Bernard E. Harcourt | Response to Frederic Gros, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

By Bernard E. Harcourt

The interventions of Frederic Gros, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak—all three extremely insightful and provocative—raise a host of questions. I would like to extract three in particular.

Before doing so, though, I should note that it is somewhat fitting that we would come back, in our last session of Foucault 13/13, to the question of obedient and disobedient truths—of the possibility of these two different regimes of truth with which Frederic Gros opened our session. Fitting because, these 13 years of lectures have taken us through a series of analyses of truth in its different forms: starting with its juridical forms (the ordeal, the inquiry, leading to the examination and the study of the prison), then moving on to its historical forms (in “Society Must be Defended”), its economic forms (with the idea in The Birth of Biopolitics that the market becomes the measure of truth), and finally its various subjective forms—where we are, here, in these final years, addressing the issue of truthful speech, truth-telling, as a form of the care of self intended to do work, to have effects on others and oneself. “To have effects,” “to govern others and oneself”: these exercises on the self—forms of auto-critique—have effects. They are intended to have effects, to change the views of others, of the tyrant, but also of the ethical self.

Now this raises the first question, in relation to Frederic Gros’s typology, as well as to Gayatri Spivak’s challenge to the epistemological aspects of these truth regimes, which is: Should we think of these obedient and disobedient truths as different regimes of truth or as truth claims, each of which can push in different directions? In other words, are these qualitatively or ontologically or substantively different regimes or is it that truth claims in general can be deployed toward different ends? Are they merely, in Spivak’s words, “staged performances of figures of truth”?

This question brings me back to our conversation on Sunday last, on Foucault’s prison militancy in the early 1970s and the legacy of the Groupe d’information sur les prisons—with Nathalie Cisneros, Andrew Dilts, Perry Zurn, and Jesús Velasco—and to a particular difficulty we encountered with the notion of the “intolerable.” Like these truths, the notion of “intolerable” also comes in very different, even opposed versions in Foucault’s work:

  1. On the one hand, there is the notion of the “intolerable” from the early 1970s and the militant activism of the Groupe d’information sur les prisons: on this meaning, the intolerable is what we can no longer accept—the over-incarceration, the terrible conditions of confinement, solitary confinement, suicide in the prisons, racism and the political assassination of George Jackson. Now, this would lead the members of the GIP to conduct their “enquêtes-intolérances” – their inquiries into intolerable conditions, four of which were published ultimately by Gallimard. Here the intolerable is an epistemic condition associated with a particular political method or praxis associated with the genealogical analysis of power.
  2. On the other hand, though, in these 1984 lectures, the notion of the “intolerable” takes on a different guise. Here, it is the Cynic who himself is “intolerable,” but intolerable to the ordinary pedestrian citizen. Cynic truth-telling, on Foucault’s reading, is associated with a distinct type of “intolerable insolence.” The Cynics push their franc speech to the extreme, to the point where their frankness becomes intolerably insolent. Foucault lectures, on page 165:

“in Cynic practice, the requirement of an extremely distinctive form of life—with very characteristic, well defined rules, conditions, or modes—is strongly connected to the principle of truth-telling, of truth-telling without shame or fear, of unrestricted and courageous truth-telling, of truth-telling which pushes its courage and boldness to the point that it becomes intolerable insolence.” (CT, p. 165; see French edition, page 153, line 5, “intolérable insolence“)

So here too we see a notion reappear, the notion of “intolerable,” but this time it is the praxis of resistance that is intolerable.

The question that arises then, both in the context of Frédéric Gros’s two regimes of truth, as in the context of two regimes of intolerability, is whether we are dealing with different truths, qualitatively, or simply different deployments of truth? In other words, is there something different about these truth claims, or is it what we do with these truth claims that differ?

And here, I think I lean toward the latter view. Surely, this is the case in the context of what Gros refers to as the “expert’s truth”: in law, for example, there are always experts on both sides all the time. There are those who justify domination, and those who resist it. In most political debates, there is expert truth on both sides. But for the expert statistical interventions of my colleague, Professor Jeffrey Fagan, whose econometric analyses of New York City’s stop-and-frisks revealed their racial biases and doubtful constitutionality, the resistance to stop-and-frisk would not have succeeded. Of course, that expertise, deployed in that way, also involves risks and has personal costs. And similarly, but for all the statistical work on broken-windows policies and order-maintenance policing, there would be much less resistance today to these policies of racially discriminatory arrests.

In my theoretically oriented praxis, I always deploy expert knowledge to resist: linear regression models to show there is no evidence for broken-windows; econometric equations to show that profiling is in fact inefficient; historical archives to demonstrate the illusion of free markets. In all those endeavors, expert truth is a form of resistance, not subordination.

Inversely, the “ethical truth” of many pro-lifers (this could equally be said of those who are pro-choice) works in favor of subordination. The religious/ethical truths of many Christians today in North Carolina operate in favor of the subordination of transgender persons. These are battles that are being fought in the domain of the ethical self.

So the first question is whether we are dealing with different truth domains or is it that similar types of truth claims are simply being deployed differently?

Let me pose the other two questions more rapidly to advance to the discussion.

