Symposium Introduction

I first encountered Paul Allen Miller’s writings during my graduate years, when I read (and became engrossed with) his Subjecting Verses: Latin Love Elegy and the Emergence of the Real (2004). That book changed the way I thought of Roman elegy, at a time when studies of this short-lived genre by a new generation of younger Latin poets seemed dominated by the question of whether it was Augustan or anti-Augustan. Miller instead presented a new paradigmatic history of the subject, contending that elegiac poetry came to existence following an underlying split in the nature of subjectivity at Rome in the late first century BCE—a split that was symptomatic of the historical changes taking place at the time. Nearly fifteen years later, when I became general editor of Bloomsbury’s Classical Receptions in Twentieth-Century Writing series, my first commission was Miller on antiquity and Foucault. Subjecting Verses already brought Foucault in dialogue with Lacan, offering a theoretical framework that synthesized Foucault’s historicism and Lacan’s ideas about the Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real. Yet it is in Foucault’s Seminars on Antiquity that Miller places Foucault at the theoretical center of his study of the Western subject as a speaker of truth. In this outstanding book, Miller offers a distinctive reading of how the classics, and especially the figure of Socrates, inform Foucault’s ongoing preoccupation with the question of truth—its ontology, its relation to power, the ways we come to speak about it, and, ultimately, how we come to know our own. This line of questioning makes up the structure of Miller’s five chapters, in which he closely examines the contents of Foucault’s lectures delivered at the Collège de France between 1980 and 1984, when he was also completing volumes 2 and 3 of The History of Sexuality. Miller concentrates on four central topics in Foucault’s classically-informed lectures: (i) his neologism alèthurgies, or “acts of truth,” in which truth is presented as an activity rather than a property of things; (ii) “the truth of the self,” which Foucault interprets as the product of technologies forming a subject’s own sense of what truth is; (iii) spiritual practices, in which the ability to know the truth relates to how subjects act and exercise that truth; and (iv) parrhēsia, which Miller defines as “the courage to speak the truth whether to the assembled citizens, the prince, or oneself” (15). In tracking these themes, Miller draws strategic attention to how Foucault selects a wide range of classical authors, texts and philosophies (from Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon to Plutarch, the Stoics and Cynics, Cicero, Galen, and Dio Cassius, amongst others) both to substantiate his thinking about the “modalities through which power constitutes itself in relation to truth” (8) and trace a genealogy of the Western subject as a speaker of truth. Here, Miller sheds light on an important aspect of Foucault’s rethinking of the classical tradition. For Foucault, the classics do not serve as a fundamental, unquestionable source of wisdom for Western modernity. Instead, he plots them as parallel histories of truth and ontologies of the self, as he addresses conflicts between competing conceptions or regimes of truth in, for instance, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus or the socio-political powers that construct the false truths leading to Socrates’ death. From this perspective, Foucault’s antiquity becomes yet another layer in the formulation of the Western subject as a speaker of truth, as well as how this truth is recurrently compromised and renegotiated through shifting forms of power, discourses and levels of authority. Equally perceptive is Miller’s application of Foucault’s arguments about truth-telling to the academe’s own reception of Foucault, especially in North America. In the closing pages of his study, he sheds intimate light on aspects of the late Foucault that gain the status of legendary truth in American humanities during the 1980s and 90s, including some quarters of the discipline of classics, which has likewise produced and reproduced its own distinct truth-telling about Foucault, his engagement with antiquity and the history of sexuality. Miller’s lucid exploration of late Foucault thus becomes timely when considering Classics and its epistemic systems in our new millennium. Whether our endeavours to speak the truth prompt us to resist or enact dramatic changes in the field and beyond it, it may be worthwhile to recall Foucault’s—and Socrates’—warning that the truth is never an objective property one possesses. Instead, it is a discursive event, an ‘act’ framed by our own circumstances, ambitions, and perceptions of reality. Foucault’s late thought on the classics and their tradition across his twentieth-century modernity is also, necessarily, an instantiation of this phenomenon.

Following the success of Foucault’s Seminars on Antiquity since its publication in 2021, Richard Armstrong, who co-edits with Miller the OSUP series Classical Memories/ Modern Identities, made the excellent suggestion that I organise a Syndicate Network Symposium on the book. For the event, we have invited five respondents with specializations in antiquity and critical and political theory: Mario Telò (UC Berkeley); Sara Brill (Fairfield University); Kirk Ormand (Oberlin College); Jill Frank (Cornell University); and Zahi Zalloua (Whitman College), in order of appearance. We are enormously thankful for their engagement with the book and their intelligent treatments in their responses. Each of them brings a new light to Miller’s thesis. Mario Telò uses Miller’s timely intervention to reflect upon the uses of Foucault in the field of classics and, in particular, upon his role in the theoretical transformation of the study of antiquity that developed after his death. Miller’s book urges us to reconsider the legacy and the enduring validity of the postmodernist thinker who has probably exerted the strongest influence on classicists. Sara Brill then turns to Plato’s myth of Er in order to better understand Foucault’s alignment of philosophy with an aesthetics of truth and with the formulation of novel forms of life. When we turn to the Platonic depiction of the choosing of one’s life offered in the myth of Er, Brill argues, what we seem to encounter is less an account of the invention of new lives than an effort to adhere to already determined types of life. Brill is interested in exploring, with Miller, the extent to which the philosophical life falls under this same set of types, and if so, whether this challenges the continuity Foucault posits, in his development of the practice of parrhēsia, between the Socratic examination of life and Christian practices of confession. The third response by Kirk Ormand explores the different power dynamics inherent in the act of confession (as defined by M. Foucault in his History of Sexuality) and in the act of “moral parrhēsia” (as defined by Foucault in his last lectures.) Ormand contends that the latter, because it is not attempting to uncover a secret truth, a truth held by the subject from him- or herself, takes on a different structure than the act of medical confession that led to the forms of subjectivity defined by sexuality. Treating Diogenes’ “radically and paradoxically other” life as a touchstone for Foucault’s understanding of parrhesia, Jill Frank next interrogates the capacities for such alterity in the multiple and sometimes conflicting Platos and Socrateses who populate Foucault’s seminars on antiquity and Foucault’s Seminars on Antiquity. Frank concentrates, on the one hand, on tensions between the metaphysical Plato Foucault and Miller take up from Heidegger, and Plato the parrhesiast, whom Foucault and Miller equally endorse, and, on the other, between the “pure” Socrates of the elenchus and Socrates the Typho, figured in Plato’s Phaedrus. For the final response, Zahi Zalloua takes up three converging points of interest in his response to Foucault’s Seminars on Antiquity: Learning to Speak the Truth. The first is Foucault’s relation to ancient philosophy’s traumatophobic character; the second concerns the unexpected resonance between Foucault’s discussion of Christianity’s account of the “radically alien” within and Slavoj Žižek’s return to the (real) neighbor of scripture; and the third deals with Miller’s recasting of Foucault as a kind of philosopher of the universal (albeit a universal that undergoes its own mutation via the call of parrhēsia).

As an ensemble, these five responses to Foucault’s Seminars on Antiquity bear witness to the thematic richness of Miller’s knowledge and ideas, as well his timely contribution to the study subjective truth from antiquity to our Western modernity. For me, it has been a pleasure to convene this conversation, which is also warmly open to readers of the symposium in the next few weeks.

Mario Telò


Transdisciplinary Becoming

We should all be grateful to Paul Allen Miller for having written another bold and important book. It is another example of his distinctive classical scholarship—freed from the pursuit of detached, unmediated, historically pure access to antiquity, inviting and embracing productive encounters between the ancient and the contemporary through a rigorous and accessible engagement with postmodern critical theory. While many of us may now take this approach for granted, it is Miller, more than anyone else, who has opened the field that still calls itself classics to its very possibility. This book, like his previous work, brilliantly confronts us with the inadequacy or, I would say, the impossibility of empiricism, of an interpretive connection with antiquity that excludes a discussion of methodology. It sets up an explicit dialogue with contemporary modes of theoretical thinking that are themselves grounded in the interrogation of antiquity and that influence or even predetermine our own projects of (post)classical scholarship, whether we want them to or not, whether we are familiar with them or not. Patrice Rankine (AJP 140.2, 2019, 353) has observed that “pure philology, unmixed with contemporary realities, is and always has been a pretense, and pernicious lie,” while Sasha-Mae Eccleston and Dan-el Padilla Peralta (AJP 143.2, 2022) have remarked that the philological ideal of a textual analysis “disembedded from the world around it, untainted by contemporary feelings, biases, and agendas” reinscribes well-established practices of race-based disciplinary exclusion in classical studies, forms of intellectual biopolitics, we could say. To repeat a principle that many others have articulated, concern with contemporary antiquities, whether Foucault’s (or Derrida’s, or Judith Butler’s, or Saidiya Hartman’s, for example) is the domain not (just) of reception, which some still see as a marginal or ancillary subfield of classics, but of any hermeneutic enterprise, even the “mainstream” ones, apparently focused only on what we heuristically posit as the ancient “original.” 

There is no question that within the postmodern trinity of Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan (which has more recently expanded to include Deleuze and Guattari), it is Foucault who has had the easiest time making inroads in the discipline of classics; the other two thinkers, probably because of their explicit investment in psychoanalysis, have never become “mainstream,” and they still face varying degrees of skepticism or hostility among many classicists. The reason for the relatively smooth cooptation of Foucault is the History of Sexuality, a work that, as Miller reminds us in his introduction, radically changed the field of classics in the 1980s and 1990s by legitimizing gender and sexuality as “serious” objects of scholarly inquiry. Yet the apparent Foucauldian “novelty” was compromised, as we can discern from the title of the work, which, in significantly containing the word History, served to confirm the historicist and essentially positivistic foundations of the discipline—that is, a normative and normativizing orientation rooted in the use of the text as a vehicle for recapturing a lost context. In his seminal book Foucault’s Virginity (1995), Simon Goldhill laid bare Foucault’s refusal to heed the ironical textures of the Greek novels—texts that, yes, strongly contribute to constructing a heteronormative ideal, but also constantly undermine this construction not just with more-than-occasional explorations of ancient homosexualities, but with a contestation of the very notion of identity, with moves toward modes of queer disidentification. The possible cultural-historical correlates of this disidentification are difficult to determine, but its emergence through formal complexities is the important fact of a possibility of reading and, thus, of a political potentiality. What I am suggesting is that, treated as a work of cultural history more than a theoretical experiment, History of Sexuality has paradoxically—beyond and despite itself—caused the field of classics to be less daring, less self-critical, less prone to reassess and question its methodological grounds. The importance of Miller’s book—of its focus on Foucault’s late lectures at the Collège de France—resides precisely in urging classicists to pay attention to another Foucault, or to look at Foucault differently, an operation that cannot but have radical consequences for the self-definition of the study of antiquity, for the ongoing reconceptualization of its practices. When we read, in Miller’s introduction, that in Foucault’s “alêthurgies or ‘acts of truth’…truth is shown not to be simply a property of things or of propositions, but an activity,” or we see Miller drawing attention to Foucault’s definition of the alethurgical as the activity “through which the subject speaking the truth manifests itself…represents itself to itself and is recognized by others as speaking the truth” or “constitutes itself and is constituted by others,” we perceive the relational making of the epistemological subject, that is, a self-making that occurs through continuing moments of undoing. This Foucault is one who, as James Porter has also remarked, shows important points of contact with various trends in critical theory that contest the very notion of the subject—in particular, Butler’s theory of relational precarity, or recent interventions in critical phenomenology. There is a sense in which this alethurgical subject is a Deleuzian, posthumanist, or viral subject (see Telò, Symplokê, forthcoming), and Foucauldian archaeology implicates a kind of an-archaeology. How do historians of antiquity come to terms with this Foucauldian idea of a subject split by the epistemological activity that brings it into existence? What are the implications of the model of alethurgic an-archeology that emerges from Foucault’s late lectures? How does it alter the still prevalent historicist foundation of classics as a discipline?

My final, and more substantial point concerns the very modality of the dialogue between antiquity and critical theory that Miller stages in the book. In the introduction, Miller says, “Each chapter will take up one year of lectures and we will read them both with and against the source materials they cite” (my italics), while later, in his first chapter, he announces that he “will offer an account of Foucault’s reading of the Oedipus Tyrannus as presented within On the Government of the Living.” How shall we conceptualize the kind of reading that we perform when we read Foucault’s readings of antiquity or those other critical theorists? I propose that we consider the oeuvres of Foucault, Butler (the subject of my own monograph in the series Classical Receptions in Twentieth-Century Writing), and other contemporary thinkers as “primary” texts, that we focus, in other words, on the formal textures of their writings in our analyses, or over-analyses, pursuing the possibilities of interpretive defamiliarization or deterritorialization springing from synchronic or synoptic close (closest) readings of their verbal poiêsis along with that of ancient literature. As we see in his lectures on Oedipus the King, Foucault interprets Oedipus, but Oedipus also interprets Foucault. I am suggesting that we develop strategies for creative juxtapositions, for unconventional exchanges, for radically formalistic encounters between ancient and critical-theoretical dictions. This is how classics can become critical theory—that is, the formalization of imaginative reinventions of the social. Involving the reader in the process of this transdisciplinary becoming seems to me one of the most generative and inspiring contributions of Miller’s book. 

  • Paul Allen Miller

    Paul Allen Miller


    History, Dialogue, and Does Theory Exist: A Response to Telò

    I want to begin by thanking Mario Telò for the generosity of his response. His extraordinary energy and commitment to the reading of ancient texts in the light of our contemporary situation is only outstripped by the care he unfailingly displays to his students and colleagues. I focus my reply on three elements: what is the significance and what are the consequences of Foucault’s decision to call his magnum opus, a History of Sexuality; how is the act of truth dialogically constituted; and what would it mean to follow Telò’s suggestion to read “theory” as a primary text.

    In many ways Foucault’s decision to title The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, volumes 2 and 3 of the History of Sexuality, as Telò observes, both assisted and distorted their reception by the Classics community. History is something many scholars of the ancient world have both a commitment to and feel they understand. To write a history of an object or practice means to gather and read critically all the primary sources and contemporary accounts of the subject in order to produce a comprehensive recounting. That account should also take into consideration the previous historiographical work on the subject, and it should produce a typical work that we are familiar with, such as a history of agrarian reform laws in late republican Rome, the equestrian census, or marriage practices. 

    In the 1980s, when I was a graduate student in classics and comparative literature and Foucault published volumes 2 and 3 just before his death, there was great excitement. Here one of the doyens of what we then termed “French Theory” was venturing onto our terrain! Quickly, in many quarters, excitement was followed by puzzlement, disappointment, or self-satisfied harumphing. If this was a history of ancient sexuality, where was the account of the of courtesans, slaves, of women in general for that matter? Why was there no mention of the copious evidence of Pompeian graffiti, Greek vases, or, as Telò reminds us, Hellenistic novels? In point of fact, as Jack Winkler and David Halperin were quick to point out, this combination of aporia and apoplexy was largely because few Classics scholars had read, and even fewer understood, volume 1 of the History of Sexuality. We did not understand that for Foucault sexuality was not a thing. It was not something we all had, something we expressed, repressed, and exercised. It was not a thing that gave us a stable identity (like our pronouns). Sexuality was a discourse. It was a set of discursive practices and institutions, fields of learning and habits of mind, that, at or around the beginning of the eighteenth century, synthesized long traditions in philosophy, the church, and medicine of reflecting on various and disparate concavities and appendages, nocturnal habits and desires, sensations and feelings, eruptions, insertions, and parturitions, and baptized them “sex.” When one pauses actually to think about it, it is quite extraordinary. What in fact is the essence that unites all these things and allows them to be thought under a single rubric and that distinguishes them definitively from their congeners? It is hardly self-evident, why your perfume, my pectorals, and a nice dinner by firelight all participate in a single, unified phenomenon. But, of course, if sex were a thing, a unified self-identical entity, then it could and should be regulated, canonized, and normalized. It would become, almost self-evidently, a center of great power. How did this happen?

    A history of sexuality would be, then, not a history of erotic behaviors or professions or genders, but a history of how this discourse came to be, how it was propagated across different domains, and what effects it had. And this is exactly what Foucault initially proposed to write, with five volumes on antimasturbation crusades among children, perversions, the hystericization of the female body, races and populations (biopolitics), and, of course, confession and the church. It was in the course of producing this last volume that everything changed. What was originally an attempt to write a history of the confessing subject beginning with the Lateran Council, become the posthumously published Confessions of the Flesh, which we now call volume 4 but was meant to be the first actual volume of the History of Sexuality, as Foucault defines it. Volumes 2 and 3 began their lives as little more than the introduction to volume 4, before they took on a life of their own, which is to say that calling them a History of Sexuality was a double misnomer, since they were neither a history of sexuality in the sense understood by most classicists nor in the strictly Foucauldian sense. What they actually are is a genealogy of the discursive formations that would be repurposed by the church and then refashioned on the cusp of modernity to produce the discourse of sexuality, which in turn produced the entity, the unity, the Platonic one, that we call sex.

