This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
not a matter of emancipating truth from every system of power (which would be a chimera, for truth is already power) but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic, and cultural, within which it operates at the present time. ~Michel Foucault, “Truth and Power” You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. ~Ephesians 4:22-24 Introduction to Power-Knowledge The dream of the enlightenment was that reason and knowledge would lead humanity out of its foolish wars and power struggles into an age of peace. The mind was thought to be that faculty in man that could transcend his animal passions and reach a neutral, common realm of truth, accessible to all who embraced reason. In recent decades, this dream has all but died, and attention has been given to the complicity of reason and knowledge in power struggles between groups. Influenced by the latenineteenth-century German philosopher Frederich Nietzsche, who claimed that the mind could never be separated from the passions, the French intellectual Michel Foucault has persuasively argued that knowledge always arises from social relationships of power. In this paper I will present the epistemological challenge of power-knowledge as Foucault understands it, and then I will discuss what I believe to be a better understanding of the lust for power and its relationship to human knowing. Although ethical problems pervade this issue, my focus will be squarely epistemological: how do selfish desires for prestige and dominance over others damage the ability of human beings to know their world and their neighbors? I have learned a lot from Foucault, but in answering this question I must depart from his conclusions. Beyond the finite limitations of human knowledge, sinful lusts for power have devastated the human capacity to accurately understand others. Further, this problem needs to be overcome rather than merely tolerated as Foucault suggests, and I believe that God, in Christ and in the coming of his kingdom, has actively begun to heal human knowing. Before tackling Foucault directly, however, I want to propose a simple model for thinking about the link between human understanding and the subjects of study in the world. Suppose I want to know more about Chinese intellectuals in the 1890s and what they thought about historical change and modernization. Involved in this epistemic quest are (a) myself, along with all of my identity, personality, time, culture, worldview, interests, and agendas; (b) my subject of study, human beings who inhabited another time, space, and culture with identities, personalities, worldviews, interests and agendas 1
of their own; (c) something that mediates between my subject of study and myself, in this case historical documents (in other areas of study sense perception, statistical surveys, observation, and experimentation serve as mediating agents); and (d) the representation I construct of my subject of study, which may exist in my inner thoughts, a speech I give, or a paper I write. Epistemologically, the central issue here concerns how relationships of power between myself and my subject affect my ability to represent or know my subject accurately. Michel Foucault Foucault thinks that the pathway from human minds to their subjects in the world is so treacherous that it cannot be traveled. Between minds and the world stand not only mental concepts, as Kant argued, but also social relationships of power and physical lusts for power. The representations our minds construct of others are just fictions that do not correspond with the external reality of our subjects, but at the same time, Foucault believes that this limitation of human knowledge need not devastate the human sciences. We can cope with it. In fact, his entire project should be understood as a recommendation for how human cultures can learn to function well, despite the complications power brings to knowledge. Most significantly, Foucault argues that power-knowledge should be thought of not as a primarily repressive force but as a spiral of production: “Truth is linked in circular relation with systems of power that produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it—a ‘regime’ of truth.”1 To better explain how this process works in Foucault’s philosophy, I have divided it into the following four stages. Stage 1: Relationships of Power. Foucault argues that we cannot limit power to the application of knowledge; knowledge itself is power. At the same time, power itself is nothing at all; it has no essence or substance or force. Power is a relationship among people or groups that governs the ways in which people act on the actions of others. Violence, in contrast to power, occurs when people act directly on others’ bodies, but power functions as a historically determined relationship among people or groups that enables them influence the ways in which others behave.2 Further, Foucault argues that no one can transcend relationships of power. “To live in society is, in any event, to live in such a way that some can act on the actions of others. A society without power relations can only be an abstraction.”3 Following Nietzsche, Foucault believes that struggle is a basic, unalterable characteristic of human social life. Still, power never pushes in only one direction; resistance functions within power relationships, never in pure opposition to them, and for this reason, relationships of power always involve some degree of struggle among its participants. 4 Stage 2: Subjectification of the Other. Foucault claims that the focus of this
1 Michel Foucault, “Truth and Power” in Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1884, Volume 3, ed James D. Faubion (New York: The New Press, 1994), 132. This is an interview conducted with Foucault in June 1976 in which he answers questions about his writing, methods, and philosophy. 2 Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” in Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1884, Volume 3, ed James D. Faubion (New York: The New Press, 1994), 337-42. This is an essay Foucault wrote in 1982, responding to some questions and objections concerning his writing and philosophy. 3 Ibid., 343. 4 Ibid., 341.
