Book Review: The World Beyond Your Head

The World Beyond Your Head is Matthew Crawford’s second book, following Shop Class as Soulcraft—one of my all-time favorites.

I enjoyed this book, but cannot say that I recommend The World Beyond Your Head to the casual reader. It’s much denser, more philosophical, and less accessible than Shop Class. But if you have a soft spot for sometimes-intractable political philosophy and social commentary with brief shining moments of illuminating truth (as I do), it may be worth your time.

What I took away was a powerful critique of the Enlightenment-driven concept of the autonomous individual which lies at the base of how I understand (and promote) unschooling and self-directed learning. Yet at the same time, Crawford reinforces the value of experiential education.

Here are my favorite quotes, all taken from the U.S. paperback version. All emphases are original; all typos are mine.

On silence and stimulation:

The benefits of silence [such as in an airport waiting area] are off the books. They are not measured directly by an econometric instrument such as gross domestic product, yet the availability of silence surely contributes to creativity and innovation. They do not show up explicitly in social statistics such as level of educational achievement, yet one consumes a great deal of silence in the course of becoming educated. (p. 11)

The media have become masters at packaging stimuli in ways that our brains find irresistible, just as food engineers have become experts in creating “hyperpalatable” foods by manipulating levels of sugar, fat, and salt. Distractability might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity. . . When we inhabit a highly engineer environment, the natural world begins to seem bland and tasteless, like broccoli compared with Cheetos. Stimulation begets a need for more stimulation; without it one feels antsy, unsettled. Hungry, almost. (pp. 16-17)

On autonomy:

As atomized individuals called to create meaning for ourselves, we find ourselves the recipients of all manner of solicitude and guidance. We are offered forms of unfreedom that come slyly wrapped in autonomy talk: NO LIMITS!, as the credit card offer says. YOU’RE IN CHARGE. Autonomy talk speaks the consumerist language of preference satisfaction. Discovering your true preferences requires maximizing the number of choices you face: precisely the condition that makes for maximum dissipation of one’s energies. (p. 25)

On self-regulation and discipline:

I worked for one of the test-prep companies for about six months, coaching students for the SAT and GRE tests. The intellectual content of what I was offering was pretty close to zero—a few tips that could be put on one side of an index card. But the classes and tutoring sessions provided an institutional setting that forced students to show up and do practice tests. The benefit was mostly one of providing a jig for hire that helped relieve students of the burden of self-regulation. It also helped to relieve parents of the burden of discipline. Parental authority was a central target of the sixties counterculture. Now we want to be our children’s best friends, and this is easier if you can outsource the discipline. (p. 43)

On feeling effective in the world:

Friedrich Nietzsche said that joy is the feeling of one’s power increasing. This needn’t be understood as the motto of an insatiable tyrant. It captures something important about the role that skill plays in a good life. When we become competent in some skilled action, the very elements of the world that were initially sources of frustration become elements of a self that has expanded, by analogy with the way a toddler expands into his own body and comes to inhabit it comfortably. And this feels good. (p. 52)

Perhaps we are all becoming autistic, in this broad sense. If so, it is not without reason. As the world becomes more confusing, seemingly controlled by vast impersonal forces e.g., “globalization” or “collateralized debt obligations”) that no single individual can fully bring within view; as the normative expectation becomes to land a cubicle job, in which the chain of cause and effect can be quite dispersed and opaque; as home life becomes deskilled (we outsource our cooking to corporations, our house repairs to immigrant guest workers); as the material basis of modern life becomes ever more obscured, and the occasions for skillful action are removed to sites overseas, where things are made; to sites nearby but socially invisible, where things are tended and repaired; and to sites unknown, where elites orchestrate commercial and political forces—when all of this is the case, the experience of individual agency becomes somewhat elusive. The very possibility of seeing a direct effect of your actions in the world, and knowing that these actions are genuinely your own, may come to seem illusory. (p. 93)

