Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 10. Nr. August 2001  

Remarks on the Literary Text as a Vehicle for Knowledge Production

Gerhard van der Linde (Pretoria)

I would like to propose, firstly, that the literary text not only uses existing knowledge, but could also be used as a vehicle for transmitting and generating knowledge; and secondly, that the literary text, by its very nature, can be integrated into a cross-disciplinary, networked approach to knowledge. For the purposes of this article, I use the concept "literary text" to refer to narrative fiction, without in principle excluding the other genres. Knowledge is here defined as a set of statements or beliefs which a particular community formulates in response to its Umwelt, and which it accepts as truthful, after coming to an agreement that sufficient objective grounds exist for such acceptance to be reasonable (cf. Gill, 1985: 386).

The concept of knowledge production I understand collectively to refer to a group of interlinked processes related to research collaboration, individual research, the dissemination and evaluation of research results, and the integration of selected results into further research, which restarts the cycle. I use the concept of knowledge outputs as inclusive of but not equivalent to research results, in that it refers to any output containing knowledge which can be extracted by the receiver. Knowledge transfer I understand to be the transmission of knowledge outputs packaged into convenient units to a destinatary, by whom they are internalised and/or repackaged in accordance with his or her needs.

In terms of these definitions, it appears that the processes involved are typically intentional and targeted. They are underpinned by clearcut objectives, constrained by definite parameters, targeted towards a specific audience. Viewed from the perspective of the target audience, the processes which lead to a certain knowledge output should be transparent and in agreement with the rules pertaining to the discipline concerned, while the output should be unambiguous and coded in the language generally accepted in the relevant intellectual community. Transparency enables the destinatary of knowledge outputs to trace the logic underlying the processes and to assess its validity; and to evaluate the resulting knowledge outputs. Lack of ambiguity ensures a shared understanding of outputs, thus facilitating dissemination and evaluation.

In view of these characteristics, the literary text seems to be disqualified from inclusion in knowledge production processes. The outputs of literary creation are only partly intentional, inasmuch as the text develops organically along lines not necessarily foreseen or deliberately controlled by the author. The creative process may have no other objective than to play itself out. Its only constraints could be the boundaries of the author's imagination. The writing process, or, for that matter, the creative process in general, is rarely, if ever, completely transparent, except perhaps where rather trivial outputs are concerned. Openness for diverse interpretations is the lifeblood of the literary text. Any text which is complex and robust enough to support multiple interpretations will be unrepeatable, and in that sense, unique. Rather than the standardised codes of a particular community, the literary text highlights personal codes, mannerisms, idiosyncrasies.

These considerations suggest that my first thesis should be discarded, and that a particular model of knowledge production should be given precedence. I use the term "model" here as referring to a paradigm or general approach, not in the sense of a formalised model. In line with the notion of knowledge outputs as the result of production processes, and against the background of a practice such as business process re-engineering, such a model would emphasise streamlining, cost effectiveness, and a linear focus on delivering narrowly defined outputs (cf. Loh, 1997: 63-67; Bertelsen, 1998: 141). I call this the business model of knowledge production. The key notion of the model is that knowledge is viewed as a marketable commodity (cf. Lyotard, 1987: 6). The model assumes that knowledge outputs, and therefore, also the processes that produce them, should be justifiable in terms of satisfying the needs of a particular market or market segment, or that it should at least be feasible to create a market for such outputs. Therefore, these processes will mostly tend to be initialised in response to a perceived demand in the real or potential market. The outputs should be tailored to the requirements of the target audience. In other words, knowledge configuration becomes a necessary corollary to knowledge production. A limited time framework would be allowed from initialisation to delivery, since it would be required that a return on investment should become apparent as soon as possible. There should be a satisfactory correlation between the resources invested and return on investment, measured in terms of clearcut benefits to the market and/or revenue generated. For the producer of knowledge, the keynote of the model is survival, since one of its basic premises is that outputs which do not gain sufficient market acceptance should be discarded, and the corresponding processes abandoned.