writing has never been to develop a theory of power or an historical methodology for dealing with power. “My objective, instead, has been to create a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects [of study].”5 In his discussions of the various human (or social) sciences—psychiatry, criminology, medicine, and sexuality—Foucault charts the ways in which relationships of power in the west have enabled certain people to get their mental fingers on other human beings. Some people become the scientists; others become the subjects, gazed upon by those who seek to know them and control their behavior.6 Rather than claiming that the power to subjectify other human beings somehow represses true knowledge about them, Foucault argues that knowledge would not be possible apart from this arrangement. People do not first acquire knowledge and then apply it in ways one can judge as interested or disinterested; rather, relationships of power produce knowledge, first by subjectifying others and then by differentiating between normal and abnormal human beings.7 “If power were never anything but repressive,” Foucault asks, “if it never did anything but to say no, do you really think one would be brought to obey it? What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no; it also traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse.”8 The concept of discourse here is key. As Foucault sees it, the external reality of the subject is so incomprehensibly complex that scientists must rely upon their own power-interests in deciding (a) how to distinguish between true and false, and (b) how to select and construct information about their subjects into a unified body of communally accepted knowledge, called a discourse. While the discourse purports to serve as an epistemic passageway to the subject, it actually serves as a facade that hides and disguises it. It may seem here that Foucault proposes a “skeptical or relativistic refusal of all verified truth,” but he objects to this caricature. Rather, he wants to expose discourses or “regimes of knowledge” as what they are rather than what they purport to be. Discourses may contain verifiable nuggets of information, but they should not be taken as power-neutral representations that correspond directly or even accurately with reality.9 Stage 3: Differentiation. As mentioned above, Foucault argues that the discourses of the human sciences have produced distinctions between normative and antinormative behavior, distinctions that claim to be rooted in scientific knowledge of the way things are. Psychiatric discourses have distinguished between madness and sanity, medical discourses between health and sickness, juridical discourses between criminality and civility, and discourses on sexuality between the natural and the perverse. Likewise, Foucault describes these distinctions not as perverse additions to pure scientific knowledge but as an integral aspect of how claims to knowledge function in society.10 Stage 4: Back to Relationships of Power. With differentiation between
5 Ibid., 326. 6 Ibid., 326-328; see also Lydia Alix Fillingham, Foucault for Beginners (New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, 1993), 67-75. 7 Foucault, “Truth and Power,” 116-120; see also Fillingham, Foucault for Beginners, 15-18. 8 Foucault, “Truth and Power,” 120. 9 Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” 329-331; and Foucault, “Truth and Power,” 116-118. 10 Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume I: An Introduction, translated by Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), 31-5, 39-43, 53-58. See also Fillingham, Foucault for Beginners, 26144.
normative and anti-normative behavior, Foucault brings us full circle back to relationships of power. Without power, knowledge would never happen, and without knowledge, power would never succeed. Any particular academic discourse, Foucault says, exists as a tool for comprehending, managing, and disciplining that subject, as well as legitimating intellectuals’ dominance over their subject. Furthermore, discourses govern what scholars can and cannot say about a given subject, and they direct research in certain directions over others.11 Because Foucault understands human society as necessarily characterized by struggle, he thinks that publicly involved intellectuals should focus on picking the right side rather than eschewing or transcending power altogether. By siding with those who have been subjectified and silenced by the dominant representations of the strong, and by exposing the epistemic task as a competitive game or war in which no side can claim privileged treatment as objective or scientific, Foucault believes that the social evils associated with power-knowledge may be ameliorated. His writings, in part, attempt to protect the other, or the subject, from the ambitious and dominant minds of intellectuals by undermining the mental grasps we have on others. Ironically, in writing books on discourses, Foucault sides with the marginalized subject by subjectifying those who have gazed upon them. He even admits that his writings are also fictitious examples of powerknowledge designed to “[detach] the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic, and cultural, within which it operates at the present time.”12 Toward a More Adequate Understanding of Power-Knowledge Assumptions concerning human society. I cannot follow Foucault in his Darwinian and Nietzschean conception of human social life as struggle. The Bible teaches that God created people as social beings whom he intends to live in peace and cooperation, giving of themselves freely to one another and submitting to one another in love. However, we all know that this is not how things turned out. Somehow, humanity has fallen into a miserable state of constant struggle, rivalry, envy, hatred, and violence, a state in which we find ourselves radically alienated from one another. Thus, I want to begin by addressing three characteristics of the social/cultural environment in which knowledge happens and then move to a discussion of power-knowledge itself. First, knowledge flows out of the human urge to create culture. It is a process by which people take cognitive dominion over creation and build their collective cultures. Among other means, humans create culture by observing, thinking, constructing concepts, seeking understanding, interpreting, investigating, studying, and generalizing from particulars. Further, it should not surprise or discourage us that knowing agents do not leave their subjects untouched by their own personalities, interests and intentions. Knowledge is indeed produced by active human efforts to take dominion over creation with our minds. Furthermore, knowledge serves as a crucial building block in the construction of human civilizations. Regretfully, however, knowledge along with the entire human cultural task has been caught up in evil attempts to better ourselves at others’ expense, to exert our dominance over others, and to build civilizations in which we are privileged over and against others.
