The Convivial Society: Vol. 4, No. 13
That is a lovely post, and it reminded me so much of Chuang Tzu's story of the crooked tree that I was surprised you did not recount it. I found an online copy here - https://uselessoldtree.com/chuangtzu/.
I've been thinking about that tree quite a bit lately, when I'm feeling morose that I haven't really, you know, done something with my life. Crookedness is the natural path of life, of water, and of people who resist getting trained up to contribute to society, or who, for reasons unknown, blithely refuse to get led by the nose through the slaughterhouse of social media.
Another wonderful essay.
Being a Kant scholar with anti-modernist sensibilities, I find myself almost uniformly unable to extricate myself from a maddening ambivalence. And, even after having studied him for over half my life, I also find myself almost uniformly unsure of what he's up to. I say all this as a preface to the following, modestly propounded points.
(1) Kant writes this in the same essay you cite: "Thanks be to Nature, then, for the incompatibility, for heartless competitive vanity, for the insatiable desire to possess and to rule! Without them, all the excellent natural capacities of humanity would forever sleep, undeveloped." If this snippet isn't that clear, the context in which it appears makes more so: our crookedness is the necessary condition for the actualization of our rational powers, those very same powers which let us engage in a critique of the technological matrix in which we find ourselves currently embedded and to which we find ourselves increasingly beholden. To overcome (certain aspects of) our crookedness would be to doom our mutual reasonability to atrophy.
(2) The categorical imperative, in one of its guises, can be seen as the gatekeeper rule for rules: no rule should be allowed that cannot be communicated to, understood by, and acceptable to those it is a rule for. (And yes, the same goes for the meta-rule that is the categorical imperative — though Kant thinks it is justified by being "nothing less than the rule for the self-preservation of reason." And yes, what counts in this and that circumstance as "communicable," "understandable," and "acceptable" must be subject to the same meta-rule as well.) In brief, the categorical imperative may be seen as an expression of Kant's anti-technocratic spirit.
None of this is meant to gainsay any of your points. It would be silly to fault your view for "not getting Kant right" or "not taking into account what Kant said over here" because Kant scholarship is not at all what you're up to. And I think we should all be free to be inspired by anything the greats say without our being worried about some small-minded pedant inserting an "Ackshewally . . ." into the proceedings.
I'm just offering a humble complication, a friendly suggestion that the greats contain multitudes. Or, maybe I just want someone else to share in the befuddlement I feel.
Molly Tuttle, in her song "Crooked Tree", adds that the crooked tree does not fit into the mill machine:
Very thought-provoking essay, as usual, Michael. Thank you. The essay overall, especially the lines you quoted from Evgeny Morozov about the need for some ‘friction’, some challenge for human happiness and meaning, brought to mind a few things:
- A fascinating article from a number of years back called ‘Depressingly Easy’, giving neuroscientific backing to the perils of excessive convenience, ease, frictionlessness, straightening, etc. (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/depressingly-easy/). “We nuke prepared dishes rather than growing our own food and machine-wash ready-made clothes rather than sewing and scrubbing. Such conveniences may be contributing to rising rates of depression by depriving our brains of their hard-earned rewards….Did we lose something vital to our mental health when we started pushing buttons instead of plowing fields? From a neuroanatomical point of view, I believe the answer is an emphatic yes.” I was going to say the “seemingly counter-intuitive perils”, but realized that these findings would only seem counter-intuitive to one thoroughly indoctrinated into modernist values and modes of thought.
- It is telling how much of modern ‘development’ has been and continues to be obsessed with ‘ease’, ‘convenience’, ‘standardization’ (in both so-called ‘developing’ and so-called ‘developed’ countries), with stamping out the ‘crookedness’ inherent to the vernacular and replacing it with the industrial, pre-fabricated, ready-made, ultra-processed et al. (in food and farming, building, tools, learning, clothing/textiles, among others). Some of the genesis of this is chronicled in Elizabeth Shove’s fascinating work, like her book Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience: The Social Organization of Normality, showing how very constructed (usually by powerful interests) our notions of intolerable 'crookedness' are. James C. Scott’s work is also highly relevant here, esp Seeing Like a State, where he uses the term ‘legibility’ to describe the condition sought to be imposed on society and nature alike by (in his case) totalising, modernist states (one might add, also if not more so by commercial interests like corporations), and the converse condition, the “illegible”, characterizes the local, particular, vernacular, organic, crooked – benighted conditions to be eradicated whether in the case of forestry, names, city planning, agriculture, etc. “Centrally managed social plans misfire, Scott argues, when they impose schematic visions that do violence to complex interdependencies that are not – and cannot – be fully understood.” (https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300078152/seeing-like-a-state/)
- One could marshal so many examples of how the manic ‘straightening’ of the world is occasioning collective harm. Random pick: I recall a study calculating the economic costs in Europe only of health effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in ‘conveniences’ like “food containers, plastics, furniture, toys, carpeting and cosmetics” at between €157bn-€270bn (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/06/health-costs-hormone-disrupting-chemicals-150bn-a-year-europe-says-study ). (Interesting aside: one of the chemical groups now known to be most harmful – PFAS or the so-called ‘forever chemicals’ – have as one of their main applications ‘non-stick’ coatings (e.g. teflon pans and water-repellant fabric coatings), i.e. literal attempts at a ‘frictionless’ world!) And that's only health care costs, and according to the narrow economistic way of measuring cost and value. The costs of destroyed lives and ruined minds is of course incalculable.
