Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Wrong Target

Continuing the twisty line of thought from my last post, I want to make it clear that I do value individual personal effort. Unlike facing Borg assimilation, resistance is not futile. We all have a role to play and we all have many amazing and creative talents and passions. But at this point I'm not concerned as much with the how as the why. We have all the resources and talent in the world at our fingertips, "we can rebuild him...we have the technology!" Our existential quandary doesn't dull our efficaciousness (although it might). But the question is why are we doing what we're doing, and to what end?

While subbing for an Ethics class at a private school in the area (my blog doesn't exactly pay the bills - surprised? ;), I had the fortune to start the movie Food, Inc.. There's a lot of really interesting stuff in there, and yes the cliche is true, I'm never eating meat again (maybe). Yet the most interesting person to me in the film is a farmer named Joel Salatin. He is the owner and operator of Polyface Farms, and a published author and speaker. While he had a great deal of profound things to say in the film, one idea in particular stood out. It's basically what I've been trying to say, but said much better. Talking about the state of the industrialized farming and food industry, and the evasion of the consequences of the dangerous and arrogant attempt to engineer the food supply chain, he has this to say:

"I'm always struck at how successful we have been at hitting the bullseye of the wrong target. We have become a culture of technicians - we're all into the how of it - and nobody's stepping back and saying why? I mean a culture that just views a pig as a pile of protoplasmic inanimate structure to be manipulated by whatever creative design the human can foist on that critter, will probably view individuals in their community and other cultures in the community of nations with the same type of disdain and disrespect and controlling type mentality." (Joel Salatin, Food, Inc.)

Technicians. Bullseye indeed! Our efforts, however sincere they may be, are often aimed at the wrong target. But we're great at doing it; we love the satisfaction of hitting the bullseye so much that it doesn't much matter to us that it's the wrong target entirely! And what technicians we've become. "Techne" is an expansive ancient Greek word that is usually translated "art, skill, or craft." But it can also mean the "way, manner, or means whereby a thing is gained, without any definite sense of art or craft," and "a set of rules, system or method of making or doing, whether of the useful arts, or of the fine arts." It is in this broad sense that many of us are, for better or worse, technicians. We engineer the circumstances in life, use our skills to establish systems, and then depending on how much power we have, thrust those systems on others and redefine the meaning of "techne" for them and for society. In the process, however, we're losing the "art" aspect of it all. By "art" I mean the meaning behind it all. The "why" question. The "art" that makes us look closely at the target to see if it's the one we've been meaning to hit all along. But if it's not, are we technicians enough to re-engineer the circumstances, or, in the case of technology, are we too far gone? Are the circumstances engineering us?

As a final thought, Mr. Salatin seems to argue that being a technician has moral implications. It affects the way we live and move in the world. How can we come to understand this dimension of the problem? More thoughts to come on this I'm sure, but in the meantime all comments welcome!


  1. I agree completely, man. Great documentary, and great point. I think someone needs to follow Joel Salatin around and write down everything he says.

    Your discussion of "techne" reminds me of classic Greek philosophy which struggled with "techne" vs. "tuche" (luck) as an approach to the good life (a la Martha Nussbaum). I believe it was many of the Greek tragedians (Aeschylus and the like) who sided with the "tuche" approach; whereas philosophers (like Plato) sided with the "techne" approach. I think there are aspects of each which I can agree with, yet, with you, I have to agree that the "techne" approach seems to neglect the beauty of meaning. It seems,in that respect, to treat life instead of living it.

  2. Hi Caleb,
    Thanks so much for your really helpful and interesting comment. Glad there's a fellow Joel Salatin fan out there! I like your breakdown of "techne" and "tuche"; it really gets at the heart of the discussion I think. Thanks again for reading and I look forward to future comments from you!