Devolution, Triviality, and Vocation

by Jason Peters on April 17, 2012 · 14 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Writers & Poets

industrialism

“Ruskin and Carlyle feared it nearly a hundred years ago,” said John Crowe Ransom in 1930, meaning by “it” industrialism. “And now,” he continued, “it may be said that their fears have been realized partly in England, and with almost fatal completeness in America.”

In 1930!

Ransom’s critique was pretty thoroughgoing. Industrialism “means the decision of society to invest its economic resources in the applied sciences”; “the modern laborer has not exactly received” the benefit of leisure and enjoyment “under the industrial regime. His labor is hard, its tempo is fierce, and his employment is insecure.”

And, under industrialism, “the God of nature … is merely an amiable expression, a superfluity, and the philosophical understanding ordinarily carried in the religious experience is not there for us to have.”

The effects of industrialism extend even to education: “The young men and women in colleges[,] … if they are already placed in a false way of life, cannot make more than an inconsequential acquaintance with the arts and humanities transmitted to them. Or else the understanding of these arts and humanities will but make them the more wretched in their own destitution.”

All of this is fairly well-known to anyone familiar with Ransom’s “Statement of Principles” in I’ll Take My Stand or with its lead essay, “Reconstructed but Unregenerate,” also by Ransom.

I dip into this book frequently. It annoys me some, as any book with a whiff here and there of racism should, but it also gives me a great deal of pleasure and hope, because, on the whole, its weaknesses notwithstanding, it is a right-minded book. It looks back to what we all can (and must) look forward to: a life founded on the soil—whatever soil is left to us, that is. Our lives are land-based, no matter our attempts to hover above the glebe.

Now one of the easiest acts of dissent available to anyone reading this book is to accuse it of “nostalgia,” which, as we all know, is a Bad Thing.

(If you’re going to do this you should practice using the phrase “for a past that never existed,” because nostalgia in and of itself isn’t Bad Enough. Your luddite enemies must always be “nostalgic for a past that never existed,” even though the past here ridiculed did, and in some communities still does, exist.)

And, because nostalgia is a Bad Thing, we should never indulge it. We should never let ourselves feel homesick.

But Ransom anticipated even this: Nostalgia “is hardly a technical term in our sociology or our psychiatry, but it might as well be. Nostalgia is a kind of growing-pain, psychically speaking. It occurs to our sorrow when we have decided that it is time for us, marching to some magnificent destiny, to abandon an old home, an old provincial setting, or an old way of living to which we had become habituated.”

Nostalgia, said Ransom, is an “instinctive objection to being transplanted.”

For my part I will have none of this easy accusation against homesickness, usually hurled by those whose lives are not inheritable. I mean the comfortably deracinated. If they are incapable of nostalgia, then may they rot in their vinyl-clad suburban cartoons of country living. Nostalgia isn’t a Bad Thing. It may in fact be the one salvific sentiment available to a secular age. If there is any truth to our governing paradigm—creation, fall, redemption—then surely the backward glance is worth a turn of the head.

Back then: back to the pleasure and hope. There’s pleasure in the well-wrought line, and hope in its efficacy: “Industrialism is a program under which men, using the latest scientific paraphernalia, sacrifice comfort, leisure, and the enjoyment of life to win Pyrrhic victories from nature at points of no strategic importance.”

I wonder if there has been a more fitting phrase leveled against us in the intervening eighty-two years than “to win Pyrrhic victories from nature at points of no strategic importance.”

What are the victories available to us for celebration? Improved strategies for killing foreign “enemies”? “Greener” strategies for doing so? Uninterrupted entertainment? Cars with cameras that show us what we’re about to back into? Texting? Rock-hard odorless tomatoes in February? Improved techniques—and more sophisticated legal arrangements—for the infertile?

Meanwhile, at the points of strategic importance, we lose: topsoil erodes, aquifers drain, communities, along with marriages and parishes, fail.

Ransom said, “Industrialism is an insidious spirit, full of false promises and generally fatal to establishments since, when it once gets into them for a little renovation, it proposes never again to leave them in peace.”

Need we look further than those addicted to their hand-held devices to see what this prescient sentence anticipated? No wonder that Lyle Lanier, in his contribution to the same book, called progress a “public anæsthetic”–and advertising the “modern magic” of “social control.” No one who thoughtlessly caves in to what’s for sale is at peace, and the most frightening part of this is how unsettled, how ill-at-ease, how unpeaceable our children are. I can hand around a bucket filled with water and collect, with impunity, the iPhones that appear in class, but ask the ham-strung high school teacher what his or her options are when the quadratic equation has to compete with what Mackenzie is doing over in homeroom, and you have some measure of what Ransom meant when he said industrialism “proposes never again to leave them in peace.”

