Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Unsettled America

Last week I read Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America, on the subject of agriculture and culture. Its title is apt, because Berry believes that the triumph of industrialism -- as it has turned farms into agribusinesses, and America from an agrarian republic into an industrialized, centralized, state --has put on us an unsustainable trajectory. Berry's writings are of interest to me not because I believe in an agrarian revival, or pine for a lost utopia, but because his insights go deeper than the simple defense of family farms.  He views man not as a creature walking across the Earth, but one who has a role in it -- as a steward, a husband.   The care of Earth in Berry's view is not maintaining it in perpetual stasis, but working it as a co-creator, healing the land and aiding in its increase.  This role, destroyed when man simply uses, plunders, or conquers Earth, is to the ruin of man as well.   To abandon creation, to become mere consumers, is to die a slow death.   I've  ruminated over Berry's view in much of his nonfiction, and so would like to leave one of the most provoking passages of the book, one that reminds me of the anomie predicted in Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano.

"The beneficiary of this regime of specialists ought to be the happiest of mortals – or so we are expected to believe. All of his vital concerns are in the hands of certified experts. He is a certified expert himself and as such he earns more money in a year than all his great-grandparents put together. Between stints at his job he has nothing to do but mow his lawn with a sit-down lawn mower, or watch other certified experts on television. At suppertime he may eat a tray of ready-prepared food, which he and his wife (also a certified expert) procure at the cost only of money, transportation, and the pushing of a button. For a few minutes between supper and sleep he may catch a glimpse of his children, who since breakfast have been in the care of education experts, basketball or marching-band experts, or perhaps legal experts...

The fact is, however, that this is probably the most unhappy average citizen in the history of the world. He has not the power to provide himself with anything but money, and his money is inflating like a balloon and drifting away, subject to historical circumstances and the power of other people. From morning to night he does not touch anything that he has produced himself, in which he can take pride. For all his leisure and recreation, he feels bad, he looks bad, he is overweight, his health is poor. His air, water, and food are all known to contain poisons. There is a fair chance that he will die of suffocation. He suspects that his love life is not as fulfilling as other people’s. He wishes that he had been born sooner, or later. He does not know why his children are the way they are. He does not understand what they say. He does not care much and does not know why he does not care. He does not know what his wife wants or what he wants. Certain advertisements and pictures in magazines make him suspect that he is basically unattractive. He feels that all his possessions are under threat of pillage. He does not know what he would do if he lost his job, if the economy failed, if the utility companies failed, if the police went on strike, if the truckers went on strike, if his wife left him, if his children ran away, if he should be found to be incurably ill. And for these anxieties, of course, he consults certified experts, who in turn consult certified experts about their anxieties...

It is rarely considered that this average citizen is anxious because he ought to be… He ought to be anxious, because he is helpless. That he is dependent upon so many specialists, the beneficiary of so much expert help, can only mean that he is a captive, a potential victim. If he lives by the competence of so many other people, then he lives also by their indulgence; his own will and his own reasons to live are made subordinate to the mere tolerance of everybody else. He has one chance to live what he conceives to be his life: his own small specialty within a delicate, tense, everywhere-strained system of specialties.”


  1. imo, WB is one of the few people who actually think about the things that everyone should be thinking about... it's totally irrational to sit in a burning house without trying to put out the flames...
    but that's the hallmark of the human race; i've come to feel, in my declining years, that human behavior is not rational in any accurate sense, but merely an extension over time of the operation of evolutionary and environmental forces... what the future holds will come, regardless of anything an unaware species may do to try to avert it...

  2. I tend to like thinkers who try to look at "bog picture stuff". Berry sounds like he does. I agree that humans need to start acting like we are stewards of the planet. We are getting into serious trouble that might mean our end.

    I do not really agree with the main message contained in that quotation. While it is certainly true for some, I think that most people have it more together then that passage implies.

  3. I know about Wendell Berry from his fiction, which in its themes depicts some of what you have noted in your review of this book of cultural criticism. The quote reminded me of the sort of alienation described by Marx in his rantings against Capitalism. I do not share Berry's anxiety.

  4. The figure described by Berry makes me think of 'mediated man' -- a figure sitting in front of the television, not really living his life but constantly and passively absorbing messages from the television, radio, etc. This figure is nervous, easy to manipulate -- he is constantly uneasy. I think those of us engaged in the search for truth, constantly grounding our lives in literature, may be more removed from this mediated man. We are interested in life and active in searching for it.


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