Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A very fine essay on handwork:


I recommend this wholeheartedly.  Very finely written, and totally informed.  It certainly puts the gleam of gospel truth on my own experience as an educated office worker with the heebyjeebies.


Monday, January 23, 2012

Some Costs of Convenience

Modern mobility encourages a broad and shallow familiarity with places.  Just as frequent over-watering of desert plants encourages shallow roots, our ability to flit from place to place as whim directs can leave us so dislocated that our metaphorical roots, the structures that commit us to places in all their particularity, atrophy and weaken.  As with so many forms of technological progress, the revolution in mobility comes with both benefits and costs.  Our ancestors struggled mightily to cross mountain ranges that today serve as little more than scenic backdrops for our destination-focused travels.  They do very little to test our mettle or force our attention to what is present.  This great convenience permits us to see far more of the globe that our ancestors ever dreamed.  It is instructive to consider the costs and benefits of any comfortable, time-saving new technology in terms of effort, because effort is not just something to avoid.  It is also one of the prime factors of learning, along with aptitude.  If our learning is the product of our aptitude times our effort, it follows that labor-saving advances reduce our opportunities to learn in direct proportion to the amount of effort they save us.

It is difficult to criticize labor-saving convenience.  There is some real truth in arguments that distinguish between "dumb" labor and forms of effort that are seen to be more inherently edifying.  To establish a spectrum between dumb and edifying forms of effort, let's say that using a hammer to make gravel out of rocks is dumb.  And let's say that long hours in the laboratory in pursuit of a cure for childhood leukemia is inherently edifying.  The degree of coercion under which the worker labors may also affect the calculus.  Using a hammer to make some gravel because you want to is probably more edifying than making the same amount of gravel, using the same technology, because you are being whipped.  However, no criticism of dumb labor and its conditions can be complete without considering the interior state of the laborer.  Looking only at the product, the hardness of the work, and the replace-ability of the worker by a machine [or by other, distant, unknown workers] fails to address the fact that all work transforms the worker.  All work is done with more or less awareness and intention, which are not just the mental states of the laborer at work, but the mental states of the retreatant in meditation, the devotee in prayer, and the artist in his or her constant struggle.  Just as sitting quietly can be lazy or focused, just as the recitation of a prayer can be rote or worshipful, and just as not all the artist's struggles are productive, so not all laborers rebel at the work or wish it done or become unreflective brutes.  In fact, among the common experiences of laborers is a sense of solidarity with other laborers in a knowledge that is theirs alone.  A kind of wisdom, about the strengths and weaknesses of the body, about a job well done, about endurance and pacing and fortitude, and about the travails of others may be uniquely available to those who earn their bread by the sweat of their brows.

It follows that effort avoided is wisdom lost.  This complicates the usual calculus of labor-saving. Understandably, given the choice, we will choose to avoid dumb labor and spend our time doing what we perceive to be inherently edifying, or at least fun.  But if we are forced to consider what convenience costs us, we may well choose to eschew some kinds of convenience for the sake of learning lessons that not all moderns are required to learn.  The entire Romantic era of Western history was deeply driven by a sense that modern convenience comes at a cost.  Whereas their Enlightenment forebears tended to see labor as the unfortunate cost required to attain a product or other benefit, the Romantics began to suspect that a great inheritance of wisdom and insight were dying, at least among the educated and wealthy.  Today's appreciation for outdoor adventure, travel, sports, self-improvement, rigorous hobbies, and the like arose in large part out of the Romantic sense that comforts insulate us from hardship and nature, and that the culture is losing the wisdom that comes from exposure, hardiness, stoic endurance, and uncomplaining toughness.  A comment on my last post briefly addresses this topic.  I'd like to expand upon roro's implied comparison between commodified food and food that we hunt, gather, and farm.

