Wanton Knowledge: The Canon and the 'Net

Marc Demarest

January 1997


The formula "They have the power" may have its value politically; it does not do for an historical analysis. Power is not posessed, it acts in the very body and over the whole surface of the social field according to a system of relays, modes of connection, transmission, distribution, etc. Power acts through the smallest elements: the family, sexual relations, but also: residential relations, neighborhoods, etc. As far as we go in the social network, we always find power as something that "runs through" it, that acts, that brings about effects. It becomes effective or not, that is, power is always a definite form of momentary or constantly reproduced encounters among a definite number of individuals. Power is thus not posessed because it is "in play," because it risks itself.

Michel Foucault, from lecture notes as summarized in "Power and Norm" in Michel Foucault: Power, Truth, Strategy (1979).

We should admit...that power produces knowledge (and not simply by encouraging it because it serves power or by applying it because it is useful); that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975)


How We Know We're Right, How We Know It's True

Jacques Lacan often spoke of "the subject who knows" by which he meant (among other things) the person (historical or visceral) whose presence makes utterance true. What is said in a classroom, for example, or on television or in a newspaper, is true not by virtue of the self-evident right-ness of the utterance, but because the teacher or the president or the journalist has said it, in a context that carries with it the implict promise "No lies here." Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton, as has been pointed out innumerable times in innumerable places, are able to manufacture facts out of whole cloth solely by virtue of the position they occupy.

Foucault would have agreed with this idea, I think, insofar as his first analytic question is never, "What is being said?" but instead "Who is speaking?" which was also Nietzsche's question: the question of the philologist, the rhetorician.

Ultimately, what such a position suggests is that, at some level, the epistemology of the West is bound up not in empiricism -- self-evident, testable, demonstrable truth -- but in rhetoric: something is true because of the position, the status, the persuasive power of the subject who knows, who gives voice to the utterance. It is true because I said so. This is of course the oldest kind of truth, the oldest sort of power relation: the parent cutting the threads of a child's curiosity with fiat. It is true because I said so.

Certainly, the idea that "they have the power" and "they make the truth" is is what people who champion "alternative views" of so-called established truths would have us believe. Almost every so-called "conspiracy theory" (itself a cunning use of language that destablizes the "truth" of what is said within the discourse before the discourse itself is given a chance to unfold) with any currency today has within it a narrative of battle between the proponents of the conspiracy theory in question and the "powers that be" in which these powers use the relatively vast machinery at their disposal to marginalize, suppress and erase the "alternative view" usually in the name of maintaining their hegemony. In fact, such narrative elements are de rigeur in conspiracy theory as a narrative genre: it is not possible to be "alternative" or "esoteric" except in opposition to an established, canonical discourse that the "alternative view" characterizes as a willing, calculated lie: as disinformation.

The essence of the conspiracy theory is, after all, what we hear on television: The truth is out there.

The Case Of Cold Fusion

Consider the case of cold fusion.

There are three essential premises to the narratives of the cold fusion community:

  1. it is possible to produce, reliably and repeatedly, excess energy in the form of heat by combining hydrogen, deuterium and certain metallic electrodes, such as palladium, titanium, and nickel, in an electrochemical cell.

  2. this excess heat cannot be explained by resorting to any known theory of chemical reaction

  3. cold fusion threatens the mainstream scientific community, which has marginalized and is still threatening to suppress cold fusion as a kind of knowledge.

Marginalization and suppression, which are indeed tactics employed regularly by institutions threatened by bodies of knowledge they cannot control, are apparently no longer as effective as they once were. Although the cold fusion advocates were certaintly marginalized -- the central research centers are in France and Japan, and the majority of project funding for cold fusion today comes from Japan's MITI and Toyota -- they were certainly not suppressed. Instead, they made use of the electronic underground: they took their research, and their conspiracy theory, onto the 'Net.

