Disrupting the Category of Knowledge: An IPinCH Theoretical Engagement

Claire Poirier

By Claire Poirier

What are the implications of using the tools of the dominant knowledge paradigm to protect Indigenous knowledge? 


This question, with which many individuals working on the spectrum of intellectual property issues surely grapple, came up at the recent IPinCH symposium “Cultural Commodification, Indigenous Peoples & Self-Determination,” held at the University of British Columbia on May 2, 2013. 

As this was my first IPinCH event since becoming a Fellow with the project in January 2013, I decided to contribute to ongoing IPinCH dialogues by inquiring: How might we unsettle categories informing the dominant knowledge paradigm? And, what possibilities does this open for recognizing the radically different ways of being which colonial processes seek to eradicate?

At the symposium I witnessed a clear concern expressed by presenters about the fact that although a separation between the tangible and intangible inheres when approaching intellectual property issues through the tools of the colonizer, this separation does not apply from within Indigenous ways of being (also see Anderson 2012:2). This paradox marks my own entry into the dialogue: if these dualistic categories are dubious, how can we approach what we call “Indigenous knowledge” without imposing an a priori separation?  

My intention here is to draw on recent anthropological scholarship to provide some tools for unsettling common-sense assumptions about what counts as “knowledge,” in order to open space for modes of being which stand outside of colonial categories. As James Leach (2012) argues, although knowledge appears to be everywhere, its apparent ubiquity reveals confusion around the production and recognition of what fits into the category. Acknowledging that the category of knowledge is shifting and ephemeral, rather than fixed and static, demonstrates the need to attend to what happens as a thing, process, practice or relationship shifts registers and comes to be treated as knowledge (Leach 2012:210). The type of translation that takes place as a certain practice or process is officially recognized as knowledge shifts the topography of engagements that can happen around it. As a practice or process comes to be labelled as “knowledge” by the state, for example, it may become unrecognizable from its original form, since the state can only accommodate positivistic cause-effect relations in its definition of what knowledge is. Subsequently, more subtle or unexpected aspects of the relations at play may be missed (Leach 2012:211-214).

Admitting at the outset that we cannot say for certain what knowledge is (sensu Leach 2012:211) can have powerful implications for unsettling the effects that dominant categories hold. Without such an admittance, Marilyn Strathern (2013) suggests, a radical divergence of what counts as knowledge may be initiated and concealed at the moment of agreement between parties. For example, a UK-based working group on human remains in museum collections initiated a dialogue between scientific experts and Indigenous groups in Australia, New Zealand and North America whose ancestral remains were under discussion. As Strathern argues, by framing that project as one of “knowledge exchange” aiming to trigger dialogue and establish “an agreement” whereby both scientific study and repatriation could be carried out, the working group assumed dialogue to be possible; that is, they assumed scientific and Indigenous knowledge to be in symmetrical relation to the remains. In response, many Indigenous participants were offended by the conviction that their relations with ancestral remains could be reduced to a mere “perspective” that could then be compared to that of the scientists. In this way, that project revealed a divergence so radical that there was no agreement to debate (Strathern 2013:3-8). By admitting and staying open to the idea that the category of knowledge is quite slippery, these types of dialogues may open space for alterities that otherwise go unnoticed.  

If Strathern shows the danger of assuming what counts as knowledge, Helen Verran (2013) imparts how the category might be disrupted altogether. In describing a ceremony known as Ngathu, performed by Yolngu Aboriginal Australians, Verran shows how the ceremony enacts Yolngu politics. In the ceremony, cycad nuts are split, dried, then placed in bags and soaked in bodies of water. By the third day of soaking, the poison, known as “fighting of trouble” (Verran 2013:2), has leached out of the nuts, making the surrounding land and people strong. The soaked nuts are then ground to a paste, shaped into loaves, and eaten according to strict protocols. This process of decomposing and recomposing, of reshaping the many into one and back into many, is articulated through various stories and images and informs Yolngu territory, law, and partnerships (Verran 2013:1-5). Verran shows that the performative “doing” of Yolngu politics doesn’t depend on a category of knowledge concerned with Ngathu and its effects; rather, the ceremony, on its own terms, actively does the work of ordering relationships among humans and non-humans, of binding people to land, and of safeguarding country.

