Knowledge is Power
“School serve the same social function as prison and mental institution- to define, classify, control and regulate people.” — Michel Foucault
Foucault (1926–1984) was a French post-structuralist philosopher. He is also known as “Nietzsche’s best student”. One of the most famous Foucault’s quotes is “knowledge is power”. Foucault, however, was not the first to coin that phrase. Long time ago, the father of modern science Francis Bacon had stated the same thing. However, Foucault and Bacon’s version of “knowledge is power” are quite different. But both versions contain what is called the “absolute truth”. Therefore, what we need to reflect on is what does it mean by the “absolute truth”? Also more importantly, do we have that absolute truth? If the concept of absolute truth is removed, then what does knowledge mean?
Up until now, the support of absolute truth (axiom) is knowledge. Knowledge has been used to sustain and claim something that is considered as the “absolute truth”. But if we remove the meaning or understanding of absolute truth, then what does knowledge mean? While all this time knowledge was used to sustain or claim the absolute truth itself. What is knowledge? Knowledge is something that is collected and decided correctly by a group of people. A minority group also uses to impose their idea of what is right on the majority. In that case, the one who constructs that knowledge is the minority. The result of this construction is often in fact forced upon the majority group. Through knowledge, we could become a kind of instrument for determining truth, so that knowledge is nothing but power. For instance, in the historical narrative, there are those who say history is written by the winner. The point is that whoever is in power, can freely write the course of the history. Also, when Hitler came to power, he was able to make excruciating historical narrative about the Jews and it was accepted by the German people at that time. It is this power that gives birth to the truth.
Furthermore, the power determines what is wrong and right, abnormal and normal, sinful and sinless, madness and not madness. Foucault describes this in his sexuality. Before the 17th century (especially before Queen Victoria came to power in England), people were free to discuss sexually charged topics. The public is also free to disclose their private sexual life in public. But when Queen Victoria came to power, sexual conversations were regarded as taboo and abnormal especially to those who exposed their private lives publicly. This means that the power of Queen Victoria then explicitly determines what is wrong and what is right.
This phenomenon also occurred in the French Revolution. There was a noble man named Marquis de Sade. To the French aristocrat, he was a madman and abnormal because he was a pervert who wrote sexual novels. But to the French people, Marquis de Sade was a hero because he defended the people and participated in the French revolution in 1789. Thus, whether Marquis de Sade was a madman or a hero, it was determined by who was in power. In dialectics, Peter L. Berger states that if we see something similar on different sides and times, it will produce a different explanation.
Foucault then used a method called genealogy, more specifically the genealogy of power. Nietzsche had also proposed the genealogy method. It’s just that Nietzsche’s genealogy method is often associated with morality (moral genealogy). If Nietzsche with his genealogy seeks to trace the course of history to uncover the current moral order, then Foucault through his genealogy seeks to trace the path and order of history over time to display the present form of power. That is why for many, genealogy is a method to illegitimate the current power. Through this method, Foucault concluded that normal and abnormal cannot be defined.
This is related to Foucault’s personal life. While in college, he was a very sad person and he couldn’t enjoy his days in college. He even intended to commit suicide. Foucault finally realized that the cause of all his sadness and depression was because he was gay. Eventually, Foucault’s father took him to a psychiatrist. In the session, the psychiatrist concluded that Foucault was abnormal because he is gay. Foucault then opposed. He wondered “how can you say that I’m not normal?”. In the ancient Greek times, great figures such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were gay. This fact ignites me a question, why was in the past era, gays were normal but not today? This is the genealogy method that seeks to reveal the order of power today through the course of history over time. Why would the current power present such a form? What’s up there?
Regarding to the fact that someone can be declared as a hero and a madman, Foucault often said that there is one thing that separates a hero and a madman. The one made a monument while the other one lived in jail. Concrete examples of this knowledge power are found in several professions such as psychiatrists, lecturers, doctors, engineers, lawyers, religious leaders, shamans and so on. These are a series of professions that are vulnerable to causing a monopoly of knowledge. Psychiatrists for example, are the only ones who have the full right to be able to conclude if a person is normal or abnormal. It was as if only they had the full right to say that this person had a mental illness while the others did not. Foucault wanted the individual to be able to challenge such powers of knowledge. Doctors do so, as if only he can determine which person is healthy or not. Picture this, say you’re applying to a job and it requires a physical health letter. It’s as if only the doctor has the right to determine whether your body is healthy or not. Have you ever thought about, what if, the doctor you visit is an ex-girlfriend of yours who didn’t like you? What if she stated that you are unhealthy when you absolutely are? It is also the same as the previously mentioned professions. The power of knowledge in these professions in Foucault’s perspective is vulnerable. This is because the power of knowledge not only monopolizes and manipulates the knowledge itself, but also makes the peoples vulnerable to be exploited.
One of the most common saying from Foucault is what’s called the episteme. Foucault defines episteme as a total set of relationships that are interconnected and exist for a period of time. The point is that each era has its own constructions. Each period had its own regime of truth. As has been said before, in the Ancient Greek times, being gay was not taboo. But being gay in contemporary era is. This is due to the state of the episteme, the total set of interconnected relationships and existing for a certain period of time. In the spartan era, the soldiers were gay and that was normal. This is based on the belief that says having sex with the opposite gender would lower their strength, so they tend to be involved in same-sex intercourse activities. Different from today, this is what the episteme causes based on Foucault’s view. Since each period has its own regime of truth, then knowledge is actually a discourse. Something that can be debated continuously. Knowledge is something that is never final. If knowledge is never final, then it goes the same with truth because truth is always supported by knowledge to be legitimized. For Foucault, every realm is inseparable from discourse.
