On Librarianship and Aesthetics

In my zest to explicate Rancière on the ills of explication, I glossed over many parts of his argument begging for more complex treatment. But maybe “beg” overstates the case, and in any case, I must apply to the reader’s patience with these the lucubrations of a librarian who knows better than to relinquish his day job. With that disclaimer — and apart from the admitted, though ill-advised, pleasure of regarding oneself as a voice in the wilderness — my motive for writing here is partly experimental. How does one write — in an essentially didactic genre like the blog — while calling one’s expertise, or one’s right to explicate, into question? Not wanting to fall into the trap of Jacotot’s imitators and epigoni, who, according to Rancière, tried to reduce to reproducible method the former’s inspired madness, or his inspired refusal of the clean break between madness and sense, pedagogical flair and professional suicide, I am interested in a practice of writing that does without with the pundit’s or the pedagogue’s arsenal of bullet points. But perhaps in truth what I am asking is a perfectly ordinary question: how does one continue to write (or really, continue to do anything of value) under the pressure of feeling that one’s capacity to do so is never quite up to snuff? In that spirit, here are some inconclusive, haphazard, and highly speculative failures to answer that question.

Ignorance: Let me be careful with that term. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick observes, ignorance is the alibi of knowledge, in that the privilege of either, or the privilege of asserting either, is unequally distributed. Some people (preeminently, of course, able-bodied straight white men) are permitted to claim ignorance of the experiences of others insofar as such experiences differ from theirs (the experiences of women, of non-whites, etc.), while the reciprocal privilege hardly applies. Ignorance, then, follows the fault-lines of domination. Who escapes learning about, and having to pay some measure of deference to, the knowledge and experiences of the dominant class, which is, by no accident, usually also the explicating class? Sedgwick points to the oppression wrought by two kinds of ignorance working in tandem: the active, strategic kind that disavows its own responsibility to know, and the “palpably sentimental privileging of ignorance as an originary, passive innocence” (p. 104). As casual consumers of information, our habits and appetites are too ready to muffle the violence of privileged ignorance in the bubble-wrap of innocence and naivete — as in the shock occasioned by what Rancière, in another book, dubs “the intolerable image”: Jeez, we say, that’s so tragic, how can people do that to each other, and so on. To rouse ourselves from such ignorance into knowledge, we must be willing to say instead, “How can we allow that to happen? What is my part in this?”

Would the ignorance of the Rancierian schoolmaster be active or passive? Perhaps neither, for it amounts to a constraint freely chosen, and constraints enable action without themselves participating in the back-and-forth between activity and patience. (Constraints set the scene wherein patience can become activity.) Choosing the constraint requires an active disposition to do so: to invert Kierkegaard’s phrase, it requires an ethical suspension of the teleological, putting into question the explicative view that learning tends toward an end known by the one who teaches, rather than by the one who learns. Ignorance as a strategic activity, on the other hand, actually props up the expert. Such ignorance defines expertise in virtue of what it is not. Thus we librarians might feel gratified to think, when made aware of a certain urgent, ungainly fact — for example, the administrative under-reporting of incidents of sexual violence on campus — “Well, that’s not library information, so that’s not our problem.” Or as Maura Seale argues in a recent piece, the Information Literacy Competency Standards (that psalter of bureaucratic rationality), like other dominant discourses about information technology, ignore “the embeddedness of knowledge production and consumption and indeed, our own work, within social, economic, historical, and political contexts” (p. 156). They ignore, for instance, the millions of Americans (as Seale points out) who do not have access, or reliable and regular access, to the Internet. They tend to ignore likewise the obstacles to information in post-colonial contexts, where, it should be said, the problems do not bear reduction to a case of first-world abundance and third-world lack. Regimes of intellectual property, themselves pillars of “the Information Society,” replicate elements of imperialism, in that western powers (states and others) extract knowledge from non-western societies, knowledge which then circulates as a commodity largely out of reach of those to whom, according to one sense of “fair use,” that knowledge rightfully belongs.

The “feminization of knowing” (Rita Goldberg): The crisis of expertise has special meaning in an historically female and feminized profession. Let me remind myself that ignorance has a sexed and gendered history. In the modern era, with the spread of literacy and printed matter, those whose ways of knowing had traditionally worn the blot of an “originary, passive” ignorance, defined in opposition to the activity of knowledge (as gossip, as “old wives’ tales,” etc.) — those ignorant ones, i.e., women, laid claim to the right to exercise a public knowledge, on par with men. And yet, though no longer ignorant, women were relegated to “inferior” forms of knowledge, i.e., forms of study and practice that never quite shook off the association with the traditionally subaltern status of domestic work. Hence the “feminine” professions — nursing, teaching, librarianship, secretarial and paralegal work, etc. — occupied, and still do occupy, adjunct positions in the hierarchy of expertise. These jobs can demand as much or more sweat, wit, perspicacity, sangfroid, wisdom, genius, what have you, as whatever the more highly paid, and still very often male, expert is doing in the vicinity. (Not only does the secretary have to take care of the secretary’s work, she has also often to take care of the boss’ work, and also to take care of the boss himself, scheduling him, reminding him, prompting him, lending him a sympathetic ear or coddling him in his troubles, running after him when he has forgotten something, covering for his practical or moral lapses.) And what about within the same profession? I don’t have data on this, but isn’t it true that a majority, or at least a moiety, of the really visible experts in our field remain men — and that despite their under-representation in the field as a whole? In the fall my colleagues and I endured a series of webinars about MOOC’s — each one of which began with a woman’s worried voice tending to the microphone, minding the time, and bidding us welcome, which after a few moments gave way to the confident gravitas of the invited speaker, in each case, of course, a man’s.

