Thoughts on Teaching Wendell Berry

by Russell Arben Fox on April 29, 2010 · 41 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire,Philosophers & Saints

berry

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Wichita, KS

Tuesday was the last meeting of an upper-level course I’d designed this semester on theories of political economy, titled Capitalism, Socialism, and Localism. The class went well for the most part, I think. I began with a general introduction to the historical roots of the modern marketplace, concentrating on Western Europe and the decline of the feudal order, the rise of centralized nation-states, and the conflicts and struggles which came along with those drawn-out, wrenching transformations (the peasant revolts England and Germany, the enclosure acts and rebellions, etc.). Then it was, to a degree, by the numbers: Rousseau, Smith, Bentham, Marx, Mill, Spencer, and then a rush of 20th-century theorists, economists, and activists: Keynes, Schumpeter, Hayek, Walzer, Cohen. Hayek (whom I’d never taught extensively before) went over very well with the students; Keynes too (though, of course, this video helped). But the fellow that I most wanted the students to really get, and which, I think, only a few of them did, and then only partly, was Wendell Berry.

I’m not terribly disappointed; I came to realize, as we plowed through the final weeks of the class, that most of the students were burned out from the large amounts of difficult reading that I’d given them–and moreover, that introducing the ideas of Berry–who is first and foremost a localist and agrarian; beyond that, depending on how you read him, he’s a bit of a distributist, pacifist, traditionalist, socialist, communitarian, anarchist, and New Deal Democrat as well–needed to be set up better, perhaps by reading some of his fiction before examining his ideas. Because, kind of like starting off the whole parade of theorists with Rousseau, his view of the world presumes, or puts into question, or both, a huge range of values and beliefs, some of which your typical modern American university student fervently accepts, and some of which are some deeply embedded in our socio-economic and political order as to require some real excavation and imagination to even be able to present as issues of discussion.

For example, the very notion of “local knowledge.” Living in Wichita, Kansas–which is a wonderful mid-sized city (Melissa and I love it here), not at all busy, global cross-roads for business and innovation–I have a fair number of students with agricultural backgrounds, as well as a fair number of students who have roots in this part of the country going back a couple of generations or more. (Frequently, and not unexpectedly, these groups often overlap.) Sometimes I am able to get some of these students to nod their heads in recognition when I attempt to sketch out the kind of knowledge which being in a particular place, or inheriting a particular vocation, makes possible. Berry, of course, is not the first or the most philosophically eloquent of the defenders of traditions of local knowledge; I ended up making use of arguments drawn directly from the works of Alasdair MacIntyre and Michael Polanyi to elaborate the idea of what it would mean–structurally, politically–to be able to make moral judgments about and exercise real responsibility over economic life…an idea which neither of those others, nor anyone else I am familiar with, has expressed with such fervor as Berry does in passages like this:

The dilemma of private economic responsibility, as I have said, is that we have allowed our suppliers to enlarge our economic boundaries so far that we cannot be responsible for our effects on the world. The only remedy for this that I can see is to draw in our economic boundaries, shorten our supply lines, so as to permit us literally to know where we are economically. The closer we live to the ground that we live from, the more we will know about our economic life, the more able we will be to take responsibility for it. The way to bring discipline into one’s personal or household or community economy is to limit one’s economic geography (“Conservation is Good Work,” Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, p. 39).

Perhaps I managed to plant some seeds that will develop in years to come…but for the moment, the connection between knowledge and tradition and places and economies was just, I think, beyond my students’ grasp: they are used to knowledge as a product, as expertise, as a credentialed matter which is locked into a scheme of individual experimentation, improvement, and choice. Even knowledge that is directly relevant to the preservation of small communities, or the defense of local economies, or the stewardship of the land is accepted by them, so far as I can tell, as a collection of methods and procedures and facts, all of which will be in fact even better served by expanding one’s economic reach, because that will mean–or so they accept, and the essential functionings of the world they know do not prove them wrong–even more opportunities for experts and others to put that knowledge to work.

