Using two excerpts by contemporary authors, Francesca Pierini examines our perception of knowledge, and the ways in which it can both empower and limit a society.
In this article I wish to target the notion of a conceptual all-encompassing narrative, a tale of salvation through modernity that has attempted to make the world intelligible according to a single global interpretation which has penetrated all discourses, whether scholarly, artistic, or every-day. In spite of their diversity and differences, such discourses have, as their common denominator, the constant reproduction of a subsuming of any given cultural or social organization within a historical narrative of modernity celebrating the ideal of emancipation and alleged intellectual unrestraint of the presently most advanced cultures.
In order to illustrate this point, I have chosen to report two excerpts, written by two contemporary authors, which, in my opinion, express quite effectively the power of this conceptualization. The first one, written by British novelist Doris Lessing, expresses a critical standpoint towards a self-complacent appraisal of contemporary life particular to Western individuals:
People living in the West, in societies that we describe as Western, or as the free world, may be educated in many different ways, but they will all emerge with an idea about themselves that goes something like this: I am a citizen of a free society, and that means I am an individual, making individual choices. My mind is my own, my opinions are chosen by me, I am free to do as I will, and at the worst the pressures on me are economic, that is to say I may be too poor to do as I want […]. People in the West therefore may go through their entire lives never thinking to analyse this very flattering picture, and as a result are helpless against all kinds of pressure on them to conform in many kinds of ways. (1987: 47)
In other words, and in very broad terms, people in the West are usually under the impression of experiencing a high degree of freedom, self-determination, and autonomy from power structures. They are much more likely to detect a lack of these characteristics in societies other than their own. If most people seldom pay any attention to the many constraints and pressures that are exerted every day upon them, it is because such restrains are all-encompassing, internalized, and ubiquitous. In other words, such pressures to conform to different social norms are thoroughly constitutive of the human condition. Moreover, constraints are as limiting as they are empowering. As Michel Foucault argues, power is restraining and enabling us at the same time; it shapes and contains our freedom at the same time as it makes it possible.
This means that we are not at all free to live outside power relations, but can only develop our subjectivities within a world everywhere saturated with and animated by norms that make impossible an absolute idea of freedom and autonomy, and that construct us as individuals capable to function within the world we know. It is, quite simply, impossible for us to contemplate anything from an “objective” point of view, to think or to speak of the world from a vantage point of a state detached from it.
Therefore, if pressures to conform to established norms of personhood are both external and internalized, it is not so much the case that our freedom of doing what we want and being who we want to be is occasionally impeded by economic factors, or other kinds of obligations that go against our will (these indeed exist, but belong to a different order of experience). Rather, what we perceive as personal freedom is built within the very limits of the established norms of our society, and whereas external factors, such as economic conditionings, play a fundamental role in what we may or may not achieve, the mode of our existence, and the very way we are made-up as individuals, are the result of social norms and interiorized constraints that we perceive as completely natural, if we perceive them at all.
The second excerpt, reported below, is by American best-selling novelist Elizabeth Gilbert. Gilbert is visiting a community of Hmong women. She is informally interviewing them, and she is reflecting on the elements that differentiate their existential condition from her own:
I would not trade lives with those women. They will never know my range of freedom; they will never have my education; they will never have my health and prosperity; they will never be allowed to explore so many aspects of their own natures. But there is one critical gift that a traditional Hmong bride almost always receives on her wedding day which all too often eludes the modern Western bride, and that is the gift of certainty. When you only have one path set before you, you can generally feel confident that it was the correct path to have taken and a bride whose expectations for happiness are kept necessarily low to begin with is more protected, perhaps, from the risk of devastating disappointments down the road. (2010: 55- 56)
This is precisely how I see Lessing’s “flattering picture” being translated into the context of popular literary discursive practices. The pros and cons of living a modern life as opposed to a life as a Hmong woman are confidently evaluated, as if an external point of view on both conditions was at all possible for the author to attain. Gilbert’s observations are expressed through a passive reliance on a pseudo-ethnographical method of research (inspired by an obsolete idea of ethnography) which assumes a perfect equation between what one sees, and reality as it is. Gilbert does not seem to be aware of the fact that her mostly positive portrayal of the modern west is itself a product of the modern west; that it is precisely because she has embodied the values of her own society that she perceives it as being at the vanguard of history.
This kind of unreflective confidence, pervasive in contemporary popular literary discourses of exploration of foreign cultures, is usually hidden under a cover of subjective reflections written in the first person. There is a heavy reliance on the perceived objectivity of the observer and collector of data that would enable him or her to describe the foreign context, without perceiving as in the least problematic the process through which the observer filters and reports back such data according to his/her own cultural habits, biases, and preferences.
“Gilbert does not hesitate to affirm, quite matter-of-factly, how much more free she is than the women she sees”
Gilbert does not hesitate to affirm, quite matter-of-factly, how much more free she is than the women she sees; free to study, explore, and live in prosperity. The only element that the Hmong women have and which is, to Gilbert, remotely enviable – a gift, not anything achieved, or conquered, but something that has been passively received by them – is a tradition that repeats itself, and confines these women to it at the same time as it keeps them content of their pre-modern status and protected from the inner struggles of the modern condition. By implication, Gilbert sees herself as “outside tradition,” which, in this perspective, means autonomous and capable of self-determination. Quite ironically, the alleged advantage of the Hmong women is “certainty,” which the author seems to possess in abundance.
