Power and Knowledge: Meditations on Foucault and Gender Part 1 | CBE International

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Power and Knowledge: Meditations on Foucault and Gender Part 1

On December 01, 2015

This is Part 1 in a three-part series exploring power, knowledge, and gender. Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3. 

When Jessica and I got married, we began to learn a great many things. We learned, first of all, that most of what people had told us about marriage was untrue. The eye-rolling comments prefaced by “just wait to you get married” were found empty, and the endless, grim phrases such as  “it’s a lot of work” and “it’s not for happiness and enjoyment; it’s for holiness,” were likewise inapplicable to us—at least in the way they were often framed. 

On the other hand, many of the “traditional” virtues aimed at couples proved to be as good of or better assets than our Christian community contended. Chastity, honesty, openness, teachability, etc. prevented countless weeds from ever sprouting. In that “cultivation” or “pre-planting phase,” the real work seemed to pile on—but it continues to pay the greatest dividends.

The intentional deprivation of knowledge is one of the greatest means of domination and oppression. To put it simply, people often keep others “in the dark.”

Aside from these, one thing I specifically learned and continue to learn is that my approach to marriage—specifically with regard to the dissemination of information and knowledge—is not as common to the married demographic as I had imagined.

My natural inclination in life is to ensure that everyone is “on the same page”—for a whole host of (what I would hope are obvious) reasons. But generally, by sharing information and multiple perspectives, everyone’s experience and range of sight is expanded. Collective consciousness is heightened. Greater things can thereby be achieved. Whether in business, family, or church, “integration” or “cross-integration” of knowledge would seemingly always be a good thing.

At least that’s what I thought.

Knowledge/Power

And then I realized that knowledge is a very, very valuable commodity—and that some people are insatiably greedy about it. From one job to the next, and from one relational insight to another, it dawned on me that the intentional deprivation of knowledge is one of the greatest means of domination and oppression. To put it simply, people often keep others “in the dark.”

Think about that phrase, “in the dark.” It’s undoubtedly a negative state. To be “in the light”—a common, positive biblical expression—is to have awareness, communication, connectivity, and visibility. And, as Moltmann brilliantly put it, “To be alive means existing in relationship with other people and things. Life is communication in communion” (God in Creation, 3). There is no life in the dark, because there can be no communication and therefore no relationship. Darkness is where death is; life is in the light.

We, spouses, are tempted to keep our loved ones in the dark because of fear and the desire to maintain control—regardless of whether such fear is rational, or whether such control is ultimately desirable.

And yet, so many husbands intentionally withhold knowledge from their wives—bank account numbers, passwords, contact information to important household and investment affairs, the location of various tools, items, and documents, etc. I have always found this deplorable, but I began to realize that this is just the way some people live. How can this happen? Why does it happen?

In many cases (not all), it happens because (as Hobbes/Bacon/Jefferson, etc. are known for writing) “knowledge is power,” and to stay in power, knowledge cannot be evenly distributed. Concentrations of knowledge are concentrations of power, and who wants to be powerless? We, spouses, are tempted to keep our loved ones in the dark because of fear and the desire to maintain control—regardless of whether such fear is rational, or whether such control is ultimately desirable.

Knowledge/Power in Foucault

The French historian Michel Foucault addressed the relationship between knowledge and power in his book, Power/Knowledge (a series of selected interviews and lectures). Most of what Foucault writes is, well, baffling.

One editor speaks of “the impossibility, or at least the extreme difficulty and inaccessibility of Foucault’s venture…” (230)—and I would apply this to virtually all of his writings. Certainly, his French-historical context places certain limitations on the comprehension of the average English-speaking American. But beyond these inherent obstacles, I can’t see anyone reading him for fun, much less for enlightenment. Foucault himself throughout Power/Knowledge continually concedes the lack of clarity and fragmentary nature of his works. It’s as though he never intended anyone to understand his thought.

“Knowledge is power,” and to stay in power, knowledge cannot be evenly distributed.

But every now and then, against the trend, a paragraph or two of clarity rises above the morass, and one is left pondering the remarkable profundity of what has just been observed. If they haven’t yet given up, readers are then left to construct for themselves a more coherent ideology on the basis of these few and precious moments. Perhaps Foucault considers this blasphemy, since he may never have intended his observations to exist in this more systematic form. At that point, I simply digress.

So, in the next segment, I want to summarize some of Foucault’s contributions to the power/knowledge discussion, followed by a discourse on how these insights come to bear on the situation of women’s inequality/equality in contemporary American evangelicalism.


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