When the man first grabbed my hand and shook it, I was mildly intimidated. He introduced himself, and mentioned he had his doctorate in comp and comparative lit. I wasn’t entirely sure what comparative lit was, but I knew that somehow, in a room of one hundred people, I had found the person that I could converse intelligently with. And converse we did.
“Your major is English?” he asked. “Do you have a focus? Like, British, American, you know?”
“Writing,” I responded without hesitation.
He raised his eyebrows. “Oh really? No fiction?”
I wasn’t sure why he was surprised. “Well, some. Sci-fi. But mostly nonfiction. Creative nonfiction.”
“What’s the difference between creative and noncreative nonfiction? Isn’t it all just…nonfiction?”
I had to think about that one for a moment. “Well…Okay. So. Take the piece that I got published. Nonfiction would be interviewing an animal shelter worker and writing a biography on the information that you get. Creative nonfiction would be taking that information and turning it into a piece that profiles her dog.”
“That makes total sense.” He took a sip of his wine. “What lit classes have you taken? Any Hemingway?”
We chatted Hemingway for a while, and the ways in which he related to my personal writing style. Hemingway had never been a favorite of mine, but I was able to hold up my end of the conversation. We strayed from that to graduate school, and the places that I was intending to apply. And then:
“I went to graduate school in Montreal. I took a class once with Michael Foucault.”
I became quite excited at that news. “He’s my favorite theorist!”
“I hated his class.”
Introvert me wanted to smack myself in the face at my error in judgement. “Oh, well,” I stumbled.
“What do you like about him?”
I took a breath. “Well, I like how he attempts to change society’s ideas regarding power and power systems.” I was hoping he would let it go at that.
Crap. I had to keep talking. “Well, take for instance, “The Subject and the Power.””
“You had to read that for a class?”
“I read it on my own.”
He smiled warmly, encouraging me to continue.
“I find the whole idea of women and power and power relations and how Foucault’s theory challenges gender roles to be incredibly interesting. Especially the ways in which women obtain power and how power can be used against them. I wrote a paper about how discourse brings power and knowledge together. I think that when someone is allowed to have their own ideas, they gain knowledge.”
“But what does that knowledge have to do with power?”
That was an easy one. “Well, knowledge is power,” I replied.
“What if I told you that power is what gains people all of their knowledge?”
“I disagree,” I said without missing a beat. “I think that even if power can gain knowledge, the majority of knowledge comes from power. You can’t give people power and you can’t take power away.” I remembered an example that had come up in class. “Say I have an awesome professor. When I’m in her class, she has power because she can give me grades. I know that because she in charge of my grade, she has power over me. However, it’s up to me what I do with that power. I choose whether or not to give it to her. I choose whether or not to go to class. I choose whether or not to earn that grade. So in reality, she doesn’t have power at all once I know that it is in my power to earn the grade. You know what I mean?”
He set his wine glass down on the table and rested his hand across his beard, peering at me. “That’s an interesting theory. What would you say about how Foucault views the exercise of power? I disagree with his idea that signs and signals have power effects. They have nothing to do with how we communicate.”
“I respectfully disagree.” I took a sip of my own wine. “To me, it’s all about communication and follow the signs. Power and communication are inter-related. Maybe that varies from society to society, but they’re definitely related. And I’m not sure Foucault really focused on that at all. I took more away from the ideas regarding power relations, that power is specifically the action taken on a field of possible action of others. That it can only be exercised over free subjects, that it can’t be forced. I feel like he was trying to say that we governmentalize power relations. If I can use that word. Which I just now made up.”
He laughed. “I don’t know. It seems that you got more out of it than me then. I would go so far as to say that Foucault focused too much on the different areas in society where these relationships exist. Status and wealth and social differences and the like. And how those gain power and form relationships. I believe that power can be quite negative.”
“I think you’re totally right that those things can form relationships. But I’d say that power is assigned from where we choose. We can’t hold power over somebody unless they let us. I can’t have a lot of money and then hold that over you and claim to be more powerful unless you let me. Sure, money makes me powerful. That’s true. I can buy things and the like. But if you were poor, you could still be powerful. It’s all in how we act. You wouldn’t be not powerful or not able to make decisions just because I had money and I said so. It isn’t necessarily all the same.” I worried as the words tumbled from my mouth that they were completely jumbled.
“Power is everywhere,” he quoted, “and it comes from everywhere. You would support the idea then that it’s not an agency or a structure? That it just invades society and that it always changes?”
“If power can’t be given or taken,” I responded carefully, “isn’t it always in flux? And it’s not necessarily negative. I don’t think Foucault believed that power necessarily had to be negative or repressive. It can be negative, but I think he was trying to say that it could be positive and productive as well.”
“I do believe,” he said, taking a sip of his wine, “that you would have quite enjoyed his class.”
“I think so too.”
Setting his glass down again, he fished around in his pocket and came up with a business card. “Say,” he said, passing me the card. “Since we’ll never talk again, probably. I think that you have a solid head on your shoulders. And I’d be pleased to offer you a reference, should you ever need one.”
I smiled and said thank you, staring at the card in awe of my own ability as he disappeared into the crowd. The words of his name and title blurred together as I thought the urge to cry. I wasn’t tearing up because I was sad.
Maybe I hadn’t been completely correct in the things I had said. But I had been solid in my speech. I hadn’t backed down. I had made an effort to support my ideas. I had earned a stranger’s respect.
I was tearing up because I knew that I really could talk. I really could share my thoughts.
And I had.