    Understood in this fashion, the truth of sexuality and the truth of its history, is not something that exists out there. This is not an episode of the X files, because in fact the object of our science, our philosophy, and our theology must first be discursively produced before its truth can be derived. This is not to say that people do not have appendages, concavities, and assorted desires to do various things with them, as well as powerful emotions that accompany and complicate those desires. But as Foucault’s history here and elsewhere shows, an object of knowledge does not exist qua object until it has been so defined, and that definition happens within discourse. The ability to participate in that discourse assumes a certain self-formation. That is to say, we form ourselves as subjects able to speak the truth through a dialogic and disciplinary process, in which we both assume discursive power and are its object. It is this dialogic process that produces the truth of a given discipline—i.e, its canons of veridiction and verification—and opens it and ourselves to complex processes of making and unmaking.

    And here I come to my final point. Telò propose that Classics should become “critical theory,” through a close reading of the texts of Foucault, Butler, and others. On the one hand, yes, emphatically yes! We should read these texts slowly, carefully, lovingly, as we read Plato, Sophocles, Catullus, or Keats. But on the other hand, we should not do this so that Classics becomes theory. For what we risk in such a gesture is another canonization. We risk making theory a thing, that like sex and sexuality can be disciplined, normalized, managed, and ultimately cast aside. We should rather constantly be reading Foucault and other contemporary thinkers precisely with a genealogical eye to the discursive formations that made them possible and to the power they exert, even as we use the critical tools these thinkers have fashioned to defamiliarize and reread the very texts and practices that constitute those formations. In short, I would propose that we read Foucault, Freud, Butler, Derrida and others exactly the way they themselves read texts, even as we use the very texts they read to displace and, perhaps, recast what it means to be a speaking subject, to be a subject of truth, a sexual subject, and ultimately a political subject in the complex nexus of temporalities and discourse that constitute the present.

    • Richard Armstrong

      Richard Armstrong


      And yet….

      Thanks, Mario, for a solid appraisal; thanks, Laura, for organizing this; and thanks of course to you, Allen, for being so productive and probing a scholar. I’m certainly one in agreement with Patrice Rankine’s statement, “pure philology, unmixed with contemporary realities, is and always has been a pretense, and pernicious lie”–or wishful thinking at best. But isn’t the great value of all the recent activity on the late Foucault in part about philological work? To wit, the investigation of unpublished materials in manuscript, the contextualization of his known work in a larger constellation of texts and lectures, and the reframing of his overall project on its own terms (not just what people thought he was up to)?

      I’m not trying to bring old-school empiricism in the back door here, but just saying we should appreciate that part of the work of critical thinking IS historia, the critical inquiry into the past. The American “theory industry” packaged a lot of French thought in a tidy, importable form that misled people (as I could tell already in the 1980s as a student) about its nature and interests in many ways. Allen’s Postmodern Spiritual Practices was all about changing that impression, as was Miriam Leonard’s Athens in Paris. These books, as an act of reception studies, are showing the inadequacy of how “reception” works in many ways when it’s just restricted to limited engagement with truly dynamic and challenging thought. This is why I really prefer “convergence” to “reception,” since the latter makes me think of catching a football.

      I guess what I’m saying, Mario, is while we should be critical of an unreflective, pseudo-empirical philology, we should also remember some of what we learn about the materiality of texts, the shaping of context, the complicated processes of textual generation, can still be relevant. I always thought philological training was a bit like boxing: a certain amount of it is very good, useful for developing reflexes and learning to defend yourself. But too much can lead to permanent brain damage and blurred vision.


    • Mario Telò

      Mario Telò


      Deterritorializing Foucault

      Thank you so much, Allen and Richard! Your responses are, as always, wonderful food for thought. I guess what I am suggesting is that I feel the need for new ways of reading Foucault and rescue him somewhat from his possible “convergences” with neoliberal thinking. Self-relation and self-reflexivity as theorized by him seem to lead to the danger of a reinscription
      of the notion of the subject. This is why, to me, the Foucault of Deleuze and Lynn Huffer seems particularly productive. Reading theory as classics doesn’t mean for me to canonize them, but to take hermeneutic, political, and critical theoretical advantage of the space for potentiality that close, closest, or too-close reading always opens up. I am interested in bringing Foucault into sustained and radical dialogue with the Black radical tradition, and the connection between critique and aesthetic reading that people like Fred Moten and Kevin Quashie have modeled.

    • Paul Allen Miller

      Paul Allen Miller


      In praise of many Foucaults

      Thank you Mario and Richard for continuing the dialogue!

      I think Lynn Huffer’s Foucault is fascinating. I love Huffer’s idea of Foucault as a poet. But that particular Foucault is centered around Histoire de la Folie. It’s not exclusive to the Foucault of the late seminars, and there are many dialogues possible across his large body of work, but they not precisely the same. There are intervening steps that are important.

      Likewise, the Foucault of the Prison Information Group recently beautifully chronicled in the book Intolerable (Minnesota 2021) is a slightly different Foucault. Working closely with Maoists, Jean Genet, and with links to the Black Panthers, this is Foucault at perhaps his most explicitly radical and anticapitalist.

      The Foucault of neoliberalism I don’t think really exists. Most of the claims for this are based on a misreading of the Birth of Biopolitics, which does feature an extensive discussion of the intellectual genealogy of neoliberalism in both Europe and North America. To confuse that with an endorsement has always seemed to me to be a category error. Even in his final lectures, Foucault links his notion of the aesthetics of existence to the revolutionary tradition and he is referencing figures like Rosa Luxemburg.

      I think we need to be careful about assimilating a continuing concern with the subject to a neoliberal absolutization of the liberal subject. The subject for Foucault is always a form of self-relation and those forms vary in time and composition. There is no subject per se, no Cartesian moment of the pure subject in Foucault, but rather in Deleuze’s terminology there are a series of different foldings, of different possible self-relations (I always think here of Pierre Boulez’s magnificent homage to Mallarmé, “Pli selon pli”).

      What the study of the genealogy of the modern subject offers us is an alternative set of possibilities of self-formation. These possible selves never exist outside of power, outside the government of the self and others. But they offer us opportunities–points of leverage–to address the intolerable, to engage in the poetry of madness and history, and to think seriously about truth in relation to a variety of traditions, convergences, and conflicts.

      Foucault did not see himself as a builder of systems. Rather he was the specific intellectual who fashioned tools for others to use. Those tools will be used in different ways in different contexts of intervention, exactly as we are doing now.

    • Zahi Zalloua

      Zahi Zalloua


      Theory, or Against the Blackmail of Anachronism

      Thanks Allen, Mario, and Richard for this wonderful exchange. Theorizing reading is (or ought to be) an endless practice. Anachronism is often a charge leveled to silence theorists invested in prior period. What if we—lovers of theory, lovers of reading—reject this accusation and affirm that in fact anachronism is constitutive of any reading of a historically distant author, so to read Sophocles, Plato today is to read them anachronistically? Michel de Montaigne grasped this insight and never apologized for it. He writes, “An able reader [suffisant lecteur] often discovers in other men’s writings perfections beyond those that the author put in or perceived, and lends them richer meanings and aspects.” Mario’s comment, “Foucault interprets Oedipus, but Oedipus also interprets Foucault,” reminded me of Montaigne’s bewildering observation of his own book of Essays (which is filled with dialogues with figures from antiquity): “I have no more made my book than my book has made me—a book consubstantial with its author.” I interpellate the other and am interpellated by the other. On Allen’s general engagement with historically distant authors, I have always sensed, in reading and talking to Allen, the force of the Derridean’s double reading, the force of its double bind: know as much as possible about the text (whence the necessity of critical philology) and read against the grain—against sanctioned readings—question the text’s coherence, read with an eye for blind spots; in reading against the grain, the demand for textual fidelity requires a kind of betrayal.

    • Richard Armstrong

      Richard Armstrong



      I suppose it’s only anachronism if you think that somehow the proper way to read an ancient text would be to return to the fifth century BCE in order to read it. The reality of course is we are largely reading modern ancient texts (printed in modern forms, worked over with modern methods, prioritized by modern desire) caught up in contemporary discursive networks, since in a very real way, (post)modernity produces “antiquity,” including the protocols for reading it. That’s why I don’t like reception as a concept, as if Sophocles sent us Oedipus Tyrannus and it just arrived, as if such a text were intended by him for us (of all people!). That’s why I too like Mario’s “Foucault interprets Oedipus, but Oedipus also interprets Foucault,” since the convergences created by our reading and thinking are really what matter, despite the desire to fence off our product “antiquity” as if it were some kind of Indigenous Reservation. And to return to Zahi’s point, there is great value in our own divergence from ossified and accreted forms of reading, particularly those that want to immunize a field like Classics from the implications of Foucault’s project or assimilate his work to, as Allen’s says, “the neoliberal absolutization of the liberal subject.” So I salute Allen and all those working to keep the vitality of Foucault’s project verging onward. Condivergence? Is that a thing?


    • Paul Allen Miller

      Paul Allen Miller


      Anachronism and Historicity

      Thank you so much Zahi and Richard! Mario and I were just discussing the problem of anachronism at a conference last weekend!

      As Zahi rightly notes in his generous post, the charge of anachronism is often used to silence people. In this regard, Zizek in Enjoy Your Symptom has an important reflection on the difference between historicism and historicity. Historicism is a flattening of causality into a linear series, almost literally Henry Ford’s “one damned thing after another.” You can only approach the past through recreating the sequence, which of course is impossible, because you always stand outside the sequence. Historicity on the other hand recognizes the otherness of history, our profound temporality, while incorporating the realization that there is no relation to that constitutive otherness that does not stand outside the linear sequence, that does not recreate history from the point where we stand (hence we continue to write histories of even long past eras because they are always changing).

      Zahi rightly references Derrida. In the Post Card, he speaks of Freud’s influence on Plato. Of course, he does not mean that Freud came first in a sequence. But he does mean we cannot now read Plato as if Freud never existed. More profoundly, he means that, if that is so, then there is a way in which the Platonic texts always possessed a margin or a reserve that was Freudian. In the same way, we cannot conceive of Socrates now without Plato. There was always a place in Socrates where Plato could cathect, a Platonic Socrates, but Plato also created that Socrates in a very meaningful sense, as Freud made possible our Plato.

      This position, I think, also has strong resonances with Foucault’s concept of the history of the present. We create new pasts all the time, not out of a perverse anachronism or ignorance (though that does on occasion happen), but simply because the possibility of different pasts is defined by where we stand and what is to come, every bit as much as where we stand (and therefore what is to come) is constituted by where we have been.

      Whether we speak of reception or convergence, what we in fact mean is a complex and open dialectic between present and past that is always operative within us. The question is not whether historicity is important or whether anachronism is to be avoided. The question is whether we can construct meaningful futures by understanding our present situation and its relation to a past that both determines us and that we are always already producing.

Sara Brill


Other Lives, Alternative Truths

Miller, Foucault, Socrates

By the terms of Deleuze and Guattari’s reformulation of the Socratic project—philosophy is the shaming of ignorance—Miller’s Foucault’s Seminars on Antiquity: Learning to Speak the Truth has done a philosophical service indeed. In more precisely locating Foucault as a reader of ancient Greek texts and a thinker of ethico-politics, counter to tendencies to brush off his engagement with antiquity, to minimize his commitment to the political work of aesthetics, and, in the worst case, to read this commitment through a distorted lens, Miller applies a decades-long engagement with Foucault to powerful effect. I am especially grateful to Miller for giving us much-needed context for understanding Foucault’s development of parrhēsia as simultaneously a reception of ancient projects and a reformulation of future endeavor. 

If I have understood Miller correctly, Foucault’s parrhesiast does not administer pastoral care, nor plant a seed, nor treat a fever; rather, the parrhesiast lights a fire. And if this practice is necessary to democracy, it is also necessarily ambivalent: 

“For truth to function as truth rather than as propaganda or rhetorical manipulation, it can never be perfectly coincident with either political power or ethical substance…Democratic truth, then, always depends on this contradiction that discourse must be open, everyone must have the right to speak, but only some discourses can be true, and they must present themselves first through the parrhesiastic act of direct personal engagement (I must believe what I say), and then through claims to validation whether that be through direct knowledge (like the shepherd in Oedipus), appeals to reason (like Socrates or Aristotle in the Rhetoric), or agreed upon protocols of verification: all forms of discourse that are themselves not democratic per se but either modes of wisdom, instruction, or parrhēsia (Foucault 2009: 45-6). It is this parrhesiastic intervention that Foucault hopes to reclaim for philosophy in the present as a critical discourse in relation to forms of governmentality, and Socrates is his primary model” (Miller, 165).

Thus, when Foucault observes that, “Truth is never the same; there can only be truth in the form of another world, another life” (2009: 311, Miller 188), he is well aware that such a stance could be perverted for cynical and crass political ends and so we need not worry that he was blind to manipulations of ‘alternate truths,’ because such positions attempt to make truth coincident with political power, emptying it, or, put differently, because such positions have no life in them, no bios against which they are staked. 

And it is here, on the relation between life (in this case largely bios), truth, and philosophy in Foucault’s history of subjectivity, that I would like to think with Miller and pose a few questions, focused specifically on the work of knitting together an ontological analysis of self with the philosophical life as speaking/manifesting truth. This work includes taking one’s bios, “as an object of observation, elaboration, testing, and transformation” (Miller, 84). For Foucault, this form of examined life provides a continuity between ancient Greek and early Christian theorizing, between Socratic inquiry and Christian confession: 

There is not so much a transition from a world of pagan freedom to one of Christian repression, one from which we must be freed through our modern compulsion to find liberation by expressing our sexuality—as the repressive hypothesis would posit—but rather there is a gradual repurposing of certain discursive techniques that elaborate a model of the self and its loss in relation to different material and theoretical contexts, elaborations that produce new forms of subjectivity and new relations of that subjectivity to truth, both its own and that of others” (Miller, 81).

Here is my central question—just how are we to read the emphasis on novelty, these ‘new’ subjectivities and ‘new’ relations to truth, in the context of a posited continuity between ancient Greek and early Christian thinking? To give context to this question, we could consider another thinker of the political valance of the new, Hannah Arendt, whose alignment of natality with action hinges on her focus on ‘second’ birth, on the association of birth with beginning anew marked in Augustin’s formulation initium ut esset homo creatus est: in Arendt’s translation, ‘that a beginning be made, man was created’ (HC 479). For Arendt, theorizing the new that the human capacity for action makes possible marks a decisive break with ancient Greek thinking and a gap between it and early Christian thought, insofar as the faith and hope that she maintains are bestowed by the full experience of natality are, “two essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether” (HC 247). Of course, one need not agree with Arendt about natality, action, and the posited absence of ‘faith’ and ‘hope’ in Greek antiquity. But her work does serve as a provocation: is the alterity of life, its otherness, as presented by Socrates, or the Cynics, or Antigone, adequately captured by describing it as novel or new? 

In focusing specifically on Socrates—Plato’s, Foucault’s, Miller’s—in order to pose this question, I will frame it by looking toward a Platonic depiction of the act of choosing a life, the myth of Er. To do this, a little scene-setting is in order. Plato’s dramatization of the “pitiful, funny, and wonderous” (620a1-2) spectacle of psukhai choosing their future bioi is carefully staged. Having arrived at the spindle of Necessity, the souls of the dead make their choice in the presence of Necessity’s daughters, the Fates—Lachesis, Clotho, and Atropos—and their messenger, who delivers the message of Lachesis: “Ephemeral souls, this is the beginning of another cycle that will end in death. Your daimon will not be assigned to you by lot; you will choose him. The one who has the first lot will be the first to choose a life to which he will then be bound by necessity. Virtue knows no master; each will possess it to a greater or less degree, depending on whether he values or disdains it. The responsibility lies with the one who makes the choice; the god has none” (617d6-e5). He then sets before the souls lots to determine the order of their choosing, and then patterns of life [biōn paradeigmata]. 

