Social media serve as a staging ground for wars of authenticity
Foucault's last two lecture series at the Collège de France, in 1982-83 and 1983-84—published in English as The Government of Self and Others and The Courage of the Truth—offer a series of interpretations of ancient Greek texts to examine the relation of the “self” to public truth-telling. What did it mean to “know thyself,” as the Delphic oracle advised? What procedures guaranteed the truth of such knowledge? And why would telling the truth about the self be a precondition for having a self in the first place? Here’s how Foucault describes what he hoped to do in these lectures (poignantly slipping into the subjunctive; he knew he wouldn’t get the project finished):
“What I would like to recover is how truth-telling, in this ethical modality which appeared with Socrates right at the start of Western philosophy, interacted with the principle of existence as an oeuvre to be fashioned in all its possible perfection, how the care of self, which, in the Greek tradition long before Socrates, was governed by the principle of a brilliant and memorable existence, [...] was not replaced but taken up, inflected, modified, and re-elaborated by the principle of truth-telling that has to be confronted courageously, how the objective of a beautiful existence and the task of giving an account of oneself in the game of truth were combined …
The emergence of the true life in the principle and form of truth-telling (telling the truth to others and to oneself, about oneself and about others), of the true life and the game of truth-telling, is the theme, the problem that I would have liked to study” [Feb. 29, 1984, lecture].
I’ve bolded the parts that jumped out at me in that passage, the ones that reminded me of social-media practice. The archive social media compiles of us could be seen as an “oeuvre to be fashioned in all its possible perfection”; it allows us to live with that ideal of the self as a kind of artwork much more concretely in mind. Social media also give us an opportunity to “confront courageously” the principles of truth-telling—how much to share, with whom, and with how much concern for our and others’ privacy—that are activated by the various platforms.
According to Foucault, that aim of living a “beautiful existence” has not been traditionally understood as something that can be achieved through a passive documentation of what we’ve done—escaping reflexivity does not make life more beautiful or pure, as those who make a fetish of spontaneity insist. Instead, he argues that the “beautiful existence” came to hinge on playing “games of truth” that reveal the self to itself, as courageous.
The “true life,” then, is not given automatically to ordinary people as a reward for their ordinariness. We too must prove our lives are true, are real, are legitimate, to the audiences we marshal on social media. That is, we must demonstrate the productive value of our uniquely wrought subjectivity to garner social recognition; we have to build the community (that once was a geographical given) as an online audience and hold it together by performing for it perpetually. The truth test becomes a way to ascertain one’s own reality, to register a “true” or “real” self that exists apart from the flux of contingencies that seem to shape us in real time. A self is not a sum of content; a self is a practice.
But what is that “productive value”? What sort of performances, or “games of truth,” reveal it? How is it translated into status? What defines that “truth”? How does our notion of the truth about the self modulate to fit the sorts of truths social media are optimized to confirm and disseminate? When does “sharing”—adding to collective knowledge—become “trolling,” a zero-sum challenge over who can control what is regarded as the truth? Is there anyway to keep those concepts cleanly separated?
At the very least, these questions help reframe social media use—sometimes dismissed as merely narcissistic attention-seeking—as the attempt to live the truth courageously in a perpetual provocation of others, in the mode of the ancient Cynics. The Delphic oracle told Diogenes of Sinope not to “know thyself” but to “deface the currency.” What are our social media platforms asking us to do?
Throughout the lectures, Foucault is chiefly concerned with the concept of parrhesia, a mode of plain-speaking truth marked by provocation. It signals an individual’s willingness to tell the truth as that individual perceived it, with a minimum of rhetorical flourish, in the face of whatever customary, tactical, or ideological “truths” might be circulating at a given moment and whatever force might be deployed to suppress dissenting views.
