The value of not “getting it”

Sometimes the most valuable observations are made by someone who doesn’t quite “get it.” And by “get it” I mean a willingness to fill in unstated details.

Getting it can be a good thing. The case for agrarianism, for example, cannot be fully made in an article or book or series of books, or even a life’s work. I don’t think that Wendell Berry’s books taken together make an airtight or even a strong case for agrarianism; it’s perfectly legitimate to read them all, understand and agree with his observations, and yet find oneself a fair distance from understanding agrarianism as a coherent whole, much less persuaded of it. In the end, Berry can only point to deep truths and show how he thinks agrarianism explains them; it is up to the reader to fill in the details which Berry can only hint at, having arrived at them more through life experience rather than study, and then decide whether it all leads to agrarianism, or something else that overlaps agrarianism, or something else entirely.

Getting it can also be a bad thing. I’ve been in many situations where I was caught up with enthusiasm for someone else’s vision, and it always happened because I was too willing to assume that the unstated details led to the conclusion being advanced. Too often it turned out to be wishful thinking.  Not only was I wrong in assuming that the details led to the conclusion, I was wrong in thinking that there were any such details at all; the person casting the vision was just as guilty of wishful thinking as I was, having selected their vision more for its marketability than for its soundness. Some of the more notable delusions I subscribed to included approaches to church growth, discipleship, homeschooling, child rearing, corporate worship, authority, courtship, and antithetical Christian living. In all these areas I could have done better by thinking things through thoroughly before embracing an idea; my saving grace was that embracing the idea didn’t keep me from trying to understand it more deeply, and under such scrutiny the unworthy ideas eventually showed themselves to be tattered and threadbare. And fortunately a few of the ideas have continued to withstand such scrutiny and have ended up foundational in my current thinking.

Kelefa Sanneh has just reviewed Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft for the New Yorker, and he does not get what Crawford is saying in the way that I get it. For various reasons I know several things  that Crawford wasn’t able to say or chose not to say in his book, things that go a long way towards completing his case. In some sense Crawford’s book is aimed much more towards me, and the other folks who are likely to get it, than it is towards Sanneh. But because Sanneh is a fair-minded and observant reader, the fact that he doesn’t get it makes his review particularly valuable, because he makes note of several weaknesses in Crawford’s case that an enthusiast would be likely to gloss over for the sake of the greater good.

I call Sanneh fair-minded and observant because, even though Crawford is making a case that is a direct challenge to the kind of urban, knowledge-worker lifestyle that I assume Sanneh lives, he points out the weaknesses without using them to destroy or dismiss Crawford’s position. This is good for those of us who are strongly sympathetic to Crawford, since it forces us to face up to those weaknesses and think them through, to come up with explanations or to acknowledge that there is more thinking to be done.

One difficulty that Sanneh zeroes in on is the fact that whatever our principles, the life we lead must be lived in the midst of a society thoroughly devoted to consumption:

But how do you serve craftsmanship without serving the market? How can an independent artisan insure that he doesn’t become an entrepreneur—and, in time, a corporate executive? This question haunts Crawford’s book, and it helps explain why he takes pains to present himself as merely an aspiring craftsman with “execrable” skills; a professional mechanic who still feels “like an amateur.” These disclaimers are meant to assure readers that, in a society afflicted by hyperspecialization, Crawford isn’t some technical wizard; he’s just a regular guy who happens to be handy with a seal puller. The idea is that we can become him, and that he won’t become someone else—he won’t build a bigger shop, hire more mechanics, expand into Maryland and then Delaware, create a lucrative line of Shockoe Moto leather jackets, and, finally, collaborate with BMW on a gleaming series of R69S replicas. He won’t, in other words, end up like Gene Kahn, the organic-farming pioneer who appears in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” as a vexed figure: Cascadian Farm, which he founded in 1971, has thrived and grown and joined the corporate food chain; Kahn is now the vice-president for sustainable development at General Mills.

I remember having those worries about Gene Kahn’s story when I read Pollan’s book, and although I admire Joel Salatin greatly I don’t think he stands in as much contrast to Kahn as Pollan portrays him. Much of what I’ve heard about making a living selling local food is depressingly entrepreneurial, and in particular depressingly dependent on finding ways to sell food to affluent people. This particular weakness is one I currently have no answer for.

