Monday, April 30, 2012

Sorry, Conservative Jones — Huck Finn Was A Better Cross-Dresser (And Not As Creepy)

Today, Tom Tomorrow's "boy detective" — Conservative Jones — channels his inner James O'Keefe with a cross-dressing scheme that is... sleazy. However, James O'Keefe is both sleazy and stupid. Ditto for Conservative Jones. (See an introduction to Conservative Jones below.)

[x Wikipedia]
Conservative Jones

Beginnning in 1963, Donald J. Sobol created Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown, boy detective, in a long series of children's novels. Only his parents and teachers call Leroy by his given name (which he dislikes); the rest of the neighborhood children refer to him as "Encyclopedia" because of his penetrating mind. "This Modern World" is a parallel universe and in that world, Tom Tomorrow gives us "Conservative Jones," Boy Detective. Jones has a trusty sidekick, "Moonbat McWacky," just as Sherlock Holmes had Dr. John Watson.

If this is (fair & balanced) transvestism, so be it.

[x This Modern World]
Conservative Jones, Citizen Journalist!
By Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

(Click to embiggen — H/T to Daily Kos) Ω

Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins
.

[Dan Perkins is an editorial cartoonist better known by the pen name "Tom Tomorrow". His weekly comic strip, "This Modern World," which comments on current events from a strong liberal perspective, appears regularly in approximately 150 papers across the U.S., as well as on Daily Kos. The strip debuted in 1990 in SF Weekly.

Perkins, a long time resident of Brooklyn, New York, currently lives in Connecticut. He received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in both 1998 and 2002.

When he is not working on projects related to his comic strip, Perkins writes a daily political weblog, also entitled "This Modern World," which he began in December 2001.]

Copyright © 2012 Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

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Copyright © 2012 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Say, Brother, Can You Spare A Paradigm?

The best anecdote about Thomas Kuhn in this article came from the documentary filmmaker, Errol Morris, who studied with Kuhn at Princeton (for a while): Kuhn didn't suffer fools gladly. However, the bottom line in Kuhn's analysis was that "It's the history, stupid!" If this is (fair & balanced) Big History, so be it.

[x Cronk Review]
Shift Happens
By David Weinberger

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If you've seen that bumper sticker, you've seen what our culture has made of one of the central ideas in Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [SSR], published 50 years and 1.4 million copies ago. For the marketers and boosters of personal transformation who casually talk about paradigm shifts, the phrase designates not just a gestalt switch that casts things in a new light, but a world so insubstantial that it can be thoroughly transformed by a single idea. Tomorrow there may be another paradigm shift, and another after that. There is thus no real progress, just a new bubble as good as the old bubble.

This is of course not what Kuhn intended us to learn. Kuhn wanted to free us from the illusion that knowledge is independent of history and of the sociality that marks us as humans, but he did not think that all beliefs that our history and sociality put before us are equally worthy. Indeed, he quickly moved away from the "shift happens" conception of paradigms as bundles of beliefs, emphasizing instead that they're examples of good scientific practice that researchers apply in their daily work.

But Kuhn is not blameless for how we appropriated his thought. SSR shook up our culture in part because he wrote it in such bold strokes. More important, he struggled to find a way—not always consistently—to shove SSR from a shoal we still have not found a way around: Our old paradigm of truth is no longer up to the task, but we don't yet have a new one to replace it.

Kuhn's idea was slow to gestate. It began in 1947, when, as a graduate student in physics at Harvard, he was recruited by James B. Conant, the university's president, to teach a history-of-science course to humanities majors. In preparation, Kuhn was trying to understand how Aristotle could be such a brilliant natural scientist except when it came to understanding motion. Aristotle's idea that stones fall and fire rises because they're trying to get to their natural places seems like a simpleton's animism.

Then it became clear to Kuhn all at once. Ever since Newton, we in the West have thought movement changes an object's position in neutral space but does not change the object itself. For Aristotle, a change in position was a change in a quality of the object, and qualitative change tended toward an asymmetric actualization of potential: an acorn becomes an oak, but an oak never becomes an acorn. Motion likewise expressed a tendency for things to actualize their essence by moving to their proper place. With that, "another initially strange part of Aristotelian doctrine begins to fall into place," Kuhn wrote in The Road Since Structure.

From this, Kuhn learned several important lessons that surfaced in SSR 15 years later. First, scientific ideas occur within a context that enables them to make sense. Second, context is accepted for different sorts of reasons than are the hypotheses that emerge within it. Third, the idea of a new scientific context occurs roughly the way his own illumination of Aristotle's ideas did: all at once, an entire whole snapping into view the way a duck-rabbit illustration switches instantly from one view to another.

During that 15-year gestation period, Kuhn got his doctorate in physics but increasingly turned to history and philosophy. In 1950 he met Sir Karl Popper, the pre-eminent philosopher of science, who steered him toward others who were challenging logical positivism, the dominant philosophy of science of the time. The positivists were strict parents. If a proposition could not be verified, it not only wasn't science, it was devoid of meaning. Popper had pulled much of the ground out from under the positivists by arguing that falsifiability was the real test: If a hypothesis doesn't come with ways to show it could be false, then it isn't a scientific hypothesis. Thus our best knowledge of the world isn't that which has been verified, but instead is characterized precisely by the fact that it can be decisively cast aside.

Kuhn undid Popper even more fundamentally than Popper had undone the positivists. The individual propositions within a science might be characterized by falsifiability, but how about the sort of gestalt that crystallized for Kuhn when at last and in an instant he understood Aristotle's idea of motion? That gestalt—which Kuhn of course called a paradigm—was of a different category than the propositions it enabled. Its acceptance may be rational in important ways, but Kuhn throughout his career could not bring himself to call paradigms "true."

Considering that paradigms are central to SSR, it's surprising how ambiguous that work leaves the concept. At a conference in 1965, the late British philosopher Margaret Masterman listed 21 senses in which Kuhn used the term in that book. She clustered them into three groups: (1) a set of beliefs, (2) a "universally recognized scientific achievement" that serves as a defining example of how that science is done, and (3) the textbooks, instruments, and other physical artifacts by which scientists learn and practice their fields. In a postscript published in 1969, Kuhn emphasized the second view of paradigms, as exemplars that guide practice—"See? That's how you do astronomy!"—rather than as big ideas that provide the context for smaller ideas. He also talked in the postscript about paradigms' applying to communities of scientists that might be only a hundred strong. That is not the grand picture that has stuck in the public mind.

Paradigms were not the only influential idea in SSR. Kuhn focused on what he termed "normal science," the daily work of career scientists. He said they are not in the business of plotting revolutionary overthrows of existing paradigms, but are instead solving puzzles. Which puzzles are interesting, how to address them, and what counts as solutions all are determined by the paradigm—or, depending on which sense of paradigm one uses, those are the paradigm. Astronomers train telescopes into the sky looking for particular radio signatures because they work under a paradigm in which that activity is important. They have learned to do this from textbooks that codify the paradigm, and they are trained by other scientists in their community. Kuhn spent much of the rest of his career trying to direct the focus of historians and philosophers of science on normal science rather than on revolutionary paradigms, perhaps because his concept of a paradigm was so powerful that it not only overshadowed the quotidian work of science but also threatened to take on an all too solid life of its own. No, Kuhn insisted, take away the practices, instruments, and textbooks of a scientific community, and there is no paradigm left over. Except those times when he left the opposite impression.

Kuhn's insightful focus on normal science may seem obvious to us now, but at the time it was controversial. The history of science had been viewed like the Great Man theory of history, or perhaps more accurately, like the history of literature: You write about the great ones because why would you waste your time on those who did nothing substantial to advance their field? As Karl Popper said, "In my view the 'normal' scientist, as Kuhn describes him, is a person one ought to be sorry for."

