Situating David Price in the Analysis of the Power – Knowledge Production Nexus

Price, David H. (2008). Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War. Durham, NC:Duke University Press. [Chapter 9, Archaeology and J. Edgar Hoover’s Special Intelligence Service, p. 200-219]

In this response I will focus on the central operative theme of this chapter (and arguably the book itself). This I identify to be the power – knowledge production nexus. Price attempts to address this dynamic through his study of the formative internal workings of US intelligence agencies (hence the particular use of the FOIA) as they sought to deploy US anthropologists in Latin America to assist in wartime needs. I take the position that Price cannot be expected to fundamentally challenge the basis of this operative nexus for he remains firmly confined within a US-centric framework that is invested in this same nexus through his identity and practice. I argue that unless one is making the difficult effort to challenge the entanglement of one’s ontology and epistemology in the dynamics of the power – knowledge production nexus, with the explicit goal of challenging and shifting these modes of being and knowing, there can be no real systematic challenge made to addressing the consequences of the status quo power relations embedded in the work produced.

This chapter provides an insightful description of the formative context in which the US intelligence architecture was constructed during WWII. The internal workings of hierarchy in the context of power struggles over intelligence control give an interesting insight into the workings of US national security (NS), as well as implicitly acknowledging the function of fear and the power of an order (understood either as a command or a mode of organization) that is the institutionalization of hierarchies in knowledge production. Intelligence in this case is aligned with knowledge production, as the accumulation of information becomes intelligence when organized and presented by the relevant ‘authority’ in the hierarchy, and is therefore knowledge as it serves to reinforce worldviews and present justification for the actions of power – in this case potential military deployment.

In 1939 the Military Intelligence Division, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and the FBI were all given the responsibility of overseeing US foreign intelligence. This joint task proved to result in serious internal power struggles (p. 201), tricks and collusion, as each organization sought to accumulate access to, and power over the management of information into the realm of intelligence. A clear example of this comes from chapter 7 (Internment Fieldwork) where FBI director Hoover was actively fearful of the surrendering of organizational power to the army as it related to the question of the mechanism of internment of US citizens of Japanese ancestry. In 1940 the Special Intelligence Service (SIS) was established under the FBI with the role of overseeing US intelligence in Latin America. Price notes that the SIS used ‘ American business firms for a constant study of Axis operations’ (p. 201), but does not provide any further questioning or emphasis on the role of the economic interests of US MNCs as they are directly related to the functioning of US NS internationally. This point brings a sharp questioning that is unexplored by Price, when considering the role of the MNC and US stated NS interests in what came to pass in Latin America throughout the decades of 1951-1981.

As these internal power struggles continued in the consolidation of the US intelligence architecture, William Donovan (a former Wall Street lawyer) was made Coordinator of Information (COI), to oversee all international intelligence operations and the functioning of a ‘centralized intelligence clearing house’ (p. 202). Donovan was supported by the British intelligence agencies who were directly involved in the formation of the COI position which led to the formation of the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA. I see it important here to note the existence of what I continue to call the unbroken pact of Anglo-American[1] hegemony that deploys Imperialism to continue the patterns of domination set by colonial conquest and rule (see my earlier response ‘THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT IN GOODY’S EXPANSIVE MOMENT‘ in this blog for more of this context).

The FBI managed a program for SIS operatives to be trained in ‘spycraft’ in order to function as ‘on-the-ground human sources gathering vital information for intelligence analysis.’ (p.202). In this effort US anthropologists were ready for deployment due to the precedent set in WWI with the use of ‘archeologist spies’. Center stage in this chapter is Lothrop, a US anthropologist who served as one of these WWI ‘archeologist spies’ in the Caribbean (p. 203) and returned to duty in WWII for a tour in Peru. I do not see the need to relay this ambiguous story but to note key points. In his deployment Lothrop created a web of lies under the pretext of doing archeological study at a museum to cover for work organizing a network of informants (p. 205). His activity was suspicious to many (including himself) and he was caught in various struggles with the US embassy and later the FBI. He did provide various forms of information over a period of about three years until 1944 when he resigned and returned to his academic positions at Harvard and Carnegie (p. 216). It is important to mention that these two institutions, along with the FBI and the Rockefeller Foundation, funded Lothrop’s intelligence operations in this period (p. 206).