Of course part of this is that they are young, smart, but not, for the most part, religiously or philosophically serious kids; the basic awareness that some knowledge is, and should be, zuhanden, something lived and ready-to-hand–which, in turn, implies a necessary concern for the sort of life and work and economy which does not disrupt the conveying of such ready-handed knowledge–is something that perhaps will come to them with time, with marriage and children and adult responsibilities (assuming that is the path they choose–there’s that word again!). But for our class, trying to carry these ideas over into the realm of political economy, attempting to make a point about limits, connecting the modern capitalist division of labor to the significance of what Berry recognizes as a “sort of divorce, in our economy, and therefore in our consciousness, between production and consumption” (“The Whole Horse,” The Art of the Commonplace, p. 246)…well, it was a hard row to hoe. My student were older students, mostly, looking to graduate, looking to travel, looking to graduate school and leaving Wichita (Washington DC! Los Angeles!) and finding careers in law and entertainment and government work that will disconnect them entirely from the traditions of local knowledge of their home town…traditions that, for the most part, assuming they could even identify any such (and, to be fair to them, in the global economy of today, hardly any city of any size can long maintain any in the first place), struck them as nice enough…for the people who choose such things. But they won’t be, probably, for them.

There was one element of our discussion about Berry that connected quite well though, I think. I took the students back to Plato, as the distinction he has Socrates make in The Republic between a simple city and a “feverish” one while discussing morality and justice (372a-373c). With a couple of exceptions they were all with Glaucon: Socrates first city was a pathetic, boring one, not one fit for individuals who want to live a life more fulfilling than that of animals. But many of them were caught, I think, as we saw where that change immediately led: to hunters, artists, nurses, nannies, hairdressers, barbers, poets, advertisers, actors, producers, prostitutes, savories, perfumes, incense, pastries, and more. This was the division of labor, in all its modern and complex–and, as Plato’s language clearly implies, superficial and exploitive–glory. Berry’s humble model for an agrarian economy may involve many unattractive things, in their view, but more than a few of them noticed that it would also mean the absence of certain kind of vicious and invasive busyness, a busyness which my female students, at least, recognize pretty well.

I’ve never hidden–either from my students, or on this blog–my contempt for a market which is “free” to align its avenues for the pursuit of profit so thoroughly at the expense of one half the population…the same half of the population which my four daughters are members of. The speaker here, Jean Kilbourne, is the author of Deadly Persuasion, a book which radically changed how my wife and I came to understand our responsibilities to our daughters in a media-drenched, borderline-pornographic, image-equals-virtue, everything-can-be-branded and anything-can-be-sold world. But the students didn’t need any half-traditionalist, half-feminist rants from me to get the point. One thing that truly is a benefit to young people in our fast-paced, skeptical world: they know when they’re being sold something, and they can recognize that much of that selling is not about making them better people, but rather just about making them even more dependent on those who will tell them what to buy and how to look. And with Wendell Berry, the man who begins the book I assigned to my students talking about “The Joys of Sales Resistance”…well, I think–or at least I hope–that on that lecture day, there was some real connection and learning after all.

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar john Willson April 29, 2010 at 1:44 pm

Well, RAF, from Wendell Berry to pretty stock feminist propaganda. I notice that the woman in the video has nicely styled hair, well refined makeup, and has chosen ads not one of which I have ever seen. One must really have stamina to find such things. Helen and I have three daughters (good for you, going for four!), seven granddaughters, and one soon to be two great-grandaughters. We’ve never found it necessary to worry for one minute about the issues raised in that UTub message. The more you work to teach daughters that they are put upon by the culture, well, the more they will feel put upon by the culture.

I would suggest, if you do that course again, that you leave out most of the writings that come before Berry. You can learn all you need to know about Rousseau, et.al. in a paragraph or two. Hannah Coulter, on the other hand, takes some time. But man, do I support what you are trying to do in that course.

avatar sdf April 29, 2010 at 4:38 pm

John,
Your daughters–and especially your granddaughters, if they’re critical and self-aware–almost certainly disagree with you.

avatar john Willson April 29, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Ohmigosh, you know what my daughters think? Wow! What a clairvoyant! I would be happy to give you their email addresses to show you how insensitive and wrong that statement is. And my granddaughters, one of whom is an 82nd Airborne Combat Medic home from Iraq who would laugh your behind off. But I guess they are not “self-aware.” Three granddaughters are National Merit Scholars and all-state athletes; think about it. But I guess they are not up to your standards.

avatar Cecelia April 29, 2010 at 6:07 pm

I’ve never hidden–either from my students, or on this blog–my contempt for a market which is “free” to align its avenues for the pursuit of profit so thoroughly at the expense of one half the population…the same half of the population which my four daughters are members of

Well this mother agrees with you. My “epiphany” came when I saw an ad featuring just the torso ( head cut out of the photo) of a well endowed female used to advertise a prom dress – this in a teen girl mag which purportedly was about empowering young women. The use of such images is so pervasive that it is virtually impossible to avoid them.

