Power, Discourse and 9/11
By Joshua Munns
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..