One of my favorite sayings (probably not original but I’ve never heard anyone else say it) is that history = his story. In other words, there is no objective history. Another way to put it is the old saying that history is written by the victors. When we discuss what someone “knows”, what do we really mean? How does motivation effect knowledge and the transmission of it? Our guest blogger, Hucking Fypocrites, a frequent commenter on this blog, has written an interesting analysis of this concept of knowledge and its relationship to power. While this was probably not the author’s intention, I cannot help but think of Fox News when I read some of his analysis.
Rutherford’s most recent post, “Political Ideology as Mental Illness” reminded me of a paper assignment I had a couple years back. I submitted the paper to Rutherford as a guest blog, and after he agreed to post it I did a bit of tweeking for Internet consumption. Keep in mind that this was a paper assignment with particular mandates on content and sources. As such, I don’t agree with every word. But these ideas have given me something to think about from time to time, and they will hopefully do the same for you.
In 1597 Sir Francis Bacon published “Meditationes Sacrae,” where he wrote the now famous phrase ”scientia potentia est” —knowledge is power. For hundreds of years the phrase had traditionally implied that education and knowledge increase a person’s potential in life. However, more than three centuries later, this time-honored passage has been used by noted intellectuals such as Michel Foucault, Edward Said, and Noam Chomsky to imply a very different idea—those who are able to show they have knowledge are those who have all the power.
Michel Foucault was a French intellectual who based his work on the relationship between knowledge and power. Foucault theorized that real knowledge is based on an absolute truth. But if that absolute truth is taken away, knowledge becomes simply what people decide is true. When people are allowed to decide what is true, they are essentially “constructing truth.” And when people are allowed to construct truth in the “human sciences,” they have the power to define individuals, as well as all of humanity.
Edward Said had similar ideas about the relationship between knowledge and power. Said applies his knowledge/power relationships to his theory of Orientalism, which connects the ideas of knowledge and power to that of geography. In his book “Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World,” Said makes reference to the claim of Sir Francis Bacon protegé Vico, that “human knowledge is only what human beings have made; external reality, then, is no more than the ‘modifications of the human mind.’” Said continues, stating that the early modern European Orientalists were confident that their study of the Orient and Islam “was the royal road to universal knowledge.”
Edward Said introduced his theory to the world in his groundbreaking book “Orientalism”. In it, Said shows how Western culture, ideas, and media have shaped the way the Occident views the Orient in order to subjugate it. Said defines the field of Orientalism as: a) teaching, writing, or researching the Orient, b) a style based on the distinction of Occident and Orient, and c) a Western style of dominating the Orient. And, while Foucault distinguishes real knowledge based on the presence of “absolute truth,” Said makes similar distinctions “between pure and political knowledge,” where pure knowledge is gained through the non-political study of Foucault’s “human sciences,” and political knowledge is considered by experts as having a “direct effect” on everyday political realities.
Linguist Noam Chomsky applies his knowledge/power relation theories to the American mass media and the public who consumes it. In “Manufacturing Consent:The Political Economy of the Mass Media”, Chomsky and co-author Edward S. Herman introduce their “Propaganda Model”, in which economics dictates the way news is presented by journalists and experts who appear as though they are both objective and knowledgeable. Chomsky and Herman theorize that, because we live in a state free of totalitarian rule, the American public must be fooled into giving its consent to actions of which it would normally never approve. And because the seemingly knowledgeable media does not give the public enough information to thoroughly scrutinize the news being presented, it has the power to manufacture public consent by using bias, fear tactics, and stereotypes.
The main character in Foucault, Said, and Chomsky’s knowledge/power relationship is the so-called “expert.” The expert, through his recognized knowledge, is who has the power over people. Michel Foucault wrote of experts and their power over people through the use of classifications in his works “Madness and Civilization”, “Birth of the Clinic”, and “The Order of Things”. For Foucault, the expert came in the form of a doctor or clinician who has the power to classify a people as normal or abnormal, sane or insane, this or that, all with his omnipotent “gaze.” The Gaze is what Foucault describes as “a kind of active vision” that “is elevated into great importance in medicine,” and in the human sciences.
