[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
That’s a terrible title for this post, I know. But hopefully it’ll make sense, if you actually make it to the end.
First of all, if any reader of this blog has missed out on my praise of Rod Dreher’s new book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern, A Small Town, and the Secret of the Good Life, well, let me repeat myself: it’s a great book, and I’m far from the only one to think so. It’s a powerful portrait and memoir, of a person and a place and the relationships which those two things both test and lend a kind of grace to; it’s a book that everyone ought to read and think about.
Now, having done my due diligence in urging you once again to read it, this post is about the thinking the book inspires. Specifically, I want to respond to, and add a couple of ideas to, Damon Linker’s thoughts about Dreher’s book. Damon thought the book was wonderful too; he calls Dreher’s depiction of his sister Ruthie’s life and death at age 42 from cancer “an emotionally gripping story,” but one that includes “bracing reflections on place and community, ambition and happiness that transform the book into something far more than a tragic autobiography.” It becomes “a powerful statement about how we live today–and more importantly, about how we should live.”
That “should” there is the rub. Because if you’re making any kind of normative argument–that is, if you’re making any kind of substantive case for a particular norm or principle, presenting it as something which ought to have an effect which is persuasive, if not conclusive, in our lives–then you’re going to have to make, well, just that: an argument, one which has substance to it. And Dreher’s book, very pointedly, does not do that. Instead it tells a story–which of course, through the way in which we can read, identify with, and be affectively moved by them, have their own persuasive power as well. In a long and powerful post on his blog, Dreher takes American conservativism to task for relying too much on arguments and not doing enough witnessing–as he connects it to a set of reflections he’s written about his return to Louisiana, his own conservative side of our national conversations has been too committed to libraries, and not enough to parades. That is, it’s been too interested in figuring out and advancing the best arguments, and not with tending to the humble everyday pleasures of community life, and letting that tending be an argument in itself.
This is, I should emphasize, something I am entirely in sympathy with–that is, with the idea that the communitarian principles which Dreher recognizes that his sister Ruthie Leming took as simply the default setting for a decent life are a superior way of talking about culture and how we should live. There is stronger and more persuasive witnessing in telling stories about the communities we have and build and leave and return to and change and keep the same than anything which the best libraries of policy or philosophy can offer. When he concludes that those who are concerned about preserving the cultural and civic and moral goods of community, “need fewer think tanks and more front porches,” I couldn’t agree more.
But let’s be clear about the consequences of that point of Dreher’s, and in a sense the point of his whole book: it robs him of the ability of the ability to say, in any kind of substantive way, that some should live in some particular way. He’s set aside his normative claim, in other words–all he can do is say that this is a way of living that he has found to be admirable and fulfilling, and perhaps you, the reader, ought to take it seriously. And, if you’ve followed Dreher’s book tour, then you know that many, many people have responded seriously to his story. But their response is propelled by their own affective interactions with the story he has told, not, or at least not necessarily, because he has shown them that he has a normative point.
Now presumably, Dreher wouldn’t dispute that–he’d agree that the story he tells, the story of Ruthie Leming, isn’t a normative argument. And yet, smart people like Damon Linker see his book doing so nonetheless, if in a confused way. He wrote that Dreher’s book left:
a pervasive confusion about what readers (or at least some readers) are supposed to do in response. If you already live in the heartland, the message is to stay. If you come from the heartland and have left, the message is to return. But what if you’re one of the tens of millions of people who can’t stay in or go home to the heartland because your home–your roots–are in the BosWash corridor of the Northeast or the urbanized areas of the West Coast?…If he’s a consistent localist, he should tell me to put down roots and immerse myself in community where I am–or perhaps in my “hometowns” of New York City and Fairfield County, Conn. But is this even possible in a place where paying my mortgage and other bills requires that my wife and I–like my equally striving neighbors–devote ourselves to high-stress work during nearly every waking hour of our days?….Things are different in rural Louisiana. And that’s why I can’t help but conclude that Dreher and his fellow Porchers must be advocating an anti-urban ideology of ruralism. If you live in a coastal city or suburb, the supremely unconservative message appears to be: Pull up your shallow roots and relocate to a region of the country where you can start over with a simpler, more humane, and happier life.
Dreher’s response to this observation of Damon’s is telling, I think:
As I’ve tried to make clear to audiences on this book tour, I don’t think everybody should move back to the small towns from which they come….Rather, my advice would be to do your very best to root yourself in the community where you do live, and to do your best to stay there–achieving “stability” in the Benedictine sense….But what do you do if you’re like Damon and his wife, and live in a place where just keeping up requires you to work crazy-long hours, and leaves little time for community life?….Maybe the lesson is that the good life is not possible in the Philadelphia suburbs, or any place where in order to keep your head above water, your job has to own you and your wife, and it keeps you from building relationships. There are trade-offs in all things, and no perfect solution, geographical or otherwise. Thing is, life is short, and choices have to be made. It’s not that people living in these workaholic suburbs are bad, not at all; it’s that the culture they (we) live in defines the Good in such a way that choosing to “do the right thing” ends up hollowing out your life.
Now what just happened there is obvious: Dreher has made a normative argument–a “should” claim. He starts out by saying that he thinks people just need to develop stable roots wherever they are; to attend to the parades in their own particular places, as it were. But immediately following that he takes Damon’s point: the living and working in some places makes the time and money and opportunity to seek out parades, much less actively tend to them pretty hard to pull off. He calls that a “trade-off,” but obviously is pretty convinced–and presumably wants his readers to be convinced too–that it’s a lousy one. And why wouldn’t it be, seeing as it leaves your life hollowed out?
