Notes From Underground #9: Crossing the Threshold
This is the ninth in a series of weekly essays from Dougald Hine. Notes From Underground is for anyone who has been sitting with what we know and what we fear about the climate crisis – it’s an invitation to a deepening reflection on the context of the new climate movements, the wave of awareness and action that has sprung up over the past two years. This week’s essay picks up from where we left off last week to consider the work involved in ‘bringing the knowledge home’. You can also download a podcast version of the essay via Buzzsprout.
Image: Worn Down by Maurice Brooks.
One winter when the snow came two months late and the ski resort was struggling and the ice was so thin that a woman fell through it and drowned, the sociologist Kari Norgaard came to the rural Norwegian community which she calls ‘Bygdaby’ to study the way its residents talked about climate change. Despite – or perhaps because of – its dependence on oil revenue, Norway ranks high for environmental awareness; the local and national press were full of stories connecting the strange mild winter to global warming, and mentions of this were woven into everyday talk about the weather. So Norgaard was puzzled by what she found: the people of Bygdaby were aware of climate change, yet they appeared untouched by this awareness. There were no signs of political action, not even letters to the newspaper, and no one seemed to be making changes in their behaviour:
What perplexed me was that despite the fact that people were clearly aware of global warming as a phenomenon, everyday life in Bygdaby went on as though it did not exist. Mothers listened to news of unusual flooding as they drove their children to school. Families watched evening news coverage of the failing climate talks in The Hague, then just tuned into American sit-coms.
This was a community directly affected by climate change, and familiar with the facts, yet there was no sense that it knew itself to be in trouble.
For Norgaard, what she observed in Bygdaby represents a form of denial more widespread than the bald rejection of scientific evidence. Indeed, in their collective detachment, their seeming ability to hold the facts of climate change at arm’s length, you could say that the people of Bygdaby are reproducing the manner of science, even as they swerve away from the significance of what science has to tell them.
In the opening pages of Living in Denial, her book about the time she spent in Bygdaby, Norgaard points out that this is not a story of the particular failings of a community on the west coast of Norway, but a close-up of a mental landscape familiar from across the Western world, a state of mind that lies somewhere between knowing and not knowing. Reflecting on this elsewhere, she writes: ‘In some sense, not wanting to know was connected to not knowing how to know.’
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The first time I heard Norgaard’s words about ‘not knowing how to know’, they made me sit up straighter in my seat. It was a warm spring day, the kind it seemed a shame to spend indoors, in a conference room, taking turns to present our work. We were here at the invitation of Kevin Anderson, in his role as professor of climate leadership at Uppsala University, to talk about how the social sciences, humanities and arts might help spark the rapid transformation required to have a chance of meeting the goals agreed at the Paris climate negotiations.
I was here to represent the arts. By this point, I’d spent two years as leader of artistic development at Riksteatern, Sweden’s national theatre, with a brief to investigate the roles that art might play under the shadow of climate change. That led me to the work of Chris Goode, a British theatre maker and the author of The Forest and the Field: Changing Theatre in a Changing World. It’s one of those books so rich in ideas that I would read ten pages then put it down for a fortnight before returning to read another ten. Passages stuck in my head and came into every conversation I had about this work. At one point, Goode voices his reservations about the use of theatre to ‘raise awareness’ or ‘share information’, and gestures to another role that it might play:
my sense is that only seldom is the problem that we ‘don’t know’ – or, at any rate, that we don’t know enough. The real problem is that we don’t have a living-space in which to fully know what we know, in which to confront that knowledge and respond to it emotionally without immediately becoming entrenched in a position of fear, denial and hopelessness.
It seems to me that Goode is pointing to the same thing as Norgaard, this difficulty of ‘knowing how to know’, ‘to fully know what we know’. I’ve come to think of this fullness in terms of the move from knowledge to knowing, where knowledge is what we hold out there – the arm’s-length facts, the wealth of information, the fruits of scientific knowledge production – and knowing is what happens when the distance is gone, when we let the knowledge in. I’ve come to think that this matters more than our culture lets on, that this is the other half of the knowledge work: the work that remains when science has done its part.
