Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Post-Structuralism

I recently read an excellent article by Henry A. Giroux arguing that America is transforming into an authoritarian state.  Instead of simply posting the link (as I usually do when feeling too lazy to write), I decided to give some background information first. 

Giroux writes as a post-structuralist, as many academics currently are.  Foucault’s concept of power is big in intellectual circles nowadays.  I think it’s important to remember, however, that trends in schools of thought come and go.

The modern social sciences have gone through various evolutions of thought since they were defined as an educational category in the early 1900s.  Beginning in the 1920s, most social sciences were largely “positivist,” meaning that they were based on the scientific method.  Experts thought that we should be able to explain human behaviour and society through controlled experiments and universal laws, similar to the laws of physics or mathematics.

Positivism generated various counter-theories.  Behaviorism, for example, argues that humans are too complex to simplify into scientific laws.  This school of thought focuses on how random individuals affect society and form.

Structuralists, on the other hand, believe that individual behaviour is a somewhat predictable result of overarching systems of culture and society.  For example, Marx’s theories are structuralist in that he predicted behavior dependent on social class and hierarchy.

Everything changed, however, with Michel Foucault’s groundbreaking theories of power in 1980s.  Post-structuralism, as his and others’ work has been categorized, critiques structuralism.  He argues that although human culture may be understood as a structure, we are each too embedded within that structure (our own “discourses” of culture, class, gender, etc.) to understand our place and judge others from an objective point of view.  Instead of an objective scientific system of facts, post-structuralists see science as an unstable institution that relies on the state and society to uphold its truths.

Does that make sense?  Maybe not if you’re not a scientist.  If you are a scientist, however, you know that many fundamental concepts have circular definitions.  For example, force is defined by mass multiplied by acceleration (F=ma).  But mass is defined by force divided by acceleration.  The more you dig into the sciences, the more you’ll find these circular definitions.

Which is fine.  That doesn’t discount science.  But we need to understand that western science is just one way of understanding things.  Contrary to what we learned in high school, most complex scientific theories are not near as predictable or as accurate as teachers made them seem.  Right now the Newtonian system is arguably the best lens we have for viewing the world, but it is just a lens.  There’s no objective scientific truth that exists outside the human experience, as least as far as we know.

Foucault believed that although “science” is concerned with why things are true, the why is actually too complicated for most of us to grasp.  Instead, he was interested in how things become true and who makes truth.

Prior to Foucault, “power” was seen as an instrument wielded by individuals, often in the form of coercion or violence.  Foucault argued, however, that power is everywhere: it’s enforced through language, institutions, and each individual’s behaviour.

The following was plagiarized directly from an online source (which I forgot to save the URL for):

Foucault challenges the idea that power is wielded by people or groups by way of ‘episodic’ or ‘sovereign’ acts of domination or coercion, seeing it instead as dispersed and pervasive. ‘Power is everywhere’ and ‘comes from everywhere’ so in this sense is neither an agency nor a structure (Foucault 1998: 63). Instead it is a kind of ‘metapower’ or ‘regime of truth’ that pervades society, and which is in constant flux and negotiation. Foucault uses the term ‘power/knowledge’ to signify that power is constituted through accepted forms of knowledge, scientific understanding and ‘truth.’

For example, consider George Orwell’s novel 1984.  (If you haven’t read that book, you need to.  Seriously.  I don’t think any other words have haunted me as much as, “Do it to Julia.”)  Winston Smith, the main character, works in the Ministry of Truth.  One of his colleague’s jobs is to translate literature into Newspeak.  Newspeak is a simplified vocabulary that does not include words like individual or liberty.  If you don’t have a word for freedom, can it exist as a concept in your mind?  In the novel, Big Brother was systematically changing what people believed to be true.

As Foucault wrote in Rabinow (1991):

Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint.  And it induces regular effects of power.  Each society has its regime of truth, its “general politics” of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.

With this new understanding of power came other new concepts or new ways of understanding old ideas such pedagogy (the art and science of education), governmentality (the process through which governments produce their citizens), hegemony (governance that uses implied power rather than direct power), plus more. 

Whew.  That’s enough for today.  Tomorrow I’ll post Giroux’s article for you all to enjoy.

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