I recently posted a series of 4 videos
on YouTube with the title The Ritual fabrication of mathematical knowledge
. On the first of these videos, my friend and colleague Roberto Baldino has responded in a mail. This response has now prompted me to translate the video into text to facilitate further discussion. This text thus follows, roughly, the path of the Prezi that I used
when making the video.
The video starts with an attempt to describe what knowledge is. One could call this a “phenomenological” approach, but then that would presuppose a distinction between the phenomenon and the actual thing itself – and I do not want that. References here go to Bruno Latour and Graham Harman, and their way of analyzing things. I want to describe knowledge as something that basically exists – without commitment to any philosophical theory of how or why something like knowledge can exist the way it does.
But it is perhaps necessary, already at the beginning, to sort of reveal what will come later, namely an attempt to explain how it comes that knowledge “is” or “seems to be” what it is. This explanation will take discursive practice as its point of departure. Given that this is the explanation that will come, this first step can hopefully make sense as a description of that which calls for an explanation.
On the other hand, what I take as my point of departure for my description of knowledge is exactly practice, so that what I talk about is more exactly what knowledge must be for our practice to make sense. I thus aim, one could say, to clarify what must be the “point of departure” for our practice, if this practice is to make sense. This operation is actually very much what Max Weber thought should be the aim of social science. So, at least I am in good company trying to do this.
Thus, for our practices that relate to to knowledge to make sense, knowledge must be in a particular way, and the first slides of the video attempts to describe this.
Thus, firstly, knowledge must of course exist. A lot of activities in modernity would not make sense if there was no such thing as knowledge. But already this is a nontrivial fact, because knowledge belongs to the group of entities, for which it is not so easy to say how, or where, they exist. I think the question of the existence of knowledge is related to the question of the existence of “truths” and “values” – that goes back, I have read, to the proto-neo-kantian Hermann Lotze. I did not want to do into that in the video though. The point is just to make clear that this question, about how knowledge exists, is legitimate, non-trivial, valid.
Secondly, it seems that knowledge can exists “in”, on the one hand people, on the other hand text. I derive this claim from the facts of education and of research, that is, from the existence of purportedly rational institutionalized activities. The end product of education is knowledgeable people, the end product of research is scientific knowledge “residing”, as I suppose one could put it, in texts.
It may seem unimportant that we talk about the result of education and research using the same word, but my very point is that this is important indeed. I will claim that we derive the rationale for many aspects of these activities (of education and research) for what appears to be taken as properties of a substance or entity; properties of knowledge as if knowledge was a substance or entity. Knowledge brings together and “makes sense” (literally) of practices, of institutionalized cultural activity.
What more with knowledge?
There is a logic of its production – again, this taken from how it related to practically, discursively. What is educational theory if not a discussion about the conditions under which knowledge emerge, the conditions under which learning takes place – and here what emerges is the particular “mode” of knowledge that exists in individuals.
Learning is thus intrinsically connected to knowledge as the name for the process by which knowledge is brought into existence. And more specifically it seems useful here to talk about “individual-born” knowledge as the result of learning. (While text-born knowledge in a corresponding way is the result of research.)
But, alas, learning is an invisible process, and it is precarious, in the sense that it is only retroactively that one can say if it has occurred.
Here, again, I derive these claims about learning from how it is related to in practice and talked about. The complaints about the failures of education, what is that if not complaints that the proper procedure has not been followed, so that “nothing happens”, besides that which is obviously visible. So, what I am getting at is that education is an attempt to make present a process which brings an invisible entity or substance into existence, residing in an individual.
I hope it is clear, now, that the purpose of this “describing” is to make what is taken for granted in modernity seem rather exotic. So, this is quite a common procedure for social science or philosophy, to try to make the common seem interesting and fascinating. That is what I want to do for knowledge and learning, and the other practices of the education system (and, eventually, for science).
So, going on, we suppose that quantities of this knowledge-substance can be measured…
We seem to relate to different “kinds” of knowledge (mathematical, etc)
And we suppose, obviously, that this substance can “do stuff”, that it can endow its bearer with some sort of power.
And, clearly, we make signs of the quantity we take individuals to have of the substance, and have organized our culture so that these signs too, as it were, endow their holders/bearers with a certain “power”.
My point now is that this name – “knowledge” – is not innocent. It does things. Again, Latour can be a reference. We can say that it has “agency”. It should be obvious that we, as humans, in a sense have “made” knowledge what it is – as a name for the result of education, and, incidentally, also the name for the result of research. It may seem that it just makes good sense to treat this result as if it was an invisible substance, and treat its emergence as if it was a precarious invisible process, etc.
This would be a vision of modern culture as transparently rational, functional, purposeful.
My contention is that this is not at all the case. To the contrary do these properties, of knowledge and of learning, transcend our culture, in the sense that they are referred to as causes of and rationales for culture. Looking at what we do and what we say, it seems very much as if we thought that knowledge was not something that we have made, just a useful way of talking, but rather that it demands things from us. This state of culture is called “heteronomy” by Cornelius Castoriadis, whom I think is useful here to point out the difference I am after. Knowing, and acting on the knowledge of the fact that we can choose, in a way, the properties of our culturally constituted substances and entities, would be what he calls “autonomy”. And he thinks that is the proper state of (modern) culture.
