— Cultural Sources of Newness

Nichtwissen: finding a community of scholars interested in “not knowing”

Imagine my delight when I learned from Fred Girod this week that this year’s theme at the Institute for Advanced Study Konstanz (Kulturwissenschaftliches Kolleg) is “Nichtwissen”! I have been addressing issues of “not-knowing” and “unknowing” in my research on organizational learning and artistic interventions in organizations, as well as in my teaching of cross-cultural management for several years, but this is the first time I have encountered a community of scholars interested in the topic. This is one of the kind of discoveries and stimuli for new learning that a Kolleg is meant to enable. 

My introduction into the community was in the context of a seminar organized by the interdisciplinary working group at the Kolleg yesterday afternoon (18.4.2012). There I discovered that they are translating the term “Nichtwissen” as “non knowledge”, whereas I prefer the terms “not-knowing” and “unknowing” which emphasize the process dimension.

The theme the organizers Marcus Twellmann and Britta Weifen had selected for discussion yesterday was “Social forgetting” and the point of departure was an article by Paul Connerton entitled “Seven types of forgetting” (published in Memory Studies 1/1 2008) .

The author points out that “we generally regard forgetting as a failure” and sets out to explore other ways of conceiving of forgetting, which he says “is not a unitary phenomenon” (p. 59). He then proceeds to offer seven types, each of which he illustrates with examples from very diverse periods of history and cultural contexts:

  1. Repressive erasure
  2. Prescriptive forgetting
  3. Forgetting that is constitutive in the formation of a new identity
  4. Structural amnesia
  5. Forgetting as annulment
  6. Forgetting as planned obsolescence
  7. Forgetting as humiliated silence.

He concludes his relatively short programmatic article by emphasizing that it is only the beginning of a categorization of types of forgetting, and suggesting that it would be valuable to review each type according to the agents, functions, and values involved.

The background of the participants in the discussion included history, political science, economists, area studies (e.g., Latin America, Africa), literature, social anthropology diplomacy, and organization studies. As one of the participants mentioned an advantage of being in such an interdisciplinary conversation is that “one does not need to know everything about the subject”. How fitting for the subject of “nichtwissen” that one can admit not knowing and thereby advance the discussion. The depth of knowledge that we could tap into around the table was stimulating. Engaging in “not-knowing” is not simply the opposite of “knowing”, just as “forgetting” is not the opposite of “remembering”. They are often interwoven, as the social anthropologist explained with an example from rites of passage from boyhood to manhood.

Taking up the author’s invitation to enrich the list of types of forgetting and the analytical categories for studying them: from the perspective of my research on organizational learning, it struck me that they were relatively active forms of forgetting, not yet accounting for the unintentional forgetting that occurs in organizations when they are restructured, downsized, or merged: the memory embedded in structures and routines is lost. There is also the memory that is dismissed when new leaders arrive in organizations with an agenda for change and little knowledge about or interest in the past.

I would also add to the analysis of each type of forgetting at least two more questions beyond who are the agents and what are the functions of forgetting, namely: in whose interest is it to forget? and forgetting what? There is obviously a huge difference between regimes seeking to erase the memory of crimes against humanity (which dominated our conversation yesterday afternoon) and a new CEO seeking to erase the memory of organizational procedures, successes and failures.

The Konstanz interdisciplinary working group on Nichtwissen has planned a series of workshops in the coming months, which I very much look forward to contributing to and benefitting from. When I am at my normal institutional base, the WZB, I very rarely have the time to participate in the interesting workshops colleagues organize in and between our research units. Happily, this period at the Kolleg is designed to enable to interrupt my normal working habits and enrich my perspectives. My stay here in 2010 was already very rewarding, this coming period promises to be even more so now that I have discovered the Nichtwissen theme.