Monday, August 29, 2011

The Gospel of the Useful

Max Horkheimer
"Even the words that could voice a hope for something besides the fruits of success have been pressed into this service. ... The idea of happiness has been reduced to a banality to coincide with leading the kind of normal life that serious religious thought has often criticized. The very idea of truth has been reduced to the purpose of a useful tool in the control of nature, and the realization of the infinite potentialities inherent in man has been relegated to the status of a luxury. Thought that does not serve the interests of any established group or is not pertinent to the business of industry has no place, is considered vain or superfluous. Paradoxically, a society that, in the face of starvation in great areas of the world, allows part of its machinery to stand idle, that shelves many important inventions, and that devotes innumerable working hours to moronic advertising and to the production of instruments of destruction--a society in which these luxuries are inherent has made usefulness its gospel." 
--Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason, "Rise and Decline of the Individual" 1947.

Two experiences confirm the ongoing relevancy of these words, which were written in difficult times.

The first, today, was a chance meeting with a former logic student and senior history major who informed me that he has decided to put these talents to use as a political strategist, advising in the creation of political attack ads. When I told him that despite my efforts to make him a philosopher, he chose sophistry, he laughed. I laughed too. What else can you do?

The second is my wider experience as an academic adviser. The "gospel of the useful" is used straightfowardly and directly to justify self-destruction, narrowness of vision, lack of imagination, and bald power-grasping. In my conversations with advisees and their parents, the meaning of "useful" when it is applied to the value of education is "that which preserves class privilege, that which does not challenge me to change, that which accepts quite blindly the situation as it is, even when that situation directly opposes my own capacities, strengths, passions, and vision as an individual."

Anyone who chooses to see the true meaning of the word "useful" need only look to the fear that the word strikes in the heart of young people. There is no greater threat that can be uttered to a person involved in the arduous task of self-realization than this: "Make yourself useful."

I've said this before, and I will say it again: one of the best reasons to run is its utter uselessness as an activity. Horkheimer makes the meaning of this clearer. The fact that a run has no exchange value on the open market is a mark that it, as an experience, cannot be exchanged. Its value, like that of life itself, is inherent and singular.

7 comments:

  1. Beautiful, nice post to start my (useful) day.

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  2. Many of the most meaningful things in life are 'useless'--having kids, playing an instrument, playing sports, travelling...

    When I taught at a top university, I was amazed at the answer to the question: how many of you play an instrument? Out of about 30, the answer was 2. When I went to my state school, I swear that every single guy in my dorm played guitar.

    It's funny too, because the cult of usefulness will actually ruin itself. If everyone goes to school to be a doctor or lawyer, no one will be able to get a job. This is already happening to doctors and lawyers. As much as I hate the feel-good do-what-you-love talk, maybe we need to get back to it.

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  3. Hey thanks anonymous!

    Zach, that's a really interesting comment on the class differences when it comes to this issue. I struggle with this in my advising because I feel the hollowness of the "do what you love" talk, especially when it's really abstract. I think the best advice is to really identify in the concrete what you love and what you are good at--and sure, what will help you thrive in all ways including economically.

    It can't be avoided; the work of living takes imagination and courage, two old-fashioned virtues.

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  4. Reading this post, I am struck with something that has been on my mind recently. I have had a growing sense that people seem uninterested (for lack of a better word) in taking the time to think critically about what they believe, why they believe it, and what it means to them as individuals. As an extension of this, I believe that people don't actually know what it is that makes them happy, and this lack of knowledge (perhaps "appreciation" is a better word here) leads to tension within their lives.

    I agree that the "Do what you love" rings rather hollow, especially when directed to youth, who have only just started to discover who they are, much else what they love. And while it would be easy to place blame on the education system and rant about how we don't teach the right subjects, I don't really believe that to be the root cause. No, rather I feel that it's a cultural issue, and can be related to some of your other recent posts, Jeff. We are a culture of quick fixes and tidy solutions, so we don't value the experiential or the development of the individual. The professional world provides the most stark view of this; you want to develop yourself as a person and employee, it's going to be on your dime and your time. Experience and knowledge have become commodities in this regard, and therefore people lose sight of the additional values.

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  5. hey, jeff, it's ace. i can't get google to keep me logged in. some sort of useless cookie issue. haha. useles... anyway, i'm posting as anonymous and i blame google.

    firstly, i like how you're posting more often.

    secondly, what do you mean by "useful"? for example, if useful means "with a purpose" then running is not useless. the purpose could be fun, social, experiencing the joy self-propulsion, fitness, or running could even be your job and the purpose is to earn a living. if by useful you mean "contributes to society", well now... you'd have to define contributions and society, wouldn't you? i'd venture to say for you, jeff, personally, that running does a lot of things for you, but one of those things is that it increases your patience. if there's anything this society needs, it's more patience, so your running is very useful.

    the young folk are all angsty and restless and searching for their place in life. we tell them to make themselves useful. we could mean - find a purpose, a place you can contribute to the greater good. but instead it usually comes out as - earn a living!

    also, we sort of forget to tell them they don't have to make themselves completely useful to their fullest possible potential right now immediately today. making yourself useful is both an everyday occurrence and a lifelong quest.

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  6. Yes, these are really good questions, ace. I think they are the sort of question that Horkheimer wants to raise and keep raising--because we don't know as well as we think we do what the concept of "useful" means.

    So, I hope that in a weird way by writing against the idea of usefulness I am actually on the side of usefulness, shaking the concept up from its usual connotation and allowing us to see it fresh and strange.

    Your post here is useful in exactly that way.

    Hope you get your cookies straightened out.

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  7. Thanks Jeff, I hope to be thoroughly useless this weekend.

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