Power/knowledge in the dust of time

Power/knowledge in the dust of time

The conjunction between power and knowledge has preoccupied sociology from well before Foucault, and will continue to do so long after our time. In sociology and related disciplines we often encounter comments in writing or speaking about power/knowledge, with a forward slash both separating and connecting these words, and such comments are often made in sentences which convey certainty about what power/knowledge means, what its ethical and political dimensions are, and strategies for us avoiding its negative reverberations.

Part of this, including by Foucault himself, has concerned ‘the archive’ and its abrogation of knowledge, and the partial sources held in these sequestered places, carefully managed to protect the status quo in the present by controlling the past. ‘The imperial archive’ has indeed become a kind of shorthand which seemingly encapsulates the essence of what there is to say about the power/knowledge conjunction.

It is rarely so simple.

Behold this photograph, which those of you who follow the news will know is of the Jagger reading room at the University of Cape Town, in which I have spent many months working since 1994. This is the aftermath of a recent wildfire. And in the dust and rubble shown here are the archives of a large part of the history of not only the Cape, but of South Africa more generally.

This photograph is not a metaphor. The Table Mountain fire and its devastation destroyed six university buildings, 5000 students were evacuated from residences, and suburbs threatened by fire. What I want to comment on is what the fire and its devastation has done to power/knowledge, to use this to counsel caution in making overly simple statements about ‘the archive‘, and to avoid treating power/knowledge using similarly simple pronouncements.

In many respects the quintessence, the fundament, of ‘the imperial archive’, the special collections holdings at the University of Cape Town held, for I am speaking the past tense now, much of the history of the families, organisations and individuals who represent the white liberal elite of the old Cape Colony. A friend teaching in another UK/EU university heard her students cheer when they heard about the destruction of these collections.

As sociologists, one thing we know and agree about is that people are interconnected. Relationality is the name of the game. We none of us exist in isolation, and none of them, those families, organisations and individuals, existed in isolation either. So let me tell you what those undergraduates, probably without realising it, were also cheering the loss of.

Within those collections there were many different voices writing, photographing, representing themselves, as well as being represented by others. They included Sister Nanny, ex-slave and a leading figure in the Cape temperance movement and who had earlier been employed – not as a slave – for one of these liberal families. They included Mohandas Gandhi, a friend of a number of them. They included John Tengo Jabavu, editor of a leading black newspaper, whose running expenses were paid by someone from one of these families. And there are many more examples.

And alongside those collections, there were other collections too, those of the black bourgeoisie and educated elite, its political figures, cultural icons, activist leaders, religious figures, and more. There was the collection of Abdul Abdurahman, a leading political organiser. There was the collection of Tiyo Soga, a major religious figure. There was the collection of the Gool Family with Cissie Gool a key left activist. There was the collection of the Browns, a mixed race missionary family over a number of generations.

I could go on, but time is short and the list is very long. And anyway the point has been made, that people are interconnected, and relationality is the name of the game. Also, the conjunction of power and knowledge in ‘the imperial archive’ is in the majority of instances incredibly complicated and usually crosscut by many contrary indications. What I take from this is that when talking or writing about the fall of this and the end of that, we need to be careful what we wish for. Reduce those who weren’t embodiments of all the virtues to dust, also reduce to dust those they were interconnected with. The signs of relationality are no more. They are, as you see, dust.

So as you will realise, I have been duplicitous. What you see is both a photograph of a great loss, and it does actually act as a metaphor.


Last updated:  6 May 2021