The Practice of Unknowing

In Articles on 27 March 2011 at 10:50 am


by Marianne Maeckelbergh

The popular educator Paolo Friere said ‘You make the path by walking it’.  This saying is one of the guiding principles of the alterglobalization movement and it is this approach that radically differs from the dogmatic and overdetermined politics of the past.

Subcomandante Marcos

We are often told that there are right answers and wrong answers and that for one person to be right the other person has to be wrong, and although this is certainly at times the case, it is far less common than we think. In this brief article I would like to summarise some alternative approaches to ‘knowing’ that I have encountered through activism and anthropological fieldwork within the alterglobalization movement. Specifically I will address four assumptions about knowledge found within the alterglobalization movement that diverge considerably from ‘standard’ assumptions. First, the idea that knowledge is collectively constructed. Second, that knowledge is context specific, partial and provisional. Third, that a distinction must be made between knowing something and knowing better. Finally, I describe the idea that ignorance is useful. First, however, it is necessary to briefly describe the context within which these alternatives are emerging and the type of knowledge that they resist.

This movement has arisen in response to the accumulation of power by the world’s elite in the form of multilateral organizations such as the WTO, the WB/IMF, and the G8/G20. The movement challenges not only the right of these organizations to rule, but also the authority upon which they base their right to rule. Part of that authority is based in claims to knowledge. De Souza Santos (2004: 237-238) calls this paradigm of legitimate knowledge a “monoculture of knowledge” that rests on the production of non-existence. He argues that “It turns modern science and high culture into the sole criteria of truth and aesthetic quality, respectively. All that is not recognised or legitimated by the cannon is declared non-existent” and the act of redefining what can be considered ‘knowledge’, therefore, is not only about reclaiming knowledge, but it is fundamentally “about what it means to be human.” The question of who has the right to ‘know’ and who has the power to sanctify some types of knowledge while erasing others is therefore key to contemporary struggles for emancipation across the world and an essential step in asserting one’s right to exist.

At heart of the struggle for self-determination, then, “is a micro-politics for the production of local knowledge . . . . This micro-politics consists of practices of mixing, re-using, and re-combining of knowledge and information” (Escobar 2004: 350). The rest of this article is dedicated to the principles underlying these practices of mixing, re-using and re-combining knowledge, which captures some, but by no means all, of the creative ways the alterglobalization movement is attempting to challenge dominant paradigms of knowledge. Alternative practices of knowing therefore have to be understood within the larger framework of a political struggle to reclaim the right to know from those who have long monopolised the authority to sanctify knowledge and who have insisted that knowledge is a unitary and (in some respects) universal phenomena thereby delegitimizing all other ways of knowing.

Knowledge as Collectively Constructed

Within the alterglobalization movement most decision-making takes place at meetings and occurs through elaborate mechanisms of consensus decision-making. Reaching decisions by consensus is an accumulative process that assumes knowledge to be something collectively constructed through interaction (rather than something possessed by an individual). One person may suggest a proposal but others will make additions and alterations until a proposal is developed that incorporates the concerns of all those present. In so doing, movement actors merge many ideas into single, if complex and diverse, proposals.

When knowledge is created through a collective process, the consequence is that it is held by everyone – there is no privileged actor or group of actors who can claim the right to know. There are, of course, actors with certain skills, people who have more information or who are more connected than others, but movement actors attempt to limit this inevitable inequality through the sharing of individual skills and information at meetings and by doing trainings to spread the knowledge across the network.

The second consequence is that knowledge is assumed to be produced in the moments when divergent ideas meet and it is therefore an interactive phenomenon born through communication. The type of communication needed, however, is a non-adversarial form of communication. The multiple ideas and beliefs – the various ‘knowledges’ – have to influence each other, not compete with each other. This means that knowledges stemming from different paradigms all have to be treated as legitimate within a given framework. Those frameworks however, also have to be understood not as universal, but as context specific, partial and provisional.

Knowledge as Context Specific, Partial and Provisional

One of the main principles of consensus is that no one should win and no one should lose an argument. Instead the aim is to brainstorm until solutions can be found that suit everyone. The movement’s decision-making process, therefore, rests upon the assumption that there are no predetermined ‘right’ answers to any given problem, but rather that answers and solutions, that knowledge, is constructed and context specific. What might be the ‘right’ solution to a problem in one time and place is unlikely to be the right solution in another time and place. In this way the type of knowledge that is produced by the movement, while not denying the existence of right solutions – or of truth – allows for these truths to be multiple by acknowledging that individuals never have the full story (partial) and that what they know may no longer be true once the circumstances change (provisional).

The insistence that knowledge is a context specific construction is linked to rejections of ‘unity’ as a normative political ideal. This rejection of unity is the consequence of hundreds of years of experiencing the oppression that results when nation-states or colonial regimes insist that ‘the people’ should all fit within one political framework. As Hogden (1973: 26) argues, colonialism was based on a Judeo-Christian assumption of homogeneity that brought with it the idea that civilization necessitates homogenization. The alterglobalization movement’s re-articulation of knowledge as a constructed and context specific phenomenon is a part of the rebellion against political homogenization.