There’s more to say about why it matters, but first let’s try to describe the nature of the move from knowledge to knowing. Think of the moment when you get a joke. You have no information that you didn’t have a moment earlier, yet you experience differently what you knew already; its significance is transformed, and the effects may be at once physical, emotional and mental. The expression on your face changes, maybe you laugh out loud. This is the simplest example of what it’s like when you cross the threshold of knowing.
To cross this threshold is to become vulnerable: one way or another, you can be changed by what you come to know, and that change may come in the form of loss. Perhaps the loss of who you thought you were, the stories you liked to tell about yourself. An awareness of this seems woven into older ways of speaking: think of the biblical image of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, or the way that yada’, the Hebrew verb ‘to know’, can be used to speak of wisdom and of sexual relations. There is something intimate about the move from knowledge to knowing: it deserves to be handled with care.
Our ways of speaking make it harder to name the intimacy and vulnerability of knowing, harder to treat this as something to be taken seriously, let alone something that will inform how we make it through the oncoming storm of the climate crisis. Bear with me, then, and I’ll do my best to make sense of this, to draw out a couple of layers of explanation for how we have come to speak of knowledge in the ways we do.
It seems to me, firstly, that we are heirs to a culture which came to think of knowledge – the published findings, the information that can be bound and indexed and shelved – as the primary part of the process, the important part, the part that carries authority. Though I spend a good deal of my life in libraries, my hunch is that we have this back-to-front. The starting point of knowledge, surely, is the experience of knowing. With all the work that goes into them, the words or numbers on a page are derivative of this experience; their power lies in the chance, never the certainty, that they may evoke an experience of knowing in the reader, to the extent that she brings her own experience and curiosity to bear on them. Knowing is what comes first and last; the arm’s-length forms of knowledge are intermediate. As intermediaries, they may be crucial, certainly, but not of higher worth than the experience in which the knowledge comes home to us, through which it begins to have consequences.
* * *
If I’m right that we have the relationship between knowledge and knowing upside down, or at least out of balance, then the story of how we got here goes deep into the history of the written word. Back in the beginnings of the Western philosophical tradition, Plato has Socrates warn about its dangers: in the Phaedrus, he tells a story of the Egyptian god Theuth, who offers King Thamos the gift of literacy. He calls this a pharmakon, a word that means both ‘drug’ and ‘poison’. The double-edged nature of knowledge – and the particular care which it calls for, once letters allow us to set it down and pick it up – is implicit in this language: knowledge is a thing that we ingest, and it has consequences.
A vivid glimpse of a later stage in this history can be found in Ivan Illich’s book In the Vineyard of the Text, which considers the transformation of reading in the 12th century. Within a generation, he tells us, a host of new scribal practices – spaces between words, alphabetical and subject indexes, the move from parchment to paper – remade the medieval manuscript into an early version of the modern book, three centuries before the printing press would enable its mass production. This shift made possible an equally radical shift in the practice of reading, from a monastic culture in which a text was sounded aloud and shared between reader and listeners, to a scholastic culture in which reading became a silent, solitary activity.
Illich himself was a scholar, indebted to a way of reading whose origins he could see in the twelfth century – a way whose ending he saw around him, in the transformation of the 20th-century university into an information processing system – so when he writes about what was lost in that 12th-century transition, we should not mistake this for a yearning after an imagined golden age. Rather, he writes with a recognition of the mixture of losses and gains that make up any moment of historical change. These losses and gains are incommensurable: they cannot simply be written off against each other to produce a definitive cost–benefit analysis. By paying attention to the losses as well as the gains, we may find clues that broaden our sense of possibility in the face of the losses that impose themselves most painfully in our own time.
Among the 12th-century losses to which Illich pays attention is the passing of a sensual, embodied relationship to written language, in which words are savoured, they live on the lips and the tongue, and meditation on them is compared to the processes of chewing and digestion. In this bodily sense of words entering into us, there’s something like the threshold I have described: the passage from knowledge to knowing. And although it can’t be the whole story, it is tempting to see the medieval moment of transition which Illich describes as the turn in the road beyond which knowledge itself becomes the thing that counts. On our side of that turning, I want to say, the scholar reads not to take the word into his flesh, but to furnish the inner library of a well-stocked mind.
