on epistemology

why is uncertainty such a bad thing? is objectivity even possible? or desired?

In this week’s readings, I was struck once again about the problematic nature of our current epistemological structures and ways of thinking, especially in academia. The Karen Barad reading in particular made me think a lot about the ways that we understand and utilize knowledge, words, and meaning not only in our daily life but in a larger lens with which to view society, nature, and our place within each. In her article, Barad seems to be working towards an understanding of performative metaphysics, asking questions about the way that representationalism and classical understandings of epistemology become narrow and problematic. I understood this to be primarily about the flattening of experience through the ways that “words and things” come to define and represent ideas and groups of people without their input and often without their consent. One of the driving values of epistemology is understanding the world and creating structures to be able to support the findings and knowledge through academic study - whether it be scientific, social, or anthropological. I have found through some of these readings that a challenge to generalization and objectivity. In a parallel reading in our graduate seminar, Donna Haraway offers another perspective on objectivity and how subjectivity and situated knowledge can and should play a part in knowledge-building.

This leads me to a larger question about our larger systems of knowledge and how epistemological structures and “languaging” affect the populations who do not have the power to define - or represent - themselves. Therein lies the danger: in our current Western system of epistemological discourse and study as a whole, “systems of power produce the subjects they subsequently come to represent.” To put plainly, those in power - and in a racist, male-dominated society, those in power are usually white male cisgender authority figures - are the ones doing the defining and categorization of knowledge in fields such as science, metaphysics, and anthropology. This then suggests that the larger structural bodies at work in the practice of epistemology would support structures that represent the views and findings of this group above all others.

This, in turn, begs the greater question: what is the purpose of this knowledge and who does this knowledge benefit? In “On Difference Without Separability,” Denise Ferreira da Silva looks at the way that the racial grammar and lexicon separate and dehumanize the “Other.” This occurs through not only the choosing of language and words but through the way that we understand difference. One of the larger themes of my current thesis research of creativity and self psychology is how, as humans, we define ourselves through relationship. This occurs through intrasubjective, intersubjective, or metasubjective relationships or selfobject experiences that confirm or enhance who we are. In a different approach, it is clearer to understand something when you know what it is not or to realize something about yourself when you are aware of what you are not. Establishing binaries is a socialized and oversimplified way of defining ourselves and creating a sense of belonging in the world. These binaries are not “crowd-sourced”: they are natural by-products of the social structures in which we live and the values that these structures embed in their “words and things” and the knowledge that they certify is true. Sometimes this “knowledge” leads us, as a society, towards certain conclusions about the world and the people within it, often leaning towards the “Othering” of different cultures, ideas, and practices.

This is not to say that all knowledge in a racist and sexist society is inherently racist and sexist: it is instead to suggest that we should be wary of any piece of knowledge being “inherently” anything. Objectivity lays claim to the position of universality: one point of view that encompasses and takes into consideration all of the possible ideas, views, and outcomes. Perhaps objectivity is impossible? Perhaps situated knowledge and a feminist subjectivity is a better epistemological model?

Up until this point, I think that in most forms of epistemology that I have encountered there is a clear flattening of experience and a desire to generalize perspectives for the purpose of a “better” understanding of the world. I think that the world is much too broad and subjective for that and those who usually have the power to form knowledge claim an objective perspective when, in fact, they are highly subjective. “Thingification infects much of the way that we understand the world and our relationship to it.” What is the value of certainty? And what is the cost? What is the value and of knowledge if, when put into practice, is unrelatable or overly simplified? Barad’s ideas of a relational ontology that rejects the metaphysics of relata offers another entry point into a larger conversation about epistemology and the way that we “come into” knowledge.