On nomads and settlers (but mostly on nomads)

Honest to God, I’m not cherry picking my examples, at least I don’t think so. I’m looking at the profiles of my conversation partners, past and present, of the individuals I’ve spoken with during the past year over Skype, of the exchanges I’ve had over email, and some common characteristics almost immediately jump out at you. (This post will be full of cliches. Please excuse.)

  • Age: late-20s to early-40s.
  • Education: college-educated, bachelor’s degree to Ph.D.
  • Orientation: creative type.
  • Location: US, Canada, northern Europe.
  • Patterns of movement: very peripatetic.
  • Intellectual acumen: very, very, very high, like the dong sound that the bell makes when the man with the large hammer hits the thing that causes the other thing to go up and say dong.

Regarding the penultimate, I’ve had so many conversations about packing things up, moving on, leaving it all behind; about flight and wilderness and wildness; about traveling to other countries; so many, in fact, that I can barely keep up.

It’s probably no coincidence that humanities departments have specialists now in “exilic literature” (whatever that means), that sociology arose near the beginning of industrial Revolution, or that our great cultural figures, like Rushdie and Dyer, are card-carrying nomads. Probably no coincidence, either, that a friend recently tweeted that he was a grown-up now that he’d purchased some new luggage (wheels for ease, I’m sure). Probably nothing new that people feel “aimless” and “restless” and “unsettled” now more than ever. Perhaps unmistakable that that really muddled psychologistic pseudoconcept, “anxiety,” would be diagnosed so frequently nowadays. (Not long ago, NPR ran a program called the Age of Anxiety. Maybe I had it once, didn’t know it, only to lose it before I knew it. Meno? Hello?)

Things suck, I get it. And when your life sucks, you think often and intently about moving to Boulder or to Paris or to Istanbul or to a solar-paneled hut on a sliver of land where you can grow your own dandelions and eat your fair share of sea beetles. Because life has to be better out there, over there, you suppose. Better than this sucky one right here. And because that’s freedom, freedom from harm, from your past, from everyone and everything. You go there, and it all gets better. (Except that now you’re there, you’d better go somewhere else and so on, because once desire is construed as that which you don’t have, you’ve got an indefinite regress problem on your… tongues.)

As someone who’s moved something like 14 times over the course of 10-plus years, as someone who’s lived for a time in the desert (literally and figuratively) and now on a tiny island next to a chunky park, I get it. But, my friends, it’s not going to work. Because the error lies with the very idea that freedom = flight. And that’s a very old idea and not a very good one.

The poet Wendell Berry taught me that settling in doesn’t have to mean settling for or settling down. And he’s 77 and chipper, that fellow. Part of that last statement is no doubt true.

Where to begin? You can read anything I’ve written as just another rumination on the question of what it means to lead a good life in the modern world. Is this possible? If so, how is it possible? And what is modernity?

And so, my usual point of departure is with the birth of modernity. By modernity (and I’m pulling this from an email I wrote one conversation partner of late), I mean minimally, following Max Weber, the disenchantment of the human-natural-divine cosmos. Here, for the first time in history, we’ll find the ontological separation of humans from nature (Cartesianism), humans from each other (atomism), and humans from God (secularism). In this disenchanted picture, we begin to see lots of stories unfold at once. Among others: a metaphysical story according to which humans just are individuals existing apart from or standing over and against a set of social roles (Thatcher’s fatuous but telling line: “society does not exist”); another according to which nature becomes instrumentalized mainly into free-standing objects and resources (some of the worst consequences of industrial capitalism); another in which nature is construed mechanistically according to the laws of nature (materialism, reductivism, naturalism, eliminative materialism, physicalism…); and another according to which God is no longer a part of the fabric of being (deist, unnecessary as a scientific hypothesis, agnostic, Dead for Good, etc.).

