Political “anti-knowledge” is a topic I first encountered while reading Lisa Stampnitzky's Disciplining Terror, but while it seemed strange and unusual for the time, I've since encountered the same pattern in other spheres as well.

Stampnitzky borrows her definition from James Ferguson's “anti-politics,” in his 01994 book called The Anti-Politics Machine, though she since applied it to her studies of the George W. Bush administration's antics during “the war on terror.” The United States kept their highly-profitable war machine going by continually shaping the public perception of the war's supposed enemies, irrespective if said enemies actually existed or not. Anti-knowledge was the tool employed to keep this charade going for extended periods of time, for it works only so long as nobody gets the idea to check under the hood, or else they'll realize they've been tricked into fighting a phantom opponent.

[In] the situation of anti-knowledge, knowledge and inquiry that entail knowing the terrorist are proscribed. It is as though the lan­guage of evil creates a black box around the terrorist, which creates its own explanation: terrorists commit terrorism because they are evil. Any further attempt to pursue alternative explanations, thereby seeking to break the black box of “evil,” is seen as a profanation, even a sacrilege. The root of the politics of anti-knowledge is hence that, if terrorists are evil and irrational, then one cannot - and, indeed, should not - know them.

How can we account for the politics of anti-knowledge? Like the “war on terror,” it is neither a straightforward outcome of the phenomena that we have come to know as terrorism nor a simple reaction to the massive shock of the 9/11 attacks. Instead, it should be seen as the outcome of the construction of both “terrorism” and “terrorists” as evil and irrational, together with the relatively weak position of advocates of “terrorism studies” to discipline either “terrorism” as an object of knowledge or the broader arena of terrorism expertise. Insofar as terrorists are understood to be inherently evil, it follows both that “evil” is the explanation for terrorism and that we ought not to seek to know terrorists, for such knowledge is potentially contaminating. And, further, insofar as terrorism is understood to be irrational, the very possibility of understanding it can be called into question.


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