Tools for Critical Epistemology: Part 1

The emergence of the ‘policy recommendation’ as an appropriate research output for humanities scholars and academics appears to be a relatively recent phenomena of the last three decades or so. ‘Appropriate’ in this context means judged worthy by funding bodies, politicians and bellicose media commentators. In some cases the recommendations are based on research that mirrors the extent of research belonging to the relevant scholarly field or even exceeds it. For example,  the (in)famous case of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s work for the Canadian government on the ‘condition of knowledge’ was on the leading edge of late-1970s post-structuralist accounts of epistemology. Or, closer to home, the Arts and Creative Industries (2011) report produced by Justin O’Connor is similarly on the leading edge of research exploring the relation between the culture and economics of the arts and the creative industries.

Another trend I’ve noticed however is regarding the way specialist or technical appreciations of a given policy problem are reduced to be suitable for ‘report’ form. There seems to be an over-reliance on the presentation of information as ‘facts’ within a very weak analytical framework. The sector I’ve noticed this in relates to cultural practices using communication technologies and I am not sure if it pertains to other areas. The distribution of understanding across multiple stakeholders creates an uneven effect. I’ve been in presentations that consisted of information I already knew combined with information that could be easily searched for online. This is not that much of a problem, except that the questions being asked that framed the presentation were also overly simplistic.

The simplistic research presentation was a problem, but it is not the main problem. If those making policy decisions know less about a given area than those making policy recommendations, then a different relation to knowledge is required than one which is ‘functional’ or ‘sufficient’. Or, to reframe this in a slightly different way, what is needed is an appreciation of knowledge not blinkered by one’s own lack of appreciation of the conditions of knowing. As much as we develop appreciations of knowledge, these appreciations are developed along with situated relations of epistemological myopia. Gilbert Simondon, the thinker of individuation and ‘technics’, described this mode of appreciation a ‘technical reality’.