In Re Davenport (3), Utopian idylls meet true grit

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Tue, 12 Mar 1996 21:10:00 +0900

Davenport writes,

"To my mind, though, one meaning of "going back" is to recover
pre-capitalist ways of experiencing, and communicating with, the
world through things like stories, song, dance, eating and growing
delicious food, having meaningful sex and family lives, etc. This is
its aesthetic dimension. In regard to the problem of what to do with
the superstructure of scientific thought and technological
inventions, it is not a matter of either throwing all this away or
leaving it exactly as it is, as the charge of Luddite is meant to imply.
Rather it is the harmonizing of these edifices of science and
technology with what gives them meaning, human life in the
context of the living environment. At present, science and
technology both follow the rationalization/commodification logic
of late capitalism. What is necessary is for these endeavors to be
decoupled from this logic and instead recover their human

Here I perceive the heart of Davenport's comments, a cry from a
heart that feels alienated, bereft of "stories, song, dance, eating and
growing delicious food, having meaningful sex and family lives,
etc." The image of "going back" implies (1) that these things are no
longer available in the present or future, but have to be sought
somewhere in the past and (2) that they did, in fact, exist in a past to
which it is possible to return. Then we come to the notion that
science and technology will be retained but must be "decoupled"
from the "rationalization/commodification logic of late capitalism"
and "recover their human meaning." Ignoring, for the moment,
the implicit contradiction with (2), let us focus for a moment on the
mental map in which (3) the world is divided between humanity
and something inhuman identified with "rationalization,"
"commodification" and "logic," with science and technology
belonging at present on the side of the inhuman. All this is
familiar stuff. How much of it is tenable? Allow me to play the
devil's advocate.

(1) It is one of the joys of the late capitalist world that stories, song
and dance have never been in greater supply or available in greater
variety to satisfy every conceivable taste. There is no end of books in
bookstores and libraries. Or music on CDs at my local Tower
Records or HMV music stores. Should I want to play an instrument,
there are hundreds of teachers ready to instruct me, dozens of
ensembles to join. Should I feel an overwhelming urge to sing (not
a good idea, given my voice), there is always karaoke. Delicious
food? Nowhere in the world do I have at my fingertips a greater
variety of foods, from raw to ready to eat, than living in a modern
city. It is true that should I want to grow my own, that is more
problematic. But what, says the critic, of human relations? A
marriage of 27 years, parents of whom I am fond, a daughter of
whom I'm inordinately proud, colleagues, students, a few good
friends. I am aware that many are not so fortunate--but at least
demonstrate each day that these things are not impossible.

(2) Where is that utopia? Where or when has it ever been? My
reading of the past suggests that, more often than not, the songs,
dances, delicious food, etc. have been accompanied by famine,
pestilence, war, low life expectancies and grossly high infant
mortality rates. To the best of my knowledge the sex lives of
peasants (who have long been far and away the vast majority of
humankind) have been far from romantic idylls. Be they Mexican,
Chinese, Arab or Indian, these are the lives in which patriarchy has
been a dominant factor, the oppression of women and brutality to
children both commonplace. And the structures of oppression they
represent antedate capitalism by a good many thousand years. It is,
on the contrary, the rise of capitalism and increasing employment
of women that has, at last, led to some progress in fighting these
ancient evils.

(3) That highly inhuman view of the current state of science and
technology. Could it be that we're dealing here with a view not
unlike that of ancient maps where unknown seas are marked with
"Here be monsters"? To anyone who has taken the time to get to
know in a serious way scientists and engineers, it is all too apparent
that science and technology are intensely human activities and
frequently deeply meaningful to those involved in them. The same
is true of business. Is a Wall Street broker in pursuit of a killing or
an adman chasing a big account so very different, after all, from a
Nuer obsessed with increasing his herds, or aTrobriander angling to
get a bigger bunch of spondylus shells?

Again, let me emphasize. None of these remarks is meant to excuse
the very real evils abroad in the world or even to detract attention
from them. They are meant to put some grit in the wheels of those
who spin critical theories from the straw of their own abstractions. But that,
I take it, has always been the special role of ethnography.

John McCreery
March 12, 1996