Monthly Archives: July 2013

Michel Foucault, The Courage of Truth


Notes on “parrhesia” and Foucault’s Government of Self lectures

Though I find Foucault’s philological methods in the early going a little bit unconvincing methodologically (this word meant that to this writer in 250 C.E., therefore what exactly?) I am  interested in the concepts he is considering and the way he is trying to pin them down. (I also enjoy his frequent and apropos apologies for being “plodding.”) I don’t know that any of his analysis needs to be based on some passage plucked from Plutarch, but I suppose old texts’s antique aura makes them seem as though they emanate from the core of things — as if the ancients were inventing the operating system for society by sheer virtue of coming first. I’m just not convinced the inventory of social practices is cumulative in that way.

Anyway, his look at the difference between “performative” and “parrhesiastic” utterances seems pertinent to analyzing social media practices. As I read it, the merely performative, Foucault suggests, does not constitute the self so much as reaffirm pre-existing status, the ability to make a performance and have it be understood by the audience as such. The parrhesiastic, however, “is a way of opening up this risk linked to truth-telling by, as it were, constituting oneself as the partner of oneself when one speaks, by binding oneself to the statement of the truth and to the act of stating the truth.” That seems like a hypernuanced way of saying that parrhesiastic discourse makes a claim to having a self, a claim back up by the affective risk involved in speaking certain sorts of speech. The content of this speech itself must be loaded with enough affect to make auditors potentially kill over it, so in effect, to become a self through parresia, you must have some crazy intense stuff to be able to say — you must seek out “explosive truth” about the world or about others or contrive situations to be able to manufacture such potent truths. In social media terms, you have to create drama, which gives you a chance to speak “risky” truths and thereby substantiate yourself and develop status rather than draw on it to make “performances.”

Performance reinforces the sanctity of the scene set up and the roles established and agreed upon by all the actors; parrhesia says fuck all that, here’s how these people “really” are — so it bases its claim to truth by trying to point behind the curtain. “In a performative utterance, the given elements of the situation are such that when the utterance is made, the effect which follows is known and ordered in advance, it is codified, and this is precisely what constitutes the performative character of the utterance. In parresia, on the other hand, whatever the usual, familiar, and quasi-institutionalized character of the situation in which it is effectuated, what makes it parresia is that the introduction, the irruption of the true discourse determines an open situation, or rather opens the situation and makes possible effects which are, precisely, not known.”

Parrhesia is not about “objective” truth at all, it seems: “The statement of the truth does not open up any risk if you envisage it only as an element in a demonstrative procedure.” It has to be a particular kind of risky truth to qualify, and that risk seems to hinge on offending, troubling others in their sense of who they are (“the person who tells the truth throws the truth in the face of his interlocutor, a truth which is so violent, so abrupt, and said in such a peremptory and definitive way that the person facing him can only fall silent, or choke with fury, or change to a different register”) — attacking their privilege in some way, say, to put it a relevant contemporary context. It’s basically about the cliche of speaking “truth to power” — with power being not merely a matter of the power to dominate over others but also the power to constitute oneself in a publicly credible way — power to make and control the knowledge about oneself, rather that being subject to others as mere information.

I’m mainly thinking of parrhesia as confessional confrontation; establishing a personal claim to self (and to truths about the self in the content of what is said) that is anchored in the intensity of others’ reactions — an intensity that may be rooted in the parresia uprooting or negating the auditor’s self. Identity, in this sort of parrhesiastic game, can become zero sum — the truth-teller gains a self as consequence of the loss of security in the self of the person addressed.

I think that all this is useful because the performativity of social media use tends to be represented in only one-dimension: it is performative and this is “inauthentic”; it makes for bogus, calculating self-construction that leads to alienation from the self. We jeopardize our “real” self in using social media to make a personal brand. Etc. There is value in that sort of analysis, I think, but it is only part of the story and relies on some myopic assumptions about users and affectivity and the nature of the real. The picture becomes more rounded when one discards the possibility of “betraying the true self” and thinks instead of how one can generate stakes for oneself so that the self, the hoard of inner experience, can seem more real — that is, be validated or reacted to by others. Social media gives people a highly responsive forum for these tests of the stakes of the self, establishing the necessary public-ness of the act and offering access to the sort of powerful others that Foucault says are necessary for parrhesiastic discourse to occur. (There needs to be a tyrant who has power over you that you are addressing to make the stakes.)

