Exploring feminist epistemologies with Cloud Atlas

Exploring the concepts of INTEG 221 with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas 15APR13
INTEG 221Katie Plaisance

By: Geoffrey Evamy Hill
This term, I read the novel Cloud Atlas by the British science fiction writer David Mitchell. Though it was certainly an informal learning source, I found much of a connection between Cloud Atlas and what I was learning in INTEG 221: The Social Nature of Knowledge. Reading Cloud Atlas enriched my understanding of the concepts
discussed in INTEG 221 and helped motivate a deeper engagement with the course material. I believe that there is a strong, non-trivial connection between the content of this novel and the knowledge integration core course and that reading it could be valuable for other students. In this essay I will summarize the novel and the course, discuss the main connections between course topics and the novel, and then briefly discuss implementation options for using the novel in the course. I will recommend using Cloud Atlas as an optional or required course reading.

INTEG 221: The Social Nature of Knowledge (221) discusses the modern approaches to epistemology, the study of knowledge, in three different segments. The focus of the first third of the course is on feminist epistemology, or how the features like gender and ethnicity of a person play a part in what they can know. The second third of the course focuses on three guest speakers, one from history, English and social psychology, and their approaches to their disciplines and the nature of knowledge. The last third of the course focuses on social epistemology, or how knowledge comes to be formed in groups. 221 is focused on the “diverse ways of knowing” and how knowledge is not individualistic, but in fact distributed. (Plaisance) The course provides philosophical theory to back up many beliefs that students relate to or find to be common sense. INTEG 221 influences students’ thoughts about how people and experts interact with disparities in knowledge and standpoint. It makes students question, identify and evaluate how knowledge systems are organized, and why different interactions reoccur. The nature of power relations, or how dominant and marginalized groups interact, is core to these discussions about the nature of knowledge. (Plaisance, 10JAN13)

Cloud Atlas is a novel about the recurrence of human interactions and power relations across time. Published in 2004 and since adapted into a motion picture, Cloud Atlas is acclaimed for its complexity, philosophical sensibilities and unique premise. The novel tells six different stories set in different time periods, places and genres, weaving them together thematically to tell an overarching story about human nature. It begins with the journal of an American lawyer, Adam Ewing, crossing the South Pacific in the mid-nineteenth century. Ewing experiences the horrors of colonialism first hand, inadvertently becomes the saviour of a slave, and is in the process of being conned by a quack doctor for his fortune when the journal is interjected by a series of letters. These letters are a one-way correspondence between a brilliant young English musician named Robert Frobisher and his male lover. Frobisher is living in Belgium having convinced an aging and sickly old English composer to let him be his assistant. These letters cut off in a similar way and next begins a 1970s-style detective story of Luisa Del Ray in California, a journalist attempting to out a case of corporate corruption. This story is paused with a cliffhanger, and is succeeded with the story of a modern English publisher, Timothy Cavendish, wrongly interred in a ghastly old age home. This is followed the first story segment of a clone slave, Sonmi-451, in a dystopian, corporate controlled futuristic Korea breaking free from her position in an underground fast food parlour. The middle story is of a tribesman, Zachry, retelling his experiences as young man in one of the last civilized and peaceful tribes in a post apocalyptic Hawaii overrun by savages long after the fall of civilization. After this point, the prior stories are completed from the point they were interrupted, starting with Sonmi and ending with Ewing.

The novel takes the form of a nested operation, which is the key mechanism in its theme of recurrence. The different stories are all interrelated; Frobisher reads the journal of Ewing, Del Ray listens to the music of Frobisher, Cavendish reads the manuscript of the Del Ray detective novel, Sonmi-451 is inspired by movie about Cavendish’s experience of being oppressed in an old age home, and Zachry and his tribe worship Sonmi as a god. One of the implications of this is that the characters from the different stories are reincarnations of each other and that there actions ripple across time to affect each other. By juxtaposing these many stories of asymmetric power, a powerful statement is made about the timeless and universal reoccurrence of groups
of people projecting power over others.

In my summaries of both the novel and the course, I have identified the idea of

power relations to be central to both. This basis of similarity gives rise to many other features of the book that lend support to the topics discussed in 221. To highlight the connection between Cloud Atlas and 221, I will discuss the main parallels between course lecture topics and examples from the novel.

Feminist Epistemologies

Situated Knowledge is the idea that knowledge is embodied from a specific perspective borne by gender, race and social class, and that the knowledge any individual holds is unique. (Plaisance, 10JAN13) In Cloud Atlas this is exemplified through the direct approach to storytelling, how each story is told from a specific characters vantage point, and often their perspectives are incomplete. For example, the Sonmi-451 story is told as her pre-execution testimony to her captors where her “version of the truth” is being interrogated. She reflects on how her perspective and knowledge of the world has evolved from being virtually non-existent when isolated as a cloned slave in an underground restaurant, to becoming expansive and empowered with her newfound freedom and exposure to the dominant class.

