Critically discuss Michel Foucault’s concept of knowledge/power

In “The Order of Things” (1973) Michel Foucault describes an episteme as the combination of institutions, discourses, knowledges and practices that organise the way we do things, making some actions acceptable and others unthinkable. He also says these processes of organisation in society are generally invisible. Critically discuss Michel Foucault’s concept of knowledge/power with reference to Arthur Miller’s film “The Crucible. ” Michel Foucault’s is a theorist who demonstrates a modernist way of thinking.

Based on one of David Morley’s definitions of the postmodern phenomenon being “a form of cultural sensibility and a mode of thought, particularly appropriate to analyzing the period” (Morley: 1996, p. 50), Foucault could be considered a postmodernist and a poststructuralist. However, some may consider his earlier works, like The Order of Things, to be structuralist as it may have possibly reflected a lack of distinction at the time it was written and received. Rather than narrating the nature of reality, Foucault intended to give descriptions of a variety of structures of knowledge also referred to as episteme.

Arthur Miller’s film “The Crucible” explores issues that are parallel to Foucault’s thoughts of power and knowledge, however, Miller uses actual historical events as the background for his modernist ideas. The concept of knowledge and power explored in Foucault’s text The Order of Things can be critically analysed with reference to more contemporary work of Arthur Miller, allowing one to draw distinctions between Foucault’s theories and the concepts of collective evil, personal conscience, guilt, love and redemption explored in the film.

In The Order of Things, Foucault can give up the philosophy of the subject without depending on ideas from social issues in society, which, according to his own analysis, are confined the modern form of knowledge. Foucault had studied the form of knowledge that appears with the claim of rescuing the intelligible from everything empirical, accidental, and particular, and that becomes especially suitable as medium of power in particular on account of this “pretended separation of validity from genesis” (Kelly: 1995, p. 82).

This lack of empiricism in Foucault’s thoughts reflects a modernist way of thinking. The article “Conclusion: Speaking as Deputy Sheriff” by Osborne and Lewis, has evidence of a similar modernist approach to thinking and lack of empirical theories. It is less focused on the idea that what ever is true should be measured; instead it makes statements and develops an analysis based on sciences or theory. An example is when it suggests that “a more historically aware approach to thinking about communication in Australia would be a useful place to start” (Lewis & Osborne: 2001, p212).

This modernist approach to thinking about knowledge determines “the ensemble of rules according to which the true and the false are separated and specific effects of power attached to the true” (Kelly: 1995, p. 82). At the beginning of The Order of Things, Foucault claims for a will that consists of truth for all times and all societies: “Every society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes it function as true. ” This ideology is reflected in Arthur Miller’s film “The Crucible” which is set in a small town, Salem.

The entire village becomes consumed by certain beliefs and certain truths which include their indisputable faith in God and the existence of witches, witch craft and the devil. The Order of Things is the story of the “return of language” which explains the fundamental position of literature in our culture. Ours is a period in which language is taken to be at the source of all thought, and this is what highlights the importance of modernist writing. Language is “the strict unfolding of Western culture in accordance with the necessity it imposed upon itself at the beginning of the nineteenth century” (Rajchman: 1985, p. 3).

The significance of language is also reflected in ‘The Crucible’ when John Proctor refuses to sign a false confession, claiming “you can not take away my name”. He believed this would have happened by signing the confession onto paper, epitomising the impact that language has when printed on paper. In The Order of Things, Foucault paints a picture of modernist culture in which there is no character of man and science is no longer independent or universal. All scientific, aesthetic, and moral problems are reduced to problems of language, and languages have no warrant or foundation beyond themselves.

Rajchman states that “Language becomes the limits of our being. It is only in transgressive writing that these limits are transcended; writers are the heroes of our age. This is a picture of what I call ‘post-Enlightenment literary culture. ‘” Many literary modernists, including Rajchman and Foucault, tell the story of how language had returned as the fundamental problem of our period, and our literacy culture which thus “finds itself” to be telling its own history. Foucault claims that “literature in our day… s a phenomenon whose necessity has its roots in a vast configuration in which the whole structure of our thought and our knowledge is traced” (Rajchman: 1985, p. 25).

