The Method of Critique

As he undertook his various critiques of knowledge, Foucault increasingly observed the importance of critique in various non-academic media as well and designated some of the ripostes to oppressive aspects of governance as “fearless speech” or parrhesia, which he defined 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....”40 Ultimately, parrhesia was central to Foucault’s methodological approach, especially as his later writing became more explicitly political. His fearless speech was increasingly deployed against what he referred to as the “truth weapons” of official discourse. Referring to such weapons in his essay on critique, he raised the question, “what is the principle that explains history [and right]?” and answered that it is to be found in “a series of brute facts” such as “physical strength, force, energy,” in short in “a series of accidents, or at least contingencies.”

However, as he goes on to note, governments dissimulate the events of global violence by interpolating the use of raw force into the implementations of rationality and right: “The rationality of calculations, strategies and ruses; the rationality of technical procedures that are used to perpetuate the victory, to silence (...) the war (...) [and he adds that] given that the relationship of dominance works to their advantage, it is certainly not in their [the government’s] interest to call any of this into question.”41 Foucault’s approach to calling it into question was to counter the truth weapon with “critique (...) the movement by which the subject gives himself the right to question truth on its effects of power and question power on its discourses of truth.”42

Among the inspirations I have drawn from Foucault’s parrhesia is an analysis I undertake of the issues involved in the narco trafficking taking place in the USA and Mexico border zones. Perhaps the best critical analyst of both the trafficking and the governmental policies under the rubric of “the war on drugs” is Charles Bowden, whose hybrid text, Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez (containing critical commentary, ethnographic interviews and images), is an example of fearless speech.43 Investigating the “war” ethnographically (with many face-to-face interviews) in such dangerous cities as Juarez (aka “murder city”), Bowden challenges official proclamations, pointing out that on the Mexican side of the war, “Presidents come and go and pretend to be in charge”44 and that while both the USA and Mexico act as if they exercise effective sovereign power and that the war is either under control or being won, their “truth weapons” are missing the mark: “One nation is called the United States, the other Mexico. I find it harder and harder to use these names because they imply order and boundaries, and both are breaking down,” so much so that Bowden says he has to “try not to say the names,” even as they continuously appear “right there on the maps and road signs.”45 In effect, to oppose the official truth weapons, Bowden finds himself suggesting a different cartographic imaginary:

This is a new geography, one based less on names and places and lines and national boundaries and more on forces and appetites and torrents of people. Some places, parts of Europe, island states here and there, remain temporarily out of play in this new geography. But the Bermudas of the planet are toppling one by one. The waves wash up now into the most ancient squares by the most solemn cathedrals.46

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