Of course – the market doesn’t just use sexualized images of woman – it subverts everything for the sake of selling.

avatar john Willson April 29, 2010 at 6:21 pm

And by the way, as I have said on this site many times, it is difficult to respond to people who haven’t the courage to sign their names.

avatar Russell Arben Fox April 29, 2010 at 6:50 pm

John,

“Stock feminist propaganda”? I’m not sure what to make of that description of Jean Kilbourne’s work. I guess I operate within a worldview that allows that our sense of our selves, and our moral judgments of the world with which our selves interact, are at least partly dependent upon and as well as a function of the inputs we receive from the environments through which those selves move. Meaning, in other words, that we are not wholly sovereign selves, but are always interpreting and responding to expressions of power, culture, and more. Hence, it makes perfect sense to me that Kilbourne would want to call people’s attention to, and arm people against, the profoundly sexist and demeaning character of many of the economic transactions which market economies engage in. I’ve never really thought of it as a “feminist” project; more like a moralistic, anti-capitalist one. But if you see things differently–if you really believe, to paraphrase your words, that sexist imagery and the commodification of beauty only has power (economic, social, psychological, whatever) because people choose to believe that it does–then, well, I suppose it would seem like propaganda to you. I think you’re wrong, and would prefer not to take the risk of simply instructing my daughters that the world isn’t their problem, and hope that they can sail through the world’s marketplace never feeling sold like cheap goods. However, if your daughters have been able to so sail through with that attitude–and by your account, they’ve done marvelously with it–then I’ll take that as evidence in the opposite direction.

Despite our disagreements, though, I appreciate your constructive thoughts about the class. As I said, if (hopefully when!) I teach this course, I do think I’ll assign some of Berry’s fiction, and Hannah Coulter is a good candidate for that. And I also think I did probably assign too much Rousseau at the beginning. Like all classes, continual tweaking is a must.

avatar john Willson April 29, 2010 at 7:22 pm

RAF,

These are good and constructive responses. Part of what we are disagreeing about is the old nature/nurture thing, and part of it is also an in-your-face attitude toward the world that my family has had since, well, forever. The main reason I have never had sympathy with the Jean Kilbournes of the world is not because they are not smart, not nice, not sincere, but because I come from a family that has valued women (since the 1630s) and has been afraid of them, and there has never been one single issue about who was worth what.

I’ve always thought that the problem with your approach is that it leads to legislation. It asks government to do what government cannot do, and that’s make men and women the same. Here’s a practical example. My sainted aunt Bocca took care of an entire family after having been Phi Beta Kappa her junior year at Syracuse in 1916. She was a Democrat, for which I forgave her, and she in turn forgave me for being a conservative. My daughters never had to feel like objects of anything, because they knew their worth (not ever, ever “esteem”) from a deep background of aunt Bocca. Her name was Florence Louis Willson Savage, and she did more for my doctoral dissertation than anybody on my committee did. She would have nothing to say to Jean Kilbourne.

These are reasonable disagreements. I suspect that the gulf between us on this will not affect your four daughters.

avatar Len April 29, 2010 at 9:39 pm

Sounds like a great course Russell. Would you mind posting the syllabus and reading material?

A puzzling series of responses from John. I just don’t understand the opposition to critical thought re: the exploitation of women. Do you object to research chronicling the exploitation of other peoples?

avatar john Willson April 29, 2010 at 10:30 pm

Critical thought? You think that critical thought requires that we all agree about the “exploitation” of women? I find this bizarre, to say the least. I thought I was on Front Porch Republic, not Politically Correct Republic. First somebody who won’t sign his name says that my daughters and granddaughters are either not critical or self aware or they wouldn’t hang around with a troglodyte like me, and then somebody with only a first name thinks that I am opposed to critical thought because I don’t fall into lock step with a UTub piece of propaganda? Strange place, folks.