Damon calls this an “anti-urban ideology,” and I’m not sure it’s exactly that. An “anti-suburban ideology” might be closer, but still isn’t quite right, I think. What Dreher is dancing around here is a humbler, more local, more contained, less frantic, less ambitious, simpler way of life. Can that be described ideologically? Not if you just tell stories about it, it can’t, not really. Those stories can work on people affectively and imaginatively, and by doing so might persuade them to see the value in such. But of course, not everyone will be moved by the stories, and thus won’t be able to see why Dreher speaks of “trade-offs.” Isn’t it, in the end, just another manifestation of individualistic, consumer choice? So first Dreher rejected his hometown, because he preferred something different than what his hometown offered; then later he went back to it to stay, because at that point in his life he preferred that which his hometown offered. (I owe this observation to David Watkins of the blog Lawyers, Guns & Money.) Dreher–and those of us who are in agreement with his communitarian sensibilities–will almost certainly what to challenge this formulation: after all, isn’t the entire point of embracing stability and putting down roots and learning to live within limits exactly to deny that we our entirely a product of our own preference maximization? Yes, says I! But if I want to say that “yes,” then I have to move beyond stories–I have to give an argument as to why the trade-offs which we face are (sometimes, anyway) bad ones, with one choice–the simpler, more local, more rural one–being obviously better. Why. Maybe because it connects us with deeper virtues, or maybe because it is more environmentally sustainable, or maybe because it better reflects our basic anthropology of being, or maybe all of the above, or maybe some other reason entirely? Whatever argument I make, it will be just that–an argument, a normative claim. And that means that I will have to be saying something that can be expressed theoretically, or ideologically.
In the case of the theory hidden within Dreher’s story, the one from which his argument for just what does constitute “the good life” emerges, I’d say the agrarian label fits best. This is somewhat of an odd fit for Dreher, since he confesses in his book, and has long reminded us on his blog, that he’s not the outdoor type. But, as someone who spends a lot of time reading and thinking and writing about these issues (too much time in the library, I know!), I’m relatively convinced that the only way all of this emphasis upon simplicity and locality and community can hold together is when you’re operating within a set of assumptions which privilege rural environments, producer-based economies, and agricultural work. And this, of course, invites in the whole tradition of agrarian and classical republican thought–about how to respond to the lure of consumerism, or the role of technology, or the threat of economic specialization and outsourcing, or the challenge to civic virtue and building a common morality. These are, to say the least, deep and complication philosophical issues–none of which Dreher’s book, or its powerful story about Ruthie Leming’s life and death, spend any time dwelling upon at all. And yet, those issues are there. They are significantly undertheorized, to use academic jargon, but they are absolutely present, as they are present in Dreher’s call for conservatives to care more about the routines of community life. Because, after all, you can’t really care about parades and the routines of community life if your job, and your immediate living environment, and the whole socio-economic world you move through is so characterizes by the transitory nature of liberal capitalism that no real rooted culture is even there to be tended to.
I just reviewed a smart book about conservative political ideas and theory by Mark T. Mitchell, and there was much in there which I found insightful. But even that book, aimed as it was towards the development of a theoretical language of politics that would bring back into our national conversations the sort of things Dreher and I both value, though in different ways–namely, a substantive defense of community, limits, and stability–was nonetheless (on my reading anyway) haunted by an untheorized yet recurring agrarian norm. Getting back to the garden, getting into the outdoors, getting away from technology, getting back to putting food we’d grown ourselves into our bodies–all of that and more was really the unstated assumption which enabled his calls for “gratitude” and “place” to hold together. And unfortunately, in that book, as in Dreher’s, as wise and as thoughtful as their insights are, I just don’t think they fully come together as a “should,” as much as they both obviously believe that the stories they tell and the observations they make really should add up to something. But to put such a substantive claim about local communities together, you need a theory, you need an argument (and that, not incidentally, means you’ll need a library).
And if you lack that? Well, that’s certainly no loss to the stories which localists like Dreher and Mitchell (and sometimes me) tell, or to the observations they (and I) make. That sort of testifying to the importance of community and simplicity (and parades) is vital. But it also won’t be able to escape the suspicion that it’s just a lifestyle choice–one that substantively isn’t much different from anyone else’s (after all, we can find community on Facebook, right? or with our grad student cohort? or with all our friends on the 16th floor?) unless it can be connected to a larger argument. Damon is right that there is an ideology at work here, one that deserves to be fleshed out. I suspect that, deep down, it’s an agrarian one, but perhaps I’m wrong. The story of Ruthie Leming, which matters more than any normative argument (that’s something Dreher is definitely right about!), unfortunately won’t tell me one way or another. And so long as there is a need to do more than witness to and tend to our experiences, so long as there is a need to, well, really try to figure out what we should do, then library work will be necessary too.
I can see an agrarian theory that successfully defends “community, limits, and stability” making heavy use of the concept of responsibility as a moral obligation.
Modern technological consumer capitalism, as Wendell Berry points out, tends to obscure our view of causes and effects. Without our understanding of the provenance of things and consequences of actions, how are we able to take responsibility for our choices? Localism brings things back to a smaller scale where we can see that *this* results from *that* and therefore enables us to take responsibility for choosing one thing over another — we know what had to happen to obtain the thing we’ve chosen, and we can see the consequences of that choice.