Further down this road of history, closer to our time, we come to a further explanation of why knowledge might be elevated over knowing. For increasing numbers of us, the conditions under which we live – many of which we would not willingly give up – have left us peculiarly dependent on the mediation of knowledge. The environments in which we spend our days are controlled and insulated, literally and figuratively, to such an extent that it dulls our awareness of what is going on outside the window. The seasons become a backdrop of which we are vaguely conscious, rather than a condition to which our activities must be responsive, so we hardly notice that they are changing, and it takes someone with a PowerPoint presentation, a chart with an upward sloping curve of carbon emissions, to bring the changes to our attention. It would be easier to celebrate our detachment from the seasons as progress if it were true that we no longer depend upon them, but things are not that simple.
* * *
Back when I was working for the theatre, I got a message from a Sámi woman, a theatre maker who was part of a reindeer herding family. A few days later we sat in a meeting room in Stockholm, drinking coffee, as she talked about the parts of the year she spends on the land with her uncle, following the reindeer on their annual migration.
When I write about learning from indigenous ways of being in the world, I realise, some readers picture the pre-conquest cultures of North America. For others it might call to mind the water protectors of Standing Rock. I suspect that fewer think of northern Europe and the people of Sápmi, the cultural region that straddles the national borders of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Between 1934 and 1975, through the high era of social democracy, the Swedish government maintained a eugenics programme which included the forced sterilisation of Sámi women, based on the work of the State Institute for Racial Biology at Uppsala University. This was the medical front within a broader campaign, carried out primarily through the institutions of education. In Sweden and elsewhere, they pursued by default – and often by design – the systematic extinction of indigenous language and culture.
This process was not exclusive to the groups we generally think of as indigenous. In rural Cheshire, in the 1940s, Alan Garner remembers having his mouth washed out with soap for ‘talking broad’. Colonialism begins at home, but such abuses reach new levels of extremity when practised in places thought of as faraway, on people thought of as other. Often this involved the use of boarding schools. In the United States and Canada, people whose lands had already been stolen, who were holding on to what they could carry of their culture, had their children taken from them. It was done in the name of Salvation or Progress or Development. The school at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, had a motto: ‘Kill the Indian to Save the Man’. Upon graduation, young men had to take an oath: ‘I am no longer an Indian man. I will lay down the bow and arrow forever and put my hand to the plow.’
None of this figures in the stories told by today’s missionaries, the evangelists of Progress for whom history can be reduced to another set of upward sloping curves. If you raise this subject with enthusiasts for the New Optimism, you’ll get an impatient acknowledgement that these were terrible things, followed by a vague claim that this is just how humans have been treating each other everywhere, forever, and an injunction to see the bigger picture. Except that this is the bigger picture, or part of it, the picture that includes everything factored out of the charts with which their books sum up the world. I’ve heard these boarding school stories from every inhabited continent. They are not the exception; they represent the rule under which the present world system was brought into being.
In the Swedish part of Sápmi, some say their language and culture only made it out of the 20th century alive thanks to the activists who took the Sámi folk high school at Jokkmokk – an institution founded by missionaries in the 1940s – and turned it into the cradle of a cultural revival. It is through such narrow bottlenecks that the survival of a world can pass. For each language is a world: from the broad talk of Alan Garner’s Cheshire to the Sámi languages, each one carries a way of being on and working with the land, a way of knowing bound up with a way of living. I’m struck by the gap between the horror in which the Nazi book burnings of the 1930s are rightly held and the comparative indifference towards all the loss, all the destruction of words which has been policy wherever modern state-making has met local cultural and linguistic difference.
The cultural revival of recent decades has contributed to the survival of the Sámi languages, but the theft of their land goes on. Mining is one of Sweden’s most powerful industries. Valuable deposits of ore lie under lands on which Sámi people have traditional rights of usage, and these rights rarely hold much sway when they clash with the interests of international mining companies. The ‘Mining for Generations’ website – a joint creation of the Swedish government and the mining industry – proclaims the intention to triple the country’s mining production in the coming decade.
