Table of Contents
- Main body
It is no secret that humans are naturally extremely curious beings. it is what makes us human. We are asking all kinds of questions and we expect that the answers we will (hopefully) get, will make us and our lives better. The more knowledge we have about our world, about life, about everything, the better we can use the resources around us to enhance our lives.
In his short story Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges creates an allegory in which he compares the universe to a library. In its books, this library (of which the architecture we will discuss later) contains everything that has ever been written and that will ever be written in the future. The books in the library stand for knowledge and the person who has read the ‘total’ book, in which all of the books are contained in a compressed version, is compared to a god, which leads to the assumption that knowledge is power.
In this essay, I will try to explain how Borges’ Library of Babel explores converting knowledge into a compact manageable form and the power relationships that this leads to.
In Borges’ Library of Babel, the universe is a library (thus the nickname ‘The Library). It is made up of a series of identical hexagon-shaped rooms. Each room has four walls of books, tiny closet-like spaces for sleeping and using the restroom, and hallways that lead to other hexagons. The hallways contain spiral staircases, which lead up and down to other, identical levels. These hallways also each contain a mirror, which the narrator thinks of as a sign of the Library’s infinite nature. Each wall of books in the Library contains five shelves, each holding thirty-two matching books. Each book has 410 pages, with 40 lines per page and about 80 characters per line. The cover of each book has a title, but the title has nothing to do with the contents of the book.’ (Shmoop Editorial Team)
The narrator as well as other librarians have come to a various philosophical conclusion about the library. According to the narrator, the Library has two ‘axioms’ or ‘truths’.
Firstly, the library has existed ab æternitate, (forever). That according to the narrator proves that this perfect library can only have been designed by a god.
Secondly, there are exactly 25 different written symbols. These 25 symbols exist in different combinations in the books, which means that every book that can exist does indeed exist.
In summary, the library is thus filled with hexagons and walls and volumes and books and pages and every single page has something different on it and amidst the literally trillions, and way more than that actually, of combinations in the library you can find every single word, sentence, phrase, spelling, and novel that’s ever been written said or could ever be conceived. You can find in this library the description of your birth, every possible description of your death, every poem, every joke, every lie, anything that could be said can be found in this library. This thing blurs the line between invention and discovery. Did you really discover or invent that thing if its description already existed?
After this ‘discovery’, the people of the Library figured that since the ‘absolute truth’ was already out there, they only had to go and find it. People hoped to find a lot of different books. Some searched for the story of their lives, some searched for a book that would explain the origin of the library and the human race. However, ‘the certainty that some bookshelf in some hexagon contained precious books, yet that those precious books were forever out of reach, was almost unbearable.’ (Borges, p.116) A lot of men ended up going insane and even committing suicide for not being able to find that absolute truth they were so desperately searching for.
The narrator then tells us about one superstition that existed during this period which talked about the ‘Book-man’. This person, according to the legend, had found and read the ‘total book’, the book that was thought to exist somewhere in the Library, which could explain all of the other books. By reading the ‘total book’ the ‘Book man’ would have surely acquired the powers of a god. This belief that the person who has read the ‘total book’, in which all of the books are contained in a compressed version, is compared to a god, comes to show that knowledge is power. If this person knows everything and anything that has happened and is going to happen, this person has power over others. This is why the people in the library want to find and worship this person so that some knowledge might be shared with them. It is easier to find a person who has read this book than to look for the book itself or even read every single existing book, which is impossible.
As already mentioned Borges compares the ‘Book-man’ to a god. Let us compare this to how the Christian God is portrayed in the Bible.
‘The Bible teaches that God is all-knowing or omniscient. The word ‘omniscient’ comes from two Latin words Omnis signifying all, and Scientia signifying knowledge. When we say that God is omniscient it means that He has perfect knowledge of all things. He does not have to learn anything, and He has not forgotten anything. God does not have to reason things out, find out things, or learn them gradually. He knows everything that has happened and everything that will happen. God also knows every potential thing that might happen. God even knows those things that humankind has yet to discover. This knowledge is absolute. The omniscience of God means that He has perfect knowledge, perfect understanding, and perfect wisdom as to how to apply the knowledge.’ (Stewart)
This description of the Christian God sounds awfully similar to how Borges describes the ‘Book-man’; the librarian who has acquired all the knowledge that the library/universe has to offer. Just as the people of the Library want to worship this person, so do all Christians and an extent, all religious people, worship the God they believe in and we all know how much of an influence religion has had and still has in our world.
The idea of the ‘Book man’ also reminds me of Bran Stark in G.R.R.Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ book series. During the story, Brandon Stark, who is also a warg, (people with the ability to enter the minds of animals and perceive the world through their senses and even control their actions. The act of doing this is called ‘warning.), becomes ‘The Three-Eyed Raven’, which gives him the power of ‘green light. A person with greenlight sometimes dreams like other people, but the green dreams are different, filled with symbolic meaning, images, and metaphors of the past, the present, and what is to come. As is the case with the ‘Book Man’, this power gives Brandon the ability to acquire infinite knowledge.
