PARRHESIA: THE RISKY ACTIVITY OF SPEAKING THE TRUTH
This project continues the artistic and scholarly work of the Outcast Registration, which investigates the living conditions of female drug addicts in prison before and after the onset of their addiction. In a European comparison, social, political, legal, and cultural similarities and differences will be made visible. To expand areas of activity and the circulation of knowledge with regard to the Outcast Registration network, the findings of the projects conducted in central Europe (see TBDWBAJ) will be supplemented and extended by a number of projects to be conducted in prisons in northern and southern Europe. To what extent is the treatment of drug-addicted women in countries as different as Italy and Denmark, for example, paradigmatic or representative of their social systems? The central issue is one of principle: Can the recounting of one’s own life story in public be an effective emancipatory act? And how can the effects of such self-empowerment through a speech activity be utilised already inside the prison using new questions and research methods to thematise the living conditions of drug addicted women in Europe as a matter of concern for the whole of society?
“Women don’t run away— not from situations or from prisons”
This rather laconic but extremely consequential observation made by a prison director was confirmed by the findings of the Outcast Registration projects conducted so far: the women experience themselves as guilty in principle and justifiably imprisoned — prison walls and barbed wire are in fact superfluous. This in no way diminishes their suffering from a life on the streets and in prison, characterised predominantly by (sexual) violence; on the contrary: being structurally condemned literally to voicelessness — which also means to defencelessness — makes their situation infinitely worse. Michel Foucault understood that prison walls not only have the function of preventing prison escapes, they also prevent society at large from engaging with the phenomenon of prison. Therefore, the task is to find ways out of this silence and show the organised as well as internalised invisibility of these women.
Parrhesia: The Courage and the Duty to Speak the Truth
The key theoretical concept of the project is Foucault’s conception of parrhesia, which describes the courage and the duty to speak the naked truth, to take up a stance sincerely and candidly against the established order in full awareness that, potentially, there is a risk of being penalised or punished. This conception is based on the conviction that even a seemingly powerless individual can confront a powerful individual and so bring about improved conditions of life for oneself and others. For Foucault it is not a matter of problematising the complex idea of truth per se, but of recognising that speaking the truth is an emancipatory activity. The parrhesiastes, someone who speaks the truth as directly as possible, does this in the public sphere and thus underlines its political, ethical, and cultural dimensions. The focus of the project is to explore free, frank, and critical speaking under risky conditions. It is risky because parrhesia is always conditioned by hierarchies and therefore reveals existing disparities: in this case starting from the position of incarcerated, drug-dependent women relegated to the utmost periphery of society who address the very society from which they have been banished because they have supposedly proved themselves unworthy of it.
The Tragedy of Real Life
Based on material taken from Ancient Greek tragedies, which deal in different ways with their characters’ desperate quest for the truth about their origins, Foucault illustrates the significance of speaking the truth. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (ca. 429–425 BCE), for example, the participants attempt in vain to escape their grim fate, yet without questioning the Oracle’s prophecy itself. In the end the truth comes to light rather by accident and with no action on their part. In Ion by Euripides (ca. 418–417 BCE) Ion and his mother Creusa decide to speak out in spite of existing rules and hierarchies in order to rid themselves of injustice and oppression, of imposed dependencies and feelings of shame, even though their revelations could threaten them with dire consequences. The essence of both tragedies is “guilty through no fault of their own”, which is also the leitmotif in the lives of female drug addicts. Both in literature as well as in real life people become the victims of abominable acts, which have devastating effects on their development into independent individuals, on how they function in society, and thus on society itself. In all the life stories of the project participants there are accounts of rape, assault, gross neglect, and abuse from childhood onward. Whereas in the fictional Tragedy as in real life the (sexual) perpetrators are predominantly fathers, uncles, brothers, lovers, and neighbours; trusted persons rather than outsiders, the physical and mental neglect is permitted mainly by mothers and grandmothers.
The Catharsis Effect
On the one hand it is significant that women are censured far more for failing in social and reproductive roles than drug-addicted men and fathers. From the mainstream point of view motherhood and drug consumption are irreconcilable, whereas drug-addicted fathers have the less detrimental connotation of mere absence, which is considered less harmful. On the other hand it is transparently clear that disaster on the stage is looming, but cannot be averted in spite of the best efforts of the protagonists, and that the audience will understand the causal connections, and will not only understand but empathise with the decisions the protagonists are obliged to make; the audience is able to review the situations, take sides, take up a stance. What we see on stage is their courage in placing the truth at the door of the originators of their suffering, and in this way freeing themselves from calamitous power relations. Such transparency and clarity is urgently needed by the real women in prison. Cathartic effects, therefore, should first arise in them, but also in a society that is indifferent and has so far looked away.
