Martin Jay: Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations

Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations Book Cover Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations
Martin Jay
Verso
2020
Paperback £13.99
256

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan (Independent Scholar)

Martin Jay is a distinguished cultural historian, a pioneer of the study of the Critical Theory of the “Frankfurt School” with his book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1973), and a scholar who wrote on different aspects of Critical Theory, on the concept of totality, and on the problematization of vision in modern French thought. Splinters in Your Eye, his most recent book, is made out of eleven essays, most if not all already published in some form.  They explore aspects of the work of the Frankfurt School’s main theorists, paying attention to the inner tensions and the wirkungsgeschichte of the theses formulated by Horkheimer and his band of merry theorists.

In an essay published in a previous book, Jay defended the honor of the kind of intellectual history that he displays in the book. Two aspects of his defense are relevant in this context. Jay calls himself a “synoptic intellectual historian,” namely, one that believes that “it seemed a sufficiently challenging task merely to reconstruct the demandingly difficult arguments of the Frankfurt School and relate them to some issues about the life histories of its members.” Synoptic cultural history came in recent years under attack because it abridges and reduces a complicated, heterogeneous mass to an abstract, homogenous form. (Jay, Two Cheers for Paraphrase, 52). This synopsis excludes normatively and hierarchically everything outside of a homogenized and consistent paraphrastic account. The observation that this kind of account may be a disservice for some texts is particularly acute when the subject matter is itself suspicious of premature totalization, as it is the case in Adorno’s thought.  To face this challenge, Jay assures us that “by turning it on Adorno’s intellectual production and isolating what I saw as the five main forces in his own field or starts in his constellation—Western Marxism, aesthetic modernism, mandarin cultural despair, Jewish theology and … proto-deconstructionism—I attempted … a methodological or formal paraphrase of his work in order to illuminate its substantive tension (op. cit., 61-2).  So, paraphrase and synoptic approach can be gentle enough to respect the nature of its subject-matter without incurring in mimetic repetition.  In the introduction to Splinters in Your Eye, Jay returns to this problem, using Adorno’s aphorism “the splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass” (Adorno, Minima Moralia, 50). The splinter or the mote in question is an imaginative interpretation of the verse “why beholdest thou of the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”. This injunction is usually interpreted as a caution not to be judgmental. The “mote” is here converted, through the vicissitudes of translation, into a splinter. And the eye’s irritation, into a glimpse of truth (Jay, Splinters, xi).  It is through suffering, vicarious, or our own, that knowledge of society is possible, Adorno claims. In the same section, Adorno also refers positively to exaggeration. Jay will use this idea for the title of an essay on the Frankfurt School’s position regarding psychoanalysis.   Jay also refers to the provocative sentence that closes the section: “The whole is the false” (Minima Moralia, 50).  But if the whole is the false, what about critical theory? Adorno’s claim questions any attempt to bring the ideas of the different personalities involved in the Frankfurt School into a harmonic whole. Jay expounds further on the nature of the painful eye that it will avoid the illusion of a “panoptic vision.” This concept that Foucault borrowed from Jeremy Bentham’s speculations on a system of inescapable omniscient social control is the clearest counter-ideal to Critical Theory.  It is in recognition of the appropriateness of the fragmentary that Jay writes: “the exercises that follow are left in their unintegrated form, with no pretense to be a coherent narrative” (xvi).

What is a reviewer to do? To compound the fragmentations (from the subject-matter, the fragmentation of the intellectual historical account)? Or to try to suggest a synthesis that was already twice refused? Sometimes problems are best perceived by turning them around. In this case, by turning our gaze to a different approach, one which as hostile to Critical Theory as Jay’s is caring.

The last essay, “Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment,” places us on a different plane. In this chapter, Jay deals with a fringe movement whose members have made of the Frankfurt School, a scapegoat for the illnesses and rottenness of contemporary society. With a twist. Because what they perceive as negative is what many will call the positive signs of reparation of long due injustices: the fight against racism, against discrimination on the base of gender and sexual orientation, the inequality of opportunities for minorities of all kinds (see a complete list in p. 157).  This is more than ironic. As Jay comments in another essay, the Frankfurt School has been ofttimes criticized for its ineffectualness, for its failure to become practically engaged with mass social movements, for the lofty tone of its pronouncements, etc. These critics make the opposite claim.

Against the claim that castigates the Frankfurt School for its presumed role in the development of a counterculture which rejected and supposedly replaced the traditional American culture of the 40s and 50s, first in academia, then in the media and cultural industries,  and finally in society as a whole, the historian can proceed in two ways. The first will be to show that, maybe except Marcuse, the influence of the Frankfurt School in American academia and popular culture was, to say the least, limited.  The different “critical studies” and what is called in the humanities and social sciences “theory” borrows much more from French post-structuralist thinkers, and indirectly from Husserl, Heidegger, and Nietzsche than from Adorno and Horkheimer (Cusset, 2003).