Because it is already supposed to be direct, “natural,” and without figure, parrhesia’s “truth” is not measured in terms of its clarity or fidelity to what it represents. Truth is not a matter of facticity. Instead, parrhesia indexes the truth content in an utterance to the risk incurred in speaking it. In the following passage, from the February 1, 1984, lecture, Foucault contrasts the parrhesiast with the “technician” or teacher, for whom truth is indexed to “filiation,” the way speaking can build a relationship through shared knowledge:
We have seen that the parrhesiast, to the contrary, takes a risk. He risks the relationship he has with the person to whom he speaks. And in speaking the truth, far from establishing this positive bond of shared knowledge, heritage, filiation, gratitude, or friendship, he may instead provoke the other’s anger, antagonize an enemy, he may arouse the hostility of the city, or, if he is speaking the truth to a bad and tyrannical sovereign, he may provoke vengeance and punishment. And he may go so far as to risk his life, since he may pay with his life for the truth he has told. Whereas, in the case of the technician’s truth-telling, teaching ensures the survival of knowledge, the person who practices parrhesia risks death. The technician’s and teacher’s truth-telling brings together and binds; the parrhesiast’s truth-telling risks hostility, war, hatred, and death. And if the parrhesiast’s truth may unite and reconcile, when it is accepted and the other person agrees to the pact and plays the game of parrhesia, this is only after it has opened up an essential, fundamental, and structurally necessary moment of the possibility of hatred and a rupture.
Truth, if parrhesia is the reigning modality for it, is a matter of breaking relationships, not building them. That power, that risk, marks its truth as authentic. The speech that builds relationships is merely practical or performative. The merely performative, Foucault suggests, does not constitute the self so much as reaffirm pre-existing status—the ability to make a performance and have it be understood by the audience as such. Parrhesia, however, “is a way of opening up this risk linked to truth-telling by, as it were, constituting oneself as the partner of oneself when one speaks, by binding oneself to the statement of the truth and to the act of stating the truth.”
That is to say, parrhesiastic discourse can posit a claim to having a self rather than draw on an already established one—it depends on the act of speaking out not from behind the mask of a particular social role one has adopted but as one’s bare self. The plain speaking retroactively makes the speaker naked. And that retroactive attribution is made possible by the riskiness of what’s been said.
If, as Foucault notes, parrhesiac statements must be loaded with enough affect to make auditors potentially kill over them, then one has to have some extremely intense material to talk about in order to become a self in this fashion. Cultivating a “true” self through parrhesia thus means cultivating confrontational or controversial things to say, and access to audiences that will be startled or affronted by them. One must seek out “explosive truth” about the world or about others, or contrive situations to be able to manufacture such potent truths. Such drama-laden public scenarios give people a chance to speak “risky” truths and thereby substantiate their committed integrity and develop status, rather than merely draw on pre-existing status to make public “performances.”
Performance reinforces the sanctity of the truth-telling scene as it has already been set up socially, with all the roles established and agreed upon by all the actors. Authority is pre-distributed and then reinscribed by what the performers say. Performance’s purpose is to rearticulate the status quo rather than challenge it. Though it can sometimes appear that revealing the “natural order” to be nothing more than a set of performances will destabilize and undermine that order, the fact that performances get naturalized isn’t the sole source of their power. The investment in making a performance, the skills one hones for it, can make it more binding, more coercive, harder to conceive of discarding. The unscripted alternative can appear to be chaos.
Parrhesia draws its power, its air of truth, from that chaos. It attempts to undo established roles in part through the force of exposure. One makes statements meant to reveal how people “really” are and recast their adoption of roles as hypocrisy. Parrhesia bases its claim to truth in pointing behind the curtain and revealing how many masks are being worn. (Erving Goffman describes several tactics for this disruption of “front region control” in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.)
Exposing the “inauthenticity” of the powerful in this way doesn’t automatically nullify their power, but the force of parrhesia depends on asserting that it should. Such discourse propounds that it is better, more truthful, to see past the performativity that sustains the existing order, even if what lies beyond it is the void. In the January 12, 1983, lecture, Foucault says,
In a performative utterance, the given elements of the situation are such that when the utterance is made, the effect which follows is known and ordered in advance, it is codified, and this is precisely what constitutes the performative character of the utterance. In parrhesia, on the other hand, whatever the usual, familiar, and quasi-institutionalized character of the situation in which it is effectuated, what makes it parrhesia is that the introduction, the irruption of the true discourse determines an open situation, or rather opens the situation and makes possible effects which are, precisely, not known.
