What to know

The word "Expert" means today mainly people who are allowed to spread any amount of nonsense in the media without responsibility, but a distinction must be made between those who spread and those who know

The other day a Bulgarian colleague printed his business card in my hand. The job title was striking: "Expert". And he could back up the claim: In socialist Bulgaria, he had built and maintained food-processing machines that were used throughout the eastern trestle. Because he had been in Cuba for six years, he spoke Spanish fluently (besides French and English, he also understood German). Without a doubt an expert.

The Berlin journalist Gabriele Goettle went in search of some experts and wrote a wonderful book about them: What is an Expert? In the past, an expert was someone who knew a lot about a particular subject. Today, all you have to do is slip into a TV show, hold on to it, and you’re an expert.

words always change their meaning; a current example, which is immediately at hand: the term "Analyst", which has seeped into the colloquial language from the borse language and there has gradually taken over the "fortune teller" from its linguistic-ocological niche.

So there is no need to make a moral judgement that the word "Expert" today means mainly people who are allowed to spread any amount of nonsense in the media without any responsibility, but we have to distinguish between those who spread and those who know, because it was the latter that mattered to Gabriele Goettle. She wanted to know something from people who know something. In writing down her experiences, she could not help but create a certain uniformity, a pattern, partly because many of the expert texts have already appeared in the taz or other newspapers – each one of them is a classic portrait in the journalistic sense.

Gabriele Goettle’s art, however, which will have to be characterized in more detail later on, consists in making the portrayed visible in a certain way, which in some cases leads to the fact that one has to speak not of portraits in the classical sense, but of classics of portraiture (as, for example, in the case of the criminal biologist Mark Benecke, the slaughterhouse veterinarian Margit Herbst or the cultural critic Ivan Illich). Goettles experts become visible. With each and every one of them she has tried to crystallize a core theme, but not by manipulation and editing – the impulse always comes from the field and from the life drama of the interviewees themselves.

Let’s take criminal biologist Mark Benecke again, who, as an expert, can sometimes pinpoint the time of death of a victim down to the hour on the basis of the colonization of a corpse by fly maggots, worms and ova. The core topic for him must naturally be how to deal with the decaying body. Or the veterinarian who suffers today from having exercised her profession well – she was one of the first to warn of the onset of the BSE wave in 1990, because she had to examine animals with strange symptoms in the slaughterhouse, which she was able to classify correctly on the basis of English documents.

Core theme: the illness of the expert who suffers reprisals because he can no longer look the other way. And the corresponding steadfastness: When Margit Herbst was offered the Federal Cross of Merit after bullying, harassment, lawsuits and de facto professional ban (ca. 10 years after she had predicted the coming catastrophe), she refused, because in return she had to renounce all employment claims against her former (public) employers. It would have been nothing more than cheap hush money, and Gabriele Goettle makes Margit Herbst visible as someone who does not get involved in hush money. Or the mathematician Friedrich Hirzebruch, an expert in algebraic geometry, who describes the journey to the meeting point to Gabriele Goettle and her co-author Elisabeth Kmolninger as precisely as if his professional honor were at stake. The core theme here is, of course, the mathematician and the music of logic in an illogical, deaf world.

The Viennese waterworks director has to cope with the fact that as a leftist he never wanted to reach such heights – as well as with the defensive struggle against the privatization of the sensibly ordered water supply in Vienna. It goes without saying that Gabriele Goettle does not point the finger at these things, and certainly not with the excitement of the through-the-looking-glass or the expert expert. If there’s one thing she avoids, it’s excitement.

Why do you still read the book with a beating heart?? Carefulness, yes; economy with simultaneous accuracy in detail, yes, courtliness of presentation, yes, yes. But it is not all that. One could also get the idea that it was about the famous instrumental listening that the people "to talk", them "Secrets" elicits. Quite wrong. The essence of Gabriele Goettle’s work is the attitude that she takes. This attitude, already evident from the older "Freibank"-Columns known (also in the taz, the subtitle at the time was: "Culture of inferior good, officially stamped") can only be explained by a paradox: Gabriele Goettle is interested in experts and their knowledge, and at the same time she does not care about them, in a way that is almost disturbing.

On the other hand, Gabriele Goettle is interested enough in the world to endure reality – even if it is horrible, cute or laughable, or otherwise deviates in some way from the usual conceptions. She can only do this because she looks at the world in a very similar way to the way the criminal biologist looks at his corpses; she can only go through the world with her eyes open in this special way because she has a "Armor plate" between herself and what is observed, a transparent one, of course.

This is so rare for authors and journalists and so precious by its rarity that it cannot be praised enough. Goettle does not accuse, does not lament, does not complain, above all she does not spare, but she says what is and what one has said (from her point of view, of course, yes). Nothing of the claim that this mere saga has a special value due to the absence of all coarse pretensions – as a reader, this is only remotely possible. And that is already an enormous amount.

Gabriele Goettle, Experts, Die andere Bibliothek im Eichborn Verlag, 2004, 440 pp., ISBN 3-8218-4546-5, 29,50 Euro

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