The Catastrophe Of Thought – Political Theology, Political Spirituality, And The Courage Of Truth, Part 2 (Michael Dillon)

The following is the second installment of a two-part series.  The first can be found here.

There is, however, a difficulty manifest in all thought. It is one that afflicts all truth tellers, all truth telling, and all veridical apparatuses. Truth does not add up, and it is never transparent least of all to all. No veridical apparatus is adequate to the existence of truth. No truth teller is ever adequate to the truth that he or she proclaims.

However much we advance the frontiers of knowledge, however much may believe in truth, and however much we may think that we cannot go on without securing access to it, human beings are simply incapable of securing access to truth. Those who say we are, or that they have in fact done so, are mistaken or lying. We can be mistaken or correct without being in the truth. We can be in the truth without being just. As Camus long ago diagnosed, truth and justice are ultimately incommensurable. That incommensurability is a topic for another time.

By this I do not mean that we get things wrong, we always get things wrong – fail, fail and fail again better says Beckett. Nor do I mean to suggest that some refinement or technique of truth telling is lacking which once found will correct the deficiency in our truth telling. Truth does not add up because there is something integral to truth that prevents it from doing so.

This does not mean that that there are no truths. It does not mean correspondingly also that there is no lying and deception, no new facts to discover, worlds to reveal or morals to draw. It is a banal as well as mistaken point to make the accusation that truth does not exist for those who, like Foucault and many other 20th century thinkers, have detailed the many ways in which we formulate our truths historically, simultaneously translating them – operationalizing them in our lives both individual and collective – into plural, diverse and changing regimes of government and rule that are themselves, of course, as finite as the human beings that they order.

To adapt a Heideggerean expression, the problem with truth – the very scandal of truth – is that there is always an excess of truth over its expression. And, here, we are of course talking about truth as more than making things known. Truth never adds up because there is always already more to the truth in any and every act of truth telling than is being told in this or that veridical exercise. It is precisely this scandal of truth that is the catastrophe lying at the heart of thought itself.

Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy, among others, are quite explicit about acknowledging this deeply apophatic and aporetic character of our many different historically inflected modes of truth telling. It is central to their own thought. Truth telling takes place, and consequently it can only ever be historical precisely because it must and does take place; but that does not mean that all there is to truth telling is the historical. Even for Michel Foucault, who has done most to historicize truth telling. There was an excess of truth over its historical manifestation. This excess accounts also for the very mystery or opacity of truth.

But Foucault was a little more coy about all this and he almost always approached it in an oblique manner. The apophatic character of truth is nonetheless operating throughout Foucault’s work, his later work especially. Thus far, I have however found only one explicit reference to the apophatic, and thereby also aporetic, character of truth.

But I think it was operating throughout his last lectures, especially, and helps make sense of his interest in the courage of truth and what he may have meant by political spirituality. It is also I think related to his concern with what, in Camus-ean way, he refers to as the man in revolt, and to the way in which he observes human beings resisting the exercise of domination and rule over them notably in our tradition via their own subjectification and self-ruling.

During the course of giving his fourth lecture on the 30th of January 1980 in the lecture series of that year (later published under the title On The Government of the Living) Foucault paused to reflect on his own truth telling.  “And this leads me to something like a sort of secret,” he says. That secret he declared is this: for me theoretical work…does not consist in establishing and fixing the set of positions on which I would stand and the supposedly coherent link between which would form a system…This plotting should never be read as the plan of a permanent structure. It should not be subject to the same requirements as those imposed on a plan.

And then he says it outright: “After all, there are quite a few negative theologies; let’s say I am a negative theorist.” (76)

There you have it. In fact, however the very word that he uses for truth throughout the last years of his life, and in pursuit of what he generically called the politics of truth, was alethurgy. Alethurgy is a give-away. It is the chosen term of art for truth and truth telling in negative theology as much as it is also for Heidegger’s philosophy. “Alethurgy” connotes a truth which consists in more than knowing things – correctness or orthotes according to Heidegger pursuing his account of the Greeks.

Alethurgy connotes a truth that makes itself manifest or has to be made manifest in a manifold of ways and through a manifold of truth telling techniques among which he was most interested in the rulings of confession and the wider obligation to tell the truth about ourselves. It connotes a truth which once manifest retains more to itself than meets the eye. Alethurgy thereby connotes a truth the truth of which is ultimately opaque – mysterious – to human knowing.

Paradoxically, in its pursuit of transparency, modern truth telling infinitely increases and multiplies the manifold of finite matter thus adding to the opacity of truth. In the process of that hyperactive industrial, commercial and techno-scientifically driven truth-telling, truth gets lost in the informational exhaust emitted by the will to total information awareness, global surveillance and saturated mechanisms of social media.

