The long and varied history of the critic as amateur becomes newly salient within a knowledge society where expertise is paramount, but professional experts are often maligned. When sociologists use the term “knowledge society” to characterise the present, they are not suggesting that knowledge has never played a role in social organisation. Rather, they are crediting the production, distribution, and reproduction of knowledge with being the “constitutive mechanism” of contemporary society.
As societies become more knowledge-dependent, the ability to claim expertise becomes more aligned with power, profit, and influence.
However, the tendency to concentrate expertise in a narrow subset of the population – the professional-managerial – faces challenges from the very sociotechnical milieu that has brought the knowledge society to fruition. At the center of this milieu is the internet.
It is now commonplace to observe that the internet has made information more accessible. This is more of a truism than a truth, but it is fair to say that the internet has enabled lay people – amateurs – to do knowledge work that rivals professional institutions in certain arenas. Crowdsourced websites like Wikipedia, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and software packages like Photoshop and Final Cut Pro enable amateur users to develop and share often self-taught skills (what some sociologists call “lay expertise”); become “influencers” in fields from fashion to politics; and develop modes of collaboration (what some media theorists call “networked expertise”) that have transformed how print-based industries like publishing do business.
We mention these developments not to overstate the power of digital amateurs or trumpet the equalising force of Web 2.0 participatory cultures but to argue that multiple models of expertise are in play on the internet in highly visible ways. It is the place where abstract claims about the knowledge society feel most palpable.
Knowledge is a form of currency for everyday users on social media as well as for traditionally knowledge-based industries striving to adapt to digital media. Information is a commodity for the technology companies operating the platforms and services that keep internet culture afloat. Yet, as knowledge becomes increasingly central to entrepreneurialism, self-management, occupational advancement, and economic growth, our actual understanding of the concept grows more remote. Knowledge: the black box at the centre of everything.
What would it mean to claim the mantle of the amateur as a way of understanding knowledge better?
Can the amateur, so central to internet culture, also help us imagine an outside to the sociotechnical milieu of the knowledge society? We get one powerful answer from the writer Pankaj Mishra whose amateurism seems informed by and yet in direct contradiction to both networked and professionalised forms of expertise.
Mishra, writing in 1998, recounts sitting in Benares in 1988 and reading authors far removed from his time and place without knowing anything about their contexts. Such unscholarly and “disconnected” reading led to new revelations, not only about these authors’ works but strangely also about his immediate surroundings. In other words, reading with minimal resources enabled a literary engagement that the mandates of professional scholarship and the power of the search engine (in popular use by 1994) would have inhibited.
The gaping lack of historical knowledge, cultural affiliation, and information access kept Mishra from entering the social context of nineteenth-century France; consequently, he conjured a new life for Flaubert’s Frédéric Moreau as a character entering late twentieth-century rural Uttar Pradesh. Neither such ignorance nor such flights of fancy seem as plausible or sincere in the age of the Google search, mobile devices, and always-on computing. And that is the point.
What started as a technological phenomenon – digital connectivity – has now snowballed into an entire system of values that prizes more rather than less; more information, we imagine, will necessarily lead to better knowledge and more freedom.
More information and more informed opinion also necessarily lead to disputes over cultural authority. The magazines and journals described in Mishra’s essay – the TLS, Partisan Review, and the New York Review of Books – rare surprises in 1980s’ Benares, are now easily available in any part of the world with an internet connection, sometimes behind a paywall but often not. Yet, at the same time, the influence of these traditional arbiters of literary value is offset by digital literary cultures that increasingly arbitrate their own set of values separate from or in competition with these prestigious periodicals.
Think Goodreads, Amazon book reviews, blogs like Book Slut and Moorish Girl, and born-digital highbrow forums like the Los Angeles Review of Books and Public Books. A review in The New York Review of Books is still an important thing but far less so than it was ten years ago. Who knows what the next ten years will do to its circulation or cultural capital?
