Thursday, April 7, 2011

Ceding the premise: instrumentalism

A while back I’d written about character and argued for the importance of craftsmanship in its development. I touched on the notion that contemporary American culture is suffering the consequences of two powerful ideas combined into a distinctive political ethos: the central tenet of liberalism, which prioritizes process over substance, and a central tenet of capitalism, which values competition. This has the disastrous consequence of making us instrumentalize everything—to make “value”, now almost exclusively an economic term, a function solely of economic utility.

These ideas were brought to mind quite forcefully today by the latest post from pianist Stephen Hough. Mr. Hough is a man of many talents and interests, which get showcased bit by bit on his blog. He has a devoted following, in the concert hall and blogosphere, and both his post and several responses not only remind me of this “instrumentalism” leitmotif, but provide immediate, accessible examples of how this ideology so pervades contemporary culture that even when we argue against it, we still accept its basic premise.

In today’s post, Mr. Hough wrote about an unfortunate incident in which he and friends went to the theatre, only to find out that the tickets they’d reserved were for the afternoon showing rather than the performance about to begin that evening in a few minutes.  They hurried to the box office to talk to the ticket manager, who refused to let them sit in any of a number of seats still empty as the curtain was rising. Four people’s enthusiasm for an evening together was dampened unnecessarily, and the theatre lost four patrons that evening, possibly for good.

The responses to the post were varied. Some tried to rationalize the theatre’s decision, apparently in an attempt at empathy; others thought Stephen and his companions should have kicked up more of a fuss, perhaps using (instrumentalizing?) their celebrity; some thought he should have called out the name of the theatre in his blog so there would be repercussions for their dismal and unfeeling behavior. (To his great credit, Mr. Hough expressly did not want to jeapordize some poor soul’s job in an already fragile economy.) A few commented on the conflict between commerce and artistry.  But I’m particularly interested in comments like the following:
 ...Just as customers are the backbone of any organization, patrons are fundamental to successful performing arts events. This is about providing thoughtful and excellent customer service which must start with management and should include empowering employees at all levels to use their best instinct and judgment to handle issues aiming for a positive outcome for all concerned. ... Making the exception is about leading by example and it’s about using common sense. It’s also very importantly about ensuring great community and public relations which will always impact the success and longevity of any enterprise ...
In other words, if the theatre had been more instrumental in its view of these customers, it would have acted differently.  That is undoubtedly true, as far as it goes.  But listen to the language, especially the mixture of corporate clichés: excellent customer service, it starts with the management, empower employees, positive outcome, impact the success of any enterprise. (When did bureaucrats start using ‘impact’ as a verb?)  The self-help clichés are there too, all in one go: make an exception, lead by example, use common sense. Everything we need to know we learned in kindergarten?*

I would argue that instrumentalizing people is actually part of the reason the Hough party weren’t allowed to see the play. If, for example, the usher or manager had recognized any of the four hopeful theatre-goers as fellow human beings (thereby removing them from the category of nameless, faceless customers) and empathized with their all-too-easily-made mistake, s/he would likely have just allowed them to take the empty seats. Think about how "regulars" in many businesses often receive favorable treatment because a relationship has been built over time, thereby increasing the chances that empathy will arise (on both sides) when there are problems. But isn’t everyone a potential partner in a relationship?**

Notice, too, what those well-worn phrases call to mind. “Excellent customer service” conjures images of cheerful, efficient employees who make customers happy so they’ll give their money to the company. “Starts with the management” and “lead by example” embody notions of responsibility and subtly promise rewards within the power structure. “Positive outcome” is a banal, quasi-scientific term whose objectifying quality neatly camouflages the fact that it’s all a matter of perspective. (Positive for whom, exactly, and when?) Impact the success: well, who wants failure?  Here we have a value system —cheerfulness, efficiency, responsibility, leadership, quantifiable outcomes and disembodied "success"—that commands much unquestioning respect but doesn’t seem well-suited to coping with the greatest problems of our day. Where do these values come into play when we think about the elderly, the poor, those who have been bankrupted by illness or mortgage fraud, those whose health is sabotaged by contaminated water...basically all those people who cannot be cheerful, efficient, responsible leaders and who inconveniently remind us that positive outcomes for some mean failures for others?

The increasing dominance of this particular way of according value plays a particularly insidious role in current debates over education. Both Britain and the US are in economic straits and governments are cutting secondary school programs in the arts and humanities, and universities are sometimes losing whole departments to the exigencies of utility narrowly defined. Yet educators in the arts and humanities seem to have lost sight of the real realm of conflict, and instead try to defend their territory by claiming its instrumental value. They argue, for example, that we shouldn’t cut their programs because “studies show” music actually improves a student’s performance in math, or dance might help stem the tide of obesity.*** Whatever happened to arguing forcefully that music, painting, violin-making, weaving, literature, philosophy, history, etc. are valuable in themselves?  We make all these ends into mere means.  What is all that math and accounting and computer programming for, anyway? Making money, ostensibly. For what? Presumably to buy tickets to the theatre, among other things. 

Ironically, the only thing that seems to be treated as an end-in-itself is the one thing that is truly a means: money.  How thoroughly the orthodoxy of our time has triumphed. There is nothing it has not brought to submission: everything must, sooner or later, pay fealty to Mammon. Thus we read cost-benefit analyses on providing healthcare, curbing pollution, raising children, supporting public radio, saving a species. All non-monetary value has been drained from the debate. Arguments here in the US on behalf of maintaining the EPA’s already weak powers to curb air pollution are regularly made in economic terms, i.e., that we will actually “grow the economy” by investing in green jobs, or by saving the money that would otherwise be spent on healthcare for all the people who will sicken and die if we fail to curb airborne contaminants. It doesn't occur to anyone that there are ethical dimensions of the problem—which, I would argue, have a lot to do with instrumentalizing Nature, viewing natural “resources” strictly in narrow economic terms.

