Practicing the Discipline of Place


My “Place” (Photo by AMS)

JEFFERSON COUNTY, KANSAS.  If you think I’m reprinting yet another old essay because I’m too lazy or beset to keep up with my bettors on this fine site, you are probably right.  But so as to provide some “value added”—as the marketeers say—I offer some authorial commentary.

The following essay is the result of my first serious grappling with the presence of “place” as a serious political actor on the social stage.  This realization was itself, I think, fortuitous, as it set me intellectually as well as practically on precisely the right course at a time when there was very little acknowledgment of “place” as a necessary constituent force for a healthy political community.  Or to be more just, there was little acknowledgement of these truths within the narrow confines of movement conservatism which I was then beginning to chafe against.

This period of thinking about place and its political implications occurred while I was in law school from 1997-2000, in my hometown, at the University of Kansas.  However, the essay that follows wasn’t written until 2002 and was originally published in the now defunct Regeneration Quarterly.  Its genesis was the very practical issue of my future employment.  I had done well enough in school to have joined the meritocracy, as Jeremy Beer has so clearly defined it.  I had high-paying job offers in Los Angeles, Denver, Pittsburg, and Washington D.C., and really, I could have gone to any major metorpolis I chose.  My classmates were envious, but I was restless.  My provincial inclinations required a defense that could overcome what was then the over-riding imperative of uppward mobility and the siren song of talent put in service to the great causes of state and money.

You will judge for yourself the result, and for fun, I will render a brief judgment myself.  On the whole, I think the essay holds up fairly well, but there are a number of clear weaknesses I see, and a few observations to make, and I will note them in passing.

1.  My treatment of “individualism” is woefully inadequate, especially as I name it the chief black hat in my narrative.

2.  I can see that I was still struggling to clarify certain key concepts because I was mostly still working within the confines of a neo-conservative cannon: from Burke to Eliot.  This cannon did not even include, for me at least, works like Nisbet’s Quest for Community which I had not yet been exposed to, but which would have helped.  I can, however, see an emerging agrarianism as evidenced by my encounter with Wendell Berry, which proved invaluable, and my use of Santayana, who gets the bulk of the credit for rescuing me from the movement conservative ghetto with his prescient essays on the essential gnostic American character (see Jason Peters’ recent FPR essay).

3.  It is curious to remember how “hot” the concept of “civil society” was, even just a decade ago.  Whatever happened to that?  A good indication, I suppose, of the faddish nature of public social commentary. 

4.  Another major flaw I see is that I am almost entirely ignorant of economic forces at play and the way they interact with and are entwined with geo-political and cultural considerations.  I can see that I put my finger on a key concept in mobility, but I defined it almost exclusively in cultural terms—I viewed mobility as an imparative of the new morality rather than of the meritocracy.  I would have benefited from the analysis Jeremy offers which is, I think he would agree, in debt to Christopher Lasch, another non-cannonical thinker I had yet to encounter.

5.  I think I was essentially correct that the root issue remains love.  This I knew from my grounding in classical Christian texts, Augustine in particular, but I struggled to transmogrify this kind of love into a politically saliable force.  I have most appreciated Bill Kauffman’s writing in this regard, and I do believe that the revolutionary character of any Front Porch Republic must, at its core, be grounded in love, and just as important, be able to make that love effective for political action.

I’m sure I could find more to say upon review of my decade old self, but enough for now.  Here’s the essay.

Commencement speakers sum up the wisdom of the age, and last May, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anna Quindlen did so with particular clarity. “I have seen your salvation, and it is you,” she told the graduating seniors of Sarah Lawrence College. “Custody of your life belongs in full to you and you alone. Do not cede it to anyone else,” she warned. “Why should you march to any lockstep? Our love of lockstep is our greatest curse … because it tells us there is one right way to do things, to look, to behave, to feel, when the only right way is to feel your heart hammering inside you and to listen to what its tympani is saying.” For Quindlen, conformity of any kind is our original sin, and salvation comes when we discover and express an authentic self unencumbered by the demands of others.

But there is plenty of evidence that the more intensely and dogmatically our culture has embraced the freedom to march wherever our hammering hearts take us, the less free we have become. John Adams wrote that should the citizens of this country surrender “for any course of time to any one passion, they may depend upon finding it, in the end, a usurping, domineering, cruel tyrant.” For most of Quindlen’s audience, the realization may dawn too late that they are not, in fact, a triumphant phalanx marching together for their rights, but a confused assortment of individuals cut off from family, community, and every other meaningful connection.

In fact, one has to wonder why Quindlen herself has not noticed that unrestrained individualism is on the defensive. Alarmed by individualism’s less appealing fruits—corporate fraud, sensationalist television, sexual licentiousness, voter apathy, to name a few—everyone from communitarian activists on the left to family-values proponents on the right is taking up the call for “civil society.”