One might say to the liberal who argues that Dreher simply made different choices than his sister did, that Dreher was also more irresponsible, but not because he disregarded the consequences of his actions, rather that it wasn’t possible for him to be aware of them in the way that his sister was.
Anyhow, that’s where I’d start. Much work to be done.
By the way — this is the best blog post title I’ve ever seen.
BTW, I largely agree with you. One of the reasons I am a strong advocate of urban permaculture is that one learns lessons, including social lessons, through the practice. This may lead, I hope, to a better understanding of agrarianism as people put their hands in the soil and grow things.
The lessons of permaculture are many and varied. One learns to think about waste ecologies and recycling in a variety of new and better ways. One learns to think about social support structures in new and better ways. One learns to think about many things in different ways.
But like so many things, one major problem is that of describing a world to someone else who has not experienced it. I have had arguments about localism and sustainability where the argument was made that economy of scale was necessary to achieve sustainability and therefore localism was incompatible with a sustainable future (prompting me to make a comment like “Thank goodness that Walmart is here to save us from local bakeries and farmers markets….”). On further thought though what occurred to me was that what was missing from my opponent’s viewpoint was that of waste ecology and the idea that the efficiency gains that can be had from tying the output of one system to the input of another is much greater than what can be achieved through centralization.
I can see an agrarian theory that successfully defends “community, limits, and stability” making heavy use of the concept of responsibility as a moral obligation.
I agree; while I don’t think all agrarianism points in that direction, much of it does. And I think Mitchell unintentionally lays this out–in his examples in his book, the best ways he comes up with to make an argument in favor of people seeing themselves as obliged to one another, as possessing a kind of communitarian responsibility instead of being free, individualist agents, begin with people becoming re-acquainted with their dependency on the land, and getting away from those technologies which distance them from that ultimate, unavoidable reality. Well, that’s an agrarian ethic there. Of course, this is just restating the point you made above, about a more local and agrarian environment being one where the specialization and distancing of modernity doesn’t prevent us from seeing the results of our choices, and the consequences of our work, so obviously.
By the way — this is the best blog post title I’ve ever seen.
You’re too kind!
One of the reasons I am a strong advocate of urban permaculture is that one learns lessons, including social lessons, through the practice. This may lead, I hope, to a better understanding of agrarianism as people put their hands in the soil and grow things.
Exactly. The agrarian and localist arguments need to be developed in conjunction with practices (which, of course, go to Dreher’s point about parades!) that are relevant to the word we live in. So we have to think about urban gardening, and about city design, and economies of scale and food deserts and all the rest. That’s going to involve some heavy theoretical lifting, as well as a lot of people who actually get out and experiment with such.
I have had arguments about localism and sustainability where the argument was made that economy of scale was necessary to achieve sustainability and therefore localism was incompatible with a sustainable future…. what was missing from my opponent’s viewpoint was that of waste ecology and the idea that the efficiency gains that can be had from tying the output of one system to the input of another is much greater than what can be achieved through centralization.
Good thoughts! I had a similar discussion with another friend about Dreher’s book, a discussion which I alluded to in the post. It can’t just be that community is defensible because of the kind of virtues which he saw on display in St. Francisville through his sister’s struggle with and death from cancer; as central as those matters may be, they can’t be the whole argument, because then you can’t really articulate why this was able to survive as a community so as to provide such things, while other places ran out of jobs/natural resources/people and just withered away. This brings up the questions of waste, efficiency, networking vs. centralization, and all the other points you touch on. That’s where the agrarian argument needs to go.
So we should talk more about what we should do… without grappling with everyday practice. These sentiments are pleasing, but a sketch of a tree doesn’t make anyone plant a real one. Armchair agrarians rarely turn out to be farmers.
I’d love to see a few more “shoulds” coming out of here that aren’t mere abstractions.
So we should talk more about what we should do… without grappling with everyday practice.
I don’t recall ever saying that; perhaps you could point me to the part of my post where I do? It is true that I think that the sort of “shoulds” which communitarians and localists and Porchers ought to avail themselves of do require more than just enacting and witnessing, and I think the proof of that is the fact that, when we tell our various stories in defense of coming home, we obviously want them to be taken for more than just choices which satisfied us; we want people to see that there is some real truth there. But that’s going to require some work–without it, we just have to content ourselves with being regarded as advocating for just another lifestyle choice. The idea, though, that such work is solely abstract “armchair” work is not one that I believe, nor is that my implication, I think.
Hidden question in this general discussion, including all the postings alluded to… is any sort of “communitarian conservatism” possible in urban, atomized, post-industrial settings (I shall not use the word “society” to describe libertine consumerism.) If it is not, then all talk is futile defiance of the inevitable.
However, a personal experience here gives me both clue and hope.
Due to circumstances I shall not describe, I have had occasion recently to frequently visit a person whose reduced circumstances have led him to a tiny apartment in what is widely regarded as a “slum” area. The sort of place where police cars go by every ten minutes, and most windows have iron security bars, where rather artistic, if obscene grafitti adorns walls.
If any setting would be anathema to staunch “Conservatives”, it would be this one.
Yet, I notice… the poor prople in the area can be predatory on each other, although a good many of them will also share what little they have with those who have less. They will check up on others who haven’t been seen about for a day or so. They tell each other where to find bread (from the area Food Bank distribution points.) Many of them are very dependent on the state welfare system for existence. Some will not work, because they see no immediate reward for their labors — getting out of a slum is harder than many people realize, and the “social service” workers do not make it any easier.
