I spent a number of years pursuing various advanced degrees. In some ways, my interests were similar to those I have now. I studied anthropology and American culture, with most of my research focused on mass consumer society. My guiding question was how we ended up so alienated from each other and our work, and so attached, in turn, to relatively useless “stuff” that our species never needed prior to 1900 or so. Leaving the university, however, was probably a much bigger step on the road to answering that question for myself. I left because I didn’t want to lead the academic liferoaming the country, following temporary jobs or tenure track positions that could be yanked after six years of investment. I, after my paripatetic childhood, wanted to try living in place.
I’m still working on thatgetting closer, though. I ponder this odyssey in thinking about Wendell Berry. Berry, more than all of the social theorists I read in grad school, articulated for me what I had previously only felt about “place.” When I first read him it was with that amazing feeling of gratitude and wonder you get when you realize someone has figured out something fundamental. Someone who can help you find your way.
There’s a great interview with Berry by Thomas Healy on Counterpunch. This excerpt, about abstraction, is so concise and true. I read Wendell Berry and think if I could just get people to listen to what he has to say . . . but Berry’s words are demanding. If you read them with stillness and reflection, you will change how you live.
TH: In your book The Way of Ignorance, there’s an essay “Imagination in Place,” in which you object to “anybody for rating the land as ‘capital’ or its human members as ‘labor.'” Do you find these terms offensive?
WB: The issue is abstraction. The nature of things is that you can’t properly value something on abstract terms. Every parcel of land in the country is a particular place, and you can’t love it or care for it or use it properly in the abstract. To reduce it to money value obscures its existence as a particular good. And when you reduce human beings to an abstraction like “labor” or a “labor force,” you obscure the whole issue of their community membership and their involvement in a particular economy and their particular worth as individual people, individual creaturesthat’s what I was saying in that essay. I’m against referring to people as “human resources” because it reduces them to abstract counters like dollar bills. I am insisting that you must not regard your community members as a labor force that is subject to being moved about at the whim of the economy. You must not accept the breakup of community relationships or homes as a normal cost of production. Communities shouldn’t give up their members so easily.