‘The Madness of Knowledge’ Is Maddeningly Banal

Like some kind of academic performance art, it's as if the author of Madness of Knowledge smashed a pane of glass with a hammer and was dazzled by the tiny shards.

The Madness of Knowledge: On Wisdom, Ignorance and Fantasies of Knowing
Steven Connor
Mar 2019

In 1998 the great English historian Noel Malcolm wrote an article for The Independent called “Sinking In a Sea of Words“, where he argued that the greatest threat to academic life was not cutbacks and underspending, but overproduction. “A tide of unnecessary publications is rising through our universities and libraries,” he wrote, “it is threatening to drown real intellectual life and nobody knows how to stop it.”

His half-serious proposal to stop the proliferation of publishing was the set-aside model, a mechanism borrowed from the European Union’s common agricultural policy (CAP). But instead of paying farmers to not produce crops, it would pay academics to not produce articles and books. “A rising scale of financial penalties should attach to every article or book that they produce. Pseudonym detection squads would sniff out the fraudsters, like the satellites which monitor Sicilian olive groves.”

This old essay came to mind when reading Steven Connor‘s The Madness of Knowledge. In this book Connor examines the conditions that drive pursuits for knowledge, why we seem to believe we need knowledge, what it means for us subjectively to possess it, and the spell it has over us. It is applied epistemology, “epistemology brought to bear on the world”. His approach is philosophical, organized around a mostly Western tradition, and oriented towards the inner life, of states of feeling in relation to knowledge, how it is learned, transmitted, doubted, forgotten, written down.

Alas, Connor himself cannot write well. What is offered as a substitute for engaging writing is a tapestry of literary, historical, scientific, and pop-culture references, all apparently related but not connected in any obvious way. They are occasionally drawn from the usual authorities cherished in cultural studies quarters (Nietzsche, Foucault, Lacan, Zizek, Freud, etc.). Some of what is found here is deeply obscure and surprising. Ralph Cudworth, for example, appears several times, a name I have not encountered since conducting my own research into the recesses of idiosyncratic 17th century philosophical literature. But while this latter tendency may hint at erudition, The Madness of Knowledge does not appear to rise to that level.

For starters, the reference to Cudworth portends a proclivity for bewildering terminology. Like Cudworth, Connor coins new terms, rescues defunct terms from oblivion, and dices up and re-combines words in novel ways. And like Cudworth, Connor produces incoherent prose. In the opening chapter we are introduced to epistemology, epistemopathy, epistemopathogy, epistemophilia, epistemotopia, exopistemology, and epistemocracy. Like some kind of academic performance art, it’s as if the author smashed a pane of glass with a hammer and was dazzled by the production and the shattered, tiny shards.

Later citing Foucault’s commentary on separating truth from its power functions – a perfectly cogent point – Connor then characterizes it as an “investigation not of truth but of what might be called ‘truthing'”. Truthing? What is the point of introducing this extraneous term? And so it goes, as one infelicitous term after another is produced and discarded.

An over-used style point is the author’s habit of organizing statements around the phrase “that is”. There is personal knowledge, “that is, the knowledge embodied in subjects who know their knowing”. There is chaos, “that is, pure, uncompressed unpredictability, pure divergence with no norm”. And so on. Unfortunately, the technique as used here usually does not clarify but rather prolongs or convolutes a train of thought. While excessive use of sequential transitions is forgivable in a first-year student’s semester 1 Academic Writing term paper, in a book published by an established academic through a press of repute it is maddening.

Things don’t improve for the reader attempting to penetrate the substance of this book. The quiz genre “is a way of behaving in relation to knowledge – one might almost say a way of behaving knowledge, recalling the fifteenth-century formation of the word behave as the way in which you ‘have yourself’, in the sense of carrying yourself (a riddle relation if there ever was one), the way in which you comport yourself or give your existence its way of existing”. Elsewhere: “When the mystic quails before the ravishing splendour or immensity of the world, she is really plumping up the dream of being the onlie begetter of transcendence, recognition the sister of cognition.” The subsequent paragraph pauses over the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (!) for analogical purposes, “the impossibility for an object to be indifferent to the knowing actions which force it, as it were, to make up its absent mind”.

This is strange stuff, a deft combination of banal and ridiculous. If I have used conditional language throughout this review – seems, may, appears, apparently – it is because there is no way to critically engage with such intellectual whimsy. Maybe the flights of imagery and philology, the similes and metaphors, the wildly disparate references are meant to mimic the madness of knowledge. I found them disconnected, unengaging, and unfunny. In deference to Malcolm’s point that I opened with, my hunch is that this is not writing meant to extend knowledge but to extend a particular career.

What is the audience for literature such as this? Years ago the novelist and ex-academic John Dolan wrote an amusing review of a conference he attended and in addressing this very matter, he put it this way: “The question of audience seems particularly fraught as a topic of an academic conference. As in, who ever said we have one? English-language academics not only lack an audience – they don’t want one.”

I remember consuming “writerly” writing such as this a graduate student, not for pleasure, but for survival, like a scav picking through cold meat. These days I would rather simply read interesting subject matter by insightful writers.

RATING 4 / 10