Civil society—a ubiquitous phrase these days—generally refers to some conglomeration of voluntary associations, from family and church to PTAs and community volunteer programs to Little League and book clubs. These “mediating structures,” as they have been called, negotiate between the two competing freedoms of a liberal democracy: the freedom of the individual and the freedom of the community. Only the structures of civil society, it is said, can nurture what Fletcher Moulton called “obedience to the unenforceable”—the consensus that restrains individual freedom enough to make a community livable, while still honoring individual particularity in a way that government and the marketplace cannot.

It is now conventional wisdom that civil society is failing. Robert Putnam’s article “Bowling Alone,” which catalogued America’s declining stock of “social capital,” was in the vanguard, followed more recently by the essay collection Community Works: The Revival of Civil Society in America and Putnam’s own book-length follow-up. Putnam and others warn that the decline in voluntary association in American society is symptomatic of a deeper sickness, which could imperil democracy itself.

Hard on Putnam’s heels are a plethora of forthcoming books with names like Civil Society in the Information Age; Global Civil Society; Church, State and Civil Society; and The Civil Society Reader. If the established pattern holds, these books will be filled with a variety of proposals for increasing volunteerism, or encouraging voters, or cleaning up neighborhoods, or returning to community-based education. To be sure, these are good things. But let’s pause for a moment and apply a bit of skepticism. Chances are, when so many are so enthusiastic for something, it is either not a good thing, or its proponents have not fully calculated its cost.

Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb sounds just such a skeptical note in Community Works. In Himmelfarb’s view, our society’s mediating structures are actually part of the problem. She notes that “the institutions of civil society—private schools and universities, unions and nonprofit foundations, civic and cultural organizations—are stronger and more influential than ever.” In fact, the mediating structures of our lives “have been complicitous in fostering the very evils that civil society is supposed to mitigate.” They have promoted the “ideology of rights” that ends up being the cause of their dissolution, or worse, their transformation into “bureaucratic quasi-public institutions.” Himmelfarb argues, for example, that efforts to force deadbeat dads to pay child support have backfired. Rather than promoting genuine community, focusing on child support reduces fatherhood to a “cash-nexus” between the father, mother, and children whereby all are freed from real responsibility to one another. The groups that promote child support will not acknowledge that “money itself is not the problem; the real problem is the absence of the father.”

Far from providing a check on individualism, the institutions Himmelfarb cites perpetuate it, because they are the fruit of one of moderrnity’s most corrosive features: mobility. “The existence … of strong and enduring voluntary associations,” historian Wilfred McClay has observed, “depends upon the existence of strong involuntary associations.” It was easier for civil society to flourish when people were stuck—with a family, a job, a church, or a community. But in the modern world, people are rarely stuck anywhere, or with anyone. We moderns are mobile partly because it is easier and cheaper than ever to seek greener pastures in the next state or on the other side of the globe. But we are also mobile because civil society itself has taught us to be. One need look no farther than higher education, site of Anna Quindlen’s paean to radical individualism. Civil society itself now instructs us in the fine art of following our own hammering hearts. As Karl Kraus said of psychology, it has become “the disease from which it pretends to be the cure.”

Restoring civil society, then, may be far more difficult than we have imagined. It may no longer be sufficient simply to encourage volunteerism or community spirit. We have not yet considered changing how we think and how we know; which is another way of saying that we have not attempted to change what we love.

Why does the mindset of individualists make it nearly impossible for them, even when advocating an invigorated civil society, to stigmatize divorce rather than to stigmatize deadbeat dads? The answer lies deep in the roots of our democracy itself, which is, in the broadest and best sense of the word, liberal. Liberalism in this sense, characterized by individual freedom in markets and politics, is triumphant at “the end of history.” It is unquestionably the single greatest means human beings have developed of producing economic prosperity and political security. But liberalism’s successes naturally run downhill: safety and full stomachs, yes, but also consumption over charity; technology over art; and license over self-control. The great weakness of liberalism is that it cannot support the soul. Reflecting on what he called the “the wild gas” of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke wrote that the “effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may soon be turned into complaints.”

Burke understood that individual liberty is no friend of civil society. Individual freedom alone cannot shape what individuals may please to do. And freedom without responsibility is eventually not freedom at all. It becomes, rather, just another kind of mastery, subjecting people to the one thing liberalism cannot negate—the ever present I want. In a completely liberalized society, there is nothing left but appetite.

So liberalism rests on what the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott called the “politics of the felt need.” Oakeshott used the heading of “Rationalism” to describe this temperament:

That anything should be allowed to stand between a society and the satisfaction of the felt needs of each moment in its history must appear to the Rationalist a piece of mysticism and nonsense… . [The Rationalist sees unrolled before him] the blank sheet of infinite possibility. And if by chance this tabula rasa has been defaced by the irrational scribblings of tradition-ridden ancestors, then the first task of the Rationalist must be to scrub it clean.

