12 September 2013

Autres temps, autres moeurs

Marilyn Strathern in 'The Whole Person and its Artefacts' (2004) 33 Annual Review of Anthropology 1 comments that
One effect of the self-avowed knowledge economy has been to turn information into currency. Use value appears to depend on exchange value. Many certainly hold this view of scholarly knowledge. People openly state that there is no point in having such knowledge if one cannot communicate it, and they mean communicate it in the same form, that is, as knowledge. (Arguably, “knowledge” is communicated as “information,” but insofar as it is meant to be adding to someone else’s knowledge,the terms can be hyphenated.) The fact that knowledge may have contributed to a solution or reflection is beside the point: It is invisible, even useless, unless it can circulate as knowledge-information. The social source of (circulateable, consumable) knowledge-information becomes the expert. Of course there is a huge history behind the formation of the expert in modern times, and again behind the professional; I offer a tiny ethnographic glimpse in the first section. The same person may be both, but the roles are increasingly detached, as (at least in the United Kingdom) professions lose status and knowledge-information experts feed an appetite in public policy for evidence.
From ''Step inside: knowledge freely available': The politics of (making) knowledge-objects' by James Leach in The Politics of Knowledge (Routledge, 2011) -
A large advertising sign hangs outside the new British Library building on Euston Road in London. It reads ‘Step Inside. Knowledge Freely Available’. A good slogan, but what does it imply about the way knowledge is thought of in contemporary society? Obviously the Library is a repository for a huge number of books, recordings, manuscripts and so forth. One would have to say that it is these that are freely available (and it is wonderful that they are of course). But in what sense are they knowledge? Or rather why it is that the advertisers decide to promise, by the emphasis of that term, something already a value, already more than the papers and inks themselves: something people can take away as ‘knowledge’?
The theme of this chapter is a contemporary global politics that makes it important to call bound papers, objects, and other media that a library holds knowledge. The reference points are not libraries and their holdings specifically, but rather artistic practices from the UK, Indonesia and Melanesia, interdisciplinary research projects in the UK, and current intellectual property law. Clearly these are meant as examples of a wider phenomenon. My contention is that a trend that renders diverse objects, practices, effects, relationships, and forms of information into a single category – that of ‘knowledge’ – establishes the conditions for two further moves. Each has political implications. These moves are, first, a normative impetus for knowledge to take forms that make its ease of transmission paramount and often in the process prioritise narrow utility over wider effect. This in turn validates an impatience on the part of policy makers with complexity and dispute (Strathern 2007). Second, that the current image of knowledge as a detachable, circulating object sets up the possibility for a false scale of accounting in which comparative judgements about value are made to the detriment of recognising wider diverse, social benefits. This is most obvious in the current drive towards measuring ‘impact’, a particularly inappropriate register for arts and humanities research.
The impetus to view practices, relationships, performances, inscriptions, the emergence of particular and skilled persons and so forth as knowledge-producing activities with transactable object production as the aim of the endeavour suits the formulation of a certain political economy. I suggest that in this contemporary use, ‘knowledge’ has come to be a normative term denoting something that can be abstracted from the context of its production, and to carry value with it. We should ask ourselves what the effects of imagining there is something called knowledge that, if not always freely available (as in the Library’s promise), is always available to move in transactions of the kind appropriate to commodities.
And from 'The Clarity of Theory: An Interview with Jonathan Culler' by Jeffrey J. Williams in (2008) The Minnesota Review -
Jonathan Culler—Of course the British system has changed quite radically since the time when I entered it. When I was there it was in some ways resolutely anti-professional. University teachers didn't necessarily have to have a PhD, and there were many whose reputation was based on the fact that they'd gotten a brilliant First as undergraduates and then gone on doing some research and teaching. Even publication for many was thought of as vulgar. I had a very good friend in the neighboring college when I was teaching in Oxford—we shared students and dined together frequently during vacations when they would close one kitchen and we would dine in one or the other college. He was a French medievalist, a man with great intellectual interests. He was always doing something like learning Turkish or studying Byzantine architecture, but he had absolutely no interest in ever publishing about medieval French literature. To him that seemed vulgar, the sort of thing Americans do. I remember his saying to me, "Jonathan, I understand that Americans have something called a curriculum vita, in which you keep records of everything you do in lists. Is that true?"
Now it's much worse for them than for us. They have to document everything. They're always being rated and have to prove that they're doing research; they have five-year plans and universities hire people to get their publications on their five-year assessments. But there was the notion, in the days when I was there, of literary studies as a kind of gentlemanly pursuit, and you chatted. The undergraduate system was one of tutorials and exams at the end of three years, so they would go weekly and chat with their tutor about whatever topic he or she had set. Usually they wrote an essay, but they read it out loud, they didn't hand it in. I think this actually improved students' writing—they had to read what they had written, so it had to be articulate and make sense—and it certainly saved time for the tutors. You listened to something and you made some comments, then sent them along. It did give the whole thing a sort of gentlemanly social dimension that is often lacking in the American university. And in those days the graduate degrees were, for the most part, simply research degrees, where you had a topic and you had a supervisor.
The BPhil, which I did, was a degree where there were some seminars and classes on various topics, but not very many, and it was mostly exams and a short thesis. You worked with tutors on the topics that you were studying, but now they've brought in graduate degrees that they call "taught degrees," and you do have to do more courses. The quantification of everything in the British educational system is doubtless producing more professionalization among the students too.