Modes of Knowing

Eh. That title is a bit much, but such is life. What follows is by no means new to me (previous attempts to compass the topic here and here), nor is it newly thought. If I had something more closely at hand, I'd cite, but I'm working off the cuff, with a glass of wine beside my sleeve.

If one of my enthusiasms - both academic and otherwise - has been for landscape, especially the suggestive associations between ways of seeing and ways of knowing, then I've also, I think, been concerned with the particular way in which we come to know certain things. To put it another way, I was skimming the beginning to Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma this morning (also on my reading list, his recent NYT piece) for the class I'm due to teach tomorrow morning, and came across a last passage in which he cites Wendell Berry. Berry had already been on my mind after something else I came across, and Pollan was citing Berry to make the argument that eating should be seen as something more than mere satisfaction. Eating is a cultural act, a political act, but it is also an act that might tell us something about what we know; or perhaps more accurately, how we know.

To wit: To eat fast food because it is closest to hand might be an epistemological position, a way of refusing to know, otherwise refusing to think about the larger web of industry, commerce, and politics that go into a Happy Meal.

All of that said, I think you can draw from Pollan's argument another kind of theme: That knowledge is necessarily shaped by the material ways in which we come to know things. This isn't to argue, as some have, for the relative nature of all things or some essential epistemological instability. It's simply to suggest (and I think Donna Haraway actually makes a similar point) that the way in which we come to know certain things is valuable as a topic of study. To turn to Los Angeles, then, the ways in which we come to know the city are crucial to understanding the productions of knowledge about the city.

If Los Angeles is a city of the automobile, then it has become known to people through the automobile. Cars have become a medium of knowing, a kind of frame through which one looks at the city. What, then, are the implications of knowing the city through other modes of transportation? Some people in the local blogodrome recently walked Western (parts I, II, and III of their trip), and one of my recent angles on this has been the implications of knowing certain parts of the city from the saddle of a cycle (most recently here). If the material conditions of a particular knowing are significant - and I think they are - then what's valuable about those knowledges?

Of course, it may be something after what Walter Benjamin wrote in his A Berlin Chronicle:
The world that revealed itself in the book and the book itself were never, at any price, to be divided. So with each book its content, too, its world, was palpably there, at hand. But equally, this content and world transfigured every part of the book... You did not read books through; you dwelt, abided between their lines, and, reopening them after an interval, surprised yourself at the spot where you had halted.
As though that helps. What I think I'm trying to say to myself is that all of this nitpicking about ways of knowing the city, our modes of knowing, may be moot. If, following Benjamin, the world of a book is never to be divided from the book in which it exists, the city is never truly to be divided from our way of experiencing it. Maybe this: Streets, roads, highways, buildings, urban space are a kind of narrative in which we tend to tangle ourselves (the image of a man standing amid unslung fishing nets), and we should no more try to separate something pure or something true than we should forget about precisely the way in which the two parts are linked.

Or finally: That which we know (Benjamin's revealed world) should never, properly, be divided from that which shows us what we know (and this might be the book). I think what I've been writing towards is an argument that our movement through the city, as a process of learning and coming to know, cannot be separated from that which (the city) we come to know.


jenny said…
Wendell Berry, always the inspiration!

Did I tell you I saw him speak in San Francisco last month? I'll have to tell you.

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