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. ⚡️⚡️⚡️

The Dataists 👾

Later in Infocracy, Han writes,

To the dataist ear, this passionate commitment to freedom and democracy will sound like a ghostly voice from an already bygone era. From the dataist perspective, the idea of the human being as defined by individual autonomy and freedom, by the ‘will to will’, will eventually appear as merely a short historical interlude. Dataists would agree with Foucault when he invokes the death of the human being in The Order of Things: ‘As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end….then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea.’ The sea whose waves are erasing the face in the sand is today a boundless sea of data, in which the human being dissolves into an insignificant data set. (43)

—Byung-Chul Han, Infocracy (2022)

No outdoor walk this evening because SE Michigan, including Ypsilanti, is observing an Air Quality Alert, which I understand to be a small time toxic airborne event—serious enough to stay indoors and take a pass on the daggered-eyeballs effect, but also just a sign of the dry, dusty, particulate-breezed moment. Ah, springtime. So instead I read another chapter of Infocracy, “Data Rationality,” which according to Han counterposes a discourse-driven “communicative rationality,” where argumentation, claims backed with evidence, and compromise toward consensus-ish assent puts gusto in democracy’s sails. In an era of data rationality, information outstrips deliberative discourse; people no matter how mightily they strive to pay attention and process events are left in the dust, overwhelmed and scattered in the haze of information overload. Bleak1Bleak is my characterization of a mood, which, like all moods, fluctuates. but discerning, Han takes this idea on a brief tour with stops at Habermas, public-sphere hopeful, then dataists Rousseau and Alex Pentland of MIT.

I suppose, based on this, that rhetoricians are now and shall remain as outsiders to rising programs in data science (e.g., Data and Decisions); the data is extra-sensically vast, and the decisions are wrought in human-machine ratios more mechanistic than neuronal, more computational than synaptic, more algorithmic than fleshly. What a grand (and routinely fuckered) time we had while the beach drawing lasted, now-insignificant data set! So, what’re you gonna do now, democracy? What are the suitable responses, and do those responses have any chance of reaching anyone who can listen, engage in dialogue, make any difference? Get it together?! I don’t mean make a difference in an Army Corps of Engineers “protect the beach face” sort of way. Reading this chapter, I’m left puzzling generatively with a sense of no really, what becomes of this? If any juice remained in the democratizing efforts of writing programs, or critical literacies, or rhetorical education, are there variations on beach-drawn faces farther up or down the disappearing coastline? Or are the dataist-guided paths reduced to two: homo economicus (good capitalist progeny go for jobs 🤑) or homo inanis (bear witness to giddyup speed obsolescence 🫥).


  • 1
    Bleak is my characterization of a mood, which, like all moods, fluctuates.

Try This

Figure 1. Try This: Research Methods for Writers book cover.

Quick entry—it’s late and kale sweet potato soup is bubbling. And I’m still in the late stages of moving, turning in keys and parking passes at the old place this afternoon, scooping expired field mice from the attic of the new place, fetching groceries, hooking up laundry machines, chopping onions, and so on. But a project several years in the works dropped yesterday at Try This: Research Methods for Writers, a textbook we hope sees uptake in rhetoric and writing classes. I could say A LOT about this book’s development. Once it was in the hands of Mike Palmquist and the editorial team at WAC Clearinghouse, its shape and timing were never clearer or crisper. I didn’t realize it, but I read today that this book is the 150th free, open access publication of the nearly 25 years WAC Clearinghouse has been operating. So it’s an honor and a wonder and a credit to so many that this book is circulating now, as it is. [N.b., not a ninety, but hope to get back to a few more of those soon, like tomorrowsoon, or the nextdaysoon.]

Gorgoylean Methods

Appealing are the sense-making motives in the Berlant-Stewart exchanges, with a nod echoic to Jenny Rice’s variation—gorgoylean methods—in Awful Archives where the generative tenets follow, 1) What is going on? and 2) What accumulates as being rhetorical figuration? and 3) How does it (fail to) add up? Not anchored entirely in story nor narrative, in description, in data nor database/collection, the gorgoylean approach hearkens maybe to positional disruption: What is for me phenomenological is for you empirical is for Earl not even worthy of inquiry.

Snowdrops or Photo of Snowdrops

White snowdrop flowers
February’s Snowdrop

Upshot mid-February. Maybe Valentine’s Day or the day after, but before the 16th. Snowdrops or snowbells or crocus. Is the plural for crocus, crocuses? Doesn’t matter if they’re snowdrops. I’m sure they’re snowdrops. Well, almost sure. Surer is that Michigan’s regreening is mistimed this time. The snowdrops keep to themselves, don’t express a whole lot, or not anything I can hear where I stand when I pass by them front door in-going and out-going. But then this one photo jogs a memory about how last season’s tomatoes wilded into an unmanageable mess yielding more on vine rot than wedges of lightly salted gushes tomatoseed and sunshine. It’s something. Cannot say yet whether it’s the snowdrops or their photo or the tomatoes long since turned over in the side yard that share the quiet wisdrom, not quite lesson and not quite imperative, do better with gardening this year.



