Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Agency and Autonomy

Straining against the limits of reality.

I am reading Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford. You should too. The thoughts here were stimulated by chapter 3 of that book.

Crawford's book is basically about the value of manual work. It often finds itself set against the forces of consumerism. In this chapter Crawford brings up a distinction, originally conceived by Albert Borgmann, between "commanding reality," corresponding to "things," and "disposable reality," corresponding to "devices."

Proper use of a "thing" (I might have said "tool") requires obedience to certain absolute principles. An example is a violin, which only becomes the extension of a man's will once he has completely subjected himself to laws of music and physics. A "device," on the other hand, is much more accommodating. Devices are designed to free men from precisely the constraints which things would place upon them. An example is a stereo, which produces any kind of music on command and without restriction.

Things foster what Crawford calls agency, while devices foster autonomy. Things teach men that they are not the arbiters of what is real, and make them submit to the real in order to make use of them. Devices, on the other hand, bring men the reality which they desire.

Crawford does not categorically say that agency is better than autonomy. He concedes that he drives a motorcycle which has an electric start and automatic oil pump, among other features, which free him from the demands which such tasks would place on him, and therefore that greater autonomy is often preferable to the opportunity for greater agency. The point he is making is more one of an imbalance between the two in our society, that the culture of consumerism is inextricably bound up with offering men autonomy, and that the value of agency has been reduced to be more like nostalgia.

To me, whether or not you prefer autonomy or agency is bound up in your view of humanity. If you are a secular humanist, you believe that men can and ought to build the reality which best suits them. Devices which free them from limitations previously imposed upon them are part of progress toward the reality which we as a race are constructing for ourselves. In this view, a man ought to be completely free from anything to which he does not wish to be subject.

If, on the other hand, you are a Christian humanist, you see that things perform the useful service to men of teaching them that they are not the center of the universe. They put man in his place, not as the author of creation, but as he to whom it has been commanded to have dominion over creation. In so doing, they give him the opportunity to become more human as he bends the things to his will precisely by bending himself to the external reality they announce.

People are inspired by the exercise of agency in the creation of commanding reality. For example, the comedy of Conan O'brien and the cooking of Mario Batali inspire me in this way. By contrast, people are sated by the exercise of autonomy in the indulgence of disposable reality. For example, Netflix streaming over my Wii brings me untold hours of entertainment without leaving my room.

Truly exercising agency is hard. My bread turns out inconsistently, though with work it is usually still tasty. But our society offers ever more autonomy through ever more products. I'm looking at you, Apple.

I would like to opt for more agency. Bring on the things.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Pedal Downhill

Bikers, please pedal when you are going downhill. In this situation, gravity is on your side. As a result you will find it considerably easier to pedal, and you may be amazed at the speeds you will quickly reach with very little additional effort. As a side benefit, your momentum will carry you speedily up the next hill, making that climb much easier.

Don't just coast down the hill. While you will still reach the bottom, you will do so at a comparative crawl. Worse, when you reach the next uphill, you will have to navigate it completely under your own power. And if I am behind you, I will have to brake and patiently endure the same fate.

Yes, when the going is easy, store up momentum for when the road tilts against your favor. You will expend less effort in the long run. You will reach your destination faster. You will have more fun.

Lastly, I am sure there is a metaphor for life in here somewhere. Thank you.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Brought to you by the letters "P" and "C"

The letter people used to be cool, man.

In kindergarten we were introduced to the letters of the alphabet by way of the 26-member troupe called "The Letter People." The first one introduced was Mr. M, with his munching mouth easily my favorite, followed by Mr. T, of tall teeth fame.

Each was incarnated in an inflatable doll and sang a song according to alliterative theme. My sister and I listened to the compilation tape for years later as bedtime music. Needless to say, they occupy a foundational niche in my brain.

Recent nostalgia led me to order the songs again on eBay and read up on their history. Not surprisingly, the songs didn't age especially well according to my tastes, although I couldn't get "Mr. V's Violet Velvet Vest" out of my head for a few days.

However, it did surprise me to learn that The Letter People were reincarnated in the 90's (the originals had been born in the 70's). As is characteristic of the 90's, the group's character became completely dominated by political correctness, in all of its identity-confusing, parade-raining, life-sucking anti-glory. Peruse if you will the two versions of the group:

Miss A A'choo Ms. A A'choo
Mister B Beautiful Buttons Mr. B Beautiful Buttons
Mister C Cotton Candy Mr. C Colossal Cap
Mister D Delicious Doughnuts Mr. D Dazzling Dance
Miss E Exercising Ms. E Exercise Energy
Mister F Funny Feet Ms. F Funny Feet
Mister G Gooey Gum Mr. G Gooey Gum
Mister H Horrible Hair Mr. H Happy Hair
Miss I* Itchy Itches; Incredible Inventor Mr. I Impossible Inches
Mister J Jumbled Junk Ms. J Jingle Jingle Jacket
Mister K Kind Kicking Ms. K Kaboom Kick
Mister L Lemon Lollipops Ms. L Longest Laugh
Mister M Munching Mouth Mr. M Munching Mouth
Mister N Noisy Nose Mr. N Noisy Nose
Miss O* Obstinate; Optimistic Optimist Mr. O Opposite
Mister P Pointy Patches Ms. P Pointy Patches
Mister Q Quiet Mr. Q Questions
Mister R Ripping Rubberbands Mr. R Rainbow Ribbons
Mister S Super Socks Ms. S Super Socks
Mister T Tall Teeth Ms. T Tall Teeth
Miss U Upsy-Daisy Umbrella Ms. U Unusual Umbrella
Mister V Violet Velvet Vest Ms. V Vegetable Vest
Mister W Wonderful Wink Ms. W Wonderful Words
Mister X All Wrong (Mixed-Up) Mr. X Different
Mister Y Yawning Ms. Y Yodeling Yawn
Mister Z Zipping Zippers Mr. Z Zipping Zippers

  • The primary difference is in gender. Instead of occupying different, but equally important roles (consonants and vowels), men and women equivalently occupy all roles (13 men and 13 women).
  • Along the same lines, marital status of women is not presumed: female characters are "Ms." instead of "Miss."
  • Instead of celebrating delicious and delightful treats, healthy food is promoted. Cotton Candy becomes Colossal Cap, Delicious Donuts becomes Dazzling Dance, Lovely Lemon Lollipops becomes Longest Laugh, and Violet Velvet Vest becomes Vegetable Vest.
  • Fun and masculine Mr. R of the Ripping Rubber Bands transforms into feminine-at-best, paper-cut-at-worst Rainbow Ribbons. I assume the logic was that kids could hurt themselves with rubber bands, and classroom distractions could not be promoted.
  • Hyper-sensitivity over disabilities: instead of being "Mixed Up," which at least contains an "x," Mr. X is simply "Different."
To get very concerned would be a bit silly, but the Letter People debacle is a good illustration of how much more than simple academic facts is taught in school from an early age, and of how pervasive the social changes of the last several decades have been.