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Practice Module on Understanding Knowingness

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: October 8, 2000
Latest update: September 2, 2002

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Site Teaching Modules "Knowingness:" Something's funny in our culture.

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, September 2002.
"Fair use" encouraged.

From Jonathan Lear's Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul. 1998. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-45534-7 (pbk)
Against knowingness. Interprets the role of Freud in helping us to understand our need to "know."

"[T]he psychoanalytic profession has for too long clung to a defense which is, by now, outworn and boring: namely, the stance that psychoanalysis has a special secret to give to culture . . . This is ironic because this stance is an exploitation of the transference---analysts putting themselves forward as possessors of esoteric knowledge . . . . Analysts portrayed themselves as 'already knowing' the secret, whereas what makes analysis special is its unique form of not already knowing." (op. cit., pp.33-34) Lear sees analysis as an interdependent process in which patient and doctor work out an understanding of the patient's lived reality over time, together. Analysis assumes not independent knowing on the part of the analyst, but guidance and good faith listening to help ferret out interdependently the essential keys to understanding, which must come from the patient.

Lear also speaks of a "crisis of knowingness in the culture." We assume as part of our dominant discourse that we know certain things. Often these things we know are the underlying unstated assumptions of our dominant discourse. For example, it is generally "known" that people can get work if they really want to. After all, the economy is good right now. This knowledge assumes that the person without work has access to respect for the work he/she does, that the person is free enough of depression and any other disability related to his/her not working to effectively undertake work, and that the person sees a just place for himself/herself in the lived reality of the "working class." Those are pretty hefty assumptions that do not take into account the shift in work from physical labor to service and a new digital world, structural contexts, such as inner city deterioration, such as the feminization of the work force, such as the increasing bureaucratic nature of the work force, the devastating loss of extended family in the excessive mobility of the last decades, and the savage depletion of our mental health institutions.

As we begin to take these unstated assumptions into account, we may discover that what we think we "know" is not at all like the person's lived reality. What we "know" changes as we receive new information, and even in the areas of the most exact sciences, what we "know" changes over time. Lear speaks of the "established order of knowingness" being disturbed. (At p. 36.)

But Lear sees more. He claims that there is something "funny going on with 'knowingness' in the culture." (At p. 37.) And that something funny relates to the affect we show in relation to knowingness: "If boredom and irritation accompany the claim to already know, the violation of the presumption to already know is met with moralizing fury. It seems almost as though a taboo has been violated." (At p. 38.)

Lear relates the problem of "knowingness" to the myth of Oedipus, specifically to Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus and to "the fundamental transference-trap of interpretation: . . . either one presents oneself as offering the real truth, about Oedipus, say; or one says that one's interpretation is one among many good-enough interpretations. . . . the sense that this is our only choice should show us that we are living in a constricted universe of possibilities. (At p.39.) (Compare this to Foucauldian dialog. Tag jeanne.)

Lear speaks of the ridiculousness of having to choose between "knowing the real truth" and "accepting each interpretation as just one more." Although Lear doesns't go on to discuss that, because he moves to instead to give truth to his interpretation by tying it directly to Freud's text, I think we need to consider the "something funny" in our present handling of theory and interpretation. This is very close to the dilemma of metanarratives. To accept that we "know" the truth is to accept that there is some metanarrative that we could ultimately discover that would give us access to "the" truth. In the 21st Century we find that ultimate single truth very hard to accept. But to accept all interpretation on equal footing, as "good enough," is to deny ourselves all we have gleaned from the 20th Century flirtation with knowledge. That seems to me to be Habermas' position. We do know how to argue. We do know how to judge one argument as better than another, not perhaps for all time and under all conditions, but we can rank order arguments, at least roughly. Therefore, Habermas tries to identify a metanarrative of criticism, so that we can weigh arguments against one another, even as we recognize that there are no unique answers, no overriding truth that silences the Other.

Review based on Lear's Re-Interpretation of Freud's Oedipus, at pp.39 ff.