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englishPolitics of Knowledge

Avinash Jha, emailkalisaroj@yahoo.com, 30.06.2004, 14:07

What follows is a note circulated in order to start a discussion group on politics of knowledge at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. I would be very happy to hear responses, if any, and/or to start a discussion right here in this forum.

Avinash Jha

Note for a discussion on Knowledge and Democracy

In the academy, we are witnessing a situation of conflict between two knowledge formations, which go under the rubric of `theory’, and ‘science’. ‘Theory’ can be replaced by ‘postmodernism’, or relativism, or ‘social constructivism’. ‘Science’ can similarly be exchanged for ‘objectivism’, or ‘scientism’. We are left with essentially the same conflict even when the terms are changed. Conceptions of experience and language and their implications for criteria of right knowledge are central to this debate. Do we need to take sides in this conflict? What is the meaning and social significance of this ‘war of ideas’?

In the activist world, we see another struggle between two formations of knowledge and values, which often takes place within the same individuals, or in the same organizational and social context. On the one hand, we have the ‘modern’ or ‘scientific’ or ‘theoretical and abstract’ knowledge and, on the other, we have ‘ecological’, ‘experiential’, ‘traditional or tribal’, or even ‘social’. The meaning of ‘science’ here is much broader. It is not primarily the research activity being carried out in the academy, but a complex of knowledge, power and technology embodying values of dominant class, gender, civilization, or human species itself. Science employs millions of scientists and technical workers in war machines or profit machines. On the opposite side is the reality of egalitarian movements for emancipation of workers, women, children, and citizens which are coextensive with modernity in some sense. This debate is often embroiled in the academic debate between postmodernism and science and the political conflict of liberalism and fundamentalism.

These conflicts, dilemmas and arguments are overshadowed by Globalisation and the emergence of new information technologies. ‘Knowledge-society’ can in some sense resolve the conflicts of knowledge by accommodating both sides through a model of ‘knowledge management’. Both modern and traditional knowledge can be managed and used productively in this system where knowledge is commodity or property. Hardware mirrors the realm of nature and necessity while the software mirrors the realm of freedom and desire, or culture. The body is a battlefield of nature and culture and the location of fulfillment. Knowledge institutions and activities are often torn between the interests of the private sector and civil society. Sponsored research make many results doubtful. Global media thrives. Activists increasingly use internet for communication and organization.

What we have tried to do is to create the context for a discussion on the question of knowledge and democracy. When we want to discuss the issue of knowledge in a democratic society, we encounter at least two dimensions. What should be the philosophical, institutional and social basis for creation, organization and communication of knowledge in a democratic society? In other words, how should knowledge activities and knowledge become a part of life in a democratic society? The second dimension is the question of democratization of knowledge itself. Can something be voted by majority to be truth? Does truth belong to the oppressed?  

- Avinash