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The Cognitive Order:
Knowledge, Hegemony, and the Racial Dispositif in the Us[*]

Naomi Zack
Interview by Massimo Gelardi
«Truth isn’t outside power, or lacking in power (truth isn’t the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves). Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its “general politics” of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanism and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements; the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true»[1].

The question masterfully raised by Foucault – if purified from its latent but eludible metaphysical connotation, and rescued from some coarse and unnecessary teleological articulation – remains crucial for any reflection about the ways of constitution and reproduction of a society.
All human groups (and some not-human groups as well) owe their own identity and persistence to the unceasing individuation of objects and events to be judged and predicated as true. However, the representations which describe a community (i. e. its shape, its borders, its members, its things, its aims, its members’ actions) are not the direct accounts for pieces of world, but rather the outcomes of situated, conditioned and limited negotiations, depending both on the amount and the kind of material and cognitive capital held by subjects involved, and the set of norms which rule the flow of those negotiations, thus instituting their intelligibility and ratifying their legitimacy.
In other words, the society is knowledge[2], and the social order is both the product and the condition of a structural distribution of knowledge: individuals act on the basis of their cognitive patrimony (beliefs, theories, methods, and organizational practices) and of their capacity of utilizing that patrimony (namely, their access to the resources that allow to formulate and steer existential trajectories, concurrent in drawing a necessarily determinate social ontology)[3].
The US society paradigmatically shows this internal relationship between order cognitive and social stratification as it stages the wide range of its realizations, corresponding to the different segmentation criterions which actually structure the US community. In particular, it is throughout the processes of racial identification that the poietic property and the unsymmetrical trait of knowledge get their full accomplishment; indeed, the concept of race – a mighty means of social ruling based on knowledge (even better: based on that scientific method which perfectly incarnates the power and the ideals of knowledge) – is at the same time: a) a typically hegemonic instance within the system of social selfnarrations (it dominates the space of representations even despite the collapse of its own reasons[4]); b) the productive point of intersection with further ingredients of the social hierarchization – namely, economic status and gender difference[5] – whose significance it refracts and irradiates by virtue of a common logic of epistemic subjectivation; c) a privileged field of institutional planning and mobilization: it is indeed in the affirmative action[6] policies that the system of educational opportunities – that is to say the space of the knowledge production, and of the selection of the subjects unequally entitled to use it – has more sharply measured its own normative compulsoriness, its own diagnostic function, its own intimate effectiveness.
An original scholar in the US academic world, Naomi Zack inquires about these questions with a singularly critical eye, discending from a philosophy that combines the rigour of an analytic inspiration with the disenchantment of the common sense method. Fruitfully crossing different disciplinary perspectives, she explores some of the issues that mostly characterize contemporary society – racial or ethnic ascription, gender dynamics, knowledge distribution (both in the expert or professional systems and in the educational institutions) – as well as the not evident relations which connect these research fields, realizing within novel theoretical conceptions the idea of the intellectual work as a contribution to social transformation.

(Massimo Gelardi)


Knowledge and power in a global era. What is the relationship of knowledge to power in the global era? In your opinion, to what extent and in what ways are new technologies and information-based economy reshaping the contemporary world? Can these mutations modify the traditional system of exploitation and stratification (outside and within nation-states), as globalist theories claim? What are the most influential views in the US today?

Knowledge is a tool, an implement. It is not directly related to power although it can, of course, be used for power. Power requires decisions and actions. There are two opposing views in the US, and elsewhere: Technology is the key to universal prosperity, and Technology serves unjust oppression. Neither has the whole picture. Many take more nuanced approaches depending on their goals in specific contexts.

Political epistemology. In your work you analyzed widely the role of knowledge in structuring societies[1]. "Science" of race is the most obvious example, yet today the idea that knowledge is partly a matter of power and domination is rejected as old fashioned and simplistic: in your view, how political is an epistemological model? You earlier said: «Knowledge is a tool, an implement. It is not directly related to power although it can, of course, be used for power». Don’t you agree that kinds and forms of the knowledge shared by a society (in conformity with group differences, of course) are to some extent logically related to kinds and forms of power ruling that society? The complex of theories, methods and practices we call epistemology is not a purely cognitive activity, but one also affected internally by normative traits and assumptions of social legitimacy depending on a particular structure of power. Power can use knowledge, but it can constitute it too.
A banal example: fields of inquiry in biological or optical sciences are at least partly organized according to the epistemic properties – theories, methods, aims – of military research, in its turn prompted by structures of power that act in their international and internal sociopolitical contexts. We could say the same at any level: micropowers, local contexts, sectorial or rudimentary researches (needless to say this has nothing to do with the truthfulness of knowledge: power can produce “true” and “false” knowledge).