So, knowledge is a sort of autonomous counterpart of the consciously cultural – such as political parties and Christmas. Knowledge is partly “nature”. But, as nature, it has peculiar properties; properties tightly interwoven with culture. If it is “nature” it is a nature that puts tight constraints on “cultural possibilities” – for instance making the education system indispensable, making science and research indispensable, and even making mathematics education indispensable.
From another perspective, it thus looks very much like ideology…..
But it is not critical theory that I want to turn to to “explain” this existence of knowledge in modernity, but rather ritual theory. I think, basically, that this theory can say much more about what goes on here. And I intend to demonstrate that in the next post, about video 2.
A want to reply to some comments from Roberto Baldino.
I refer to Ernst Cassirer and his concept of “symbolic forms”. Cassirer’s philosophy originates in neokantianism of the Marburg variety. Their problem was how to reinterpret Kant in light of the fact of scientific progress. Kant thought that science was stable, and thus sort of built Newtonian physics into the mind of humanity. What is a human, and what is the world, if our scientific conception of the world is in a constant state of change? Cassirer found it useful to see the world as the result of a twofold process of subjectification and objectification, resulting in minds relating to objects. This process is cultural, and Cassirer was very interested in the many ways culture can bring worlds into existence, worlds, and minds relating to these worlds. He was very attentive to the role of language in culture! He thought that modernity was special however, and thought that our culture should be placed at a later stage in a history of human progress. He would probably not have liked my attempt to portray knowledge as just any simple “symbolic form” on par with Gods, spirits, whatever.
When I say that knowledge is a substance, I mean that, in modern culture, it is treated as if it was a substance. But – and this is perhaps where it gets tricky – this does not mean that it is not a substance. We have here a point that the gang of post-modern theorists of science have had to repeat over and over again: just because something is “constructed” or “made” or “constituted”, this does not mean that it does not exist. It does exist! Thus, knowledge does exist, and it is a substance in modernity. But it is only a substance in modernity. When a school is built and an education system established in a previously non-modern location – it starts to make sense to talk about people there to have more or less knowledge, when they go to this school as learning or not learning, as their practices as knowledge use. But we have then brought modern culture to them, as a way of organizing life, as a way of viewing the world and – interestingly – constituting the world (with objects such as knowledge, airplanes, atoms and quarks, plastic and politics), as a way of understanding what a human is and what makes a human valuable – etc.
It is as such that I say that it is brought into existence through learning and certified through knowledge assessments and peer-review. With this, I say something about this culturally instituted form (perhaps Castoriadis is a good reference here, he uses the term instituted). I do not say anything whatsoever about what people can or cannot do, besides what comes from the fact of being attached or not attached to the sign of having knowledge – making you, if we follow that reasoning here strictly, also actually having it, as long as you move inside the culture in which it is recognized and operated with. Here “recognized” is a reference to Pierre Bourdieu and his concept of “symbolic capital”, which quite obviously makes sense in relation to different kinds of knowledge. The “move inside” is a reference to Bruno Latour and his argument about networks and science, technology and theories only “working” as part of networks. In this sense, knowledge only “works” as part of the network constituted by the education system and for text-borne knowledge – science.
It is exactly right to call this first phase of the analysis, the “descriptive” part, the purpose of which is the clarify what actually takes place here, what must be assumed, for an over-identification with a power-discourse/practice. The intention is to make it seem absurd, by just clarifying what it is. I do not here put forward any critique! I do not feel that I need to. But what is very important here is why this is the case. Why is it, that just clarifying what one could call a “symbolic structure” can be a threat to that very structure? And here, as you rightly point out, psychoanalysis, of the zizekian or pfallerian variety, has the tools that are needed to understand. The thing is that we relate to things such as knowledge always partly unconsciously, always never completely focused, so to speak: the properties of knowledge reside in practice, they fit the definition of a collective unconscious fantasy, as Zizek calls it, it is “seen through” in a sense that Pfaller describes in detail and that I used in my “Hating school” article. And it can only exist as such, as partly unconscious, as (partly) seen through. That is why this operation of making visible and clarifying, is critical in itself, in a quite interesting and fascinating way.
Lastly, concerning the inclusion in the analysis of the my own act of analyzing/talking/criticizing – it seems like a characteristically modern/modernist gesture to complain about an analysis that it is not reflective enough, positioning yourself at a higher level of reflection, including also yourself in a more comprehensive way. I agree that there is a point to this, and that zizek et al have pointed that out usefully. And in my analysis, this extra inclusion, so to speak, plays a crucial role. The basic structure of the discourse on education is that everybody that speaks, speak on behalf of science – from a position that is before hand excluded from the analysis. Mathematics, basically, is always taken for granted as a stable ground, as obvious, and it is there, on the side of mathematics, that people like to see themselves, talking about boring, stupid, failed education. We then get what I call the “standard critique”. I take a step back, and consider also science (mathematics, knowledge – as in the video and the text above) as part of that which needs to be explained. But sure – it is of course possible to complain again, about the new position where I (like to) find myself. And this is then the critique directed at the field of science studies, STS, ANT, SSK, etc. those who try to study and understand science from a position that does not take the demarcation of science for granted; it is claimed that this position is self-refuting etc. which is just stupid bullshit because it does not realize that people have been thinking, talking, inquiring, understanding long before this monolithic ritualized nonsense-producing capitalism-mongering “science” that we have today emerged in the 19th century.