The Mormon settlers in Utah knew something of the travails of travel that modern travelers do not.  Not even a Christmas Eve in an airport with a screaming toddler, waiting for an overbooked flight to Salt Lake City, can impart the wisdom the settlers learned as they raced against the seasons to the edge of exhaustion through unfamiliar and hostile territory.  Likewise, hunting, gathering, and farming to eat require a depth of experience that contains uncommon wisdom.  We meet our ancestors on the hunt, in the woods, and in the furrow.  That is where they lived.  As I've outlined above, their, our, labor is what's required to uncover the treasure of experience.  But always, in procuring food the old way, and in so many other labors, the work itself is not the only teacher.  The other great teacher terrifies us so deeply that our entire culture of comfort is dedicated to its eradication.  We refer to it only in the negative: uncertainty.  The hunt is always uncertain.  The hunter's skill counts for something.  But chance, or fate, is the overwhelming presence on the hunt, so overwhelming, in fact, that many hunting cultures ritualize the humiliation of the successful shooter.  He [almost always he, but not anymore] may not be allowed to eat till the end of the meal, or he may get the worst cut of meat.  He may even be the brunt of ritualized mockery, or not be allowed to claim his success.  Hubris was not permitted.  Uncertainty is what makes the universe mysterious, and therefor compelling.  It is central to human nature that we will direct ourselves into uncertainty because what we need is there.  The revered shamans went out and came back with a light to shine into the uncertainty, which was always, at least metaphorically, in the wild.  The wild was full of treasure and nourishment, and monsters.  Equally, farmers have always planted in hope, and harvested in gratitude.  For farmers, nothing is guaranteed but labor.  We save seed, break ground, weed, beat off the pests, and hope for rain, but always the lean years follow the fat.  Labor like this teaches humility and deep reverence.  If your summer's unremitting effort can end in a minute of hail, you are unlikely to boast or tolerate arrogance.  Farmers tend to see arrogance as a form of stupidity, or of callow inexperience.  It is terrifying to be uncertain about food.  Here I need to observe that the perception of certainty, as, for example, that there will always be more steak in the supermarket, is delusional.  Certainty does not exist.  Only the perception of certainty exists, and the fuel for this delusion is comfort.  The ease with which we drive to the store and buy the steak fuels our sense that everything will continue as it is, that all is well.  This partly accounts for the willfulness with which most people deny the horrific and precarious state of our food supply: their sense of certainty, their faith in continuity, maybe even the flavor of their other faiths, relational and religious, depends upon the delusion of food security.  It is not overreaching, I believe, to say that hunting, gathering, and farming your own food bolsters you against delusion and clears your eyes to the world as it is, in all its ever-changing sublimity.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Food, Shelter, and Community.

These essays will deal with our locations within the work economy, within our communities, and on the Earth.  To write about location in its several senses is to consider the causes and effects of modernity, which has uprooted us, and which, so far, has not accommodated or tolerated the kinds of wisdom that flourish in intentional rootedness.  To choose to become native to a place, to paraphrase Wes Jackson, is, in very real ways, to set oneself against the demands of the global economy.  So, as the poor worldwide flee their ancestral farms for manufacturing and service jobs in large cities they are forced through a kind of economic and social sieve through which their traditions, folkways, languages, rich local knowledge, and idiosyncratic inheritances may not pass.  What the economy wants from them is their conformity to a system of production that cannot even perceive their richest human wisdom, let alone revere it as the accumulation of millenia.  And, as the economy grows and links the entire population, each person becomes less and less valuable per se, and more and more interchangeable with others, more expendable.  The economy thrives on each individual's willingness to spend the hours, days, and years of his or her life doing ever-more specialized jobs, and to do this always under the threat of replacement and with the live sense that the work, which is to say the life of the worker, is meaningless except inasmuch as it contributes to the economy.  No person craves a life of hyper-specialized effort for the enrichment of a few distant managers, nor does he or she find purpose and meaning in highly-proscribed and repetitive attention to the most narrowly-defined tasks and problems. I will argue that a person's sense of meaning, purpose, and satisfaction is largely dependent on rich and varied experience, and that insight, that exultant moment of comprehension, will come in proportion to our breadth of unmediated awareness of the world.  Where the economy demands our servility as mere technicians and experts, our hearts want us to be scientists and explorers and artists.

By necessity, as I write about the dislocation of modern life I will also criticize the shape of labor today, and the demands of profit.  These critiques have been made 10,000 times since the countryside began to empty in the 1840s.  Rather than try to say something new about labor and monopoly capital per se, I will focus on what I see as remedies that we can enact at the smallest scale: our choice of work; our more-or-less conscious relationships to the cash and credit economy; our relationships to the labor of others, near and far; our senses, more or less healthy, of what we want from life, and where and how we will seek it.  I hope that many intentional, informed, individual choices will steer the larger economy onto a more humane path, but, at very least, the lives of each person will become broader and more full of meaning and satisfaction.  I propose an art for living.

Notwithstanding the abstract terms I've already employed above, most of my proposed remedies will be quite small, for individuals and their families.  I will organize these essays around a few universal themes, because we are all people, and our natures are all basically the same: we are gregarious, omnivorous, hairless, intelligent apes with nimble hands, and brains built for language and problem-solving and memory.  As such, we crave friendship and conversation, delicious food, secure and pleasing shelter, solutions to puzzles, work to do with our hands, and the sense that we are contributing to the life of the tribe.  We have been banished from the garden, and are hemmed-in every side by the wilds and the tamed.  We rely on each other, and are compelled to compete.  Resources are limited, so the great spiritual practice is compassion.  So these essays will deal with food, shelter, and community.  As I see it, our true wealth is here.  If we can eat well, live in clean and safe houses, and interact meaningfully with others, our needs are met.  I can't think of a more succinct criticism of the mass economy than this, because mass economy insists on commodifying what is at the heart of our humanity.  It profanes what is sacred.

At the heart of the human world, or each human life, is a hearth, a kind of altar to what we need most.  We used to cook there, get warm there, meet there as lovers and families, eat there, even bury our dead there.  These things kept us alive.  Food, shelter, and a place in the tribe are the crux.  Be wary of any attempt to debase these things.  Take responsibility for them.  Resist the market doctrines that put them up for sale: as you job-out your food, your housing, and your social contact you forfeit your humanity.


I dedicate this blog to those who feel lost in their specialties, and who are ready for a more abundant life.