Kuhn did not see it that way. It's true that he did not talk about normal scientists as heroes ripping truth from the jaws of duplicitous Nature, but he saw scientific puzzle solving as a creative activity, not as the mere formulaic following of rules. Despite the scorn of heavyweights such as Popper and Kuhn's Berkeley colleague Paul Feyerabend, Kuhn's focus on normal science has found favor with many historians and sociologists, in part because it allows them to focus on the background. where institutional and social power is exerted implicitly, rather than on exalting the exceptional people in the foreground, which can give us a misleading idea of freedom and empowerment.

Scientific revolutions, according to SSR, don't occur when an apple happens to find the head of a genius, or when enough facts have slowly painted a new picture. Rather, in yet another of Kuhn's inversions, new paradigms emerge to explain the accumulation of anomalies: findings that do not make sense within the current paradigm. For example, if your paradigm tells you that fire consists of the release of phlogiston embedded in flammable materials, then the fact that some metals gain weight when burned is an anomaly. When a new paradigm is conceived that makes sense of the anomalies, science is in for a revolutionary shift.

In short, SSR did a gestalt flip on just about every assumption about the who, how, and what of scientific progress.

SSR immediately kicked up a stir. In a review that appeared in 1964 in Philosophical Review, Dudley Shapere recognized that it "is bound to exert a very wide influence among philosophers and historians of science alike," although he thought the concept of paradigms was overly broadly described, and he homed in on one of the issues that was to dog Kuhn: Is progress possible? Mary Hesse began her 1963 review in the journal Isis with "This is an important book," and continued by saying that it transforms "our whole image of science" and will be "shocking to the orthodox philosophy of science." Charles Gillispie's 1962 review in Science began, "This is a very bold venture, this essay ... " and concluded with generous praise for the work as an initial provocation, for Kuhn positioned SSR as a sketch to be followed by a weightier tome, which he never delivered.

In the five decades that have followed, the importance of SSR has rarely been disputed. We seem to have accepted that Kuhn's work wreaked severe damage on the foundations of traditional philosophy of science. But there has been nothing like similar unanimity about the positive ideas the book attempted to establish.

By far the most consistently attacked idea was what Kuhn referred to as incommensurability, a term taken from geometry, where it refers to the lack of a shared measurement. In SSR it means something like the inability to understand one paradigm from within another. In the book, Kuhn borders on putting incommensurability in its strongest imaginable form: A new paradigm causes scientists to "see the world of their researcher-engagement differently. In so far as their only recourse to that world is through what they see and do, we may want to say that after a revolution scientists are responding to a different world." Since that line does not advance his argument, Kuhn may just have been sticking his thumb further into the eye of the logical-empiricist book series that SSR was published as part of (at the behest of the best-known positivist, Rudolf Carnap, no less).

To overstate it: The scientists hated incommensurability because it seemed to imply that science makes no real progress, the philosophers hated it because it seemed to imply that there is no truth, and the positivists hated it because it seemed to imply that science is based on nonrational decisions.

And, apparently, Kuhn grew to hate being challenged about it, at least according to a story told by the documentarian Errol Morris, who as a graduate student at Princeton studied under Kuhn:

"I asked him, 'If paradigms are really incommensurable, how is history of science possible? ... Wouldn't the past be inaccessible to us? Wouldn't it be "incommensurable?"'

He started moaning. He put his head in his hands and was muttering, 'He's trying to kill me. He's trying to kill me.'

And then I added, ' ... except for someone who imagines himself to be God.'

It was at this point that Kuhn threw the ashtray at me."

Indeed, if science exists within paradigms, and if those paradigms can't understand one another, and if there is no Archimedean platform from which to view them, then how can we tell if we're making progress? It was easier before Kuhn, when science looked like it was the gradual accumulation of knowledge over time. Yet Kuhn was certain that science does indeed progress. He would not have traded Newton's physics for Aristotle's, or Einstein's for Newton's. He struggled to explain progress for the next 30 years.

SSR has a simple dodge of the question: Within any scientific paradigm it necessarily looks like progress is being made, since the normal work of science is to gnaw away at puzzles one by one. Likewise, new paradigms always look like steps forward because that's why they've been accepted. That explains the appearance of progress within a paradigm, but how about across paradigms? Do we have to "relinquish the notion," as he suggests in SSR?

To save progress, Kuhn proposed thinking of it as being like evolution. "Scientific development must be seen as a process driven from behind, not pulled from ahead," he said in a 1990 presidential address to the Philosophy of Science Association. That is, there isn't only one possible endpoint or a final paradigm, and there isn't an overall design. That's a useful hint about what progress isn't, but it doesn't tell us what progress is or how we can know we're achieving it.

Ultimately, Kuhn couldn't solve this puzzle, and for a reason that runs underneath so many of his difficult thoughts: Kuhn did not accept that truth consists of statements that represent reality. As he said in an interview published in 1990, "I take theories to be whole systems, and as such they don't need to be true or false. All we need to do is by some criteria or other decide which one we would rather have." Outside of the metaphysical paradigm that says a true statement corresponds to an objective reality, the concept of progress becomes problematic, or at least unfamiliar.

But that was not the end of the difficulties that incommensurability raised for Kuhn. That concept is also at the bottom of his view of the history of science as revolutionary. That idea was certainly in the air: Herbert Butterfield's 1948 lectures "got the English-speaking historians into the revolution-in-science" business, as Ian Hacking puts it, and Gaston Bachelard (among others) pointed to multiple conceptual discontinuities in the history of science.

But Kuhn saw these revolutions as so deep that there isn't even a shared language for talking across them. For this idea he was taken to task. For example, Stephen Toulmin wrote that the continuous small adjustments paradigms go through make them less discontinuous and more commensurable than Kuhn's use of religious language—"conversion," for example—often made them sound. The Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, in a 1998 article, also wasn't buying the incommensurability of scientific revolutions, pointing to the "hard"—that is, durable—parts of science that endure across paradigms, such as Maxwell's electrodynamics equations.

It's not just paradigms and revolutions that have come under withering criticism. Historians have disputed that the structure that Kuhn found in scientific revolutions is as uniform as he supposed, especially as he allowed that paradigms might be smaller than Newton's and Einstein's, eventually viewing them as a type of specialization of a discipline. Not all of these smaller revolutions go through the paces SSR describes.

So what's left of Kuhn's paradigm? The big ideas in SSR may not seem as grand and clear as they did in 1962. Nevertheless, the book still vibrates our culture's walls like a trumpet call.

History of science may not have become exactly what Kuhn thought it should, but SSR knocked it off its existing tracks. In a historical account of science, we now expect to hear about very human personalities, about the effect of social factors, and frequently about how the attempt to maintain and exert power was behind what looked like rational actors acting selflessly—although Kuhn vehemently rejected the reduction of history to a story about power. Likewise, we now expect some measure of incommensurability to deepen the narrative, as when Foucault shows that concepts, words, and institutions that seem continuous through history have actually had radically different meanings. This may not be what is taught to scientists in training, yet one analysis of Kuhn's impact found that by the mid-1980s, Kuhnian ideas were included in many articles about scientific education.

Still, as you watch Kuhn twisting under the withering gaze of intersecting disciplines, none of which quite counted him as a member of their club—the philosophy department at Berkeley insisted that he be granted a full professorship as a historian—you can't help feeling bad for him. He had a magnificent insight, which profoundly altered our view of science and more, but it was like a tent that keeps popping up its stakes as you madly circle it trying to get all of them pounded in securely. Except in this case, the problem is less in the design of the tent than in the ground itself.

