As a prefatory remark—in order to be abundantly clear—what follows is not about the ignorance OF history. While some of the points below cross over and apply in certain ways to knowledge deficits in history, the focus here is on talking about moments and formations of ignorance in history. The operative question is this: How do we conceive of, and talk about, moments of perceived ‘ignorance’ in history?
In many of my conversation circles, confessions of ignorance constitute a moral failing.
I’ve had friends and family chide me for saying out loud, and explicitly, that I am ignorant about some matters. Of course I talk to academics, historians, intellectuals, and humanists regularly. I find all too often that when I make a claim of ignorance, there still seem to be too many expressions of surprise. Perhaps it’s because everything is seemingly a mere “Google search” away? Has Google made ignorance a symptom of laziness? Or perhaps I should take it as a compliment that people think so highly of my general knowledge or education? Or perhaps I’m violating a norm of egotism? I don’t know.
What I do know is this: no matter how hard one works, reads, or studies, ignorance is unavoidable. It’s impossible to not be uninformed and misinformed about some things. Ignorance is inescapable. Just a few days ago, in a less serious realm, I had to confess ignorance of the popular HBO show Girls. I knew the name “Lena Dunham,” but I could not link her name to a related celebrity sighting of a Girls costar, and couldn’t immediately link Dunham’s name to the show. I didn’t find this terribly embarrassing, but I think I shocked my conversation partner with my lack of awareness.
I’m still working this out, but I think the problem is that term ‘ignorance’ signals two senses of what Raymond Williams terms a “structure of feeling.” First, theoretically, and as a convention in relation to common sense, ignorance is unacceptable. You should remedy the situation before you speak or write. Common sense, as defined by Gramsci, dictates a hegemonic knowledge of which you are, or should be, aware. But ignorance indicates that many senses or ways of seeing are vying for acceptability, and your ignorance tells others that you’re not aware of the most dominant or acceptable view of the scene, situation, or whatever.
The second sense of a structure of feeling refers to how the term ‘ignorance’ evokes a reaction of surprise or disgust. It garners a guffaw or a SMDH. It indicates a revulsion by the person assessing your lack of knowledge. You are inadequate because of your laziness or absence of education.
The first sense—i.e. ignorance as a signal—should cause less of an emotional reaction, or none at all. It should signal confusion about the dominant mode of thinking, which would hopefully result in an educational response. I realize my drift here depends on one seeing common sense as linked to hegemonic domination. I also realize that my drift is uncommon, hence I understand why people don’t think charitably about ignorance.
The second sense, however, seems to be dominant, or at least the most powerful. It more clearly generates a negative rather than charitable response.
During a recent academic conference I tried to use ‘ignorance’ in the first sense above to help develop a theoretical view of anti-intellectualism (broadly defined). My use depended on one having a full knowledge of the social science of ignorance, as presented by Robert Proctor in Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (edited by Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, Stanford, 2008). I confess that, at the time in the paper, I didn’t frame my use as I did above (using Williams or Gramsci). I didn’t sharply distinguish between ignorance as a structure of feeling and thought, versus ignorance as a cavil. That said, I did reference Proctor. I discussed ignorance as a purposed structure utilized, by nefarious intellectual actors, to destabilize discourse.
Perhaps Proctor had this problem too, hence the coining and use of agnotology. Proctor and his intellectual cohort, in the volume, talk in social scientific terms about the purposed production of ignorance. And the volume explores “surrogates” (p. 2) of ignorance: “secrecy, stupidity, apathy, censorship, disinformation, faith, and forgetfulness.” The authors speak of the “work” ignorance does, but always in the context of generation and production.
I found this a compelling theoretical construct. I felt it adequately removed agency from the equation—in a way that made emotional reaction to ignorance irrelevant, or even nonsensical. Even so, I was surprised when my colleagues objected to my attempts to use ‘ignorance’ in a neutral fashion. It was deemed as still elitist, just as the term ‘anti-intellectualism’ has an elitism problem. In retrospect, I should’ve stuck with agnotology and the associated terminology invoked by Proctor, Schiebinger, and others in the volume—terms such as: ‘agnogenesis’ (p. 11, manufacturing doubt for nefarious purposes); ‘agnometric generators’ (p. 26, the people or institutions that generate the doubt); ‘agnometric indicators’ (the event or results); etc.
This terminology, found in the volume, provides a kind of clinical-theoretical means of navigating the divide between agency and victimization. It is not pleasant to ponder how we are victims of the purposed production of ignorance or doubt, but it is important to realize we are all probable dupes at certain points. It is better to admit it than otherwise. But almost no one wants to confess their ignorance, because it signals laziness or victimhood. The sooner we detach those connotations from ignorance, and allow ourselves to be properly diagnosed, the sooner we’ll productively get at the roots of numerous social ills plaguing the United States and the world generally.
In terms of professional morals or ethics, we should all be willing to both confess ignorance and refrain from ignorance-shaming others. In terms of history and historical study, we should be able to think about ignorance in a way that does not purport, or import, shame on historical actors. Ignorance should be thought of in neutral terms. Many forces, past and present, work to perpetuate knowledge deficits—to make a certain kind of common sense hegemonic in particular ways. Not all ignorance is matter of choice. Ignorance is, rather, sometimes thought that has been repressed, suppressed, and hidden. Our job as historians is to get at those structures of feeling, or paradigms, about ignorance and anti-intellectualism—when and where they existed. – TL