Though categories may, at times, be necessary in order for conversation to take place, the aim of this discussion has been to loosen the grip that some categories hold. By constantly questioning how we qualify what counts as knowledge and where the boundaries of this category might lie, we allow for radically different modes of being to flourish. My own curiosity leads me to ask: In what ways are IPinCH-related projects loosening, hardening, reinforcing or interrogating the category of knowledge?


References Cited:

Anderson, Jane. 2012.  On Resolution: Intellectual Property and Indigenous Knowledge Disputes. Prologue.  Landscapes of Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal Devoted to the Study of Violence, Conflict, and Trauma 2 (1): 1-14.

Leach, James. 2012. Recognising and Translating Knowledge: Navigating the Political, Epistemological, Legal and Ontological. Anthropological Forum 22 (3): 209-223.

Strathern, Marilyn. 2013. Opening Up Relations. Paper presented in “Indigenous Cosmopolitics,”John E Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Cultures, University of California, Davis.

Verran, Helen. 2013. Carrying the Dead Along. Towards Ontologically Canny Politics. Paper presented in “Indigenous Cosmopolitics,” John E Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Cultures, University of California, Davis.


Claire writes of disrupting

Claire writes of disrupting the category of knowledge. I take it she is referring to the common assumptions about knowledge that hold almost unchallenged in the modern academy. I was first challenged to recognize these assumptions when I was working as a science educator in Nigerian classrooms where a form of numbering that was clearly valid as numbering, but also odd, kept interrupting my attempts to train teachers in standard scientific ways of using number (I tell this story in Science and an African Logic, Univ of Chicago Press, 2001). Thinking long and hard about the ways we come to numbers, I gradually found my way into what I came to call ‘the ontic.’ I began to see how numbers ‘clot’ as entities routinely conjured up in thoroughly familiar practices in particular here and nows. I have since found the notion of ontics useful in teasing out situations where seemly hopelessly stuck knowledge and power relations are in some way being interrupted, as they currently are in many institutions involved in working with cultural heritage.

A similar such situation is the problematic entry of Indigenous knowledge traditions into the academy.

I came across this when involved in the project ‘Teaching from Country’ where Yolngu Aboriginal Australian elders teach university students enrolled in ‘Yolngu language and culture’ from their homelands (read more here; see also a discussion of ontics associated with this programe). Another situation of such interruption is using digital technology to work with Aboriginal knowledge traditions. A discussion of this will soon be published in “Postcolonial Databasing? Subverting Old Appropriations, Developing New Associations” co-authored by myself and Michael Christie, and found in Subversion, Conversion, Development. Cross-Cultural Knowledge Encounter and the Politics of Design (edited by James Leach and Lee Wilson; The MIT Press Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England). - Helen Verran (Charles Darwin University)

Claire Poirier has put her

Claire Poirier has put her finger on an issue that will never go away -- the need to unsettle our complacent conventions -- and that therefore has to be addressed a every turn. It is good to see comparative material being brought to bear. It is also important that she is reflecting on a very specific category (that is, knowledge). As she implies, if one wants to go on communicating one cannot 'unsettle' everything all at once! - Marilyn Strathern (University of Cambridge)

Innovations in approaching 'knowledge'

Claire Poirier’s important posting prompts a series of thoughts in roughly two parts: one about motivation and another about rationale. I am most grateful to her for the opportunity for a theoretical engagement.

The rationale for calling aspects of indigenous heritage, or indigenous people’s practices relating to the environment ‘knowledge’ is both obvious and obscure. Obvious because people clearly know things. Obscure because an emphasis on knowing as a particular kind of relation is a part of a historical construction of human being that holds great organizing power. And as it organizes what we can conceptualize, it is very hard to actually see. Marilyn Strathern (who Claire cites) has demonstrated the correspondence of concepts that Euro-Americans use to cover the conventionally separate domains of kinship and of knowledge. Her work alerts us to the fact that much of our conceptualization of ‘knowledge’ comes from the domain of human kinship. And as I understand it, part of that conceptualization is that we can think of knowledge itself as something that has consequences, that ‘it’ effects things beyond itself. In this one might see part of the emergence of the idea of an ‘it’ that is known. Knowledge becomes a thing in its own right, not an integral aspect of being. So we translate something about who (we think) we are – what constitutes our being - into an abstract ‘it’ that can be known in and of itself. That ‘it’ comes to look like the cause of effects.

