The Construction of Anthopological Non-Knowledge

There’s a reason I’m up at 2:30 in the morning. I’m trying to wrap my head around a concept I came across in my research for the paper I’m presenting at the Chicago conference on anthropology and counter-insurgency. Here’s the quote that’s got me all worked up:

One of the most useful contributions of native anthropology could be the “decontamination” of settler youth by building the analysis of the formidable role of non-knowledge in settler culture into their training for the profession [or anthropology]. (Gwaltney, John L. “On Going Home Again — Some Reflections of a Native Anthropologist”. Phylon 37:3. 1976/ Pp. 241-2.)

The “settlers” are the colonial powers of which anthropology has traditionally been a part. What concerns me here, though, is this idea of “non-knowledge”. The definitive take on the concept of non-knowledge is apparently the surrealist George Bataille (whose work on the subject are collected in The Unfinished System Of Nonknowledge. As far as I can tell, the idea is this: all knowing consists of selecting parts of the whole as “things” to know. In constructing knowledge, therefore, we automatically simultaneously construct non-knowledge, things which are not known as knowledge.

To take a basic example, if two dogs are standing before me, in order to know them as “dogs”, I have to ignore all those differences that don’t fit into the category of “dog”. And there is no level of detail at which all the details can be known and still be knowledge — once I descend to the level of individual difference, categorization becomes impossible. (And there goes science! Which is, of course, a fancy way of saying “knowing”.)

What’s important here is that the non-known is purposely non-known. It’s knowledge (or information, or data — language fails us non-surrealists!) we could know, but exclude from being knowledge. For Gwaltney, then, anthropology in the act of constructing knowledge must exclude that-which-becomes-non-knowledge, and those exclusions are necessarily produced by the anthropologist’s status as a member of a settler culture. What becomes non-knowledge, then, is the native’s system of logic (or the natives’ systems of logics).

I think. I’m pretty sure that we’re not really allowed to know what nonknowledge is :-). But to me, this idea of non-knowledge sidles up pretty close alongside Laura Nader’s “Phantom Factor”, the factors imagined as external to anthropology that molded and trimmed anthropological knowledge-making in the Cold War years. And it starts to speak to my concern in the paper I’m preparing for the conference: when anthropology is directed towards counter-insurgency (the ultimat settler orientation) what kinds of non-knowledge are beign automatically simultaneously created?

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