My old friend Joe Appel is examining the difference between having “something to say” versus copy to produce. He’s one of the few who gets that distinction; it is analogous to a rather more obscure distinction I myself have drawn between the taste (or tastes) of a wine, as opposed to its flavor, which is a whole not only greater than the sum of its parts but also different than either the parts or whatever sum they might add up to. And as any good essayist does, Joe takes this observation as an entry point into a larger conversation about expertise. That’s where I come in, as it was my earlier posts about Gatekeepers that prompted Joe to send me this October 2015 piece of his, originally run in the Portland Press Herald, who’ve permitted us to use it.
Joe begins I’ve been wondering a lot lately whether I have anything to say. There are plenty of words at my disposal, of course. These can be employed to vibrate the atmosphere in plenty of new or old – mostly old – permutations. I can represent plenty of opinions, make plenty of guesses, render plenty of judgments, pass plenty of time. But something to say? That’s rare.
The more useful moments are usually the quieter ones, but we all, writers or not, trick ourselves continually into equating more words with more utility. Regret is often the retrospective recognition that a group of words were gasoline on a fire.
I was offered a column in a magazine for whom I contribute sporadic features. I thought about it, and finally declined, because I hesitated to put myself in a position where I’d need to “generate content” on a deadline, regardless of whether I had anything to say. I wish I had the talent of a Matt Kramer, who somehow accessed an apparently inexhaustible wellspring of interesting ideas for his Spectator column. But I don’t. And very few people do. This includes people who generate all manner of “copy” or “content” in unending streams of verbiage. Is it my imagination or are we more glib than we used to be? Gazillions of people seem to be able to just churn stuff out, like their minds are vending machines that will spit out opinions when the appropriate button is pressed. Maybe it’s good that we’re awash in peoples’ thoughts – you know, vox pop and all that. But I have my doubts. The water is often brackish, and there’s too much of it, and its ceaseless sluicing into our consciousness can have an almost narcotic effect. “Is there a thought in among all these words?” <yawn….> All right, I surrender, wash ye words over my somnolent brain…
Joe has a moment of dread. I am the two-billionth person to assert that the flames have only been fanned higher by social media and constant digital companionship. The excess of words has grown not just noisy, but exhausting and anxious. Many of us wish the Internet would simply die.
I don’t want the internet to die; I just want a faster way to sift out the occasional gold from the mountains of dross. In other words, I want Gatekeepers, to do the sifting for me, and to establish a structure of significance – you can call it an authority of value – so we know whom we need to attend to (the few) and whom we can safely ignore (the many). Joe agrees, and says it with a remarkably trenchant clarity: It’s that wish, I think, that is behind a number of recent essays decrying the devaluation of expertise in a number of aesthetic-critical realms. At issue is what I’ll call the “horizontalization” of value: an endgame, democratic in intent if not effect, in which judgment slips its tether to experience and insight, anyone weighing in carries simultaneously equal weight and no weight at all, and comment melds into a falsely uniform mush. (TT: my emphasis)
Joe continues by identifying people in the wine-information sector whom he finds to be authoritative. I’ll paraphrase him now.
There is no one alive today with a more legitimate claim to being a wine expert than Jancis Robinson, a Master of Wine whose many books, essays and articles are models of erudition, curiosity and open-minded insight. She renders her expertise three-dimensionally, seeking to describe the lived reality of a wine or region rather than merely its quantifiable components.
Robinson wrote an essay for The Financial Times, excerpted on her website under the title “What Future For Expertise?” that calls out the TripAdvisor-like topography of the contemporary wine landscape. Apps such as Vivino and Delectable, websites such as CellarTracker, and innumerable SEO-maximized blogs and feeds offer infinite claims to inform or guide.
A few of them deliver. Yet almost none provides the gravitas, the sense of human toil, training, attention, interest – the whole 10,000 hours thing – at which more traditionally minded resources excel.
He proceeds to name a few of his reliable sources, such as Peter Liem, Allen Meadows, Antonio Galoni, and others. He observes that most of these are pay-sites, but cautions: By the way, you are not paying for “objectivity.” Robinson is quick to point out that she, unlike…[certain other experts]… does not attempt to pass an “objective” judgment on any wine. This is apropos. It is obtuse to conflate authority with objectivity. Alas it’s a common error, yet the truth is elsewhere; the more authority a person attains the less likely she is to obey the bogus gods of “objectivity.”
Joe goes ahead: Robinson groans, “I have gone from being a unique provider of information to having to fight for attention.”
And risk appearing [unseemly] in the bargain. The New York Times’ chief film critic, A.O. Scott, wrote an etymology and defense of “snobbery” as a call to salvage attention and respect for the person in the room who actually knows what he’s talking about. Scott recognizes that his is an unpopular plea given the current culture’s warped anti-authoritarianism.