Consider the popular take on SSR: Science consists of self-coherent bubbles that replace one another without necessarily progressing closer to the truth—a model of nonrationalism. This misunderstanding of Kuhn is understandable given his unwillingness to blurt out what so many of his readers wanted to hear: There are propositions that are true because they correspond to reality. "Does it really help to imagine that there is some one full, objective, true account of nature, and that the proper measure of scientific achievement is the extent to which it brings us closer to that ultimate goal?," he wrote in SSR. Well, yes, it would, if we're trying to show that our knowledge is progressively more in accord with that objective reality. But if that approach is closed to us—"We must learn to get along without anything at all like a correspondence theory of truth," he wrote in 1986—we need another idea of what truth is and how we can ascertain if we're progressing closer to it.

Kuhn rejected our old metaphysics—consciousness consists of an inner representation of an outer reality—as incoherent, impossible, and fundamentally inhuman. That's why he begins SSR by invoking history not as a discipline that can be applied to science, but as a necessary part of scientific understanding. All understanding is historical, and no human project escapes the characteristics of history-based humanity: fallible, limited, impure of motive, social, and always situated in a culture, a language, and a time. Not even science with its method and its formulas. Our very words have meaning not because of a set of definitional rules, Kuhn thought, but because they are based on ostensive exemplars, paradigms. Our age, characterized by a Network that refuses to keep ideas, communication, and sociality apart, is making manifest the messy, inescapable humanness of all of our endeavors.

The problems that dominated Kuhn's life after his great moment of insight arose not because Kuhn wasn't brilliant enough. Rather, they arose and persist because while we increasingly understand that the old metaphysical paradigm has failed, for several generations now we have not found our new paradigm. Our culture has inappropriately latched on to Kuhn's message as an exaltation of the rootless disconnection of our ideas from the world because we were ready to hear that knowledge is not apart from our knowing of it. But he and we have not yet come to a new shared understanding about what it means to live truthfully as humans. Ω

[David Weinberger, a senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, is the author of Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder (2007) and Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren't the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere,and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room (2012). Weinberger received a BA from Bucknell University and a PhD from the University of Toronto.]

Copyright © 2012 The Chronicle of Higher Education

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Saturday, April 28, 2012

No More Dead-Tree-Books For This Blogger!! (Severe Bangorrhea?)

Today, Eags urges book publishers to "don't stop believing" in books. This exhortation sent this blogger to YouTube:

[x YouTube/Gibissdounuts512 Channel]
"Don't Stop Believin'" (1981)
By Journey



Then, this late-breaking news: "Amazon.com will start collecting sales taxes from Texas customers and invest $200 million and create 2,500 jobs in the state over the next four years. In return, the state will drop its efforts to collect back taxes from the company." The rub was the fact that Amazon did (virtual) "bidness" in Texas without collecting the state sales tax. And, as Eags reports, Amazon is on quite a roll. In fact, this blogger has become a regular user of his Kindle Touch and the marvel of books downloading from Amazon to his Kindle in the blink of an eye is astounding. In his early days with the Kindle, this blogger had to enlist Amazon's technical support people and he was connected via their toll-free number without a wait on hold. Shazam! "Ring" and a live Amazon person answers.

Don't stop believin' that things can get better even if Jeff Bezos (Mr. Amazon) proclaims that we will live in a (fair & balanced) "culture of metrics."

[x NY Fishwrap]
The Reading Renaissance
By Timothy Egan

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Satan in Seattle, as the walking wounded of the book business describe Amazon.com, continues to expand from the shores of Lake Union here, with nearly a dozen new office buildings housing the global nerve center of earth’s largest online retailer.

By contrast, a few miles away is lovely old Town Hall, a sanctuary for the written word. On any given night, hundreds of people show up to hear a novelist tell a story, a poet turn mush into sublime rhyme, an essayist make narrative sense of messy facts. Town Hall is one reason why the Northwest is known as a touring author’s paradise.

We hear that one culture must destroy the other. It’s inevitable: the books-to-the-barricades defenders of ideas printed on dead trees will lose all that they love to the soulless digital monolith on Lake Union, with its 164 million customers.

And, knife to the heart, the federal government has now filed antitrust action against Amazon’s foes, which include some of the biggest New York publishers and their partner in digital wordselling, Apple.

But surprise: the apocalypse already came and went, and look who’s standing. One technology, the e-book, the biggest new invention in reading since Gutenberg cranked out a Bible with movable type, changed the world — most likely for better. We have more books, more readers, a bigger audience for words, on pixels or paper.

The problem, for those who are purely reactive, is that publishing as we know it will soon die. And so will bookstores that are no more nimble or creative than a socks ’n’ things in the mall.

I love independent bookstores — the feel, the smell, the randomness. Without the indies, much of America would be even more of a cultural desert. Thus, I was predisposed to believe that Amazon and e-books would drive small stores and paper books to the grave. But the numbers show otherwise.

There are two big questions about the future of books and technology. One is: are people reading more and, by implication, buying more books? The answer is yes. In their annual report last August, the Association of American Publishers reported that overall revenues, and number of books sold in all formats, were up sizably in three years since 2008. Without e-books, the numbers would have been flat, or declined.

One-fifth of all American adults reported reading an e-book in the past year, according to an optimistic report from the Pew Center. And those digital consumers read far more books on average — about 24 a year — than the dead-tree consumers.

Another surprise: e-book readers also buy lots of paper books. The buyers of digital tomes “read more books in all formats,” Pew reported. By 2025, e-books will be 75 percent of total books sold, in Pew’s forecast. I know it’s hard for publishing to accept, but this is good news, given the voracious buying habits of the e-book reader.

Well then, what about the second question: the fate of the independent bookstores, those imperiled isles of words? The headline from a release by the American Booksellers Association during last year’s holiday buying season was telling: “Indies Defy Conventional Wisdom as Sales and Locations Continue to Increase.” The release quoted Oren Teicher, head of the association, as saying, “An array of factors are fueling the resurgence of independent bookstores.” Among those factors are sales of e-books by indies.

Of course, some terrific bookstores are still on life support. If the market won’t help them, they may need local subsidies, in the same way that cities support dance or music.

Which brings us back to Amazon. The publishing community is convinced that the Justice Department has gone after the wrong malefactor. Amazon, with its cheap pricing model, will ultimately drive everyone else out of business.

If that happens, and only Amazon is left standing, they should then be sued by the feds. But for now, all Amazon is doing is what any innovative company does: trying to gain an edge with the consumer, through pricing or product. By contrast, what the targets of the antitrust suit were doing, according to the complaint, was old-fashioned pricefixing.

I may live in Seattle, but I don’t know Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and C.E.O., and I don’t carry his water. When he describes his business as “a culture of metrics,” it creeps me out. Metrics? What about Milton, Melville or Morrison?

If Amazon wasn’t inventing the future, somebody else would. And Bezos makes a good point in his annual shareholder letter when he notes that the Amazon Kindle e-book list is full of self-published authors represented by small presses. Many of those writers would never get their shot, defying publishing’s gatekeepers in New York, without the new format.

One author, A.K. Alexander, who wrote the thriller “Daddy’s Home,” says in Bezos’s note that she made more royalties in a month on her Kindle sales than she did in a year with traditional publishing. Of course, Amazon sells the book for a fraction of a hardback’s price, but they also cut out the pulping, the printing, the binding, the delivery truck. And remember, the big publishers also sell cheap when it suits them, with mass-market paperbacks going for prices well below e-books in some cases.