Inasmuch as globalisation can be linked to the global dissemination of capitalist doctrines through vehicles such as the World Bank, the IMF and multinational corporations (cf. Sklair, 1999), facilitated by the demise of various systems of social engineering, such as apartheid and Soviet communism, and by the fading away of what Lyotard (1987: 31-37) refers to as the grand narratives, replaced by the justification of knowledge on the basis of its usefulness to economic development, it creates an environment conducive to the pervasiveness of the business model. From this perspective, contemporary society can be viewed as shaped by the complex interactions of market forces, rather than by centrally imposed ideological systems or by a shared worldview, with the result that it appears increasingly fragmented and unstable. In so far as the knowledge outputs delivered in terms of the business model are determined by the law of supply and demand, it is highly opportunistic, even parasitic, feeding on society, rather than attempting to shape it according to an abstract framework or coherent value system.

The definition of knowledge production which I proposed earlier on also suggests a second model, which I call the classic or communication model. In terms of this model, familiar to all academics, the emphasis is on the effective and efficient communication of knowledge outputs to a particular intellectual community (cf. Ross, 1971: 69). The processes involved in producing those outputs move in line with the game rules which apply in that community (cf. Ross, 1971: 125, 131). These rules largely define the kinds of outputs that would be acceptable, while a peer review process both acts as a quality control mechanism and confirms the credibility of acceptable outputs. Since outputs are subjected to critical scrutiny by a community of scholars, it is assumed that a process of "natural selection" will ensure that only the best will survive (cf. Ross, 1971: 92). Survival in this context means that an output is circulated through successive knowledge production cycles, instead of being relegated to archival obscurity. In quasi-Darwinian fashion, it is assumed that the principle of using the outputs considered to be best as building blocks for further knowledge production would lead to inevitable and continuous progress (cf. Campbell, 1987: 46-50). Knowledge production is assumed to be not only self-regulating and self-organising, but self-improving as well. Viewed as cumulative and evolutionary, the production of knowledge might even be accepted to be capable of virtually unlimited expansion. Although the model has been remarkably efficient, the views just outlined are perhaps too optimistic, inasmuch as factors other than intrinsic quality could influence the assessment of particular outputs, for example, academic power play, the status of an author, and the fashionableness of a specific area of inquiry at a given point in time.

Knowledge outputs produced according to this model will not necessarily be marketable, and it may in that sense seem incompatible with the business model. However, to some extent, the communication model could be absorbed into the business model, mainly as a result of external pressures, which are driven by sociopolitical factors as well as by the infiltration of the discourse of business into environments where formerly it would have been considered inappropriate (cf. Bertelsen, 1998: 143). Financial constraints and government intervention in tuition policies and in the choice of research priorities have created a situation where it is difficult for knowledge outputs to be justified purely on scientific grounds (cf. National Commission on Higher Education, 1996: 173,226). The entity which holds the purse strings - in the South African context, this is the State, more often than not - is very likely to demand cost effective processes and a clearly identifiable return on investment. Thus, the producer of knowledge outputs could be forced to think of himself as a supplier of products to an industry which serves consumers. In this case, the term "industry" refers both to the various distribution channels of academic knowledge, such as academic journals and teaching at tertiary institutions, and to business environments where knowledge outputs are used for financial gain. Since consumer products by definition quite soon outlive their usefulness, the producer will be forced continuously to look for ways of attractively packaging existing products and developing new products as successive groups of consumers exit a particular cycle of demand, supply and consumption. It would not be sufficient merely to contribute to and reflect the evolution of a body of knowledge. For converts to the business model, this would be quite acceptable; for purist adherents to the communication model, assuming that they are not a breed on the verge of extinction, it may seem an unpalatable deviation from the ideal of pursuing knowledge for its own sake. However, failure to adapt could entail the risk of being marginalised, of being branded as elitist or as a dabbler in irrelevant subjects. It could also mean becoming locked into a continuous battle for economic survival. The precarious situation of European language departments at those South African universities where they have managed to survive is a case in point.

