Power and Knowledge

by Larry Lohmann

first published 2 January 1993


As middle-class Western environmentalists, we are often so fond of our self-image as those who “speak truth to power” that we cannot admit, even to ourselves, that it is power relations which determine which truths can be spoken when. Nor is it easy for us to acknowledge that power is not a black box but a set of social meshes we must work within and against. In fabricating and marketing our neatly-packaged versions of “nature”, “society” and the like, we make political moves which can backfire on us and oppress others. This review of four books offers useful new tools for achieving a different political and self-awareness.




Experts In The Age Of Systems, by William Ray Arney, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1991, $22.95 (hb), 242 pp. ISBN 0-8263-1268-3;

Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science, by Donna Haraway, Routledge, London, 1989, £40 (hb), 486 pp. ISBN 0-415-90114-6, Verso, London, 1991, £14.95 (pb) ISBN 0-86091-582-4;

The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power, ed. by Wolfgang Sachs, Zed Books, Ltd., London, 1992, £14.95 (pb), 306 pp. ISBN 1-85649-044-0;

Domination And The Arts Of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, by James C. Scott, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1990, £19.95 (hb), 251 pp. ISBN 0-300-04705-3.

We Western environmentalists often seem to regard engaging in politics as if it were a matter of using a sort of high-tech video player. We picture ourselves innocently feeding cassettes labeled "scientific knowledge", "holistic understanding", "grassroots concerns" or "alternative values" into a clicking, whirring machine called "power", adjusting the controls, then sitting back and waiting for a better world to come up on the screen.

Although the better world never quite seems to materialize, the attractions of the metaphor are easy to see. Flattered by the idea that we are skilled in distilling ideas into cassettes to be processed by unenlightened politicians or the restive masses, we greens are also relieved at the implication that we don't have to bother our heads about how the video player actually works. Powerful _lites, delighted to be identified as one set of proprietors of this indispensable black box, are happy to join in the game and solicit all the cassettes they can get, knowing that whatever they contain, and whether they produce beautiful pictures or not, they can hardly do the machine any harm. Utopian critics and technical consultants, meanwhile, disgruntled at the unsatisfactory results of previous playbacks and inclined to blame the video player, are captivated by the idea that it might someday be replaced by one which can play with absolute fidelity the cassettes of Truth, Justice and Ecology which they have so carefully prepared.

Small wonder, then, that satires by Marx, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Foucault and their followers -- to say nothing of those by dominated peoples -- have never quite succeeded in discrediting this sort of metaphor. As middle-class Western environmentalists, we are often so fond of our self-image as virtuous, self-deprecating people who "speak truth to power" that we cannot admit even to ourselves that it is power relations which determine which truths can be spoken when. Nor is it easy for us to acknowledge that power is not a black box but a set of social meshes we must work within and against, that our cassette-producing industry is itself a culture-specific power game, and that in fabricating and marketing our neatly-packaged versions of "nature", "society" and the like we are already making political moves which, although they sometimes benefit our allies, can also backfire on us and oppress others.

These four books, extraordinary as they are, may not disabuse us of all of our illusions about knowledge and power. But for curious and open-minded environmentalists and others, they each, in their different ways, offer useful new tools for breaking through to a different political awareness and self-awareness.

Complex Systems

William Ray Arney's Experts in the Age of Systems argues that complex 20th-century systems of expertise of the sort which build nuclear weapons, manage modern economies, provide medical or psychological therapy or model "ecological sustainability" create a new brand of experts as their agents and objects. These "specialists in the general" -- J. Robert Oppenheimer, who managed the gigantic programme to develop the first atomic bomb, is Arney's main example -- are neither compartmentalized within specific branches of expertise nor masters of everything that is going on in their systems. Confronted by multiple interacting feedback loops and unimaginable complexity, they think holistically, mobilize resources, break down boundaries and facilitate interaction among far-flung components in order to help systems whose direction they cannot dictate "achieve their potential". Traditional moral language does not really apply to these experts, who, while retaining their individuality, see their expertise and lives swallowed up in the often violence-engendering systems they look after. "Not entirely alive" to their actions, and often living somewhere in the zone between executioner and victim, they are not felicitously described as either responsible or not responsible for what they do.

