To Know is Not to Know

At first, I found myself writing that every moment overflows with information. But that's not right. Every moment has the exact right amount of information. What overflows is my capacity — and my will — to note it all, make sense of it all. To know the world is not to experience certain aspects of it.

This ignoring is not willful. Well, that's not quite right: everything you do is your will.  So, yes, it's willful. But it's not necessarily conscious. We don't actively select to heed this, ignore that. I mean, we may be discerning about certain things, choosing to ignore a lover's passive aggressive comment or a child's incessant babbling. But we don't even know how to see the infinite data of the moment.

We come to the world already not knowing aspects of it. To be this person is to ignore this information while that person ignores that information: we are a metabolic function of selection and distribution. Think about meeting someone new, someone from your work or family out of context. What do they consider something to know that you also consider something to know? This can be as explicit as Justin Bieber, Burning Man, "Deadwood." Wait, who? What? In this age of fracture and network, we are all adrift — and at home — in the cultural diaspora. We all know different things.

The world teems. Consider any moment — reading this right now, for instance. There are the words you're reading, of course. And then there's all the stuff around this post — lists and numbers and such. And each of these is part of a vast network of information that makes this data legible. On its own, "12.10.12" doesn't mean anything. And then there's the screen you're reading on. Besides the screen itself, the affect of its glow, the manner in which it presents data and the entire history of data presentation and the rise of screen culture, there are even more symbols and marks. I, for one, have a dock filled to the brim with a variety of images all trying to declare meaning. The circle with the music notation in it says more than, "I am iTunes." It says it in a certain way. And then there's the dissonance that iTunes is not just about music. In fact, I use mine mostly for interfacing with my phone. I like the word interface — it seems like an appendage for a post ego age. Not sure I like it as a verb, however. And yet I do like that we turn nouns into verbs — it makes a mockery of Heidegger: the moon moons, the screen screens (which it does! what a nice moment!). Which leads me, in its way, to all the information I have about Apple, about interfaces in general, about how product naming works. Which has me think about all my work projects — the things I am presently naming, the interfaces I am creating, the brands I am forging. I hear a siren. What kind? Fire truck, I think. Fire trucks are the first responders to 911 health calls as firemen are all trained as medics. I hear so many dogs, clearly all different sizes but to me they're just dogs. Oh, there's MUNI. I have yet to get to the sensations in my stomach, the nuances of my mood, the varied smells that waft about me — not  to mention the gin I'm drinking right now: St. George Dry Rye. I am knowing this gin in many ways, if you know what I mean. If I were to catalog the information of this moment — not make sense of it, just catalog it — it would a) be infinite; b) ignore another infinity of information; c) qualify me as insane; and d) make me insane.

In Borges' "Funes, the Memorious," Funes' memory is absolute: he retains everything that he sees, that he senses — every leaf, every shift of the clouds. He can't generalize — which is to say, he can't forget the differences between things. He becomes immobilized and dies at 19: "He seemed as monumental as bronze, more ancient than Egypt, anterior to the prophecies and the pyramids. It occurred to me that each one of my words (each one of my gestures) would live on in his implacable memory; I was benumbed by the fear of multiplying superfluous gestures." 

This is Nietzsche's argument, as well: to know is to forget, to ignore all the details, the differences, the divergences. We squint away the teeming flux in order to see categories, to see truth (see the perfect essay, "On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense"). Such is the very premise of our knowledge. The only way we can call a pit bull, a dachshund, and a german shepherd all dogs is that we ignore the differences between them.

I have had moments when I am overwhelmed by the sheer plenitude of information that abounds. And I've seen others in this state and it's disconcerting, to say the least. I've seen friends out of their minds due to this or that and become muttering and drooling souls, their eyes as big as the sky, their cognition all too human. It's not a pretty sight but it is exquisite. And humbling.

And yet, even uglier, is the glaring blindness to difference, the all too human will to brush aside the details, to ignore the wealth of information that abounds. Between the ugliness of propriety and the madness of delirium, which do we pick?

Fortunately, that's a false dichotomy. It's not a matter of knowing more or less — after all, we're talking about infinite information — but a matter of how you know. What distinguishes one knowing from another is not the quantity but the quality of knowing. He who knows well knows differently, knows vitally, knows tastefully. Rather than subscribe to the known ways of forgetting, he invests new ways of forgetting, new modes of knowing and not knowing, elaborate, exquisite architectures that recast experience, concept, categories, difference. He makes poetry of his knowledge. Nietzsche calls this the gay science. 

1 comment:

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

I was reminded of Borges story about the ethnographer -


And then there's the anecdote of my own dialog with Robert Nozick - after which I quote Erich Fromm -

see http://tinyurl.com/c2mvhre