avatar Len April 29, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Indeed strange! I didn’t say anything about agreement. I think it’s a bit beyond your fixation with the utub piece of propaganda. Why would your aunt have nothing to say to Jean Kilbourne? I’m curious. Personal anecdotes like yours, while interesting, are an anomaly in today’s world. I always find it amusing when conservatives decry the lack of morality abundantly evident in today’s society (and exported to the rest of the world), but refuse to look at the broad contours of causality.

avatar wufnik April 30, 2010 at 7:36 am

A very nice post, Mr. Fox–thank you. I regard it as a mission to get as many people to read Wendell Berry as possible, by whatever means necessary. It’s usually an eye-opener, and occasionally an epiphany. Keep teaching the course.

avatar sean April 30, 2010 at 8:25 am

Take heart sir. The most valuable course I took in college introduced me to Vanderbilt’s Fugitive Poets, but almost an entire decade lapsed before I truly began to appreciate the shared wisdom of Davidson, Ransom, Tate, Warren, and friends.

avatar Empedocles April 30, 2010 at 8:43 am

“I always find it amusing when conservatives decry the lack of morality abundantly evident in today’s society (and exported to the rest of the world), but refuse to look at the broad contours of causality.”

Conservatives do look at causality, and locate it in the lack of moral education through the abandonment of religion or familial responsibility. Unfortunately, “moral causality” among the left always leads to cultural Marxism.

avatar Russell Arben Fox April 30, 2010 at 8:48 am

Len,

The syllabus is available online; use the link with the title of the course in the original post, and it’ll take you to a PDF file. Much of the reading material is also online, but you have to have access to Blackboard to see it.

Wufnik and Sean,

Thanks for the supportive words. While the ideas of Berry, the Southern Agrarians, the Populists, and others of a similar worldview have been much on my mind in recent years, this was the first semester that I made a very concerted effort to teach any of them. (In addition to the above course, I brought the Twelve Southerners into my American political thought course as well, for example.) Figuring out the right way (assuming there is a “right” way) to get students to think about something that strikes most of them (which their perfectly ordinary, American moderate liberal capitalist eyes) as deeply strange is, of course, difficult…but I suppose no more difficult than trying to teach them Augustine or Nietzsche, who seem to modern Americans as equally strange. I’ve just had more practice with those, I guess. I definitely look forward to teaching the course, and others like it, as soon as I can.

avatar Russell Arben Fox April 30, 2010 at 8:57 am

Empedocles,

What do you mean by “cultural Marxism”? I can imagine a number of things that you might be referring to by that, but I don’t want to put words into your mouth. So please, do explain.

For whatever it’s worth, I consider myself to be basically on the left (that is, to speak very superficially in the spirit of Marx, I care deeply about equality, and am opposed political, social, and economic forces which perpetuate it), and I consider myself to be basically conservative (that is, to speak very superficially in the spirit of Burke, I care deeply about community, and am opposed to political, social, and economic forces which tear it apart). On my reading, those two positions can productively overlap each other. Obviously that’s not a common position, but if it’s one that I think people like Norman Mailer, Christopher Lasch–and, yes, Wendell Berry–can help point us towards.

avatar Rob G April 30, 2010 at 9:39 am

The objectification and exploitation of women is most apparent in our day and age in the proliferation of pornography. But this is predominantly a result of actions from the cultural Left — i.e., the “sexual revolution” and free speech absolutism. Madison Ave., knowing full well that “sex sells,” has picked up this ball and run with it.

But note that neither side is entirely comfortable with the result. Feminists are divided over pornography — some say that the First Amendment trumps the exploitation, while others say the opposite. And some on the Right, while decrying pornography and advertising of this sort, poo-poo the objectification/exploitation angle as a leftist/feminist red herring, and put their opposition down instead to a rejection of the general decadence of our culture.

To my mind, it’s a both/and not an either/or. The feminists are correct in their critique, but they are wrong when they lay the blame on something other than the sexual revolution. And those on the Right are wrong to reject the feminist critique just because it arises from a suspect source.

