On Knowing and the Start of my 52 Books in 52 Weeks

Post by Maxime Rousseau

Overall, I'd like to think I'm a well balanced guy. In these times where the mal du siecle is largely thought to be stress and anxiety, I believe myself to be more or less in control of my self and my situation and therefor immune to this. However, I do acknowledge that I am afflicted by at least one form of anxiety, one that I wrestle every day with: missing out on something.

This fear (irrational like most) concerns many domains; in music I try to stay afloat on the endless stream of electronic music and hip-hop released on the internet, which means reading through numerous RSS feeds and newsletters every day. At work, I feel like I have to know what's up with all the latest in electronics and computers, because you know, that's my job; another couple of hours wasted (invested?) browsing whitepapers, reviews and Wikipedia. I enjoy working on cars and anything mechanical, so of course I check the forums for any development on the powerplants and platforms I work on, in addition to browsing more general, pedagogical articles. Yet it isn't enough, and I still feel like I'm a fraud of a car enthusiast for not knowing how a carburetor works and what parts make it up. I'm missing out. I comfort myself by believing that being all-knowing is an unachievable goal, and that there will always be worst of an idiot somewhere out there, but that's hardly good enough to make it stop. The naive curiosity of my youth seems that have grown into a malignant obsession.

In an academic context, obviously it's very present too, to the point where it gets to be a problem. The way I see it, humanities students have one purpose: to know stuff. We are the bane of capitalism, and by extension, of humanity in it's current state; we consume yet do not produce anything tangible of immediate use to the rest of the community, we are in essence wasteful. Not that I'm a materialist, I believe that studies in humanities are useful and experts in that domain are often necessary. I simply believe that our living conditions have generated too many useless experts, and most of them are specialized in humanities. I'll have to express that idea more clearly eventually, but for now I digress. If we are indeed wasteful and materially unproductive, and if our only purpose is to know, then we damn well better do it right. That's a pretty big stress. I do my best to know, but do I really? What if I declare something and somebody else proves me wrong, through verifiable facts that I recognize and accept? I've failed at my only task, knowing, and I've proved myself to be relatively inferior in a subset of people who are already too plentiful and not immediately useful. Status quo is obviously better than that; the rational option is then silence.

I've been reading a lot lately, mostly philosophy stuff as I was sick and tired of the dry factuality of the books I've read all of previous semester. Obviously this got me thinking, and generated at times a desire to lay down some ideas on this blog. But what good would that be? Who am I to write on this subject or that? The moment you put a period at the end of sentence, you make a statement that you back with your own authority, authority that you are suppose to have gained from knowing certain things. If your authority is questioned and you are unable to defend it properly, you have proved that you don't know enough. To me, this equates to failing at the task of knowing. Mundane blogging on the things you do, the meals you cooked up, what you think about this movie or that gadget don't require authority: they are either exhibition for god knows what reason, of opinions most of the time, which frankly don't matter in the grand scheme of things. But philosophy, politics, history and it's meaning, that's serious stuff. Serious stuff with numerous experts who dedicated their lives to it, in addition to the countless nobodies who populate the blogosphere and pretend (believe?) that their contributions matter. Baudrillard said of democratization of media that it leads to banality; I think he wanted to be PC and really wanted to use the word "mediocrity". You will have guessed by now that my desire to express my ideas is often pray to my desire to not be part of this mediocrity, hence my refrain from posting when I feel the slightest insecurity on my mastery of the subject at hand.

I do believe that mass culture enables mediocrity, but at the same time I am convinced of it's capacity at catalyzing discussion and debate, which in a free society is fundamental. Torn between the two, I've decided to lend myself to an experiment, constrain myself into using this medium by taking and engagement at reading and sharing my findings. What better way than the 52 books in 52 weeks challenge? Reading soothes my insecurities on knowing, and hopefully the posts which which results from my engagement will bring in even more ideas through discussion. In addition to this, I'll have to produce documents and reports with some authoritative value in the near future, so this will likely be a useful exercise in producing such papers. Each week, I'll be reading a book,  and posting my impressions and thoughts, either directly related to or tangential.

Learning is sometimes a painful process. For me, this will likely be difficult, the writing part more that the reading. Better now than later.