Archive for the White Mythology Category

What happens when I get writer’s block:

Posted in Berlin, Derrida, Foucault, paideia, pedagogy, social-epistemic, White Mythology on February 11, 2008 by untimelymediations

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:


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.

Confusion in the Midst

Posted in Aristotle, Derrida, DR, White Mythology on February 9, 2008 by untimelymediations

Admittedly, I am struggling with White Mythology.  Though I read the text through and found many parts decipherable/enjoyable, I am still having difficulty with certain portions of Derrida’s discourse.  As a result, the following is bound to be fraught with errors.

Essentially, as I understand Derrida’s discourse on replacement, the metaphor exists as a substitute for a word and its meanings.  As Derrida suggests, this substitute is devoid of the “sensousness” of the initial word.  Thus, each subsequent metaphor, though it relays the primary meaning, is still absent of the particularities inherent to the original.  Effectively, the metaphor operates much like a xerox copy, in that certain qualities experience a debilitating absence (simile seemed necessary at this particular junction).  Derrida references Hegel, and refers to this as the movement of idealization (225).  Yet, despite the ability the metaphor has to replace that which originally existed, excepting the sun, the metaphor is also intelligible in and of itself; the metaphor is nominalizable (233).  So, in essence, the metaphor replaces something by means of a substitution that allows for the original meaning to be deciphered.  Yet, the metaphor is also intelligible by itself.  Here, Derrida seems to be insisting that the original word, for which the metaphor is a substitute, does not have to be present.  The original word is inscribed as invisible ink on the metaphorical text:

…metaphysics has erased within itself the fabulous scene that has produced it, the scene that nevertheless remains active and stirring, inscribed in white ink, and invisible design covered over in palimpsest (213)

As Derrida continues, the metaphor is delimited.  Quite simply, the metaphor begins to constitute all that is written/spoken.  Referencing Du Marsias and the Aristotelian tradition, Derrida suggests that every word becomes a metaphor, with one condition of particular importance.  Each word must transport the proper literal meaning of a noun. 

Though this discourse is interesting, I find Derrida’s suggestion that the metaphor is proper to man to be of primary concern in this text (246).  Here, Derrida is quick to denote that the metaphor reflects/emulates “natural” occurrences and the relationship of man to nature.  Nature is continually laiden with the activity of metaphor.  Thus, as Derrida suggests, metaphor is appropriate to nature and, by extension, man. 

Returning to Aristotle, Derrida begins to explicate the issue of properness as it relates to metaphor.  Of course, here, one must consider his stipulation that metaphor is proper to man (246).  According to Aristotle, a noun is proper when it has a single sense (247).  According to Derrida, not to have a meaning is to be absent of meaning, and by extension, reasoning.  Without meaning, one is outside language, and outside humanity.  Here, is present what appears to be Derrida’s critique of the Sophists.  According to the text, sophists say nothing that can be reduced to meaning, thus Sophistic teachings are absent of that which is proper.  Second, proper shoudl not be confused with essence.  As previously suggested/implied, the metaphor relays the essence of a term without providing the essence itself (249).  Essence, in this context, is truth.  So, might it be stated that the metaphor relays truth, without providing the actual truth?  Understanding most of language as metaphor, what ramifications does this have for the presence of truth/essence in discourse?  There exists, here, a simultaneous presence and absence of truth.  Finally, this discourse shifts to the issue of the metaphor’s relationship to the sun…

Derrida notes, still in accordance with Aristotelian logic, that every metaphor which implies the sun refuses certain knowledge.  Heliotropic metaphors are always imperfect in that we are provided with too little knowledge.  Again, truth or essence seems to be of particular importance in this discussion.  Furthermore, the sun can only be metaphorical.  The sun is always an artificial construction that is never properly present in discourse. 

Finally, it seems fruitful to consider the examples of metaphor that Derrida provides near the end of the text.  Derrida references the discovery of the cell, and that Hooke borrowed “cell” from terminology associated with the beehive.  Here, Derrida suggests that certain ideas arise as a result of this borrowing; that people unconciously consider the beehive in relationship to the cell.  Derrida seems to be suggesting that as words are supplanted in the case of new discoveries, these words significantly impact the connotations that arise in relatonship to these discoveries.