Monday, October 18, 2010

Mellon Seminar Reflection 7: Is knowledge a commodity?

Post-modernism and Post-colonialism were the subjects of the theory discussion this week. We characterized Post-modernism as "the collapse of the Grand Narrative" and Post-colonialism as "the writing of the 'Other'". One book that we reviewed was Lyotard (pictured), The Post-Modern Condition (1979) where the term was coined, 'post-modernism', to refer to the incredulity of the meta-narratives constructed by societies (how we can know everything through science; that we make progress in history; that there is absolute freedom; etc.). He points out how inadequate our big stories are, because they do not encompass us all. He is particularly critical of our commonly held narrative that knowledge must be efficient in order to be valuable. Thus if we can't prove that a certain type of knowledge is efficient or useful, it is pushed aside and we feel terror.

We highlighted the discourse of the Humanities in this light. The Humanities, because it does not offer efficient or useful knowledge, has lost its voice in the discourse of knowledge that pervades our society, particularly the scientific discourse. The discourse of knowledge that we are familiar with today is no longer a discussion of "is it true?" but "is it useful?" and "is it saleable?" Knowledge has become a commodity.

I keep thinking about our public education system and how much this discourse of knowledge has negatively impacted it. We now want teachers to give knowledge to the students like it is a commodity or good that can be exchanged, and make the student learn it. We judge whether or not this exchange has occurred by testing students and then tying teachers' jobs and salaries to their students' academic performance. The problem is that all knowledge is not a commodity, nor is all knowledge useable. And learning is not a contractual business exchange. While teachers have a responsibility to teach well, students and families have the responsibility to commit to learning even non-usable or non-applicable knowledge. Students' are responsible actors too. They are participants of power in their education.

Lyotard and other philosophers highlight two main discourses of knowledge: 1. the scientific discourse (efficient knowledge); 2. Narrative (non-efficient) knowledge. Lyotard also acknowledges the "sublime" which is knowledge at the edges of conceptualization, that can not be formulated via faith, imagination, or reason.

The post-modernists suggest that we set aside the metanarratives and focus on the fragmented stories or micro-narratives; that we live with a series of mini-narratives that are contemporary and relative. While truth doesn't disappear, it must be recognized as fragmentary. They call this fragmented truth "difference" so that knowledge becomes "difference". They do not want to understand difference as negative, as in "what it is not" (a cat is a cat because it is not a dog). What they want to say is that we are the ones who assign similitude to things; in reality there are just differences (a cat is a cat and a dog is a dog and they are different).

All of this raises a series of questions for me. While I am delighted to work on fragmented stories of the past, as a historian of 'heretics', I also must construct and operate from a larger narrative that makes sense of that past. I do not see unity as the enemy, nor do I see difference as the saint. We as human creatures are wired for narrative. Our brains work in such a way that we constantly construct unity from our own life's fragments, as we also construct differences. I would characterize humans as "comparativists" who understand unity and difference in relationship to each other. Narratives are necessary, even Grand ones, or life would be chaos for us all. So while the different must be embraced by the historian (and not judged negatively), the discussion of unity is still necessary. Any unity that is constructed must be reasonable and fair, one that accounts for the micro-narratives while also accounting for the practical course of history and the relationships between people and groups.


monkey king said...

The selling of knowledge began long ago. Though it has been 100 years since I graduated high school, I remember my fellow students ridiculing learning for its own sake. "Why should I learn algebra when I'm going to be a plumber?"

April DeConick said...

I agree!

Dave said...

There are some interesting thoughts here. The tendency toward hyperbole of modern philosophical terminology always makes me chuckle. Feeling "terror" indeed.

The fact is that most activities defined in "knowledge acquisition" terms involve direct monetary exchange and most students' motivating factor is economic. Perhaps then it's more accurate to say that degrees are a commodity...

I don't see anything wrong with treating certain classes of "commodifiable" knowledge differently. With the technology of the last decade, a solid humanities education is at the fingertips of anyone with the desire to download it, usually for free, from many top universities. These "poor humanities" theses always seem to be written by people being paid to teach humanities...

The truth is that knowledge has always been a commodity. What is really being lamented is that so few people want to pay for the privilege when they can get it for free (or don't care). As a software engineer, I can read Dante in Italian and teach myself ancient Greek before work (and I do). I don't know anyone who can teach themselves organic chemistry while sipping an espresso in a Starbucks' corner. Or is the real issue that most people aren't interested in doing so?

Robert Mathiesen said...

No, Dave, knowledge has not always been a commodity, nor is it always one now.

In ancient Athens, once a year, people who wished to experience the Mysteries performed certain rites and took a certain ritualized journey to Eleusis. There they entered the Telesterion, a many-pillared hall in which there was no single place visible (as a stage would be) to everyone in the hall. There they drank the kykeon, attended to what the hierophant said and did, and *saw* and knew.

What they took away from that Mystery was indeed knowledge, but it was not transmissible (outside the Telesterion) from one who had it (other than the hierophant) to one who who did not have it.