These patterns are finite, but many, and include the lives of non-human animals, as well as “all kinds of human lives” of which Plato includes tyrannies, people famous for beauty, or wealth, or athletic prowess, or high birth and the virtue of their ancestors, and those famous for nothing (618a3-b2). Nevertheless, “the ordering of soul was not included in the model because the soul is necessarily altered by the different lives it chooses” (618b2-4). And it is here that Plato marks the significance of this choice: 

Now it seems that it is here, Glaucon, that a human being faces the greatest danger of all. And because of this, each of us must neglect all other subjects and be most concerned to seek out and learn those that will enable him to distinguish the good life from the bad and always to make the best choice possible in every situation. He should think over all the things we have mentioned and how they jointly and severally determine what the virtuous life is like. That way he will know what the good and bad effects of beauty are when it is mixed with wealth, poverty, and a particular state of the soul. He will know the effects of high or low birth, private life or ruling office, physical strength or weakness, ease or difficulty in learning, and all the things that are either naturally part of the soul or are acquired, and he will know what they achieve when mixed with one another. And from all this he will be able, by considering the nature of the soul, to reason out which life is better and which worse and to choose accordingly, calling a life worse if it leads the soul to become more unjust, better of it leads the soul to become more just, and ignoring everything else: We have seen that this is the best way choose, whether in life or in death (618b6-e2). 

The bio-calculus this passage describes has no direct precedent in other Platonic dialogues. There is no single extant Platonic dialogue ‘on the soul’ or ‘on life’ and, more interestingly, a study of soul or life is not included in the philosophical curriculum Socrates outlines in the Republic. If anything, what emerges from the spectacle of choosing lives is the tragic affirmation of learning through suffering. While those who philosophize ‘in a healthy way’ fare better than others (619e1-5), many souls who had previously lived happy lives choose poorly precisely because of their lack of training in suffering (619d1-3); it is memory of his travails that enables Odysseus to choose well (620c3-d2). In fact, Plato goes out of his way to emphasize the limits on choice throughout the tale. Not only are many choices simply responses to past experience or the lack thereof, once chosen the life—which determines structure of soul—is ratified and upheld by a daimon: “After all the souls had chosen their lives, they went forward to Lachesis in the same order in which they had made their choices, and she assigned to each the daimon it had chosen as guardian of its life and fulfiller of its choice” (620d6-e1). It is this daimon, tasked with assuring the adherence to type, that leads the soul to Clotho, “to confirm the fate that the lottery and its own choice had given it” and then to Atropos, “to make what had been spun irreversible” (620e2-6). 

Arguably, then, there is a kind of ‘bio’-logical determinism here, not in a contemporary, reductively materialist sense, to be sure, but an ethical determinism marked by the Fates themselves: what has been done cannot be undone, and this means not only that one cannot go back in time, but also that one cannot escape the effects of one’s actions, that is, while one may decide to act justly or unjustly, one cannot escape the logic whereby one’s actions make one more or less just. This logic is, in fact, assigned a divine assurance in the form of the daimon, ‘guardian of life and fulfiller of choice.’ Thus, the accretion of one’s choices assure a conformity to type. Hence, the emphasis on choosing well—the choice commits you to a pattern, both finite and iterable. What one must learn, then, are the types, the patterns. This emphasis on consistency of type is in part a function of the finitude of types of lives, which grants a certain reiterative, recursive dimension to the act of living out a pattern of bios. What one is a choosing is a pattern that has been chosen by others before. 

What remains here of the new? And, to make more pressing, where is the life of the philosopher in all of this? As Miller notes, Foucault himself observes a similar finitude: 

What kind of person do you want to be, what sort of existence do you choose to fashion for yourself? Of course, the options are not infinite, and they are historically determined, but they do not exist until they are made visible, until they are denaturalized, and until the possibility of turning one’s gaze is made apparent. If there were not in fact the freedom of the subject to put into play their tekhnai as a function of their objectives and their desires, we could not meaningfully speak of the possibility of fashioning a better life, bios biōtos, and the entire ethico-political project would collapse (Miller, 121). 

Here, in the myth of Er, we could say that the kinds of lives are made visible by being supernaturalized, if you will, into a theodicy that is seen, not as counter to an ethico-political project, but rather precisely as the ethico-political project that we get when we place adherence to type, or, better, amor fati, at its heart. We do indeed need to ask what if anything is recognizable as a Foucauldean technique of self here, and the freedom it would seem to require. But I owe it to Miller to have pointed out that we also have to ask Plato, what, if anything, is Socratic about this? Or rather, have we not pressed up against precisely the gap between Plato’s Socrates and the historic, parrhesiastic Socrates? 

In a parallel passage in the Phaedrus, the life of the philosopher is listed as one of nine possible bioi (248d-e), and assigned to the stewardship of Zeus (250b-c). But in the Republic, Socrates will not only observe the possible singularity of his own daimon (496c3-5), but also that no ‘current’ polis can properly support a philosophical nature in order to nurture it into a philosophical life. The ‘true’ philosophical nature in the city is like one standing alone in a storm, seeking out some shelter against a wall, leading a quiet life and doing their own work, “satisfied if he can somehow lead his present life free from injustice and impious acts and depart from it with good hope, blameless and content” (496d5-e2). With these lines, we encounter, then, the fragility and contingency of the philosophical life, a theme also of Plato’s Phaedo, his depiction of Socrates’ final day. Socrates—who has bathed in order to save the women the trouble of washing his body—is worried that philosophy itself will ‘die,’ and admonishes/exhorts his friends to love philosophy more than they love him, and to mourn not the loss of himself but the loss of the logos. In this, Socrates too is a greater friend to the truth than himself. But what of his friendship with Crito, what of his rather scandalous alignment of death not with loss but with ignorance? In this depiction of the Socratic project, a certain absence of self-care, then, appears to be needed. Or, at least, the turning of soul will also involve a withdrawal of care from one ‘place’ to another. 


It is the withdrawal, or re-allocation of care that motivates Antigone’s admission of action, or refusal of denial of action: “I don’t deny it; I admit the deed was mine” (Blondell, 443). In other work, Miller has shown the ethical significance of Antigone’s refusal. But, in formulating a final question, it is to another tragic figure that I would like to turn our attention, another tragic confession of truth, complicated by a kind of double admission, or a taking back, or, we could argue following Foucault, a form of living out the truth with its own model of verification. I am thinking of Aeschylus’ Clytamnestra, at once both proud admitter of the deed of slaying her husband and avowed embodiment of the ancestral alastōr that haunts the house of Atreus and the Tantalid line. Clytamnestra, who must bide her time, whose truth (the injustice of the killing of her daughter by her husband), cannot be lived in the open if it is to be avenged (lived at all), but who welcomes the opportunity to announce herself once revenge is enacted, who revels in her act, who also gets to admit/perform her indifference to at least one form of verifiability/authority, the approval of the Chorus:

Words, endless words I’ve said to serve the moment—

Now it makes me proud to tell the truth.

How else to prepare a death for deadly men

Who seem to love you? How to rig the nets

Of pain so high no man can overleap them?

I brooded on this trial, this ancient blood feud

Year by year. At least my hour came.

Here I stand and here I struck

And here my work is done.

I did it all. I won’t deny it no.

He had no way to flee or fight his destiny…(1391-1401, Fagles trans. and numbering)

It is true that her ability to do so, like that of Antigone, relies on the divine, the alastōr, accessed through oracular announcement as a more ancient, more powerful form of verification:

You claim the works is mine, call me

Agamemnon’s wife—you are so wrong.

Fleshed in the wife of this dead man,

The spirit lives within me,

Our savage, ancient spirit of revenge.

In return for Atreus’ brutal feast

He kills his perfect son—for every

Murdered child, a crowning sacrifice. (1526-1533)

And yet, her truth is also oriented toward establishing a rule freed from the child-killing, future-destroying cycle; she seeks to purge ‘our fury to destroy one another’ and for this she attempts some degree of comfort and calm for the Chorus— 

Fathers of Argos, turn for home before you act

and suffer for it [prin pathein eixantes]. What we did was destiny [arkein khrē tad’ hōs epraxamen]. 

If we could end the suffering, how we would rejoice.

The spirit’s brutal hoof has struck our heart. 

And that is what a woman has to say [hōd’ echei logos gunaikos].

Can you accept the truth [ei tis axioi mathein]?” (1691-1695)

—even as Aeschylus concludes the play with her assertion that the Chorus’ recalcitrance is not devastating to her aims: “Let them howl—they’re impotent [mē protimēsēis]. You and I have power [kratounte] now./ We will set the house in order once for all” (1707-8).   

I take it that Clytamnestra stands outside of the parrhesiastic contract Foucault outlines in his final lectures; she is neither powerless nor without rank and authority. In the context of Euripides’ treatment of Clytmanestra’s fate, she is, according to Foucault, the one who extends parrhēsia to her daughter, only to have the contract broken to her own detriment. But I do wonder about the limits of parrhēsia in this context, and welcome Miller’s thoughts on this question. 

  • Paul Allen Miller

    Paul Allen Miller


    Time, Conversion, and the Philosophic Life: A Response to Brill

    The chance to think with Sara Brill about what it means to choose a bios is a privilege not to be taken lightly. Indeed, in making this choice, we are enacting the philosophic life as Socrates describes it in the Apology, “I say that this is the greatest good for a human being, each day for arguments/words to be made about excellence (poieisthai logous peri aretēs) and the other things about which you hear me conversing (dialegomeou), examining myself and others, and that the unexamined life is not liveable for a human being” (38a8). From Brill’s very rich response, there are three elements I want to isolate as an invitation to further thought, another chance to make words about excellence: the question of temporalities and what does the “new” mean; the question of conversion and metanoia as a propaideutic to the choosing of our lives; and the relation between the care of the self and the love of truth. 

    Central to the late Foucault and arguably to the entire Foucauldian project is the project of thinking differently. As he famously observes at the opening of volume two of the History Sexuality:

    But, then, what is philosophy today—philosophical activity, I mean—if it is not the critical work that thought brings to bear on itself? In what does it consist, if not in the endeavor to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already known? (1985: 9) 

    As Brill rightly observes, there is an implied futurity here, one equally manifest in Foucault’s statement from his final course, “Truth is never the same; there can only be truth in the form of another world, another life” (2009: 311, Miller 188). Yet, as Brill also observes, leaning on Arendt, the ancient world itself is by and large deficient in its ability to speak or think meaningfully about the future, at least on the grand scale. A text like the Communist Manifesto or Lenin’s What Is to Be Done is all but unthinkable in this period. The actual revolutionaries of the ancient world always presented their projects as restorations, as a return to the Golden Age, to the ancestral constitution, making Rome great again. Indeed, the most successful revolutionary of the entire ancient Mediterranean was Octavian, later Caesar Augustus, the architect of a Roman imperial settlement that endured for five hundred years and upended traditional political life throughout the Mediterranean, who claimed not to have destroyed the Roman republic, but restored it. Thus, Bakhtin observed that in the dominant chronotopes of ancient thought, the utopian future can only be envisioned as a return to the past. 

    Yet while this observation seems largely true on the political and the cosmological scale, on the individual level it is very different. As Foucault discusses, throughout ancient philosophy, from Plato to the Stoics, there is an emphasis on metanoia or conversion. The choice of the philosophical life represents a rupture, a turning of the gaze from the things one seeks or the things one possesses to oneself. This moment of conversion (convertere) is most famously dramatized in the Myth of the Cave, where the prisoner literally turns around. Such is the choice to care for oneself, not in opposition to the world (as in later Gnostic and Christian practice), but as a way of living in it and of governing oneself and others. That choice for everyone from Plato to Marcus Aurelius has a before and an after. It requires that we change, that we think differently, that we do something new. 

    So, clearly it seems there are at least two different temporalities at work in much of ancient thought. On the macrolevel, Arendt is right: most ancient thinking is predominantly backward facing, even at it most utopian and revolutionary. But on the existential level, on the level of individual ethical and philosophical choice, it is possible to think differently, to understand parrhēsiastic truth as a critical truth that demands “another world, another life,” and hence something new.

    This observation brings us to Brill’s excellent reading of the Myth of Er. As she notes, the myth is in many ways atypical of the corpus and provokes questions concerning how we constitute the archive of Platonic thought: “The bio-calculus this passage describes has no direct precedent in other Platonic dialogues.” What is this archive? Are these dialogues “works” produced by a singular author, discursive acts within a given epistemic context, blocks within the architecture of theoretical system, protreptic attempts at ethical persuasion, or open fields of textuality? And should we even use the disjunctive “or” in relation to these interpretive possibilities? The nature of Foucault’s Platonic archive is a topic to which I will return in my response to Jill Frank, but let me posit for the moment that these questions are hardly closed, and yet they are determinative for how we would understand the status of the Myth of Er in relation to Foucault’s reading Plato.

    It is equally true that the Republic is not one of the Platonic works Foucault concentrates on his late seminars. His focus is on the Alcibiades, the Laches, the Apology, the Phaedo, and the Seventh Letter, so a reader might well question whether Brill’s interpretation is responsive to Foucault’s argument. Nonetheless, her reading poses an important problem. When the souls of the dead choose their new lives within the myth, to what extent do they in fact exercise choice and to what extent is there anything “new”? In the process of posing these questions, Brill draws our attention to a critical passage, Republic 619d1-3. Here we are told that many souls choose poorly because they lack “sufficient training in suffering” to understand the likely consequences of their choice. Indeed, those who have suffered often do better in their next opportunity than those who lived well, only again to return to their bad choices at the end of a happy life. In this fashion, Plato tells us, most souls alternate throughout eternity between choosing happy and wretched lives, and they seem trapped in a recursive loop, strapped to the karmic wheel. 

    Yet Plato makes a caveat in this passage that I do not believe Brill gives sufficient weight. For the souls who had good lives or who come directly from heaven, but who then make bad choices and suffer in the next life, are those who are without philosophy (aneu philosophias), that is to say, those who have not made the “metanoetic” turn. By the same token, those who are lovers of wisdom (philosophoi, 619d8) and who have the good fortune not to be among the last to choose (there are, alas, no unconstrained choices) have not only happy lives but also a “smooth and heavenly way” through the next (619e). Thus, while the myth itself may limit in uncharacteristic ways for the Platonic corpus the choice of future lives to a preset series—even though there exist far more lives than number of souls who would choose them (618a). Nonetheless the central point, as Socrates makes clear to Glaucon in 618c, is that only the zealous pursuit of wisdom and the conversion it entails, frees the soul from alternating between good and bad choices. Thus we are not necessarily condemned to repeat the same finite set of choices, but only the condition of becoming lovers of wisdom.

    I want to finish by considering Brill’s claim that the Socrates of the Phaedo—who bathes so the women will not have to wash him and who admonishes his friends not to fear their loss of him but of the logos—”is a greater friend to the truth than himself.” I would argue that for Foucault and for Socrates, this is a false dichotomy, that one can only be a friend to oneself by being a friend to truth and vice versa, by choosing what is at home (oikeion) to the rational soul. This is not only because the love of truth saves one from the pitfalls of self-delusion that lead to bad choices and hence, as in Er, a life of suffering, but also because veridiction is not a state. It is a set of actions performed by a self that has a reflective relationship with itself and that this self-relation can only be achieved through the discourse, reflection, and ultimately love of others that, in turn, reflect that self to itself as Socrates does for Alcibiades in the dialogue that bears his name. 