The goal of parrhesiastic speaking the truth consists not only in seizing the initiative in the public sphere and taking a clear stance, but above all to articulate a position vis-à-vis the established order and reprehensible moral convictions — also at the risk of jeopardising one’s own safety and existence. Foucault proposes the term “speech activity” as the translation of parrhesiastic speaking, to distinguish speaking the truth and the commitment it entails from the usual manner of speaking which one uses to identify oneself. In this respect parrhesia is based on a strongly performative understanding of what speech acts are: this is absolutely central in this context because it serves self-empowerment. Because the women accept their disqualification in the eyes of the community as self-evident and justified, even to the extent of trivialising what they experienced, they regard only themselves as the guilty ones, as those solely responsible for a disastrous life constellation in a so-called revolving door effect. People who regard themselves as both unimportant and guilty are hardly capable of speaking freely and frankly about decisive and significant events.
From the Matrix Method to the Biographies
With the aid of the Matrix Method, which was developed out of necessity, the women participating in the project are able to reconstruct and speak about biographical events and contexts. Without any restrictive guidelines or emotional suggestions, from a catalogue of around 160 basic terms they choose words applicable to them and their lives. Selecting, combining and ordering the words enables them to see that the effects of traumatic experiences no longer lie beyond causality — without lapsing into standardising their lives, acceptance of fault, or apportioning of blame. The biographies that are constructed in this way enable the project participants to speak for the first time about their lives before and after the beginning of their drug addiction, and strengthens, as the previous sections of the project have shown, their need as well as the necessity of making themselves heard, publically.
Goals of the Project
The initial question contradicts the widespread cliché that junkies have nothing significant to say. In arts-based research and practice the biographies of the inmates are collated, and contextualised with the frequently totally disproportionate penal consequences of their addiction in order to problematise that the marginalisation of female junkies is a negligible social phenomenon.
In society’s most isolated spaces the project participants discover art as a possible space for activity without ifs and buts, theorising, and without questioning the given, undoubtedly asymmetric relationship of the project leader to the women participating. To meet in openness and to be able to speak the naked truth triggered a paradigm shift in our collaboration: in this new situation characterised by frankness the usual self-justification or resignedness to one’s own precarious situation gives way to the common ambition to speak the truth or, as Foucault put it, to commit oneself to the truth. In the process recurrent patterns and contingent structures in the biographies come to light and also particularly the discrepancies in the proportionality: of the offences committed as a result of addiction and the sentences passed; of the criminal offences committed against these persons from early childhood onward which were neither reported nor prosecuted nor ever will be.
“Parrhesia: The Risky Activity of Speaking the Truth” is a gender-specific study, which is an interdisciplinary amalgamation of art and social science that analyses and critically reflects on an issue that concerns society as a whole from a variety of perspectives. The planned project once again takes up the challenge of exploring what arts-based research can accomplish — and what it cannot. The question of how art can enrich the sciences and vice versa is phrased dynamically: art does not only serve the accumulation of knowledge but also addresses the perpetually changing conditions of life.
Art is thus expanded in its role as a socio-political intermediary; the utilisation of aesthetic media becomes an instrument of visibility and representation. Art intervention and empirical data collection prove to be effective and complementary investigative methods that can be applied in an interdisciplinary context. Within the framework of new contacts to research institutes, especially in countries where the project will be carried out in the future, a large-scale network is being established with expertise that will promote and enrich arts-based research on possibilities for socio-political interventions in the long term.
to be aware of outsiders, that is, marginalised groups in a society, to register and research conditions they live under, and to demand public visibility for them, is the main concern of this arts and science research project. Such groups all suffer from similar systematic exclusion procedures that push them over and over again further to the margins of society. Unlike their male fellow sufferers, drug-addicted women in European prisons are considered a “negligible phenomenon”. The work of the OUTCAST REGISTRATION counters this by recognising the need of the participants to make their lives a public affair, which ultimately also means laying part of the responsibility for their illness at society’s door.
initialism for the project title THIS BABY DOLL WILL BE A JUNKIE, which suggests that drug addiction is an unavoidable fate—an ominous prophecy for a human life that has barely begun. On the one hand, it contradicts common notions of freedom, independence, equal opportunity, and individual self-determination as guaranteed, indisputable rights of every individual. On the other, it also criticises a fatal consequence of this ideal, which often goes hand in hand with supposedly being justified in condemning the illness of addiction and the resulting violations of the law as a purely individual matter of personal failure. This failure to mourn those who have already been denied being regarded as a life worth living discredits connectedness and solidarity, that is, the willingness to engage in a shared world in equality and diversity.