In kinship, those effects are always on particular others. Knowledge as effect is knowledge as social effect. And because we can abstract ‘it’ from ‘the effect’ it has (for example, what I know about my ancestry inescapably conditions my interactions with others) we are party to a process in which ‘it’ that is the cause of the effect. The construction here relies on the ability to think of knowledge as something that can be separated from the knower. Because of course it can. But can the effect be? Well, in the case of kinship, no. In the case of knowledge of the natural world, yes. Knowing that I have a sibling is not knowledge for you in the same way it is knowledge for me. But the chemical properties of a particular plant are knowledge that has effect whoever one is. So we tend to act as if knowledge can in fact be characterized by the extent to which effect can be separated from the knower. It can in some instances (knowledge about the natural world) and not in others (knowing I have a sibling does not have the same effect on you as it does on me). This then resolves further under the influence of institutions and law into an idea that one kind of knowledge is about utility and has universal value. The other is about ‘the social’ and has ‘value’ as a part of my identity (that I cannot avoid).

We are then in the realms of a shifting and complex interplay of ideas. An interplay that tends to be resolved into conventional forms.

As Claire points out in her essay, this presents us with real issues when we approach other conceptual worlds, born from other histories, and with other conventions.

The motivation for seeing indigenous practices and heritage as ‘knowledge’ is wholly understandable. That motivation stems from the (quite correct) desire to acknowledge the genius and worth of others. But the motivation runs up against the consequences of calling things ‘knowledge’, when ‘it’ is this culturally specific and historically conditioned complex term. Claire’s essay succinctly draws attention to the need to keep open to the possibility that things and practices might be distorted, and that misunderstandings might be obscured, in the very process of agreement that makes something appear as ‘knowledge’. This openness involves an examination of the form that is given in the process of abstracting from practice or history and filtering it though our conventions. The form that the abstract thing (‘it’) takes is specified by particular assumptions about what kind of knowledge ‘it’ is, and how and whom it can be valuable to.

So, the very move of understanding practices, actions, words etc. as knowledge repositions them in and with regard to their milieu. Firstly, the abstraction assumes that whatever ‘it’ is can and should have effect in an expanded, or different context. It repositions it in relation to a new milieu, but also, internally, as it were. Because suddenly whatever ‘it’ is or was is scrutinized for exactly the limits or extent of its effect. Is it a universal, demonstrable effect? Or is it a localized, specific one? Is it an effect on the natural world, or on a social institution like a family? Are we talking about ‘heritage’ and ‘culture’ (‘expressions’ in IP parlance) or are we looking at something everyone anywhere could use (an ‘invention’ with ‘utility’). The ‘it’ collapses rapidly into a contribution to either identity politics of one sort or another, and/or to economic gain. There are incommensurabilities between these conceptions of what is valuable in different kinds of knowing that mean we have real difficulty hearing when people talk in different registers.

One of the effects of the existence of patent law (for example) is to push the image of innovation towards invention. But the work of Helen Veran cited above shows that there are possibilities for escaping from the constraints of such conceptualizations. That is dependent upon developing new terms together: innovation. Helen’s work with Yolgnu people demonstrates what might be possible when a critique of the hidden assumptions and political interests in making things all appear as ‘knowledge’ is combined with an imaginative, open engagement with particular people’s concerns and creativity. This is vital, because it seems to me high time that we found other ways of engaging with and valuing human practices and creations than those which immediately collapse value into either value as a universal utility with (technical and economic) applicability, or a form of expression contributing to the individual or group’s identity.

Acknowledging skills, understandings, effects and knowing as possibilities for learning and developing interactions that generate new forms of value, value not constrained to and expressed always through our conventions is a worthwhile enterprise. It would be an innovation! If I may, this seems particularly pertinent to a project that seeks to find appropriate modes of engaging with heritage and culture. It is also a way of keeping something of the desire to acknowledge others' genius, while loosening the grip of our assumptions. I hope Claire’s essay will spark further work and reflection towards this end. - James Leach (University of Western Australia)