The simple fact is that it’s both the sexual revolution and Madison Ave. that are at fault for this type of thing. Bringing together the cultural Left and the corporatist Right creates some pretty bad juju.

avatar D. Stonehouse April 30, 2010 at 11:24 am

Just a comment about teaching Wendell Berry. I first entered Wendell’s world in the early 1990s through Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community. I immediately went out and bought all his essay collections. Regrettably, I didn’t pick-up his fiction until last year when my wife gave me That Distant Land for Christmas. I wish I had started with the fiction as it adds so much to the essays. The stories give an incredible amount of weight to the essays, taking them from the abstract into the real world. I agree with John the fiction is an excellent entry-point into the ideas presented in the essays.
As an aside, I gave my 12-year-old daughter That Distant Land to read when I was done with it. She loved it and it is now out in the world being passed from friend to friend. Kids love those stories.

avatar JD Salyer April 30, 2010 at 11:26 am

I mostly concur w/ Rob G. However, it’s worth mentioning the most avant-garde attitude, since both free speech and women’s dignity are passé issues for most on the Left. From graduate courses I’ve taken and lit crit essays I’ve been forced to read, I get the impression that a growing number of feminists now believe girls should regard their sexuality as, first and foremost, a tool for acquiring power, a subversive weapon to wield against patriarchy.

“…his view of the world presumes, or puts into question, or both, a huge range of values and beliefs, some of which your typical modern American university student fervently accepts, and some of which are some deeply embedded in our socio-economic and political order as to require some real excavation and imagination to even be able to present as issues of discussion.”

This is very well put. One of my hardest tasks when teaching a philosophy course is explaining what relativism is — precisely because it’s so pervasive and taken for granted.

With a few exceptions each time, my Kentuckian students hate Berry’s guts. And I do mean hate him, like Goldstein in 1984. If he were a “liberal” critiquing “conservatives” or vice versa I don’t think they’d be nearly so hostile, since he would fit into pre-existent categories of thought.

In any event, when they read his essays many respond as if to an existential threat. I suspect it might even be worse in primarily agricultural states than in more cosmopolitan schools, because so many students have inferiority-complexes about the possibility of being seen as hicks. Berry extols the very things they want to discard even while he derisively snorts at the very things to which they aspire.

Professor Fox is probably right about fiction being the best place to start.

avatar Len May 1, 2010 at 11:33 am

Great comments all. Really enjoyed the dialogue. Front porch is a fine website.

avatar Steve May 1, 2010 at 12:35 pm

Interesting article; thanks, Russell.

Which of Berry’s works would you recommend reading 1st? 2nd? 3rd?

avatar Joshua D. Cooney May 1, 2010 at 6:55 pm

Steve: The question was addressed to Prof. Fox but I’ll offer my own insight, for whatever it is worth.

Nonfiction: Begin with The Art of the Commonplace, which is a collection of Berry’s most significant essays on a variety of subjects. What Are People For? is a slim volume that is perhaps the clearest distillation of Berry’s southern and conservative strains. If you care about language and literary criticism, Standing by Words is essential reading.

Fiction: That Distant Land is an anthology of representative selections from his novels and a few complete short stories. Jayber Crow is, perhaps, his best novel. Also, don’t neglect the poetry.

Wendell Berry’s vision has remained fairly constant but you may wish to dip into some of his earlier work. Perhaps read The Window Poems in conjunction with The Long-Legged House (essays). Berry is sometimes treated as wise, cranky, and old. He is. But he was once a young man and his youthful insights on American culture are often quite remarkable.

avatar Steve May 2, 2010 at 6:43 am

Thanks; Joshua. I will order The Art of the Commonplace & delve into this great thinkers works.

avatar Rob G May 2, 2010 at 9:03 am

A couple clarifications of Mr. Cooney’s list:

‘The Art of the Commonplace’ is a fine collection of essays, and a good place to start, but it is a themed collection, dealing mostly with agrarian-related issues. My favorite “general” collection of his essays is ‘Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community.’

I too am a fan of ‘Standing By Words,’ one of Mr. Berry’s lesser known collections. I don’t recall any mention of Richard Weaver in the book, but no fan of the latter should miss it, as it touches on some of the same concerns that Weaver had about morality in language and rhetoric.

‘That Distant Land’ is a collection of his short fiction; it doesn’t contain excerpts from the novels. I agree with Mr. Cooney in recommending ‘Jayber Crow’ as the novel to start with.

