Isegoria and Parrēsia 🗣️

Democracy and the new nihilism do not go together. Democracy presupposes truthful speaking. In his last lecture, delivered shortly before his death, Michel Foucault, as if he had senses the coming crisis of truth in which we are losing the will to truth, addressed the ‘courage of the truth’ (parrēsia). With reference to the Greek historian Polybius, Foucault points out that ‘true democracy’ is guided by two principles, isegoria and parrēsia. Isegoria is every citizen’s right to free expression. Parrēsia, speaking the truth, presupposes isegoria but goes further than the constitutional right to speak up. It enables certain individuals to address themselves to others, ‘to tell them what they think, what they think is true, what they truly think is true’. Thus, parrēsia requires individuals who act politically to tell the truth, to care for the community by making ‘use of discourse, but of rational discourse, the discourse of Truth’. Someone who speaks up courageously, despite the risks it entails, practices parrēsia. Parrēsia founds community. It is essential to democracy. Speaking the truth is a genuinely political act. As long as parrēsia is practiced, democracy is alive:

I think…that this parrēsia…is first of all profoundly linked to democracy…we can say that there is a sort of circular relation between democracy and parrēsia…In order for there to be democracy there must be parrēsia. But conversely…parrēsia is one of the characteristic features of democracy. It is one of the internal dimensions of democracy.

Parrēsia, the courage of the truth, of the ‘courageous parrhesiast’, is the political act par excellence. True democracy therefore contains something heroic. It needs those people who dare to speak the truth despite all the risks involved. So-called freedom of expression, by contrast, concerns only isegoria. Only with the freedom of truth does real democracy emerge. Without this freedom, democracy approaches infocracy. (54-56)

—Byung-Chul Han, Infocracy (2022)

I am, I guess, going to leave in place that XXL block quote (which itself contains a blockquote) despite the reigning wisdom that readers don’t read block quotes any more. A blog entry combined with a telescoping passage has doubly little (the halfmuch) going for it. Elsewhere (TDOR, 2020) Han writes that we no longer read poetry, and this assertion too is valid enough to glide by untroubled, block quotes coupled with blog entries coupled with poetry, and I’m sure poetry won’t be the end of things readers quit, style tameness being all the plain language rage.

Even so, I’m struck by so much in this long snippet from Infocracy, struck in part because at no other point have I encountered the diagnostic insight that, as Han provides, moves from the mismatchedness of discourse and information to the interdependence of free expression (isegoria) and the courage free expression requires when enacted (parrēsia). As I read this, I had this dawning of oh yeah, of course, and even uh, duh (the way Joe C. Meriweather always said)—a private and low voltage bolt sent by Captain Obvious. I began to understand that I’d missed something because popularly circulating, even commonplace free speech arguments (and reminders about the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which is frequently, if casually, brought up in such arguments) spotlights only free expression (isegoria), implicitly downplaying the courage to express truths (parrēsia). It’s right there in the passage: Han citing Foucault in “The Courage of Truth” keys on the element of risk enveloping a kind of heroism, and that courage-heroism to express is a precondition for democracy.

Yet another strike: where does this other kind of heroism intersect with academia, rooting heartily in shared governance, or else, rotting fallow in pseudo-shared pseudo-governance? Sure, it’s a case by case, situation by situation, sort of question, and one all the more worthy of asking and re-asking at each new gig and each new leadership rotation. How are you at sharing governance, really? And can this sort of question be asked without also leaving impressions of peacocking or chest-puffing; can it be asked earnestly, routinely, matter-of-factly as every faculty member, AAUP member or not, should ask? But this strike is the shorter of the detours I’d been mulling over because while I think I understand how a courageous parrhesiast navigates higher ed with some successes and some setbacks. The CP might earn a reputation as a thoughtful and caring citizen at times, and then, for raising comparable issues!, might be disinvited from meetings for bearing the label ‘troublemaker’ at other times.

One more albeit fainter strike (static-think wool socks on shag carpet in winter months…so not nothing) in this long Infocracy passage is in the splits inflecting the other kinds of heroism. In particular, I’m thinking of mediational and temporal splits. Discourse, for Han, opens call to response. Its rhythms yield to that anticipation, expecting engagement, deliberation, and, if things go well, a response. This takes time, but not too much time and not too little. When this goes well, when discourse works, it also takes material circulation and findability. Old media’s circulatory rhythms may have (I’m hedging…but I think mostly yes) achieved synchrony with common-ish human biorhythms (e.g., contemplative cycles, dailinesses, but also the bigger hum of orbits and rotations). There’s something to this kind of heroism that, without being overly idealistic or naive, is heroic for good faith volleying, entering into a mutually paced temporal attention structure that allows discursive formation its time, that does not quite whir off impatiently nor lapse into indifference. I’m not certain that information, speed, and immediacy are always bad for democracy; but they are, as Han aptly (and smartly) sets up with this outline of infocracy, introducing haywire conditions for discursive deliberation and, by proxy, many of the non-nimble, public-serving institutions associated with functional democracy (investigative presses, schools, courts, and congresses).

For now, for strikes-pondering, that’s it…and enough. ⚡️⚡️⚡️