Once again this is proof that knowledge equals power. This phrase is in fact a Latin aphorism ‘Scientia potential est’, commonly attributed to Sir Francis Bacon. However, the phrase’s first documented occurrence goes way back to Imam Ali (599-661 CE), as recorded in the tenth-century book Nahj Al-Balagha. He said:
‘Knowledge is power, and it can command obedience. A man of knowledge during his lifetime can make people obey and follow him and he is praised and venerated after his death. Remember that knowledge is a ruler and wealth is its subject.’ (Razi)
– Imam Ali, Nahj Al-Balagha, Saying 146
All these examples come to show that the idea that knowledge equals power has been and still is a very popular theme in a lot of stories.
In Italo Calvino’s The Origin of the Birds, Qfwfq follows the birds into their home. He reaches a place where the earth ended, but as soon as he decides to take the leap of faith and follow the bird into the void, a whole continent came forward of which he could see its shores, its valleys, its heights, and so much beauty. When I read this part of the story I immediately thought of how learning a new language makes you feel. Before learning Spanish for example, it all sounded Greek to me (not really, since Greek is my mother tongue). Listening to Spanish felt like looking at a wall. I did not understand anything, it was like the void that was looking at. However, once I started learning new words and I could understand the language, up to the point that I became fluent, it was like a whole new world had opened for me. I suddenly had access to so much music, videos, websites, books, and newspapers that I could not access before because of my lack of understanding of Spanish. It was as if a whole new continent had come forward, bringing so much information and beauty with it. And that goes with every other language as well. By learning a culture’s language, you get to understand its people’s way of thinking and their way of life in general; you get to understand parts of their culture that are un-graspable by foreigners. The same goes for every other piece of knowledge one can acquire. In the case of Qfwfq, it was learning about the existence of birds. Acquiring knowledge gives you access to so many new things, it gives you the power to expand your horizons even further.
Now that we have established that knowledge is indeed power, we have to explain what this means and why it is important. Of course, the meaning varies from author to author, but the general idea remains throughout each reference. With knowledge or education, one’s potential or abilities in life will certainly increase. Having and sharing knowledge is widely recognized as the basis for improving one’s reputation and influence, thus power. This phrase may also be used as a justification for a reluctance to share information when a person believes that with-holding knowledge can deliver to that person some forms of advantage. Another interpretation is that the only true power is knowledge, as everything (including any achievement) is derived from it. ‘Humans have always had a thirst for knowledge – whether it be to improve their lives and circumstances or out of sheer curiosity and the urge to get to the bottom of things. Humans are always in a quest for knowledge. Without scientific discoveries, humanity would not have evolved at such a rapid pace. Life, as we know it today, would be unthinkable without the knowledge we gain through science and scholarship. Innovations and new insights are integrated into our lives in ever quicker succession. Scientists, doctors, engineers, and inventors as they look for ways to increase human knowledge.’ (www.dw.com)
Knowledge is the only precious thing that nobody can take away from us. It remains with us forever and increases if we distribute it among people. It provides actual freedom in life and opens all the doors to success. Knowledge is a very important tool to get positive changes in society and the world. True knowledge keeps people away from fights, corruption, and other social issues harmful to humanity. People with more and/or better knowledge can control all situations and circumstances in their life. It creates self-confidence and lots of patience in tasks of life. It should not be misused. It should be used for peace, prosperity, and growth.
What Borges essentially does in Library of Babel, especially with the idea of the ‘total book and the ‘Book man’, is converting knowledge into a compact manageable form and thus creating a power relationship between the ‘Book man’ and the rest of the librarians, in which the ‘Book man’ is seen as a god, who everyone wants to worship and follow. In our world, we have unfortunately seen a handful of times throughout history how giving absolute power to one person only has turned out to be catastrophic. From Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to Mao Zedong, to Vladimir Lenin, and to the most recent example being North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, there have been several very deadly dictators throughout history who have walked the Earth and misused their power. That means that absolute power can sadly also corrupt absolutely. Tyrants and dictators can quickly consolidate power and cause a tremendous amount of suffering when there are no checks and balances, laws, and proper institutions in place. Sadly, every once in a while, politicians and leaders decide to do things their own way (much to the dismay of the masses). From communist leaders to tribal despots, these cold-blooded dictators do not care for the value of life as much as they do achieving their selfish motives of domination, power, and immortality.
