We are living in a Panopticon world

Knowledge is power – power to control the narrative

Oh, academia. At what should be my peak period of commitment to you, I betray you for suspicion that you take yourself too seriously – getting high on your own abstractions, trippin’ out on your belief in your theories’ political import.

This, I declared aloud after reviewing the seminal feminist text Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse, by C. T. Mohanty. While commendable for critiquing Western feminism’s penchant for typecasting non-Western women as victims requiring lofty Western mores and assistance, Mohanty’s penchant for stressing the “urgent” political magnitude of feminist theory irked me. “Urgent” indulgently mischaracterizes the political dimensions of feminist theory, often inaccessible for its protagonists – those to whom it is most practically relevant.

My concern more broadly speaks to modernity’s insatiable desire to intellectualize, classify, patent everything into systems of knowledge – a tendency Foucault detects in The History of Sexuality. He observes the foregrounding of ritualized confession in modernity’s pursuit of knowledge – its production of “truth,” through science’s categorizing subjects to extract “knowledge” that is servile to order, rather than amenable to truth. I was really feeling Foucault, irked by our fixation on embedding “facts” about ineffable climactic experiences into knowledge systems. Systems generated by the state to control histories about, among other things, sexuality. Histories those in power want to narrate.

This disparity between government-imposed histories and those organic to a group of peoples was delved into by Yale political scientist James Scott in his September presentation at Concordia. In “The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia” (the title of his book on the same topic as well), Scott proposed that modern state-making is an avatar of internal colonialism. He proffered an alternative outlook on history from the peripheries of the stateless, indigenous peoples of Zomia (the upland region of Southeast Asia inhabited by disparate, nomadic ethnic groups), challenging us to re-define our narrow historical conceptions of civilization to realize that “civilization” is a narrative for control that benefits the coterie (1) who define civilization and declare it the shit; and (2) who in its name, usurps the history and land of the peoples they civilizes. He suggests that Zomians espouse oral histories and traditions rather than “intellectualized,” written ones to escape state control since under it, the evolution of peoples’ histories occurs on corporate, coercive terms.

Classification makes this coercion easier. India has suddenly interested itself in and has increasingly categorized India’s predominantly indigenous Maoist groups (also called Naxalites) as “terrorists” since 2005, despite extensive indigenous histories of resistance that greatly predate Mao. This coincided with the discovery of lucrative mining sites in Maoists’ lands and the government’s ratification of treaties with mining corporations. Maoists, defending peoples and lands only now significant to India because they lay atop trillion-dollar bauxite mines, are justifiably seditious in order to defending their rights and land. Weeks after the ratification, tribal peoples’ militias were unleashed, burning hundreds of Maoist-defended villages.

This violent, inexhaustible desire for knowledge, classification, control over everything – land, libido, non-Western women, “terrorists”, intellectual “property” – reflects the modernity forecast by Bentham in 1785 when he conceptualized the Panopticon – an Orwellian architecture wherein prisoners cannot tell when they are being watched, which Foucault indexes in Discipline and Punish as a metaphor for hyper-regulative austerity measures that compel individuals to acquiesce to institutions’ value systems. Our totalitarianesque affinity for researching and monitoring forges a Panopticon culture obsessed with knowing and classifying the “everything” most beneficial to those who extract and often least so for those from whom it is extracted.

But heck, this article is so a product of the privileged knowledge systems that omniscience-obsessed culture affords me. As my homeboy De Rrida rhymes, “We cannot utter a single destructive proposition which has not already slipped into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest.” I am, inescapably, the offspring of (philosophy-minor-because-a-major-would-mentally-unhinge-me) histories that, I realize, get me high on abstractions.

Academia, let us reunite.