The Politics of Specialized Knowledge

What are the possible relations between knowledge and power?

On the one hand, it is obvious how specialized knowledges frequently become intertwined with social hierarchies and used to prop up unjust divisions of class, race, and gender, among others. On the other hand, as someone dedicated to the preservation and development of certain fields of knowledge both academic and artistic, I cannot accept any simple equation between power and knowledge.

The idea that power and knowledge are two sides of the same coin has been powerfully articulated by Michel Foucault. Another way to say this, using the language of Pierre Bourdieu, would be that specialized knowledge is a kind of cultural capital, a form of power distinct from but analogous to money. Many of the contributors of Hacking the Academy seem to subscribe to this idea: Understand the political uses of knowledge, and you’ve understood knowledge itself.

Cartoon by Mark Stivers

I don’t agree with this.

Knowledge is political, but it is more than an incarnation of politics. This goes not only for dominant fields of knowledge but also for subjugated knowledge of every kind: neither can be reduced to the power relations that surround them. What then is knowledge, besides power? What is the internal structure of subjugated knowledge? Can such knowledge also be highly specialized and refined? And, on the other hand, can institutionally supported knowledges be extricated from the power that supports them?

In this post, I want to ask about the relationship between areas of knowledge and categories of political identity. In other words, I want to bring together some thoughts on democracy and social justice with some thoughts on epistemology. In doing so, it seems to me that there is an immediate problem: The structure inherently leads to specialization. This is a fundamental characteristic of knowledge and one that works against any easy integration between the impulse to research and the impulse to democratize.

What I mean by specialization is that knowledge is differentially accessible. Knowledge is structured in branching pathways because it is a confrontation with a reality that is not purely invented. Whether this reality is the abstract patterning of mathematics, the detailed records of historical archives, or the physiology of human anatomy, knowledge is exploration and discovery as well as creativity and invention. If you go down one path, you cannot go as far down another.

Drawing by Laura Lee

This means that fields of knowledge have depth. In order to understand advanced algebra, one should know how to count from zero to ten. In order to grasp advanced theoretical arguments, one must learn the vocabulary used in that field. Knowledge makes possible further, more specific, more specialized knowledge. While all knowledge is potentially available, it is not all equally accessible. Knowledge is not like a menu from which you can order any item. It is rather like a territory in which some places are easier to get to than others, given any particular starting point.

If this is true, then we cannot hope to make knowledge democratic in the same way that a society can be democratic. Even as we fight to make education available to everyone, the structure of education entails some degree of specialization. A society can argue in the public sphere over which areas of knowledge should constitute its basic curriculum. But in doing so, it presupposes a “public” built on certain knowledges rather than others. There will always remain areas of specialized knowledge that are not common. Some will be aligned with the powerful and others with the powerless. So the relationship between power and knowledge will always be complex.

At a time when social protest and democracy are receiving new energy and attention through the chain of events that now extends from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, I want to ask about the intersection of political categories and specialized knowledges. A lot of excellent work has been done on intersectionality in politics, for example at the difficult but crucial intersection of feminist and anti-racist mobilization. It seems to me that specialized knowledge is another important piece of this puzzle.

Marya Wethers at Movement Research (photo: Ian Douglas)

This issue came up for me recently when Iele Paloumpis wrote about an evening of Movement Research at Judson Church. Paloumpis writes of being moved by Marya Wethers piece then goes on to criticize the rest of the evening (and the organization in general) for its apparent whiteness. I was reminded of this again when I sat at a meeting of the Bernard L. Schwartz Communications Institute and found myself internally critiquing its whiteness along the same vein. Yet I also found that could not put the Schwartz Institute and Movement Research into quite the same category when it came to this politicized critique.

Failure to diversify is a serious charge that can be applied to countless institutions ranging from Hollywood to the United States Senate. My goal here is not to interrogate either the Schwartz Institute or Movement Research on their particular successes, failures, or histories, but to draw attention to the politics of knowledge as it plays out in certain contexts of which these are two examples close to me personally. To begin with, I want to acknowledge that every successful contemporary institution has its own unique history necessarily tied to institutional power and that none can escape being more or less imbricated in the racist history of the United States.

What interests me here is that these two institutions are explicitly defined by their support of a particular field of knowledge: “movement” in one case and “communications” in the other. The Schwartz Institute draws its fellows from the CUNY doctoral pool, which means it reflects the demographics of doctoral students rather than undergraduates. And Movement Research, with its unique and in many ways politically radical history linked to avant-garde dance, likewise represents a specific community. Both communities tend strongly towards leftist politics while also depending on a significant degree of economic privilege to sustain themselves.