That afternoon in Stockholm, I heard how mining had cut across the life of this woman’s community for generations. In the 1940s, an open-cast mine tore through the route taken by the annual migration of their semi-domesticated reindeer. Seventy years later, she said, we still have to be there each spring, at the place where the old route becomes a cliff edge, to guide the animals safely past the now-abandoned excavation.
From that story, two things lingered. First, reindeer don’t live seventy years, so the memory of the route that can no longer be taken has travelled down their generations. Whatever the means by which it travelled, we are brushing up against another kind of intergenerational knowledge, here; animal knowledge that lies beyond the scope of the stories of human knowing that I have been telling. The second was pointed out by Martin Shaw, the storyteller and mythographer, when I retold the story as I had heard it: think of that patience, he said, the old guys who will be there, waiting for hours, to see the animals past this danger for another year. Think of the relationship glimpsed in that patient waiting, the quality of attention.
Where do you find that patient attention among our ways of living, I wonder? And the answer that comes is unexpected: field biologists. There’s a passage in Braiding Sweetgrass, a book by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is a professor of environmental and forest biology, and also a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Her grandfather was among the young men who had their language and culture wrested from them by the Indian Industrial School at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In the chapter I’m thinking of, she tells the story of the First Salmon Ceremony on the Oregon coast, the way the people would wait for the return of these wild fish and sing them home, let them ‘course by the camp in great throngs, unmolested as they make their way upstream’; only after four days, with ritual care, would they take the year’s First Salmon from the waters. And then, a few pages later, she writes:
On the banks of the Salmon River estuary today, people are again waiting by the stream, watching. Their faces are alight with anticipation and sometimes furrowed with concern. Instead of their finest clothes, they wear tall rubber boots and canvas vests. Some wade in with nets, while others tend buckets. From time to time they whoop and yell with delight at what they find.
With a foot in both worlds, Kimmerer can make this connection between the indigenous ceremony and the practices of the researchers involved in the slow work of restoration. ‘This is what we field biologists live for: the chance to be outside in the vital presence of other species.’
Science doesn’t start with knowledge, it starts with knowing. The search for ‘empirical evidence’ has at its root the old Greek word empeiria, meaning ‘experience’. One of the stories to be told about modern Western science, though not the only one, concerns the challenge to the authority of ‘knowledge’, the stuff that is found in books, and a reassertion of the primacy of knowing. In certain branches of science, especially those which take place outdoors, the power of this experience of knowing is formative: there is a tenderness of attention to places and creatures which few other practices of modern life allow for, and to spend time with its practitioners is to witness something it’s hard not to call love. Yet there is a twist, because the fruits of their attention pass into the production of knowledge, and there is little room for the language of tenderness in the papers that result from all that research. So the elevation of knowledge persists, and the aspects of the experience of knowing which could not be held at arm’s length become a secret which science keeps from itself.
It was that afternoon in Stockholm that I first saw my own dependence on scientific knowledge clearly, I think, by contrast with the stories I was hearing. Our conversation had come around to climate change, and she told me about driving north with her uncle to fix up his cabin. To get there you take a winter road, the kind that runs across a frozen river. The river is always frozen until at least the third week of May – you can count on it – but this year they find it already thawed, way ahead of schedule. There’s no getting across. Further north, the same summer, they come to a mountain where they always store food in the ice of a glacier, only this year the glacier is gone. In July, the temperature stays over 30º Celsius for three straight weeks as the reindeer huddle, miserable in the heat.
This is climate change in the present tense, I thought. Not a warning about what happens if we fail, but how things are, already. A reality to which others are struggling to adapt, while those of us whose lives seem distanced from the seasons – for whom they can be changed like channels on the TV, summer or winter only ever an air ticket away – need the head of a famous research institute standing in front of a PowerPoint presentation, showing us figures on a chart, to tell us that something is going badly wrong.
* * *
Let’s step back a moment, look over the ground we’ve covered here.