Within the alterglobalization movement we often find attempts to create many different solutions to the same problem. Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas expresses the relationship between diversity, unity and knowledge when he says, “The question everywhere is the same, but the answers may be different” (quoted by Flores 2001). This recognition that the answers are different in different contexts is visible at many levels of movement organizing, especially within the more autonomous strands of the movement, where it is commonplace for people to express their opinions with wording such as ‘the way we usually do it is…’. This is a context specific claim to knowledge that recognizes that their own knowledge may not be the best knowledge in all contexts.

Knowing versus Knowing Better

The type of knowledge that is most resisted by this movement is the type that claims to know better, to know what should be done, to know what will happen next – the knowledge of prediction. The Zapatistas, capture this movement practice of unknowing poetically when they say, “walking we ask questions”. Holloway (2004):

we have to start by admitting that we don’t have the answers. The fact that we think that state power is the wrong way does not mean that we know the right way. . . . To think of moving forward through questions rather than answers means a different sort of politics, a different sort of organisation. If nobody has the answers, then we have to think not of hierarchical structures of leadership, but horizontal structures that involve everyone as much as possible.

In this way movement actors, detach “the power of truth from forms of hegemony, social, economic, and cultural, within which it operates at the present time” (Foucault 1980: 133).

The refusal to know better demonstrates a commitment to diversity. There is no need for one person or group of people to convince the others that they have the right answer, because the common struggle does not rest on a shared world view – no singular ideology. Many people within the movement agree with the movement scholar de Souza Santos when he writes, “there is no ignorance or knowledge in general. All ignorance is ignorance of something, and all knowledge is the overcoming of a particular ignorance” (Santos 2004: 239). On the level of meetings and daily practice, this attitude towards knowledge is expressed through a caution about telling others what to do, realizing that no matter how much knowledge or skills you may have, there is no legitimate basis for claiming to know better. The alterglobalization movement plays itself out in so many different contexts that there are few who would claim to know better for all contexts at all times.

Ignorance is Useful

Not knowing what the solution is, however, does not pose the kind of problems one might expect. It may in fact be helpful. The idea that ignorance on the part of individuals within the system might actually be useful for the functioning of the system as a whole is a unique conceptual contribution of complexity theory and has intriguing implications when applied to the alterglobalization movement. Ignorance is useful posits that:

Having individual agents capable of directly assessing the overall state of the system can be a real liability in swarm logic, for the same reason that you don’t want one of the neurons in your brain to suddenly become sentient (Johnson 2001:79).

Although at first this principle seems problematic when applied to human systems, and especially to the alterglobalization movement which is characterized by a great deal of knowledge building, the principle actually captures movement approaches to knowledge quite aptly. Given movement actors’ reluctance to make claims to know better in diverse and unfamiliar situations, the principle of ‘ignorance is useful’ captures the idea that there is nothing to be gained through the creation of a meta-narrative about social change – that in fact it might even be dangerous to do so because what is true or useful in one context might not be true and might be damaging in another context (a lesson learned through years of exposure to development paradigms).

Following the principle of ‘ignorance is useful’ to its logical conclusion leads to an ironic twist in the case of human behaviour as it would imply that social actors should not attempt to understand the functioning of their own social system, or that they should at least not presume to do so correctly. This idea, even though its accuracy cannot be confirmed or denied, is reassuring for a movement that resists the oppression of meta-narratives that claim to know what is and what will be at the expense of past, present and potential subjectivities.

The Future of Democracy

As the world grows increasingly interconnected, the specific histories of each context are coming into contact with each other and we see a growing need for a system of ‘governance’ that allows for a multiplicity of subjectivities. It would perhaps be ‘easier’ if everyone could share one subjectivity, but any form of governance based on this criteria can only fail, since never in the history of the world have people shared a singular subjectivity and there is little evidence that this is either possible or desirable. What we need instead is a means for including people in decision-making without the prerequisite of uniformity – a form of sovereignty that is not premised on a template of ‘good governance’ presumed to be universal.

The alterglobalization movement, although far from perfect, is experimenting with new ways to envision democracy based not on the impossible uniformity of the nation-state, but on the pursuit of multiple and open goals through network structures. This allows knowledge to be different in different places and yet still be connected through meaningful communication – so that knowledge in one place can influence the knowledge in another, without one form of knowledge being instantly presumed superior. This process is riddled with problems, to be sure, but the shift in approaches to knowledge, not necessarily in terms of what is considered knowledge, but in terms of how we relate to competing notions of what knowledge is, represents an approach we can learn a great deal from if we want to find productive solutions to the crisis of democracy in the 21st century.

Marianne Maeckelbergh is lecturer in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University, Netherlands. She has 15 years experience as an activist, organising and facilitating exactly the decision-making processes that lie at the heart of her study. Her book The Will of Many is available from Pluto Press.


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