The fiction of knowledge

Michel de Certeau, in The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), writes,

To be lifted to the summit of the World Trade Center is to be lifted out of the city’s grasp. One’s body is no longer clasped by the streets that turn and return it according to an anonymous law; nor is it possessed, whether as player or played, by the rumble of so many differences and by the nervousness of New York City traffic. When one goes up there, he leaves behind the mass that carries off and mixes up in itself any identity of authors or spectators. As Icarus flying above these waters, he can ignore the devices of Daedalus in mobile and endless labyrinths far below. His elevation transfigures him into a voyeur. It puts him at a distance. It transforms the bewitching world by which one was “possessed” into a text that lies before one’s eyes. It allows one to read it, to be a solar Eye, looking down like a god. The exaltation of the scopic and gnostic drive: the fiction of knowledge is related to this lust to be a viewpoint and nothing more.

Certeau, M. The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press., p. 92.

The fiction of knowledge is the idea that we can see everything without a blind spot, or without making a distinction between the observed and the unobserved. The people traversing the city far below are faced with many blind spots. They can’t see around corners, etc. The myth of science is that we can know everything without any blind spots: If one field of science doesn’t see something, some other branch of science might see it. But there can never be a totality of knowledge because the different branches of science are not working together; they are incompatible; they cannot work together harmoniously. The word branch reveals a metaphor–viz., that different scientific fields are branches of a single tree.

But as Deleuze and Guattari declare in A Thousand Plateaus,

We’re tired of trees. We should stop believing in trees, roots, and radicles. They’ve made us suffer too much. All of arborescent culture is founded on them, from biology to linguistics. Nothing is beautiful or loving or political aside from underground stems and aerial roots, adventitious growths and rhizomes.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus : Capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bentham’s panopticon arises from or expresses the fiction of knowledge. The prisoners in the panopticon are like the people walking the streets below the heights of the World Trade Center.


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