Embrace Your Crookedness
The Convivial Society: Vol. 4, No. 13
Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture, both broadly construed. This is a brief installment, a meditation you might even say. As always, I hope you’ll find something worth thinking with, if not in my own words then in some of those I happily cite below.
I don’t know why exactly we gravitate to certain writers or thinkers, not just as convenient citations we drop here and there, maybe to add a bit of heft to our own flimsy pronouncements or to have the sheen of their prose shine on our lackluster sentences—but as people, people we want to have in our heads and maybe even our hearts as we think through the business of making our way in the world. I mean, of course I can think of some reasons for this—you are attracted to their ideas; you are convinced by their arguments; their mode of thought resonates with yours; they mirror back to you, in a more respectable or elegant way, your view of things; etc. But in truth, I think it’s something a bit more than all of that, with reasons as varied as those that account (or fail to account) for all of our other friendships, and I hope that, at best, it is not only a matter of these voices ratifying our own thinking, but also a matter of their challenging and questioning it. In other words, I like to think that these voices we invite to the table we set in our minds sometimes snap back at us, dissolve our pretensions, and otherwise put us in our place. Whatever the case, the poet W. H. Auden is, for me, one of these people. He sits next to Hannah Arendt.
I hear him enjoining me from time to time, “You shall love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart.”
It’s good to be reminded of this. Mostly because while we are all tempted to nod along with the bit about our “crooked neighbor,” whether we feel any obligation to love them or not, we’re less prepared to assent to the crookedness of our own heart, the very one with which we are to do the aforementioned loving. Again, it’s good to be reminded of this, and better still to take it to heart, because, assured of the purity of our own motives, we might very well destroy our neighbor in our unchastened efforts to do good by them.
All of this is true and good to consider, but it’s not exactly the path along which my thinking has been more recently prodded by this particular line from Auden. Instead, I’ve thought about the other way we might take the word crooked. I initially took it in the sense that we intend when we talk about “crooked politicians,” which is to say “corrupt,” “malfeasant,” “no good.” I suppose it is from crooked that we get “crook,” as in Nixon declaring, crookedly, that he is not a “crook.” But crooked also means simply “bent” or “not straight,” as in the shepherd’s crook or hook, which is a staff with a curved end. And the two senses are related. The bend or lack of straightness of the crook suggesting a departure from the straight path as a metaphor for a morally upright life.1
The analogy is just that, however, an analogy of meaning and not an identity. So, what is not straight is not, for that reason, also morally suspect. It’s just not straight. Crookedness, in other words, is not necessarily a flaw, nor should it necessarily be imagined as a problem to be solved or a fault to be corrected. Maybe the crooked heart is just the human heart, period—irregular, oddly out of shape, somewhat unpredictable, serpentine, bending in on itself at points, a place where anyone might get lost, even the self for whom the heart is a synecdoche.
Consider Kant’s famous claim that “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”2 In the immediate context, the idea is that human beings are unjust by nature (i.e., morally crooked) and will abuse power for their own good if entrusted with it, which is not necessarily a principle I’m inclined to bet against. But what most strikes me about Kant’s observation is the note of mild exasperation or annoyance that I hear when reading it as part of Kant’s call for a project to discern the laws governing human behavior at scale, a “philosophical attempt to work out a universal history according to a natural plan directed to achieving the civic union of the human race.”
The short essay in which the “crooked timber” line appears is titled “Idea of a Universal History With a Cosmopolitical Purpose.” It opens with the claim that “whatever concept one may hold, from a metaphysical point of view, concerning the freedom of the will, certainly its appearances, which are human actions, like every other natural event are determined by universal laws.” Later in the opening paragraph Kant avers that whatever role human freedom plays with regard to marriage, births, and deaths, “the annual tables of them in the major countries prove that they occur according to laws stable as [those of] the unstable weather.”
I now hear in Kant’s line about the “crooked timber of humanity,” not a sage, even wryly appreciative regard for humanity’s inescapable flaws and foibles as one might find in Chaucer or Montaigne, but an anticipation of the technocrat’s annoyance with the recalcitrant human element, which eludes their total mastery. If only we had sufficient data, we could aim deliberately at the realization of the grand designs of nature for the human race by bringing greater swaths of human activity under predictive administration. As I read him, and maybe I am not reading him well, Kant is here giving incipient expression to the same dream Eliot would warn us about nearly a century and half later, the dream of “systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”
I hear in Kant an adumbration of the spirit that animated the Google engineer’s reply in this anecdote Matthew Crawford recently relayed in his own newsletter:
In 2009, one of Google’s self-driving cars came to an intersection with a four-way stop. It came to a halt and waited for other cars to do the same before proceeding through. Apparently, that is the rule it was taught—but of course, that is not what people do. So the robot car got completely paralyzed, blocked the intersection, and had to be rebooted. Tellingly, the Google engineer in charge of the autonomous vehicle program said some years later that what he was learning from the experience was that human beings need to be “less idiotic.”
