Tuesday, October 19, 2004


Upon listening carefully, and being quite moved by a speech by Chalmers Johnson this morning on alternativeradio.org, a recollection of this passage from Michel Foucault:
The last characteristic of parrhesia is this: in parrhesia, telling the truth is regarded as a duty. The orator who speaks the truth to those who cannot accept his truth, for instance, and who may be exiled, or punished in some way, is free to keep silent. No one forces him to speak, but he feels that it is his duty to do so.
Parrhesia is a kind of verbal activity where the speaker has a specific relation to truth through frankness, a certain relationship to his own life through danger, a certain type of relation to himself or other people through criticism (self-criticism or criticism of other people), and a specific relation to moral law through freedom and duty. More precisely, parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself). In parrhesia, 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. That then, quite generally, is the positive meaning of the word parrhesia in most of the Greek texts where it occurs from the Fifth Century B.C. to the Fifth Century A.D (Fearless Speech, 19-20).

Foucault goes on to distinguish between two versions of the "parrhesiastic game." The first involves the telling of the truth to others, and the second the courage to practice a telling of truth to oneself (askesis).

Chalmers Johnson speaks of the tentative 'hope' to be found not in the Democratic Party, which is already too far gone down the path of militarism and empire, but rather in the unprecedented global movement whose origins are signified by the placename 'Seattle.' He also mentions Robert C. Byrd, a man who continues to make impassioned and eloquent speeches to a very empty Senate, as well as an important article by Arundhati Roy, "Do Turkeys Enjoy Thanksgiving?" Unfortunately, the Alternative Radio webpage offers only limited free material, but a January 2004 conversation with Chalmers Johnson I have found here.

Perhaps of further interest, for those genuinely concerned:
AFFLICTED POWERS: The State, the Spectacle and September 11(New Left Review) (via stray reflections).

But it is still not enough to know that the truth-teller is old enough, rich enough, and has a good reputation. He must also be tested. And Galen gives a program for testing the potential parrhesiastes. For example, you must ask him questions about himself and see how he responds to determine whether he will be severe enough for the role. You have to be suspicious when the would-be parrhesiastes congratulates you, when he is not severe enough, and so on.
But the Greek conception of askesis differs from Christian ascetic practices in at least two ways: (1) Christian asceticism has as its ultimate aim or target the renunciation of the self, whereas the moral askesis of the Greco-Roman philosophies has as its goal the establishment of a specific relationship to oneself - a relationship of self-possession and self-sovereignty; (2) Christian asceticism takes as its principal theme detachment from the world, whereas the ascetic practices of the Greco-Roman philosophies are generally concerned with endowing the individual with the preparation and the moral equipment that will permit him to fully confront the world in an ethical and rational manner...(Fearless Speech, 142-144).

Needless to say, these are potent points of departure for considering the likes of Heidegger or Giorgio Agamben. And I am not saying that I agree with Foucault without condition.

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