John Rajchman: Some Notes on the History and Politics of Truth: Foucault’s Difficult Legacy

By John Rajchman

I’d like to thank Bernard and Jesús for initiating and orchestrating this extraordinary exercise of reading through the Courses of Michel Foucault consecutively and in detail with many distinguished discussants in and out of Columbia. Reading through the Courses in this way, we have already found many ‘pistes’ for research – new conjectures, objects of study, unresolved questions. But there is a larger question about the Courses, taken as a whole, put by Daniel Defert on the occasion of the publication of the first in the series: that, taken as a whole, they’ll mark a date in the ‘reception’ of Foucault, that he will no longer be read as before. For we will come to see that Foucault only ever had one object: the problem of truth, ‘born of conflicts and the competition of claims’ in which law, or ‘juridical forms’, play a key role. [1]

In reading through the Courses, with this in mind, we indeed find a long constant, on-going changing preoccupation with the question of truth, and the sense in which the question is at the heart of Foucault’s own critical enterprise and, in particular, its relation to politics, leading up to the discussion of parrhesia in the last lectures, where it is broken off. At one point, he declares that the truth is the key political question. I’ll call it the search for a critical ‘history and politics of truth’; in the course of our discussions, we have seen different ways it intersects with law – the history of ‘avowal’ is an important part of it. It seems Foucault left a whole history of law in the materials now in the BN, which will allow one to further this important aspect of the project, to which, insufficient attention has been given. One way of thinking of Government of Self and Other (GSO) is thus as marking a turn in this on-going project – a turn, in particular, back to question of politics, which has come up so frequently in our discussions, a discussion continued the following year in Courage of Truth, broken off with the poignant words, ‘Thanks, it’s too late’. Foucault would be dead several months later.

What follows are a few notes (and unresolved thoughts) about how GSO might be seen to fit in the longer project concerning truth that runs through the courses, and what we should make of it or do with it today, now, so many years after. I’d like to suggest in a certain way it fits with what Jacques Ranciere said of ‘Foucault’s difficult legacy’ –‘there is not a body of Foucauldian thought that founds a politics or an ethics. There are books which produce effects to the very extent that they do not say to us what we must do with them’[2] Ranciere does not connect this legacy or this difficulty with the questions of a ‘politics of truth’ left unfinished in the Courses. But I’d like to suggest there is nevertheless a kind of spiral linking one to the other. Foucault tried to envisage something like a ‘critical philosophy’ that would be carried on by specific intellectuals in politics, within what might now be called a specific ‘media’ frame of public and private speech (or public and private ‘reason’), yet without a program (in particular, a program of social transformation) nor a doctrine to which one must adhere or ‘convert’ (as Foucault thinks we find in the history of Revolution in 19th and early 20th century Europe), instead posing new questions to power and the authority of knowledge in it. In a number of interviews and remarks Foucault associates this idea with the problem of ‘dire-vrai’.

One way of seeing this theme in GSO is through the implied link between the commentary on Kant, with which it starts, and the ensuing discussion of parrhesia, and, in particular the role of the Cynics, which in this course and the next, in which Foucault attempts to extract from the question of ‘free speaking’ in the relations of philosophy and politics in an entangled arc leading from ancient philosophy to the problem of ‘flattery’ in practices of ‘spiritual direction’ discussed in the previous lecture. With this analysis, we find that Foucault expands his analysis of many different ways dire vrai figures in politics – ‘frank speaking’ or ‘free speech’ is rather different than ‘avowal’, in relation to law, for example. A key frame is politics – democratic politics in particular. It is interesting therefore to read it today in terms of later attempts to rethink or reinvent the idea of democratic politics, freeing it from earlier Socialist visions or hopes – Ranciere himself tried to offer a such a picture of politics opposed in principle to the idea of Consensus.[3]