For his part, Kant’s younger contemporary, Jeremy Bentham, already dreamed of the day when we would live our lives in the full public view and it would be possible to collect all the data we would need to administer the world for human happiness. “It were to be wished that every man’s name were written upon his forehead as well as engraved upon his door,” Bentham declared. “It were to be wished that no such thing as secrecy existed that every man’s house were made of glass.”
Why? Well, because then “a whole kingdom, the great globe itself, will become a gymnasium, in which every man exercises himself before the eyes of every other man. Every gesture, every turn of limb or feature, in those whose motions have a visible influence on the general happiness, will be noticed and marked down.” In fact, we could even dare to hope that “there will be no moral enigmas by and by.” In his (partial) defense, Bentham appears to be arguing that if we could thus tabulate all outward actions, then “there would be the less reason to desire windows to his breast.” But, as we now know, this was wishful thinking, reflecting a failure of know-how rather than any kind of firm principle.
So Auden’s voice chimes in again, this time with “The Unknown Citizen,” the last lines of which report about the unknown citizen,
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.
Or, more forcefully, Lewis Mumford’s, who already in the early 1960s understood the uses to which the power of computing could (would) be put. Somewhat dramatically, he wrote that it would be like the reinstatement of the eye of the Sun God bearing down on us:
“In the end, no action, no conversation, and possibly in time no dream or thought would escape the wakeful and relentless eye of this deity: every manifestation of life would be processed into the computer and brought under its all-pervading system of control. This would mean, not just the invasion of privacy, but the total destruction of autonomy: indeed the dissolution of the human soul.”
I’m partial to the Eye of Sauron, but I don’t take Mumford to be the sort who was reading Tolkien in the 60s.
While writing this, I remembered that I had once before written about Kant’s crooked timber. Turns out it was a little over ten years ago and resulted in my proposing a corollary: If out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made, then if a thing is made straight it will be because humanity has been stripped out of it.
In that post I also cited Evgeny Morozov’s critical assessment of the then-current fancy for all things “smart”:
The problem with many smart technologies is that their designers, in the quest to root out the imperfections of the human condition, seldom stop to ask how much frustration, failure and regret is required for happiness and achievement to retain any meaning.
It’s great when the things around us run smoothly, but it’s even better when they don’t do so by default. That, after all, is how we gain the space to make decisions—many of them undoubtedly wrongheaded—and, through trial and error, to mature into responsible adults, tolerant of compromise and complexity.
From a certain vantage point then, crookedness begins to feel a bit like the thing in us that keeps us from being wholly predictable and subject to administration, all that is not regular, uniform, unsurprising, interchangeable. That which requires actual attention to the particularities and peculiarities of our being. That which is inefficient, time-consuming, unquantifiable. What resists commodification. What muddies the logic of a cost/benefit analysis. What is done at whim, for no reason and maybe even for bad reasons. It thus includes the mistakes we must make to learn and grow and mature.
If the crookedness of timber reflects the history of the particular tree from which the wood was hewn, the rainfall on given years, say, or the soil quality or the wind or sunlight it receives—I’m not a woodworker nor do I chop down trees, so, you know, take this for what its worth—then we can imagine that our crookedness likewise reflects our history: the communities we’ve belonged to, the friends we’ve made and lost, the chance happenings, heartbreaks, losses, and triumphs, the stories we’ve internalized about the world and about ourselves. All that has pulled and tugged on us, worn us down, nurtured us, broken us, and lifted us up. That is our crookedness. The crookedness we must learn to love within ourselves and in one another.
Wendell Berry, who at the table in my mind sits next to Illich, gets the final word:
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
As they say, read the whole thing.
“Upright” itself being a metaphor likewise suggesting straightness.
This is the late Isaiah Berlin’s translation of the line, which was a favorite of his. Berlin read a more humane sentiment into the words than what follows. The line might be rendered more literally as “Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be built.”