Amateurs, Experts, Education

"Who's to say I can't talk about medicine unless I'm a doctor, if I talk about it like a dog? What's to stop me talking about drugs without being an addict, if I talk about them like a little bird? And why shouldn't I invent some way, however fantastic and contrived, of talking about something, without someone having to ask whether I'm qualified to talk like that?" — Gilles Deleuze >>>>

Professionalism is environmental. Amateurism is anti environmental. Professionalism merges the individual into patterns of total environment. Amateurism seeks the development of the total awareness of the individual and the critical awareness of the ground rules of society. The amateur can afford to lose." — Marshall McLuhan, "The Medium is the Massage"

What entitles someone to speak about something? Based on what authority do we speak, write, form our opinions, hold forth on this or that?

The university system is predicated on the structure of the expert — you must major in something. If you pursue gruduate studies, you're asked to specialize within that major: not only are you studying literature, you're studying British 19th century women's literature. Why such specialization? Because this is the only way to become an expert, to exhaust a field of knowledge, all the so-called primary and secondary texts.

But the expert is, by definition, a conservative: his or her job is to conserve that domain of knowledge, to say what gets in and what gets out. As Barthes argues in "Death of the Author," this pedagogy is built on the priest model: the expert is the conduit between the lay person and the Word.

The expert is a mortician, presiding over dead knowledge.

Ah, but the amateur is a lively bloke who pays no heed to inherited categorical distinctions. The amateur reads what he reads, writes what he writes, thinks what he thinks. The amateur makes his way on the fly without regard to official knowledge. He makes connections in surprising ways, traversing domains along trajectories no one could have imagined. The amateur strolls and meanders through the experts' various domains, creating new byways and through ways as he goes.

If the expert is an imperialist, laying claim to a domain, the amateur is a perpetual poacher, taking some here, some there in order to create new shapes and possibilities — that may very well be washed away as the tide comes in like an Andy Goldsworthy sculpture.

And this is what the network demands — the ability, the skill, to make connections, to cross domains, to traverse fields of presumed expertise. The academy and its experts are premised on the pyramid: a rigid hierarchical structure. But the new age is an age of the network, of every which way, of all ways at once.

The academy is an embarrassing anachronism. And its gatekeepers — the so-called stars of the university — are gravediggers, embalmers, and undertakers.

What, then, will be the university of the future? What is the education of the network? Well, it's based on skills, on how to handle information, not just memorize it. It should always already be interdisciplinary.

When I taught at the San Francisco Art Institute's graduate center, most students didn't study photography or painting or sculpture: they congregated in what SFAI called "new genres," a field that considers all materials fair game.

This is not to say that one shouldn't learn how to handle paint or cameras or learn about differential equations and chemical reactions. It's to say that such knowledge is not the end-point, not the goal. The point of network education is to breed perpetual amateurs, those who are always taking risks, making connections that risk madness and nonsense but that perpetually flirt with beauty and the delirium of the new.


Linz said...

This makes me think about the work of Roger Pielke Jr., who writes about the role of experts - particularly scientists - in politics. People like to talk about restoring science to "its rightful place." They say, "the science says that we must do x," when of course it's ridiculous to think that science could make a decision about anything. Decision making demands "the ability, the skill, to make connections, to cross domains, to traverse fields of presumed expertise" - the role of the amateur.

drwatson said...

As someone who is perpetually troubled and dumbfounded with academia, this essay is refreshing and cleansing. Reading as bathing, if you will - good to get the muck off.

It feels like a lot of essays in academia are really about proving that you've read, or better yet, you can cite a lot of other works. And you've learned how to use words like "negotiate," "discourse," and "conversation."

There was this great moment in class this year, when a person new to the program said "I didn't know when I get into Grad school it was going to be so important that I liked hummus." People bring snacks and of course hummus is the perfect food for academia - not expensive, but it shows your cultured. Kind of like the way drinking PBR shows you're broke, but went to college.

But seriously, I wonder if it's not exactly the amateur but the outsider. I'm thinking of people like Nietzsche, Derrida, Foucault, Heiddegger, and Deleuze (who is becoming more fun the more I read). They are all academics in a sense, but they are approaching their field from radically new perspectives. I they are both part of an apart from the tradition. Perhaps outsider isn't the perfect term either. They are like inside/outsiders. (basically I need a term.)

69959e5a-57e2-11e0-a3a5-000bcdcb2996 said...

What a great article. I liked the flow of your writing and the way your ideas had a sense of interconnectedness. What is the point of being an expert anyway? It's like they've reached the peak of the academic mountain while the amateurs have said 'fuck it, I'll find a new mountain to climb'. Wearing my amateurism like a badge of honor doesn't seem like such a bad prospect after all.

Ruby said...

McLuhan said ‘the amateur can afford to lose’ while the professional is expected to win. Academics seem to work from this fear of being exposed. To distance themselves from amateurs they transform objects of study (like artworks) into objects of theory. Students with an amateur love of books are told they don’t have a right to say anything until they learn the academic language of reading books by which time they have either dropped out or converted to the new love of theory.