How then did this project arise in Foucault’s conception of his own work? What role did the Courses have in formulating and elaborating it? As Daniel Defert points out, it is precisely in the lecture courses that it is first formulated; the frame in the Archeology of Knowledge, written right before, is instead ‘discursive practices’ and ‘regularities’. Indeed it is in the inaugural lecture (“Discourse on Language”) in the passages on the ‘will to truth’, we find the first attempt to recast his larger critical project in terms of the question of truth, continued in different forms throughout the Lecture Courses.[4] We already find a first version of Foucault’s attempt, running throughout, to recast his own work, his own project in terms of truth, or the kind of ‘will to truth’ that has remained ‘masked’ in the sort of great story of unfolding of Western philosophy, associated with Hegel. ‘Truth’ is rather found in the moments when narratives are suspended, new questions asked, in other words, with ‘discontinuities’ in discursive regularities, and the new relations, the new questions that arise in such moments. With the idea of a ‘politics of truth’, Foucault hoped not only to take up, but also to recast the question of truth, and, as he proceeds its relation to politics (or the very idea of ‘the political’). This attempt to recast his own earlier work in terms of a new history of truth, marked by such disruptions, is one that is then elaborated throughout all of the lectures. GSO starts with just such an attempt. (pp 4ff). The question of truth in ‘knowledge’ (he says) is not how to determine what is true and what is false (or the presuppositions of being able to do so), but rather how it is that at a specific time and place some things rather than others become up-for-grabs as true or false, by whom, for whom, through what practices and consequences – a matter of ‘regimes of veridiction’, and the ‘material history’ of practices, techniques, dispositifs in which they figure. The problem of truth in ‘power’ is not centered in the great modern notion of State and Society, but rather in concrete ways we come to govern ourselves and one another, and the manner they come to figure in ways power is administered, limited, questioned. Already in the modern European context, Foucault tried to substitute for the idea of state and society the question of bio-power and governmentality – the neo-liberal idea of the ‘market’ needs to be analysed in this context. With the analysis of parrhesia in antiquity, there is a third element – how truth figured in ‘practices’ through which the subject ‘governs’ himself as well as others – one example, is the analysis of ‘writing’ taken as a ‘technique of self’, within the larger field of ‘governing oneself’. In this analysis, we find something rather different than current attempts to analyse writing as a ‘cultural technique’. How then these different aspects fit together in a history and politics of truth? How did it develop from the inaugural Course (and related lectures about Oedipus and Nietzsche), in which it is first set out?

If we then look back to the circumstances in which the project arose, we find a dramatic, changing environment; Foucault starts off by saying ‘it is enough to open your eyes’ — something I’m not sure he would say in 1982-3, when GSO was given, and the worry was more about the ‘silence of intellectuals’. We know that Foucault, returning from his politicizing experiences in Tunisia, where he was writing the Archeology of Knowledge, he would be named to his Chair in the College de France (the institutional frame for the lectures, the ‘magisterial’ nature of which seem to have become an increasing source of frustration), helped found the new ‘radical’ departments of psychoanalysis and philosophy at Vincennes, and, especially created the Group for Information on Prisons – a creation itself almost as beautiful as one of his books, in Deleuze’s words. But what did the focus on the question of truth have do with this singular new role as magisterial Professor and prison activist?

What, in particular, were the sources on which he drew (or with which he ‘played’) in his attempt to re-formulate the ‘question of truth’ or ‘the history of truth’ in Western philosophy? Looking back, I think the key sources for Foucault were Heidegger (and Nietzsche), on ‘events’ in the idea and history of truth, and Lacan (whom Foucault credited as the first to put the question of truth at the heart of psychoanalysis and its relations to institutions of knowledge – this ‘truth’ betrayed, ‘written’ in our symptoms in ways we can never completely master or know). We see this in lectures and materials now published with the first lecture – the attempt (continued in GSO with Euripides) to analyze Oedipus Rex as a drama of dire-vrai as it figures in legal procedures rather than a ‘universal’ story of desire; the attempt to take up Nietzsche’s notion that ‘truth’ in the history of philosophy was a long ‘lie’, in a new manner, within new questions posed by social history and historiography. The question of ‘lie’, fiction, indeed runs throughout – a striking example, is to be found in the context of ‘power’ in the essay “The Lives of Infamous Men”, in the occasions when he declares ‘all my works are fictions, fabrications’.

In fact, all these questions would themselves be debated in the period in which Foucault’s Courses unfolded. We find both, for example, in Derrida’s attempt to ‘question’ both Lacan and Heidegger on just this topic; and for Lacan, himself in the aftermath of 1968, and in relation to the Women’s Movement (notably in the key role of truth in ‘Four Discourses’) – in many ways, the discussion in Psychiatric Power, of the ‘battle of truth’ in which hysterics would seem like anti-psychiatric militants, forms an interesting part of this on-going relation with Lacan and the notion of a ‘politics of truth’, different from question of ‘avowal’ alone. But there were also other paths – for example the one tied to Maoism taken by Alain Badiou along with and with other former students of Althussser in those years.

