Tag Archives: Foucault

Threads

I wrote a paper last year regarding how discourse is a prevailing force in the creation of identity.  To this day, it is still one of my favorite papers—not because it’s good (though it is, I think), but because it’s the first time I ever really identified with an assignment.  It was the first time I really started to get myself.  In the introduction to this paper, I compared discourse to Crayola crayons:  “Discourse can be thought of like a box of Crayola crayons.  Crayola continuously invents unique new colors, such as inchworm and fuzzy wuzzy.  When we see a color that we don’t know, we assign  the color to a lesser category in our mind and reject it because we have no prior knowledge of that color.  Without prior knowledge of an experience, or, in this case, a crayon, the experience remains unnatural and not part of our identity.  Once we have seen the crayon and the name on its label, we are then able to know what color to assign it.  Without this assignment of a name, the color does not exist as a category.  This is how discourse functions, bringing us the necessary experiences to shape us into individuals; we give an item power when we name it because we give it existence.  The discourses or experiences that people have and the things that they learn are what make them the people that they eventually become, just like seeing a crayon with a unique name and then associating that name with a color.  Power and knowledge are gained from discourse, and people would be completely different beings without it.  Thoughts, exchanges of ideas, and conversations are unavoidable and affect how people view the things in their every day lives.  Discourse is what forms a person’s individual identity.”

See, I get this paper; I get discourse.  I get it, because there are so many different things that are part of my identity—and they’re not all good.  As a matter of fact, most of them aren’t.  But without all of these different threads, the different experiences that I’ve had, I would not be the person I am right now.  I would not be where I am.  I would not know the things I know.  I would not have the power that I have.  

I have named experiences within my life that I should never have had to name, that no one should have to name.  But I have survived them.  And I’m stronger for them.  The thing about discourse is that I know my strength, and I firmly believe that this is because of what I have endured in my life.  I am strong, and when new things come up I can conquer them because I have named things much more difficult.  I have been shaped into someone who is awesome, and so much more tough than I give myself credit for.  

I’ve been bothered by something for the past few days.  I’m getting ready to graduate, and I met with my advisor to sign up for courses for my final semester.  I only need three more classes to graduate (four to receive financial aid), and I really wanted one of those classes to be Shakespeare.  Not only is our college’s Shakespeare course taught by my advisor (who is awesome), it’s also Shakespeare.  

“Not marble, not the gilded monument / Of prince, shall outlive this powerful rhyme; / But you shall shine more bright in these contents / Than unswept stone, besmear’d with skittish time.”  (Shakespeare, 55th Sonnet)

Beautiful writing.  Enough said.  If you don’t appreciate it, you’ve been living under a rock.  The course is hard—lots of reading, lots of paper writing, lots of discussion.  But my course load next semester was finally going to be low enough in terms of both workload and scheduling that I could make it work.  Until my advisor informed of what would make up a large part of the discussion:  rape, abuse, violence.  Some of it as a comedy.  And I knew then.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to take the course.  I wouldn’t be able to sit through that, but I wouldn’t be able to walk out of class that often.  I wouldn’t be able to be able to maintain a decent grade.  I wouldn’t be able to emotionally take care of myself.  This was something I wanted, for a myriad of reasons, and I had to let it go for my own wellbeing.  I had to sign up for something else instead.  

I beat myself up for it, for a while.  That I wasn’t good enough.  That I was triggered so easily.  That I was still letting people hurt me; that I was always letting people hurt me.  That I would never be okay.  I focused on the bad aspects of the situation, that I am not okay, that I will never be okay, that I couldn’t sign up for the class.  But I can see it now.  I can see that I was so focused on that that I missed the good thing; I had recognized a need in myself.  I had made a good decision in terms of taking care of myself, but I gave myself no credit for that.  I forgot that sometimes, strength comes in just letting yourself be.  Sometimes it feels like I will never really be okay; sometimes I forget that it’s okay to not be okay all the time.  It doesn’t mean that I’m not good enough.  It just means that I’m doing the best I can.  