And yet, the fact that we always already know this makes an additionally important point about the politics of truth. It is less because the governed do not know what is happening, and it is not because some know and some do not, It is rather because we do know and it is to the extent that we know, that everyone is more or less aware of the evidence in one form or another in experiencing the truth of our condition, that things do not change. There is a form of terror operating here.

It is one that George Orwell’s 1984 captures very well. It is not that of the arts and mechanisms the arcana imperii of government are hidden. The low intensity terror operating here is precisely is that of being governed in the naked cynical obscene truths of the insider, the populist or the savvy biopolitical governor, the truths known but somehow deprived of the ability to effect meaningful change. In this terror, it is the truth being told and not the lie, the evidence that becomes self evident, which immobilizes and governs through widespread low grade intimidation that takes place in the formation of the subjectivity that such lying truths demand if their power is to be operationalized.

The katechontic structures of “geo-” as well as biopolitics are also no less concerned with dating the ending of things, anticipating their advent through obsessively reading the signs of the times. Their reading epistemologically is different, albeit again not wholly dissimilar in certain prophesying ways as well, from soteriological finitude. But the difficulty of securely chronologizing the eschaton persists as much here as it did and perhaps still does for those governed by the Christ event – at least once it became evident after the early years following the crucifixion that the second coming was no longer imminent even as it became ever more immanent.

Biopolitically, messianic “readiness to expect” becomes governmentally espoused and regulated ‘resilience’. Living in the ‘end times’ of the infinity of finite endings, translated into the truths of rule of biopolitical governance so necessary and complementary also to the apparatuses of the sovereign state, means becoming a subject of its rules of truth, serving out a probation without end: “we live as it were…having to purify ourselves, having to mortify ourselves’ in the name of Life itself” (159) .

If, for revealed religion, individual events marked the passage from creation to redemption, for biopolitics they mark the passage from becoming to being and back again. As Taubes quipped in Occidental Eschatology: “Prometheus arises in Christ’s shadow.” (89) And so, once more, if, for revealed religion, the apocalypse was the singular event signaling the end of time, the catastrophic emergency of biopolitical emergence issues in a plurality of distributed and complexly connected eschatologically charged events calling forth Promethean overcoming.

And that is the truth of it. It is a banal truth. It is now widely understood, and it has co-opted the promise as well as the mechanisms of critique. In consequence it has become that rule of truth and truth of rule against which refusal now takes place.

For Foucault, one manifestation of this newly posed truth of refusal, occurred in Tehran in 1978. It concerned ‘insurrection’, something that Foucault was careful to distinguish from revolution when he observed in an article for Corriere della Serra of 26 November 1978:

After I left Iran the question I was constantly asked was, of course: “Is this revolution?” I did not answer, but I wanted to say that it is not a revolution….It is the insurrection of men with bare hands who want to lift the fearful weight of the entire world order that bears down on each of us, but more especially on them these oil workers and peasants at the frontiers of empires. And we know that the relation between the metropole and the colony has always been as reversible as it has been intimate.

“It is perhaps,” he concluded, “the first insurrection against global systems, the form of revolt that is the most modern and the most insane.”.

In any event he does not declare that there has been a revolution in Iran until his report of 13 February 1979 which he opens simply, and in typical nominalising fashion, by saying “On February 11, 1979, the Iranian Revolution took place.”  “Today,” he adds, “we feel we are in a more familiar world.” But then cautions: “The “revolution” showed, at certain moments, some of its familiar traits, but things are still astonishingly ambiguous.”

Why does he describe the insurrection as insane? The answer may derive from what he had to say about madness and reason in his earlier work. For Foucault, in at least one loyally Aristotelian fashion, reason is also said in many ways. There is a history to reason, and consequently there many different historical fashioned and materially effective modes of reasoning.

The point applies with even greater force, of course, to modes of political and governmental reasoning. The insane insurrection in Iran was insane because it stepped outside the reasoning then obtaining. Specifically, it was an insurrection against the political rationalities and bizarre truth telling practices which comprised the political ordering of things that obtained throughout the region as well as under the Pahlavi regime.

However much it owed its mounting force to political mobilization through Shi’ism, the Mosques and the Mullahs, Foucault was careful to point out that the insurrection was precisely not an uprising of the religiously retrograde. It was the triangulation of modernization with despotism and corruption that the Pahlavi dynasty had built under the Shah after the failure of its Kemalist experiment in triangulating nationalism and secularization with modernization.