11 Foucault, “Truth and Power,” 116. 12 Foucault, “Truth and Power,” 132-133.
Second, human knowing is incredibly free. We have no divine commands concerning what in particular to study, what methods to use, how to write or construct an argument, how to verify scientific claims, or toward what application we should direct our quests for knowledge. Furthermore, humans are free to come to knowledge without repressing their individuality. At the same time, this freedom to know has been twisted by lusts for power. Choices concerning what to study are bound up in choices of whom to control, and scholars often use their own freedom and interests to negate the freedom, interests, and personalities of those people or cultures they study. Finally, I want to argue that human knowing is always and by design loyal, committed, and affectionate. Only after lusts for power enter the scene does this committedness lead inevitably to struggle. That I am more intimately connected by my culture or by my choice to some individuals than I am to others, and that this intimacy influences the ways in which I acquire and use knowledge does not necessarily invalidate that knowledge. I do not think that scholars should seek knowledge as if they were utterly detached from all human, social relationships. At the same time, the lust for power has pitted loyalties against each other and has turned knowledge into a weapon of war. The finitude and brokenness of knowledge. I began this paper with a simple model of human understanding, one that raises all manner of complex questions. In this last section of my argument, I want to return to this model and directly address how lusts for power damage the epistemic relationship between we who know and the subjects of our study, thus damaging the very possibility of knowledge itself. When we claim to know, we claim to have some kind of access to the subjects of our study, a finite access that is always mediated by some form of sense perception or language. Lusts for power damage this access in several ways, thus alienating us from our subjects. We tend to deny the finitude of our knowledge, pretending that we can somehow wrap our minds around our subjects and comprehend them to such a degree that we can define them and create little boxes for them in our minds. In doing so we destroy the mystery and the otherness of our subjects, conquering them with our minds. This often leads to the silencing of others and an attempt to speak for them, and it also provokes resistance and efforts to hide from our subjectifying gaze. Whether we gain access to our subjects by casual observation, reading texts, conducting a survey/study, interviewing them, or examining them, we create a barrier rather than a passageway to knowledge if a relationship of struggle and rivalry exists between us. When we claim to know, we also claim to have constructed an accurate representation of our subjects in our minds and ultimately in language. Such representation, to be knowledge, need not correspond to the subject directly as if neither we nor our methods of access exist. Our knowledge functions not as mechanical dictations but as colorful, productive interactions with our subjects. Because it is finite, this interaction involves selective access to particular information and interpretive generalization of those particulars, a process that involves our personalities, worldviews, cultural and historical situations, individual perspectives, and other factors having to do with our identities. This is all part of what it means to be active cultural and social beings. However, lusts for power and combative loyalties take our active participation in the production of knowledge and distort it into an infection that both violates our subjects
and damages the accuracy of our representations. Our selective and interpretive minds becomes weapons with which we deceptively misrepresent others, selecting useful information and then painting a creative interpretation that darkens true understandings of our subjects. Because no scientific method enables us to get outside of ourselves and access our subjects directly as they are in themselves, the quest for knowledge, that is, for accurate representation, involves not a negation of our personalities but rather a mortification of the lust for dominance over others, the desire to fit others into boxes in our minds. We will always need sense perception and language to gain access to subjects of study, and we will always use finite selection and interpretation to process that information into knowledge. But so long as relationships of power and struggle exist in human society, epistemic access to others will always entail some degree of alienation, and representation will always entail some degree of deception. Conclusion. We scholars can do better than to resign ourselves to struggle and resistance. While it would be pointless to try to get outside our finite methods for attaining knowledge, we should not accept that we have no choice but to attempt dominance over others. Foucault is right that power enters the epistemic equation not only at the point of application but also in the initial stages of production, but he is mistaken in thinking that this is the only way knowledge can work. True, in a world infected with lusts for power, struggle and alienation remain the norm, out of which humans by our own strength or scientific rigor cannot transcend. But ought we not to long for reconciliation? Ought we not to desire another way of knowing, one in which dominance and resistance both pass away and love, fellowship, mystery, freedom, truth, and personality flourish? What would have to happen in order for scholars and subjects to come together in relationships of mutual edification rather than parasitic struggle? Although I am sure that God restrains the full thrust of human wickedness, preserving in a mangled form the human ability to know others, there can be no way into this new kind of knowing apart from in Christ, in whom God has accomplished and is now completing the crucifixion of our lusts for power, the renewing of our minds, and the creation of new selves made like him in that we love to understand others without destroying them in the process.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.