The Madhouse and the Whole Thing There: A Note on Amateurs and Professionals

I’m still tinkering around with this theme of “amateurs” and “professionals.” I’m writing a longer piece, which I’ve filed under my “Work in Progress” rubric, but I wanted to share a little extract here of where my head is currently at. These days, pros dominate not only urban studies but every aspect of economic and political life. Professional ideology is normalised into the very being of working life and career ambitions. Lots of educated people are “hailed” into professionalism much the same way Althusser said ideology “recruits” individuals as class subjects. “Hey, you there!” says Althusser. We’re hailed, interpellated. And somehow we know it’s us who’s being called. “Yep, I’m here.” This hailing interpellates concrete individuals as professional class subjects, enabling people to willingly and gladly swallow the corporate line, to speak the business speak, to lean in, to internalise the mantras, to participate readily as a team player in the organisation, in “our” organisation. We become believing professional subjects, breathing the company, even at weekends.

Maybe it’s just me but whenever I hear business types speak their banalities, or even academics talk about research assessments and finance, about grant money and committees for this and that, I feel the same sense of outsiderness and stupefaction as Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. I love the scene when he goes to a reunion of his old school pals. They’re all “successes,” of course, yet only capable of thinking about promotion. He’s struck by “the pettiness of their thoughts, the stupidity of their pursuits, their games, their conversations.” “They talked about excise duty,” he says, “about business in the Senate, about salaries and promotions, about His Excellency, and the best means to please him, and so on, and so on.” It all sounds somehow familiar.

One vital counter to all this is CONFRONTATION, of amateurs being subversive, of not swallowing professional soundbite, of shrugging off professional ambition, of refusing professional recruitment. “Hey, you there!” “NO, NOT ME!” Amateurs need courage; we need to fiercely guard our independence and resist professional domestication, immunise ourselves against professional lures, against incorporation into the corporation, academic or otherwise.

Remember one of Edward Said’s amateur heroes—or amateur anti-heroes—Bazarov, from Turgenev’s Fathers and Children (1862). Bazarov sets the tone, dictates a standard; he might be our conscience. Bazarov has a hard time with the mealy-mouthed elders of his day, with the liberals and reactionaries who tell you to respect the law and obey the current order of things. Bazarov embraces progressiveness, scoffs at mediocrity, assails clichés. He’d doubtless scowl at the professional spin you hear these days. Bazarov regards everything with scepticism. And he doesn’t take fools gladly. He’s at two with the world he’s compelled to live in. Bazarov doesn’t kowtow to any authority, doesn’t acknowledge any superior. He’s an unrelenting questioner, a devastatingly confrontational intellect, a dedicated amateur, a dialectical spirit. Either society has to go or he goes.

In Chapter Ten of Fathers and Sons, we glimpse Bazarov in action, tackling head on Pavel Petrovich, the “funny old” liberal uncle of Bazarov’s friend Arkady.

“At present,” says Bazarov, “the most useful thing is negation.”

“Everything?” wonders Pavel Petrovich.


“How can that be? Not only art, poetry—but also—terrible to say—”

“‘Everything,’ repeated Bazarov with indescribable composure.”

In fact, Bazarov is a lot like his alter ego a century on, Guy Debord, the Situationist muckraker, another dialectical spirit, who practiced as well as preached détournement, the pillorying and hijacking of all things, the negation of all “professional” things—of bourgeois art and literature, of bourgeois politics and urbanism, of bourgeois spaces and ideas. “All my life,” Debord said at the beginning of Panegyric, his slim autobiography, “I’ve seen only troubled times, extreme divisions in society, and immense destruction; I have taken part in these troubles.” Debord was a prophet of storms: he lived through a lot of them, conjuring up a few more in his own imagination. “I went slowly but inevitably,” he says, “toward a life of adventure, with my eyes open. I couldn’t even think of studying for one of the learned professions that lead to holding down a job, for all of them seemed completely alien to my tastes or contrary to my opinions.”

But Debord the destroyer was also Debord the creator of the greatest dialectical prose poem crafted by an amateur: The Society of the Spectacle, from 1967. One of its best lines is its opener, perhaps one of the best political lines ever written: “All that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” The Society of the Spectacle’s 221 strange, elegant theses, aphoristic in style and peppered with irony, give us stirring crescendos of literary power, compelling evocations of a professional “spectacular” world in which division spells unity, appearance essence, and falsity truth. In this topsy-turvy world everything and everybody partakes in a perverse paradox, a paradox denied. What the young Marx said in 1844 still holds: “I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful women. Therefore I am not ugly… I, in my character as an individual am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honored, and therefore so is its possessor… money is the real mind of all things and how can its possessor be stupid?”