This is because the knowledge could not be *wholly* put into any form of words in Greek or any other language. Yes, language was essential to what occurred in the Telesterion; those who knew no Greek could not participate. But something other than language was also required, since the content of the Mystery did not fall within the domain of things that *can* be put into words.

Something similar, though less profound and probably not ineffable, often happens in the classroom between teacher and students. What is gained is not only the knowledge that is the subject of the day's lecture or laboratory, but much else that normally goes on beneath anyone's conscious awareness, and thus is normally never talked about.

This is what is missing from any impersonal form of teaching such as an on-line course.

Even in a classroom, of course, this does not always happen. Some teachers cannot give it; some students cannot receive it -- perhaps inherently so, in each case. That is a loss, though not so great a loss as happens in impersonal teaching.

Dave said...

Robert, I think we probably agree and are coming at the same point from different perspectives. Did not Socrates criticize the Sophists for taking money while he did not?

The pursuit of knowledge beyond such for economic necessity has always been the purview of the leisure class. Now, more than any other time in the history of man, more people have more time to devote to such pursuits if they so desire. What's more, this state of affairs has been brought about precisely by the very commodification of knowledge mentioned. If it appears that humanities are being marginalized, it is because one is focusing on the trees and ignoring the forest. More people are being educated in humanities (both in secondary schools and universities) than ever before in history.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Yes, Dave, we probably do agree on many points. I've never yet met a person with whom I couldn't find very many points of agreement.

However, I'm not much interested in the kinds of knowledge that can be fully stated in words and symbols, or can be analyzed by their use (e.g. riding a bicycle), and thus can be turned into a commodity.

Rather, I'm insisting that there are substantial areas of knowledge that cannot be stated (or analyzed) in any sort of words and symbols at all, and thus are inherently incapable of being turned into a commodity.

I was left with the suspicion that you have not taken this kind of knowledge into account, or perhaps you even doubt its existence. If I was mistaken, please correct me, and I will be happy be corrected.

Dave said...

Then no, we definitely are not. That's a lot of tautological nonsense. I don't believe that such "knowledge" exists. But even granting that it may, I fail to see how that is relevant to what I said. I did not dispute the existence of various types of knowledge that cannot be made into commodities. As it happens, I believe there exists such knowledge (though it can be described in symbols). You are criticizing a claim I never even made.

The blog post lamented that "learning is not a contractual business exchange". Well no, not "learning," but going to school is. Granted, many students probably aren't holding up their end of the contract...

Thanks to commodified knowledge, we're having this conversation about the (non-)existence of useless, non-transferable, non-efficient, knowledge incapable of being described in symbols (and describing it I might add...Russell's paradox anyone?).

Robert Mathiesen said...

Ah, I see what you mean. You had written, "The truth is that knowledge has always been a commodity," and I took that as a universal claim. Sorry for the misunderstanding, though it did lead to something I think worth discussing.

As for the existence of "knowledge that cannot be stated (or analyzed) in any sort of words and symbols at all," otherwise known as ineffable knowledge, that seems to me to be precisely what some of the Gnostics (like some of the Orthodox, e.g. Dionysos the ps.-Areopagite, and some of the [neo-]Platonists, e.g. Iamblichos) took as the goal and reason for all their efforts.

I do grant that the existence of such knowledge cannot be proven by any means, or demonstrated to anyone who has not already experienced its existence. One experiences it -- if one experiences it at all -- by means wholly other than those which otherwise lead to knowledge. (For example, one may get it by direct perception, that is, by perception unmediated by any activity of any of the senses, even those which, like proprioception, have been added to the ancient list of five senses.) Therefore some other word might serve me better than "knowledge", if only I had one. Yet "knowledge" of the usual kinds -- the customary referent of that term -- resembles ineffable knowledge far more than anything else does.

Robert Mathiesen said...

PS I am not describing ineffable knowledge, but pointing to its existence, improvising indices rather than symbols to do so.

As to whether ineffable knowledge is "useless, non-transferable, non-efficient knowledge," the ancients who sought out the experience of the Mystery at Eleusis put a very high value on just this sort of knowledge for a thousand years. That counts for something, at least with me.

Curtis said...

This conversation is about experience, not knowledge. One can gain knowledge through experience, and that knowledge may be passed on (though, probably imperfectly). But the human condition is such that experience cannot truly be relayed to another person.

The "mysteries" are experiential. Having such "knowledge" is similar to "just knowing" that God (or whatever deity) exists absent positive evidence. Lessons learned by experiencing "mysteries" is knowledge and can be passed on like any other knowledge (again, probably imperfectly), but the experience itself is ineffable.

As to whether knowledge is a commodity: Of course it is. Economics is the study of human interaction. Passing knowledge requires people to interact. Sometimes money exchanges hands; sometimes it's a barter of goods. Even if that interaction is separated by decades, centuries or millennia, there's still an economic investment (in the form of spending time) by the person passing knowledge and an economic gain (in the form of saving time) by the person receiving it. A person who wants knowledge will seek out the person who has it. The same is true for "mysteries" and experiences in general. (Think of the experience or "mysteries" learned by riding the latest roller coaster at a nearby amusement park -- arguably a modern equivalent to Eleusis.)