Posted by: HAT | May 22, 2010

Making Use of Power

Have been thinking a lot about Philemon, since it’s the lesson for Sunday so have been studying it this week in preparation for class.

Normally don’t get involved in translation for this class, but had Greek resources out and handy, so . . . found that Philemon 8 uses a form of the word parrēsia, explicitly contrasted with the rhetoric Paul is going to use throughout the entire letter. Meaningful, since had just finished reading Foucault’s Fearless Speech, which makes much of the exercise of parrēsia. Actually, he’s already been using rhetoric in the greeting and opening material, setting up the themes of relationship and co-ministry that are going to be central appeals all the way through. The entire letter is a concise exposition of rhetoric in the service of “an appeal on the basis of love.”

Foucault stresses the importance of the risk to relationship involved in the exercise of parrēsia. What would Paul be risking if he used parrēsia with Philemon? Not, presumably, anything material. What can Philemon do to Paul? But a kind of quality of relationship does seem to be at risk, and he clearly either does not want to risk it, or wants to assume – completely explicitly – a position of weakness in the letter for some other reason. [Like, how messianic.] In any event, he chooses for rhetoric – persuasive discourse, not for that reason untrue discourse.

What’s particularly interesting about the use of rhetoric here is that it could read as a form of instruction, a model for the appropriate use of power. Paul is in a position to demonstrate this use with respect to Philemon. Philemon is about to be in a precisely analogous position with respect to Onesimus – one where he is socially and legally entitled to exercise power as command, punishment even, but where a new form of life makes something entirely different more “fitting,” “appropriate.” So the form of the letter itself is instructive, constitutes a discursive demonstration of this new form of life.

[It is characteristically Pauline & messianic, in that sense in which it’s an example of language in which “the text of the letter is at every point indistinguishable from the announcement and the announcement from the good announced.” (See Agamben, The Time That Remains, 90)]


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