The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Tag: viktor shklovsky

Experts and Intellectuals: A Monologue on Knowledge

The pursuit of knowledge is an ancient activity. It can be carried out in more ways than one. In contemporary Western societies, knowledge is the province of the expert. The expert – that most contemporary of personages – is distinguished by his or her specificity: one is not an expert in a general sense; one is an expert in some field or on some topic. To achieve expert status, one has to concentrate one’s intellectual faculties very narrowly indeed. This form of epistemology is reflected in the structure of academia, wherein the discipline is paramount: one is expected to be an expert in a particular discipline, and disciplines are defined increasingly narrowly. The common sense of the contemporary academy is that as the world becomes more complicated the useful intelligence is that which can  specialize the most minutely.

This is increasingly apparent in the financial sector. Managing one’s own financial resources has now become such a gargantuanly complicated task that one can’t do it alone. A lifetime of training is needed to understand an average person’s financial affairs. Note this ad from Irish bank EBS, who brand themselves “the mortgage masters” and declare: “Some jobs need a master, with the perfect combination of dedication, focus and expertise … You need someone who can draw on decades of know-how… Not a jack-of-all-trades, but the master of one … For a job as important as your mortgage, that’s EBS.”


The ideology of the expert is being offered up here, with an emphasis on the impossibility of the subject being entirely beyond the ordinary individual. What is the difficulty with this? My difficulty is that we are not dealing with a pre-given complexity which needs a sophisticated intelligence to understand it; we are dealing with a constructed complexity (the financial system) whose existence provides financial benefit to the very people who create and uphold it. Certainly, an individual’s finances can be as complicated as you like. The question that the businessperson is unlikely to ask, but that the intellectual should, is: should they be? Or again, need they be? Is it not, rather, the ultimate in alienation that we cannot understand our own financial status and judge our own best interests?


So academics and intellectuals more generally should be wary of the role of expert, and his/her self-serving need to increase the intellectual sophistication of his/her position. Another way is possible, and has a long history. Imagine a world wherein knowledge was gained not by a narrowing of the intellectual vision, but a widening thereof. Reading recently Paul Feyerabend’s Three Dialogues on Knowledge (1991), I was introduced to an 18th-century German philosopher and (for want of a better term to describe his all-encompassing intellectual interests) man of letters, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who Feyerabend’s dialogist holds up as the paradigm of the intellectual:

I admire Lessing for his independence, for his willingness to change his mind. I admire him even for his honesty for he is one of those very rare people who can be honest and humorous at the same time, who use their honesty as a guide for their own private lives, not as a club or beating people into submission, not as a showpiece for pleasing the galleries. […] I admire him because he was a thinker without a doctrine and a scholar without a school – every problem, every phenomenon he approached was for him a unique situation that had to be explained and illuminated in a unique way. I admire him because he was not satisfied with sham clarity but realized that understanding is often achieved through an obscuring of things, through a process in which “what seemed to be seen clearly is lost in an uncertain distance.” (123)

For Lessing to approach each phenomenon as a unique situation he had to be free of disciplinary constraints, to be a “scholar without a school”. Still more counterintuitively for a contemporary academic intelligence, he had not to clarify, but rather to show that that which appeared clear was not really so. In effect, this is closer to the defamiliarization technique seen by Shklovsky as being central to the artist’s mission.  So the intellectual had much of the artist about him, and less of the disciplinary intelligence. The task is to return the techniques of the artist and of Enlightenment thinkers like Lessing to the data-driven and micro-disciplinary intellectual landscape we inhabit.


Carlyle and Shklovskian Defamiliarization

Though Thomas Carlyle is often classified as a historian, or perhaps a social critic, to his contemporaries he was a poet. This may seem odd, as he wrote almost no poetry, yet evidently his writings contained something identified as poetic. John Stuart Mill, another social critic, but one in style and ideology very much opposed to Carlyle, wrote in his Autobiography, recalling his one-time adulation for the Sage of Chelsea:

I felt that he was a poet, and that I was not; that he was a man of intuition, which I was not; and that as such, he not only saw many things long before me, which I could see only when they were pointed out to me, hobble after and prove, but that it was highly probable he could see many things which were not visible to me even after they were pointed out.

There are many definitions of poetic writing, but the one which Carlyle seems to fit best is that by formalist Viktor Shklovsky, who sees poetic language as “defamiliarizing”, preventing the automatic and mechanical perception of the object presented, and thus causing it to be perceive as if new. The artist, quoth Shklovsky, “make[s] the stone stony.” Art, he finds, is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.” (20)

Viktor Shklovsky

The defamiliarization of experience was Carlyle’s central goal. This was not just for art’s sake, though, but for society at large. Just as Shklovsky found that “perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic” (19), Carlyle had found the same thing. The important difference was, though, he historicized this finding: perception was automatic because of the times (to quote Kings of Leon). It was the industrial society become internalized. It didn’t have to be like that, said Carlyle, and he wished to open men’s eyes to life as it fundamentally was.

To do this he presented things, everything, in a defamiliarized light. This is especially evident in Sartor Resartus (1833-34). This book purports to be a biographico-critical study of Prof. Diogenes Teufelsdrockh, author of a book on the origin and meaning of clothes. The Professor writes as follows:

[I] have thatched myself over with the dead fleeces of sheep, the bark of vegetables, the entrails of worms, the hides of oxen or seals, the felt of furred beasts; and walk abroad a moving Rag-screen, overheaped with shreds and tatters raked from the Charnel-house of Nature, where they would have rotted, to rot on me more slowly. (Bk. I, Ch. VIII)

And so forth. He’s talking about clothes, but his real aim here and in many other passages of this very odd book is to defamiliarized customs and habit, and indeed to defamiliarize the human subject itself, as we see in this passage when a man becomes “a moving Rag-screen.” Through this process Carlyle asks a profound, and almost postmodern, question: Is man a coherent entity or just a hodge-podge of internalized social conventions and prejudices? Is he a body or just an empty suit of clothes? Do clothes really make the man, and if so where does that leave the human race?

To the end of defamiliarization is the character of Teufelsdrockh specially engineered. He lives far above the crowds of Weissnichtwo, rarely conversing with his fellow mortals, but regarding them both figuratively and literally from a great height. Indeed, so unworldly is he that he is “like a man dropped thither from the Moon” (I, IV). Therefore, everything Teufelsdrockh sees and experiences is defamiliarized, and everything he reports on becomes defamiliarized to the reader – known yet not known.

Beginning with the chapter on Dandyism in Sartor, Carlyle used defamiliarization to question specific social norms, and to call for the reorientation of society. From Chartism (1839) comes the following:

The faith of men is dead; in what has guineas in its pocket, beafeaters riding behind it, and cannons trundling before it, they can believe; in what has none of these things they cannot believe. (Chapter 5)

In both Chartism and Past and Present (1843) Carlyle attempts to defamiliarize basically everything about English society. He used once again a persona of a German professor, Sauerteig, in many sections of both works to pass judgement on the English. From the point of view of a serious cultural critic, this technique is bizarre, but from a defamiliarizing point of view, it’s key. Taken in themselves, institutions like the beefeaters or parades featuring trundling cannons are not much, just harmless amusements for the people. But defamiliarized and then reconstituted as symbols of a culture of materialism and show, they gain potency. Carlyle had great success in exposing the frivolity of English society to his contemporaries, much less in offering a new value-system to replace the old. He was a poet, in the defamiliarizing sense, but he was not content that it was only in poetry that this interruption of automatic thinking took place, he wanted it everywhere and everywhen. What he didn’t realize, perhaps, was that “mankind cannot bear very much reality”.


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