How actions make knowledge.

8/4/20234 min read


Information in itself is neutral; it contains no direct actions. Yet obviously, information can become charged with significance depending on the context and the resonance it has with its users. Information is thus also affective. A piece of paper with some lines of text can contain information that has no effect on any chronology for a long time if it is not disclosed to anyone. Yet it may instantly assume great importance once it is read, and may then initiate an unpredictable chain of effects. The animation of this previously ‘dormant’ state of actualisation is linear; once the genie is out of the bottle, there is no way back.Here is a form of a system of (human/human and human/matter) interaction and signal the role information plays in this, a two-step mechanism of interaction: moment A precedes moment B and the (non-) action at moment A has a (potential) causal effect on the (non-) action at moment B. Both moments allow for the choice to (dis)engage actively or passively. We can thus distinguish a semiotic square:

- active-active, meaning: I act in order to (be able to) act.

- passive-passive, meaning: I non-act in order to (be able to) non-act.

- active-passive, meaning: I act to (be able to) non-act.

- passive-active, meaning: I non-act to (be able to) act.

The first two ‘classes’ in this square are simple to comprehend. For example, active-active might be: ‘I need to speak to you (B), therefore I come and see you (A)’. Action B is desired, action A enables B to be enacted, both actions are taken: the goal is achieved.

An example of the passive-passive state might be: ‘I don’t want to do that task (B), so I don’t raise my hand to offer (A).The desired consequences are achieved without an action. Here again, the system remains simple. It becomes more interesting if we look at the two intermixed stages.


A clear case of the active-passive model would be one in which the impression is given that someone or something is taking control in or over a certain situation, but in fact does not act as anticipated. This may be done deliberately, for instance by creating a false sense of security by assembling a weak instrument of protection, such as a hastily constructed and unsafe balustrade around an open podium, merely to satisfy (formal) requirements. Or by offering a type of insurance policy that has so many clauses and iterations of conditions that it actually covers only a (small) part of what is meant to be insured.

Another form of disruption can result from the scheme: position A enables action B with result C, whereby any attempt to act in a truly positive and productive way is blocked by taking the conditional position, thus preventing anyone or anything else (more capable or well-meaning) to act or react. If the intention is to obstruct result C from taking a specific path, then one could take position A to prevent action B from occurring. Even if a conflict ensues over non-action B, this is considered less important than the prevention of result C. A simple illustration of this could be the following: I don’t like opera but my friend does. I propose to get the tickets, thus taking control over this process and blocking any possibility for him to act (position A). I deliberately don’t buy the tickets (action B), so we don’t go to the opera (result C). I could even lie and say the tickets were sold out (lie of the first order), but choose to say that I simply forgot (lie of the second order), without even attempting to evade confrontation (the lie of the first order assumes responsibility for the outcome, the lie of the second order does not). I would prefer the stigma of being forgetful or inattentive than having to go through the agony of the opera experience.

A more alarming effect of this type of information-sabotage is the tendency of large corporations to acknowledge certain negative effects of their production or trade (such as the link between obesity and certain food products, or an excessive consumption of finite energy sources) by taking initiatives to prevent these effects. Most often these issues are brought to the table by objectors (such as environmental activist groups) who influence public opinion to the point where action becomes inevitable. By taking control of the situation, the corporation diverts the unwanted attention; and by removing these issues from the public agenda, the actions it undertakes are not really questioned. In many cases the cause would have been better helped if the situation had remained controversial. Greenwashing, Wokewashing, Equitywashing, Genderwashing.

The active-passive scheme is not limited to practices of malintent. There are many potential situations in which someone or something chooses, or is invited or compelled to take position A, despite their (obvious) unlikelihood of successfully performing Action B and thus achieving result C. Take the situation where someone is needed to congratulate a co-worker on her twenty-fifth anniversary with the firm. The task is assigned to the manager, regardless of his or her poor public speaking skills, simply because s/he is the official representative of the firm. Evidently this system is different from the modus ponendo ponens or the modus tollendo tollens, but it has clear kinship with the counterfactual conditional.[i] For this to apply, the counterfactual argument has to be rooted in the relation between B and A under condition C: if you were a competent manager (which you are not), you would have been rightfully appointed to deliver a good speech (which you haven’t). In this case, as a result of false assumptions or pretences, the result is contingent on the attributes of the actor before s/he entered the equation. This situation can be juxtaposed to the indicative conditional, which indicates what is, in fact, the causality when the assumptions are true (if you are a competent manager, you can deliver a good speech).

John Margolies, photographer. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, no known copyright restrictions.

Title: Stafford TV Service, 22nd Street and Pearl, Jacksonville, Florida, 1979

[i] Modus ponendo ponens: A implies B: A is asserted to be true therefore B must be true. Modus tollendo tollens: The way that denies by denying. The counterfactual conditional is also known as the subjunctive conditional or the remote conditional.