A Critique of Professional Reason

I want to inaugurate these pings on the void by reflecting on something that has preoccupied me for a while. In spite of the documented change in hiring practices, the profession remains discursively attached to an identity policed by traditional credentialing bodies, and associated, at least in principle, with the possession of an ALA-accredited degree. (I say “possession of a degree” because I do not think the identity of the profession, much less the character of the labor of those who call themselves librarians, hangs much upon the curriculum of library schools — but that’s for another post.) At the same time, the profession seems caught in a perpetual crisis — a crisis of relevance, a crisis that reveals the limits of what credentials are supposed to guarantee: the librarian’s expertise. How many are the webinars, conference programs, institutes, books and articles, special reports, and so on, promising to tell us how to become (better) online educators, data stewards, agents of scholarly communication, collaborators in the research process, and so forth? These trends repeat, as it seems to me, patterns of discourse I found ten years ago when I entered, already jaded about the degree but optimistic about the job, library school. Indeed, mine was a program then recently rechristened a “school of information,” presumably on the premise that library science, traditionally conceived, no longer met the needs of the library’s publics in the soi disant Information Age.

Yes, Virginia, but of course: the stampede into our daily lives of electronic communication,  digital text, and computing power has changed the dynamic, as they say, between librarians and their patrons. (I stick to the case of academic librarianship, being fairly ignorant — in the non-polemical sense — about the contours of the profession in public and corporate libraries.) Whether these changes, and those even greater changes chomping at the bit of progress, which it is said we must saddle up and ride, or else fall behind, choking on the dust — whether those changes, admittedly profound, are driven primarily by technological advances, or whether they do not bespeak equally the spur of administrative developments, and in particular the readiness of the boss-class to change what counts as a “professional” service, is matter for another time. Right now, with a broader brush, I want to pursue the crisis to its logical conclusion: Why do we need to be experts at all?

What orients my question is a book dear to my professional soul — and one, I am told, that a flight of misplaced self-importance once prompted me to pound on a tabletop during a staff meeting: Jacques Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster. The book’s eponymous hero, a Frenchman and pedagogue named Jacotot, early in the 19th Century found himself exiled to the Netherlands (on account of his Republican sympathies). There he found work teaching, but here was a problem: his students spoke only Flemish, and he spoke only French. His solution, cavalier for the time, was to have them teach themselves: using only a bilingual edition of a classic French text, he made them memorize, recite, copy, and imitate until they emerged fluent in French, all without any formal lessons from the schoolmaster himself.

This “adventure,” as Ranciere calls it, doesn’t sound terribly revolutionary today; the salutary effects of so-called active learning are widely accepted, and the phrase “student-centered classroom” bespeckles many a teaching portfolio. These ideas have gained currency in the library profession, even if the typical scenarios of library instruction do not provide much scope for what the mavins recommend. (Called upon to teach Chem Abstracts or the MLA Bibliography at 8 am to a throng of unfamiliar faces, one may make the students the center only to find that the center cannot hold, for in such situations it is too easy for students to prefer a passive role.) And albeit in a different register, most librarians would agree that the “reference interview” should adhere to similar principles: using open-ended questions to elicit the patron’s need, having the patron “drive” instead of observe, etc. Of course, these principles are salutary. At the same time, it can feel as though almost anything one might do, short of being oblivious or  dismissive or a total bore, is “student-centered.” It’s called being professional.

On Ranciere’s telling, what made Jacotot’s approach revolutionary was his willingness to take the suggestion of an empirical success to its logical extreme. His conclusion was the redundancy and oppressiveness of explication. This conclusion flies in the face of the institutional importance of mastery, i.e., expertise:

[T]he essential act of the master was to explicate: to disengage the simple elements of learning, and to reconcile their simplicity in principle with the factual simplicity that characterizes young and ignorant minds. To teach was to transmit learning and form minds simultaneously, by leading those minds […] from the most simple to the most complex. (p. 3)

Jacotot, and through him, Ranciere, denounce explication as a teaching method not — like the proponents of active learning — on account of its ineffectiveness. They denounce, rather, the social world that it props up. Like Paolo Freire’s critical pedagogue, the ignorant schoolmaster objects to the asymmetry between student and teacher; unlike Freire, however, Ranciere doesn’t have much to say about power. The asymmetry, the inequality, that preoccupies him exists, or is said to exist, between those who know and those who are said to be ignorant. If one can teach subject matter without recourse to explication, then one can teach subject matter of which one has no mastery, in which one is not an expert. Expertise belongs to those capable of explicating a subject for the ignorant. But as this formula suggests, the experts “need” the ignorant, for without the latter, the former would have no claim to distinction.

