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Waste, production, boredom

December 6, 2011

It’s paper-writing season again, which means, of course, that I’m wasting more time on the internet than usual. Who wants to be productive when you can procrastinate? Here are four articles that connect, in one way or another, to the ideas in the title.

From Engineering is Glorious!, a post on the First Thoughts blog about a Christian engineer who equates engineering with raping the earth:

[..] Few people want to be engineers, he suggests, because engineering means exploiting God’s creation for humanity’s selfish ends.

That many Christians have internalized this deeply unbiblical, implicitly Gnostic negative view of technological progress is not news. What is shocking about this article, however, is that this person has internalized it, and has done so in a particular way.

To begin with, Yarbrough is not just an engineer, but actually seems to be very happy to be an engineer. It requires a really stunning dualism to write an article that basically amounts to “I rape the earth for a living and God hates that, but hey, it’s a fallen world and all – people have got to eat, so you do what you have to do. So, yeah, I’m proud to do work that God hates.”

The ethical status of technological innovation has been on my mind recently. I’m tired of hearing reactionaries condemn mechanical and electronic technology just because it’s new and scary. (It comes across as a kind of vulgar primitivism.) I also strongly believe that technological progress cannot be evil per se, because science cannot be evil per se. Nuclear bombs are not evil just because they “let make more riving power than ever Twrch Trwyth” [1]; they are evil because they can only be used to attack civilian populations and so make whatever war they are used in unjust. If we don’t make this distinction we end up saying nuclear power is evil because, uh, because it scares us? It comes down to a belief that we shouldn’t try to change the world–to be productive–because we can only make it worse. I can see how Gaia-worshippers believe this, but Christians… well, read the article.

The post on First Thoughts linked to a response to a similar claim: that capitalism is wasteful and therefore we’d be better off with a more distributist economy. From God in the Machine, on a blog I’ve never heard of called The Gods of the Copybook Heading:

Modern society is quite wasteful? Indeed. The reason societies before us have not been wasteful is that they have been poor. The rich can afford to throw things away. The poor must use and reuse rather than purchasing something newer and better. To those of us who have been forced to “make do” the experience is not ennobling. My father, who grew up in a poverty Mr Warren has likely never experienced, is quite “wasteful.” As he puts it: “My time is more valuable to me than this old piece of junk.”

[...] Does Mr Warren imagine that the life of a medieval peasant was not “mindless, repetitive and demoralizing?” A deep faith may have helped him survive psychologically, though he was often physical worn out by middle age. This assuming he and several of his children had not already perished in the frequent famines, plagues and wars of the pre-industrial age. Man does not live by bread alone, yet he must have bread.

The ideal that Mr Warren posits is one of “live to work.” A laudable ideal. No doubt being a professional writer is quite fulfilling. Not everyone in a society can engage in work they happen to find fulfilling. One can find great personal happiness in painting very mediocre canvasses that not a soul, at least beyond your immediate family, will ever care to accept much less purchase. Since there is no market for what you enjoy doing, you will have to engage in work that has market value.

I agree with much of the criticism contained here. Again, I’m tired of reactionaries who don’t recognize that modern technology improves our lives much more often than not. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t prefer for us to take more care of the environment. Even if it would make us slightly less rich, it would make our world more beautiful. But it’s impossible to make that argument if the terms of debate are utilitarian, that is, if our goal is presumed to be the greatest happiness for the greatest number. I don’t want us to waste less, I want us to waste more, but not on utile objects; on gratuitous things, things of beauty [2].

The topic of this next article seems unrelated, but I don’t think it is. From The Research Bust, an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education about how much excess scholarship English departments produce:

The research identity is a powerful allure, flattering people that they have cutting-edge brilliance. Few of them readily trade the graduate seminar for the composition classroom. But we have reached the point at which the commitment to research at the current level actually damages the humanities, turning the human capital of the discipline toward ineffectual toil. More books and articles don’t expand the audience for literary studies. A spurt of publications in a department does not attract more sophomores to the major, nor does it make the dean add another tenure-track line, nor does it urge a curriculum committee to add another English course to the general requirements. All it does is “author-ize” the producers.

