The Knowing Game

I'm walking in the park the other day as this 11 year old boy and his father pass me. The boy is coming out of his shoes he's so excited, his eyes wild in wonder, 41 megapixels! Can you believe that, Dad? 41!

Now, 41 pixels may be a lot. And these weren't just pixels, they're megapixels! And 41 of those suckers sure sounds like a hell of a lot. The photos on my phone are somewhere around 2.1 megapixels or some such thing. Forty-one seems like a vast improvement. No wonder the little man was becoming unglued. 

But I'm thinking: what's a megapixel? And why 41? Forty-one seems either arbitrary or necessary — which is funny. Such is the way of knowledge. An engineer might hear 41 and think, Of course. It has to be 41 because of x and y.  Or else it's just as many megapixels as some dorky engineer could squeeze onto whatever the field is so he could tell the marketing department: 41! Necessary or arbitrary: to my ears, it's the same.

And yet this little boy was delivering this knowledge with such relish and oomph. Perhaps he knows things — he knows the math that makes 41 a necessity. Or else he's an engineer and knows managing to squeeze 41 of those megabuggers is something to hoot and holler about.

More likely, however, he's just like me. He heard 41 megapixels in some ad and, looking at his own 2.1 megapixel camera, felt like that was a lot. And hence a good thing. And hence worth repeating to others as a fact they could know and should enjoy.

This is the way of knowledge. It is what Wittgenstein calls a language game: the right set of words said at the right time with the the right passion. We all perpetuate "knowledge" without actually knowing anything; all we know is how to say this set of words at this time: How many megapixels? 41 you say? Great. 

Kids make this so beautifully, hilariously apparent. They repeat facts they've been told or have read and deliver them with such fervor. Did you know, Dad, that there are 18 million different kids of worms? Uh, no, I didn't. 

And while it's cute and sweet, the fact is it's what we all do all the time. I'll find myself proffering some piece of information — Kale's good for your heart — and suddenly realize that I have no fucking idea if that's true or not. I've never had a clear heart problem that kale remedied. Nor have I ever known anyone who experienced such a thing. So whence does this so-called fact come? Well, I suppose I've heard it from various people I know; maybe I read it in Yahoo! news. 

So do I really know if kale is good for your heart? No way. But that doesn't stop me from offering it up, having someone listen, think about it, and then have someone else offer an equally meaningless piece of information, It's true but you need to eat a lot of it — a fact with the same dubious provenience as my own. Those are just two statements within the language game of knowing (the thing about the game is it not only defines the terms of statement creation; it has rules for statement adjudication, deciding whether to believe this fact or that fact.)

There are of course times when I offer some knowledge that I know to be true. That picante sauce is hot! Twelve shots of tequila makes you feel good then real bad! Blood doesn't come out of sheets so easily! I've experienced these things a lot; I feel confident about them and when I offer them up to others, I do so with a special kind of emphasis, Trust me, stop at four shots, max, a knowing look in my eye. Still, people don't necessarily listen. I gave a friend of mine very specific instructions on how to take an herb I've taken every day for two years — mix two measured teaspoons in warm water and be sure to have eaten a little food. He, however, decides he wants to know so proceeds to eat the whole bag at once on an empty stomach. He vomited continuously for 73 hours.

Which goes to show that there are some things we have to know, and probably should know, without experiencing them personally. Otherwise, well, life would be absurd. Much of what we call knowledge — about whales and oceans and rhizomes and herbs — is not experienced and, for the most part, can't be experienced by the majority of people alive. These facts seem to play the rules of the game and so we believe them. And, more importantly, we repeat them with our own sense of authority and certainty. Yes, there are only 27,854 whales alive today! 

Now, presumably someone counted all those whales. I mean, he probably missed a few or screwed up his count once in a while but, man, if he went through all that trouble, the least I can do is believe him! It's a freakin' art project: I'm gonna count all the whales in existence...1...2...3....4.... I love that kind of madness.  

But certain knowledge gets abstract. The smallest particle of matter is something we can't see but we can weigh, theoretically. This dude followed the strange rules of science and created this fact. And I guess I believe him. To me, that's an even cooler art project than counting all the whales although less elegant, less clean, less accessible. Both are great, though. Do I believe them? Does it matter? They're both odd and beautiful things to even try to do — to weigh theoretical matter and count all the whales in the world! Brilliant! Strange! Funny!

