You might think being a farmer is a pretty sweet gig. From a cubicle, things look pretty nice: you’re working outside, one with the land, a Wendall Berry poem come to life. But being a farmer is an insane profession; the job goes out of its way to make itself as terrifying as possible for the weirdest of reasons. Like… Continue reading
Walden Two is a novel about an intentional society, or what we’d call a commune, based on scientific principles.
Its writer, B.F. Skinner, supposed that people could thrive while living communally. He wrote this book in an attempt to rewrite all our current social rules about work, love, and play.
I was at the dinner table last night discussing it with my folks and my fiancee. It was a good discussion.
What surprised me was that my folks knew about Walden Two. Though the book was written in the fifties, it really found its footing in the late sixties and early seventies, when they were growing up. There was a lot of talk about experimental ways of living during that time. People knew there was something wrong with society and sought new ways of living. They experimented. They asked the question “How is it that we should live?”
Something stuck in my craw during that conversation.
(Continued from Part II)
Science As Meta-Narrative
If we cannot depend on ourselves alone, we often think that we can depend on science.
Usually, when you see a criticism of a scientific study or fact, it’s coming from a political position. We can laugh or rage at people who think that climate change isn’t real, or that the world is only thousands of years old. But science itself is a meta-narrative. It is the idea that if we think empirically, we can discover universal truths. These truths can tell us the ideal way to do everything. They can tell us how to live.
Central to it, in Lyotard’s mind, is what you and I might think of as clarification, he presents as a death of ambiguity. Continue reading
Continued from Part I
The Meta-Narratives and Their Destruction
The term meta-narrative was coined by Jean-François Lyotard in his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. He described meta-narratives as the ‘big’ stories that we tell ourselves that help us understand the world: things like Religion, Nationalism, Racism, Capitalism, Democracy, etc.
Meta-narratives are the stories used to understand and legitimize other, smaller stories, and they are the ways by which we understand the world. In a very real sense, they’re what we use to create order and meaning out of existence. They are what gave the modern world its character. Continue reading
A Cleveland train running over the Cuyahoga River throws off sparks from its fly-wheels. The sparks land white hot in the river below.
The river, however, doesn’t swallow these sparks. They don’t land harmlessly on the water. Instead, the river ignites.
Rivers used to burn in this country. It’s odd and scary, but true.
But the 1969 fire did more than throw smoke on downtown Cleveland. It helped create a national impetus for environmental control. It was in that era that the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts were passed, and environmental protection agencies at both the federal and the state levels were created.
We, of course, are still having the conversation about conservation, especially with climate change so high in the national consciousness. But Progress was made. We are better than we were before
Progress is the idea that life will be better for our children than it is for us. It is the idea that the inevitable march of technology, of social justice, of economic power, will lead to better, more free lives than were available for our ancestors.
This also rests on the bedrock idea that life was terrible before society. That things began, as Thomas Hobbes put it, with:
no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
That’s weird, though, when you think about it.
Small children understand sharing before anyone tells them about it. They understand fairness. They want to help each other.
But what about agriculture? Surely that was Progress. There’s no way food could be more abundant and predictable in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which predominated before agriculture. Hunting and gathering would be a lifestyle exposed to famine and want.
While it is difficult to understand ancient societies, which left no written records, there are a few ways we can determine which type of society afforded a better life. First, we can look at societies that are still hunting and gathering, and we can look at the remains of those ancient hunter-gatherers.
On both counts, the evidence for Progress is shaky.
To the first point, hunter-gatherers didn’t work nearly as many hours as we do. The ones still around only work between 20-40 hours a week; sometimes they work as little as 12. Work itself was different as well. Because hunter-gatherer work is so varied and requires knowledge and creativity, it seemed less like work and more like play. Work was not toil to them. Most living hunter-gatherers don’t even have a word for it, and even when they do, they use it to describe interactions with outsiders, not their own labor.
These societies that still exist are also much more egalitarian and less stratified than their agricultural counterparts. It is only with the excess that agriculture produces that we see the rise of classes:
Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing elite set itself above the disease-ridden masses.
The first job that ever taught me anything was at a bar by my house. My commute was a five-minute drive.
It was late one night, the end of a shift, and I was wrapping up the host booth. Not too far away, one of the bouncers was there eating.
He was a great guy, great at his job, rarely complained. From what I could gather, his life wasn’t easy, but that night he was eating like a king; the kitchen had cooked a steak by accident, so that was what he was getting for an end-of-shift meal.
We started chatting, and he told me that earlier, he had thought of how great a steak might be. This thought, he said, had been broadcast to the universe, and the universe had provided him with a steak, just like he wanted. He was convinced that this was the secret to getting rich, living life to the fullest, and being successful. He talked about it like a preacher talks God, or a barefoot runner talks about how running shoes ruin your joints.
I didn’t think much of this at the time, but looking back, this was my first encounter with a particular American belief system, one supersedes all our other beliefs, even the Christianity many of us believe to be the bedrock of our country.
It’s part of a faith I call the religion of the Vending Machine God.
The Vending Machine God has its own church. It has its own texts, doctrine, and clergy.
It’s a faith you’ve never heard of, but it’s everywhere.
It seems to me that poetry
Is weighed down by profundity
Seriously, this is just words together
Nothing more, but nothing’s better
Whether or not you’re clear in this
You can make worlds delirious
There is no need to be vainglorious
When you realize
What’s in your veins is glorious
is a something: Continue reading
“Kill your darlings.”
“Show, don’t tell.”
As a writer, it’s easy to believe that there are certain rules of writing that, if followed, will result in your success. Rules are comforting, in a way. They offer certainty.
The problem with this is that writing is not certain. We can see the end result, pick that apart, and see what works for us. We can fiddle and tinker.
Rules are a different matter. Continue reading
I’ve met a pastor named Shandy
And vicar named Brandy
And a sister named Whiskey, it’s true
But for my tribulations
Across this creation
There’s but one thing that can get me through
For when I’m gone
And it’s rough
It’s that licorice stuff
That leads me to my life again
He’s a Greek
He’s a cloudy-white freak…
Father Ouzo, forgive me my sins. Continue reading
The Westside of Grand Rapids is an odd place.
This makes it, along with the sidewalks that run near every street, one of the best places to amble in the city. You’ll always see something over there that will jar your thoughts to their furthest corners. Last time I was there, I was walking with a friend of mine. We saw, in order: Continue reading