We invite proposals for the 2016 WIDE-EMU Conference, a free, one-day event on October 15, in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Please help us circulate the call widely. The complete call and details about the conference are online at

Phase 1–Propose–has just begun and continues through August 31. We are asking for proposals that will respond to the conference’s framing question: What does writing want?

As you will see on the web site and proposal submission form, we’re asking for titles/ideas for three kinds of presentations:

  • Talk: much like a typical conference presentation, only short-form. Propose a brief paper, a roundtable discussion, a panel, etc. Individual talks should not exceed ten minutes.
  • Do: a demonstration or a workshop. Propose a session focused on the “how to” related to a software application or pedagogical approach.
  • Make: produce something (or the beginning of something). Propose a session in which participants will “make” a web site, a lesson plan, a manifesto, a syllabus, etc.

During Phase 2–Respond–we’ll be asking proposers to expand their proposed ideas with something online to share ahead of the face to face meeting on October 15. What exactly this “something online” looks like is highly flexible: a blog entry, a slidedeck, a podcast, a video, etc. You could also think of this as a teaser or a preview for your session and a few of its key provocations.

The face-to-face conference will be on October 15, 2016 at Eastern Michigan University. We will announce the featured plenary speaker/activity later this summer.

Please visit the site at, submit a proposal, and plan to attend. If you have any questions about the proposal process or the conference itself, please reach out to Derek Mueller at We hope to see many of you of this fall.



Walked the main loop in our subdivision, 300-degrees of the circle, anyway, before turning west for just more than a mile and outlining the next subdivision west of here where I ran into ghastly-happy Snowtorso. Sidewalks are clear enough, but the inter-subdivision trail network isn’t maintained in the winter, so although its surface has been traveled by dozens since last week’s snowfall, the surface is all icecrags and snowruts. Unpredictable. Sometimes slippery.

I listened to last week’s “Mapping” episode of This American Life. I think it was a re-run from several years ago with a snippet about Denis Wood’s new-ish book, Everything Sings, dubbed in. Could be wrong. The segment reminded me of what I find so interesting about Wood’s work, and it convinced me that I made the right decision to devote a week to Wood and Monmonier on my winter Visual Rhetoric syllabus, which remains a work-in-progress pending a few finishing touches.

The OOOist Writer and the Great Outdoors

I’m re-reading Chs. 4-5 of Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology to prepare for the second meeting of our summer reading group this afternoon. Ch. 4, Carpentry, sets in tension writing and the making of things; Ch. 5 proposes wonder as a way of doing OOO, as a means of grasping the ways objects orient (124). Last week’s meet-up attracted seven readers, and I’ve heard we’ll have several more joining today. I’m not leading the group with any particular goals in mind. It has very simply been an opportunity to engage with a book–and a philosophy–that a handful of our graduate students have wanted to talk more about since Eileen Joy, Tim Morton, and Jeffrey Cohen visited for last semester’s JNT Dialogue, “Nonhumans: Ecology, Ethics, Objects.”

To prepare for today’s conversation, I’ve been dusting back over a couple of recent blog entries here and here and here (as well as the comments, which begin to explore some lingering questions I have about OOO), and I also took a look again at Bogost’s entry from 2009, “What is Object-Oriented Ontology? A Definition for Ordinary Folk.” The point about OOO needing a “simple, short, comprehensible explanation” leaves me wondering to what extent the elevator pitch has been satisfactorily laid down and also whether a short-form version can adequately answer to its skeptics (e.g., those who, upon reading a bit about OOO lead with,”Yeah, but what about X?”). I suppose what I’m thinking around is whether OOO can really be boiled down to a 100-word account and whether, especially considering what looks to me like a surge of interest in units/objects/things/nonhumans, there could be a coherent statement that many of the main participants would stand behind. Yet another way, just how raging are OOO’s debates, now? And how much are new/cautious/fringe enquirers capable of exploring those debates?

Looking again at Chs. 4-5, I felt this time like writing, as counterpart to carpentry, isn’t given much of a chance. Writing is a foil–a thin backdrop against which a preferable set of practices are cast. The generating question follows: “[W]hy do you write instead of doing something else, like filmmaking or macrame or sumi-e or welding or papercraft or gardening?” In this context (and in this contrastive framing), writing is something of an attention or activity hog. It gets overplayed in the liberal arts; it gets over-valued in exceedingly strict economies for tenure and promotion. According to the chapter, these are cause for concern because 1) “academics aren’t even good writers” (89), and 2) writing, “because it is only one form of being” (90) is too monolithic a way of relating to the world. I generally agree with Bogost’s argument that scholarly activity should be (carefully!) opened up to include other kinds of making, but I’m less convinced that the widespread privileging of writing is the culprit here. It’s fine to say that academics aren’t good writers (though I’m reminded that we should never talk about writing as poor or problematic without looking at a specific text/unit in hand), but why would they be any better at “filmmaking or macrame or sumi-e or welding or papercraft or gardening” or coding APIs?