This seems interesting also: “parrhesia does not produce a codified effect; it opens up an unspecified risk.” This unpredictability, as I see it is, is the basis of the compulsory quality of social-media use, the basis of their emotional allure — the slot-machine component of microaffirmation seeking, and the potential jackpot “virality” of any utterance making the self seem suddenly large, the stakes suddenly huge. So parrhesia in social media yields a self moored by zero-sum games of power and delineated by measurable evidence of influence. This seemingly stable set of procedures for making a self are the consolation for the garbage-y kind of self the procedures actually yield.

So maybe the only thing more intolerable than an “inauthentic” self is being at a loss for coherent procedures for “growing the self.” Of course, that anxiety can be historicized as being a reflection of neoliberalism, and how it simultaneously is shapring subjectivity and the self.

One more thing: the riskiness of parrhesia for both the truth teller and the auditor makes it something that high-status auditors would likely want to avoid, right? They can lose status to the truth teller in such an exchange. So these auditors are actually much much safer and more comfortable in “performative” contexts where their status is rearticulated and confirmed rather than challenged and put at risk. Most social media discourse will be performative for these reasons, and the various quantitative indicators of status in social media are in part designed to keep parrhesia at bay by allowing high status people to not enter into discourse with lower-status people.

The power of social media to serve as a facilitator of parrhesia (truth to power) prompts the development of technological augmentations that prohibit it — it becomes self-crippling, if you take the potential for speaking truth to power to be the beneficial telos of technological innovation. (I don’t.) Parrhesia becomes a game of low status against lower status (who then lament their loss of privacy etc.) in a perpetual unfolding of petty drama in social media (to the companies’ benefit) while the high status remain exempt and enter social media mainly to perform their essential inaccessability, extending “performance” (i.e. status preservation) further into the way they perform being an ordinary social media user like the plebes.

the way I am reading it parrhesia is inherently individualistic, and is related to “truth procedures” that Foucault starts to elaborate I think in the third set of lectures. Collective action binds you to others rather than to yourself for the purposes of having an individual self register in the eyes of power. Collective action arguably suspends the primacy of individual identity and the truths about the mere single individual becomes relatively trivial — like worrying about what my individual brain cells are “thinking” rather than what the implications of what they coordinate to do.

“Who exactly is that tyrant? Is it the platform itself?” I was thinking it was high-status people who are apparently accessible in social media, though this is typically illusory. But the idea that the platform is the tyrant would mean that we can be parrhesiac by complaining about social-media, or media corporations, etc. An interesting possibility, but it seems to me that corporate forms are set up to absorb parresiac discourse and process it without venturing any of their own status — these encounters cease to be zero-sum, or if they remain zero-sum, the parrhesiac gains nothing

“What if social media offers the process of parrhesia, but ultimately circumvents the truth-telling effect?” I think social media practice is “cruel optimism” to use Berlant’s phrase, in that it offers formal rituals that make the present tolerable or even pleasurable while altering nothing about a general condition that makes people feel overburdened, depressed, precarious, etc. (a la Bifo, in The Soul at Work, for example). Social media transform self-actualization into a kind of constant alienated labor, turn perception and attention into abstract labor forms that we experience as being depleted from us rather than flourishing on their own momentum (why wouldn’t attention to something you love give you more attention to spend? Why reduce attention to amount of seconds devoted to something, when intensity of focus can make seconds seem like hours, or make certain seconds of concentration infinitely more meaningful, etc. Attention has a qualitative component that attention-economy analyses flatten out, purge from the ideological toolkit we use to organize our experience). The in-the-moment consolation for that comes in the pseudo-parrhesia perhaps — the pale satisfactions of making a truth in the moment, even if it has no effect of distribution of power or the way one is known by society.

Contained selves

The body is an unreliable container for the self. It dies. It allows subjectivity to dissolve in pleasure and pain and other assorted affects. It refuses to conform to the plasticity of thought; it refuses to be controllably expressive. It expresses identities we’d like to reject. It confronts one’s sense of the unlimited transcendence of being with some very hard limits.