    Philosophy, then, for the late Foucault is a form of spiritual practice undertaken in a relationship with others. It can only take place in a discursive community, such as we have constituted in this symposium, through a process of mutual testing and correction, in dialogue with others. “I say that this is the greatest good for a human being, each day for arguments/words to be made about excellence and the other things about which you hear me conversing, examining myself and others, and that the unexamined life is not liveable for a human being” (Apology 38a8). We offer not simply an account (logon), but that account is the initiation or the continuation of a dialogue, and it is only in that dialogue that we come to examine ourselves and others. Such, at least, is the lesson Foucault draws not only from the Apology but also from the Laches, the Alcibiades, and the Phaedo

    • Sara Brill

      Sara Brill


      Reply to Miller

      Thank you Allen for this generous and generative response! I agree with so much of what you say here, about the role of dialogue in self-construction, about conversion, about friendship toward the truth and others, and about the task and necessity of thinking differently. To my mind, there is a productive tension at work in thinking philosophy as rupture, and as turning, and also as return, especially in the context of those dialogues that treat the love of wisdom as disrupting the self, as risking diremption, as tearing asunder, as dissolution, as self-overcoming, all marked by an erotic orientation to which Emanuela Bianchi has recently called our attention. This tension has some bearing on the dual temporalities you note, the cosmological and the individual, and suggests a relation between them in the human effort to inscribe circularity into the linearity of mortal life, to live cosmologically. Such a life would be both rupture and return, and there is much to say here about the relationship (discussed so effectively by Jill Gordon) between eros and nostalgia, between the ardent pursuit of being and the homecoming of the rational soul, that resonates with Foucault’s work to track efforts to carve out a livable life under conditions that are less than inviting. I take well your point that in turning to the Republic to mark out this tension, I was being a less than faithful reader of Foucault! My hope in appealing to the myth of Er was to think alongside Foucault, to bring some questions he and you raise to the scene of choosing one’s life, and thus to read with Foucault in spirit if not in letter. Surely you are also right about the liberating role reserved for philosophy in the myth of Er, even within the unavoidability of constraint that is signaled by the order of choice one is allotted. Plato includes an additional qualification in this passage that has always puzzled me. It is the one who philosophizes in a healthy way [hygiōs, 619d8] who is likely to fare well here and beyond. How are we to take this reference to health, so resonant with the famous final lines Plato attributes to Socrates in the Phaedo, i.e., Socrates’ debt to Asclepius. I wonder if, in both cases, we can hear an oblique reference to the disrupting work truth, and also (to follow your point about the dangers of disjunction) an evocation of life as a whole, of the demands of lived orientation toward the truth, of, as you and Foucault have both put it, a love of wisdom as a sustained activity not a state, a bios. And what would it mean to philosophize in an unhealthy way? Are we to think of those philosophic natures whose education in dialectic comes too early, and who become lawless misologists? And of those lovers of logos who yet fail to organize their speech like a living being, or fail to cut at the natural joints? To bring this back to Foucault, it seems that the risk involved in the philosophic life is not only unavoidable, it is also constitutive of the lover and speaker of truth. Must we then include a kind of self-undoing as a necessary part of self-creating? Is this undoing also the source of novelty and of the capacity to think differently? And what becomes of Plato here, and of Foucault’s engagement with the Platonic archive? On this question I am especially excited to read your thoughts and so eagerly await Jill’s piece and your reply.

    • Paul Allen Miller

      Paul Allen Miller


      Misology, Philology, and Healthy Philosophy

      Thank you, Sara for such a thoughtful and generative reply.  I love the question: what does it mean to philosophize in an unhealthy way?  “Are we to think of those philosophic natures whose education in dialectic comes too early, and who become lawless misologists? And of those lovers of logos who yet fail to organize their speech like a living being, or fail to cut at the natural joints?”  I certainly think Plato would answer in the affirmative to both of these questions.  But what I love about them is the way they bring the question of rhetoric to the fore, a question which has become increasingly a focus of my interest.

      It seems there are at least two kinds of misologists, those who have become disillusioned with the aporetic nature of dialectical thinking and simply eschew the logos altogether, who fetishize action, and those who come to see the logos merely as another tool for manipulating others, like Callicles in the Gorgias.  The latter are the rhetoricians for hire of ancient world and the image consultants of today.  In both cases, we have people who have come to view the logos with contempt. But the “actors” and the rhetors are not the sole misologists.  Equally, we have those philosophers, such as the early Stoics, who, as Cicero tells us, wrote in such a rebarbative manner, like Chrysippus, that no one who was not already convinced of the truth of their philosophy would even attempt to read them.  This is philosophy as a game or a logic puzzle not as living attempt to fashion a meaningful existence through the making of logoi.  The discourse  of such philosophers is unhealthy.  It is not articulated according to the joints that inhere both in the substance of argument itself and in its reception.

      One of the questions that rhetoric poses to us, and this is not one Foucault directly addresses, is what would it mean for there to be a truth that no one believes?  Is such a thing possible?  Where would such a truth exist and in what form?  Or is such a truth fundamentally nonsensical?  Foucault asks the question why are there not just things, why is there also truth, when alluding to his fundamental conviction that truth is a thing humans produce, that it is not a naturally occurring phenomenon like photosynthesis.  But if the truthfulness of a proposition, of a story, or of a philosophical system, in some measure depends upon the assent of those who receive them, how, then, exactly do people come to accept those truths, how do they come to believe these things are true, how are they persuaded of their truth?  And insofar as these are legitimate and even necessary questions in our so-called post truth era, then where does philosophy as a discourse of truth end and rhetoric as a discourse of persuasion, of producing conviction, begin?  In neglecting a figure like Cicero, it seems to me that Foucault missed an opportunity to think about this important issue that lies at the heart of his concerns with discourse, power, knowledge, and truth.

      From this perspective, then, one way to philosophize in an unhealthy way, and Foucault would agree, would be to practice academic philosophy as a profession rather than as a mode of life, a bios.  The phenomenon of the philosopher who has chosen a particular problem to which he devotes his professional life to resolve in a technical fashion, who goes to work each day and makes incremental steps toward that solution and then goes home and lives no differently than his next-door neighbor the accountant, the corporate manager, or the lobbyist for the NRA, is only too well known.  For these philosophers, philosophy as a “science” is separated from the question of bios.  As such, their pursuit of truth is strictly, indeed proudly, cordoned off from the question of persuasion.  These questions are not deemed “philosophical.”  But I would want to argue that, at this point, their technical problem has, in fact, become completely abstracted from the question of truth in any meaningful sense of the word. To practice this form of abstraction or reification is what I would say it means today to philosophize in an unhealthy manner.  This is why Foucault’s sense of philosophy as a mode of life is so important, including and perhaps especially its erotics as Bianchi shows us.  The healthy philosophical life would not be that of the misologists, but of the philologists, of the lovers of discourse and conversation, and of truth as the collective, dialogic pursuit of a beautiful, or at least “livable,” existence.

Kirk Ormand


Is Confession a form of Parrhēsia?

As P. Allen Miller points out with characteristic lightness in the middle of this book, “Few of us know in detail what is happening in our colleagues’ seminars, and we are lucky if we have time to read their published work.” I am therefore grateful to the press and to Allen for allowing this form of engagement.

Allen has given us a terrific account of Foucault’s last lectures, placing in rigorous context the volumes that came to be known as The History of Sexuality. As Allen says, these works were “but one chapter in the history of subjectivity and truth” (77). The aspect of this history that Allen makes clear, repeatedly and insistently, is that the “truth” is not an objective reality to be grasped in a world outside of ourselves, but a product of the “self’s relation to itself and… the constitution of the self of as a subject” (Miller 14, citing Foucault 1984a, 12; see also Miller 126, 152). And in the search for and expression of that truth, the subject is necessarily engaged in a set of relations: to herself, to the norms of her current society, and to the government in which she finds herself. Of particular interest in Foucault’s last set of lectures is the elusive concept of parrhēsia, the act of truth-telling (often to an authority figure) that “creates a break and opens a risk: a possibility” (Miller 148, citing Foucault 2008, 61). I hope here to explore in a bit more depth the tragedies that Foucault discussed in elaborating this concept, and then to ask (after some elaboration) what the relationship is between parrhēsia, and the structure of confession, which played such an important role in Foucault’s History of Sexuality

First, I would like to point out that there is a bit of slippage in Foucault’s understanding of parrhēsia as it is depicted in Euripides’ Ion. In that play, the title character explicitly refers to the political conditions that must exist for him to exercise parrhēsia, this particular and specific form of speech that is to be distinguished from isēgoria, equality of speech. (Foucault 2010, 150). (Summaries of the complex drama are given by both Foucault and Miller; see Miller 131-132). Ion has been adopted by Xuthus, the king of Athens, but worries that when he arrives in that anachronistically democratic city, he will not have the right of parrhēsia, because at this point in the play he believes his mother is not an Athenian. And again anachronistically, only the offspring of two Athenians have full citizenship rights, including the right of parrhēsia, here apparently the right to advise the city on its proper functioning. So: this form of speech becomes a question of political status within the state, here guaranteed by birth. Now, somewhat ironically, Ion is the son of Creusa, and thus in the direct line of the Erechtheids – so he does have the right of parrhēsia. But at the moment that he utters the word in the play, he doesn’t know that; and when he does return to Athens to establish the democracy (Foucault 2010, 155), he will do so by keeping his true identity (as Creusa’s son) hidden from King Xuthus. Foucault brings out the extraordinary convolutions of this at the end of his lecture on 26 January 1983: “a truth-telling which leaves truth under the reign of a share of illusion, but which, at the price of this illusion, establishes the order in which the speech which commands can become a speech of truth and justice, a free speech, a parrêsia” (Foucault 2010, 145). It is, to me, a little surprising that Foucault did not further explore this odd act of closeting that guarantees, in this play, the political aspect of parrhēsia. But his interests were, at this time, elsewhere. 

In the next lecture (2 February 1983) Foucault revisits Ion’s anxieties about parrhēsia, but he then quickly shifts the focus, to two instances of Creusa practicing parrhēsia, neither of which (as he notes) is called parrhēsia in this text: the first is Creusa’s “violent imprecation addressed to the god and turned against him” (Foucault 2010, 153), in which she accuses Apollo of having raped her. This is the sort of act that we normally think of as parrhēsia: a person in a state of relatively lower power speaks the truth to a vastly greater power (in this case, a god). This is what Foucault will shortly call “judicial” parrhēsia. And this, of course, is the form of parrhēsia that Foucault will be particularly interested in, in his final lectures, when he returns to the figure of Socrates who, when asked what his punishment should be for his violations of the law (of which he was convicted, however unjustly), replied that he should be fed for life in the Prytaneion, like an Olympic victor (Miller 149, 166). It is, to use the common parlance, speaking truth to power, and fundamental to it is the risk that it brings on the speaker. But it is a bit of a fudge at this moment in the drama, because, as Foucault points out, the Ion does not ascribe parrhēsia to Creusa; rather, Foucault says, this sort of act will be called that “later” (Foucault 2010, 154). 

The third instance of parrhēsia in the play is even more slippery: Foucault refers to the speech that Creusa makes to the Old Man, in which she “confesses” to having been raped, and having exposed the resulting child. Once more this instance is not marked by the text as parrhēsia, but Foucault sees this as the third important instance of “veridiction,” which he calls “moral parrhēsia,” “which consists in confessing the offense which weighs on one’s conscience…”( 2010, 154). Again, Foucault says that this will be identified as a form of parrhēsia “later.” Now, even within the tragic corpus Foucault can find some support for this last form of parrhēsia. As he goes on to discuss, in Euripides’ Phaedra, after Phaedra has confessed of her unnatural lust for her stepson to the nurse, she says that she would rather die than act on her passion. For, she says, she does not want to bring shame on her children, but wants to allow them to live with parrhēsia as free men, with good reputations (Eur. Hipp. 420–-423). And she goes on to say that to be aware of bad deeds (kaka) committed by one’s parents will make a man a slave (Eur. Hipp. 424), which, by implication would remove such a person from the political right to parrhēsia (Foucault 2010, 161–-162). So there is, in this instance, both a political form to parrhēsia (one must be a free man) and a moral one (to be free, one must not know shameful things of one’s parents.) In both the Ion and the Hippolytus, then, we can see hints of what Foucault calls “moral parrhēsia”— – in both cases connected to acts of confession – though in neither case is the speech by the women in the plays marked as parrhēsia

That brings me, at last, back to the notion of confession. I am concerned with confession here because it seems to me that Foucault wants both Phaedra and Creusa’s acts of confession to be recognized as examples of parrhēsia, of a sort of truth-telling to oneself, as part of the “care of the self” that Allen has so clearly explicated for us. But when I think back to the way that Foucault characterized confession in volume one of the History of Sexuality, it seems to me to be something rather different. Parrhēsia is, to be sure, both outward-looking and inward-looking; as Foucault put it, “This doubling or redoubling of the statement of the truth by the statement of the truth of the fact that I am thinking this truth and that, in thinking it, I say it, this is what is indispensable to the parrhēsiastic act” (Foucault 2008: 62, cited on Miller 147). But the force of judicial parrhēsia, its vector, is outward: a person tells a more powerful person (or god) the truth, because the truth must be told, and opens herself up to risk in the speaking. But that is not, I think the way that confession— – as defined in volume one— – works.

One of the striking assertions of volume one was that sexuality came about— – became a “correlative” to a certain kind of discourse— – when the religious act of confession was moved into the medical sphere (Foucault 1978, 65–-68). And as Foucault pointed out, confession is a particular form of speech with an unusual, we might even say inverted, power structure: 

The confession is a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement; it is also a ritual that unfolds within a power relationship, for one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession, prescribes and appreciates it, and intervenes in order to judge, punish, forgive, console, and reconcile; a ritual in which the truth is corroborated by the obstacles and resistances it has had to surmount in order to be formulated; and finally, a ritual in which the expression alone, independently of its external consequences, produces intrinsic modifications in the person who articulates it; it exonerates, redeems, and purifies him; it unburdens him of his wrongs, liberates him and promises him salvation. (Foucault 1978, 61–-62)

Now, the confessional speeches of Creusa and Phaedra do many things; they unburden the speaker of a weight of guilt and allow the plot of their respective plays to move forward. They spur action on the part of the confessor (after some intervention from the person confessed to). But they are not quite the same form of religious or medical confession that Foucault described in 1978, for the simple reason that these women are confessing secrets that they hold, but also know. They are not trying to unlock the hidden secrets, the unrealized dimensions of an unconscious mind. And that, critically, is the aspect of modern (“scientific”) confession that, as Foucault argued, allowed for the peculiar construction of subjectivity that we now call “sexuality.” A few paragraphs later, Foucault suggests, this is a fundamentally new development: “For the first time no doubt, a society has taken upon itself to solicit and hear the imparting of individual pleasures” (Foucault 1978, 63). It is this exposing of secrets that characterizes sex, famously, as:

an object of great suspicion; the general and disquieting meaning that pervades our conduct and our existence, in spite of ourselves; the point of weakness where evil portents reach through to us; the fragment of darkness that we each carry within us: a general signification, a universal secret, and omnipresent cause, a fear that never ends. (Foucault 1978, 69).

This seems to me different formulation than the investigations of Plato’s Alcibiades, “the first text that poses in a systematic way the problem of interior life, of the self ’s relation to itself.” The act of religious or medical confession is not, it seems to me, an act of self-directed askesis, but a peculiar form of submission to a strangely powerful listener. And so: I find myself inclined to draw a bright line between the form of confession that Foucault articulated as leading to the form of subjectivity known as sexuality, and the form of confession that Foucault spoke of in his last lectures as a form of “moral parrhēsia.” To be clear, what Allen has done is to provide us with a striking topographic map through these last lectures, and to allow us to see the ways in which Foucault creates a coherence between subjectivity, care of the self, and the act of telling the truth (to power, or to oneself, or both). This little essay is not meant as a critique of the splendid work that Allen has done; but reading his explication allowed me pry open this inconsistency. I hope that it will provoke from Allen some further explication of Foucault’s alethurgies, and perhaps he will tell me where I have mis–stepped. 


Works Cited:

Foucault, M. 1978 [1976]. The History of Sexuality, vol. 1., Ttranslated by. R. Hurley.  New York: Vintage Books., 1978. 

_______. 2008. Le gouvernement de soi et des autres. Cours au Collège de France, 1982–83. Edited by. Frédéric Gros. Paris: Hautes Études/Gallimard/Seuil, 2008.. 

_______. 2010. The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1982-83., Ttranslated by. G. Burchell. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010..

Miller, P. Allen. 2022. Foucault’s Seminars on Antiquity: Learning to Speak the Truth. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022.. 

  • Paul Allen Miller

    Paul Allen Miller


    True Speech, True Subjects, and True Confessions: A Response to Kirk Ormand

    Ask anyone in Classics to list the top ten scholars of sexuality who have done the most to introduce Foucault’s thought to the study of the ancient world, and Kirk Ormand will always be in that list.  His work on tragedy and archaic poetry is de rigueur for all serious students.  It is therefore a special privilege to engage in dialogue with Kirk about parrhēsia, tragedy, and confession.

    I should start by stipulating that what Kirk says about Foucault’s treatment of parrhēsia in the Ion is correct.  Foucault does note the tension of Ion’s claim to parrhēsia when he returns to Athens without fully acknowledging his true identity.  There is at minimum some irony in a frankness that is predicated on a deception.  Nonetheless, the issue of parrhēsia is straightforwardly thematized in the play and linked directly to questions about Ion’s birth.  If he is not a full a citizen, he will not have the formal right to stand before the assembly and articulate his understanding of the truth.  He will be excluded from the agonistic struggle that undergirds Athenian democratic life.  So far, Foucault’s postion is not problematic.