Perhaps this is what is left to us, given the deep contradiction that we live in: one the one hand, we have the individualist ideal—one is tempted to say the autistic ideal—of the unencumbered self who acts in freedom, and on the other hand we feel beset by insecurities and obscurities that emanate from the collective world. These latter are often technological in nature. We therefore seek out other, personal technologies that can give us safe haven: “manufactured certainties,” as Schüll puts it, that help us “manage [our] affective states.” That is what computer games seem to do for our quasi-autistic cohort of young men; it what machine gambling does for those who gave gone down that particular path. Perhaps such pursuits help us manage the anxiety and depression that come with experiences of genuine agency are scarce, and at the same time we live under a cultural imperative of being autonomous. Escape to the autistic zone, where there are no impediments between your will and its realization, is precisely the remedy that is wanted if your life resembles that of the passive kitten on the carousel of modern life, who is nonetheless exhorted at each rotation to “seize the day! (pp. 93-94)

On libertarianism and “liberal agnosticism”:

Our economic system assumes that individuals are radically responsible for themselves. Maintaining this view requires that we hive off any group of people who fail to live up to the autonomous ideal (problem gamblers, sex addicts, etc.) and designate them pathological. If they have an internal defect, then there is no urgent reason to criticize external forces (for example, slot machines in convenience stories; porn that is accessible on your mobile device) that contribute to their lack of self-command. The creeping saturation of life by hyperpalatable stimuli remains beneath the threshold of concern if we repeat often enough the mantra that “government interference” is bad for “the economy.” It would certainly be bad for the bottom line of some particular people. (p. 107)

We take the “preferences” of the individual to be sacred, the mysterious welling up of his authentic self, and therefore unavailable for rational scrutiny. The fact that these preferences are the object of billion-dollar, scientifically informed efforts of manipulation doesn’t square with the picture of the choosing self assume in the idea of a “free market.” It is a fact without a noisy partisan, so our attention is easily diverted from it. Further, by keeping his gaze away from such facts, the liberal/libertarian keeps his own soul pure, lest he commit the sin of recommending to others some substantive ideal, one that will necessarily be controversial. But outside his garden wall there are wolves preying on the townspeople. In our current historical circumstances, his liberal purity amounts to a lack of public-spiritedness. (p. 109)

On the burden of individualism:

[Quoting Alain Ehrenberg from his book The Weariness of the Self:] Depression began its ascent when the disciplinary model for behaviors, the rules of authority and observance of taboos that gave social classes as well as both sexes a specific destiny, broke against norms that invited us to undertake personal initiative by enjoining us to be ourselves . . . Depression presents itself as an illness of responsibility in which the dominant feeling is that of failure. The depressed individual is unable to measure up; he is tired of having to become himself. (p. 161)

Our weariness is understandable. With radical responsibility comes a new emphasis on personal initiative, and a corollary “culture of performance” in which you have to constantly marshal your internal resources to be successful, as Ehrenberg says. This is reflected in, for example, the heightened competition of the middle-class educational trajectory. Significant social sorting is understood to be operating at every stage, from preschool to the GREs. With our presumption of meritocracy—this is, of a fair and frictionless mobility, a system without any systemic rigidities that would block our way—failure carries a deeper stigma than it would if we had a more realistic view of society. ¶

If there are no external constraints, what you make of yourself depends on your gumption and mental capacities. Are you a high-performance person? In a culture of performance, the individual reads the status and value of her soul in her worldly accomplishments. Like the Calvinist, she looks to her success in order to know: Am I one of the elect or am I damned? With radical responsibility comes the specter of inadequacy. ¶

In Calvin’s time, one might have had a hereditary occupation. And as recently as the 1970s, it was possible to compose a working life centered around the steady accumulation of experience, and be valued in the workplace for that experience; for what you have become. But, as the sociologist Richard Sennett has shown in his studies of contemporary work, it has become difficult to experience the repose of any such settled identity. The ideal of  being experienced has given way to the idea of being flexible. What is demanded is an all-purpose intelligence, the kind one of certified to have by admission to an elite university, not anything in particular that you might have learned along the way. You have to be ready to reinvent yourself at any time, like a good democratic Übermensch. And while in Calvin’s time the threat of damnation might have been dismissed by some as a mere superstition, with our winner-take-all economy the risk of damnation has acquired real teeth. There is a real chance that you may get stuck at the bottom. (pp. 162-3)