The Rationalist, says Oakeshott, has a “deep distrust of time,” owing to his “impatient hunger for eternity.” Likewise, “his mind has no atmosphere, no changes of season and temperature; his intellectual processes, so far as possible, are insulated from all external influence and go on in the void.” The flaw in the liberal temperament is its deep distrust of place owing to its impatient hunger for the eternity of the void. Both time and place restrict our ability to be whatever we choose, to find our “salvation,” as Quindlen would have it, in the actualization of our rootless selves. But particular times and places are, in fact, the essence of civil society, anchoring us to the real and the concrete instead of allowing our appetites to soar through the infinite expanse of possible desires.

So the restoration of civil society will require disciplining ourselves to this other temperament, one which draws its moods and tones from the “season and temperature” of its atmosphere. It is the temperament, or discipline, of place. And this discipline brings with it a concrete way of thinking. Instead of seeing through things, those who embrace the discipline of place see out from within them.

T. S. Eliot meditated on these themes in the fourth of his Four Quartets, a poem called “Little Gidding,” which charts modern man’s struggle to know the infinite reaches of both history and the universe. In this liberal search for timeless, placeless knowledge, “From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit proceeds.” But when the poem’s pilgrim ponders death—“the constitution of silence”—he begins to approach humility, and recognizes that “love of a country / Begins as an attachment to our own field,” that “History is now.” Towards the end Eliot offers this benediction for those who embrace the discipline of place:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Eliot is summing up the wisdom of Western history: from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to the parable of the Prodigal Son to the history of the American frontier, we inherit a continuing dance between exploration and homecoming. We cannot “know the place for the first time” unless we have first left it; but in leaving, our end must be to return back home. Wendell Berry writes that the reader of the Odyssey knows—“as Odysseus undoubtedly does also—the extent of his love for Penelope because he can return to her only by choosing her, at the price of death.” The good human life does not end with individual liberty, but proceeds on to responsibility.

WE moderns are defined by constant motion rather than by sitting still. We can be anywhere in a second, but rarely stay somewhere longer than that. We have developed an aversion to fixing things—and to fixed things. We would rather discard and replace than care for and renew.

It is more and more difficult for us to imagine making Odysseus’s choice to forsake eternity for home. Liberalism’s ideas have consequences—from widespread divorce to mass marketing to spaghetti interchanges—but those consequences also shape ideas, reinforcing the frame of mind that gave birth to them. They break our ties to imagination, to craft, to the land, and to the shop, so that our cities and pastures alike are blighted. Because we have repeatedly bowed at the altar of convenience, we are isolated from the very things that would feed and nourish our imagination. It should be no wonder that civil society has largely lost its ability to mediate between the individual and society at large. It should be no wonder that people live with a vague sense of lostness. We have become a people without a place.

The good news is that while we have abandoned place, it has not (yet) abandoned us. Place is still all around us, to be picked up, dusted off, repaired, and used again. To be sure, doing this is hard. The discipline of place is sacrificial, and it is often seen as foolishness in a liberalized world. But as with all sacrifice, it can be redemptive.

What might this look like? In his 1986 book The Horse in the Furrow, George Ewart Evans quotes an old English farmhand, Harry Groom, on the difference between farming “today” and farming in an older time.

It’s all rush today… . You see it when a farmer takes over a new farm: he goes in and plants straight-way, right out of the book. But if one of the old farmers took a new farm, and you walked round the land with him and asked him: “What are you going to plant here and here?” he’d look at you queer; because he wouldn’t plant nothing much at first. He’d wait a bit and see what the land was like: he’d prove the land first. A good practical man would hold on for a few weeks, and get the feel of the land under his feet. He’d walk on it and feel it through his boots and see if it was in good heart, before he planted anything: he’d sow only when he knew what the land was fit for.

One man sees “from above”; he quantifies things and measures his time in number of acres plowed. The other man, however, sees things “from within”; he values things and measures his time by the meaning of what he has done. The first man is merely at work; the second is at home.

“This world has a spiritual life possible in it,” wrote George Santayana, “which looks not to another world but to the beauty and perfection that this world suggests, approaches, and misses.” This is the only spiritual life possible; and it is possible only by placing oneself in time and place. Not only is this life possible, it is necessary. Civil society is ultimately about protecting the vulnerable—but to protect the vulnerable places and people around us, we must not just know them rationally, we must love them.

This is an agricultural model of renewal. It is about making a way of life closer to home, more becoming our better natures—attached to the soil, as it were. But the renewal of civil society is certainly not restricted to the farm. It can occur anywhere people are willing to begin to try to see out from within things rather than always trying to see through them. But the discipline of place must always involve real places and real things. If modernity is an exercise in un-sticking ourselves from family, job, and home, the discipline of place is an exercise in re-sticking.

Anna Quindlen is wrong. The good life, and the good society, begins only when we unhitch our hearts from radical individualism. Civil society will only be worthy of the name when people begin to make Odysseus’s choice: to step out of the void, gather together the permanent things scattered and strewn throughout their lives, and begin the hard work of cherishing.

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