Yes, indeed. What people learn and need to know is shaped by structures of power, both financial and political. Knowing in this sense is like walking. Where one goes, how well one walks, even the gait itself – all are determined by external factors. But the capacity to walk and the actual mechanics of it are distinctive and to a large extent independent of the external factors. We can see that what we know and what’s useful, as well as what we don’t know, is contingent, but this isn’t the same think as claiming that knowledge reduces to power or is completely molded by it. Just the ability to realize the ways in which what people think they know has been distorted, is itself something that at least momentarily eludes the influences of the power in question.

The nature of knowledge. Is it possible true, objective, neutral knowledge? How could we conceive it? And why should it be pursued as a value or a moral ideal? What is its relationship with common well-being?

When we are rational, we work with what we know about the world and use logic to relate parts of that information to get what we want. There is no ultimate knowledge, only the best we have at a given time.
The modern period has seen increasing specializations of knowledge and at the same time there is a general movement toward mass education. The extent to which all segments of all populations have increasing access to the best knowledge available for achieving their goals is part of an historical process of democratization. At present the public remains quite ignorant of knowledge that it would benefit it to have.

Science, trust, and democracy. The problem of public participation in the science seems a little boring: do you agree that scientific task is intrinsicly elitist and thus not democratic by definition? Otherwise, how could people select modes and aims of knowledge agents? Maybe the question is: should science have a normative and regulatory function? Or is it a form of knowledge among others?

Not everyone wants to be a scientist, nor should they. But for the past 300 years, we have been living in an era where science is held to provide the best knowledge about physical reality. The public believes this, despite its general lack of specialized information.

The persistence of races: logic and reasons. Despite the efforts of color-blindness ideology, the US society appears profoundly racialized. There are structural and institutional reasons, but also cultural ones: in particular, although empirical evidence proved that the concept of race is unscientific, social identities continue to depend considerably on racial membership and most people seem to believe in the existence of races, so following and reproducing their hierarchical frame. Is this a typical case of hegemony (just in the gramscian sense)?

The public’s information is usually about 100 years behind the science in a given field. This is further retarded when there are strong special interests served by distortions of science. In this case, the ordinary concept of physical race does the existential work of perpetuating the concept of the white family for unintentional, as well as intentional, white racists. This concept of the white family is defined by the asymmetrical kinship schema of racial inheritance. An individual, A, is white if A has no black forebears. This means that A is white if A’s genealogical family consisting of forebears in direct lines of descent are, each of them, white. That is, individuals are white if their families are white, in both a genealogical and an extended sense of family, and a family is white if and only if each family member is white. In meeting these requirements of family whiteness, it does not matter whether or not A believes that physical racial characteristics are accompanied by desiderable or undesiderable traits and behavior, because regardless of whether or not physical racial characteristics are so accompanied, one designated black family member is sufficient to negate the whiteness of the entire genealogical family. Once one fully understands this genetic logic of white family relations, one can begin to understand why ordinary Americans continue to believe in a concept of physical race that is not supported by modern science.

The belief in races: biological foundations. Otherwise, is it possible that the influence of scientific findings is being overrated? Maybe race is a belief founded not so much upon the perceived authority of science, but just upon group dynamics that search for expression and validation: in this view, race would not be a scientific concept, but a noun which people use as a categorial criterion whose strength is being provided by the rooted social practices of sorting people into groups called races. In other words, people would attach the traditional and customary “race” label to what they just feel as group (ethnic, cultural, social, etc.) differences.

The idea of race as biological has a history. It’s relatively new, having arisen with the science of biology. Race in that sense, where it is used and not merely mentioned, connotes a system of human categories with a false biological foundation. Of course, sociologically, people many mean anything at all, race is a very variable notion.

Race: the social nature of anatomy. What is wrong with a scientific concept of race? In what sense is racial categorization a social fact?

It’s not a question of whether skin color and bone structure are inherited – they are. It’s a question of whether the patterns of heredity in different groups support a taxonomy of race - they don’t. The idea of race that many take for granted, requires that there be more than one human race and that the divisions between what are considered races in ordinary life, have a foundation in science – they do not. So it makes no difference that traits such as skin color, which are considered racial traits, have corresponding genes and DNA – of course they do, because these are hereditary traits. The point is that all of the DNA and genetic information does not support the system of racial thinking that is supposed to divide people into biological groups. The divisions are purely social, as is the designation of certain traits as racial traits. Skin color, for example, is counted as a racial trait, for historical reasons going back to colonial conquest in the modern period. Height, which is also hereditary in varied ways corresponding to different human groups, is not counted as a racial trait. The traits that have been counted as “racial” have nothing biologically distinctive about them, which makes them “racial”. The idea of race is a social idea which has been falsely attached to real biology, in ways superficially facilitated by the fact that the traits that count as “racial” are hereditary.