Standpoint Theory is an expansion of situated knowledge, and discusses epistemic advantages to certain types of situated knowledge. It’s the idea that marginalized groups can hold the knowledge of the dominant group because the marginalized live immersed in the dominant society, where the dominant groups feign ignorance towards the realities or humanity of the marginalized in order to stay in power. (Plaisance, 24JAN13) In Cloud Atlas, there is a general theme of characters in one group becoming aware of another standpoint or using their marginalized standpoint to their advantage. Adam Ewing is originally a member of the dominant standpoint of his day that accepts slavery and colonialism as a natural order. But he becomes a proponent of the abolitionist cause over the course of his voyage because of his friendship with a slave and his firsthand experience in seeing the horrors of
colonialism. It is interesting too how Luisa Del Rey is a Latino female in 1970s California who is able to take down a corporation run by white males. It makes one consider if certain outsider standpoints are necessary for one to challenge the status quo.

Epistemology of Ignorance looks at the idea that it is as important to understand lack of knowledge, willful or otherwise, as much as knowledge itself. Dominant groups use ignorance to maintain control over a situation that can be morally unsettling if fully considered (Plaisance, 24JAN13). Vivyan Ayrs, the composer to which

Robert Frobisher is an assistant to, remains willfully ignorant of Robert’s shady
history, his affair with Ayrs’ wife and theft of books from the Chateau. This gives Robert the illusion of power and keeps him as a willing assistant. As soon as Robert quits the post, Ayrs uses the information he was formerly willfully ignorant about against Robert. The clones of Somni-451’s time are forced to be ignorant of the outside world in order to stay obedient and of the fact that their food is made of recycled clones. The society keeps them ignorant so that the clones remain under tight control.

The idea of Objectivity in the context of feminist empiricism is that there is no single objective truth to be uncovered, but that a diversity of perspectives
aggregating can find a robust subjective truth that challenges background assumptions (Plaisance, 24JAN13). Cloud Atlas examines this by presenting the themes of the book with six sub-stories written in different styles and different genres. Even though each of these stories presents the different variations of the themes, they converge on key ideas that can be understood holistically. The diversity of perspectives of each of the stories converges to give more depth to the overarching themes.

The idea that Language is a way of knowing and shapes standpoint wasdiscussed in 221 through reading Telling her own Truth by Nancy McHugh. Languageand how it shapes thought is a major theme in Cloud Atlas, each of the stories is writtenin a particular type of English related to the time and location of the characters. Themost striking contrast is between the English written by Ewing and Frobisher, a typeof indirect and elegant English used by the upper class, and the English spoken bySomni-451 that is direct and limited, reflecting the thought limitations imposed onthose in authoritarian societies. This can also be compared to the English spoken by Zachry, highly simplified but very active. The juxtaposition of the passive and activevoice, the flourishes or simplicity, and the nouns or verbs used to describe the worldby the characters encourages thought around how language shapes how we thinkabout the world around us.


Social Disciplines Epistemologies

One interesting question about the Epistemology of Women’s History is if practitioners of this discipline need to be part of the marginalized group they study in order to make valuable contributions to the field (Mitchinson). In Cloud Atlas, both Adam Ewing’s conversion to the abolitionist cause in his time period and Sonmi-451’s

assumption of an abolitionist cause for her own group in her time period raise this question. These two instances give examples of how insiders and outsiders might come to understand or embody a particular standpoint and contribute to the support of that standpoint.

In the English topic of the nature of disability, the idea of temporary ability is discussed. This is the idea that ability is a period of time that ends when we eventually become disabled through age or accident. (Dolmage) Therefore, disability is a constructed phenomenon, where outliers don’t fit in a world designed for a certain
idea of normal. This is a major theme in the Timothy Cavendish story. It is lamented that age means disability, the elderly are stored away in old age homes as to not remind the rest of society of their mortality. (Tait) When people no longer are considered to fit in with societies idea of ability, they are ignored and disenfranchised, relating heavily to disability studies content.

