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Monthly Archives: February 2009

I have decide to change how I go about offering online content for my Dinner and a Doc events.  Rather than posting it on my course website, which basically functions like a glorified blog for this material in any case, I will be posting information for upcoming Dinner and a Doc nights here, where it can also be more naturally linked to the other writing that I do on documentary.

This coming Saturday, February 14th, we will be screening Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly, the story of Dieter Dengler, a young German boy who watches Allied bombers destroy his village during World War II and decides that he needs to be a pilot.  He moves to the United States, becomes a pilot for the Navy, and is sent to Vietnam, where he is shot down over Loas and held as a prisoner for some time.  Herzog accompanies Dengler as he returns to the jungle and tries to come to terms with his past, creating an intimate portrait of a remarkable life.

Here are links to the film in four parts for those who want a preview or who cannot make the screening: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.

The event will be at my place, 130 Dublin Street, Guelph, and all are welcome, though I do appreciate an email to let me know that you will be coming.  We will eat at about 5:30 and begin the film at about 6:00.  I hope to see some of you there.

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I usually avoid commenting on contemporary events in this forum, not because I lack the interest, though this is often true as well, but because it is one of the ways that I am trying to write the web more slowly, one of the ways that I am trying to contest the internet’s habitual demand for speed and currency.  Today, however, I discovered an article in the Globe and Mail that I feel compelled to discuss, and so, since it is probably necessary to prove the rule in any case, I will make this one exception.

The article, for those who would prefer not to read it for themselves, reports that professor Denis Rancourt has been fired from the University of Ottawa for refusing to provide individual grades to his fourth year physics class.  During the first class of the semester, he informed his students that they would each be receiving a grade of A+, which would free them from the pressure to test well and permit them to be scientists instead.  Though Rancourt had previously been involved in his share of controversies, it was this refusal to grade that finally convinced the university to take the very rare step of firing a tenured faculty member.

This should not surprise anyone very much, of course.  I could write for pages about how the ability to measure knowledge through grades and and courses and degrees is essential to the viability of the educational institution as such, about how this imposes on the institutional instructor the necessity of justifying grades through all the procedures of marking and commenting and correcting that consume so much of their time, and about how this permits the educational institution to attain only, at its highest, to a kind of editorial approach to learning.  I will spare us all those pages.

Instead, I just want to express my saddness at seeing the inevitable suppression of the desire for learning by institutionalized education.  I know almost nothing about Rancourt, and I am not otherwise endorsing him in any way, but I applaud his attempt to encourage learning to take place in the cracks and crevices of education, and I sympathize with him in his present situation.  Though I am cynical enough to believe that this must necessarily be the result of what he was attempting to do, I am grieved, as I always am, that learning can find no place for itself in the university.

I never had a chance to read George MacDonald’s fairytales when I was a child.  It was not until I was a teenager that I discovered his two most widely read novels, The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie, not until I began teaching a course in Fantasy Literature that I read Lilith and Phantases, not until the following year in a Children’s Literature class that I read At the Back of the North Wind.  It was also only then that I first read MacDonald’s fairytales.

They are an eclectic mix of stories.  Some are clearly intended for children, including moral tales like the The Golden Key and whimsical stories like The Light Princess.  Others are perhaps written for a more adult audience, including The Gray Wolf, an eerie little story about a werewolf, and The Day Boy and the Night Girl, a tale that explores some relational themes of a more mature nature than most fairytales do.  In every case, though, MacDonald’s characteristic imagination makes them beautiful.  They have the quality of dreams, narratively ethereal but imagistically vivid all at once.  They are exactly what I want fairytales to be.

If I did not come to read MacDonald’s writing until much later than most, I still know very little about Maurice Sendak’s art at all.  I cannot now recall when I first discovered Where the Wild Things Are, a perennial children’s favourite, but it remains the only book of Sendak’s that I have ever read.  I have glanced at his illustrations for the Little Bear books, which were adapted into a tolerable children’s television show that my son now enjoys, but until recently I knew nothing else about Sendak and had no reason to suspect that he would ever be related to the MacDonald fairytales that I loved so much.

Last year, however, I found a used copy of MacDonald’s The Golden Key.  It was a small blue hardcover edition illustrated with the most beautiful line drawings.  They reflected  MacDonald’s dreamlike sensibility well, interpreting the story without forcing themsleves onto it, and they were drawn by Maurice Sendak.  I bought the book, of course, fully intending to discover whether similar editions had been made of MacDonald’s other fairytales, but it was an intention that I promptly forgot, and the book went on the shelf,  and I did not think much more about it.

There the story might have remained had I not gone into a used bookstore this past fall and discovered The Light Princess in the same edition and with the same illustrator.  I bought it even without really looking at it, and I can remember vividly heading straight home so that I could check the publisher’s website and find which other fairytales they might have published in the same edition.  Somewhere between the store and the front door, however, something intervened, and I forget once more, and so, it was only today that I saw the books again on my shelf and finally completed the task that I had first set myself over a year ago.

In retrospect, I think that my forgotten intentions may have been an unconsious attempt at self-protection.  As long as I did not actually find anything definitive to the contrary, I could always hope that Sendak had produced illustrations for a whole number of MacDonald’s books, and I could keep watch for them as I browsed my way through thrift stores and used book stalls.  As soon as I knew for certain, as I now do, that there are no other such books to find, I can only regret that there are so few to be had.  I must confess, I preferred it when I was ignorant.

“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.