However, I have a problem with all these statements and that is that nobody can achieve infinite knowledge. The existence of a The Book-Man, The Three-Eyed Raven, as well as that of Gods is extremely unlikely if not impossible. In real life we cannot be the ‘Book man’, we are much more the rest of the librarians who seek knowledge and truth, without being able to attain complete knowledge or true knowledge. Humans cannot attain complete knowledge because we do not live long enough, we are not objective, and we do not have the biological capacity to retain all knowledge. Borges acknowledges that and that is why in his story nobody ends up finding the books they were searching for and they can only be left hoping that some man has had the chance to read the ‘total book’. Acquiring infinite knowledge is just not an option in real life and our world and thus the statement ‘Knowledge is power’ requires and acquires a new interpretation. Inspired by the ideas of Foucault on knowledge, power, and dis-course which we had looked at in high school I will try to do exactly that. I will do that by using the example of high school cliques and by explaining how Foucault’s concept can be applied to their emergence.
First of all, if you want to understand the phrase knowledge is the power you have to define specific terms that are interlinked with the concept itself. Knowledge from this interpretation does not actually mean knowing a bunch of facts. Facts do not necessarily mean knowledge in a Foucauldian sense. Knowledge is only considered as knowledge if It has relevance to a dominant discourse in a given social structure. To put it in the simpler language you have to speak the concepts that are relevant intergroup. You have to speak in what the group speaks like to gain popularity within that group, which is a pretty intuitive concept. For example, if you want to be a part of the cool kids in high school you have to adhere to certain codes and conventions of how the cool kids should act in high school. There is a certain dominant discourse in that social structure, namely, cool shoes, namely parties, namely alcohol, etc. And also, similarly, if you want to belong to a different social structure for example the ‘Nerds’ then you have to speak the language that the Nerds are speaking. Are they dressed up in a certain way? Do they talk about a certain topic? Do they seem to be extremely passionate about a certain thing? These are all that Foucault coined as dominant discourses and these are two discourses that we have to adhere to and a process of gaining control and gaining mastery over these dominant discourses is what knowledge entails. Knowledge is power not in the sense that the more facts about quantum mechanics that you know the more quarks that you can name, the more relevant you are to society. Certainly, in certain corners of society, maybe in the academic circle you could appear to be a more powerful person in that social structure. If you become an academic or physicist, those relevant concepts in physics are going to be extremely relevant to your chosen field of study. Likewise, if you are a wine taster, the dominant discourse within that social structure, is going to be the type of wine, so it would not make a lot of sense for you to go memorizing Shakespearean quotes when you attend a wine party just to seem more sophisticated. In a nutshell, there are hidden rules and there are hidden dominant discourses and there is hidden stuff within every social structure that one needs to adhere to to be a part of that group, and the ones that do not possess that dominant structure and narrative are by necessity excluded from the group because you are not part of the group, you do not speak our language, you are not part of our tribe, then we will have to kick you out. Power in a Foucauldian sense is the unequal distribution of such dominant discourses so there is a central theme of the central versus the marginal in all of the postmodern thinking In high school despite the fact dominant discourses are residing both within the cool kids and the Nerds, the cool kids are going to take on a higher social status than the Nerds because their dominant structure is more elevated. And of course, certain disciplines like physics are in fact more elevated than humanities because they possess a higher power status in society and if you want to rise to that power structure you have to learn the discourse you have to learn math, you have to learn the science and learn about the different scientific theories that you need to learn about. So in a nutshell, the more you know does not exactly mean that the more power you are going to have in society. Knowledge is power here really essentially means you have to gain the knowledge of the dominant discourse within a social group to understand the dynamics of the group and to fit into a social group is to gain control and master their dominant discourse, otherwise, you will be excluded from the group. A clip I found by professor Rick Roderick explains everything very succinctly and beautifully.
‘Now when I have my students argue with me about this thesis that where you find knowledge or information there you also find power, if they keep arguing with me I threaten to give them a C, and then they agree with me.’ (Roderick)
Just having a lot of information, just having a lot of knowledge or learning does not necessarily translate into success, nor does it translate into physical and mental health. Knowledge of self is power, that is where all the power is. The more you know about your mental and physical being the more effective you are going to be in this life and the more power you are going to have to do the things that you want to do. So how do you improve your knowledge of yourself? by taking little tiny steps in the direction of learning more about yourself.
In conclusion, Borges’ library contains every possible combination of letters that have been or could be ever written. This means that in this library, somewhere, is a book containing the answers to every philosophical and existential question we’ve ever asked. How did the universe begin? Do we have a purpose? What is our future? All of the answers we seek are in one book, and the worst part is that we have absolutely no way to find them. The person who would find and read this book, so the story goes, would then acquire infinite knowledge and thus also godlike powers.
In every story where there is an omniscient character, that character also seems to possess a lot of power, thus creating the assumption that knowledge equals power, an idea that has existed for centuries and with various interpretations. However, acquiring infinite knowledge is impossible and thus it is not about knowledge itself but about using this knowledge correctly to succeed in life.
Humans are always on a quest for knowledge.