Friday, 9 September 2011

Parrhesia: notes on the public sphere, power and death

Yesterday I reread Foucault's lectures on parrhesia (collected in Fearless Speech, a booklet published by semiotext(e) which is also available  here under the name "Discourse and Truth"). Rereading them I was struck by the penetrating light they throw on issues such as free speech, public speech and the public sphere in today's world.

Parrhesia means to tell the truth, or literally "to say everything". In particular, it means speaking truth in the face of power, even at the risk of your own life."Someone is said to use parrhesia and merits consideration as a parrhesiastes only if there is a risk or danger for him or her in telling the truth" (Foucault 2001:15f). Parrhesia usually comes from below and is directed to those above. In Hellenistic times the parrhesiastes, or truth-speaker, was  a person who spoke the truth to the sovereign. To be sure, the use of free speech in the agora of Athenian democracy was also referred to as parrhesia, but the imagery informing Foucault's discussion seems Hellenistic rather than Athenian. In any case, the Athenian agora was hardly a space where speeking was without risk. As Arendt states in In The Human Condition, it was a place where "courage and even boldness" was needed for public speech (Arendt 1958:186).

Speaking truth in the face of power – who can help thinking that this sounds so much like Foucault? Especially in its late, Hellenistic version, the parrhesiast is also someone who appears fundamentally alone, left to his own devices in the confines of the sovereign's court and without help from any well-intentioned public sphere prepared to listen to reason.

Using parrhesia as a model for public speech may sound outrageous. Aren't we all today - at least in so-called democracies - free to speak of whatever we like without having to fear reprisals? However, the attitude of speaking truth even when you risk your own life is not so divorced from our understanding of the public and of public speech as we might think at first. One implication of reading parrhesia as a model of public speech is that making something public would be tantamount to declaring: "I know that speaking here might get me killed. Therefore, I speak only because I have already put myself in the position of someone who is dead. I am dead to my status and to the norms and obligations that define my place in society and bind me to it. I therefore speak as a person who has left society, as an outsider, or as a ghost".

The public, I would suggest, arises when we speak from the vantage-point of the dead. We might even go a step further and risk a definition of the place or standpoint from which public speech becomes possible. This space is a liminal space or no-man's-land. We might also call it a sacred space, because sacrality has usually been considered a property of spaces where the voices of the dead can be heard. With Amino Yoshihiko we can say that it is characterized by muen since it is a place in which we must behave as if our relations with the secular world had been severed.

Foucault's parrhesiast par excellence is Socrates. Apart from him, perhaps the court jester is the most famous figure of the parrhesiast in western tradition. In Japan, a similar role was played by children, whose “truths” according to Amino were tolerated since they were considered apart from humanity, sacred or, in a sense, dead. Foucault is quite right in seeing parrhesia as an important line in the genealogy of criticism. In Christianity it is picked up not only in the form of confessions, but also in the idolization of martyrdom. In the self-immolation practices that have become an established protest method all over the world truth is again linked to death or the readiness to die.

Parrhesia? (H. C. Andersen, The Emperor's New Clothes, illustration by A. Rackham)

Just as truth is linked to death, it is also linked to ghosts. In literature, the fear of ghosts often seems to be linked to their ability of speaking the truth. Take the example of the ghosts visiting Richard III in Shakespeare's play: he fears them because they are the only ones who know the truth and can speak it.

In the Japanese Nô dramas, the standard pattern revolves around ghosts who tell the truth and by doing so finally become able to achieve liberation. Typically, a wanderer (the waki) encounters a strange person (the shite) who starts to tell a story about a tragic event ending in death. The shite then changes shape, becoming a terrifying demon who declares himself to be the story's tragic protagonist, now a ghost who is unable to leave earthy existence because of his lingering passions and desire for revenge. The film Seppuku (directed by Kobayashi Masaki, 1962) follows a basically similar pattern. The first half corresponds to the part of the Nô drama in which the background is recapitulated by the shite (here the hero played by Nakadai Tatsuya), who hasn't yet revealed his true nature. Then the crucial unmasking takes place and he transforms himself symbolically into the "ghost" of Motobe who confronts the assembled retainers with the truth, achieving a spectacular and bloody vengeance before finally succumbing to a "second" and final death. The film, by the way, is a masterpiece. The music is wonderful, composed for the biwa (or Japanese lute) by Takemitsu Tôru.

