What do governments know? When and why have they generated knowledge about themselves, sovereign territories, the functioning of bureaucracies, legal systems, and the effectiveness of legislation? In other words, how have officials made that capacious concept we call the state legible?
State knowledge took on heightened importance in Central Europe in the nineteenth century with the transition away from remaining vestiges of feudalism. This is especially clear to see during the revolutions of 1848. Over the course of a turbulent two years, revolutionaries protested against a great many things. They most famously called for national unification and the introduction of liberal constitutions, but they also demanded the reform of outdated modes of administration. Such ultimatums were unsettling for governments in two ways. First, they required a rethinking of law, as well as of the kinds of bureaucratic structures and activities needed to bring about a more flexible handling of domestic affairs. And second, they prompted an urgent need to generate knowledge to gage the effectiveness of these initiatives.
Continue reading “State Knowledge in Central Europe after 1848”
Frederick the Great (1712–1786) was not a homosexual. Or so claimed the German physician and amateur medical historian Gaston Vorberg in 1921. Scurrilous rumors about the sexual desires of the legendary Prussian monarch had circulated ever since the eighteenth century. Vorberg sought to debunk them using the tools of critical scholarship and source analysis. In his essay "Gossip about the Sex Life of Frederick II," Vorberg defended the straightness of the king on the basis of his “long and arduous research.”
Continue reading “Queer Ancestry as a Problem of Knowledge in Early 20th-Century Germany”
Settler colonialism is a structure of political relations where a settler population seeks to replace native forms of life and relations with settler communities and, ultimately, to establish a new political community distinct from the colonial metropole. Unlike other forms of colonialism that primarily seek to exploit natural resources or extract labor power from native populations with the intention of enriching the metropole, settler colonialism additionally involves permanent invasion.
Canada’s definition and documentation of “Indians” is a project of bureaucratic knowledge production in service of the continued assertion of settler colonial political visions. The Indian Act was introduced in 1876 to assert the terms of the political relationship between the Dominion of Canada and certain peoples the Act defines as “Indians.” The Act has been amended many times, but is remains a current piece of legislation in Canada and still defines “Indian” as a political and legal category of person. Defining and identifying “Indians” served the broader project of managing Canada’s so-called Indian problem. From the perspective of nineteenth-century legislators, the “problem” was one of Indigenous peoples asserting nationhood and insisting on claims to the lands where they have lived since time immemorial, thus creating obstacles for settler claims to sovereignty. But it is also a problem of knowledge, which Indian Affairs administrators sought to address through a practice of classification. To apply and enforce the provisions of the Act designed to undermine Indigenous sovereignty and compel their assimilation, “Indians” had to be made visible to state legislators, bureaucrats, and other agents. The definitional work of the Indian Act is both a technique of classification and a way of seeing.
Continue reading “Identifying “Indians”: Racial Taxonomy as a Settler Colonial Politics of Knowledge”
The Bolshevik Revolution strove to create a “new man,” a morally and psychologically superior human being. This new man required a complete physical and mental renewal, including, among other measures, the hygienic literacy of the masses. A wide range of media were employed for the Revolution’s ends, including not only various forms of print but also mobile cinemas and theatrical productions. A theater movement aimed at instructing the masses gained strength in the early years of the Revolution, and many theatrical performances addressed prevailing problems in public health. The hygienic awareness of the population was especially crucial during World War I and the Russian Civil War that followed, when diseases flourished in conditions of hunger and claimed millions of lives. In the 1920s, the performances came to local clubhouses and reached even the kolkhoz fields to entertain and educate workers and farmers. Beginning in 1925, theatrical hygiene propaganda was centrally managed by the newly founded Moscow Theater for Sanitary Culture (1924–1947).