Discourse is something that is written, said and communicated using signs that have implications for the broader realm. Discourse is an idea that is constantly being communicated. Foucault then defines discourse more specifically, namely discourse is writings in the field of technical knowledge. Where the fields that have specialization and special vocabulary or technical. For example, the world of medicine has a special term, where ordinary people often do not understand such as anaesthesia. The law has technical terms such as pledoi and sociology has dialectics and alienation. The realm of engineering has the term trajectory. It’s all discourse. Thus, writings in the field of technical knowledge have their own specialization. That’s why, when a layman takes care of taxes, he would be often confused with accounting and virgin terms. Given the fact that these terms confuse us, we can only obey the system and people who specializes in the field. Foucault further states that technical specialists are always working to dominantly shape their fields and ideas. These technical fields increasingly have power over man, and they have built the structure of our society. Suppose the discourse about madness is produced by psychiatrists and psychologists. This discourse about madness also automatically contains discourse about peace. If madness can be defined, then normality can also be defined. Certain technical terms are increasingly affecting society at large.
Taxonomic system for example. The taxonomic system of animals from the west is classified in criteria such as spineless animals or not while animals from the east has different criteria. Foucault was surprised when he discovered the Chinese taxonomic system in the royal era was very different from the current Western taxonomy system. In the old royal era in China, the animals were divided into royal, commoner, sacred and hunted animals. This is significantly different from the modern taxonomy. For scientists today, Chinese taxonomies are considered ludicrous because they are unscientific and irrational because they violate the principles and order of modern science. But it really shows the limitations of our own thinking. If we cannot accept the ancient taxonomic system, it is actually because human mind has its limitations. This means that we have been created by an institution to accept one taxonomic system and reject another. Another example: Sundanese Empire was opposed by the citizen in Indonesia. That’s because for them, Sundanese Empire didn’t make sense. In fact, when the citizens reject the Sundanese Empire narrative, it shows the limitations of our episteme to accept it because it was never mentioned in the national history book in our educational system. Thus, we have been unconsciously created by the institutions, layer by layer, we reject things that are not taught by the institutions and we are not aware of it. That’s why we go back, one of the postmodern epistemologies has lost its subject and consciousness.
How does power then perpetuate itself? For Foucault, power must spread. Initially, a power often found held by the king and the royal elites. However, since this centralized power leads to opposition and rebellion from the people, such power must find its way to spread and sublime. How? A law was made to govern rights and duties of both the people and the king. The existence of this law actually makes the power spread wider and sublime. Practically, the law is mostly pointed downward and blunt upwards and the constitution paint it the opposite way so people wouldn’t notice. By creating the constitution of law, power enters the social body of the society. Suppose you are uncertain about planning to kill someone, which one holds you the most: it’s barbaric or you are afraid of being punished for killing? You never consider to corrupt, is it because you know that corruption is a despicable act or because you are afraid of being imprisoned? These are certainly two different things. Even if you don’t kill people for fear of being punished and threatened with articles, you’re not corrupt either because of that, it means the power has sublimed and is already spread into your social body. So, you are made to obey in plain sight.
The method of power undergoes a transformation that is no longer guaranteed by rights, but by technique. Not through legislation, but normalization. No longer with the law, but control. So, after the advent of this law gave birth to further implications, the more sublimination the power has, the harder it is to fight. Finally, there comes a normalization and control management. There is a definition of a good and a bad citizen. It’s as if you are determined a bad citizen by doing some particular things. But if you obey the rules of the state, then you are a good citizen. There are also the terms biopolitics and biopower. This new form of power is easier and much smoother to ignore, and even harder to resist. If the power is focused on one side, then it will be very easy to fight and exactly the opposite if it had sublimed.
Today, power is implemented in disciplines such as body discipline. Body discipline is a mechanism of careful control over the body. Through discipline, the body is trained to become a skilled body. However, it is also constantly tested and corrected so that these skills, dexterity and readiness eventually become mechanisms that simply work within the body itself. Discipline at the same time increases the body’s skills, strength and usefulness, but also overwhelms and places the body into submissive relationships in power. Discipline on one hand ‘enlarges’ the power of the body (in economic terminology of usability), but ‘minimizes its power’ (in political terminology) on the other. A simple example is if you try to watch the modern film Times played by Charlie Chaplin, where he played as a factory worker. As a labour, he experienced body discipline he did the same work every day so that his body automatically did the job. On one side, it develops a him to be a skilled force, therefore, enlargement. However, he stuck at only being a skilled force. It doesn’t make him has a bargaining position anywhere else. Chaplin had no political power. When this factory closed, he was confused about what work he could do because his skills were just that. This is the discipline of the body, on one hand, it functions economically but on the other hand, it reduces the political ability of the individual.
Foucault’s control of mechanism is called panopticon. Modern society actually experiences strict control from the state, but they are unaware of it. Like how power is made to sublime. Panoptic is a “form of a prison building” initiated by Jeremy Bentham. The Panopticon formed a guard tower that could watch over prisoners from all directions. Thus, the prisoners will always feel supervised when in fact, the “guards” are not necessarily always on the watch. This is why panopticon is total control/supervision. A panopticon in my personal view is religion. Religious dogma says there is always a God and angels watching over humans’ life. If I ever had an intention of doing something bad or wrong, I reckon sin as the “guard”, is always on the watch. You have that fear without knowing if the Almighty is looking or is resting.
Edited by Yosua Pradiaswara