The Tightrope of Power: the balance between power, knowledge, and authority in relation to Antigone
Foucault’s Discipline and Punish reads partly like a historic text and partly like a speculative essay. Its themes revolving around power, knowledge, and authority however, conveys fundamental principles that is innate to human nature. Foucault addresses these issues in a circular fashion where the end of the capacity for one is also the beginning of another. The question that is posed is deceptively simple: what does Foucault mean when he talks about power, knowledge, and authority? To answer this it would be helpful to bring in a text that deals with the same issues (although in a different context) and compare them side by side. The play Antigone by Sophocles is no stranger to these themes. Full of power struggles between authoritative figures and an unyielding pursuit of knowledge (or the truth), Antigone, despite being centuries apart in the time of its publication to Discipline and Punish, speaks to a truth of human nature that is timeless. Both texts understand that power, knowledge, and authority are theoretically and practically linked. Foucault argues and the characters of Antigone show that power exists in a fragile relationship, knowledge is acquired but not definite, and authority can sometimes be its own entity. Using Foucault’s teachings and examples as backdrop, I will be looking at the power relationships, the spectrum of knowledge, and command of authority between the characters in Antigone.
What does power mean to Foucault? To him, power is not a thing, rather it is a dynamic tension that exists between two or more people. It is also the amount of influence that you are able to exert over someone else in a relationship. He is describing of course a mental rather than physical force where also “one should decipher in power, a network of relations. (pg. 26)” According to Foucault, everyone has some power, but their power is such to the extent that one can exert the behavior (or determine it) of another. He says that everyone has a certain degree of power but the power is fluid, and “constantly in tension or activity. (pg.26)” Therefore he would say that Creon is not necessarily more powerful than Antigone because of his place on the hierarchy (as King), but that there exists a constant and equal power dynamic between Creon and Antigone because they both have power. Creon only appears more powerful because he has learned to use his power better than Antigone. Of course I am not completely disregarding the fact that Creon is king and Antigone is not but in Foucault’s terms we are always on one side of the power relationship or the other, so there is no hierarchy of power in that sense. The hierarchical difference in social standing (king to citizen) would be more an issue of authority than power.
It can sometimes be unclear who has power over the other but ultimately you cannot escape all power relations because everybody has a relative amount of power. However, there cannot be a power relationship without resistance. We may not be able to escape all relations of power acting on us, but we can try to change or challenge a power imbalance. Because this power is not “a privilege that one might possess (pg.26)” and is ‘fluid’, this power is also fragile. In the beginning Creon tries to use his power to change Antigone’s mind but later on as we see in the play, Antigone could resist Creon’s power and gain her own to diminish his. Antigone uses her power to speak her own voice which takes away the power of Creon’s. The point that Foucault tries to get across is that power is not a force set in stone. Just because you are a student or child does not mean your professors or parents always have absolute power over you.
Foucault admits that sometimes there is not much room in power relations to resist but you can keep trying. In his book he describes petty criminals acting in solidarity and attempting to resist police searches to unsuccessful ends (pg. 63). In the play, Antigone resists Creon’s order by burying the body but Creon has the ultimate authority as king to condemn Antigone to death. Antigone’s struggles to gain power through her words and actions is ultimately unsuccessful but the singular act of doing so diminished Creon’s powers. Even in death we see that Antigone dies by her own hands instead of the way Creon subjected her to death. That in itself is an small act of resistance to Creon’s power although it was only a different means to the same end.
For Foucault, truth and knowledge are linked to power in a reciprocal relationship. He says:We should admit rather that power produces knowledge (and not simply by encouraging it because it serves power or by applying it because it is useful); that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations. (pg. 27)Thus briefly, he says that knowledge gives power and power implies knowledge. In order to get the truth, the criminals were tortured to confess. Similarly in Antigone, the characters go through suffering in order to see the truth. Creon witnesses the bloodshed of his entire family before understanding that he was wrong. The point Foucault wants to make is that however the means we go about finding truth, there are always modes of power behind it. Who decides how we find the truth? Who benefits from the truth? 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 (pg. 29). Instead it is a kind of ‘metapower’ or ‘regime of truth’ that pervades society, and which is in constant flux and negotiation. The criminals were forced to speak the truth by the power of the police and Creon’s powers led him to find the truth but at a steep price.
