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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

The Own Beat Dance Parade

Many years ago, in the early days of this blog, a friend remarked that he didn't see much point in reading it. "If I want to read about Wendell Berry, I'll just read Wendell Berry." I've considered the comment on and off through the years. It's always hung around, a little frosty -- a tiny scold.

I kind of get it. We're living in a digital era, characterized by rampant replication. Most of what we see online is re-packaged. A link to a thing that someone liked from someone else's feed of stuff that happened someplace else. Even large language models like ChatGPT -- they are lightning fast and impressive, but they're just world-wide-web sized word recombinators.

Originality not only isn't digital -- it's anti-digital, the very opposite of 1's and 0's. Originality is one-and-done. It should be prized.

Was my buddy calling me unoriginal? Maybe. But more than that, I think he was taking a shot at my quals. With no gatekeeper and no credentials, I was taking liberties -- doing something we hadn't been schooled for. It was the kind of comment that only a friend would make -- a potshot from someone who knew exactly who I was, where I'd been and what I ought to be getting up to. And it wasn't this.

It raises questions about identity, expression, expertise and permission that I find interesting.

Who gets to be a Wendell Berry scholar anyways, or a democracy scholar, or economic expert any more? What qualifies me to comment on Wendell Berry's work? How does anyone know where I'm coming from, or whether I'm worth reading? Whose imprimatur matters in a world of self-publication? What separates scholarship from fandom, or plain journaling?

The internet is the world's graffiti wall. Some of what's on it is beautiful and most isn't, but that's beside the point. Like graffiti, it allows anyone to mark out space publicly and without permission. Throw anything up here and it sticks. That's the miracle of it. I decide one day that posterity should know what I think about what Wendell Berry thinks and lo -- it's done. If I had had the same ambition 30 years ago, I would have had a gauntlet of professors to impress and win over, not to mention journal editors and book publishers. My entire life would have been organized around, and many things sacrificed to, the simple aim of communicating with people I do not know.

Only the most gifted could end-run that system. Wendell Berry, for example, from a farming family with a lawyer father, received a Bachelor of Arts in English. That's it. Nothing in economics. No advanced degrees. No political theory or ethics or philosophy. But he's read around the world for his contributions in all of the above.

I'm not a scholar (too lazy for annotations), but I write somewhat academically about a very narrow subject. I'm not a farmer, but I sit on the board of an urban farm and would defend small farmers to the ends of the earth. I'm also not a religious person, nor from the East, but have been largely shaped by Buddhist and Taoist teachings. I believe I'm impossible to categorize. Compared to the truly rebellious, my nonconformity may be pretty tame, but it's no less potent. It's rooted so deep in me I will never know its source. It's how I am, and also in my DNA is my lifelong attraction to the unconventional.

Which brings us to today's walk. I love and admire Wendell Berry for many things, but here's one I haven't written about before: he's the grand marshal of the Own Beat Dance Parade.

Consider his essay "Feminism, the Body and the Machine" (1989), which I've been picking through these last few months. No one would consider Wendell Berry a feminist writer, including Berry himself. But that's because he doesn't rate women's struggle for equality as a worthwhile endeavor, since the male standard of pay, economic "freedom," and human dignity is, on the other side of that equal sign, awful in its own right.

How can women improve themselves by submitting to the same specialization, degradation, trivialization and tyrannization of work that men have submitted to?....How have men improved themselves by submitting to it? The answer is that men have not, and women cannot, improve themselves by submitting to it.

To sum him up, the feminine cause is just part and parcel of the human cause for dignified work, economic independence, and the freedom to work in-place and for oneself. It's Humanism we need, not Feminism.