I was having a text messaging conversation with one of the best writers I know recently, and I told her that she needed to go out and get famous so that I could “know her.”  She responded, “Wait—that’s what I’m expecting of you.”  Her statement really surprised me, that someone who can write so incredibly would infer that I will someday be more than I am now.  I don’t see life in statements of my goodness, but rather in areas where I have failed and lost.  But the funny thing is, I am a good writer.  I hear this all the time.  I don’t understand why it’s so hard for me to see.  I am good at this.  I am good at many things, because I have survived many things.  I am strong because I am still here, because I know the power that I have.

Without all of the threads, without every single piece, without everything I have named…I would not be good at many things.  I would not be strong.  I would not be anything at all.

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And Then I Learned to Talk

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.  

“What kind?”

“Nonfiction.”

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.

“How so?”

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.

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The Blank (On Power)

We all have our blanks in life.  If I had done ________, ________ wouldn’t have happened.  ________ is the reason for everything.  Today I had a very interesting discussion regarding this phenomena.  My example:  If my son wouldn’t have died, my marriage wouldn’t have either; I don’t know why he died and therefore all of these events must be my fault.

I was told that this statement is, in a way, dishonoring his memory.  Rather than remembering him for the baby he was, I am choosing to place blame on him for something that was in no way his fault.  It is easier to do this than to place the blame where it really lies.   I can logicize (yes, I created that word) the dissolution of my marriage in its entirety:  I carried Carter; Carter died; there were no more children; the essence of our marriage became filled with anger and bitterness; the marriage dissolved.  It started with my son; it ended with me leaving.  Regardless of the events in between, I can trace a clear path of fault back to myself.  I’m not saying that this is rational or correct.  I’m simply saying that I can see how others, my ex specifically, could have arrived at this conclusion and used it to justify their actions.  I don’t know that I truly believe this statement.  I do believe that I just plain don’t have any other rational off which to form a basis for opinion.  If I stray away from this idea, I begin to see things for what they really were.  Would my marriage have been any better had Carter lived?  Probably not.  Was it good before his death?  Not particularly.

Where does the fault lie?  Is it with anyone in particular?  Or was this dissolution a community effort?  Power in a relationship is supposed to go both ways, but sometimes that doesn’t happen.

This comes back to Michel Foucault’s four main tenets regarding power:  it is exercised from many different points, it’s repressive but also productive, it can come from the top down as well as the bottom up, and where power is found there is always resistance.  In class, the example that we used was that the professor has power because it is given to them; as students we know that the professor is responsible for our grades, and therefore we put power on them.  However, we can choose what we do with that knowledge and how much power we give by choosing whether or not to show up to class and working hard to earn said grades.  While the professor has the power to give grades, as students we have the power to earn them.  In the essay “The Subject and Power,” Foucault states that “Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free.  By this we mean individual or collective subjects who are faced with a field of possibilities in which several ways of behaving, several reactions and diverse comportments, may be realized.  Where the determining factors saturate the whole, there is no relationship of power; slavery is not a power relationship when man is in chains.”  When you tie a person down, or tie them into a relationship, it is a display of power.  It is not, however, true power.  Holding one down in an effort to force your will upon them is not power at all; it is trying to make up for a lack.  When person completely takes over another, it only illustrates that they have no real power themselves.  Once the chains are gone, the slave is free to leave; it is their choice then as to whether or not they choose to go.

I don’t believe my former relationship could have been considered a “free” relationship.  I allowed him to make a lot of the decisions.  I followed, I was obedient, and I served.  I allowed his factors, his needs, to overshadow mine a large portion of the time.  This was a decision I made because I knew no better.  At the time, I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do.  I didn’t see another way.  I gave him power, and while I had the power to leave I chose not to take it.  Until one day, I did.  It had nothing to do with Carter at all, but rather it was a decision that I made because I had to for my own sanity.  Where he had tried to force power upon me and failed, I displayed legitimate power in leaving.  A marriage is supposed to be a relationship of equality, of both give and take; it shouldn’t be about one partner forcing the others’ hand.

All this to say, the human mind does not like to deal with blanks.  We do the best we can to fill them in, regardless of the consequences mentally.  The unknown is scary; we find ourselves in need of answers.  But maybe those answers don’t always exist.   I can’t place the blame for the destruction of that which was already sour on the shoulders of a child who did nothing to deserve it.  The blame rests in the fact that I had power I chose not to exercise, in the fact that I allowed the illusion of power to fool me.

The blame rests in the fact that that illusion even existed in the first place.

Perhaps a blank just means that some things are meant to end.

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