    As Kirk notes, however, Foucault’s examination of parrhēsia in Creusa’s speeches shows him to be reaching a bit more.  First, the term parrhēsia is never actually used of her speech in Euripides’ text.  Second, in at least one instance, there seems to be a conflation of frankness with confession.  Foucault examines two specific passages.  In the one, Creusa accuses Apollo of rape and, while there is no evidence that in fifth-century BCE Athens the act of a woman making an accusation against a powerful male would have been labeled parrhēsia, even in tragedy, nonetheless this passage can be easily seen as anticipating a later common usage of the term to indicate speaking truth to power, even at some personal risk.  Two of Foucault’s favorite examples of this type of parrhēsia were Plato addressing Dionysius the Younger, Tyrant of Syracuse, and Diogenes the Cynic.  In the other passafge, however, Creusa “confesses” to a third person to having exposed the child she bore from her rape.  

    In effect, what Foucault outlines in these first lectures on parrhēsia is what will constitute the three major forms he will develop over the next two years: democratic political parrhēsia; philosophical or judicial parrhēsia; and personal parrhēsia to a director of conscience or a confessor.  There is something anachronistic in Foucault finding evidence of all three in the Ion.  Nonetheless, I think it is important to remember that these are lectures, not published works.  We are witnessing him working out in real time the concepts he will be exploring in the coming years and he clearly finds the Ion good to think with.

    Kirk also observes that the confessions we see in a Creusa or a Phaedra are ultimately very different from what Foucault described in History of Sexuality volume 1:

    a ritual in which the truth is corroborated by the obstacles and resistances it has had to surmount in order to be formulated; and finally, a ritual in which the expression alone, independently of its external consequences, produces intrinsic modifications in the person who articulates it; it exonerates, redeems, and purifies him; it unburdens him of his wrongs, liberates him and promises him salvation.

    Here I think we get to the crux of Kirk’s response.  What is the relation between these three early forms of truth telling we see in tragedy, forms which are not oracular, poetic, or purely technical, forms that all depend on the subject telling the truth as they see and experience it, and confession as it has come to function in our modern disciplinary and therapeutic regimes? This question, I would submit, is central to the entire Foucauldian project.  To answer it, I want to turn to his reading of another tragedy, Oedipus Tyrannus.  

    We have at least four separate set of lectures on Oedipus.  The first given at the Collège de France in Foucault’s inaugural course (1970-71) and the last at Louvain in 1981.  Of particular significance for us is the set he gave near the beginning of his 1980 course at the Collège, Du gouvernement des vivants, before moving on to an examination of confessional practices in the early church that same year.  The gist of Foucault’s argument is as follows.  Oedipus Tyrannus announces the birth, or at least the recent arrival, of a new regime of truth, one fundamentally different from the Homeric and the archaic described in a text like Detienne’s Masters of Truth.  For, while the truth is announced repeatedly throughout the play, first by Apollo and Tiresias as representatives of oracular or divine truth, then by Jocasta and Oedipus as representatives of authoritative or royal truth, it is only accepted when stated directly by the two shepherds who have no other qualification than their experience.  The one, it will be remembered, was tasked with exposing baby Oedipus and the other received him.  This truth, which in fact depends only on the experience of these subjects as subjects, not on their social or religious status, in turn, leads to the final wrenching scene of Oedipus’s self-avowal, where his personal truth is affirmed in all its desolation.  

    Foucault will pursue the elaboration of a subtle dialectic between self-formation and veridiction over the coming years: the relationship between the ability to speak the truth about myself and the ability to speak the truth about the world.  What is remarkable in the OT is that the traditional regimes of truth, the divine and the aristocratic, no longer remain adequate in themselves.  Their truths can only be confirmed when they have first been ratified by the testimony of two slaves and then assumed by Oedipus, no longer as king or tyrant, but as the humblest of men, the blind beggar.  The truth of the world, under this regime, depends on the truth of the self.  As I observed in the book:

    Like the Corinthian messenger and the Theban shepherd, the knowing subjects of Plato’s cave are without status.  They are neither kings nor prophets.  Nor are they slaves in the conventional sense, though they are certainly bound. Their ability to break free of their chains, to make their way to the upper air and see in the full light of the sun, is not dependent on their social class or the possession of divine insight, but on recognizing the fact that they are bound.  Their knowing is dependent on self-knowledge, on their privileging the inscription of the Delphic Oracle on which Socratic practice rests, gnōthi seauton, “know thyself.”  (48)

    Thus, Foucault argues, the experience of the speaking subject as knower of his or her own experience becomes central to all regimes of truth in the West.  How we know ourselves, to whom we express that knowledge, and in whom we find our reflections are all complex historical questions that Foucault helps us think through.  But there is a strong sense in Foucault that just as the analyst and the analysand could not have existed if there had not been the confessor and the confessant, so too there could not have been the confessing subject if there had never been a subject whose claim to truth was not rooted in their experience qua subject.  In the end, as Freud himself noted in a different vein, we are all Oedipus, but for Freud the question is why does this same story, with its undeniable sexual content, continue to appeal in different versions across the centuries, and for Foucault the question is how does Sophocles’ Oedipus configure a specific form of the knowing subject, at a particular historical juncture, one that ultimately makes possible our specific form of self-relation and thus the discourse of sexuality.

    • Kirk Ormand

      Kirk Ormand


      Modern political subjects: a pessimistic view

      It should probably not come as a surprise that Allen Miller and I are largely in agreement here; after all, I did not offer a critique of Allen’s reading so much as show how his reading helps to see one of the seams in Foucault’s developing thought. And Allen is right to point out that these are lectures; Foucault is working things through, and as he does so, ideas shift and rifts occur.

      Allen productively moves my objections about the characterization of “confession” in the Ion to Foucault’s discussion of the Oedipus Tyrannos, where, he suggests, Foucault sees a new form of truth emerging, a truth which is constituted in the relation of the subject to his (or her) own experience. This, after all, will be critical for parrhesia, since that is a form of frank speech that can only be enacted (in Athens) by citizen-subjects. And as Allen points out, in the Oedipus, we get a form of truth that depends entirely on the subjectivity of the speakers, not on their status in society: “This truth, which in fact depends only on the experience of these subjects as subjects, not on their social or religious status, in turn, leads to the final wrenching scene of Oedipus’s self-avowal, where his personal truth is affirmed in all its desolation.”

      So far, so good. But it is worth noting still, I think, that this truth is wrenched out of these poor herdsmen very much against their will. They are forced to confess; they are, it seems to me, a better analogue for the medicalized form of confession that gives rise to “sexuality” in volume one than is poor Creusa. And yet their speech is not characterized, nor could it be, as parrhesia.

      So for me the rift remains. Allen is on to something here, as always. The Oedipus issues in a new model of truth as extracted confession, of excavation of a hidden past within oneself. And yet, and yet – I find myself wondering why we return to consistently to the Oedipus for our model of the modern subject. It seems a compulsion. It seems… oedipal. There is another model for the modern subject, I would argue, in Ion: the young man who (as, I confess, I’ve recently written elsewhere) must suppress his real birth in order to access the status that his real birth makes possible, and who accepts the declaration that Apollo is his father not through an act of subjective self-reflection, but because a menacing authority figure (Athena) tells him that there is no need to continue questioning. And in accepting this declaration, Ion goes further, and declares that indeed, “it was not unbelievable before.” He rewrites his past, in other words, to match his present and aligns himself with the structure of power under the guise of free speech; and if that is not a model for the modern political subject, I don’t know what is.

    • Paul Allen Miller

      Paul Allen Miller


      Confiteor iucunde

      The question of why we keep returning to Oedipus was of course Freud’s own in The Interpretation of Dreams, a text very much on Foucault’s mind in his later reading of Artemidorus. It remains a pressing question for us.

      Yet Kirk is certainly right, “[Ion} rewrites his past … to match his present and aligns himself with the structure of power under the guise of free speech; and if that is not a model for the modern political subject, I don’t know what is.” Indeed, there is an uncanny way in which Ion, by reconstructing a past, which is a fantasy past or even a deceptive past, under the guise of and in order to speak freely, to (perhaps) free associate and so associate freely, becomes the analytic subject par excellence, one who accedes to the status of the speaking subject through the assumption of a certain past that makes possible his present. The speech itself becomes an acceptance of the law.

      The modernity of these questions and the ways in which Foucault allows us powerfully to rethink them, even when his thought is in flux or not quite fully formed, is of course one of the joys of reading him, even in our moments of pessimism or even despair. There is a consistent commitment throughout his work to what Foucault called “the adventure of thought” and to the possibilities of resistance, even in the face of the intolerable.

Jill Frank


Metaphysics and Monsters

“A thought from the Outside”

Foucault’s Seminars on Antiquity takes as its central focus what Allen Miller describes as Michel Foucault’s “preoccupation” (16) with “traditional philosophical questions” (186): questions of truth, power, knowledge, the own (16). Spotlighting these questions, Miller brilliantly illuminates (against expectation, perhaps, given Foucault’s preoccupation and sources), how Foucault’s seminars on antiquity harbor a radical philosophy and politics. 

This is a philosophy according to which truth is not “objective or impersonal” (95) or “designed to provide … accurate information” (179), but indexed to a “genealogy of the subject as a locus of truth” (52), in which the “question of the subject’s truth and the truth of the subject” are not separable but “twin” (24), and in which knowledge, including self-knowledge, is not a “possession” (173) but a practice of “self-constitution” (163). It’s a thoroughly political philosophy insofar as its truths do “not happen outside of history, outside of power” (148). And it’s radical in that it makes space for “the production of new knowledge, new understandings, new truth” (143). 

From Miller’s intimate and generous engagements with the seminars, alongside his own sensitive readings of Foucault’s primary texts, we learn that Foucault’s radical political philosophy is made possible by “unceasing questioning” and “endless examination” (4), practices that are themselves prompted by what Foucault describes as “thought from the outside (1986)” (1). In Foucault, the site of this “outside” is sometimes an institution on the margins of a society, like the prison, and, sometimes, a marginal subject. And thought from the outside can appear as madness or as truth. Or, more precisely, as truth-telling, the speaking of truth to power characteristic of parrhēsia, which often appears as madness and truth, both. 

Foucault’s exemplary parrhesiast is Diogenes the Cynic (though there is also the matter of Socrates, about whom, more below). Diogenes is exemplary insofar as his “form of life” (181) is, in Foucault’s words, “an other life, radically and paradoxically other” (2009: 226, Miller 177). As Miller brings out, for Foucault, there can be “no instilling of truth without an essential position of alterity,” for only truth that “is never the same” (2009: 311, Miller 177) can “estrange” us “from our own experience,” and thereby prompt us to “come to think differently” (179). Thus, it is as truth that is “in the form of another world, another life” (2009: 311, Miller 177) that Cynic parrhēsia exemplifies the thought from the outside that powers Foucault’s radical political philosophy. 

Plato appears as parrhesiast in Foucault’s seminars as well, specifically, as Miller discusses, when, in the (for some, pseudo-) Seventh Letter, Plato speaks truth to the power of the tyrant Dionysius (145-8). Miller shows that Foucault’s seminars also trace Plato the parrhesiast to the dialogs, which will likely surprise readers for whom, as for Nietzsche, the Plato of the dialogs stands for the “‘pure, will-less, painless, timeless subject of knowledge’” (57) and its truth that Foucault’s radical political philosophy disavows, for this traditional Plato is profoundly at odds with Plato the parrhesiast. It somewhat surprised me, too, though not because I endorse the traditional Plato – not at all — but because I see Foucault and also Miller sometimes themselves endorsing a traditional Plato, that is, in the version bequeathed to them by Heidegger, and I’m not sure how well Plato the parrhesiast and Heidegger’s Plato get along.

Let me explain. As Miller reminds us, Heidegger’s Plato is the Plato with whom the story of Western philosophy as metaphysics begins. On Heidegger’s telling, Plato inaugurates metaphysics because and insofar as Plato understands philosophy as representational thinking. This is a kind of thinking according to which, as Miller explains, “truth is defined as the adequacy of the representation possessed by the subject in relation to the object (Heidegger 1998: 181; Mortensen 1994: 80–2; Jones 2011: 43)” (30).  On Miller’s parsing, truth, so understood, is a function of correspondence: sometimes “correspondence between the perception of a subject and the reality of an independent object”; and, sometimes, “correspondence between a proposition and its referent” (5). Heidegger’s Plato – we can call him Plato the metaphysician – not unlike Foucault’s Homer, understands “veridiction” as “the manifestation of a truth exterior to the speaking subject” (34). Maintaining a strict separation between epistemic subjects and epistemic objects (5), and also between the seeming of objects and their being, Plato the metaphysician’s truth disavows its articulations with subjectivity, and also with power and history.

Heidegger sources this understanding of truth to the Republic’s famous cave allegory. Miller agrees. The “Myth of the Cave,” he writes, “offers the first full articulation of a correspondence model of truth in which an autonomous subject apprehends the truth of the object by correctly referring to it by the category or type to which it belongs (Miller 2020a)” (30). Truth for Plato the metaphysician, like parrhesiastic truth, is sited to a thought from the outside. But the outside of metaphysical truth is not the margins of a society. Nor is metaphysical truth itself radically situated. Instead, as an ahistorical and noncontingent truth, it transcends society to stand instead as a timeless universal. The thought from the outside of metaphysical truth does not prompt self-constitution and reconstitution “as a subject in a self-relation of emancipation” (153). Instead, it authorizes and justifies rule, including tyrannical rule, by philosopher-kings.

I would like to understand better how these two Platos — the metaphysician and the parrhesiast — inhabit and cohabit in Foucault’s seminars on antiquity and also in Foucault’s Seminars on Antiquity. They are too proximate and overlapping in Foucault’s seminars to be explained by a developmental story, according to which, say, Foucault started off thinking about Plato one way but changed his mind over time. To me, this kind of story is belied, in any case, by a key structuring binary to which Foucault, and Miller, too, repeatedly return: an opposition of philosophy to rhetoric (95-96, 150-52, 164-65, 186). Metaphysical truth depends on this opposition, but might it have to be refused by Plato the parrhesiast, for whom, as Miller tells us, truth “does not pre-exist discourse” (152)? And if the parrhesiast invests in a logos which, rather than “effacing [itself] before an external truth” (6), is co-implicated with subjects and/in their truth-telling, then might Plato the parrhesiast’s discursive truth be closer than Foucault and Miller allow to that of the sophists, for whom truth is “a concrete reflection of the desires, passions, and interests of the speaker (Foucault 2011: 32–3, 43, 46–7, 60, 65–6)” (6)? Moreover, if the truth-telling characteristic of parrhēsia registers “as a thousand barely audible voices that inform, contradict, and determine one another (2008: 22)” (145), then wouldn’t it be the case, contra Miller, that, for Plato the parrhesiast, as for the sophists and poets, true speech, or logos alēthēs, would not be “self-identical” (176)?

The tensions between metaphysical and parrhesiastic truth need not necessarily foreclose their coincidence. They could coincide, for example, in a Plato, who, like Diogenes, say, is “an other life, radically and paradoxically other.” But I’m not sure that this kind of alterity can be accommodated by the Plato of Foucault’s seminars (or of Foucault’s Seminars, for that matter). For, on Foucault’s genealogy of the subject as a locus of truth as surfaced by Miller, the pre-Cynic self is instead pretty seamless and unified. Its self-knowledge, “a way of mastering and forming the self” (45), which serves as “a predicate for knowledge per se,” warrants the subject’s speaking “a truth separate from itself” (48). Miller explains: 

Ancient philosophical self-knowledge takes many forms, but in no case, Foucault argues – and I would submit that he is right – do they require confrontation with the radically alien within the self, the monstrous … .  What is new with Christianity, Foucault argues, is not the drive toward self-knowledge, and the forms of self-care that form its predicates, but the relation to the radically other and perverse within. (48-9) 

To Foucault and also to Miller, it seems, a Plato hospitable to alterity would be anachronistic. More than that, such a Plato would, I believe, be anathematic, insofar as “self-identicality” is associated not only, as noted, with the logos alēthēs, but with Plato the parrhesiast as well (176). But what if attributing self-identicality to the truth-teller, no less than to the truth, is to subject Plato the parrhesiast to Plato the metaphysician? 

