Time and Place for Power/Knowledge

May 2, 2012

In his work of heterotopias that accumulate time, Foucault points to a close relationship between ‘the system of knowledge as a means of exercising social control on the one hand and the dominant power within specific local contexts on the other’ (Klingmann, 2005, p.254). In subsequent discussions on the cultural institutions that served to articulate Foucault’s power-knowledge relations, one cannot forgo the rise of the public library. As such, with a slight adjustment to the objectives of Tony Bennett In The Birth of the Museum, I whish to ‘unravel the relations between knowledge and power effected by the technologies of vision embodied in the architectural forms of the exhibitionary complex [public library]’ (1995, p.63).

The world of books, open for public inspection, offered the individual the opportunity not only to be the subject but the object of observation. The cultural institutions formulated a panoramic view – a new spectacle that escaped the confinement of the private domain for the exposure to public gaze (Bennett, 1995, pp.60-61). The knowledge offered by the cultural institution asserted a subtle set of relations through which power was exercised (Bennett, 1995, p.61). These were new ‘vehicles for inscribing and broadcasting the messages of power throughout society’ but ‘reversed the orientation of the disciplinary apparatuses in seeking to render the forces of order visible to the populace’ (Bennett, 1995, pp.61-62). Bennett thus rewrites Foucault’s definition of the spectacle and the parameters for panoptisicm as the public became integral to a self-observing, omnipresent, dynamic and counter-reversible set of non-egalitarian power relations that operate in close relationship to knowledge.

While the public library ‘rendered the multitude accessible to its own inspection’ (1995, p.86) its interior also reflected the ideas of ‘a site of sight visible to all’ (Bennett, 1995, p.69). The new type of library rejected tripartite division of programme for the storage, administration and reading of books, previously adopted by architects of the industrial era (Naumann, 2005, p.250). As a result of public access to an increasing number of books, developments in America devised a more user-friendly organization of books according to subject matter. An open plan layout with open shelf areas that housed large sections of current literature was to ensure maximum access to information without the need for staff assistance. Asplund’s library, completed in 1928, was the first public library in Sweden to apply this principle. Post-war German libraries on the other hand were resistant in adopting the new open-shelf usage and spatial layout as the educational policies of the people’s library movement sought to distinguish German library construction from foreign layout (Naumann, 2005, p.253).

New planning principles were a testament to the knowledge-power relations enacted within the library but also illustrated how the library served as a site for the play of international politics. The public library thus embodied the principles of a self-observing crowd on both a civic and architectural scale, at the pivotal point in time when knowledge began to acquire its power. As commodities became increasingly immaterial and collective progress relied more on the development and exchange of knowledge itself, could it be argued that the public library should be regarded as the key institution of post-industrial power?

– Mimmi Frendin

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