October 04, 2010

Michel Foucault: Power, Discourse and 9/11

image By Joshua Munns

Newcastle University

Second Year Sociology Student


Imagine it's the year 2000.

Walking down a busy street you hear someone shouting two numbers, '9' and '11'. Chances are no one understands what he's referring too, so they simply carry on with their day.

Replay this scenario today and the results would be very different. Hearing the numbers '9' and '11' brings the tragic events of September 11th, 2001 to people's minds. On that day, those two numbers went from being fairly meaningless to having huge significance across the globe. They have entered what Michel Foucault calls discourse.

Michel Foucault is a French twentieth century postmodernist thinker. A prolific writer, he covered a wide range of topics including sociology, philosophy and history. While largely criticized by his peers, he is now widely respected and his ideas are used in numerous disciplines from sociology and philosophy to government policy and medicine.

Foucault describes discourse as the language, ideas and values held by disciplines, institutions and society. 9/11 greatly impacted on our discourse, effecting such institutions as the law, government and the military to name just a few. One example of how it affected our language can be seen in the phrase ”war on terror.”

Coined by the Bush administration in response to 9/11, the phrase is a good example of Foucault's belief that a problem doesn't exist until it enters our discourse. Before 9/11 there was no “war on terror” and with its birth came huge implications. The western world now had the task of invading foreign countries to root out terrorism in attempt to "win the war".

Yet according to Foucault, this turn of events wasn't inevitable. Influenced by the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Foucault saw history not as a linear progression but a battle of ideas. For example, the invasion of Afghanistan was not an unalterable outcome of 9/11; rather it was an idea that won out against other possibilities.

Foucault argues that the ideas that win out over others are made to appear inevitable to establish their credibility. For example, if the Bush administration had started publicly suggesting alternatives to invading Afghanistan, it would damage that particular idea’s value because it would suggest that other credible options exist.

According to Foucault, statements are the building blocks of discourse as they provide context and relate to one another. Foucault believed that a small number of statements make up most discourses and are repeatedly referred to.

Take the following statements for example: “Terrorists are dangerous;” and “We have the right to protect our country.” How do these two statements relate to one another? Simple, put them together and you get: ”We have the right to protect our country against terrorists (because they're dangerous).”

Foucault claims that we accept these statements almost unquestioningly. Have you ever questioned your country’s right to self protection? Some might consider it silly to even think about. Yet both Iraq and Afghanistan were invaded on the basis of this statement. It's our acceptance of these statements that allow institutions to justify their use of power.

Furthermore, these ideas aren't normally directly referred too, rather they are expressed in other forms. Our previous two statements are often communicated by the term “national security.”

The power given to governments by the concept of “national security” is phenomenal. After 9/11 it was used to justify numerous actions. For example, more information is now gathered on individuals, airport security has greatly increased, and Afghanistan was invaded. By claiming to have knowledge about what threatens our country and how to protect us, government legitimizes its use of power.

Foucault argues that institutions follow rules and procedures that provide a particular set of results, or what he calls ”games of truth.” Foucault isn't claiming that institutions fabricate research. He's highlighting their use of specific research methods to provide answers.

Foucault calls this production of knowledge “discursive formation.” This knowledge is then used to justify the actions of social institutions. Before the Iraqi war, America claimed the Iraqi government was helping Al-Qaeda. This “truth” was then used to help justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Although Foucault's work is abstract and not backed up with research, it remains highly relevant. His ideas are used to look at numerous aspects of society: from the after effects of a particular event, such as 9/11, to social institutions such as the law and education to society in general. His ideas and theories are also important to sociology because of the great influence they had on subsequent social theorists and thinkers.


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Foucault's "games of truths" are possibly made by institutions that fabricate research. I would say President George Bush found research that Sadam Huessan was housing Osama Binladin so he convinced congress to invade Iraq to find him. Bush worked for the Bn Laddin Group earlier in his life and his father ad dealings with the Bin Laddin group too. "Games of truth" are more like games of lies.
Foucault had bush figured out.

"Michel Foucault is a French twentieth century postmodernist thinker"

This is heavily argued, especially from Foucault himself. Foucault rejected the postmodern and poststructuralist labels attributed to him.

Its true what you said in the beginning that "9 11" used to be a number. Now if you say that we all automatically think about 9/11 in New York.

I agree with Mr. Munns. Well written.

I think it becomes a far more easier concept to understand that all of our institutions are merely discourses that rest weighted on the shoulders of a few key statements. I came to understand this perspective by shifting my own perspective for an hour. Literally. Literally stand on a hillside and watch your city and/or small town function itself at night. None of it was meant to be, but because we created the idea of the system that runs our night and day, this can only be upheld as long as we choose for it to. One day we will grow tired and trade in the idea for something new. Something better? It becomes quite obvious that every concern and worry are but discourses that are support by statements we've made or sheepishly uphold. We can either be the master of our thoughts or the slaves to them.

Focault, along with many other like-minded individuals, understands this and worked so that we may too. My concern is that men in power, men of lesser intentions and morality, are aware of their affect on discourse.

They are aware of their ability to shape us and our fears to do so ourselves.

A neat exposée. congratulations!

Suppose a Kid crying and doing all in his reach to attain what his instinct tells him. Then think of a teenager formulating excuses in front of parents, family or friends for social affirmations or to get sponsored by the parents.
Now this time considering he is older, might be his course of actions will be influenced by a social web he lives in and constructed by the traits and unconscious diverse learning methods.
Now he is convinced that this is what he wants and after getting what he wants he might feel peace and as this unrest was self created, so this will be a recurring activity and that would be a positive stimulus. If he is successful means he is smarter in some of his social roles more than those members of society he lives and learns from. This smartness will turn in excitement and after that in way to achieve purpose of life. (Totally subjective). This whole process will evolve him towards different dimension then others.
Now just mix these smart group of people ( out of probability ) after achieving their maturity they will counter with ideas they want to conquer and when something will appear which is bigger than them self they will consider it the truth and the action for all reactions. This is Govt and institutions!
so combinations of human instincts and experiences and then probability of such human gathering at one place with aim of doing things bigger them self and thinking of their acts as selfless and savoir of the world is what excite them and motivates them to shape truth for rest of their kind and justify their control by acting on their Self-righteous believes

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