No doubt you can see where I am going. Expertise is performed in acts of explication. The scholar who has mastered a subject writes a book. The doctor explicates your illness to you, the lawyer, your standing in court. (In their capacity as professionals, these people perform their knowledge in other ways, too. But our concern here is  the explicative dimension of expertise.) Librarians, at least those doing reference and instruction, have been professionals capable of explicating things like the structure of a bibliographic record or the use of an interface. More ambitiously, we might say that librarians can explicate “the order of things” in the Foucauldian sense, i.e., the arrangement of knowledge in the disciplines.

The concept of explication, for Ranciere, functions in a way not unlike ideology does according to Marx: it distracts from a more basic circumstance. That more basic circumstance is the encounter of intelligent and reasonable beings, each of whose capacity must be such that she can interpret the actions of the other, such that they can communicate. You cannot teach someone with whom you cannot communicate; ergo, communication presupposes intelligence on both sides. As Ranciere says, we should reverse Descartes’ dictum: I am, therefore I think. The ground on which the ignorant schoolmaster stakes his “pedagogy” (with wariness of the term) is the radical equality that this fact — the fact of the possibility of communication — implies. To open oneself to this possibility Ranciere calls “emancipation.” Its opposite is “stultification”: “There is stultification whenever one intelligence is subordinated to another” (p. 13). Explication stultifies.

Who has not suffered from stultification? Or perhaps it’s better to ask, Who has not exulted in its opposite? Who has not had the pleasure of learning — of figuring out something for the first time? You did it without a teacher’s having told you, or you did it, inexplicably, on your own, after a teacher’s having told you a hundred times. Ranciere does not say so, but the act of explication harbors this pleasure: sometimes the explicator learns something in spite of herself. When I started teaching — before I embarked on librarianship, when I was living the pauper’s dream of teaching creative writing — I learned that I could take responsibility for my own learning. That I could lean into a thought and travel with it, that I didn’t need somebody else’s perspicacity or pretension to fill my sails. (After all, I had plenty of the latter to go under my own power.) I do not find the same pleasure in library instruction. But writing retains it, in the way words and thoughts chart an errant course, leading you astray from whatever tidy explication you might have been aiming for. Leading you into the chance for communication by putting communication at risk.

It is important to observe (at the risk of turning an already long-winded post into a sirocco) that in Ranciere’s version of the communicative act, parity is not produced; it is axiomatic. His is an invitation to suspend our belief that our pupils (or in a political context, “the people”) need to be taught how in order to think as well as we. Perhaps it is an invitation to suspend our disbelief in others’ ability to think, the thought (worry, fantasy) that we are the only ones who can. In any case, to measure intelligence by comparison with a norm, says Ranciere, ignores what is most essential: the singularity of history and the trajectory of desire:

The relation between two ignorant people confronting a book they don’t know how to read is simply a radical form of the effort one brings every minute to translating and counter-translating thoughts into words and words into thoughts. […] Understanding must be understood in its true sense: not the derisive power to unveil things, but the power of translation that makes one speaker confront another. (pp. 63-64)

But one runs into the peril of glibness. After all, inequality — material, political, social — is very real. And its conditions are very much sustained by disparities in access to education (and the quality of teaching). In a classic liberal frame, Ranciere’s book becomes pablum for the toothless maw of intellectual selfishness: mind your own business; people can help themselves. That his argument doesn’t belong there is suggested by the fact that, in such a frame, it becomes too easy. The real challenge posed by The Ignorant Schoolmaster lies in entertaining its truth within the frame of a commitment to social justice and the redistribution of wealth and power. And there lies its value, too. As the art critic Claire Bishop notes, Ranciere’s thesis is experimental, in the sense of a hypothesis to be tested. What would happen if we were to regard others’ intelligence as equal to our own? Might such a regard make our moral commitments both more rigorous and more practical?