Aesthetics: Method/Procedure: I wrote that the schoolmaster’s ignorance — his refusal of what elevates his intelligence above that of his students — is a hypothesis that prescribes no procedure. The analogy is, unavoidably, imprecise. We might with equal justice say that it suggests a procedure without hypothesis, in the sense of an artistic “experiment.” When Georges Perec set out to write La Disparition (in English, A Void) completely without the benefit of the letter “e,” one imagines that he had no reason other than an understanding that even the most arbitrary constraints can be generative, and a desire to see if he could carry this particular procedure off. Starting from the simple constraint that stipulates the equality of intelligence, what procedures can we derive? The one — really the only one — that Rancière suggests is as follows:

[B]etween the ignorant schoolmaster and the emancipated novice there is always a third thing — a book or some other piece of writing — alien to both and to which they can refer to verify in common what the pupil has seen, what she says about it and what she thinks of it. (The Emancipated Spectator, pp. 14-15)

That this passage occupies the introduction to a book about aesthetics suggests that the analogy with artistic practice is not accidental. But we have to grasp the sense in which Rancière uses the word “aesthetic.” For him, the aesthetic is that object, that “third thing,” that harbors the potential to disrupt the order of enforced consent, opening a space for disagreement. What do you see there (in that video clip, on that map, in that abstract to a journal article)? That’s not what I see there…or I see what you see, yes, but… The trick, pedagogically, is at that point to keep the exchange going. This “yes, but” is a very common mode of reasoning, and yet — to return to our theme — it occupies a marginal role in those discourses that prescribe instrumental models of learning, such as the Information Literacy Competency Standards. Nor is it perhaps truly compatible with the concept of “information” as those Standards define it. There is, in fact, a conflict latent in the Standards between two models of rationality. According to the one model, which speaks of “lifelong learning,” and which we might call “liberal” — according to this model, being “informed” pertains to the possibility of political and social consensus. This model requires that the reasoning of equal beings be founded on an equal distribution of knowledge, but of the right knowledge. The trouble with this model, which the Standards implicitly recognize in their function as “standards,” is that it proves difficult, if not impossible, to assess. Enter the second model of rationality: the bureaucratic type, which prescribes explicit rules, and in which information is less about the judicious exercise of power than the efficient maintenance of control. Bureaucratic rationality does not require an equal distribution of knowledge; indeed, such a distribution is anathema to the hierarchic structure bureaucracies entail. Rationality, in bureaucratic terms, ensures the smooth functioning of command: “The information literature student will…”

The point is that there is, or could be, a third model: dissensus. The aesthetic object is what invites dissensus because it invites new ways of seeing and feeling, new relations between oneself and others, simply through the fact that people don’t know what to make of it. It is one of the paradoxes — the tragic paradoxes — of the public life of modern and contemporary art that the majority of people regard it, i.e., the works labeled as such, as being not for them. They assume, because they don’t know what to make of it, that such art emanates from an intelligence superior to theirs. This is a paradox because the real function of art in the modernist and postmodernist traditions — and I think I can say so, even though these traditions are admittedly multiple and dissensual — is not to harbor any secret understanding. To create such art doesn’t necessarily require specialized technique. The real function, or force, of such art, for me as for Rancière, attaches to its ability to make one encounter something that one doesn’t immediately know what to do with, what to make of, how to process. And I would wager anything that the most critically “successful” instances of this art have arisen from experiences that harbored the same radical challenge to their creators: What do I with this? What now? Why thus? Sharing the work with others carries forward this encounter with uncertainty and makes it ramify.

By this logic, the aesthetic is not the exclusive purview of artists; artists are not experts in the aesthetic. If people may inhabit palpably aeshetic ways of being, I might think about librarians, in fact. Sartorially, ours are not the crisp polo shirts, the pearls and pencil skirts, the regularly pressed pinstriped suits of other bureaucratic workers at the university (excepting, of course, the professoriate), those who by choice or force parade in that attire called, aptly, “business.” Our motley is not the mantle of the self-assured. And in social settings, some — or many — of us are “awkward,” as the kids say, and can appear “inappropriate”: people whose bodies, habits, and affects may, at least in some settings, “stick out,” or whose words may, at least to some ears, seem to acquire, garrolously, querolously, breathlessly, the plumage of scare-quotes. (This is a quality probably widely shared among introverts; unaccustomed to thinking aloud, when we do, what we say can strike us as being in disagreement with what we imagined that we thought.) There is a certain professional perquisite in this partial and prickly eclipse of the norm, but also a matter of elective affinity. I confess to having been too quick to dismiss this affinity at times, deeming it a liability. Indeed, I do think that the insularity of the library profession — a separate, albeit related, issue — militates against a certain collective maturity about our aims and means — not to mention the “innovation” of late being demanded of us. This demand tends to construe as out-dated or even recherche that which has arguably been the virtue of the library, as an historical institution: its relatively indiscriminate methods of collection and curation. Traditionally, a lot of textual “stuff” has founds its way into libraries, including a lot of stuff that seems dubious or even worthless alongside the popular, “valuable,” or “standard” works. But the library is a place of errant paths. As such, it harbors the potential for dissensual practices of reason. Perhaps we ought to embrace the ways in which we, its stewards, are “out of sync,” instead of hurrying to catch up. Perhaps instead of trying to repress our quirks and prove our “relevance,” we ought to make of irrelevance a politically and intellectually subversive, aesthetically impertinent means of intervention. As Rancière writes,

The system of information is a “common sense” […]: a spatiotemporal system in which words and visible forms are assembled into shared data, shared ways of perceiving, being affected and imparting meaning. The point is not to counterpose reality to its appearances. It is to construct different realities, different forms of common sense — that is to say, different spatiotemporal systems, different communities of words and things, forms and meanings. (The Emancipated Spectator, p. 102)

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