On technology’s noises and nature’s silence

At a pitstop en route to returning our rental car on Saturday, my love and I remarked that the automatic toilet flushers flushed before we were through. My manual flusher was also disconnected. I was thinking of these, perhaps, when I tried to get my weekend duffle–no large thing–into the plane’s overhead compartment and had to jam it in to make it fit; when the plane slammed onto the tarmac at La Guardia; when the TV in the taxi cab wouldn’t turn off despite my pressing the Off button firmly, imploringly. Years ago, a former girlfriend once remarked upon the way I closed the car door: with force, as if enraged.

The noises and disruptions, the sounds of machines and the movements machines require us to make: these were on my mind after a week spent in near silence in the country. In a paper sent to me by a friend via a friend of hers, I read a quote by Thomas Carlyle that states: “SILENCE, SILENCE: in a thousand senses I proclaim the indispensable worth of Silence, our only safe dwelling place often….” Carlyle’s lament over the loss of silence is confirmed, it would seem, by the postmodern church sign advertising how cool Jesus is.

In this connection I am also reminded of one of Adorno’s fragments, “Do not Knock,” which appears in his fiery little book Minima Moralia. It begins,

Technology is making gestures precise and brutal, and with them men. It expels from movements all hesitation, deliberation, civility. It subjects them to the implacable, as it were ahistorical demands of objects. Thus the ability of lost, for example, to close a door quietly and discreetly, yet firmly. Those of cars and refrigerators have to be slammed, others have the tendency to snap shut by themselves, imposing on those entering the bad manners of not looking behind them, not shielding the interior of the house which receives them. The new human type cannot be properly understood without awareness of what he is continuously exposed to from the world of things about him, even in his most secret innervations. What does it mean for the subject that there are no casement windows to open, but only sliding frames to shove, no gentle latches but turnable handles, no forecourt, no doorstep before the street, no wall around the garden?

Charges of cultural mandarinism, misplaced nostalgia, and too-flushed hyperbole aside, Adorno has a point: the spirit of modern technology is violent, moving us toward the liquidation of the very possibility of beauty of soul. Before the one who lives according to nature lies the path of radiance. For him, there is nothing more important than beauty of soul–the silent speech of nature’s course, the directness of sincere speech, the gracefulness of steady gesture, the mindful chewing of summer food.

‘When you head into the country, it’s best to take your Thoreau along with you…’

When you head into the country, it’s best to take your Thoreau along with you. Marilynne Robinson calls the West “lonesome” and means it to be a virtue. I want so much for life to be quiet and wind-spoken. Thinking sounds–comes and sounds–like this. Like wind speaking. We’ll be in the mountains for almost a week, secluded, hiking, and meditating, thinking of squash, of all that’s temporary, and of lonesome things too.

On ‘urban supremicism’ and the end of opportunity cost

I have been following Greek citizens’ response to the collapse of their economy and their likely exit from the Eurozone. Some, doing the hard work of their forbears, have returned to the land. Others, like Gregoris Skouros (see “As Economics of Everyday Life Erode, Some Greeks See Little Hope” [New York Times, Sept. 19, 2012]), have tried to start an escargot farm with a view to exporting snails to wealthy buyers in France and Italy. The idea that the modern city may not be the place in which one leads a good life is now coming into view.

Last month, my friend Dougald Hine spoke at Future Perfect, a once-yearly festival concerned with sustainable living, about what he calls “urban-supremicism.” On my construal, his urban-supremicism view consists of two claims. One is that migration from the country to the city, during the onset of industrial capitalism and since, was not an inevitability; in many cases, migration came as the result of coercion and exploitation, not because of individual choice. The second is that life in the modern city is not, all things considered, intrinsically better than life in the country. If the migration was not inevitable, then it can be reversed; if life in the city is not in all respects desirable, then it can be brought into question.