A society without races. What are the relations and the influences between folk knowledge, expert knowledge and public debate? You are among the few scholars who claim the dismissal of the concept of race[2]: how realistic is this goal? Do you think racial categorization in the US is a means of ruling?

It is an empirical question whether people would behave better toward each other, on a group basis, if they did not think that racial differences had a biological foundation. They don’t have such a foundation, so for the sake of truth alone, it’s worth pursuing this as an (unappreciated) educational matter.
My own view is that without the human “speciation” provided by the mistaken belief that racial taxonomy has a biological foundation, there would less of an emotional ground for dehumanizing racial “others”.

Education and justice. What is the state of higher education in the US? The retreat of affirmative action programs within a system deeply marked by inequality of opportunities seems to show the failure of any project of justice and democracy. What are the alternatives? What are the perspectives?

Affirmative Action has not gone away. Institutions of higher education now work with ideas of “diversity” among faculty and students. Since the recent Supreme Court rulings in the Michigan cases, there is a holistic approach, against quotas, but toward overall competence in the case of each individual.
Of course, higher education is still not accessible to everyone, regardless of race and class, but that is a more broad socio-economic problem than can be solved by policies in higher education.

On quotas. Do you think quotas are unnecessary or injust?

I don’t think quotas work in a society like the US for two reasons. First, in public reality, race is not supposed to be tied to abilities, even though much discrimination is based on the covert belief that it is. Second, quotas are too rigid. All of the evidence suggests that human abilities do not line up with what people think of as race, so the question is, what would the quotas be picking out? A better system is not to discriminate, to practice fairness. Because that has never been systematically done, and because offenses are hard to prove on an individual basis, affirmative action was developed as a policy, first with quotas, then in the sense of affirmation, and finally in new senses of diversity. None of these solutions really get at the facts and reality of discrimination. To get at those requires both education and moral reflection.

Knowledge and gender. The link between knowledge organization and system of power is very problematic. Let us take the gender question, which you have thoroughly addressed in your work[3]. In most Western societies, women are on average more educated but much less influential than men. When is knowledge really a resource? How should it be qualified? Are we doomed to a tautological notion (knowledge matters when it is empowered)?

I don’t think you can avoid the fact that knowledge matters when it is empowered. “Women” as socially understood are a constructed group of those assigned to, or who identify with, the disjunctive categories of female from birth, biological mothers, or men’s heterosexual choices (notice that this definition does not exclude transsexuals from being women). This group, whose members share only that formal, relational commonality, has historically been subordinate to the group of men, but it also has different interests and skills. I think what the world now needs is women’s political parties that would pursue, on a global basis, the interests traditionally developed by women. This would be a radical shift in the very nature of power itself[4].