This description will strike a chord with anyone who has felt the anachronism of talking ethics with executives of transnational corporations or who has heard World Bank officials explain how they are effective in helping change things for the better but are not responsible for the "inevitable" dislocations which happen as the result of their actions. But Arney's point is broader. If contemporary systems of expertise offer no footholds for traditional "responsible experts", there are equally no footholds for those who would criticize them or offer alternatives from outside. Usually immune to isolated errors, interventions, or threats of force, these systems cannot be held to any set method for producing knowledge or action. Instead of homogenizing diversity, they incorporate it. Not needing to maintain a compartmentalized or hierarchical structure, and possessing no foundations, they are only too happy, amoeba-like, to surround and incorporate the "radical alternatives" proposed by any critic. Thus, just as they dissolve boundaries between areas of expertise, so they dissolve boundaries between themselves and their critics, whose views tend to get absorbed into the system under discussion as soon as they start talking.

No one who has read Experts in the Age of Systems will be able to speak as brightly or uncritically ever again about "holistic" or "systems" or "ecological" thinking as the solution to our problems. To borrow the words of one of Thomas Hardy's critics, the book has "added more reality to the world". Little of what Arney describes, however, is new to the 20th century except in its scale. Traditional scientific practices, after all, are often as holistic, pragmatic, improvisatory, resilient and critic-coopting as Arney's "complex systems". Indeed, all languages and traditions can be said in some sense to turn the people who partake of them into the simultaneous agents and objects of the moral or scientific projects and worldviews they embody; the process by which critics of today's complex systems are converted into what Arney calls "dead but real" components of those very systems is in truth merely a particularly chilling instance of the ancient phenomenon of "loss in translation".

When Arney suggests that critics can avoid being sucked into the systems they criticize by "laughing" and "saying No to reasonable requests for alternatives", moreover, he is telling only part of the story. As Arney's hero Foucault knew well, such laughs and such "No"s emanate not from some imaginary rock-solid point outside history and society, but rather from other languages, other traditions, and other systems -- all of which have their own mires and dangers from which critics will also have to distance themselves. What look to critics like laughs or "No"s, moreover, have a nasty habit of turning into "alternative proposals" when let loose on the world at large.

Primates and Power

Donna Haraway's magnificent, playful Primate Visions displays a more radical and multilayered understanding of history, science, love, power -- and laughter. Using stories told about monkeys and apes in 20th century primatology and popular culture, Haraway shows how the "nature" and science we Western environmentalists and others so confidently refer to in order to justify our politics are themselves part of that politics.

Gender, race, capitalism and colonialism, Haraway argues, both "enable and constrain" scientific observations, facts, experiments and theories. In primatology research as well as in films, museum dioramas, nature reserves and paperback fiction, these themes are "written on the bodies" of monkeys and apes themselves. "Nature is given our history, even as our history is made to seem natural because we see ourselves in [the] animate, multiform mirrors [of nonhuman primates]."

Thus while male field researchers in the early decades of the century automatically focused on male primate activity, assuming that was the key to social organization, later, more feminist-oriented scientists have given pride of place to the roles and lives of females. Similarly, during a time of great concern in America over the stability of white families in suburbia and the supposed "pathology" of mother-centered black families, one prominent scientist enclosed rhesus monkeys in an apparatus which forced them into heterosexual mono-gamous "nuclear families", thereby generating reams of data about the functions of fathers in "family life". Japanese primatology, meanwhile, although at least as masculinist as its Western counterpart, has looked at monkeys not as keys to the truth of some underlying "nature" they share with humans, but as actors negotiating the traps of a complex social world which bears a suspicious resemblance to that of the Japanese themselves.

