In Production

producing “the production of knowledge.”

Louis Althusser.

X-posted from HASTAC blog.

This phrase, repeated incessantly in some quarters of the humanities, has long since slipped its original moorings, and owes more to American corporate lingo than to Althusser.

Scott McLemee, The Public Option,” Inside Higher Ed

Has anyone traced the actual history of this phrase, “the production of knowledge”? I think of Foucault when I hear it more than Althusser. And I am reminded, in particular, of Foucault’s focus on the broader, more intricate channels through which power flows, shaping of ideas and bodies as well as institutions of governance, all in the name of fostering a “regime” of control. So knowledge, for Foucault, gets “produced” based on the larger systems in which people think and know. And it does so through capillaries of everyday life as well as the main arteries of official power. The micro-production of knowledge as well as the macro. Is that accurate, oh ye Foucauldians out there, surveilling me?

And what of the “corporate lingo” dimensions? Corporations can be as anti-humanist and anti-Enlightenment as Mr. Foucault himself was, though with very different goals in mind. When did this phrase, “the production of knowlege,” appear in corporate boardrooms and at management retreats, and for what purposes?

Let us produce some knowledge, yes?

3 thoughts on “In Production

  1. When you ask about “corporate boardrooms,” how broad is your definition? Would you count, for instance, university trustees and gatherings of university presidents? :)

    I’m not a Foucauldian, but I might’ve guessed him or Saussure over Althusser as the source. Saussure hits most of memory switches on structuralism. Maybe McLemee was giving props to Althusser for his Marxism? But also, doesn’t Foucault ride the line—meaning early Foucault was a structuralist, and late Foucault was poststructuralist? – TL

  2. A decent summary of Althusser on the matter is here:

    My point was not that anyone in boardrooms was using the phrase “production of knowledge” (possible but not likely) but that a certain kind of rationalized and economistic conception of intellectual activity seems to have taken root in academe as the institution has become ever more tightly linked to corporate capitalism.

    Everybody is “producing.” There is a sarcastic passage in Marx about how under capitalism even the pickpocket does so, because by “producing” crime he “produces” judges who “produce” laws that have to be codified and taught, and so legal textbooks are “produced.” The difference between this and today’s marxisant academospeak is that Marx was being sarcastic and ironic, while contemporary “production of knowledge” boilerplate seems rather ploddingly literal-minded.

  3. Scott –

    Thanks for the citation. And for the clarification. (And for your wonderful piece on the U of Iowa symposium. And for wisdom and keen analysis and sharp writing in general!)

    Your response reminded me of a vague memory that Althusser was one of Foucault’s teachers. Is this right? I’m revealing the gaps in the production of my European intellectual history knowledge! Has anyone studied Althusser’s influence on Foucault’s thinking? I’ve never thought carefully about it before, though I have a general sense of their main ideas and am now thinking about how much they do indeed intersect.

    The other thing I’m wondering about now, in a half-formed sort of way, is whether there is more to be made of the kind of Althusserian-inspired interpretation of academia you were suggesting in your essay.

    Of course, I see and feel all the time what immediately comes to mind: which is that today’s dominant mode of production–neoliberal postfordism, or global hyper-financialized capitalism, or the bizarre collapse of consumption into production with Home Depot, DIY fetishism, or what have you–dominates the university too.

    But why this particular phrase, “the production of knowledge”? And why now? You’d think consumerism of knowledge or free market of knowledge or some other phrase would arise. What keeps gnawing at me is that “production of knowledge” has something to do with the new “networked” modes of production emerging, but still kind of blurry as to their exact economic location and meaning. Production of knowledge, in my experience, is most often invoked when academics want to find a way to assert the legitimacy and value of “networking knowledge” and pursue more collective rather than individualistic kinds of research.

    It’s no small step at all from that to being “team members” at the corporate retreat on on the Wal-Mart shop floor. At the same time, and this is worth thinking about carefully, might it also be just a few steps from “production of knowledge” to more democratic, socialistic modes of production in which the individual and the collective could be allied in Deweyian, even Marxian, splendor? I mean the “network” does challenge older notions of property and ownership which are so central to the capitalist mode of production. Or am I wrong about that?

    Pickpockets of the world, you have nothing to lose but your pockets! That Marx. He funny!

    Best and thanks again for taking the time to visit here!

    MJK aka CR

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