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Problematizing Global Knowledge: The Theory, Culture, & Society Encyclopedia Project

by Mike Featherstone et al, Editors
Theory, Culture, and Society Issue 23.2-3 (2006)
Sage Publications, London
616 pp., paper
ISSN: 0263-2764.

Reviewed by Eugene Thacker
School of Literature, Communication & Culture
Georgia Institute of Technology


There is a story by Borges in which a protagonist searches for a missing volume in an encyclopedia set. Actually, the search begins with an encyclopedia entry about a remote, mysterious land that may or may not exist. But the search for this missing place ends up being a search for a missing book. To make things more complicated, it appears that one particular encyclopedia set does indeed contain the missing volume, while all the others do not. Rapidly, the search for the textual verification of a physical place recedes behind a search for a mode of verification itself. In a classic Borgesian move, geography and textuality, two of our primary modes of verification ("I was there"; "it’s been documented"), thus end up undermining the search for knowledge itself.

The encyclopedia Problematizing Global Knowledge does not — as far as I know — contain any mysterious missing entries. But its mode of assemblage does nevertheless encourage a critical stance towards contemporary modes of knowledge-production, of which the immaterial labor of academic institutions is a primary example. The flurry of academic texts that claim to distill specialized knowledge into "readers," "key terms" anthologies, and "very short introductions" is a perplexing phenomenon. From the naïve point of view, such books can be helpful as secondary material or as an entry point into difficult primary material. However anyone who teaches will attest to the fact that the reality in the classroom is that such books often metonymically stand in for the primary texts (the extreme version of this would be the condensation of, say, all of media studies into algorithms, Haiku, or a version of Rimbaud’s zutique poems).

On the surface, the Problematizing Global Knowledge volume is exceedingly readable and comprehensive. It is broken up into sections that are thematically arranged — "Network," "Life/Vitalism," "Classification," and so on. While its focus is on knowledge production in a globalized context, its scope is broader than the vaguely-named field of media studies. This is "media studies" as an expanded field. Each of the entries are written by authors known and respected in their areas of specialty. Furthermore, the entries in a given section do not simply sing a chorus of consensus; there are differences between entries that are more indicative of the richness and heterogeneity of media studies than many of the more reductive textbooks currently available. Originally published as a special issue of the journal Theory, Culture, & Society, the volume will be re-published as a book later this year, with additional responses by invited authors. It also forms the first of a series of like-minded encyclopedias to be published by the Theory, Culture, & Society (TCS) collective.

The challenge, then, is how to approach the task of producing knowledge in such forms as the encyclopedia without totality or closure. Among other things, Borges’ story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" attempts to think the encyclopedia without closure. Paging through Problematizing Global Knowledge, edited by the TCS collective, we can see another, though similar approach. Whereas Borges uses fabulation to open the encyclopedia, the TCS collective has used appropriation. What form does their encyclopedia appropriate? Well, the form of the encyclopedia, of course. The opening sections aptly deal with the concept of knowledge and the form of the encyclopedia itself. Each entry in this section patiently unravels the very form in which it is instantiated through its coverage of the main issues and themes centering around each entry. Such problems concerning epistemology are not only raised by Diderot and d’Alembert, but they are also fundamental ontological problems of sets and inclusion that reach back to Plato. Thus, while there is no Borgesian missing volume, the TCS encyclopedia offers breadth and coverage but in a reflexive way that always refers back to the form of the encyclopedia itself. (This is the "n-1" of encyclopedias. Or better, an Encyclonomicon.)

For over 20 years now, the TCS collective has been interrogating the transformations and transmutations of global culture. Situated at the cross-section between the humanities and social sciences, the TCS Centre publishes the well-known journals Theory, Culture, & Society and Body & Society, as well as an impressive list of anthologies and monographs published by Sage. This volume — the first in their encyclopedia project — is welcome intervention into the disparate fields known as media studies, science studies, and global cultural studies. In fact — hopefully — it may well end up re-defining them.



Updated 1st July 2007

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