— Cultural Sources of Newness

Using multiple senses to engage with Nichtwissen

After I wrote my post about this year’s theme of Nichtwissen at the Kulturwissenschaftliches Kolleg, my WZB colleague Michael Hutter brought to my attention that the February issue of Economy and Society is dedicated to the topic of “strategic unknowing.” It turned out to be the beginning of a multisensory process of engagement with the topic for a few days. My fingers immediately reached out to the keyboard to download the introductory article (accessible free of charge from the journal website), then, pencil gliding across the page, I read it. My ears joined into the process of engaging with the topic that night, when I tuned into a recent edition of the BBC discussion program The Forum dedicated to the subject of ignorance with a neuroscientist, a novelist, and a microfinancier. A day later, a BBC interview with a Greek novelist unexpectedly helped me see into the heart of the matter.  

Linsey McGoey points out in her introductory article on “strategic unknowing” that “Until fairly recently, there has been a marked absence of theoretical attention to the value and practical uses of ignorance in economic and social life. Perhaps, quite innocently, attention to ignorance has been viewed as too obvious or banal to warrant much scrutiny.” (p.3) Therefore, the intention of the papers in this issue is to achieve a “subtle shift in the epistemological gaze that seeks to offer non-knowledge its full due as a social fact, not as a precursor or an impediment to more knowledge, but as a productive force in itself, as the twin and not the opposite of knowledge.” (p.3). In other words, “Ignorance is knowledge.” (p. 4).  Within a few pages, I learned about both “negative” and “positive” forms of ignorance, with examples drawn from diverse public policy settings, industry cases, and personal situations. It seems that no one can talk about the topic of ignorance today without quoting Donald Rumsfeld’s “notorious comment on unknowns”, which McGoey takes as an indicator of an “emergent zeitgeist … a new comprehension of the economic and political value of unlimited risks and indeterminable threats for those who stand to gain from failing to identity solutions to problems they purport are unsolvable.” (p.7)

The authors in this special issue on “strategic unknowing” would like to set out an agenda for studying “the political and economic battles that hinge on the constant policing of boundaries between the known and the unknown, on the effort to maintain either a convenient fiction of one’s expert knowledge of possible outcomes or a convenient fiction of the exact opposite resource: the pretence that no action is possible or advisable given the inevitability of future unknowns.” (p.13). The agenda of the journal is labelled “towards a sociology of ignorance.” My sense is that a multidisciplinary perspective is essential, and I am therefore looking forward to the upcoming sessions organized by the Nichtwissen group the Kolleg here in Konstanz, including political scientists, legal scholars, economists, sociologists, literary scholars and an anthropologist.

Listening at night to the 45-minute discussion on The Forum called “Ignorance: good or bad for us?”provided an exposure to an equally wide-ranging set of contexts in which not-knowing plays a role. The mix of participants was eclectic and it was fascinating to hear the three experts discover how complementary their views were. In addition to having the pleasure of discovering Stuart Firestein, a neuroscientist who has just published Ignorance. How it drives science, drawing on his experience teaching a popular course at Columbia on this topic, I was delighted to hear the voice of a novelist whose voice and research skills I greatly admire: Marina Lewycka. A short history of tractors in Ukranian and Two Caravans captivated me in very different ways. Her newest book (with the improbable title Various pets alive and dead) is partially set in London’s financial center in 2008—which is what brought her into this program on ignorance. The third guest was the experienced, pragmatic social entrepreneur Monique Cohen, founder of Microfinance Opportunities.

None of the three guests were interested in the kind of ignorance that dominated in the journal article, namely ignorance as “callow, wilful indifference to fact” but rather “The kind of ignorance where our knowledge runs out.” Not surprisingly, the guests quickly came to the same conclusion as in the journal article, namely that the dichotomy between knowledge and ignorance is not particularly helpful. But their path forward from there differed from the article in a way that resonated strongly with me. They emphasized the importance of doubt—a key word that I did not come across in the journal article, and they applied it reflexively: “Willing to doubt yourself and willing to examine things you were once certain of.” Stuart Firestein liked a passage that Monica Lewycka read aloud from her new book and declared that he intends to use it in his course on ignorance in future. Throughout the program, in fact, the use of various art forms to communicate about risk and finance kept surfacing, which is of course another aspect that did not arise in the journal article.

Monique Cohen brought in a pragmatic perspective that highlighted how relative and context dependent the label of “ignorance” is. “I see ignorance as the gulf between two parties: difference may be based on perceptions, on education, on income, between poor people who use financial services and those that provide them. And indeed where you sit defines what you think is ignorance.” She sees members of different cultural groups and generations having different kinds of knowledge, but it is often not valued.

When the journalist wanted to bring the discussion to a close with a dichotomy, asking “How do you combat ignorance: with questions or answers?” the three guests were too wise to fall into the simple trap. It is about “a state of preparedness for knowledge. Give them enough to make them want to move on, to find it for themselves.” “There are all kinds of ignorance. The trick is to make high quality ignorance, to find questions that lead somewhere.” And “Build people’s confidence and trust in their ability to make their decisions and give people the tools to make those decisions, to become actors in the modern world.”

My mind had wandered far from the topic of ignorance for a while, but I was brought back to it unexpectedly when I stumbled into another program on the BBC focusing in its arts series The Strand. The journalist had chosen to focus on how artists in Greece are dealing with the crisis. It gave me a key insight that had not been present at all in the journal, and maybe only implicitly present in The Forum discussion. One of the artists the journalist interviewed was the novelist Petros Markaris, who specialises in crime stories (and said that novelists writing this genre in Greece today do not need to look for plots, they just have to know how to handle them). The journalist had been struck by the fact that Markaris had written a book quite a few years ago about a topic that is now attracting a lot of attention in the news, namely extremist gang violence against immigrants. He asked the novelist “How come you noticed it before anyone else?” The response shows how important really using the sense of sight is in engaging ignorance:  “For 30 years we just looked away. If you don’t look away, you see! … I am not a prophet. I am not a magician. I am just looking at things.” The journalist probed further: “If you could see it, why couldn’t someone else? Why didn’t others, why didn’t the politicians?” The artist responded simply: “They saw it, they just didn’t care.”

These three very different inputs into my thinking about Nichtwissen this week leave me invigorated. The value of addressing the topic from multiple perspectives, definitely also including the arts, came across loud and clear to me. And they have persuaded me of the importance of engaging explicitly with not-knowing with doctoral students. Not yet having read Firestein’s new book, I will use two stimulating articles on “Making doubt generative” and “The purpose of mess” (see refs below) in a doctoral symposium session I am running with André Sobczak in at the RIODD conference in Audencia Nantes School of Management on May 21. And in the “proposal writing clinic” with the students I will stimulate the students to focus on what they really care about when they look at society and their field of work. We do not address these topics enough in our courses or our publications, the pressure to know is so great and the notion of caring “too subjective.” For the return journey after the conference, I will be sure to have a novel by Markaris in my bag.

P.S. The sense of smell may have been missing from my engagement with Nichtwissen this week, but it is central to Stuart Firestein’s research!

Refs promised above:

Locke, Karen, Golden-Biddle, Karen, Feldman, Martha S. (2008). Making doubt generative: Rethinking the role of doubt in the research process. Organization Science. 19/6:907-918.

Cook, T. (2009) The purpose of mess in action research: building rigour through a messy turn. Educational action research. 17/2, 277-291.