Instead of following this road, Jay takes advantage of the opportunity to turn his regard into this distorted account in the hope that “something [be] revealed about the legacy of the Critical Theory—and, more importantly, about the current society that can turn it into a simplistic meme—” (161), a meme that under certain circumstances can turn deadly.  Jay refers here to the manifest written by the Norwegian neofascist Anders Behring Breivik before engaging in a terrorist attack that left 77 dead. Breivik, among other arguments to justify his acts, ranted against the influence of Cultural Marxism, referring even to Jay’s Dialectics of Enlightenment as proof for his claims.  Jay goes further to write that the situation calls for the kind of dialectical account that Adorno and Horkheimer devoted to the Enlightenment itself (166). If Jay does not offer us such an account, he lists references to different claims that distort and twist the legacy of the Frankfurt School. But he recognizes that to develop a critical theory of counter-enlightenment is beyond the scope of a single essay (167). Jay mentions a few attempts to apply the methodology devised by the Frankfurt School for their study of Authoritarian Personality (1950) to the current situation in the USA (168-9) but seems to have doubts on the merits of that methodology. Quoting a remark from Harvard’s historian Peter E. Gordon, he wonders about the appropriateness to assign individuals to personality types, as this mimics the reification of contemporary society (169). Maybe what this shows is that the Frankfurt School has many historians, but few disciples willing to follow in their path.  Only Habermas stands out as a continuation of sorts of the heritage of the Institute.

Was this fate foreshadowed in the early beginnings of the School?  Jay explores this question in the first two essays in the book. “Ungrounded” deals with the foundation of the Frankfurt’s Institute for Social Research (ISR), which through the particular circumstances of its origins and independence from party or government, gives rise to the accusation of being suspended in an abyss (Abgrund). Jay refers here to Georg Lukács, the Hungarian Marxist literature scholar and philosopher whose 1922 History and Class Consciousness influenced the group of young scholars that ultimately created the ISR, that gave origin to the Frankfurt School.  Lukács, as an orthodox Marxist, rejected the idea of a critical stance that is not anchored in a political party, which is itself the conscious will and vanguard of the working class. Instead of a privileged vantage point, Horkheimer and his comrades preferred a sort of “immanent critique,” which Jay describes quoting from one of Adorno’s translators: “immanent criticism turns the principle of identity…into the power for the presentation of the way in which  an object resists its subjective determination and finds itself lacking” (4).  Jay raises two potential objections to this approach. The first recasts Adorno’s objection that immanent critique cannot be fully grounded on itself as “the totality is never fully self-contained.” The second objection has to do with what Marcuse called “one-dimensionality” and Adorno “totally administered” society.  In such a society, apparent dissatisfaction becomes functionalized in the service of the status quo. Despite such doubts on the actual possibility of a critical regard into the society that is not immediately instrumentalized, the members of the School continued to elaborate their positions. What are, Jay wonders, the motivations for such an undertaking? Maybe, he wonders, that motivation reflects the particular circumstances of the establishment of the ISR?

Jay embarks in the already well-known stories of Felix Weil’s role as founder and financial benefactor of the Institute, and Horkheimer’s appointment as Director of the Institute. Toward the end of the essay, Jay turns to explore the possible debts of Critical Theory to the philosophy of Schelling (11). In particular, to Schelling’s early thinking. Horkheimer wrote on Schelling and Idealism in the 1920s, and also Adorno has a substantive debt to his thought (15). Jay observes that “Schelling’s critique of rationalist metaphysics was attractive to thinkers trying to extricate themselves from…[a] philosophy in which all contingency was absorbed into a relational system” (13).  Others have observed that Schelling’s philosophy seems to anticipate the Dialectic of Enlightenment (15).  And Adorno in Negative Dialectics quotes approvingly Schelling as an antidote to a rationalistic consciousness philosophy.  These considerations led Jay to affirm that the uncertainty of “Abgrund” (groundlessness) may be less damaging to critical theory and to emancipatory practice than one may initially suspect.

In “The hope that earthly horror does not possess the last word,” Jay reminisces on his early contacts with the leading members of the ISR during the research that led to his writing Dialectical Imagination.  Three points can be highlighted in this essay.  First, the degree to which the members of the Frankfurt School wanted to shape Jay’s narrative. Second, the different perspectives of the individual members. Finally, Jay’s interpretation of the feelings of the founders of the ISR about their Jewish origins, and about the influence of their background in the outlook and the public perception of the Institute.  One of many, the anecdote regarding the title of Jay’s book, is telling. Jay suggested the title “Permanent Exiles” (28-9).  Horkheimer and Weil criticized the title as not only unprecise but also dangerous because it lends justification to their many foes from the right.

The next chapter, “Max Horkheimer and the Family of Man,” explores the balancing act of Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s return to Germany. Horkheimer understood their public role as “reeducator of Germans, especially Youth, in the democratic values he had learned in exile” (35).  This understanding, and the realities of the Cold War, led to de-emphasize the earlier, more radical approach to contemporary society.  Jay exemplifies this with a close reading of Horkheimer’s talk at the opening in 1958 of the photography exhibits “The Family of Man” in the US-funded Amerika-Haus in Frankfurt. Jay emphasizes Horkheimer’s references to Kant, Emerson, and Dewey and their firm belief that man should count as an end and never as a means (36).

