Uncanny Knowledges

2019-08-20

A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness. —Alfred Korzybski1

The phrase ‘uncanny knowledges’ captures an idea that I have been circling for some time; captures, but only incompletely. To capture is to enclose, but the ‘uncanny’ resists enclosure, resists the inscription of the dwelling (Levinas). The uncanny as ‘unheimlich,’ the unhomely, is that which unsettles the home. Put otherwise, the uncanny is the other side of the fact that the subject is in the world; the world is also in the subject.2

Uncanny knowledge is knowledge not at home, something known but from elsewhere, the weirdly familiar (hear the resonance of ‘family’ and the ‘familial’ within ‘familiar’). Uncanny knowledges, in the plural, points to the multiplicity of such knowledge, its illegitimate genealogy, which is to say, the disparate sources (or better, citations) that potentiate the scriptural economy (de Certeau) of understanding.

The conception of knowledge I want to resist is that in which the mind is treated like a simple hard drive and knowledge like inert data saved to it. To reduce knowing to folder trees and file formats is to miss entirely the bodily shape of knowledge, the fact that specific knowledges provide specific “opening[s] onto things” (Merleau-Ponty).3

Earlier this year my partner and I travelled to Florida so that I could present a paper on Merleau-Ponty and The Last of Us at the ImageText in Motion Graduate Conference at the University of Florida. While we were there we were fortunate enough to be able to spend a day at Disney World. Neither of us had ever been to Disney World, but both of us had been to Disney Land with our families when we were younger. I, having been more recently than she, had a much clearer memory of the park and its layout. Walking down Main Street (which now only makes me think of Baudrillard’s “hyperreal”) and into the main hub of the Magic Kingdom, I was caught off guard by the profound recognition I felt. I knew this place. I knew where to go. I hardly needed to look at the map. Though certain details were different, the overall form remained consistent with my memory, even though I knew that I had never been there before and that I was actually located in Flordia and not California.

The map is not the territory, but in the case of Disney this distinction is quite blurry. Indeed, as Baudrillard notes, the Disney park is a profound abstraction, a hyperreality standing in for a reality that never existed; here, the abstraction of the map exists in much closer proximity to that of the territory, and is in fact the originary citation for it. These territories are not founded in the earth and represented by a map; they are founded in an idea, earthbound representations, to be sure, but of the same matter that constitutes the maps that model them. We see, here, the very limits of the “imaginary of representation,” as Baudrillard termed it, and the “instantiation of an abstract and modelized system of signs.”4 Idea and matter are both here, in the world. The signified is as much within the world as the referent. As such, our communications, our significations, manipulate the “pulp itself” of matter,5 utilizing actually existing models of thought, structures of representation that, more often than not, cannot be traced to our own cognition or be localized within the limits of our skulls. We encounter familiar things with which we should not be familiar. Ready-made abstractions confront us, disclosing knowledges we did not know we possessed.

But this condition of knowledge should not be interpreted as a loss or considered a disaster. It is, rather, the disclosure of the operation of knowledge as it has always functioned. The world has always been navigable through the subterranean operation of uncanny knowledges, strange tools affording new and surprising openings onto things, openings (i.e., models) that in turn become instantiated (i.e., inscribed) in the world as independent structures to be navigated by others. The data transforms the hard drive through the simple act of being saved to it. The repository is open and active, an agent itself. The reification of ideation that made possible the conception of the mind as transcendental data processor, the machine of representation untouched by its operations, cannot be maintained. Knowing is double sensation, touching and being touched.6 Our abstractions are at home in the world, as much as the world is at home with them. This is not to dissolve these forms into a homogeneous mass, to confuse the map for the territory, but rather to acknowledge and appreciate the generative circulation between these distinct but contiguous structures.

Knowledge is possible because of this uncanniness, the openness of the dwelling, the “leakiness” of transcendence.7 The task for us now is to learn to navigate the folds and structures of the world as knowing bodies, embracing the contingency and porosity of understanding as positive potentialities of our existence.8


Notes

  1. Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity (1933), 58, https://books.google.ca/books?id=WnEVAQAAIAAJ

  2. In my MA thesis, I wrote: “the world is there, at home and within her, threatening the borders of that within, her self.” See my Fiction in the Integrated Circuit, unpublished, 2018, 11. 

  3. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (London: Routledge, 2012), 99. 

  4. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 2, 35. 

  5. Umberto Eco, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 1984), 45. 

  6. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 95. 

  7. Tom McGlynn, “Toward a Generic Aesthetics: A Non-Philosophy of Art,” &&&, May 29, 2015, http://tripleampersand.org/toward-a-generic-aesthetics-a-non-philosophy-of-art/

  8. For one attempt at this task see my Affinity: A *DREAM Plugin over at itch.io, https://vagrantludology.itch.io/affinity-dream