We are not bemoaning the state of legacy media so much as noting a major shift. For over a decade now, we have witnessed the move of reader/viewer traffic away from traditional news venues to sites like Buzzfeed and ScoopWhoop to take just two examples from the United States and India. Although recent research shows a small number of this readership returning to the websites of traditional news venues, such as CNN, Fox News, Washington Post, and the New York Times, the more important fact is the mass migration of readership online.
The proliferation of born-digital media – blogs, magazines, social media platforms, news feeds – and algorithmically driven recommendation systems (whether for the New York Times or Buzzfeed) makes it possible for individuals and whole groups to dwell in restricted information ecologies while at the same time believing they have more and better access to information than ever before. More people now get their news and opinions about the world entirely from the groups they choose and the groups that search engines, social media feeds, and recommendation algorithms choose for them.
Hence, the contradictory effects of empowerment and confirmation bias: users banding together can call out and hold accountable professional experts who think they know better, but users banding together can also ignore or discredit organs of news and culture that actually do know better.
The way we understand the evolution of literary studies, as a specialised field rooted in print modernity, is now inseparable from the political and epistemological conflicts internal to a digitally driven knowledge society. The assumption that knowledge is less a disciplinary domain than a circulating currency, while obviously thorny in the ways mentioned above, also places needed pressure on the academic disciplines as we have inherited them from the Enlightenment projects of the nineteenth century.
If natural philosophy did fine as a term with Isaac Newton, the post-Enlightenment practitioners of the Newtonian disciplines were going to need the pointed specificity of the word “science,” and subsequently, “scientists,” to distinguish their specialties from the amorphous, all-encompassing ambition of philosophy. The rational logic of modernity, the modern nation-state, and in some instances, the project of colonialism would consolidate many of the human and social sciences in the distinct forms of disciplinary expertise in which we possess them today. The imperial project, it is now understood, also had much to do with the inauguration of literary curricula in the colonies, especially in nineteenth-century India, though it would not be until Leavisite Cambridge in the early twentieth century that English literature would attain its full disciplinary significance.
The nineteenth century also saw the rise of the modern research university (inspired by the Humboldtian model of higher education) in Europe and North America. As universities and graduate schools became the primary province of literary study, amateur practitioners like “the man of letters” found themselves discredited.
Whereas the man of letters drew his literary-critical authority from individual prestige and perceived moral and intellectual superiority, the professional specialist who would supplant him based the capacity for literary judgment upon systematic training and knowledge acquisition. By the 1920s, John Middleton Murry referred to the gentlemanly amateur in damning terms: “No amount of sedulous apery or word-mosaic will make a writer of the dilettante belletrist.”
But as we in this volume argue, amateurism’s demise was never complete even if the amateurs themselves were shunted out of disciplinary origin stories. The narrative that emerges from these essays is that of the amateur’s simultaneous coexistence with the credentialed expert – sometimes harmonious, other times uneasy but always illuminating of literary study’s diverse configurations beyond the discipline of “literary studies.” Not before the explosive growth of digital participatory culture has the amateur drawn so much attention or had so much voice. Yet the rise of the digital amateur, polarising as such a figure might be, leads us to point out the myriad ways amateurism and expertise had already been entwined from the turn of the twentieth century onward.
We argue that the dominant narrative of this period, which chronicles the rise and consolidation of the professions as well as the rise and consolidation of academic literature departments, overlooks the ways that amateurs and professionals forged partnerships and rivalries. Such entanglements at times prefigure the lay and networked expertise of internet cultures and at other times query the very definition of and attitudes toward knowledge operative within knowledge societies.
We find that amateurs occasionally do lay claim to expertise, but more often than not, as with Mishra, they complicate what it means to be knowledgeable, wield facts, and perform authority. Spotlighting the history of amateurism, our collection yields alternative vocabularies for describing the nature of literature and literary expertise.
Excerpted with permission from the Introduction to The Critic as Amateur, edited by Saikat Majumdar and Aarthi Vadde, Bloomsbury.