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.


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