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According to Foucault, Literature Can Indeed Control Society

Power aims to control society by manipulating people in different ways. Literature is perhaps one of the power's main instruments. But, how can thought control be achieved through literature? Since power is founded on ideology, the preservation of that ideology can compromise and even ban the literary discourse. In fact, literature has a non-identical relevance according to the historical period. During the communist period, for instance, literature had tremendous power in society and education.

The concept of ideology: How Power Control Literature

In his well-known essay, Will to Power, Nietzsche (1968) stated: "My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (-its will to power:) and to thrust back all that resists its extension" (p. 340). Nietzsche reminds us that individual power occurs thanks to supporting a common ideology, and since it is justified from ideology itself, its force can be imposed. The concept of ideology is one of the major debates in the 20th century. Freud, Adler, Frankl, Foucault, Deleuze, and Lacan took part to the research. Terry Eagleton (1991) define ideology as a form of legitimate actions, by promoting beliefs and values congenial to it; naturalizing and universalizing such beliefs so as to render them self-evident; denigrating ideas that might challenge it; excluding rival forms of thought (Eagleton, 1991, p. 5). The concept of ideology is the main feature of totalitarian societies. As to the communist period, literature and art were representing the ideal socialist world and the new man. In this manner, what we call history, is actually the history of power.

Literature in Power Game: The Metaphor of the Panoptic Society by Foucault

Thanks to Michel Foucault, we know that literature has an essential role in the power game. In Discipline and Punishment (1995) Foucault describes modern society after the model of the prison described by Jeremy Bentham. Bentham argued in The "Panopticon" that the perfect prison would be structured in such a way that cells would be open to a central tower. In this model, individuals in the cells do not interact with each other and are constantly confronted by the panoptic tower (pan=all; optic=seeing). They cannot, however, see when there is a person in the tower, but they must believe that they could be watched at any moment: "the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at any one moment, but he must be sure that he may always be so" (Foucault, Discipline 201). In order to maintain power in a democratic society, people need to believe that they are overseen at any time. Thus, people assume responsibility and act as if they were police themselves. Foucault claims that they become the principle of their own subjection.

Figure 1: Portrait of Michel Foucault (1983).
Some of the effects of this new model of organization

The panoptic schema was meant to spread throughout the social body. As Foucault puts it, the Panopticon serves to reform prisoners and treat patients, instruct schoolchildren, confine the insane, and supervise workers (Discipline, 205). In today's society, technology is aiding the panoptic scheme to develop. So, the presence of this new model of organization can be seen in:

  1. The internalization of rules and regulations. Having naturalized the rules managed by power, people are reluctant to object to them.

  2. Rehabilitation rather than cruel and unusual punishment. Despite this reform was applied to oppose inhumane prisoners' treatment, Foucault questions the reliability of the moral norm to which we are expected and required to conform.

  3. Surveillance into ever more private aspects of our lives. In that case, surveillance is aided by new technology.

  4. Information society. A vast amount of data are organized by power.

  5. Bureaucracy. This model turn individuals into statistics and paperwork.

  6. Specialization. Common knowledge is managed by a group of "experts" organized into increasingly specialized fields.

As we have seen, literature and technology can control society and thought since they communicate knowledge according to a certain ideology. However, Foucault recognized that literature also proves to be an implicit critique of what it describes. This is precisely the reason for forbidding books. Actually, books represent a potential threat to regimes. In fact, in the 60s and 70s, young artists developed a new social discourse built on humanistic ideals. Many intellectuals of the movement as M. Foucault, J. Derrida, P. Bourdieu, and J. Lacan were protesting against the totalitarian power of official literature. As a result, 20th-century literature aims to give voice to authors who had to suffer implicit political persecution, as they dealt with themes like feminism, anti-capitalism, anti-bourgeois, and the sexual liberation movement.

Bibliographical references

Foucault, M., Ewald, F., Fontana, A., Davidson, A., I., & Burchell, G. (2021). Penal Theories and Institutions: Lectures at the Collège de France (Michel Foucault Lectures at the Collège de France, 13). Picador. The Will to Power by Friedrich Nietzsche (1968–08-12). (2021). Vintage; edition (1968–08-12). Eagleton, T. (2021). Ideology: An Introduction by Eagleton, Terry(April 17, 1991) Paperback. Verso. Gonçalves, S., & Majhanovich, S. (2016). Art and Intercultural Dialogue (Comparative and International Education / Comparative and International Education: a Diversity of Voices). Sense Publishers.

Visual sources

Cover Image/Figure 1: Michel Foucault. (1983). [Photograph].


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