May 26, 2021
PROMPT 14: Does some knowledge belong only to particular communities of knowers?
Object 1: Rain stick made by me in a class in 2010
I made this rain stick in music class in 2010 with a carton tube and paint. It is copied from another culture believed to be from the deserts of Chile, sacred objects traditionally made with materials such as bamboo.
I was taught about the origins of a rain stick, including its uses in certain tribes to summon rain for their crops by mimicking its sound. This is an interesting object for the exhibition as I was taught by a white person, who did not truly understand its significance as he did not belong to that culture. Even though we learnt of its material significance, neither he nor us was able fully to grasp its significance for indigenous societies. If an insider to the culture had made the instrument, they would have built a sense of belonging with it, unlike me, because this can’t be achieved merely by being textually knowledgeable.
It can be said that the knowledge of rain sticks only truly belongs to those indigenous communities who use it as part of their culture, and that we will not truly ever have the knowledge that they have gained first-hand. It could, however, be argued that an outsider could have objectively more knowledge than an insider through extensive research, and that this knowledge is as important understanding the custom.
Humans often learn about cultures that they do not belong to, which is typically inevitable as we cannot belong to every community (i.e., religion). It becomes a problem when sacred objects such as the rain stick are used by people who do not belong to the culture as aesthetic, because they do not understand its significance. The rain stick contributes to this exhibition to show people often appropriate aspects of a culture without truly knowing it, and without drawing a line between appropriation and appreciation.
Object 2: A poem translated from Italian to English using google translator feature
Trilussa’s poem ‘Romanità’ is about what it means to be Roman and the preservation of Italian traditional culture. Beside the poem, there is a Chrome website translation of it (2021). One may argue that knowledge is accessible to everyone in spite of their language as Chrome translations allow people to translate any webpage into another language.
This object is interesting as it shows that these translations do not always work especially in literature where certain sayings are hard to translate. For example, the phonetics of the language play a crucial part in creating the meaning of a literary piece. Already, the poetic nature of this literary piece is lost, as rhyme does not translate, which impacts the way it is read. Moreover, some words cannot be translated into another language, such as ‘je’ or ‘gnente’; this is because the poem is written in a dialect which includes variations of the Italian language. It can be argued that all the Chrome translator needs to do is translate a text so that its content is understood, therefore rhythm and other literary devices are not needed.
Nevertheless, in many sectors incorrect translations could be perilous such as in medicine where a poorly translated diagnosis could be deadly for the patient. If an online translator is able to translate potentially ground-breaking medical information, it could aid patients throughout the world. Without this translation, the information would not be available therefore putting people’s lives at risk.
We can therefore argue that some knowledge such as poems belongs to particular communities of knowers; even though we have online translators to help us grasp their meanings, their peculiarities cannot be fully captured in a different language. Hence, the knowledge of this poem’s meaning belongs mainly to people who speak the Roman dialect.
Object 3: “I know why the caged bird sings” by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou’s book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which I read in my English Literature class, is an autobiographical coming-of-age story of a young black girl overcoming racism and trauma.
One of the main themes is racism against black communities, therefore it follows that the black girls in my class had a different experience reading it as I did. The object enriches the exhibition because it could be seen how each student interpreted the book differently, and despite there being a shared knowledge of racist attacks, each individual could understand these situations to different extents. While I can empathise with the black community and understand Maya when she is the victim of racism or witnesses lynchings, but I cannot fully understood her feelings that came with this treatment merely from reading the book. On the other hand, the black girls in my class could debate with absolute clarity of these events, taking into consideration the true feelings of the characters in the book as if they were the ones who had been in it, as some of them may have had their families experiencing it.
Some may claim that having knowledge which is generated within the individual from reading textbooks is important just as much as the knowledge of the community, however, it is not enough to know dates and names but also to be able to understand the feelings that complement these occasions. The book can provide textual knowledge but never experiential knowledge.
The question is where the line lies between knowledge and understanding, and to what extent outsiders who do not belong to particular communities can know the experiences that an insider would have. I believe that this is important as people will sometimes believe they have the knowledge of things that only particular communities have undergone when this is not the case. Knowledge only truly belongs the communities that are involved and therefore we can only call ourselves truly knowledgeable about certain topics when we have had a part in those experiences.
Poesie D’Autore, Romanità di Trilussa. N.D. https://www.poesiedautore.it/trilussa/romanita Poesie D’Autore, Romanità di Trilussa. N.D. (Google translator feature) https://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=it&u=https://www.poesiedautore.it/trilussa/r omanita&prev=search&pto=aue