Has literacy blinded us to brilliance that “refuses to be spelled out”?

Western culture celebrates the production of knowledge, and literacy exponentially multiplies the possibilities for the refinement and application of this knowledge, thus enabling new discoveries. But has this literacy-bound process caused us to be blind to systems of knowledge that are not written down? Do we ignore brilliance in those around us because their expertise is not reproduced in literate forms? Or worse, do we treat those around us with disdain when the artistry of their work should produce admiration and respect?

What about the plumber whose soldering for your bathroom shower looks like a work of art? Or the auto mechanic whose lifetime of experience enables him to diagnose and repair a condition that has confounded computer diagnosis and testing? Or the backhoe operator who can operate a machine with such grace and precision that they can “feel” that buried iron pipe through heavy equipment as clearly as we could with a shovel? The masterful florist? The miraculous carpet cleaner? All around us are people who may not be able to write down or even verbalize their complex and highly-nuanced knowledge but yet they embody this knowledge in ways that bless us all.

Subjugated Knowledges

French philosopher, Michel Foucault describes such embodied ways of knowing as “subjugated knowledges,” non-textual means that are often rendered illegitimate within the academy because of their lack of textuality and the supposed certainty that text provides.[1] Dwight Conquergood contends such embodied epistemologies are “tacit, intoned, gestured, improvised, coexperienced, covert and all the more meaningful because of [their] refusal to be spelled out.”[2]

Of course you could argue that we do venerate the embodied epistemologies of the concert hall artist. We do celebrate the brilliance of the performer knowing that their faculty was not accomplished through book learning alone. We do intuitively understand that their nuance of phrase, depth of feeling, and richness of tone and timbre are the result of years of apprenticeship. We do believe without a doubt that the artist has studied with a master performer to which she disciplines herself by inviting rigorous critique. So why don’t we celebrate similar capacities in the carpenter framing our home addition?

If we can remove the lens that blinds us to systems of knowledge that “refuse to be spelled out,” we will be amazed at the number of artists we can recognize among us.

[1] Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge, Colin Gordon, ed. Trans. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham , and Kate Soper. (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 81-84.

[2] Dwight Conquergood, “Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research” in The Drama Review 46, 2 (T174) Summer 2002, (New York: New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2002) 145-156, 146.

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