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Language, Work, and Reality in Wendell Berry

Language, Work, and Reality in Wendell Berry

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Published by ADM
Essay on Berry's "Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community"
Essay on Berry's "Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community"

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Published by: ADM on Mar 13, 2008
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08/19/2010

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Berry on Language, Work, and Reality13 February 199
In his
Sex, Economy, Freedom
&
Community,
Wendell Berry explores the contemporary gapbetween abstract and real-world economics. While he argues that people have becomepreoccupied with useless information instead of useful work, he also introduces a series of dichotomies that goes beyond community economics and touches on the fundamentalrelationship between the words we speak and thS mean~. This relationship functions todefU::ur perception of reality, and Berry worries that global industries are controlling that
....
---....
perception. His opening statement that "This is a book about sales resistance" (xii)belies the
----
difficult philosophic (and philological) tensions underpinning many of Berry's ideas.In resisting sales, according to Berry, we must resist "the language ...and categories of 
0
this ubiquitous sales talk" (xii) and separate what we are told we need from what we really (need. Berry seems to posit himself as a steward not only of the Kentucky outback, but also of words, as though he and other writers were warring "againstsalesmen. This "first duty of writers" implies a disjunction between language and reality, in which
to need 
becomes
to want,
and a person devolves into a "human component."
It
isnot surprising that Berry,a poet, concernshimself with language, but the extent to which language affects his notions of reality and \)political economy is remarkable. In his preface and throughout his book, Berry assailssalespeople and other figures in an elite academic-corp orate-governmental cabal who haveused language not to convey reality, but to disguise it. Worse still, Berry fears the language of the elite has taken over the language of the common person, and their own words have lost atrue meaning. For Berry, this problem of language translates into a rift between the perceivedworld and the actual life-world.Under the impression that people have become disconnected from the reality of theirlives, and have succumbed to an identity "invented" (xii)by the elite, Berry hopes to reunitehis readers with lives of self-determined significance. To do so, he must encourage his readersto dispense w~y of the assumptions they hav: dev~d about lif~ ~i1omm
 
In his preface, "The Joy of Sales Resistance", Berry offers a pointedly reductive view of the
-
 \ 
oppostition's opinions on matters ranging from education and multiculturalism to economics and
~
free trade. Berry's sarcastic tone and incessant list-making presents to the reader, in pre-packaged form, a system of beliefs that has already been sold to them by the institutional
,Q<f (
eHte.
etf.
W
The lists and outlines, Berry shows, come specially designed for apathetic citizens who
~
..
"are expected to think and do and provide nothing for themselves" (xii). In presentingeverything from car options to political agendas in conveniently packaged forms, salesmen are
~
able to reduce the complexity of a given item to its most salient components, without everadmitting its entirety. For example, Berry suggests, the issue of education might be reducted toa sixteen-piece plan held together with a vague logic that ignores the details, but concentrates
------
on the manage~
Ule palabtbltr.'13erry
contends that such reductions are dangerous, sincethe language used to make them inherently subtracts from the reality of the issue. The public'sdesire for increasingly digestable forms of beliefs undermines the necessary knowledge relevantto an informed decision. When a salesman presents a package deal, he implies that thepackage contains everything one needs. His language does not accommodate variance, opposingopinion, or even complexity. Reality, by contrast, comprises all these and more, and Berry
~
...
_---------------------
argues that the language of the salesperson has substituted the package for reality.Berry suspects that real intelligence and wisdom have been supplanted by mere imagesof each.
An
education is not so important as the appearance of one. Language, too, plays a rolein building the illusion of intelligence, as with the society of experts (many of whom make upthe institutional elite) who "speak a language that is intelligible only to other people in theirfield" (xiii). By being unintelligible to outsiders one likely will give the impression either of madness or genius, and too often, suggests Berry,people assume the latter. As Berry points out,being smart in this sort of way pushes people to make use of their "intelligence" in order toprove that they are actually smart. The experts then allow only tangible effects as signs of intelligence. For a professor, "the mark of a goof teacher is that he or she spends most of his or
-2-
 
her time doing research and writing many books and articles" (xiii). Again, such figures usetheir expert language to construct the image of the "good teacher."
On
a macro level, the morethe faculty of a university produces, the better the university: "A good school is a big school"(xiv).l The real-world side effect of this mentality is a measurable reduction in autonomousforms of knowledge, or the intelligence needed to live a free and rewarding life. While onecould argue that such a life is not necessary in a system that favors a few elites and manywhite- and blue-collar drones, Berry might retort that lacking real knowledge eventually willbring society into stasis, precisely the condition the modern salesmen try to avoid. When theexperts become experts not in their purported "field," but only experts in image-making andwordpl~:hlOwledge will cease to matter.The way this mentality plays out in relation to the environmentand economy is of special interest to Berry. Believing that much of America has lost touch with its the ground onwhich it makes its home, Berry advocates a simple lifestyle that concentrates on local, ratherthan universal or global issues. Berry argues that the individual cannot effectively relate tothe entire world and still maintain any reality-grounded notion of what it is like. He describesour current economy as "absentee," meaning that people do not draw connections between thenumbers and reality, or one action and its effects. When our idea of natural resourcesencompasses all the globe, rather than our immediate surroundings, we try to reduce it to adigestable size, much the same way the salesman ignore the complexity of issues like educationand government. Thinking globally militates against acting locally, Berry says, because wecannot conceive globally without resorting to artificial or distortive means of dealing withreality, such as economics. Using statistics and bits of information to construct the world iseasier than trying to envision the totality of the situation. The language of experts on economy
I
IBerry's discussion of education recalls my experience as a first-year student at the Universityof Richmond. The president of the University will be remembered as a man who greatlyimproved the school's reputation of while doing very little to improve the ~ of educationthere. He did so through essentially selling his product, the school, to wealthy
!
philanthropists and big business. While the school itself is not a large one, it prides itself on7
offering "all the advantages of a larger school", with the intimacy of a small, private, elite 'one.
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