What Do We Still Know? – Knowing and Forgetting in Times of Threat”

In the following, I would like to explain the questions we want to address in our conference. I will start by describing some of the central ideas we have been discussing in the CRC in the last years. It may sound a bit abstract, but the research projects within the CRC are all case studies with a very specific focus and methodology.

First of all, threatened orders: Contrary to what many people think, we do not claim to know what a good order is. The terms “order” and “threatened order” are therefore not intended to be normative terms. Instead we focus on the actors’ view and take their discourse of being threatened as well as their actions as our point of departure. In the first phase of our research program (2011-2015) we focused on the communication about threat: when did it start, who promoted it, what were the topics? In the second phase (2015-2019), we have been working on what we call the process of ‘re-ordering’, which can be summarized as the people’sresponses to the idea of being threatened. In both phases we have been looking especially at practices. The orders we are studying are of very different scale: they range from the Roman Empire to small villages in contemporary Africa. Here again, it is the actors’ perspectives which define the frame of the (threatened) order. By the same token, ‘threats’ can be manydifferent things: droughts and increasing salinization of soil for farmers in Australian villages, the Reformation for nuns in 16th century Southern Germany, or the Scots for the Spanish crown when they tried to found a colony in Panama around 1700. We are interested in understanding the way people deal with a sense of losing control. It seems obvious to us that, in many ways, these questions reflect contemporary politics and the many current crises all over the world.

One important criterion for the definition of a “threatened order” is that routines of everyday life or politics don’t work anymore. Routines can be described as aggregated structures of actions, which one does not question anymore. When they are disrupted or fail to work, this can be both cognitively and emotionally upsetting: Presumed knowledge and practices become uncertain, not trustworthy, or even useless; problems occur that may generate feelings of ignorance and powerlessness, and there is a general uncertainty about the future. This open future, however, may also inspire hope and creativity, it may empower and encourage people to change routines. With regard to knowledge, the re-ordering process is therefore a process of both loosing and creating it, the process entails a loss of understanding and attempts to grasp a new situation – sometimes with the help of old concepts and ideas, sometimes with new untried ones.

Secondly, the concepts of knowing and non-knowing or forgetting: In our discussions so far, we have mostly stressed threatened orders as moments of sociological epiphanies and learning: the disruption of routines makes them visible and knowable, this allows for their examination and questioning and perhaps for deliberate change. This rather positive view emphasizes the creation of new knowledge and the search for adequate conceptual tools to deal with the unusual situation. In this conference, however, we would like to balance this view by turning to instances of ignorance and forgetting, of untruths and deliberate lies, of fake news and suppressed truths. From our own contemporary experience, it seems necessary to understand the relation between these processes. New research on forgetting emphasizes the interconnections between knowledge and non-knowledge, and stresses that they are not just opposed to each other. According to the different criteria discussed by Aleida Assmann or Paul Connerton, to name only these two, forgetting can be seen as a way of dealing with the overflow of information and therefore be a catalyst for innovation. It can have therapeutic results (Assmann) and insofar even influence one’s identity (personal or group identity) (Connerton). Finally, forgetting can also be an explicit practice by putting knowledge aside –in one corner of an archive for instance. Peter Burke and others have summarized this process by saying that next to the regimes of knowledge there are also regimes of ignorance. We would like to study the interference of these two regimes with each other in our conference. Questions are about the relation and mechanisms by which knowledge and memory are created and by which they are lost or even erased, about information flowing easily or else impeded, twisted, falsified, never arriving in time, or simply not believed, on rumors and lies suddenly circulating widely while formerly trusted sources of knowledge are no longer trusted. All in all, this conference will emphasise contingency in life and history and will try to take failures, non-knowledge and forgetting seriously.

Further Reading (If you like):