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Monday, August 19, 2013

PARRHESIA:Reading Snowden as Parrhesiastes Through Foucault's Fearless Speech-Part 3

"Hence, real parrhesia, parrhesia in its positive, critical sense, 
does not exist where democracy exists." 
Foucault (FS p.83)
EDWARD SNOWDEN -A  PARRHESIASTES
Chapter 3 in Foucault's Fearless Speech is titled:
Parrhesia in the Crisis of Democratic Institutions

What if all Germans had worn yellow stars? What if all travelers going through Customs carried a copy of Foucault's Fearless Speech?
What if all emails contained the words terrorist, bomb, backpack, pressure cooker, etc. What if these words were included in all telephone conversations. All comments on the internet. In all blogs, letters, everyday conversations? Jes' sayin'.

Foucault's genealogy of parrhesia begins with ancient Athens. All male citizens had the right of parrhesia at any time, although often they requested permission from the other to use it. Since there was no ruler, parrhesia  was considered as a critical guide to informing citizens and improving their governance, their city. It was a greatly prized right.  As Democracy transformed so did parrhesia noted especially by Isocrates in 355 B. C.


In the "Areopagiticus" (355 B.C.) Isocrates draws a set of distinctions which similarly expresses this general idea of the incompatibility of true democracy and critical parrhesia. For he compares the old Solonian and Cleisthenean constitutions to present Athenian political life, and praises the older polities on the grounds that they gave to Athens democracy, liberty, happiness, and equality in front of the law. All of these positive features of the old democracy, however, he claims have become perverted in the present Athenian democracy. Democracy has become lack of self-restraint; liberty has become lawlessness; happiness has become the freedom to do whatevr one pleases; and equality in front of the law has become parrhesia. Parrhesia in this text has only a negative, pejorative sense. So, as you can see, in Isocrates there is a constant positive evaluation of democracy in general, but coupled with the assertion that it is impossible to enjoy both democracy and parrhesia (understood in its positive sense). Moreover, there is the same distrust of the demos' feelings, opinions, and desires which we encountered in more radical form, in the Old Oligarch's lampoon.

....Plato's Republic  (Book VIII,557a-b), where Socrates explains how democracy arises and develops. For he tells Adeimantus that:

When the poor win, the result is democracy. They kill some of the opposite party, banish others, and grant the rest an equal share in civil rights and government, officials being usually appointed by lot.

This is Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.

Socrates then asks: What is the character of this new regime? And he says of the people in a democracy:

First of all they are free. Liberty and free speech (parrhesia) are rife everywhere; anyone is allowed to do what he likes...That being so, every man will arrange his own manner of life to suit his pleasure.

What is interesting about this text is that Plato does not blame parrhesia for endowing everyone with the possibility of influencing the city, including the worse citizens. For Plato, the primary danger of parrhesia is not that it leads to bad decisions in government, or provides the means for some ignorant or corrupt leader to gain power, to become a tyrant. The primary danger of liberty and free speech in a democracy is what results when everyone has his own manner of life, his own style of life, or what Plato calls (Greek untranslated). For then there will be no common logos , no possible unity, for the city.  Following the Platonic principle that there is an analogous relation between the way a human being behaves and the way a city is ruled....And you can see that Plato also considers parrhesia not only as the freedom to say whatever one wishes, but as linked with the freedom to do whatever one wants. It is a kind of anarchy involving the freedom to choose one's own style of life without limit. 
The I Ching

This is what Foucault defines as "problematization", and, in this case political problematization of parrhesia in Greek culture. And he brings our attention to focus and observe two main aspects of this problematization during the Fourth Century B.C. 

And I especially want to point out - here and elsewhere - the correspondence of the destinies of ancient Athens and the present US Empire. The Events that occurred and are occurring that are, while not identical, so similar they cannot be ignored. It is almost as if Toynbee's proposal of "challenge" to an empire, which the empire cannot respond to in a positive way in order to continue to grow, is stalking us from 2500 years ago.

Two main aspects then:
First, in Plato's text for example, the problem of the freedom of speech becomes increasingly related to the choice of existence, to the choice of ones's way of life. Freedom in the use of logos increasingly becomes freedom in the choice of  bios . And as a result, parrhesia is regarded more and more as a personal attitude, a personal quality, as a virtue which is useful for the city's political life in the case of positive or critical parrhesia, or as a danger for the city in the case of negative pejorative parrhesia.  


Demosthenes does not seek or make an issue of institutional guarantees for parrhesia, but insists on the fact that he, as a personal citizen, will use parrhesia because he must boldly speak the truth about the city's bad politics. And he claims that in so doing, he runs a great risk. For it is dangerous for him to speak freely, given that the Athenians in the Assembly are so reluctant to accept any criticism. 
Secondly, we can observe another transformation in the problematization of parrhesia: parrhesia is increasingly linked to another kind of political institution, viz., monarchy. Freedom of speech must now be used towards the king. But obviously, in such a monarchic situation, parrhesia  is much more dependent upon the personal qualities, both of the king (who must choose to accept or reject the use of parrhesia), and of the king's advisors. Parrhesia is no longer an institutional right or privilege - as in a democratic city - but is much more a personal attitude, a choice of bios.
And the "king's" wisdom or folly is revealed by the parrhesiastes. And are we not seeing this today in the US. The parrhesiastes unmasks the smiling face of the tyrant, the fool, the unwise sovereign. And the demos  can see for themselves. 

Edward Snowden has said he doesn't want to live in a world where everything he says and does is subject to surveillance. Well nobody does, so what makes him different from the rest of us who say these things every day? Obviously Snowden has said it very publicly.  Snowden was subject to Foucault's thinking on this: Who can say it, where they can say it, when they can say it, how they can say it,what they can say and why they can say it. Snowden has met every limiting attribute of the practice of parrhesia. This is why he is a parrhesiastes.And this is the difference between Manning and Snowden. This is what makes Manning a conscientious objector or a whistle blower and Snowden a parrhesiastes.

Only by thinking genealogically can we arrive at this conclusion. We are facing another transformation of parrhesia, and this transformation has been driven by the internet. Parrhesia has fused with Cartesian proof, the bio  with the logos. Solzhenitsyn hid his manuscripts of The Gulag with many different people. They were smuggled to the west and published to his dismay and against his desire at the time. It was too dangerous to too many people including himself. His celebrity was too great for him to be snuffed and so he was exiled to Vermont. He said very little about the US but he was not an admirer of our capitalism and said so, but in no great detail. More like a tweet. And as soon as he could return to Russia he went back. And began again, also helping many many ex Gulag survivors, zeks, as many as he could pouring all his financial resources into helping them. His sons went to prestigious New England colleges.

My obsession with parrhesia consists of what the parrhesiastes reveals about the Other, so I hope to get there soon. 

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