Ceasing to Know

This past week we lost two prominent scholars. We lost two vastly intelligent, innovative, field-changing teachers, mentors and researchers. And most importantly, we lost two among many, many more great people who also died this week. I’m talking about Saba Mahmood and Stephen Hawking.

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Photo by _ HealthyMond on Unsplash

I remember reading The Politics of Piety, Dr. Mahmood’s first book, in college and finding it really difficult to understand. It was my own immaturity that caused this. When I read the book again as a graduate student, I began to realize how groundbreaking it was to study Muslim women in a way that didn’t pity them or espouse suspicion. Unfortunately, that was not the norm. Dr. Mahmood cast Muslim women with agency and showed us why we should pay attention.

Dr. Hawking’s research eludes me, but as a brilliant scientist who also worked the majority of his life with a rare disease that affected his physical being in the world, I have always admired his passion too. He talked about change as inevitable and necessary for us to use our intelligence. That speaks so well to a choice we have every day, to see the world as hopeless or to recognize injustice, but act as if we can change it.

What happens when a legacy of knowledge ceases? This happens every day, perhaps every minute- by living just a moment in the world, some kind of experience shapes a person, and yet every person ends. Even when people leave communities or change roles, a chain of knowing falls away.
These two experts spent their lives both accessing and creating knowledge. Their jobs required certain tasks: writing, experimenting, researching, communicating that research. But the internalization of ideas and beliefs, even when explained through in writing or other forms of communicating, vanished when they died. This isn’t just true for academics. My question is really about how we keep the chain linked, even if the wire is cut.
In the academy, I am learning that scholarship is a way to alleviate anxiety around finitude. Don’t we all worry, in some way, that the hardest part about our non-existence is the non-existence piece? Not just physically, but in terms of memory, legacy, influence. We write to communicate beyond bounds of time. Sometimes this makes us hesitant to challenge memory- what someone put into the world should remain until it no longer serves us. But memory isn’t lost when we no longer invoke someone’s work directly- the endless chain of ideas and evolution means existence is still possible.
Part of this question lessens my own tension around producing work that will cease to serve purpose. Perhaps it is helpful to replace “cease” with “assist,” so voices of influence change. As the poet Gary Snyder says, “Our job is to move the world one millionth of an inch.” In the scheme of things, that sounds like a pretty good accomplishment.
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