In The Order of Things, it is clear that Foucault is hostile to the culture that reifies Man, and urges the reader to embrace the post-humanist age he foresees. Foucault rejects the traditional (Enlightenment) idea of progress and science, instead he constructs his history of knowledge with a lack of connection, and his literary history contains a hidden teleology giving way to immediate links to “The Crucible”.

Stuart Hall and Bram Gieben describe the Enlightenment idea of progress as “the idea that the natural and social condition of human beings could be improved, by the application of science and reason” (Hall & Gieben: 1992, p. 22). “. Both Miller and Foucault are modernist thinkers as they reject this Enlightenment concepts of progress, for example, the film “The Crucible” does not end with an improved social condition and happiness instead it comes to an abrupt end by the death of a central character and hero. In The Order of Things we find an attempt to “de-anthropologise” the concept of freedom.

In “The Crucible”, John Proctor found freedom in the form of death. By not giving up his name in the confession he was condemned to be hung. However, his knowledge of what the real truth was allowed him to be free in his own sense of the word. This relates to Foucault’s idea of power that he describes as “a way in which certain actions modify others” (O’Farrell: 1989, p. 119). But because of the freedom of the acting subjects, no matter what violence or seduction actions that make up power choose to exercise, the object of power can ultimately escape and refuse power even if only through death.

This idea was taken from Foucault who said “the exercise of power may produce as much acceptance as may be wished for: it can pile up the dead and shelter itself behind whatever threats it can imagine. In itself the exercise of power is not violence; nor is it a consent which implicitly is renewable” (Foucault: 1977, p. 228). O’Farrell and Foucault’s ideas are epitomized in the film ‘The Crucible’, when John Proctor refused to sign the confession or in this case refused power, he was set free even if it were to be through death.

These power relationships were then abolished once the subject was freed and hence there was no possible point of reversal hence the film was forced to an abrupt end. Foucault also believes there is no suspicion that our language, our work, and our bodies might determine the description of our actions and our world in ways we do not realise and can’t change. However, there are many reasons why this theory should be questioned, an example existing in the film “The Crucible”.

The young girls who were accused of witchery manifested power over their bodies and their language in order to convince the courts and an entire village of the existence of ‘their world’ and the fact they could see the devil. All this was done in a quest to cover up their actions that was dancing naked around a fire in the forest. This idea creates a contradiction to Foucault’s theory. However, Foucault also says that our problem becomes “not the possibility of knowledge but the possibility of a primary misunderstanding” (Rajchman: 1985, p. 13) which indeed was true in the case of the young girls of the film. In The Order Of Things, Foucault challenges new intellectual writings in regard to the change in utopian thought. In the classical period, utopia was the dream of an ideal beginning in which everything would perfectly fit into Tables of Representation.

In Foucault’s argument he states that “The great dream of an end of History is the utopia of casual systems of thought just as the dream of the world’s beginnings was the utopia of the classifying systems of thoughts. In “The Crucible” the idea of witch craft challenges this world of utopia and one can question who has the authority to classify utopia, Miller or Foucault? Foucault’s ideas challenge many of the ideas that run through “The Crucible” as he wishes not only to “de anthropologise” any nineteenth century utopian imaginations, dissociate our hopes of ever realising meaning and separate our freedom from philosophical theories about our nature. Much of Foucault’s work is contradictory and this confuses anyone trying to analyse meaning in his writings.

In The Order of Things he had looked at the way in which the human subject is defined through scientific discourse as a working, living, speaking individual (O’Leary: 2002, p. 59). However, Foucault deals with a collective and a great deal is to do with his unconscious ideas of perceptions; individuals play almost no role in his work. He is not concerned with the discoveries of scientists or other philosophers. However, it is difficult to imagine the human sciences without specific individuals.

Thus, Foucault uses individuals such as Ricardo, Cuvier and Bopp in his work, however they “are not depicted as real people, no reference is made to their lives and little consideration is given to the controversies surrounding their ideas, since these issues are regarded as merely surface phenomena” (Spier: 1983, p. 166). As a result, the reliability of Foucault’s work can be questioned because a crucial part of critical thinking and analysis when investigating other theorists work is their background and what may be the reasons behind their specific way of thinking.