A few days ago I was in Portland, OR, in a theater stuffed full of readers and writers at the annual Oregon Book Awards. The book community there is thriving, said Andrew Proctor, head of Literary Arts in Portland, with resurgent poetry slams and nonprofit publishers finding big niche audiences. “Great works rise in unpredictable and unexpected places,” Proctor told me, in an upbeat assessment of the literary world.

Publishers need to reinvent their own future. They could offer packages. They could partner more with communities of interest, from environmentalists to religious conservatives. And, most important, they could start believing in tomorrow, instead of being afraid of it. Ω

[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]

Copyright © 2012 The New York Times Company

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Friday, April 27, 2012

A Neo-Agrarian Takes His Stand

In 1930, a group of twelve Southern poets, novelists and essayists contributed to a collection of essays — I'll Take My Stand — that offered a critique of industrialism and materialism. The Agrarians, as they came to be known, were prophets without honor in their own country. Today, The Agrarians ride again, with the words of Wendell E. Berry of Kentucky. The 2012 Jefferson Lecture took a stand against corporate farming, greed, and disregard for the environment. If this is a (fair & balanced) jeremiad, so be it.

[x NEH]
2012 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities: “It All Turns On Affection”
By Wendell E. Berry

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“Because a thing is going strong now, it need not go strong for ever,” [Margaret] said. “This craze for motion has only set in during the last hundred years. It may be followed by a civilization that won’t be a movement, because it will rest upon the earth.
E. M. Forster, Howards End (1910)1

One night in the winter of 1907, at what we have always called “the home place” in Henry County, Kentucky, my father, then six years old, sat with his older brother and listened as their parents spoke of the uses they would have for the money from their 1906 tobacco crop. The crop was to be sold at auction in Louisville on the next day. They would have been sitting in the light of a kerosene lamp, close to the stove, warming themselves before bedtime. They were not wealthy people. I believe that the debt on their farm was not fully paid, there would have been interest to pay, there would have been other debts. The depression of the 1890s would have left them burdened. Perhaps, after the income from the crop had paid their obligations, there would be some money that they could spend as they chose. At around two o’clock the next morning, my father was wakened by a horse’s shod hooves on the stones of the driveway. His father was leaving to catch the train to see the crop sold.

He came home that evening, as my father later would put it, “without a dime.” After the crop had paid its transportation to market and the commission on its sale, there was nothing left. Thus began my father’s lifelong advocacy, later my brother’s and my own, and now my daughter’s and my son’s, for small farmers and for land-conserving economies.

#

The economic hardship of my family and of many others, a century ago, was caused by a monopoly, the American Tobacco Company, which had eliminated all competitors and thus was able to reduce as it pleased the prices it paid to farmers. The American Tobacco Company was the work of James B. Duke of Durham, North Carolina, and New York City, who, disregarding any other consideration, followed a capitalist logic to absolute control of his industry and, incidentally, of the economic fate of thousands of families such as my own.

My effort to make sense of this memory and its encompassing history has depended on a pair of terms used by my teacher, Wallace Stegner. He thought rightly that we Americans, by inclination at least, have been divided into two kinds: “boomers” and “stickers.” Boomers, he said, are “those who pillage and run,” who want “to make a killing and end up on Easy Street,” whereas stickers are “those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.”2 “Boomer” names a kind of person and a kind of ambition that is the major theme, so far, of the history of the European races in our country. “Sticker” names a kind of person and also a desire that is, so far, a minor theme of that history, but a theme persistent enough to remain significant and to offer, still, a significant hope.

The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power. James B. Duke was a boomer, if we can extend the definition to include pillage in absentia. He went, or sent, wherever the getting was good, and he got as much as he could take.

Stickers on the contrary are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it. Of my grandfather I need to say only that he shared in the virtues and the faults of his kind and time, one of his virtues being that he was a sticker. He belonged to a family who had come to Kentucky from Virginia, and who intended to go no farther. He was the third in his paternal line to live in the neighborhood of our little town of Port Royal, and he was the second to own the farm where he was born in 1864 and where he died in 1946.

We have one memory of him that seems, more than any other, to identify him as a sticker. He owned his farm, having bought out the other heirs, for more than fifty years. About forty of those years were in hard times, and he lived almost continuously in the distress of debt. Whatever has happened in what economists call “the economy,” it is generally true that the land economy has been discounted or ignored. My grandfather lived his life in an economic shadow. In an urbanizing and industrializing age, he was the wrong kind of man. In one of his difficult years he plowed a field on the lower part of a long slope and planted it in corn. While the soil was exposed, a heavy rain fell and the field was seriously eroded. This was heartbreak for my grandfather, and he devoted the rest of his life, first to healing the scars and then to his obligation of care. In keeping with the sticker’s commitment, he neither left behind the damage he had done nor forgot about it, but stayed to repair it, insofar as soil loss can be repaired. My father, I think, had his father’s error in mind when he would speak of farmers attempting, always uselessly if not tragically, “to plow their way out of debt.” From that time, my grandfather and my father were soil conservationists, a commitment that they handed on to my brother and to me.

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It is not beside the point, or off my subject, to notice that these stories and their meanings, have survived because of my family’s continuing connection to its home place. Like my grandfather, my father grew up on that place and served as its caretaker. It has now belonged to my brother for many years, and he in turn has been its caretaker. He and I have lived as neighbors, allies, and friends. Our long conversation has often taken its themes from the two stories I have told, because we have been continually reminded of them by our home neighborhood and topography. If we had not lived there to be reminded and to remember, nobody would have remembered. If either of us had lived elsewhere, both of us would have known less. If both of us, like most of our generation, had moved away, the place with its memories would have been lost to us and we to it—and certainly my thoughts about agriculture, if I had thought of it at all, would have been much more approximate than they have been.

Because I have never separated myself from my home neighborhood, I cannot identify myself to myself apart from it. I am fairly literally flesh of its flesh. It is present in me, and to me, wherever I go. This undoubtedly accounts for my sense of shock when, on my first visit to Duke University, and by surprise, I came face-to-face with James B. Duke in his dignity, his glory perhaps, as the founder of that university. He stands imperially in bronze in front of a Methodist chapel aspiring to be a cathedral. He holds between two fingers of his left hand a bronze cigar. On one side of his pedestal is the legend: INDUSTRIALIST. On the other side is another single word: PHILANTHROPIST. The man thus commemorated seemed to me terrifyingly ignorant, even terrifyingly innocent, of the connection between his industry and his philanthropy. But I did know the connection. I felt it instantly and physically. The connection was my grandparents and thousands of others more or less like them. If you can appropriate for little or nothing the work and hope of enough such farmers, then you may dispense the grand charity of “philanthropy.”

After my encounter with the statue, the story of my grandfather’s 1906 tobacco crop slowly took on a new dimension and clarity in my mind. I still remembered my grandfather as himself, of course, but I began to think of him also as a kind of man standing in thematic opposition to a man of an entirely different kind. And I could see finally that between these two kinds there was a failure of imagination that was ruinous, that belongs indelibly to our history, and that has continued, growing worse, into our own time.

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The term “imagination” in what I take to be its truest sense refers to a mental faculty that some people have used and thought about with the utmost seriousness. The sense of the verb “to imagine” contains the full richness of the verb “to see.” To imagine is to see most clearly, familiarly, and understandingly with the eyes, but also to see inwardly, with “the mind’s eye.” It is to see, not passively, but with a force of vision and even with visionary force. To take it seriously we must give up at once any notion that imagination is disconnected from reality or truth or knowledge. It has nothing to do either with clever imitation of appearances or with “dreaming up.” It does not depend upon one’s attitude or point of view, but grasps securely the qualities of things seen or envisioned.

