What happens when I get writer’s block:

An odd week’s readings these.  Foucault’s work on parrhesia seems to have some obvious ties to earlier things we’ve read, especially Detienne’s history of aletheia and the masters of truth, and to the various critiques of sophistry that condemn them for an apparent equivocation that denies truth.  In this emphasis on truth, then, Derrida’s work makes a certain amount of sense, if we understand his question in “White Mythology” to be one that interrogates metaphor’s relationship to truth: does it represent “true” meaning or displaced meaning?  What is its relationship to metaphysical truth?  How is any metaphysics dependent on  the slippage between “metaphorical” meaning and “true” meaning (what I understand Derrida to imply by “the metaphor of metaphor”)?

 

These are all good questions, but I’m not sure I want to take them up today.  I want instead to raise some questions about how parrhesia and the parrhesiastes might work or fail to work in contemporary discourse.

 

It seems plain that any parrhesia we might recognize would, like parrhesia’s use in Orestes, be a somewhat tempered one.  This use of parrhesia, Foucault argues, is tempered by the demands of qualification, of personal worth:

There is a discrepancy between an egalitarian system which enables everyone to use parrhesia, and the necessity of choosing among the citizenry those who are able (because of their social or personal qualities) to use parrhesia in such a way that it truly [Is this a Foucaultian pun?—MM] benefits the city.  (72)

 

In the early polis, as Foucault demonstrates, all citizens were assumed to possess the qualities necessary to serve as parrhesiastes.  Foucault’s earlier summary of parrhesia implies no sense of qualification or certification necessary to speak the truth; rather, “the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy” (20).  But by the time of Orestes, during an era of political turmoil in Athens, parrhesia has become a more rarified skill:

The parrhesiastes’ relation to truth can no longer simply be established by pure frankness or sheer courage, for the relation now requires education or, more generally, some sort of personal training.  But the precise sort of personal training or education needed is also an issue (and is contemporaneous with the problem of sophistry).  (73)

 

So: some questions.

 

1) What is the role of the parrhesiates today?  While Foucault goes to some effort to suggest that parrhesia is most typically a technology of the subject in its post-Platonic guise, I wonder if there is a role for a public parrhesiastes today.  This question is, in part, occasioned by watching far too much primary-election coverage lately.  Much has been made of several candidates use of the “outsider” trope to win voter identification: Obama, Romney, Huckabee, Edwards, and even McCain (in his “maverick” mode) have sought to convince voters that they can stand apart from typical Washington politics and get things done.  On one hand, it’s easy to dismiss this as political pandering and an empty rhetorical gesture.  I wonder, though, if this is the only public role the parrhesiastes serves today—a rhetorical trope, the “outsider” politician.  Or, rather, would we have to look slightly outside the realm of professional politics (and in that I include the pundits and analysts) and look to someone like Cindy Sheehan, or even the “Don’t Tase me, bro!” guy?  Someone who is disinvested from the process but wants those involved to do the right thing?

 2) What is our role as educators in crafting parrhesiastes?  Last week, I tried to draw some comparisons between Isocrates’s notion of paideia and James Berlin’s social-epistemic rhetoric.  While both of these would seem to be valuable here—Isocrates for his insistence on civic participation, Berlin for offering a way to understand truth is established through language use—neither quite seems to offer the model of parrhesiastes described by Foucault: Isocrates (whether her admits it or not) is still devoted to the use of rhetoric (which Foucault says is not true of the parrhesiastes), while Berlin offers s-e rhetoric as an inventive and analytic tool without insisting on involvement in practical politics.  So, what models are open to us if we want to see ourselves as helping craft the next generation of truth-sayers?Still the creepiest Derrida I’ve found:

 And, not technically a picture of Foucault, but the creepiest image that came up when I image-searched him on Google:

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One Response to “What happens when I get writer’s block:”

  1. Okay, seriously McGinnis. I’ve already had one blog shut down for porn, don’t make it two!

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