Areas of study are also too narrow resulting in experts who are fundamentally thick. The crap that gets peer-reviewed is shocking – true of sciences and arts.
Universities really are graveyards – but most the students are happy to sit grave digging exams as the answers can be learned by rote.

The internet allows for a hybrid amateur-expert. The university has lost its monopoly on access to learning for anyone willing to learn. The big deal is still those formative years in which basic literacy is set in place.

Isn't is also madly expensive to attend college in the US?

Daniel Coffeen said...

@Linz: excellent example — I gots to check that shit.

@ Drw: I'm sticking with the term "amateur": it says everything I want it to say — a player, yes, but one who does not seek the definitive.

@ Anon:Wear it proudly!

@ Ruby: Yes! It's part of the capitalism: get in debt from the get go and spend the rest of your life in debt to the Man.

The interweb has made the university obsolete. And they know it. Fuck, I taught in the god damn Rhetoric Dept at UC Berkeley and those so-called radical thinkers — forget for a moment that they are, in fact, conservative in the institution — one day I'll tell y'all the things Judith Butler said to me — but they don't know fuck all about new media.

drwatson said...

Man don't hint at the Judith Butler quotes. Now I totally want to know. But you know, I'm embarrassed to say that I never really thought about how conservative the structure of the expert is. I've always thought the university was, but because of business reasons. That was one of those points that felt so obvious after it was said.

Yeah, I don't want to argue over terminology. But I've been reading a lot of Foucault for this paper where I'm trying to argue that there is no such thing as "history" and I was thinking about his ability to be a kind of sociologist without using the terms of that discourse and he's kind of a philosopher without being burdened by it.

Maybe the word I want to use is that he's a "thinker."

I really hate the word "opinion." So when my students ask if this paper is about "opinion," I write "to opine," "opinion," "to believe," "belief," and "to think," "thoughtful."

(I know I'm not being consistent in that it's "thoughtful," and not "thought.")

And I try to argue that being opinionated is not impressive, but being thoughtful implies a sensitivity. And Belief is the hard one to talk about. But the scariest thing about thinking and philosophy is that you're constantly aware that solipsism is the scariest thing ever - and if it's all opinion, just like if there are terministic screens, or if it's all about cultural relativism, really what that implies to me is that there is something between me and the world, which means we are totally fucking alone. In the saddest possible way.

So being thoughtful seems to me to be the goal, which implies being sensitive to Being - this is where me and Dreyfus are basically on the exact same page - is the goal to thinking. Which is why maybe non-academics are better. But as soon as I say that I think about my favorite thinkers, and they usually are well-educated in the academy but they've realized the bullshit of it - so they aren't realy amateurs. Academics are so burdened by the conventions and publishing and convention. Man you're right about the conservative nature of all that.

So like who would you call an amateur - maybe I just need examples.

Anyhow, I'm all over the place with this thought, but I'm sure you get what I'm trying to get at.

dustygravel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dustygravel said...

Man, I love that you get us nearly 7 minutes into the topic before you say one word, (8 if you inclued deleuze's letter) I'm totally lost in goldsworthy's (anti)enivromentalism, before you even speak one word on your own behalf. Why is Mcluhan calling Goldsworth an anti environmentalist? I mean I know why! through some kind of voodoo you made it plain as day, and I love that.

jon said...

Great piece. This amateur/expert distinction goes back at least to Socrates, who constantly distinguishes himself from rhetoricians, rhapsodes, sophists, etc. by calling himself "a layman" and "an amateur." Out of Socrates emerges a tradition of amateur thinkers -- whom we could call uncategorizable or interdisciplinary -- such as Diogenes, Montaigne, Emerson, Wittgenstein, Foucault, among others. Each in their own way is a philosopher who scorns conventional philosophy: the closed, systematic (not to mention anti-dialogical) philosophy of "the expert."

Experts move toward pre-established points for the sake of persuading audiences and gaining professional renown. Amateurs put great emphasis on discovery and improvisation, on active and immediate thinking. At bottom this amateur/expert distinction comes down to dialogue, which explains Socrates' key role.

Amateurs are willing to talk, make startling connections, and stray from what they consider "true." They'll often use vernacular language. Experts, on the other hand, are prone to repeating the same rigid formulas again and again via their ugly professional discourse. Even worse, they'll often stop a dialogue before it happens by appealing to their own authority on a given topic. I belive the so-called "crisis of the humanities" is the fault of its self-appointed guardians -- experts who make these fields a little less relevant and a little more tiresome each year.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ DrW: One day soon I'll let loose all the nonsense the various big hitters in Rhetoric said to me — such as "Students are clients" and I shouldn't offend "students' moral and religious beliefs." I shit you not.

I like your take on thinker as sensitive quite a bit. It speaks to what I like in Spinoza and the ability to be affected.

@ Dusty: there's always a method to the madness....

@ All great — Socrates is a very good call. And I like your use of "improvisation" and, of course, the notion of language control (which comes a la Foucault): the use of vernacular or non-jargon shifts the field necessarily by introducing new figures of thought. Unless, of course, you're a natural language philosopher and then it becomes its own kind of tyranny.