Yet, I notice… while generally despised by others, this “lumpenproletariat” as Marx dismissively called them, primarily suffer from a lack of hope. When they have Hope penetrate their consciousness, they rise up, clean up, and respond in ways unimaginable to those locked into the consumerist culture.
While it is true, the little neighborhood communities they form are transient and rough in the extreme, they do offer something of a lesson to the rest of us. Without romanticzing “The Poor”, the lesson here is that simple decency and common courtesy go much further in the creation of sustainable “community” than any amount of theorizing from Tocqueville or Nisbet.
As time passes, I increasingly think that the term “conservative” ought to be abandoned, as well as the nostalga for the agrarian republic. We haven’t had one of those for a very long time, and shy of planetary collapse, are not likely to see one ever again. Rather, we should be theorizing about what values sustain society, and how they might be encouraged in urban settings, among the economic losers in “consumer capitalism”, and especially among theose who are the spiritual losers in said culture.
This is a great post — thanks, Russell.
Lots of good stuff here, but a couple comments if I may:
1. I guess I want to defend Dreher a little bit. As a bit of a creative nonfiction writer myself, I think the genre of Dreher’s book gives us some clues. While story does usually argue in some way, it is more thematic than it is rational; what I mean is, it works by implication. My guess is that yes, Dreher does believe in some “should” in this matter, but that doesn’t mean his best lines of reasoning belong in a memoir.
2. Hopefully this isn’t too nitpicky, but I resist your use of the word “simplicity” in conversations about agrarianism. As Wendell Berry has written, “I have farmed as a writer and written as a farmer. This is an experience that is resistant to any kind of simplification. I will go ahead and call it complexification. When I am called, as to my astonishment I sometimes am, a devotee of ‘simplicity’ (since I live supposedly as a ‘simple farmer’), I am obliged to reply that I gave up the simple life when I left New York City in 1964 and came here to Kentucky. In New York, I lived as a passive consumer, supplying nearly all my needs by purchase, whereas here I supply many of my needs from this place by my work (and pleasure) and am responsible besides for the care of the place.”
As a bit of a creative nonfiction writer myself, I think the genre of Dreher’s book gives us some clues….My guess is that yes, Dreher does believe in some “should” in this matter, but that doesn’t mean his best lines of reasoning belong in a memoir.
That’s a fair criticism of my point–though I don’t primarily think of my comment’s about Dreher’s book as a “criticism” of it, not really; more like an observation about the peculiar situation which such claims against the trends of modernity find themselves. In any case, though, you’re right that a memoir is not the place to find the best possible formulations of “should” arguments, and it’s entirely possible that Dreher, in a different book, could have or would have written both different and better ones.
Hopefully this isn’t too nitpicky, but I resist your use of the word “simplicity” in conversations about agrarianism.
Ha! No, it’s not nitpicky at all–it touches on one of the central confusions of Wendell Berry’s ideas, and agrarianism in general. On the one hand, simplicity means getting away from the complications and distractions and the constantly pre-occupying tools and trends of modernity. And yet, on the other hand, what could be more simple than just trusting in the complex, out-sourced specializations of the modern marketplace to attend to all your needs? Certainly not farming, which requires an enormous amount of local and variable knowledge! And yet again, that knowledge and those practices really are simpler, in a sense. I tried to talk about this a long time ago in a little essay called “Simplicity (and its Complications)“; I don’t know how well it holds up, but I recognize the problem isn’t a new one.
Russell, I haven’t read the books you mention, but from your account here I’m left wondering one thing: why are Dreher and Mitchell’s approaches necessarily agrarian? I can see how, given the current state of society, the sort of life Dreher advocates can be lived most easily in an agrarian small town. But I don’t see what about it is necessarily agrarian in principle, rather than conveniently agrarian in practice.
Why are Dreher and Mitchell’s approaches necessarily agrarian? I can see how, given the current state of society, the sort of life Dreher advocates can be lived most easily in an agrarian small town. But I don’t see what about it is necessarily agrarian in principle, rather than conveniently agrarian in practice.
The point I was trying to make–and perhaps I didn’t express it very well–is that the sort of politics and worldview which Dreher and Mitchell both describe (elliptically through a memoir, in the first case, and more theoretically in the second) seems to me to be one that can only fully and thoroughly hold together and be presented as a life worth arguing on behalf of if it exists in relation to, as you put it, an agrarian small town. Neither Dreher nor Mitchell make that explicit, but as I read their works, and as I understand them both to be not merely presenting one alternative way of life, but actually wanting to make a claim for the virtue of that way of life, I feel like that there is a ruralism, an agrarianism, which is heavily implied through all their arguments. There is nothing at all wrong with that! But, if you’re talking about the mechanics of argument (and I suppose, as has been pointed out above, perhaps in Dreher’s case we aren’t), and you want to make your argument both strong and persuasive, I think more theoretical explicitness is necessary.
