Monthly Archives: February 2017

Could Capitalism Be the Enemy?

pogo_-_earth_day_1971_poster

Earth Day 1971 Poster, from Wikipedia entry on “Pogo”

Like many other people these days, I’m asking a lot of questions, and I’m not finding too many satisfying answers. But that doesn’t matter. We should all be suspicious of quick—and satisfying—answers. While it might produce a kind of temporary euphoria, the tendency to try to solve our problems quickly and neatly is precisely what seems to have landed the world in this precarious position, with climate changes staring us in the face as we confront unprecedented human migration across increasingly hostile borders. It is a scary place to be.

One question I’ve been asking is this: could capitalism, with its emphasis on constant growth and acquisition of wealth, be the evil spirit lurking behind this state of affairs? This is a difficult question to consider, and it’s likely that few people will be brave enough to confront and admit such a question. (For curious readers, here is an article in last week’s New Yorker that explains, at least in part, why new ideas and self-criticism meet such resistance.)  But it’s worthwhile to lay out a few arguments for this menacing explanation, even if not many people take the time to consider it.

First of all, capitalism, with its emphasis on garnering profit, depends on constantly expanding market shares. It doesn’t work in a static environment; in order for a capitalist economy to function well, it must grow. And yet, as any observant person realizes, constant growth simply isn’t sustainable. Eventually the market place becomes saturated. When that happens, there are few options for the capitalist enterprise: either it expands its market—in which the same thing will happen a few years, or decades, later—or it works to cut out competitors and appropriate their growth and their profit. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or an economist, to determine that this process isn’t feasible for long-term stability in a society dedicated to equity and the pursuit of happiness.

And that brings up the second problem with capitalism as it has developed. The acquisition of profit and material goods seems to be insufficient for the kind of capitalists, the captains of industry, we have created in recent years. In other words, the most successful capitalists have become so wealthy that it is ludicrous to suppose that they are intent on gathering still more money, or luxuries, for themselves. How many mansions are necessary for a person’s, even a family’s, happiness? Is it really necessary for Mark Zuckerberg to own 700 acres of prime Hawaiian land—and to sue longtime landowners to make sure that his privacy on this new piece of property is inviolable? One theory about the tendency of the super-wealthy to engage in this kind of action this states that capitalism’s great heroes and heroines garner not only wealth for themselves, but happiness as well. And, since happiness is not as easy to gauge as material wealth, the best way to determine whether one is happy is to compare oneself to those who are not happy. This, in essence, is what capitalism does: it takes happiness away from people in order to create a sense of happiness in the capitalist, who, numb to the thrill of wealth and plenty, cannot determine whether he is actually happy unless he can be sure that there are others who have been made unhappy by his own acquisitive actions. This view of capitalism presents it in a horrifying, sordid light. It goes something like this: once their quest for great wealth has met with success, capitalists create another quest for themselves: that of acquiring the happiness of others. This kind of theorizing leads to a truly disconcerting question: What if the “pursuit of happiness” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, and so dear to every American citizen, has become a literal pursuit, in which the happiness of others becomes fair game for pursuing? This frightening scenario, in which capitalists resemble Dementors more than anything else, may well be taking place in our society.

But we need not enter the world of Harry Potter to find a third reason to reexamine capitalism in our time: it appears to be antithetical to the idea of ecological conservation. I could argue this carefully, in a step-by-step demonstration of the ways in which capitalism abuses the natural environment, but this is quite unnecessary, with stories like Standing Rock, Line 5, the Kalamazoo River oil spill, fracking, and other items in the news. We all know that big business cares little about the natural resources it uses, regarding these resources like factory machinery as it tries to figure out a way to produce still more oil for an ever-growing market. The argument that capitalism stands in opposition to safeguarding our environment has undoubtedly been made before, and it is unnecessary to go into it at length here.

Instead, I would like to offer a fourth reason that capitalism may be the enemy. It depends on competition, maintaining that competition brings out the best in people. But even Darwin, as this article in The Guardian points out, believed that cooperation was at least as  important in evolution as competition.

