well to take heed.)

A more contemporary critical reading of The Nose leads us to Pinocchio, whose own beak was known to grow in proportion to the telling of tall tales. In this model, The Nose is a dynamic barometer of truth. One is reminded of the fabled threats of any of a number of classic fairy tales —from Slovenly Peter to Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel to Rumplestiltskin. Rarely pure and never simple, but in the end, the heroes tend to be the honest ones.

Fairy tales aside, the real Cyrano de Bergerac was a seventeenth-century individualist who was deeply opposed to war. Perhaps Rosand's story, while exaggerated for dramatic effect, was something of a satire foretold: a dueller who opposed the war, a lover willingly subjugating his true feelings? Cyrano was every bit the liar Pinocchio was, only he did it in rhyming couplets. Meanwhile, we pitied his physical imperfections, and yearned for true love to find its way. Today, we feel the same way about justice, and we reserve our pity for those who deserve it: to those who continue to deceive us, we feel only shame.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, Politics

Comments [6]

Words or pictures, lies come from the communicator, not the medium. Neither element is more intrinsically truthful than the other. That you praise a doctored photo as being more truthful than words strikes me as particularly ironic, if not Orwellian.

And to insist that we live in rarified times, that truth is particularly imperilled today, ignores the long history of lies throughout all cultures and civilizations and at all levels - from individual relationships to continent-spanning empires. Does that, in itself, constitute an untruth?
Todd W.

Words or pictures, lies come from the communicator, not the medium.

I'm not sure if it's always that simple. The meaning(s) surrounding words and images seem to be relative in nature. Relative to the environment within which they are consumed, relative to the viewer's knowledge/experiences...

I think that's why the line between truth, deceptions, and outright falsehoods, becomes extremely thin at times. Knowledge, perceptions, environments, time periods...they're always shifting, changing.

I think that's why we always come back to this topic: it's hard to put, and hold, your finger on something that is always moving.

I think that's why the line between truth, deceptions, and outright falsehoods, becomes extremely thin at times.

Then why bother trying to tell the difference at all? Why should anyone be outraged if they are lied to by their family, their church, their employer or their government? Failure to discriminate between truth and lies leads to the sort of moral equivalency that your post indicates.
Todd W.

By no means do I believe that we should not try to seperate the lies from the truths. I have a strong distaste for purposely deceptive media.

I think I expressed myself poorly.

I wanted to make a comment on how the difference between a lie and a truth is often in the eyes of the beholder. For example, my Grandmother loved to read a certain sensationalized tabloid. As deceptive as it was, she thoroughly enjoyed it and often discussed its contents as though it were true. I often wondered if she realized much of the content was blatantly false - and if so, did she even care?

I agree, failure to discriminate between lies and truth will lead to a sort of moral equivalency. But I often wonder if this empty sense of morality is willfully accepted.

The suspicion of fact that lies at the heart of this thread was the subject of a fascinating piece by Bruno Latour in this month's Harper's. In response to the Bush administration's relentless effort to cast doubt on the overwhelming body of scientific data supporting the existence of global warming, Latour writes, "Perhaps the danger no longer stems from an excessive confidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact - which we have learned to combat so efficiently - but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases."

Latour goes on to argue that the critical strategy of revealing the bias and mediation underlying "facts" has been co-opted to such an extent (like non-violent civil disobedience before it) that the entire focus of critical thought may need to be shifted.

At the end of her post Jessica focuses on love and justice which are, significantly, not facts. They are what Latour calls "matters of concern." He proposes a new kind of critique aimed at multiplying and adding to these concerns rather than subtracting and deconstructing claims of factuality.

To me, that sounds like a pretty good description of what Edmond Rostand was up to.
Dmitri Siegel

You reminded me a story by a famous Russian writer Gogol, which is called "The Nose". It's about a man who lost his nose and was looking for it desperately... Have you read it? I think it could be a good example of what a nose mean.
Jane, designer

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