“Parrhesia does not produce a codified effect,” Foucault says. “It opens up an unspecified risk.” In contemporary terms, this might be seen as the troll’s wager, typically offered from behind a cloak of anonymity.
In subsequent lectures, Foucault links parrhesia to Cynicism, an ancient mode of ur-trolling. As Foucault’s March 14, 1984, lecture discusses, ancient Cynics in Greece liked to rub the public’s noses in humankind’s animal nature and tried to live a “true life” through rejecting all social conventions in the most public way they could manage—to “live the truth” through unrelenting public self-documentation.
Cynic courage of the truth consists in getting people to condemn, reject, despise, and insult the very manifestation of what they accept, or claim to accept at the level of principles. It involves facing up to their anger when presenting them with the image of what they accept and value in thought, and at the same time reject and despise in their life … In the case of Cynic scandal—and this is what seems to me to be important and worth holding on to, isolating—one risks one’s life, not just by telling the truth, and in order to tell it, but by the very way in which one lives. In all the meanings of the word, one “exposes” one’s life. That is to say, one displays it and risks it. One risks it by displaying it; and it is because one displays it that one risks it. One exposes one’s life, not through one’s discourses, but through one’s life itself.
Talking is not enough; it must be elevated to a display of a way of life. You know you are living the truth if others regard you as a scandal. The analogy to social media seems almost self-evident. They permit us to make self-documentation a form of confrontation, not idle self-centered chatter.
Foucault explains how cynical practice pushes honor and truth-telling to an extreme at which its radical honesty becomes indistinguishable from a “shameless life”: “The kunikos life is a dog’s life in that it is without modesty, shame, and human respect,” Foucault says. “It is a life which does in public, in front of everyone, what only dogs and animals dare to do, and which men usually hide.” Offering that visceral personal stake itself—opening oneself to humiliation—is key; the exposure must be intrinsically inseparable from the deed. Social media work just like that, making all exposures deeds and vice versa.
Social media concretizes that gaze of others necessary to live the ethical, dog’s life—the true life under watchful gaze of the scandalized masses. Foucault stresses that everyday life in all its banality must be observed and judged for the Cynic’s approach to truth to succeed.
For the Cynics, the rule of non-concealment is no longer an ideal principle of conduct, as it was for Epictetus or Seneca. It is the shaping, the staging of life in its material and everyday reality under the real gaze of others, of everyone else, or at any rate of the greatest possible number of others. The life of the Cynic is unconcealed in the sense that it is really, materially, physically public.
So all those photos of food, all those indiscreet selfies, have an ethical function. “There is no privacy, secret, or nonpublicity in the Cynic life,” Foucault says, and that sounds pretty familiar—like a lot of the complaints about ubiquitous social media. But contrary to what many current critics say about social media’s inauthenticity, this is not performance, in Foucault’s terms, but parrhesia. Mistaking it as strategic playacting oversimplifies what is happening.
Typically social-media use is seen as identity or reputation construction, narrating cultural capital into existence. But “exposing” life is not always the same as making an identity, in the sense of building a reputation. It can also be a way to subordinate or even sacrifice reputation for truth: Sharing can be a matter of volunteering the self for ridicule, purging, nullification, ritual flaying—self-branding of a different kind. It’s why people sign up for demeaning reality TV shows, as Wayne Koestenbaum suggests in Humiliation. It’s part of why we sign up for Facebook. Moments of humiliation, Koestenbaum notes, “may be execrable and unendurable” but are also “genuine” in a “world that seems increasingly filled with fakeness.” Social media neatly increase that feeling of the world’s phoniness while providing a means for the sort of self-exposure that combats it. As more behavior seems inauthentic and “performative,” we have greater need to expose ourselves and have our own authenticity vindicated through the embarrassment this causes us.
This can be seen as a fulfillment of the Cynic’s injunction to “alter the currency.” Foucault emphasizes the ambiguity and open-ended potential of this ongoing demand to “revalue” value, including that of attention. Social-media use is a way of continually modulating attention’s value according to whether it feels more sustaining to spend it or be ravished and affirmed by it. One can gain illusory control over whether one is the subject granting attention or the object receiving it, when we are always both—never more so than within social media. “Within the accepted humiliation,” Foucault claims, “one is able to turn the situation around, as it were, and take back control of it.”
