amateur

“Any article written by an Amateur Journalist is not useless if it has done the writer any good to write it, or if it has done even one person any good to read it. …Every kind of freak is represented, almost every grade of mentality.” — Pearl K. Merritt, “Amateur Journalism is Not Futile.” [1]

In 1803, Abraham Rees defined the word “amateur” as, “a foreign term introduced and now passing current amongst us, to denote a person understanding, and loving or practicing[sic] the polite arts of sculpture, or architecture, without any regard to pecuniary advantage.” [2] This definition foregrounds the important 19th century class distinction between a “professional” who performs a certain task for the purpose of securing income and an “amateur” who engages in the same activity without regard to financial gain. A clear example of this division can be found in early photography. Whether these amateur photographers took photographs in order to pursue its artistic potential, explore its scientific capabilities, or maintain a pleasurable hobby, all were capable of financing their endeavors (which included costs of both equipment and chemicals and – if necessary – outside printing assistance).

By 1882, however, a new conception of the amateur appeared: “Our amateurs are improving, and the interval between them and the professionals is growing beautifully less.” [3] It is of no small significance that in 1888, George Eastman debuted the Kodak hand-camera. Though the Kodak was not the first ever hand-camera, it was the first to contain a functional version of roll-film; it was also the first hand camera geared towards creating its own market. Promoting ease of use and moving in the direction of cost-efficiency, the Kodak hand camera attracted a large, varied, and devoted following. Thus, the development of the Kodak permitted a large sector of individuals to gain photographic agency; in turn, these individuals quickly established photography’s omnipresence in everyday society.

From its early oppositional relationship to professionalism, through its various flirtations with associations like “hobbyist,” “dilettante,” “pleasure-seeker,” “leisure-class,” the term “amateur” has never had a single, steady identity. In its current vernacular form, “amateurs” are generally considered to be lower forms of their professional counterparts. Consider, for example, the current definition in the Oxford English Dictionary [4]:

1. One who loves or is fond of, one who has a taste for anything.
2. a. One who cultivates anything as a pastime, as distinguished from one who prosecutes it professionally; hence, sometimes used disparagingly, as = dabbler, or superficial student or worker. b. Often prefixed (in apposition) to another designation, as amateur painter, amateur gardener.
3.a. Hence attrib. almost adj. Done by amateurs. Cf. amateur gardener with amateur gardening.
b. Used disparagingly. Cf. sense 2.

It is easy to conceive of amateur painters and gardeners. But how are we to take the definition’s caveat “Used disparagingly” or terms like “faults,” “deficiencies,” and “dilettantism”? What, for example about the “amateur” bloggers, photographers, and filmmakers who display their work through the internet? Are these individuals simply dilettantes – innocuous, lesser professionals? To respond in the affirmative would be to ignore the extent to which many amateurs today create and control popular taste and opinion. Some amateurs have achieved temporary notoriety, others full-blown fame. Still others have already been gathered into the folds of larger, professional organizations by virtue of their self-made “web presence.” In order to account for the relationship of the amateur to the growing popularity of recent mediums like the internet, however, the term needs to be reconsidered.

In his essay “What is Enlightenment?” Michel Foucault recounts Immanuel Kant’s criteria for the passage from “immaturity” into the enlightenment. For Kant, enlightenment depends heavily upon the exercise of a “public use of reason,” which should be free and done for its own sake. The public use of reason is contrasted by what Kant refers to as the “private use of reason.” Private reasoning is characterized by its subservient nature; it is used when one must “apply particular rules and pursue particular ends.” [5]

Taking from Kant the superiority of that which is done for its own sake, let’s consider two individuals. In 1517, Martin Luther registered his dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences by way of a printed pamphlet, which was reproduced, disseminated, and widely read as a result of Gutenberg’s printing press. Over two centuries later, Thomas Paine authored a pamphlet entitled Common Sense. In it, Paine criticized the British rule of America in plain, simple language. Because of the accessibility of both Paine’s ideas as well as the material pamphlet itself, Common Sense spread quickly – along with a growing resentment of British control. Neither Gutenberg nor Paine hoped to profit financially through publication. On the contrary, the primary objective in each instance was the transmission of ideas through what came to be referred to as “pamphleteering.” It is noteworthy that both of these men were going against an established grain by actively challenging the authority of seemingly impenetrable entities (the Catholic Church and the Kingdom of Great Britain, respectively); in both cases each man’s ideas fomented a spirit of dissent that ultimately led to dramatic ends: the Protestant Reformation and the American Revolution. [6]