Social media attempt to address this problem of the body. They promise identity that’s not contingent on bodies — an identity as a cumulative archive, as an alienated, externalizable ecosphere that can be directly shared with others. We can watch ourselves grow deeper as the information that makes it up gets processsed, in the way its data points intersect with others and lend itself to further processing, further recombinations that expand it algorithmically beyond all bounds of our intent.

The risk of feeding our data into the churning networks is bracing; it can feel courageous, preparatory for some unpredictable transformation, precipitating the experience of action, in the gambler’s sense. It is riveting self-experimentation, the courage of what Foucault called “the will to know.” Every piece of information about the self becomes a site of multiplicity, intervention, inversion, metastasis — an explosion of possibility for self becoming selves, though all contained within servers, all safely digitized, all ultimately and concretely re-reducible to our singularity, our “real name.”

Once, this pursuit of the real self required a tangible, physical form of risk. The sites where identity cohered, the points of self-interpretation and self-knowledge, seemed to be trapped within the flesh. Deleuze argues in “Letter to a Harsh Critic” that “individuals find a real name for themselves only through the harshest exercise in depersonalization, by opening themselves up to the multiplicities everywhere within them, to the intensities running through them.” The isolation of embodiment required that one experience a kind of “depersonalization through love” to experience the real and become “a set of liberated singularities, words, names, fingernails, things, animals, little events: quite the reverse of celebrity.”

Social media affords the opposite, offering quasi-celebrity as a barometer of becoming. The “real name” retains its aura of authenticity while becoming a capacious repository that tolerates all these multiplicities, charts them, quantifies them. In social media, (micro)fame measures directly the density of those multiplicities, the probability that your data points are being elaborated, linked up to other ones, other people, made to become promiscuous.

So thanks to social media you can get the experience of “realness” without having to pass through the strait gate of desubjectivation; you can reject the limits of embodied contingency without having to push your body past its limits. These experiences can be virtual; risk can be courted online, and though its ramifications and consequences cannot be fully quarantined there, they can be preserved, and thereby be made seemingly worthwhile, productive.

I have been thinking about this while reading James Miller’s book The Passion of Michel Foucault, which reads like highbrow gossip, spiced liberally with poststructuralist jargon. Passages of near impenetrable ponderousness from Foucault, Deleuze, and Bataille and the like get  requoted and juxtaposed with semi-sensationalized accounts of Foucault’s personal life. You probably don’t understand what they’re saying, but trust me, it’s decadent and scandalous! Miller interprets Foucault as being on a lifelong Nietzschean search for the realm of freedom (and thus the “real self”) in self-dissolution, beyond “programmed desires” and the sanctity of the subject. According to Miller, Foucault experienced glimpses of this realm of freedom through his immersion in San Francisco’s S/M subculture, where he explored anorgasmic, transgressive sex practices with strangers. (Foucault also got a hint of the realm of freedom when dropping acid at Death Valley and also when getting hit by a car. Death is, of course, the ultimate trip.)

This kind of freedom, that comes from, say, sexual ascesis or drug abuse, is inherently beyond capture in the prison-house of language. It short-circuits signification and revalues all values and so forth. It can only be rendered, Miller suggests, in the flat, affectless prose exemplified by Maurice Blanchot and Alain Robbe-Grillet, and even then only approximately. The monotony is meant to indirectly evoke the sublime, the possibility of losing oneself in a featureless labyrinth of words. At the very least, narratives like Robbe-Grillet’s prohibit any sort of escapist consumption and for that reason alone are deeply unsettling.

But reading (or writing) books like The Erasers may no longer be necessary to the process of shattering the self with limit experiences. Again, I think social media upsets some of the earlier assumptions about representing experience, or turning expression into experience, by simultaneously democratizing and denaturing the practice.

The obligation to always be thinking about expressing oneself is built into contemporary modes of media consumption. It’s one of the chief selling points of the smartphone. Don’t just live your life; record it. Annotate it. Reblog it. Experience and the expression of it converge. Any experience we have, once we are acculturated to carrying a smartphone, is also the experience of expressing that experience. Experience is inseparable from the possibly to express it. (Pics or it didn’t happen, etc.)