I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.

Obviously there is some risk in making affection the pivot of an argument about economy. The charge will be made that affection is an emotion, merely “subjective,” and therefore that all affections are more or less equal: people may have affection for their children and their automobiles, their neighbors and their weapons. But the risk, I think, is only that affection is personal. If it is not personal, it is nothing; we don’t, at least, have to worry about governmental or corporate affection. And one of the endeavors of human cultures, from the beginning, has been to qualify and direct the influence of emotion. The word “affection” and the terms of value that cluster around it—love, care, sympathy, mercy, forbearance, respect, reverence—have histories and meanings that raise the issue of worth. We should, as our culture has warned us over and over again, give our affection to things that are true, just, and beautiful. When we give affection to things that are destructive, we are wrong. A large machine in a large, toxic, eroded cornfield is not, properly speaking, an object or a sign of affection.

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My grandfather knew, urgently, the value of money, but only of such comparatively small sums as would have paid his debts and allowed to his farm and his family a decent prosperity. He certainly knew of the American Tobacco Company. He no doubt had read and heard of James B. Duke, and could identify him as the cause of a hard time, but nothing in his experience could have enabled him to imagine the life of the man himself.

James B. Duke came from a rural family in the tobacco country of North Carolina. In his early life he would have known men such as my grandfather. But after he began his rise as an industrialist, the life of a small tobacco grower would have been to him a negligible detail incidental to an opportunity for large profits. In the minds of the “captains of industry,” then and now, the people of the land economies have been reduced to statistical numerals. Power deals “efficiently” with quantities that affection cannot recognize.

It may seem plausible to suppose that the head of the American Tobacco Company would have imagined at least that a dependable supply of raw material to his industry would depend upon a stable, reasonably thriving population of farmers and upon the continuing fertility of their farms. But he imagined no such thing. In this he was like apparently all agribusiness executives. They don’t imagine farms or farmers. They imagine perhaps nothing at all, their minds being filled to capacity by numbers leading to the bottom line. Though the corporations, by law, are counted as persons, they do not have personal minds, if they can be said to have minds. It is a great oddity that a corporation, which properly speaking has no self, is by definition selfish, responsible only to itself. This is an impersonal, abstract selfishness, limitlessly acquisitive, but unable to look so far ahead as to preserve its own sources and supplies. The selfishness of the fossil fuel industries by nature is self-annihilating; but so, always, has been the selfishness of the agribusiness corporations. Land, as Wes Jackson has said, has thus been made as exhaustible as oil or coal.

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There is another difference between my grandfather and James B. Duke that may finally be more important than any other, and this was a difference of kinds of pleasure. We may assume that, as a boomer, moving from one chance of wealth to another, James B. Duke wanted only what he did not yet have. If it is true that he was in this way typical of his kind, then his great pleasure was only in prospect, which excludes affection as a motive.

My grandfather, on the contrary, and despite his life’s persistent theme of hardship, took a great and present delight in the modest good that was at hand: in his place and his affection for it, in its pastures, animals, and crops, in favorable weather.

He did not participate in the least in what we call “mobility.” He died, after eighty-two years, in the same spot he was born in. He was probably in his sixties when he made the one longish trip of his life. He went with my father southward across Kentucky and into Tennessee. On their return, my father asked him what he thought of their journey. He replied: “Well, sir, I’ve looked with all the eyes I’ve got, and I wouldn’t trade the field behind my barn for every inch I’ve seen.”

In such modest joy in a modest holding is the promise of a stable, democratic society, a promise not to be found in “mobility”: our forlorn modern progress toward something indefinitely, and often unrealizably, better. A principled dissatisfaction with whatever one has promises nothing or worse.

James B. Duke would not necessarily have thought so far of the small growers as even to hold them in contempt. The Duke trust exerted an oppression that was purely economic, involving a mechanical indifference, the indifference of a grinder to what it grinds. It was not, that is to say, a political oppression. It did not intend to victimize its victims. It simply followed its single purpose of the highest possible profit, and ignored the “side effects.” Confronting that purpose, any small farmer is only one, and one lost, among a great multitude of others, whose work can be quickly transformed into a great multitude of dollars.

Corporate industrialism has tended to be, and as its technological and financial power has grown it has tended increasingly to be, indifferent to its sources in what Aldo Leopold called “the land-community”: the land, all its features and “resources,” and all its members, human and nonhuman, including of course the humans who do, for better or worse, the work of land use.3 Industrialists and industrial economists have assumed, with permission from the rest of us, that land and people can be divorced without harm. If farmers come under adversity from high costs and low prices, then they must either increase their demands upon the land and decrease their care for it, or they must sell out and move to town, and this is supposed to involve no ecological or economic or social cost. Or if there are such costs, then they are rated as “the price of progress” or “creative destruction.”

But land abuse cannot brighten the human prospect. There is in fact no distinction between the fate of the land and the fate of the people. When one is abused, the other suffers. The penalties may come quickly to a farmer who destroys perennial cover on a sloping field. They will come sooner or later to a land-destroying civilization such as ours.

And so it has seemed to me less a choice than a necessity to oppose the boomer enterprise with its false standards and its incomplete accounting, and to espouse the cause of stable, restorative, locally adapted economies of mostly family-sized farms, ranches, shops, and trades. Na├»ve as it may sound now, within the context of our present faith in science, finance, and technology—the faith equally of “conservatives” and “liberals”—this cause nevertheless has an authentic source in the sticker’s hope to abide in and to live from some chosen and cherished small place—which, of course, is the agrarian vision that Thomas Jefferson spoke for, a sometimes honored human theme, minor and even fugitive, but continuous from ancient times until now. Allegiance to it, however, is not a conclusion but the beginning of thought.

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The problem that ought to concern us first is the fairly recent dismantling of our old understanding and acceptance of human limits. For a long time we knew that we were not, and could never be, “as gods.” We knew, or retained the capacity to learn, that our intelligence could get us into trouble that it could not get us out of. We were intelligent enough to know that our intelligence, like our world, is limited. We seem to have known and feared the possibility of irreparable damage. But beginning in science and engineering, and continuing, by imitation, into other disciplines, we have progressed to the belief that humans are intelligent enough, or soon will be, to transcend all limits and to forestall or correct all bad results of the misuse of intelligence. Upon this belief rests the further belief that we can have “economic growth” without limit.

Economy in its original—and, I think, its proper—sense refers to household management. By extension, it refers to the husbanding of all the goods by which we live. An authentic economy, if we had one, would define and make, on the terms of thrift and affection, our connections to nature and to one another. Our present industrial system also makes those connections, but by pillage and indifference. Most economists think of this arrangement as “the economy.” Their columns and articles rarely if ever mention the land-communities and land-use economies. They never ask, in their professional oblivion, why we are willing to do permanent ecological and cultural damage “to strengthen the economy?”

In his essay, “Notes on Liberty and Property,” Allen Tate gave us an indispensable anatomy of our problem. His essay begins by equating, not liberty and property, but liberty and control of one’s property. He then makes the crucial distinction between ownership that is merely legal and what he calls “effective ownership.” If a property, say a small farm, has one owner, then the one owner has an effective and assured, if limited, control over it as long as he or she can afford to own it, and is free to sell it or use it, and (I will add) free to use it poorly or well. It is clear also that effective ownership of a small property is personal and therefore can, at least possibly, be intimate, familial, and affectionate. If, on the contrary, a person owns a small property of stock in a large corporation, then that person has surrendered control of the property to larger shareholders. The drastic mistake our people made, as Tate believed and I agree, was to be convinced “that there is one kind of property—just property, whether it be a thirty-acre farm in Kentucky or a stock certificate in the United States Steel Corporation.” By means of this confusion, Tate said, “Small ownership . . . has been worsted by big, dispersed ownership—the giant corporation.”4 (It is necessary to append to this argument the further fact that by now, owing largely to corporate influence, land ownership implies the right to destroy the land-community entirely, as in surface mining, and to impose, as a consequence, the dangers of flooding, water pollution, and disease upon communities downstream.)

