Rock On!


Via Seneca’s De tranquillitate animi, Foucault’s discussion of self-diagnosis uses the notion of “rocking” to illustrate how an individual balances one’s life. (Much to Foucault and Seneca’s disadvantages, WebMD was not yet invented, or else self-diagnosing would have been, obviously, much more accurate and oh-so easier…) Seneca initially shows that “philosophy is not merely an alternative to political life,” but rather “philosophy must accompany a political life,” thus one rocks between the two in order to show balance in the public eye (150, emphasis mine). However, this rocking is neither progressive nor productive, and therefore it restrains self-mastery as one cannot advance in either subject. Foucault describes this dilemma in the following passage:

“[Seneca] does not know exactly what is the reason for his waverings, but he characterizes his malaise as a kind of perpetual vacillating motion which has no other movement than ‘rocking.’ The boat cannot advance because it is rocking. […] Here we have an oscillating motion of rocking which prevents the movement of the mind from advancing towards the truth, towards steadiness, towards the ground” (153-4).

I believe the image of rocking serves a unique purpose in both of the texts we read for this week. For Foucault, the rocking image suggests that one cannot separate power from truth, and further, that truth cannot be separated from the self. In these two cases, truth sways between the self and power. Since parrhesia involves possible loss and some type of risk (i.e. a king cannot be a parrhesiates) Foucault clearly states that the parrhesiastes, while not technically in power, is actually the individual who possesses momentary control. The rocking, here, suggests the shift in power relations, as the actual one in power (the king, for example) must voluntarily subordinate himself to the truth-teller, who now has the king at his mercy.

Parrhesiastes functioning within a monarchy is one thing, but the rocking between parrhesia and democracy cannot work. The parrhesiastes possesses some valuable truth, and it takes courage to present this information to a superior. The parrhesiastes says “something dangerous—different from what the majority believes” (15). However, in a democracy everyone is granted free speech, and “parrhesia is granted to even the worst citizens” (77). There is no risk in telling the truth if everyone has a truth—there is no unity if “democracy has become lack of self-restraint; liberty has become lawlessness; happiness has become the freedom to do whatever one pleases […] it is impossible to enjoy both democracy and parrhesia” (83). In a democracy, the truth is maintained by the demos, whereas parrhesia must be individual. The truth, here, becomes separated from the self.

(Here’s where I have a point of self-contention: if the truth becomes separated from the self, wouldn’t this mean that the rocking stops, and progress can begin? I don’t think this is what Seneca or Foucault was trying to imply, and so maybe this is something we can talk about in our meeting. What happens when truth becomes separated from the self? From power?)

derrida-thumb.jpg <– Admittedly the creepiest pic of Derrida I could find.  Sorry, there were none of him rockin’ out.

For Derrida, the rocking image is utilized in defining – or at least thinking about – metaphors. Even the motion of rocking can be mapped onto Derrida’s use of the term usure: “erasure by rubbing, exhaustion, crumbling away […] the two histories of the meaning of the word remaining indistinguishable” (210). By relying on the senses alone, Derrida suggests that all words are metaphors, and that ideas and words come into being because we can relate them to something we know. He states that, “any expression of an abstract idea can only be an analogy”—we refer to one thing via another, “giving a thing a name that belongs to something else” (213, 231). In “White Mythology,” rocking is the constant oscillation between a word, what it represents, and through what it is represented. The metaphor and its rocking, then, is something like the chicken and the egg—we cannot be certain which came first because everything is essentially metaphoric. Below, metaphors are not only rocking between what they represent and what they are, but, too, in the mere content (sensuous or spiritual) of their origin. Quoting Hegel, Derrida makes this idea clear (Derrida making Hegel clear?) in the following passage:

“Metaphor has its principal application in linguistic expressions […] every language already contains a mass of metaphors. They arise from the fact that a word which originally signifies only something sensuous is carried over into the spiritual sphere and many words, to speak generally, which relate to knowing, have in respect of their literal meaning a purely sensuous content, which then is lost and exchanged for a spiritual meaning, the original sense being sensuous, the second spiritual” (225).

To conclude, Derrida notes that metaphors mark “the moment of the turn or of the detour during which meaning might seem to venture forth alone, unloosed from the very thing it aims at” (241). If the moment when free speech is granted to the demos becomes the downfall of parrhesia, then the notion of the detour becomes the destruction of the metaphor. Further, rocking illustrates that metaphors are not cut-and-dry, but rather disruptive in their functioning, as they become ‘unloosed’ from any foothold it may have had.


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