Now, as to the actual merits of the agrarianism which I think is an undertheorized presence in their stories and arguments they made, is it just a matter of convenience? I don’t think so. Dreher’s story is pretty clear on the notion that, for example, if his sister Ruthie Leming hadn’t been so connected to the outdoors, or so dismissive of big cities and higher education and all the rest, than she wouldn’t have been able to become such a seamlessly productive component of her rural small town environment. It was exactly the fact that her physical and economic environment allowed for someone to be as un-distracted by the busy-ness of modern American life that she could have been such a resource and source of contentment to so many. So, in that case, the agrarianism is not just convenient; it’s woven into the nature of the person who the story is about. (Though, again, never explicitly, which makes the book less theoretically convincing, I believe, though not one whit less powerful as a story.) I see something similar going on with Mitchell’s book; he claims that his arguments for stewardship and limits and responsibility can apply across our modern economy, but I can’t quite believe him, because all of his best examples and arguments, whether he intended this or not, keep point back to the garden and the farm.
I think that a lot of the arguments end up basically being typically man vs social machine. Localism is usually argued from the idea that human flourishing is helped by the aesthetics of a sense of place. And this is important, don’t get me wrong, but what I think is an important theoretical aspect not usually argued is that of ecologies vs machines. Local communities are ecologies. Centralized systems are machines.
What makes this a tough sell is that our culture has been overtaken by what I call “the cult of the machine.” We worship technological progress in our culture, believing that it will lead to social progress. We build our systems of government as machines. We build our homes as machines as even Eliade noticed. We treat the universe as a machine, our bodies as machines. And one night a year we all get together and worship a giant clock. Also it is worth noting that because of the curious way we define religion we don’t see it as such. But it is worth noting the pagan Norse equivalent where the machine in all of those statements is replaced by a tree. The universe is a tree, the human is a tree, society is a tree, there was tree worship (vestiges of related traditions survive in the Christmas Tree) and so forth. There is, I believe, a core aspect of the human condition that requires a universal metaphor like that and so whatever religions most people in our culture claim to follow, the culture has been overtaken by a religion of technology. As I see it, one thing missing from Christianity is such a universal metaphor and so the void must be filled somehow. To paraphrase Chesterton, those who do not believe something will believe anything.
The real question is how to sell this ecology universal model. I suggest a few points:
1. Ecologies are robust, machines are brittle.
2. Ecologies are fundamentally more efficient than machines despite appearing to be less so.
3. Ecologies are better at supporting members than machines are at supporting gears.
[…] Russell Arben Fox at FPR: […]
Theory is a universalizing, abstracting mode; to use it is to subvert the argument of localism. The particularism of a tale is better suited to argue for the local. Theory is a palantir, Denethor Arben Fox.
Points for the Tolkien reference–Tolkien himself being both 1) a localist and 2) a non-theoretical story-teller par excellence! Tolkien’s work–like Dreher’s story, as I’ve never denied–is both greater than and more powerful than whatever kind of argument might be developed from it; far more people have been persuaded to live more traditional lives by Tolkien’s stories than by any theoretical explanation of such.
So if I know that, why write this post? Because everyone, always, at some point or another, picks up the palantir. (Even Aragorn had to, in the end.) Dreher does it when he sums up the “message” of his story in the conversations I liked to above; Tolkien did when he told his son Christopher how to vote. We all go abstract and theoretical, and I genuinely believe that none of us can ever just not do so, ever. Why? Because we’re not fundamentally localist traditionalists, simply receiving what is giving by our time and our environment within thinking of options. Instead, were moderns, individualized by capitalism and technology and democracy; we move. That means, before we move, we assess our options: that is, we theorize, and we argue. So, own up to it, I say, to all of those (myself included) sympathetic to communitarian or populist agrarianism! We should, and must, tell our stories, and testify of what moves us. But when someone asks us “Why?”, we ought to be able to go abstract enough to relate to her an argument, not just more testimony.
There is a long response required, but I will just note that I would critique “we’re moderns, individualized by capitalism and technology and democracy.” This compresses a long line of socio-philosophical argument, which I don’t think should be taken as given, and which I think undermines localism (and much else) if accepted in the first place. I would distinguish argument from theory, and both from some putative modernity. I rather think your position might benefit from similar differentiation.
I would distinguish argument from theory, and both from some putative modernity. I rather think your position might benefit from similar differentiation.
Help me see that differentiation, Withywindle. I’m quite serious: I’m not aware of how I could, for example, argue with my businessman and mainstream conservative Republican father about, say, local food, without getting into more or less abstract concerns? I grant that the way modern human beings discuss and think about things invariably individualizes us, in ways that are detrimental to localism, so what would be the unmodern way to talk about such subjects? Cite scripture? But surely Tyson’s Food can do the same, probably to even greater effect (since their interpretation of scripture–focusing on “increasing ones talents,” no doubt–would be more in line with what the audience already believed). Don’t talk at all, but just live out my life as best my family and I can, and hope that would be a testimony to him? That would have a greater likelihood of success, no doubt–but how is it that he could not simply say “Interesting lifestyle you’ve got there, son,” and chalk it all up to choice? Help me see what I’m missing here.
~~how is it that he could not simply say “Interesting lifestyle you’ve got there, son,” and chalk it all up to choice?~~
This seems to me to be the real problem. The near-universal acceptance of the modern belief that the individual will and its choices are sovereign necessarily undermines agrarian/localist/communitarian ideas and endeavors. If we are to “theorize” in a way that makes these ideas understandable and convincing, I’d say we’d have to go further, as it were, in an “unmodern” direction and offer critique of this radical individualism.
I agree, Rob; hence, critique (even abstract, theoretical critique) is necessary. It’s not sufficient, certainly–but it is necessary, assuming we want to be authentic to what we believe, and not allow it to be simply packed away as another “lifestyle.”
