Power/Knowledge

 

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.

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16 thoughts on “Power/Knowledge

  1. Great post! I had a prof in grad school who loved Foucault and I’ve read a few of his essays, always found him quite interesting. I keep meaning to read more, have a couple of his books even, but just haven’t made the time. Your post and its relevancy to this “age of information” we supposedly live in makes me think I need to try and make time for Foucault soon.

  2. I agree that the production of scientific truth is very much dependent on power (political or financial). My main example is how the core of scientific research is currently biology and genetics, with brilliant people believing they are just devoting their lives to an unbiased truth. In the fifties, it was fundamental physics, and it was there that you’d find the geniuses. It seems the big thing is not about making nuclear weapons anymore, but about engineering supermen and feeding them superfood. QED.

    Yet I think the internet is changing things a bit, ’empowering’ people with the capacity to publish what they hold true. There is a lot of noise, but I am confident true stuff does make its way through. I am deeply distressed about the chinese trying to censor the web, although again, I am confident that hackers are ultimately victorious in this kind of struggle.

  3. Stefanie, I sort of forget about Foucault and then when I read him I remember how good he is. I’ve actually been reading it in English. He has a nice clear style and doesn’t pun on his words the way other theorists do, so I don’t think it makes a big difference. Mandarine – you are right that the internet has the potential to shake things up in the world of knowledge. Like all subversive networks, you need a big groundswell of support for new ideas – the lone individual still has a hard time getting heard, but things may well change in unpredictable ways over the next decade.

  4. I adore Foucault. He was one of my major grad school theory crushes. I avoided him for a long time because so much that I’d read about him was incomprehensible. I assumed that the difficulty lay with him. What a pleasure then to find his writing to be very accessible and totally fascinating when I finally got round to reading him first hand.

  5. This is wonderful stuff. And I’m completely with Mandarine. I think the rise of so many other sources of news beyond the conventional media is all about wanting to resist the top down nature of information production. I’m so happy to hear that Foucault is this interesting. I’d always assumed he wouldn’t be. But now one of my favorite sources of news says otherwise, so I can pick up Discipline and Punish without fear.

  6. Foucault’s point is why it can be so much fun to be someone like the Hobgolin in a position where I can dispense “truths.” I love to be a contrarian and not follow what the official power–whether it’s the Howard Blooms of the academiy or the deans of colleges–wants me to say.

  7. Justification for my long held conspiracy theory about the knowledge we assume is unbiased and available to all. We learn what we are taught, we study that which has been published and we research that which has been financed. Then we publish that which we are allowed. It is only on the Internet where truly independent minds are able to publish, that we may find some of those hidden truths. There is a huge amount of dross to be discarded because there are nutters out there. You should look at the list of websites I had to study, then discount, in my research into Drop Bears. So many of those sites claim they do not exist! Seriously, the web is a great source of information yet must be treated with rigorous scrutiny to determine scholarship.(Adding Foucault to my purchase list – I am going to be broke when I get back to Perth and the bookshops will be building extensions! I sometimes feel I am a modern Erasmus; “When I get a little money I buy books and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”)

  8. Great post, Litlove. Thanks for making Foucault a little more explicable. I worked in the software industry for a while, and those who held power at the time were the developers: the highly educated geeks who would disseminate or withhold information about the software willfully and according to their own agenda. In other words, you only knew what they wanted you to know. Now, in the Noughties in this particular company, there’s been a huge battle for power between the developers (read Germany) and the marketers (read America). While the marketers seem to be winning (they hold the key to the consumer dollar, after all), the engineers still cling to their powerbase, which is their knowledge. It’s been interesting sitting on the sidelines.

  9. Kate – Foucault seems to win a place in many lawyer’s hearts. I come across a large number of reseach books that involve Foucault, the law and related issues. Must be that lovely clear style! Bloglily – ha! you can see that Bikeprof and I are both keen to sidestep the System for your delight. And then I really do begin to believe that communities like this, with people like you in them, might be capable of instigating significant change. Bikeprof – I can see that about you! I can’t imagine you ever settling for the same old same old. Same applies to you, Archie. And those vampire bears were absolutely terrifying. Charlotte, what you have to say about the software industry is fascinating. I think it’s become the last great enclave of male power. There are so few female programmers, and computers (and finance) are now where it’s all at. It will be very interesting to see how the situation develops.

  10. FABULOUS post! (Not that yours aren’t always fabulous, but this one struck me as particularly so.) If I were to begin to address everything you’ve raised here, I’d never stop, so I’ll just stop with “fabulous.” I must read some Focault. Any advice as to where I should start?

  11. Wonderful post. I’m standing by to see where you tell Emily to begin. It’s really interesting to think about. And the distribution of power could be completely arbitrary when you really get down to it — crackpot with a doctorate, genius without — but it completely changes how you filter knowledge…or if you get it at all!

  12. I’m sure we will each relate to this as it seems true to our own particular field of interest. The fact that so many of us can relate to it over such a wide range of interests just makes it all the more worrying. For me this links to a discussion I was having with my ITT (Initial Teacher Training) students on Wednesday about Synthetic Phonics. There is always a ‘correct’ way to teach children to read. The fact that the ‘correct’ way is different every five years or so is, of course, conveniently overlooked. At the moment the ‘correct’ way is through Synthetic Phonics and it has the might of Government approval to back it and yet the research that underlies the system has been questioned by several people who have far more knowledge in the field and far less commercial interest than those who support it. Whatever its worth schools will have to take notice because of the nature of its power base. The only consolation is that five years from now it will undoubtedly have all changed again and children do seem to have been learning to read despite the methods of teaching for a great many years now.

  13. Hello all! I went to my mum’s for the weekend so apologies for air silence. Emily and AC – thank you so much, it’s much easier to write about things you really enjoy, and Foucault is one of them. I do think Discipline and Punish is an accessible and interesting book. Madness and Civilisation is also good, if a little drier. Actually a good place to begin is The Foucault Reader, edited if memory serves me right by Paul Rabinow (I’ll return and edit this if it turns out to be someone different). Dorothy – trust me, Foucault is really clear himself. But I must say I am always extremely thankful to anyone who can make sense of someone like Derrida or Lacan. Ann – I’m extremely interested by what you say, not least because my own son is a highly ‘creative’ speller! If you ever feel like posting on that topic I’d be very interested to read it!

  14. Knowledge and power do go hand in hand as your post implies and as Foucault and his unsettling observations suggest.

    I wonder if what we are seeing in the proliferation of news sources that mandarine identifies is a drive towards truth or a drive towards a fragmented vision of truth. The power to control the offical version of the truth is fragmenting and numerous contenders for the offical truth are emerging. Which do we lsiten to, which is the real truth? I don’t know that is for sure.

    It all sounds so cinfusing.
    Eoin

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