Social media, by offering the dog’s life, afford a straightforward route to integrity—or at least to how the cynics saw integrity. Foucault says that “the Cynic dramatization of the unconcealed life therefore turns out to be the strict, simple, and, in a sense, crudest possible application of the principle that one should live without having to blush at what one does, living consequently in full view of others and guaranteed by their presence.” That is reminiscent of Mark Zuckerberg’s comments about integrity, or Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s comment that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to be afraid of.” Using proprietary tech platforms to conduct your ascetic radical disclosure and unveil your latent integrity just happens to be highly lucrative for tech companies.
But because the parrhesiac self hinges on daring gestures rather than stable reputability, it also offers people the feeling of integrity within anonymity. Social media stage networked confrontations as discrete moments of truth, linking the sense of self in the moment with the shame created for oneself or another, and not with an ongoing branded personal identity.
In trying to uncloak life and expose truth, parrhesia may be likened to transgressive art practice, another tried and true mode of trolling. In the February 29, 1984, lecture, Foucault connects performance to “the consensus of culture” and parrhesia to art:
The consensus of culture has to be opposed by the courage of art in its barbaric truth. Modern art is Cynicism in culture; the cynicism of culture turned against itself. And if this is not just in art, in the modern world, in our world, it is especially in art that the most intense forms of a truth-telling with the courage to take the risk of offending are concentrated.
That is almost a truism, that artists “take risks” and tell untoward truths that ordinary culture refuses to express or tries to conceal. Artists become society’s conscience. Whether or not that’s true, social media, by democratizing parrhesia, democratize the opportunity to conceive of oneself as an artist in that way, someone whose life itself is a critical practice and an expression of beautiful truth, without having to sustain a marketable reputation to make a living as an artist.
Not everyone using social media, obviously, is a Cynic or a confrontational artist (at least not all the time). Most of online communication is conventionally performative (reiterating pre-existing status and stable emotional bonds—routinely liking the status updates of friends and “keeping in touch”) if not phatic (simply announcing one’s existence, in a kind of mic check). People using Facebook are not risking very much—not enough to keep them from using the site to try to help manage their general anxiety about social inclusion. But at some level users likely believe that they are transforming their lives into an “artwork” worthy of an audience by using social media, and that the platforms encourage them to believe they can and should systematically enlarge the audience that their “brilliant and memorable existence” is appropriate for. At first, friends. Then “Friends”—people you know only in social-media networks. Then, anyone with enough Friends in common.
In this way, Facebook use begins to bleed over into the sort of social-media interaction that is more unpredictable in the ways that Foucault is outlining with respect to parrhesia, and thus more compulsive, more addictive. Whereas performative discourse takes the self as static and the exchanges it generates as predictable, socially scripted, parrhesia puts the self into play, makes it a stake in an unpredictable game, makes it growable. Parrhesia underwrites the slot-machine-like aspects of seeking unanticipated microaffirmation through social media, of trying for jackpot “virality” that suddenly swells the self by broadening its circulation in the network. The hoard of inner experience—turned into signifers of the self in the social-media system—then takes on more weight, feels more substantial for the duration of that viral flare. One’s online archive, the whole of one’s time line, suddenly seems relevant, in play. It might even seem more true, a prelude to destiny.
Since parrhesia is where the compulsion is, social media platforms may be engineered to simulate it: They can be designed to stimulate drama and confrontation (Twitter fights, flame wars—remember those?—and context collapses, etc.) as well as the routine performative grooming of established bonds. Often these confrontations play on the status asymmetry of the parties involved; social media, by bringing people of varying status together in the same discursive space, set the stage for “games of truth.” Foucault argues that for parrhesia to be possible, there needs to be a tyrant who has power over you that you are addressing to establish the stakes, the danger. By taking down that tyrant in a public forum—and social media have become well suited to accommodating this—one secures one’s own relationship to “truth”; one wins the prize of authenticity.