What you begin to see, as you track this story a good ways forward, is this incredible uprooting of people from the communities into which they were born. Not always a bad thing, to be sure (see my parable about being a small town boy), but a new thing at any rate (see Karl Polanki’s The Great Transformation–I’ve included an Appendix below). This uprooting speeds up over time as industrial capitalism moves ‘individuals’ from the country to the city; as the concept of ‘professionalism’ (particularly during the 19th C. and then throughout the 20th C.) arises, replaces ‘amateurism,’ and begins to hold sway throughout the developed world; as the concepts of ‘social ambition’ and ‘upward social mobility’ become the final end (the telos) of a life (it’s here that the concept of the career becomes intelligible as a key organizing principle of a life well-lived); and so on.

I’ll tack a bit here onto the email I wrote her: there’s a passage in Polanki’s book about how hard it was to get rural folk in England off the land and into the factories. By the 19th C., of course, we’ve got lots of novels and treatises going on about how awful factory work is. To get a taste of how awful it was, you can read Gaskell’s North and South, Gissing’s The Odd Women, or just about any of Dickens’ novels. We’re now seeing this, of course, in China, where Foxconn factory is the driving force behind the production of iPhones and such. It’s not pretty, but this is how the manufacturing phase of industrial capitalism unfolds. We’ll have to look at India to see how manufacturing, service, and IT come together.

Obviously, along with social uprooting comes a profound social problem: rootlessness, drift, waywardness, in short, lack of any social ties. The uprooting from family and home brings about social alienation. As the developed world moved away from manufacturing and then into service and now into information technology, social life has become only more “frictionless.” The Internet has made it possible for super-smart IT people to live just about anywhere–and that arbitrariness is actually quite scary. The flip side of globalization, even for the super-smart, highly employable winners, is the horror of waywardness. Where is ‘here,’ and what is ‘conviction’?

In any case, however we tell the story, many feel as if they don’t ‘see themselves’ in the modern world, can’t ‘identify’ with social institutions, don’t see how they ‘fit into’ the order of things, feel that ‘something’s missing,’ and so on. There’s a deeper problem I’ve glossed over: namely, that metaphysical estrangement from the natural world. I’m going to jump over that problem here and press on a bit further with the social alienation story.

Social alienation leads, in turn, to nihilism. If P just is a father, then P knows what it means to live a good life: to care for his children well, etc. P is not sitting around, mired in metaphysical doubt. The thought would not occur to him. Qua father, P is totally in his life. Well, we don’t know today (or don’t have many exempla or models) of what good fathering looks or feels like, and there aren’t many P’s out there who are entirely in their fathering lives. Many look and feel clumsy and out of sorts. Not unrelatedly, few think that being a father is necessary and sufficient for leading a good and fulfilling life.

There’s a further problem, and that is that we don’t trust any good authority, so we’ve no idea how to “get back on track.” We’ve no idea what good guidance would look like, and we don’t even believe that good guidance exists. So, we think that freedom as flight is the greatest good because we’re away from all that ails us and because no one can coerce us or make us move this way or that. (In a figurative sense, we’re all firm believers in the 2nd Amendment.) This is the freedom of being fucking left alone.

That said, this overly excited talk about freedom = flight is kind of paradoxical, if my story is roughly correct, kind of strange because flight got us into this mess in the first place and flight, we seem to think, is what’s going to get us out of it. So flight is both problem and solution, both cause and comfort. I don’t think this is going to work. Freedom as flight may move us about, may make us relieved that we’re not stuck, but in actuality we’re not getting anywhere and we’re really really stuck. Flight is a way of going in circles.

This post is already running long, so I’ll only say a few things about getting out of nomadism. Over the past year, what’s been so illuminating for me has been the lived experience of having gotten settled with life. And the more settled I’ve become, the more I’ve been able to go on quests, undertake pilgrimages, follow inquiries, and embrace life. This struck home (the 100th cliche of the post! huzzah!) when I was reading St. Benedict’s Rule this past summer. He was just so completely spot on. If you belong to a settled way of life, he says, then, among friends and guides, you can learn more about yourself. But, first of all, you have to be committed to the right people and stay with them. (Good judgment: knowing that they’re the right people.) And you have to be humble because being humble makes possible the idea of making progress and of working with a guide. And, lastly, you have to put your hands into those of wise guides.

