parrhesia

by everlivingpoet

Late in his life, Foucault took up the Socratic idea of parrhesia: the act of exposing oneself continually to self-criticism and to scorn by openly expressing what one thinks. So, let us agree, or hope, that this is what I mean by confession: the practice of speaking my opinion in plain language, in the conviction that what I speak is true, in the danger, risk, or exposure this entails, as a duty to myself and others, knowing that I could choose to be silent but speaking as an act of freedom. That’s what I have in mind here: not confession in the sense of identifying something that deviates from the norm, and hence of asking to be normal, but in the sense of exposing oneself out of duty to a truth that no norm has ever encompassed. It’s not a truth that can be codified or quantified. It’s a dialogue, a discovery, a questioning.

In my life, there seems to be one paramount example of this. Meditation. As an Ivy League student, I studied world mythology, world religion, philosophy, critical theory, and literature. What seemed most potent and important at the time was critical theory. Lacan I found amusing, but that’s all. Derrida bothered me. Did I have to reject everything I loved in William Blake if I wanted to follow Derrida’s line of thought? French theory did have a word that connected to romantic joy or bliss, jouissance, which literally implies orgasm. In eastern thought, orgasm is one of those intense psychophysical experiences that temporarily dissolve the grasping sense of self-existence. I couldn’t put my finger at the time on what was troubling me about deconstruction, only the feeling that, contrary to what Derrida seemed to take as a premise, awareness definitely does involve something, a basic nature, that was free, unconditioned, or non-analyzable. Foucault’s contemporary, Gilles Deleuze, borrowed a term from Henri Bergson to get at this: “the virtual,” active immanence not yet reduced to the “actual”; the Leibnizian “fold” or David Bohmian “implicate order” from which things emerge; what Peter Higgs might describe as the background field, the excitation of which he described as the Higgs-Boson. The Gelugpa School of Tibetan Buddhism has a related notion: the clear light mind, or simply the unique, innate, original, clear light.

I suppose I instinctively recoiled from a hard line deconstructionism, a “linguistic turn,” that was simply another version of hard line Marxist materialism. Late Derrida did, of course, turn to a notion of the non-deconstructible that brought accusations of messianism and negative theology. Naturally, I put this roughly. Ironically, now, at the other end of the tunnel so to speak, I’m much more open than I was to the notion that there simply isn’t a foundation, along the lines of Bruno Latour’s “anti-foundationlist foundationalism.”

Maybe that was Derrida’s intent, or part of it. To bother me. Philosophers really can’t help it. A philosopher cannot resort to dogma, ever, so there simply are no comforting beliefs to fall back on. One can only undo, and undo. Such is the freedom of thought. The point is that he bothered me so completely that I turned toward meditation. If Derrida was going to critique western metaphysics, then why not turn to eastern thought? Until then, I had considered eastern philosophy synonymous with mysticism, and mysticism synonymous with esoteric practice that could not concern the ordinary person. One had to physically train oneself through advanced yoga and martial arts, I thought. Here then is the problem: in the university, we learn to take western philosophy, including critical theory, very seriously, but eastern philosophy remains a kind of anthropological field of study, an exotic system of thought unique to certain sociohistorical conditions that remain ‘foreign’, or even worse something assimilable as kind of quaint self-help.

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