Continue reading “Hygiene Propaganda and Theatrical Biopolitics in the Soviet Union in the 1920s–40s”
Russia’s support for right-wing politicians around the world has been in the news a lot in recent years. From Ukraine to France and the United States, Vladimir Putin has aligned Russia with political groups that oppose immigration, LGBT rights, and secularism. But this isn’t the first time a Russian leader has been the figurehead of world conservatism. After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Russia was known as the “gendarme of Europe” for its interventions against revolutionary forces all over the continent. Before that, Russia stood alongside Britain in leading the worldwide reaction against the French Revolution.
Continue reading “Russian Information Politics and the French Revolution”
Often remembered as a critique of Keynesian economics, Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944) contained two other important assertions about the future of liberalism. Buried in the thirteenth chapter—”The Totalitarians in Our Midst”—of Hayek’s bestseller was a discussion of the fundamental relationship between knowledge and liberalism. Hayek posited there that the humanities represented the road to freedom, whereas science represented the road to totalitarianism: “serfdom.” In particular, he singled out the idea, common among socialists at the time, that science could serve as a basis for new moral laws and social betterment. He called this idea “German” and labeled it anti-liberal. Only insights from the humanities, he claimed, could provide an ethical culture for the liberalism of the future. Hayek depicted a progressive science as authoritarian and the traditional humanities as freeing.
Continue reading “Education for a Free Society? Ancient Knowledge, Universities, and the Neoliberal Disorder”
Long a matter of academic attention, the very criteria of what makes a fact now circulates as a matter of politics. Indexing the increasingly widespread concern about what makes a fact, the Oxford dictionary selected “post-truth” as the 2016 word of the year.
Continue reading “An Alternative History of ‘Alternative Facts’: Postmodernism and the Center-Right Knowledge Ecology”
In our infinite ignorance, we are all equal.
In a recent column in Dissent, the historian Daniel T. Rodgers takes issue with how the word “neoliberalism” has become “a linguistic omnivore” in present-day scholarship. Deeming its success “a measure of its substantive hollowness,” he untangles its various meanings (“market fundamentalism,” “commodification of the self,” “finance capitalism,” and so on) and appeals for a return to a descriptive language closer to social reality. I argue the contrary here. Neoliberalism owes its success to its distinct ideological shape, which functions thanks to, not in spite of, its paradoxes and contradictions. Although the original agenda of neoliberalism has been revised many times over, its scope and reach have steadily increased. Its commonly overlooked scientific dynamism, sponsored by private individuals and foundations, relayed by think tanks, and embedded in a growing, yet problematic “marketplace of ideas,” remains at the very heart of the neoliberal project today.
Continue reading “Is Neoliberalism Biting Its Own Tail? From the Economics of Ignorance to Post-Truth Politics”
A century ago, World War I brought devastation and violence to Europe and other regions of the world, in many cases upending previously dominant political, social, and cultural orders. For women in large parts of the Western world, the end of the war saw a historical achievement, the right to vote. Suffragist activists had fought for this right for the better part of the previous century. They employed a wide range of tools, organizing rallies and marches, founding political organizations, and even conducting hunger strikes and rare acts of violence. Newspapers and magazines such as The Suffragist in the United States were common tools for spreading information and knowledge, building networks, and encouraging and motivating readers. Part of a broader history of the politicization of women and their bodies, the history of the suffragist movement was local and global, national and transnational. Female political activism did not end with the right to vote or with standing for and holding office, however. It took up voter mobilization and women’s political and civic education.
Continue reading “Exploring Knowledge in Political History”
We are members of knowledge societies, but we live in “an age of ignorance.” We are swimming in “oceans of ignorance” that have been consciously, unconsciously, and structurally produced “by neglect, forgetfulness, myopia, extinction, secrecy, or suppression.” Little wonder, then, that there is also a lot of ignorance about the persistence of racism as a structural phenomenon that orders society in discriminatory ways and racial knowledge as a normalized element of our knowledge societies.
Continue reading “Producing Ignorance: Racial Knowledge and Immigration in Germany”