Power Relations and the Socially Constructed Self: What does this say about “belief”? Part I

Satan engraving by William Blake, after a drawing by Henry Fuseli
Satan engraving by William Blake, after a drawing by Henry Fuseli

Early church fathers Clement and Origen of Alexandria both contended that, for God to be truly all-good, all-powerful and omnipresent, it stands to reason that (everything being a part of God and destined to return to God in the end) Satan would also be redeemed, forgiven, changed and would return to the Source with all the rest of Creation. This raises a number of questions, of course, about free will and the nature of evil (among other things), but it was an idea designed to combat the notion that God’s will had limits or that God was somehow responsible for evil (even though Isaiah 45:7 makes it clear that God creates both good and evil). In this cosmology, Origen and Clement defined evil as a “lack”, in which suffering and sin were simply the result of turning from God.

Of course, Origen was later excommunicated as a heretic, so there is that. (He didn’t deserve it!)

In the following series, I will look at three social science theorists who each address subjectivity, social constraints and the nature of belief in similar ways. This is not an endorsement of any social theory, but simply an exploration of systems that will give us tools to discuss the nature of power and control in society, subjectivity and free will in our personal lives, and whether it can be said that one actually has a “belief”.

Today, I offer an introduction:

Louis AlthusserMichel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu each had much to say about the structure of society, the possibilities for individual agency in relation to that structure, and the nature of authority and power inherent in that interaction.

According to Althusser, the “State Apparatus” that maintains control for State Power is made up of a repressive arm and an ideological arm. While the repressive apparatus (such as law enforcement) uses violence to control subjects, the ideological apparatus (such as media or educational system) normalizes the category of the “subject” as a free and productive citizen, inculcating in the individual’s very being an assumption of choice where none exists.

Foucault argues that, by examining the changing ways the body has been viewed and treated over the last few centuries (in the penal system, military and monasteries, and then in modern education), one sees a connection between production and submission, whereby the individual is conditioned to believe his importance lies in a free “soul,” which Foucault claims is a modern result of physical discipline.

For Bourdieu, individuals are defined only by competition over various forms of “capital” in the multiple social fields that produce them. These fields structure the “habitus” (a combination of unconscious schema for receiving information and bodily habits) to inculcate the body with a social understanding of what it means to be a “subject“.

For all three theorists, “agency” (the individual “subject“) exists only as a social construct and, as such, that “subject” unconsciously accepts the authoritative social structure as normal.

In the following posts, I will provide better explanation for the social theories of Althusser, Foucault and Bourdieu, as pertains to the present question, and then will discuss the subject of agency, power and religion in light of these theories.

First, I will focus on Althusser.


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