What should we make of Foucault’s project in this larger context? Perhaps what is distinctive is Foucault’s attempt to take up questions, much discussed at the time in art and literature, in particular, with the question of ‘writing’, in the context of social history and historical epistemology so important in Althusser’s new way of ‘reading Capital’. Foucault tried to take up these questions of ‘truth and lie’, ‘truth’ and knowledge, introducing them into the heart of problem of ‘rationality’ found in different ways in Weber and Marx. A key figure in this attempt was Georges Canguilhem, the director of his thesis on the history of madness. In Foucault’s Introduction to The Normal and the Pathological, for example, he says that whereas Nietzsche said truth was a lie, Canguilhem, the meticulous ‘rationalist’, developed a history of knowledge as ‘error’. The context of these remarks is suggestive, since this Introduction belongs to the series of essays in which, analyzing Kant’s piece on ‘enlightenment’, Foucault would attempt to re-tell the story of critical philosophy in Europe, ending, precisely with Canguilhem’s new way of studying knowledge, and the new style of critique to which it would lead (notably with Foucault himself). It is, of course, precisely this ‘fetish’ text, to which Foucault returns in GSO, focusing on its relation to the question of Revolution, developed in the Conflict of the Faculties. Foucault’s earlier remarks in ‘Truth and Power’, might be read in this way – the idea that truth is a ‘thing of this world’, made possible by many, unnoticed practices and institutions– too many to be included in a single great Story –which themselves could, once this constitutive role is seen, be themselves challenged, open-up, examined, changed. The analysis of these constituting practices, at the same time, might make for a new kind of critical philosophy, a new relation to what constitutes ‘politics’ at a given moment. I won’t say more about this hypothesis about the philosophical context from which Foucault’s project took off, except to say that we might usefully see in relation to others, already with the question of knowledge and mastery in Ranciere’s own dramatic departure from Althussser, but also, in Lyotard’s idea of a politics of ‘le differend’, focused on another truth-practice, ‘bearing witness to the unpresentatable’ – Ranciere’s own idea of ‘disagreement’ finds one source in this. His book on the subject ends with a commentary on the same passages about the ‘signs’ of enthusiasm for Revolution, even when it fails, to which Foucault turns in GSO. We find, therefore, a more general discussion.

The series of writings about ‘on enlightenment’ start in 1978, in many ways a turning point in the Lectures and the question of truth in them, among them ‘What is Critique?’, which poses the question of enlightenment, isolates in it, the moment of ‘not wanting to governed like this anymore’. When Foucault says in GSO that he wants to get back to questions left in suspense in 1978, it seems that it is these – in particular, the essay on Revolt and Revolution, and corresponding passages on ‘contre-conduites’ in STP, the manner in which they suggest a politics of ‘refusal’, dissidence, disobedience, ‘voluntary in-servitude’; and in the debate with historians, the principle of ‘singularity’ or ‘specificity’, from which to question the ‘self-evidence’ of ideas like Society or Social Transformation, which historians take for granted. Should we see this as a kind of impasse or end to Foucault’s search for a ‘politics’, after earlier engagement with Revolution? What then should we make of his explicit return to the question of politics in his analysis of parrhesia?

In his analysis of the question in Kant, Foucault wants to locate a moment of ‘refusal’, with respect to religious authority, more precisely, ways of governing ourselves and one another, (‘we don’t want to be governed like this anymore’). He wants to isolate this moment of ‘in-servitude’ from the temptation to re-insert it in a notion of Mundigkeit, autonomy or of an age coming to ‘maturity’. We should see it instead as a disruption, posing a new question, taken up by others elsewhere. We can read the contrast between ‘revolt’ and ‘revolution’ in this way, very different from ‘reform and revolution’, not so unlike Deleuze’s idea that ‘in historical phenomena like the Revolution of 1917, the Commune, the Revolution of 1917, there is always the part of the event, irreducible to social determination and casual series’[5] Foucault’s debate with social historians in those years, we find something rather like this, when he says his critical question is not to explain or predict, but to expose, challenge, what we take for granted, evidences on which we rely when we do history, through a material history of how they arise, take hold, the moments, in which these ways of thinking are no longer credible – as with the ‘new questions’, arising in the political movements in the 70s, the ways they could no longer be contained in the Revolutionary mold, developed in Marxism, in which still seen as part of the hopes of some Great Social Transformation, called Revolution. That is what ‘specificity’ or ‘singularity’ mean– a new way of drawing the map, Deleuze would say, in particular with respect to the very idea of Europe. We know, of course, that the idea of ‘Revolution’ in inverted commas figured prominently in Foucault’s engagement with political philosophy, Hobbes and Machiavelli, the idea that we ‘haven’t cut off the Kings’ head’ in political theory, that ‘popular sovereignty’ doesn’t bring an end to the ‘war’, the ‘agon’ of politics, quite the contrary. In what sense, can we see in the analysis of parrhesia a kind of earlier ‘moment’ for these questions, recasting the relation between ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’, the question of ‘democracy’ in it? It is in any case striking that after 78-79, Foucault turned away from the modern European focus of his earlier work, focusing on new investigations of the idea of ‘politics’ in antiquity, he hoped to bring together in a book to be called ‘Government of Self and Other’. It is also suggestive that the two questions he cites for the ‘return’ of the question of enlightenment were those of the loss of the hopes of Revolution in a form of State despotism, and in what sense the supposed universality of Western rationality is tied to ‘hegemony’ and ‘imperialism’. We might thus see Foucault as having a very ‘specific’ attitude in this to the debates raised in those years by Francois Furet and Hannah Arendt. Instead of seeing Foucault as a disappointed Revolutionary (or an unhappy Jesuit), perhaps we can think of him in these years as attempting to diagnose and respond to more general moment of ‘de-politicization’ and ‘de-solidarization’ for which he was not, of course, responsible, which would assume new forms after 1989.