But by making audiences more readily available and making some forms of self-documentation more automatic, social media lower the costs of the intentionality that makes confrontation and self-witnessing critical, constitutive of a courageous self. How much risk is left in it when it is automatic, ubiquitous, anonymous? The platforms capitalize on the frisson of courage and risk to make using social media more compulsive while containing parrhesia’s subversive potential. Anonymous trolls are usually policing existing inequalities—bullying women off the Internet, for instance—as they secure a sense of self through confrontation.
The phrase “game of truth” points to the idea that authenticity doesn’t simply exist but is made. Parrhesia is not about expressing any kind of “objective” truth at all: “The statement of the truth,” Foucault notes, “does not open up any risk if you envisage it only as an element in a demonstrative procedure.” Instead, it hinges on offending or troubling others perceived to have higher status in their sense of who they are: “the person who tells the truth throws the truth in the face of his interlocutor, a truth which is so violent, so abrupt, and said in such a peremptory and definitive way that the person facing him can only fall silent, or choke with fury, or change to a different register,” Foucault explains. Parrhesia can thus be seen as a kind of privilege shaming, a “speaking truth to power”—with power being not merely a matter of the explicit power to dominate over others but also the power to constitute oneself in a publicly credible way, the power of habitus, the power to make and control the knowledge about oneself rather that being subject to others’ determination, as mere information. But this also means parrhesia can be a matter of protecting privilege from the “threats” represented by the points of view of excluded others. In the fun-house mirror of ressentiment, harassment becomes ethical self-defense.
The resulting confrontations are usually zero-sum: Autonomy over one’s identity, in the “game of parrhesia,” is at the expense of the person you confront. The truth-teller gains agency over it that they see as measurable only in terms of the target’s loss of security. You know you have succeeded in telling truths (and gained status or ontological stability) only if the other is discomfited, thrown into confusion.
To argue that people jeopardize their “real” self by using social media performatively (self-promoting, posturing, etc.) is to try to stage a truth game, to interpolate people into an authenticity competition. That argument takes people’s ordinary discourse online and scrutinizes it as failed parrhesia. Social media make targets accessible and supply flash audiences to watch any confrontation that can be drummed up. This means we are also inadvertently on the battle field. The challenge can come at any time: I’m still real, are you?
Denying others the right to exist in different contexts, to have different social roles, is always an option available to “trolls” and other people seeking to garner a stronger sense of self. Staging a context collapse starts a truth game that the lower-status person has everything to gain by and relatively little to lose.
Parrhesia in social media yields a self moored by zero-sum games of power and delineated by measurable evidence of influence. This seemingly stable set of procedures for making a self—for playing the game of truth—are the consolation for the dismal, anxious, hyperreflexive sort of self the procedures actually yield. It may be that the only thing more intolerable than an “inauthentic” self is being at a loss for coherent procedures for “growing the self.” Of course, that anxiety can be historicized as being a reflection of neoliberalism, and of the need to be entrepreneurial about one’s personal brand to survive.
Social media provide the sort of metrics to make the game of parrhesia more playable, more creditable—they give a scoreboard for the sort of ethos that emerges from truth games—but these same metrics might also help keep parrhesia at bay by revealing status and allowing high-status people to avoid interaction with lower-status people. Accusations of inauthenticity may be simply irrelevant when cast at elites whose massive fame (or wealth) insulates them from ontological insecurity. It may be that social media facilitate not a confrontation of high against low, but of low against lower in a perpetual unfolding of petty drama in social media, to the social-media companies’ benefit, while the high-status people remain exempt, manifesting in social media mainly to perform their essential inaccessability.
The potential for parrhesia in social media is thereby circumscribed by some of the same affordances that make the parrhesia possible. Worse, the parrhesia in social media may set individuals against one another in pointless struggles for authenticity while precluding them from uniting politically to fight for shared goals against those remote elites. The satisfaction of those games, the “self” and “truth” that emerges from those compulsions, is another species of “cruel optimism,” to use Lauren Berlant’s phrase, in that it offers formal rituals that make the present tolerable or even pleasurable while altering nothing about a general condition that makes people feel overburdened, depressed, precarious, excluded, humiliated. There is a pale satisfaction in making a limited truth in the moment, even if it has no effect on the distribution of power or the way one is known by society.