Nakadai Tatsuya in Seppuku (dir. Kobayashi Masaki 1962)
Perhaps it's not so strange that the early medieval "publics" in Japanese history were also places linked to death. The ikki (egalitarian leagues formed for military purposes) were formed by drinking "divine water" symbolizing the cutting of ties to the secular world. The rengakai (poetry gatherings), which were well-known for their egalitarian character, originated in poetry meetings held below blossoming cherry trees (hana no moto renga). Presided over by itinerant priests, these meetings would be attended by commoners as well as warriors or even retired emperors, all hiding or "bracketing" their secular identity behind straw hats or veils. These places, as the historian Matsuoka Shinpei points out, had the quality of muen. Cherry trees were thought to be passage-ways between the living and the dead, or even points of entry to the land of the dead which was thought to be located beneath them. Flower-viewing parties as well as these poetry gatherings in turn went back to the even older tradition of “Yasuraihana”, a celebration involving dancing and playing music that was a call for the flowers to stop falling and at the same time a pacification of dead souls that could bring disease.

To return to public speech, it goes without saying that holding up parrhesia as a model of public speech carries with it the risk of idealization. Foucault points out that, early on in Greek thought, doubts appeared concerning the negative aspects of parrhesia - is everybody entitled to use it, or should it be limited to people of a certain quality or education; and how about the possibility of parrhesiasts being mistaken about the truth (Foucault 2001:72)? Furthermore, parrhesia also poses the problem, from the parrhesiast's own point of view, of its limited efficacy. No matter how much the parrhesiast might hope that "dying" to the material circumstances that tie him or her down to a particular place in society will enable the voice to travel freely and reach the ears of everybody, in real life that voice may well be smothered. Nothing says that people will listen even if the parrhesiast forfeits his or her life. If you want a public, it’s not enough with courage and free speech. There must be people who can hear you, and who are willing to listen. And you must be willing to listen to them.

Using Habermas' expression, we could say that there can be no public speech without a public sphere. Still, Foucault does elucidate a fundamental dimension of that public sphere, namely the operation of bracketing. To participate in the public sphere you need to bracket your everyday dependencies, power-relations and status in real life. This is an aspect stressed by many of the theorists of the public sphere or public realm. Habermas points out how important it was for the formation of the early bourgeois public sphere that discussions could be conducted in the coffeehouses and salons without regard for rank or status. Arendt too stresses that bracketing, or "play-acting" is necessary in public in order to create arenas where all participants can participate as peers of equals. Speaking about the Greek isonomy (equality), she writes:
Isonomy guaranteed... equality, but not because all men were born or created equal, but, on the contrary, because men were by nature... not equal, and needed an artificial institution, the polis, which... would make them equal. Equality existed only in this specifically political realm, where men met one another as citizens and not as private persons. (Arendt 1977:21)
Bracketing is of course only a temporary operation. Once deliberation is over, the game of tolerance will end. What Foucault adds to the discussion of bracketing is again related to death and risk-taking: remember that when you leave the agora, you are back in the web of dependencies again, and then you might have to run for your life!  
For unlike isonomia (the equality of all citizens in front of the law) and isegoria (the legal right given to everyone to speak his or her own opinion), parrhesia was not clearly defined in institutional terms. There was no law, for example, protecting the parrhesiastes from potential retaliation or punishment for what he or she said. (Foucault 2001:72)
A striking image of the risks awaiting the parrhesiast once he or she has stopped speaking might be found in Zhang Yimou's film Hero (2002). This is a film that revolves around the dialogue between the emperor Shi Huang-di and the would-be assasin in which truth is finally disclosed. This dialogue, which takes place in the dark and totally empty courtroom of the emperor, can be seen as a compressed public sphere à deux in which deliberation drives the narrative forwards towards a gradual revelation of truth. Like all public spheres, it has the semblance of peace. Speech rather than violence becomes the centre of action, a fact epitomized by the assasin's decision not to kill the emperor. As he finally leaves the courtroom and descends the gigantic stairs down to the palace gate, he is outside the sacred circle of speech and ready to be sacrificed. The film ends with his death as he is nailed to the closed palace gate by a rain of arrows. What was bracketed is un-bracketed.

