I enjoyed Rob Horning’s post on Parrhesia as a social media “game of truth”, not because it ultimately adds up—an essay, after all, is normally doomed to fail or at least to fall short—but because it illustrates the artful way a mind chews and digests the notion of truth to make of it an affirmation of the self. Rationalization, it’s called. I was rushing then—and kind of now too—and barely could throw two phrases about it on Twitter:
Trolling cannot equate parrhesia—"a minimum of rhetorical flourish"—because trolling is nothing but a rhetoric of sorts. @MarginalUtility
— – (@AguillonMata) November 17, 2013
Having now a few extra minutes, I want to point at the moment Horning twisted Foucault’s concept until making it say—in a manner of speaking—the opposite it originally means. Horning conveniently paraphrases Foucault when he says that parrhesia is “a mode of plain-speaking truth marked by provocation [that] signals an individual’s willingness to tell the truth as that individual perceived it”—the emphasis is mine. I wonder sometimes if people get trapped in these knots because they get paid by the number of words they publish; hopefully this is not the case. For sake of efficiency, it would be enough to say that parrhesia is an attempt of plain-speaking truth. Period. And only because the truth invariably antagonizes at the very least someone—but more often than not many people, most people even—one could stress the fact that truth telling will bring consequences. Parrhesia “provokes” only afterwards, but in Horning’s understanding the provocation “marks”—which is to say determines—the very notion of parrhesia. This is rather surprising when one considers the following sentence in Horning’s explanation of the term; he adds, accurately: “with a minimum of rhetorical flourish”, that is, an expression committed to turn the balance toward the thing referred—the truth—disregarding the form with which it is stated—the rhetoric—as much as possible. As any essay, a doomed attempt—but that’s beside the point. The core question about the term, as treated by Foucault and by classical culture—Socrates is the parrhesian par excellence—is its selflessness, its frankness in disregard for persuasion. Truth, then, cannot be “a matter of breaking relationships” just because, as Foucault says, it carries a risk: it is simply a matter of not caring if relationships are being built or broken. Antagonizing the interlocutor is then a marginal quality—or rather consequence—of parrhesia, which is the opposite of what Horning has concluded. For social media entities like trolls or any brand building web persona—which could mean anyone with presence in the web—who have found in outrage a mine to exploit, antagonizing the interlocutor is not marginal, but the main tool for communication. It is understandable that people try to disguise their performing with the veil of truth, but from a formal point of view it becomes irrelevant if one speaks the truth or not while trolling—to insist on Horning’s example. The troll is interested in persuasion instead of frankness, its performance is primarily subjective instead of objective, its goal is rhetoric not content driven. Trolling is a self-centered activity; parrhesia, a selfless one. If an internet troll speaks the truth, that is a circumstantial consequence, as a circumstantial consequence is when a parrhesian antagonizes the interlocutor.