The liberation of the individual from various identities, obligations, and allegiances in the 1960s gave a new flavor to our economic individualism. The economics of the right became infused with the moral fervor of the youth left in a grand synthesis of liberation that gave us the figure of the bohemian entrepreneur as the exemplary human type. (p. 165) [This is me. -BB]

What sort of self shall we choose to be? The way psychoactive drugs are currently used indicates that the “choices” we face tend to get highly funneled by societal pressures. Anecdotally it seems to be the case that, for example, junior faculty at high-powered research universities are taking as much Adderall as their students, and this is perfectly understandable. As Ehrenberg argues, a culture of self-responsibility is a culture of performance, which is a culture of competition. In light of that competition, there is really only one kind of self that is going to be successful: the high-performance kind. This starts to feel less like something chosen in a shining moment of existential freedom and more like something obligatory. (p. 167)

On changing beliefs:

[David Foster Wallace] recommends a basically Stoic strategy of minimizing one’s pain by changing one’s beliefs about the irritants that are disturbing one. [Crawford is criticizing Wallace’s famous talk, “This is Water”]  The problem with the Stoic strategy is that beliefs involve states of affairs tin the world, so it isn’t simply up to us to decide to believe what we want. It would be nonsensical to come into a building and announce, “It’s raining outside, but I don’t believe it.” Short of such outright contradiction, one has only so much interpretive latitude before one’s imaginings take on a hallucinatory aspect. Forrest Gump has a positive affect that is impervious to the world, but there is something defective about him. (pp. 172-3)

Murdoch’s therapy is predicated on realism: new energies come from real objects that one becomes interested in. This strikes me as more thoroughly liberating than the effort of reinterpretation that Wallace recommends. It is less concerned with moral improvement or being just. You simply abandon the object that is tormenting you. You walk away, and don’t even notice that you have done so, because your energies are focused elsewhere. (p. 174)

On becoming an individual:

Arguably, what it takes to be an individual is to develop a considered evaluative take on the world, and stand behind it. Doing so exposes one to conflict, and in the conversations with others that follow you may revise your take on things. Such development cant’ occur if you’re not attached to anything to begin with, or never put it forward to others as being choiceworthy. (pp. 184-5)

Fichte says that individuality is born of a certain kind of interaction, in which someone issues a “summons” to you: tell me where you’re coming from, in doing what you do. Give an account of yourself. In rising to this challenge, you have to own it, whatever the [deed] is. There is an element of confrontation to it (just as when the motorcycle mechanic presents his bill to a customer). (p. 187) [Upon reading this, I realized that I do this all the time with teenagers: “summoning” them to tell me about themselves as individuals. -BB]

On becoming a lover:

To be a lover is to admire something above yourself. This becomes oppressive if it is prolonged and not reciprocated. Eros is a tyrant, a fly in the ointment of democratic morality. Eventually one becomes resentful toward the beloved, in the manner of a slave toward its maters. As I suggested earlier, the moment of rebellion is that of the indecent overture, when the lover overcomes the superiority of the beloved’s beauty, or vaunts himself over the weakness inflicted on him (or her) by his (or her) own desire. In doing this he incurs a genuine risk; he will probably be shot down, mid-vaunt. That is, it will be revealed to him that the vision of intimacy he entertained was an unrealistic fantasy because—guess what? He is not qualified to play that role with this person. What was he thinking? The risk taken in the sexual overture is perhaps a higher-stakes version of the risk taken by the DJ at a party of club. He offers himself up with the playlist in the hope that others will find something lovable, resulting in some common feeling and genuine connection. (pp. 190-1)

The really [absurd] moment of American sexuality, at least on campus, probably occurred sometime in the early 1990s. If you recall, at that time the Office of the Dean for Student Life, and various entities with names like that, encouraged students to exchange mutual statements of explicit consent before touching each other in certain clearly demarcated zones, like a TSA agent getting ready to pat you down. In the administrators’ vision, men and women were to draw near and address one another as “Citizen”—each a representative of the ideal, autonomous liberal subject—and commerce a negotiation that would pass muster, should the books be examined later. (p. 191)