In recounting such stories, Haraway's intention is not to debunk science or other tales about "nature" as legitimate sources of authority for political positions, but to point out that this authority never derives from "disinterestedness". Finding science's genuine sources of authority, and distinguishing between better and worse science, requires supplementing the self-flattering accounts science likes to give of itself -- which often suggest that it is progressively eliminating nonscientific "bias" by working to ensure that more and more of its results are dictated to it by a "nature" outside "culture" -- with other accounts which show how this "nature" is itself constructed. In this enterprise the points of view made possible by the politics and theories of feminism and anti-racism are indispensable. As such points of view gain in power and self-awareness, a knowledge may emerge in which a "less hostile order of relations among people, animals, technologies and land" can be envisioned.

Haraway makes space within Primate Visions for the different points of view necessary for her project by politely declining to speak in the "authoritative mode" customary to scholarly books. While drawing on Marxism, scientific realism, and many other currents of thought, she does not allow any one strain to force the others into harmony with itself. By the same token, she encourages us to read primatology not merely as scientists would have us read it, but also as a retelling of Christian origin myths in an anxious postwar era, as science fiction, as a story of racism, sadism, violence and love practised on human and non-human primates in the South and the North, as a tale of male domination and feminist resistance, and as a "simian Orientalism" which treats non-human primates as a passive resource of "nature" and "sex" from which useful Western myths of "culture" and "gender" can be constructed. An adept decoder of both the most abstruse technical literature and the hidden messages of David Attenborough documentaries, American greeting cards and National Geographic articles, Haraway crowds startling insights into almost every line of this very long, deeply serious, but consistently fun book.

Dangerous Words

The Development Dictionary, like Arney's and Haraway's books, explores how "uncontroversial" concepts, used to reinforce and structure relations of domination, can wreak appalling violence. Here the concepts in question are those which have helped organize the disintegrating 40-year-old project of "Third World development" -- concepts like "progress", "standards of living", and "population". Peering beneath the sheen of such ideas into their history and implications, the 17 scholars and activists who contribute to the book find ample reason for bidding farewell to the whole idea of development in order to "clear our minds for fresh discoveries".

Some of the words the book investigates have venerable traditional uses, but quickly acquire Orwellian functions when joined to the apparatus of modernization and global capital flows. The terms "equality" and "poverty", for example, are used in the world of development not (say) to attack repression, injustice, or exploitation, but to urge people to become players in an identical economic game which will make them all rich. Yet playing this game leads only to increasing economic inequality and suffering: in 1960 the North was 20 times richer than the South, in 1980 46 times, and the disadvantaged are under greater pressure than ever.

Similarly, as Marianne Gronemeyer points out, whereas "help" used to signify (among other things) a spontaneous response to a cry of pain, it is now something the need for which is determined by "aid" institutions over people's heads -- giving those institutions an excuse for taking over more and more of people's lives, with deadly results. "Participation", too, as Majid Rahnema observes, becomes in the hands of developers little more than a tool for "involving the patients in their own care" -- care which can only be provided by the self-application of a global model of progress. And "empowerment", perhaps predictably, is used to disempower ordinary people. By suggesting that those to be "empowered" have no power and must rely on others who have a secret formula for initiating them into it, it lays the ground for a reprise of colonialism. Even the "sharing" and "exchange" between Southern and Northern cultures which is proposed by the most progressive development thinkers as a response to decades of imposed development models can do little more than reinforce a unitary system of Western domination. It is the dominant, after all, who are usually most eager to make themselves understood, "celebrate diversity", or "make the people visible"; the oppressed often have good reason to remain silent in the presence of a superior power which could use their knowledge against them.

Other words in The Development Dictionary name new gods which have arrived on the scene only in the modern age. Arturo Escobar helps us see how development planning, for instance, is structured to lead Northerners to believe that problems are "over there in the South", thus fingering Southern societies for the destructive interventions of capitalism. And in a discussion which resonates with that of Primate Visions, Claude Alvares stresses the ethnocentric and parochial nature of Western science and its tight links with development and the modern state, rejoicing that the Indian culture he was born into "continues to exercise greater influence and power over behaviour than modern science does, or will ever do."

