Archive for the Parrhesia Category

Posted in Foucault, KL, Parrhesia, sophists, Stengers, truth, Zizek on April 15, 2008 by untimelymediations

“Because of its absolute immanence to the symbolic, the Real cannot be positively signified; it can only be shown, in a negative gesture, as the inherent failure of symbolization: ‘if what we are talking about are the limits of a signifying system, it is clear that those limits cannot themselves be signified, but have to show themselves as the interruption or breakdown of the process of signification. […] the real as impossible can be shown (rendered) only as the failure of the process which, precisely, aims at signifying it…” (217).

So, this is where we end up this semester—that the Real is actually not really real.  I guess we were bound to get here, and it seems like the perfect circle back to the Sophists. At a basic level, Sophists are tricksters—they can fool their paying audiences into believing that something that is neither Real nor real. Even though Zizek never makes the connection to Sophistry, (probably because he doesn’t have the balls to…) we do see him make the turn to ethics, rather than the truth.  (Question: is Real the same as truth?)  If Zizek says that the Real can only be shown negatively (within, for example, physical, representational after-effects of loss), then is the ethical the positive gesture (the immediate experience)?

Zizek is concerned with representational effects: what happens to me can be caused by something not actually there, but I can actually feel its a/effects here.  I would go to Zizek’s example of online pornography and orgasm, but since I talk about that in my paper, I’d like to talk about belief instead.  When he defines belief as “the shadowy domain between outright falsity and positive truth,” I immediately think of Stengers’ distinction between “cause and reason” (108, 45).  As a researcher, I find myself wanting to know cause and reason, as well as the truth and the false.  But according to Zizek, if truth and reason occur in a delayed realization, then is the opposite of the Foucaudian notion of parrhesiates in which the truth/Real lies in the immediacy of the telling.

Okay, so I realize that I am making interchanging the words truth and Real, and I’m not sure if that’s the right move to make.  Zizek distinguishes between “objective reality” and “subjective reality” in the following:

The true point of idealism is not the solipsistic one (‘there is not objective reality, merely our subjective representations of it’); idealism claims, on the contrary that the In-itself of ‘objective reality’ is definitely to be distinguished from mere subjective representations – its point is only that it is the synthetic act of the transcendental subject which transforms the multitude of representations into ‘objective reality.’ In short, idealism’s point is not there is no In-itself, but that the ‘objective’ In-itself, in its very opposition to subjective representations, is posited by the subject” (215).

I’m not sure that the above passage explains this distinction, but maybe it helps to think about the divide between the two types of reality if we’re looking to define the Real and truth.  What I think Zizek is saying is that ‘objective reality’ is more (R?)real—its experience is in itself, and that’s where the truth lies.  (This could be where we could employ Foucault’s parrhesiates since the truth lies in the telling, In-itself.)  Comparatively, ‘subjectively reality’ might be the telling that happens after an event—one’s vain survival so that s/he can “tell” her/his story.  The subjective reality of this last situation R/real, but is instead a subjective truth (?).

Hmph.  The more I try to differentiate between truth and real, the more confused I become.  Maybe there isn’t much difference between them.  Or, maybe I’m missing it completely.  Anyway, I would like to talk about how, or if, the truth and R/real are different.

Maurice Schmorice

Posted in Cost, Foucault, KL, Nealon, Parrhesia on April 1, 2008 by untimelymediations



Although I was slightly tempted to write this post under a pseudonym as clever as Maurice Florence, but I couldn’t come up with anything.  Kim Lacey will have to suffice…ah well… Since there is a ton of material to cover for this week, I’ll only touch on one my favorite – and indeed most relevant – terms used in Foucault Beyond Foucault. 

To quote “Maurice Florence” at length: 

In sum, the critical history of thought is neither a history of acquisitions nor a history of concealments of truth; it is the history of ‘verdictions,’ understood as the forms according to which discourses capable of being declared true or false are articulated concerning a domain or thing.  What the condition of this emergence were, the price that was paid for it, so to speak, its effects on reality and the way in which, linking a certain type of object to certain modalities of the subject, it constituted the historical a priori of possible experience for a period of time, an area, and for given individuals (18). 

