Foucault's French Fries
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
February 5, 2009 - In a recent lecture at the Pink Palace in Memphis, Tennessee, author of the New York Times bestselling book, Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser stood before a packed audience and passionately asserted the Baconian conviction that “Knowledge is power!” Schlosser’s particular spin on this axiom is characteristically postmodern. The suppression of information by some (in this case, the fast food industry) fuels the power (i.e., control) they have over others (in this case, the less-educated poor who are unwittingly addicted to fast food). The remedy to this kind of epistemic oppression is exposé. Access to the facts empowers the powerless, enabling the latter to reclaim control of their respective (and we might add, autonomous) lives. One could almost hear the ghost of Foucault haunting the lecture hall as he spoke.
Schlosser’s book undoubtedly performs a vital public service. Knowledge is a necessary condition for wisdom – the latter being a function of knowing how one ought to live. But Schlosser’s suggestion in the Baconian refrain that mere knowledge of the “facts,” by itself, will produce a nation of healthy, happy individuals falls short in two ways.
First, and perhaps most importantly, the idea that knowledge, by itself, is the ultimate solution to social and personal vices is simply mistaken. Genesis 3 teaches that the human problem is not fundamentally epistemological; it is moral and spiritual. The sorry state of our world, of which the industrialized fast food industry is arguably a prime example, is not the direct result of intellectual ignorance. It is rather a result of willful human rebellion against the world’s Maker.
It is not accidental that the tree by which Adam and Eve transgressed was a tree of knowledge. God had given them every other tree of the garden from which to eat. But the Serpent’s deceit cultivated the disordered desire, “If only you knew more . . . then you would be like a god.”
The Serpent’s deceit discloses the second shortcoming of Schlosser’s Baconian remedy to the human condition. For in one sense, the Serpent whispered a tragic truth. When viewed as a means toward mastery, knowledge will indeed make a human being like a god – the latter chiefly characterized by omnipotence or control. Thus, in admonishing his audience to find empowerment in knowledge, Schlosser is essentially advocating a rebellion on Mt. Olympus. Overthrow the gods of the Corporation! Be your own god!
Matters of public health will never be solved by education alone. Jesus said as much when the devil offered him a healthy school lunch program in the desert (see Matthew 4:4). What must accompany the gift of truth is a reorientation of the heart. For the disordered will, as expressed in both the greed of consumer and industrial capitalist alike, is what creates such problems in the first place. And unless possessed by a regenerate soul, mere knowledge – no matter in what quantities – will continue to enslave.