For the producer of knowledge, the tyranny of the marketplace is a likely consequence of the global diffusion of business speak as part of "the new political-economic orthodoxy" (Bertelsen, 1998: 130). Whether explicitly or by implication, appropriating the language of business is a validation of capitalist ideology, inseparable from the imperative towards implementing practices consonant with a "businesslike approach". However, if one accepts plurality as one of the major gains of the postmodern (cf. Welsch, 1988: 37-38), multiple models of knowledge production should be acknowledged and accommodated (cf. Ross, 1971: 151). I would like to propose two alternative models, both in varying degrees compatible with the literary text. It is in terms of these models that the claims of the literary text to being a potential vehicle for knowledge production could be justified.

According to the first of these alternative models, knowledge outputs are meant to be read as text. That is, they are presented as open-ended, provisional, sometimes fragmentary; they open tears in the fabric of current intellectual discourse, offering glimpses of alternative discourses; eschew the straight line in favour of the playful; prefer organic thinking to results-driven thought. The outputs compatible with this model are not primarily aimed at communicating clearly defined knowledge units. These outputs may wander across the boundaries between disciplines, criss-crossing disloyally and not always systematically. It might be difficult or even impossible to fit them into the game rules of a particular intellectual community. In that sense, the outputs are foreign to the mentality of the career academic constructing an entrenched position within the narrow confines of a particular field of specialisation. This is the domain of nomadic thinkers, eclectic scientists and encyclopaedic novelists. The success of these outputs is measured in terms of their capacity to make connections between disparate elements, of the discursive energy they generate.

Inasmuch as the outputs could also be useful and scientifically credible, there is no absolute borderline between this model and the previous two. Yet its focus is quite different; in this respect, it is especially clearly differentiated from the business model. The network model is aimed at producing outputs that are interesting and unexpected; their usefulness, such as it may be, is incidental. The reductionism and linearity inherent to the emphasis on usefulness and marketability is alien to this model. Without necessarily abandoning the conventions of logical coherence and rigorous argument, it adds a dimension of playfulness, and favours trajectories of thought which move in unforeseen and unpredictable directions. The model is not directed towards providing answers and solving problems, but towards raising questions and generating new problems. It offers a home for the ironist, always ready both to maintain and undermine a position, never to be tied down (cf. Jankélévitch, 1979: 30-37).

The second alternative model, which I call the narrative model, accommodates outputs which take the form of narratives (cf. Jordaan, 1999: 76). The outputs are distinguished in terms of the respective narrative genres to which they belong, such as historiography, biography, myth and so on. While each of the genres has its own particular conventions and techniques (cf. Genette, 1990), all outputs make use of narrative strategies such as perspectivism and suspense. Factual accuracy may or may not be critical, depending on the genre, but all outputs have a basis in observed phenomena. Thus, for example, the model could accommodate different versions of the origin of the universe, some presenting a scientific point of view, others presenting more naive perspectives. Given the pluralist conception of knowledge which underlies the model (cf. McCormick, 1988: 330), none of these versions would be rejected a priori or viewed as inherently superior. Instead, all would be accepted as attempts to come to terms with, to account for and make sense of, to explain observed phenomena, in terms which grew out of, and are compatible with the worldview of a particular community. In this sense, a narrative which has its roots in religion and a narrative which has its basis in science could be viewed as complementary, rather than conflicting and incompatible (cf. Kampits, 1991: 16). Viewed together, such disparate narratives would offer a kaleidoscopic perspective on a particular set of phenomena. The explanatory power of the narrative could reside in the relationship between economy of means and suggestiveness, appealing to intuition rather than to "pure reason". In some cases, for example in counterfactual historiography, the principal interest of the narrative could lie in its capacity for presenting or generating alternatives critical to established viewpoints, for exploring possibilities, rather than in striving to arrive at truths.