Further, Horkheimer characterizes the exhibit as “representative of all the forces that are now counteracting the…regressive movements that have occurred in Europe in recent years” (36). Jay notes the distance between the endorsement of the humanistic agenda of the exhibits and Horkheimer’s previous pronouncements in his writings of the late ’40s.  Also, Jay finds puzzling Horkheimer’s valorization of the power of images to give unmediated access to abstract philosophical concepts. After his return to Germany, Horkheimer increasingly endorsed the Bilderverbot, the biblical prohibition of images, which constitutes a central component of the Jewish faith (also to be analyzed in an essay comparing Adorno’s and Blumenberg’s position).

“Family of Man” approached the family at two levels. On the one hand, it showed pictures of couples and happy families from different cultures. On the other, it implied that humanity should be seen as one big family.  Jay deals with both levels and compares the underlying presuppositions of the exhibit with Horkheimer’s and Frankfurt Schools’ analysis of the family.  Jay also confronts Horkheimer’s remarks with Roland Barthes’ criticism of the exhibit. Jay sees the differences in approach mainly as a reflection of a difference in context.  Barthes was reacting against the danger of abstract universalism, whereas Horkheimer was dealing cautiously with the heavy heritage of Nazism and the war (45).

The “marriage” between Freud and Marx is the subject of the fourth essay.  The relationship of the Frankfurt School to Freud and psychoanalysis was complicated and not limited to the realm of theory. Horkheimer helped create a psychoanalytic institute in the University of Frankfurt and even invited it to share space in the ISR’s newly built building on the university campus. Horkheimer also lobbied the city of Frankfurt to give Freud the Goethe Prize in 1930. Even a few members of the ISR, including Horkheimer, underwent analysis.

Jay states four overlapping motivations that presided this matrimony. First, the hope that psychoanalysis may answer why orthodox Marxism, despite the widespread discontent with the status quo, failed in the 1920s’ Germany to generate a revolutionary practice. Second, to explain the emergence of Fascism, a social movement that traditional Marxism did not foresee. Third, in the case of Marcuse in particular, Freudism was expected to be a way to envisage a different civilization, beyond the one-dimensional one.  Lastly, in the case of Adorno and of Horkheimer, to build a plausible materialism. But, except for Fromm, their interest in Freud stayed mostly limited to his philosophical anthropology, and the members of the ISR remained indifferent to psychoanalysis as a therapy (53).

Jay surveys the different receptions of Freud in the Institute, from Fromm’s attempts to a build a social psychology which could be empirically verified and a tool to explore socio-political events, Adorno’s integration of Freudian insights into his analysis of the “culture industry” via de concept of fetishism, and Marcuse’s most explicit use of Freud for utopian purposes in Eros and Civilization (1955) (60).  In his work, and in the magazine Dissent, Marcuse attacked Fromm’s humanistic version of Marxism and his dismissal of Freud’s Metapsychology and instincts theory. Jay quotes Marcuse’s re-interpretation of Oedipal longings as archetypical of freedom from want, and his rejection of its surplus repression in the name of the reality principle.  Jay’s assessment that Fromm “never recuperated” from Marcuse’s onslaught in Dissent seems a bit extreme. Not only Fromm had a successful and long carrier, not only Marcuse’s name only become widely known after the 1968 student’s revolt, but Marcuse contributed a chapter to Fromm’s 1965 edited collection Socialist Humanism, indicating some level of agreement between the two.

Jay’s use of the metaphor of marriage to describe the attempts to bring to a synthesis Freud’s theory with Marxism or parts thereof also allows us to think a less blissful relationship, at least in Adorno’s late work (63).  Adorno was skeptical of a full reconciliation between the social and the psychological, and between the cultural and the natural.  He writes in his characteristic fashion: “The separation of Sociology and Psychology is both correct and false…correct insofar as it registers more intransigently the split that has actually taken place in reality than does the premature unification at the level of theory” (Sociology and Psychology, quoted by Jay, 64). The rejection of the premature unification of the social and the individual is supposed to prefigure a potential emancipatory outcome. He concludes this essay referring to Horkheimer’s work in post-WWII Germany to reintroduce the teaching of psychoanalysis and to renew the association of the ISR.

The fifth essay tells an enthralling story about the young Leo Löwenthal and his participation in the “Jewish renewal movement” in the 1920s. Löwenthal was very close to Rabbi Nobel, the charismatic rabbi that played a central role in developing the Freie Jüdische Lehrhaus. Jay discusses Nobel’s contradictions and how these allowed Nobel to be a magnet for highly educated and conflicted youth living through the turmoil of the first years of the Weimar Republic. Nobel had a refined German education, was an orthodox rabbi, a friend of the leading Jewish intellectuals of his time, and a gifted speaker.  Additionally, he helped Löwenthal financially during a bout of conflict between Löwenthal and his family.  Jay examines Lowenthal’s “Jewish writings,” which consists of an essay published in Nobel’s Festschrift (“The Demonic: Draft of a Negative Philosophy of Religion”) and a series of short articles on leading Jewish thinkers of modern times (Mendelsohn, Maimon, Heine, Marx, Lassalle, Herman Cohen, and Freud).  But, as Jay notes, Lowenthal’s energies were soon directed elsewhere (74). While there may be several reasons for this change of heart, the fact remains that Löwenthal’s interest in Jewish subjects faded, although maybe not entirely, as he republished his early essay on Heine in a 1947 issue of the magazine Commentary.

