We've all heard the saying knowledge is power. It's a cliche tossed around without thought by most. There's always something behind cliches, though. A guy named Michel Foucault managed to spin a long and fruitful career out of examing the relationship between knowledge and power.
And there is a relationship, oh yes there is. When you produce knowledge, you wield power. It's easiest to explain by using examples.
Take beers and wine spritzers. If you're a guy, which of these are you supposed to drink? Beer, right? If I'm sitting with a girl, and I have a choice between the two, it's the beer I'll feel compelled to drink. Why on earth do I know this? I can count on three hands the number of times I've been in a bar and I dislike the taste of alcohol. I can drink whiskey, scotch, wine; I can even not drink at all. But "girly drinks" are out. In a bar, I have a particular role to play.
To a certain extent, I identify myself as being left-wing. However, there are may standard leftie positions I am not comfortable with; why do I feel so out of joint disagreeing with abortion? Why do I simultaneously feel like I should defend certain stand lefty positions, even though I dislike them? When discussing politics, I have a particular role to play.
No one forces me to drink beer instead of a sweeter alcohol, and no one was going to force me to defend the CBC on Joel's blog, before I thought better of it. So why do I know that I'm supposed to do these things? What was going on?
In both cases, I'm fitting into a discourse. A masculine discourse concerning the right type of alcohol, and a liberal discourse concerning the right political opinions.
A discourse is the result of a relationship between a particular mode of knowledge, and a particular mode of power. A discourse opens up a role for you to play. You know how to are supposed to be - knowledge. And you are compelled to act within those bounds - power.
Discourses aren't determinate, when it comes to individual choices. As I said, in a bar, I can drink any number of liquors or beers. I am totally free to make choice X or choice Y; but choice Z simply isn't on the menu. That's how it works. I can drink whiskey or scotch, but drinking a wine spritzer would simply be absurd. It would be outside the bounds of the normal.
Another perfect example is the US two party system. Third party candidates for all intents and purposes exist outside the electoral discourse. Sure, there is a third party; the choice exists in reality. Just don't expect them to win anytime soon.
These are pretty basic examples. Foucault was much more sophisticated about it; his favourite topics were things like the development of psychiatry and how the punishmen of criminals has changed.
There have been different discourses of punishment, meaning the criminal, the state, and the mode of punishment have all had different roles to play in society. In the long dead monarchies of Europe, criminal acts, in the eyes of the system, were violations of the King's sovereignty. The purpose of punishment was to re-inscribe the King's law onto the criminal - hence brutal, physical, public punishments. When concepts like "freedom" and "liberty" came to have their present day meaning, the ultimate punishment was to strip the criminal of their liberty - hence prisons.
There is a distinction between power and violence. Power, as part of its relationship to knowledge, opens up roles to play. It creates choices, and obscures other possibilities. Violence, on the other hand, is about direct control of the individual. Power makes the Democracts and the Republicans the only "reasonable" choices. If violence came into the picture, voters would be sent to jail for voting Nader.
So that's my best shot at explaining discourses. I'm going to yet again postpone the gay marriage post, there are two other concepts I want to go over first.