Knowledge is power?

Not so long back I wrote a rather involved comment on another’s blog. One of these business motivational guru sorts, who had clocked Bacon’s most famous utterance and was making the point that power is nothing without execution.

Naturally, I pointed out that there was an error here. Bacon did write Scientia potestas est, and he did so almost twice: once in 1598, then again in 1620. Typically for Bacon, each referred to a different sort of knowledge. The first (from Meditationes sacrae) concerned the match or mismatch between God’s foreknowledge and his power; the second concerned human knowledge and our ability to make things do what we want them to. Both very different points.

In the first, Bacon seems to have been a pretty good Calvinist, and a determinist – that is, it was God wot done it. This is what he wrote, when discussing heresies:

The third degree [of heresies which deny the power of God] is of those who limit and restrain the former opinion to human actions only, which partake of sin: which actions they suppose to depend substantively and without any chain of causes upon the inward will and choice of man; and who give a wider range to the knowledge of God than to his power; or rather that part of God’s power (for knowledge itself is power) whereby he knows, than to that whereby he works and acts; suffering him to foreknow things as an unconcerned looker on, which he does not predestine and preordain; (Meditationes sacrae (1598) in Works VII, p. 253).

The point is that for God, knowing and doing are one and the same thing.

22 years later, he published his magnum opus, Novum organum, which included a similar phrase (Scientia & Potentia humana in idem coincidunt), but this time wrapped up in some contextualising words:

Human knowledge and power come to the same thing, for ignorance of the cause puts the effect beyond reach. For nature is not conquered save by obeying it; and that which in thought is equivalent to a cause, is in operation equivalent to a rule. (Novum organum, 1620, Bk I, aph. 3, OFB XI, p. 65).

That is, if we know how it works, we can hope to reproduce it.

Obviously, this isn’t a post about Bacon, but about the relationship between knowledge and actuality. That is, how well does our knowledge map onto reality?

Now, I have no desire to start rattling on about fate and all that, though sometimes there is an inexorability about events which defies logic as much as it defies any attempt to alter its course. The irresistible force meets me. Me loses.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, it seems. There is simply never enough knowledge to allow us to overhaul our instinct or predilection towards making decisions about what is going on, and then simply cherry-picking the pieces of information we need to support our views. And these views may be positive or negative.

But Bacon has a good point here – the only way to conquer nature (and this includes our nature), is to obey it. Obedience allows for comprehension, and acceptance helps to stop us raging against the dying of whatever light we are raging against at the time.

Suppositions based on the sorts of imperfect knowledge that we now see flying throughout our worlds – twitter, facebook, wordpress, SMS, email – leads to little but distress. Sometimes no knowledge is considerably preferable.

In fact, the more knowledge we have, the less we have to exercise power. Power is potential, and it becomes debased when it is exercised – exercised power necessarily debases both the exerciser and the exercised upon.

Knowledge is power. It’s just not quite the power we think.

A blog in time

Nunc stans

The idea of publishing old blogs – in this particular case two from the end of last year – is a strange one. The real question is one of editing. Does one edit to add value, to jazz up the prose, or does one simply leave the words as they were sprayed back on that day that they were conceived?

I chose, have chosen, will choose (tense is difficult when you’re writing for a different time, different times), to leave them as they are. They may not, as a result be accurate let alone interesting. I talk of performance anxiety (particularly ironic, considering some recent events), I and II. Right now I could expand upon them both, but I am going to pass up the opportunity to rewrite what was, in effect, my instantaneous re-writing of the past, via the then present, now past.

This last year has been a unreserved fuck-up. I am now in a position where I have none of the things I want, none of the things I need, simply because of my strange inability to control myself. My admission of fallibility has led me to living with a strange feeling of invulnerability. But the past always catches up, which is strange, considering it’s done and dusted.

But it’s never dusted, once done – it is dust. The past isn’t another country, it’s the mote in your left eye, that stops you looking to the log in your right. This is what blogs and memoirs are about. The opportunity to clean up the dust, to sweep it into a corner in a neat little pile, arranged perfectly in the way in which you want it. All it takes is a puff of wind, a swish of a cat’s tail, and it’s all uncontrollably swirly and alights wheresoever it wishes. And damn the consequences.

Once, we took photographs at concerts because they look good, sometimes, and because they transport us back to the experience – they are a gateway to re-experiencing. It’s a benign acid flashback, post-non-traumatic stress syndrome. We conjured the past.

Things have changed. Once, where we might have played the revisionist to make our set of personal life artefacts fit with the life we wish we had led, now we behave very differently.

Some years ago, I was watching David Byrne in some club in London (he did the most fantastic cover of Whitney Houston’s ‘I wanna dance with somebody’), up in the gallery. I suddenly noticed something rather strange. It looked like the audience were holding up lighters in the time-honoured fashion, but they were all square and luminous. I realised suddenly that they were the screens from digital cameras and mobile phones. The audience were half-listening, half recording. Some of them were, presumably, phoning up friends – ‘guess where I am!’

Now, this is far more prevalent. The advent of facebook, blogging and, most importantly, internet-ready phones, have led to an awful lot of live blogging. Last week, the guardian blogged a film live … dammit, we’re back to Plato again – the blog of the film of the script which was a fictionalised version of the revisionist histories of something which actually happened. The trend for live blogging is intriguing … as rather than watch and experience an event, the creator is fixed on interpretation from the outset. So they are creating our view of the past at the very moment that it’s happening. The past not only catches up with the present, but leaks into the future. The blogger blogs the now which will shape the past in the future.

Similarly, the facebook poster posts now so that friends can see what they were up to … no matter how contemporaneous the reading and the writing might be. How candid is the poster? Well, I’d say they’re invariably more than aware of what they’re writing. To whit one poster recently posting thus: xxx is drunk enough to know that I’m drunk, but not drunk enough to broadcast this on Facebook. I think I’m doing well … Damn.

Even my tagline on this blog is self-aware.

So past is created in the present. But we know this. The shift is that the revisionism which always occurs with the past when it is recalled is now increasingly built-in to both accounts and artefacts. No longer is experience the point, but the transmitting of experience. And yet the experience we communicate is the experience we want to happen, rather than the experience as it happened … and the revisionism happens immediately.

Recent events make me wonder whether I’m losing my grip on the real world. Whatever that is.

So. The question is, what am I revising here? Oddly enough, a Radio 4 gameshow called The Unbelievable Truth. The repeat, naturally.

© Pete Langman 2010