The sixth essay sets up a dialogue between Adorno and Blumenberg around the notion of “non-conceptuality.”  There are similarities between Adorno’s position in Negative Dialectics and Blumenberg’s criticism of the privileged role of concepts in philosophy. According to Jay, Blumenberg seems to have acknowledged his debt to Adorno. So, for example, Blumenberg gave a seminar on Negative Dialectics a year after its publication. While no transcripts from the workshop survived, the fact itself is meaningful.  Blumenberg used the notion of “non-conceptuality” in his writings of 1970, in what Jay considers a salute to Adorno.  Jay speaks of an “overlap” between the intentions of both thinkers to present an alternative to philosophy’s traditional preference for conceptualization (84).  Adorno and Blumenberg were both critical of Heidegger in general and of Heidegger’s attempt to offer a solution to the tension between conceptualization and content in particular. The title of the essay refers to the biblical Bildersverbot (prohibition of images), a common trope for a residual Jewish sensibility. Both Adorno and Blumenberg were of Jewish descent. Adorno’s father was Jewish, and so was Blumenberg’s mother. In the context of the Frankfurt School, the “ban on images” metaphor was used in two primary contexts. One, a refusal to engage in utopian speculation about an emancipated future society. The second, an affirmation of the irrepresentability of the Holocaust, as in Adorno’s ban on poetry after the Holocaust (90). Non-withstanding those similarities between the two thinkers, Adorno’s position is very different from Blumenberg’s.  As Jay shows it nicely, for Adorno, the non-conceptuality was historically bound, and a claim to redemption to be fulfilled in a different society. He quotes Adorno on Identity:

“To define identity as the correspondence of the thing-in-itself to its concept is hubris; but the ideal of identity must not be simply discarded … hidden in [the supposition of identity] is also the truth moment of ideology, the pledge that there should be no contradiction, no antagonism” (Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 149, quoted by Jay, 93).

Visual arts played no significant role in the work of the members of the Frankfurt School. Benjamin was the exception, and he was interested, among other things, in the “emancipation of color” in modern art. “Chromophilia: Der Blue Ritter, Walter Benjamin and the Emancipation of Color” brings together Jay’s interest in the history of visual arts in the early 20th century and his study of the Frankfurt School.

Using unpublished fragments from 1914-15, Jay presents Benjamin’s long-life interest in the color revolution. One opposes a child’s to an adult’s view of color. For the child, color is contour, but the adult sees objects only, abstracted from color fragment. Benjamin was, according to Jay, fascinated by the Blaue Ritter color experiments. In another fragment, Benjamin writes about the rainbow in contrast with graphic images, which with line and figure, separate the endless configuration of color.  Jay brings closer Benjamin’s reflection on color and his ideas about an Adamic language. WW I, which saw the death of two of the central figures of Der Blaue Reiter group, seem to have affected Benjamin’s hopes that the emancipation of color would foreshadow human freedom (111-12). In a following article devoted to Benjamin’s comments on stamps, Jay explores his own experiences in philately and its utopian dimensions.

The ninth essay expounds on the German American film theorist Miriam Hansen, the author of Cinema and Experience (2012). This one is the only essay in the book that deals with a thinker belonging to the younger generation of critical theorists.

As Jay puts it, Hansen’s problem is to develop a critical account of the film that goes beyond the blunt dismissal of the cultural industry characteristic of the first generation of critical theorists (including Krakauer). Hansen incorporated to her analysis the notion of a “counter-public sphere” in which technologically mediated distanced forms of interaction prevail. This notion elaborates on the ideas of Alexander Kluge and Oscar Negt (both associated with the Frankfurt School and with Habermas in particular) (125-6).  Hansen also rescues from the early Frankfurt theorist the idea of mimetic comportment and the ideal of the “renewal of experience” (126).  Hansen claims, according to Jay, for the existence of an alternative public sphere that can only realize itself through the destruction of the dominant, bourgeois public sphere. Jay is somewhat skeptical about the possibilities of such an alternative. Hansen showed an alternative public sphere realized through cinema only for a limited period, which corresponds to the early silent cinema.  Furthermore, Jay defends the rights of the public sphere in its Habermasian sense, as a place of rational discussion, even as an ideal for democracy (134). Paradoxically, the criticism of purposive rationality cannot make room for the straightforward enjoyment provided by imaginative identification.

