Friday, May 17, 2013

The Friday Experiment

1. Making public — Amateur; 2. Three signposts: Mill, Rorty, Barth — Friday as liminal; 3. Amateur as Sayer — Friday experiment

1.     When I started this blog some years ago, I didn’t really know what I wanted from it.  I think I wanted to feel like someone was listening to my thoughts, which is an important feeling for an intellectual to have sometimes.  Perhaps not all the time, but without publication, thoughts idly ebb away without deposit.  Central to the life of the intellectual is publication—making public, in quite any form, from newspaper editorial to book to diary to conversation.  At least, the process of creating that external self we call “writing” has come to seem central to a form of life that I recognize in a number of people I admire (most of them dead writers).  These are the people for whom the art of living is centrally in the mode Emerson spoke of as the province of the Sayer. 

I came of intellectual age, I think, while pretending to a professionalism about Robert Pirsig for an amateur audience.  Since beginning the course of writing that produced essays for, a time period in which I had dropped out of college and was setting my own agenda entirely, I’ve thought more and more about what it is to be an amateur philosopher.  Since entering on the path toward becoming a professional literary critic, the thought has become permanent: I will never be a professional philosopher—so what is my relationship to philosophy?  And more—what should my relationship be to the many kinds of amateur audience?  “Amateur,” in my vocabulary, is not a term of denigration, for we are all amateurs about something—indeed, most things—and it would seem paramount that we speak intelligently about things on occasion in which we aren’t professionals.  So how do we pull that off?

2.     I don’t have an answer to that, nor of course is there a general one to it, so in lieu of one—or rather, because in lieu is the only route to pursue—I want to re-invigorate the use of my blog, which has fallen by the wayside as I attempt to grind my professional axe.  I’m guided by the combination of three signposts.  One is Mill’s notion of democracy being for the purpose of “experiments of living”—insofar as these experiments do not get in the way of each other, we should be allowed to pursue them.  Another is Rorty’s slogan for Mill’s public/private distinction, that irony and self-creation are for the weekends.  The last is the novelist John Barth’s reason for naming his book of criticism The Friday Book: “on Friday mornings (unless the story in progress asserts the priority reserved to it) I refresh my head with some other sort of sentence-making.”

Barth’s reservation of Friday for this kind of work helpfully punches up a problem Rorty never handled that well in his paeans to self-creative freedom—Friday as a kind of liminal space between public and private, something three-day weekends and differing placements of the Sabbath help call out.  Friday—partway between the freedom of self-creation and the constraint of public objection.  What happens when our experiments of living get in the way of each other?  It can’t be that it is simply the point of contention that must be relinquished by both sides, is it?  And certainly Mill’s injunction does nothing to help decide between the two experiments.  And when you follow through Rorty’s Nietzschean notion that these experiments are in some ways wars between mobile armies of metaphors, it becomes particularly obscure as to just how, in fact, these wars are won.  And knowing that would be helpful in knowing just how we should fight them.

3.     Rorty, I think, was just a little too sanguine about the rule of reason and rationality, a rule he would’ve explicitly denied, but you can’t read people reasoning well without thinking that they hope others do so as well.  So how should we balance between creative freedom and justificatory responsibilities?  That’s another question, I take it, with no route through but in lieu—no way to circumscribe possibilities theoretically, but only to spell out concrete examples practically.  The Friday experiment is halfway between professional persnicketiness and creative daring and riskiness.  But unprofessional conduct faces two directions: one is that genius that Rorty apotheosized in the strong poet; but the other is that facility for public relations between professional and interested amateur.  I think, however, there might be a third form hidden between those two—the amateur itself, become its own Sayer.  The amateur can’t fight the professional on the professional’s ground, but if the professional is relating to the amateur at all, it can’t solely be on grounds that the professional owns professionally—it must be on some neutral territory, halfway between professional territory and territories unrelated.  And there professional and amateur come into contact, and there the amateur must know how to stake their ground legitimately and not be cowed illegitimately—and likewise for the professional, for knowing when you are overreaching is not professional wisdom.

