Hmm, is that a Michael Jackson reference too spicy to use. Not sure. Well, I’m sure my better judgment will kick in before I post this. Or maybe it won’t, because what I want to talk to about today is the idea of autoconnoisseurship.
Look you get this or you get me venting anxiety about realising that not only am I not connected to the lives of my students, but that disconnect is going to only ever get wider. My brief window of time of teaching people who share the same brainworms with me is a fleeting memory of the before lockdowns.
What a word. Look at it. It gets all French in the middle there. Double ses and suchlike. I bet if you showed me a noisseur in a D&D rulebook I’d be like oh yeah of course it’s like a lance. It’s a long word, and it’s a long word made up of other words bolted together. It’s such a wonderfully complex word, like other ones I’ve introduced you to. Do you remember autoethnography? What about hyperintertextuality? It’s a word like that, and it’s a word I get from an author called Estelle Barrett, in the book Practice as Research. Great book, love it, reading it over and over again to try and make sure I understand it hasn’t scrampled my prains or anything.
Connoisseurship is the idea of being an expert, competent, critical judge of something, and particularly, in the context of that thing’s subtle distinctions. A connoisseur isn’t a fan; they’re someone who can recognise all the distinct and varied ways in elements within the space of interest are similar and different. The connoisseur appreciates deteails, appreciates nuance. The connoisseur is by practice, an expert, because without expertise, there can be no appreciative comparison. To be a connoisseur is to have context, and appreciate context, and be able to share that context.
Connoisseurship or as the ‘pronounce it aloud’ button on merriam webster asserts, connor sir ship, is therefore the practice of being a conoisseur. It’s about putting in work to understand, catalogue and recognise these nuances and their distinctions. And autoconnoisseurship is about being able to do that in the context of your own work. To look at your own work as if it is worth being catalogued, sorted, scrutinised, recognised and considered.
Barrett, by the way, is building on ideas from Michel Foucault, notorious baldy and prison-mentioner, so this isn’t like weirdo outsider ideas.
This is hard. Connoisseurship means positioning yourself as an expert, and one capable of recognising distinctions between distinct elements. When examining one’s own work, I feel like there’s a natural flexibility. If someone compares one of my games, for example, to another, similar game, I can feel the need, for the sake of conversation, to concur, even if another person bringing up another wildly different comparison might seem equally valid. Setting aside the social grace and the natural imposition of capitalism in here (if I didn’t have to convince people to pay money for my games, would I still feel the need to couch my games in terms of appealing to people?), there’s a question about what I really mean in terms of expertise. What’s nailed down about these things, how much room and flex is there in their discussion?
I am a little sensitive about my OCs and the characters I write in fiction, for example; I can see very clear delineating lines, different kinds of scenes and narratives into which they fit, the assumptions of their world. Rafe and Tideward are both orphaned children of royal parentage with a bad dad and a gift for violence, but one of them can make his problems go away by finding the right wall to burst through and the other sulks a lot. I am thrilled by knowing from my friends that Talen Boy is its own archetype, almost its own gender (indeed, having been told that ‘this girl is a Talen boy’ at least once), but that always comes with the anxiety that I am boring my friends, that I am sharing with them creative stuff that they think could be better, more or original, that this character archetype they’ve seen before is something depriving them of something new.
In the context of connnoisseurship, though, there is an element for the connoisseur that I think this blog has built in me over time; that there is, along with the assumption of expertise, the right to be heard. A connoisseur presents expertise and that expertise is itself worthwhile in its presentation. Being interested in presenting this information is reason enough to present it. By having this expertise, I demand the elevation of the subject in which I am expert.
Which is pretty cool.
That’s not all there is to it, though. There’s a little more, which is an idea from Melissa Febos (Associate Professor at the University of Iowa), of the idea of how this autoconnoisseurship imposes on ourselves a preoccupation with your perceptions of others’ perceptions. Does this read right? Is this joke tasteful? Am I making something that presents an idea I’ve heard because it’s interesting, or am I mining others’ grief for sport? Am I being kickass, or just an ass, or am I showing my ass?
There’s this phrase Febos uses that I think about a lot, which is you have to write for the reader of best faith.
The internet has geared me to be generally confrontational over the past oh god thirty years I’ve been using it. I know I’ve gotten better about that, because in my twenties I was ferocious about looking for fights. But now I think there’s a natural impulse to pre-emptively defend ideas from people who are looking for ways to criticse it. The piss on the poor website effect.
Exile the thoughts of the person who is looking to invalidate the art you are making or it will be a brittle, sad version of what you would have done if you had imagined the loving reader who is grateful and interested in what it is you are actually trying to communicate.
Oh and part of why I wrote this was to share this idea but also to get used to writing connoisseurship a lot by hand without just googling it and copy-pasting.