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Book review: System: The Shaping of Modern Knowledge

Clifford Siskin. 2016. System: The Shaping of Modern Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. [ISBN 978-0-262-03531-6. 318 pages, including index. US$32.00.]

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2017. Book review: System: the Shaping of Modern Knowledge. Technical Communication 64(2):181.

In a world of complex, interacting systems, many of which we technical communicators document, it seems surprising there’s any need to define something as obvious as “system”. But that obviousness means we must step back and carefully rethink what system means and how that meaning shapes our interactions with systems. In System: The Shaping of Modern Knowledge, Clifford Siskin takes us on a voyage from the Enlightenment to today to show how we’ve reached our current modus vivendi with systems. Like any tool for imposing order on the world, system helps us reshape, reorganize, and cope with the world’s knowledge cornucopia.

“Histories can work like camera lenses, capturing an object from different angles” (p. 75). Siskin describes system’s history from a cultural studies perspective. That’s off-putting if you’re unfamiliar with concepts such as genre, disciplinarity, travel, and culture. Beginning with Galileo’s discovery of how Jupiter’s moons revealed (orbital) systems within systems, Bacon’s Novum Organum Scientarum, and Newton’s Principia, Siskin leads us on a merry intellectual romp through the past 500 years, name-checking Adam Smith, Malthus, Wordsworth, Darwin, and Dawkins, among others. These peregrinations don’t always seem coherent or in clear pursuit of what system has become. Nonetheless, Siskin proposes a working definition to frame these explorations: “how knowledge is generalized, shaped, and put to work in the world” (p. 3).

To fully appreciate System requires broad and deep reading in history and literature; it assumes too much prior knowledge for those who, like me, have only read broadly. Providing more explicit context would clarify many nuances I sensed but didn’t fully grasp. Thus, the book will be most interesting to academics (especially workers in the area of cultural studies), but there’s much to interest practitioners. Systems shape thoughts and actions; recognizing their effects lets us ponder how they shape the behaviors, constraints, and possibilities our diverse audiences faceā€”and thus, how best to communicate with them.

Dating the concept of system to the Enlightenment (as Siskin does), based on statistical analysis of a large corpus of text from this era, seems flawed. Systems have constrained and shaped knowledge and thought for millennia; consider, for example, the “memory palace” systems of the classical Greeks and Romans. The Enlightenment taught us we can know the world from the evidence of our senses, not solely from received authority. In that context, “system” helps us assemble evidence into coherent wholes. Grasping something by naming it makes that name a powerful tool, but in this case, Siskin’s focus on etymology may have led him to miss the true origins of system.

Siskin never synthesizes his wanderings. Though he describes the historical oscillation between efforts to build master systems that encompass the world and narrower subsystems (“disciplines”) that focus on the details, he never explicitly states this oscillation’s importance: the progress of knowledge from overview to intense focus and back again is crucial for expanding our understanding and for communicating complexity. System’s Coda is an exuberant “where we go from here” that leads from disciplinarity to “dedisciplinarity” (akin to E. O. Wilson’s “consilience”), and will inspire discussion, but proves unsatisfying in its lack of a final synthesis of where we’ve arrived.


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