- This brings us full-circle back to Hartmut Rosa’s themes of resonance and controllability/uncontrollability. “The driving cultural force of that form of life we call ‘modern’ is the desire to make the world controllable. Yet it is only in encountering the uncontrollable that we really experience the world – only then do we feel touched, moved and alive. A world that is fully known, in which everything has been planned and mastered, would be a dead world.” One could substitute, “A world that is fully straightened, where all crookedness has been eradicated, would be a dead world.” Sliver of hope: however much a ready-made un-crooked world has been imposed on us, I see an irrepressible interest in the hand-made, the bespoke, the vernacular, which again is unsurprising since it testifies to a basic human, animal need.
People are ambiguous, indeterminable, active, fluid, messy, inherently unpredictable -- crooked. I am so glad they are. I can't imagine any pleasure living in "fields of harvest wheat."
The technocrat's fantasy will always be frustrated.
The main thing missing from statistics and algorithms is: you.
I really liked this essay. I think it's important to consider the general truth of Kant's position on human births, marriages, etc. We need a proper view of human individuality and its ideal conditions. If we see ourselves as operating according to collective regularities or even archetypal laws, nearly determined by forces greater than ourselves in every way, then it seems necessary to equally confirm the truth of our genuine selfhood in precisely these conditions. Kant's relentless assertion of the integrity of individuals' rational natures—also his definition of enlightenment—seem to me a strong enough heralding of our individuality to support his simultaneous acknowledgment of our collective determinations. Obviously the individual and the collective are inseparable and do operate by a kind of rhythmic fate. Kant may surely be one-sided in his view of the human spirit, rendering his view of utopia as a rationalistic fantasy, but I believe his vision of cosmic telos or principle or law is nevertheless worth more critical appreciation.
Under what conditions does human autonomy, too, thrive? Bentham's concept of privacy being stripped away and society's restoration to a state of wholeness is ripe for consideration. I think it posits a kind of superhuman agency which we do not and cannot know, let alone wield (I look at you, AI). But it is not a valid ideal to me, for no other reason than that it cannot be realized. We might say it it fails as a categorical imperative in this way. But is it a consistent fantasy? If a lack of privacy does not undermine autonomy, then is Bentham's vision of a heaven which is true, but one with which our earth cannot marry? I do wonder what the Christian tradition has inscribed about the nature of privacy among angels or in a heavenly state. It has implications for our developing image of utopia.
“Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be built.”
From this literal translation of Kant, it almost sounds like he means to say that given our raw materials, we're doing the best we can and should not expect some notion of perfection that, after all, we invented ourselves without consideration for the stuff we're made of.
This conversation reminds me quite a bit of the social model of disability. In recent years, more and more people have pushed back (and rightly so) against the pathologization of anything considered "outside the norm." This has been especially prevalent in the Neurodiversity movement. More and more, people recognize that diversity in neurotypes (the fact that people's brains are wired in different ways) is a naturally occurring phenomenon and not a "problem" to be solved. In that sense, society might deem something crooked or *off* just because it does not follow all of the expectations of the norm. But that does not mean that that crookedness is, in itself, a defect. If we try to straighten that which is seen as "crooked," we are forcing it away from its natural state in order to turn it into something society deems "appropriate" or "acceptable." This is not only misguided, it is harmful. After all, if you try to straighten something that is bent, you just might break it in the process.
You reference some writings about making the world go more predictably in a certain direction - perhaps by keeping data, then responding to that data in order to obtain (or maintain) certain outcomes for the whole of society, presumably for its/our own good. (I also recognize that some of what you point out is an interpretation of a small selection of writing by Kant, and not suggesting that this represents the views of Kant or others referenced in your essay.) This mindset seems steeped in the idea that we must keep control over people's actions - and perhaps even their way of being - in order to maintain or achieve a certain predictability or stability in the environment in which we all live.
This mindset feels similar to me to the mindset of behaviorism. In a behaviorist mindset, when someone is straying from the norm, you would show them the way to align with the norm. So basically, you would ask them to correct their behavior, or the ways in which they are diverging from the norm, in order to preserve that norm.
I find this mindset troubling. Behaviorist practices are not focused on internal regulation and happiness of individual people. Rather, those practices focus on regulating the environment by encouraging all people within a given environment to act more predictably and uniformly. In outright behaviorist practices, people are observed and data is kept, and used to reinforce those very practices. But the scope of what those practices do is limited. Data can only measure predictable and quantitative things. So even if a data set gives strong indications one way or the other, it can only measure environmental factors or changes in behavior. It cannot measure anything about human thriving or contentment. Those elements cannot be measured or controlled or predicted because they are dynamic. There is no recipe that can lead you to them. They can only be achieved if starting from a place of internal regulation, so that true engagement with the world around us can occur. (The behaviorist mindset is also so ingrained in every part of modern society that I think we don't even notice it outright much of the time.)
I am reminded, as I think of this, of The Uncontrollability of the World by Hartmut Rosa. Rosa describes our attempts at controlling everything around us as being a direct obstacle to achieving resonance. The more we try to create and maintain control, the less we are able to actually be present and experience the world, which is the only way we can truly engage with it in a meaningful way, which is how transformation happens. So by this mindset, control (or attempt at control) only limits us, and limits possibility for real change.
This also brings to mind many of the writings of Illich, which argue against systemic and institutional regulation, as this only limits the possibilities of genuine innovation and human prosperity.
Thanks for another great post. I think about this stuff pretty constantly.