For the Autonomous, Productive Self

Via Andrew Sullivan I see that Rod Dreher is worrying again. He sets up a dichotomy between a traditional culture, in which “choice” is not an important value, and the modern world we live in, in which even traditions can only be followed by choice, and hence are not really traditions at all in the most meaningful sense.

The . . . choice, then, is set up between a traditional, producerist world, in which what you want to have is not important, only what you must do, and the individual is subordinate to the great project of producing a new generation and passing down traditional understandings to them – and the modern, consumerist world, in which there is precious little you must do and what’s important is what you want to have, and that the economic wheels are greased to facilitate your getting it (consistent with not taking away from somebody else by force what he or she wants to have, my freedom ending where my fist impacts your face and all that).

But there’s an implicitly excluded third alternative that, humbly, is the object of my own preferred utopian yearning, and that is the idea of a modern, producerist world.

There’s nothing in the Enlightenment project that says in the hierarchy of values that what you want to have is more important than what you want to do or to be. If we have come to a point where most people define themselves by what they consume rather than what they produce, I don’t see why blame must be laid at the foot of the autonomous self. Emerson certainly wouldn’t have any use for such an accusation.

But have we even come to that pass? The amazing thing about this moment in history is not merely that everybody can listen to whatever music they want, but that it’s easier than ever before to produce and distribute music. And writing. And so forth.

The tradition of classical music is anything but dead – the country is littered with philharmonics, and still there’s a glut of musicians who can’t get a gig. Ditto for jazz, or just about any other musical tradition you’d like to name.

So what, exactly, is the complaint? That too many people have no taste and no aspirations . . . whereas in the 15th century they did? Or isn’t it that in the 15th century nobody cared whether they did.

Rod Dreher has chosen to make a certain kind of life. He’s chosen a certain relationship to his spouse and his children, a certain relationship to food and his environment, a certain relationship to his God and to his self. I have to say, I find that project of fully realizing a self to be pretty darn interesting, and something that requires a whole lot more work than either simply doing what one must or buying what one wants.