Based on a paper presented at a Brandeis conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Marcuse’s One-dimensional Man, Jay explores the different ways in which this famous book can be said to be “ironic.”  First, there is the irony that this pessimist analysis of contemporary society, which forecloses all possibility of a challenge to the encroachments of instrumental rationality, is published at the very same moment when new avenues of resistance are opened.  That consideration leads to a review of the analysis of irony in Adorno, and eventually to the question in what sense the argument in One-dimensional Man is itself ironic.  In Minima Moralia, Adorno seems to deny that irony is still possible.  Irony for  Adorno “convicts its object by presenting it at what it purports to be” (quoted by Jay, 138). But, in our advanced industrial societies, “Irony’s medium, the difference between ideology and reality, has disappeared” (quoted by Jay, 139).  But, is this also Marcuse’s position? Jay probes different types of irony, with the object, ultimately, of examining if there is, in One-dimensional Man, a “more promising notion of irony” that avoids the flaws of the ones Jay already reviewed. Jay will look for an alternative in a notion of irony described by Christoph Menke, a member of the third generation of the School.  Discussing Oedipus Rex, Menke makes a difference between the “irony of the action” and the “the poets’ irony.” The first refers to the character Oedipus’ blind responsibility for his fate. The second, which we share as spectators, is our knowledge of the situation and our capability to foresee the outcome. Both irony positions are unified in Oedipus at the end of the play.

How are these insights important to evaluating Marcuse’s reflections on advanced capitalist society in a context which is quite different from the one we live today?  Taking stock of Marcuse’s work would require identifying what is living and what is dead. Marcuse himself, at the end of his book, offered a gloomy picture of, on the one hand, a critical theory unable to provide a bridge between the present and its future, and the other, the wretched of the earth, free of the encumbrance of theory but driven forward by their despair. Critical Theory need to remain solidary of those without hope, advises Marcuse, even though the system may be strong enough to defuse any confrontation: “The economic and technical capabilities of the established societies are sufficiently vast to allow for adjustments and concessions to the underdog.”  On his side, Jay concludes, “we can still find in…[Marcuse’s]  insistence on the superiority of a two-dimensional understanding of the human condition over its one-dimensional alternative something akin to … [a] committed pursuit of personal excellence … an ironic attitude that is neither cynical nor disengaged, … [that] resists accommodation to social pretense … It may not provide the reassurance of Socratic or dramatic irony at its most knowing, but in a world that will not grant us such knowledge, it keeps alive the negative power of two-dimensionality that Marcuse so eloquently defended.” (150)

Jay’s book carries the subtitle “Frankfurt School provocations,” asserting the longevity of the program of the early critical theory.  The attacks of the ultra-conservative factions add some credence to the luster of the ISR, and the blossoming of a third and fourth generation of thinkers who declare some degree of fidelity to the original vision of Weil, Horkheimer, Pollock, and others should at least provide a modicum of hope.

 

 

Bibliography:

Cusset, François. 2003. French Theory. Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et es mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux État Unis. Éditions La Découverte, Paris.

Jay, Martin. 1988. “Two Cheers for Paraphrase: The Confessions of a Synoptic Intellectual Historian.” In: Martin Jay, Fin-De-Siècle Socialism. Routledge, New York and London, pp. 52-63.

Michel Foucault: “Discourse and Truth” and “Parresia”

"Discourse and Truth" and "Parresia" Book Cover "Discourse and Truth" and "Parresia"
The Chicago Foucault Project
Michel Foucault. Edited by Henri-Paul Fruchaud and Daniele Lorenzini. With an Introduction by Frédéric Gros. English edition established by Nancy Luxon
University of Chicago Press
2019
Cloth $35.00
295

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan (Independent Scholar)

This book consists of two lectures given by Foucault in the last years of his life. The first, a recently discovered recording of a talk on Parrēsia at the University of Grenoble in 1982. A transcript of this lecture was originally published in 2012 in the journal Anabases. It was preceded by a study of the text by Henri-Paul Fruchaud et Jean-François Bert, not included in this volume. The second consists of transcripts of a seminar given in English by Foucault at Berkeley in 1983. These lectures have been published earlier, with the title Fearless Speech (2001). This volume is based on a new and more accurate transcription of the original audio recordings.  According to the ‘Preface,’ Foucault’s preparatory French notes, today deposited in the BNF, have been consulted and were relevant, printed as notes (xii).

The original impulse for this publication was to make the Berkeley seminar available to the French public. The English version follows the text established for the 2016’s French translation. This book is part of a sustained effort to create an authoritative Foucauldian text, one that is as close as possible to the original voice and to delegitimize and marginalize the independent publications made over the years following his death.

We will later deal with some of the differences between this new edition and the precedent one. Still, we can point out to the quantity and quality of the Editor’s notes, which not only refer the reader to parallel sections in the lectures in the Collège de France but also to Foucault’s sources.

