Expertise, Amateurism, and Authority

“Authority,” says Michel de Certeau, “is indissociable from an abuse of knowledge.”  This is because the knowledge on which authority is supposed to be based cannot be adequately translated to those over whom the authority is to be exercised.  In other words, in order for experts to communicate their expertise to those who are not experts, they must necessarily reduce, simplify, distort, and otherwise do violence to the knowledge that is the basis of their status and of their authority.  In this sense, the expert could perhaps be defined as the one who gains authority through the abuse of an inequity of knowledge.

This relationship between the expert and knowledge is produced because the one with knowledge only appears as an expert, only takes on this role, with respect to those who are not also experts in the same knowledge.  It is precisely this inequity of knowledge that creates the expert as such.  Where there is equality of knowledge, there is no expert.  The role of the expert only exists in relation to the role of the inexpert.  It is defined by this inequity of knowledge, and its function is to translate knowledge across this inequity, not necessarily to erase it, of course, because this would be to eliminate the expert’s own role, but more often to emphasize it and to reinforce the authority that it provides the expert.

I would argue, however, that the inequity that produces the expert is not always one of knowledge alone, but is often also an inequity in practise, in time, in access to tools, or in access to resources.  It may be sometimes that I will defer to an expert because I lack the expert’s knowledge, but it is just as likely that I will defer because I lack the practice to make this knowledge useful, or because I do not have the tools to make my practise applicable, or because I do not have the materials on which to use my tools, or for many other reasons. Expertise, in other words, is not merely a product of knowledge, but of many factors: experience, practise, reputation, equipment, materials, models, etcetera, all of which necessarily become abused when they become the basis of an authority.  The expert, then, expanding on my earlier definition, would be the one who gains authority through the abuse of an inequity in expertise

If, however, the expert is the one who abuses expertise by making it found an authority,  I would suggest that the amateur is the one who uses expertise by allowing it to found a humility. This means that the difference between the amateur and the expert is not based on the degree of expertise that they possess, or on whether they employ their expertise in a paid profession, but on the role that they play in relation to knowledge.  Where the expert occupies a role of mastery in regard to expertise and uses this role to underwrite an authority, the amateur occupies a role of humility in regard to expertise and uses this role to express a desire for knowledge.

This does not mean that the amateur never shares expertise.  Quite the opposite.  The amateur, driven by a desire for knowledge and by a humility in the face of knowledge, will be continually sharing expertise, but only in ways that do not seek to found an authority.  The amateur models rather than dictates, discusses rather than lectures, assists rather than demonstrates, and this is true with every kind of expertise, whether it be how to change the oil in a car, how to grow organic tomatoes, how to read a novel, how to bake a pie, or how to solve trigonometric equations.  Rather than permitting an inequity of expertise to become the basis of an authority that can only abuse what founds it, the amateur encourages this inequity to become the basis of a familiarity that is intended only to provide the model of the amateur’s own desire for knowledge.  Rather than maintaining a distance of authority, the amateur invites participation in the doing and learning and teaching of knowledge.

What this means, of course, is that many of the positions in which experts now function are not recuperable by the amateur.  Even the most innovative teacher, for example, is often constrained to function in the role of the expert, and many other occupations have even less opportunity to choose amateurism over expertise.  Wherever a person’s function is determined as a matter of economics, or of legality, or of governmentality, there will be a tendency to privilege the expert at the expense of the amateur.  Though it is possible for one to function as an amateur in a professional setting, therefore, amateurism is mostly expressed in the places where legal, professional, governmental, and cultural forces are least felt, in the cracks and crevices that these forces necessarily maintain within themselves.  It appears here and there, wherever there is space and desire and opportunity.

Amateurism, defined in this way, is related to the kind of intellectualism that I outlined a few days ago in my post on the difference between intellect and intelligence.  They are both ways to describe an approach to knowledge that is founded in desire.  The true intellectualism that I described in that post, the one whose primary desire for knowledge is neither an end in itself nor a means to an end but is a means to the self, this kind of intellectualism must always remain an amateurism also. Its relation to knowledge must always take the form of a fundamental humility that immerses itself in knowledge rather than trying to encompass knowledge in itself, from which it might be measured out as an education, sold as a commodity, or used to guarantee an authority.  A true intellectualism, a true amateurism, is never able to occupy this position, is never able to play the role of the expert, because this role does a violence to the object of its desire. It reduces the amateur’s eroticism to something it can no longer recognize and can no longer love.


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