Interview given on November 13, 2007


[*] This contribution belongs within a research I started between March and June 2002 by attending the graduate seminar on Philosophy and Race Naomi Zack had been giving at the University of Oregon at Eugene (OR), and I continued between February and June 2005 during my period as visiting scholar at the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology at Cambridge (MA), as well as through my participation in the Third California Roundtable on Philosophy and Race held at the University of San Francisco (CA) on September 22-23, 2006. I am grateful to Naomi Zack for his uninterrupted willingness to discussion, and to Thomas Casadei for making possible this dialogue about issues of common interest.
[1] M. FOUCAULT, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon, Pantheon, New York (NY) 1980, p. 130.
[2] B. BARNES, The Nature of Power, University of Illinois Press, Champaign (IL) 1988. See also N. LUHMANN, Social Systems, Stanford University Press, Palo Alto (CA) 1995; U. BECK, A. GIDDENS, S. LASH, Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition, and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order, Polity Press, Cambridge 1994.
[3] It is no more than a truism that knowledge is a social fact, and the question if it attains some reality is one that a political-cultural analysis should set aside. In these two directions, along different perspectives, see for example J.L. CAMP, Jr., Confusion: A Study in the Theory of Knowledge, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (MA) 2002; S. FULLER, Social Epistemology, Indiana University Press, Bloomington (IN) 20022; A.G. GARGANI, Il sapere senza fondamenti, Einaudi, Torino 1975; I. HACKING, The Social Construction of What?, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (MA) 1999; G. TOWNER, Processes of Knowledge, University Press of America, Lanham (MD) 2001. Representative of a different view on both sides is M.P. LYNCH, True to Life: Why Truth Matters, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, Cambridge (MA) 2004.
[4] About the lack of scientific foundation of the concept of race, see the concise G. BARBUJANI, L’invenzione delle razze, Bompiani, Milano 2006. A comprehensive and constructively critical work about the relationship between science and society is A. IRWIN, M. MICHAEL, Science, Social Theory and Public Knowledge, Open University Press, Maidenhead - Philadelphia (PA) 2003. On the circular relation between identity, autonomy, and control see T.B. DYRBERG, The Circular Structure of Power: Politics, Identity, Community, Verso, London – New York (NY) 1997; E. LACLAU, C. MOUFFE, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, Verso, London – New York (NY) 20012.
[5] A foucauldian view about the racial subalternity in the symbolic production is D.T. GOLDBERG, Racist Culture. Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning, Blackwell, Cambridge (MA) 1993. A semiotic-materialistic analysis of the unequal effects rising from the relations which run through labor, social reproduction, and knowledge is F. ROSSI-LANDI, Metodica filosofica e scienza dei segni, Bompiani, Milano 20062. For a conflictualist approach to the practices of selfdescription, starting from a discussion of the performative root of gendership, see J. BUTLER, Undoing Gender, Routledge, New York (NY) – London 2004.
[6] As it is known, this expression refers to the principle according to which the members of certain groups (typically, minorities or women), by reason of the disadvantages they meet because of their historically subaltern position, are accorded a preference in the access to education or employment. After Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978), by which US Supreme Court banned quotas systems, race – or gender – conscious policies of admission are allowed if «narrowly tailored» only. In these terms Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003), which ruled that the race-conscious admission policies of the University of Michigan Law School did not violate the XIV Amendment to the United States Constitution – and precisely its Equal Protection Clause, which provides that «no state shall… deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws» – because US Constitution «does not prohibit the law school’s narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body». The court held that the law school’s interest in obtaining a «critical mass» of minority students was indeed a «tailored use». On this issue see M. GELARDI, Giustificare l’eccezione: l’egemonia dimezzata della Critical Race Theory, in T. CASADEI, L. RE (eds.), Legge, «razza» e diritti: a partire dalla Critical Race Theory, “Jura Gentium. Rivista di filosofia del diritto internazionale e della politica globale”, See also the contributions of D. KENNEDY, C.I. HARRIS, and C.L. HARRIS with U. NARAYAN in K. THOMAS, Gf. ZANETTI (eds.), Legge, razza e diritti. La Critical Race Theory negli Stati Uniti, Diabasis, Reggio Emilia 2005 (pp. 142-151, 152-157, 158-177, respectively), and T. CASADEI, Reverse Discriminations o Discriminations Reversed? Il corpo a corpo sull’affirmative action e l’egemonia dei valori negli Stati Uniti, in T. CASADEI, L. RE (eds.), Differenza razziale, discriminazione e razzismo nelle società multiculturali, 2 vols., Diabasis, Reggio Emilia 2007, vol. I: pp. 91-115. For a discussion of the concept of race not limited to the US case, see the section I dilemmi della ‘razza’: tra cittadinanza ed esclusione in “Cosmopolis”, II, 1, 2007 (also at, which also contains a contribution about the most recent developments on affirmative action in the US higher education: R. GORI MONTANELLI, Questioni razziali e università americane: le vicende dell’affirmative action.


[1] See N. ZACK, Philosophy of Science and Race, Routledge, New York (NY) - London 2002; ID., Bachelors of Science: Seventeenth Century Identity, Then and Now, Temple University Press, Philadelphia (PA) 1996; ID., Race and Philosophical Meaning, in B. BOXILL (ed.), Race and Racism, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2001.
[2] See N. ZACK, Race and Mixed Race, Temple University Press, Philadelphia (PA) 1993; ID. (ed.), American Mixed Race: The Culture of Microdiversity, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham (MD) 1995 (editor’s introduction and article, Life After Race). See also the short textbook N. ZACK, Thinking About Race, Thomson-Wadsworth, Stamford (CT) 20052.
[3] See N. ZACK, Inclusive Feminism: A Third Wave Theory of Women's Commonality, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham (MD) 2005; ID. (ed.), Race/Sex: Their Sameness, Difference and Interplay, Routledge, New York (NY) – London 1997 (editor’s introduction and article, The American Sexualization of Race). See also ID. (ed.), Women of Color and Philosophy: A Critical Reader, Blackwell, Malden (MA) 2000 (editor’s introduction and article, Descartes’ Realist Awake-Asleep Distinction, and Naturalism).
[4] See N. ZACK, Inclusive Feminism, cit.
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