And if parrhēsia depends, as it does in Diogenes, on constitutive alterity, but alterity, like radically situated truth, is effaced by Plato the metaphysician, then might endorsing Plato the parrhesiast require refusing Heidegger’s Plato? I think the answer is yes, and offer elsewhere, in place of a metaphysical Plato, what I call a poetic Plato, for whom representational thinking is not correspondence between appearance and a reality determined by exteriorized truth, but rather aisthetic, aesthetic, and therefore relational, which is to say, radically situational, and always articulated with power. My key text for Plato the poet is the Republic, which I reread back to front, through the lens of its treatment of mimesis. For this Plato, as for Plato the parrhesiast, truth does not consist “in the correlation of names (onomata) and appearances (eidola) through logoi, but it is the continuing and deliberate friction (tribē) between those elements of knowledge in a fashion that reveals the contingencies, interests, and limitations that govern those correlations” (147). This Plato is constituted by alterity from the get-go in virtue of his authorial self-erasure, which, I argue, figures him as the totality of the dialogic relationships he represents via the characters he writes into his dialogs. This Plato, like Miller’s “monstrous” Oedipus, is “structured as a sumbolon … irretrievably double” (29), or, rather, multiple. Like the Socrates of the Phaedrus (92), Plato the poet is Typhonesque.

Which brings me, at last, to Socrates, Plato’s Socrates, who Miller describes as Foucault’s “lodestar” (2), “primary [parrhesiastic] model” (165), and philosophical and political “archetype” (166). More than Diogenes or Plato, it seems really to be Socrates who, for Foucault, “places the philosopher in a fundamentally new position as a truth-teller” (168). Miller, too, seems to most prefer Socrates as exemplary parrhesiast, especially compared to the Cynics, whom he calls “heirs to the most disturbing parts of the Socratic legacy” (4). Foucault describes Socrates’ life as “unpolluted and pure (Foucault 2009: 92)” (173). To Miller, Socrates’ life is “the perfect philosophic life” (173). For both, Socrates stands out as the paradigmatic self-constituting parrhesiastic “touchstone” (169-74), an emblematic “vessel of truth” (25). 

I have some questions about this Socrates. Miller and Foucault both site Socrates’ parrhēsia to his characteristic practice of argumentation, the elenchus, by way of which “Socrates transforms the traditional enigmatic oracular pronouncement of a truth yet to be realized into a proposition to be tested over and over again within a set of discursive interactions whereby statements are shown to be either true or false by logical means and the mutual agreement of the interlocutors (Foucault 2009: 76)” (167-68). This “Socratic process of examination and refutation” (168), Miller writes, demands “a commitment to the courage of truth—the title of Foucault’s final course—to parrhēsia, and to the combatting of false opinion, even unto death” (175). To Miller, what “Foucault means by ‘truth’ in this context, and what he argues Plato means as well, is something akin to Heidegger’s notion of alētheia as the ‘unhidden’” (175).

I’m less sure. While I agree that the elenchus turns truth into a proposition to be tested by logic, this does not strike me as an especially parrhesiastic practice. On the contrary, this sounds uncannily resonant with an iteration of the correspondence theory of truth referenced above, namely, truth as “the correspondence between a proposition and its referent” (5), the truth of Plato the metaphysician. But if the truth of the elenchus aligns with the truth of metaphysics, then won’t elenctic truth be at a great distance from both parrhesiastic truth and also from alētheia, which Heidegger offers as his antidote to metaphysical truth? And if Foucault’s radical political philosophy depends on thinking and acting differently, and if that, as Miller explains, requires getting “beyond the definitions, procedures, and discourses that define what it means to make a true statement … (1984a: 14-15)” (1), then won’t the Socratic elenchus, in virtue of its “definitions, procedures, and discourses that define what it means to make a true statement,” in virtue precisely of its captivity to logic, more so threaten rather than cultivate the capacities upon which radical philosophy depends?

Miller names a second site of Socrates’ parrhesiastic practice: an “encounter with the soul of Socrates” (169). Referencing Plato’s Alcibiades and Foucault, Miller writes that Socrates “functions both as a mirror, but also as a touchstone, a way of examining the self in terms of its own judgment (phronēsis), truth (alētheia), and soul (psukhē) (29e1–2; Foucault 2009: 77–9, 119)” (169). A “mirror,” yes: as Socrates maintains in the Theaetetus, “The arguments never come out of me; they always come out of the person I am talking with” (160e). And a “touchstone,” too, in the way that, in the Gorgias, say, Socrates calls Callicles his “touchstone” (487a). Whether as mirror or touchstone, an encounter with the soul of Socrates will always, in these ways, be, as in the case of Diogenes, an encounter with “an other life, radically and paradoxically other.” To this radical paradoxicality, a Typhonesque Socrates would surely be hospitable. Would the “unpolluted and pure” Socrates who serves as Foucault’s and Miller’s touchstone?

  • Paul Allen Miller

    Paul Allen Miller


    Is There a Work in this Text? A Response to Jill Frank

    My title alludes to Roland Barthes’ “From Work to Text?” and Stanley Fish’s “Is There a Text in this Class.” The essential question in both is: what is the ontology of the text? When we sit down to read Plato’s Republic or more specifically “The Myth of the Cave,” what is it that we read, what is its relation to the historical person we call Plato, and what are its boundaries: what is inside and what is outside the text? My friend and longtime interlocutor on all things Plato, Jill Frank, writer of Heidegger’s “Myth of the Cave,” as Foucault’s and my own. She also speaks of her own provocative reading of the Republic, which I highly recommend, Poetic Justice, which as she notes reads the Republic from back to front. The question I would submit is whether we are all in fact reading the same thing and, if not, then how do these various textual ontologies co-exist, if in fact they do.

    These notion have been at the center of literary theory since at least the sixties and arguably go back at least to the New Criticism and Russian Formalism. In Barthes’ essay, where the “work” is a closed system, created by an author, which our job as interpreters is to understand as an integrated, intentional whole, a “text” is an open system, whose signifiers only have meaning in relation to previous usages (intertextuality) and in so far as they participate in specific localized chains (phrase, sentences, codes, etc). Those usages and their organization exist only in relation to historically specific readers. The great monument to this style of reading is Barthes’ S/Z with its dissolution of Balzac’s “Sarassine” into five codes that define a network. Barthes’ argument is that in a post-Saussurian and post-Freudian semiotic world, it is no longer possible in good faith to interpret “works,” but we can only read “texts.” While I think there is still a place for interpreting texts as wholes that we only make meaningful in relation to their constitutent parts, and I would note Barthes does treat Sarassine as a work to that extent, it is clear to me that the notion of a “work,” which is how Frank reads the Republic (from back to front), and which is not how Foucault reads Plato’s or other philosophical texts, has no claim to priority.

    Stanley Fish’s Is There a Text in this Class (1980) poses many of the same questions in a more distinctly American and pragmatic mode. He asks when we have a class read a text like Milton’s “When I consider How My Light is Spent,” how do we determine what is a correct interpretation? Does not that question itself assume that there is a meaning that inheres in that text and is there whether reading it or not? And if that is so, then how? How is that a set of marks have a specifiable meaning that exists apart from the act of reading, and that can then be “discovered”? Fish’s solution is essentially to say that it doesn’t. Meaning is a set of conventions agreed upon by what he terms “interpretive communities” and that as those communities change so do the meanings they attribute to the texts. We may believe we are reading Plato or Milton, but what we are really doing is negotiating with one another and using the printed page as the medium through which we conduct that negotiation. Thus the significance that a given passage, such as the “Myth of Cave,” may have in the various communities that receive may well be different from the meaning we make of it when we sit down to read the Republic from end to end.

    Foucault entered this debate with “What is an Author” (1969), which is reply to Barthes’s “Death of the Author” (1967). His answer is complex, but in essence Foucault argues that an author is a function of discourse. It serves as a method of unifying a body of texts under a specific set of concepts or family resemblances. Plato is an author. He exists primarily through a set of texts that bear his name (some of which are in dispute). He is not the empirical person Plato, who attended to his bodily functions, had disputes with friends, and had to choose what to wear. The Platonic corpus is a textual body, and “Plato” is a kind of retrospective shadow cast by that corpus:

    The “author-function” is tied to the legal and institutional systems that circumsribe, determine, and articulate, the realm of discourses; it does not operate in a uniform manner in all discourses, at all times, and in any given culture; it is not defined by the spontaneous attribution of a text to its creator, but through a series of precise and complex procedures; it does not refer, purely and simply, to an actual individual insofar as it simultaneously gives rise to a variety of egos and to a series of subjective positions that individuals of any class may come to occupy. (Foucault 1977: 130-31).

    Foucault then specifies a particular kind of author he labels the “initiator of discursive practices,” which he arbitrarily limits to the nineteenth century with specific reference to Freud and Marx, who not only created works and texts but opened entirely new discursive possibilities. In fact, very much the same can be said about Plato, who not only created a body of work and certain interpreteters, but who also made possible whole new forms of discourse that followed in his wake: the various incarnations of the ancient academy, authors as diverse as Cicero, Plutarch, and Plotinus, the theology of the early church, and who also had a decisive impact on the entire post-Socratic tradition. 

    Lastly, it should be pointed out that questions about the ontology of the text are at the heart of Foucault’s dispute with Derrida concerning Descartes’s First Meditation. In essence, this debate is about whether the Meditation should be understood as a work, which is there to be interpreted according to certain logical canons, or whether it is a practice, the attempt to do something with words. Foucault’s argument is that Derrida confuses a meditation with a more traditional philosophical idea of a work, and that he fails to understand it as a set of human actions. As I argued:

    for Foucault knowledge is something we do. His concept of the will to know casts knowledge as a human activity that is both determined by and determinative of its historical context. There is no such thing as reason or sense outside of a particular context. He therefore places a strong emphasis on Descartes’ Meditation as a meditation, as a series of acts performed by the philosopher in order to come to know the truth. (66).

    This distinction is relevant to Foucault’s use of the work of Pierre Hadot. For Hadot ancient philosophy is not the attempt to assemble a single coherent theoretical edifice, à la Spinoza or Hegel. It is a set of spiritual practices designed to transform the life of the practitioner. From this perspective, we would expect a dialogue like the Republic both to stand apart from other dialogues and to be less a “work” than a “text” whose component parts aim to perform a series of protreptic and ethical (self-formative) functions. 

    With these observations in mind, let us turn to the specific issues Frank raises. It should be obvious by now that the ground of my response will be to argue Frank’s ontological assumptions about the Platonic text are neither the same as Foucault’s nor my own. I will also, however, argue that these alternative sets of assumptions should be seen less as a set of mutually exclusive propositions and more as parallel scenes of writing and reception. I will group Frank’s detailed and wide-ranging response under three headings: the “Myth of the Cave” and the Republic; the Republic and parrhēsia; the question of self-identity and confession.

    As Frank notes, I acknowledge that “lurking behind” Marcel Detienne’s Masters of Truth is Heidegger’s reading of the cave, “The implicit argument of all three thinkers (Foucault, Detienne, and Heidegger) is that our familiar correspondence theory of truth is only truly established with the advent of Platonic metaphysics, the fullest statement of which is found in the Myth of the Cave with its clear distinction between epistemic subjects and objects” (5). Appended to this passage, however, is an important footnote, the end of which reads as follows:

    Plato, however, was a complex figure, and it would be wrong to see his legacy simply as being the first metaphysician. His texts are profoundly overdetermined. Platonism, the metaphysical tradition derived from those texts, represents an abstraction that fails to do them full justice. See Miller (2015b) and Frank (2018).

    We have at least two realities here and each of them depends on a certain textual ontology. On the one hand, there is an undeniable tradition of Platonism that established a certain metaphysical and epistemic stance to the world, and that tradition of Platonism founds itself on a reading of certain passages in the Platonic corpus, the chief of which is the “Myth of the Cave.” This is a historical fact as much as it is an interpretive stance. The other reality is that the “Myth of the Cave” is embedded within a complex and overdetermined “poetic” text, which urges us to consider other possible readings of it. I have argued in “Dreams and Other Fictions: The Representation of Representation in Republic Five and Six,” cited above, that “the myth when read in context not only asks us to distinguish between shadows on the wall and things themselves, it also forces us to interrogate this distinction. How does the world beyond appearance appear? What is it like? How does the truth seem?” (37). Similarly, Frank herself has made a persuasive case, that we should not only read the myth, but read it in the context of the Republic’s dramatic setting, Socrates’s relation with his interlocutors, and a complex double dialogue in which on one level poetry and other forms of “seeming” are disparaged even they are simultaneously practiced and arguably praised. In point of fact, there is no contradiction here. It is entirely possible that in the creation of the discursive structures we call Platonism and representational thinking a text like the myth of the cave can play a foundational moment and that, when that same text is contextualized within a larger corpus, it can serve play discursive roles.

    The answer to Frank’s question about the relation between Foucault’s metaphysical Plato and the parrhesiastic Plato is much the same. Foucault, as noted in my response to Brill, does not spend much time with the Republic. His focus throughout the late seminars is on the Alcibiades, the Laches, the Apology, the Phaedo, and the Seventh Letter. The need to reconcile these various texts under a single coherent theoretical edifice only really has force if we are assuming an author in the strong traditional sense of one who is creating “works.” If on the other hand, we see a series of practices aimed turning the reader/listener to caring for themselves and pursuing philosophy, then we would not necessarily expect them all to be saying the same thing and each to back the image of a unified authorial subject. Likewise, the fact that some of these texts have been disputed as to whether Plato was truly their author, although none of them have been said to be not “Platonic,” is of considerably less importance if instead of looking for the author of works, we are examining discursive practices. Foucault certainly recognizes that this is not a unified body and notes that the concept of the self in the Alcibiades, which is premised on the soul, is different from that found in the Laches, which is purely relational. Does any of this preclude Frank or anyone else from reading the Republic as a work? Certainly not, indeed the contextualization of individual passages and texts within larger formations is the way new meanings are produced and these complex corpora remain alive for us. The assumption that a given text is a unified work is hardly indefensible, but in itself this cannot account for the range of receptions and meanings produced by that text.

    My final reply to Frank’s elegant and challenging response looks at one specific claim and its context. It deals on some level with the ontology of my text. There is a passage that Frank cites that has a crucial ellipsis. Her claim is, if I understand it, that Foucault’s argument that the truth requires another life is incoherent, since Foucault does not recognize the existence of otherness in ancient self-knowledge. The main passage she cites is:

    Ancient philosophical self-knowledge takes many forms, but in no case, Foucault argues

    —– and I would submit that he is right—t – do they require confrontation with the radically alien within the self, the monstrous … . What is new with Christianity, Foucault argues, is not the drive toward self-knowledge, and the forms of self-care that form its predicates, but the relation to the radically other and perverse within. (48-9).

    This would appear to be fairly damning. But I would look at what lies behind the ellipsis after “monstrous,” “whether in the shape of the devil, Descartes’ evil genius, or unconscious desires.” These are not random examples. They recapitulate Foucault’s argument that confession as practiced in the church represents something fundamentally new, not simply a critical relation to the self, but one that sees the self as fundamentally undone by an internally monstrous power that can only be surfaced through a process of confession to one who is in authority, one who is in a position to tell you to go farther, that what you think you are confessing is not what you are really confessing. This is not the other of Socratic self-knowledge, not Alcibiades’s soul reflected in his eyes. But like Descartes’s malin genie it is an other so fundamental that the very process of reflection is a potential ruse. This other is what Foucault sees as the predicate for the modern disciplinary and therapeutic subject, and why he sees ancient practices of self-care as offering an alternative self-relation. 

    None of this means the ancient self is completely homogeneous. Let me give an example. Catullus 85 reads, “I hate and I love. Perhaps you ask why I do it./ I do not know. But I feel it and I am tortured.” Catullus is no Freudian patient. He is not suffering from a hysterical paralysis. He does not require dream interpretation, free association, or a father confessor to discover the source of his pain. It is on the surface. This is not a secret monstrosity. His thoughts are not a delusion of the devil or the product of unavowed trauma or desires. Indeed, if one reads the corpus, it is self-evident: he knows of Lesbia’s infidelity and this knowledge fires his erotic imagination, “how is it possible you say? Because such an injury forces/ the lover to love more but to esteem less” (72.7-8). 

    In the end all forms of interpretation are also recontextualizations. What we understand to be the text determines how we read it. We may read the Republic front to back or back to front. We will necessarily excerpt. Those excerpts take on a life of their own. They present ideas on a level of generality that when replaced in their original context are complex and overdetermined. It is our ability to move between these different scenes of reading and writing, while acknowledging their necessary partiality, that allows new thoughts to be produced, that permits us “to think differently,” which Jill’s work has in the past and continues to inspire me to do.

    • Jill Frank

      Jill Frank



      My marginalia to Allen’s rejoinder to my response are populated almost entirely by “yes!” and “100% agree,” so I want to begin by bringing forward what I see as our points of similarity and overlap. Like Allen and Foucault, I take the author Plato to be “a function of discourse,” and to exist “primarily through a set of texts that bear his name.” I attribute to Plato no intentionality. Rather, again like Allen and Foucault, I treat each dialog as “the attempt to do something with words.” On these fronts, I see my “ontological assumptions about the Platonic text” as differing hardly at all from what Allen describes as his and Foucault’s assumptions.

