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Knowledge: for what, who for? how shall we know?

A two-part workshop - part of the FourthKnowledgeLab

What kind of knowledges do we need? A mainstream notion of this would be "strategic knowledge production". We will try to problematise the role of think tanks. The purpose of the workshop will be to suggest to people occupied with knowledge production how they can help social movements (and less the state) with their studies/work. Involving to think through how/whether academia can produce antihierarchical knowledges.

To Read: autonomous knowledge and power in a society without affects

  • Part 1 - Discussion and debate
  • Part 2 - Trying to create some products to share our ideas

Report From the Workshop

This text does NOT suggest that activists and academics are different individuals. Many people are both!!!

The purpose of this workshop was to reflect on how to produce strategic knowledges. The concept "strategic knowledges" was used to point out that knowledges can be produced for specific purposes and cannot necessarily be used for any aim which you want to. For example knowledge from the field of nuclear power engineering might not be usable by a community which wants to live in harmony and balance with nature.

The workshop set out from the idea that institutions which specialise in knowledge production do not produce arbitrary knowledges but knowledges which fit to a limited idea of civilisation. Social movements might be ill-advised to use knowledges from hegemonic knowledge production institutions without reflecting on which kind of society is implicated in a certain body of knowledge.

I suggest it would be worthwhile to reflect on which kind of knowledges we need and which kind of knowledges we are able to use. This approach is inspired by the insight from science and technology studies (STS) that quite sustainable societies at various times and locations used different knowledges compared to the techno-scientific and social engineering knowledges aimed at in the hegemonic Western organisations. Think of how some cathedrals in Western Europe have been built without any grand plan and master (Watson-Verran). Instead these were built using a limited number of forms of stones which were copied throughout the building process. Think also of the Inca who were ruled and organised by a limited number of people although they lived for away from each other. Again: lots of possibilities of forms/kinds/systems of knowledges exist and go together with different kind of societies.

Thus, I thought, we need to ask: which kind of knowledges do we need in order to create a just and democratic society based on mutual aid and without capitalism which would be in balance with nature?

The problem of course is that an universal answer is not possible. Instead, what might be helpful to discuss is: How can activists and people from various backgrounds who produce various knowledges co-operate? How can i.e. academics contribute to Anarchist social change?

While asking these questions it is utterly important to avoid imagining or implying a split between people a) using and acting upon knowledge and b) producing these knowledges. No! First, people who use knowledges produce knowledges necessarily. As an activist I participate in direct practical knowledge production and transformation. Second, people who sit in armchairs and do not engage with further realities are unlikely to produce usable knowledges for an Anarchist Society. Instead they would create knowledges which reproduce a hierarchical society.

In the workshop the following issues have been addressed:

  • Knowledges evolve: They are not totally fixed. Hence they alone do not determine society. Yet, knowledges channel developments. The evolution cannot be directed easily. Connected with this discussion is the question of translating knowledges. Some knowledges might be translatable to other contexts. However, this does not imply that the translated knowledges can produce the society we want.
  • We do not want a grand static plan which describes the path to the one society we want. In contrast people need to develop their communities taking into account local circumstances and thus local knowledges. Hence also decision-making needs to be local.
  • For co-operation between activists and academic more friendly relationships are needed: academics should become activists/involve themselves in activism and go "on the street" to learn which knowledges can be relevant for anarchist social change. Communication between the imagined "activist" and "academic" is necessary. Any academic research should address what we can do now.
  • Academics should consider creating technologies, machines and knowledges which people/activists have control over. This contrasts to technologies, machines and knowledges which can only be understood and controlled by "experts".

Practical suggestions were:

  • Local knowledge labs: local meetings bring together affected people and people who have various knowledges on the topic (actually, they might be the same person). For example, a local knowledge lab on "sea level rise and climate change" in Lancaster could take place. Here activists and many people from various organisations (including the uni) could come together to think about how to change society. These local knowledge labs would bring together radical people and people with all kinds of practical-analytical skills.
  • We shall not ask who is activist and who academic. Let's contest this separation!
  • Academics should involve more activism and suggest how they can contribute as activists (with a certain analytical-practical background). A database of people who offer skills to activists was suggested. Or the other way around?