Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Unsettling of America

Title: The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977)

Wendell Berry, author of many books: novels, poetry, and essays. Also a longtime resident of northwestern Kentucky, farmer of 125 acres, former teacher of college creative writing, former Stegner Fellow.

My review:

This is a still from the recent documentary King Corn, which was co-made by/costars an alum from my high school, Ian Cheney. In this film, two city-raised kids who have old family roots in agricultural America try to return to Iowa, buy an acre of corn, and live the agdream. Of course, they end up on a tour through all of the technological boondoggles of contemporary monoculture. My favorite moment is when Ian tries to make high fructose corn syrup on his stove, and the process is so complicated that he almost can't do it. The number of friends I have who care a lot about farming (yet, interestingly, don't have farms themselves) is quite large (see, for example, Elanor Starmer's blog), and I am so implicated in this system of thought that reading a book like Unsettling almost felt like overkill. Plus, my conception of Berry's writing came completely from a couple of poems of his I had read and loved in high school, and which were kind of smushy in a latter-day Unitarian earth-love sort of way. (Here's one, "The Peace of Wild Things".)

Unsettling was much more of a jeremiad than I had ever expected, and addressed much deeper issues of National Character (or, more specifically, Modern Character) than I had thought. Berry's thought on technology (broadly defined) and its place in human endeavor goes beyond Luddism or antimodernism (although you could certainly slot him in there - he also really loves the Amish). For Berry, who employs what I would call a heavily Marxist mode of analysis, our "attitude toward work" has caused us to create a Frankensteinian system of technology and impersonal management methods, all designed to distance ourself from our own physical bodies.

As for the structure of the book, which Berry specifically cast as a response to what he saw as "modern or orthodox agriculture" (and remember, this was the 1970s, post-Earl Butz and Green Revolution...), Berry seems to get off with a bang, or three chapters which use the word "crisis" twice in their titles. Then there are more extended meditations on aspects of the crisis, including a chapter, "The Body and the Earth", which seeks to re-place the body in the ecological system and which follows a Carolyn Merchant-esque path in describing the tragic consequences of the divorce of body and soul.

Passages such as this startling one make his point, namely that technology is another method of alienation, leading to increasing enslavement of people and energy. Question: I see his point, but I find it objectionable to compare slavery and, say, modern irrigation systems. Is this direct equivalence, in itself, dehumanizing? Viz: "We have made it our overriding ambition to escape work, and as a consequence have debased work until it is only fit to escape from...Out of this contempt for work arose the idea of a n****r: at first some person, and later some thing, to be used to relieve us of the burden of work. If we began by making n****rs of people, we have ended by making a n****r of the world. We have taken the irreplaceable energies and materials of the world and turned them into jimcrack 'labor-saving devices'. We have made of the rivers and oceans and winds n****rs to carry away our refuse, which we think we are too good to dispose of decently ourselves. And in doing this to the world that is our common heritage and bond, we have returned to making n****rs of people: we have become each other's n****rs" (12).

Some other potentially objectionable facets of this argument - beyond the comparison between slaves and tractors - include Berry's lament on the divorce of sexuality from childbearing marriages, which he says has destroyed the fabric of community and devalued the sacred act of sex. Pretty heteronormative, and also fairly biologically determinist, which is interesting, because his call for technological limitation is kind of anti-evolutionary. If you think that humans should be fulfilling the family structures their biology "demands" of them, then you also have to accept the human drive for technological improvement and reduction of work. A family structure that reaches beyond the boundaries of the "traditional" procreative one is a creative reimagining of biology, just like Berry's ideal farming structure would be.

All of Berry's critiques stem from the concept of human limitation, which he argues is necessary for our own health, bodily and spiritually speaking. Human limitation, which might involve limiting technology used (a la the Amish) or production itself (a la all previous versions of agriculture before the Green Revolution) is, of course, not a particularly popular concept, with the dominant visions of technocratic elites focused on the "way forward". Because of this, Berry visualizes himself on the "margins" of contemporary agriculture, and maybe also contemporary society, but says that the "margins" are a totally necessary and fruitful contributor to societal planning. (Once again, I wonder why he can't, then, get with the idea of marginal families or family units.)

I believe my colleague Lisa Powell will be sending me her paper on the reception of this book, so that I can put more in this section. From what I remember of her work, it seemed that Unsettling was the catalyst of a new small-farming movement, and that many new organic/small/local farmers could trace their "awakening" to this book (or, at least, that was her thesis - but then the paper explored the difficulty of pinpointing the origins of a movement or following the influence of a text through said movement - see, for example, Abbey's Monkeywrench Gang and ELF...) More to come on that.

I found this picture of Wendell Berry attached to a fascinating document: a 1976 debate published on NASA's website, in which Berry responded to a contest held for students to plan space settlement colonies. There's a long debate between him and one of the responsible adults. Sample of Berry: "I think you have wandered into a trap - one that is crowded with so many glamorous captives that you think it is some kind of escape. The trap is that a technological 'solution' on the scale of this one is bound to create a whole set of new problems, ramifying ahead of foresight." (See also Markley's Dying Planet on the anti-environmentalism of space colonization.)

Things to follow up on:
The 1914 Smith-Lever act created the cooperative extension service. Was there a childhood education component at that point?

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