Public sphere (Hero, dir. Zhang Yimou, 2002)
That unbracketing must take place once speech is over has, of course, not been ignored in liberal political thought. Already Kant made the distinction between public speech, where one was free to make public use of one's reason, and activities in mundane life outside the public, where one had to "obey". What was needed to protect the speaker and facilitate the use of public speech was thus, firstly, the establishment of a "civil" public culture in which words would not be met by violence, and, secondly, to find institutional mechanisms for counteracting the unequal distribution of power (through checks and balances, procedures for anonymous voting, and so on). Already Athenian democracy came up with ways to prevent the centralization of power, such as lottery and anonymous voting (ostracism), that protected citizens from the danger of having to expose themselves publicly.

What distinguishes Foucault from liberal political thinking is his reluctance to rely on either on the presumed civility of modern publics or on institutionalized mechanisms for counteracting power. Like the parrhesiast, he clings to the "truth" carried forward by the word, by public criticism, even as he sees through the power relations operating through the public. His stance is therefore characterized by a very curious ambivalence in regard to public speech, which is on the one hand the carrier of explosive "truths", but on the other hand lacks the medium that would be required for these truths to be transmitted properly, namely a well-functioning public sphere. Lacking a medium in which truth can survive in disembodied form, it must take refuge in the body of the person who knows the truth. Parrhesia remains relevant to us today, because - as Foucault points out - that truth insists on being spoken, even at the cost of putting the body at risk. A paradoxical result of truth's embodiment is that the (potentially) dead body also becomes the logical position from which truth must be uttered.

Of course, I am not claiming that Foucault is trying to apply the idea of parrhesia directly to today's situation. What he claims is merely that it forms an important part of the roots of the "critical" tradition in Western philosophy - a tradition to which Foucault can surely be counted:

And I would say that the problematization of truth which characterizes both the end of Presocratic philosophy and the beginning of the kind of philosophy which is still ours today, this problematization of truth has two sides, two major aspects. One side is concerned with insuring that the process of reasoning is correct in determining whether a statement is true (or concern itself with our ability to gain access to the truth). And the other side is concerned with the question: what is the importance for the individual and for the society of telling the truth, of knowing the truth, of having people who tell the truth, as well as knowing how to recognize them. With that side which is concerned with determining how to insure that a statement is true we have the roots of the great tradition in Western philosophy which I would like to call the "analytics of truth". And on the other side, concerned with the question of the importance of telling the truth, knowing who is able to tell the truth, and knowing why we should tell the truth, we have the roots of what we could call the "critical" tradition in the West. And here you will recognize one of my targets in this seminar, namely, to construct a genealogy of the critical attitude in the Western philosophy.
In addition, nothing stops us from trying to recognize parrhesia as a theme of continued centrality even in today's world. The best and most liberating kind of protest often has the quality of parrhesia. We find it in the gays or lesbians who decide to come out in public. We find it in social movements, especially in their early stages when people decide that they must speak up. We find it in writers and intellectuals too, at least in those who are ready to face unemployment and risk their social standing. We find it in Mrs Poyser, when she finally decides she's had enough and, after years of humiliation, erupts in protest and gives her landlord a piece of her mind (see the lovely description in Scott 1990:6ff). The public of such courageous, decent people is also a liminal space, a space in which they have no longer anything on which to rely but themselves.

Walter Benjamin describes how, in moments of revolutionary upheaval, the dead will come to join the struggle. No wonder, once you stop trying to survive, you can speak freely. Your companions are now the dead, the comrades of the past who have returned to join you again to help you build a better future.


Arendt, Hannah (1958) The Human Condition, Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.

Arendt, Hannah (1973) On Revolution, London: Faber and faber.

Foucault, Michel (2001) Fearless Speech, ed. Joseph Pearson, Los Angeles: semiotext(e).

Matsuoka, Shinpei (2004) Utage no shintai – Basara kara Zeami e (The Body of the Banquet: From Basara to Zeami), Iwanami shoten.

Scott, James (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance, New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
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