The book is introduced by Frédéric Gros, who also edited many of Foucault’s Collège de France’s lectures.  Gros retraces the history of Foucault’s interest in the concept of parrēsia, first developed in the three last lecture series in the College de France. Parrēsia (in previous publications, the term was transliterated ‘parrhesia’ and in French parrhêsia) is a Greek term that means to ‘say everything,’ in an unfiltered and uncensored way. Parrēsia can also be translated, according to Gros, as ‘frank speech,’ ‘courage of speech’ or ‘freedom of speech.’  Foucault pays a lot of attention to the transformations of this concept from its Greek origins, through the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and finally early Christian forms. Foucault claims that earlier references can be found in Euripides’ tragedy Ion, where parrēsia refers to the prerogative of a citizen to speak his mind publicly. Later, in Plato, the concept indicates the freedom that a wise king grants its counselors to express themselves. Finally, in philosophical circles in the Hellenistic and Roman period, parrēsia becomes a quality or virtue of a person that assumes the role of a ‘spiritual director.’ Gros shows that Foucault explores the concept of parrēsia in two directions: a re-evaluation of wisdom in antiquity and a redefinition of philosophy in the sense of critique.  Gros claims that ‘for Foucault, from the clarity of the Greeks to the “Enlightenment” of the moderns, philosophy finds something like a metahistorical resolve through its critical function, one that refuses to dissociate questions of the government of self, the government of others, and speaking-truly…’ (xix).

As Gross points out, Foucault’s understanding of parrēsia evolved in this period. In Grenoble’s lecture, Foucault rejects the idea of a Cynic or Socratic parrēsia. Still, in Berkeley, he discusses for the first time Plato’s Laches and shows interest for the Cynics.  Furthermore, in Berkeley, he adds an analysis of Euripides’s Orestes. Foucault will develop these ideas further in the 1983-1984’s lectures in the Collège de France.

Parrēsia (Grenoble conference)

According to Fruchard and Bert, Foucault was invited to lecture in Grenoble in May 1982, shortly after the last session of the Hermeneutique du Sujet lectures. His host was Henry Joly, a Greek philosophy specialist also interested in the study of language. Joly and Foucault knew each other from their previous postings at the University of Clermont Ferrand in the early 1960s. Joly was curious about Foucault’s ‘Greek turn,’ and Foucault was interested in Joly’s feedback.

Foucault asked not to publicize the venue to allow a more intimate gathering and discussion, but more than one hundred people attended. However, as Foucault needed to return the same night to Paris, no real discussion ensued except for some general exchanges between Foucault and Joly (Fruchard and Bert, 2012).

Foucault starts the Grenoble lecture with a programmatic statement connecting his current interests and his previous work.  He formulates his project as an inquiry into the question, central in our occidental culture, of the ‘obligation to tell the truth,’ obligation to tell the truth about oneself. This probe into the forms of truth-telling about ourselves, Foucault explains, is what he researched in the domain of 19th century psychiatry, in the modern judicial and penal institutions, and finally in Christianity and the problem of the flesh (2).  It is by looking at the history of the forms of telling the truth about ourselves in Christianity that Foucault discovers the existence, before the institutionalization of the sacrament of confession in the 12th century, of two different forms of truth-telling in Christianity.  One, the obligation to manifest the truth about ourselves, which originated in the sacrament of penance (exomologesis). Penance consists of dramatic representation of oneself as a sinner. Penance, it was not primarily verbal but rather dramatized in external symbols, such as torn clothes, fast, and corporal expression.  Foucault explored this practice in his 1981 lectures at the University of Louvain, now collected in Mal faire, dire vrai (2012). The other form of telling the truth about ourselves originates in the monastic practices (exagoreusis).  It consists of the novice’s obligation to disclose to his spiritual advisor every thought, desire, and agitations of his mind.  This ‘obligation to tell everything’ retains Foucault’s attention and will serve as a unifying thread for his research in pursuit of the roots of this extraordinary demand and its aftermath in the development of the Western concept of subjectivity. For Foucault, the origins of this confessional practice are correlated with changes in the function of parrēsia, and with the shift on the responsibility to tell the truth from the master to the pupil.

In the Grenoble conference, Foucault proposes to limit himself to the two first centuries of the Roman empire.  However, before the Roman, he introduces the early Greek forms of parrēsia. Foucault mentions Polybius, Euripides, and Plato.  In Euripides, parrēsia refers mostly to a political right of the citizen, whereas in Plato’s Gorgias seems to refer to a test and touchstone for the soul. In the Roman empire, ‘franc speech’ operates primarily in the context of the techniques of spiritual direction. Even in the political context, advice given to the sovereign does not apply to the conduct of the affairs of the State, but to the prince’s soul. Parrēsia is here restricted to a context of spiritual direction.  Foucault explains that his approach would be that of a ‘pragmatics of discourse,’ but he does not elaborate on the meaning of this expression (15). The same claim appears in more detail in the Hermeneutics of the Subject and the Berkeley seminar, but also in those occurrences, Foucault prefers not to develop his position. Regarding the Roman period, Foucault refers to texts from Epictetus’ disciple Arrian, and Galen. Arrian’s problem is the effect of the words of Epictetus on his students and how to communicate them in writing in a non-rhetorical way. In Galen, the problem is how to identify a person who can help us in our self-examination.  Instead of a list of technical capabilities, Galen suggests that a proper choice is a person who is capable of speaking the truth, who is not a flatterer, etc.