The “great leveling force” of “the Yelp score, the Amazon algorithm and the Facebook thumb,” he writes, “is … a Utopian zone in which everyone is a critic and nobody is a snob because nobody’s taste can be better than anyone else’s. “We have so much stuff to choose from,” Scott [continues], “but each of us knows that some of it is more worthwhile than the rest, that there are standards and canons and serious arguments lurking in the pleasant meadows where we graze and browse.”
“Snob” is one of those dog-whistle words whereby somebody seeks to shut the conversation down. It’s said the wine industry is replete with snobbism, but I have met very few snobs along my ways. When you hear that word used, it always says more about the accuser than the accused. When Joe wrote his piece he was working in wine retail – he has since left in order to consider the possibilities of wild blueberry wine in Maine – and in dealing with the public he grew self-conscious about appearing snobbish.
[I’d] die a bit every time a customer [bought] a middling $35 Super Tuscan when it could have been a $25 Etna Rosso, or a $20 New Zealand sauvignon blanc over a $15 Soave. That’s the petty, distorted agony of the self-encircled wine snob. But I think he’s too hard on himself. Very few wine people prefer the obscure merely because it’s obscure. We’re drawn to interesting wines and obscurity doesn’t deter us. That doesn’t make us snobs – it makes us guides.
Joe again: I stand in awe of those who can clearly describe the character of a wine and explain why it stands out. But my particular aim is not telling you which wines to drink, although I sometimes say I’m doing just that. I’m telling you which lenses to try on, and then asking you to describe for yourself (no one else) what you see.
The digitized 21st-century flood of accessible information carries two sorts of energy: the drowning kind, and the floating kind; death and liberation. A wealth of opinions, seasoned or not, does not a buoy make, but knowing how to use what’s at your disposal might.
I think Joe is correct, and that what he says is true, but he is saying two things, really, and I think they might be incongruous. Clearly we are swimming in information, up to our necks in it. Maybe the sheer energy needed to simply stay above the surface of the water precludes us from considering where we’re trying to go. Clearly that thing we used – quaintly – to call “expertise” is an endangered species, or maybe more accurately a creature in hiding, somewhere in the thickets and the wallows. But expertise, mere expertise, can be brittle, and while it is often helpful it is not necessarily pleasant. Still, the “marketplace of ideas” is a rowdy affair, a cacophonous bazaar where everyone sells fresh-ground spices but not everyone’s spices are authentic.
Reading Joe’s piece, he seems to be lonely for something more fundamental, and for the simpler paths by which we found our ways to it. In the present now, as I interacted with Joe about his (and my) thoughts, he added: Yes and, interestingly, as I reread my piece from a distance of several years, I recognize the source of my woe, my anxiety, my rejection in myself, in my own internal cacophony. Here I am criticizing opinonators on deadline and Instagram snarkers, but what does the film of my own internal process look like if not a stream of hot take and countertake, speculation and fear, recrimination and chest-thump? So the loneliness you identify here is spot on, because it delineates how the search for "something more fundamental" and the "simpler paths" in, say, wine writing and buying advice, is ultimately the palimpsest of a search for wholeness and quiet within myself. For which, for inspiration, models and help, I turn to wine.
This I understand. In essence the revulsion from the noise of the bloviating world occurs because one’s internal peace is disturbed, and Joe (and I) depend on that peace in order to hear, and to know, our thoughts.
In times past we were reassured by a feeling of security as we navigated the marketplace of ideas. The maps were legible and accurate, and one could relax and sink into one’s surroundings. Yet I myself am wary of expertise as an end in itself. I’d rather search for the voices worth hearing, which can be found among experts and novices alike. This is different from saying one person’s opinion is as good as another’s. That is not true. What is true, or can be, is that the voice of a wise novice is more valuable than that of a foolish expert. But how can we know who is wise? And is this even a question worth posing?
I’ll say this – and it’s tentative, provisional, purely instinctive, and liable to be tendentious – but I vibrate to writers who glean the beauty of abstraction, and the abstraction of beauty. Writers who reach the point where they’ve accumulated all the “expertise” they can tote around but who find wine more mysterious than ever. With wine, the way in is through the inexplicable, but you don’t arrive at this threshold until you’ve taken a long journey and your maps are all torn at the folds. And then some wizened fool Lama has the gall to tell you “Forget all that bebop; this is where the music begins.” So we need expertise to get us to the point where we can discard expertise. Huh! What crazy ass crackpot invented that system?
But when you’re done with your thoroughly understandable tantrum, a kind of lightness enters. You are nimble, almost weightless. If it weren’t such an English-major sort of word, you could call it legerity, as wispy yet substantial as a dream. And wine stands ready now, to wrap you in its phantom hug.