I skimmed a story in Bloomberg about Task Rabbit, a service that allows users to outsource individual tasks–the simplest errands, the greatest drudgeries–to the lowest bidder. You might pay me $20 to clean your house on the fly. I noted in yesterday’s New York Times that beauty salons and mobile-manicure providers are now “on the go.” According to one beauty salon owner, “Urban women are so busy with jobs, family and life, and it becomes harder to find a couple of hours to carve out to go and see your stylist on a day and time that works for both the client and the stylist.” Apparently, irony is no longer in vogue.

Dougald invites us to consider the qualitative difference between cooking food for loved ones and making food at a restaurant; between giving a handmade gift and buying one online; between massaging a lover’s back and paying for one; between growing one’s food and running a credit card at a supermarket. Here on the Upper East Side, nannies walk children to Central Park, dog walkers walk dogs around the block while professionals spend their days in Midtown, Fresh Direct delivers groceries to owners’ doorsteps, personal assistants arrange family schedules, and tutors see to children’s homework.

We have to ask what it feels like to engage wholeheartedly in one kind of activity in comparison with another where this ‘another’ is of an entirely different order. What does it feel like to live according to nature, and what does it feel like to fight your way through a massive, standardized, bulk-sized CostCo? Perhaps, in what promises to be a post-growth world opportunity cost will no longer have the final say in the matter.

The transformation of the beautiful soul

The beautiful soul is a person who exhibits beauty in his general appreciation of beauty. I asked my friend, the philosopher David E. Cooper, the following question:

Is there an ‘education’ of the beautiful soul, a path one might follow in hopes of becoming one and, if so, what might this involve?

In our conversation, David proposes that the ‘un-selfing’ of the  individual is key to the process of transformation. He invites me to offer my own, much fuller account. Here I offer first thoughts that are getting worked up into a publishable form.

For now, I think I want to make two claims. First, I believe the beautiful soul comes into being only when he shifts his table of virtues from the ‘virtues of the market’ (to coin a phrase) to the ‘virtues of nature.’ I am drawing this conclusion from the claim of my lover and from the general observations I have made in my philosophy practice. My lover suggested that the virtues of discipline and commitment used to count highly in her table of virtues but they do no longer. Second, I want to show that a harmony of the virtues of nature must be the conclusion of this unfolding.

Especially with regard to the first claim, I am put in mind of Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, a work that accompanies the rise of commercial society. In the middle of his recounting, Franklin shares with the reader his scheme of self-improvement. He says that 13 virtues were most important to the prospect of his self-development. Two struck my eye immediately. He writes,

4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

Let’s say that resolution (equivalent, I believe, to my lover’s use of commitment) holds us to a task no matter the costs. Discipline, meanwhile, demands that we repeat these tasks indefinitely until we have achieved perfection. And industry ensures that we are always employed in tasks and hence have no time for leisurely contemplation, for idleness or reverie.

The person who exercises the ‘virtues of the market’ is bound to lead a disappointing, myopic life of bustle. He will be frustrated at various turns; he will stick to tasks and projects that do not work; he will always aim to ‘be productive.’ His life will be unsatisfying, strife-ridden, disharmonious, pointless.

Now, the beautiful soul has learned to let go of these virtues of the market. He is not resolved, disciplined (on this narrow construal), or ever industrious. Perhaps he sees in them an exemplification of futility? Perhaps he comes to regard them as hubristic, sternly so? Perhaps a nod to the conquering spirit? Whatever the reason, the beautiful soul has come to exercise the ‘virtues of nature’ instead: supreme among others, patience, courage, good judgment, and compassion. Like nature, the beautiful soul is patient, allowing events to unfold during the right season. He is courageous, persisting in his inquiry, going along with the Way. He exercises good judgment, knowing when to let be and when to press on. And, crucially, he shows compassion toward those who do not understand him or his life or the Way.

It would be necessary to show–and here I only gesture toward the second claim–that these virtues are harmonious with respect to the state of the beautiful soul’s soul and are in concord with the natural world. The conclusion would be that the beautiful soul just is a beautiful soul once he sees himself, as if for the first time, as being a part of the beautiful world.