Parrhesia

Prolegomena to Truth in Memory

How does memory give birth to truth and history?

One of the most memorable metaphors from Walter Benjamin in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” can be found in the ninth thesis. The ninth thesis contains a vivid description of Klee’s painting Angelus Novus:

“This is how one pictures the Angel of History. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awake the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is brewing in paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (257-258)

Benjamin’s thesis, which bears the inevitable aura of the death drive (thanatos) marks the distinct ‘swerve’ of art interpretation into the domain of historical materialism, which Marx “extracted” from Hegel. Marx’s historical materialism reclaimed the validity of class warfare and prophesied the end of capital in the final reckoning. It is this brimming hope that continues to fuel human history, as antagonistic forces continue to confront each other in eternal war. Civilization is constantly being trapped and bled dry by its own machines, for reasons it can no longer understand or perhaps, only vaguely. Ours is a behemoth of violence and confusion.

The Angel of History’s very existence is defined by the centrifugal might of capital itself, as it continues to reduce humanity to ever paler shades of its former Self. The Angel of History will never glance at any beautiful future, for it exists for the past’s present. At each Moment, we see an increasingly pale specter with ashen lips and empty eyes. The “death of History” and the prevalence of recuperated histories nods at the wide expanse of [in]human domination through the thanatic logic of surplus value. It is in these subaltern histories that we are able to grasp, even for a brief Moment, the never-ending Procrustean1 punishment of humanity so that it would continue to fit the shrinking mold of Homo economicus.

We now live in a period of heightened alienation and national divisiveness, which at any moment, can cause spontaneous crises across scarred and mutilated boundaries. The previous boundaries, which were spelled out easily before by the political gloss of the yesteryear no longer apply. The boundaries that we now toe carefully are naked impositions, created by years of political abuse and state terror. These boundaries are guarded by formerly passive elements of the population.

—Marius Carlos, Jr.

It is in this postcolonial crisis that we find ourselves today, in varying states of awareness and consciousness. The greatest among clear and present dangers is the destruction of collective memory, for it is in collective memory that we are able to locate suppressed histories that can atrophy repressive power. Collective memory is history’s sole potentiate and surviving kin. What simply poses as collective memory cannot be such a modality, for collective memory arises from the conscious transmission of mythos through time.

The ultimate goal of power structures (cultural/historical/political/juridical) is to destroy truth and history through co-optation, for it is in the sociopolitical and cultural superstructure that we are confronted with objects that we cannot refuse, for in doing so, we refuse the primary political identities that we have come to ascribe as our “own,” within the broad narrative of nationhood. In a series of a million tiny erasures, the collective memory of a nation is essentially corrupted, until such time that what was once traitorous and mass-murderous now had the malignant aura of a messiah.

Memory and remembering as they apply to the creation of truth have never been as vital to our survival as a nation as the present time. For as we speak, vulgar revisionism has laid waste to the national imagination, causing people to substitute reason for demagoguery and mass slaughter of one’s own in the restless search for “peace.” We now live in a period of heightened alienation and national divisiveness, which at any moment, can cause spontaneous crises across scarred and mutilated boundaries. The previous boundaries, which were spelled out easily before by the political gloss of the yesteryear no longer apply. The boundaries that we now toe carefully are naked impositions, created by years of political abuse and state terror. These boundaries are guarded by formerly passive elements of the population. A violent mutation has caused these elements to attack others with varying degrees of effectiveness in an effort to stamp out dissent. The autological policing of the national Self can only be the result of two things: a reconfiguration of the local spectrum of madness, where a massive shift has legitimized newer methods of repression or second, it can also be a heightened expression of ideological renewal, expressed by the national majority vote and the unnatural glorification of the resulting dispensation.

What we’re experiencing now is a continuous and alarming breakdown of the collective memory of the nation itself. Another urgent observation is that “history as truth-telling” has been largely absent from the public psyche for many decades now and in its place is merely passive consumption of “historical texts” via structured pedagogy [schooling]. For a country with rich oral traditions, we have become almost completely silenced by institutionalized miseducation to the point that a peep of dissent already seems excessive and outright resistance to the established order becomes punishable by death.

To add to the mayhem is the fact that storytelling in popular culture has descended to so much empty posturing, to the delight of commercialists everywhere. Digital technology has also offered no respite from the bludgeoning of structured storytelling, which is essential for the foregrounding of history. Robert Kearny writes:

“We are entering a civilization of depthless simulation inimical to the art of storytelling… Narrative is being superficialized and consumerized out of existence.”(10-11)Traditionally, the saturation point of popular culture adjusts itself constantly through the reformulation of the same images, sounds and narratives, to prevent a jaded public from abandoning it completely. This would explain why popular culture remains persistent—people are spinning it, the scratched disc that it is.

