A Response Concerning Foucault and Parrhesia

Due to the length of my response, I decided to post instead of leaving a comment.  This response concerns Mike’s last post, most specifically, the first question that he posed:

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?

I think the difficulty in assessing the role of parrhesia today results from two points of consideration.  First, it is important to recall that Foucault distinguishes between parrhesia invoked both within the context of monarchy and the realm of Athenian democracy.  This differentiation is of crucial importance to the very means by which Foucault suggests parrhesia operates in historical contexts.  I am reluctant to argue that what we might have in the contemporary political realm is Athenian in nature, despite that some might claim that American “democracy” takes its roots in the Athenian “ideal.”  Here, though, as your example suggests, perhaps a new form of community speakership has involved as a result of the digital.  Though, the question then becomes, who is a citizen?  Those with youtube membership?  If, on the otherhand this is a system similar to monarchy, parrhesia, as Foucault explains it, exists in a form of contract.  Is the “Don’t tas me bro” guy invoking parrhesia as a form of protection.  I don’t think that he is using parrhesia in this capacity.  If this is the political system that most resembles ours, it is still of crucial importance to consider how power manifests.  This brings me to the second point of consideration.  In each scenario that Foucault outlines, parrhesia becomes a power play.  Though, it must be noted, the two systems seem quite divergent.  In Athenian democracy, the citizen has the ability to invoke parrhesia in public forums.  In the monarchy, parrhesia can only be invoked by one subjected, in relationship to a person of power.  Whereas in Athenian democracy parrhesia excludes the disadvantaged, those outside of Athenian citizenship, the Monarchy provides a contract for the disadvantaged. 

This seems to be the very difficulty in determining the means by which parrhesia is invoked or exercised in contemporary American politics.  Perhaps, considering what was previously said, another question of interest is propelled.  It might be of interest to consider parrhesia as it relates to issues of immigration.  There are the base questions that circulate in ever widening circles: Should immigrants be admitted as citizens after a period of residence? Should immigrants have the right to freedom of speech? Then, there are issues of parrhesia and disadvantage or equality, remembering, of course, the two contexts in which parrhesia is invoked.

Finally, I am curious as to whether parrhesia is necessarily a matter of suggesting that one do “the right thing.”  Is this really what parrhesia is about as Foucault defines it.  Parrhesia seems much more complicated than a simple binaristic right or wrong.  Quite simply, parrhesia seems to be as much about exclusion as it is about presence. 

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One Response to “A Response Concerning Foucault and Parrhesia”

  1. Some replies:

    I take Derek’s point(s) about the differences btw American and Athenian democracy in good spirit and say: any similarlity implied between the two is entirely coincidental. I did not mean to imply that the two systems were identical, of course, nor do I think Derek implies that I did so intentionally. As he demonstrates, thinking through these distinctions generates some interesting new questions and problematics–I’m particularly taken with the suggestion of the digital as the new speaker of truth–here, then, is an arena where the tired question of “access” might have more relevance.

    In other respects, though, I take issue with some of what Derek has written here. For example, I think he mischaracterizes Foucault’s reading if parrhesia by describing the speaking of truth to power as itself being “a power play,” particularly in the monarchial setting. As Foucault notes, parrhesia obtains only when truth is spoken at risk to the speaker–not political risk, but the risk of life itself. This is what makes it a “fearless” act of speech rather than just a bold or daring one; what the parrhesiastes dares to speak must be spoken regardless of the danger the speaker to which the speaker thus open himself.

    If this understanding is correct (and as it is my reading I naturally endorse it to be so), it suggests the question: What sorts of speech are important enough that that must be spoken? Derek has chided me for reducing parrhesia to “suggesting that one do ‘the right thing'”. He then raises the question:

    Is this really what parrhesia is about as Foucault defines it. Parrhesia seems much more complicated than a simple binaristic right or wrong. Quite simply, parrhesia seems to be as much about exclusion as it is about presence.

    Here, Derek has made an error in his reading of my response. While he is right that Foucault describes parrhesia as “more complicated than a simple” moral binary, my concern is not with Foucault’s understanding of the historical use and practice of parrhesia. Rather, I am trying to raise two questions. First, what compels the parrhesiastes to speak truth? Regardless of the historial elaboration Foucault develops, it seems reasonable that parrhesiastes could only be motivated by an obligation to T/truth, G/good, O/order–in short, to some ideal that the wielder of power is falling short of. Second, given the far more complicated nature of democracy, power, and the citizen for our own society, where would the parrhesiastes have to locate himself (or herself, natch) in order to hearn the name and to speak parrhesia effectively?

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