I submit that the literary text can clearly be accommodated within these two models. It can be elliptical and allusive, inviting the reader to collaborate in activating the meanings of the text. It is by nature transdisciplinary, in that it borrows freely across subject fields. It is the ideal vehicle for generating "what if" questions and hypothetical scenarios which cross the boundaries of the known. Not bound by the restrictions of the "rational" and the "scientific", and much less by the demand for usefulness, it can freely generate paradoxes, unlikely hypotheses, suggestive metaphors. There is almost no topic or issue which cannot be explored through literature.

Having accepted in principle that the literary text can be a vehicle for knowledge production (cf. Gabriel, 1991: 214-215), one is left with the problem of establishing what kinds of knowledge it conveys or helps to generate, and how. To my mind, this is a complex problem, and I will merely offer some pointers.

In varying degrees, literary texts use and convey factual information. For example, so-called "faction" offers a close intertwining of real-life events with fictional techniques and material (Dukes, 1999: 24); fictionalised biographies and historical novels can be well researched and factually accurate, or they can freely exploit factual material as basis for an interesting story. In some cases, those factual elements in the story which the reader views as reliable are viewed as such because they are confirmed by previous readings of non-fiction texts; in other cases, the reader is led to accept these elements as accurate through evidence internal to the text, such as the use of strategies usually associated with factual accounts, including for example a neutral, journalistic style, references to authoritative sources, and so on. The first category of texts confirm what the reader knows already; the second may add to existing knowledge by presenting facts previously unknown to the reader.

However, in the postmodern context, with its emphasis on intertextuality, fragmentedness and complexity, and its scepticism towards privileging the claim to authority of any single voice or point of view (cf. Kampits, 1991), it would be naive to accept presumed factual accuracy or so-called "facts" at face value. Even in the absence of irony, one would have to read the "facts" in a literary text as set between quotation marks. Such facts are taken from other texts and recontextualised, so that the way in which they are manipulated and transformed becomes more prominent than their accuracy or possible novelty value. Factually accurate statements in the literary text would be accepted as truthful; yet a truthful statement in a fictional text, and the same statement in an academic article or a newspaper cannot be exactly equivalent. The reception of the statement would be determined by its context, as well as by the reader's expectations. For example, a statement presented according to the conventions of scientific research may be expected to be true, while the reader encountering the same statement in a literary text could accept that it may or may not be true, but would in any event expect an excess of meaning over and above the factual content, a supplement of colouring in addition to factual reliability. To put it in business jargon: the reader expects the literary text to add value to the factual material it uses.

In some texts, the facts are treated as pretext, on which playful fantasies are superimposed. For instance, in Cosmicomiche, Italo Calvino presents brief summaries, presumably accurate, of scientific theories, and interweaves these with fantastic little stories which comment on and relativise the summaries. Through such interweaving of fact and fantasy, the factual is opened up to intertextual play and to interpretation within networks of readers, recalling Nietzsche's suggestion that all truth could be viewed as part of a fiction (Nietzsche, 1964: 46). By interweaving the factual and the fantastic, and transposing scientific material into a different domain, Calvino destabilises the reassuring equilibrium of so-called scientific objectivity.

These examples suggest that the power of the literary text as a vehicle for knowledge production should be sought in its obliqueness, its capacity to open up discourses, to interrogate reality, to challenge boundaries, to force us both to ask questions of the world and to question our questions. This capacity operates both in the cognitive and in the ethical dimension.

In the cognitive dimension, numerous literary texts deal with problem solving, knowing the world, knowledge of the world. In doing this, these texts also offer perspectives on objective reality, sometimes by offering possible "models" or "maps" of the world inhabited by the protagonists, sometimes indirectly, through the picture emerging from the fictional world in which the quest for knowledge and understanding is played out (cf. McCormick, 1988: 321).

