To the Spaces of the Invisible and Forgotten



Truth isn’t the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves.

–Michel Foucault

The primary problem is always with institutions. Foucault was right on this point. The relationship that modern Mormons have with truth is straightforwardly Platonic: the masses are imprisoned in a dark cave, mistaking the shadows dancing on the wall for the real world. What they need is an Enlightened One, he (almost always a “he” of course) who has been to the surface and has seen the the whole of the Truth. And there it sits, out in the open, simply waiting to be gazed upon and accepted. But upon re-entering the cave with this earth-shattering revelation, he finds that most of the masses reject the Real Light. They cannot conceive of a reality that is not the one before their eyes. Except, of course, for a chosen few, who follow the Enlightened One out of the cave and into the Truth. Now they will dedicate the rest of their lives to preaching the One Truth to those who sit in darkness, pulling as many out as they can, providing a safe space for these refugees of half-truths and lies. 

Foucault rejects this account of truth, where truth is simply hidden, waiting to be discovered and utilized. Those who successfully locate it are then empowered to do things in its name. Instead, he asks, what if it is power that produces the truths that govern our lives and not the other way round? And instead of looking where power is concentrated, trying to parse the good versus the bad that it enacts, we should be looking to who and what power subjugates, twists, crushes.

Individuals are both the vehicles of and the targets of power, and they are both vehicle and target through the institutions that produced them. Power isn’t merely this thing that, like truth, certain people learn to take for themselves. It is given to them and circulates through institutions, and where they sit within the vast cogs of these institutions (schools, governments, churches, businesses, practically any kind of organization, even families to a certain extent) will determine what kind of power they have and are pressed into service by. We have a moral and even religious obligation to deconstruct power at the contact points of its subjugative character, at the points where it hurts and exhausts those who become its malicious targets or who are cast aside by its ordered procedures.

We do not, on the other hand, have a moral obligation to praise institutions for the good that they might do, to focus on how certain individuals may have been helped in certain ways because the institution had the focused resources to do so. If it is an institution, subjugation is occurring. Marginalization is occurring. Exile is occurring.  People are being forgotten. Worldviews and attitudes that hurt or leave out individuals and groups are becoming entrenched and organizationally expressed. Institutions will do what they do. If they only exist to hear their own praise, then they doubly deserve to pass into history. Our moral obligation to make visible the contact points of subjugation and ghettoization does not include producing a balance sheet of pros and cons for the sake of accuracy. That institutions can also advance the good in various ways does not remove our obligation to deconstruct their power in the name of that which becomes invisible in their wake. And to hold up a putative good as a defense against their subjugation is an attempt to distract us away from the heart of that which remains to be critiqued. In fact, an inordinate attention to one form of oppression pushes other forms of oppression into even deeper obscurity, as institutions benefit from the social capital that comes with being seen as purveyors of justice.

And this is not to simply be against institutions per se (as if we could ever be entirely free of institutions). Jacques Derrida, the great deconstructor of institutions, insisted that deconstruction was not an attempt to destroy institutions but to open them to their own future. And a persistent problem with institutions is that they cannot break with their pasts while inaugurating something genuinely new. That is, the inauguration of an institution is full of risk and novelty. This generates passion and purpose. But institutions quickly ossify and become that which they attempted to break away from in the first place. To deconstruct them is to point to what has been missed or cast aside or stepped on in the process of expansion and ossification. Deconstruction is the tension inherent in the preservation of what has been given and the heterogeneity of something new, of that which breaks with the institution’s self-aggrandizement.

Which is one reason why leaders of institutions can be so problematic and dangerous, especially where they are also founders of the institution that made them powerful. Rarely can they sit this tension on their shoulders, to preserve what might be worth preserving while constantly inaugurating the constant breaks with the past that are necessary in order for the institution to not become a concentrated center of power that hurts and marginalizes. As products of the institution, but also as the primary vehicles of its power, leaders become the living instantiation of institutions. The more powerful the institution becomes, the more powerful the leader becomes. And this makes it much more difficult for the leader to see what is being missed or who is being hurt. He or she has the most vested interest in ignoring the ways in which an institution must break apart in order to preserve that which is worth preserving.

If you want to look to a leadership model that doesn’t come undone through the corrupting power of institutions, you can look, somewhat stereotypically, to Jesus. The founder of a movement, but not an institution, Jesus created no formal organization, and therefore his truths were not merely productions of economic or political institutions. Even in the most questionable version of his life (in the Book of John) where he insisted that he was the Truth, his transgressive style of teaching and the events of his life prevented his institutionalization until well after his death. His movement formed around his Galilean deconstruction of power in withering religious and political criticisms of Jewish and Roman leaders, as well as his novel re-formulation of personal spirituality that had become so inwardly and self-focused. Of course, the fact that he was killed for this criticism certainly did more than anything else to immortalize the truths he preached, but there’s an important lesson even here, which is that a leader is only as vital as the level of his or her personal sacrifice, whether it is stepping down at the right time or recognizing that truths cannot be co-modified and sold at market and still remain something that is universalizable (i.e., resisting self-aggrandization of any kind). The more privileged you are by virtue of the institution that created you, the greater the personal sacrifice that must be made on behalf of its future.

There is a sense in which Nietzsche’s madman proclaiming the death of God is not for Christianity alone. It is for any god who rules over anyone through the institutions that give us the truths that govern our lives. Nietzsche, of course, believed that God’s death was good because it wiped out a toxic old world order that had assigned meaning and value to everything in the universe. Now, he thought, we could make our own meanings and value what we chose, free from priestly imposition. To deconstruct our institutions and their gods is merely–though very seriously–to insist that things as they are really might be otherwise than instituted, in the name of that which has been made invisible and forgotten.


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