• Danielle Foushée

Science, Knowledge, & Power

Today, I went down a Foucaultian rabbit hole. Foucault's work has been mentioned repeatedly in the work of travel writing critics (and critics in many disciplines) to illustrate the mechanisms by which colonial power is affirmed in narratives of Western travelers’ encounters with cultural differences. Some of Foucault’s (1976) ideas about power structures mirror those of Louis Althusser (whose work I wrote about in discussion 4). Both theorists propose two types of systems that compel cultural subjects to conform to hegemonic norms. One is coercive and potentially violent. I call this the STICK — like police, prisons, the death penalty, and war. The other is nearly invisible, operating under the surface of our everyday lives. I call this the CARROT. Foucault’s term for the carrot is “biopower.” He claims that the need for a “stick” is reduced because, in the presence of biopower, a culture of care provides for us, and teaches us where our cultural boundaries are — through religion, education, healthcare, family, and so on.

During the Enlightenment, “objective” science became the magistrate of truth across Western culture [most of the time]. So as long as there’s [the appearance of] supporting data, then its conclusions are, naturally, the way things are. According to Foucault, scientific narratives are often used to confirm notions of Western culture’s superiority, its moral purity, and to sanction colonialism’s oppressive conduct. Phrenology is a classic example of Western scientists using dubious methods to confirm their own biases about the moral character and intellectual ability of people who are different. This dynamic is at work on the cover of a 1932 issue of Popular Science Monthly (pictured), featuring a sensational headline that reads, “Amazing Facts Discovered by a Famous Physician Arm the Police with a Mighty New Weapon Against Crime.” Apparently, the shape of a person's ear can predict their predilection towards deviant behaviors.

The idea of judging a person based on the shape of their ears might seem too ridiculous to be true, but faux-empirical knowledge presented as objective fact can engender unbelievable cruelty. The North American slave trade relied on such “scientific data” to justify its less-than-human treatment of kidnapped Africans and their descendants in the New World. In 2019, New York Times Magazine presented a series called The 1619 Project about the legacy of slavery in the U.S. Journalist Linda Villarosa recounts stories of respected White doctors who went to great lengths to find scientific proof of physiological differences between Black people and Whites:

“Like many… doctors… in the South, he [Dr. Thomas Hamilton] was also a wealthy plantation owner who tried to use science to prove that differences between black people and white people went beyond culture and were more than skin deep… They believed that black people had large sex organs and small skulls — which translated to promiscuity and a lack of intelligence… These fallacies, presented as fact and legitimzed in medical journals, bolstered society’s view that enslaved people were fit for little outside [of] forced labor and provided support for racist ideology and discriminatory public policies.”

Dr. Hamilton’s work was conducted and disseminated in the early 1800s, but Villarosa points out that its consequences are still felt today:

“A 2016 survey of 222 white medical students and residents… showed that half of them endorsed at least one myth about physiological differences between black people and white people, including that black people’s nerve endings are less sensitive than white people’s.”

Travel writers might be tempted to lean on "facts" like these as they interpret their experiences of different people in other places. Debbie Lisle accuses mainstream travel writers of willful ignorance and complicity in upholding colonial despotism. Her critique of Alain De Botton’s is particularly harsh. Her problem with his 2004 bestseller, The Art of Travel, is his seeming refusal to acknowledge his privilege as a Western white man. She points out three red flags that indicate a travel writer’s (including De Botton’s) lack of self-awareness or critical engagement with systems of hegemonic power. First, travel writers need to unpack the forces that afford them the freedom of movement at all. Who gets to travel where, who doesn’t, and why? Second, why do travel writers think they’re qualified to “peddle ‘philosophy-lite’ to their readers? And, finally, just because a travel writer visits a place should not automatically make them an “authority” on its people and culture (275).

Lisle argues that because travel inherently places them in Mary Louise Pratt’s (1992) “contact zones” where cultures clash and ultimately transform one another (6), travel writers have an ethical responsibility to critically interrogate their own reactions to, relationships, and exchanges with the differences they encounter (261). She goes on to discuss potential criteria, or lenses, through which travel writers (and readers) might begin to assess how hegemonic narratives are functioning in a text.

First, Lisle tells us that in terms of discourse, “good or bad writing matters less than the manner in which a travelogue produces and engages with cultural difference” (262). Whether a text is “good” or “bad” is perhaps the wrong question entirely. The real question is: What are the objectives of the author/maker, and is this narrative/text/artifact effective in achieving them? Since Western travel writing is an archive of our always-evolving relationships to different cultures, our own culture, and ourselves, the genre is an ideal location for Western subjects to grapple with the consequences of their histories.

David Spurr joins Lisle in explicitly advocating for a turn towards postmodern ideological frameworks to address cultural difference in travel writing. Postmodernism is characterized by the following qualities that emerged in Western thought after World War II and the dissolution of Western colonialism:

  1. distrust of [official] facts,

  2. revolt against homogenized forms of experience,

  3. a rise in the “ex-centric”

  4. awareness of the interconnectedness of all matter

  5. self-reflexivity and instability,

  6. arbitrariness of truth, and

  7. absence of norms (Pratt, 26-27).

Spurr (1993) offers four questions that authors might ask as they recount their stories of encounters with other people in other places.

  1. What are the subtexts connoted in the words (or images, or objects) we choose?

  2. What is the context and purpose of our observations of difference?

  3. Why do we care about this — why is it important?

  4. Have we included perspectives of the people impacted by our presence? (189-194)

– – – –

In Part II of this post, I'll expand further on these postmodern theoretical frameworks — and I'm planning to apply them to an analysis of travel in 2020's Covid-19 lockdowns.


  • Bassnett, S. (2002). Travel Writing and Gender. The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing. (P. Hulme and T. Youngs, Eds.). Cambridge University Press.

  • De Botton, A. (2004). The Art of Travel. Vintage Press.

  • Foucault, M. (1976). The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: Penguin Books (1998).

  • Lisle, D. (2006). The Global Politics of Contemporary Travel Writing. Cambridge University Press.

  • Villarosa, L. (2019). Myths About Physical Racial Differences Were Used to Justify Slavery — and Are Still Believed By Doctors Today, in The 1619 Project. New York Times Magazine. Accessed from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/racial-differences-doctors.html

  • Popular Science Monthly (Nov. 1932). 121:5. (Cover Design).

  • Pratt, M.L. (1992). Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. Routledge.

  • Spurr, D. (1993). The Rhetoric of Empire. Duke University Press.

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