The quasi-detective novels of Stanislaw Lem, for example The investigation and The chain of chance, present an investigator charged with solving an enigma by using methodologies associated with scientific rationality (cf. van der Linde, 1994: 94-131; 1996). The investigator is confronted by chance events, disconnected phenomena, actions with unpredictable consequences. Even when events and actions seem to be logically or causally linked, what appears to be logic, coherence, causality, turns out to be the result of the random convergence of disconnected series.

Through the interplay between randomness and scientific method, Lem problematises the capacity of cognitive rationality to arrive at definite objective truths. The investigation remains inconclusive, as the number of variables which would have to be accounted for to decide between the available hypotheses is simply unmanageable. Of course, this kind of epistemological pessimism is also not intended as a final answer. For our purposes, the main point to consider is that Lem's texts offer a point of departure for reflection, an intersection, an area of commonality between scientist, philosopher, "lay reader" and literary critic. By fictionalising the relationship between cognitive rationality, objective knowledge and complexity or chaos, Lem sets up a potential node for multidisciplinary dialogue.

Another case in point is Simenon's Maigret novels. Inspector Maigret apparently solves crimes without relying on the usual analytical tools and techniques. His method, such as it is, consists in getting a "feel" for the environment and the persons involved; moving through the spaces of investigation, gradually sensing a piste, a point of least resistance, intuitively sensing a solution rather than finding it through rational analysis; allowing the facts to emerge, rather than identifying them through purposeful analysis. Maigret relies on common sense and intuition, not on the systematic collection and interpretation of data. He seldom appears greatly concerned with offering hard evidence for his inferences, such as they are, and unlike another famous literary detective, Hercule Poirot, he does not explain the route he followed to arrive at a solution; it does not even seem feasible to trace a neat path backwards from the solution which would clarify Maigret's reasoning. The Maigret novels could be read in counterpoint to the naively optimistic rationalism of other literary detectives such as Holmes and Poirot, and as an indirect critique of any overly rational approach to problem solving.

It is conceivable that one could extract a methodology from Maigret's investigations and test its usefulness in real life situations. One could for example use the Maigret novels to construct parables of problem solving, and correlate these to business environments. In this way, the novels could even be transposed to the business model of knowledge production. These texts, which on the surface are little more than classic examples of Trivialliteratur, could be read by multi-disciplinary networks of readers as case studies in problem solving, serving as the basis for generating new texts from within various disciplines, which could feed back into a literary critical re-reading of the stories. The Maigret novels could thus become integrated into a multi-disciplinary network of discourses. The potential use of the Internet in this regard hardly needs to be spelled out. Unfortunately, I am not aware that this challenge has as yet been taken up.

In brief, literary texts which deal with the cognitive dimension present narratives of the search for objective knowledge, which in some cases could be read as philosophical arguments, and which often offer frameworks for reflection on the relationship between the knowing subject and his Umwelt. In so far as these narratives communicate definite knowledge units related to the "real world", that is of secondary interest. Nevertheless, the Maigret novels, for instance, can be said to convey some knowledge of the "real world", in that they present, amongst others, a catalogue of human types, and a picture of a certain way of life in Paris before the war. The factual knowledge we extract from the texts would have to be corroborated before it can be accepted as true and accurate, yet it is not for that reason less valid than comparable knowledge gained from historical or sociological writings, which in any event also needs to be corroborated.