If history is the stuff of memory and our collective memory helps constitute the foundation of national identity, then we must do everything in our power to protect our memory from further corruption. Anne Whitehead contemplates the Lockean perspective of memory and identity:

“Taking the most extreme case, that of a man who has entirely lost the memory of certain parts of his life, beyond any hope of retrieving them, [Locke] observes that while it was the ‘same man’ who did these actions, in as much as he has bodily continuity over time, yet it was not the ‘same person’, precisely because his consciousness does not extend to that period of his life… [Locke] thus offers a conception of the self that is inextricably bound to consciousness defined by its very ability to remember, and therefore, narrate past experiences in the present.” (57-58)

The loss of collective memory is inimical to national becoming, for it erases vital coordinates in the primordial map of the Filipino Self, at a time when historical erasure and flagrant revisionism has become the norm. There remains a need to protect ourselves from such attacks, so we do not lose ourselves in the end, because we need collective memory to remain intact as a nation so we can defend ourselves against internal and external aggression instead of contending with internal confusion. Whitehead further argues:

“[Collective memories] describe ‘shared communication about the meaning of the past’ that are ‘anchored’ in the life-worlds of individuals who partake in the communal life (of the group.)” (Whitehead 130)

And this is why its resistive power becomes even more vital to the discussion. It counteracts the maddening misinformation that has become our daily feast, especially in social media.

—Marius Carlos, Jr.

Is there a solution? Could there be a way out of this epistemic mess, this growing pollution of what we know of our national history and consequently, what we stand for as a people?

Let’s get one thing clear from the get-go: power naturally despises truth. This has been the “core” of new historiographies and critical efforts for more than seven decades now. But the conundrum remains—how do we arrive at truth? How do we reformulate the matrix of communication in everyday culture to integrate the resistive inflection of truth?

We may use the concept of parrhesia from Michel Foucault’s archival work. Parrhésia is “free-spokenness (franc-parler), [it is] a modality of truth-telling.”2 What parrhésia entails is a conscious and willful act of finding an audience and engaging in the narrative activity of alethurgy, where “the production of truth is manifested.”3 Foucault takes the concept of truth-telling from ancient Greek culture, and notes that the political activity of parrhésia predates the Judeo-Christian mythos,4 which implies that this properly ethical norm is something that wasn’t necessarily passed down to us through the activity of Christian confession. It is, Foucault contends, related to a central axis which is no less than the “Socratic principle of ‘knowing yourself.’”5 What this means is that this modality of truth-telling should occupy a central position in everyday life and it should not be considered an esoteric practice, reserved for moments of extreme curiosity or boredom.

The parrhésiast, or the person who engages in truth-telling becomes a fountainhead of epistemic renewal in the midst of crisis, for the parrhésiast is primarily concerned with parrhésiazesthai or telling all. Therefore, “the parrhésiast is the person who says everything.”6 The concept of parrhésia sounds incredibly simple and yet, from the backdrop of political practice and social fragmentation, one can plainly see that we have a long way to go before this model of arriving at historical truth can hold sway. And this is why its resistive power becomes even more vital to the discussion. It counteracts the maddening misinformation that has become our daily feast, especially in social media. To add an element of genuine dialogism and perhaps even dialectical questioning to the equation, we reaffix the narrative structures that allow for meaningful communication between individuals.

Now, one cannot do it alone. Parrhésia cannot be accomplished alone. To engage in genuine truth-telling would be to engage in a parrhésiastic game where another Person (which may be anyone—a friend, politician, tyrant or mob of angry people) becomes willing to play the role of the receiver of truth. Foucault reiterates: “If he wants to play the role proposed to him by the parrhésiast in the telling the truth, [he] must accept the truth, however it may hurt generally accepted opinion in the assembly, the Prince’s passions or interests or the individual’s ignorance or blindness.”7

So the success of parrhésia in practice is dependent not only in our willingness to “tell the truth” and “tell everything” but also in our capacity to accept other peoples’ truths no matter how much it would hurt our own sensibilities. Parrhésiastic games will revitalize the consciousness of people at the level of plain, day-to-day existence, insofar as it creates critical dialogic spaces for popular opinions to be explored and subsequently cleaved in the middle.

Are we ready for more parrhésia and less divisiveness and fragmentation?

I hope we are. We have to be.

[1] Procrustes is an Attican bandit in Greek mythology who attacked individuals by placing them in an iron chair and mutilating them. If the person was too tall to fit the chair, he would be sawed, if he was too short, he would be stretched to fit the frame.
[2] Foucault, Michel, The Courage of the Truth (The Government of Self and Others II) Lectures at the College de France 1983-1984. USA: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012. p. 2
[3] Ibid. p. 3
[4] Ibid. p. 5
[5] Ibid. p. 4
[6] Ibid. p. 9
[7] Ibid. p. 12

Works Cited:

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968, pp. 257-258.

Foucault, Michel. The Courage of the Truth (The Government of Self and Others II). Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp. 2-4,9,12.

Kearny, Richard. On Stories. Taylor & Francis, Psychology Press, 2002, pp. 10-11.

Whitehead, Anne. Memory. Routledge, 2010, pp. 57-58, 130.


Marius Carlos, Jr. is a storyteller, essayist, and journalist. He is the current editor-in-chief of Revolt Magazine. He is also the English editor of Rebo Press Book Publishing. He is an independent researcher focused on transnational capitalism, neocolonialism, empire, and pop culture. You can reach him via social media at Minds and MeWe.

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