I’d hoped to inspire you into a clear and concise exposition of my argument; alas, you’re going to get my muddled and word-chopping version. I’ll mention that I come at this out of the rhetoric-reason debate, with particular reference to Gadamer and Habermas.
I take theory to refer specifically to arguments universal in scope, attained by a narrow use of logos–reason, in the narrower sense of the mainstream of the Western philosophical tradition. I take rhetoric to deal with the broader material of argument–ethos and pathos, of course, but also poeisis–all that persuades.
Now, when you argue for a theorized argument, I take you both to be narrowing the mode of argument and arguing the superiority of theory over other modes of argument. Perhaps you are merely saying that the theoretical mode is indispensable, if not superior, but you do seem to be arguing that it is at the very least a first among equals. (Yes?) For the narrowing: there is an old argument between reason and rhetoric, where reason takes resort to the other modes of argument to corrupt, to weaken, the argument; rhetoric takes them to strengthen them–and, more to the point, to be essential for persuasion of flesh and blood human beings, who are not persuaded by reason alone. I take the latter point. But I also take the related point: to argue in a theoretical mode is to constitute an audience persuadable by theory alone–abstracted, atomistic, shorn of passions and, indeed, individuality. (Please hold for a bit on the riposte that there is a dialectic between individuality and theory.) To engage in theoretical argument is to assume a universal audience–one that, by definition, is not local. I take a theoretical argument for localism to be self-defeating in its mode, since it can only be assented to by abandoning a local mode of thought. Localism, perhaps more than other arguments, I think needs to be argued in the broader rhetorical complex of argument, with theory, if necessary, firmly subordinated.
Then modernity. May I take it that you, as Habermas, borrows from the Weberian idea that there is some sort of thought inherent in modernity–instrumental reason, technical reason broadly applied–that requires us to use the modes of theory, that disenchants us and lifts us out of the alternate modes of rhetoric and poetry? (My recollection is that Weber starts by using this as a heuristic device, but that some of his followers (and perhaps he himself) regard it as a palpable reality.) In other words, capitalism, technology, etc., modernity, require the use of a theoretical mode for persuasion, as they were not required before. (And Habermas takes his communicative rationality to be the means to address the dessications of modernity, to reattach the lifeworld to theory–a variation of your project, I would say.)
I take this last point to be highly debatable. (I’m agin’ it.) Most generally, it is an argument derived ultimately from a host of historical particulars, which, aside from the revisionist work done since Weber’s time, is inevitably an unreliable basis for so broad an abstract. More particularly–at least where Habermas is concerned–it is not so much the technological mode of science as what he takes to be the rationalizing modes of economic and political reasoning that make the iron cage of modernity, that force us into theory and away from lifeworld. I have been trying to get published a detailed critique or two of this, but the shortest version would be that is true if you take money and power as monologic (tyrannic), but not if they are dialogic (democratic, persuasive). I have a particular schtick to get you to a dialogic conception of them–I take them as modes of rhetoric–I fancy other people can get there by different routes–but once you do, then modernity is no longer something that requires the monologue of theory, it is a non-problem requiring no solution, and we are in the same world as ever we were, where thick, rhetorical argument is superior to narrow, rationalizing theory, and, consequently, we are still as accessible to localizing arguments as ever we were, without need of resort to theory.
Now, as to what arguments to use, with your father–why, whatever local arguments will persuade him, rather than mankind in general. Scripture, parable, poem, example, jokes, denunciation–you must compete with Tyson’s Food for his assent. You are not guaranteed victory, of course. But if localism means anything, then your local knowledge of your father’s character ought to be powerful weapon in the debate.
Recollecting here that persuasion includes the sudden conversion of the soul. And a local tale by a Louisiana boy may do more to effect such transfigurations than all the theories of mankind.
Addendum: perhaps a shorter way of putting this is that to conceive of should as a universal norm is the palantir. And, no, I don’t think we need to pick it up.
Russell, I’m really enjoying this discussion, even though I haven’t followed all the comments.
I’m a little confused though: are you arguing that (1) no one has adequately theorized the connections between localism and agrarianism, or (2) these particular narratives don’t adequately draw on or link up with that theory, or (3) something else.
If you mean (1), I’d be surprised if that’s the case, even though I can’t point to specific works. As I think you know, I believe Alasdair MacIntyre has done some good theorizing on localism vis-a-vis capitalism, and I think he’s at least addressed agrarianism obliquely. But since I haven’t looked very hard for good theory linking localism and agrarianism (again, vis-a-vis modern capitalism and technology), and if you have and haven’t found much, then I’m very sympathetic to your argument.
If you mean (2), then isn’t your (our) job as a theoretically inclined reader(s) of these narratives to make the link yourself (ourselves)?
Either way, I am very agree that academics qua theorists can play a very important role in connecting and translating the powerful narratives and visions of less theoretical writing — in a way that gives them theoretical legitimacy and thereby enhances the potency of these ideas in public discourse and public consciousness. Social movements and social imaginaries build on both narratives and theoretical arguments, and good theory can play a very important role in propogated, assembling, morphing, testing, linking, and embedding these ideas through their diverse communities and their various potentialities….
Now, when you argue for a theorized argument, I take you both to be narrowing the mode of argument and arguing the superiority of theory over other modes of argument. Perhaps you are merely saying that the theoretical mode is indispensable, if not superior, but you do seem to be arguing that it is at the very least a first among equals. (Yes?)
