While we have already discussed the dangers of onto-theology and how it relates to Derrida’s attack on “logocentrism,” or a “realist” understanding of language in which words are actual representations of the world as it actually is apart from interpretation, Foucault’s project is an attack not on interpretation, but on what he calls “the modern illusion of knowledge.” In doing so, Foucault seeks to expose the oft hidden connections between knowledge and power, or what we legitimize as knowledge can actually be a concealed play for power, hence his most famous proclamation: “power is knowledge.”
Most of us grew up being told in school and by our parents “knowledge is power” in an effort to encourage us along our educational experiences (though an appeal to some kind of primal Nietzschian “will to power? Who knows”). At the outset, before we may be tempted to think that is Foucault says that “power is knowledge” that we have a simple case of A=B and B=A, so that the two are interchangeable or self-identical. Instead, what Foucault is insisting that we examine is the relationship between knowledge and power. What we consider “knowledge” has something to do with power structure – such a thing is not simply objectively determined. There are powers - political, social, cultural, economic -which have a hand in telling us what is valuable, or counts as knowledge. Foucault wants to implore to us that:
We should…admit rather that power produces knowledge (and not simply by encouraging it because it serves power or by applying it because it is useful); that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations. (DP 28)
Following Derrida in his postmodern suspicion, Foucault speaks of his own project similar to Nietzsche – it is a genealogy that seeks to uncover the hidden biases that play into what we consider to be valuable knowledge and truth. In other words, power constitutes objectivity. For Foucault, knowledge is not some naïve thing that is just granted to us, ulterior interests, like all else, motivate it.
In summation, James K.A. Smith writes:
To claim power is knowledge, then, is to make a claim about the power relations that stand behind both institutions and ideals. As Nietzsche earlier claimed in his Genealogy of Morals, good and evil are just names that we give the power interests of the strong and the weak. Thus “in a sense,” Foucault concludes, “only a single drama is ever staged in this ‘non- place,’ the endlessly repeated play of dominations. The story of humanity is not the Enlightenment fiction of perpetual progress or the constant 2progression of the race, as Kant (and Richard Rorty) suggest, but rather the shift from one combat to another, from one form of domination to another.
So, in a sense, we can say that Foucault is Nietzsche’s most loyal disciple, as Foucault actually sets out to prove and research the radical claims of Nietzsche. In many ways, there was no more of an unceasing critic of modernity and the enlightenment that Foucault. Key to understanding Foucault’s rejection of a theory of universal or objective knowledge is his discourse against Enlightenment thinking.
Rather than following the Enlightenment, Foucault draws on Nietzsche’s emphasis on the richness and variety of reality. Reason and rational discourse are problematic, he argues, because they require that we squeeze the variety of reality into the artificial homogeneity that accommodates our concepts. In this way, rational discourse elevates sameness and universals at the expense of difference and “otherness.” (Grentz 127)
Foucault wants to uncover this inclination by inversing it, e.g. privileging the unique over the ordinary, different over the same, etc. Foucault is fighting against the assumption that questions regarding universals are more so rooted in the flux of history and context. Instead of asking a question such as “what is human nature,” Foucault examines “how has the idea of human nature functioned in society and culture throughout history.” According to Stanley Grentz, this is the basic principle Foucault uses to undermine the Enlightenment project itself. To do a disservice to Foucault’s nuanced and insightful position, to come up with universal theories, histories, or principles (and we’re not talking science but rather targeting philosophy and history) is inherently a process that covers up the singularities and anomalies that would cripple any universal theory.