Nealon’s discussion of Foucault and cost obviously reminds me of Fearless Speech, but I am most interested in the part that mentions the ‘discourses capable of being declared true or false.’  If my memory serves me, to be labeled a parrhesiastes, this assumed that the individual was truthful—there was no ‘being declared’ to be sought.  The cost, here, is the individual coming forth to speak.  The cost was not in the discourse itself since it was assumed to be true because it could cost the individual everything.  Cost would also be found on the side of the King—by listening to he parrhesiastes, he was creating the possibility for his own downfall (well, at minimum he might be proven wrong).  Therefore, cost is an interesting spin on power in general—the one who has the most to lose is the one currently with all the power.   

I think this goes against Foucault’s argument in Fearless Speech – or at least my earlier response to it.  In Fearless Speech, Foucault argues that the king, who essentially has nothing to lose, cannot have parrhesia. However, if we look at this from a cost perspective, it doesn’t cost the individual (who speaks the truth to the King) anything—he is only risking what little street cred he might have.  If the individual points out something against the King (a flaw, perhaps), and according to “rules of parrhesia” what is spoken by the individual must be true), then it might cost the King everything simply to listen. An individual, under his power nonetheless, can uproot it.     

To summarize, after reading Nealon, I believe that there is a critical difference between “risk” and “cost” that would be interesting to discuss.  I should point out that I do not think these terms are separable; however “risk” does seem to evade the consequential nature of “cost” i.e. “he risked his reputation” = he still has it, compared with “that move cost him his reputation” = he risked and lost.  Anyway, maybe those are bad examples, but my question this week is “what’s the diff or the connections between “risk” and “cost”?” 



win, truth, or draw

Posted in Foucault, MM, Nealon, Parrhesia, truth on March 31, 2008 by untimelymediations

Since Plato and the sophists, as we’ve seen, one question that has been problematic either in terms of rhetorical practice or within social bodies as a whole is the nature of truth.  Plato (via Socrates) argued for an absolute truth immanent to material bodies, while (some have argued) the sophists taught that truth was contingent, situated, and subjective—this, as we’ve seen, has been the party line of such texts as the Dissoi Logoi which is either a) a training text for arguing both sides of a given argument, or b) a tract on the unstable and unknowable nature of “truth.”  In Foucault’s own Fearless Speech, we’ve seen how to speak truth—to power, to friends, to one’s self, and the risks that come from acts of parrhesia; these practices stand in contrast to Detienne’s Masters of Truth, the kings, poets, and prophets who presumably spoke with the revealed truths of the gods.


In Nealon’s reading of Foucault, however, we are offered another form of truth-practice.  For Nealon, Foucault’s work destabilizes the category of truth as the ground or foundation of interaction between subjects or subjects and power; rather, truth is the product of “a hazardous and discontinuous series of practices, a series of interactions with something or someone else” (20).  It is not that “truth” disappears from these exchanges, Nealon notes, but that “‘saying the truth’ is only possible (or not) as the outcome of a process, rather as the subtending ground of that process”.  In Nealon’s use, these exchanges, interactions, and encounters become a high-stakes gamble where the prize is the right to speak “truth:” “speaking the truth is the stake and outcome of a series of practices and statements, rather than the secret to be revealed (or not) by them”.


On one hand, Nealon’s description here of truth seemingly echoes the lessons of social constructionism: what counts as real and valid is contested and struggled for through a variety of discursive practices.  However, I think Nealon’s/Foucault’s picture is richer in that it seems to work on both the macro and micro levels, while I often feel that there’s some impersonal power called Discourse  imposing norms and reality/ies on us in other constructionist theories.  Here, though, truth or reality or whatever you wish to call it becomes not what we’re subject to and by, but rather the very term/s by which we enact agency.  It is not that we are assigned subject positions by Discourse  but that we win (or lose) our agency and subjectivity by how we fare in the truth-contests we engage in with other subjects and with power.

 This does not preclude the chance, however, that the game is rigged or that, nor that these interactions are any less fraught with competing claims for truth simply because we recognize the contest.  But how to change the game or makes these interactions less anxious is beyond me.  At least in this post.

A Response Concerning Foucault and Parrhesia

Posted in DR, Foucault, Parrhesia on February 16, 2008 by untimelymediations

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. 

Rock On!

Posted in Derrida, Foucault, Hegel, KL, Parrhesia, Rock, White Mythology on February 11, 2008 by untimelymediations


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.

