Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

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Agency Versus Freedom

Just wanted to share a snippet from a book I just read, Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. It’s an excellent book, very readable, that is part social theory and part personal history of someone who left philosophy, as a profession, but kept it with him into his career as a motorcycle mechanic. The primary thrust in the book is to rethink the partitioning off of manual labor as a non-thinking, non-intelligent activity and at the same time to rethink the social engineering that has taken place in the past century of turning labor in general, whether white or blue collar, into something that is divorced from types of activity that contribute to human excellence. You might say it’s a book against the trends in contemporary life that promote both mindlessness and alienation from the “mechanism” of the world. The book is written with style and without any pretentiousness. Great reading; I finished the entire book on a 5 hour flight.

Apropos this blog, I thought there was some excellent resonance in the book with the “skill-mastery” portions of the Zhuangzi, particularly in the ways that Crawford talks about how “freedom” and “autonomy” have been co-opted by the consumer ethic that has taken over our lives. Here’s a bit of it:

…there is a whole ideology of choice and freedom and autonomy, and that if one pays due attention, these ideals start to seem less like a bubbling up of the unfettered Self and more like something that is urged upon us. This becomes most clear in advertising, where Choice and Freedom and A World Without Limits and Master the Possibilities and all the other heady existentialist slogans of the consumerist Self are invoked with such repetitive urgency that they come to resemble a disciplinary system. Somehow, self-realization and freedom always entail buying something new, never conserving something old.

Thinking about manual engagement seems to require nothing less than that we consider what a human being is. That is, we are led to consider how the specifically human manner of being is lit up, as it were, by man’s interaction with his world through his hands. For this a new sort of anthropology is called for, one that is adequate to our experience of agency. Such an account might illuminate the appeal of manual work in a way that is neither romantic nor nostalgic, but rather simply gives credit to the practice of building things, fixing things, and routinely tending to things, as an element of human flourishing. (pp. 63-4)

Crawford’s discussion of music that follows this, reminded me of the Zhuangzi skill passages, not so much in style, but in content:

The errors of freedomism may be illuminated by thinking about music. One can’t be a musician without learning to play a particular instrument, subjecting one’s fingers to the discipline of of frets or keys. The musician’s power of expression is founded upon a prior obedience; her musical agency is built up from an ongoing submission. To what? To her teacher, perhaps, but this is incidental rather than primary — there is such a thing as the self-taught musician. Her obedience rather is to the mechanical realities of her instrument, which in turn answer to certain natural necessities of music that can be expressed mathematically. … These facts do not arise from the human will, and there is no altering them. I believe the example of the musician sheds light on the basic character of human agency, namely, that it arises only within concrete limits that are not of our making. These limits need not be physical; the important thing is rather that they are external to the self. (p. 64)

Crawford discusses music and its consumption as an example of the loss of the type of agency discussed above:

In any hard discipline, whether it be gardening, structural engineering, or Russian, one submits to things that have their own intractable ways. Such hardness is at odds with the ontology of consumerism, which seems to demand a different conception of reality. The philosopher Albert Borgmann offers a distinction that clarifies this: he distinguishes between commanding reality and disposable reality, which corresponds to “things” versus “devices.” The former convey meaning through their own inherent qualities, while the latter answer to our shifting psychic needs.

As an instance of “the eclipse of commanding reality and the prominence of disposable reality,” Borgmann focuses on music. People play musical instruments a lot less than they used to; now we listen to the stereo or iPod. An instrument is “arduous to master and limited in its range,” whereas a stereo is undemanding and makes every sort of music instantly available, granting us a kind of musical autonomy. (p. 65, emphasis added).

So, according to Crawford a sort of increase of freedom, or autonomy, afforded by consumer culture also “enables” a lack of interest in pursuing agency-promoting activity. Ultimately, he argues, this makes human life worse.

Comments welcome, as always.

(For some background on the skill-mastery aspects of the Zhuangzi see previous posts and discussion here, here, here, and here.

August 25, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Daoism, Taoism | , | 14 Comments

   

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