I’ve ventured this thought about knowledge and knowing: that the experience of knowing is the thing that counts, the thing that has consequences, the thing that comes first and last; that knowledge of the kind which can be set down on a page is an intermediary, a trace of and a stimulus to the experience of knowing.
I’ve told a story about how this relationship between knowledge and knowing was turned upside down; that this is tied up with the role of the written word.
I’ve suggested that modern science has a claim to be rooted in a revaluation of the experience of knowing, and yet that the practice of science takes the form of a one-way conveyor from knowing to knowledge. So knowledge remains the thing that counts, now with new scientific strictures on what gets to count as knowledge.
And back at the start of all this, we had a sociologist and a theatre maker arriving at a similar thought about climate change: that the problem is not a lack of knowledge, but a difficulty in ‘knowing how to know’, ‘to fully know what we know’ – in my terms, a difficulty when it comes to crossing the threshold from knowledge to knowing.
In the middle of all this, I have dwelt on the persistence of other ways of knowing, alongside the main road of Western history that brought us here. I’ve insisted on listening, in particular, to indigenous voices; to those who inhabit ways of knowing and being in the world which continue to be on the receiving end of ongoing histories of systemic violence, but which are not simply gone or going. Those lines of the poet Eugenio Montale come to mind:
History is not the all-destroying bulldozer they say it is.
It leaves underpasses, crypts, holes and hiding places.
So am I saying that this is where the answer comes from? That we must turn to indigenous cultures, if we are to have a hope of bringing the knowledge home – of finally acting as though we know what we know?
No, this can’t be my conclusion. Because it is too much weight to put on the shoulders of those already struggling with all that has been done to them and all that is still being done. After five hundred years, we should start listening, we may be humbled by what we hear, but we cannot just say: ‘Over to you!’ And because, for all the damage it has done and all the damage it carries, there exist within the tangle of ways of being and doing that I’ll call Western culture some skills, some practices, some depth of experience and understanding, when it comes to this work of bringing the knowledge home.
There are clues in Chris Goode’s book to get us started. That phrase he uses, the need for ‘a living-space in which to fully know what we know’, can set us looking for practices which know something about how to hold such a space. Certain kinds of theatre and certain kinds of art, where attention is given to the creation of spaces to which it is safe to bring more of ourselves than it would be wise to bring to most of the workplaces, the educational institutions, and even the families we have known. Elsewhere in the book Goode expresses his surprise at the way he is drawn, in spite of his ‘flickery agnosticism’ and his doubt or rejection of ‘religious structures and narratives’, to some of the things that go on in the name of religion. He remembers the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, when he was working for a charity based in a church at Covent Garden:
Over the subsequent fortnight or so, the church was very often considerably busier than usual, especially at lunchtimes … My sense was that these were not, by any means, exclusively habitual churchgoers … They were able to identify St Paul’s as a place of hospitality to thought, and silence, and confusion, and remembrance; a place that would admit strangers, including themselves.
Two things that art and religion may have in common: they can invite us to sit in the dark, to stay sitting there for some time, and they can offer us enough beauty to bear the darkness. And another thing: each is regularly set up as one pole of a binary whose other pole is ‘science’, whether the pairing is understood to be complementary or conflictual. If these are two of the sites within this culture where some depth of skill exists at handling the shift from knowledge to knowing, it may be significant that they are located as opposites to the site at which knowledge in its (allegedly) authoritative form is produced.
The third site where there is a significant depth of skill is within education, particularly those counter-traditions within educational theory and practice which emphasise learning as a transformative experience. The Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire wrote scathingly of ‘the banking model of education’, in which the role of the teacher is to make deposits of knowledge, these deposits to be received, stored and filed by the student. There are plenty of theoretical models that build on or complement this idea of learning as something other than knowledge acquisition, though they come with the risk of overcomplicating what good teachers have been doing all along, when they are allowed to trust their experience.