In the ethical dimension, literary texts have been used to dramatise certain philosophical issues, as for example in Dostoevsky's Crime and punishment; or to present situations from which the reader could extrapolate ethical questions, for example in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina; or they could be used as the basis for constructing ethical guidelines. The latter point can be illustrated with reference to the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable presents contrasting responses to the issue of what could in modern terminology be called social responsibility. The issue is raised by the story of a man who is attacked by robbers and left for dead by the wayside. Confronted by this situation, what should one do? One option is to turn away, to deny responsibility, to refuse to become involved. The opposite choice is to have mercy and compassion, to take action, to help the victim carry his burden. Without judging the other choice, the text presents this as the preferred option, offering a particular moral guideline, which implies a corresponding value system. By re-situating the narrative in a historical context - such as Nazi Germany, to mention a fairly obvious example - issues could be raised such as whether the guideline proposed by the parable could have general validity, or should be restricted by situational factors; or whether values such as those implied by the guideline could be sufficiently universalisable to claim objective priority over purely contingent considerations of survival and self-interest; or whether self interest and serving the common good can be compatible; and, indeed, to raise the issue of how the common good should be defined. As with the examples by Lem and Simenon, the perspectives opened up by the parable could best be explored through multi-disciplinary readings in a network of readers. From the point of view of knowledge production, the interest of the parable primarily lies in its capacity to act as catalyst for a multiplicity of insights. The role of the literary critic in this context could be to develop a reading of the text which highlights the points from which such insights could be generated.

In summary, both in the cognitive and in the ethical dimensions, the literary text can use narrative to articulate particular issues, while its obliqueness and openness to multiple interpretations give it the potential to mediate the generation of a kaleidoscope of perspectives on those issues.

A final point, which I believe should not be left out of consideration, is that the literary text can offer a counterpoint to the seemingly insatiable quest for knowledge; a counter-perspective to the urge, manifested in contemporary mass media, to expose, to document, to clarify, to circumscribe, arising from a culture in which the momentary and the instantaneous have become a visual avalanche and an auditory cacophony, a culture which virtually fetishises instant access to information. I would like to argue that the literary text has the capacity to suggest what lies beyond knowledge, the world as impenetrable enigma. Its capacity in this regard is precisely a result of its potential to move outside the objective and the rational, its refusal to offer knowledge outputs which can be neatly packaged and circumscribed. In other words, the power of the literary text in this connection is a consequence of its refusal to be businesslike, useful and transparent.

Some of Kafka's disconcertingly opaque parables, for example, can be read as metaphors for a world which lies impenetrably beyond knowledge. In Eine Kaiserliche Botschaft, a messenger is sent by the Emperor on a mission, to deliver a message of which the contents remain unknown. As is typical in narratives of quests or missions, he encounters certain obstacles. However, the usual pattern is subverted in that the obstacles are not overcome, but infinitely multiplied, as in a series of mirrors. The events are without apparent logic, without rational purpose. Instead of closure, there is failure and a vague, inconclusive ending. The text offers no attempt at objective understanding. The reader is left suspended at the centre of an unresolved and unresolvable enigma. I would contend that the quest for knowledge finds a primitive basis in precisely this kind of awareness of mystery, in a situation of "unknowing".

Another Kafka parable, Vor dem Gesetz, offers an equally compelling metaphor. Again, no reasons are offered for the events and actions narrated. Why does the anonymous man want to enter? Why is he refused? Why does he remain? Again, the obstacles are endlessly multiplied: beyond the guard lie other, more terrible guards. The ending presents interpretative open- endedness within narrative closure: the man dies, the guard leaves and locks the gate, since it was only meant for this man who was never allowed to enter. Should one conclude that the impenetrable gate is simply a cruel joke played by some anonymous power? Even that is not clear. The text presents a world in which one penetrates to the centre, only to discover that it is empty, that it escapes into infinite regress. From the centre, one is led back to the beginning, and thence back to the centre, endlessly. In a way which can better be grasped intuitively, rather than analytically, as is often the case with powerful metaphors, Kafka's text creates a sense of that unfulfilled desire which leaves the quest for knowledge ever open-ended, never attaining an ultimate object. Ultimately, it is not what we know already, or what we should know, according to others, but what we do not know, and perhaps could never know, which drives the proliferation of knowledge.

© Gerhard van der Linde (Pretoria)

TRANS        table of contents: No.10


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