Sanneh probes further with his scalpel, and underneath the puzzle of consumerism he finds another, deeper puzzle, namely connoisseurship:

Proponents of homegrown food and “(very) small business”—which is how Crawford describes his shop—sometimes talk about how artisanalism improves the lives of workers. But the genius of this loosely organized movement is that it’s not a labor movement; it’s a consumer movement. Pollan writes about the Italian Slow Foodists who realized that “even connoisseurship can have a politics,” and he voices his own hope that “an eater in closer touch with his senses will find less pleasure in a box of Chicken McNuggets than in a pastured chicken or a rare breed of pig.” In fact, pleasure isn’t merely the motivating force in Pollan’s books; it’s the goal. His chief criticism of Chicken McNuggets is that they are insufficiently delicious. (Has he tried them with the hot-mustard sauce?) He is both a gourmand and an idealist, which means that he tastes the entire food economy each time he has a meal. When he saw those migrant laborers, maybe he was thinking about their wages—but he was also thinking about his supper.

This is much closer to the bone. I was surprised and pleased to see a problem stated so clearly when I read the passage in The Omnivore’s Dilemma where Pollan asks Salatin whether it’s truly feasible to get his artisanally grown food into the hands of city dwellers, and Salatin responded that perhaps the problem is the existence of cities themselves. But as I continue to think about this I suspect that Salatin (and even Wendell Berry) have not fully faced up to the fact that their own visions, though perhaps not dependent on the existence of cities, are very much dependent on some social trends that cause cities to come into existence.

Salleh is not done with us yet.

Crawford promises more than good taste; his book sets its sights on the blue-collar worker, not on the fussy consumer. And so he writes dutifully about economic trends, changing labor markets, and the uncertain future of America’s information economy. But he can’t feign much enthusiasm for, say, jobs in the health-care sector, no matter how satisfying or useful or plentiful those jobs might be. Really, he likes engines and building things and fixing things; his dedication to his shop is rooted in his admira
tion for his clients and for what he calls the “kingly sport” of motorcycle riding. In other words, his work is “useful” only insofar as it enables men to ride motorcycles—an activity that might fairly be described as useless. Crawford may have set out to write a book about work, but the book he actually wrote is about consumption. No less than Pollan, he is a connoisseur, exercised more by shoddy workmanship than by shoddy working conditions.

Salleh has put his finger on something important here, but I don’t think he  has correctly divided things up. Not having read the book, I am only guessing that what Crawford is plumping for here is the idea of “a job well done” and the peculiar satisfaction that comes from it. Salleh is mistaken to say that this makes Crawford a connoisseur. A connoisseur is someone who takes detailed pleasure in a job done by someone else, someone who has detached the goodness of the result from the goodness of producing that result. Crawford no doubt is able to appreciate the quality of work done by others, and I suppose his livelihood gives him a special ability to do so. But it isn’t the motivation for what he does, since otherwise he would be better off finding a high paying white collar job that would better fund the acquisition of quality work done by other people.

But there are two things not to be missed here, both involving what Salleh calls connoisseurship. The first is that connoisseurship is a driving force, probably the main one, in the local food movement. Nine-tenths of what you read about local food is focused on the eating of it, and most of that eating is done by people who are involved in the growing at best symbolically. Is it better to eat local food than industrial food? In some ways, certainly. The quality is probably higher, it is probably healthier, it gets you closer to nature, it supports local farmers. But it doesn’t address more fundamental problems in our relationship with food, the most important being our relatively recent decision to leave the growing and processing of it to others while we go off to do more important things. Local foodies have exactly the same relationship to their vendors as do industrial foodies, namely that of consumer to producer. By itself the local food movement gets us no closer to the agrarian ideal of supplying your own needs directly.

The more important problem involving connoisseurship is that it enables someone to make a living as a craftsman in modern-day society. No small-scale producer can compete with the modern industrial machine on the basis of price. Even the higher quality of a craftsman’s product cannot by itself justify the premium he is required to charge. Which restricts the market to people who, for whatever reason, are willing to pay unreasonably high prices for higher quality, i.e. connoisseurs.

There’s nothing especially wrong with catering to rich people (and by “rich” I only mean folks who have enough disposable income that they are able to allocate an unreasonable amount of it to a particular expenditure). But for those of us for whom the ultimate goal is self-sufficiency, I worry that funding the project by catering to the local food market may end up being the devil’s bargain.

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8 thoughts on “The value of not “getting it”

  1. “By itself the local food movement gets us no closer to the agrarian ideal of supplying your own needs directly.”

    Maybe not, but it seems that the direction it points does so. Really, the only way to get high quality local food is to have enough money to buy it, or to raise it yourself, and since most people don’t fall into the first category, the more the idea of the importance of high quality local food gets out, the more people who will be inclined to raise it themselves.

    “There’s nothing especially wrong with catering to rich people (and by “rich” I only mean folks who have enough disposable income that they are able to allocate an unreasonable amount of it to a particular expenditure). But for those of us for whom the ultimate goal is self-sufficiency, I worry that funding the project by catering to the local food market may end up being the devil’s bargain.”

