Can knowledge be anything and everything?

28 04 2008

By Subuhi Jiwani

When I was a child, I was diagnosed as being “hyperactive”. The doctor didn’t specify what kind of hyperactive, but I knew that I wanted to play relay and langdi more than I wanted to read Enid Blyton. I always regretted this as an older person. I’ve scolded myself for not finding the calm to sit down with a book and read it to the end without distraction. This has translated into a fear of buying books: Would those unfinished pages be screaming in cacophonies of their unrecognised lives?

They might not, I discovered, in a book called The Black Swan by Nassem Nicholas Taleb.

The author writes about Umberto Eco’s antilibrary, which he considers a research tool and not an ego-boosting appendage. This antilibrary contains all the books that one hasn’t read, and read books aren’t as valuable as unread ones.

Knowledge, says Taleb, shouldn’t be treated as if it were a treasure to be hunted down, guarded and possessed. Rather, those unread books are like black swans – apparitions of the improbable – which appear every once in a while to remind us of the limits of our knowledge. They become beautiful in their unknowing. Knowledge then becomes a dialectic between the known and the unknown – and with this insight, I’m less afraid to confront my bookshelf. I might actually find the strength to buy a 700-page book. I can finally dull that cynical voice in my head which wonders if I’m going beyond my means.

The black swan might actually surround us, in our present, living multiple lives without our knowing. It could be the story of the sexual scrawl on the wall of the ladies’ compartment in the train. It could be the story of how tea gets made in college canteens. It could be story of the hostel governess’ growing affection (or irritation) for hostelites. Knowledge, it would seem, can be located anywhere, in anyone or anything, and is simply that which we do not yet know. But could it be the air we breathe?

Knowledge has been used to gain and exert power, as Michel Foucault tells us. Therefore it becomes important to redefine it, decentralise it and democratise it. It is also important to problematise fixed understandings of who the knowledge seeker is and who becomes the knowledge giver. However, could our attempts to move away from expert knowledge to lived, experiential knowledge also fall into the trap of relativism? If we begin to see anything and everything as a possible repository of knowledge, are we being naïve?

It seems inevitable that we will, in our own quests, evaluate one kind of knowledge as more valid than another. Perhaps the understanding that our decisions are taken subjectively – and not objectively – vindicates us. And like knowledge, we find ourselves located in a dialectic between not wanting to evaluate different kinds of knowledges and doing so anyway.

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