The Voyeurization of Knowledge

It could be said today that our society has become inundated with many forms of knowledge. At the mere click of a button, one can access scholarly articles published by Cambridge University, ten thousand miles and an ocean away. Accessibility has become commonplace; in a way, accessibility functions as a necessity for the voyeurization of knowledge. But what do we mean when we say “the voyeurization of knowledge”? In short, the voyeurization of knowledge is to be taken to mean the following:

In the face of commonplace, accessible knowledge (transmitted within a democratic context and being handled by a mostly lazy population), people adopt a certain way of superficially engaging with all knowledge with which they make contact with; this knowledge is engaged with in a noticeably passive manner—knowledge that is mostly voyeurized by a population of “peeping Toms.”

That is, to be quite frank, people engage with knowledge (or call it “information”) in a very limited fashion: they read a brief article (something that usually “tickles” their ears), they dogmatically assert some kind of judgment, feel satisfied with themselves, and move on with life. Instead of actually engaging intimately with a given text, document, or argument, people merely gaze at it “from afar.” Like peeping Toms, they do not actually have intercourse with their victims; they merely stand there gazing. Knowledge is something they passively are attracted to. It’s not so much an attraction as it is a natural drive. Being akin to the sex drive, people have developed a way in which they engage knowledge by adopting a “one-night-stand-mentality”; they use it for a brief moment, engage with it for a split second, and then they leave her heartbroken to fend for herself.

As any good scholar should know, a little bit of knowledge—of any sort—is usually quite dangerous. It is not a conclusion the scholar came to easily; it is a conclusion one reaches after countless nights spent pouring over the pages of an ancient text. It is the “thing” a scholar comes to after learning four different languages just to “get” to it. Our society, in essence, is missing this ability to deeply study and really “know” something. We have voyeurized knowledge. We have become distant lovers. We no longer write her; we no longer remember her mailing address. All we really “know” is which loophole to jump through, which crack in our window to look through, just to get a glimpse of here denuded body. In such a way, I believe, we have actually reduced real knowledge—that intimate kind—to one-night-stands and peeping Toms.

I have already mentioned accessibility as a requirement for such voyeurization to occur. I have also mentioned another curious observation: the presupposed democratic society (a requirement for the flourishing of such voyeurization). Why is it that a democracy helps create this atmosphere? Allow me a few attempts to explain this. In a democracy, people—all people—are expected to participate in politics, economics, religion, healthcare, education, etc. The people are expected to make the decisions. Given these presuppositions, people feel they have a right to know about…everything. They feel they not only have a right to an opinion, they have a need to state their opinion. Not only just any opinion, however, they feel as if their opinion is of utmost importance. In a democracy, the doctor’s opinion on healthcare is just as valuable as the engineer’s (one untrained in the medical sciences). This creates a peculiar situation: you have ignorant people making decisions. But it’s not just the ignorance that is the issue here: what is the issue, in particular, is the fact that everybody has this need to state his or her opinion on everything. This creates this particular ethos, this atmosphere, in which we all live and breathe and suffocate. We find ourselves making decisions about everything. We find ourselves experts on economics after partially speed-reading through a Wikipedia article on capitalism. We find ourselves talking about the next presidential candidate after being force-fed bullshit by the lame stream media. We find ourselves talking incessantly about God—a god none of us, to date, have ever laid empirical eyes upon. Democracy is partially responsible for feeding this frenzy. From the moment one awakes in today’s society to the moment one barely falls asleep, the media keeps pumping information, carefully selected, to its target audience. In this non-stop, leave-no-prisoners-behind age of information dumping, none of us is truly free from becoming an active participant in the voyeurization of knowledge.