What was it Eliot said? Distracted from distraction by distraction?

Industrialism has devolved into triviality, and, when what is trivial won’t let us be, we may be sure we’ve been successfully trivialized. Industrialism is “rightfully a menial, of almost miraculous cunning but no intelligence,” Ransom said.

As we move deeper into this election cycle and hear more about job-creation, we would do well to remember Ransom’s critique. Our economy must create jobs, we are told. And it is assumed by those who tell us this that we’re too stupid to notice that our economy has always had its sights set on the exact opposite: on eliminating jobs. A “growing” economy will always require the introduction of a labor-saving device, which, said Ransom, “does not emancipate the laborers … so much as it evicts them.”

This is the story of American farming no less than of Oldsmobile. The harvester and the robot alike evicted laborers. Perhaps it is time to think not of labor but of work—or, rather, not of work but of vocation–the “best and most sensitive” of which, said Ransom, is “the culture of the soil.” It “should have the economic preference and enlist the maximum number of workers.”

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Patrick J. Deneen April 18, 2012 at 7:45 am

It is interesting to note how much of our purported ability to live and work increasingly in “the cloud” is based on the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/data-centers-in-va-and-elsewhere-have-major-carbon-footprint-report-says/2012/04/17/gIQAd4t3NT_story.html . Our “post-industrial” economy relies on the same fuel as the industrialism of smokestacks and factories that Ransom condemned. But we have better perfected the modern art of “disconnection,” making the relationship between our disembodied lives as avatars and the devastation of strip-mining almost completely invisible.

avatar D.W. Sabin April 18, 2012 at 5:53 pm

Nostalgia would be a greater force in our lives if it were not relegated to smarmy films that come and go. After all, a culture bound and determined to erase any historical knowledge would always seem to devalue nostalgia into a kind of sappy mood…….rather than its authentically ameliorative caution.

avatar Bo Grimes April 18, 2012 at 6:54 pm

There used to be other words for the “culture of the soil”–serfs and slaves. I grew up working farms in the rural south when it was the only job teenagers could get, and the only job that didn’t require minimum wage. Only landowners and their families are “nostalgic” for the “culture of the soil.” Talk to the descendants of sharecroppers for another perspective.

avatar David Walbert April 19, 2012 at 7:56 am

Patrick, “disembodied” is an apt word here: The rise of the fossil fuel economy was concurrent with the gradual disembodiment of humans and our work. Physical work was replaced with machines, increasingly complex and (to those they replaced) incomprehensible and therefore abstract, as if they were not even physical things at all. That cognitive dissonance has become easier as machines became electronic and, now, are being removed to the so-called cloud — which, as a former IT director I knew kept insisting, to no avail, is just a server rack in somebody else’s closet instead of in yours. Even something as basic as our food has become, in a sense, disembodied. (Consider a Twinkie, or even a boneless, skinless chicken breast, marinated for your pleasure and sealed for your protection.) The less we are forced to grapple with the physical world right around us, and with our own bodies, the less we are able to conceive seriously of the physical world at all or of the reality of the bodies of others.

Bo, every time I read the Southern Agrarians’ essays I am frustrated not just by the lingering racism but by the failure of most of them to accept the fact of the South’s tragic flaw, i.e. slavery. It’s as if I were reading a series of letters Oedipus wrote in retirement about how much better things were when he were king, and, anyway, everybody is sleeping around and dissing their mamas now. I don’t believe that invalidates all of their arguments, but it does make it difficult or impossible for an awful lot of people even to take them seriously. As a small and practical example, several years ago I was talking with the (also white) director of a farmland preservation group who was struggling to promote an urban farmers’ market to the people who lived nearest it in the city, who were mostly African Americans and second-generation Latino immigrants. The problem, I suggested, might be that what “farm fresh” brought to their minds was very different from what it brought to ours, but neither of us could figure out what sort of approach would be better. The challenge in drawing on old ideas is always in overcoming the failures of their most recent implementation (because there were always failures, because we’re human), and the only way to do that is head-on.

avatar Rob G April 19, 2012 at 5:15 pm

“Nostalgia would be a greater force in our lives if it were not relegated to smarmy films that come and go. After all, a culture bound and determined to erase any historical knowledge would always seem to devalue nostalgia into a kind of sappy mood…….rather than its authentically ameliorative caution.”