In Social Psychology the idea that theories on interpersonal, intergroup interactions are situated in particular times and places and cannot be generalized is discussed (Bergsieker). In Cloud Atlas, there is a theme of societies setting up structures of distinctions between groups, and these structures are prone to breaking down or reorganizing as societies change. The types of intergroup interactions are all different: in futuristic Korea are determined by the distinction of consumer versus fabricants, in Ewing’s time it is white men versus non-whites, in Frobisher’s time the elderly are masters over the young, in Cavendish’s time the young are masters over the elderly and in Zachry’s time interactions are governed by savagery versus civility. The dynamics of how these groups interact with each other is very much driven by their context, which raises the question of whether objective patterns in human behavior can be identified through time. Can overarching theories about power interactions across time and space be made?
Social Epistemology

The connection to Social Epistemology is not as apparent, and it is evident that the novel is most useful for dealing with the topics of the beginning of the course. Nonetheless, testimony is dealt with in an interesting way. As each of the stories is either a direct account by the characters or written as a type of media, The nature of testimony is at the forefront. Can a speaker be trusted by default, or must we find more evidence to validate the perspective? (Plaisance, 14MAR13) Because each of the stories are a personal testimony, how they refer back to each other raises the question of the reliability of the narrator and the ability for perception to change things over time. This initially becomes apparent when Frobisher, after reading his journal, points out the naïveté of Ewing’s trust the doctor who is conning him. The interaction of the characters with each other’s stories makes the reader critical of the quality of testimony of each character in their description of events.

It is evident that there are many connections between Cloud Atlas and the
course topics of INTEG 221. There are obvious synergies that can help to enrich one’s experience in the course and one’s reading of the novel, and many more connections can be made above the ones I have mentioned here. In this way, it may be useful to include this book as a reading for either before the course or as an optional reading to be done during the course. This would give students another framework and common ground for discussing course concepts. The novel could be assigned for a reading over Christmas break, with guiding questions to prime students for INTEG 221. Hypothetically, the course could be redesigned around Cloud Atlas to discuss the philosophical topics in its context. The drawbacks to this extreme idea, and to the book’s use in this course in general, is that it does not map particularly well onto the topics of social epistemology and collaboration at the end of the course.

As well, there is a question of the effectiveness of using a mainstream, though sophisticated, novel to discuss academic philosophical concepts. The weakness of the novel not being written by an academic is strength, including non-academic perspectives could be seen as a hallmark of KI. It could be a distraction from course goals, a novel to discuss philosophical concepts demands a fairly good understanding of skills of criticism used in the English discipline. It could be difficult to engage with a novel in a philosophical context to a great degree of depth without a good understanding of critical techniques. There would not be enough time to add these skills to the course outcomes alongside the emphasis on philosophical skills. I therefore see the best option to be recommending the novel to students as an optional pairing with the course to enhance engagement, providing the option for students to read alongside the first half of the course. There is no question that Cloud Atlas can demonstrate many of the core concepts of 221, the main concern would be the additional time required for students to review the book.


The Knowledge Integration program at the University of Waterloo emphasizes the unique skill of making unexpected connections between seemingly disparate domains. Students are encouraged to gain exposure to a large variety of topics through different mediums, internalize these experiences and actively synthesize insights gained to make the learning process yield outcomes more than the sum of their parts. That the informal Cloud Atlas was able to enhance my learning in the formal INTEG 221 speaks to the range of possibilities of pairing different disciplines to broaden and deepen knowledge for other students. As demonstrated through the range of connections between this novel and course, Cloud Atlas can definitely be used as a teaching tool for uniquely conveying the key concepts of feminist and social epistemologies in INTEG 221.

Word Count: 2618 Works Cited

Bergsieker, Hilary. “Nature of Knowledge in Social Psychology.” INTEG 221. University of Waterloo. 07 Mar. 2013. Lecture.

Dolmage, Jay. “English and Disability Studies.” INTEG 221. University of Waterloo. 12 Feb. 2013. Lecture.

McHugh, Nancy. “Telling Her Own Truth.” (1984): n. pag. PDF.
Mitchell, David. Cloud Atlas: A Novel. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2004. Print.

Mitchinson, Wendy. “Nature of Knowledge in History.” INTEG 221. University of Waterloo. 31 Jan. 2013. Lecture.

Plaisance, Kathryn. “INTEG 221: On the Nature of Social Knowledge Syllabus.” University of Waterloo, 2013. Online.

Plaisance, Kathryn. “Feminist Epistemology.” INTEG 221. University of Waterloo. 10 Jan. 2013. Lecture.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ “Feminist Theories of Objectivity” INTEG 221. University of Waterloo. 24 Jan. 2013. Lecture.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ “Social Epistemology Overview” INTEG 221. University of Waterloo. 14 Mar. 2013. Lecture.

Tait, Theo. “From Victorian Travelogue to Airport Thriller.” Rev. of Cloud Atlas. n.d.: n.

pag. Books. The Telegraph, 01 Mar. 2004. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3613044/From­Victorian­travelogue­to­airport­thriller.h tml>.