Neither Luther nor Paine fits comfortably in the category of “amateur”; the term first entered the English language until 1784, [7] and most likely took some time to enter into common parlance. Each man’s activities, however, foregrounds notions of autonomy and criticism, both of which are important to consider alongside the term “amateur,” particularly in terms of the evolution of the internet blogger. The numerous ways in which amateurs have been responsible for the creation and circulation of their ideas through the internet provide clear examples of the critical significance of amateur activity. In a present-day context, blogging has been hailed for, amongst many other things, its participation in the democratization of journalism. But though the internet is unique insofar as it has fostered an environment conducive to mass participation (much like the invention of the Kodak for photography, there is a considerable history underlying the dissemination of amateur ideas through texts.

Amateur press associations (or APAs) have provided, and in some cases still provide, forums for amateur writers to distribute their work. The oldest amateur press group, the National Amateur Press Association (NAPA), was founded in Philadelphia in 1876 [8]. The idea of an APA is not so far from the current notion of blogging; most major differences between the two can be attributed to the reliance of APAs upon the postal system. The organizational pattern of APAs works like this: amateur writers submit their work (usually on a monthly basis) to a central organizing body who, depending upon the group, prints, collates, and mails a collected packet of texts to each member. The labor intensity of this distribution system is one important point of contrast between APAs and blogging, where individuals can post their work directly to the internet in seconds. The subject matter depends upon the individual aims and interests of each association. Some APAs have specified themes. Examples of theme-based APAs are associations which originate from “fandom” – science fiction fandom is a good example of this. Fan associations sometimes have the particular quirk of charting the length of members’ published fandom; as a result, there is often a hierarchy of fandom: first fandom, second fandom, etc. [9] Even amongst members in the “first fandom” tier, there can be concrete divisions: for example, according to www.firstfandom.org, “A dinosaur is one who was active in science fiction or fannish activities on or before the First World Science Fiction Convention [10] held over the July 4, 1939, weekend in New York City” [11]. Sometimes writers choose to respond to texts from previous mailings; in general, however, editing and censorship levels are low to nonexistent – the freedom provided by the inclusive nature of these organizations is often a source of pride amongst members.

In the 1950s, members of the French organization the Letterist International (LI) – some of whom would form a part of what later became the radical political group Situationist International (SI) [12] – began distributing the self-mimeographed publication Potlach. Potlach is a compelling example of an amateur publication because of its unorthodox, markedly unprofessional, and arguably amateur, method of circulation: Potlach had no monetary value and thus could not be purchased anywhere – its distribution style consisted of members “gifting” issues to select individuals. [13]

Though it is certainly the case that some amateur writers submit to amateur associations with hopes of one day entering the world of professional publishing, this is not always the case. Aaron Elliott, who founded the zine [14] Cometbus (and who subsequently published under the nom de plume “Aaron Cometbus”) is a prime example of an amateur writer who embraced amateur journalism precisely for its unprofessional elements. Elliott, along with a friend, created Cometbus at the young age of thirteen. Like Potlach, Cometbus was not originally sold; instead, the zine found its initial audience by accompanying mailings and albums. Part of Cometbus’s singularity its appearance, which was distinct each issue was handwritten by Elliott. In an interview published in 2000, Elliott explains the reasoning behind his choices:

Some things make a good 7″, some things make a good album, some things make a good CD. I’m very conscious of format (not just cautious with it) and realizing that some thing that might be good as a magazine might not be good as a book. It isn’t like the food chain where you keep going down the line. There’s different ways to approach everything. …the context that you get it in is important. If you get the magazine at a small store, independently owned, for cheap, it’s cool. There’s nothing doctrinaire about it, it’s just better that way[15].

