Bernard E. Harcourt | Epilogue: Frank Speech and Contemporary Critical Thought

By Bernard E. Harcourt 

Thank you, Judith Revel, Sharon Marcus, and John Rajchman, for brilliant presentations that take us to the core of these 1983 lectures: the relationship between the study of ancient parrhesia and the task of contemporary critical thought. Let me address the interventions in reverse order.

John Rajchman challenges us to delineate, with greater clarity, the political project in these 1983 lectures, despite Foucault’s “difficult legacy”—that difficult legacy being, in effect, the lack or absence of political or ethical imperatives by contrast to someone like Kant, also at the heart of our conversation, who so forcefully advanced categorical imperatives.

In his presentation, John Rajchman underscores the dramatic changes and shifts in the political environment over the course of the entire lecture series at the Collège de France: from 1971 or ’72 when the repressive French state was so overwhelmingly present that it could be seen just by opening one’s eyes—recall, “no introduction, one need only open one’s eyes”—to the period of these lectures, 1982-1983, marked instead by a muted political climate and a deafening silence of intellectuals—a ‘present’ marked by ‘de-politicization’ and ‘de-solidarization.’

It is in the context of these changing political circumstances that Foucault’s political and critical theoretic project shifts toward the object of parrhesia—and this is John’s brilliant insight, that politics and truth follow similar paths. John helps us to discern how this new political object, this political praxis, this risky truth-telling, comes into existence, in the very same way that (as John writes) “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.”

So we need to read these lectures on parrhesia as Foucault’s answer to the problem of de-politicization of intellectuals. Foucault is offering in these lectures a way forward, one that is all about in-servitude and disobedience. The “critical philosophy” that Foucault has on offer, and which draws on Kant’s essay, is to think through the present through the praxis of risky speech that confronts others.

The end of the lecture on 2 February 1983 captures this best, on page 184 of the English edition, page 168 of the French edition. The dominant kinds of responses to the political problems of the present, the dominant kinds of responses offered by democratic theory, fall into three categories:

  • The use of checks and balances as a way to contain power and factionalism—what Foucault refers to as “the distribution of power” and “the autonomy of each in the exercise of power;”
  • The passage of FOIA-type statutes and sunshine laws; or the Open Data movement today, or even État Lab in France today, the most recent digital iteration of the democratic openness and transparency movements—what Foucault refers to as “transparency and opacity” (for, as we know, transparency is always joined at the hip by opacity); or
  • The turn to civil society as check on the state—what Foucault refers as “the relation between civil society and the State.” (GSO, p. 184)

These are not what Foucault proposes, no not at all. Foucault cannot be inscribed in the liberal democratic turn that is popular in France at that moment, particularly among French intellectuals like Pierre Rosanvallon, Marcel Gauchet, Pierre Manent, —and that Steve Sawyer has been studying so insightfully in his new book, In Search of the Liberal Moment. Here too, we might return again to our discussion last seminar, and the passage in The Hermeneutics of the Subject, on page 209, where Foucault reveals his apparent contempt for some intellectuals, some contemporaries: “The great converts today are those who no longer believe in revolution.” “We only convert,” he said in 1982, you will recall, “to renunciation of revolution.”

Here, though, Foucault is not doing that. Instead, he turns to true discourse as a way to resist, as a form of inservitude. He turns instead, to that “necessary, indispensable, and fragile caesura that true discourse cannot fail to introduce into a democracy which both makes this discourse possible and constantly threatens it.” (184) It is in this sense, as he suggests earlier on the page, that “True discourse and the emergence of true discourse underpins the process of governmentality.” (184)

And it is here, then, that Judith Revel reminds us of the radical nature of Foucault’s move in these lectures:

  • “Philosophy […] becomes a way of life,” Revel tells us.
  • “The critique of illusion becomes a principle of transformation and of constitution.”
  • “The site of politics is displaced from advice to the Prince […] to a certain practice of truth—not only a truth-telling but a truth-acting and a truth-living.”

Philosophy as a truth-living: No wonder that Foucault would return to Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties to excavate the possibilities of a critical philosophy as truth-living and as opposed to the faculties of theology, law, or medicine. (Though perhaps we need not follow him or Kant here, and instead explore the radical potential of critical philosophy and critical legal thought).

But the puzzle in all this is, as Judith Revel emphasizes and as John Rajchman reminds us with his recurring references to Foucault’s difficult legacy—the puzzle is precisely what Foucault tells us himself at the end of these lectures, on page 354 of the English edition, page 326 of the French edition: “It is not for philosophy to say what should be done in politics. It has to exist in a permanent and restive exteriority with regard to politics, and it is in this that it is real.” (354)

Not to tell us what should be done in politics—that is not the task of modern philosophy. Nor to “divide the true and the false.” (354) But rather to “constantly practice its criticism with regard to deception, trickery, and illusion, and it is in this that it plays the dialectical game of its own truth.” (354).

