Knowing

In the Bad Writing class Patrick and I have been showing the students how to know things. Of course they know many things, in a variety of modes. What we’re after is the kind of knowledge that can be communicated without local acculturation, personal experience, empathy, conversion, or conquest – knowledge that in principle could look right from many perspectives and regardless of perspective. Not the ‘God’s eye view’, certainly. But robust, responsible, credible findings – the pragmatic midrange of the epistemological field.

Again, we’re not (much) nazis about this. We’re all for alternative ways of knowing and suspicion toward the metanarratives of knowledge. We’ve read Foucault and Said, Harding and Haraway. But we also work with a whole bunch of people, some of them students, whose default mode of knowing is to pull stuff out of their butts. Like, ironically, the Nazis did. We think educated folks ought to have some facility with a less stinky, more intersubjectively valuable mode of knowing, one that doesn’t require us to nod politely while holding our noses when the turds of wisdom are extruded. In such contexts the epistemological niceties are obliterated by brute ignorance and naked ideology. It’s our job to fix that.

This mode is, really roughly, science. (I know, I know, Latour.) In the evening section of the class I remarked to the group that so far (a week, two meetings, 4 hours) it might seem that the class was a chaotic mess. Nods and wide eyes all around. OK, says I, describe what we’ve done so far. Well, we’ve read things. And then we’ve talked about them. We’ve tried to figure them out, and ended up with a lot of questions. Then we’ve done research on some of those questions, and read more things, and found some stuff out. Which we’ve talked about.

And so on. I said, this is it – this is the process. You start with something you’re trying to figure out. You familiarize yourself with it and then do some brainstorming. That leads to questions for research. You do the research, and get answers that lead to more questions. At each stage of the process you know more than before. What you know teaches you to ask better questions, and to modify what you thought you knew before. And so it goes forever. Our answers are never final, but they become part of an expanding network of robust understandings.

So, to make the rubber hit the road again, what we’re showing them is a mode of ‘getting it right’ that, if practiced correctly, allows us to say that Arthur Gobineau’s Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races is not just inconvenient to our current sensibilities, or politically incorrect, or immoral, but also actually ‘wrong’, that is, bad as knowledge.

We gave them a snippet from his conclusion. I’m going to paste it here for reference, and also to make it easily accessible since I didn’t find it ready-for-use on the web:

I have shown the unique place in the organic world occupied by the human species, the profound physical, as well as moral, differences separating it from all other kinds of living creatures. Considering it by itself, I have been able to distinguish, on physiological grounds alone, three great and clearly marked types, the black, the yellow, and the white. However uncertain the aims of physiology may be, however meagre its resources, however defective its methods, it can proceed thus far with absolute certainty.

The negroid variety is the lowest, and stands at the foot of the ladder. The animal character, that appears in the shape of the pelvis, is stamped on the negro from birth, and foreshadows his destiny. His intellect will always move within a very narrow circle. He is not however a mere brute, for behind his low receding brow, in the middle of his skull, we can see signs of a powerful energy, however crude its objects. If his mental faculties are dull or even non-existent, he often has an intensity of desire, and so of will, which may be called terrible. Many of his senses, especially taste and smell, are developed to an extent unknown to the other two races.

The very strength of his sensations is the most striking proof of his inferiority. All food is good in his eyes, nothing disgusts or repels him. What he desires is to eat, to eat furiously, and to excess; no carrion is too revolting to be swallowed by him. It is the same with odours; his inordinate desires are satisfied with all, however coarse or even horrible. To these qualities may be added an instability and capriciousness of feeling, that cannot be tied down to any single object, and which, so far as he is concerned, do away with all distinctions of good and evil. We might even say that the violence with which he pursues the object that has aroused his senses and inflamed his desires is a guarantee of the desires being soon satisfied and the object forgotten. Finally, he is equally careless of his own life and that of others: he kills willingly, for the sake of killing; and this human machine, in whom it is so easy to arouse emotion, shows, in face of suffering, either a monstrous indifference or a cowardice that seeks a voluntary refuge in death.

