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Acting on objects

Posted Aug 24 2010 2:22am

Engaging with objects is key to understanding knowledge production, but you wouldn’t necessarily get that impression from a lot of philosophy, cultural theory or sociology. More often that not, objects are either flatout ignored (as Bjørnar Olsen and others have argued) or seen as secondary by-products of immaterial knowledge structures.

This dismissive view on objects (which luckily is changing at a rapid pace ) is, as Levi Bryant argues , perhaps also related to how philosophers and cultural theorists go about their daily business:

Philosophers are, above all, sedentary creatures. We read texts, debate, argue, yet seldom engage with materials. Where we do engage with materials– as in the case of cooking, gardening, or rock climbing –we seldom treat these activities as having philosophical significance where epistemology is concerned. This leads to a very passive discourse about representation and the giving of reasons. We think of knowledge, for example, as the ability to give reasons. Yet this largely ignores questions of how knowledge is produced. This way of thinking emerges, I think, from the privileged and sedentary lifestyle of the philosopher. When we cast about for examples of knowledge we look at a rock– just sitting there –and then ask “how do I know this rock?” Because we are sitting still and the rock is not being acted upon, we conclude that knowledge of the rock consists in being able to enumerate the properties that the rock has.

In the context of science communication, this is an absolutely vital point. We cannot stick to theories of knowledge production that removes the conclusions from experiment, the facts from the practice, or the knowledge production from the shuffling of objects and bodies in the laboratory.

Scientific knowledge production is more like cooking than thinking, and more like handling than thinking. It is only by acting upon objects that we know what their qualities are, what they can do, what sort of relations they can enter into, what sort of effects they can produce. This point is argued masterfully in this gem of an essay on materials from 1968.

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