“One has to be constantly created, enabled, and indeed limited, by the norms of their particular societies.”
Education, health, and freedom, in this perspective, are completely quantifiable assets, and Gilbert does not even take into consideration the possibility of them being produced assets; that is to say, resources that have been made to be quantifiable commodities in and by a world that sells them daily. In order to be able to recognize, comprehend, and ultimately buy such assets, one has to be a certain type of individual; one has to be constructed in a certain way, and capable to function in a certain world. One has to be constantly created, enabled, and indeed limited, by the norms of their particular societies.
In order to be considered well “educated,” for instance, one has to live within and according to rules that constantly create and value a certain kind of knowledge, relentlessly built at the expense of many other modes of knowing. In turn, this kind of knowledge makes one able to function in precise contexts, but, and this is the point, one should not mistake this type of knowledge for “absolute” knowledge.
It could be argued that, in human history, there have never been individuals possessing Knowledge, only individuals possessing certain types of knowledge, more or less established and approved by society. The object of my considerations is not the possibility of achieving “Knowledge,” but the usually unrecognized tendency to believe in such a possibility and the many ways in which this belief is expressed in contemporary popular literary discourses; the tendency to believe in the possibility of a kind of knowledge, perfectly quantifiable, which would allow the vantage point, from which one can speak of and explain an other, to be reached.(1)
Moreover, one should not forget that, since value is made possible by boundaries, higher education can only be valuable as long as most people do not have access to it. In The Postmodern Condition, Jean-François Lyotard observes that “the old principle that the acquisition of knowledge is indissociable from the training (Bildung) of minds, or even of individuals, is becoming obsolete and will become even more so.” (1979: 4) I think this is relevant to Gilbert’s way of viewing knowledge as a measurable commodity.
Knowledge is described, by Gilbert, as an asset, a resource that enriches and improves the individual, not as one of the fundamental ways in which the individual is constructed to, among other (enabling) aspects, promote and perpetuate the same idea of knowledge: a strength through which we may assert our power over others, without ever recognizing how the power entailed in our conception of it asserted its power over us: “knowledge in the form of an informational commodity indispensable to productive power is already, and continues to be, a major – perhaps the major stake in the worldwide competition for power.” (Lyotard 1979: 5)
In sum, whereas in Lessing’s passage doubt regarding the alleged advantageous position that the peoples who inhabit a certain part of the world supposedly possess, is admitted and encouraged; a critical stance counteracting a form of positivism which would supposedly enable some people to see and appraise the good and the bad of living in this or that way, in the second passage the “flattering picture” is celebrated and reified. We moderns might have lost a dose of certainty and “good old values,” but at least, thanks to our rationality and education, and to all those other modern resources, we are aware of this.
“The fact that this knowledge is built on criteria and according to rules that are constantly and necessarily limiting as much as they are empowering, and empowering precisely because they are limiting, is completely overlooked.”
Once again, rationality, knowledge and awareness are the elements that allegedly separate the modern world from the rest of it. The fact that this knowledge is built on criteria and according to rules that are constantly and necessarily limiting as much as they are empowering, and empowering precisely because they are limiting, is completely overlooked. In other words, the way this process works for us, at the same time as it works against us, is an aspect thoroughly neglected by this conceptualization of knowledge.
My research, at the moment, consists in a critical reading of literary works that belong to the beginning of the twentieth century and to the contemporary era. I take a look at that peculiar perspective that sees the different societies of the world as situated along a linear historical line of development leading towards modernity; a conception that sees Anglo-America at its most advanced point while relegating all other cultures to a previous stage of history. I argue that in contemporary popular literature in English, an explicitly expressed contempt for pre-modern cultures has been replaced by a deep-seated confidence in a taxonomic organization of the world (often expressed in a form of downgraded pseudo-anthropological discourse), and by the contemplation of foreign cultures from a temporal vantage point which is a powerful epistemological fabrication, a powerful producer of more or less sympathetic remarks on differences, on what some societies have to offer to the more advanced ones, and on what the more advanced ones have lost in their path towards their present condition.
If everyone has the power to recreate and perpetuate, in everyday discourses and practices, the structures of power of a given era and its archive, then everyone may contribute, however partially, to the daily (re)production of a hierarchical configuration of cultural values that is for the most part a legacy, a passive imitation, and only in some small measure a conscious and partially “free” choice. In my opinion, it is important to work on this tiny segment of limited individual freedom. There resides the possibility for a limited measure of intellectual emancipation.
Image | Jeremy Greenwood Booth
(1) I am not arguing that education is worthless, or completely relative; I am simply making the point that whereas it is often considered fully quantifiable and objectively empowering, I believe it is empowering given certain conditions and at a cost.
Gilbert, Elizabeth. Committed: A Sceptic Makes Peace with Marriage, New York: Viking Penguin, 2010.
Lessing. Doris. Prisons We Choose to Live Inside. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1987.
Lyotard, Jean-François The Postmodern Condition : A Report on Knowledge. (1979) Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.