Well, no. Perhaps I have communicated poorly at some point in this post or thread, but I’m not aware of any point when I have spoken of the “superiority” of theory–or even the superiority of “argument” in all reasoned discourse, for that matter. (I even concluded the original post observing that stories and testimony “matter more than any normative argument.”) I suppose, though, the sort of attention I give something speaks louder than my expressed qualifications of it. So I will cop to the accusation that I have probably–if unintentionally–presented theoretical argument as a “first among equals.” That’s a presentation that, when I am writing more carefully at least, I don’t at all believe, and hopefully a close reading of my post will show that, even if that isn’t where my energy in this discussion has been spent. But I do believe that theoretical argument is “indispensible”….if not for living a good life, then at least for making normative claims. Which Dreher–and pretty much every other author who speaks out in defense of localism that I can think–does in fact do, whether he fully intended to do so or not.
To engage in theoretical argument is to assume a universal audience–one that, by definition, is not local. I take a theoretical argument for localism to be self-defeating in its mode, since it can only be assented to by abandoning a local mode of thought. Localism, perhaps more than other arguments, I think needs to be argued in the broader rhetorical complex of argument, with theory, if necessary, firmly subordinated.
Now I see this as a very interesting and persuasive argument (though, note: it’s a theoretical argument, no?). It’s a thoughtful expression of the idea which Chris Schumerth essentially communicated above in this thread: that perhaps looking for the sort of ideological organization and argumentation which normative claims tend to require (more on that below) simply misunderstands what the genre in which Dreher was writing was in fact capable of. Maybe–to incorporate your insight here–it simply isn’t possible to speak out on behalf of, and indeed advocate for, the virtues of localism and agrarianism by way of theoretical argument; maybe it can only be done in whatever ways the genres of memoir and testimony allow. If that is so, then you (and Chris) would be correct that my entirely observation about Dreher’s book is off point (though it would also suggest that Mitchell’s project–trying to construct a political theory and language which would normative argue on behalf of what I can’t avoid recognizing as agrarian virtues–contained far greater problems and misunderstandings than even those which I noted!).
[This assumption about modernity] is an argument derived ultimately from a host of historical particulars, which, aside from the revisionist work done since Weber’s time, is inevitably an unreliable basis for so broad an abstract. More particularly…it is not so much the technological mode of science as what he takes to be the rationalizing modes of economic and political reasoning that make the iron cage of modernity, that force us into theory and away from lifeworld….[If one accepts dialogicity as a possibility,] then modernity is no longer something that requires the monologue of theory, it is a non-problem requiring no solution, and we are in the same world as ever we were, where thick, rhetorical argument is superior to narrow, rationalizing theory, and, consequently, we are still as accessible to localizing arguments as ever we were, without need of resort to theory.
Like you previous observation, I find this point an interesting one, but unlike the previous one, I don’t find it nearly as persuasive. I don’t think my argument throughout this thread has obliged me to affirm a single, monological conceptualization of modernity; I’m very much a student of Charles Taylor on this point, especially his reflection of “alternative modernities,” and the fact that a Weberian-disenchanted-rational-theoretical worldview exists in conjunction with (and is interpenetrated by) a fuller, communitarian-anthropological-metaphysical one. I suppose I would have to understand a little bit better to grasp how it is you are conceiving of “rhetoric” within the world of discourse,” but I don’t see how a recognition that certain sorts of rhetoric–abstract “economic and political reasoning,” for example, which would be capable of, as you correctly note, being universalized–are appropriate in certain sorts of argumentation therefore obviates the possibility of simultaneously recognizing that other sorts of rhetoric are of greater use in other contexts. Have I said anything against “scripture, parable, poem, example, jokes, denunciation”? I don’t think so. But I have said that those sorts of rhetoric–Dreher’s book being a fine example of such–have a hard time saying “should.” Or at the very least, they have a hard time claiming any kind of normative signification when couched in the context of a mass publication event and book publicity tour, which by design is looking to make a local, relational story more “universal” (here is where my Marxism comes into play, in which I observe that one of the above worldviews has a globalized structure of power in support of it, and we all benefit from it, including you and I, as we are right now making use of electricity which was no doubt generated from destroying some West Virginian mountaintop for its coal).
In light of your additional, concluding addendum, let me rephrase myself generally. Let’s say, then, that there are, I presume, saints among us, who never pick of the palantir of normative rhetoric because all of their “shoulds” are communicated only within community, within locality, within intimacy, and thus can be by way of personal testimony and modeling and friendly asides and heartfelt confessions. But we almost always don’t know who those saints are….because if they ever stepped beyond their local moments and communal relationships, so as to make it possible for us blog-readers to have heard of their message in the first place, then the only way they could have avoided the fate of simply being registered as one who speaks out on behalf the life they know, and how it was worked out for them (which, I repeat, I agree is the first and more important step), then they needed to make use of more universal arguments. So, is theory indispensable? I suppose the better answer is: only if you want to persuade people you don’t already know.
are you arguing that (1) no one has adequately theorized the connections between localism and agrarianism, or (2) these particular narratives don’t adequately draw on or link up with that theory, or (3) something else?
Definitely (2). And yes, that does mean that your criticism makes a solid point: rather than elaborating upon what I (and Damon Linker, and others) see as a theoretical (I think specifically agrarian) lacking in the implicit normative claims Dreher’s and Mitchell’s works, shouldn’t I be trying to work out arguments which would rectify that lacking. I confess my own weakness in that regard, especially when it comes to blogging; it’s so much easier to point out what you think an argument also needs to do, then to actually make such theoretical arguments yourself….
