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

by Ed Kazarian

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.

Alas, many philosophers seem to conflate the two agons, or to assume that the philosophical one would, if instituted, fix the problems of the political one, both on the register of its foreclosure of justice and on that of its potentially violent refusal of truth. Indeed, many philosophers seem to understand political oppression primarily in terms of these two registers: a refusal of justice, usually understood either as a fair exchange or a response to legitimate claims[3]; and a suppression of truth.  One might even argue, if one were feeling particularly impish, that many philosophers seem understand political oppression largely in terms of what happened to Socrates. (I am not, however, going to try to defend that claim.)

The thing is, there is good reason to think that Plato, at least, had a better sense of the difference between political and philosophical speech than this. Certainly, reading dialogues such as the Meno and the Phaedrus gives the impression that he had a sophisticated understanding of both: 1) how political speech—or at least the speech of those who would address “large audiences”—functioned to a considerable extent on the basis of beliefs, sentiments, and even forms of ‘knowledge’ that had little to do with philosophical logos; and 2) how such speech is directed toward conduct far more than understanding. Socrates in the Meno surely understands the point of speaking in ways that serve to both to disrupt his interlocutor’s power plays (see his various quips about Meno’s attempts to play on his youth and looks, his resorting to debater’s arguments, his unwillingness to rule over himself, etc.) and to motivate him towards a different course of action—and even to manipulate him into cooperation with an agenda he has explicitly rejected, insofar as his hypothesis in the last part of the dialogue smuggles the definitional project back into the discussion under the cover of an attempt to answer Meno’s original question. And in the Phaedrus, Socrates demonstrates not only a robust familiarity with technical matters of rhetoric, but also a clear grasp of the fact that a rhetorically successful performance relies on the existing beliefs and sentiments of the audience. Nor does he merely theorize this, he enacts it insofar as he attempts to recruit Phaedrus, the lover of speeches, to philosophy by presenting it, in a thoroughly rhetorical twist of definition, as a superior form of rhetoric.

But this, it seems to me, is where Plato tends to load the dice, and to do so in a way that philosophers often find ourselves disposed to accept at something much closer to face value than we should.  To see how, it is important to take the Socrates of the Apology seriously when he claims that he has avoided politics.  Socrates’ conversations have, of course, been public. He recognizes that, as such, they have been an irritant, but there is nothing about the act of having a bilateral (or even a multilateral) conversation where one can be and frequently is observed and overheard that is particularly political—even if the subjects under discussion concern personal or public virtue, etc. This is especially true insofar as the Socratic version of the conversation seems to involve the suspension of many if not most of the material conditions for politics—including concrete, directly practical questions concerning need, desire, well-being, safety, security, roles, offices, duties, work, the distribution of goods, etc. People will object that one can find discussions of many of these things in the dialogues, and indeed all of them are considered in the Republic. But the point here is that the dialogues rarely if ever admit the question of what those engaged in conversation or those listening should do with regard to any of these matters. They are not discussions of, to crib a title from Lenin, “what is to be done?”

In this regard, the Republic is a perfect case in point.

Let us consider this text, structured as it is on the famous analogy of the city to the soul—which should already lead us to suspect that the problem of the polis is undergoing a narrowing and an abstraction that reduces its most characteristically political dimension, its inclusion of a multitude of different people, different souls and bodies. More specifically, let us consider the operations that must be accomplished in order to make possible the foundation of the ‘city in speech’ that encompasses most of the dialogue.[4] Prior to all this, in the first book, we find Socrates waylaid, taken by (highly metaphorical) force—like the prisoner in the cave, whose release and introduction to ‘reality’ is as much the result of violent coercion as is the installation of the philosopher king, compelled to rule—and eventually brought back not to a genuinely public square, but to a private house. Moreover, the house in question belongs to an old man who, rather than making demands upon the budding city or its ruler(s), absents himself to attend to his devotions. Needless to say, there are no women present either, nor any children—however much the forms of their lives are discussed and disposed of by the men who remain once their project of model-building is underway. In all of this, nothing whatsoever that could ever be practical is at stake. No real action is being contemplated. Indeed, the ordinary practice of life is so thoroughly suspended that they talk through the night—and then Socrates goes and talks through the next day as well (viz. Timeaeus).

But finally, and this is the tell, the group is forced to confront a troll, Thrasymachus, who insists that dominance is legitimating in its own right, that a ruler need not be responsive to logos—only to find himself defeated and silenced by logos.

As. If.

The Republic fantasizes the constitution of a metaphorical polis that admits only logos in order to conduct a theoretical exercise aimed at designing a polis that would be ruled by those who have mastered logos and the entire organization of which would enclose its members in a total, lifelong guardianship as prescribed by logos. Not only is this a polis implausibly governed by logos; it is a polis that has entirely eliminated agon—by means, of course, of a lie. (Philosophy, it seems, gets its way by lying a lot in Plato, at least if the texts considered above are any indication.)

But here’s where current events make this ‘noble lie’ rather more difficult to swallow than it usually is—and usually, it’s very easy, being the kind of thing that most of us trained in philosophy absorb early and hang onto as a kind of background assumption far longer than it would probably survive if it were subjected to serious examination.[5]

What the contemporary proliferation of trolls—and please feel free to choose your own example here—should alert us to is precisely the way in which that scene with Thrasymachus wherein Socrates was able to assert his dominance—and thus the dominance of logos—over the conversation, is itself complete bullshit. At the very least, the scene was only possible in a private space that deprived Thrasymachus of the whole cast of allies, dupes, targets, scapegoats, and of course undisciplined respondents upon whom the troll depends in order to take control of the discursive situation and disrupt the organization of any competing discourse. The scene in which the troll is defeated by logos is not, and this is the point, possible in a political space. The troll may well gain access to the site of discourse by exploiting the norms of logos—for instance, the elenchic imperative that every objection be heard—but the troll will never consent to being bound by those rules.