Michel Foucault proposes the term “speech activity” as a translation of the Greek term parrhesia to differentiate truth speaking and the commitment it involves from the common forms of utterance with which people identify. In a clear distinction from the linguistic “speech act” according to Austin and Searle, Foucault is particularly concerned with the relationship between the parrhesiastic speaker and what is uttered.
the projects of the OUTCAST REGISTRATION operate in different topological spheres, that is, in spaces that reflect specific social functions and all have a private (individual) and a public (communal) meaning. The fact that private space is largely excluded highlights the problematic fact that the private sphere in democratic systems is fundamentally—and constitutionally—hidden from public view. While this does protect from state control and interference, it does not protect those who are exposed to (sexual) violence behind closed doors. For all the women who participated in the projects, the private space has never been a protective space, as is clear from their respective biographies—on the contrary. Since access to private space is denied, the OUTCAST REGISTRATION projects concentrate on social spaces that are accessible but under normal circumstances strictly separated from each other, and it is there that encounters or even confrontations are initiated between their inhabitants: — in isolated spaces, where segregated life far away from society is imposed, for example, in prisons, therapy facilities, psychiatric wards, and asylum seekers centres; — in cultural spaces, that is, institutionally legitimised and supported spaces and facilities, including museums, art halls and galleries, as well as, for example, playgrounds, parks, and zoos; spaces that are categorically in contrast to subcultural, secret, or even forbidden spaces for ideas, thoughts, and life styles, which are rejected by the majority and/or officially banished from the public sphere; — in the public realm, which ideally expresses the need and obligation of all people to be able to articulate in public everything that concerns all us, independent of whether they have been granted, have acquired, or have coerced authorisations and privileges. In the sense of Hannah Arendt, the sphere of what is public is not only a possibility, but rather a call to action.
comes from the Greek and means “freedom of speech” or “talking about everything”. It is the key theoretical concept of the eponymous project PARRHESIA: THE RISKY ACTIVITY OF SPEAKING THE TRUTH, which is based on Michel Foucault’s remarks on parrhesiastic speaking the truth. Drawing on the ancient tradition of truth speaking that can be traced back to Euripides, Foucault defines parrhesia as “a kind of verbal activity where the speaker has a speciﬁc relation to truth through frankness, a certain relationship to his own life through danger, a certain type of relation to himself or other people through criticism (self-criticism or criticism of other people), and a speciﬁc relation to moral law through freedom and duty. More precisely, parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognises truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself). In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of ﬂattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.” (Source: Michel Foucault, The Meaning and Evolution of the Word Parrhesia in Discourse & Truth: The Problematisation of Parrhesia, 1999, 6 lectures at the University of California at Berkeley, CA, Oct.–Nov. 1983. https://foucault.info/parrhesia/foucault.DT1.wordParrhesia.en/)
a pre-printed catalogue of terms, both positively and negatively contextualisable, which are selected and assigned to the respective stages of life, and enable the women involved to provide information that is not emotionally charged or judgemental about traumatic experiences that had previously been impossible to communicate.
a core element of the artistic and scientific research approach conducted for all projects, which distinguishes the collaboration with women convicted of drug abuse, with colleagues, scientists and institutions, as well as the dialogue with specialists from various fields such as philosophy, art (theory), psychiatry, sociology, political science, and law. The circulation of findings in the OUTCAST REGISTRATION network is expanded through the partly direct, partly mediated linking of different expertises.
a biographical protocol that uses the Matrix Method to collect facts as soberly as possible which is devoid of emotional suggestion. From the resulting collages of words the biographers formulate sentences in the present tense, so that the events of the past are brought into the present.
an informal U.S. English term of the 1920s used here with the express agreement of the women involved. Its use is intended to make people aware that the terms “addiction” and “dependence” used in connection with people suffering from drug addiction have been—and still need to be—problematised over and over again, both from a medical and a legal perspective. The World Health Organisation recommended in the 1970s that the term “addiction” should be replaced by “dependence” in order to avoid negative connotations of moral disapproval. However, in the early 2000s it was argued that “addiction” focuses more concretely on the underlying disease of being compulsively dependent on taking substances or performing certain actions, whereas “dependence” rather refers to a relationship of superiority or subordination in human relationships. Depending on the context of the specific use of these terms—for example in medical studies or legal texts—the respective accentuations shift, so that even today there is no adequate formulation for a “junkie” that is free of misleading or overtly negative meanings. For example, after their conviction or imprisonment, they are currently officially referred to as “lawbreakers who need to withdraw” or “narcotics-dependent offenders”, which only reinforces the need for discussion about an appropriate designation and also shows that social processes of exclusion and degradation of junkies are ongoing.
a term from prison jargon that refers tersely to the constant in and out of women repeatedly sentenced to prison. It actually describes the devastating cycle of violence, drug use, prostitution, and imprisonment from which there is no way out as long as it is systematically prevented legally and socially. This form of seriality is also reflected in the individual components of the project.