Ben Spatz at Movement Research (photo by Ian Douglas)

I am part of both communities and both organizations. I was one of the artists included in what Paloumpis called the “list of white choreographers” that made up the rest of that evening of Movement Research. And while I don’t mind being pointed to as an example of racial privilege, what was missing for me in Paloumpis’s analysis was the mission of Movement Research and what exactly it successfully represents. This is what brings me to the question of specialized knowledge.

At this point I can only offer a series of questions:

  • How should we think about the intersectionality between what are commonly called “identity” categories (race, gender, class — but also size, age, religion…) and what are more often thought of as fields of knowledge or craft (dance, movement, writing, communications — but also math, science, literature…)?
  • Is it possible to bring something to the ongoing and always controversial discussion of curriculum and pedagogy by approaching areas of knowledge as political (or politicizable) communities that intersect with those of “identity”?
  • For example, could the conversation about English literature — how to define the field coherently while working against the legacies of imperialism — benefit from some of the critical tools put forth by the analysis of political intersectionality?

I do not mean to suggest that we should simply equate having specialized knowledge with being part of an identity group or social class. That would be as wrong-headed as trying to develop equivalencies between different axes of oppression. The value of intersectionality is that it views such axes as a distinct dimension, each adding an irreducible layer of complexity to any given issue. It is difficult enough to analyze any given event (or book, or advertisement) in terms of its intersecting politics of gender, race, and class. What happens if we add the question of specialized knowledges to this analysis?

Map of intersecting identities from CALCASA

If I feel that Movement Research deserves less censure than the Schwartz Institute for its visible whiteness, this is because I believe the field of dance/movement (and especially experimental dance/movement) is far more marginal and endangered in our society than that of communications, especially when the latter is tied to business education. In fact, there is some common ground between them, as both focus on embodiment as a medium of communication. But there is also a difference between the two fields: one that has much to do with power but which is not simply reducible to any other political category. In this case, the axis of power I am talking about is not one of gender, race, class, or any conventional category of politicized identity. It is about different kinds of knowledge and which knowledges are considered important or unimportant in a given society.

Again, this is not to deny the importance of bringing to bear on such organizations a critique that examines injustice across the categories of political identity. Obviously, the question of which fields of knowledge are subsidized is profoundly linked to the question of which communities hold power. But the two questions are not identical.

It is difficult to speak about knowledge and politics in the same breath. From the perspective of politics, specialized knowledge can look like an elitist ruse; while from the perspective of research, politics can look like a distraction. This is the case not only for established academic disciplines of specialized knowledges, like particle physics or medieval history, but also for marginalized knowledges of all kinds. Even if one has no institutional support to pursue one’s research, by framing it as research one already takes a step away from a purely political mobilization that would demand more resources for reasons of social justice. Indeed, this may be one way to complicate the dilemma faced by political movements in defining their constituencies without relying on an essentialism that is ultimately counter-productive.

Boondocks cartoon by Aaron McGruder

To conclude: Although institutions that support fields of knowledge should be called out on their social politics, it seems to me that such critiques might also benefit from a more complex politics of knowledge, one that understands knowledge and power as interwoven but distinct. After all, even an utterly tyrannical power structure can harbor valuable knowledge, including some that may one day prove essential precisely to those people who are mobilized against the tyrannical or unjust institutions that helped to develop it. An obvious example is the use of social media and cellphones to organize democratic protests — but can’t the same thing be said about knowledge in other areas, including movement and communication?

If nothing else, I hope that I have shown here that knowledge is not equivalent to power, even if the question of which knowledges receive institutional support is always a political one. It seems to me that working on this paradox is a crucial and defining task for many institutions both within and beyond academia.


  1. Sarah Ruth Jacobs says:

    I like how you talk about how difficult specialized knowledge may be to access. Though the question of access does seem to be a political one, at least in this day and age, when not everyone has unlimited time to investigate the ends of certain branches of knowledge. I think more and more I’m seeing how time is a privilege. So yes, I agree that knowledge may or may not be equivalent to power, though the access to and conferral of knowledge is always political. The question of why CUNY’s undergraduate student body is so much more diverse than its graduate student body is a difficult but important one.

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