In the machinery of social media, none of this experience need be particularly transgressive to be felt as transformative. Posting videos of one’s cat is sufficient to tremble the network. The contradictions and intensities and dangers of attempting to write the truth about oneself are made accessible to anyone with a Tumblr, and at the same time, new resources other than opaque language are readily available to convey affect on social-media sites. These resources (gifs, links, images, likes, screen grabs, serial selfies, cut-and-paste collages, etc.) can seem to express the self without the same limits brought about by the imprecision or, maybe more often, the overprecision of one’s own words, which come from some posited central location of the “I.” That “I” is a transcendental trap, binding one to the posited position of the speaking subject.

Whereas the self that’s contained by the social-media account seems to come from everywhere, spilling in from all sorts of other online sources and spilling over the edges of one’s profile as a kind of delirious excess. The self is contained but feels uncontainable.

But this is no longer a fracturing of subjectivity at the fringes and margins of social experience. Now the dandified life — living as though one’s life was a work of art — is mainstreamed, routine, commonplace — it ceases to be or feel particularly subversive, and poses no threat to the status quo orchestration of power. Becoming is just ordinary being, and of no particular threat to capitalism’s modes of exploitation, which continue humming along. Becoming, in other words, is a subsumed mode of production.

Social media (and the prosumption-based capitalism they support) push us toward the sort of being-as-becoming self-concept that might once have been reserved only for those who placed themselves beyond discipline — in Miller’s account, the “no future” sort who would sample glory holes at bathhouses or otherwise inject illicit substances. Now “no future” is everyone’s end-times. Arguably (and this is a broad, indefensible generalization) social order once depended on static categories and traditional identity markers much more than it does — an investment in a predictably patterned future was demanded to reproduce the social. This is no longer a concern; the social is reproduced not generationally through codes of normality but from moment-to-moment, not in stable, repressive identities but in the aggregated outcomes of algorithmically processable deeds.

Rather than refer our behavior anxiously to rigid, uniform norms, we are encouraged instead to indulge in a provisional, undecided self, as it ends up consuming (and producing) much more in search of those elusive limit experiences beyond the old categories. Striving to be yourself doesn’t put stress on existing systems of control; it is the system of control.

Miller writes that in the 1980s, Foucault sought to delineate these “technologies of the self” in hopes of historicizing them, opening the possibility that “a different set of techniques for approaching the self” might emerge so that “a human being might no loner feel compelled to punish itself — and ‘sacrifice’ itself — in order to become what one is.” The techniques of the self permit, as Foucault remarked in his 1980 Berkeley lectures, “individuals to effect a certain number of operations on their own bodies, on their souls, on their own thoughts, on their own conduct, and this in a manner so as to transform themselves, modify themselves, or to act in a certain state of perfection, of happiness, of purity, of supernatural power, and so on.”

The question is whether social media supply these new technologies of the self, whether the widespread adoption of social media is related to a hunger for these sorts of techniques, such that the exploitive ramifications of data collection and blanket surveillance are overlooked. It is not hard to experience a kind of supernatural power, certainly, in sharing in social media, collapsing space and time to forge unprecedented forms of connection. And the continual posting is a means for perpetual transformation and self-modification. In social media, the represented self is fluid as it has never been before.

Whether social-media techniques of the self are experienced as “sacrifice” is a different question. There is certainly plenty of complaint about how the temptation to self-mediate everyday life results in a palpable loss of peace and privacy and contemplative reverie. And how the instrumentalization of social relations corrupts the nature of friendship and prevents people from being “authentic” and “spontaneous.” As one who has registered such complaints in the past, however, I know how easy it is to find oneself setting them aside and engaging with social media anyway.

Miller’s assumption, based on his Nietzschean reading of Foucault, is that danger and intensity are necessary to call forth the true self and let us experience it as such — we strip away the layers of convention and get to what’s really real, what we have really invented with our being in the world. Aspects of that sort of risk adhere to social media, but what am I more interested in is how we came to accept social media as a safe space to reveal our instability, to show how we are imperfect works in progress with no essential core. How did we come to surrender the responsibility for presenting a composed identity (our “authentic”  self) in favor of offering “genuine” glimpses of our processes of self-composition? Why are we increasingly willing to let archives and algorithms sort out who we really are for us? Is it because, unlike the ineffable and inexpressible insights reached only by an elite few through elaborate rituals of pain, transgression and will, it feels like a concrete answer anyone can understand?