      At the same time, when I read the Republic back to front, or any dialog in any direction, I do treat it as “an intentional whole,” in Allen’s phrase from Barthes’ definition of a “work,” albeit a whole whose mode of being is, as with any doing (as we know from Hannah Arendt), to escape its author’s intention. I also do not see Plato’s work as a whole that can be “interpreted according to certain logical canons,” but rather to refuse this kind of interpretation, which is partly what I seek to convey by calling it “poetic.” Instead, I take any given work by Plato to be a whole “whose component parts aim to perform a series of protreptic and ethical (self-formative) functions,” which is how Allen defines a “text.” So, for me, Plato’s dialogs are both “works” and “texts.”

      It is from this perspective that I take my distance from Heidegger, who treats not only “the Myth of the Cave” but, as Allen’s footnote notes, “Plato,” too, as the origin of metaphysics. Aware of Allen’s self-exception from Heidegger’s Plato, I still worry that by running with Heidegger’s interpretation of the cave, which tracks his hypostasization of Plato, Allen and Foucault run against their assumptions about textuality, authorship, and authority.

      Allen reinserts the material I ellipsed out of the passage on the “other” of self-knowledge, and I’m happy it’s back, for I totally agree that the “other” of ancient philosophical self-knowledge is not and cannot be “the devil” or “Descartes’ evil genius,” figures that exemplify the other that “Foucault sees as the predicate for the modern disciplinary and therapeutic subject.” I’m less sure that there are no analogs for these in Plato’s dialogs, however. And I actually take the dialogs to be largely about “unconscious desires,” which I see appearing in and in the form of the desiring souls surfaced across the texts, from the Alcibiades to the Republic to Seventh Letter, and also mirrored in and by Socrates, which is, in part, why the Socrates of the Alcibiades, say, differs from the Socrates of the Laches or the Phaedo, and may be why Socrates self-describes as Typhonesque, or monstrous.

      A reflection of the unconscious desires of his interlocutors, Socrates is, for his part, too, a function of discourse, no less a text and poetic work than the dialogs themselves. Part of why I worry about Foucault and Allen’s heroizing of Socrates is that that, no less than the hypostasizing of Plato, threatens to turn him into a work in the strong and closed Barthian sense that Allen, Foucault, and I all refuse.

    • Paul Allen Miller

      Paul Allen Miller


      A few brief remarks

      First it is a joy to be conversing with Jill once more about Plato and texts.

      As she notes, we are in fact largely in agreement.

      I do, as Jill observes, think that Heidegger offers us one important way to think about how a certain reading of Plato has had a lasting effect on western knowledge. The tradition of a Platonizing metaphysics remains powerful in our world in ways, I would argue, many of us (present company excepted) are not fully aware. Accepting the saliency of Heidegger’s reading of the Cave in relation to that tradition may run the risk of spilling over into an acceptance of a Heideggerian reading of Plato tout court, and I would agree that this is something with regard to which we must be vigilant.

      What I would want to say, however, is that I don’t think Platonism as an aspect of the Platonic texts and of their reception can be avoided, and I suspect I give more deference to that tradition than Jill is completely comfortable with, but I also don’t think that reception is the totality of Plato and certainly not what is most interesting in our returning to his texts. But how we disentangle the legacy of Platonism in our thought from Plato’s texts and yet still read Plato is, I would submit (and don’t think Jill would disagree), one of our most significant ongoing challenges. I am reminded a bit of a statement from Deleuze where he says that our most immediate challenge is the defeat of Platonism, and that the first critic of Platonism was Plato. How we undertake this kind of vigilant double reading, I would say, is a central problem.

      One way to undertake such a reading might be to think more carefully about the voice of the other in the Platonic texts. Jill speaks eloquently about unconscious desires in these texts. I would love to hear more about how she understands the unconscious in this context. I think Lacan’s formulation of the unconscious as the voice of the other is helpful. It both allows us to be attentive to the other voices within these texts, voices that speak beyond the canonical readings and beyond the canons of logic, voices on the margins, without substantializing those voices in a way that Foucault, Jill, and I would all find problematic.

      I would say that for me, what is most to be valued from the Socratic and Platonic tradition and Foucault’s engagement with it, is precisely this very kind of dialogue, in which questions of real import are discussed, investments are made, and the history of speech and thought, and of knowledge, power, and the subject are engaged.

Zahi Zalloua


Foucault with Žižek

The Care of the Self Meets the Neighbor

Foucault’s pedigree as a Nietzschean is fairly well established. “Truth is a thing of this world” is one of Foucault’s rallying cries against Plato, or rather Platonism, against any impulse toward the transcendental, against anything that escapes the corruption of the here and now—the dreadful realm of becoming. In this vein, Foucault is also known as France’s “philosopher of power”—meaning that knowledge as such can only be an illusory aspiration, an effect of material and discursive forces. Against this one-sided account, which often works to delegitimize Foucault’s contribution to the humanities, Professor Miller’s beautiful book demonstrates that Foucault’s relation to philosophy and its more traditional operations is infinitely more complex. 

I want to take up three converging points of interest in my response to Foucault’s Seminars on Antiquity: Learning to Speak the Truth. The first is Foucault’s relation to ancient philosophy’s traumatophobic character; the second concerns the unexpected resonance between Foucault’s discussion of Christianity’s account of the “radically alien” within and Slavoj Žižek’s return to the (real) neighbor of scripture; and the third deals with Professor Miller’s recasting of Foucault as a kind of philosopher of the universal (albeit a universal that undergoes its own mutation via the call of parrhēsia).

Philosophy’s traumatophobic character is perhaps most clearly displayed by the Stoics, for whom the pedagogical ideal underpinning self-care is about limiting exposure to trauma via the cultivation of one’s reason. Only by “train[ing] the student to use reason to avoid suffering” (46) can one actualize their fully humanity. As Professor Miller observes, the care of the self, or the aesthetics of existence, is an injunction “to submit your existence to the logos, to reasoned discourse and self-testing, to produce a life that is accountable, defensible, and admirable” (175). And yet Foucault’s penchant also seems to go the other way, attracted to what derails (one’s) being. Foucault has no truck with identitarian impulses. In “What is Enlightenment?” Foucault explains the labor of critique as “work on our limits, that is, a patient labor giving form to our impatience for liberty.” This type of critique “will separate out, from the contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being, doing, or thinking what we are, do, or think.” Elsewhere, Foucault famously celebrates critique as “the art of voluntary inservitude [l’art de l’inservitude volontaire],” foregrounding its “reflective indocility [l’indocilité réfléchie],” which yearns for “desubjectification” in “the politics of truth.” How does this desire for a permanent state of negativity, that insists on experimentality and skepticism, on not foreclosing the subject’s very possibilities, sit with ancient philosophy’s vision of reason? Does the imperative to liberate the self from itself—the call to disengage from oneself, “to get free of oneself” (se déprendre de soi-même)—entail a certain traumatophilia, an attraction to unsettlement? 

This perpetual desire to break free of oneself, of one’s will to servitude, characterizes for Foucault “the ethic of the intellectual.” Is self-violence, in this light, a Foucauldian response to the Delphic injunction, “Know thyself”? Does it yield alternative modes of self and self-knowing? What is the relation between Foucauldian negativity and (ancient) philosophy’s investment in reason? Is there a reason hospitable to truth’s unruliness, to the self-violence that it fosters, or to the desire to break free from one’s symbolic identity and/or unplug from one’s organic community? I believe Professor Miller hints at an answer via his discussion of parrhēsia (a question to which I’ll return below).

Professor Miller turns our attention to Foucault’s account of the difference between an ancient philosophical self-knowledge—which takes multiple forms—and its Christian counterpart. What the former noticeably lacks is the latter’s “confrontation with the radically alien within the self, the monstrous, whether in the shape of the devil, Descartes’ evil genius, or unconscious desires” (48-49). This formulation caught my eye and reminded me of Žižek’s commentary on the figure of the neighbor, along with the biblical injunction to “Love thy neighbor.” Quoting Lacan, Žižek writes: “Nothing is farther from the message of Socrates than you shall love your neighbor as yourself, a formula that is remarkably absent from all that he says.” A certain relation to self and to the neighbor are thus utterly foreign to ancient philosophy. 

If Greek philosophy neglected the hysterical presence of this alien other, Jewish law avows the Real of the neighbor, that is, the neighbor as the “bearer of a monstrous Otherness, this properly inhuman neighbor.” Žižek’s twist is that this understanding of the neighbor does not refer exclusively to the external other, but to the otherness that resides in the self as well. The inhuman is “absolutely immanent [to] the very core of subjectivity itself.” The self as neighbor sounds a lot like the “radically alien within the self, the monstrous,” that which I/we perpetually disavow and project onto the other—the foreigner, the racialized other, the sexually deviant, the imagined enemy. Je est un monstre. Here, I am interested in what Professor Miller might say about a care of the self that avows and takes seriously the neighbor within and without. Wouldn’t this anti-normative model of self-care necessarily open to the care for others/other (real) neighbors? Isn’t this a further opportunity for a rapprochement between Foucault and psychoanalysis? 

Lastly, I found Professor Miller’s recasting of Foucault’s critical work in universalist terms provocative. This is one of the passages I have in mind: “This work [involving the separation of the self from its environment] is inseparable from the elaboration of the truth, not as a private confession or fantasy but as public speech, as reasoning on the level of the universal and the general” (130). It is, of course, well known that Foucault was quite allergic to universalisms in all shapes. Recently, Todd McGowan has underscored the authority of Foucault in anti-universalist circles, namely among the proponents of identity politics, the dominant paradigm of postmodern politics: “Michel Foucault provides the model for contemporary politics, even among those who have never heard of him. Foucault is the leading theoretical light for the move from a universalist program to particular political interventions.” I think Professor Miller’s book invites us to read Foucault against Foucault, or at least against a certain liberal or multicultural reception of his ideas.

Professor Miller’s emphasis on Foucault’s commitment to truth—the courage of truth—compels us to revisit his ascribed place among the particularists, the anti-universalists. Here we might link more explicitly the work of refusing what we are with parrhēsia (frankness, truth-telling). Foucault argues that “the parrhesiastes acts on other people’s minds by showing them as directly as possible what he actually believes.” Indeed, philosophical frankness means speaking truth to power or it means nothing at all. But isn’t there a certain traumatophilia in this vision parrhēsia? Identity politics, in this respect, is antithetical to the virtues of parrhēsia. Its politics is squarely about self-interests, the interests of one’s own group. It is after recognition from power, and even potentially a limited piece of that power. We may also characterize identity politics as traumatophobic: don’t verge away from self-interest, remain faithful to what is good for your cause. Simply put, identity politics submits to the logic of the pleasure principle. In contrast, parrhēsia gestures to an alternative politics, to a politics of solidarity, a politics in the pursuit of justice for all. Here universality breaks with a model of universalism that traffics with abstract universals predicated on an a priori category (anchored in nature, humanism, reason, etc.) which is then applied to all circumstances.  

In imagining this parrhēsia at work in today’s political landscape, I am wondering how it would account for—and potentially disrupt—fetishist disavowal, the logic of “Je sais bien, mais quand même” [“I know very well, but nevertheless”]. As Žižek observes, “fetishist disavowal” is an attempt to deal with anxiety; it splits the ego between knowing and not knowing; new information has been admitted into consciousness but its epistemic impact has been minimized and “not really integrated into the subject’s symbolic universe.’’ There is a willful turning away in fetishist disavowal: “‘I know, but I don’t want to know that I know, so I don’t know.’ I know it, but I refuse to fully assume the consequences of this knowledge, so that I can continue acting as if I don’t know.” 

Žižek gives the example of the suffering of animals to illustrate the workings of fetishist disavowal:

What about animals slaughtered for our consumption? who among us would be able to continue eating pork chops after visiting a factory farm in which pigs are half-blind and cannot even properly walk, but are just fattened to be killed? And what about, say, torture and suffering of millions we know about, but choose to ignore? Imagine the effect of having to watch a snuff movie portraying what goes on thousands of times a day around the world: brutal acts of torture, the picking out of eyes, the crushing of testicles—the list cannot bear recounting. Would the watcher be able to continue going on as usual? Yes, but only if he or she were able somehow to forget—in an act which suspended symbolic efficiency—what had been witnessed.

Žižek argues that this disavowal is emblematic of ethics as such. Fundamentally, every ethics (“even the most universal ethics”) affirms a fetishist disavowal, “obliged to draw a line and ignore some sort of suffering.” As well-meaning subjects, we need to forget about the suffering of animals. We need to remain ethical (humanist/humane), but we aren’t willing to assume the symbolic consequences: the need to radically alter society’s systemic animal cruelty and fully avowal our own animality.

As enlightened humanists, we manage a kind of split attitude. On the one hand, we know that human beings are just like pigs and birds, that we are animals subjected to evolution by natural selection (we enthusiastically fight for the teaching of Darwin in public schools). We also know that we experiment on animals, mistreat and slaughter them. Basically, we know that there is nothing exceptional about us. On the other hand, we nonetheless act as if we didn’t know, as if we were exceptional, somehow ontologically special, incommensurable with the rest of the animal kingdom. Can Foucauldian parrhēsia complicate the ideological capture of knowledge, basically its reduction to received doxa?   

Foucault’s anti-humanism dates from Les mots et les choses and has never wavered. Can parrhēsia short-circuit humanism’s affective appeal, dislodge the knowledge/belief opposition so that “it becomes possible for another world to be imagined” (182)? We know about humanism’s horrendous history, but we nonetheless still believe in humanism, in its libidinal currency. Fetishist disavowal helps to reproduce the status quo, blocking or coopting any genuine threat to complacency and normalcy, to my conformable existence; it allows liberals and humanists to indulge in self-satisfaction, that is, to have their “cake and eat it.” If fetishist disavowal effectively defangs impartial knowledge, is speaking truth to power (with all the risks that it entails) spared the same bleak future? What would learning to speak an anti-humanist truth look like in its material practice? How would it challenge humanism’s authority (an authority that is by no means premised on a pristine history of humanism—I know that humanists have dirty hands, but nonetheless…)? How would it estrange (weaken the subject’s attachment to the Human) and disable the humanist’s capacity to “know” but in a way that does not make that knowledge disruptive and unamenable to the well-being of society? Inducing cognitive dissonance and fearlessly decrying humanism’s delusions à la Diogenes may not be sufficient to alter our social coordinates, make us think differently, or simply compel us to reexamine our beliefs in who matters and who doesn’t (179–80).

Žižek returns to the relation of fetishist disavowal and ethics, proposing a way out of the former’s ideological traps. He asks and answers: “Does not every ethics have to rely on such a gesture of fetishistic disavowal? Yes, every ethics—with the exception of the ethics of psychoanalysis which is a kind of anti-ethics: it focuses precisely on what the standard ethical enthusiasm excludes, on the traumatic Thing that our Judeo-Christian tradition calls the ‘Neighbor.’” Would Professor Miller’s Foucault pin his name to this monstrous anti-ethical ethics?  

  • Paul Allen Miller

    Paul Allen Miller


    “What is to be done?” A Response to Zahi Zalloua

    Zahi Zalloua is a multifaceted scholar with expertise ranging from Renaissance France to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. His theoretical coordinates are equally rich, with much of his recent work on important questions of racism and nationalism occupying coordinates mapped in the space between Žižek, Lévinas, and Derrida. In responding to Zalloua, I am then not only responding to an esteemed colleague but also to many of the most basic and important problems that make up what we call today “theory.” Zalloua raises three important topics that I will concentrate on: the problem of universalism, the encounter with the neighbor, and the possibility of an ethics not premised on bad faith or disavowal.

    The problem of universalism is as old as the question of the one and the many, one which is central to Plato’s Philebus, but also to Parmenides and the various competing forms of sophistic reason. Foucault, as Zalloua notes, is famously the champion of the specific as opposed to the universal intellectual. As I observed near the beginning of my book, “For [Foucault] the role of the intellectual was not to represent the interests of others or to speak for the universal, but to call into question the truth of the present: to open it up to interrogation, problematization, and new possibilities of thought and actions” (14). Yet, as Zalloua points out, 116 pages later, in the context of describing Foucault’s engagement with Kant’s “Was ist Aufklärung” and Baudelaire’s “Le peintre de la vie moderne,” I argue that the work of modernity as Foucault reads it “is inseparable from the elaboration of the truth, not as a private confession or fantasy but as public speech, as reasoning on the level of the universal and the general.” The question is: are these two imperatives in contradiction, are we dealing here with a Kantian antinomy? I would submit that these positions are not in contradiction, and I want to make that argument on two grounds. The first involves a clarification of Foucault’s own position, the second a more general engagement with the very possibility of making arguments, that is to say with philosophical reason writ large.

