Jesus Velasco | Forging Words

By Jesús R. Velasco

It is at the beginning of his lectures On the Government of the Living that Michel Foucault explains to his students—to those heterogeneous, even heteroclite set of students he had at the Collège de France—that he intends to reformulate the relationship between truth and forms of government: he is not interested in studying the bodies of knowledge that are “useful for those who govern”, but rather in analyzing “that manifestation of truth correlative to the exercise of power.” His first concern is to find the proper word to name this, and, as it is well known, he proposes one that is “not well-established or recognized, since it has hardly been used but once, and then in a different form, by a Greek grammarian of the third or fourth centuries… a grammarian called Heraclitus who employs the adjective alethourges [ληθουργής] for someone who speaks the truth.” According to the data contained in the LSJ, the word is, in effect, a hapax legomenon, that is a word that only happened once in one particular context. The study tool included in Perseus at Tufts, likewise, offers the possibility for its users to determine whether the meaning offered by the different dictionaries and glossaries is the right one. Foucault’s meaning—probably obtained from his reading of Pseudo-Heraclitus’ Allegories d’Homère, published in 1962 by Les Belles Lettres, collection Budé d’Auteures Classiques—is the only one registered in the dictionaries, and the only one voted by Perseus’ users. This hapax adjective is the result of composing the noun meaning “truth” (alétheia, ἀλήθεια) with the noun meaning “action” or “deed” (érgon, ἔργον).

The “fictive word” forged by Foucault, alethurgy, is decidedly defined to signify “the set of possible verbal and non-verbal procedures by which one brings to light what is laid down as true as opposed to false, hidden, inexpressible, unforeseeable, or forgotten,” in order to conclude that “there is no power without something like alethurgy” (7).

The form used by Foucault, alethurgy, or, in French “alèthurgie” cannot hide a second genealogy, at least working at the level of the signifier, and at the phonological level. Indeed, the word does not only sound like the combination of alétheia and érgon, but also like the combination of alétheia and liturgy. Liturgy, in turn, is a civil duty that one performs at his or her own expenses (and risks). As civil duty, it has a certain ritual, a series of forms and spaces where it can be performed. In fact, throughout Foucault’s text, alethurgy goes from “manifestation of truth” to mean the forms and rituals in which truth is manifested as part of the technique of government.

Liturgy, however, is a concept also linked to religious duties and rituals that engage in government techniques (insofar as govern is also hold the helm [lat. gubernaculum] and pilot the ship [gr. kybernao, κυβερνάω, also, incidentally, the etymon of “cybernetics”] one of the metaphors of the ecclesia christiana), and in the adscription of specific rituals and actions to a certain calendar that keeps repeating itself year after year. Liturgy is, in Christian terms, the interconnection of a calendar with the actions, feelings, and duties that constitute the truth of the doctrine.

Foucault’s interest in “forging” words, and in his specific love for Greek words, cannot be underestimated, but also requires a lot of attention and specific individual study. The hapax legomenon is a privileged epistemological structure, precisely because it exists formally only in a tentative way, and because its meaning has not been fully established. Foucault plays with both the signifier and the meaning, in order to create a concept that has institutional character. By creating “alethurgy” he is not only creating an abstract concept, but also the spaces, times, agents, forms, and manifestations for the performance of this concept. One good example is, indeed, the relationship between alethurgy, government, and confession –and, in particular, Christian confession. In the list of rare Greek words that become part of his conceptual and institutional analysis, there are other well-known composites like exomologesis or exagoreusis, pieces of semantic craftsmanship that allow Foucault to be extremely precise with his ideas on confession and truth –from a perspective, however, that reminds us of Jesuitic introspection and confession.

Even if he is not working with the hapax or with similar unknown words, he prefers to look at his lexicon from an etymological perspective, by understanding the formation of the word and the foldings of the concept. A good example for this is his reference to hegemony, that he strips from its most common understanding, in order to re-instate its etymological sense of “being in the position of leading others” (cf., hegemonía, ἡγεμονία).

Foucault loved Greek words –one could say—not only because they represented a trip in time and culture in search for ideas, notions, concepts, that would allow him to re-define the questions he wanted to ask and respond, to posit the issues. Those words are not just an open door to different genealogies. They are, also, like empty signifiers, words that cannot be in the memory of false friends, because they have been carefully selected from hidden sources and from a language that most students and scholars studied as a dead language. These forged words are invested with the power of defamiliarization (остранение, ostrananie) Viktor Sklovskij talked about in 1927: words that de-authomatize perceptions and call the attention on themselves. This defamiliarizing language is, one could argue, a set of pieces for meditation, for thinking. It is because of that that they can be the origin of a new process of theorization, of a question never asked before in that particular form.

One could also argue that Foucault was interested in forging institutions out of words, and not only concepts. Institutions, of course, not in the sense of State-institutions, confinement centers, or the like. Institutions in the sense in which some of his colleagues, predecessors, and masters in the Collège de France understood the term, that is, in a profoundly philological and political way, in a profoundly legal and juridical way. Like Émile Benveniste identifying the Indo-european civil and religious institutions during his tenure at the Collège de France, basing his analysis in the organization of the vocabulary. Like his master, Georges Dumézil, working in the tri-functional societies and the relationship between forms of instituting practices and the use and distribution of its vocabularies in epics and history. Like, indeed, the work of other intellectuals including Merleau-Ponty, Roland Barthes, Jacqueline de Romilly, Georges Duby, or Pierre Hadot, working on the formation of political, social, and moral vocabularies and institutions in literary and non literary languages, from the Antiquity to the Early Modern period.

One Comment

  1. brilliant useful article, part of my discussion with a former Jesuit politician

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