So while I’m interested in the call for an expansion of what can be considered scholarly activity, it remains unclear to me why writing should be at odds or brushed aside with that expansion. Instead of “Why do you write instead of doing something else?”, I would rather consider “How is your writing and making and doing entangled?”, whether gardening, drinking beer, or even welding (the second slide here suggests that writing and welding are compatible, though paper-based dossiers are already heavy enough; also weld-writing does not correspond to slideshow-encoding). It’s a relatively minor tweak of an otherwise compelling set of arguments about scholarship-in-computational-action, and yet with just a bit more nuance, rather than concluding that “When we spend all of our time reading and writing words–or plotting to do so–we miss opportunities to visit the great outdoors” (90), perhaps we don’t have to scrap composition to get beyond the limited and limiting definitions of writing still in circulation. And this may be one of the reasons an object-oriented rhetoric remains a promising complement to OOO.

Woolgar and Cooper, “Do Artefacts Have Ambivalence?”

I stumbled across Steve Woolgar and Geoff Cooper’s article, “Do Artefacts Have Ambivalence? Moses’ Bridges, Winner’s Bridges, and Other Urban Legends in ST&S” (Social Studies of Science, 29.3, June 1999), a few weeks ago as I prepared for a session of ENGL516:Computers and Writing: Theory and Practice in which we were taking up, among other things, Winner’s chapter from The Whale and the Reactor, “Do Artefacts Have Politics?” Reading the chapter yet again, I thought I would try to learn more about these well-known bridges. I’d never seen one of them, after all.

Woolgar and Cooper’s article is one of those I wish I’d read years ago. It opens with an unexpected event: Jane, a student in a grad seminar, challenges the premise of Winner’s artefact-politics example. In effect, she says the clearance-challenged bridges are passable, that they don’t actually prevent buses from traveling the parkways on Long Island, that Winner’s claim is a “crock of shit.”

Woolgar and Cooper turn next to Bernward Joerges’ investigation of Winner’s bridges, their history, and the legitimacy in Winner’s attribution of politics to these artefacts. Rather than accepting Joerges’ position that Winner’s example crumbles because the actual bridges allow buses to pass, however, Woolgar and Cooper suggest the bridges-articulated wield a certain “argumentative adequacy” that is not necessarily eclipsed by the bridges-actual (434). In fact, they say that proof of Winner’s error is difficult to come by, despite the bus timetable they ultimately obtained, despite Jane and another student’s efforts to corroborate the effect of these bridges on bus traffic.

The important recurrent feature in all this narrative [about efforts to corroborate the effects of the bridges] is that the definitive resolution of the story, the (supposedly) crucial piece of information, is always just tantalizingly out of reach…. For purposes of shorthand, in our weariness, in the face of the daunting costs of amassing yet more detail, or just because we’re lazy, we tend to ignore the fact that aspects of the story are always (and will always be) essentially out of reach. Instead we tell ourselves that ‘we’ve got the story right.’ (438)

Following a discussion of urban legends and technology, Woolgar and Cooper conclude with several smart points about the contradictory aspects of technology, that it “is good and bad; it is enabling and it is oppressive; it works and it does not; and, as just part of all this, it does and does not have politics” (443). They continue, “The very richness of this phenomenon suggests that it is insufficient to resolve the tensions by recourse to a quest for a definitive account of the actual character of a technology” (443). And, of course, once we can relax in efforts to trap a-ha! an “actual character,” we might return an unavoidably rhetorical interplay among texts and things, between discourses and artefacts. Winner, too, has built bridges, “constructed with the intention of not letting certain arguments past” (444). Periodically inspecting both bridges-actual and bridges-articulated is also concerned with mapping or with accounting for the competing discourses, the interests served by them, and so on: “Instead of trying to resolve these tensions, our analytic preference is to retain and address them, to use them as a lever for discerning the relationship between the different parties involved” (443). And, importantly, this is a lever that produces a different kind of clearance, “under which far more traffic might flow” (444).

Note: There’s much more to this, including Joerges’ response here (PDF), which I have not read yet, but I nevertheless find the broader debate fascinating, relevant to conversations about OOO we’re having on our campus in preparation for Timothy Morton and Jeff Cohen’s visit next month, and–even if I have arrived late–a series of volleys I need to revisit if and when I return to Winner’s example in the future.