Art, religion, education. Not all – perhaps not much – of what goes on around any of these three sites is concerned with creating ‘living-space[s] in which to know what we know’. I sometimes picture a Venn diagram of three overlapping circles. In my experience, the practitioners who recognise what I am describing here most often work at the edge of their particular circle, and not a few of them inhabit the borderlands where these circles meet. My claim would be that these are fruitful places to go looking for practices that have a chance of helping with the work of bringing the knowledge home. I’d add that their chances of being helpful will often depend on the extent to which their awareness has been broadened by encounter with decolonial work and the shadows it reveals within the stories many of us grew up being told about the world and our place within it.
* * *
Why, in the end, do I say that all this matters? I know that I risk trying your patience, that this could seem a dizzying hall of mirrors – knowing, knowledge, knowing, knowledge… – and that these underground reflections could seem a decadent indulgence, when the daylight world is on fire.
Here’s what it is. Unless we find the paths by which to bring the knowledge home, to cross the threshold of knowing and let it call us into question, let it burn off those stories and entitlements that many of us grew up with and leave us changed – unless we do this, then the danger is not just that we will be stuck not knowing how to know. It’s that some of us will act anyway, as wielders of knowledge; we’ll seek to act on the world without ever becoming vulnerable, to change it while remaining unchanged, in a desperate defence of who we thought we were and where we thought we were headed.
What does this look like? It looks like a chain of knowledge production that leads from science, to engineering, economics and policy-making, without anyone letting the knowledge touch them or ever being able to voice what it does to them to know these things, and without the frames that shape the action ever being questioned, or even noticed. It looks like the clever, high-risk schemes for deferring doing anything (the reliance on Negative Emissions Technologies that don’t exist yet) giving way to clever, high-risk schemes for fixing everything (geoengineering, or cutting humanity loose from its entanglement with the living world and feeding ourselves on air).
‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’, thought Oppenheimer, recalling the Bhagavad-Gita, as he witnessed the detonation of the first atomic bomb. But the Manhattan Project was the realisation through physics of a destiny undertaken much earlier, as the project of building a single world – first in the name of Salvation, then of Progress, then of Development – was founded on the destruction of all the other worlds that crossed its path. Unless we can swallow the bitter knowledge of climate change and let it show us the shadow side of who we have been and where we have come from, then I fear the destroyer of worlds will go on to fulfil that destiny, to a level of destruction not yet seen – and that this may be done in the name of ‘saving the world’.
* * *
There is one last turn to this thought about knowledge and knowing, and it’s this: where the acquisition of knowledge feels powerful and the experience of knowing feels vulnerable, this vulnerability has to do with the necessarily unfinished nature of the experience. Knowing is twinned with not knowing; indeed, it is the younger twin, since what I don’t know will always be greater than what I know. A culture which treats the experience of knowing as the thing that counts has to come to terms with the limits of its knowing; it cannot comfort itself with the promise of an infinitely accumulating body of knowledge, an ever-expanding frontier.
Nothing in what I write here is meant as an appeal to a golden age. When I write against the big simple stories of the New Optimists, it is not to turn them upside down and offer another big simple story of how the world is, but to say that the world is made of many worlds, that it is bigger and more complex than can be captured in one story, and that history is not the kind of thing that can be put through a cost–benefit analysis. We have more to learn from the past than the charts in their books will let us see, and more to question about the present; but to say this is not to demand a return to any previous condition, as though that could even be an option.
When I write about the scientific production of knowledge and its limits, I write as a friend to science. (Though I know, too, that I have friends for whom the word ‘science’ might call to mind the lingering legacy of the Institute for Racial Biology at Uppsala, sooner than the field biologists who wait for the first salmon in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful book.) If you’re off your head and standing on the roof of a building, convinced that you can fly, then your friend isn’t the person who says, ‘Go for it, man!’ Your friend is the one who puts an arm around you and says, ‘Why don’t we sit down over here and have a talk?’ The scientists I’ve known tend to have a fairly sober assessment of their own flying abilities, but there are forces within our culture that take up the banner of science in ways that are far from sober, and that’s something I think we need to talk about.
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Those of you who reached the end will have noticed that this week’s Notes From Underground was double the length of a typical edition, so I will take a week off, before picking up the thread again on Thursday 6 February. — DH