What to Build With: Knowledge Politics or Truth Politics?

After giving a presentation on the research covered in my book, Reassembling Rubbish, I was asked if I had given thought to how my own ways of narrating stories about e-waste might inform public understandings of the issue. The questioner directed her query specifically to my claims about the effects of ‘mind bombs’ on shaping discourses about e-waste. ‘Mind bombs’ are a tactic originated by Greenpeace for using images in battles for public perceptions about an issue. The tactic succeeds when it generates an ‘image event’ that expands “the universe of thinkable thoughts” (DeLuca, 1999: 6). In short, the claim I made during the talk is that mind bombs have consequences that other bombs do: they can inflict collateral damage.

The collateral damage I discussed results from the wide circulation of mediagenic images of ‘e-waste’ that make it difficult to understand ‘e-waste’ as being anything besides post-consumer waste. As I argue in the book (and in the talk I was giving), this situation makes it very difficult to discuss any ‘solutions’ to e-waste that would have genuinely ameliorative effects in the sense of changing how much and what kind of wastes are generated upstream in the mining for, and manufacturing of, electronics before post-consumer e-waste is generated in the first place

The questioner’s point, I think, was to ask me about how my research has (or hasn’t) dealt with its own possibilities for generating collateral damage or, said differently, its own political effects on knowing e-waste. A good question. As I see it, the query is premised on some more or less unstated assumptions about two different ways of knowing the world: truth politics versus knowledge politics.


Truth politics starts from a premise about facts that sees them as able to be understood directly from the point of view of an observer. Although the observer may not be able to escape her or his various conscious and unconscious biases, truth politics holds that there nevertheless is such a thing as neutral and objective facts existing outside a knowing observer.

Knowledge politics, however, have a different understanding of facts. The etymology of the word ‘fact’ itself suggests the scene is more complicated than it appears from the point of view of truth politics. ‘Fact’ has the same Latin root, facere, as artifact. Artifacts are usually understood as things that are made. The notion of ‘facts’ then is a bit more slippery than it might seem from the way the word gets used in everyday speech. ‘Fact’ could mean ‘made’ and thus ‘made up’ as in ‘fake’ or it could mean ‘made’ in the sense of ‘built’.

Often this trickiness around the notion of fact gets tangled up in accusations of this or that fact being ‘socially constructed’, as if that is way to question the veracity of a fact. But this is a very odd way of thinking about the meaning of ‘socially constructed’. It’s as if to say because a house is designed by architects and built by workers using tools and materials sourced from multitudes of people and places elsewhere and is, thus, ‘socially constructed’ it is a fake house (see here and Thompson 2005 Chapter 1 on this house analogy). Yet, with all those people, places, and things involved in its making, what else could the house be other than ‘social’ and ‘constructed’? And, if it is accurate, then, to describe the house as socially constructed, how is that grounds to characterize it as a fake house (Lepawsky et al., 2015)?

Truth politics presupposes being able to sort out truth from falsity based on the idea that any knowledge claim that can be shown to be socially constructed is merely a false belief. However, there is a problem with this staging of judgement. Wittingly or otherwise, truth politics presupposes that its own knowledge claims are neither social nor constructed. It implicitly insists on constructivism for everyone but the enlightened critic bravely holding forth on the politics of truth. Yet, if all knowledge is constructed, constructedness cannot distinguish between the critic’s truth and the mere fetish (false beliefs) of believers (Latour, 2004).

Knowledge politics sets the scene differently. Instead of adjudicating between claims that are understood as unconstructed (thus true) versus constructed (thus false), knowledge politics rolls with the possibility that all knowledge is built. As such, it then asks not which knowledge is true and which false but, instead, how well built is this or that claim to knowledge? By whom? Out of what materials and using what instruments? Where? When? Under what conditions? The answers to those questions then provide a guide, not to judging truth versus falsity, but to which claims are built by whom in more (or less) trustworthy ways.

Works Cited

  • DeLuca, Kevin Michael. Image Politics : The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism. Revisioning Rhetoric. New York: Guilford Press, 1999.
  • Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (2004): 225–48.
  • Lepawsky, Josh, Joshua Goldstein, and Yvan Schulz. “Criminal Negligence?” Discard Studies (blog), June 24, 2015. http://discardstudies.com/2015/06/24/criminal-negligence/.
  • Thompson, Charis. Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2005.