The same strategy -- using the 'Net as a dissemination mechanism when more or less "official" channels of dissemination have been closed -- has been employed by partisans of most of the major "alternative" discourses: the UFO/abduction camp, the Illuminati/Freemasonry/Trilateral Commission discourses, the Holocaust Revisionists, the alternative medicine community, the Atlantis Theory folks. In addition, a quick scan through the major search engines (using, say, terms like monetary policy, disinformation campaign, government conspiracy, or conspiracy) will reveal, along with dozens of repositories associated with fairly well-known "alternative views," quite a few thousand highly idiosyncratic, personal conspiracy theories and bugbear stories.

The Canon and The 'Net

What "alternative views" define themselves against is what we might call, for lack of a better word, the canon:bodies of commonly-accepted and explicitly taught truths about particular objects. Within the canon of the West, we can locate definitive statements: the Holocaust did occur, UFOs probably do not exist, acupuncture doesn't work and Atlantis is a myth.

Canons maintain themselves by two generic strategies: cooption and suppression. The first strategy, cooption, involves the assimilation (and subsequent neutering) of possibly damaging kinds of knowledge: cold fusion is given a short leash in an academic backwater, and access to second-rate scientific journals in the unlikely event that it proves viable, at which time it will always have been true anyway. The second strategy, suppression, involves the destruction of the threatening discourse, and, quite frequently in the historical record, the source of the discourse: consider, for example, the suppression of the Coptics, Gnostics and Arians in the early history of the Church, or the refusal of the US to allow Farley Mowat into the country. Both cooption and suppression are preceded by marginalization: the pushing of the alternative discourse to the boundaries of the social, away from the center and its dissemination mechanisms. Distance attenuates the voice of the alternative.

It is not people who do this; it is the way the machinery works and has always worked, if the historical record is to be given any credence at all. From the early history of the church through the scientific controversies of the Renaissance and the political upheaval of the late 17th and early 18th century to the anti-Vietnam War movement, this is how the canon works: marginalization, followed by either cooption or suppression.

I repeat -- this is how the machine works. Discourses that threaten a canon are denied access to the dissemination mechanisms -- journals, newspapers, classrooms, seats of government -- that maintains the canon and the society that makes use of it. There is no conspiracy, no circle of powerful people who draw up lists, mark people for exclusion, enforce exile, punish, attack. This is the canon's self-regulating mechanism: how the social system stabilizes itself.

The question I want to raise in light of this is straightforward: how does the 'Net change the way the canons at work in culture operate? What does the net have to do with truth? Can we even sustain a canon-based culture in the wake of a ubiquitous, electronic dissemination mechanism:

  • from which no e-literate person can be excluded?

  • into which anyone can publish anything?
  • that raises every item published instantly to canonical status because the mechanism itself -- the 'Net -- cannot make epistemological valuations, and exists only to help information "be free".?
This question is, implicitly, a rejection of the notion that the 'Net is or can ever become the tool of some powerful cabal: taking a page from Foucault, I would say that although the 'Net is an immense network of power, it is the tool of everyone and therefore the creature of no one. The 'Net is incapable, technologically or spiritually, of speaking with one voice on anything; it cannot be made into a propaganda machine; it exists precisely because of these characteristics, and would cease to exist were those fundamental characteristics tampered with.

The question does, however, rephrase the issue I raised at the beginning of this note. If it is the case that, more often than not, we know what is true by evaluating the credibility of the speaker, not by testing what is said, and that we evaluate the credibility of the speaker by using social markings -- she is a talk show host, he is a respected journalist, she teaches political science at a major university -- then the 'Net cannot provide us with any epistemological sureity whatsoever: fundamentally, identity is a wholesale construct in the 'Net, and is missing most of the social markings that identity carries in the clunky world. The 'Net can provide us with the content of anything, but can tell us the truth-value of nothing.

That is, of course, a tiring, philosophical way of asking the question: More practical ways of asking the same question exist.


Last updated on 06-22-97 by Marc Demarest (marc@noumenal.com)

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