Prosopopoeia: Figuring Truth and Rule

Truth has to be made manifest. It requires personification, of sorts. It is precisely the absence of a truth that must be brought to presence that necessitates the use of figurative language. In rendering finite the infinity of finite things, factical finitude must also figure the infinite itself. Thus, the necessity for figuration is itself absolute.13 Alethurgic truth has therefore to be given its figure, its voice and its face. Hobbes, again, knew this, and knew how critical it was to the personating characteristic of power relations in modern times. Hobbes also knew that the Greeks called this rendering, prosopopoeia, although he also refers to it, recalling the frontispiece to his great book Leviathan, as the masque of power. No mere inert mask, therefore, but a mask play in which something of the truth that is disclosed by masquing is simultaneously also held in reserve. Let “mask” then stand for the figurations without which alethurgical truth, without figure, face or voice—without aspect—would simply not become manifest. The figure of prosopopoeia is indeed metaphorical insofar as it involves a transfer of properties from one entity to another, but resemblance is not the principle that authorizes such transfers. What is instituted through prosopopoeia resembles nothing, nothing other than itself.14 There is, then, an additional feature of alethurgical truth telling to add to that of its multiplicity and its dramatic taking place. For all that it takes place, and for all that access to alethurgical truth may also be gained via strenuous training, alethurgical truth is also characterized by an excess of truth over its appearance. The alethurgic drama is, then, that of the masque. Like all drama, it is characterized by a continuous figurative transactions between mystery and manifestation. The mask is the sur-face—the more than one face, aspect or voice—upon which rules of truth and truth of rules are projected and find their manifestation. As any actor or director would tell you, acting with a mask, acting out a masque, is an uncanny thing.15

This point emerges early in Foucault’s On the Government of the Living lectures. There he rehearses a story about the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus who was reputed to have had a large ceremonial hall on whose ceiling was painted the stars precisely as they would have appeared on the date of his birth, thus providing an astral record of his fate. There was, however, a small element missing. It was the astral recording of the Emperor’s “sky of death.” This was recorded instead in one of the emperor’s private rooms. Foucault works this story into an account of this other aspect of alethurgy.

Alethurgical truth telling is not a matter of finally making its truth transparent to the initiate who has undergone the spiritual training necessary to gain access to it, even at the price of their exposure, in the parrhesi- astic expression of it, to death. Alethurgical truth is excessive. In its excess over appearance lies something of the mystery, obscurity and perhaps even final opacity of alethurgical truth. Access comes to its initiate at a price. But it does not seem as if, the price paid, unreserved access is fully and totally secured. It does not seem to be that kind of truth. Training for it does not seem to be that kind of training. Alethurgical truth clearly keeps something in reserve (shades of both Heraclitus and Heidegger here). There is, we might say, always an excess of alethurgical truth over its manifestation. It is, therefore, not merely a question of alethurgical truth being made manifest: “Essentially it was a question of making truth itself appear against the background of the unknown.”16

For that very reason alethurgical truth is not only historical, or indeed consequently also figurative and gestural, it effects a novel transaction, within its truth telling, between the manifestation and retention of the truth. If there is to be truth there has to be a finite manifestation of it. But such manifestation never exhausts what there is. Whatever happens to become manifest, finitely, is freighted with the possibility of the indefinite supplement of the infinite. The astonishing fecundity of modern fac- ticity, not least in relation to modern cosmology, itself testifies to this. The very finite technological appearance to which it subjects the infinity within which, and with which, it works, continuously extends, it does not exhaust but constantly subverts, deconstructs, extends and transforms, the grounds and boundaries of its own technological knowing. Whatever you call this peculiar phenomenon, even modern scientific knowing does not escape it.

We might, therefore, go further. However ascetic it must be, a masque of both truth and power seems necessarily also to be in play via the very ascetic spiritual training that the initiate into alethurgical truth undergoes. However, much it may also be comprised of self-consciously contrived special effects, the drama of alethurgical truth telling is not merely contrivance. It is inescapably a contrivance. Figuration and gesture—changing modes of representation as such including also language, of course —are integral to its very veridical political economy. Alethurgical truth telling seems thus to be a theatrical political economy of truth and rule not because it seeks to simulate, dissimulate or mask its truth but as a consequence of the very character of the truth it is bound to tell, and of the subject of truth that tells it: “So I won’t say simply that the exercise of power presupposes something like a useful and utilizable knowledge in those who [govern]. I shall say that the exercise of power is almost always accompanied by a manifestation of truth understood in this very broad sense... there is no exercise of power without something like an alethurgy.”17

Call this “ritual of manifestation of the truth and of power,” a transaction between mystery and manifestation if you will. Many will of course routinely recoil from such terms. But it is simply a fact. One for which the grounding of modern knowing in the infinity of finite things cannot account, but continuously discloses instead. Fearing that such a concession would re-admit a religiosity that it struggled to escape, modern knowing merely concedes more to the religious, a monopoly over this excess of truth over appearance, than the religious itself warrants.

The masque of alethurgical truth telling is consequently a showing that necessarily also withholds as it manifests its truth. It has something of the negative about it. In modern times this is less a function of mystification than the sheer excess of the infinity of finite rules of truth and truths of rule over their appearance. It is in the nature of alethurgical truth, therefore, to be characterized by this definitive duality. Can there really be a power, Foucault therefore provisionally concludes by asking, “that would do without the play of light and shadow, truth and error, true and false, hidden and manifest, visible and invisible? In other words can there be an exercise of power without a ring of truth. Without an alethurgical circle that turns around it and accompanies it?”18 We could do worse than repeat what he had to say about the existence of a modern form of parrhesia: “parrhesia.. And what about the modern epoch you may ask? I don’t really know. It would no doubt have to be analyzed.”19 The masque of modern rules of alethurgical truth and truths of rule? It would no doubt have to be analyzed.

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