As Mark Slouka wrote in “Dehumanized: when math and science rule the school,” (Harper’s Magazine, September 2009):
By downsizing what is most dangerous (and most essential) about our education, namely the deep civic function of the arts and the humanities, we’re well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens. Thus is the world made safe for commerce, but not safe.  


* Ironically, this post followed a comment of mine, in which I’d argued:
Rules are not, contrary to the popular cliche, "to live by". No rule can possibly account for the varieties and nuances of real life situations. This is the problem with rule-based moral systems; it's also the basis for "work to rule strikes" in which workers show their displeasure by doing ONLY what is in the company's rules. Soon the management realizes nothing can get done at all, because the rules are inevitably "thinner" than the embedded knowledge the workers bring to the task. Since this is a pianist's blog, consider the impossibility of devising a rulebook for how to play Beethoven. Not that there aren't guidelines and principles, but practice/performance boils down to taste, experience, judgement, sensitivity, imagination, and creativity, all of which requires education and training.

It is possible that my attempt to bring a homely incident at the theatre to bear on a larger, more theoretical point annoyed this particular commenter and drove her to her exasperated outburst.

** Dominique Browning posted recently about a similarly disheartening experience at her favorite bakery. The responses there were interesting, too, and prove the wisdom of Mr. Hough's restraint.

**  The fact both sides continually evoke scientific studies is another problem, scientism, which I discuss elsewhere as it affects contemporary medicine.


  1. have you ever considered framing your ideas in book form? ...just think that you are grappling with some amazing concepts and that because of the complexity of your ideas that readers ( especially one's like me who need time to sift through and reread and consider)need more time/space than a blog affords. i think my comment dates me...but, ? psi

  2. Dear Pam, yes, I would very much like to write a book connecting all these dots.... I wanted to try to see if essays on these sorts of topics might move or stimulate people, but I realize that it does demand a lot more of readers than they would have any reason to expect from a blog form.

    Your comment doesn't date you at all --I am, in fact, extremely appreciative for your thoughtfulness and generosity of spirit -- and along those lines I've been thinking about reorganizing this material into a different form on a web site so that it can be easier to "get" what's going on (different topics, but threads or leitmotifs that run through them). I've also sort of joked to myself that maybe I should come up with a new term: instead of "blog" (short for "web log"), maybe "bessay" ("web essay"), but alas, that neologism doesn't sound very catchy. :-/

  3. VL,
    You do need a new format to share your essaying. Elizabeth Young-Bruehl's website is of a piece with your own musings to me even though your ideas sometimes converge your focus is original. In both cases, thouh, i do find that your work demands more of readers- a good thing- and so often long for a physical text as i read you. my husband's daughter, son and our daughter-in-law and even our two year old granddaughter have blogs. the first two include essays and photography, the third explores ian's artistic process and the fourth is a descriptive photo assemblage for doting grandparents and family. All are less dense and intense than your subject matter. But even so,the term 'blog' seems inadequate. I agree - you definitely need a new word to describe what your writings on line- wonder if there is any way to play with the words internet and essay to find that neologism? we'll all keep pondering that one. in the meantime, thank you for writing. psi

  4. Well, either "slow blogging" will catch on or I will have to learn to say more with less!

    In truth, I need to see how people respond to these ideas, and what sort of presentation generates more interest, more involvement, more hope. Perhaps my tactic of pointing out underlying assumptions is not only cumbersome but ineffectual at inspiring people. As has been discussed over at Slow Love Life, far more people respond to pretty pictures and nice things to buy (or even nasty bakeries to complain about!) than these more challenging topics that just seem overwhelming. Actually, the bakery post was instructive: Dominique has built such a loyal following by presenting her gracious, gentle self that people leapt to her defense. But isn't Nature a gracious, gentle, giving self, also, who should inspire us to leap to her defense? Then again, many do sign petitions and write letters...maybe the difference is that the Koch brothers are not funding disinformation campaigns against Ms. Browning!

  5. oooh, that sounds like slogging to me...or slog, not much of an improvement over blog i fear. i, for one, like pulling back the covers and exposing assumptions. i think, though,that you are correct in observing that the topics you are uncovering require participation that is a level or two above the quick-witted repartee of some and takes a good bit more of a time investment for others who are all in a swirl over their day to day making ends meet existence. And for the more fortunate among us, it's easier and far more comfortable to pretend that life in the cocoon is just fine. no need to muddy things with thoughts of global warming or BSP or ...... as you say,the disinformation mongers are well paid and provide much of what passes for 'news. as an aside, i love your description of Nature as a" gracious, gentle, giving self." Perhaps far too many people are afraid of "nature" and for sure far too many are 'gullible' as Krugman underscores in his recent blog. All i know is i am grateful to find thoughtful people out here who prod me to think outside my skin. thank you, psi

  6. Oh dear; slogging would definitely not be a good association to promote (though I fear it might aptly describe the feeling some hapless readers might have slogging through lengthy posts!).

    Your comment makes me realize we need a vision of what we're headed toward, though, a beautiful vision, not just one that points out the deleterious consequences of our current path. Must chew on this awhile...