A Brief History of Unknowing Part I: Hanswilhelm Haefs’ “Manual of Useless Knowledge”

When I was a teenager I owned a paperback by Hanswilhelm Haefs entitled Handbuch des Nutzlosen Wissens, or Manual of Useless Knowledge, a book that often led to a lighthearted debate with my father who questioned its purpose and my persisting interest in it. Why, for instance, did I need to know that fifty percent of all pianos are out of tune, that crickets listen with their knees or that men fall out of bed more often than women [1]? Moreover, the book was heavily criticised: its readers found many of Haefs’ “facts” to be incomplete, or simply inaccurate. One reader accused the author of imparting “gefährliches Halbwissen”: dangerous, superficial knowledge. Looking back, I could never quite put my finger on what it was that fascinated about Haefs’ bizarre compendium. I was certainly interested in my father’s attitude towards the book, which went beyond mere disinterest: he seemed to actively resist it. While I certainly disagreed with his idea that some things are not “worth” knowing or thinking about I found it equally intriguing, as it meant that there was other “knowledge” worth thinking about, “useful” knowledge. What was it? Who had thought about, or of it? Finally, who had decided if and where this knowledge would be included?

Still, it would be years until these thoughts would take shape in my mind; initially, Haefs’ fantastical collection simply provided me with a space in which to be left wondering, suspended somewhere between thinking and knowing. I did not blindly accept the book, nor did I discount it. Rather, I read it, word for word, and allowed my mind to “play along”: images, ideas and narratives emerged between each “fact”, dissipating at the same rate they appeared. I now believe those disappointed by Haefs’ falsities simply misunderstood his project, and that it was always the author’s intention to question the very idea of knowledge—what it actually means to “know”—and whether there are different kind of “knowing”. Indeed, Haefs’ seemingly scientific fact that blood is only slightly thicker than water [2] invokes, perhaps even challenges the well-known proverb. The author’s notion that a dark grey mood suits dark grey weather [3] is even more problematic: while it is completely subjective this statement is undeniably, universally acceptable in what it expresses; this “fact” cannot be disputed. Once again, we are left somewhere in between what we think and what we know and it is this space that I have become increasingly interested in.

The question is, what happens in the precise moment we read Haefs’ ambiguous comments? A subjective thought that interrupts a hitherto educational experience or exercise, a fragmented yet continual factual narrative; we suddenly experience a rupture, an epistemological break that leads to the construction of another narrative, a separate thinking event. It can be compared to reading a piece of fiction where the in which the author suddenly addresses the reader: where were we just seconds ago and where do we find ourselves now? Most importantly, what lies between these two “states”? How can we define this seemingly impossible, immeasurable gap? Put simply: what happens when we do not know? I want to argue that this experience goes beyond the epistemological, that “not-knowing” is at the very core of our being. This is precisely the effect Haefs’ book has on its readers, it reaches beyond the part of us that “knows” and, for a brief moment, questions or stirs the part that simply “is”. Indeed, the reader accusing Haefs of sciolism appeared to feel so threatened in his values, of what knowledge he considered “important” and “useful”, that he deemed Haefs collection a danger to those who might read, and believe the facts within. Is it possible that this man’s anger was directed at himself, for putting his trust in Haefs, and for hoping to learn something from his book? Perhaps I am giving the author far too much credit, however, the fact that I am still thinking about his book after all these years illustrates precisely the point I intend to make. In some cases, the experience of “not-knowing” might frighten someone, move them to compose a short review and move on with their lives; others, however, might embrace this uncertainty, use it and produce something new.

One of the aims of this blog is to explore the creative space residing in this space of indeterminacy, by tracing the experience of “not-knowing” through a series of writings from the fields of philosophy, aesthetic and critical theory.

[1] Hanswilhelm Haefs, Handbuch des Nutzlosen Wissens, (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH & Co. KG, 1989)
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
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