Friday, November 13, 2015

Crawford, Consumerism, and Catholicism: On The World Beyond Your Head

After much anticipation I finally got through Matthew Crawford’s most recent book, The World Beyond Your Head. Earlier this year I posted about an extract I had read from the book in the form of an article in The New Atlantis.

The entire book was well worth it. It’s a more philosophically rigorous work than his previous one (Shop Class as Soulcraft), but no less practical or readable. I was pleasantly surprised to find him citing, in his discussion of attention, the same Simone Weil essay I recently wrote about. Attention for Crawford means nearly the same thing as it means for Weil, namely, our ability to withhold our focus from all things except the one that is most important, that thing to which we are attending. This ability is formed by habit, and he argues that our contemporary difficulties in this area are largely due to consumer capitalism, which, taken as a whole, is interested in stimulating us to distraction. “Without the ability to direct our attention where we will,” Crawford claims, “we become more receptive to those who would direct our attention where they will.” Thus, there is “a fundamental antagonism between this form of economic life and the individual who inhabits it.”

Like the Ancient Greek philosophers, Crawford aims to discover the kind of society that will allow for real human flourishing. Not surprisingly to those who have read his previous work, he identifies a real individual not as a free-floating will, unshackled from the world beyond his head (as he claims Kant and the Enlightenment do), but instead as one who discovers himself necessarily through engagement with the finite, limited world beyond his own noggin. In encountering things we encounter ourselves, Crawford claims, and holds up a number of professions as examples of activities where he recognizes this kind of embodied agency: a short-order cook, a motorcycle racer, and an organ-maker.

One could argue with his examples, but Crawford is spot-on in identifying the problems posed by the modern conception of the self as enclosed. For how can we have community if our real selves are our minds? If we can only identify ourselves with our thoughts and feelings? If we have no real recourse to the wisdom of tradition, what Crawford calls a “cultural jig”? The result is a society in which we are dangerously vulnerable to the efforts of money-making enterprises to tell us who we are, what we want, and then exploit us until our pockets are empty. Crawford’s chapter on addictive gambling is a frightening depiction of an industry bent on doing just that. He argues brilliantly that the gaming industry is not an outlier of consumer capitalism, a freakish, crony arm of the modern economy, but instead a business whose interests reside at its very heart. The entire economy attempts to create dependent consumers in the same way that a casino programs its video slots to fuel addiction, and thereby maximize its ability to vacuum the bank accounts of its customers. It’s a disturbing accusation, but that doesn't mean that it's not true.

I have a sneaking suspicion (totally unfounded) that Crawford is a closet Catholic. There is something decidedly un-Protestant about him, in the way he emphasizes the importance of our links with the world outside of our heads. The way he thinks about the physical world is almost sacramental. At the end of the book, he calls for a return to true education, to focusing our attention on the beauty out there in the world. “Education requires a certain capacity for asceticism, but more fundamentally it is erotic,” he argues. “Only beautiful things lead us out to join the world beyond our heads.” Amen to that. The job of teachers, of course? To introduce our students to beautiful things.

As LeVar Burton used to say, “Don’t take my word for it.” Read Crawford’s book to see for yourself what he has to say. It’s worth it.

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