An Epistemology of Vulnerability

Action vs. Passivity

Domination vs. Submission

To create knowledge is in some ways to reproduce oneself in the world. Along such lines we often come to behave, if not consciously, then at least in a manner as-if this was the way. As-if, that is, self-reproduction of human culture upon the world was inevitable.

Knowledge is systematic, the philosopher Hegel says, it is a system. To make knowledge is to systematize, record, transform, conjecture, conclude, to derive a narrative shut and tight, about what the world is like.

More practically speaking, what we call knowledge is a way of impressing upon each other that here: we can explain! That here: we can predict, and control!

And this is all fine if all one wants to see is oneself predicting and controlling the world. But for those more curious, there’s a problem with this attitude: it lacks final legitimacy. Why? Because it is open to exploitation. More precisely: to the construction of Ontological Finitudes.

Really, Ontological Finitudes is a big topic for another post at another time, but in brief, it can be explained as the habits and rules of a culture which come together to limit the number of distinct things in our physical as well as mental world. And by such limitation, to simultaneously make it impossible to experience things that deviate from and effectively contradict the shut and tight narratives. Ontological Finitudes, in other words, are social realities that literally cannot be in error, because the things of error do not even exist in said social reality.

The topic of this blogpost is a related problem. Action / Passivity, Domination / Submission. Our relationship with nature, in trying to gain knowledge, is one of laying upon the natural world our own culture, our scientific methods and apparatuses, to colonize the natural in our mind, make it an object of civilization, and then to integrate it into our knowledge, our sciences and traditions. Our exploration and learning about the natural world and its diversity is simultaneously a remaking of that world in the human image, because we insist on an active and dominating attitude in which the world must be made to correspond to our procedures, our ways of doing things, our tools and -equipment, our biases, and the interests of our hypothesis and conjectures.

A fear I have about this, is that in learning about the world, we hear so much of the human voice, or the voice of civilization, that we forget to listen to the voices of nature. And by this I mean, we are so interested in staying in control, in knowing the outcome before it has even come to pass (i.e., by readying labels to distribute for different possible outcomes), that when something eventually does happen it is the human – it is civilization – which speaks for the event. And as such, what we in the end have learned is a mutated piece of knowledge, a human appropriation, a regurgitation of civilization. In trying to understand the world, we have instead come to make another piece of ourselves, but called it the world.

This is what I would like to call An Epistemology of Defence, or An Epistemology of Overwhelming Strength, though I prefer the first, because my point is that in focusing on being active, and on activities that are domineering, we are being defensive about what is human. We discard, suppress, and ignore the voices of nature, to hear our own voices, to listen to our own speech. And in so doing, I fear we make ourselves ignorant. Our relishing in our own power over nature, it makes us ignorant to the truths of nature.

So what I call for, is for humanity to consider instead An Epistemology of Vulnerability. An intentional opening up of our body, and our society, to the forces weaker than us, to give them the chance to affect us, to reach into our minds, to speak through us, to make themselves known in us by letting them disturb us in their own ways, by letting them work on us in their own ways, by letting them use us in their own ways. We need to allow ourselves a passivity, a submissiveness, in our curiosity about the world. To not defend ourselves, but “be messed with”, so to speak, by the interests of nature. For when I say that nature has a voice, I do of course not mean anything like a human voice or a human intelligence, but I mean that nature consists of a myriad of diverse agencies, the ecologies, the weather and climate, the movements of soil and water. And that if we let such things, the agencies of nature, have a free reign with us, with our senses and our lives, then nature will in the process mark us with its own kinds of pre-knowledge, a pre-knowledge not merely recycled from human civilization, but a natural original set of experiences and otherness with which we can be left to put the pieces back together, pieces not made by us.

Put very succinctly: an epistemology of defensiveness is when you disturb nature and then try to grasp how it responds. An epistemology of vulnerability, on the other hand, is when you let nature disturb you, and then try to understand yourself.

This all to say, that in the end we should acknowledge that reality is so much richer, when it is not just a human social reality, however convenient that is to believe. Rather, reality is the reality of the human, and of the natural, working in a kind of epistemic egalitarian union. Not pure action, not pure domination, but letting ourselves be acted upon too, letting ourselves submit to the whims of nature, to know her will; to know her particular agency.