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valuable knowledge

February 25, 2010

As I was writing up my umpteenth grant application to support my summer research, read through some papers on mirror neurons (there was a big one day seminar on it organized by the Duke Institute of the Brain last Fall), attended a talk on the same topic (the other reason for my interest is because I am reviewing an anthology of essays on mimesis, mimicry, and affect in the conjunction between the arts and the sciences, and one of the editors was someone who had represented the humanities angle during the said Fall seminar) and then came across two articles on the Duke Magazine on the future of reading and the William Lowell Putnam prize in collegiate mathematics, I was thinking about “what price knowledge.” This is not so much of a rhetorical question nor an aporetic statement but rather, how is the value in which we invest in particular modes of knowledge actually is the cause of its existence, of its production, its creation and place. I suppose this may have to do with my own research interest in epistemology, and more particularly, how knowledge grows from the material to the ideational (to borrow the Marxist ideology, and also to think about the Hegelian notion of locability ideation) or even knowledge that seems to have existed mainly in the ideational (though whether this is wholly true is something I am still attempting to trace). I suppose what is running in my mind now, and a visual picture that I cannot quite articulate comes to my mind, as I think in terms of high energy physics lab, math and science Olympiads, mathematical research, medical sciences (maybe I should include the forms of medicine that called ‘homeopathy’ in today’s parlance), parascience, astrology, and informational sciences, is the period of their growth, the kinds of knowledge occupying different positions of privilege at different points in time). Also why is there an interest within the fields of humanities to acquire ‘scientific forms of systematisation’ of their forms of knowledge that became the precursor to theoretical engagement in the humanities (think Formalism and Structuralism). How does one even bracket out the tacit assumptions that are at play when one inscribe particular values to particular modes of knowledge, and the hierarchical value we impose on a select person’s ability to perform, produce, and reproduce that form of knowledge. Particularly in the case of abstracts form of knowledge, what goes on in the producing (hypothesis forming, speculation, philosophizing, imagining, experimental design, experimenting, inferencing, extrapolation, analysis) and reproducing of it (task-orientation, regurgitation, memory-work, problem-solving based on precedence, application and re-application of known methods and techniques, theory in practice, demonstration, illustrating techniques and theories). Where would the creative person be in the locality of such many Venns and subsets. How does one evaluate creativity across disciplines or even detects such elements of creativity; what counts are originality?

A question that was asked in my class on detection and rhetoric of evidence in sciences and medical sciences in particular is how would it be possible for two different groups to reproduce the same Nobel-prize winning results, under the very different circumstances in which their groups are, arguably, laboring under. The other question asked was; how does one balance one’s limited resources between research on applications and thus on the dissemination of existing knowledge for practical purposes vs basic research that may not even anchor or even resonance with existing scientific paradigms, even if it may provide answers to our yet to be answered questions? Not to mention, going back to the math olympiad question, the different values placed on the performance of certain kinds of knowledge. For example, the math community may consider that excellent performance in a math olympiad or the Millennium problems as indicative of the health and possible future of mathematics, whereas a country that happens to do well in such problem-solving tasks may merely take pride for patriotic/national reasons with little inkling as to the content, implication or epistemic conditions that dictate or brought about such a performance. Or, a consulting firm may like to own the bragging rights of hiring the best brains in the country, and without). There has been work done on what it means to inhabit such a culture, though not much work done yet on the non-human factor of such cultures that implicate the humans (so stuck are we in seeing humans as the main active agents of knowledge production, and the objects of knowledge as passive beasts waiting to be discovered, made manifest or demonstrated).

Thinking of all these questions is also relevant when extrapolated back to the humanities, where there is no standard of measures that are not self-reflexive to a certain degree. At the same time, humanities inhabit a vast field of discourse that do not necessary see eye-to-eye in epistemic relations. This I’ve seen as a butterfly trying to inhabit the space of philosophy, literature, religion, history, area studies, gender studies and even the sciences (due to my own research interest. As an interdisciplinary person in a Literature program working in a highly interdisciplinary field that revolves around appropriating methods of very many different fields within the humanities, social sciences and natural science even, what is my relationship to the current or ongoing epistemic culture in my department (if there is even such a culture, since the reason why anyone is admitted to the department is because of their intellectual ‘eccentricity’) that originated in the study of literary texts, social text (based on the study of artistic cultures) and theory. I guess the other question ask is; how much of a new theory can I create through the intermarriage (if such a thing can even exist) between dissonant theoretical systems in abstract mathematical-physical sciences (area of my research) and critical humanistic theories (even if Formalism, Structuralism and Post-structuralism may seem rather anti-humanist to most ‘traditional’ humanists). If I manage to work out the tangles of some of the problems above, how can I be reflected in the field of humanities? I have not even included my interest in feminist epistemology (Standpoint and non-standpoint, whatever the latter may mean) and other material-cultural dialectics into the tangled mix.

Similar to the political standpoint of dictatorial and anti-democratic countries, to ask such questions amount to heresy and leads to ‘dangerous’ ideologies.
As I work through some of these questions, I’ll say to look out for what I’ll have to say in the other blog. 🙂

When I was about 13 or 14, my late maternal grandfather asked the teenaged me at a family gathering what I would like to be when I grew up. I said I wanted to be a scientist (my interest in being a scientist actually went further back to my interest with the occult and nature; I always fancied myself a wizard, as opposed to being a witch, and had much fun role-playing that as a kid). He said “Hmm, but you wouldn’t be making any money.” I wonder if that’s one of the unconscious reason that informed my own obsession with epistemology, so that I could, at the end of the day, understand the mechanism, or the ‘blackbox,’ behind the values imposed on it, and justify my desire. I am no scientist today but I am training to become a scholar of science in the broadest sense, which, in his eyes, would have had even less monetary value as he would have considered such preoccupation to be more abstracted from the ‘real’. Hence the final question for this entry is, what therefore prices abstract knowledge, or perception of abstraction in that form of knowledge?”

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