Only An Expert

The song “Only an Expert” was released as a 12″ vinyl single on May 18, 2010 by Laurie Anderson, an American experimental performance artist, composer and musician.

Initially trained as a sculptor, Anderson did her first performance-art piece in the late 1960s. Throughout the 1970s and 80’s Anderson did a variety of different performance-art activities. Anderson plays violin and keyboards and sings in a variety of experimental music and art rock styles. Anderson is also a pioneer in electronic music and has invented several devices that she has used in her recordings and performance art shows. In 1977, she created a tape-bow violin that uses recorded magnetic tape on the bow instead of horsehair and a magnetic tape head in the bridge. In the late 1990s, she developed a talking stick, a six-foot-long baton-like MIDI controller that can access and replicate sounds. Anderson married singer–songwriter and guitarist Lou Reed in 2008.


In the U.S top-down technocratic solutions often undermine our democratic processes and at the same time democratic processes often undermine our technocratic solutions. The highly complex and technical problems of our days certainly will require many kinds of expertise but we are sadly lacking in any substantial solutions to the vexing problems of how to bring together experts and lay publics into timely and effective assemblages.

Any thoughts/solutions out there?

3 responses to “Only An Expert

  1. This is central to my research in anthropology. Almost every project that I’ve undertaken has turned on this issue of experts and lay publics. I don’t pretend to have an answer, but I think the key lies in viewing it as a problem of the relationship between the different groups rather than – as it is usually framed – a problem of incompatible or conflicting knowledges. The solution lies in some kind of diplomacy where the heterogeneity of the problem (the different realms of expertise) is maintained, but the relationship between them is reconfigured. This brings us back to the issue of vulnerability – nobody likes to be vulnerable, and technocratic approaches fail largely because the technocrats are able to ensconce themselves with the notion that their approach encompasses whatever problem is at hand. Leaving that position makes them vulnerable, but the relationship cannot change unless they do. There is, of course, work to be done in other areas as well – most pressing is the position of corporate interests. These are often treated as part of the public or as stakeholders, but I think a real disservice is done to both the science and the real public (people not interests) when they are included in this category.

    I think anthropology (but obviously not just anthropology) can play a key role in this. In a certain way, we are experts at building relationships with others. And I think our methods are excellent tools for relationship building.

    Just my thoughts. Be interested to hear what others come up with.

    • hey JT, your cutting-edge research was certainly on my mind as I posted this and certainly something like Latourian diplomacy is called for but you make a couple of assertions here that aren’t obviously true to me 1st that “technocratic approaches fail largely because the technocrats are able to ensconce themselves with the notion that their approach encompasses whatever problem”, do you have some data on this?
      and 2nd and maybe more importantly how/where do you find evidence for the idea that anthropologists are “experts” at building the kinds of relationships that seem to be at hand/issue here? many obviously get paid for certain kinds of professionalized relationships but what do they bring to the table as it were in terms of crafting new and site/project specific ways of inter-acting (also not obvious to me, tho I would welcome correction, that they have settled the expert/lay tensions in their own work). thanks, d.
      ps as I have mentioned elsewhere Rabinow&Co are certainly making some important progress in these areas but hardly have reached some expertise in my estimations:

    • I like that J. I understand it in a very similar way: as negotiated articulations between groups. The notion of diplomacy as you use it is very appealing in that sense. The co-enactment and expression of various ways of adapting with and addressing complex problems. And yes, vulnerability is key here because being open can entail being sensitive, and we have to be sensitive to the complexity and context of problems/challenges if we are to respond to them in an adaptive manner. In regards to ‘experts’ the call to vulnerability would be to seek to make vulnerability and open collaboration a virtue a methodological strength. Again being open and vulnerable to problems mean being sensitive to reality and being open to and willing to align with differing expertise and the skills of others means amplifying sensitivities and therefore the overall capacity to respond and cope with problems.

      And all this is why I really like Katherine Gibson’s discussion of ‘research assemblages’ in the Anthropocene video we posted. Mol does good work in that area as well. We need distributed networks of experts and non-experts capable of sensitively negotiating the agency of nonhumans as well as each other in order to massively distributed problems, or what Morton calls hyperobjects, and risk.

      So in response to this video I would say that the goal is to loosen the tight strictures of expert knowledges in order to allow skilled specialists to form alliances outside their favoured paradigms and groups and thus create assemblages of people, materials, ideas and tools that increase sensitivity and ‘intelligence’, and therefore adaptivity.

      The real crux, as Dirk alludes to above, is putting all this into practice, which means developing tools and contexts where important bringing processes unfold within and between groups and disciplines.

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