Are there any parrhesiasts in politics today?

Reading through some of Foucault’s work on parrhesia or frank speaking prompts the question of whether there are any parrhesiasts in politics today.

This subject appears as part of Foucault’s work on the concern for the self, or the care of the self. As you may recall, the parrhesiast is one who uses frank speaking to tell the truth or to say the truth that they believe. It is not flattery or rhetoric and it comes at a certain cost or risk.

Barack Obama’s speech last week is a possible candidate in that it came at a cost for Obama to not renounce his relationship with pastor Wright, but to point to the fact that Wright is a complex and even inconsistent person (like all of us, Obama implies). As such, this was not really a speech on race as it has often been billed, but a speech on truth.

Another example could be blogging, which I’ve pointed to before as a technology of the self called by the Greeks hupomnemata or self-writing (see Political Mapping of Cyberspace, 2003, p. 104) because it can be an act of resistance.

Blogging or self-writing can be parrhesiastic, though it is not necessarily so. It is not the cost in terms of time and effort, but the risk surrounding an ethics of the self. In this context I’m also reading Ed McGushin’s new book Foucault’s Askesis.

It is interesting that McGushin himself blogs, through his department’s philosophy site.

This ethics might be deemed risky because it involves a creative practice of the self, transformation and or change.  It is also, for Foucault, an act of resistance to power, which is a risky thing. It does underline again Foucault’s view of the productive side of power for subjectification. In his important and revealing interview “Ethics of the concern for the self as a practice of freedom” the distinction is made between “liberation” and “freedom” with the former being understood by Foucault as a mistaken goal if by liberation one means being free from relations of power-knowledge.

Parrhesia is a practice of freedom. Drawing from Foucault’s last two lecture courses McGushin points to two areas where parrhesia as a practice (askesis) can operate: the political and the self. (NB. I’ve only read the first chapter of this book so far.)

So if blogging is parrhesia as an ethics of the self, who is a parrhesiast on the national political stage?


13 Responses

  1. I wonder if the parrhesiast isn’t immediately recognisable, that there is a time lag for the truth to be revealed, for the dust to settle so to speak.

    I am from Australia and so I am not all that comfortable commenting on the current political situation in the US, but perhaps those politicians who best fit the description of parrhesiast : frank speaking to tell the truth or to say the truth that they believe are on the fringes of the political spectrum, left or right.

    So perhaps the parrhesiast on the national political stage is going to look more like Wright than Obama.

  2. Thanks for the interesting topic. I’ve been working with an idea of the parrhesiastes as someone who transforms the terms in which we think about, for example, justice. The parrhesiastes is not the judge who applies or extends an existent conception of justice. The parrhesiastes is the one who tests such existing conceptions and shows that we need to transform these conceptions. So, to think back a half-century, I think of Martin Luther King Jr. as a parrhesiastes but not the Supreme Court in ‘Brown v. Board’. I’m not sure how well Obama or Clinton exemplify this practice. Surely if Obama can transform our way of thinking about race politics in America, i.e. transform what counts as ‘true’ and ‘false’ about race, then he qualifies. I’m not sure he has done that. Perhaps he will. The idea that the parrhesiastes can only come to be seen as such retrospectively makes a good deal of sense.

    Blogging? I don’t know. It could be used for parrhesia, but it clearly need not be used in that way. Much blogging lacks both the relationship to danger (putting oneself out there in a way which could undermine one) and the relationship to criticism (describing the limits of some current conceptions).

  3. So you’re thinking about the parrhesiastic contract in the way Foucault describes Diogenes and Alexander for instance? We were talking about this in the seminar tonight which was perhaps why it was on my mind. We read Foucault’s interview “Ethics as the concern for the self as a practice of freedom.”

    But I don’t think that blogging is consequence or risk free. Of course it’s not like being in Darfur (though there are milblogs). First there is the general denigration from traditional media, to such an extent there’s even a jokey term for it now…dirty fucking hippies (or DFH) used a knowingly among bloggers. Second people have lost jobs or been denied promotion, or failed to secure jobs because people read their blogs. This itself is an element of surveillance.

    There must be few bloggers who have not self-censored or hesitated before blogging. Until tenure anyway!

