Of experts and inexperts

Jules Boykoff

In her last post, Kaia wrote about inexpertise as a possibly positive interventionary poetry stance.

Many of us have a conflicted relationship with experts and expertise. To be sure, in general, contemporary society demands increased reliance on and deference toward experts and expertise. Pay heed to the news any day of the week—whether it be television or radio or a newspaper—and you’ll find a cavalcade of experts expertly asserting expertise. 

On the positive side, experts can provide us with shortcuts, time-savers, insider insights, and thought-provoking analysis. Not a day goes by when I don’t appreciate an expert offering shrewd dissection of a topic I hadn’t quite thought of in that particular way. 

In his essay “The Role of Intellectuals Today,” Pierre Bourdieu addresses the positive role expertise can play as he encourages us to rupture the dichotomy between “the pure intellectual and the engaged intellectual,” challenging academics and artists to establish standing within the halls of academia and artedemia (if you will) before vaulting oneself into the realm of real-world political intervention.

In fact, he embeds an interventionary component into his very definition of an intellectual, writing, “Very plainly, the intellectual is a writer, and artist, a scientist, who, strengthened by the competence and the authority acquired in his field, intervenes in the political arena” (p. 3). Unmistakably, Bourdieu considers artists—and thus poets—within this rubric of responsibility (indeed duty!).

In a separate lecture, Bourdieu more clearly states his idea of the intellectual and culture worker as a “bidimensional being”:

“To be entitled to the name of intellectual, a cultural producer must fulfill two conditions: on the one hand, he must belong to an autonomous intellectual world (a field), that is, independent from religious, political, and economic powers (and so on), and must respect its specific laws; on the other hand, he must invest the competence and authority he has acquired in the intellectual field in a political action, which is in any case carried out outside the intellectual field proper” (p. 656).

One interpretation of this is that Bourdieu wants culture workers to assert competence in one’s chosen field and then to use one’s autonomy for the larger good. Numerous poets have taken this road, from Muriel Rukeyser to Dennis Brutus to Carolyn Forché to Amiri Baraka to Martín Espada to Mark Nowak to hundreds and hundreds of others. I think of them as public-sphere poets who springboard out of poetry to larger-world issues and struggles.

On the other hand, experts can fortify and exacerbate the political spectacle and simultaneously give us an alibi for a brain freeze. Consider the political punditocracy jibber-jabbering 24-7 with rampant self-assurance, channeling our thinking into well-worn ruts of thought. Or conjure the poet laureate confidently and uncomplicatedly asserting poetry is this (what I do!), but not that (what they do!).

Guy Debord gets at the deference dynamic in Comments on the Society of the Spectacle when he writes that technological innovation’s “most recent acceleration…has greatly reinforced spectacular authority, by surrendering everybody to the mercy of the specialists, to their calculations and to the judgments which always depend on them” (p. 12). Capitalism rewards hyper-specialization into disciplines and the tendency to leave it to the experts. Yet, as Kaia noted in her previous commentary, this is a trend poets can productively and thought-provokingly slice against.

Plus, it wasn’t always this way. According to sociologist Steven Brint, professional life has changed from valuing wide-ranging jack-of-all-trades professionals who practice “societal trustee professionalism” to today where we have “consolidation around the idea of marketable expertise” (p. 20). This shift occurred in the post-WWII era and intensified under neoliberalism whereby market forces undercut professional autonomy. The dominant logic of the private sector—symbolized by the ready-for-action, use-value-oozing expert—was grafted mercilessly onto the professions. This transmogrified generalists into experts with a predilection for the narrowly technical. Brint puts it this way: “expertise is now a resource sold to bidders in the market for skilled labor” (p. 15) Brint contends this trend of professionalization and expertification tends to breed intellectual narrowness and excessive deference.

How can interventionary poets deal with this professionalization replete with all its manifold pressures and pleasantries? In Representations of the Intellectual Edward Said suggests one possibility: embracing concerted and strategic amateurism. Such amateurism means participating in activity fueled by care and affection rather than by profit and hyper-specialization. He wrote, “The intellectual today ought to be an amateur, someone who considers that to be a thinking and concerned member of society one is entitled to raise moral issues at the heart of even the most technical and professionalized activity as it involves one’s country, its power, its mode of interacting with its citizens as well as with other societies” (pp. 82-83).

Said’s preference for amateurism is echoed by the Critical Art Ensemble, which also eschews the “expert” moniker in their book Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical Media. Instead they coin the term “tactical media practitioner” as someone who moves beyond theorizing and academicizing to create “participatory events that demonstrate the critique through an experiential process.” The “tactical media practitioner” explicitly prefers amateurism to experthood since, they contend, “Amateurs have the ability to see through the dominant paradigms, are freer to recombine elements of paradigms thought long dead, and can apply everyday life experience to their deliberations. Most important, however, amateurs are not invested in institutionalized systems of knowledge production and policy construction, and hence do not have irresistible forces guiding the outcome of their process such as maintaining a place in the funding hierarchy, or maintaining prestige-capital” (pp. 8-9).

In my next commentary I’ll consider the work of poets who strategically embrace an inexpert stance so they can, in Kaia’s words, show how “inexpert investigation in poetry opens a space: what is left open is left open.”


 Pierre Bourdieu, “The Role of Intellectuals Today,” Theoria 49 (99) 2002: 1-6.

Pierre Bourdieu,“Fourth Lecture. Universal Corporatism: The Role of Intellectuals in the Modern World,” Trans. Gisele Sapiro, Brian McHale, Poetics Today, Vol. 12, No. 4, (1991): 655-669.

Steven Brint, In an Age of Experts: The Changing Roles of Professionals in Politics and Public Life, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Critical Art Ensemble, Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical Media, New York: Autonomedia, 2001.

Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, (trans. Malcolm Imrie). London: Verso, 1990.

Edward Said,  Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures, New York: Vintage Books, 1994.