The yellow race is the exact opposite of this type. The skull points forward, not backward. The forehead is wide and bony, often high and projecting. The shape of the face is triangular, the nose and chin showing none of the coarse protuberances that mark the negro. There is further a general proneness to obesity, which, though not confined to the yellow type, is found there more frequently than in the others. The yellow man has little physical energy, and is inclined to apathy; he commits none of the strange excesses so common among negroes. His desires are feeble, his will-power rather obstinate than violent; his longing for material pleasures, though constant, is kept within bounds. A rare glutton by nature, he shows far more discrimination in his choice of food. He tends to mediocrity in everything; he understands easily enough anything not too deep or sublime. He has a love of utility and a respect for order, and knows the value of a certain amount of freedom. He is practical, in the narrowest sense of the word. He does not dream or theorize; he invents little, but can appreciate and take over what is useful to him. His whole desire is to live in the easiest and most comfortable way possible. The yellow races are thus clearly superior to the black. Every founder of a civilization would wish the backbone of his society, his middle class, to consist of such men. But no civilized society could be created by them; they could not supply its nerve-force, or set in motion the springs of beauty and action.

We come now to the white peoples. These are gifted with reflective energy, or rather with an energetic intelligence. They have a feeling for utility, but in a sense far wider and higher, more courageous and ideal, than the yellow races; a perseverance that takes account of obstacles and ultimately finds a means of overcoming them; a greater physical power, an extraordinary instinct for order, not merely as a guarantee of peace and tranquillity, but as an indispensable means of self-preservation. At the same time, they have a remarkable, and even extreme, love of liberty, and are openly hostile to the formalism under which the Chinese are glad to vegetate, as well as to the strict despotism which is the only way of governing the negro.

The white races are, further, distinguished by an extraordinary attachment to life. They know better how to use it, and so, as it would seem, set a greater price on it; both in their own persons and those of others, they are more sparing of life. When they are cruel, they are conscious of their cruelty; it is very doubtful whether such a consciousness exists in the negro. At the same time, they have discovered reasons why they should surrender this busy life of theirs, that is so precious to them. The principal motive is honour, which under various names has played an enormous part in the ideas of the race from the beginning. I need hardly add that the word honour, together with all the civilizing influences connoted by it, is unknown to both the yellow and the black man.

Arthur comte de Gobineau, The Inequality of Human Races (1853-55), excerpt from “Recapitulation; respective characters of the three great races; the superiority of the white type, and, within this type, of the Aryan family.”

Blech. I think pretty much everyone nowadays gets it that this is offensive, politically regressive, and immoral. For most purposes that’s enough. But none of those things means it’s factually wrong. Is this the kind of fact we’ve chosen to ignore for higher purposes? If it’s wrong, how can we tell?

Well for one thing, there is a century and a half of further research that abundantly shows this is all a bunch of crap. By settled and robust finding, there is no such thing as biological race in the way Gobineau thought. But can’t we give him a pass for being early in the investigation and not knowing better yet, like we give Newton a pass for not knowing Einsteinian relativity yet? Isn’t this ‘good’ science patiently going through its process of partial findings later revised as evidence and analysis improve – as in fact happened?

No. We can start with the “absolute certainty” his admittedly flawed method supposedly gives us about the existence and essence of races. There’s nothing in science justifying claims of absolute certainty. This points to a more systematic problem, his presentation of, at best, provisional observational findings as definite biological conclusions rather than hypotheses (questions) for further investigation.

We also have assertions of various facts not in evidence. Although we can’t know without reading the whole book what his dataset was, we can reasonably doubt that all Black folk have undiscriminating appetites, all Yellow folk are fat and lazy (how’d they get that wall built?), and all White folk are bright and creative. Surely this evidence is verifiably selective; and partial findings require more research, not overbroad final conclusions. He also seems to know what other peoples’ feelings are. This was a common conceit for Romantic types, but it’s not science – our data about the feelings of others are at best inferential. When research starts to go in circles we’ve reached the limits of possible knowledge.

Not finally, but enough for now, judgments are made and presented as settled fact using concepts that have no settled or settleable scientific content – liberty, honour, desire, and most notably the whole conceptual apparatus of evaluative ranking (superior, inferior). What criteria and data would we use to research the superiority of a race? Like flu virus, vultures, and the majestic slime mold, we can know that continued existence means living things are ‘fit enough’ for something or other. We can figure out what that is. But whether that something or other is ‘bad’, ‘good’, ‘better’, or ‘best’ depends on what else you might be trying to accomplish from time to time. It’s a place to form a preference between alternatives rather than a place to find out more, and therefore it’s another of those circles where knowing ends and agendas of various kinds begin. Not that there’s anything automatically wrong with agendas. Just that when we see them happening, we have a whole new sort of question to answer and puzzle to figure out.

We won’t do that agenda-and-audience investigation together on Gobineau, although a student or students might pick the scientific racism genre of bad writing as their own research project. But we will do at least a little of it with “The Communist Manifesto,” to which we’ll be turning next week.

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