Summing up, Foucault emphasizes three features of parrēsia: (1) is the opposite of flattery, in a context of self-knowledge; (2) is a discourse attuned not to the rules of rhetoric but of Kairos (the right timing); (3) is a technique used in an asymmetrical interpersonal relation intended to foster the self-knowledge of the student.  (20-21). The lecture concludes with a brief exchange with Joly and others regarding the exact meaning of parrēsia in Plato and Aristotle. Foucault and Joly also disagree whether the ‘obligation to tell it all’ has its roots in the judicial sphere.

Foucault’s reply to Joly incidentally reveals how this ancient notion comes to have such an essential place in his late thought:

Notwithstanding the etymology of parrēsia, telling all does not seem to me, really or fundamentally, entailed in the notion of parrēsia…I think it is a political notion that was transposed, if you like, from the government of others to the government of oneself, that it was never a judicial notion where the obligation to say exactly the truth is a technical problem, concerning confession, torture, and so on. But the word parrēsia and, I think, the conceptual field associated with it, has a moral profile (37; my emphasis).

The Berkeley Seminar:

Foucault taught this seminar at Berkeley during October and November of 1983. The ‘Note’ to the English edition explains some of the editorial considerations and also refers to the previous edition of these texts.  The editors state the criteria used to select English translations of the classical texts quoted by Foucault. This is important because Foucault used some translations, which in the meantime, have been superseded by new ones.  We are told that the criteria finally employed were to retain the translations chosen by Foucault whenever those have been identified, and otherwise to use the ones selected for the English translation of the Lectures in the Collège de France.  There is also a discussion of how the Editor decided to render Foucault’s English.

In one of his concluding remarks to the last session of the Berkeley seminar, Foucault explains that:

The point of departure: my intention was not to deal with the problem of truth, but with the problem of the truth-teller or of truth-telling, or of the activity of truth-telling. I mean that it was not for me a question of analyzing the criteria, the internal or external criteria through which anyone, or through which the Greeks and the Romans, could recognize if a statement was true or not. It was a question for me of considering truth-telling as a specific activity, it was a question of considering truth-telling as a role. But even in the framework of this general question, there were several ways to consider the role of the truth-teller in a society. For instance, I could have compared truth-telling, the role and the status of truth-tellers in Greek society and in other Christian or non-Christian societies— for instance, the role of the prophet as a truth-teller, the role of the oracle as a truth-teller, or the role of the poet, of the expert, of the preacher, and so on. But in fact my intention was not a sociological description of those different roles for the truth-teller in different societies. What I wanted to analyze and to show you is how this truth-telling activity, how this truth-teller role has been problematized in the Greek philosophy (222-223).

Elsewhere in the text, Foucault describes his project as the study of the history of the obligation of telling-all, and its roots in Greco-Roman philosophy and the in the theoretical practices and techniques related to the ‘care of the self.’

Foucault opens the first seminar declaring that the subject of the seminar is parrēsia and proceeding to describe the meaning and grammatical forms of the word.  Only after, he proposes some English translations. This initial examination leads to a preliminary finding: parrēsia does not refer to the content of what is said, but to the personal relationship between the speaker and his speech. For the Greeks, according to Foucault, such a personal relationship guarantees the truth of the content. Parrēsia also involves an element of danger. There is danger in exercising parrēsia.  Parrēsia is the courage of speaking the truth when facing risk from the potential reaction of the interlocutor.

As in Grenoble’s conference, Foucault sets up to study the first two centuries of the Roman empire, and as in Grenoble, he provides some additional background, referring to Euripides, Plato, and Polybius. As in the conference, Euripides’ references to parrēsia are mostly framed as the problem of citizenship. Who is a citizen, why it is vital to be one, what is the relationship between citizenship and being able to speak one’s mind? But Euripides also knows the meaning of parrēsia in the context of unequal relationships between a servant and his master.  Foucault summarizes his views: parrēsia is a verbal activity in which the speaker has a particular relationship to truth, to danger, to law, and to other people in the form of critique. This can take the form of self-criticism or of criticism of other persons.  We see here how Foucault connects the dots between all the seemingly diverse areas he is exploring at that time: ‘criticism’ as in his reading of Kant,  ‘care of the self’ and its eventual metamorphoses in Roman, Christian, Modernity and as  forms of resistance. The evolution of parrēsia from its early Greek forms to the Christian form follows three main stages: a) parrēsia as opposed to rhetoric; b) parrēsia in relation to the political field; c) parrēsia as part of the art of life or ‘care of the self’.  For Foucault, parrēsia is not the only form of truth-telling. Foucault refers to different roles of truth-tellers, such as prophetic, wise man, teacher, etc.  These forms of truth-telling, which in some cases overlap, are also present in our societies.  A section of Foucault’s manuscript, placed as a note by the editors, explains that the role of the parrhesiast (here the transliteration adopted for this form is different of the one chosen for the noun) shows in specifics figures like the moralists, or social and political critics (69).  The rest of the seminar studies parrēsia in the relationship between man and the Gods.

