Tragedies of displacement: when knowledge is attached to the land

“Knowledge is power!” How often have we heard this saying? While it is, of course, overly simplistic, it conveys a part of truth. Michel Foucault, the famous philosopher and social theorist, would rather say that knowledge and power are deeply intertwined (Foucault and Rabinow, 1984). This means that knowledge tends to empower those who have access to it but also, and maybe more importantly, that any claim to know something depends as well in our capacity to exercise a minimal amount of influence upon others; depends in our capacity to enroll them as allies –as Bruno Latour would have said it– and align their actions, beliefs and interests with ours. In other words, knowledge brings power and power entitles us to claim that we in fact know.

Nowadays, in the age of the information society (a.k.a. the society of knowledge), knowledge seems to be more and more accessible. Therefore, it would seem, that power/knowledge can be learned, mobilized, it moves, it circles, it is itinerant. Not only does it migrate but it can also be commodified and branded, copyrighted then sold. But, is it so? And, if it is, how? How movable is knowledge –is all knowledge equally movable?– and why does it matter to ask this question? In the rest of this text I'll try to answer these concerns.

According to Michel Foucault, power is not an object, is not a thing, is not a commodity and certainly is not a substance that can be lost or gained (Foucault and Rabinow, 1984). Power is exercised and exists only as doing, as an embodied Will to act that is always spatiotemporally bounded and material. Power can be individually or collectively exercised but only comes into being in the realm of the social, i.e., in the realm of the multitude of bodies, lives, relations and wills that, by their interaction, craft the social order.

Moreover, according to him, modern Nation-States arose in part to the new practice of Statecraft which is centered on three axes: (I) population, (II) territory, and (III) security; the art of integrating and managing these axes was labeled governmentality (Foucault, 2009). In each case, a new arrangement of power/knowledge allowed the emergence of regimes of knowing and surveilling so far never seen through history. Biopolitics –i.e., the politics of managing Life– transformed the masses into a population with new properties and variables, with new potentialities and risks. Cartography, demography, censuses and carto-power1 mutated the country into a territory that demanded to be known in order to be better managed, exploited and secured. Panopticism2, surveillance and discipline inaugurated a new approach to crime, social unrest, delinquency and depravity; the police as such was finally born and the army became an institution with the aim of defending the nation from extraterritorial menaces.

Thus, the rise of modern Nation-States was made possible, at least partially, by the emergence of an entirely new way of understanding knowledge. It became a tool for governance and, as such, it acquired the capacity to be deployed in different settings, it gained the property of mobility; a property that demanded cohesion and integrity across contexts. Again, as Latour (1988) would say it, knowledge became instantiated in “immutable and combinable mobiles” capable of homogenizing and standardizing the world and our experience of it. Whether this was a cause or consequence of the colonial orders of early Modernity is not the topic here, the topic is that knowledge became something that, paradoxically, was both the sine qua non condition for traversing the world and, also, the very consequence of this traversing.

Expulsion during the Irish Land Wars. Clare County, 1879. Source: Lawrence Collection, National Library of Ireland.

But not all knowledge is equally movable and I'll try to show the political consequences that this discussion implies. Let us then take as an example how often we read in newspapers stories about some poor farmers or peasants –this happens regularly in Asia, Africa and Latin America– that have been evicted from their lands after many generations of inhabiting them. Usually, the rationales for this eviction have a lot to do with Statecraft because these lands are expropriated and, later, territorialized by subsuming them under the Grand Narrative of Development and Modernity; for instance, they might end up as a future airport or as the site for an industrial complex or as luxurious residential zone. These lands are taken in order to improve the lives of those who lived there and everyone else in the region or country, or so goes the argument.

In any case, this term –“territorialization”– might seem obscure at first glance but it connotes the idea of transforming a land –which so far was thought of as much more than just space because it figured as a sort of ancestral land full of memories, a homeland in the full sense of this word, the spatial grounding of a Worldview–, into a territory; and by territory I mean a rationalized and managed region of space in which the State dictates, through law, force and economics, how such a region should be organized, inhabited and exploited; this is carto-power and its consequence affects populations and, hence, becomes biopower –i.e., the power to rule Life.

The peasants in question are thus dispossessed of their lands and become part of the proletariat, their workforce being now their only mean of surviving. And here, if we aspire to fully appreciate how the dynamics of knowledge are deeply intertwined with politics, colonialism and global capitalism, is where our reflection on power/knowledge and circulation becomes important. For many urbanites and suburbanites losing this land would seem only a matter of finding another place to live, getting another job and moving forward and moving on. For persons that are just a little bit more sensitive the situation is more tragical because they clearly understand that what has been lost was not only a house or a job but a rooted way of living that was full of memories, meanings and social connections.

