#BreakingNews: Notes Toward a Theory of K(now)ing

Pay attention to these words: what we know.

They appear in variations: here’s what we know; here’s what we know so far; what we know and what we don’t; what we know at 10:00 EST.

The important thing seems  to be the now of the knowing and the now of the not knowing.

Brussels, Belgium, has been bombed and people are dead. That’s what we know; it is what we k(now).

In his published lecture “On Television,” sociologist Pierre Bourdieu refers to a type of “structural amnesia” inherent in the field of journalism, a sort of “day-to-day thinking” that makes the new automatically important. Breaking. Twenty years later, Twitter is the landscape of a parallel phenomenon: minute-to-minute k(now)ing.

Bourdieu writes that this vision is both dehistoricized and dehistoricizing: it moves outside of any relevant timeline, existing in its hashtag-ness (#Brussels) not merely as a signifier for the very real event in Belgium, but as a signifier of itself as a hashtag, as a piece of online phenomena inviting an online action: like, retweet, reply. This vision is both fragmented and fragmenting: not only outside of historical relevance, these k(now)ing tweets float atomized and scattered and untethered, retweeted and replicated with messages ranging from momentary prayer:

to mere repetition:

to redirection:

All these  not-quite-random samplings are as valid as any other utterance, all of them free-floating, all of them amnesiac and amnesiating (that is, willingly forgetful of any trace of their origin, structurally free of serious consequence), all of them continually k(now)ing.

K(now)ing is simultaneously knowing and not knowing, with a time stamp (right now, right then). K(now)edge is therefore always replacing itself with new k(now)ledge; but the original is always effectively absent by the time that happens, a paradox of Twitter’s design, which both archives its users’ tweets and nearly instantaneously forgets them.

Some of these tweets, what we may call radically k(now)ing utterances (?), seem to be(come) aware of their place/placelessness within this minute-to-minute flow, and offer critique of the k(now)ledge in which they cannot help but participate.

What do Twitter news media know about the #BrusselsAttack, right now? What does k(now)ing do? At least the following:

K(now)ing is rhetorical; it establishes currency (I mean that in the temporal as well as capitalistic sense) with its audience as part of the greater flow of k(now)ledge using both formal and linguistic conventions:

WaPost appeals from authority (knowledge) to ostensibly aid in interpretation.
The use of diagrams and maps always establishes a position of authority by implying an all-seeing knowledge.

K(now)ing is thus performative; it frames the k(now)er within the terms of a social part to be played and positions its k(now)er among other k(now)ers:

The BBC performs its role as a k(now)er of legal imperatives: keep your eyes peeled for this man!
Fox News performs the same para-legal role, with added interpretive gestures.
NPR performs a role of advocate for the reader: we, the news, are following the news so that you don’t miss anything.

K(now)ing is also therefore competitive and reactive; it is always HTing and RTing, but in doing so does not necessarily join itself to a source, but rather snaps a portion of it off as a twig, and carries the fragment along, at once appropriating and denying any relationship:

A retweet k(now)ing the very same information it’s retweeting.
The NYT retweets a correspondent’s tweet quoting a New York officer referencing an event in Brussels.

What, then, does k(now)ledge actually know besides itself? Can k(now)ledge really know anything about the Brussels attacks?

I don’t mean to criticize social media as such, nor Twitter itself, without which we’d still have the dynamic stream of k(now)ledge. But if a critique does come to mind (and it does), it is of the real knowledge that k(now)ledge pretends to claim.

K(now)ing seems to stop at a certain point in the news cycle. As Bourdieu says of TV coverage, it would seem that k(now)ing is uninterested in the sort of subtle unfolding of events that remains “unperceived and imperceptible in the moment, revealing their effects only in the long term,” that is, most events. At such a point that these unfoldings become visible, after a certain amount of time, after, inevitably, a long process of iterative reporting, claims, counterclaims, corrections, press conferences, k(now)ledge gives way to a less anxious knowledge that often feels the need at some point to recap in some way, what brought us here. A need to set some record straight. But of course, k(now)ing doesn’t stop. It can’t stop. And that, so far, is what I know.

(Note: All tweets either embedded or pictured above were taken March 22, 2016, at various times between 11:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. EST.)



I came across this tweet the morning following the Brussels attacks, which seems to capitalize on the k(now)ledge of yesterday to further rhetorize itself, implying not only that the news k(nows), but that you too ought to k(now):


And so we have the introduction of a new phrase in the flow, a fallout, a normative form of k(now)ing(?): need to know.

Interestingly, this tweet, only a few hours older than the of-the-moment tweets above, is already attempting to summarize, to invoke the stable hindsight knowledge I mention in the last paragraph.


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