The main difference with previous analyses are the repeated references to Sophocles’ Oedipus. Foucault evoked in several Collège lectures the figure of Oedipus. Foucault sees in Oedipus the emergence of a new paradigm of truth, as opposed to the old model of the seer. Comparing Euripides’s Ion with Sophocles’ Oedipus, Foucault claims that in Ion, the gods are silent, they cheat, etc. It is not the divine but the emotional reaction of the human characters that opens up the path to truth. However, truth itself requires inquiry, because the inquiry is the specific human way to get to the truth. Foucault sees in Euripides tragedy examples of two different forms of parrēsia: a discourse of blame, which is addressed against somebody that has much more power, and the second in which somebody tells the truth about himself. It is the combination of these two discourses that make possible the disclosure of the total truth at the end of the play (98).

The next session of the seminar refers again to Euripides, but now the context is political. Foucault introduces the term Athurostōmia, as the form of speech that is the opposite of parrēsia. Athurostōmia is to speak in an uncontrolled way.  According to the editors, this opposition is idiosyncratic of Foucault and not shared by other scholars. He uses the opposition to illustrate the criticism of democracy, and the emergence of a different relationship to truth, one that is not solely based in courage and frankness, but in attributes that require a process of personal development (114). This section also contains an interesting discussion of the difference between Foucault’s approach –which he calls in this text ‘history of thought’ and ‘history of problematizations’– and the ‘history of ideas’ (115-116; cf. also 224-226).

Foucault turns then to Plato’s criticism of parrēsia. Foucault is trying to illustrate the turn from a relatively unrestricted right to free speech to a situation were ‘franc speech’ is more dependent on the personal qualities of both speaker and receiver. In Laches, Plato introduces a different form of the parrhesiastic game.  In this form, bios (life) appear as the main element, besides the traditional elements of logos, truth, and courage (146).  The second novelty that Foucault detects in this platonic account is the dyadic element, two individuals, only two, that confront each other.  There is a harmony between logos and bios, which serves as ground, as the visible criterion of the parrhesiastic function, and as the goal of the parrhesiastic activity (147).

The following two sessions of the seminar look into the development of this new form of parrēsia, and with the relations individuals can have with themselves.  Foucault claims that our moral subjectivity is rooted, at least partially in this relations.  To that effect, Foucault looks into the forms of parrēsia that developed in the different philosophical schools of late Greek and Roman society.  He differentiates between: a) community relationships in the framework of small groups, characteristic of the Epicureans; b) parrēsia as an activity or attitude in the context of community life, which is typical of the cynics; c) finally, parrēsia in the personal relationships between individuals, like in the stoa.

The first part of the November 21 session explores the first two.  Foucault refers to the discussion of the Epicureans using Philodemus’ book in an account similar to that of the Grenoble conference.  Foucault dedicates a large section of the November 21 session to a discussion of the cynic practice of parrēsia.  Then, finally, on November 30 and the last session, Foucault addresses the interpersonal dimension of franc speech.

Foucault ends his presentation with remarks about the shift between a paradigm were franc speech meant to be able to say the truth to other people, to a different practice, which consists of telling the truth about oneself.  This new model appears as askēsis or practical training.  Foucault explains that asceticism came to mean a practice of renunciation of the self, and explains the difference between the Greek and the Christian take on this notion.

‘Discourse and Truth’ versus ‘Fearless Speech’:

The Berkeley conferences were published in 2001, and this version was used for a number of translations.  As this new edition seems to relegate the former one to oblivion, it is worthwhile to look at some of the main differences between these two editions.

First of all, both editions are based on the same audio recordings (deposited in Berkeley and the IMEC, and also available on the Internet.  The new edition benefited from the recent opening of Foucault’s archives, and of a better understanding of the preparatory work, bibliography and alternatives weighted by Foucault.

Beyond those differences, the main difference is that Fearless Speech has the aspect and organization of a summary rather than of transcription of Foucault’s lectures.  Particularly in the first lecture, but also to some extent on the next ones, Foucault’s dialogue with the public is wholly elided in Fearless Speech. We miss not only the livelihood of the event but also the background to Foucault’s comments that are made in answer to questions and not part of a prepared text.  Therefore, Fearless Speech appears as a more compact text, whereas Discourse on Truth is more rumbling and dialectic.

Bibliography:

Engel, Pascal. Michel Foucault. 2011. “Verité, connaissance et éthique.” In: Artières, Phillipe, Jean François Bert, Frédéric Gros, Judith Revel (Eds.), Cahiers de l’Herne: Foucault, Paris, 318-325.

Foucault, Michael. 2012. Mal faire, dire vrai: function de l’aveau en justice, edition etablié par Fabianne Brion et Bernard E. Harcourt. University of Chicago Press and Presses Universitaires de Louvain.

Fruchaud, Henri-Paul et Jean-François Bert. 2012. Un inédit de Michel Foucault: ‘La Parrêsia’. Note de présentation, Anabases, 16: 149-156; (http://journals.openedition.org/anabases/3956; DOI: 10.4000/anabases.3956;

Consulted on September 11, 2019. Their account follows the statement of Patrick Engel, who was at that time teaching in Grenoble. Cf. Pascal Engel (2011), p. 324 note 6.

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