Deep down, everybody knows this, but nobody wants to take the first step in reducing the demand. It’s like a prisoner’s dilemma. People at the University of X worry that if they say, “We no longer require a book for tenure,” their peers at the Universities of Y and Z will use it against them: “Look at X, they’re lowering their standards.” The time has come, however, for departments firmly to declare the counterpoint: “No! We ask for less because we judge on quality, not quantity. We are raising standards, not lowering them.”

The connection is: the modern university system would seem to be exactly what I want. It spends absurd amounts of money so that scholars can do research and not have to work the fields. And we have more professional scholars than ever before. So why does this article bother me? It’s not because universities will spend $100k+ for a professor to write a book that few will ever read. Perhaps it’s because in total they spend thousands of times that for thousands of such books, all of which are pretty much the same–and the thought of reading them all sounds sublimely boring. It probably bothers me more that we’re looking at it in these terms at all.

And finally, a reflection on a work of literature responding to capitalism. It’s from two months ago, but didn’t make it around to my part of the internet until today. From Bartleby’s Occupation of Wall Street:

The parallels between Bartleby’s peculiar form of rebellion and the protestors of Occupy Wall Street should be obvious. The point of Occupy Wall Street — and the Occupy movements around the country — is to put a face to America’s dwindling middle class. There is no need to be any more specific than that. In fact, it seems that the less specific, less reasonable, and less demanding the protesters are, the more likely they are to unnerve those who actually have the power to make a change. Bartleby is disturbing not because of what he says or doesn’t say, but because he seems to have lost some aspect of his humanity [...]

If Occupy Wall Street has any goal, it should be to have the same effect that great literature has — to unsettle. Let the pundits complain about vagueness, and let the reporters ask their condescending questions. (As an example, here’s one I heard put to a young man standing near me: “Is it true that you want to put all the bankers in jail?”) Let them tease, let them pacify, let them cajole, let them argue. But don’t move, Occupy Wall Street.

What’s somewhat sad about this last article, I think, is that the writer sees the parallel between OWS and Bartleby as working in OWS’s favor. It doesn’t.

In Melville’s story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Bartleby the scrivener is noble but tragically flawed. By the end, the lawyer has done more than any of us wold have, and it’s clear that nothing could have been done to save Bartleby. His “preferring not to” wasn’t an act of bravery, it was an act of nihilism, and an act of boredom. Fundamentally, the story isn’t about the evils of capitalism but about the iniquity of the human heart. It is also a criticism of Wall Street, of course, but it does not put forward Bartleby as a viable alternative. Bartleby dooms himself.

If OWS is Bartleby–and there are certain parallels between them–that does not make it “Bartleby,” and does not make it literature. OWS may show that there is something wrong with the world, but it’s not a form of resistance against that evil, it’s the deepest manifestation of it. And yes, it may awaken the conscience of an onlooker–but so might mass suicide. That doesn’t make it a good idea.

* * *

[1] The comparison to Twrch Trwyth comes from David Jones’ In Parenthesis. Jones knew better than to condemn science itself though. On the page facing the passage quoted above, he writes:

But he made them a little lower than the angels and their inventions are according to right reason even if you don’t approve the end to which they proceed; so that there was a rectitude even in this, which the mind perceived at this moment of weakest flesh and all the world shrunken to a point of fear that has affinity I suppose, to that state of deprivation predicate of souls forfeit of their final end, who nevertheless know a good thing when they see it.

[2] The utile-gratuitous distinction is one I borrowed from Jones’ essays. Auden uses it as well, I learned recently, and I don’t know which came up with it first–but I’ve read Jones’ essays and not Auden’s, so I cite him.

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