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Visual Parrhesia

March 14, 2012

Visual Parrhesia


Faced with the complexities of the Benjaminian concept of the dialectical image (earlier posts), and the difficulties in imagining such technical image, here I would like to use Foucault’s concept of Parrhesia to think of a set of conditions for images concerning truth. In his series of six lectures, at the University of Berkeley, California, Foucault talks about the essential properties of parrhesia as a “verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself). In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.” Could there be a visual component to parrhesia? Could it be a visual activity instead of solely a verbal one?

While this concept includes the notion of danger, discussed above, but also sets a few other conditions that might prove useful in imagining possibilities to go beyond the formal indexicality of the photograph.

The first condition that Foucault mention is frankness, the notion that the speaker does not use any form of rhetorical maneuvering to persuade the listeners. The second condition is the notion of truth, and here according to Foucault, the speaker has established a ‘personal relationship’ with truth and believes what he is saying is true. It is important to note that not anyone could be considered a truth-teller, and the practice of parrhesia was held for male citizens of the Athens democracy, a notion that further ties the parrhesia to citizenship. The third condition is danger, for not any kind of truth-telling is a practice of parrhesia, for instance a grammar teacher tells the truth, but does not take any risks in telling so. The other condition of such speech activity is the notion of criticism, Foucault writes, “parrhesia is a form of criticism, either towards another or towards oneself, but always in a situation where the speaker or confessor is in a position of inferiority with respect to the interlocutor. The parrhesiastes is always less powerful than the one with whom he or she speaks. The parrhesia comes from ‘below’, as it were, and is directed towards ‘above’.” For instance when a philosopher criticizes a tyrant, or a citizen the majority, etc. This notion of criticism, is tied the notion of duty, the last condition that Foucault ascribes to parrhesia. Tied to the notion of citizenship, the speaker takes it as a duty to say what s/he is saying to enhance the living conditions of the community.

Thích Quảng Đức's heart remained intact after his self-immolation

The question is if and how can these conditions be applied to images, and the practice of image making? For the most part, one can argue that there are images that could meet these conditions of production. Take the surviving photographs of Auschwitz, they were produced under precarious conditions, they were not in any ways, and by any means manipulated and could be considered “frank”, they made visible the inhumane practice of the perpetrators, and by doing so they performed a form of critique. However, the practice of parrhesia is a public practice, it happened in the agora, it was directed toward the king, the tyrant or the democratic elected representative government. These photographs show “moments of truth” for the future, they are historical documents and like all images, they represent an absent. Parrhesia as a figure of speech requires the presence of the speaker at the moment an utterance is being made. The question here would be if the image-maker can share the same spatial and temporal coordinates with the image at the instance of visualization. Therefore, visual parrhesia requires an agora of spectatorship, where the images are produced, distributed and viewed at the same time. It is when the event and its representation form a single entity, where one would not exist without the other. Under these conditions, a certain degree of risk and danger creates an umbilical cord between what is being shown and the image-maker who is present where such an act of presentation is taking place.


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