On the expectation of individualism in America:

Tocqueville was struck by the observation that as hyper-Protestants who reject anything lat looks like clerical authority, Americans are expected to be self-sufficient in forming their own judgements about everything. This isn’t understood as a rare accomplishment, or as a capacity that one grows into in the course of a life. It is a moral imperative from the get-go, taught in elementary school. ¶

But of course we run into a problem: we are not competent to judge everything for ourselves. We know this; we feel it. We cannot look to custom or established authority, so we look around to see what everyone else thinks. The demand to be an individual makes us feel anxious, and the remedy for this, ironically enough, is conformity. We become more deferential to public opinion. (p. 195)

With the Reagan/Thatcher revolution of the 1980s, the figure of the entrepreneur came to be central to our economics self-image. Individual initiative was the measure of personal value, and the hierarchical business firm came to be derided as hidebound in any number of business bestsellers. The new ideal was that every employee, from top to bottom, should have the entrepreneurial spirit, and display the virtues of autonomous behavior. Of course, employees now faced the hazards of entrepreneurship as well: heightened competition with one another, and indeed with workers in distant countries. The concept of loyalty was replaced with mobility. The expectation of continuity—of having a career, based on the steady accumulation of experience and expertise—was revealed as nothing more than cowardice. The narrative arc of work was dissolved into the isolated moments of an eternal present, each equally fraught with opportunity and insecurity. (p. 203) [Again, this describes me hook, line, and sinker. -BB]

Note how well these developments [of using vague language to avoid taking personal responsibility] fit with Tocqueville’s idea that the massification of the American mind is a direct response to the burden of individual responsibility; to the feeling that you have been cut off from identifiable, responsible sources of authority outside yourself and must stand alone without guidance of support. Under this condition you take shelter wherever you can, and there is safety in numbers. But now you find that you have become subject to an amorphous form of authority: a gray fog that emanates from the collective, which nobody takes responsibility for. (pp. 204-5)

On education:

In the United States (but not Germany, for example), the idea of apprenticeship is criticized for being too narrow an education. It is said that what the economy demands is workers who are flexible. The ideal seems to be that they shouldn’t be burdened with any particular set of skills or knowledge; what is wanted is a generic smartness, the kind one is certified to have by admission to an elite university. This fits well with our ideal of the unencumbered self, and with Kant’s exhortation to view ourselves under the generic heading “rational being.” We are told the economy is in a state of radical flux; “disruption” is spoken of as though it were a measure of value creation, and so a twenty-first-century education must form workers into material that is similarly indeterminate and disruptable. The less situated, the better. ¶

But consider that when you do deep into some particular skill or art, it trains your powers of concentration and perception. You become more discerning about the objects you are dealing with and, if all goes well, begin to care viscerally about quality, because you have been initiated into an ethic of caring about what you are doing. Usually this happens by the example of some particular person, a mentor, who exemplifies that spirit of craftsmanship. You hear disgust in his voice, or see pleasure on his face, in response to some detail that would be literally invisible to somone not initiated . In this way, judgement develops alongside emotional involvement, unified in what Polanyi calls personal knowledge. Technical training in such a setting, though narrow in its immediate application, may be understood as part of education in the broadest sense: intellectual and moral foundation. (pp. 209-10)

Technologists who work in a long tradition with inherited forms also offer a useful contrast to our current image of the innovator-entrepreneur as a sort of existential hero who creates the New ex nihilo. After a period of solitary gestation in a California garage, he emerges to disrupt us and deliver us. (p. 210)

As the term “liberal education” suggests, to be educated requires getting free from—led out from—taken-for-granted certainties. But when we go deep into a practice, so that its ends become our own, we find ourselves situated in the jig that surrounds the practice, for example the rich and contentious inheritance of organ making, which is disciplined by musical considerations. This jig imposes some definite shape on one’s own life as one who is devoted to making good organs. Within it there is room for, indeed a necessity of, interpretation of the standards and of how best to realize them, so the organ maker necessarily puts his own stamp on his product. (p. 225-6)

[The final quotes I offer as screen shots, because they are so long and so good. -BB]



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