Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wendell Berry's The Cost of Displacement: Some Further Thoughts

The December/January issue of the Progressive contains an essay by Wendell Berry that is a strict indictment of the homelessness of our culture and its pervading myths about the better place. This is a profoundly important essay diagnosing much of the restlessness of our culture in the throes of an educational leviathan whose knowledge and particular didactic is dislocal, universal, and specifically oriented not towards an economy of life dictated by the needs and land of a particular community, but by desires and attitudes fashioned by the centralization of abstract knowledge in the university, and its dictation of the uses of that knowledge.

Berry's robust essay is faithful to a vision of home that, in its absence from much of the contemporary landscape, no longer can provide a refuge from the abstract dislocation of place and history at home within the university's dictation of identity and social/economic value of human persons, a complete re-narration defined by abstraction and the dead language of specialists.

When the home of the 1930's, situated within a neighborhood of individuals that are familiar with each other's histories and stories, whose labor works to sustain one another and thicken the ground of such a place, is no longer to be returned to, when the home to be returned to lauds the virtues of dislocation, of the engendering of value through capital, in short, when land, family history, and place can no longer be a refuge for most of us from the narration of life on an inhuman scale, my thought is that we become sustained, finding a pseudo-maternal comfort in the post-modern space of global capitalisms' signs of familiarity, its general spaces of uniformity that can be found in Southern Texas, in Upstate New York, in Central Georgia, in Bangkok. We all know how to navigate these spaces expediently, with a know-how and tact that not only do not betray the cost of this re-narration of the familiar, but with an unconsciousness of our own violation, perhaps even a sort of acquiescent reveling in it.

These are not new or particularly novel thoughts. The democratization of space perpetrated by the addictive absorption into technology's glowing spacelessness and timelessness can also form a replacement of the familiar, the familial, cloaked in the anodyne anesthesia of a veil of de-personification so thick that our own history can take on a negative quality, a banality, a null and void blankness to be narrated to by the elasticity of assuming the right to create ourselves by a freedom to embody a vision of ourselves engendered by the privilege of preference, the religion of choice.

I'm reminded of William T. Cavanaugh's discussion of the graduation speech that he would like to give at a University:

“Please don’t go out and change the world. The world has had enough of well-meaning middle class university graduates from the U.S. going out and trying to change the world and the world is dying because of it. . . go home."

The re-imagining and re-narrating of spaces once housing stories and families and histories is still possible, and the hard, immediately reward-less labor of living in the hope of teaching the fidelity of place in the midst of a culture whose virtues are in direct opposition to familial and local fidelity is perhaps the work of the educated. This re-narration cannot happen without a resurrection of the history that once was evident in the means and uses of cultural and economic stability, making up the means of the maintaining of households and neighborhoods. Stories must be dug up and retold. Histories of neighborhoods and the labor that built them must be resuscitated, and responded to, not as vestiges of an untouchable past, but as images of ways of life that command retention and respect.

My grandmother's dill pickles must be made with the same delicate care and respect her movements betrayed, and put into her glass jars once again.

There is a great cost to our hyper-social mobility, to technology and the placeless space's ability to democratize and spread thin, those thick relationships of fidelity that are, by necessity and by virtue, to the exclusion of others, not out of malice, but out of a demand and a hope for intimacy and fidelity, for all. Democratized intimacy ceases to be an intimacy that does not carry with it the cost of our own violation, and the trust that must form to develop intimacy between persons can only be given as undeserved, in a world of hyper social-mobility. We must learn to stop consuming persons and places, and return to re-inhabit and reestablish fidelity where our story finds coherence.

A great portion of we, over-educated children of the baby-boomers have been educated by our elders into believing that doing better and cultivating dreams and desires founded upon the altar of prosperity and our inviolable choice are what is good for us, and a sort of inevitable inheritance of their hard labor to give us this opportunity. Alien to us are taxonomies of value outside of our acquiescence to them, outside of the whimsical self-interest of our own interests. Little outside of us makes claims upon us, makes claims upon the education of our desires, and even here the language of choice reigns, convincing us of the nobility of our own good will, which we could take away and replace with something less noble by which to relegate comparable value to. With the grammar of total choice and self-valuation as final measure come the interchangeable nature of an ethics that is not founded upon fidelity to persons or place, where desire cannot be educated by persons, but by choice. Apart from being separated by our nature, we have now become separated from much that can help remind us of our nature, and educate our desire to embody our nature.

1 comment:

Constance said...

Wonderful essay. As a so-called baby boomer, I'm working on the same issue of displacement and the loss of identity caused by too much choice, too much mobility, too many self-referential desires that are in fact shaped by not by the self but by the aims of enormous non-democratic entities for which power is the only motive force. I look forward to reading more of what you have to say on this issue. It's great that three generations--Berry's, my own and yours are engaged in the effort to relocalize the dislocated and increasingly unreal lives of our contemporaries. Thank you!