Barbarism, again: on efficiency

trudeau pirouette

Pierre Trudeau executing a little pirouette behind the Queen’s back.

So if I have this beef with capitalism, you might ask, what kind of world do I want to live in? What system would I advocate? Now, I could dream up any number of systems that would work out great in my mind and rather less so in the real world (always assuming that the real world would care what I might have to say about it), but always what I end imagining is something like what we have, only a lot more inefficient. Something like Canada in the Trudeau years.

We are used to thinking of efficiency as a virtue and the lack of it as a very terrible thing indeed, but I would like you to imagine that, in the realm of art and human life, “efficiency” is just another word for “no options.”

“Efficiency” is always efficiency of something, whether it is the efficiency of an engine or of an economic system. In an engine, it is the ability to run as long as possible on the least amount of fuel, or (put more abstractly) to direct the greatest possible share of its energetic output into the work it is intended to do. Come to think of it, the latter definition also serves to describe what we mean by an efficient economy. But in a machine or any other item of utility we seldom have much doubt as to what it is intended to do — what it is for. Now, I could take a power drill and use it as a paperweight, or a wedding dress as a dog sling, but in each case you would assume that I was making some kind of point, and that the object in question had become in some way symbolic. If you stay within the frame of reference determined by utility (“what is it for, and how might it best fulfill that function?”), this kind of symbolic repurposing is merely silly. But if you move to a wider frame of reference, it can become a great many more things. Once you’re making dog slings out of wedding dresses, you’re well on the way to art.

Art is a realm of things liberated from the single dimension of utility. In this way, art is the faithful mirror of human beings. For human beings are plural creatures, prone to indecision, inconsistency, capricious needs, and here-today-gone-tomorrow moods. In the postmodern academy, it’s not cool to make universalizing statements about “human nature,” but the hell with it: I’ll go out on a limb here and say that human beings are inherently and universally not assimilable to any one frame of reference. It is the most fundamental of all human behaviors to act in a way that defies reasonable prescriptions. Paul Theroux once wrote that the one human universal is the hatred of rowing into a headwind. But even this sensible thought cannot be true, because it is easy to imagine that some distant tribe in the Outer Antipodes has convinced itself that the gods smile upon headwinds and that it is lucky to paddle into them. Anything that a rational perspective would condemn as inefficient is, within a broader perspective, capable of generating meaning. And for human beings, meaning is the name of the game.

One possible definition of the life worth living is a life that seeks always to keep open the greatest number of options — options for meaning, options for experience, options for self-understanding and self-definition. This, to me, is what practice is after.* This, to me, is what it is to be human. Anything that stands in the way of that process is (let’s all say it together now) barbarism. Insofar as the ideal of efficiency takes part in denying the full range of possible human meanings, it takes part in barbarism.

It makes sense to ask an employee to behave more efficiently at work, because in the context of a job, a human being has a fairly simple and unitary purpose. If your job is to fix air conditioners and you’re spending 80% of your time watching porn, your boss might rightly object. Within the context of this job, a human being has only one function, and you’d be hard-pressed to argue that watching porn has anything to do with it. But what if our air-conditioner repair person wasn’t watching porn at work, but drawing alternative comix? Or surreptitiously pulling out a flute at odd moments? The likely response would be “do that on your own time.” That is, on the time your productive role in consumer society permits you, which is to say the dregs of time, at the bleary beginning or exhausted end of the day. For the rest of your time, you have one role and that is to fix some goddamned air conditioners. Efficiency, here, is the measure of how completely you have restricted yourself to this one option.  

