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Promiscuous Knowledge

Information, Image, and Other Truth Games in History

Sergey Brin, a cofounder of Google, once compared the perfect search engine to “the mind of God.” As the modern face of promiscuous knowledge, however, Google’s divine omniscience traffics in news, maps, weather, and porn indifferently. This book, begun by the late Kenneth Cmiel and completed by his close friend John Durham Peters, provides a genealogy of the information age from its early origins up to the reign of Google. It examines how we think about fact, image, and knowledge, centering on the different ways that claims of truth are complicated when they pass to a larger public. To explore these ideas, Cmiel and Peters focus on three main periods—the late nineteenth century, 1925 to 1945, and 1975 to 2000, with constant reference to the present. Cmiel’s original text examines the growing gulf between politics and aesthetics in postmodern architecture, the distancing of images from everyday life in magical realist cinema, the waning support for national betterment through taxation, and the inability of a single presentational strategy to contain the social whole. Peters brings Cmiel’s study into the present moment, providing the backstory to current controversies about the slipperiness of facts in a digital age.  A hybrid work from two innovative thinkers, Promiscuous Knowledge enlightens our understanding of the internet and the profuse visual culture of our time.

336 pages | 28 halftones, 2 line drawings, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2020

Art: Photography

Culture Studies

History: American History, History of Ideas

Rhetoric and Communication


“With a clear voice and careful evidence, Promiscuous Knowledge offers fascinating glimpses into important people and practices from across the centuries. This book is a cornucopia.”

Fred Turner, Stanford University

Promiscuous Knowledge is an accessible and lively account of the cultural and intellectual history of how Americans have lived with image and information since the mid-nineteenth century. It blends historical synthesis with insightful orienting narratives of eras, analyzing particular dimensions of them with verve and skill. The authors’ writing style is both conversational and backed by profound scholarly knowledge; they effectively combine high and low, like Walt Whitman, resulting in a deeply knowing and totally unpretentious voice.”

Peter Simonson, University of Colorado, Boulder

Table of Contents



1. Warning Horatio

2. Victorian Culture and the Diffusion of Learning

3. The Culture of Happy Summary, 1920–45

4. The Age of the World Picture, 1925–45

5. Delirious Images, 1975–2000

6. Promiscuous Knowledge, 1975–2000

Postscript: The Promiscuous Knowledge of Ken Cmiel


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