On Specialist Knowledge

Some years ago, a priest who was teaching a class I was auditing sat down with me to teach me how to chant a collect. (A collect — accent on the first syllable because it is a noun — is a prayer said by an officiant on a specific occasion to “collect” the prayerful intentions of the whole gathering. It has three main parts: it names God in a specific way, asks for a blessing in keeping with that name, and finishes with a doxology. I digress, but this will be useful in a moment.) The lesson didn’t last very long, because she discovered that I already knew where to put which cantilations. “It’s a grammar,” I said.

But here’s the thing. I knew how to chant a collect because I had been listening to priests who knew what they were doing chant collects year in and year out till I picked up the grammar by instinct. I still don’t know what that grammar is, diagramatically. I have the knowledge-by-acquaintance of how to chant a collect; I don’t have the specialist knowledge of how these cantilation structures work.

In my aside above about the definition of a collect, I mentioned the emphasis on the first syllable “because it is a noun.” Until someone on social media mentioned this rule in passing, it hadn’t occurred to me to notice that in English nouns that double as verbs, the accent goes on the first syllable for the noun form and the second syllable for the verb form — so a collect is a prayer that collects; a record is what results when you record something, and so on. Do we need to know this information? No, but somebody should know it. That context is meaningful, and may at times be crucial.

On the other hand, there was the time when I was six and an instructor was trying to teach me how to ski down a slope. “Put your weight on one foot,” she said, and I tried to put one ski on top of the other. “No, it’s more like leaning,” she corrected, and I almost fell over. It wasn’t till a few weeks later, when I was playing and thinking about something completely different, that her meaning clicked and I said, “Ohhhh!” I didn’t have the experiential knowledge needed to grasp the special skill she was teaching me. I didn’t yet have the muscle memory of purposely shifting all my weight to one hip, that poised flex of the bearing knee, that sweet spot of placement for my center of gravity (what’s that?).

Many times, we pick up knowledge by experience and we don’t know what we know until we are presented with specialist knowledge. We have to make a successful handshake for the two knowledges to integrate, and sometimes that’s a real challenge.

Such a challenge came up for me last night when Adam Neely’s latest video dropped. I’ll wait here while you watch it. It’s worth all 27 minutes.

Yes, it’s about Céline Dion; yes, it’s about a power ballad I always thought cheesy — though thanks to Adam Neely I am now aware that it’s a deliberate quotation of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. So that’s no wonder because, Unpopular Opinion time, I think Rachmaninoff and a lot of the other Later Romantics are cloyingly overwrought. But that doesn’t matter, because Adam Neely’s actual topic is fascinating: it’s an exploded diagram of the aural and emotional effects of a key change on a sustained note.

As someone who plays music as a craft but is not a practitioner of it as an art, I can appreciate the specialist knowledge Neely brings here, and I can even bring to bear my own experience of feeling myself in or out of tune with the ensemble when playing the flute, or the experience of blending when using my voice (I’m told I blend well, but I don’t get much of a chance to practice these days). I have the ghostly memory of what it means to sustain a note and feel the context change around it so completely that I have to hold up against a chill. I know what it’s like to try and sing without succumbing to the emotional power of the music. But even with all that experience, I still had to reverse the video three or four times in places and go, “Okay, Adam, run that by me again.”

It gives me a renewed appreciation for specialist knowledge.

But while it’s true that we don’t know what we know, we also don’t know what we don’t know. This is the basis of what’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is how you get assholes convinced they are experts pontificating about shit they clearly know very little about. A friend recently sent me this article about the interpersonal pitfalls of encountering such people when you have specialist knowledge. When people experience a missed handshake between their experience and specialist information, it can read to their brains like an actual threat. The experience of being wrong can be felt as a kind of death, and the person inflicting that experience becomes a killer.

I don’t have to elaborate, do I, about how we’re seeing this aggression toward “experts” in the public square, to the point where “science” itself is a loaded catchall term for any situation in which we don’t put up with someone talking out of their ass? Okay. Let’s skip to what I said to my friend M who sent me that article.

What I said was, “I think women experts actually go through those stages [that Venkatesh Rao talks about] in reverse. We doubt ourselves; then we try to help; then we are reduced to manipulating people; then we wash our hands of it.” Who the expert is makes a vast amount of difference to the level of threat people feel when they encounter that uncanny valley between what they know and what they don’t know. I don’t think it’s an accident that expertise itself is being disparaged at a time when women and minorities are completing post-secondary educations at unprecedented levels.

Worse, post-secondary education has become inextricably tied up with class, so that we are all too likely to see someone with a college degree as someone who was able to complete a class gatekeeping ritual where others could not. The degree, and the jargon they pick up getting it, has no other meaning than that.

Yet this can’t be entirely true, or else Adam Neely wouldn’t have thousands of people watching (and reversing to rewatch) his explanations of music theory every time he drops a new video. It helps that Neely’s not threatening: he’s a cute young white guy with a Baptist haircut (an aesthetic I happen to like, so I’m not disparaging him here), operating on a social media platform. He’s clearly leaning in to all these advantages for his living; and why not, if it results in thousands of folks having fun while learning about music theory?