Tate’s essay was written for the anthology, Who Owns America? the publication of which was utterly without effect. With other agrarian writings before and since, it took its place on the far margin of the national dialogue, dismissed as anachronistic, retrogressive, nostalgic, or (to use Tate’s own term of defiance) reactionary in the face of the supposedly “inevitable” dominance of corporate industrialism. Who Owns America? was published in the Depression year of 1936. It is at least ironic that talk of “effective property” could have been lightly dismissed at a time when many rural people who had migrated to industrial cities were returning to their home farms to survive.

In 1936, when to the dominant minds a thirty-acre farm in Kentucky was becoming laughable, Tate’s essay would have seemed irrelevant as a matter of course. At that time, despite the Depression, faith in the standards and devices of industrial progress was nearly universal and could not be shaken.

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But now, three-quarters of a century later, we are no longer talking about theoretical alternatives to corporate rule. We are talking with practical urgency about an obvious need. Now the two great aims of industrialism—replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy—seem close to fulfillment. At the same time the failures of industrialism have become too great and too dangerous to deny. Corporate industrialism itself has exposed the falsehood that it ever was inevitable or that it ever has given precedence to the common good. It has failed to sustain the health and stability of human society. Among its characteristic signs are destroyed communities, neighborhoods, families, small businesses, and small farms. It has failed just as conspicuously and more dangerously to conserve the wealth and health of nature. No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it, no pointless rhetoric on the virtues of capitalism or socialism, no billions or trillions spent on “defense” of the “American dream,” can for long disguise this failure. The evidences of it are everywhere: eroded, wasted, or degraded soils; damaged or destroyed ecosystems; extinction of species; whole landscapes defaced, gouged, flooded, or blown up; pollution of the whole atmosphere and of the water cycle; “dead zones” in the coastal waters; thoughtless squandering of fossil fuels and fossil waters, of mineable minerals and ores; natural health and beauty replaced by a heartless and sickening ugliness. Perhaps its greatest success is an astounding increase in the destructiveness, and therefore the profitability, of war.

In 1936, moreover, only a handful of people were thinking about sustainability. Now, reasonably, many of us are thinking about it. The problem of sustainability is simple enough to state. It requires that the fertility cycle of birth, growth, maturity, death, and decay—what Albert Howard called “the Wheel of Life”—should turn continuously in place, so that the law of return is kept and nothing is wasted. For this to happen in the stewardship of humans, there must be a cultural cycle, in harmony with the fertility cycle, also continuously turning in place. The cultural cycle is an unending conversation between old people and young people, assuring the survival of local memory, which has, as long as it remains local, the greatest practical urgency and value. This is what is meant, and is all that is meant, by “sustainability.” The fertility cycle turns by the law of nature. The cultural cycle turns on affection.

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That we live now in an economy that is not sustainable is not the fault only of a few mongers of power and heavy equipment. We all are implicated. We all, in the course of our daily economic life, consent to it, whether or not we approve of it. This is because of the increasing abstraction and unconsciousness of our connection to our economic sources in the land, the land-communities, and the land-use economies. In my region and within my memory, for example, human life has become less creaturely and more engineered, less familiar and more remote from local places, pleasures, and associations. Our knowledge, in short, has become increasingly statistical.

Statistical knowledge once was rare. It was a property of the minds of great rulers, conquerors, and generals, people who succeeded or failed by the manipulation of large quantities that remained, to them, unimagined because unimaginable: merely accountable quantities of land, treasure, people, soldiers, and workers. This is the sort of knowledge we now call “data” or “facts” or “information.” Or we call it “objective knowledge,” supposedly untainted by personal attachment, but nonetheless available for industrial and commercial exploitation. By means of such knowledge a category assumes dominion over its parts or members. With the coming of industrialism, the great industrialists, like kings and conquerors, become exploiters of statistical knowledge. And finally virtually all of us, in order to participate and survive in their system, have had to agree to their substitution of statistical knowledge for personal knowledge. Virtually all of us now share with the most powerful industrialists their remoteness from actual experience of the actual world. Like them, we participate in an absentee economy, which makes us effectively absent even from our own dwelling places. Though most of us have little wealth and perhaps no power, we consumer–citizens are more like James B. Duke than we are like my grandfather. By economic proxies thoughtlessly given, by thoughtless consumption of goods ignorantly purchased, now we all are boomers.

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The failure of imagination that divided the Duke monopoly and such farmers as my grandfather seems by now to be taken for granted. James B. Duke controlled remotely the economies of thousands of farm families. A hundred years later, “remote control” is an unquestioned fact, the realization of a technological ideal, and we have remote entertainment and remote war. Statistical knowledge is remote, and it isolates us in our remoteness. It is the stuff itself of unimagined life. We may, as we say, “know” statistical sums, but we cannot imagine them.

It is by imagination that knowledge is “carried to the heart” (to borrow again from Allen Tate).5 The faculties of the mind—reason, memory, feeling, intuition, imagination, and the rest—are not distinct from one another. Though some may be favored over others and some ignored, none functions alone. But the human mind, even in its wholeness, even in instances of greatest genius, is irremediably limited. Its several faculties, when we try to use them separately or specialize them, are even more limited.

The fact is that we humans are not much to be trusted with what I am calling statistical knowledge, and the larger the statistical quantities the less we are to be trusted. We don’t learn much from big numbers. We don’t understand them very well, and we aren’t much affected by them. The reality that is responsibly manageable by human intelligence is much nearer in scale to a small rural community or urban neighborhood than to the “globe.”

When people succeed in profiting on a large scale, they succeed for themselves. When they fail, they fail for many others, sometimes for us all. A large failure is worse than a small one, and this has the sound of an axiom, but how many believe it? Propriety of scale in all human undertakings is paramount, and we ignore it. We are now betting our lives on quantities that far exceed all our powers of comprehension. We believe that we have built a perhaps limitless power of comprehension into computers and other machines, but our minds remain as limited as ever. Our trust that machines can manipulate to humane effect quantities that are unintelligible and unimaginable to humans is incorrigibly strange.

As there is a limit only within which property ownership is effective, so is there a limit only within which the human mind is effective and at least possibly beneficent. We must assume that the limit would vary somewhat, though not greatly, with the abilities of persons. Beyond that limit the mind loses its wholeness, and its faculties begin to be employed separately or fragmented according to the specialties or professions for which it has been trained.

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In my reading of the historian John Lukacs, I have been most instructed by his understanding that there is no knowledge but human knowledge, that we are therefore inescapably central to our own consciousness, and that this is “a statement not of arrogance but of humility. It is yet another recognition of the inevitable limitations of mankind.”6 We are thus isolated within our uniquely human boundaries, which we certainly cannot transcend or escape by means of technological devices.

But as I understand this dilemma, we are not completely isolated. Though we cannot by our own powers escape our limits, we are subject to correction from, so to speak, the outside. I can hardly expect everybody to believe, as I do (with due caution), that inspiration can come from the outside. But inspiration is not the only way the human enclosure can be penetrated. Nature too may break in upon us, sometimes to our delight, sometimes to our dismay.