Alvares, like other writers in The Development Dictionary, would thus presumably be impatient with Bill Arney's suggestion in Experts in the Age of Systems that the corrosive "humour" of critical intellectuals like Foucault can open up a "way through the violence" of modern systems for the "common folk" who "might make meaning if the heavyweights of meaning-making were gone and the fields were open". In fact, "common folk" have never ceased to "make meaning", and neither intellectuals nor other members of dominant classes are in any position to "open up" paths for them.

Hidden Transcripts

James C. Scott's meticulous Domination and the Arts of Resistance provides evidence of a different sort for this view. Drawing on years of study of oppressed groups around the world, Scott concludes that it is an illusion to think that dominated peoples are trapped under an ideological yoke of "false consciousness" set in place by _lites (and which, it is sometimes added, the help of radical intellectuals is needed to throw over). Not only do dissident consciousnesses exist everywhere among the oppressed; they are also a crucial part of the politics of resistance and revolution. If this "meaning-making" of ordinary people is usually less publicly visible than, say, the domineering discourses of development or of science, this is merely because the weak know when to shut up or act dumb.

In what may at first seem a paradox, these oppositional discourses of the oppressed are, to borrow Donna Haraway's terminology, not only "constrained" but "enabled" by relations of domination and subordination. The polite language and public rituals of deference and compliance required of subordinates in order to keep them in their place and bolster the confidence of their superiors, for example, become in the hands of the oppressed a veil and a barrier behind which they can safely build a critical, self-policed discourse which the powerful find difficult to penetrate. The rich's power to speak more freely in public than the poor gives the latter another intelligence advantage. Dominant groups' expropriation of goods from their subordinates, meanwhile, is inevitably accompanied both by ideological justifications (which, as in the case of noblesse oblige, the weak can often make sly use of to extract concessions from the strong) and by the imposition of personal indignities which provide a seedbed of anger nurturing the "hidden transcript" which the oppressed develop among themselves in their own language or in protected sites off the public stage such as pubs, marketplaces, woods, trains, and office canteens.

Whenever possible, selected bits of this hidden transcript, or actions prepared or justified by it, are infiltrated into the _lite-controlled public realm in low-profile, ambiguous or unpunishable forms. Anonymous rumours, leaflets, threats and sabotage, together with double-edged stories, jokes, folksongs, dramas, tricks and cross-dressing gambits, are relatively safe means of pressuring the powerful into concessions or rallying and unifying the oppressed. Half-intelligible grumbles are followed by more daring gestures which explore the limits of the power of _lites to enforce compliance with their norms. Shirking and pilfering drain the resources of the powerful, while discreetly challenging their ability to appropriate surplus. Poaching is used not only to satisfy hunger and the desire for adventure, but also to assert common rights to forest products set out in the hidden transcript, and often touches off a process of provocation, repression, outrage, and rebellion which in turn provides further stories to be told behind the masters' backs, sustaining resistance. The anonymous challenges to authority which surface in carnivals or spirit possessions, meanwhile, are sometimes used as rehearsals or detonators for larger-scale revolts. Swift, spontaneous, leaderless and evanescent mob action, in which everyone can instantly find a protected, anonymous role, is also a valuable resource for the oppressed. All of this is enabled by informal networks of market, neighbours, family and community which have the virtue of having other, officially-sanctioned functions which make it difficult for the authorities to suppress them.

"Under the conditions of tyranny and persecution in which most historical subjects live," Scott maintains, this sort of activity "is political life." Everyday resistance by the weak not only leads to real material gains and losses, but also forms the active medium in and against which dominant structures of power and knowledge must grow and shape and justify themselves. Not least, it lays the groundwork for those explosive popular movements which so bewilder observers who have confined their gaze to the overt activities taking place on the public stage. The relevance of Scott's work to the understanding of movements centered on the defence of common forests, land, water and air is unmistakable. By illuminating at least a few corners of the hidden politics of resistance, he provides new hope as well as new awareness for all those who would like to think of themselves as activists.