On pornography, see this from the Witherspoon Institute:

http://www.socialcostsofpornography.org/index.php

A book featuring all the papers from the conference is coming out later this year, I believe.

avatar Joshua D. Cooney May 2, 2010 at 10:36 am

Rob G:

Thanks for the correction. I read That Distant Land three years ago. For some reason I have been under the impression that the stories therein were selected from his novels. I now have a new respect for Berry as a short story writer.

avatar Russell Arben Fox May 2, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Steve, Joshua, Rob (and others),

There are numerous people on this site (Patrick Deneen and Caleb Stegall being only two) who are far more knowledgeable than in regards to the writings of Wendell Berry, so I would seek recommendations from them first. But, since the question was put to me, this is how I would respond:

Berry’s first major bit of writing, The Unsettling of America, is a wonderful, revision story of America’s relationship with agriculture, land management, and more over the 20th-century. The book is now over 30 years old, but I have taught in productively in courses on environmental politics, and while the book’s focus (and the sources and evidence which it sites) is quite narrow, it is still, I think Berry deepest and most sustain argument, detailing the connection between land use, America’s capitalist economy, and our character as citizens. I would have used selections of it in this class, except that it really didn’t fit into my desire to convey the importance of localism as a form of political economy.

I concur with those who recommend Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community; I don’t know if it is the best “general” introduction to Berry, but everything in it addresses, in about as comprehensive a manner as any collection of Berry’s has ever done, the relationship between society, politics, family, the environment, and the economy. All of the essays in it were written during the late 1980s and early 90s, I believe, and so there are gaps in his criticisms of modern America that Berry would fill up in later writings produced during the Clinton and Bush presidencies (for instance, Berry’s pacifism comes through in these essays, but it was only in later collections that he really started strongly connecting his anti-war position to a concern for democracy and what might be called “republican virtue”–a term which I don’t believe he uses, but which is clearly implied all the same). In any case, this is a great collection, both because the final, title essay (one of the longest and most insightful Berry has ever written), and also because of my personal favorite, “The Problem of Tobacco,” a careful unpacking of a complex cultural and economic problem which shows Berry trying in a very realistic way to explore what governments can and cannot do to help.

The Hidden Wound is a book-length memoir-essay, in which Berry addresses his own affection for the South in light of the evil of slavery which built so much of the culture which shaped him. The essays in The Way of Ignorance most clearly reveal the little bit of New Deal Democrat which hides within Berry, with him exchanging letters with sympathetic (that is, inclined towards localism) Democratic activists and even writing some “unsolicited advice” for the Kerry campaign in 2004. I haven’t read his latest collection, Bringing it to the Table, but it seems to be primarily a collection of agricultural/environmental writings, not dealing with localism per se.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. Hope they help!

avatar Anamaria May 2, 2010 at 11:27 pm

Mr. Fox, thanks for another wonderful essay. It’s great to see someone in this part of the country try to get people to take seriously the idea of local economy. I will add that the most influential class I took in college, MacIntyre’s God, Philosophy, and Universities, took a few years to fully sink in.

Mr. Willson, I must say that I, a young woman who watched very little TV and does not look at women’s magazines, am still affected by the way media portrays women. While I find some of Ms. Kilbourne’s jokes about marriage problematic, she’s right about the way women are portrayed, and as far as I know she’s right that it affects us all.

To the Berry recommendations I must add Home Economics. It’s my favorite essay collection and deals directly with the theme of local economy, though it also ties it into the other frequent themes in his work.

avatar Russell Arben Fox May 3, 2010 at 6:54 am

Anamaria, thanks for commenting (and I’m sorry we missed each other when you were in Wichita–it was my fault for talking so long to get back in touch with you! We’ll have to try again someday). And thanks for speaking up for Ms. Kilbourne. My wife and I hardly agree with every proposal of hers, any more than we agree with everything that, for example, Naomi Klein proposes–but Kilbourne and Klein and others recognize that, among the many hidden harms of global, absentee capitalism, is a targeting of women, particularly young women. I see it amongst the 20-somethings whom I teach; I see it amongst the young women in my Sunday school class: a sometimes physically damaging obsession with style, looks, weight, all of it broadcast everywhere you look by advertisements, but also by the products in the stores themselves. It’s frightening the more you think about it, and it’s why Berry’s essay “The Joys of Sales Resistance,” perhaps more than any other essay, seemed to really ring a bell for some of my students.