  1. Bachir Diagne raised an important question about the relationship between the philosophical life, the force of living, the practice of philosophy, and facing death, or the reach of death. He proposed that The Courage of Truth offers a vision of philosophy as a way of living, rejecting the idea that philosophy is a negation of life—rejecting in effect the Nietzschean reading that the sacrifice of the rooster by Socrates at the end of his life was about being cured of life. The question, then, is how should we, in our own philosophical practice, related to true life/true death? What would “true death” mean?
  1. Finally, my dear colleague Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in her brilliant written intervention, raised the essential question, which I have already touched on or highlighted, which has to do with the “possibility of an auto-critique”?


Now let me briefly start the discussion of these three questions, and place a few additional objects on the table.

1. NuitDebout

First, with regard to the question of disobedient truths, it might be interesting to interrogate the new social movement that is budding in Paris as we speak, what is being referred to as the movement of “NuitDebout” – nights standing.

Our colleague, Antonio Pele in Rio, who has been participating virtually in every one of these seminars, and François Ewald have been keeping me appraised of these recent developments in Paris, and they are particularly interesting for us. They involve a new form of political disobedience, where ordinary citizens are placing themselves in the Place de la République, which is closed for assembly, and setting up for nightly conversations, challenging the ordinary way of doing politics, being disobedience, and occupying the space with their conversation and concerns all night long.

Could we use these recent events as a way to address the first question: are we witnessing a disobedient truth or a new deployment of truths? Do we need to categorize or typologize the truth itself, or, as I was suggesting, of deployment of truth claims… There is also an interesting idea surrounding the notion of “consensus,” and a lot of contestation around that term in Paris today. Perhaps there is a need for greater “dissensus” today.

2. Aesthetics of existence

Then, on both the questions of the relation to “true death” and also auto-critique, I wonder if we need to turn here to the concept of “the aesthetics of existence” (CT, p. 161) that Foucault proposes in these 1984 lectures: by contrast to other domains of inquiry and analysis (metaphysics, ontology of the soul), Foucault unearths here another tradition—unearthing or creating—one that focuses on the beauty of the life we leave behind. What is it that we leave this world of ours when we depart?

Foucault was keen to emphasize that:

“We should recall that man’s way of being and conducting himself, the aspect his existence reveals to others and to himself, the trace also that this existence may leave and will leave in the memories of others after his death, this way of being, this appearance, this trace have been the object of his aesthetic concern.” (CT, p. 162)

In this context, in our seminar yesterday on torture and confessions, we were discussing a brilliant idea that Jesús Velasco proposed about the audience of torture debates as an audience of tragedy, and in the course of the conversation, it came to me that perhaps, in some contexts, we should lead our lives as if we were on our death bed: On our death bed, coming to terms with the things we regret the most. Just as a Supreme Court justice, on his or her death bed, disavows the worst decisions they have written, we should avoid that by living our life anticipatorily on our death bed. Is that a form of auto-critique that we could imagine?

3. Revolution

Let me conclude and open the discussion, because of time, on this theme of auto-critique in relation to the theme of revolutionary militantisme. For those who saw a reformist or even neoliberal Foucault, I never cease to be amazed at the way in which he returns, over and over, in each of these late lectures to the theme of the revolutionary. There is no doubt that he was obsessed with the revolutionary figure, with revolution, with revolutionary militancy.

In these final lectures, Foucault elaborates, drawing on Cynicism, on the themes of indignation and scandal—those are two key concepts: “the form of existence as living scandal of the truth”; “this theme of life as scandal of the truth” (CT, p. 180). He uses the term “scandale” in French. Here, the scandal is associated with political militantism. With revolutionary movements. “Cynicism, the idea of a mode of life as the irruptive, violent, scandalous manifestation of the truth is and was part of revolutionary practice and of the forms taken by revolutionary movements throughout the nineteenth century.” (CT, p. 183)

Foucault refers to three styles of militantism, of revolutionary life, but the third strikes a real resonance with me and, as I think about it, with the militant life of someone like Stephen B. Bright, a human rights advocate who has selflessly fought against the injustices of the death penalty in the South for decades:

“And then, the third important way of being militant is militancy as bearing witness by one’s life in the form of a style of existence. This style of existence specific to revolutionary militantism, and ensuring that one’s life bears witness, breaks, and has to break with the conventions, habits, and values of society. And it must manifest directly, by its visible form, its constant practice, and its immediate existence, the concrete possibility and the evident value of an other life, which is the true life. Here again, right at the center of the experience, of the life of revolutionary militantism, you find the theme, so fundamental and at the same time so enigmatic and interesting, of the true life, of that problem of the true life which was already raised by Socrates and which I do not think has ceased to run through all Western [thought].” (CT, p. 184)

Foucault argues that this form of militant life resurfaces in the contemporary, though he suggests that, speaking of communism, that “In the present situation, all forms and styles of life which might have the value of a scandalous manifestation of an unacceptable truth have been banished.” (CT, p. 186)

I cannot help but read into that discussion, into those words, a certain embrace of that third way of being a revolutionary. Now, to the discussion.

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