Truth, Knowledge, Power

Richard G. Calo (rgcalo@EDEN.RUTGERS.EDU)
Sat, 20 Apr 1996 11:47:18 EDT

If we were to start looking at the way knowledge is produced and
maintained, we could start at home as it were. Sometime last week,
I posted an analogy concerning the anthro-l list as a site where
'something' is constantly taking shape, aligning and realigning itself,
formulating itself only again to come apart and reformulate in an
ongoing process/progress which, depending on 'where' 'one' 'stands,'
may appear as "deprocess/progress" or even-- if I may-- as the
awesome materiality of certainty-- of knowing 'one' is right (followed
and preceded by the imponderability of silence).

But how does one proceed when one is right, since this might give us
a clue concerning the production and maintenance of knowledge?

On Saturday, April 6, I offered up my post on Justine for discussion.
A thread got underway. Judging from the number of postings, as well
as their content, the thread showed some promise, for discussion, for
development (a turning into that 'something'), for life and movement,
and even for eventual demolition, since it no doubt already had its
demise built into its foundation. There were initial posts that said things
like "Calo's question seems to probe toward the soul of anthropology
itself." Others that said things like "I am enjoying the discussion on the
difference between religion and ideology very much." There were others
still that attempted to build something; for instance, the very tentative
attempt to look at belief and see if any kind of agreement might be
reached, what this might mean, how might it be used, even, what may
be wrong with it and with using it. True, the premises may have been
mistaken (what absolute standards could there be anyway?), the
conclusions, however preliminary, eventually found in error; but there
was something going on-- there was an attempt at discussion and
dialogue, the precondition to consensus, both for positive conclusions
and negative conclusions (and I think we can agree [provisionally,
of course] that knowledge is a socially produced affair which requires
validation by the social group for whom it is going to count as
knowledge-- however one defines and therefore delimits the group).

But then something happened. A new contributor appeared. The tenor
of the discussion changed (indeed, in an important sense, discussion
itself ended and something else took over). Contributors began to drop
out and, I think, _contending sides_ began to emerge --. I can only wonder
at how many readers waited in the electronic background to see how
things would develop, and what would take form-- what conclusions,
what finalities, what discontinuances and abandonements, what truths
(and on the basis of what confirmed knowledge there might be issued
these truths).

Consider a practice, or style of action, belonging no doubt within a
greater system that at least partially sanctions it:

It is a peculiar style of discussion that begins,first,by a prolonged silence.
But second, by a silence which is broken (April 10) at the end of nearly
a week's discussion by a "mythohistorical monologue" -- a monologue,
of all things, which seems designed to conclude, not with an attempt, let
alone agreement to dialogue or discussion, but with an air of finality,
with the ring of a conviction so absolute, that its initator could only wonder
why no one shut the whole thing down earlier. Indeed, one can only
guess at the tone, and everything that lay buried in it, which terminated
with the grand air of one "< who waited a week for someone else to
do it >".

But it did not end there. There were more attempts at ending. And,
even, the proclamation, "I am, that is, being arrogant enough to tell
you, you cannot have the arguments you have been having, or would
like to have; at least some of them."

But finally, the whole did somewhat conclude, with yet another
mythohistorical monologue, as well as what may have been a
conversion. I say a conversion, because the same individual whom
I cited above as saying "Calo's question seems to probe toward the
soul of anthropology itself," in his April 14 post, said what I think is the
opposite. At this time, he thought that his "secret suspicions have
been confirmed." But then, these suspicions, as suspicions will, may
have taken 7 days to calcify into convictions.

Truth, whatever that is, and the production of knowledge, however that
happens, is not independent of a system of practices, the latter of which
take place, moreover, within a sufficiently defined locale, and for specific
ends usually associated with control and domination within that locale
(and perhaps 'outside' it). It is a question of power, "where," as William
M. King writes, "power is simply defined as the ability to shape reality:
who has it, how it is used and abused, to what ends, and with what
consequences for both the wielder and those against whom it is wielded."

The system of practices discloses the lines of power (real or imagined)
which dictate what will count, and what has counted as knowledge within
the sufficiently defined locale. When we begin from a position of power
(real or imagined) within this locale, there is a chance, I think,
that we might proceed as in the instance above, adopting certain
practices as opposed to others: no need to have a discussion, or open
or continue a dialogue, because it's obvious that what we're saying is
right, and rightly true. Proportional to our sense of power (a belief
about a set of axioms or propositions about the way things are, and
our relation to these things) so follows the intensity and type of our
actions (i.e, actions on the basis of our beliefs-- the whole
cognitive-behavioral idea).

On the basis of the preceding, we can isolate two provisional models
of actions, or systems of practices. There is one which has been typical
of the Western World (I know, I'm generalizing), or at least has become
roughly synonymous with the Western style of manouvering in the World
(despite the fact that it may be ongoing elsewhere). This is what we
understand as domination, colonization, territorialization, etc.-- the
argument from a position of power, which is to say, there is no argument,
so shut the whole thing down.

The other provisional model of actions, or system of practices, is the
notion or possibility of dialogue, discussion-- the possibility of meeting
and coming to terms on one or another issue, even if it is only the issue
of defining the terms we intend to come to terms on, but as equals in an
equal game or dance (leaning toward ritual, actually), and on a neutral
site, where the power is not stacked so much all on one side. This may
be the game/dance/ritual (model, whatever) the West has been learning,
or begun practicing somewhat of late.

As a question of methodology for anthropological procedure, it may be
important to conduct analyses about how we establish and follow either
of these two provisional models, revolving as they do around power and
how we use it, what this says about what we consider knowledge and its
manufacture, and how this produces the opposition between 'truth' and
'falsity.' The reason? These analyses may indicate something of how we
proceed with respect to 'other' cultures and the kinds of things we look for
as well as the way in which we look for these things. Moreover, and more
importantly, it may offer a way to get out of, or get past, or rise above,
the extreme form of the postmodernist argument I set out somewhat in earlier

Anthropology began by going out into non-Western worlds in the attempt
to learn about itself at home (something like psychology looking at
aberration as the means for determining normality-- and having
forgotten in the process that it began by defining what was going
to be considered aberrant). A different procedure might suggest trying
to learn about ourselves as a means for beginning the dialogue that might
lead to learning about others.