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Currents of thought

Sometimes it’s fun to think about how we know things: not what we know, but how it is that we’ve come to know what we do. At one level, we can discuss the role of technologies in the transmission of knowledge. Things such as the printing press, its derivations such as the book, the newspaper, the journal; radio, television; the internet. At this level, we can look to the ways that technology enables knowledge to move about, which is certainly important; I wonder though if it places too much emphasis on the notion of knowledge as transmittable information. Knowledge is more than mere information: it is the possession of information and a disposition towards the world.

At another level, we can discuss the cultural practices that utilize various technologies. That the typical newspaper prints advertisements alongside articles of more or less uniform length (and of more or less uniform topics). We can discuss the  implications of breaking newspapers down into sections, what it means for headlines to have such prominence — does that effect the way we conceive of events? do we tend, in an era of headlines and news-bytes, to summarize events until they are unintelligible? — and we can also get into the legal nitty gritty of the effect of private ownership of things such as websites, television stations, radio towers, has on people’s conceptions.

At a broader level it may even be possible to consider the effects of the deep-structures of our cognition: tacit patterns of language, distinctions of gender, slow-changing and all pervading basic notions of types like race or class, comparative conceptions of eras, then as opposed to now.

All these are valid and interesting fields of inquiry. But they’re not the most startlingly thrilling to consider, or, at least, not for me. It’s even more so, perhaps even terribly so, to conceive, not of our reliance on the written word for our quotidian enjoyments and annoyances or of difficulties of entrenched bias, but of how much of our knowing is the result of pure dumb chance. For instance: what if Kojeve had died of polio before going to France to lecture on Hegel? How would the course of understanding have shifted as a result? There’s certainly nothing necessary about his influence: it might not have been. As with Kojeve, so with the entire stretch of our epistemological edifice: pillars and stairways jointed into each other allowing different views and vantages, but none not standing on the contingent sands of history.

Categories: Notes.

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6 Responses

  1. Then there’s the big issue of why some people have a big influence and others do not… Why do some areas and some perspectives within disciplines take off and others not?

  2. Yea, that would be a synthetic analysis of these and probably some other broader factors. I started uploading osme of the notes I was taking on an article on the political economy of communications a while back but then I never finisehd doing it (I’ve taken to just putting my notes into a three ring binder with ‘catch phrases’ — tags! — written on the top); presumably this is what Althusser was getting at with his ideological state apparatuses.

    I’m sure someone out there is doing good work — good empirical work — in this area. Probably a human geographer. But I dunno, a lot of our current crop of communications/media students are caught up in the rapture of the digital, and aren’t so concerned with, I dunno, human concerns I guess.

  3. BTW Mike: what do you make of all the hooplah about ‘the end of Neoliberalism’ going about?

  4. I really don’t know about the ‘end of neoliberalism’! Someone else mentioned to me Martin Wolf is talking about this in the Financial Times, but I haven’t read his articles. Seems highly dubious to me!

    I think the Fed intervention is nothing really new. The real historical reference points are the 1970s rather than the 1930s as some people have said. The Fed has provided temporary liquidity to shore up periodic overenthusiasms in novel financial instruments since at least the mid-1960s. Every five or ten years or so, starting with certificates of deposit in the 1960s, and commercial paper in 1970. These things are a boring part of the financial wallpaper now, and I think securitisation will be eventually too. I really don’t think it’s a big deal, not system-shaking certainly, unless the recession in the States knocks over something else.

    But who knows? What do you think?

  5. I’m not really sure what to think. Paulson’s proposal, while it is supposed to bring hedge funds and some of the other new-fangled financial structures underneath Fed supervision, also is supposed to cut some of the power of the SEC. So it is increased regulation and deregulation at once. Considering how much the Fed seems to have screwed the pooch in the last several years (insofar as we consider it as a regulator in the interest of the general stability of the economy and not as a facilitator of financial bubbles), his recommendations don’t really strike me as all that groundshaking.

    Lenin’s take on this seems sensible to me. Not much has changed, fundamentally, even if some of the mediatastic surface phenomena have taken on new regalutary qualities.

  6. Not that groundshaking: that is, he’s not shifting power away from the bodies and people who have worked with neoliberalism; he’s granting them more power.

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