That ‘knowledge is power’ is rarely disputed by anyone. Literacy has established linguistic semiotics as a dominant coping-capacity and mediator of perception that allows us to plan, control and manipulate non-humans and humans alike. These recursive systems of signs have captured us in a domesticating simulacra of knowledge that enables us to colonize and counter-colonize life-worlds and brains; for both good and ill.
Knowledge has evolved to take many forms. Ideology is a great tool for social cohesion, as well as a nasty way of rendering people under-critical and complicit in projects that harm them. Poetry is a technology for emotional experimentation. Advertisement is a weapon capitalists use on bodies to extract value. Literature stretches our imaginings and affords us alternate possibilities for communicating and acting. All of these modes of knowledge and meaning weave and unweave the larger stories that capture and drive us.
But what if we could deflate our stories and knowledges in ways that do not automatically colonize and capture? What if we deployed knowledge and semiotics in ways that allow us to attend and attune better to bodies and material potencies/agencies, and thus allow us to reflexively adapt our communications and behaviors to be more ecological intelligent, and sensitive to actual difference?
The phrase ‘weak knowledge’ suggests there are other ways of knowing the world than the ‘strong’ knowledge of modern science. That some such alternative should exist is an old idea in philosophy. Martin Heidegger (1977) associated science with a way of being he called enframing (gestell), and he called the other way poiesis. Max Weber distinguished between two forms of rationality: instrumental and substantive. Herbert Marcuse (1964, 167) discussed ‘two contrasting rationalities.’ Deleuze and Guattari (1987, 367-74) spoke of ‘royal’ vs ‘nomad science.’
Many authors have thus speculated about an alternative to modern science, but just what it is always remains obscure. Heidegger (1997) evoked the arts of ancient Greece to exemplify poiesis, which does not get us far. Marcuse had nothing concrete at all to offer. So here I want to clarify my own sense of what this alternative to science is. I think the nature of poiesis remains obscure, not because it is puzzling in itself but because it is not, in fact, any kind of knowledge. Western thought is focused on knowledge and epistemology, and that is the root of our problem.
My argument is that to get to grips with poiesis we need to think first not about knowledge but about performance and agency, about doing things in the world. More particularly, I want to think of poiesis as the deliberate staging of what I call dances of agency (Pickering 1995) as a way of coming to terms with complex and emergent systems that resist domination through knowledge. Hence my idea that we can ‘do without knowledge.’ We could say that these performances take the place of knowledge, or that, conversely, scientific knowledge often functions as a shortcut that eliminates them by (apparently) enabling us to see and design the future.
The three examples to follow thus try to develop a performative account of poiesis, understood as another way to relate to the world, different from one centred on strong scientific knowledge. I focus on our relations with nature and the environment, and at the end I reformulate my position in terms of traditional Chinese philosophy.