On top of all of this, another component is necessary for such voyeurization to occur: laziness. Yes, it is a loaded word, and we’ve all experienced it at one point or another. You were writing a document and you failed to check your sources. In fact, this happened to me today. A famous theologian cited Kierkegaard. The quote would have worked for this writing. I asked the theologian to specify the text from which he gleaned this quote. He gave me the text. I looked and looked: I could not find those line anywhere. I wrote back to the theologian and asked him to point me to a specific volume, edition, and page number. I have not heard from him since. This is precisely the issue: it’s not his fault, really. He was probably tired and cited a nice saying attributed to the now-famous Kierkegaard. But Kierkegaard probably never said it. This places us in a peculiar situation yet again: at which point do we stop doubting and begin trusting others? If we continuously doubt everything—as I do when someone attributes a wonderful saying to a person I read quite often (especially when the saying is one I’ve never read before!)—would we ever get anywhere? Would it be possible to begin writing if one doubts everything? Probably not. But this does not mean we simply resort to being lazy. We do what we can. We investigate, we experiment, we learn, and we grow. That’s what makes us become smarter and better people. (At least I think it does.) One simple way of testing yourself for sexual perversion is simply by asking yourself the following question: how lazy am I? If you are lazy, you’re probably committing the sin of the voyeurization of knowledge.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously concluded his seven basic propositions to his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by writing: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”[1] We have broken the silence. We speak about everything imaginable: politics, economics, science, healthcare, and religion. We even have the audacity to voyeurize God. Given this reality, I will now briefly spend a few sentences dealing with religion, my own field of study.

There is something quite interesting about human nature: our inability to believe nothing. Virtually all of us have reasons for virtually everything we encounter or think. Everything we can possibly imagine is interpreted by us to have some kind of cause. Our inability to be agnostic is peculiar in this day and age. Why is it that we must all have an opinion on everything? Why is it the “norm” to say you have knowledge of x when you really don’t? We are, in brief, a society intolerant of agnostics. Be a theist or an atheist; speak some sort of dogmatic truth, give the world an explanation, but please—oh, I beg thee, please!—don’t be an agnostic. I wish I were the only one who’s noticed this, but in my reading of others, I have found good company.

The sociologist Clifford Geertz, in his wonderful essay Religion as a Cultural System, writes the following observations:

“The thing we seem least able to tolerate is a threat to our powers of conception, a suggestion that our ability to create, grasp, and use symbols may fail us, for were this to happen, we would be more helpless…”[2]

Geertz has noticed something I, too, can vouch for: the world would drive us up the wall if it really made no sense. If there really was no rhyme or reason—no, seriously, consider it for a second—all of this, all of our so-called “explaining,” would become utterly futile. There is something about us that cannot tolerate not knowing. Imagine if someone asked you about vaccines today—what your position is on them—what would you say? What if you were responsible and replied: “I’m not a scientist; I don’t develop vaccines; I’ve hardly passed a math class, much less a statistics class, so I can’t even read or interpret the articles summarizing the issues; I really don’t have an opinion.” Would this be normal? Would this be what an honest person would say? Outside of a voyeurizing culture, this would become the norm.

Geertz cites the philosopher of mind Sussane Langer, at some length, dealing with this issue:

“[Man] can adapt himself somehow to anything his imagination can cope with; but he cannot deal with Chaos. Because his characteristic function and highest asset is conception, his greatest fright is to meet what he cannot construe…”[3]

All of this results in our distaste for “dumb astonishment” in facing the world and its complexities:

“But it does appear to be a fact that at least some men—in all probabilities, most men—are unable to leave unclarified problems of analysis merely unclarified, just to look at the stranger features of the world’s landscape in dumb astonishment or bland apathy without trying to develop, however fantastic, inconsistent, or simple-minded, some notions as to how such features might be reconciled with the more ordinary deliverances of experience.”[4]

And in such a way I have brought my readers to the problem of religion, theology, and God. In religion, as in many other arts and sciences, there are certain lexical terms, theories, philosophical presuppositions, that must be understood before engaging in the enterprise. Most people aren’t trained in the necessary fields, and so fail to contribute anything to the ongoing discussion about God. High and mighty philosophical theologians, like Schleiermacher, will tell you that God is outside of the space-time continuum and, as a necessary implication, is never reduced to our subject-object distinctions. Given this (i.e., that God is outside of our empirical senses), one can never “know” God apart from revelation. Of course, apophatic theologians and negative theologians can make somewhat similar (or, maybe, “related”) statements. In religious studies, we spend a lot of time talking about a Being none of us have ever seen. We do it after reading massive books written by others who have commented upon the writings of others who claim to have personally witnessed this Being. This places religion and theology in an odd situation: we are the educated (at least some of us may be), but we are talking a lot about something none of us have access to. Given this—albeit highly simplistic account of the current state of religious studies—I’d say that most of us should be somewhat agnostic (since we obviously don’t really know what God is like). But God has been prostituted to the public via mass media and other means—everyone is entitled to an opinion on God. As one of my professors once put it, a Barthian specialist and a Kierkegaard-lover himself: “There’s no such thing as no theology; there’s either good theology or bad theology.” In other words, we’ve all voyeurized God. We’ve all become a part of the problem. We’ve all spoken where we shouldn’t have spoken. We’ve all made bombastic comments about a Being most (if not all) have never met, spoken with, or even smelled.

