- The Courage of Curiosity, or the Heart of Truth (A Mash-Up1)
Curiosity is a vice that has been stigmatized in turn by Christianity, by philosophy, and even by a certain conception of science. Curiosity, futility. The word, however, pleases me. To me it suggests something altogether different: it evokes “concern”; it evokes the care one takes for what exists or could exist; a readiness to find strange and singular what surrounds us; a certain relentlessness to break up our familiarities and to regard otherwise the same things; a fervor to grasp what is happening and what passes; a casualness in regard to the traditional hierarchies. I dream of a new age of curiosity.—Michel Foucault, “The Masked Philosopher”2
If you knew Eve Sedgwick either through her writing or through her life, or even better through both, you know that in addition to being an incredibly kind person, an incredibly generous person, and an incredibly compassionate person, she was also an incredibly curious person—in all the relevant senses. Those of us here in this room today have probably all been the beneficiaries of Eve’s curiosity in one way or another. And so to honor this gift of curiosity that we have received from her, I want to spend a few minutes unpacking a curious coincidence: When I read Cathy Davidson’s post saying that Eve had slipped into the bardo (itself a curios idiom for announcing a death in academe), I was in the middle of the last volume of lectures that Michel Foucault gave at the Collège de France: Le Courage de la Vérité (The courage of truth).3 Once I heard of Eve’s transition, I could not help but read the rest of his text with her in mind. Perhaps from my title you already have an intimation of why this curious connection inspired my thoughts about Eve. In addition, Cathy’s post had asked us to [End Page 201] send Eve energy during her passage through the bardo, and my immediate inclination was that the best way I could help was to ask Foucault to guide her. I hope the following description of Foucault’s ultimate lectures will help you understand why.
In the months immediately preceding his death from AIDS in 1984, beleaguered by illnesses that caused him first to delay and then to interrupt his usual schedule of meetings, Foucault offered his final course. The transcripts are profoundly moving not just on this account but even more so because a number of the lectures take as their nominal subject Plato’s dialogues on the death of Socrates—himself yet another famously curious subject. Foucault engages with the Socratic death scene as bespeaking the philosopher’s final reflections on his relation to politics, to life, and to truth. In order to do so, Foucault focuses on the Greek concept of parrhesia—roughly “truth telling” (vrai dire in the French)—in order to frame his own final meditation on the practice of truth.
The topic of parrhesia dominated the last two years of Foucault’s public lectures. His ruminations on parrhesia distinguish among a number of conventional kinds of truth telling or “regimes of truth”: that of the prophet, the sage, the teacher, and the parrhesiast (28). Each of these figures personifies a different speech situation in which the relation between knowledge and truth unfolds as a distinct mode of relating among people. The prophet’s concerns destiny, the sage’s concerns being, the teacher’s concerns tekhnê, and the parrhesiast’s êthos. About the latter he says, “Parrhesia is not a métier, it is something more difficult to encompass. It is an attitude, a manner of being which concerns virtue, a manner of doing or making”(Courage 15). But that is not all that characterizes this regime of truth, for what puts parrhesia into play is the risk that this attitude or manner entails:
Parrhesia implies a strong and constitutive tie between the one who speaks and what is said and moreover, by the effects of truth themselves, by the wounding effects of truth, the possibility of a rupture of the tie between the one...