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Monday, August 12, 2013

PARRHESIA: Reading Snowden Through Foucault; Part 2




Edward Snowden - A Parrhesiastes
Parrhesia - Fearless Speech - Truth-Telling
 The Parrhesiastes is the one who uses parrhesia, i.e., the one who speaks the truth.

The Meaning of the Word
  • Frankness
  • Truth
  • Danger
  • Criticism
  • Duty    

Frankness:The word parrhesia, then, refers to a type of relationship between the speaker and what he says. For in parrhesia, the speaker makes it manifestly clear and obvious that what he says is his own opinion. And he does this by avoiding any kind of rhetorical form which would veil what he thinks. Instead, the parrhesiastes uses the most direct words and forms of expression he can find. ...in parrhesia, the parrhesiastes acts on other people's minds by showing them as directly as possible what he actually believes. 

For, as we shall see, the commitment involved in parrhesia is linked to a certain social situation, to a difference of status between the speaker and his audience, to the fact that the parrhesiastes says something which is dangerous to himself and thus involves a risk, and so on. 

Truth: There are two types of parrhesia which we must distinguish. First, there is a pejorative sense of the word not very far from "chattering," ....This pejorative sense occurs in Plato, for example, as a characterization of the bad democratic constitution where everyone has the right to address his fellow citizens and to tell them anything - even the most stupid or dangerous things for the city. In Christian literature the emphasis will change as it is an obstacle to the contemplation of God.
Most of the time, however, parrhesia does not have this pejorative meaning in the classical texts, but rather a positive one. .....To my mind, the parrhesiastes says what is true because it is really true. The parrhesiastes is not only sincere and says what is his opinion, but his opinion is also the truth. He says what he knows to be true.  The second characteristic of parrhesia, then, is that there is always an exact coincidence between belief and truth.  
It would be interesting to compare Greek parrhesia with the modern Cartesian conception of evidence....It appears that parrhesia, in this Greek sense, can no longer occur in our modern epistemological framework.
 I am soon to disagree with Foucault here, as I think the "proof" produced by Snowden satisfies Cartesian evidence while demonstrating classical parrhesia attributes in addressing the "sovereign." I think Snowden has executed a Foucauldian CUT in the genealogy of parrhesia.
The discontinuity is that all requirements of classical parrhesia have been met by Snowden accompanied by Cartesian evidence. By inverting the paradigm, the searchlight is thrown on the Other, the more powerful entity, and we see that the parrhesiastes using parrhesia discloses the character and "truth" of the "sovereign" to the people. In that respect parrhesia lifts the mask of the "sovereign."

As Bane says in The Dark Knight Rises, "When all is lies, the truth is a weapon."
If there is a kind of "proof" of the sincerity of the parrhesiastes, it is his courage. The fact that a speaker says something dangerous - different from what the majority believes - is a strong indication that he is a parrhesiastes

Danger: Someone is said to use parrhesia and merits consideration as a parrhesiastes only if there is a risk or danger for him in telling the truth. ...when a philosopher addresses himself to a sovereign, to a tyrant, and tells him that his tyranny is disturbing and unpleasant because tyranny is incompatible with justice, then the philosopher speaks the truth, believes he is speaking the truth, and, more than that, also takes a risk (since the tyrant may become angry, may punish him, may exile him, may kill him.) And that was exactly Plato's situation with Dionysius in Syracuse....
And of course this is Edward Snowden's situation with the US Empire's government.

 So you see, the parrhesiastes is someone who takes a risk....Parrhesia, then, is linked to courage in the face of danger; it demands the courage to speak the truth in spite of some danger. And in its extreme form, telling the truth takes place in the "game" of life or death.

It is because the parrhesiastes must take a risk in speaking the truth that the king or tyrant generally cannot use parrhesia; for he risks nothing. 

When you accept the parrhesiastic game in which your own life is exposed, you are taking up a specific relationship to yourself; you risk death to tell the truth instead of reposing in the security of a life where the truth goes unspoken. Of course, the threat of death comes from the Other, and thereby requires a relationship to the Other. But the parrhesiastes primarily chooses a specific relationship to himself: he prefers himself as a truth-teller rather than as a living being who is false to himself. 

Hamlet anyone? 

 Criticism: For in parrhesia the danger always comes from the fact that the said truth is capable  of hurting or angering the interlocutor. Parrhesia is thus always a "game" between the one who speaks the truth and the interlocutor. The parrhesia involved, for example, may be the advice that the interlocutor should behave in a certain way, or that he is wrong in what he thinks, or in the way he acts, and so on. ...So, you see, the function of parrhesia is not to demonstrate the truth to someone else, but has the function of criticism: criticism of the interlocutor....Parrhesia is a form of criticism either toward another or towards oneself, but always in a situation where the speaker or confessor is in a position of inferiority with respect to the interlocutor. The parrhesiastes is always less powerful than the one with whom he speaks. The parrhesia comes from "below," as it were, and is directed towards "above."...But when a philosopher criticizes a tyrant, when a citizen criticizes the majority, when a pupil criticizes his teacher, then such speakers may be using parrhesia.

This is not to imply, however, that anyone can use parrhesia. ....most of the time the use of parrhesia requires that the parrhesiastes know his own genealogy, his own status;...In "democratic parrhesia" - where one speaks to the assembly, ....one must be a citizen; in fact, one must be one of the best among the citizens, possessing those specific personal, moral, and social qualities which grant one the privilege to speak. 

However, the parrhesiastes risks his privilege to speak freely when he discloses a truth which threatens the majority. For it was a well-known juridical situation that Athenian leaders were exiled only because they proposed something which was opposed by the majority, or even because the assembly thought that the strong influence of certain leaders limited its own freedom. And so the assembly was, in this manner, "protected" against the truth. That, then, is the institutional background of "democratic parrhesia" - which must be distinguished from that "monarchic parrhesia" where an advisor gives the sovereign honest and helpful advice. 
And it is here that the boundaries of democratic parrhesia and monarchic parrhesia begin to get blurry for me. Snowden's situation seems not only to be an example of "democratic parrhesia, but also one of "monarchic parrhesia," speaking truth to the tyrant. Although in this case it is a team of tyrants, a multitude of tyrants that includes the rulers and citizens combined. And this is something very new in the US. Solzhenitsyn in Soviet USSR was gulagged and when he survived was exiled. Snowden faced something swifter and something worse. This is where I see the Foucauldian CUT in the genealogy of parrhesia:

  1. A merging of proof and classic parrhesia
  2. An automatic and threatened sentence of endless torture and captivity proposed in advance of the supposed "criminal trial" of truth-telling, to silence all future truth-tellers
Duty: 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 thus related to freedom and duty.

To summarize the foregoing, 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. (FS pp.11-20) 
Although Foucault is constructing a genealogy of parrhesia within the time period of the Fifth Century B.C. to the Fifth Century A.D. - one thousand years! - It would seem with Solzhenitsyn and Snowden that parrhesia does not stop there but has only rested. Its form has changed but I see no reason to change the name or the concept.



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