How academic culture gives us permission not to know

Doing ethnography, and studying the workings of power, brings us every day to a new awareness of truths that we would often prefer to ignore. It also gives us an uncommon awareness of the literal and rhetorical devices by which we gain permission to live as if the truth were otherwise.

Earlier today, I walked into a big-box store and bought a cheap sweater. It was a simple and seamless experience: I wandered through aisles of goods, found what I was looking for, carried it to the front, scanned it at a self-checkout counter, tapped my bank card on the payment screen, and presto. All done. I never spoke to an employee. It was just me and the merchandise. That’s the great luxury offered by the big-box store, besides sweaters at uncomfortably low prices: to conceal all the people, all the labor, all the relations, that make it possible for me to pay so little to clothe myself.

Anyone who studies commodity chains knows that this sweater embodied a range of economic and social processes. Follow the thing, and it would lead you back to the factory where it was made, the field where the cotton was grown, etc. Follow the process, and the sweater would lead you to mercantile trading floors, distant boardrooms, etc. Both approaches would bring you into contact with uncomfortable truths. Labor inequity. Environmental damage. If I saw all of those things, I might not have been able to buy the sweater, because the knowledge would seem to demand some kind of action. But the store hid the uncomfortable truths from view, giving me the cover I needed to make that purchase and walk out.

The worlds we live in are full of blinders like that, which screen uncomfortable truths from view. Anthropology helps us to see those blinders. It can also make it harder for us to take our blinders off.

Permission not to know

Some years ago, when I lived in Bali, I worked with a man named Dewa (not his real name), who had taken an option not to know. Dewa was born seeing spirits. In Bali, that isn’t altogether uncommon. Spirits in Bali are so numerous and demanding that Balinese women commonly spend as much as a third of their waking lives preparing, conducting, and cleaning up after the myriad offerings and ceremonies that engage with niskala, the invisible world.

To most people, spirits are invisible, their presence indicated, at most, by a chill, a sudden emotional surge, or perhaps an illness or injury. Those who can see them, however, may find their presence overwhelming, even terrifying. Another man I knew who had this special gift refused to drive down certain roads or through particular valleys, for fear of the spirits that crowded there.

For a small child, the ability to see spirits can be too much to bear. Dewa was still a boy when his family reached a decision to “put away” his ability. They contacted a priest, who performed a ceremony. Just like that, the spirits were gone.

My point, in telling Dewa’s story, is not about Balinese culture or spirituality. He had a special ability to see, and it was taken away. Or, he was endowed with a new, different ability to block out elements of his perceptual environment, to safeguard his mental and emotional development. Faced with uncomfortable truths, Dewa had recourse to socially sanctioned and ceremonially enforced ignorance.

Impeding Dewa’s perception of the spirits around him did not dispel the spirits themselves. Seen or unseen, the spirits walked. But unburdened by awareness of them, Dewa was able to live like the rest of us. He knew disturbing truths. He had seen that the world around him teemed with wonders and terrors. But now he could pretend that it did not.

Knowledge and action

Every way of knowing is also a way of not knowing. Privileging one point of view, or one form of evidence, requires the erasure of other ways of perceiving and understanding the world. What do our cultures give us permission not to know? By what means are we permitted to blinker ourselves? And do our cultures ever encourage us to see those truths again?

Anthropology is currently confronting the fact that its structures have given students and scholars permission to ignore large swaths of scholarship. I’m talking about the canon: the narrow list of Great Names and their seminal works, who have defined our discipline’s interests, methods, and debates. That canon shaped successive generations of anthropologists, many of whom in turn have refined and reproduced the canon as it came down to them. For scholars whose interests are aided by reliance on that canon, there is perhaps little incentive to look outside of it, much less to challenge, expand, or overturn it. We have institutional permission not to know what marginalized scholars think, and to build only on the canon we were given. And in doing so, we give rise to an injustice born of our own lazy commitment to convenience.

Knowledge would seem to demand action, but it is also embedded in wider fields that make those actions more difficult. The cheap sweater I wanted to buy was the output of an unjust system of labor; I am also a graduate student on a limited stipend, who needs both to eat and to stay warm. Reading and thinking beyond the canon is necessary and productive; I am also running out of time to finish my PhD, and I know that I can pass, and please my institution, by relying on the canon, however unfair and inequitable doing so may be.

The PhD, after all, is an oddly private and exclusive form of scholarship. Most dissertations are read only by a couple of people: the ones who supervise it, and the ones who assess it. There aren’t a lot of people in that “room.” They are most likely to skew white, and male–like me, and like most of the writers in the canon. I know the right thing to do, for scholarship and justice. But the structure of my academic work, which is poorly paid, time-limited, and has a sharply limited audience, offers up rationalizations and permission to behave as though the right thing were otherwise – to write from the canon, with little thought to what is being concealed.

Coming back to vision

When I met Dewa he was over forty, with a wife and children of his own. It would have been easy for Dewa to live the rest of his life without ever seeing those spirit visions again. But his knowledge of the truth never left him. He had seen a part of our world that evaded most people’s sight, and even after decades of insulation, he could not unsee it. Instead, in his maturity, he decided to have this ability restored to him. A ceremony was performed, his sight returned, and the world was crowded with spirits yet again. This time, he had the mental strength to engage with them, and to take the necessary action. In addition to his job as HR manager at an NGO, he began training for the priesthood.

I do not know what exactly triggered his decision. It may have been a purely personal choice, or one compelled by some religious or social convention, which limited his period of protection. But no protection lasts forever. When Dewa’s moment came, he acceded to the calling of his special gift. He accepted the burden of responsibility to his religion and his community. In the end, he took his blinders off.

Dewa’s culture supported his decision to come back to vision.

It is up to us to create communities that support students and scholars to take their blinders off, too.

[Image by Ian Pollock]

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