In these remarks, I’ve tried to suggest, in Foucault’s larger project, how the examination of ‘truth’ – in particular, of ways of ‘saying’ it – forms part of his own attempt to define a new role of history and historical research, focused on challenge to presuppositions, often found in Consensus, to ask what relation it has to what is to be an intellectual ‘in the political sense’, focused on ‘specific’ conditions of how we see and talk and do things, rather than on Truths we might know or to which we might convert – truth as a thing of this world. In the analysis of parrhesia, its ‘game’ or ‘agon’ in the story of different kinds of relations between philosophy and politics, the different ways of talking to the powers that be, advising Kings or speaking up in assemblies of equals, it seems to be that Cynicism is given a new singular role – continued, he would think, later in ‘modern’ Europe, with nihilism, anarchism, Dadaism, in the heart of Soviet Revolution, with Bahktine. What would it mean to include this practice within the larger story of ‘truth’ in the relations between philosophy and politics? Why, for example, is the ‘act’ of speaking frankly so different from ‘performatives’ that preserve the institutional context, the ‘habitus’ of what we say? Can we see through the remarkable analyses of parrhesia in this Course and the next, a view of politics itself, as something that can’t ever be completely ‘institutionalized’, something for which there is no one Model, to which there is no one path, certainly not ‘neo-liberalism’ as the model for ‘democracy’ everywhere – leading in the course of this Seminar, to contrasts he draws in passing with Popper and with Lefort, the question of ‘citizen’ and ‘citizen of the world’ the Cynics helped introduce. Perhaps ‘emancipation’ is not something that can be institutionalized, completely, or once and for all, as with a side of Enlightenment from which Foucault hoped to extract the ‘enlightenment question’ – we don’t want to be governed like this any more. Each case is ‘singular’, the task of exposing, opening our assumptions – as Lydia Liu said last week, of ‘thinking otherwise’- is an endless one, a matter of ‘this world’, an endless practice, punctuated by singular moments of refusal, in which the ‘we’ always comes after, as part of the space the questions open up, that at the same time a matter for ‘oneself’, as with Foucault’s own ‘deprise de soi’ — the curiosity in research that consists in getting away from one’s own ‘certainties’ or presuppositions. Perhaps politics is an activity (and related ‘obligation’) that exists just because there is to prior knowledge of it or program for it; perhaps, we need to rethink what we have come to call ‘truth’ in a long philosophical history accordingly.

In the extraordinary richness, complexity, of themes and analyses in the Courses reflect we see something unresolved, which in turn has become part of Foucault’s ‘difficult legacy’. In these notes, I have tried to open the question of what relation this legacy has with the unfinished project, running through the Courses, of a new history and politics of truth, and Foucault’s own difficulties with it. Could we now see that his larger restless critical legacy and the attempt to recast the very idea of critique in terms of a history and politics in these lectures as intrinsically linked to one another?

In any case, the dossier Bernard and Jesús have assembled in this series at Columbia strike me as excellent starting point for any such question. I look forward to now to discussing GSO more in detail with all involved.



[1] Back cover Lecons sur la volonte de savoir (2011)

[2] Jacques Ranciere, ‘The Difficult Legacy of Michel Foucault’ in Chronicles of Consensual Times (Continuum, 2010)

[3] Ranciere’s book The Hatred of Democracy can be usefully read in this context as well as Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Truth of Democracy.

[4] The expression ‘the history of truth’ occurs much earlier in Foucault’s writings. See the section “History of Truth” in French Philosophy Since 1945, ed. Balibar, Boyman and myself.

[5] “May 68 didn’t happen’ (with Felix Guattari) in Two Regimes of Madness.

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