Guest Post: Words and Power
By “Ada Lovelace”
All culture and knowledge is mediated by writing. For most of history, written evidence is biased because all we have access to in present day are records of an elite who knew how to write. Only the voices at the top were clear and the voices at the bottom were not heard correctly or completely. There existed a distinct difference between high culture and popular culture, and only one tier was heard clearly. We now exist in an era where the power of writing and disseminating knowledge is widely available if you live in the West. For instance, I wrote bits and pieces of this article while commuting (on a train! using my phone! in between reading the newspaper!).
Last month the LDS church released two essays which can be seen as direct responses to happenings occurring on a popular culture level, meaning blogs, Facebook, and forums. The internet has given a voice to the popular culture that is not easily deniable nor easily distorted. What is contained in these essays may be less important than the mechanisms that spurred their composition.
I am young enough that I grew up in a solidly postmodern world, where the only constant is that things are always changing. As such, postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault’s words regarding power and knowledge particularly resonate with me. Foucault denies that power is utilized by people or institutions by way of “sovereign” acts of force or domination and instead sees it as pervasive and dispersed. “Power is everywhere” and “comes from everywhere” so in this sense is neither an agency nor a structure (Foucault 1998: 63). Instead it is a “regime of truth” that permeates society and which is in constant flux and negotiation.
This broader conception of power as distributed rather than concentrated in an authority allows previously marginalized and disempowered groups such as women to grab hold of and use this power to influence understanding of truth. Our female Mormon heretics (ahem, excuse me, apostates), include a long list of women including Margaret Toscano, Sonja Johnson, Kate Kelly, etc. All of the above women and others use power through words to influence understanding of truth. For instance, who was one of the first individuals in the 20th century to propose that women receive priesthood through the temple endowment? Margaret Toscano (Toscano, 1985: 16-22). And now we can read an official LDS essay purporting the same sentiment.
Unlike the heretics of the early Christian church (think witch trials) the stories and knowledge of these women are not easily erased due to today’s increased literacy and use of other media. As such, these women are less easily dismissed and denied. Their words inspire popular culture movements which take place mainly on the internet. We are living in a time where the popular culture is recorded and known, a situation that is unique among history. Understanding of truth changes as our understanding of the world evolves. Who decides what truths will be told and remembered has changed first through writing, and then through the use of the internet to share writing.
Foucault, Michel (1998) The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge, London, Penguin.
Toscano, Margaret (1985). The Missing Rib: The Forgotten Place of Queens and Priestesses in the Establishment of Zion. Sunstone, 10(July 1985), 16-22