That Michel Foucault’s power demons took the shape of doctors is of little surprise. As the son and grandson of medical doctors, Foucault was either unable or unwilling to follow in their footsteps. Bouts with depression in his teen years were brought on by internal conflicts with his own sexuality, and eventually led him to try and take his own life. Following this failed suicide attempt, Michel’s father sent him to a psychologist who treated his admitted homosexuality as though it were a symptom of his depression, rather than the cause of it. That experience did little to help Foucault with his intense depression issues, but was quite effective at defining the nature of his life’s work, and the directions it took.
Edward Said’s Orientalist experts had a similar power to classify people in the binary form of “Us” and “Them,” and to define multiple cultures based on a geography and stereotypes. Said states that the ability to define what is Occident and what is Orient gives one power and authority over them. By studying the historic series of Western conquests over others, the Orientalist convinces his audience and himself that he is knowledgeable on the subject of the Orient. This perceived knowledge allows him to then “Orientalize the Oriental” by defining the boundaries of the Orient, as well as what is found within those boundaries.
Like Michel Foucault, Edward Said has a life story that has certainly effected the scope of his theories. Said, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian, received his childhood education in the Middle East, and his adult education at Princeton and Harvard. With the foundations of his life, culture, and education being laid in Palestine and Egypt before traveling to and living in the West, the likelihood that Said has interjected at least some form of bias into his theories on the Occident’s presentation of the Orient would seem to be great. For, just as Gramsci’s hegemony is credited by Said in shaping the cultural forms of the West that are used to justify its claim of superiority, it should be equally credited in shaping the cultural forms and justifications of the East where Said was born and raised. As noted by Said, “men make their own history,” and that is certainly not a trait exclusive to Western scholars.
Like Foucault’s medical experts and Said’s Orientalist experts, Noam Chomsky’s media experts also have the power to classify. By using the filters of the propaganda model, the media and its supporting experts are able to label victims as “worthy” and “unworthy.” These classifications are based on the relationship between the abusing nation creating the victims and the United States. Governments who are friendly with the US, or cooperate with its foreign policies create victims who are unworthy of US media attention, while governments unfriendly or uncooperative with the US create victims who are worthy of media attention. Chomsky supports this claim by showing the fashion in which the media covered the state murders of more than 100 Latin American priests in Guatemala and El Salvador in contrast to the coverage received by the murder of 1 Caucasian priest in Poland. And while Chomsky does not use the obvious racial difference as additional support for his claim, the existence of racial implications is undeniable.
Just as the propaganda model can be used to classify victims, it can be used to classify events. In their book, Herman and Chomsky explore the US media’s process of legitimizing foreign elections. As with victims, foreign elections are classified as “legitimate” or “illegitimate” depending on the state’s relationship with the United States. Case studies of elections in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador prove that elections in the 2 states which support US interests in the Central America were portrayed favorably, despite their human rights violations, while the election in the unsupporting state of Nicaragua received unfavorable coverage despite its overwhelming legality.
The theory of worthy and unworthy victims is supported by George Washington University Professor Melani McAlister in her book “Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, & U.S. Interests in the Middle East since 1945”. McAlister introduces the concept of “benevolent supremacy,” which led to the Truman Doctrine, and eventually put a halt to the worldwide spread of Communism. This concept is similar to the “white man’s burden” that justified the often violent westward expansion of 18th- and 19th-century American settlers. Benevolent supremacy was based on a National Security report, known as NSC-68, that grossly exaggerated the Soviet threat to America and American foreign interests. NSC-68 divided the globe based on superpowers, where the US supported “free societies,” and the USSR controlled “slave states.”
The relationship between knowledge and power is both complex and simplistic. While intellectual minds such as Foucault, Said, and Chomsky have turned Sir Francis Bacon’s original idea of “knowledge is power” on its head, they also lead one to wonder if perhaps their interpretation of the phrase is what Bacon had in mind all along. For indeed, knowledge is simply what one is able to prove one knows, and power is nothing without people to hold it over.