Baptising Foucault: Power is Knowledge

Part three of my series on James K. A. Smith’s book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? is about Michel Foucault (if you know how to pronounce that name, please let me know) and his claim that “Power is Knowledge”.  We’ve all heard “knowledge is power” before (YEAH Schoolhouse Rocks!), and are aware that the more we know, the more power we possess.  But what does he mean by “power is knowledge”?

Foucault studied the relationship between knowledge and power, and found that what is considered knowledge is decided by the powerful.  He illustrated this in his book Punish and Discipline, in which he examines the institutions of punishment (i.e. prison) through the ages.  A few hundred years ago, law was the word of the King; anyone who transgressed the law would be tortured in order to set an example for others to follow, and thus the rest of the population was made to conform to a “norm” that was decided by the King.  But after a while, torturing people started to have the opposite affect; rather than ensuring loyalty to the King, it made people identify with the tortured and rise up against him; discipline replaced more brutal punishments, but with the same goal of making people conform to a certain way of life.  Now we live in democracies, where the norms are decided not by some monarch but by our entire society (supposedly); and the institutions that enforce these societal norms are numerous, from schools to media to…prison.

Smith uses an example from literature and film: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  I saw the film years ago, and now realize that I didn’t fully understand it, but the gist of it is that it follows some inmates at a mental institution.  The main character, Chief, refers to the hospital as the “Combine”, because it’s a machine – a machine for fixing, or normalizing, people (note the play on words: a combine is a machine, but to combine is also an action, to put everything together, which in this case means to make everyone conform).  Most of the patients in the hospital are there by choice, but McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson in a performance that undoubtedly helped him snag the role as the Joker in Batman) is committed; not only is he not there by choice, but he doesn’t think that he needs to be “fixed” – he doesn’t believe that he’s broken, that there’s anything wrong with him.  He resists the many controls that are placed on the patients, including drugs, restraints, electroshock therapy, and the ever-present control of constant surveillance, and it has the effect of giving the other patients hope.

Foucault obviously reads everything with suspicion.  After all, everything we think we know in the world is thought of as truth or knowledge because it has been established as such through the use of power.  We’ve probably all heard the phrase “history is written by the victor”, talking about how those who are conquered and destroyed rarely get a chance to tell their side of the story.  Foucault takes it a step further to say that everything we consider knowledge or truth is brought to us through some form of the use of power; the King, or society, tells us what is right and what is wrong, and creates institutions that reinforce this knowledge.  Ultimately, society itself is the control after which prison is patterned.

The Enlightenment (often referred to in close connection, or even synonymously, with Modernism) doesn’t like controls; it champions the individual.  Modern Liberalism champions the notion that we are all individuals, and control is bad (note: not talking about Republicans and Democrats here; they’re both liberal by this definition).  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an example of this portrayal of the freedom of the individual as being good and the controlling institution as inherently evil.  Arguably, Foucault’s works have a similar nuance, though he never overtly says that such use of power is negative (actually arguing for the use of positive terms to describe it).

Smith points out that in this sense, as in so many other senses, Evangelicals today are very Modern: we love the notion of personal freedom, and we use it to describe (and live) our faith.  We pinpoint salvation at the moment you make a personal decision to have a personal relationship with a personal God; we find a church that fits us personally, and if it tells us what to do too much we find another one; we cite scripture (which was ironically written to people who lived incredibly communal lives) in support of individuality as some type of ultimate form of freedom.  Like the society around us, we’re NOT cool with conformity.

A lot of people take Foucault to be a modernist in this sense as well, speaking out against the institutions that he examines and their use of power.  If he is, then this is where we disagree with him (sort of).  Conformity with a set of norms or ideals is not the problem; in fact, conforming to an ideal (i.e. Jesus) is central to what Christian life is all about!  Where we run into trouble is when we examine what we’re being conformed to.  Being conformed to Jesus is a great, fantastic thing!  It doesn’t mean that we all have beards, get circumcised, and like the same bands as him; it means that we, like Jesus before us, become truly human, become what we were made to be.  The trouble is, the thing that society is conforming us to isn’t Jesus; society conforms us to whatever is useful for society.  For example, these days we are being actively conformed to the model of a Consumer: our schools and families teach us to be productive, and our media teaches us to be consumptive, and the econ0my marches on.

So it’s okay to be a non-conformist.  In fact, it’s great!  Do not conform yourselves to the patterns of this world, but instead be transformed by the renewing of your minds (Romans 12:2).  The renewing of your mind, of course, is a work of the Holy Spirit, who is active in conforming you to Jesus Christ.  This is facilitated by disciplines (spiritual formation disciplines), which are put forward by an institution (the Church).  Be aware that you are being formed and conformed by everything that enters your mind, everything that comes to you through your society.  No matter what you do, you will be conforming to something; choose your conformity wisely.  If you can spot the conforming messages (today usually in media) then you can defend yourself from them, and choose another way.

Conform to the knowledge that comes from the true Power; this really comes down to who’s interpretation of reality you ascribe to (Derrida), which narrative you’re reading (Lyotard).  You can conform to the notion of reality that is handed down by a monarch, or you can repeat the narrative that is agreed upon by society – or you can go to the Truth, recognizing that the only way to live the life you were made for is to become human, to conform to Christ.

It’s okay to stick it to the Man, so long as you’re sticking to the (God-) Man.


6 thoughts on “Baptising Foucault: Power is Knowledge

  1. first you talk about non-conformity and then you say conform to some ideal. you self-contradict yourself when it comes to the end. what this is is deconstruction playing a laughter of the gods soundtrack. what the OST says or sings i don’t know and neither do you or anyone else for that matter. the world runs on rumor and hearsay. there is no fixed reality out there so how could it be in here. science itself is a huge narrative that is getting harder and harder to bolster without the cracks and chinks showing at every part of its sur-face. maybe we all need to like loosen up and lighten up. sit back and enjoy iced tea while flipping thru a fashion magazine. its better than all this spiel about our duty to some ideal. ideals are after all brutal things. will someone like to see my CV on my burial day? i guess not…

    • Thanks for your comment Kashif.

      What I was arguing here is that there is a huge difference between mindless, unconscious conformity to whatever society inflicts on us, and mindful and deliberate conformity to an ideal that we choose or strive after. Conformity itself isn’t bad, but if we’re not careful or deliberate about it, we may become less rather than more like what or who we want to be. I want to be like Christ, so I will deliberately conform myself to His image through participating in his community, studying his words, and engaging in spiritual disciplines. These are all things that I must voluntarily do. But through things like aggressive advertising, implicit messages, peer pressure, cultural norms, and government laws and policies (among others), I can be passively conformed to the rest of the world; these things inflict themselves on us, conforming us to their own patters and beliefs and ways of life, often without us even realizing it.

      So yes, be conformed: to Christ, or at least to something of your own choosing. But avoid conformity to the mindless masses.

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