I’ve learned the hard way. And it really is hard. You sit down for a conversation with someone about the problem of evil and God. They seem intelligent and interested. They are educated, too (in some unrelated field). Within a few minutes, you realize that their knowledge of the issues boils down to a few minutes spent on YouTube watching, preferably, videos under three minutes. (How do I know this? People have the audacity to send me three-minute clips arguing their position, which pop up when one searches for x topic on YouTube [they don’t even bother to dig through the search results]. They then assume that I’ll probably be blown away and then convert to their position—since they have now become “specialists.”) If it didn’t happen so often, I probably would stick to reading my books and ignoring people. But it happens all the time. I probably secretly invite it. Nonetheless, this approach towards education seems to lack something fundamental: the engagement with knowledge on an intimate level. And it is out of this frustration with people—and myself!—that I am writing. Can we all just, please, stop talking about things we are too lazy to investigate? No, you don’t need to make a comment about economics—you’ve never read squat! No, you are not entitled to an opinion on medical advances in cardiology—you’re not a cardiologist! I guess I would be called mean in this rational society—a society in which people spoke modestly about what they knew and what they had no idea about.

William James remarked that: “As a rule we believe as much as we can. We would believe everything if we only could.”[5] This is true today as it was a hundred years ago. We are obsessed with believing all kinds of things. We want to know. We want to believe. But in all of this, I beg to differ: some beliefs are just plain bad. Some of this voyeurization has made us numb to the reality of how little we really know. It has made us quite arrogant.

I don’t know much. I don’t know much about God. I don’t know much about economics. I don’t know much about religion. I don’t know much about myself. I still surprise me. At least I have not yet voyeurized me—and that has made all of the difference.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1921), 189.

[2] Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (Waukegan: Fontana Press, 1973), 99.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 100.

[5] William James, The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 2 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1908), 299.

One thought on “The Voyeurization of Knowledge

  1. Amen. I’m as perplexed as you are about so many things…and, unlike you, I’ve almost lived out my expected lifespan. Where I’ve come to, religiously speaking, is to TRUST, to put FAITH into the proposition (and intermittent feeling) that everything is ULTIMATELY OK. Which is not to say that as I look around these days, or read about days gone by, that it LOOKS OK, because it obviously doesn’t and never has. A while back, I wrote a little holiday piece about this on my much-neglected blog, newtonfinn.com,, entitled “The Answer of Christmas.”

    Permit me to quote a bit of Schweitzer that seems to echo your observations about religious thought. Speaking of that form of mysticism which seeks union with some sort of abstract “Being” itself, Schweitzer asserts that “it is only through the manifestations of Being, and only through those with which I enter into relations, that my being has any intercourse with infinite Being. …Only an infinitely small part of infinite Being comes within my range. The rest passes me by, like distant ships to which I make signals they do not understand. But by devoting myself to that which comes within my sphere of influence and needs me, I make spiritual, inward devotion to infinite Being a reality and thereby give my own poor existence meaning and richness. The river has found its sea..”

    “An inward relation to the world…fills me with reverence for the mysterious will-to-live which is in all things. By making me think and wonder, it leads me ever upwards to the heights of reverence for life. There it lets my hand go. It cannot accompany me further. …The world is a ghastly drama of will-to-live divided against itself. One existence makes its way at the cost of another. …It remains a painful enigma for me that I must live with reverence for life in a world which is dominated by creative will which is also destructive will, and destructive will which is also creative.” Reverence for life, therefore, “does not build up for itself a complete philosophy, but resigns itself to the necessity of leaving its cathedral unfinished. It finishes the chancel only, but in this chancel piety celebrates a living and never-ceasing divine service.”

    This post you have made is richly multi-layered. When time permits, I’d like to comment a little more on your thoughts about what has become the promiscuity of knowledge in general; more specifically, one’s existential relationship to knowledge, objectivity vs. subjectivity, and Kierkegaard’s audacious assertion that subjectivity is truth, truth is subjectivity.

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