In another interview, Elliott describes his refusal to abandon Cometbus’s amateur format (despite numerous offers from professional publishers) as, “one of those rare times when you get away with being morally upstanding, and also totally succeed.”[16]

In the present-day, the internet has been praised for, amongst other things, leveling the playing field for amateur journalism. Changes in mass media continually redefine the ways in which amateurs can circulate, and dictate the size of their audiences, and the internet certainly continues this tradition. As a result of the internet, amateurship has undergone various changes. For one thing, it has become decidedly simpler to engage in visible amateur activity (in photography [17], writing, video sharing [18], music, entrepreneurship, etc.). It is also much easier to seek out a sympathetic audience and/or community; thus making Andy Warhol’s oft-cited prophesy about everybody someday having the opportunity 15 minutes of fame a conceivable reality [19].

As previously mentioned, amateur writing has meant different things to different individuals throughout history; however, what is unique about the contemporary activity of blogging on the internet is both the critical mass of amateur writers who populate the internet and the expansive sphere which they have the potential to influence. One of the most significant results of these changes has been the new centrality of the formerly peripherally-located amateur writer. Instead of writing texts which are relegated to their limited distribution, amateur writers now find themselves capable of influencing public taste and opinion. For this reason, politicians who wish to be viable contenders for the government positions often keep official blogs. In effect, amateur writers have gained power as a result of their new position in a capitalist economy; amateurs now impact the economic flow by reaching certain demographics in a way which professionals can not.

Or perhaps could not. Here I would like to an anecdote which concerns a very local amateur (a member of our 2006-7 “Theories of Media” course: Julia Langbein). In 2005, Langbein had an idea for a blog that would center around the food industry. The catch, though, was that her project would not be scattered musings about food and cooking in the vein of blogs like www.amateurgourmet.com. Instead, Langbein launched a critique on New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni. Simultaneously inspired and stupefied by Bruni’s writing (which she calls, “a huge faberge egg of hilarity” [20]), Langbein began posting humorous critiques of Bruni’s reviews. As a result of the publicity which the Bruni Digest received (much of which was centered upon the blog’s “meta” (critiquing critique) structure), Langbein was hired to write a feature article for Gourmet magazine [21]. Shortly after submitting a draft of the article, Langbein was approached by magazine’s editors to join the Gourmet blogging staff [22]. This story exemplifies what has quickly become the response of professional industries to the growing popularity of amateur writers: cooptation. Recently, media mogul Rupert Murdoch purchased Intermix Media (owner of the social networking website myspace.com). Similarly, Google Inc. acquired the extremely popular video sharing website youtube.com in November, 2006.

Paradoxically, then, just when amateur bloggers seem to have found, through the internet, a medium which would allow for the existence of their individual autonomies as well as grant them the potential to have a widespread impact, they are being ushered back into what Adorno and Horkheimer call “the culture industry.” Adorno and Horkheimer see this issue of cooptation as inevitable, as neither an individual nor a collective resistance to the culture industry is possible:

The step from telephone to radio has clearly distinguished the roles. The former liberally permitted the participant to play the role of subject. The latter democratically makes everyone equally into listeners, in order to expose them in authoritarian fashion to the same programs put out by different stations. No mechanism of reply has been developed, and private transmissions are condemned to unfreedom. They confine themselves to the apocryphal sphere of ‘amateurs,’ who, in any case, are organized from above. Any trace of spontaneity in the audience of the official radio is steered and absorbed into a selection of specializations by talent-spotters, performance competitions, and sponsored events of every kind. [23]

Along similar lines, in “Constituents of a Theory of Media” Hans Magnus Enzensberger criticizes the media industry for its consciousness-shaping role in society, an agenda in line with its capitalistic interests. Enzensberger presents the possibility of working from within this system in order to reverse these effects; he explains that, “It is wrong to regard media equipment as mere means of consumption. It is always, in principle, also means of production” [24]. According to Enzensberger, though, an “amateur” (an individual who, in his definition produces in isolation) cannot produce much of an impact, for “Only a collective, organized effort can tear down these paper walls” [25].

Jean Baudrillard, responding to Enzensberger, views this proposition as relatively hopeless. Baudrillard believes that, so long as the system of “transmitter-message-receiver” remains intact, neither individual nor organized producers will be able to engage in true exchange. Of the existing system, Baudrillard writes: “This ‘scientific’ construction is rooted in a simulation model of communication. It excludes, from its inception, the reciprocity and antagonism of interlocuters, and the ambivalence of their exchange. What really circulates is information, a semantic content that is assumed to be legible and univocal” [26]. For Baudrillard, “Reversibility has nothing to do with reciprocity;” [27] instead, the entire binary system of producer-consumer must be restructured.