I have little hope that I can change anyone’s mind about capitalism. Most Americans cling to their belief that it offers us, and the world at large, the best way to live—period. Besides, changing our ideology would be too great a task to undertake.

Or would it?

As we encounter more and more crises, sooner or later we will have to face the fact that Americans are not always the good guys, as we have been taught to believe. Ideology is a difficult veil to penetrate—in fact, it may be impossible to penetrate the veil at all, and we may have to be satisfied with shifting it aside from time to time to try to catch a mere glimpse of the truth. Denying the efficacy and value of capitalism is a scary proposition, and doing so necessitates that we decide what will take its place—another scary proposition. It will take some time to reach the point where we can face these difficult ideological problems. But I believe we will get there. For now, let’s start by admitting that the old comic strip from 1971 was right: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Advertisements

5 Comments

Filed under culture, History, Politics, Technology, Uncategorized

The Art of Reading

 

The Library by Elizabeth Shippen Green, from https://thesleeplessreader.com/about/fellow-readers-favorite-paintings-of-women-reading/

The Library by Elizabeth Shippen Green   Image from The Sleepless Reader blog

 

“I sometimes think that good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves.”  –Jorge Luis Borges

 

“In short, reading is directed creation.” –Jean-Paul Sartre

As the number of blogs and podcasts about writing multiply with Malthusian abandon, overpopulating our digital feeds, the topic of reading seems much less popular these days. Of course, there are the articles published in the various newspapers and magazines stating that science bears out what every English teacher has always suspected: the act of reading makes us more sympathetic and thus better people. (You can read articles of this kind here and here and here.) But are these articles enough to make us better, more serious, “literary” readers?

Apparently not. And the reason is simple: the creation of better human beings is not the sum-total of what reading offers us. In other words, reading literature is too important an activity to engage in just because it might make us better or more moral people.

That might seem an incendiary statement, but I don’t mean it as one. In fact, I am echoing C.S. Lewis, who wrote in his short book An Experiment in Criticism, published in 1961 and thus one of the last things he wrote, “I have rejected the view that literature is to be valued (a) for telling us truths about life, (b) as an aid to culture. I have also said that, while we read, we must treat the reception of the work we are reading as an end in itself.” But this, he has said earlier, is precisely what most readers simply cannot do.

In this book Lewis theorizes that there are two kinds of readers: the unliterary readers (whom he calls “users“), and the literary readers (whom he calls “receivers.” Users tend to, well, use books to achieve a desired end: entertainment, escapism, gathering information. In fact, it’s not too far-fetched to theorize that the epidemic rise of unreliable news is due to the fact that there are too many users in our society and not enough receivers. According to Lewis, “the most unliterary reader of all sticks to ‘the news.’ He reads daily, with unwearied relish, how, in some place he has never seen, under circumstances which never become quite clear, someone he doesn’t know has married, rescued, robbed, raped, or murdered someone else he doesn’t know.” It’s just possible that these readers and the demand they place on profit-seeking media are skewing the type of reading that is available to us, leaving receiving readers out in the cold and clogging up our news feeds with sensationalist tripe. These users, Lewis might say, would be better off reading mystery, spy, or some other kind of thrilling novels, but their desire for “the news” precludes them from doing so.

Receivers, those who read in a literary way, exert their critical and imaginative faculties to treat the book as an end in itself, not as a link in a chain leading to a desired end. They give themselves fully to the experience of reading. As Lewis says, those of us who want to be receiving readers “must empty our minds and lay ourselves open.” Such readers, few though they may be, can change the way they see things, and in this way, they can help to change the world itself.

Yet the idea that reading makes us better people puts the whole activity of literary reading at risk, co-opting it for some kind of greater, communal good, which is in my view putting the cart before the horse. In other words, reading may be good for human beings, but it certainly won’t be if reading is relegated to the role of making good human beings. This kind of utilitarian advocacy of reading is dangerous. We have already lost so much to utilitarian ideas. In our universities, composition classes have been usurped to create students who can write discipline-specific reports and papers, not essays that allow for exploration and expression. In fact, college itself has become a mere step in the path to obtaining a good job (with the irony that going to college does not necessarily lead to a good job and almost certainly leads to the acquisition of debt). And of course there are those who argue that art must have a political dimension to be relevant. So many intellectual and artistic activities have already been offered up on the altar of utilitarianism. Must we really give up the act of reading, too?

