I’ve been struggling my way through theoretical texts these past few days as part of my research. Some of them make me doubt my ability to understand English, quite a lot of them have given me a headache, and one has put me to sleep. But if I can get to the point of processing what it is they’re trying to tell me (if I can work out what they’re trying to tell me) it’s always intriguing. And then along comes someone like Michel Foucault, who distinguishes himself from the crowd by being hugely accessible and at the same time a strikingly lateral thinker. I was supposed to be reading up about Foucault’s theory on the way that discipline and punishment have changed over the centuries (the presence of ghosts is always inseparable from latent guilt, and I’m interested in how differently we are guilty at the beginning of the 21st century as opposed to the end of the 19th), but as ever I got sidetracked into his fascinating exposition of the relationship between power and knowledge.
In Foucault’s understanding, knowledge is the result of an unholy union between power relationships and information-seekers. Eh? I hear you say. Isn’t knowledge the result of years of patient research by apolitical individuals who have devoted their lives to science/metaphysics/the arts etc? Well, Foucault looks at it a different way. Those people undertake the dirty work, as it were, but in order to do so they have to be invested with a certain authority. That means a degree, a doctorate, a position in a university and so on. It means to some extent they are institutionalised, conditioned to think in a certain way, and funded only for projects which governments think are worthwhile. Even if the man in his garden shed thinks he has uncovered the secret of the universe, it’s unlikely anyone’s going to take him seriously. So ‘scientific truth’ then is inevitably the product of people who have been granted the permission to pronounce on it. Only people with a certain relationship to power can create the truth, just as that truth, squirreled away in universities, government offices, official laboratories, is protected because it’s recognised to be powerful.
Let’s consider it from a different angle. Medicine is the science that really gets up my nose because it’s conveniently forgotten that only a hundred or so years ago it was no better than soothsaying; fairground traders hawking bottles of wonder cure and reckless experimentalists performing kitchen table operations. I know from unpleasant experience that a thing called chronic fatigue exists and can significantly damage your quality of life. However, the illness remains unrecognised and most doctors won’t give it credence. Why? Because so far there is no yes/no test in existence to ‘prove’ you have it, and there are no drugs on the market to cure it. The pharmaceuticals industry wields the most power in medicine today and once a drug exists that can alter a bodily condition, then that condition is rapidly marketed as an illness. Just think of the rise in anti-depressants. Or we could look at another example: television reportage of warfare. We tend to assume that the images we see on our television screens represent the ‘truth’ of armed conflict, and yet we have little idea of the stage-management that goes into these images; the hidden restrictions placed upon any kind of filming, the editing of the pictures, the negotiations required with the military. I always liked the story Jean Baudrillard used as an example of the ‘unreality’ of contemporary conflict: one TV station linked up to its live in-the-field reporters on the Gulf War, only to find those reporters watching a portable screen showing the current CNN coverage. This was their way of finding out what was ‘really’ happening.
So, the next time you find yourself on the receiving end of information, it always pays to wonder why this particular information was permitted to circulate in the public arena. A chain of shadowy figures has authorised its release for reasons unknown to us, but important to them. Although we live in a society dominated by, and in thrall to, the facts, it’s best always to consider these with scepticism. What other facts have been occluded in the production of these ones? How could the facts have been rearranged to produce a slightly different narrative? It’s not that Foucault denies there might be a thing called ‘truth’. It’s just that the truth we get is produced ‘by virtue of multiple constraints’. He calls it instead ‘the will to truth’, what Sara Mills in her excellent little guide to Foucault’s thought describes as ‘that set of exclusionary practices whose function is to establish distinctions between those statements which will be considered to be false and those which will be considered true. The true statements will be circulated throughout the society, reproduced in books; they will appear in school curricula and they will be commented on, described and evaluated by others in books and articles. These statements will underpin what is taken to be ‘common-sense knowledge’ within a society. Those statements which are classified as false will not be reproduced.’
Scary, but undeniable true.