    So the goal for us is to figure out how to manage without going that direction. That, I think, is the work of generations. Mike is pretty sure he’ll always have to have a corporate job to fund our efforts to move in the agrarian/self-sufficiency direction. Our children will probably have to have at least part-time paying jobs, but maybe by our grandchildren’s time we’ll be skilled enough, used to the lifestyle (meaning physically capable of the work involved in addition to having the mental fortitude to do it), and have the necessary infrastructure in place (orchards, barns, root cellars, etc.) to be able to make a go at it.

    If we ever to do have an Orlovian collapse, I’m pretty sure that Mike and I will be casualties of it, given that we were brought up mostly sedentary on factory food — even though our knowledge and skills are increasing, physically we’re not up to the work full time.

  2. Kelly,

    The more the idea of the importance of high quality local food gets out, the more people who will be inclined to raise it themselves.

    I don’t think this is true, and if you replace “local food” with “health care” or “schooling” you’ll understand why I disagree.

    So the goal for us is to figure out how to manage without going that direction. That, I think, is the work of generations. Mike is pretty sure he’ll always have to have a corporate job to fund our efforts to move in the agrarian/self-sufficiency direction. Our children will probably have to have at least part-time paying jobs, but maybe by our grandchildren’s time we’ll be skilled enough, used to the lifestyle (meaning physically capable of the work involved in addition to having the mental fortitude to do it), and have the necessary infrastructure in place (orchards, barns, root cellars, etc.) to be able to make a go at it.

    I agree with every last thing you say here. The good news for us is that we have managed to simplify our lives to some extent, and have learned to like it better this way; the bad news is that it isn’t simple enough yet. The good news is that the kids have embraced the direction we’ve headed, and even thrived from it; the bad news is that our current situation isn’t yet sustainable, with dwindling savings making up the difference at the moment.

    There’s no guarantee that we will succeed, and it’s quite possible that some different approach, slower and more prudent, would allow for a softer landing—or maybe not. We are continually re-evaluating, but at the end of the day all we can do is choose as wisely as possible among the options that present themselves.

    If we ever to do have an Orlovian collapse, I’m pretty sure that Mike and I will be casualties of it, given that we were brought up mostly sedentary on factory food — even though our knowledge and skills are increasing, physically we’re not up to the work full time.

    I’ll have to disagree with you again, and I think Dmitry Orlov would as well. And I see that in my first post on Orlov that I quoted the relevant passages. You can read the whole thing there, but here are two Orlovian observations that suggest that even wannabe agrarians will be well positioned for collapse. First, on the need for an income:

    Most people in the U.S. cannot survive very long without an income. This may sound curious to some people — how can anyone, anywhere survive without an income? Well, in post-collapse Russia, if you didn’t pay rent or utilities — because no-one else was paying them either — and if you grew or gathered a bit of your own food, and you had some friends and relatives to help you out, then an income was not a prerequisite for survival. Most people got by, somehow.

    My hope is that if things truly collapse, we will become more Russian in that rent and such will be easier to come by, and we will be able to get by.

    Second, on the importance of attitude:

    The ability to stop and smell the roses — to let it all go, to refuse to harbor regrets or nurture grievances, to confine one’s serious attention only to that which is immediately necessary, and not to worry too much about the rest — is perhaps the one most critical to post-collapse survival. The most psychologically devastated are usually the middle-aged breadwinners, who, once they are no longer gainfully employed, feel completely lost. Detachment and indifference can be most healing, provided they do not become morbid. It is good to take your sentimental nostalgia for what once was, is, and will soon no longer be, up front, and get it over with.

    Any agrarian wannabe, whether or not they depend on part-time or full-time work to make up the difference, will be much better able to adjust to such a cosmic shift in social arrangements.

  3. The more the idea of the importance of high quality local food gets out, the more people who will be inclined to raise it themselves.

    I don’t think this is true, and if you replace “local food” with “health care” or “schooling” you’ll understand why I disagree.

    Thinking of my own experience — we didn’t have health insurance when I was growing and my mom was handy with home remedies for most things that didn’t require surgery, so what I’m doing in my own family grows out of the way I was brought up.

    The agrarian/homesteading idea was a dream of mine since childhood because it was the way my parents had grown up, and had left, but I don’t think I would have realized it was something that could be done “in this day and age” if I hadn’t started reading about other people doing it — specifically Cheryl Lindsey’s now-defunct Gentle Spirit magazine. When I first mentioned it to Mike, it turned out he had the same unspoken dream, so it seemst that if there hadn’t been some sort of a “movement” out there it may have never even come up as a topic of conversation between us, let alone an actual goal.