However, Foucault justifies himself explaining that he “tries to explore scientific discourse not from the point of view of the formal structures of what they are saying, but from the point of view of the rules that come into play in the very existence of such discourse” (Spier: 1983, p. 166). Spier raises an interesting critic of Foucault bringing his status as an author-subject into question. “If language rather than man speaks, as he claims, and if the statement “I am writing” is a contradiction comparable to “I am lying”, then who is the author of the order of things? (Spier: 1983, p. 167).

This raises the question, is Foucault a universal voice of our time or is he merely speaking for himself. If he is speaking for himself as he suggests, then does he claim that what he is saying is a lie? Much of Foucault’s work makes contradictory statements and thus is not necessarily reliable when looking for truths, instead his writing is the developing process of his thoughts and is often experimental so should be read with an open mind and thought about critically.

Foucault’s analyses may be regarded as a contribution to an understanding of the historical conditions of possibility of the human sciences and their social and political effects. The underlying connection within Foucault’s work is the assessment of the relation between forms of rationality and forms of power, or of the relation between the emergence of particular forms of knowledge and the exercise of specific forms of power. Foucault believes that power is exercised upon the dominant as well as on the dominated and that there is a process of self-formation or auto-colonisation involved (Smart: 1983, p. 4).

If we put this theory into practice within “The Crucible” one can suggest that Foucault’s idea of power is quite nai??ve. In “The Crucible” the young girls were from the dominant culture in Salem and exercised their power over the lower classes (or the dominated). However, there was no retaliation and so power was not exercised onto the girls (the dominant) in any case. Thus, Foucault theory is merely a generalisation and not appropriate as a rule on the whole. Power relations, Foucault claims are “‘intentional’ and ‘non-subjective’…

They are imbued, through and through, with calculation: there is no power that is exercised without a series of aims and objectives” (Dreyfus & Rabinow: 1982, p. 187). This idea states that at the local level there is often a high degree of conscious decision making, planning and plotting. Foucault refers to this as the local cynicism of power (Dreyfus & Rabinow: 1982, p. 187). In “The Crucible” the young girls execute power over the village through their conscious actions to protect themselves, many were young and naive, and fear was driving them to accuse the innocent.

Their actions would ultimately lead the execution of innocent and respected members of the town. Some of the elder girls such as the head Abigail knew very well of her actions and used strategically planned methods of power. The following phrase by Foucault epitomises power very accurately when in relation to these girls from “The Crucible”; “People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but don’t know is what they do does” (Dreyfus & Rabinow: 1982, p. 187). This theory on power is an example of how both Foucault and Miller may have been influenced by other modernist thinkers such as Max Weber, a modernist thinker.

He believed that power is the ”chance of a man or a number of men to realize their own will in a social action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action” (Max Weber, Basic Terms-The Fundamental Concepts of Sociology: 1942) In much of Foucault’s writing there are seeming contradictions especially in this return to the traditional philosophic view or Enlightenment idea that description and interpretation ultimately must correspond to the way things really are. However, Foucault does admit to his somewhat unreal approach to writing. “I am fully aware that I have never written anything other than fiction.

For all that, I would want to say that they were outside the truth. It seems plausible to me to make fictions work within truth, to introduce truth-effects within a fictional discourse… ” With this is mind one can say that Foucault’s writing is still informative and helpful in its own right and reveals more about society and its practices than about ultimate reality. In The Order of Things, Foucault does describe an episteme as the combination of institutions, discourses, knowledge and practices that organise the way we do things, making some actions acceptable rather than unthinkable.

In many ways Foucault’s concepts of knowledge and power are contradictory to his own existing theories. While many of Foucault’s ideas are parallel with Arthur Miller’s film, “The Crucible”, some of his ideas reject Miller’s way of thinking. This non-uniformity in Foucault’s analysis can however be justified, because it is hard to believe that in any given culture and at any given moment, there is only one episteme that defines the possibility of all knowledge, power relations, the concepts of freedom and truth, whether it be in a theory or demonstrated in practice or action.

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