Knowledge, Power and Liberation
The knowledge-power nexus is the lode stone of modern critical theory. Though its antecedents are ancient, traceable in canon to Plato’s Socratic dialogues – as usual – it is with the late twentieth century that the pantheistic permeation of the nexus in the making and unmaking of political, economic, social, cultural and ideological order was unravelled, especially through the influence of postmodern, deconstructionist theories. The implicit understanding of the nexus, of how it operates, is its efficiency in establishing hegemony – the dominance by some of others. The some are the few while the others everyone else. So, for example, centres of political power, through their control of the formation and dissemination of knowledge, might control their realms of operation and those who inhabit them, who, except for the few who have risen from the cave and seen the light, continue to live, work and have their being oblivious of the designs of the powerful.
Designs is an interesting word. It is similar in connotation to creation but subtly different. A designer is different from a creator. A designer sets patterns using materials at hand, while a creator, well, creates the materials himself and then everything from them – his dark materials, as it is. A creator could also be a designer, but in themselves they are two different roles. Defined roles.
The knowledge-power nexus operates through the formulation of designs. Knowledge is created in incredibly diverse ways, across scales from individual pursuits to organisational endeavours, from the mad scientist to the evil corporation, from the lonely genius to a mega-budget film production. The designer, let us assume our prototypical person is a successful one, will aggregate and order all this disparate diversity of knowledge – select, discard, interpret, reject – and present it back into the world, ordered , adjusted and understood. We call this narrative construction – sorting the world out in a story, easily understood and passed on, forget the details.
Now, typical studies investigating the knowledge-power nexus are conducted with motivations towards unravelling, deconstructing such narratives, stories, to reveal the ‘intention’, the ‘agenda’ that lies underneath its construction. Such constructions are, it is understood, motivated by the imperatives of power. Power generally is understood as a means of domination – which it mostly is, even when the domination is considered benign, such as that of a parent over a child. Such understanding are important and crucial towards realising the highest goals of scholarship – justice and liberation. So, that is that. But, a small problem occurs, when we reduce the knowledge- power nexus to its role in the perpetuation of hegemony and domination. I think it is crucial that we understand the nexus as equally crucial in the quest for liberation.
This year’s Nobel for Peace was awarded to Malala Yusufzai, for her efforts in speaking out for the education of girls where they are underprivileged, and her personal bravery against the odds. Malala’s story is very inspirational but her role in public life is equally controversial. A lot of very considered opinion – and the other type – considers Malala to be a prop for other designs, in the spirit of our nexus. Now, whatever one thinks of Malala’s Nobel is a matter of perspective. But – regarding perspective, it can be a very deceptive thing.
People who hold a critical view of Malala’s Nobel come from two broad points of view – one, the politicians at home, including those with guns, who oppose what she stands for, and, two, the critical thinkers who oppose the dominance of the West, its institutions, neo-colonialism etc. We know enough about the first. It’s the second that I want to engage with.
All institutions exist for a purpose. One is what their charters proclaim. The other, and the most important one, is the pursuit of power. For those who build and maintain institutions. The Nobel Prize committee, therefore, might not be as benign an institution as we think. Barack Obama was awarded a peace prize despite the fact that he has personally overseen the most rapid escalation of the USA’s clandestine wars ever. So, why should we assume that Malala’s Nobel doesn’t have a similar design behind it? The propagations of Western values. The utility of the girl in the discourse of the war on terror, as a voice against political Islam perhaps.
Perspective, however, is not such an innocent thing. While on the one hand critical perspectives help us to look behind the curtain of world events, on the other, I believe, they tend to complicate things. Everything I’ve said about Malala above might be valid. But, such perspectives are over complications. Malala won a Nobel because of many reasons, the nexus is a valid argument, but also because she is the purveyor of a powerful message. Now it is upto us, as scholars, narrative builders, who are committed to freedom and liberation to use the event of her award to construct a better story for the world. We have to use the nexus against the nexus.
To beat the system, we have to game the system.
Most often, the knowledge-power nexus is used for domination, hegemony. But that can be turned around. We, as wordsmiths, storytellers, can tell different stories. Can build different narratives. That challenge hegemony. And such a logic can be read into in Malala’s award. She speaks of education. The power of education to challenge narrow, domestic walls. Why don’t we build a story around that? Of course, there are other designs. But we have to impose our own. We have to build a hegemony of liberation. Did I just say that? That we have to be Hegemons too?
That’s Marx, Lenin etc. the dictatorship of the proletariat and stuff. But that’s not what I am saying. I am talking about story building. That around every event of the world, till now, the interests of Hegemons have constructed narrative about the worlds we inhabit, about reality and how we should know it. We need to turn that around. Rather than deconstructing narratives what we need to do is build narratives of liberation. The knowledge-power nexus is very effective in the political technology of control. There is no reason why it shouldn’t be equally effective in the quest for liberation.
Vive l’revolution! Inquilab Zindabad!
To be continued. Of course.