As many hunters, farmers, ecologists, and poets have understood, Nature (and here we capitalize her name) is the impartial mother of all creatures, unpredictable, never entirely revealed, not my mother or your mother, but nonetheless our mother. If we are observant and respectful of her, she gives good instruction. As Albert Howard, Wes Jackson, and others have carefully understood, she can give us the right patterns and standards for agriculture. If we ignore or offend her, she enforces her will with punishment. She is always trying to tell us that we are not so superior or independent or alone or autonomous as we may think. She tells us in the voice of Edmund Spenser that she is of all creatures “the equall mother, / And knittest each to each, as brother unto brother.”7 Nearly three and a half centuries later, we hear her saying about the same thing in the voice of Aldo Leopold: “In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.”8

We cannot know the whole truth, which belongs to God alone, but our task nevertheless is to seek to know what is true. And if we offend gravely enough against what we know to be true, as by failing badly enough to deal affectionately and responsibly with our land and our neighbors, truth will retaliate with ugliness, poverty, and disease. The crisis of this line of thought is the realization that we are at once limited and unendingly responsible for what we know and do.

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The discrepancy between what modern humans presume to know and what they can imagine—given the background of pride and self-congratulation—is amusing and even funny. It becomes more serious as it raises issues of responsibility. It becomes fearfully serious when we start dealing with statistical measures of industrial destruction.

To hear of a thousand deaths in war is terrible, and we “know” that it is. But as it registers on our hearts, it is not more terrible than one death fully imagined. The economic hardship of one farm family, if they are our neighbors, affects us more painfully than pages of statistics on the decline of the farm population. I can be heartstruck by grief and a kind of compassion at the sight of one gulley (and by shame if I caused it myself), but, conservationist though I am, I am not nearly so upset by an accounting of the tons of plowland sediment borne by the Mississippi River. Wallace Stevens wrote that “Imagination applied to the whole world is vapid in comparison to imagination applied to a detail”9—and that appears to have the force of truth.

It is a horrible fact that we can read in the daily paper, without interrupting our breakfast, numerical reckonings of death and destruction that ought to break our hearts or scare us out of our wits. This brings us to an entirely practical question: Can we—and, if we can, how can we—make actual in our minds the sometimes urgent things we say we know? This obviously cannot be accomplished by a technological breakthrough, nor can it be accomplished by a big thought. Perhaps it cannot be accomplished at all.

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Yet another not very stretchable human limit is in our ability to tolerate or adapt to change. Change of course is a constant of earthly life. You can’t step twice into exactly the same river, nor can you live two successive moments in exactly the same place. And always in human history there have been costly or catastrophic sudden changes. But with relentless fanfare, at the cost of almost indescribable ecological and social disorder, and to the almost incalculable enrichment and empowerment of corporations, industrialists have substituted what they fairly accurately call “revolution” for the slower, kinder processes of adaptation or evolution. We have had in only about two centuries a steady and ever-quickening sequence of industrial revolutions in manufacturing, transportation, war, agriculture, education, entertainment, homemaking and family life, health care, and so-called communications.

Probably everything that can be said in favor of all this has been said, and it is true that these revolutions have brought some increase of convenience and comfort and some easing of pain. It is also true that the industrialization of everything has incurred liabilities and is running deficits that have not been adequately accounted. All of these changes have depended upon industrial technologies, processes, and products, which have depended upon the fossil fuels, the production and consumption of which have been, and are still, unimaginably damaging to land, water, air, plants, animals, and humans. And the cycle of obsolescence and innovation, goaded by crazes of fashion, has given the corporate economy a controlling share of everybody’s income.

The cost of this has been paid also in a social condition which apologists call “mobility,” implying that it has been always “upward” to a “higher standard of living,” but which in fact has been an ever-worsening unsettlement of our people, and the extinction or near-extinction of traditional and necessary communal structures.

For this also there is no technological or large-scale solution. Perhaps, as they believe, the most conscientiously up-to-date people can easily do without local workshops and stores, local journalism, a local newspaper, a local post office, all of which supposedly have been replaced by technologies. But what technology can replace personal privacy or the coherence of a family or a community? What technology can undo the collateral damages of an inhuman rate of technological change?

The losses and damages characteristic of our present economy cannot be stopped, let alone restored, by “liberal” or “conservative” tweakings of corporate industrialism, against which the ancient imperatives of good care, homemaking, and frugality can have no standing. The possibility of authentic correction comes, I think, from two already-evident causes. The first is scarcity and other serious problems arising from industrial abuses of the land-community. The goods of nature so far have been taken for granted and, especially in America, assumed to be limitless, but their diminishment, sooner or later unignorable, will enforce change.

A positive cause, still little noticed by high officials and the media, is the by now well-established effort to build or rebuild local economies, starting with economies of food. This effort to connect cities with their surrounding rural landscapes has the advantage of being both attractive and necessary. It rests exactly upon the recognition of human limits and the necessity of human scale. Its purpose, to the extent possible, is to bring producers and consumers, causes and effects, back within the bounds of neighborhood, which is to say the effective reach of imagination, sympathy, affection, and all else that neighborhood implies. An economy genuinely local and neighborly offers to localities a measure of security that they cannot derive from a national or a global economy controlled by people who, by principle, have no local commitment.

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In this age so abstracted and bewildered by technological magnifications of power, people who stray beyond the limits of their mental competence typically find no guide except for the supposed authority of market price. “The market” thus assumes the standing of ultimate reality. But market value is an illusion, as is proven by its frequent changes; it is determined solely by the buyer’s ability and willingness to pay.

By now our immense destructiveness has made clear that the actual value of some things exceeds human ability to calculate or measure, and therefore must be considered absolute. For the destruction of these things there is never, under any circumstances, any justification. Their absolute value is recognized by the mortal need of those who do not have them, and by affection. Land, to people who do not have it and who are thus without the means of life, is absolutely valuable. Ecological health, in a land dying of abuse, is not worth “something”; it is worth everything. And abused land relentlessly declines in value to its present and succeeding owners, whatever its market price.

But we need not wait, as we are doing, to be taught the absolute value of land and of land health by hunger and disease. Affection can teach us, and soon enough, if we grant appropriate standing to affection. For this we must look to the stickers, who “love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.”

By now all thoughtful people have begun to feel our eligibility to be instructed by ecological disaster and mortal need. But we endangered ourselves first of all by dismissing affection as an honorable and necessary motive. Our decision in the middle of the last century to reduce the farm population, eliminating the allegedly “inefficient” small farmers, was enabled by the discounting of affection. As a result, we now have barely enough farmers to keep the land in production, with the help of increasingly expensive industrial technology and at an increasing ecological and social cost. Far from the plain citizens and members of the land-community, as Aldo Leopold wished them to be, farmers are now too likely to be merely the land’s exploiters.

I don’t hesitate to say that damage or destruction of the land-community is morally wrong, just as Leopold did not hesitate to say so when he was composing his essay, “The Land Ethic,” in 1947. But I do not believe, as I think Leopold did not, that morality, even religious morality, is an adequate motive for good care of the land-community. The primary motive for good care and good use is always going to be affection, because affection involves us entirely. And here Leopold himself set the example. In 1935 he bought an exhausted Wisconsin farm and, with his family, began its restoration. To do this was morally right, of course, but the motive was affection. Leopold was an ecologist. He felt, we may be sure, an informed sorrow for the place in its ruin. He imagined it as it had been, as it was, and as it might be. And a profound, delighted affection radiates from every sentence he wrote about it.

Without this informed, practical, and practiced affection, the nation and its economy will conquer and destroy the country.