Parrhesia, Foucault, and Divergent Social/Political Contexts

Posted in DR, Foucault, Parrhesia on February 7, 2008 by untimelymediations

In Fearless Speech, Michel Foucault explains the term “parrhesia,” and its origins in Greek discourse. Parrhesia, as Foucault suggests, refers to an account that is delivered by means of the most direct words and forms of expression that can be found (12). Moreover, it generally involves some form of danger to the speaker’s body or reputation. Ultimately, it seems that parrhesia necessitates the element of danger. Furthermore, one is encouraged to tell the truth as though it is a duty (19). As Foucault’s discourse continues, it becomes quite evident that there are two types of parrhesia; both having different attributes and origins in Greek texts. Although parrhesia may equip one with the ability to limit a tyrant’s power, there also exists a more negative form of parrhesia.

In the first speech, Foucault considers the evolution of the word from three “points of view” – rhetoric, politics, and philosophy. The most fruitful of these distinctions, in light of our continuing discussion of the Sophists and the Platonic-Socratic tradition, is that of rhetoric. Here, Foucault suggests that rhetoric and parrhesia stand in direct opposition to one another. The continuous long speech, as it is associated with the sophistic/rhetorical tradition, stands in direct opposition to the dialogue of parrhesia. This is the dialogue of questions and answers that Socrates insists on in the works of Plato (namely, Protagoras, and Phaedrus). Interestingly, this is not really a matter of Foucault associating truth with the form that Plato advocates. For, as Foucault denotes, “the function of parrhesia is not to demonstrate the truth to someone else, but has the function of criticism: criticism of the interlocutor or of the speaker himself” (17). Here, parrhesia is attributed a self-reflexive feature that is explored in greater length in the third and fourth speeches.

As the discourse continues, Foucault suggests that parrhesia can exist both within the context of a monarchy or a democracy. In a monarchy, parrhesia is somewhat contractual; hence, Foucault’s discussion of the “parrhesiatic contract.” An advisor to a ruler, tyrant, god, etc., invokes the contract in order to provide for a certain security; security through truth. Such, is explicitly the case with The Bacchae, and Ion. In Ion, truth comes in the form of a human’s emotional response to Apollo’s lies and silence. This is also the case with Pisistratus’ interaction with a farmer in the third speech (86-87). In the case of democracy, with Athens as a point of consideration, natural born citizens have the right to parrhesia in the context of the agora. Here, though it is suggested that parrhesia might frustrate democracy.

What becomes of particular interest, throughout Fearless Speech, is Foucault’s continuing discourse on power relations. Specifically, I am referring to Foucault’s discussion of those people capable of using parrhesia. In Foucault’s analysis, it is the subordinate person that uses parrhesia; the mortal and subjugated. For Foucault, it seems impossible that anyone in a position of great power can use parrhesia, because as was previously noted, parrhesia requires an element of danger. If there is no element of danger, as is the case for a tyrant or God, than there can be no parrhesia. The simplistic synopsis would be that a ruler is incapable of speaking the truth. Though, in contradiction to this analysis, it must be noted that in order to be a good ruler one must grant parrhesiastic contracts. A good ruler must listen to one’s advisors, as they use parrhesia: “The man who exercises power is wise only insofar as there exists someone who can use parrhesia to criticize him, thereby putting some limit to his power, to his command” (29). So, it seems that although a ruler might not be able to use parrhesia, a ruler is wise by means of those that use parrhesia in conversation with the ruler. Also, Foucault seems to emphasize the power one has to subvert the absolute power of a monarch, tyrant, etc, by using parrhesia.

Why then, following in line with my previous post, is the distinction between monarchy and democracy so valuable to Foucault? Is this just simply a matter of distinguishing between parrhesia as it exists in one political/social system or another? Is Foucault advocating one system over the other, in that parrhesia exists in different capacities in each? It seems that Foucault’s reference to Athenian democracy has some import in contemporary contexts. Quite simply, his discussion of Greek arguments encourages one to consider who has the power to speak, why it is necessary that they speak, and who should have the power to speak. If parrhesia can be considered detrimental in certain contexts, might it be suggested that the power to speak be limited, in order to preserve democracy. What of advisors, tyrants, and the issue of “truth”? What significance does the presence of truth have in different political/social circumstances?