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 moq.org, 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.