But human beings aren’t simply reducible to their jobs, and insofar as they are, they are necessarily damaged, amputated, partial entities. And one of the great deformations of the neoliberal regime is how we do in fact reduce human beings to their function as producers and consumers — inflow and outflow of measurable quanta, namely $$$. Value for money, money for value. In the version of America in which we now live, it seems widely assumed that what we want from a person is pretty much the same thing we would want from a lawnmower. If you believe, as market fundamentalists do, that there is a reciprocal relationship between the economy as a whole and individual consumers, that efficiency in the one entails efficiency in the other, and that the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people is becomes possible only when such efficiencies are maximized — then every human activity that does not obviously contribute to such efficiencies is a mistake. Sleep itself becomes a “standing affront to capitalism.” Think of all those hours you’re just lying there, having stupid pointless unproductive dreams, when you could be on the internet, clicking on links and fulfilling your rightful role in consumer capitalism: a pair of disembodied eyeballs, tracked and quantified as they move through the electronic midway, contributing their tiny quantum of economic value to the system.

It is unsurprising that those who above all prize what Rebecca Solnit calls “the four horsemen of my apocalypse”  — Efficiency, Convenience, Profitability, and Security — which is to say, those who have completely adapted themselves to the regime of consumer capitalism —  don’t really understand what art is for. Art belongs to the same domain as sleep or love or spirituality or even basic human decency, none of which ever quite snaps to the grid. Their domain is what lies outside the single dimension of quantifiable function. This is the domain of the inefficient.

The typical response of the quantifiers — and here I am speaking not only of our corporate overlords but the neopositivist philosophy that blesses and dignifies their endeavors — is to deny that anything that lies outside their systems of measure has any value or meaning. (Need I point out that this, too, is barbarism?) It reminds me of a bit of doggerel my Dad used to recite about Benjamin Jowett, a noted translator of Plato and eminence of Oxford’s Balliol College:

My name is Benjamin Jowett
I’m the master of Balliol College
Whatever is knowledge, I know it
And what I don’t know isn’t knowledge.


Logical positivists always said that any language that failed to convey empirically-grounded propositional meanings (like, say, poetry) was “nonsense” about which philosophy (and ideally everyone else) should remain silent. The dead-eyed apparatchiks of the No Child Left Behind gulag insist that “creativity” (you know, classes in art and music and such) isn’t their concern, since you can’t test it. An unintentionally funny example of how neopositivists seem incapable of understanding anything that isn’t put in quantified and standardized terms: when an entertainingly ornery philosophy blog called Fuck Theory called out Stephen Pinker’s execrable “Science is Not Your Enemy” piece that appeared (where else?) in The New Republic, one of Pinker’s dim-bulb supporters wrote in to defend him, writing that “Pinker…is a profoundly intelligent man.  He would do extremely well on objective tests verbal aptitude and reading comprehension.” This in response to philosophical and historical arguments. But then again, neopositivists generally wish that philosophy and history would just go away, because these disciplines mess up their tidy systems. History and philosophy, too, are inefficient. And silencing their impudent questions is pretty much the agenda of Pinker’s piece and the whole “mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be liberal arts majors” thing we’ve seen play out in the media throughout the past year.

The less fanatical among the educrats might try to ease the harsh edges of their ideology with some render-unto-Caesar jive (“I don’t say that art classes aren’t valuable in their own way, I’m just saying that our priorities must remain focused on STEM**), but they are really just being inefficient, and the more hardcore among them know it. Neopositivism is a jealous god and will suffer no other gods before it. Pluralism is for the weak. The whole point of an imperial monism like neopositivism is to have ONE way to reduce the whole messy, prolix, contradictory human experience to something cleaner, more rational, more . . . efficient. Pinker’s solution to the old “two cultures” conundrum is typical: you get one culture out of two cultures when one of them (guess which) is assimilated to the other. It reminds me of the would-be Indiana senator Richard Mourdock’s idea of bipartisanship: “bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.” 

One more time, with feeling: this is barbarism. Say it loud and there’s music playing. Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.

*A lot more needs to be said about this. For one thing, serious practice always involves a very great limitation of means — if piano is your practice, you will pursue it to the exclusion of a great many other things. And yet the severe forms of self-limitation encountered in practice are in fact ways of maximalizing a different set of options — the options of meaning and the self. But what I mean by that is complicated, and this topic will have to wait for another day.

**Edu-speak for science, technology, engineering, and math.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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