Trapped in Cephalus’ House: Academics, Trolls, and Politics

By now it has surely come to seem somewhat banal to quote Socrates’ remarks at line 31d of the Apology when considering the question of a philosopher’s relation to politics. If not, it probably should, as much of the point of those remarks—at least absent considerable interpretive gymnastics—amounts to fairly standard-issue complaints that a) functioning as a public official means one has to abandon a serious commitment to justice; and b) that participation in politics as a speaker of truth (as Socrates has, of course, constructed himself since the beginning of the text (17c), exposes one not only to the risk but to the virtual certainty of death.

There is actually quite a bit to say about the second of Socrates’ claims. Foucault, for instance, has given us a tremendous amount of contextual material, in his studies of parrhesia, on the basis of which to interpret this claim, and even to ask to what extent Socrates’ very act of placing himself manifestly in danger as a result of his speech was supposed to function as an epistemological (and not merely a rhetorical) guarantee of the truth of what he had said.

But such interpretations already operate on a level that presumes another point: political speech, even and especially insofar as it carries the value of truth, often has little or nothing to do with attempts to produce knowledge or belief. On the contrary, political speech often presupposes one or the other of these, or at very least formations of sympathy, experience, sensibility, etc., that more or less predictably and reliably dispose people towards (or against) knowledge or belief.[1]  On this basis, political speech seeks to assemble, organize, mobilize, direct, assert, claim, assent, give notice, etc., or alternately, to decompose, block, interrupt, deny, withhold, refuse, etc.[2] Such speech is not, by any means, always agonistic. It is perfectly possible for it to be broadly cooperative—and much of what takes place under the sign of political struggle is preceded by the development and extension of various forms of cooperation. But the forms of agon—the forms of struggle—which are certainly one of its the key modalities typically exist at a very significant remove from those which are frequently at work in philosophical practice—and, more broadly, in academic and scientific discourses and the institutions and practices that have been built around them. Read the rest of this entry »