Not Knowing

In Michel Foucault's lectures on the Hermeneutics of the Subject, he warns that the modern configuration of truth and the subject can no longer lead to "the point of enlightenment and fulfillment" in which the subject is "transfigur[ed] by the 'rebound effect' of the truth he knows." Instead, "access to the truth, whose sole condition is henceforth knowledge, will find reward and fulfillment in nothing else but the indefinite development of knowledge." If for moderns truth can be achieved without any transformation or risk to the subject's being, if truth can be achieved merely through the methodological accumulation of knowledge, than truth will also no longer have any worth or "reward" for the subject of knowledge other than the storing up of knowledge itself--the archiving of facts. This is the modern problematization of the relations between truth and the subject, and serves as an important lens for analyzing the virtues and vices of the modern sciences. But how are we to understand claims not to know, particularly by experts? And what are the virtues and vices of such claims?

During my fieldwork research, one of the most provocative statements of this kind occurred during a conference on pandemic flu held in Beijing. The speaker, an American expert on avian influenza viruses, stated in his keynote speech that he "knew nothing about avian influenza outside of the walls of the laboratory." His intention, he explained, was to invoke the importance of collaborative research, the need for interdisciplinary work together with field scientists such as wild bird migration researchers or social scientists. His claim not to know therefore appeared in the form of an invitation, and at first sight seems to embody the refreshing virtue of modesty. And yet such a statement in fact denies the possibility of collaboration, for it reinforces the fixed boundaries between different domains of authority and knowledge. It reminds me of the salons described by Robert Musil "celebrated for the fact that on her 'great days' one ran into people one could not exchange a single word with because they were too well known in some special feild or other for small talk, while in many cases one had never even heard the name of the specialty for which they were world-famous." What can be accomplished here is at best cooperation, rather than collaboration. Nobody is being invited into the laboratory, and he is certainly not going out.

Second, I found that the virologist's claim not to know anything "outside the walls of the laboratory" was somewhat overstated. I was surprised to hear the same virologist comment, later in the conference, that "all farmers live for economic incentive." He did know, in other words, that farmers were a species of homo economicus. In this sense, we should remember that the expert's claim not to know, the expert's abdication and bequest of authority, may be best compared to the managed and limited transfer from Empire to "dominion" (as in Australia, for instance): the territory of possible claims to authority are well defined in advance and will not threaten the expert's own domain of authority.

My point is to identify some of the challenges and risks in the invitation for human scientists to collaborate with natural scientists. I am sure many of us have encountered the situation where, after explaining one's own research project in some detail, an informant or colleague has said, "That's great, I know nothing about that." Of course this holds out the promise of an invitation to collaboration. But if the terms of working together are that expertise is divided into confined sectors, that I don't know about what you do and you don't know about what I do, and that my contribution is constrained in advance within a predefined "domain" such as culture or economy, then the potential for collaboration is nearly lost. The claim not to know is then no longer a modest invitation to communication and co-work. Instead it reinforces the separation of truth from the subject that befits the bureaucratic administration of knowledge production.