“I think that philosophy as ascesis, as critique, and as restive exteriority to politics is the mode of being of modern philosophy. It was, at any rate, the mode of being of ancient philosophy.” (354)

And so, to solve the puzzle, to see critical theory practice its criticism of illusions, to see Foucault’s ascesis, to hear his parrhesia… I returned last night to the Dits et écrits, those most remarkable volumes edited by Daniel Defert and François Ewald. As you know, we are here, in this Foucault 13/13 seminar, reading for the first time chronologically the 13 years of lectures at the Collège de France, but we must remember to recontextualize them and breathe life into them by returning to these other archives—as we will next week, surely, with Volumes 2 and 3 of the History of Sexuality.

For these 1982-83 lectures, I returned to listen to his truth-telling in his multiple political interventions at the time.

Whether it is in the context of Poland—where he had gone, as you will recall, with Bernard Kouchner and Simone Signoret on the sixteenth convoy of the NGO Médecins du monde to spend 10 days in the Poland under a state of siege in October 1982 (D&E, vol. 4, #320) – just before he would deliver these lectures. And on his return, he would emphasize the silence – that silence that John mentioned earlier – the silence of the French intellectuals (D&E, vol. 4, p. 341): “There is in the present hour no discussion, no debate in France on Poland, on the aide that we are bringing to it and on the financing of its debts.”

“Les Polonais ont besoin qu’on leur parle, qu’on y aille,” Foucault declared empassionately. “J’y suis allé pour cela. Mais aussi, au retour, pour parler de la Pologne aux Français.” (D&E, vol. 4, p. 341).

Or to listen to him speak out—to speak truth—about sexuality, about homosexuality, in the gay journal, Gai Pied, in October 1982, declaring:

“I will again come back to what we must fight about: the law and the police should have nothing to do with the sexual life of individuals. Sexuality, sexual pleasure are not determinative criteria in the order of policing and justice.” (D&E 4, #318, p. 337)

Or in September 1982, in the newspaper Libération, where he would talk about the irregular arrest in Vincennes of three Irish nationalists accused of terrorism in August 1982, where Foucault takes the new Mitterrand government to task. (D&E, vol. 4, #316) And he ends that interview speaking again, against the silence of intellectuals, of the escalating situation in Poland:

“Europe must fight against terrorism. It’s true. But the most dangerous terrorism that Europe has witnessed, we just saw it manifested with the three deaths, hundreds wounded, and thousands arrested in Warsaw, Gdansk, and Lublin”—referring to the Communist crackdown on the Solidarity movement. (D&E 4, p. 319)

Or closer to home for me, a op-ed printed in Libération in June 1983, a few months after these 1983 lectures, titled “You are dangerous.” There, Foucault takes to task those who rallied against intellectuals for speaking up for an ordinary convict, Roger Knobelspiess, incarcerated in maximum security for nine years for the robbery of 800 francs, which he denied, conditionally released by the Mitterrand government, only to be rearrested for committing another crime.

“Let us pose some simple questions,” Foucault writes. “Where is the error?” – error and truth. “Who has been duped?” – illusions, again. “Where is the intoxication?” And finally, “Where is the courage?” he asks. “The courage is in the seriousness with which one poses and poses again, again and again, these oldest of problems: the problems of justice and of punishment.” “Where are the dangers?”

“As for you, for a crime today would justify yesterday’s punishment, you don’t reason well. But worse, you are dangerous for us and for yourself, at least if you do not want to find yourselves, one day, under the thumb of a justice system that has fallen asleep. You are also a historical danger. For justice must always interrogate itself, just as a society can only thrive on the work it does on itself and its institutions.” (D&E, 4, # 335, p. 524)

I hear the echo here of Creusa in Euripides’s Ion, quoted by Foucault on p. 135: “Where shall we go to demand justice when it is the iniquity of the powerful that destroys us?”

And so I return, as I do so often in 1972, to Foucault’s political praxis to understand his critical philosophy. Just like I turn to the GIP to understand the notion of giving voice to a discourse—and incidentally, we will have a panel on the GIP on Sunday, April 10th at the Casa Hispanica—I turn here too to his interventions, his missions, his parrhesia, to make sense of this shifting terrain of the political and of truth.

And so I will conclude here with the epigraph with which I opened the introduction to these courses on our blog:

“Philosophy thus defined as the free courage of telling the truth so as to take ascendancy over others and conduct them properly, even at the risk of death, is, I think, the daughter of parrēsia.” Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, p. 342.

In the end, the further Foucault reaches back in ancient philosophy, the further he returns to antiquity, it seems, the closer he gets to contemporary critical thought and political praxis.