    The first point, then, is that Foucault would make a distinction between “speaking for the universal” and “public speech, as reasoning on the level of the universal and general.” In spite of verbal similarities, they are not the same thing. In the first case, the universal as opposed to the specific intellectual claims to occupy a position from which answers and roles can be dictated to others. He (and it is almost always a he) speaks for the universal and thus assumes the right to speak in the place of others. This is the traditional position of the modern philosopher and intellectual in France and Germany, from Hegel to Hugo to Sartre. Using my reason and insight, I have developed a system that explains the world. I can therefore dictate to you, who and what you should be, deduce what the norms of conduct are for society, and prescribe how the state should function. While such claims seem wildly inflated, we are in fact all too familiar with these tropes of modernist thought. Because I have understood the history and nature of class struggle, therefore I can formulate the correct revolutionary line and assign each fraction its appropriate place in the larger conflict. Historically, this has almost always resulted in women, sexual nonconformists, and people of color being told to wait, to subordinate their interests to the larger struggle, to not be deceived by a bourgeois ideology of freedom. Because I have mapped the morphologies of human sexuality, therefore I can assign you to your place in the great bestiary of sexual types, I can tell you the truth of your experience, I can diagnose your perversion, prescribe treatment, and mandate normalization. Because I have understood the great sweep of evolutionary history, I can make distinctions about the roles of specific racial types, about who should survive and who should not, about which populations should be allowed to exist and to reproduce or not. In short, to speak for the universal is to claim an authoritarian omniscience because it assumes or aspires to a transhistorical and transcendental point of view.

    This claim to speak for the universal is, however, very different from that of making arguments that are universalizing or generalizing in form. If I speak against the oppression of a specific group, my arguments necessarily take the form propositions that appeal to the universal for their intelligibility and moral force. The moment I say “x should be the case,” for example, “homosexuals should not be legally excluded from society,” I am not only making an empirical claim about the actual lives of particular people, I am also appealing to an implicit universal standard of fairness or justice. I am also making an argument about a class of people. That argument is based on particular knowledge, but it is not simply a set of anecdotes from which no larger, more generalizing claim is to be deduced or inferred. To remain at the level of the radically particular is to confine oneself to the idiosyncratic and the unintelligible. There is no private language This does not mean, that I arrogate to myself the right to tell homosexuals, heterosexuals, or anyone else what to do! But it is to recognize that particularities can only enter discourse to the extent that we use more general categories that make them intelligible to ourselves and others. These categories, moreover, can only become politicized in the form of an argument that appeals to an “ought,” rather than an “is.” “Palestinians ought to determine their own destiny.” “Economic decisions should be democratized.” “Prisoner should be treated as human beings.” Anytime we make an appeal to justice, fairness, or freedom from oppression, we are not just making that appeal for a specific time or place—only on Tuesdays, only in Texas—we are making an appeal to a universal even in a specific case.

    Such, in effect, is the philosophical enterprise as a set of arguments, as a form of reasoning or rationality. And here I want to call upon an unlikely ally for Foucault, Derrida. There might be few philosophers who we would reflexively see as more antiuniversalist than the founder of deconstruction. Nonetheless, no one who pays close attention to Derrida’s reading of philosophical texts would argue that he does not proceed in a rigorous fashion, that he does not avail himself of the canons of logic, that he does not claim for his reasoning a general validity even in the moment of dismantling some of our most cherished distinctions: inside versus outside, writing versus speech, presence versus absence. Indeed, Derrida is very clear, the philosophical enterprise from its inception is a drive for universalization in the very moment of recognizing its particularity. In a series of interviews with Elizabeth Roudinesco, he states that while philosophy as a named practice originates in Greece and bears with it a necessary particularity and even ethnocentrism, it also aims at liberating itself from its linguistic, territorial, ethnic, and cultural limitations. 

    The universal thus projected is not given in the manner of an essence, but it announces an infinite process of universalization. During twenty-five centuries, this project of the universalization of philosophy has never ceased to change, to displace itself, to break with itself, to extend itself. Today, it must be deployed even more in order to free itself ever more from its ethnic, geographic and political limits. … If Greek philosophy is European in the beginning, but if its vocation is truly universal, that means it must ceaselessly liberate itself from relativism. Philosophic work consists in a constant freeing: to do everything possible to recognize but also to surpass, without necessarily betraying, its own ethnocentric and geographic limits (Derrida and Roudinesco 2001: 38-40).

    The task of the philosopher is thus to criticize the partiality and limitation of existing concepts in a drive both for universalization and the recognition of particularity. There is, therefore, all the difference in the world between the claim to speak for or from the universal, which Foucault rejects, and the making of universalizing arguments, which, in his explication of Kant, in his reading of the Socratic project, but also in his work on the “intolerable” nature of modern prisons, he accepts (Thompson and Zurn 2021). In the end, neither universalism nor particularism is in itself possible. What Foucault seeks in the “critical ontology of ourselves” is a form of the universal particular (Foucault 2008: 22), a form of understanding what the present is that makes it possible for us to think differently, to posit what is “to come,” to produce new truths

    What then is this process of thought’s self-liberation that Derrida describes as a project of critical universalization and Foucault posits in terms of thinking differently, of the ability “to get free of oneself,” of “the knower’s straying afield of himself”? It is fundamentally, as Zalloua surmises, the recognition of the “neighbor,” which is to say the other. It is the delimitation of the moment of opacity, of the unthought both within the self and without, of the dream, as the thing that makes the production of a truth possible. It is thus also the recognition of the possibility of a new life. The project of self-knowledge, be it Socratic, monastic, or Freudian, is not a naïve affirmation of an existing self but its transformation. It is the recognition that the possibility of there even being a neighbor is borne within as much as without. Zalloua writes,the foreigner, the racialized other, the sexually deviant, the imagined enemy. Je est un monstre.” Or in my own idiom: 

     “Truth is never the same; there can only be truth in the form of another world, another life” (Foucault 2009: 311). In this light, Platonism’s, Cynicism’s, and early Christianity’s insistence on the bios alēthēs amidst our pervasive lies, compromises, and injustices makes the envisioning of another world an urgent political task. The dandy, the sexual nonconformist, the revolutionary, and the philosopher are not opposed figures but different figurations of what a life committed to truth, in all its beauty and all its strangeness, could be and why it must be fought for. (188)

    As Zalloua says, “this anti-normative model of self-care [is] necessarily open to the care for others/ other (real) neighbors.” It does not seek to silence the other, but to open itself to it.

    It is, in fact, this anti-normative model of self-care that is the essence of Foucauldian ethics. And here I want to push back some on Žižek’s (and Zalloua’s?) claim that all ethics, other than a psychoanalytic ethics, are constituted by a form of bad faith, a form of disavowal that Žižek formulates as “I know very well but” and then gives the example of his straw man humanist, who knows very well that there is tremendous suffering in livestock production and slaughter, but continues to eat meat while refusing to take on the burden of this knowledge. This is an especially salient example since I know very well that Žižek, Zalloua, and I all eat meat, and that none of us is particularly given to animal cruelty.

    Of course, everything depends on what we mean by ethics. In the first instance, ethics can mean something very practical, a set of guidelines for behavior, as in professional ethics. If you are a lawyer, you do not mix your funds with your clients’. If you are an administrator of a public service, you do not take bribes in return for providing that service. If you are a professor, you do not sleep with your students. These things are to be considered unethical and having such standards is not in itself an act of bad faith.

    For Foucault, ethics has largely the sense it has in Aristotle. It is the process of the forming of the self. What kind of self do I want to be? What sort of self-relation should I cultivate? What relation do I wish to maintain between myself and my possessions, between myself and others, myself and the logos. Foucault in the last years of his life when he makes his so-called ethical turn speaks of self-fashioning, of the aesthetics of existence, of the art of living (tekhnē tou biou). Again, none of these necessarily involve disavowal or bad faith, they involve the construction of an ethos.

    Žižek’s exception to the rule of disavowal is psychoanalytic ethics. Here, he is referring to Lacan’s reading of the Antigone in his seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. If Foucault’s ethics is largely positive, asking what do I want to make of myself? Antigone’s are negative, constituted by her refusal of the laws of the city as embodied in Creon’s decree, in her “no.” From this negation unto death, Lacan derives his famous formula that the one tenet of psychoanalytic ethics is the refusal to cede on one’s desire. Lacan here does not mean the object of your desire, that is transitory, rather he means one does not cede on the negation at the heart one’s being, on the lack from which our desire springs, on the original refusal. Žižek is, in fact, a subtle enough dialectician to recognize that this distinction between a positive and negative ethics is largely perspectival: every refusal is simultaneously a positive choice. In my refusing the accepted values of the city, I clear the space to ask who or what I want to be, to transform myself into shapes unknown, but where Lacan concentrates on the first half of this proposition, Foucault is primarily concerned with the last.

    In the end, the ethical question is also Lenin’s: what is to be done? Žižek would reply that Lenin’s question is political not ethical, but this is where Foucault is so helpful, because when we ask what must be done, when we adopt the stance of a revolutionary, or a resistant, when we join Act Up, the Communist Party, or become an animal right activist, we are also asking who do we want to be, and how do I perform this role? The political task—the question of what is to be done—cannot in the end be rigorously separated from the ethical question, how do I become the person to carry out the task I have chosen? Will I at times delude myself? Will I sometimes choose in bad faith? Undoubtedly, no one can really live their life as Antigone; she chooses death. But that is not to say that choosing a life is in itself an act of bad faith. It is in fact the only way we can meaningfully ask what is to be done and then work to do it.


    Works Cited

    Derrida, Jacques and Elizabeth Roudinesco. De quoi demain … Dialogue. Paris: Fayard/Galilée, 2001. 

    Foucault, Michel. Le gouvernement de soi et des autres. Cours au Collège de France, 1982-83. Ed. Frédéric Gros. Paris: Hautes Études/Gallimard/Seuil. 2008.

    Thompson, Kevin and Perry Zurn. Intolerable: Writings from Michel Foucault and the Prisons Information Group [1970-1980]. Translated by Perry Zurn and Erik Bernanek. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021.

    • Zahi Zalloua

      Zahi Zalloua


      Traumatizing Others, Traumatophilic Selves

      I want to thank Allen for his careful response to my comments. I agree with much of what he says. My only follow-up relates to universality’s traumatophilic character, which ties the ethico-political questions of the universal and the (real) neighbor together. I believe Žižek shares Foucault’s aversion to the “universal intellectual” (captured in the figure of Sartre). Declining the authority of the universal intellectual (if les non-dupes errent, after all, how can they ever claim to speak for the universal?), Žižek turns to, and foregrounds his model of universal politics in the “part of no-part,” a notion that he freely borrows from Jacques Rancière (see Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. J. Rose [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999], 11). The “part of no-part” stands for those others who are systematically excluded, disprivileged, and racialized by society’s laws and norms, falling outside the liberal and humanist umbrella. As a given order’s constitutive outsiders, they stand for “true universality”; since their interests are not pre-determined by their subject positions—there is no identity of the part of no-part—when they seek to remedy wrongs, they speak to universal concerns. As Žižek formulates it, “in every structure of subject-positions, universality is embodied in its ‘part of no-part,’ in the element for which there is no proper place in the structure, the element which is forever out of joint” (Žižek, Disparities [New York: Bloomsbury, 2016], 27). The part of no-part bear witness to our “substanceless subjectivity”: “we are all excluded, from nature as well as from our symbolic substance” (Žižek, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce [New York: Verso, 2009], 4). What would this look like in Allen’s Foucauldian register? Are Foucault’s radical others—the foreigner, the racialized other, the sexually deviant, the insane, and so on—also candidates for the part of no-part? And perhaps more importantly what would it mean to identify with them, to practice a form of identification that radically departs from society’s sanctioned habits of identification, a form that courts defection, if not symbolic suicide? Does this form of universality jar with Allen’s Foucault?

      Unlike the ideological universalism of Western discourse, which papers over its white, male, humanist perspective, the universality of the other (as a part of no-part) is emptied of content and normativity. Not attached to the status quo in the same libidinal and ideological way, the part of no-part are society’s symptoms, the inconsistencies in the Symbolic and thus hold the promise of transformative change—of enacting politics as such. A care for these others here would at once universalist and traumatizing, and would, I believe, contribute, if obliquely, to the ethical project of Foucauldian desubjectification, since you’re not identifying with the imaginary-symbolic neighbor (the one who resembles me, with whom intersubjective relationality can be forged and sustained), but with the real neighbor, the unsettling neighbor whose exclusion is required to maintain the integrity of your own self. While there is always a danger in fetishizing trauma, an openness to it, a traumatophilic predilection, appears as a precondition for thinking ethics and politics otherwise.

    • Paul Allen Miller

      Paul Allen Miller


      The Part of No Part and the Not All: Genealogies of the Nation State

      As I was reading Zahi’s wonderful and nuanced reply, I was struck by how much Zizek’s redeployment of Rancière’s concept of the “part of no part” recalls Lacan’s formula of woman (la femme as opposed to les femmes) as the “not all.” If the phallic function in the Symbolic seeks to create a totalization of all possible meanings, an “all,” woman is the subject position that is both imagined as characterized by “lack” (not all) and that is excessive, that cannot be integrated into the phallic totality and thus reveals the fantasy nature of its totalization, i.e., that this “all” is “not all.” There is a structural and dialectical logic at play in both of these formulations in which the attempt to assert the unity of an identity–racial, national, sexual–is always constituted by that which it must exclude, by its own negation.

      Of course, the problem with such formulations, in part because they are logically compelling, is that they tend to eternalize such structures. They can lead to a kind of formalistic deconstructive response, in which the moment of identity constitution is always to be inverted and then undone, only to re-form on the other side, because “this is how identity works.” Foucault I would argue is in important in this regard because he brings to this logic a historical precision and a form of desedimentation that says, “no change is real. The structures of today are not the structures of tomorrow or yesterday.” In terms of the discourse of race and the way we encounter the real neighbor, a text like his “Society Must Be Defended” is key. In it, Foucault uncovers the historical construction of the discourse of “race war” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by writers and historians who were initially seeking to resist the centralizing structures of the emerging absolutist monarchies and so developed stories of the Anglo-Saxons resistance to Norman hegemony and Gallo-Roman resistance to Frankish invaders. Tropes developed to delegitimize the claims of national sovereignty and identity were then repurposed in the 18th and 19th centuries to justify colonialism, slavery, and ultimately, in the 20th, genocide.

      It is important to recognize the historically limited nature of these racialized discourses, that these exclusions are not just the necessary product of an identitarian logic. As I have written elsewhere, “The nation state, as we understand it, is of relatively recent vintage. The notion that all Germans, all French, all Americans, should be gathered under a single legal authority on a single territory, is an idea that was not theorized or put into practice until the 18th and 19th centuries. As Foucault asks us to observe, it is no accident that this is the same period in which we see the emergence of biological racism and the more general notion of the biopolitical state. Thus while the discursive and intellectual roots of the concept of race wars and of discriminating against in-groups and out-groups go much deeper, and phenomena such as anti-Semitism have an even longer and more complex genealogy, the idea that the boundaries of political states should coincide with the boundaries of particular ‘nations,’ and that these nations are expressions of an underlying ontological reality—nationality, blood, genetics—has a distinct and limited history; and it is no accident that that history coincides with the emergence of genocide as a defined historical phenomenon. Blood and soil. There is, in short, nothing natural about any of this. None of which is to say that people did not commit other horrible crimes in the distant past, that mass murder, slavery, and sexual oppression did not exist. But the recognition and discussion of the historical trajectories and limitations of these seemingly natural phenomena—race, nationality, borders, the state—means that they are not fated or decreed… we do have a choice. That choice is never outside of a context. And that context may pervert our intentions in the moment they seek perfection. But we do not have to choose the prison of the given; we can envision a world of infinite, nomadic hospitality, and of openness to the other, even as we must acknowledge that such openness will by necessity change us, that we, as we understand ourselves, may no longer exist.”

      The embrace of the part of no part, the integration of the not all, is as Zahi notes an urgent task, and Foucault, I would argue, offers us tools to undertake it that go beyond a formal logic, which, while compelling and even real in its force, is also self-replicating.

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