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  • The "Scene of Discourse"Foucault and the Theater of Truth (On Parrhēsía)
  • Kélina Gotman (bio)

Foucault's views on theater shifted radically in the decade between 1975 and his death in 1984. Often noted in theater and performance studies, Foucault's concept of the spectacularity of discipline and punishment—the spectacle of the scaffold—most vividly articulated in Surveiller et Punir (1975, Discipline and Punish [1977]), suggests that for centuries, power played out theatrically, through a show of public humiliation.1 But visuality remained important even when punishment went behind the scenes. He wrote, "We are [today] much less Greeks than we believe. We are neither in the amphitheater, nor on the stage, but in the panoptic machine" (Foucault 1977, 217). In this view, power in the postindustrial West was characterized by mechanisms of observation and calculation designed to keep subjects in states of perpetual abeyance. Yet within the next decade, Foucault would come back to thinking about theatricality of another sort, seeing in discursive figures and practices of theater another beacon for politics. This time, he would return more closely to the Greeks, articulating a practice of observation and self-observation reaching in particular to Stoic and Cynic writings. In this later, less well-known work, Foucault attended carefully to the dramaturgical ways mutual relations of friendship, pedagogy, dramatic performance, and care enacted frank or fearless speech (parrhēsía). From this perspective, "care of self" (epimeleia heautou) and "knowledge of self" (gnōthi seauton) supported care of the other in a cultivable relationship requiring of all parties involved the courage to see and hear as well as to seek out truth.2

This article takes up the task of thinking Foucault's relationship to this other politics—to a practice of truth-speaking. I argue that this is a dramaturgical practice, grounded in theater as an engine of truth. [End Page 28] Significantly for Foucault, particularly between 1979 and 1984, when he was working through concepts of critique and governmentality, theater and performance became figures for thinking how to engage with relationships of self to self and self to other. This is not "theater" primarily in the sense of public spectacle—lies behind which "truth" might hover like an actor behind a mask—but attention to scenes of knowing, to the exercise of the gaze, and to the movements of thought. The philósophos—a physician of the soul—calls herself to herself, enabling and supporting thereby the possibility that others will be transformed through careful attention to truth as to an everyday practice in the "arts of life."


Theory in this sense is a practice of care, and philosophy is everyday training in the practice of cutting and caring, truthful life. In his lecture courses at the Collège de France, the University of California at Berkeley, Dartmouth, and elsewhere, Foucault engages candidly in meditating on his own excurses and stray thoughts, extended digressions and returns. What I call his discursive theatricalism, his heightened presence to the present moment, constitutes a method grounded in the tripartite work of parrhēsía (truthful, fearless speech), askēsis (everyday training in philosophical life), and alēthourgia (the progressive unfolding of truth discourse) to shape the work of "critique." For Foucault, philosophy returns to Greco-Roman practices of self, anchored in radical self-searching; he does not merely discuss this but performs it obliquely for his audiences and himself.3 This joins what his interlocutor classicist Pierre Hadot (2002 [1993]) called "spiritual exercises" and what Foucault saw as "diagnosing the present" and one's role in it, speaking carefully what it may hurt to hear.4

Critique thus brings into focus a way of knowing exercised as tekhnai peri bion—arts of living, or everyday training in truthful life (Foucault 2014b, 31–44; 2001e, 248; 2017, 93). Understood first of all as a biotechnology or technology or technique of the self, these arts simultaneously enact a theater of self-discovery and self-disclosure (2014b, 37). Importantly, this "self" is not narcissistic: the arts of living unravel concepts of "self" bound up in particular modes of subjectivation or [End Page 29] subjective scenographies, arguably...


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