Knowing Knowing

Every time I get sick, I have a theory as to how it happened. It was the disgusting woman on the bus sneezing. It was stress from work. It was the resurgence of some dormant malady. I've noticed this is true of people in general: they claim to know how they got this or that ailment.  And then everyone — and I mean everyone — has a remedy: Echinacea, zinc, colloidal silver, sweat, don't sweat, chicken soup, garlic.

How do we know these things?

Sometimes, our knowing comes from a doctor. After all, doctors are supposed to know about such things. Knowing means being told by someone else who claims to know — and who we believe for whatever reason. In some sense, we don't know; it's the doctor who knows.

Me, I rarely believe my doctor: she doesn't seem to understand very much about how the world works. And as for all the germ stuff, well, it seems like a conveniently belligerent model that recapitulates our state apparatus: kill the bad terrorist germs!  I see viruses and bacteria as a necessary but not sufficient condition of sickness.

How do I know this? Well, it's a complex process that's at once physical and reflective: I let the idea play through my body and mind, process it with what I know, my history, my experiences. And based on this elusive calculus, I tell myself: It's the stress! I go with the answer that just feels right.  But am I the best reader of my body? And does this count as general knowledge, as something that is true for anyone but me?

Sometimes, I read things on Yahoo! And while I may or may not enjoy the article, I rarely believe it. Who's Yahoo! anyway?  Once, I read an article claiming that men who masturbated often on their 20s were less likely to have prostate cancer later in life. Within weeks of that article, there was another one claiming that drinking alcohol was good for the heart. And I thought to myself: Now this is knowledge I can get behind!  Did I believe it? No. But nor do I not believe it. I do, however, like it.

How, then, do we know what we know?  And why don't we talk about how we know? We talk about what we know all the time. For instance, there is debate as to what students should be taught about Christopher Columbus: Is he a hero or a genocidal killer? And while these arguments focus on aspects of what we know, they never consider the way we know.

Knowing is not neutral or natural. We are taught how to know, albeit it unknowingly. Sure, we'll argue about Christopher Columbus but we never argue about how we know Christopher Columbus — or whether he's even worth knowing about. We know unknowingly.

Usually, those things we never consider as something to consider are the things ideology most wants to protect and should therefore be considered all the more. Indeed, one component of the way we know is that we don't consider the way we know, that we consider our way of knowing natural. Another way of knowing might know otherwise and consider the manner of knowing a critical component of a way of knowing: a self-reflexive knowing. 

Knowing demands a series of inter-related actions that are psycho-ideological. Which is a convoluted way of saying that how you know is constitutive of how you are in the world (psycho-) — and how the world wants you be (ideological). 

Knowing of course involves determining what counts as something to be known. This is different than the debate on Christopher Columbus in which the very premise of the debate is a common belief that Columbus is something even worth discussing. Indeed, it would be absurd to suggest otherwise. Such is the insidious way of ideology: to think otherwise is to be insane, absurd, or criminal (pace Foucault). Before we begin knowing, then, we already know. We know, for instance, that scientific studies are something worth knowing. We know that wars are something we should study. We carefully heed and parse presidential proclamations — we even make our children memorize them.

But the fluctuation and operation of moods? Nope — that's not a subject we can ever know about, not really. A doodle by an unknown person from 1863? Might be cool but it won't tell us anything — nothing as important as the Gettysburg Address. Everyone knows that, right?

A way of knowing distributes experience and category in its own way. For instance, there is deduction and induction: We begin with a category and deduce how an experience fits it. Or we begin with experiences and see what kind of categories we might make.

But there are ways of knowing that might have no categories, neither deduction nor induction, that move laterally rather than vertically. I co-founded a website many years ago, ArtandCulture, in which we presented a hierarchy of artists alongside an artist cloud. Pinback, for instance, was in Music > Indie but was also in a nebulous cloud that included Alonzo King Lines Ballet and Picasso — that is, a lateral association formed by affective resonances — horizontal associations rather than vertical hierarchies.  

And then there is how we decide something is true. Usually, we lean on authority: the doctor told me, the scientist told me, the teacher told me. But the criteria for truth can be elusive  — and may not involve truth. When I try to figure how I got sick, I look for an answer that works for me, not an answer that's true. Is this a kind of truth? Perhaps. But I'm willing to abandon it for a better working answer — and I'm not sure truth is something one can jettison.

I like to imagine a protean mode of knowing — a manner of taking up the world that shifts according to circumstance. And that doesn't need to be true. And, in fact, doesn't need to know anything at all — a non-knowing knowing. 

1 comment:

Nathan said...

Comment unrelated to post:

Coffeen, would you want to collaborate on a podcast? I've been exploring the possibilities of the medium, and with sound design and what not, the potentials are quite interesting. If this tickles your fancy, email me at brainwalk2012@gmail.com. Just thinking of this as a one off or maybe a short series.