Step one, getting the expertise, is difficult enough. Step two, making use of it for the public good, is often dependent on whether we are the kind of person others want to recognize as an expert, and is therefore not necessarily within our control. But when we succeed, it’s nearly always because of a personal encounter: a priest teaching a theology student, or a ski instructor helping a six-year-old negotiate a slope. Even a one-way encounter on social media is still a place where one person (me) on a quiet Friday night during a pandemic can navigate that uncanny valley between what she knows and what she can’t yet grasp.

I don’t think that if we are an expert in something that it obliges us to try to reduce people’s threat level in any given encounter. But it seems to me that a reduced threat level is part of the exploded diagram of a successful encounter between someone’s experience and specialist knowledge, whether that’s within our reach or not. And I don’t blame people for washing their hands of some folks for whom, clearly, the least scintilla of acknowledgment is a crucifixion. Some of these folks are just going to have to go through some things.

I guess my takeaway this morning is that we need specialist knowledge, and we need people who are practitioners of it, and we need those handshake moments without which we cannot integrate our lives as we’ve lived them so far with what comes next. It’s an uncanny valley, and the tone colors are amazing. Meet me here.

Saturday gallimaufry

Here I am, on a Saturday morning, with cat paralysis, in an idle mood. So here are some idle thoughts.

Authors in bagel shops getting coffee

It was very fortunate that I was slated to host the book club this month, as I needed some kind of impetus to unearth my kitchen from, let’s be honest, months of neglect. It’s…still a work in progress, but reasonably presentable. Or at least I hope so, because right after that I had a houseguest — my longtime friend, beta reader, and fellow author Erica Smith — for two days of playing with the cat and chilling on the porch with tea (when I wasn’t at work). I did manage to take a selfie of us at the bagel shop, but didn’t get any other pictures — dammit, apparently even a new camera is not enough to remind me of such things.

Ah well; Erica and I had some good in-person confab about our respective works in progress, which is what’s really important. And Erica didn’t seem to mind my dubious hospitality, which is as much the mark of a friend as going to a friend’s house and finding they didn’t overclean it for your arrival.

It’s my turn to choose the book club book again come September, so in hopes of finding something new to present, I bought a Kindle copy of The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. It was entirely worth the recs I’d seen for it: the story was absorbing from the first moment, emotionally complex, with an intricate world and a fantastical, slightly steampunk-flavored atmosphere. And I read it all in one sitting — or I would have, if my eyes hadn’t given out at 96% at which point I realized I was in desperate need of sleep. I finished it first thing the next morning. This book is not, I fear, the kind of universal crowd-pleaser that To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book (the most recent book club book) were — but then, what is? I may make them read it anyway, and get loaded on wine before it’s time to have the discussion.

Anyway, thanks to book club my nightstand currently looks like the quintessence of my mental space, so I took a picture of it to use for the category in future.

And finally, there was really no contest this morning between going out to run errands and getting out my watercolors. I had an idea of trying to represent what a prayer-light bowl looks like, based on a memory of a dish I used to have and with a tea-light in a different bowl as a guide. The result is not impressive but the color is all right. I may try this again on black paper, which would save me attempting a satisfactory background wash.

And that, I think, is all the news that’s fit to print.

Monday gallimaufry

Yes, even when I’m on writing sabbath this blog is 100% genuwyne quality content. Starting with thanks to the folks who sent me recs for summer reading — I’ve ordered a few things and look forward to charging my Kindle frequently.

One author I like to collect in hard copy, meanwhile, is Ann Leckie, and since I’ve had a critical mass of recs for her new fantasy novel The Raven Tower, I went ahead and bought it to read over the weekend. I was not disappointed. One of the things I appreciate so much about Leckie — apart from the commitment to pushing the frontiers of how we treat gender in SFF and the interrogation of domination systems in fine, spare prose — is the internal consistency of her inventions. Every McGuffin has a firm solidity, every world has a margin outside the frame of the story. And she knows how to surprise. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy a story written in the second person — strictly speaking, second person isn’t really a POV, as it assumes (as this story does) a first-person narrator to focus on that second person. The character in focus is a trans man; and Leckie is an example to any writer wanting to do representation right, because that fact, while it presents complications in some situations, isn’t what the story is about, nor does Eolo have anything less than an individual take on his own identity.

I also appreciate reading the kind of story that I also prefer to write — one in which the final reveal is not a sprung surprise but a culmination of what is in plain view. The Raven Tower, perhaps appropriately, has a plot like granite — disparate events being gradually drawn and fused by great pressures — and the final tableau is satisfying as any parable should be, with a stone-like chill to tickle the reader’s spine with. Altogether I would say that for me this book was not as life-changing a read as Ancillary Justice, but easier to bond with than Provenance. I give it an unreserved rec.

In other news, a friend from my community, on hearing that I’d taken up photography, offered to send me an extra camera of his — gratis, as he was in the process of decluttering his house. To my shocked pleasure, what arrived in a box for me the following week was a very fine never-used Lumix with an all-in-one telephoto lens. I’ve been practicing with it, and went out on Saturday to photograph fountains, with really satisfying results.