With this critique of modernity’s modus operendi in mind, we can turn back to knowledge. According to Foucault, Western society has made three major errors, we have believed (1) that an objective body of knowledge exists and is waiting to be discovered, (2) that they actually possess such knowledge and that it is neutral or value-free, and (3) that the pursuit of knowledge benefits all human kind rather than just a specific class (Grentz, 131). Thus, there is no such thing as our assumed “disinterested knower,” knowledge is pursued with interests in mind, whether they be noble (rare, perhaps) or with more sinister intentions. Similar to Nietzsche’s “will to power,” Foucault describes what he calls a “will to knowledge.” Foucault talks about “discursive formations” as what practices and values institutions create that their particular power structure finds useful. What we call “truth” sometimes pushes away anything it cannot assimilate.
Of course this is all supposed to be framed as “good news” for the church of the future, or at least part of the “gospel” of postmodernism for the gospel itself. As James K.A. Smith argues, while Foucault is a major critic of the Enlightenment, at his core, Foucault is an Enlightenment liberal in the classical sense, meaning that Foucault places a very high value on the individual’s autonomy and freedom. In particular Foucault wants to eschew artificially constructed power structures that use their power to discipline and punish, and to resists individuals being formed by these institutions of power. For the church, the importance for Foucault is to accept the work of Foucault in exposing the ways in which power discourses and disciplinary formation creates desire and value at the individual and societal level, yet we must do so with a different telos than Foucault. As the church, though it is tempting and pervasive, we are not called to be caught up with our freedom or individual rights (Rom 8:29, 12:2). If Foucault has done his job, his work will enable anyone, especially a Christian, to realize the aritifcal discourse that try to shape and control us. The end goal is not autonomy, but submitting to the good authority of God. To ward off idols in order to worship the true God, not the God of power but the God of weakness (see John Captuo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event). Hopefully, the geneology that Foucault exposes to us fights of our “frog in a kettle” mentality, to notice what is actually going on around us, an invitation to a higher consciousness or awareness.
Again, I close with a quote from David Foster Wallace, this time from his brilliant and acclaimed novel Infinite Jest:
Marathe had settled back on his bottom in the chair. ‘Your U.S.A. word for fanatic, “fanatic,” do they teach you it comes from the Latin for “temple”? It is meaning, literally, “worshipper at the temple.”‘
‘Oh Jesus now here we go again,’ Steeply said.
‘As, if you will give the permission, does this love you speak of, M. Tine’s grand love. It means only the attachment. Tine is attached, fanatically. Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no? What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith.’
Steeply made motions of weary familiarity. ‘Herrrrrre we go.’
Marathe ignored this. ‘Are we not all of us fanatics? I say only what you of the U.S.A. only pretend you do not know. Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you.’
‘How are your wife and kids doing, up there, by the way?’
‘You of U.S.A.’s do not seem to believe you may each choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Choose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger than the self.’
Steeply laid a hand between his misdirected breasts: ‘Ohh . . . Canada. . . . ‘
Marathe leaned again forward on his stumps. ‘Make amusement all you wish. But choose with care. You are what you love. No? You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice. You, M. Hugh Steeply: you would die without thinking for what?’
Marathe said, ‘This, is it not the choice of the most supreme importance? Who teaches your U.S.A. children how to choose their temple? What to love enough not to think two times?’
Steeply’s face had assumed the openly twisted sneering expression which he knew well Quebecers found repellent on Americans. ‘But you assume it’s always choice, conscious, decision. This isn’t just a little naive, Remy? You sit down with your little accountant’s ledger and soberly decide what to love? Always?’
‘The alternatives are –’
‘What if sometimes there is no choice about what to love? What if the temple comes to Mohammed? What if you just love? without deciding? You just do: you see her and in that instant are lost to sober account-keeping and cannot choose but to love?’
As Marathe implores us, we must be very careful to be aware of our live options regarding what we attach ourselves to, the world is constantly telling us what is valuable as knowledge and what is valuable to love, thus in order to fight off the default setting of autopilot, of letting others choose for us, it is up to us to wake up (to the “Desert of the Real” as Morpheus tells Neo in The Matrix) and choose. To make informed, worth while choices, we have to fight the urge to accept what is handed to us. This is the good news of Foucault.