Imperfect Knowledge Workshop
Post by Fabienne Rachmadiev (ASCA, University of Amsterdam)
On November 1, an afternoon dedicated to ‘imperfect minds’ and’ imperfect knowledge’, organised by the Sublime Imperfections team, took place at University of Amsterdam’s VOX-POP location at Binnengasthuis. As it says on their website, VOX-POP is a ‘creative space’ for the humanities, where ‘creativity, experiment, and the sharing of knowledge’ take central stage. A ‘different’ take on knowledge was exactly what this workshop was about.
Professor and Sublime Imperfections team-leader Ellen Rutten, in her role as moderator, introduced the workshop with Arthur Worthington’s illustrations of raindrops, as drawn ‘scientifically’ and as captured by a camera: whereas the drawn drops are perfectly symmetrical, the more ‘objective’ camera shows the fallen drops in all their asymmetry and imperfection. In other words, a perfectionist methodology might not get one closer to uncover a truth about reality, nor in gaining a better understanding of it. Rutten briefly showed slides with examples ranging from imperfect parenting to the well-known adagium to learn from one’s failures, before introducing the speakers and set-up of the workshop.
Invited speakers were Professor Paul Iske, founder and ‘Chief Failure Officer’ of The Institute for Brilliant Failures (his colleague Bas Ruyssenaars took over for the round-table as Iske had to leave early), Rob Zwijnenberg, professor of Art and Science Interactions at Leiden University, Tamar Stelling, correspondent on ‘non-human life’ at media-platform The Correspondent, and performer and theatre maker Annefleur Schep.
Iske took off with a comprehensive presentation on his institute and its pragmatic philosophy. ’Failure is an option’ is one of its mottos, ‘a human right to fail brilliantly’, another. The aim of this institute is to provide organisations with a better insight into the ‘essence of innovation’. You think that everything's under control, Iske argued, but it is unexpectedness par excellence that brings actual change and innovation. The institute moreover offers enlightening graphs and metaphors in dealing with uncertainties. Iske stressed the importance of, e.g., giving entrepreneurs a second chance, for a failure is just a ‘First Attempt In Learning.’ One should fail with the intention to create value, said Iske. A humorous touch to his presentation was a ‘bestiary of failures’: different types of failures represented by little pictograms.
The institute thus frames imperfection as something positive, as a tool with which to gain and sharpen knowledge. However, the narrative is ultimately one in which success, growth and innovation are presupposed to be ‘good’, while one could argue that those are not ends categorically worth striving for, as e.g. innovations for ‘renewable energy’ do not address the problem of our consumerist lifestyle and just shifts the problem of fossil fuels temporarily.
The second part of the workshop provided space for a more theoretical discussion on the nature of both imperfection and knowledge. While this seems quite abstract, the examples given by the speakers did make the theoretical debate fertile ground for practical implications - which was one of Stelling’s concerns. The different backgrounds of the speakers provided different insights into the role of ‘imperfection’ in different domains of knowledge. Zwijnenberg, for example, pointed out that Bio Art (artists using biotechnological tools to create art) can ‘open up a space’ in which the ‘rhetoric of perfection’ in biotechnology is questioned. As biotechnology is very perfection-driven, artists question the validity of these goals: why should humans be flawless? Stelling countered that she did not see how the use of e.g. embryo’s in Bio Art helped solve the moral dilemmas surrounding biotechnology.
From the experimenting with human embryo’s on to chocolate eggs: Annefleur Schep’s performance was an intervention of sorts on the way knowledge is gained and a particularly humorous take on the way in which systems of knowledge operate. Her research object was a chocolate Easter egg wrapped in blue cellophane, her research question, ’how to know if this egg is Polish?’ She convincingly and amusingly guided the audience through her ‘research’ – which she calls a ‘method of destruction’ – by telling the story of her quest with illustrations, questioning with each step if something could help her determine whether the egg was Polish.
In the closing round of remarks the ‘fluidity’ of the notion of imperfection came up: is it a shortcoming, a failure, or a recognition of the impossibility of completeness, be it complete knowledge, or a ‘perfect’ research outcome? Nevertheless, despite these differences in terminology, some core issues could be identified. One of which is thinking of imperfection as a way to deal with the complexity of reality, a ‘way of coping’ as Ruyssenaars put it. Or of tackling the role that perfectionism might play in one’s personal strivings, as Stelling was wondering. Zwijnenberg furthermore thought of imperfection as ambiguity: technologies are too complex and too ambiguous for humans to understand, so we might as well embrace this ambiguity, as artists seem to do more than scholars.
As for the question how the future would look like, Zwijnenberg responded that we already live in an age of ignorance, society has no control or understanding of technological developments. Technology is beyond our grasp and in that sense our knowledge of the world and the technological inventions with which one might try to ‘enhance’ this world, is in itself imperfect. Acknowledging these shortcomings, both Zwijnenberg en Ruyssenaars conceded, is the only way to go.