The camera also has a great capacity for macro shots — I’ve been putting selected photos on Facebook as I take them.

The real photographer in our family, by the way, is my sibling Sam, who took the photo I chose for my author avatar in this and other venues. Sam and I are planning to start a podcast centering on our artistic fields, media criticism, and representation, with (probably) a healthy dose of snark. I’ve been considering launching a newsletter in the future, so podcasts could certainly serve as Genuwyne Quality Content for subscribers, along with easter egg scenes, notes on public appearances (assuming I make any), and other such things as I would be less likely to post on this blog.

I also read an article on the virtues of making a book trailer, which, as I told Erica, “sounded like fun, and by fun I mean a money- and time-sink that results in a disappointing product,” so although it was a little tempting to browse royalty-free music files, I scrapped the idea.

One thing I did make, for my amusement and office white noise, was a new composite generator on the MyNoise site. The Ryswyck one I made six months ago is still nice, but it’s rather stationary in nature. This one I call The Defender — it has a little more drive to it, and makes me think of Speir and her training routines.

Welp, that’s all the news that’s fit to print from these parts.

And now for something completely different

Well, not completely: music and art make their way into my blogging on the regular, and there are plenty of interesting things to post about.

A couple months ago I bought a 24-pan set of watercolors, because I wanted to reproduce my cover-art concept for Beth Leggett. This is the best view of the result:

But the upshot is, I have new watercolors. Yay! So every now and then I pull them out and practice.

Ultimately I’d like to produce an image strong enough to cover “Household Lights,” but that stage is a ways off.

Meanwhile, I have discovered some new music! First, a piece by an Icelandic artist that crossed my path in a Lenten devotion, which informed me that “brot” means “bread” in German and something like “torn” in Icelandic, making a cross-lingual Eucharistic pun of sorts.

And last weekend I was at the symphony (no, I didn’t light my cell phone and call for the Widor Toccata — Carmina Burana was the featured piece and that was quite enough to be going on with), and the opening piece was a new one by Sarah Kirkland Snider called Something for the Dark.

None of my companions liked this piece, but I found it moving and interesting. The reflective motif introduced by the flute in the middle has a strong delicacy that is attractive in itself; and since my head’s been full of Ryswyck since ordering the proof, it made me think of Speir and her perspective, how it gets fraught by events; how it perseveres. If I were making a Ryswyck playlist, I would be tempted to put this piece on it.

Up next on my art-and-music docket: fun with photography. We’ll see if I can get a good walk in between thunderstorms.

Of arts and crafts

Once, watching a friend create a delicious meal in her kitchen, I observed a distinction that I had often had in mind about creative endeavors: that there is a difference between a person’s art and their craft. Craft, as I feign it, is a thing you can learn, become enthusiastic about, even take to a satisfying level of mastery. But art is more than that. It’s the ability to take that endeavor’s internal rules and see how to bend them, even break or replace them, to make something unscripted, something previously unimagined — by one’s self at least.

For my friend in the kitchen, cooking was her art: she could follow a recipe, but she could also reverse-engineer one. She could take what she had mastered about cooking food and do something new with it; she could create, with joy and (sometimes only medieval words will do) maistrie in her own domain.

Cooking is not my art. I have managed to develop some craft, but the kitchen is not what I would call my natural domain.

All the same, it’s stimulating and salutary to take up crafts from time to time, new and old. I immersed myself in two crafts this weekend, and it was a great deal of fun. I joined my friends and their baroque jam band for a Beatles-themed Christmas concert; and while I was at it, I borrowed a friend’s camera and practiced composing shots of my friends playing while the chorus (me) was resting.

Neither music nor photography is my art. I’ve been a player of flute and piccolo, an ensemble singer, a self-appointed rhythm section in church (friends don’t let friends clap on 1 and 3!), but despite all those years of practice and effort and enjoyment, I don’t have the ability to intuit a musical situation and jump into it the way my musician friends do. My musician friends don’t go off-piste: the piste is wherever they say it is. And it sounds wonderful.

I’m not a photographer either. But recently I’ve been so sick of my crappy phone camera that my friend (possibly to stem the tide of recreational complaining) lent me his camera to practice taking shots with. I got a few good ones and probably a large number of unremarkable ones; photography as a craft, for me, is pretty satisfying.

Writing is what I consider to be my art. I work at craft, refine it, revamp it, but in the domain of words, the piste is wherever I say it is. Of course, unlike with music and photography and the visual arts, everybody speaks a language — and everybody has an internal world that they believe contributes to the sum total of positive meaning in the universe. Which it does. So to jump into the situation and start articulating what it means, besides being a creative enterprise, is a very brash act.

I’m not a particularly humble person, but there’s a point where ego simply gets left behind and what remains is a realm of divine stubbornness. I think every person who has discovered that divine stubbornness has found their art: regardless of whether they achieve recognition or confirmation of their quality. The rest, as the poet says, is not our business.