A hypothesis without method, a hypothesis admitting, perhaps, of an indeterminate multitude of possible procedures. I have more to say about Ranciere, especially about his attitude toward the character of the aesthetic, and the questions raised there (for me) about the writer’s relation to expertise. Let me close this post — too abruptly — with some provisional thoughts on a future for librarianship that does not privilege our value as explicators.

Librarians, it is said, know organization. Whether because we can parse metadata or apply it, arrange the archive or navigate it, there lies our niche: guides through the dense forest of documents and artifacts that humans have made and go on adding to. Understandably, anxiety attends the recognition that the division of labor, relative to this most essentially civilizing of activities, is shifting — has shifted — thanks to the advent of computing machines. Increasingly, the duty to organize will fall on those who design and build (and, let us not forget, maintain) systems that automate not only storage and retrieval, but also categorization and navigation. In a word, Google. There are many reasons — political, cultural, ethical — why this trend is worrisome.

Leaving those important worries aside for a moment, we might also wonder whether this vision of a fully algorithmic future, this commercial Xanadu exuding data from every square inch, does, in fact, exhaust the power of the word “organization.” True, what Google (here as synecdoche) does to information, it does better — faster, more reliably, at less cost, etc. — than the tools of the librarians’ trade. It certainly does more than any one of those tools on its own could do. It does so not because Google indexes “everything” (which is does not), but because it doesn’t (appear to) presume to explicate. Instead, it advertises, it suggests, it recommends. It stokes an endlessly ravenous appetite for novelty and distraction. Subject headings — who needs ’em? Authority control — seriously? “Check this box for peer review” — come on. Google knows us as gluttonous, covetous, idle, and with a vanity beyond all bounds, but it doesn’t treat us like fools.

I’m not saying that this forbearance is a virtue. (No doubt it’s quite precisely calculated with an eye to profit.) But what the age of Google represents, perhaps — and I’m only speculating — is the collapse of the contradictions of bureaucratic rationality. For Max Weber, the advent of bureaucracy ushered in the rational organization of society. Bureaucratic rationality is a mode of reason that strives to relate everything to the application of a rule. Hence the two dicta of bureaucracy, according to Weber: the rules must be general, and they must be capable of being made explicit. (See Economy and Society, pp. 956-1005.) Though I don’t believe he says so, librarians must be the apple of Weber’s eye, the most docile inmates of the iron cage.

But explicit procedures offer only one way of organizing. Others ways exist — did exist before the rise of modern bureaucracy, and will exist (perhaps) after its demise. They do exist, beyond its reaches, and in its interstices. One of those ways, let us call it “interpretation” — or following Ranciere, “translation.” To interpret or to translate is not necessarily to reduce and categorize, though it is to change something into something else, to convert one purposiveness into another. Interpretation is to spin out, to open up, to unravel; it is to weave together, to mash up, to remix. It is to pose questions, often painfully simple ones: How come? Is this like or unlike that? What then? As librarians, we perform this interpretive labor all the time, especially when confronted by subjects about which we must profess ignorance. That our ignorance does not stop us from trying to help, where helping is making a hermetic discourse disclose what it has to hide, is, I think, our greatest asset. Call it purposive (not purposeful) not-knowing.

Could we not be organizers of the world(s) of knowledge in this way? Could our profession not be our ignorance, and our vocation the sustaining of inquiry and curiosity and dialogue and yes, Virginia, even controversy, within and across the disciplines, against the grain of specialization and the parochialism of reputation and career? We are unused to the rankling tooth of reputation (except when we take our own cabals too seriously); we do not need to be on par with the experts. There are of experts enough already. Let us be like prairie dogs, who sustain the grassland by burrowing under it, impertinently popping their heads up here and there. Theirs is a vigilance not the hawk’s, a cunning not the canine’s, but one that comes from working near the ground, where the signals propagate (listening, as Ralph Ellison says, to “the lower frequencies”).

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