Debord wanted to resist the reality of this professional non-reality, this world in which ugliness signified beauty, dishonesty honesty, stupidity intelligence. He wanted to subject it to his own dialectical inversion, to his own spirit of negation. We’d do well to take heed. Scathing of the “professional underlings of the spectacle,” as he called them, Debord wrote a follow up to his original masterpiece, twenty-one years later: Comments on the Society of Spectacle. He felt beholden to write again about our times, about times even more dire than before, because, he said, it seemed nobody else would. What he’d spotted was a spectacular coup d’état, a society gone madly professionalised, earmarked by several distinctive features: incessant technological renewal; integration of state and economy; generalised secrecy; unanswerable lies; and an eternal present.

Techno-gizmos proliferate at unprecedented speeds; commodities outdate themselves almost each week; nobody can step down the same supermarket aisle twice. The commodity is beyond criticism; useless junk nobody really needs assumes a vital life force that everybody apparently wants. The state and economy have congealed into an undistinguishable unity, managed by professional spin doctors, spin-doctored by professional managers. Everyone is at the mercy of the professional expert or specialist, and the most useful expert and specialist is he or she who can best lie. Without any real forum for dissent, public opinion has been silenced. Masked behind game shows, reality television and CNN, news of what is genuinely important, of what is really changing, is seldom seen or heard. Professional ineptitude compels not laughter but universal respect, as if that offers some kind of guarantee.

At times, you get the sense Debord follows Stephen Dedalus from Joyce’s The Portrait of Artist as a Young Man, even if he does it as an older man, expressing himself in some mode of life and art as freely as he can, and as wholly as he can, using for his defense his only arms: “SILENCE, EXILE, CUNNING.” Debord said he’d cherished the pleasures of exile as others had suffered the pains of submission. Is this impulse expressive of the amateur plight today? Maybe all amateurs are likely to be in some kind of metaphysical exile, out of place, displaced, living life, as James Joyce says, this time in Finnegans Wake, “in the broadest way immarginable.” Yet I wonder, too, if amateurs nowadays can’t afford the luxury of staying silent, that they should air their dialectical contradictions, express them as loudly as they can, in public, battle for them, exteriorize them, alongside other amateurs.

To be sure, as Debord himself knew: “in an unified world there is no exile.” There is no real exile for the amateur, no geographical safe haven to flee to, no without the spectacle—only a refusal to perform within it, or to perform in a different subversive way; to be restless and questioning, sceptical and adversarial, caring for ideas that are ambiguous and contradictory, ironic and even comic. Dialectical amateurs will revel in expansiveness, in conflict and contradiction, just as pros will doubtless demand consensus and reconciliation. The pro’s media machine wants simple soundbite and clarity; the dialectical amateur affirms complexity and paradox—thoughts and ideas that can’t be distilled into trite banalities.

Maybe William Empson’s work on poetic ambiguity (Seven Types of Ambiguity) works itself through the amateur personality as a psychological and social ambiguity, as an ambiguity that animates amateur art as well as politics, that mobilizes metaphor (I); that turns opposites into new ideas (II); that puns—think of the wonderful chaosmos of James Joyce, a world in which everybuddy lived alove with everybiddy else, preventing everybully taking over (III); that uses surprising words to reveal internal conflict (IV); that expresses “fortunate confusions” as random, unexpected words prompt fresh, unexpected thoughts and deeds (V); that fills in ambiguities left through professional emptiness, through lack of content, through stupid contentless banality (VI); and that, finally, recognizes the power of certain oppositions, that they’ll never be entirely resolved, and so be it (VII).

Most ambiguities, says Empson, are beautiful: they hold things together in dynamic tension; they don’t imply uncertainty but convey honesty; they don’t lack clarity but express tension, essential contradictions that form a necessary totality, tensions that must be conveyed and addressed, sometimes sustained. Such provides a richer meaning to words and actions, and to politics. The amateur personality will be a complex residue, a minority, a normative type, someone who ought to be, who we now need more than ever, a real intellectual, a real critic as artist, a creative destroyer, an ordinary amateur citizen with magical powers, with negative capabilities.

En route, we’ll see how amateur personalities will likely be fragile characters, too, minor characters who’ll need other minor amateur characters for support, other fragile dialectical personalities. Our inner contradictions must be expressed as collective enunciations, as an active dialectical solidarity. Together, we can create something positive, fuse all our negative energies and conjoin into something amateurishly affirmative, living beyond the negative. The maths is simple: the multiplication of negative integers stacks up into a positive whole number. Such is the creative ambiguity, the affirmation of our own amateur minority-hood, and no less inspiring for that. On the contrary, always on the contrary: we have just cause to celebrate our becoming-amateur, our collective and dialectical joyfulness in the madhouse and the whole thing there. [1]


[1]  I’m paraphrasing Empson’s poem, from 1949, “Let it Go.”

About Andy Merrifield

Writer, Urbanist, Marxist, Educator
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1 Response to The Madhouse and the Whole Thing There: A Note on Amateurs and Professionals

  1. roger steer says:

    I’ve just read your article in City on Amateur Urbanism.
    I was hoping to send it on to others I know .
    Will you be posting it here in due course?.
    It is extremely apposite to my activities and many with unconventional careers.
    We are not alone.


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