It was the triangulation of despotism, with corruption and modernization that had become the very raison d’être of the Shah, the raison d’état of the Pahlavi regime, and the realpolitik behind the exercise of American imperial power in that region upon which the Pahlavi regime among many others was dependent. It was this very dispositif of political rationalities that had become the target of the insurrection. In risking their lives en masse by stepping outside this dispositif of political rationality the Iranian insurrection was precisely that; an act of political madness.

It is this move then which fascinated Foucault historically as well as in Iran, and it was spirituality in general as well as political spirituality in particular that he clearly thought was central to it. To get to the point required him to go through expressions of religious spirituality and especially the historical alliance with political radicalism in both Christianity as well as Islam. In the process, he nonetheless detached the spiritual from that of the religious, related this analytic of the spiritual to the wider politics of truth in which it arises, the subject of truth that serves as its primary point of application, and lamented the loss of political spirituality.

Foucault would clearly have known that spirit, spirituality and political spirituality, in particular, were terms that would attract criticism. They have a violent and bloody history throughout European history and thought, both religious and philosophical. Thus, having first introduced applied the term to what was going in the streets of Tehran in an article published by Le Nouvel Observateur on 6 November, 1978, he ended by referring to political spirituality as a, “possibility that we have forgotten since the Renaissance and the great crisis of Christianity.” He concluded, “I can already hear the French laughing, but I know that they are wrong.”

This interest was no mere return to religious mysticism. Note, especially also, how Foucault defines spirituality, as something that arises when truth is opaque and the subject of truth is not pre-engineered to receive it, much less to welcome it. “The truth is not given to the subject by a simple act of knowledge (connaissance) which would be founded and justified simply by the fact that he is the subject and because he possesses this or that structure of subjectivity,” Foucault records in The Hermeneutics of the Subject. Practices of spirituality postulate “that for the subject to have right of access to the truth he must be changed, transformed, shifted and become, to some extent and up to a certain point other than himself.” (15)

And so:

Spirituality postulates that the subject as such does not have right of access to the truth and is not capable of having access to the truth. It postulates that the truth is not given to the subject by a simple act of knowledge (connaissance), which would be founded and justified simply by the fact that he is the subject and because he possesses this or that structure of subjectivity. It postulates that for the subject to have right of access to the truth he must be changed….The truth is only given to the subject at a price that brings the subject’s being into play. For as he is, the subject is not capable of truth (17)

Summarily, Foucault defines spirituality in contradistinction to modern connaissance in as pithy an observation as any that he made: “If we define spirituality as being the form of practices which postulate that, such as he is, the subject is not capable of the truth, but that, such as it is, the truth can transfigure and save the subject, then we can say that the modern age of relations between the subject and truth begins when it is postulated that, such as he is, the subject is capable of truth, but that, such as it is, the truth cannot save the subject.” (19)

Here he emphasizes that the courage of truth is not a matter of technique. Neither is it a question of learning or responding to mentoring. He says very precisely that the courage of truth is a matter of timing. He observes also that this matter of timing is related to how “a crisis of political institutions” arises as a “possible site for parrhesia.” That this moment shifts the subjects attention from the life of institutions – instituting rules of truth and truths of rule that install a mentalité du gouvernment – to the ways in which one lives one’s self (hontina tropon teze).

This freedom of the courage of truth and political spirituality to say no to government and rule expresses no refusal of all rules of truth and truths of rule. However generically suspicious it may be of truth and rule, this politicizing refusal of rule is not a principled anarchy. It is as idiomatic as government and rule. It refuses this or that rule of truth, this or that truth of rule.

It is a refusal of certain specific truths and certain specific truth tellers, of certain specific historically operating government, systems of rule or rulers. If truth and rule are thus both historic and idiomatic, the moment when truth strikes, and an allied political spirituality arises, characterize the response to a current doxa of rules of truth and truth of rule. It therefore finds its idiomatic and historical mode of expression contoured by, and forcefully contesting, prevailing rules of truth and truth of rule, blasting these apart.

And so to my own ending:

The many violent refusals of modern rule we now witness globally testify nonetheless, and among many other things no doubt, to the continuing relevance of both political spirituality and the courage of truth to the rules of truth and truths of rule to which we are currently subject locally and globally. If political spirituality and the courage of truth arise today, they do so as practices concerned with taking care of one’s Self (epimeleia heautou) under modern rules of truth and truths of rule characterized by productive systems of self-knowing (gnothi seauton) that simultaneously render modern political truth deeply opaque to the modern political subject.

And, in particular, when that political truth is so deeply opaque to the very political subjects that are supposed to be secured through, and freed by, governing apparatuses of truth and transparency now violently operating “the largest suspicion-less surveillance in human history”? (Edward Snowden quoted by Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, 20th September 2013).

Michael Dillon is a professor emeritus at Lancaster University with a focus on politics, philosophy, and religion.

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