Nonknowledge (and Why It’s Good in Editors)

LondonmapLondon taxi drivers are required to have “the knowledge,” an almost photographic memory of the city’s topographic intricacies. Editors have something else, and maybe just the  opposite.

What makes a good editor? In particular, a good scholarly editor? Every author of a scholarly book is likely to believe that the project was a success because of the editor’s involvement. “She got it.” “He knows this stuff—and he saw what I was doing.”  “How smart of the editor to recognize my brilliance.” Well, yes, probably. I used to be an editor. I can tell you that besides finding, fixing, and fronting book projects, I was an expert on not-knowing, almost-knowing, guessing, hunching, and leaping.

Let me suggest here that the work of scholarly editing—getting it—isn’t about knowing or about knowledge. It’s what we might think of as nonknowledge.

Nonknowledge doesn’t sound like anything any Lingua Franca reader would want to be associated with. But I submit to the jury of our peers that when we look for the right editor for our work, this is exactly what we’re actively pursuing, and with good reason. We want our editors to have (the right kind of) nonknowledge.

Many acquisitions editors are learned types. A lot have advanced graduate work behind them; many hold doctorates. The editors I know know lots of stuff. (“Lots of stuff” is a technical publishing term I’ve just made up.) But what they’re best at is holding in balance the appetitive faculties, critical distance, and the necessary gap between themselves and the academic specialists who want to become authors.

To be sure, there is something referred to as the sociology of nonknowledge, so this isn’t my neologism or even my original concept. Georges Bataille’s The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge, for example, concerns itself with the French thinker’s ideas of servility and independence (some forms of knowledge acquisition result in the subjection of the self). An interesting take, but that’s not what I mean.

There are doubtless philosophical essays that parse the nuances of ignorance vs. nonknowledge. This blog post isn’t wading into those waters (I may not know much, but I know better than to go there).

I want only to gesture here toward a difference between ignorance (as not knowing about a subject) and nonknowledge, as a state of highly intelligent, nonspecialist engagement. That distanced, nonspecialist attentiveness is a key tool in the portfolio of a successful acquisitions editor at any scholarly publishing house.

Editors know, but they don’t know exactly what you know. They don’t even necessarily know the same way you do. Is this nonknowledge? Maybe we might want to call it epistemological disinterest. (Disinterest, not uninterest.)

But whatever it is, it’s a positive thing, and those of us who write and submit our scholarly work to scholarly publishers know that even if we can’t name whatever kind of knowledge editors have, we depend on it.

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