Several people have made the astute observation that we need some more definition of terms to help engage the conversation. With that in mind, I’d like to tackle the idea of postmodernism in a four part post that examines James Smith’s book “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?”, where he engages three postmodern philosophers: Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. This is the third of the four part series (part one; part two; part four). I have adapted these posts from a paper I wrote in the fall of 2009. For ease of reading, I’ve bolded key ideas, so that you may either read all the gnarly details or skim for the key concepts. Either way, please leave comments and engage in conversation!
Lastly, Smith moves on to Michel Foucault. “For Foucault, at the root of our most cherished and central institutions…is a network of power relations. The same is true of our most celebrated ideals; at their base, Foucault claims knowledge and justice reduce to power.” This is not to indicate that knowledge brings power, that power brings knowledge, or that they are actually the same, but that they can never be exclusive (1).
Smith continues by acknowledging that, because of this, “postmodernism is characterized by a deep hermeneutic of suspicion” (2), indicating that there is an innate sense of distrust by postmoderns of power. Foucault, though, isn’t intending to show power as an evil, or a good, but instead just as “is”, as unavoidable, and perhaps even amoral in that sense (3).
This combination of knowledge and power that Foucault observes is used to instill discipline, toward the end of furthering both knowledge and power. Culture has, Foucault suggests, pursued panopticism, or the ability to observe and thus influence without being observed (4). Culture is not a static force that we live in with no consequences, but is a dynamic system that is desiring to align individuals to its goals.
Smith, though, suggests that we can’t, as Christians, be totally averse to being controlled and conformed as part of our calling is conformity to Christ (5). It is too easy for the church to get on board with Foucault because of our idolization of autonomy, while ignoring our need for community and conformity (6).
Smith further contends that discipline is not a single “bad” entity as Foucault would be inclined to depict it, but that “we can distinguish good discipline from bad discipline by its…goal or end,” and that “a disciplinary form is proper when it corresponds with the proper end of humanity, which is to be (renewed) image bearers of God” (7). Christian disciplines, then, have a place and a prominent one at that.
Smith finishes by describing what good discipline can lead to: a true disciple. “The primary aim of discipleship is to create a certain kind of person who acts in a certain way, not someone who simply thinks in a certain way…knowing truth is only instrumental to ultimately doing the truth” (8).
- Smith. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernity? 85.
- Ibid., 86.
- Ibid., 91.
- Ibid., 92.
- Ibid., 101.
- Ibid., 100.
- Ibid., 102.
- Ibid., 106.