Genealogy and the ‘Net

I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading some of Foucault’s Society Must be Defended. Over the course of the book Foucault will be radically changing his early positions, and I hope to note and discuss these changes as I come across them. This said, I’ve recently finished the first lecture and wanted to reflect on the power of genealogies, the fragmented character of the ‘net, and synthesize that with Wu and Goldsmith’s account of the Internet and Foucault’s own thoughts on power as repression. There’s a lot to do, but I think that it might be very profitable to at least toy around with this for a bit.


There is a tendency to try and capture knowledge in unitary architectures. Foucault equates this to trying to develop a unifying concept to explain the behaviour of each droplet of water that explodes from around a sperm whale when it breeches. In the very process of establishing a complex formula to receive this information, the act itself is lost.

Genealogies draw on localized knowledges and in the process fail to privilege unitary scientific laws wholescale. Localized knowledges draw on ‘subjugated knowledges’, they refer to “historical contents that have been buried or masked in functional coherences or formal systemizations” and to “a whole series of knowledges that have been disqualified as nonconceptual knowledges, as insufficiently elaborated knowledges: naive knowledges, hierarchically inferior knowledges, knowledges that are below the required level of erudition or scientificity” (7). Genealogies couple together “scholarly erudition and local memories, which allows us to constitute a historical knowledge of struggles and to make use of that knowledge in contemporary tactics” (8). In this sense, genealogies act as anti-sciences – they draw attention to the cracks that science ignores, to point to these holes to reveal the truth of science’s unitary discourse: science is neither omniscient or entirely extensive.

In reactivating local knowledges the unitary truths that science has established must be questioned – they must demonstrate their validity in the face of open criticism. While there might seem to be a danger, that in revealing and using ‘minor’ or local knowledges that the unitary discourse may attempt to colonize the genealogical conclusions, this has not (evidently) happened thus far. Anti-psychoanalysis has not been absorbed by scientific discourse – there has been relatively little/no discourse whatsoever about it in the scientific community. While this lack of discussion could be read as science being fearful of local knowledges, a more cautious response would assume that science is not concerned with anti-sciences – local knowledges remain marginalized and, as such, cannot effectively reveal the incoherent groundings for scientific power in a way that would significantly realign social norms/power structures.

Foucault identifies two dominant ways of looking at power at this stage of his writings, which are eloquently captured when he states;

Broadly speaking, we have, if you like, in one case a political power which finds its formal model in the process of exchange, in the economy of circulation of goods; and in the other case, political power find its historical raison d’etre, the principle of its concrete form and of its actual workings in the economy (14).

His statement nicely aligns with power distinctions in classical liberal theory and Marxist theories – the contract that sees power as a commodity, or as a relationship that grounds the economy, whereas the other sees politics and political power rising out of the economy. From these situations we can analyze power either according to power-contracts or by contract-oppression schemas. We are invariably led to a repression-war schema that may be played out through politics and science that operates using the domineering discourses that ‘peacefully’ order society. Genealogies, with their local knowledges, threaten these peaceful orders by injecting resistance to unities and, in the process, resist normative social order.

The Internet

Blogs, wikis, and other localized digital content creation systems threaten the unitary discourse of science. While many of these personal projects effectively reinforce the dominant metric (by unconsciously affirming norms, and rejecting ‘deviant’ positions) there is the possibility to record, examine, and relate to other local knowledges. This means that the dominating scientific truths concerning 9/11 can be challenged atomistically (a single person making a single assertion) as well as molecularly (a series of people can make a series of interlinked assertions). Overcoding this, however, is the fact that most users are limited by the digitial norms (or laws) that are imposed on them by the software they are using – for all the insistences of open-source software, most users cannot reprogram their tools to deviate from the norms/laws that bind their digital interactions.

While the Internet, with its localized knowledges and mass appeal, appears to provide a way of breaking through to others, we should now turn to reasons why this may be inaccurate or ineffective.

Centralized National Power and Repression

In Who Controls the Internet? Goldsmith and Wu provide a series of reasons why the 90s dreams of the ‘net being a euphoric zone of resistance were overly optimistic. In particular, while the nation-state is less able to retain and distribute all power and force across the state, it can still limit content by exercising coercive force to prevent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from delivering content – it can actively try to prevent citizens from ever receiving local knowledges that could invoke resistance movements. This is an act of repression, where within the nation-state’s pseudo-peace a continuous war persists, a perpetual relationship of force. Even in these relationships, however, force has its limits.

By masking local knowledges in knowledges affirming national norms the unitary and local knowledges are ‘mixed’, limiting the nation-state’s ability to effectively limit knowledges to those validated by a unitary norm. At issue is that this means that modes of resistance would be weakened in areas where governments have less to fear from limiting popular communications – only where free speech, or other open cultural practices are valued can digital mixing be successful.

A concern arising from this is that, if we view the nation-state in this sense, what would a cosmopolitan that attempted to respect the plurality of members resemble? While Foucault paints a picture of the terrible nation-state, I wonder what his formulation of the state would be when examining societies that operate according to a shared, increasingly inclusive, and plastic ethical-political culture, where the dominant social groups norms are not the driving force of national culture. While repression would inevitably continue in some fashions (the nature of the constitution when it is understood as a bordering device demands this) I can’t help but wonder whether or not in this environment local knowledges would increasingly bubble through the cracks of science, dissolving many of its less cohesive bonds.

2 thoughts on “Genealogy and the ‘Net

  1. Hi Christopher. I came upon your blog and just wanted you to know that I am really enjoying the content. I do a lot of research in the areas you write about and not many people read enough to draw the conclusions you have. Case in point regarding this article. It is so true that most people don’t realize that they are reading the same rehashed ideas. So, thanks for putting this out there.


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