Allen Feldman | On Truth, Money Changers, Touchstones and Torture in Foucault

By Allen Feldman

In his opening remarks to On the Government of the Living session on February 11th, Bernard Harcourt cites Foucault’s’ discussion of self-examination as mediated by Cassian’s discourse on the practices of the moneychanger. As Foucault elsewhere writes of the examination of the money changer:

“Epictetus provides the best example of the middle ground between these poles. He wants to watch perpetually over representations, a technique which culminates in Freud. There are two metaphors important from his point of view: the night watchman, who doesn’t admit anyone into town if that person can’t prove who he is (we must be “watchman” over the flux of thought), and the money changer, who verifies the authenticity of currency, looks at it, weighs and verifies it. We have to be money changers of our own representations of our thoughts, vigilantly testing them, verifying them, their metal, weight, effigy.”1

The metric of money, metallurgy and the examination as elements of a regime of truth—a matter that Foucault had initially explored in his first lecture series, Lectures on the Will to Knowpredate the early Christian era and can be traced to the Hellenistic and Classical periods where it was imbricated in the practice of torture as a regime of truth. The following excerpt on this connection is from my chapter “Traumatizing the Truth Commission” in my new book Archives of the Insensible: of War, Photopolitics and Dead Memory (U of Chicago Press 2015), pp. 241-243:

“Foucault writes of the singularized production of parrhesia (frank speech) in the classical era as a will to truth and as a performed relation between reasoned discourse and a mode of life or bios. This ratio is described in Hellenic discourse as a touchstone (basanos) that measures the rapport between a person’s mode of life (bios) and his or her speech as a principle of intelligibility. The basanos was a rubbing stone used to test the authenticity and purity of gold. Parrhesia is irreducible to constative and performative utterances, which in different ways can effectuate outcomes according to preexisting conventions and agreements. In contrast, parrhesia may or may not bring about political change by naming the ethical void denied by a situation, yet it does generate a truth-telling subject from a bios (mode of life) under ordeal, producing an open situation of unknown effects and possibilities. Parrhesia can ignite the irruptive event to which the subject binds itself even at the risk of life. Foucault states that the touchstone enables the assessment of the reality of what is to be tested as a concordance or homologia, triangulating a form of life (bios), the discourse that stakes claims and the reality that is claimed.

The classicist and gender theorist Page duBois in her seminal book Torture and Truth (Routledge, 1991) traces the semantic mutation of the touchstone principle in Hellenic law, philosophy, literature, and theater to the point where the metric of the touchstone comes to coincide with the use of violence in political agon and judicial torture to differentiate the counterfeit from the true. Slaves were conscripted for torture in the Athenian democracy to bear witness against citizens, who could not be tortured under law; torture as touchstone required a subjugated difference, the slave, who possessed no veridiction except under the duress of pain. duBois stresses that in a polity where the citizen could not be violently interrogated, juridical torture was a ritual enactment of the difference between citizenship and the noncitizen as mediated by the legally torturable slave. This legality skewed the juridico-cultural production of truth in that society as the production of knowledge and a juridical subject from the phone (bare voice) fear and pain of the slave as a violently discarded and disqualified extrasocietal figure of Hellenic “apartheid” who was both inside and outside the social order.

As the basanos became more proximate to violence in law, political agon, and theater, Hellenic tragedy expressed this locus through the commingling of the true and the counterfeit in the violence and reversible speech of tragedy’s protagonists in scenarios of violence. The self- subverting performance of truth telling that is foregrounded in tragic theater dramatized the paradox that any violence that claims to test and to make historical truth through an ordeal is itself subject to reversibility and a double bind. Tragic theater gravitated to the riddle that if violence becomes the touchstone, the medium of accrediting truth and testing the counterfeit, then what stands as the touchstone to this touchstone? What decides its efficacy and what it authenticates or counterfeits? Violence as absolute touchstone automatically counterfeits itself by unilaterally withdrawing from purview the validity and intelligibility of any other criterion— thus, no binding political or legal institution “tortured” the practice of torture to extract its truth in fifth- century Athens. The very equivalence between forensics (as experimentation on nature) and torture, noted by Pierre Hadot, precluded such an operation by rendering it tautological: torture is inherent in forensics, comprehended as the inquisition or “torturing” of materiality (nature) to relinquish its “secrets.” Forensic inquiry cannot separate the will to truth from an archaeological relation to coercive violence.2 Oedipus, as the methodical truth seeker and in the wake of the failure of all other forensic procedures, threatens to torture the slave who witnessed his abandonment and adoption as an infant. This scene evidences the shift of avowal from transcendental guarantees of religion, divination, and kingship to the immanence of first- person witnessing and the material mediacy and witness of the body.3 The touchstone of violence prevails only by repressing a counter touchstone, by being blind to the contamination inherent in its claim to set purity, to get to the ground of things, to achieve the foundational, which, as in torture, invariably entails counterfeiting a grounding evidentiary body and the autonomic voice of legibility from pain. The aporia of the touchstone is the aporia of the medium—the question of what mediates mediation and whether truth or the counterfeit or both reside in the medium as pharmakon, as both a toxin and cure, that Plato engaged in his critique of the media of writing.



  1. Foucault, Michel. ‘Technologies of the Self’. In Technologies of the Self. A seminar with Michel Foucault. Edited by Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman and Patrick H. Hutton,. (Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1988), pp. 16-49.
  2. Pierre Hadot, The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature, trans. Michael Chase (Harvard University Press, 2006), 93. Hadot unfortunately seems unaware of duBois’s triangulation of torture, touchstone, and truth with the figures of the tortured slave and the sexually and/or textually inscribed woman.
  3. Michel Foucault discusses this scene but does not relate it to the concept of the touchstone, in Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling:The Function of Avowal in Justice, ed. Fabienne Brion and Bernard E. Harcourt (University Of Chicago Press, 2013), nor does the relation of the touchstone and torture figure in his analysis of parrhesia.