It can be disconcerting to some to use the language (game) of art when discussing science and knowledge. Facts have a set of rules, a way we talk about them, how we ascribe value to this or that claim. It's often quite rigorous. Art has a different set of rules, different things we're supposed to say. Lots of opinions in art; not so many facts. There is a kind of truth we ascribe to art — Man, it's the real thing! — but it's not the truth of 27,854 whales or of the weight of dark matter, for that matter.  

But while facts are not supposed to be beautiful, formulas and equations sure can be. Euler's Identity, for instance:

I just read this on the Wikipedia: "After proving Euler's identity during a lecture, Benjamin Peirce, a noted American 19th-century philosopher, mathematician, and professor at Harvard University, stated that 'it is absolutely paradoxical; we cannot understand it, and we don't know what it means, but we have proved it, and therefore we know it must be the truth.'" Oh, man, I freakin' love that!  So weird and perfect: it fits the rule set, performs it well, and so is not just necessarily true, it's beautiful. No doubt, my brilliant mathematician friend is cringing with every word I write. Breaking the rules and, worse, stating it poorly is offensive. Her cringing is well founded.

Today, as the pomp of science becomes suspect (rightfully or not), we read more and more facts that present themselves as scientific knowledge but which enjoy different genealogies.  Purple fruits are good for the stomach chakra. I love nearly everything about that sentence. I love that color is the dominant factor; I love that it's affecting my chakra (I'm told I have a whole bunch of those. Woohoo!) and that it's delivered alongside the seemingly less poetic, Fibrous foods can create intestinal gas. True shmoo: I just like this juxtaposition of poetic, affective registers. Whether I decide to believe it or not is up to me, this elusive combination of experience, gut feeling, and a personal understanding of logic. 

Now, it seems like everyone today is an expert on something. Every 20-something with a beard seems to know everything about coffee, medicinal herbs, arugula. There is something about witnessing as 26 year old hold forth with utter certainty about the best coffee bean in the world that makes all knowledge suspect and beautiful at the same time. You're 20-freakin'-6! How many coffee beans can you have consumed? Where is your humility? This is one result of bottom up knowledge, of Wikipedia and the dethroning of the expert: everyone's suddenly an expert. Everybody's a freakin' webMD, coffee aficionado, and worst of all, foodie. This is the best tuna tartare in the world! Really? You're 24!  Oy!

Rather than introducing humility, doubt, ambiguity, and complexity into our world, bottom up media has had the effect of perpetuating the culture of expertise — only without the rigor. Which is fine and dandy in theory but it's quite annoying and, well, boring. The knowledge game is boring precisely because it's a knowing rather than a not knowing, a doubting, a questioning. Instead of irony and curiosity, we get sanctimony and knowitalldom — the worst aspects of the knowing game and culture of the expert. Where is humility? Doubt? Uncertainty? Irony? Humor?

Irony and humor switch and swap language games — art becomes true, science beautiful. This is a nifty way to reveal what McLuhan calls the environment: it brings the unspoken, assumed mechanisms of the world to the fore. By scrambling language games, irony and humor destabilize the ground of the knower. They introduce doubt and possibility and hence life — uncertain, beautiful, strange, true life. 

This post came to me on a walk, uttered into my phone half coherently.
 I include the voice memo here because I think it's kind of funny.


Jim H. said...

"Hey, you young know-it-all whipper-snappers, get off my lawn!"

Best wishes for the New Year!

Daniel Coffeen said...

Exactly! Thanks and back at ya....

R.C. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
R.C. said...

"Rather than introducing humility, doubt, ambiguity, and complexity into our world, bottom up media has had the effect of perpetuating the culture of expertise — only without the rigor"

Well put! This, in part, sums up a large portion of my experience while working at a book store. While walking around the store or listening to conversations in the cafe, I hear lofty remarks claiming author x lacks the proficiency of author y, and fails to capture this sentiment as well as that author, etc, etc, etc. To my ears, it sounds like we are trying to be an amazon review or speak in tweets. We mistake boastfulness and brashness for expertise and insight. My favorite patrons are the ones who aren't trying to sell their appreciation of the book to me, the book store employee, but expressing their satisfaction, enjoyment, or interests in a book.

Naama said...

This resonates, yep, this rings some bells.

Another brilliant one, DC.