“Cognition in Crisis.” Litro Magazine, May 2016.

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In 1918, Tristan Tzara wrote a fiery manifesto for the Dadaist movement. He set out to “destroy the drawers of the brain, and those of social organization,” and to wage war against the “ridiculous knowledge of life, which they have classified, parcelled out, canalized.” He meant it, too. This is a program for the energy of life in roaring colours and nihilist intensity, and Dadaist anti-art would soon spread over the continent, sweeping, with Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, over to New York. Yet why this preoccupation with knowledge? For Tzara, how we know is not just a matter of defining the truth – it is a political question of power. If our cognition structures the world, or organizes it in “drawers of the brain”, to stay with him for a moment longer, then this also means that anything we hold for true necessarily needs to fit into those categories to be justified.

Yet who defines those drawers, those categories?

According to Tzara, it is social organization and Western philosophy that put a straitjacket on reality by making it dance to preconceived notions of how the world is, and should, be structured. But in many ways, this crisis has not abated; the echo chamber of the Internet also changes the trajectories by which we arrive at what we call knowledge, in the feedback loops which ensure that the biases which inform the questions we type in, also shape the answers we get.

 

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