He's wrong on many scores here. Modern work and workplaces are not entirely degrading, even though they do contain the element of subservience that he's so allergic to. Women, who for thousands of years have been considered chattel, did and do improve their lots by fighting for equal treatment under the law, imperfect as the law may be. And even in Wendell's halcyon household economy, the kind of work women would do matters as well. In defending the several decent possibilities by which his wife chooses to edit his manuscripts, including for example, as labor within a cottage industry, or even as a gift, he fails to adequately address the crux of the issue: he, not she, is the creator. Her work is to improve his work. The elision reveals Wendell's ahistorical understanding of feminism, which is about her inherent value as a human being, inasmuch as her legal rights and pay.

So he's no feminist, but I understand what he's arguing here. It's not the exploitation of women by men that matters most; it's the exploitation of women and men by an economic system that exploits both, along with all other living and nonliving things.

Nor does Berry believe in the ascendancy of the soul over the body, despite his avowed Christian faith. Here again, he refuses to walk the well-worn ideological trail of his categorical kin. For most of western history, the body and nature were seen as natural encumbrances of the soul, and their relative imperfection was understood as profane. Our modern religion, technological progress, worships the perfection of quantum data and dreams of a disembodied singularity. Our messy bodies and desires are anathema to the zealots of our day just as they were to early modern Puritans and Calvinists. Wendell, who writes longhand because he likes the way it feels, especially when done out in the woods (" well equipped for my work as the president of IBM"), wants no part of a disembodied world.

To reduce or shortcut the intimacy of the body's involvement in the making of a work of art... inevitably risks reducing the work of art and the art itself... I don't want to diminish or distort my bodily involvement in my work. I don't want to deny myself the pleasure of bodily involvement in my work, for that pleasure seems to me to be the sign of an indispensable integrity.

Here again we can fault Wendell for over-generalization, for surely digital artists, musicians, animators and illustrators also take bodily pleasure in their ethereal creations. But he's right that the body and nature-haters among us -- our corporate tech overlords who are urging us toward a post-human world, "are going to cause a lot of dangerous commotion on their way out." That's an agenda well underway, if you're not aware. Berry was writing for Team Human long before Doug Rushkoff coined the term and began stumping for the weird, non-algorithmic, inefficient gooeyness that makes humans human.

One of the things that makes humans humans, of course, is our use of, love of, dependence on, fascination with and susceptibility to seduction by machines. There's no getting around it; we are tool-makers and our tools are almost as human as our hands. There's no way to imagine our lives without them. But that doesn't mean we're smart about them. We're easily mesmerized and we have no cultural standard of care -- no easy way to know how our machines are shaping us.

Wendell, the computer naysayer, might be thought a purist on this -- the evil of the machine. But no. Once again, his position surprises. He's a skeptic and a pragmatist, but more than anything, he's a pentitent -- trapped in a moral quandary to be wrestled with every day of his life.

I am still bondage to the automobile industry and energy companies, which have nothing to recommend them except our dependence on them...I am not an optimist; I am afraid that I won't live long enough to escape my bondage to the machines. Nevertheless, on every day left to me, I will search my mind and circumstances for the means of escape.

The less we rely on technology, the healthier and saner we are likely to be, he argues. Few would agree, categorically, though many would admit there's at least kernel of truth here and maybe a few.

I don't know if he's right or wrong in all these oblique positions: He's appropriating feminism into a genderless economic exploitation critique; elevating art and labor produced through physicality over that which is not; and doing daily penitence for society's embrace of machines and technology. What I do know is that in every case, he is breaking the categories that straitjacket our thinking.

This is yet one more thing he does so well. He doesn't count votes. He doesn't read polls. He doesn't get likes, and he doesn't scale. He's an original. And he shows us what original thinking looks and sounds like. He models how it's okay to take liberties and say your piece, whatever that might mean, regardless of whether others think you have any business saying it.

So go on and do your thing. Add something to the world's graffiti wall. Make a declaration with no one's permission. Destroy the categories that box your imagination. Fall in behind the tall, quizzical, elderly guy leading the Own Beat Dance Parade. It's a funny looking group, where, happily, no one's ever out-of-step.


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