Price observes that the ‘recurrent mixing of intelligence with legitimate funding foundations’ (p. 217) essentially serves ‘to undermine the credibility of claims of foundations’ and research institutes’ independence’ (p. 217) with consequences for past, present, and future. In the presentation of the problem it is the ‘silences maintained’ and at times ‘enforced’ (p. 219) by actions within member associations that is the cause for concern, similarly as it is the lack of anthropologists’ ‘scholarly’ work to ‘investigate’ this troubling history. This problem presents ‘serious dangers for fieldworkers operating around the world’ (p. 219) resulting from the ‘damage’ ‘to anthropology’s reputation’ (p. 218).

It is here that I must abruptly interject due underlying concern that I have for Price’s positionality in presenting this work. I must now situate my concern by presenting a critical analysis of Price’s work as he inevitably locates himself within the presentation. It is clear to me that Price is an ‘American’ anthropologist, and in my opinion from reading this text he is insular in that worldview. The problem exists in the presuppositions of his language of reference, noting particularly his use of the term ‘American’. The Americas are a vast place, complex, multifaceted, and composed of a high degree of variety in ontology and epistemology. The US is not America. This needs to be the beginning of the shift if the difficult work started by Price is to be taken seriously. It is evident that Price has no real articulated conception of the complexity and pervasiveness of Imperialism. Even where it might be implicit that he is referencing imperialist relations, the absence of any real analysis of these dynamics speaks loudly of his lack when he chooses to instead detail his concern for the safety of (legitimate? innocent? or imperial?) US anthropologists operating in contexts of international fieldwork.

I see it important to state explicitly the three concerns that I identify to be central to Price in this chapter: i) The reputation of US anthropology, ii) the safety of US anthropologists conducting fieldwork internationally, and iii) the consequences of US anthropology’s uncomfortable and ambiguous history of working with US intelligence agencies as it affects the workings of institutionalized anthropology in the US today. I go from this to make an explicit parallel between the functioning of the US intelligence architecture and the operation of anthropologists working from an elevated position in the power asymmetry of the international arena (as every US anthropologist inevitably does when working in this context, even when not working under the direct contract of US intelligence agencies).

Imperialism is not solely about military, economic, and political power. Imperialism is also about a global and hegemonic threat to the diversity of ontologies and epistemologies that exists around the world. In Price’s analysis there is no apparent moment where he considers the function of anthropology itself as a force of power that accumulates information about other ways of being and knowing such that this information can be brought into self-defined theoretical frameworks in order to become recognizable knowledge. The power inherent in this system of knowledge production is that it ultimately serves in the process of complete domination of one social group (one way of being and knowing) over another. Furthermore it is arguable that the knowledge produced by anthropologists is accessible as intelligence to the military and intelligence agencies whether they are contracted or not. The reality is that science, and social science, have never been independent of the workings of power. That is true from the earliest times of formalized scientific practices and theories that were quickly entangled in the beginnings of the colonial expansionist projects right through to today where there is explicit collaboration of social scientists with the military, and biologists with corporations that seek to patent and police the genetic codes and building blocks of life.

It is arguable that there have always been traditions of resistance to and efforts toward subverting these relations of the power – knowledge production nexus. The important point is that there are no pure origins of science to go back to, or any independent state to go towards. The complex and uncomfortable reality is there is always struggle and confrontation inherent in knowledge and power. As I see it the question and work is then to bluntly and honestly confront and address the entanglement of these relations inherent to the power – knowledge production nexus such that we might be able to contribute to addressing the inherent power symmetries with the explicit goal of engaging a fundamental shift in ontology and epistemology such that the coexistence of the diverse modes of being and ways of knowing inherent in existence are not perpetually threatened by a structural hegemony, especially in facing the reality of increasingly endangered ecologies that were are embedded in as the basis of our means of survival on this planet.

[1] I use this reference knowing the contradiction inherent in the term ‘American’, a critique I do bring to bear on Price’s use of it. I use the reference Anglo-American deliberately as it provokes this contradiction while being a direct reference to a particular historical alignment of power that rested on a guarantee of a particular form of hegemonic centrism that is often labeled ‘western’; a term in itself fraught with contradictions as it presupposes a particular world view. The traps are endless, especially in the English language.


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