Benedict is right. The more I’ve surrounded myself with kindred spirits and gotten my feet on the ground and looked up to others, the more I’ve been able to be giddy and adventurous and fun-loving and, well, whole. Because, in the end, it’s about wholeness, isn’t it?, wholeness within, without, and throughout. You’ll know it when you feel it throughout yourself, in your life, and in all things.

Our focus amid unsettled times should be on getting into a settled, flourishing, radiant way of life. Trust me. There’s no other way. I’m putting out my hand.


I opened Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation almost at random and began to read. This paragraph falls on p. 43.

We submit that an avalanche of social dislocation, surpassing by far that of the enclosure period [the key acts were passed between 1750 and 1860], came down upon England; that this catastrophe was the accompaniment of a vast movement of economic improvement; that an entirely new institutional mechanism was starting to act on Western society; that its dangers, which cut to the quick when they first appeared, were never really overcome; and that the history of the nineteenth-century civilization consisted largely in attempts to protect society [read: common life of a people] against the ravages of such a mechanism. The Industrial Revolution was merely the beginning of a revolution as extreme and radical as ever inflamed the minds of sectarians, but the new creed was utterly materialistic and believed that all human problems could be resolved given an unlimited amount of material commodities.

3 thoughts on “On nomads and settlers (but mostly on nomads)

  1. How playful you are because it seems like the colon announces and that’s the end of it. But but: The little find in this line, the focus of the line, comes early with the damper. You *knew* I’d catch that (on a 2nd read).

  2. Paradoxically, the philosopher concerned most with creating what he called ‘lines of flight’ – french philosopher Gilles Deleuze – lived in quite a settled way, in his Paris apartment, the whole of his life, basically until his death in 1995 (when – terminally ill – he decided to take his own life, by jumping from his apartment window). In his philosophical work – which could be characterized as a philosophy of materialistic immanence – he develops, among others, the concept of the nomadic subject. And given his own settled life, you can see how this concept of nomadism is in no way in conflict with a settled life. In fact, it is only when your subjectivity can regularly follow the lines of flight, away from cultural or political supression, and thus be in fact nomadic, that you can become settled in your immediate context – that you can, in other words, have a sincere interrelation with the beings you influence and the beings that influence you. In this view, freedom takes on a whole new meaning, more in line with Spinoza’s concept of freedom, which is not opposed to being captured, for instance, but it is opposed to arbitrariness. So maybe the nomadism you are talking about is in fact not free, because you would be under the power of the arbitrary whims of – say – capitalism, but nomadism taken in the Deleuzian sense does in fact free you from the arbitrariness resulting from a firm, settled, ‘molar’, and unchanging subjectivity (guided, for instance, by some humanistic and anthropocentric notion of human nature). In short: living settled, and flourishing maybe needs you to be nomadic at the same time, so you can reach a form of meta-stability, living a settled and stable life by being just nomadic enough. You could check the work of Rosi Braidotti, (she studied with Gilles Deleuze) who has written extensively about this subject of nomadism, for instance in her book ‘Metamorphoses: towards a materialistic theory of becoming’ and later in her book ‘Transpositions’. (ps. I wrote this from the top of my head, so please do not close-read, it will not hold up. :)

    1. Marcel: That’s an excellent reference to Deleuze’s work. I spent some time reading his books when I was younger. Surely, there’s some gallows humor joke in here somewhere about ‘lines of flight’ and defenestration, isn’t there?

      1. “So maybe the nomadism you are talking about is in fact not free, because you would be under the power of the arbitrary whims of – say – capitalism….” Agreed. St. Benedict, Spinoza, Kant (set your watch to his daily walk, the joke goes…), Deleuze, and others led fairly regular, sedentary lives, only to lead remarkably imaginative lives. The flight I’m talking about, yes, is a first-order conception of freedom according to which one is able to do as one likes or avoid what one does not. Over the year, I’ve become much more attracted to a higher-order conception of freedom according to which one is in tune with the way of the world.

      2. “In short: living settled, and flourishing maybe needs you to be nomadic at the same time, so you can reach a form of meta-stability, living a settled and stable life by being just nomadic enough.” Couldn’t have put the thought better myself.



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