Fetishes - Serres (part 2)

More on Serres, because he needs to be read!

Serres often reflects on the difference between knowledge as a fetish and knowledge in itself.

Knowledge as a fetish is basically knowledge as gossip. Not just your everyday variety, but any form of knowledge where the main focus is upon the group rather than upon the thing or object. So that what ends up counting is not how accurate or interesting some piece of knowledge is, but to what extent it silences critics, wins some debate etc.

It's possible to find all of that uncontroversial as an idea and retain the distinction between knowledge and the group, so that these gossip wars are still what the 'humans' do, and the knowledge is what they argue 'about'. But Serres decades ago saw that knowledge isn't like that at all. It's not about anything. It's a thing.

Knowing is an embodied, material activity. It's about bodies, instruments, chemicals, practices etc. Every fact is surrounded and produced by a variety of these instruments and materials and practices. If you shove a couple of electrodes into a banana and run some current through it, then any knowledge you gain about bananas and electricity as a result is about those electrodes as well. It makes no sense at all to claim you've discovered some de-materialised, disembodied 'fact' about bananas that exists separately to the set up of your experiment. And every set up you design will produce different knowledge, there is no underlying, 'objective' reality about bananas that all of these experiments point at. They each show another reality, made up of each of the specific bits and pieces you use. There will be as many truths about bananas as you can devise experimental set ups involving them.

When the experiments are all designed to win this or that argument in this or that group, we cross over into fetish territory. Or as Serres brilliantly says, we replace nouns with names. Experimental papers talk less and less about bananas and instruments (i.e. about things - nouns) and more and more about Bloggs (1987), Smith (2003) and Jones (1991). About "he said" and "she said". It also becomes the height of sophistication to believe that there is never unmediated and direct contact with the world and with things. Humans always 'filter' things using their categories and constructs.

In his amazing paper about the ancient Greek use of the gnomon, or what we would call a sundial, you get a sense of what science and knowledge might look like without the gossip and the group. And with a recognition that knowledge is in the world, not in our heads.

Who knows, who understands? Never did Antiquity ask these two questions...For example, the use of the telescope assumes the invention of the subject, which will place itself on the right side of the viewfinder, contemplating, observing, calculating, arranging the planets...For this culture the gnomon knew, discerned, distinguished, intercepted the light from the sun, left lines on the sand as if it were writing on the blank page and, yes, understood. In external space and its bright or black events lie knowledge and the whole body...The world represents itself, is reflected in the face of the sundial and we take part in this event no more or no less than a post, for standing upright, we also cast shadows...Modernity begins when this real world space is taken as a scene and this scene, controlled by a director, turns inside out - like the finger of a glove or a simple optical diagram - and plunges into the utopia of a knowing, inner, intimate subject. This black hole absorbs the world. But before this absorption, the world as such remains the seat of knowing. We can no longer understand this phrase, we who, futhermore, destroy what we know.

Serres goes onto demonstrate how the simple shadow of the sundial gives immediate, accurate (by definition - it's the world itself, writing upon itself) information about equinoxes and solstices, about latitude and the length of the Earth's meridian. All in one simple shadow! Oh and it can also 'tell the time', which didn't interest the Greeks much at all. All of this knowledge is there in the shadow, it didn't have to be put there by some human mind. Knowledge is in the world. It's not about the world.

It follows that intelligence is immanent and, probably, coextensive with the Universe. The world provides a huge store of forms. Ours does not stand out from its black surroundings presumably to wait passively until we inform them. There is a vast objective intelligence of which the artifiial and the subjective constitute small subsets.

This may all sound a bit high falutin', but a simple example helps to clarify it.

Certianly, we still make clocks out of metal, as in the past, but this crystal, that molecule, even that atom or isotope, now make better watches which are automatic and reliable, and this other crystal functions as a valve or semiconductor.

Who needs to build some incredibly complicated mechanism to put in a watch to 'keep the time', when the world already does it for us, in these molecules, crystals and isotopes? It's a genuine miracle, but we don't believe in miracles any more, because our sciences (including our human sciences like sociology and psychology and history) explain them all away with their 'laws'. All vanity.

That wordly dark and light is what the 3D vision thing is about too, I'm pretty sure. Vanity to assume we see in 3D because our 'brain' makes it all up. Must get back to that.


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