The Pragmatic Fallacy

I must admit it feels good to turn the tables, to use the logic of pragmatism to put it into its place!  Turning the Pathetic Fallacy on its head.

The rush to action, the refusal to look deeply at underlying assumptions, the scorn heaped upon anyone unwilling to do the “hard thing;” when in the end, it’s not in any way the “hard thing,” it’s just the wrong thing.  Combining ineffectuality with inefficiency and calling the resulting failure noble?  Worthy of emulation?

There should be nothing of the useless gesture in a pragmatic stance, yet there always is.  It shows up the underlying bankruptcy of such a limited perspective.

I’m tired of being on “the defensive” in this regard.  For too long, I’ve done their work for them by censoring myself.  Pragmatism is a facile, fantasy-driven and ultimately destructive position, confounding expediency with effectiveness.

It all comes back to the work of developing a sense of where we stand as opposed to adopting poses.  That is a truly difficult job.  Is it for me to make excuses for why the “pragmatic” among us are too undisciplined to make that effort?  Should I accommodate myself to the endless series of messes they senselessly foist on us?  No longer.

From now on, the “burden of proof” is on them.  Explain to me how a spread sheet is more efficacious than a poem?

* * *

I’ve spent much of my adult life embarrassed by my – now 93 year old – mother’s peasant attitudes.  She herself was not a peasant, the daughter of “professionals,” though village-bound teachers.  Her parents would have been contemporaries of the Bovary’s for example, petite bourgeois immersed in the narrow life of a subsistence village on the edge of Europe.  I am still appalled by her uncritical acceptance of the fascism she grew up under, but her underlying peasant verities and her immersion in an Ovidian world of classical myth and the cycles of life, I am finding more and more vital as time goes on.

I knew relatives who were peasants, who tilled the land and raised their own animals, and collected their subsistence in a loja, a storeroom, beneath their home.  Many If’s lie between me and my having acted on the impulse, but I not only admire John Berger’s adoption of village life, but I can see how I might have done the same.  In fact, I tried it, futilely, here in American small towns for many years, unable to see that there was no connection left to this way of life in these places, except perhaps in some ways in the Provincetown of my childhood.

Part of the problem has been this “timing.”  In the twenty – twenty five years  – that separate me from Berger’s life’s trajectory, the “window” closed for me.  My family’s old village is now just down the new road from a Mercedes dealership and the view from my grandparent’s 1812 house’s windows now neatly frame the Autostrada rising towards the Spanish border, France and beyond.  The lines of trucks processing up the Serra in low gear taking the precipitated fabric of the country and exporting it to the “Globe;” bringing a new migration of economic refuges into this hard land overlain with a veneer of easy living spread out below the shadows of the emblematic construction crane, the new national bird.

My 96 year old – at that time – cousin, Mauriçio eagerly showed my wife and me a fruit tree sapling he’d grafted the previous autumn that last winter we saw him.  His pure joy shone through his crafty peasant appetite; his instinct for acquisition, to hold onto what he could get, expand against his limitations.  On the surface this seems no different from homo economicus and his “greed is good.”  There is all the world of difference between these attitudes, I’m learning to see.  It boils down to presumption, to the difference between humility and hubris.  His world view maintained the supremacy of nature.  He must be crafty to make his way.  The other view is overweening presumption that everything can and must be made over to satisfy their desires.

We can admire the crafty player without confusing him with the bastard who overthrows the board if everything doesn’t go his way.  That’s the difference.

* * *

As designers, we have gone astray by becoming the facilitators of the commodification of necessity and desire, their concretion into “needs.”  We are in a position to undo this, to facilitate the unraveling of “needs” back into a flow of where desire meets necessity.   Ivan Illich, in his essay on The Shadow That the Future Throws, sums up the slow-motion train wreck we’ve lived through for my entire adult life.  A time in which the “common sense” has grappled with the dangers of “business-as-usual” while balking at the depth of the necessary critique of its fundamental assumptions to be able to make the leap into a new image of what it means to be human, to supplant the industrial, homo economicus model.

As he puts it,

The pressing questions for me today (this was in 1985!) are, after development, What?  What concepts?  What symbols?  What images?… (to replace) the mythological crystallization points around which modern experience is organized in terms like, future, development, growth, participation, liberation, population, need…

(We will look for) …the origins of these socially constructed certitudes… (using methods like:) Poetry, meditation, etymology, drugs perhaps, thoughtful recovery of real-life moments in one’s past; to discover the strange origins of our curious assumptions. …

Only by re-entering the present moment with this understanding will it be possible to establish a new discourse, a new way of seeing; a new set of terms that can guide sustainable “policies” without recourse to the Nemesis-engendering idea of development….

Development is one of those terms with which we express a rebellion against the rule of necessity, against the acceptance of that necessity which ruled all societies up to the Eighteenth Century.  The root certainty of the Twentieth Century, which is evolution, is interpreted by optimistic politics as progress, which, in turn, is called development when it is taken over by homo faber, through his tools.

The practices of design must be liberated from simply serving as a tool.  The junction between the conceptual and the physical, between aspiration and expression that is the highest quality of what is the practice of design must be brought to bear at the center of questions pertaining to the human condition and not simply to be co-opted as a tool of failed concepts and strategies.

A designer must first of all be human, a responsible agent respecting the agency of all others.  From this stance, using the practices and abilities honed by that practice a designer may then be of immense value to the world.

The true stance of a designer is not as a “professional,” some cog in the manufacture and commodification of “needs.”  A designer, by virtue of having a fluency across a broad range of human experience, coupled with an ability to navigate these realms, of searching out paths that bring yearning and habitation together; a designer is in a unique position to steer the way yearning finds expression, how aspiration is ultimately conditioned and brought into the physical world in the way people live.

There are many “short-circuits” lying in wait along this path.  Places where impatience and indiscipline will lead to the dissipation of the search’s energy sent “to ground” in a flurry of sparks.  The ultimate short-circuit today is the notion of management and the proliferation of technologies to manage experience, to commodify it, removing experience from life and taking it to ground so as to “mine” it for its economic vale, a value seen as the ultimate good.

…technology was a measured tribute to necessity, not the road to mankind’s chosen action.

Tools are there to wrestle with necessity, to make life possible in the face of necessity, to free us to experience life.  Once they become ends in themselves – for the objectification of human “raw material” so that those who harvest “value’ by commodifying life to turn life into a harvest-able “surplus,” then tools become the Promethean curse of a hubristic fantasy of an escape from necessity.

This requires a complete break with the current modes of thought, the current “mythological crystallization points,” the current “socially constructed certainties.”

14 Replies to “The Pragmatic Fallacy”

  1. A neighbor who is a designer at an architectural firm stopped me in the street to inquire as to how to know, really know, how to go about making the world a better place. This post makes me think of him.

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