Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Michel Foucault and the Discourse of Knowledge and Power c. 1970

“The strategic adversary is fascism. The fascism in us all… that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”

Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984) was a French philosopher and historian who applied the ideas of Jacques Derrida and Louis Althusser (an influential French Marxist who we have not been able to cover) to the relationship between knowledge and power. Where normally what we want to know about an idea is “is it true?,” Foucault pointed out that there were other questions we might want to ask as well. Suppose, for instance, we looked at them all from the standpoint of Cicero’s old question about politics: “who benefits?”

If we ask this question, we will quickly discover that almost any idea of broad significance is, if accepted, a benefit to somebody, and a detriment to somebody else. For instance, we can consider the contest between Postmodernists and Marxists (which broke out immediately, since postmodernism denies the possibility of objective truth, which Marxists claimed to have discovered.) If we support the Postmodernists against the Marxists, then we are saying, implicitly, that we want Postmodernist professors in the classroom and not Marxists, and if enough people agree, that is indeed what will happen. The Marxists are hardly going to take this lying down – they are compelled, by regard for their own well-being, to attack the postmodernists. It’s not simply a question of whose ideas are right – it’s a question of power.

So far, this is not, perhaps, controversial. However, Foucault extended his analysis of the relationship between power and knowledge much further. To claim knowledge of a thing is, implicitly, to claim power over it. Thus knowledge is indeed power, as Francis Bacon famously said, but it is not simply the power to manipulate or control an object, which is what Bacon meant. It is also a claim to political power. Thus the banker knows that the worker is lazy, and the worker knows that the banker is greedy, not simply as moral propositions, but as political ones. If the bankers win the next election, the workers can expect longer or harder hours to cure them of their laziness; if the workers, the bankers will be taxed and regulated to cure them of their greed. The act is always implicit in the idea which authorizes it.

Francis Bacon’s maxim is also reversible: if knowledge is power, power is also knowledge. Put another way, the right to exercise power over a person always rests on the conceit that one knows “who they really are.” So one of the claims that authorized the invasion of Iraq, for instance, was that the Iraqis had been ruthlessly tyrannized by Saddam Hussein and were yearning for democracy, from which it seemed to follow that we would be welcomed as liberators, and that it would, indeed, be cruel and immoral _not_ to invade. Knowledge authorized the seizure of power at every step of the way, and each new policy designed to cement American power in Iraq was legitimated in terms of more knowledge – that “we were witnessing the birth pangs of democracy,” that Saddam had committed various atrocities, and so on. Knowledge and power worked hand in hand, and this was, Foucault argued, more or less the case everywhere. Knowledge is never innocent of power, nor power of knowledge. They go hand in hand.

Extending this principle to the Enlightenment, Foucault pointed out that the 18th century was not just the Age of Reason - it was also the Age of Power. In Europe, the political ideal for most of the century was “the enlightened despot,” on the model of Louis XIV or Fredrick the Great – a ruler who used knowledge to organize, regiment, and, in short, to control, society in order to make things more efficient (or, as we might say, more “rational” – a good illustration of how language, concepts, and power relationships all simultaneously overlap. The word “education” carries similar connotations of control and domination.) Clearly such a reorganization had to come at somebody’s expense – more power for the monarch meant less freedom for everyone else. Often it was the “nobodies” of history – peasants, the urban poor, women, homosexuals, criminals, lunatics, colonial populations, and so on –, who found themselves being “rationalized” in this way.

Criminals, to take one of Foucault’s more famous examples, were subjected to a new institution in the early 19th century – the prison. There had always been jails, of course, but what made the prison distinctive was its aim, which was not simply to detain or exploit the prisoner (the traditional purpose of a jail), but to control their mind (or, as we like to say, to “reform” them.) Where, before the Enlightenment, punishment was swift, public, and often quite brutal, afterwards it was long, secretive, and relatively humane, but ultimately far more sinister. More importantly, perhaps, before the drastic rise in state power during the 18th century, there were few laws, and they were irregularly enforced. Policemen, too, were few and far between, and there was no very extensive system of administration and record-keeping. After society had been “rationalized,” laws and police and bureaucracy became omnipresent, and could be controlling in ways that were often quite petty. Before the Enlightenment, what one had to worry about was one awful blow that could end one’s life all together. Afterward the main enemy of freedom was “the death of a thousand pin pricks” – the constant needling, prodding, observation, regulation, harassment, ridicule, humiliation, exclusion, and, in short, the disciplining, of nonconformists.

This was all aimed at cultivating a special kind of consciousness – a kind that got people to police themselves, by internalizing the values of the new society (that is, by accepting it’s “structure of discourse”), in a way that made outright physical terrorism unnecessary. Seen from this perspective, the rhetoric of freedom was at best disingenuous, at worst a hideous lie. However, it was very difficult to organize resistance to the new kind of control, because it is not based on outright terror, or on the whim of some identifiable despot or group of conspirators. It is diffuse, slippery, insubstantial, but no less real for that. Somehow, everyone just seems to know how to think and behave, and that people who do not share their habits are legitimate objects of fear and disgust. The mechanism of control is (following the theme of postmodernism), language – the “structure of discourse” which tells a person what to think, and presents the required thoughts as the self-evident truths of the universe. It thus conscripts people in their own oppression, without them even being aware of it. Indeed, often with their enthusiastic support.

According to Foucault, all of this was implicit in the characteristic ideal of the Enlightenment. In terms of its own discourse, this was “the quest for knowledge.” But we might with equal justice call it “the lust for power.” They are, and always had been, the same thing.

Foucault’s Essay: “What is Enlightenment?”
The Panopticon: Foucault’s metaphor for the Enlightenment.

Part of a Series on the Enlightenment
Part of a Series on Postmodernism (VII of XVI)

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