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In thinking about the importance of affection, and of its increasing importance in our present world, I have been guided most directly by E. M. Forster’s novel, Howards End, published in 1910. By then, Forster was aware of the implications of “rural decay,”10 and in this novel he spoke, with some reason, of his fear that “the literature of the near future will probably ignore the country and seek inspiration from the town. . . . and those who care for the earth with sincerity may wait long ere the pendulum swings back to her again.”11 Henry Wilcox, the novel’s “plain man of business,” speaks the customary rationalization, which has echoed through American bureaus and colleges of agriculture, almost without objection, for at least sixty years: “the days for small farms are over.”12

In Howards End, Forster saw the coming predominance of the machine and of mechanical thought, the consequent deracination and restlessness of populations, and the consequent ugliness. He saw an industrial ugliness, “a red rust,”13 already creeping out from the cities into the countryside. He seems to have understood by then also that this ugliness was the result of the withdrawal of affection from places. To have beautiful buildings, for example, people obviously must want them to be beautiful and know how to make them beautiful, but evidently they also must love the places where the buildings are to be built. For a long time, in city and countryside, architecture has disregarded the nature and influence of places. Buildings have become as interchangeable from one place to another as automobiles. The outskirts of cities are virtually identical and as depressingly ugly as the corn-and-bean deserts of industrial agriculture.

What Forster could not have foreseen in 1910 was the extent of the ugliness to come. We still have not understood how far at fault has been the prevalent assumption that cities could be improved by pillage of the countryside. But urban life and rural life have now proved to be interdependent. As the countryside has become more toxic, more eroded, more ecologically degraded and more deserted, the cities have grown uglier, less sustainable, and less livable.

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The argument of Howards End has its beginning in a manifesto against materialism:

It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness, to think that a thousand square miles are a thousand times more wonderful than one square mile . . . That is not imagination. No, it kills it. . . . Your universities? Oh, yes, you have learned men who collect . . . facts, and facts, and empires of facts. But which of them will rekindle the light within?14

“The light within,” I think, means affection, affection as motive and guide. Knowledge without affection leads us astray every time. Affection leads, by way of good work, to authentic hope. The factual knowledge, in which we seem more and more to be placing our trust, leads only to hope of the discovery, endlessly deferrable, of an ultimate fact or smallest particle that at last will explain everything.

The climactic scene of Forster’s novel is the confrontation between its heroine, Margaret Schlegel, and her husband, the self-described “plain man of business,” Henry Wilcox. The issue is Henry’s determination to deal, as he thinks, “realistically” with a situation that calls for imagination, for affection, and then forgiveness. Margaret feels at the start of their confrontation that she is “fighting for women against men.”15 But she is not a feminist in the popular or political sense. What she opposes with all her might is Henry’s hardness of mind and heart that is “realistic” only because it is expedient and because it subtracts from reality the life of imagination and affection, of living souls. She opposes his refusal to see the practicality of the life of the soul.

Margaret’s premise, as she puts it to Henry, is the balance point of the book: “It all turns on affection now . . . Affection. Don’t you see?”16

In a speech delivered in 2006, “Revitalizing Rural Communities,” Frederick Kirschenmann quoted his friend Constance Falk, an economist: “There is a new vision emerging demonstrating how we can solve problems and at the same time create a better world, and it all depends on collaboration, love, respect, beauty, and fairness.”17

Those two women, almost a century apart, speak for human wholeness against fragmentation, disorder, and heartbreak. The English philosopher and geometer, Keith Critchlow, brings his own light to the same point: “The human mind takes apart with its analytic habits of reasoning but the human heart puts things together because it loves them . . .” 18

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The great reassurance of Forster’s novel is the wholeheartedness of his language. It is to begin with a language not disturbed by mystery, by things unseen. But Forster’s interest throughout is in soul-sustaining habitations: houses, households, earthly places where lives can be made and loved. In defense of such dwellings he uses, without irony or apology, the vocabulary that I have depended on in this talk: truth, nature, imagination, affection, love, hope, beauty, joy. Those words are hard to keep still within definitions; they make the dictionary hum like a beehive. But in such words, in their resonance within their histories and in their associations with one another, we find our indispensable humanity, without which we are lost and in danger.

No doubt there always will be some people willing to do anything at all that is economically or technologically possible, who look upon the world and its creatures without affection and therefore as exploitable without limit. Against that limitlessness, in which we foresee assuredly our ruin, we have only our ancient effort to define ourselves as human and humane. But this ages-long, imperfect, unendable attempt, with its magnificent record, we have virtually disowned by assigning it to the ever more subordinate set of school subjects we call “arts and humanities” or, for short, “culture.” Culture, so isolated, is seen either as a dead-end academic profession or as a mainly useless acquisition to be displayed and appreciated “for its own sake.” This definition of culture as “high culture” actually debases it, as it debases also the presumably low culture that is excluded: the arts, for example, of land use, life support, healing, housekeeping, homemaking.

I don’t like to deal in categorical approvals, and certainly not of the arts. Even so, I do not concede that the “fine arts,” in general, are useless or unnecessary or even impractical. I can testify that some works of art, by the usual classification fine, have instructed, sustained, and comforted me for many years in my opposition to industrial pillage.

But I would insist that the economic arts are just as honorably and authentically refinable as the fine arts. And so I am nominating economy for an equal standing among the arts and humanities. I mean, not economics, but economy, the making of the human household upon the earth: the arts of adapting kindly the many human households to the earth’s many ecosystems and human neighborhoods. This is the economy that the most public and influential economists never talk about, the economy that is the primary vocation and responsibility of every one of us.

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My grandparents were fortunate. They survived their debts and kept their farm—finally, and almost too late, with help from my father, who had begun his law practice in the county seat. But in the century and more since that hard year of 1907, millions of others have not been so fortunate. Owing largely to economic constraints, they have lost their hold on the land, and the land has lost its hold on them. They have entered into the trial of displacement and scattering that we try to dignify as “mobility.”

Even so, land and people have suffered together, as invariably they must. Under the rule of industrial economics, the land, our country, has been pillaged for the enrichment, supposedly, of those humans who have claimed the right to own or exploit it without limit. Of the land-community much has been consumed, much has been wasted, almost nothing has flourished.

But this has not been inevitable. We do not have to live as if we are alone.


Textual Notes

1. Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1991, page 355.
2. Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, Random House, New York, 1992, pages xxii & 4.
3. A Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, New York, 1966, pages 219–220.
4. Who Owns America? edited by Herbert Agar and Allen Tate, ISI Books, Wilmington, DE, 1999, pages 109–114. (First published by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1936.)
5. “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” Collected Poems, 1919–1976, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1989, page 22.
6. Last Rites, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2009, pages 31 and 35.
7. The Faerie Queene, VII, vii, stanza XIV.
8. A Sand County Almanac, pages 219–220.
9. Opus Posthumous, edited, with an Introduction by Samuel French Morse, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1957, page 176.
10. Howards End, page 15.
11. Ibid., page 112.
12. Ibid., page 214.
13. Ibid., page 355.
14. Ibid., page 30.
15. Ibid., page 303.
16. Ibid, page 304.
17. In Cultivating an Ecological Conscience, Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2011, pages 329–330.
18. The Hidden Geometry of Flowers, Floris Books, Edinburgh, 2011, page 39 Ω.

[Wendell Berry was a professor of creative writing at the University of Kentucky (1964-1977). Berry earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English at the University of Kentucky and he attended Stanford University's creative writing program as a Wallace Stegner Fellow, studying under Stegner in a seminar that included Edward Abbey, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Ernest Gaines, Tillie Olsen, and Ken Kesey. He is a prolific author of novels, short stories, poems, and essays. See an online bibliography here. He is also an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and a recipient of The National Humanities Medal.]

Copyright © 2012 The National Endowment for the Humanities

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.



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