Home Economics is a good, diverse collection, covering a lot of territory, both political, environmental, and literary. But then, really any collection of Berry’s can make a good starting point.

avatar Albert May 3, 2010 at 10:49 am

The dilemma of private economic responsibility, as I have said, is that we have allowed our suppliers to enlarge our economic boundaries so far that we cannot be responsible for our effects on the world. The only remedy for this that I can see is to draw in our economic boundaries, shorten our supply lines, so as to permit us literally to know where we are economically. The closer we live to the ground that we live from, the more we will know about our economic life, the more able we will be to take responsibility for it. The way to bring discipline into one’s personal or household or community economy is to limit one’s economic geography (“Conservation is Good Work,” Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, p. 39).

What a marvelous quotation. It seems to me, at least, that accepting this remedy will undermine the abuses RAF criticizes in the latter part of his essay, for the commodification of women is made more likely by the same reductive forces that, in reliance upon mere consent, abstract fully human relationships from economic transactions in the globalized market.

avatar Russell Arben Fox May 3, 2010 at 11:04 am

Very truly said, Albert–in fact, you make exactly the connection which I hoped my students would make, recognizing that one of the few ways to take real economic responsibility for our world (and that would include being able to prevent or at least respond to the commodification of female sexuality and identity) is to get nearer to it. When all we know about the products we buy is what the advertisers tell us, because we’ve made ourselves ignorant of where they come from or how they are produced, then we greatly disarm ourselves against those forces which push to maximize the selling advantages which pornographic images enjoy.

avatar Bill Burns May 3, 2010 at 2:50 pm

In other words, Russell, a pornographer is less likely to employ his own daughters in his (or her!) chosen line of work. That doesn’t mean all pornographers will cease to exist, but they would be less pervasive than they are if all they had to work with was their own family and their neighbors’ daughters & sons.

Marilyn Robinson writes in her own book of essays, The Death of Adam, about “The Tyranny of Petty Coercions,” which is an observation of hers pretty different to Berry’s project, but for similar reasons. There is petty coercion, and there is, I would argue, a proper version, also. And it’s not by government fiat.

In a world of sinners, coercion isn’t necessarily too strong a word for it, either.

avatar Russell Arben Fox May 3, 2010 at 3:30 pm

I don’t think I disagree with anything you say here, Bill–obviously, and correctly, an economy built around stable communities and less-transient populations would force pornographers to operate with geographic (and moral!) limits that would make them much more likely to change their ways–but your comments about coercion there at the end suggests to me that your building some sort of criticism. Am I misreading you there? If so, my apologies. But if I’m not, are you suggesting that Berry, and/or my connection of his critique to the need to respond to the pornographic commodification of women, leads toward the wrong sort of coercion? What exactly is the difference, as you see it, between “petty” coercion and “proper” coercion, anyway?

avatar Bill Burns May 3, 2010 at 8:18 pm

RAF – You are misreading me, yes. I was merely restating your argument (IOW), but trying, unsuccessfully, I can see, to get at the nature of just why it is the case that localism, in the Berry sort of sense, will tend toward ‘limits’ on behavior. What I mean by ‘proper coercion’ would be the sort of thing often referred to as peer pressure, but in a positive sense, rather than the typically negative connotation that phrase carries. That’s really the gist of localism, as you’ve stated it.

I would second the recomendations of ‘Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community’ and ‘What Are People For?’ as good starting places for people wanting to get a sense of Berry.

I think Berry and Robinson are complimentary minds. I’ve read more Berry than Robinson, but have enjoyed both, and I enjoyed your essay. Sorry if I muddied the waters any.

avatar Rob G May 4, 2010 at 4:28 am

Re: that Witherspoon Institute conference on pornography — it appears from the link above that the talks from the conference are available on DVD (6 hrs. worth) for a mere $9.95. If you click on the DVD link it takes you straight to Amazon, where it can be purchased.

On Mr. Berry’s work, we mustn’t leave out “Life is a Miracle,” a fine book-length essay on naturalism/materialism, presented as a response to Edward O. Wilson’s “Consilience.” Like “The Abolition of Man” and “Ideas Have Consequences,” it’s a book I feel I need to reread every year or two.

avatar Bill Burns May 4, 2010 at 9:29 am

@Rob G – Hear! Hear! re: “Life is a Miracle” I forgot about that one, but it definitely stands in the same tradition and league as Lewis’ ‘The Abolition of Man.’

