Power and Knowledge
The French postmodernist Michel Foucault has significantly shaped our understanding of power. Previously analysis focused on atomised actors dislocated from sociopolitical institutions using power as an instrument of coercion. Foucault shifted the thinking to 'power is everywhere', diffuse rather than concentrated, embodied and enacted rather than possessed, discursive rather than purely coercive, and constitutes agents rather than being deployed by them (Gaventa, 2003). Power is now that which makes us what we are.
Foucault disagree that power is wielded by people through 'episodic' or 'sovereign' acts of domination or coercion. Instead he views it as dispersed and pervasive arguing power is everywhere and comes from everywhere so is neither an agency nor a structure, instead a 'metapower' or 'regime of truth' that pervades society, in constant flux. Foucault uses the term 'power/knowledge' to signify that power is constituted through accepted forms of knowledge, scientific understanding and truth:
'Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its "general politics" of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true'
Feminism and Power
Berkeley professor of comparative literature Judith Butler shot to stardom following publication of her book Gender Trouble. Arguing "gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender creates the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all" she concluded "male" and "female" are simply social constructs. She received no end of of scholarly honors and prizes, including the Mellon Prize of $1.5 million - the Nobel Prize in comparison is $1.1 million.
Cordelia Fine, professor of historical and philosophical studies at Melbourne University, published Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the myths of our gendered minds in 2017. Reiterating Butler's claims that significant brain or behavior differences amognst genders are myths perpetuated by the patriarchy she promptly received the Royal Society's prestigious prize for best science book of the year.
The secular liberal worldview underpinning Butler, Fine and similar writers now limits what neuroscientists can publicly say or publish.
This is visible in the controversy surrounding a professor of neurophysiology at Lund University in Sweden who recently told undergraduates mane and female categories are to a degree biological realities rather than social constructs. Some differences in behavior between the sexes might have a biological basis. His remarks were denounced as anti-feminist and the head of the medical school initiated an investifation. This is one of many similar examples which are having a chilling effect on the academy.
Ignoring Contradicting Research
Studies contradicting such claims are regularly ignored by mainstream media, honor and prize awarding orgnisations and supporters of Butler, Fine et al.
In recent years, there have been major studies where neuroscientists have studied the brains of babies in their mothers' wombs finding significant differences between male and female brains.
One such collaborative study with over 20 neuroscientists from Yale, Johns Hopkins, and the National Institute of Mental Health, along with neuroscientists from Germany, UK, Croatia, and Portugal looked at how individual genes are transcribed in the brain from the prenatal period through to adulthood. They found the biggest male/female difference is in the prenatal period.
An even more striking study of the human brain prior to birth saw American researchers analysing high resolution MRI scans of pregnant women. They found dramatic differences between male and female fetuses. For example, in female fetuses there were significant changes in connectivity between subcortical and cortical structures in the brain, as a function of gestational age. This pattern was almost completely non-existent in male fetuses.
A reasonable next question might then be: why do these brain areas, and not others, show such dramatic female/male differences?
Another reasonable question would be: Why are you not reading about this new research in the mainstream media?
Academic research and the production of knowledge is shaped by ideological forces privilieged by those in power. Writers like Edward Said, Michel Foucault and others have regularly highlighed this in their research. Foucault's research sought to show power is not only visible in 'sovereign' and 'episodic' exercise of power, traditionally coercing their subjects, but exists pervasively in social institutions and practices, making us who we are and knowledge what it is.
M.D. Wheelock, J.L. Hect, E. Hernandez-Andrade, and colleagues (April 2019) Sex differences in functional connectivity during fetal brain development. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.
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