In the chapter ‘Docile body’ Foucault writes that many scientific models are replaced by new disciplines of old forms (pg. 149). Who decides these new models or ways of thinking? More often than not, those in positions of power can convey knowledge that are by default considered the ‘truth’. This relationship is central to his work. In the book, those in power can organize and chart the methods of the power to punish. In Antigone, Creon’s position of power allows him to set his laws as truth and implement his models of thinking. His laws against Polyneices’ burial might not have been correct yet as king his knowledge is conceived to be the truth and thus it affected the way the citizens approached this ‘truth’.
Another interesting extension of the idea of knowledge is that to see all is one way of knowing all. Such like Foucault’s description of the Panopticon, there is an inherent type of power within such a system that depends heavily on the abundance of knowledge of the one in power and the lack of knowledge of those in captivity. In a slightly different fashion, Tiresias, the blind prophet in Antigone, knows many truths. But his power is figurative unlike that of one standing in the center of the panopticon; he is all-seeing but he does not have the power to change any outcomes.
Throughout his text, Foucault does not explicitly discuss authority on its own. Rather, he tends to talk about authority always in relation to knowledge or power. The command of authority in Discipline and Punish is exists mainly in the control of males. He writes about women working in workhouses and factories but not in schools or the military, the two largest institutions in charge of creating the “docile body.” (pg. 135-70) Although Foucault does not deal with gender specifically in this book in relation to power, knowledge or authority, the fact that half the human race is left out does not seem to disturb the drive of the thesis. It seems almost as if the definition of the power relations and the seek for knowledge can exist in both men and women alike. Yet the fact that women is never described to be in positions of authority as teachers, “inspectors,” military commanders, or as supervisors in a hospital, meant that the place of women in the social condition was never in a position to fight for any power, much less exert authority. Of course, this could simply be a reflection of the actual social structure of the time and not a personal bias on behalf of Foucault but it sets an interesting stage for Antigone’s character in the play.
In Antigone, it is obvious that Creon has the ability to exert his authority and power as both a male and a king. However, Antigone is the epitome of a woman with authority if not power. Although she is unable to overpower Creon she is able to assert her authority through her actions (burying her brother) and her words (reasoning with Creon). This is an instance where authority can be deprived of physical power to command, but in Foucault’s terms, has the ability to shift the power imbalance other means. Authority in Foucault’s work is more closely tied to power than we can argue in the story of Antigone. In a way, authority is tied to truth because we assume those in authority know the truth and vice versa. Authority and power also has a similar relationship but the difference is that power is fragile and as Foucault says, must depend on a relationship. In a way it can be described that the faults of those in authority is not so much weakness or cruelty but a bad utilization of the economy of power.
The turmoil of power dynamics introduced by Foucault is no better explained and exhibited than by the characters in Sophocles’ play Antigone. Foucault does not tell anyone how to resist but we can infer from the story of antigone that freedom from a power relationship does not mean getting rid of all restrictions, it is about remaking ourselves in the best way that we can under the constraints of power. In Antigone’s case, it is getting the support of the people and resistance of the law. Freedom, Foucault hints, is endless questioning that leads to choice. He reminds us that “power is not exercised simply as an obligation or a prohibition on those who ‘do not have it’; it invests them, is transmitted by them and through them; it exerts pressure upon them, just as they themselves, in their struggle against it, resist the grip it has on them. (pg. 27) In Antigone, Antigone’s search for her own truth collides with Creon’s struggle to maintain authority and the delicate balance of power between them tightens the stranglehold over their relationship. Thus, one way for us to understand the themes that Foucault has put forward is that the endless pursuit of knowledge or the truth propels those to seek authority both over others and more importantly, their own powers.
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