There are others, however, who acknowledge the existence of these pressures but seem to believe that “central powers” can somehow be kept at bay. In an interview with MediaLife.com, Clay Shirky, adjunct professor at New York University and internet-based writer/critic, says: “The Web is marvelous, as is. Attempts to improve it through central planning will destroy the very freedoms that have gotten us this far. …The web is so brilliant at aggregating input from a group of people spread out across the world that any problem that can be attacked by a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy—divide the problems out among members of the group and solve them one at a time—has a much better chance at capturing the intelligence of a group than centrally managed projects do” [28].

The internet has not invented the amateurs’ will to self-publish, it has only given them a more accessible means by which to do so. But as the invention of the Kodak has shown, accessibility often amplifies desire. As a result, there is currently a critical mass of people participating in the so-called “democratization” (one might instead say, the “amateurization” [29]) of journalism, which has led to a slippery understanding of where legitimacy lies. Whatever their future holds, though, one thing is clear: amateur bloggers are poised to play an important part in how their roles will be shaped.

Anna Lee
Winter 2007

NOTES

1. Merritt

2. “amateur, n.1” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed., 1989.

3. Ibid.

4. “amateur, n.1-3” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed., 1989.

5. Foucault, 306-7.

6. Maney

7. “amateur, n.1” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed., 1989.

8. National Amateur Press Association

9. First Fandom

10. For an excellent catalog of source material, see the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Special Collections website

11. On a related note, the self-appointed “historians of amateur journalism” call themselves “Fossils”

12. SI online (including online archives)

13. Ford, 33.

14. “Zines” are, in a nutshell, self-published maga“zines”

15. Aaron Cometbus interview with Maximumrocknroll.

16. Aaron Cometbus interview with Punk Planet. For an anthology of Cometbus, see: Cometbus, Aaron. Despite Everything: A Cometbus Omnibus. San Francisco: Last Gasp, 2002.

17. ex.

18. ex.

[19] For more, see: Fickling, David. “Internet Killed the TV Star.” Guardian Unlimited 15 Aug., 2006.

20. The Bruni Digest

21. Article forthcoming, Gourmet, August 2007.

22. See

23. Adorno, 95-96 (emphasis mine).

24. Enzensberger, 70.

25. Ibid., 72.

26. Baudrillard, 179.

27. Ibid., 181.

28. Clay Shirky interview with MediaLife.com.

29. Shirky

WORKS CITED

Adorno, Theodore, and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Dialectic of Enlightenment. London: Verso, 1979. 120-167.

“amateur” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 20 Jan. 2007 .

Cometbus, Aaron. Interview with Maximumrocknroll. Maximumrocknroll Jan., 2000. (25 January 2007).

Cometbus, Aaron. Interview with Punk Planet 2002. (25 January 2007).

Baudrillard, Jean. “Requiem for the Media.” For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. Trans. Charles Levin. St. Louis: Telos, 1981.

Bruni Digest, The (12 February 2001).

Enzensberger, Hans Magnus. “Constituents of a Theory of the Media.” Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation. Ed. Timonthy Druckrey. New York: Aperture, 1996. 62-85.

First Fandom. (13 February 2007).

Ford, Simon. The Situationist International: A User’s Guide. London: Black Dog Publishing, 2005.

Foucault, Michel. “What is Enlightenment?” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Vol. 1. (ed. Paul Rabinow). New York: The New York Press. 1997.

Maney, Kevin. “Chill, Blogophiles; You’re Not the First to Do What You’re Doing.” USA Today 26 Jan., 2005. (24 January 2007).

National Amateur Press Association. (13 February, 2007).

Merrit, Pearl K. “Amateur Journalism is Not Futile.” The American Amateur 2.1 (1920).

Shirky, Clay. Interview with MediaLife.com. (25 January 2007).

Shirky, Clay. “Weblogs and the Mass Amateurization of Publishing.” 3 Oct,. 2003. (25 January 2007).