12.07.2012

Knowing with Pleasure

There are certain facts that delight me. Starfish, for instance, are vicious predators that attack by inserting their stomachs into their prey —  mussels — and there and then digesting their catch. Or the etymology of the word doom (I thank the sophist and poet, Lohren Green, for this): what began as a way to signify justice became the annihilation of everything. Doom, alas, was doomed.

I love these facts. They're surprising. They open up worlds, generously giving a glimpse of a cosmos for which they are just one poignant moment. Suddenly, the oceans teem with a speed and madness I had not imagined as I see the history of the world in doom's demise.

But I want to talk about something else: I want to talk about how I know things. And I'm not talking about the sources of my knowing — documentaries on Netflix, books, articles on Yahoo. I am talking about the process I undergo as I come to know the world.

For the most part, I think it's safe to say that people don't usually consider how they know. They consider what they know (fly fishing! 18th century astrolabe makers! coffee varieties!). They might even consider the source of their knowing (Yahoo vs. "The New York Times" — as an aside, I'd take Yahoo). But they rarely consider their manner of knowing — what they consider as something to be known; how they distribute experience and category; their criteria for accepting something as true.

In college, I was a history major. This was partly because I had AP credit so placed out of some requirements (a good criterion for choosing a major — I'm serious). And because I'd had an excellent history teacher in high school (Robert Tucker —RIP, sadly).  But, holy moly, was history in college boring! Wars, treaties, presidents: who the hell cares?

I longed for something else, to know in a different way. What about everyday people? What were they thinking, experiencing, living? And then I read Michel Foucault and everything changed. He shifted the focus from official documents to the breadth of the archive — diaries, sketches, pamphlets, court hearings, architecture, etiquette manuals. Foucault considers things that were deemed irrelevant to knowledge, things that were not to be known.

And by shifting the focus, Foucault does more than shift the content of inquiry — he shifts the very mode of inquiry.  These different things demand a different way of knowing. Knowing tends to work vertically — working down from a category to an example (deduction) or moving up from the instance to the category (induction). But Foucault moves sideways. That is, rather than looking at this or that domain of knowledge — politics, military, philosophy —, he lets his eyes wander across domains and finds that piano legs, architecture, and the rise of sociology were all obsessively articulating sex. Vertical knowing no longer applies. Here, a different architecture of knowing is required.

What excited me when I read Foucault was not that I found it true. It's that I found it pleasurable.  I was downright giddy — and still am.  Oh, to run one's eyes over the voluptuous body of the archives, to find associations, connections and divergences, to recast the world: this is nothing less than an erotics of knowledge.

Foucault taught me the pleasure of knowing. I shifted my attentions from what we usually consider as things to know to things we consider unknowable — moods, architectures of the invisible, the speed and intensity of ideas. Figuring out how to know such things is in and of itself a delight. To weigh a mood and consider how it affects a space, people, myself; to let it drift and find concepts, books, moments; to not just react to a mood but engage it in multiple ways: this is an experience of delicate and resounding sumptuosity. The dance of mood, concept, and language is exquisite.

To know such things, I can't just apply categories — That's an ox! That's an asteroid! That's neo-noir! I have to be willing to move about, to sprawl laterally, diagonally, vertically, to go every which way making connections, creating categories, making new kinds of sense. And as I am not beholden to maintaining the integrity of a category, I can indulge inconsistencies, divergences, differences. Indeed, rather than excusing them as most knowing does — official knowledge disdains difference and exception — I relish them. My knowing is filled with qualifications, whispers and asides, nuance, uncertainty, even doubt, not to mention passion, pleasure, anecdote, delirium. 

In this way of knowing, I rarely take anything at its word — I don't care what the person's authority is. Unless, of course, I like what they say. So when I read that the American Medical Association considers abstinence from alcohol a risk for heart disease, I smiled. Do I think it's true? No. Do I think it's not true? No. I don't care either way. I just like that they said it. My criteria for truth do not involve truth at all. Facts either delight me, empower me, or enliven me — or I pay them no heed.

Do I jettison all aspects of truth? Of course not. I do certain things because I believe them. In fact, I do a lot of wacky stuff — mostly involving my health — based on certain truths that I have assumed.  For god's sake, I pour colloidal silver up my schnoz by the bucket. But I take these truths less as truths than as temporary solutions, moments of efficacy and delight, of wonder and healing.

Knowing with pleasure is not frivolous. It demands work. After all, I can't just listen to the doctor, my mother, to scientific studies. This mode of knowing is a full time job. I might say that my knowing is less about knowing per se than it is about living well. Indeed, my knowing is my living. So why not enjoy it?

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