Games of Truth


Rob Horning in The New Inquiry:

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 Foucault’s Berkeley lectures from 1983 also deal with 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 subjective; 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 much more concretely in mind. Social media 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.

For Foucault, that aim of living a “beautiful existence” has not been 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” is no longer 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.

More here.