One can see this very thing at work in the critical appraisals of the recent Spielberg movie, “War Horse.” This is a fine, old-fashioned, heart-on-its-sleeve epic in the John Ford/David Lean mode, and many of the film’s positive reviewers pointed this out. That and the fact that it celebrates such old school notions as friendship, bravery and honor.

The negative reviews, however, tended to do exactly what you describe — reduce it all to schmaltz and sentimentalism, as if people in the modern world were unable to distinguish between true and virtuous emotions on the one hand and sentimentality and sappy emotionalism on the other, or worse still, to imply that there was really no difference between them.

“every time I read the Southern Agrarians’ essays I am frustrated not just by the lingering racism but by the failure of most of them to accept the fact of the South’s tragic flaw, i.e. slavery. I don’t believe that invalidates all of their arguments, but it does make it difficult or impossible for an awful lot of people even to take them seriously.”

Wendell Berry is helpful here, as are such commentators on the Agrarians as Louis Rubin and Eugene Genovese. They do a good job of highlighting and distilling the wisdom of the Agrarians into non-racist forms.

Also, let’s remember that it’s not just the South that had a “tragic flaw,” which is one of the very things that the Agrarians were trying to get across. Slavery was bad, but acquisitive industrial capitalism wasn’t exactly The Beatitudes in action.

avatar blue sun April 23, 2012 at 2:30 pm

I couldn’t help but notice you mention “that Lyle Lanier, in his contribution to the same book, called progress a ‘public anæsthetic’–and advertising the ‘modern magic’ of ‘social control.’ ”

I have no idea who Lyle Lanier is, but I’ll take it by the fact you’re quoting him that he was a pretty bright guy. I tend to think that when two pretty bright people (who have otherwise no knowledge of each other) are saying basically the same thing, it’s a good indication that they’re describing truth, or even Truth.

For me, it’s electrifying to discover such connections. Lyle Lanier’s comment sounds resoundingly similar to Ioan Culianu’s observation “that modern advertising is simply the current form of magic, and that contemporary Western nations are ‘magician states’ governed by the magical manipulation of public consensus.” (as paraphrased by John Michael Greer, and found here: http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2011/10/plutos-republic.html )

avatar blue sun April 23, 2012 at 2:35 pm

By the way, I had no idea who Ioan Culianu was until I read that.

Although sometimes I can barely keep up with all the esoteric references made by the writers and commenters on this site, I still love them!

avatar Rob G April 25, 2012 at 9:04 am

Lanier was one of the ’12 Southerners’ who contributed to I’ll Take My Stand. He taught psychology at Vanderbilt in the 20′s and 30′s.

avatar Gabe Ruth April 25, 2012 at 10:31 am

Blue Sun, for another guy trying to alert the modern mind to the danger of advertising, give this guy a look. He’s not all the way home yet, but he’s sharp and a very entertaining writer.

http://thelastpsychiatrist.com/2011/11/luxury_branding_the_future_lea.html

avatar D.W. Sabin April 25, 2012 at 4:20 pm

Perhaps Homo sapiens sapiens might be revised to Homo sapiens tragicus flawensis. We are not doubly wise unfortunately…or perhaps fortunately. The trouble arises when the species actually begins to believe it is omnipotent. This omnipotence is compounded when it becomes the basis of a fungible commodity. This is particularly so when the standard marketplace checks and balances are replaced by a grifters paradise of quarter-truths.

avatar Rob G April 26, 2012 at 7:25 am

Add to this the problems that arise when the “tragic flaw” is turned into a justification for the quest for unlimited acquisition. Total depravity is used as an excuse for the baptism and triumph of avarice; selfishness, being a universal and ineradicable trait of fallen man, comes to be seen therefore as a “natural” virtue rather than a damnable vice.

avatar Gian April 27, 2012 at 1:12 am

Are drastic reductions in infant mortality or of women dying in childbirth “Pyrrhic” ?

avatar Rob G April 27, 2012 at 11:10 pm

I don’t think that hygiene, medicine, etc., are rightly considered functions of or developments based on “industrialism.” This should be evident from the Ransom quote that Dr. Peters provided.

avatar Eric B. June 18, 2012 at 8:31 pm

Gian, if those children are murdered a few months earlier now instead of dying of natural causes then, tell me what the gain is!

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