Sunday, November 28, 2004

More on creeping agrarianism

I've been reading quite a bit around this topic. I thought I should make a few things clear as I start in on some of the issues and thinkers connected with it.

First, I, like most thoughtful people I know, agree with Wendell Berry and the agrarianists in their negative evaluation of contemporary culture: there is something empty in it, it does lack for something very needful. But, I also know that part of this feeling is part of life--the ancient Greeks moaned about the same sort of hollowness in life that we do.

I say part because I think that contemporary culture has exacerbated this basic condition of life.

I am happy that Wendell Berry has expressed his discontent with contemporary culture and that his negative analysis of our lives has given focus to so many others who feel discontent.

I also agree with some of the agrarianists in their notion that technology is not neutral. If you think about it, the proposition that technology might be neutral is absurd--if it doesn't have a significant impact on the way we live, why invest so much in it?

BUT, I don't think that technology is such a great villain in the story of human kind, either.

I am surprised also by how much of the agrarianist agenda seems to come out of the diet-obsessed neuroticism we so often see amongst the health-food-store set. This line of "thinking" is not a solution to our cultural problems, it is one of its more depressing and sad symptoms: people with critical perspectives and (generally) significant educational and economic resources turned into obsessors over trivia that they imbue with issues of purity, defilement, and apocalyptic accountability.

Farmer, writer and technophobe Wendell Berry could not be better suited to become the patron saint of this movement: intimately engaged in the production of food, engaged in a livelihood many Americans are brought up to reflexively revere, a noble smallholder who plows his fields behind a team of horses; browned and callused, yet sensitive and profound; Our new-age Cinncinnatus.

Unfortunately, though, Berry is essentially a simple soul and a simple thinker caught up in a world where simple answers are often disastrously wrong, or even deeply pernicious.

As for the simplicity end of things, witness his exchange with Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin. (Please forgive my telling the whole of this long story, but we will eventually come around to the point!)

Lewontin had written a piece in the New York Review of Books where he reviewed a number of books on the controversy surrounding genomic foods. Lewontin is a Marxist and is generally in sympathy with democratic movements and with people's power to decide what risks they'd like to take. So while Lewontin is very critical of the abuse of science and scare-mongering he sees in many GMO opponents, he is equally critical of the elisions and obfuscations of the interested parties who'd like to have us growing and eating as much genetically modified food as possible.

But, in the course of his review one of Berry's friends, the Indian physicist and activist Vandana Shiva, comes in for something of a drubbing. Berry ran to the defense of Shiva in a cover article of the Progressive magazine, "The Prejudice Against Country People." Lewontin was used as the first and most prominent example of said prejudice.

Lewontin responded with a letter to the same publication.

One passage in Lewontin's original piece became the center of the exchange:

Now we understand the Turning Point Project. They're a bunch of Luddites. Right century, but wrong movement. The followers of the unseen King Ludd and Captain Swing from 1811 to 1830 were industrial and rural laborers thrown out of work or trying to live on poverty wages, who destroyed
knitting and threshing machines that had displaced their labor. Their objection to technology was not ideological but pragmatic. If we want to find the nineteenth-century equivalent of the sources of Turning Point consciousness, we must find it in the movement that began with Blake and
ended with Rossetti, Ruskin, and the pre-Raphaelites, in the call to arms against the dark Satanic Mills:

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

That nineteenth-century discontent was the reaction of a middle class repelled by the spiritual and physical ugliness created by a surging industrial capitalism to which they sensed no attachment. One might think that because the rise of industrial capitalism occurred so long ago and the culture it created has become so much the basis of European and American life, any truly popular new romantic movement against it would be inconceivable. But what was then a struggle against the rise of its dominance is now a struggle against its last consolidation in spheres of life that seemed set apart.

Berry immediately jumped on the first two sentences of this passage, and castigated Lewontin for his trite response to the challenge of the anti-technologists.

But a bit of attention the passage (and to what follows) quickly tells us that this is far from being a trite and uncomplex response to the Turning Point Project and their ilk. Lewontin tries to spell this out for Berry in his letter of response to the Progressive:

Berry's passions have interfered with his ability to read plain English. I did not speak of Vandana Shiva's allies as Luddites, but, rather, made a special point of the incorrectness of such a claim. I wrote that the Luddites were "industrial and rural laborers thrown out of work or trying to live on poverty wages, who destroyed knitting and threshing machines that had displaced their labor." In contrast, I pointed out that the correct nineteenth century equivalent of the Shivaites was the middle class educated urban romantic movement of Blake and Rossetti, which called for the return to an idyllic rural life that never, in fact, existed. Most people engaged in English agriculture in the nineteenth century and before were, in fact, hired laborers whose chronic poverty and misery were the root of the struggles over the Poor Law, just as in Berry's grandfather's day, half of Southern farmers were landless tenants and sharecroppers.

In other words, the first two sentences of the passage are meant to be ironic, the rest is intended to correct the trite and mistaken comparison to the Luddites. The true parallel, as Lewontin sees it, is to the nineteenth-century Romantics. (Lewontin is no doubt thinking about his Raymond Williams at this point--Culture and Society is a relatively sympathetic portrait of Romantic anti-modernism, and The Country and the City deals quite directly with the fantasies and realities surrounding life in the country).

Berry didn’t get the irony the first time. And even after Lewontin spells out everything for him, Berry responds by simply quoting the first two sentences again. Irony and voice, apparently, being literary technologies that Berry as reader has completely forsaken!

And Lewontin is no stranger to agricultural issues either, as he points out. He's written two serious considerations of the plight of the farmer in industrial modernity in the Monthly Review: "Technology, Research, and the Penetration of Capital: The Case of U.S. Agriculture" (July/August 1986, with J. P. Berlan) and "The Maturing of Capitalist Agriculture" (July/August 1998).

Reading over this exchange, one point is driven home: you'd be far better off reading and thinking about Lewontin than Berry, unless you're in the market for Lukewarm Comfort Farm.

Personally, I think Lewontin is on the right track with the nineteenth-centruy romantics, but I think the best parallel to today's agrarians can be found a bit later, after Romanticism has gone to seed. We ought to be looking at Boyle's Road to Wellville.

More later . . .