One might object that Thrasymachus can be defeated by logos because he is actually sincere when he makes his argument.[6] As such, Thrasymachus might not in fact be a troll in the strong sense, i.e., one whose arguments are never in good faith, even though he thinks politics is to be conducted by force rather than logos. But if anything, this reinforces our suspicions about the Platonic scenario, since rather than confronting the sophist who, it is said, merely simulates logos in bad faith, it tends to confront someone who merely reasons badly. So too in the Meno, Socrates ability to turn the conversation from Meno’s ‘debater’s argument’ toward a practical defense of the process of inquiry depends on Meno’s sincere interest in what Socrates has heard ‘from religious people’ about ‘recollection’—an account whose reputed source and overall tenor is as if precisely calculated by Socrates to be interesting to someone like Meno.  That is, as we discover in the Phaedrus, it is Socrates who operates like a good rhetor by framing his account in terms that are calculated relative to the dispositions that he finds in his interlocutor—and it is extremely unclear that Socrates believes (or has reason to believe) anything in this account beyond the positive moral effects that would follow from subscribing to it: “We must not believe the debater’s argument, for it would make us idle, and fainthearted men like to hear it, whereas my argument makes them energetic and keen on the search” (71e).  The question of who is trolling who in the Meno (and more broadly throughout the dialogues) is, I submit, very real. But more importantly for our immediate purposes, Socrates and his logos rarely if ever seem to confront a genuine troll—or even a sophist in the radical sense. The troll (or the sophist) that Socrates defeats is still, rather, a philosophical creature who can be diverted from the pursuit of strictly political project—especially when isolated from concretely political relations in the conversational situation that obtains in the philosophical dialogue.

But the trolls we actually encounter are of another sort, being political creatures in a sense that runs counter to philosophical ideals of a virtuous politics that would be responsive to logos—the very ideal politics that Socrates himself, apparently, did not expect to encounter. But our investment in logos as a panacea, as a uniquely virtuous conduct, ignores this Socratic caution. Taking Plato’s fantasy as truth, neglecting to recognize that the troll is not bound to treat, e.g., the university as a space of withdrawal in the way that Thrasymachus treated Cephalus’s house, philosophers and other academics who have similarly invested in the virtue of ‘reasoned exchange’ fail to recognize themselves as being involved in a form of political agon in which logos is fundamentally inoperative, and in so doing they make themselves—or worse, others occupying the spaces into which they receive the troll as if he or she were an interlocutor—into members of the cast of characters that Plato so conveniently denied his troll in order to see him defeated by reason alone.

The implications of this misrecognition go further, however. What is at stake here is not simply the roots of the frequent insistence upon treating the troll as if, upon entering into the space of the university, he or she will discover, or be exposed as containing, a heretofore untapped reservoir of sincerity and so fall into line with the norms of a ‘politics’ governed by logos, of which the university is a unique and precious exemplar. More basic still are the problems with the conception of a politics that could be encompassed within the sphere of logos.  The problems with this are, I suspect, manifold, but the ones I want to draw attention to here are those that might be called procedural, bearing upon who and what gets excluded or suspended in order for the conversation that will found the city in speech to be had at all. The conversation in Cephalus’ house strikes me as being, if not strictly apolitical, then political only in a very peculiar and problematic sense insofar as it is never really a negotiation or even a struggle over how to live together. It always presupposes a suspension of these—or better, the fantasy that they can be suspended [7].

We should worry, I think, more than we often do, about the implications of this politics under suspension and the role that it plays in our theory, our practice, and perhaps most importantly the way we organize and govern our institutions, especially at the point of contested articulation that inevitably arises between the academic and the civic.



[I’ve benefitted from the comments, suggestions, objections and most of all conversation of several folks as I worked on this post: C. Colwell, John Drabinski, Sina Kramer, John Protevi, and Adriel Trott.]

[1]Such things are also materialized in institutions and the institutional and collective conditions for the formation of subjectivity that obtain in various societies, but we can set that nuance aside for the moment.

[2]A re-reading of Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of ‘mots d’ordre’ (‘order words’ or, more conventionally ‘slogans’) seems in order here.

[3]A careful reading of Capital, of course, already shows what’s wrong here. The exchange involved in the capitalist exploitation of labor is, by all formal measures, legitimate, and yet it is only possible on the basis of a coercion that is unrecognizable within the terms of such legitimacy, and is indeed institutionally certified as legitimate all the way down.

[4]Some of what follows is informed by my recollection, undoubtedly faulty at such a remove, of John Sallis’ discussion of Republic I in Being and Logos and the discussions we had in Drew Hyland’s seminar on Plato in the Fall of 1993 at Trinity College.

[5]Such examination, of course, is the kind of thing one only undertakes when forced to. Deleuze is, as he often is, right about this: thought is a forced movement (a point he draws from Plato, by the way).

[6]This objection was first suggested to me by Sina Kramer, and I’ve benefitted here from conversation with her and Adriel Trott, who agreed with and reiterated the objection.

[7]Thanks to Adriel Trott for pushing me on the appropriateness of calling this ‘apoloitical,’ and to John Drabinski for pushing me to think my way through to the frame of a ‘politics under suspension.’