Knowledge Preservation
Custom Textbooks Gone Bad

Fear of Language

Following a thread of references from an article on Knowledge Management (KM), I happened upon a blog entry that took as its focus the definition of what we mean by "knowledge". This is quite a common occurrence. Any article on KM will, as a rule, be only one click away from some epistemological statement of position.

This particular entry repeated the familiar history of KM wherein the earlier dark ages where dominated by an exclusive focus on technology and on an understanding of knowledge that seemed to limit it to what can be managed using computing technology. This dark age is then contrasted with the more recent movement towards a fuller, more human appreciation for the intrinsic messiness, slipperiness and unintelligibility of knowledge. The dark age of KM is usually associated with the late 1980s and early 1990s and the process of renaissance and enlightment with regards to appreciating knowledge more fully emerged beginning in the mid-1990s.

As might be discernable in my choice of wording, I do not subscribe to this framing of history. I distinctly recall encountering many fierce advocates in the early 1990s who explicitly defined knowledge as that which cannot be managed and specifically that which cannot be enhanced by the introduction of technology of any form. It seems to me that this framing of history may be a rhetorical trope that casts technology, and explicitly tangible and manageable knowledge, in the role of villians. Against this foil, warmly shared human experience can be set up as a romantic antithesis and organizations can be called to the heroic recognition that knowledge workers deserve increased lattitude to innovate organically and without artificial constraint. All this sounds strangely familiar to me when I recall the tensions that arose between the Enlightment, the Industrial Revolution and the Romantic reaction. This is a line of inquiry that deserves more attention.

Rosetta Stone

What was particularly interesting about the post on "knowledge" that I came upon was the fact that the rhetorical position that leaped out was such an extreme example of a "romantic reaction". Specifically, this extended post opens with an interesting rejection of language as "a clumsy and artificial abstraction". This is a peculiar position to take as the question that must immediately arise is - compared to what? The rhetorical position implies the presence of something more genuine that stands as an alternative to the artifice of words. As usual, this substratum of the "genuine" is not defined, free as it is from such constraints. (The same author of this particular post elsewhere waxes at length about the delights of a future where people will be free of all constraints in a world without cars, or meat, or clothes.)

I have encountered this same position on many occasions and I tend to classify (constrain) it as a form of "escape" from discussion. For one reason or another people want, or need, to protect a cherished notion from criticism or perhaps simply from the burden of articulation. Those who share the same underlying affinities will immediately agree on this exemption from discourse while those that do not share these affinities can be politely ignored as being trapped in some form of darkened state of insensitivity.

This type of discursive escapism is found in many forms, most of which are not as extreme as seen in this case. It usually surfaces as a blanket rejection of "labels" which again turns up when one party in a discussion wants to exit from a potentially uncomfortable predicament.

That language is an artifice is obvious as is the fact that no language is, or can be, "perfect". This is not to say that languages cannot be improved over time through refinement, extension and experimentation. But declaring that language itself, in all its forms, is something that can be miraculously side-stepped in order to gain direct access to the "truth", or that this would be desirable, or that this is even an intelligible statement at all, is utterly ridiculous. As the position itself is ludicrous, it is the escapist mentality underlying the attraction to such a position, and the shrill ferocity with which it is usually defended, that is most interesting.

On some occasions when I am confronted with this position, I quote from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels where Swift seems to have these very people squarely in his satiric sights:

The other project was, a scheme for entirely abolishing all words whatsoever; and this was urged as a great advantage in point of health, as well as brevity. For it is plain, that every word we speak is, in some degree, a diminution of our lunge by corrosion, and, consequently, contributes to the shortening of our lives. An expedient was therefore offered, 'that since words are only names for things, it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express a particular business they are to discourse on.' And this invention would certainly have taken place, to the great ease as well as health of the subject, if the women, in conjunction with the vulgar and illiterate, had not threatened to raise a rebellion unless they might be allowed the liberty to speak with their tongues, after the manner of their forefathers; such constant irreconcilable enemies to science are the common people. However, many of the most learned and wise adhere to the new scheme of expressing themselves by things; which has only this inconvenience attending it, that if a man’s business be very great, and of various kinds, he must be obliged, in proportion, to carry a greater bundle of things upon his back, unless he can afford one or two strong servants to attend him. I have often beheld two of those sages almost sinking under the weight of their packs, like pedlars among us, who, when they met in the street, would lay down their loads, open their sacks, and hold conversation for an hour together; then put up their implements, help each other to resume their burdens, and take their leave. (Gulliver's Travels Book III Chapter V)


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