  4. Using key votes in Congress as a filter, Russ Feingold seems to most consistently tell–or vote–the truth as he believes it. He was the only senator to vote in opposition to the original USA Patriot Act, for instance. More recently, his 2006 resolution to censure President Bush is perhaps one of the most straightforwardly-written critiques of the current administration, and by a national politician no less.

    As earlier comments have noted, it’s difficult to pin down parrhesiasts in their own time, but Feingold seems to be the safest bet on the national stage.

    HR 3162 (Patriot Act) vote:

    Censure Resolution PDF:

  5. Whilst it goes through a fair number of transformations (a couple of which are described by McGushin), in general, Foucault describes parrhesia as something that can only be exercised by the governed. So looking for parrhesiasts on the national stage is something of a misnomer.

    What did you think of the McGushin book, Jeremy? I rather thought it was somewhat supplanted by the publications of the lectures (now only lacking the 84 course in the final years that he treats). Lots of summary. Otherwise it’s a fairly good reference work, but the description of Foucault as fundamentally etho-poetic is dreadfully faulted. He wasn’t a hippy, and made a distinction between the Greeks and the modern dandy.

    So McGushis basically ends up with Nehamas and a bunch of others that require us to be self-determining. So aristocrats then (hence Nehamas’ wonderful received pronounciation English!).

  6. Diogenes yes. MLK, jr. even better. Looking for parrhesiastes on the national stage may be a misnomer but understanding why helps us clarify what parrhesia is and is not. It’s not just that parrh. must be exercised by the governed. It’s also that the parrh. involves transforming the terms of governance itself. To the extent that there is often an internal counterweight against this in already-existing governors then it would be a mistake to look for it in them. But they could express it and embody it at times. Couldn’t we think of Lincoln as parrhesiastes in some respects? Or do you find something in Foucault that disqualifies us from asserting that? (If so, I’m eager to hear it.)

    The McGushin book is a tremendously wonderful reference. Once all the lectures are out it will be less useful. But so what? If there is any downside to that, though, it is that it doesn’t always carry the reader along.

  7. Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your blog.

  8. What about the First Lady’s comment following Katrina being something to the effect being deported to the Astrodome was great for many of those people because ‘otherwise they would never have gotten to see it.’

  9. I guess the key qualification is that parrhesiasts speak into personal danger. If there’s no significant risk in saying what you say, there’s no danger. Which may be why Foucault associates it with being governed rather than governing (in the interview “Aesthetics of Existence”, DE 357).

  10. Incidentally, there’s a rather neat little definition Foucault uses of parrhesia that I’ve just discovered in Le Gouvernement de Soi et des Autres:
    ‘someone powerful has made a mistake; this mistake constitutes an injustice for someone who is weak, who has no power, who has no means of retaliation, who can not raise any real opposition, who can not avenge themselves, who is in a profoundly unequal situation. So what else can they do? One thing: take the word and, in peril and at their own risk, to stand before the one who has committed the injustice and speak. And at that moment, their word, that is what one calls parrêsia.’ (p125, my rather literal translation)
    Of course, someone could claim that this defines parrhesia rather than the parrhesiast/parrhesiastes. And I’d rather grumpily concede that and mutter something about nitpicking…

  11. I don’t want to stir the bees nest here considering the relationship between these two characters, but do you think Noam Chomsky qualifies? Or has he not put himself in explicit danger because of his isolation within academic institutions?

  12. Chomsky was quite the attraction at last week’s conference. They had to switch rooms at the last minute because hundreds of people were lining up to see him. Apparently they’d agreed on a smaller more “intimate” room of about 250 people but over 1,000 showed up I’d say (the room was closed off).

    Anyway, here’s a story about President Carter’s recent meetings with Hamas… a somewhat unusual nomination perhaps, but the writer emphasizes the political danger he faced for speaking out the truth:

    No matter what you think of Carter’s visit, there’s one thing that indisputable. Jimmy Carter tells the truth, even when — maybe even especially when — it’s politically dangerous.

    There’s also his recent book which attracted a lot of right-wing flak. This doesn’t mean that what he says is all that radical, and perhaps it’s just as much a marker of how narrow the possibilities are for talking about the Middle East these days. In this light we might also reference the piece by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt on the “Israel Lobby.”

  13. […] by Jen under Foucault, Obama | Tags: Foucault, Obama | No Comments  This is a neat little post on Foucault’s work on parrhesia (clear speaking), that considers its application to our […]

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