My point is this: only in pursuing these activities in and of themselves–for example, in reading for the sake of reading, in educating oneself for the sake of being an educated person, in painting in order to depict the world, whatever shape it takes–only by doing these things freely, without the thought of some added benefit, can we engage in truly imaginative activities. We should be far beyond the point of saying that reading is good for us, that it makes us better human beings. That’s the kind of thinking that went out of fashion with the death of Jeremy Bentham (whose embalmed body presides over University College London). Instead, we should be asking ourselves this: how do we become better readers? And perhaps more importantly, how do we turn using readers into receiving readers?

Reading is something of a holy act when we do it freely, because it marries the ability to sound out words with the use of our intellect and our imagination, connecting us with the past and propelling us into the future. As Sartre says, “reading is a pact of generosity between author and reader. Each one trusts the other; each one counts on the other, demands of the other as much as he demands of himself.” Reading, as Borges says above, is its own art form. If we acknowledged this, we would be much less tempted to assign it additional value; reading would be enough in and of itself.

3 Comments

Filed under culture, Education, Literature, Reading, The Arts, Writing

Making Art in Troubled Times

an1836p135-371-large

Image from the webpage of the Ashmolean Museum: http://britisharchaeology.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/highlights/alfred-jewel.html 

I will admit it: after the election in November, I succumbed to a sense of defeat. What is the point, I moaned, if autocracy and tyranny are not merely accepted but welcomed by the masses, if the great ideal of a democratic country is systematically dismantled before our eyes? Why bother with anything, much less with the last fifty pages of a novel that no one will ever read?

At the time, I was working through the last part of a story I’d begun a couple of years earlier, and I was ready to give it up, because, well, why would I finish it when the world as I know it is coming to an end? (My feelings arose not only because of the U.S. election results or the ensuing realization that a foreign power had tinkered with our “free elections,” but also because of the global rise of a dangerous populism, coupled with imminent global climate change.)

But a good friend gave me some advice, and I soldiered on and completed the draft. Right now, I am steadily working on it, revision after revision. And I am doing this not because I think my novel can change the world. It certainly won’t; it won’t be read by more than a hundred people, and that’s if I’m lucky.

But this short essay is not about the art of writing without readers; I will deal with that in a future post. For now, all I want to do is to encourage everyone who reads this blog to go on and continue their artistic activities. I say this not as a writer, or even as a reader, but as a scholar. And I have a very simple reason for doing so.

Art is the residue left by human culture. When civilizations disappear, when lives and institutions have crumbled into the dust, what remains is the art they created. Some of this art arises from genius, like the works of Mozart and Shakespeare; some of it comes from normal people, like the rest of us. But we need it all–every last scrap of it, not only the wonderful pieces that make us cry with joy or sadness, but even the average and ungainly works of art, because even bad art is an expression of human experience, and in the end, it is the experience of being human that binds us together on this lonely little planet.

So go ahead with your art. Draw, paint, weave, write, compose or play music. Do not worry that you are fiddling as Rome burns. Rome will, ultimately, burn–history tells us that. But what is left behind are wonderful murals that will take your breath away, mosaics, epic poems, statues and monumental structures. Don’t worry about whether your art will be appreciated; it is the act of making it that is important, not whether or not it is celebrated. Think of that lonely monk who produced Beowulf; he  was probably scared shitless that his Anglo-Saxon culture would be erased by the next Viking invasion, but he fought off this feeling of futility and kept going, thank goodness. Remember his small act of courage, try to emulate it, and above all, keep going.

Do not be afraid of working in the darkness; you may not be able to dispel it, but your work could provide light for others, not only now, but in the future as well.

2 Comments

Filed under culture, History, Literary theory, Literature, Music, Politics, Reading, The Arts, Writing