Mar 18 2011

First of Three Proposals: Toward a Poetics of Ignornace

See also Second of Three Proposals: Toward a Frankenstein-like Poetics

Third of Three Proposals: Toward Reconciling a Poetics of Ignorance with a Frankensten-like Poetics

1.0 We accept De Quincy’s demarcation[1] for all books in the Library of Babel[2]: There are “books of knowledge” and “books of power.”

1.1 If books of power are not books of knowledge, they are, in some sense, “books of ignorance.”[3]

1.2 A writer who follows (or applies) a poetics of ignorance produces books of ignorance.

1.3 When applying a poetics of ignorance, the writer should not “write what he knows”—on the contrary: he should write what he doesn’t know. As author he must advertise his avoidances and make his text transparent by unveiling, confessing that which he knows not.

2.0 Because books of power are also books of ignorance, whenever an author attempts to beckon (and reckon) Truth, it tends only to bore the reader. This is because generally, truths and beliefs preached by the writer, or portrayed by his characters drive away the reader’s attention. The presence of truth drives a reader’s attention to halt, stop, stay static. Conversely, any ideas unknown to the reader, unfamiliar (novel) ideas to which the reader is ignorant, tend to intrigue the reader.

2.1 “Doubt”, for readers, includes all ideas unknown, unfamiliar, or novel (and intriguing) to them. Doubt is a stimulus for readers—it stimulates their attention, spurs intrigue, births curiosity, channels wonder, and drives their attention to continuing its quarrying.[4] Following a poetics of ignorance allows a writer to cultivate, articulate intriguing doubts that will stimulate readers onward, page after page.

3.0 Writers of books of ignorance must learn to display novelty: hence the name of the literary form, the Novel. Writers must display novelty, not for the sake of notoriety but rather for displaying their own wonderment at that novelty. When a writer acknowledges novelty, she conveys ignorance to her reader. Anything the writer considers novel must be, in some sense, unfamiliar, because those things unfamiliar to her are the things to which she is ignorant and curious about.

3.1 According to Peirce,[5] and contrary to Descartes, the writer cannot know her unknowns (or the things to which she is ignorant)—but she can know her doubts:

It cost me much Trouble to explain to him what I was doing; for the Inhabitants have not the least Idea of Books or Literature…. It was with some Difficulty, and by the help of many Signs, that I brought him to understand me. He replied, That I must needs be mistaken, or that I said the thing which was not. (For they have no Word in their Language to express Lying or Falsehood.)

––Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), IV, iii.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

––Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus (1921), § 7.0.

[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns––the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

––Donald Rumsfield, Department of Defense News Brief for February 12, 2002.

 


[1] De Quincy, Thomas. [“The Literature of Knowledge and the Literature of Power.”] a.k.a. “Letters to a Young Man whose Education has been neglected.” London Magazine, March, 1823. Masson, x. 46. Quoted from De Quincys Literary Criticism. ed. Helen Darbishire. 1909. H. Frowde, London.

[2] In his fictional short story “The Library of Babel” (1941) Borges begins: “The universe (which others call the Library).” (See Ficciones, 1956. Trans. and ed. by Anthony Kerrigan, Grove Press. 1962. pp. 79–88.)

Borges elsewhere calls it “the utopia of the Total Library” and that it contains:

Everything: but for every sensible line or accurate fact there would be millions of meaningless cacophonies, verbal farragoes, and babblings…. The vast, contradictory Library, whose vertical wildernesses of books run the incessant risk of changing into others that affirm, deny, and confuse everything like a delirious god. (Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Total Library.” (1939). Selected Nonfictions. Ed. and trans. by Eliot Weinberger. Penguin Books. 1999. pp. 214–216.)

[3] De Quincy claims that one kind of opposite to a “book of knowledge” would be a “book of pleasure” or amusement, yet he finds a truer antithesis (or opposite nature) to be a “book of power.” The true nature of our First Proposal seems to be a bit “Gnostic” considering we have set gnosis (knowledge) against agnosis (ignorance).

[4] From C. S. Peirce:

“We generally know when we wish to ask a question and when we wish to pronounce a judgment, for there is a dissimilarity between the sensation of doubting and that of believing…. The irritation of doubt causes a struggle to attain a state of belief.”

––The Fixation of Belief (1877).

“Most frequently doubts arise from some indecision, however momentary, in our action.”

––How to Make Our Ideas Clear (1878).

While doubt makes a reader, on the other hand, gout makes the writer. At this point a “poetics of pain” may come into play—one that has elsewhere been articulated by Nietzsche in his Genealogy of Morals (1877).

[5] From Peirce’s Some Consequences of Our Four Capacities (1868):

In some, or all of these respects, most modern philosophers have been, in effect, Cartesians. Now without wishing to return to scholasticism, it seems to me that modern science and modern logic require us to stand upon a very different platform from this.

1. We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not real doubt; and no one who follows the Cartesian method will ever be satisfied until he has formally recovered all those beliefs which in form he has given up. It is, therefore, as useless a preliminary as going to the North Pole would be in order to get to Constantinople by coming down regularly upon a meridian. A person may, it is true, in the course of his studies, find reason to doubt what he began by believing; but in that case he doubts because he has a positive reason for it, and not on account of the Cartesian maxim. Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.

2. The same formalism appears in the Cartesian criterion, which amounts to this: “Whatever I am clearly convinced of, is true.” If I were really convinced, I should have done with reasoning and should require no test of certainty. But thus to make single individuals absolute judges of truth is most pernicious. The result is that metaphysicians will all agree that metaphysics has reached a pitch of certainty far beyond that of the physical sciences; — only they can agree upon nothing else. In sciences in which men come to agreement, when a theory has been broached it is considered to be on probation until this agreement is reached. After it is reached, the question of certainty becomes an idle one, because there is no one left who doubts it. We individually cannot reasonably hope to attain the ultimate philosophy which we pursue; we can only seek it, therefore, for the community of philosophers. Hence, if disciplined and candid minds carefully examine a theory and refuse to accept it, this ought to create doubts in the mind of the author of the theory himself.

3. Philosophy ought to imitate the successful sciences in its methods, so far as to proceed only from tangible premisses which can be subjected to careful scrutiny, and to trust rather to the multitude and variety of its arguments than to the conclusiveness of any one. Its reasoning should not form a chain which is no stronger than its weakest link, but a cable whose fibers may be ever so slender, provided they are sufficiently numerous and intimately connected.

4. Every unidealistic philosophy supposes some absolutely inexplicable, unanalyzable ultimate; in short, something resulting from mediation itself not susceptible of mediation. Now that anything is thus inexplicable can only be known by reasoning from signs. But the only justification of an inference from signs is that the conclusion explains the fact. To suppose the fact absolutely inexplicable, is not to explain it, and hence this supposition is never allowable…. We have no conception of the absolutely incognizable. These propositions cannot be regarded as certain; and, in order to bring them to a further test, it is now proposed to trace them out to their consequences.