On Compatibility and Clifford Siskin’s System: The Shaping of Modern Knowledge

By Anthony Arnone

In his new book, System: The Shaping of Modern Knowledge (MIT 2016), Clifford Siskin gives a history of system—a history that begins in the sixteenth century with the Enlightenment and ends in the present. With this history, Siskin shows how system not only shaped Western knowledge but how it is still shaping and reshaping our knowledge today.

Siskin’s book “is neither an example of ‘systems theory’ nor a survey of every instance of system and a theorizing of it”; but it is an explanation of “how system became a primary form for shaping knowledge.” This claim about the aim of the book does not seem provocative at first glance, but the more Siskin “explains” the more evident it becomes that through “explanation” Siskin shakes up the conventional methods and systems of our knowledge production—and specifically of our literary knowledge production. Following Oxford physicist David Deutsch, who claims that science itself is explanatory rather than descriptive, Siskin explains system as that which is essential to producing new knowledge and also that which can limit knowledge as well.system-cover

He opens his book with Galileo’s discovery of observational proof that the earth revolves around the sun and his conclusion that a system of the world needed to be devised: “We have discovered four wandering stars, known or observed by no one before us. . .We will say more in our System of the World.” However, Siskin claims that “for over four hundred years we have been saying more and more about system” but “saying more has not helped us to say what it is.” Although Siskin’s method is to first explain system as a genre, he does not see system as an abstract idea but something that is physical, “something materially in the world—something specific, concrete, and countable.” Because if we “take the idea route. . .we sink not only into the problem of definition but also into the familiar divide of the abstract versus the physical”—a divide that is responsible for today’s “narrow-but-deep disciplines.” Siskin eliminates that abstract-physical divide to demonstrate how system “by altering how we know the world, has changed it.” His examples range from Galileo and Newton’s systems of the world to Darwin’s algorithmic system of survival all the way up to modern computer systems and systems of quantum computation. But despite these many systems—“operating systems, support systems, ecosystems, phone systems”—in our lives, “we do not hesitate ‘to blame the system.’” The systems we blame works too well (“you can’t beat the system”) and not well enough (always seeming to ‘break down”).

After relating the ways system has produced an immense amount of useful knowledge throughout history since the Enlightenment, Siskin stops at a contemporary state of “stuckness” within the system of the modern disciplines. Siskin plays on the double meaning of the word “discipline”—it is both a particular area of study and the practice of training people to obey rules. He shows how disciplinarity, through which we create strict zoning laws (much like the zoning laws in New York City) for our learning, are really a phenomenon that is not all that old. The disciplines began in the eighteenth century with the Encyclopedia Britannica’s attempt to categorize the different types of learning for the practical purpose of producing an accessible print version of the history of knowledge in the 1770s. Although the encyclopedia’s practical considerations, linked as they were to the limitations of printed material, are not a compelling reason for continuing (even today) to structure our knowledge-production according to their zoning-methods of the disciplines, the disciplines have nonetheless produced much useful knowledge. However, Siskin posits that, at a certain point, this system of the disciplines has stopped producing “knowledge that is load bearing—knowledge, that is, that makes more knowledge possible.” Consequently, like Galileo, who sought a new “System of the World” in the early seventeenth century, Siskin wants to imagine an alternative to staying holed-up within our discipline of English literary studies. The current rapid growth of technology produced by science departments, as well as the drop in enrollment and prospective applicants in English departments, calls for a rethinking of the system of the disciplines on which we have relied for so long.