avatar S.L. Toddard May 4, 2010 at 6:26 pm

I can understand Prof. (is it Dr.?) Willson’s reaction to the youtube clip, which I shared in part, though I was disturbed more by the Frankfurt School overtones of Dr. Fox’s piece and comments. There is, though, something for a reactionary to appreciate in Kilbourne’s work, I think. The problem isn’t the “exploitation of women” so much as it is the utter destruction of cultural norms and morality, which commercials like the ones Kilbourne presents exploit. This destruction has come at the hands of liberal revolutionaries and the avaricious capitalists (I do not say conservatives: it is not “conservative” to make a profit destroying the virtue of one’s countrymen) who sponsor them. Dr. Fox proclaimed himself as “basically on the left” (in part), but it was the left that brought about the destruction of any moral order in this country (in part through its dissemination and application of critical theory), not to mention the glorious “equality” under the thrall of which society teaches girls it is their right to be as sexually promiscuous as boys and to treat their bodies as commodities. It is not any kind of “conservative” that dominates Hollywood, television or the entertainment industry in general. As for the corporate sponsors whom Ms. Kilbourne opposes, they are merely exploiting the spiritual devastation the last half century has wrought, with nearly every family in America gathering nearly every night around a box that projects liberal (read anti-traditional) and consumerist propaganda directly into their children’s brains.

I think this point may graze Prof. Willson’s, but if our television programs, films and schools had spent their efforts promoting virtue rather than vice, promoting tradition rather than tearing it down, and girding the morality of our countrymen rather than subverting it (“subversive” is an accolade without parallel on the left – I even heard one sadly misinformed fellow proclaim that it isn’t art *unless* it is subversive), then such commercials as these wouldn’t exist, and if they did they wouldn’t work.

avatar James Kabala May 4, 2010 at 9:26 pm

Kilbourne made some good points, but I couldn’t help but notice her several cracks at the institution of marriage. (Her shrill tone and the sycophantic laughter at her non-jokes were also a bit creepy.) And Dr. Willson is right that the ads selected were rather obscure ones – has any reader here ever really seen an ad other than her examples that trivialized battering, one of the few things – along with racism, pedophilia (except for Roman Polanski), and drunk driving – that modern respectable opinion unanimously regards as evil? I did get the impression that the clip was several years old, however, so maybe some of those ads really were popular back when Winona Ryder was still young and I myself was too young to watch adult TV.

avatar GK May 6, 2010 at 10:40 am

I assigned a bit of Berry to students in an intro to politics course a few years ago (some essays from Citizenship Papers; can’t remember now which ones), alongside readings from Milton Friedman and Marx.

I can certainly imagine students having difficulty with the notion of local knowledge. I ran into a different (but no doubt related) problem. There were one or two students in the class who loved Berry and got what he was up to, to a decent degree, but most threw up the same kind of resistance to Berry that they did to Marx: a supremely confident declaration that human nature is individualist and acquisitive and so no society other than one very much like the one they live in could possible “work”. What I mean is: I was struck by the similarity between the common objections to Marx and the common objections to Berry.

Not sure what to make of that, but I offer it for your consideration.

avatar Russell Arben Fox May 6, 2010 at 10:51 am

I was struck by the similarity between the common objections to Marx and the common objections to Berry.

I’ve been struck by the same similarity, GK; you’re definitely not alone. Indeed, it was the fact that both Berry and Marx seem similarly “illiberal” to most Americans that really first got me thinking about the conceptual overlap amongst conservatives and socialists in the first place.

avatar Rob G May 8, 2010 at 10:20 am

~~a supremely confident declaration that human nature is individualist and acquisitive and so no society other than one very much like the one they live in could possible “work”~~

Thinking of this sort was noticeable during the 2008 GOP primary campaign, esp. regarding Huckabee’s candidacy. I don’t know how many times I heard some variation of, “Well, I like Mike, he’s a good guy, but he’s not really a conservative.” This tended to arise from Huckabee’s critique (mild as it was) of the ‘individualist and acquisitive’ nature of much of American society.

The conservatives that most need to read Berry are reading Ayn Rand instead, alas.

avatar Bill Burns May 8, 2010 at 11:20 am

@Rob G – again, Hear! Hear! But, does anyone know if Huck ever read/s any Berry?

avatar Wessexman May 11, 2010 at 10:10 pm

John surely the exploitation of women is just one part of the issue, surely there is also good old-fashioned morality. The use of sex to sell in such ways as often occurs today is contrary to Christian morality. S.L.Toddard pretty much sums it up although I wouldn’t completely rule out the exploitation angle.

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