However, even though this last point is critical, it does not appropriately characterize the scope of the tragedy and dispossession. This is so because, for these peasants, their knowledge of their land, their expertise regarding how to sow and when to harvest, how to interact with the soil, the fauna, the flora and the environment as a whole, how to manage droughts and plagues, in sum, how to live there, all of that is a sort of expertise that is deeply rooted and very hard to mobilize. What they know is embodied and embedded, their knowledge is not fully declarative –as knowledge in books or classrooms usually is– and, so, it cannot be moved as if it were a sentence or a set of sentences. It is embodied because it is exercised through the body as an instrument and depends on the material relations between body and environment. It is embedded, culturally, materially and environmentally and, thus, it might not work outside of this place precisely because it depends on the very specific details that particular configurations of matter, culture and life have crafted through time.

This knowledge, then, is situated or, more accurately, it is rooted. And, by its character as an embodied and embedded expertise, it is clearly very hard to move; certainly harder than scientific knowledge because the latter, but not the former, has been purposively produced to be universalizable, to move across nations, languages and territories; obviously, scientific knowledge does not naturally flow and a lot of effort and institutional commitment is required to actually make it transportable. However, scientists intendedly tend to produce a movable knowledge and this is not the case for any rooted expertise that was not the product of an overtly epistemic activity.

So, by dispossessing the peasants, what the State does is not only to dispossess them from their houses and jobs but, also, to totally nullify their expertise, making it obsolete and sterile and making them epistemically handicapped, at least temporarily. When they manage to get a new home and a new job, they have to develop new skills de novo. This of course does not imply that they might not be able to do this and even achieve great and fulfilled lives –this certainly is a possibility–, what it means is that the State, in the name of Development and Modernity, in the name of improving the quality of life of the people, actually creates and exacerbates inequalities. Paying the right amount of money for their lands, even at competitive market prices or above, fails to acknowledge the handicap thus created.

Illustration by Klifton Kleinmann.

In a nutshell, how movable is knowledge is a relevant question because it has everything to do with how we have understood knowledge and the very many effects of that understanding. By conceiving knowledge as universal and universalizable, by conceiving it as itinerant and movable, we acritically favor an approach to knowledge deeply indebted to governmentality, colonialism and Statecraft and, more recently, globalization and neo-colonialism; this is even the case if we reject a “diffusionist” view in which knowledge is not produced at the centre –the metropolis– but “co-produced” at every step of the itinerary. In both cases, knowledge appears equally disembodied as if it were capable to exist by itself and beyond particular and concrete persons. Thus, we favor an approach to knowledge in which the tragedy aforementioned described cannot be fully comprehended because some of the most severe epistemic consequences are not even conceivable; it would seem, then, that peasants would have better lives –as well as everyone else– if they just decide to forego their claims of ownership, if they relinquish their rootedness and move on.

But, as John Locke (1996) argued four centuries ago, we are our experiences, we are our memories. To be displaced is not only to lose a place but to lose ourselves, our way of living and inhabiting our bodies and lives. This rooted expertise also moves, of course, although it seems more accurate to claim that it emigrates, it is displaced, exiled. It is a rooted circling knowledge doomed to wither away.

To conclude, the mechanics and dynamics of knowledge are a synecdoche of the global politics of governance. That is why the question matters. That is why it is important to distinguish between, on the one hand, scientific knowledge as something intendedly movable and, on the other, local expertise as rooted. It was an achievement to make knowledge movable but let us never forget how hard was to get this achievement, how hard is to maintain its mobility in the sciences, because not every expertise is equally movable. And the underlying forces governing knowledge also govern ourselves, our bodies and consciousnesses.


  • Foucault, Michel (2009). Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978. New York: Picador.
  • Foucault, Michel and Paul Rabinow (1984). The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books.
  • Latour, Bruno (1988). Science in Action. How to follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Locke, John (1996). An Essay concerning Human Understanding. New York: Hackett Classics.


  1. This term refers to the power that comes with cartography, in other words, it refers to the capability to control those who live in a certain region thanks to a deep knowledge of this territorialized land. 

  2. Panopticism is a term to describe how modern Nation-States are not only able to continually oversight citizens but, also and more fundamentally, they are able to exert some control upon them because citizens know they are being watched and, so, they act accordingly in order to avoid the possibility of punishment.