The Friday experiment: halfway between professional knowledge and lay audience; between professional sentence-making and experimental forms; between self-creation and public edification; between what I tell my colleagues or my students and what I reserve solely for myself or am silent of entirely and let ebb quietly away.


  1. AnonymousJune 21, 2013

    Well...first of all I'm a 64 year old amateur responding to my first ever blog.(one of your bricklayers)...actually a carpenter and builder. I found your site while browsing on Pirsig. I find your ramblings stimulating and challenging. Keep up the good work.

    1. Good on you. I find Pirsig to be one of the most effective gateway drugs.

  2. Have you read The Company We Keep by Wayne C. Booth? I think you'd like it given your interests. I, too, read ZMM when I was young, and it certainly sparked in me an interest in philosophy.

    Kerouac, however, was the author who influenced me the most because his passion for reading and writing led me to become an English major (and eventually an English professor).

    But, like you, I am still much enamored of philosophy, particularly moral philosophy, epistemology, and rhetoric. In fact, my area of specialty is Ethics and Fictional Narrative, an approach that is based on Wayne Booth's work, particularly The Company We Keep. (Booth, for a short time, was even on my dissertation, but I let him off the hook when I realized that he was too busy, particularly given his age. But somewhere I've got his signature on my dissertation prospectus!).

    I also noticed your discussion about writing for an amateur audience, and I like what you said. I wish more people acknowledged the importance of being a life-long amateur, of writing for amateurs, and of having pride in trying to learn something new as an amateur.

    I just realized while writing my last sentence that Booth has a book on being an amateur (I think it's called For the Love of It). Well, I'll end with that strange circle from Booth to Booth.

    Best wishes and keep up the good work.


    1. I have not read Booth's book, but it is one of several on my shelf that I wish I could get to. I keep getting pushed around by "professional" demands. I think I found my way to Booth because of his relationship to the Chicago critics (which had its own resonance for me because of Pirsig's relationship to Chicago), and then through Martha Nussbaum, who championed Booth's book and whose work I've read a little of. I've always been wary of Nussbaum because of her somewhat fierce stance toward my favorite neopragmatists (esp. my spirit-father, Rorty, and Fish), but I've also found her work quite easy to coopt for my pragmatist purposes. The more daring I get in wedding her and other of my spirit-father's adversaries, like Bernard Williams and Stanley Cavell, together with my personal pantheon, the more often I look over at The Company We Keep and sigh. One might look at my relatively recent "Touchstones" (especially section 3) and see why--like Booth's figure, I've turned toward thinking about our relationship to books in terms of personal relationships. My struggle, which has become a struggle in working out the project of my dissertation, has been to remain foxy in my appreciation of the variety of ways in which we read. Becoming a professional, it seems to me, has seemed to imply that the future academic make hedgehog-like claims of "This is the one, true way of reading!!!" Everyone I talk to, of course, says no, no one doesn't have to, but adds that it does make it easier to sell yourself to the academy. It just feels like it's hard to be a fox of modest skills in today's professional environment.

      I get the feeling that we work in a similar area. I originally wanted to write something about the ethical dimensions of fictional narrative, and then just narrative, but now I find myself all the way back around to what really turns me on, which is nonfictional prose. I find myself deeply in the reading of Moby-Dick and Dickinson's stanzas, but not as deeply as when I'm writing about them. It seems perverse for a literary critic to say that, and perhaps it should since it is at root egotism, but such navel-gazing is what always leads me back to the forms of criticism I and others I love deploy. And that's just philosophy, really. What are the appropriate terms of criticism, in Cavell's phrase, for what we do, and what are the ethics of controversy, in a phrase I learned from Rorty (though he likely picked it up from Sidney Hook, or maybe Richard McKeon)? Maybe it's...maybe what fascinates me most, we could say, are the ways in which we relate to each other about how we relate to things deeply personal. So, if you have a personal relationship with Isabel Archer, how do you carry out a discussion with other people about it? How, more to the point, does one argue about it? On what terms do we kibitz with each other about our loves?

      I'll have to look for that Booth book on the amateur. The more professionalization fails to take with me, the more I think beyond.


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