Socio-technical systems and the asymmetrical determination of ‘know-how’

I’m about two thirds of the way through restructuring and rewriting an article on ‘know-how’. This is the first proper publication to come out of my PhD dissertation that I finished in 2007. My goal is to lay the theoretical groundwork to eventually carry out a ‘media archaeology’ of ‘know-how’. It is largely based on Deleuze’s reworking of Kantian metaphysics, but I am using such philosophical concepts in a very applied way.

I define ‘know-how’ as experience-based practical knowledge. ‘Know-how’ is developed in the body through some kind of practice. ‘Developed’ has two meanings here. Firstly, like a polaroid photograph, ‘know-how’ develops as a consequence of exposure to the conditions of experience. Secondly, the differential repetition of experience develops ‘know-how’. Experience does not accummulate, so for example, it would be incorrect to describe someone as ‘more experienced’. Rather, experience is differentiated as the synthesis of memory is founded on the synthesis of habit. Someone only ever has a experience that through its differential repetition becomes ‘keener’ (or ‘duller’). 

The episodic character of differentially repeated experience through which ‘know-how’ is developed I am calling a ‘challenge’. I define three characteristics of ‘challenges’. First, its problematic contiguity, which I won’t go into in this post. Secondly, there is a material ‘kicking-a-rock’ dimension of challenges and, thirdly, there is also an incorporeal or virtual dimension to them. ‘Challenges’ are similar to problems (in the non-Deleuzian sense) because they beg some kind of resolution or solution. But unlike problems, a ‘challenge’ also demands some kind of mobilisation to ‘rise to the challenge’. Hence, the affective disposition of the subject of ‘know-how’ is of crucial importance.

In terms of affect, there are three ways to respond to a ‘challenge’, depending on its character. To be ‘beat’ by the challenge means to be over-awed (or under-awed) and assume a diminutive relation of the ‘passive affections’ of the ‘challenge’. One’s capacity to act is diminished. On the other hand, to ‘rise to the challenge’ and mobilise to engage with an increased capacity to act determined by the active affections of the challenge. In between is a complex relation of active affections in all dimensions of the mobilisation bar one, and that is the capacity to delineate or intuit the ‘challenge’ itself. By inheriting the ‘challenges’ of others, one’s co-assembly of active affects — what I am calling ‘enthusiasm’ — becomes harnessed by whatever agency is positing and valorising these inherited ‘challenges’ as worthy of mobilisation. For example, this is how ‘enthusiasm’ belonging to subcultures becomes harnessed as a resource by the creative industries.

In this article I am primarily concerned with the way ‘know-how’ can be transmitted. The core problem is that experience itself cannot be communicated. My solution to this problem is to engage with the ways the condition of experience (i.e. ‘challenges’) can be transmitted. When a subject of ‘know-how’ begins to develop ‘know-how’ he or she is exposed to what I am calling the ‘visibilities’ (following Deleuze’s reading of Foucault) and ‘tactilities’. ‘Tactilities’ captures a sense of the qualitative capacity to and practice of getting one’s ‘hands dirty’. This is a non-cognitive tactile appreciation of the material qualities of the ‘challenge’, where habits of practise are synthesised in the body as ‘tacit knowledge’.

The best example of the the transmission of ‘know-how’ is the much neglected ‘how to’ article. The ‘how to’ article walks a subject of ‘know-how’ through a ‘challenge’. The subject develops new ways of ‘seeing’ the elements of the ‘challenge’, new ways of manipulating and engaging with the material elements (‘tactilities’), and mobilises through a co-assembly of active affects (i.e. implicit ‘encouragement’). Because of my unique work background I have countless informal examples of how ‘know-how’ is developed, but rather than extensive (and probably boring) examples of how ‘know-how’ is developed (in my dissertation most of a 12k word chapter was spent going through the example of how I fixed a broken fan belt on my car!) I use the actor-network theory concept of ‘black-boxing’ as a way to think through the way subjects of ‘know-how’ engage with socio-technical systems.

6 thoughts on “Socio-technical systems and the asymmetrical determination of ‘know-how’”

  1. hey Glen… journal destination for your piece? Also do you know Jonathan Sterne’s brief essay on ‘techne’ in the book ‘Communication as …’? It is succinct but lots of stuff packed in there.

  2. hi Greg, how’s it going? 🙂

    Submitting to Cultural Studies Review, aiming for march 2013 pub.

    I hadn’t seen Sterne’s essay, looks good! I might actually use that in a unit I am teaching next semester…

  3. hi Glen, i found this really interesting. actually adapted it to help me think through how we are utilising a learning enviroment (Moodle) in teaching. Trying to come to terms with the assembly of co-affects that is Moodle and that is the staff culture. Just thought i’d let you know…

  4. Hey, thanks for letting me know! Moodle is really interesting, we use it at UC too. One of the things I don’t go into in this article is the relation between different milieus. In terms of the car enthusiasts from my PhD, the ‘street’ or the ‘race track’serves as an “associative milieu” (cf Simondon) for the challenges posited in the ‘garage assemblage’. Similarly, I tend to think of the Moodle pages for the units I teach as serving as the associated milieus for the lecture theatre, tutorial/seminar room, academic’s office and so on. The passage between milieus is determined by what Guattari called a ‘co-efficient of transversality’, which basically means the degree and angle of ‘throughput’ of information and a range of other ‘signals’ the body can incorporate (affect, gestural/phatic, etc.). So a ‘problem’ posed in the unit outline in the form of an assessment becomes a ‘challenge’ on Moodle when direction is provided and students are afforded the ability to be affectively-attuned to mobilising in a positive way to engage with the ‘challenge’.

    I tried to do that this semester in a difficult third year unit, by setting tutorial presentations and a 3000-word research essay. Firstly, to assist students mobilise to engage with the challenge of the essay, I stipulated that the powerpoint presentation notes of the tutorial presentations had to be uploaded to Moodle each week. It meant students have at least a dozen other interpretations and engagements with the readings. Secondly, to produce confidence in students so they feel empowered when engaging with (sometimes, very) difficult readings I suggested in the tutorial pesentations they discuss with as much rigour as possible exactly what they do not understand in the reading(s). A dozen bright students engaging with the readings will produce various (non)understandings of the readings, which when synthesised in a differential sense, shall hopefully assist students in producing an effective understanding of the readings. So kind of ‘crowdsoucing’ the understanding of the readings o a certain extent. The only time the students have to actually demonstrate their understanding of course material is in the research essay at the end of semester. So far it seems to be working.

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