    Something similar applies to the way we’re educating our kids. I’d planned on being a public school teacher like my mom and her mom, up until a family I babysat in high school started homeschooling. When we first married, we meant to put our kids into the public schools around 4th grade, having given them the kind of early childhood we envisioned for them, but talking to friends and reading lots of books changed our views not only of education, but of family life. One thing led to another… and here we are.

    But maybe that’s not the sort of thing you had in mind?

  4. Kelly,

    But maybe that’s not the sort of thing you had in mind?

    Sorry, I was too cryptic. I only meant to say that simply valuing something highly, whether it be food or health care or education, is not enough to push people in the direction of providing any of those things for themselves. I think it’s fair to say that for a long time Americans have valued health care and education highly, perhaps too highly, and yet these are two areas where individuals have almost completely abdicated personal responsibility.

    Your point, I think, is that a prerequisite to getting started on the journey is to see the destination as valuable, and I would agree with that. A growing awareness of what makes food good will help at least some people further down the path to producing it.

    For things to really change for the better, though, it will be necessary for folks in general to understand that process trumps results, that the way you get there is far more important than the place you end up, that the journey is the reward.

  5. Well, what most Americans value as “health care” is really “industrial-pharmaceutical health care,” which isn’t what I call health care. And what they call an education can be defined as “what will get my kid the best-paying job possible,” which again, is not what I’d call an education.

    Different definition = different destination.

    Good point about the process and the journey, though. That’s something I have a hard time putting into words — that how we’re feeding our family is just as important as the fact that they are getting fed.

  6. Kelly,

    Well, what most Americans value as “health care” is really “industrial-pharmaceutical health care,” which isn’t what I call health care. And what they call an education can be defined as “what will get my kid the best-paying job possible,” which again, is not what I’d call an education.

    Different definition = different destination.

    Well put. I’d only add that I think it follows directly from Yankee ingenuity, which sees only problems and never difficulties, and insists on solutions where coping strategies are more appropriate. We end up redefining the situation into something that is amenable to being solved, whether or not solving that problem addresses the difficulty that started it all. When we decide that education is a problem to solve, we radically narrow the range of things that might qualify as an education.

  7. “I’d only add that I think it follows directly from Yankee ingenuity, which sees only problems and never difficulties, and insists on solutions where coping strategies are more appropriate. We end up redefining the situation into something that is amenable to being solved, whether or not solving that problem addresses the difficulty that started it all.”

    I like this.

    But what I really wanted to say was that “professionals” value mostly a certain, sophisticated type of education. I don’t think money has so much to do with it as prestige. If it were just money, we’d have more high-risk entrepreneurs. But what I see around me is people who are wanting to make sure they can play the school game well enough to get a prestigious degree. That’s why, for instance, you have a whole class of young women who go to elite colleges and then get desultory but prestigious jobs in the city. Their parents support them, and it has everything to do with resumes, but little to do with money per se, unless it’s about that unspoken (but still underlying) rule of marrying “well,” or getting some sort of sinecure that doesn’t require marriage.

    Sometimes I find myself trying to remember a certain line I read back in high school, in The Preppy Handbook, of all places. It was something about kids from prestigious families not caring about intellect per se, but simply wanting to be able to raise their hands with the right answer. Things have changed a little since then so that our country is more of a pure techno-meritocracy, yet education is still more about “having the right answer” than about exploring real questions about what the good life is. And yes, I think this is related to the Yankee habit of redefining the problem.

    I don’t think my life will ever be physically self-sufficient, and who knows what will become of us if there’s ever a collapse, but I still find a great value in asking what the good life is, rather than simply spouting the “right” answer.

    Hope I’m not way too off subject!

  8. Laura,

    Hope I’m not way too off subject!

    Don’t think so. These are tough questions, and I think it’s only the worrying over the hints and suspicions and vague intutions that is likely to get us any closer to suitable answers. In fact, I think the worrying is probably more valuable than any particular answer; the things you learn in the process will reach far beyond the confines of the question itself.

    I’m wondering if the folks you mention equate prestige with security. I always thought the stereotype about Jewish mothers wanting their sons to become doctors, lawyers, or bankers was not so much about money as it was about security. I guess maybe we’ll find out if the economy continues to spiral downward; once the white collar jobs are gone, will the new object of desire be prestigious but poorly paid (missionary, teacher, Habitat for Humanity nail-pounder) or mundane but well paid (plumber, electrician)?

    And about having the right answer, I’ve always thought that a quintessential American catchphrase was “cut to the chase,” meaning “don’t bore me with explanations and justifications, just tell me what to do.” And there are so many “teachers” out there willing to oblige! But what if the good life isn’t an answer at all, i.e. a destination, but in fact the neverending process of searching for answers to the important questions, i.e. a journey? To hand someone a pre-packaged answer to life is not only to hand them a lie, it robs them of the very thing they are yearning for.

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