1) Thank you for responding thoughtfully and at length!
2) It’s possible I misread, skim, and solipsize. Probable, even.
3) Yes, my mode argument does overlap with Chris Schumerth’s genre argument. I think I’d say that it’s not just that the genres are different, but that the memoir genre may be more appropriate to a localizing argument than is an argument in one of the theoretical genres.
4) I’m not myself a localist–more a Gadamerian fusion-of-horizons man–so I think it’s acceptable for me to use theoretical arguments. 🙂 That said, I do think there is a tension between the substance of my arguments and a theoretical mode of arguing them. I would love to write The Book of the Blogger, an exquisitely literary and dialogic examination of the points at issue that eschews monology and theory, but I don’t think I’m up to it, alas. But I would emphasize that: not the necessity of the theorizing mode, but my own inability to break out of it and transcend it.
5) Since I’ve a teeny convinced you on the tension of theory and localism already, let me try another analogy: theorizing localism is like Julian the Apostate trying to renovate paganism in opposition to Christianity: the very attempt turns paganism into a universalizing mirror of Christianity, pagan in name only. This leads to the dispiriting thought that localism is as doomed as paganism, since it lacks the universalizing tools to defend itself and remain itself; but take that as a challenge rather than a doom. But I do think the Dreher’s essay of devotion to his lares is more in the localizing spirit than any academic defense of locale could be.
5) I love the lines, So, is theory indispensable? I suppose the better answer is: only if you want to persuade people you don’t already know. But I would take it a different way: theory dispenses with such personal knowledge, while memoir creates that personal knowledge, and extends it to an unknown audience. (Montaigne! The novel!) Let us take the condition of anonymity, for whatever reasons, to be constitutive of our time: it is the (inherently false and deceptive simulation of the) evocation of character–of place, locale, individuality–that creates the preconditions for mutual knowledge, for persuasion. I would say therefore that memoir is indispensable; theory ancillary.
6. When you say, “we[‘]re moderns, individualized by capitalism and technology and democracy,” this doesn’t resonate to me of “alternate modernities”; more of a unitary tone. But let me turn this a little: if modernity has and should have alternate modes, are you saying that your localism and the corporate mainstream are different modes of modernity? And if so, where do you locate your own should for preferring your mode of modernity to the alternate? Or are you postulating your position as radically distinct from the ensemble of alternate modern modes?
7. For the rest–forgive me if I scant you here–I think it turns on the questions of should and norms. I should (!) say that my own formulation is that norms should aim at the universal assent of hearts rather than of minds, and that this formulation is meant to avoid the shadings toward compulsion I am allergic to in the alternate tradition. (But of course the alternate tradition takes the rhetoric that aims at the heart as a different kind of compulsion; the Synthesis balances both so as to avoid compulsions of either head or heart.) The modes and genres that aim at the universal assent of hearts are not, I think, the theoretical ones–again, I think Dreher’s memoir works better for such a goal. I am not sure whether localism, in the thickest sense, aligns with universal-heart-assent either–although I think that heart-assent, whose norms aim at consensus only of the heart rather than of the mind, is more congenial to the loose disagreements and particular sentiments of localism, as I take it to be more congenial to pluralism in general. But I’m not actually dead set on having you take up my stance, since I’m not a localist, if I understand the term properly, and the two stances ultimately may be incompatible. I’m more interested in pointing out what I take to be deep tensions between localism and theory, between localism and any assertion of a universal norm, hoping my King-Gama-like helpfulness will lead you to a formulation (whatever it may be) that avoids those tensions.
8. Burble, burble.
Just speculating here, but it seems possible that the local vs. universal tension as noted by W is not unlike that faced by traditional conservatives w/r/t to time: how can something that comes into the culture of a certain time be considered “traditional” in the larger sense of being universally applicable? The way out of that dilemma has usually been an appeal to some sort of natural law theory. I strongly suspect that this may be a line that localists of a conservative bent would take. This could take the form of either an Aristotelian/Thomistic approach (a la Marion Montgomery and some Southern conservatives), or something along the lines of W. Berry’s drawing on perennialism.
I grew up in a small town not too different from Dreher’s St. Francisville. And I often wish that I could return. Three things keep me from doing so.
1. The unavailability of interesting work. The cognitive elite leave home and move to the city for one simple reason: That’s where they can find work that challenges and interests them.
2. Even if you’re willing to compromise a bit on work, those who have stayed behind aren’t so interested in having you join them. They know that they’re mediocre and that you’re not. And people don’t like to be shown up, even if it’s by someone who’s kind and gracious and humble.
3. You can’t undo the shaping that your experiences have had on you. You can’t spend a decade in Arlington or Brooklyn or Cambridge, and then go back to Toledo and be the same person you were when you left. You’ve seen the world now. And having done so, Applebee’s just isn’t as tasty as it was when you were 16.
It seems that some middle way is in order. We need to accept that we probably can’t go home again, regardless of how nurturing home may have been when we were young and naive. But we have to find a way of living away from home that doesn’t leave us leave us, like Gatsby, chasing the orgastic vision of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.
“And that means that I will have to be saying something that can be expressed theoretically, or ideologically.”
No, you’ve simply confused practical reasoning with theoretical reasoning. “Ideological localism” is every bit as bad “ideological cosmopolitanism.”
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