And this moment of “stuckness” is where the class I took with Professor Siskin this semester (entitled “Compatibility”) begins. In the same way Siskin uses an explanation of system as a jumping-off point to address larger issues about our role as English students and knowledge producers, our class used an explanation of Enlightenment thinkers’ feeling of “stuckness” to understand our own moment and posit new ways that we could begin to define just what it is we do as graduate students of English literature. One of the main questions that always arose in our discussion was “knowledge of what?” This question forced us to try to define what type of knowledge we already possess as students of English and “what” is the content of our knowledge. In doing this, we quickly began to see trends of sameness and repetition throughout our knowledge-production and, as a result, grew discontent. We even interviewed graduate students from other disciplines and found that all the other humanities majors—history, political science, art, sociology—felt this same “stuckness” among their discipline. However, when we interviewed students in science and math departments, the opposite was the case; they saw a clear sense of direction when answering the question “knowledge of what?”—cancer research, MS research, the development of faster computers—because all their work was aimed at immediate real-world problems.

Professor Siskin’s idea of “compatibility,” however, attempts to ameliorate our doubts, to make us unstuck. Compatibility, as Siskin sees it, is not, as one might assume, a sense of agreement among the disciplines. It is, rather, the act of occupying other explanations, regardless of which “discipline” holds claim to that explanation, in order to produce new knowledge: better explanations inspire, in turn, other even better explanations. And although this may seem difficult, reading Siskin’s book on system makes it seem less so. Siskin cites a wide range of thinkers, from literary scholars like Francis Bacon, Thomas DeQuincy, and Jacques Derrida to physicists like David Deutsch, Isaac Newton, and Leonard Susskind. There is no limit, or zoning, that Siskin does not break down in his explanation of system. Moreover, if this sounds like “interdisciplinary,” it is emphatically not. To Siskin, interdisciplinarity is just another way of keeping the disciplines intact; to our class, he related interdisciplinarity to reverse bungee-jumping—you shoot up into the air into another discipline for a brief moment only to hit your head at the top and shoot back down to your own comfortable discipline. Siskin writes in his book that “dedisciplinary” might be the better word because it captures the sense of moving away from the structure we have now, leaving open the possibility that even the basic building block of that structure—“discipline”—might itself change.” Changing the disciplines is no easy task and may never happen in our lifetime, but Siskin’s book expresses a desire to restructure our education system so that we can produce knowledge that makes other new knowledge possible instead of knowledge that repeats itself.

The class I took with Professor Siskin enacts the kind of change that he writes about in his book. Because the class was problem-based—how can we redefine and explain our system of education and our knowledge production?—it opened up much more discussion and collective thought than other historical-period based classes I have taken at the graduate level. Instead of silently writing separate thesis projects from our classmates and then never speaking to anyone else about the work we have done, we shared with the class our ideas about how to change the English major and “break through the wall of the disciplines in general to find new ways to produce knowledge.” During these presentations there was more heated debate, explanation, and collective problem-solving than I could have imagined happening in a conventional graduate seminar. Although there were no ready-made answers easily found in our research, we began to pose problems that pointed toward change in much the same way Siskin’s book does: we discussed new approaches to pedagogy; utilizing growing digital technology like quantum computation; expanding our definition of “literature,” in the Baconian sense of the word, to include all learning rather than simply canonical fictional texts; doing away with the reductive method of critique that tries to create problems for their own sake rather than problems that can be solved; and the list could go on. The exciting intellectual conversations we had in Professor Siskin’s problem-based learning environment posited a new way to structure education. Maybe instead of requiring students to rigidly choose a “special historical period of study” and then never leave that period, we could let students choose problem-based areas of study such as “Literature and Ecosystems,” “Literature and Computation, or “Literature and Information.” Professor Siskin’s book introduces a new system of explanatory knowledge that can shake up the stale old systems that, as of now, we continue to comfortably keep. But Proust identified comfort as the death of creativity, and Siskin and Deutsch in turn identify creativity as “the capacity to create new explanations”; and for both Proust and Siskin time is of the essence, time will gnaw away the comfortable knowledge in vogue, so we can eventually create anew. Just give it a little time, and the speculation with which Siskin closes his book will come to pass, or it might even already be a reality: “we may be entering a new chapter in the shaping of knowledge with system in a newly performative role.”