Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Knowledge and knowingness

I posted this in November 2003. i wanted to repost it because it ties into a new post i'm working on and it will be easier to refer to it this way.

Getting Hip to Squareness

This is one of the best things Michael Kelly ever wrote.

In all these states we were, first and above all, not-square. Everything was a variation on that; to be seen as clever and even profound you had to be not much more than not square.
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Knowingness, of course, is not knowledge—indeed, is the rebuttal of knowledge. Knowledge was what squares had, or thought they had, and they thought that it was the secret of life. Knowingness is a celebration of the conceit that what the squares knew, or thought they knew, was worthless. In The Graduate the career advice ("Plastics") of a family friend, Mr. McGuire, to Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, is classic square knowledge. Benjamin's mute disdain toward that advice—and his elaborately played out disdain for all that McGuire and the Robinsons represent—is classic anti-square knowingness.

You can see in this example the problem that a return to square poses: anti-square is so much easier and more fun. Knowledge, even on McGuire's level, is notoriously difficult to acquire. Sixteen years of hard, slogging schoolwork, and what do you know? Not enough to carry on ten minutes of intelligent conversation on any subject in the world with any person who actually knows something about the subject. Knowingness, though—a child can master that. (Can and does: there is an obvious inverse relationship between age and knowingness; the absolute life peak of knowingness generally arrives between the ages of twelve and sixteen for females, fourteen and eighteen for males—whereas, as these cohorts can attest, grown-ups don't know anything.)

This is why Benjamin Braddock had to ignore, with prejudice, Mr. McGuire. McGuire may have been a fool, but he was, in the limited area of business and economic trends, probably a knowledgeable fool. Had Benjamin been obliged to respond to McGuire's advice in terms of knowledge, he would have been utterly lost—he would have been the one exposed as a fool. But for Ben—and more to the point, for the movie's audience—knowingness offered a lovely way to not only counter McGuire's knowledge but also trump it. Ben didn't have to know anything about McGuire to show himself intellectually (and aesthetically, and even morally) superior to McGuire. He only had to know that what McGuire thought he knew was a joke and McGuire was a joke because—because the McGuires of the world are definitionally jokes, and if you don't understand that, I can't explain it to you, because you are a McGuire. That's knowingness, and for no-sweat self-satisfaction you can't beat it.

Kelly was more right than he may have known. In matters big and small knowingness plagues us.

If you want a small example, take a look at VH1's "I Love the ...." programs. As this blogger noted, they are just a series of snide, bitchy comments by people who really know little about the subject they are discussing. Everything is just fodder for a snarky joke.

In the latest New Criterion, Mark Steyn gives a common example:

In the days after September 11, I ran into no end of college students eager to lecture me on the "root causes"-- poverty breeds despair, despair breeds anger, anger breeds terrorism, terrorism breeds generalizations-- yet unable to name the capital of Saudi Arabia or find Afghanistan on a map.

Knowingness is a key element in many (most?) of the deleterious movements which have swept through the humanities over the last four decades. Graduate students did not have to master a subject in the old-fashioned way. They could just pick a short-cut-- racism, sexism, anti-semitism, homophobia-- and go cherry-picking for facts that fit.

For example, the history of the Northwest Territory used to be a complex matter of competing empires, tribes, religions, classes, and ethnicities. Now you just have to illustrate the genocidal attitudes of greedy settlers and you're home free.

Why really try to read Eliot or Pound carefully? Just pick out the lines and phrases that show fascist sympathies or anti-Semitic attitudes and be done with it.

These types of scholarly movements are a sham because they minimize the element of discovery in the research. The "scholar" knows what s/he will find when the s/he sets out. The footnotes are just a charming convention that serves as a smokescreen.

As Kelly wrote, the problem is figuring out how to go back to attitudes that are not as easy to pull off and not as much fun.

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