The Importance of Place

“On the whole, it would appear to be for the best that the great majority of human beings should go on living in the place in which they were born.” So wrote T.S. Eliot in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. Like much of Eliot’s cultural philosophy, it is a thoroughly contrarian, even atavistic notion, and as such strikes contemporary ears as unrealistic at best and positively evil at worst. After all, for most young Americans, home may be defined as “that place to which I shall never return if I am a success.” And the proudest parents are they whose children work on one of the coasts, not down the road in the county seat.

Who can blame them—or us? Who wants to be trapped in some homogenized midwestern suburb or dying, rural small town for the rest of his life? Hardly anyone, it seems, who has a genuine choice.

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But the small towns haven’t always been in decline, and the suburbs haven’t always been homogeneous (or even suburbs). A number of factors account for their rapid transformation, but social mobility is certainly one of them. Humans—even yuppies!—crave familiarity and stability; consequently, their uprootedness drives the twin processes of standardization and centralization of economic power. If you’re new in town and don’t know where the local frame shop is, well, you know you can get something at Wal-Mart. If you don’t know the local butcher, then why patronize him? The supermarket will do, or perhaps the Super Wal-Mart. Want a CD? Well, there may be an independent music store just down the road, but as long as you’re at Wal-Mart…

Eliot intuited that excessive population mobility could have a dark side. The work of Wendell Berry may be read as consisting largely of an extended reflection on the implications of and implicit reasoning behind Eliot’s intuition. In his fiction, poetry, and essays, Berry has attempted to make the case that human communities cannot flourish unless their natural and cultural supports receive adequate nourishment and care. This task requires familiarity with, affection for, and intimate knowledge of our local surroundings—including the land, its creatures, and our fellow humans.

In Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, Berry extends and significantly sharpens his critique by locating the source of modern environmental and cultural degradation in the ideology of scientism. E. O. Wilson’s widely acclaimed Consilience exemplifies this ideology, and Berry uses this book to take issue with the scientistic faith that all reality ultimately can be explained completely by the operation of physical laws.

Berry patiently demonstrates that Wilson’s philosophical assumptions—including his rather passé agnostic, deterministic materialism—destroy the very possibility of an approach to life that recognizes the ineradicability of mystery and necessity for reverence. And he asserts that in contemporary America, Wilson-style scientism is implicated with technology and industry in a collaboration with explicit political consequences. “The putative ability to explain everything along with the denial of religion (or the appropriation of its appearances) is a property of political tyranny.”

But the heart of Berry’s essay, and its most powerful and unique feature, is his exposition of the fundamental difference between Wilson and him: Wilson’s underlying epistemological doctrine that the only reliable path to knowledge is through analysis and abstraction—or in a word, reductionism. Berry realizes, of course, that reductionist methodology is necessary to scientific thought. But he is intent on maintaining that it is a technique of limited usefulness, for its reliance on abstraction means that attention to the particular (individual, creature, or locale) is necessarily lost. Reductionism thus precludes the possibility of appreciating or even adequately understanding life itself; for life “shows itself to affection and familiarity,” things that are outside the bounds of reductionist science.

Abstraction is what makes science compatible with industrialism, for the latter is on principle blind to the particular, seeing “everything as interchangeable with or replaceable by something else.” Consumer culture speaks, Berry writes, “a rhetoric of nowhere, which forbids a passionate interest in, let alone a love of, anything in particular.” This notion is opposed to the culture of life, which is concerned with “the preciousness of individual lives and places,” with stewardship.

Furthermore, Berry refuses to accept the principle that science is morally neutral. At a time when respectable people argue that the cloning of human beings is not necessarily something we should recoil from in horror—or even necessarily ban—he is prepared to remind us “that some unexplored territory had better be treated as forbidden territory.” The cult of originality, innovation, and discovery, he argues, is misleading and mad. It leads to hubris and ultimately either disappointment or disaster, not to mention the devaluation of those people whose gifts lie elsewhere.

Berry’s is not an especially popular project. To excoriate the science-technology-industry axis from an unabashedly moral perspective is unlikely to win you friends in corporate, cultural, or governmental high places. The political parties don’t invite you to speak at their conventions, and most people dismiss you with labels, such as  nostalgic, romantic, and reactionary.

But Berry’s thought is profoundly conservative—in the same sense that Chesterton’s work is conservative: that is, it is the result of a principled, humanistic, and unflinchingly theocentric worldview that gives no quarter to the deeply ingrained presumptions of the modern world. Therefore it can seem—and often is—quite radical in its conclusions. Berry is as conscientious as a 13th-century scholastic in his refusal to bracket moral considerations in any discussion, particularly political or economic ones, and he consciously espouses a thoroughly sacramental and incarnational worldview.

Though Berry is not Catholic, the image of the schoolman is an apt one, for like Eliot, Berry is engaged in a thorough revaluation of the western heritage that rejects the standard, secular, Enlightenment narrative. Rather, Berry’s is a perspective that recognizes the “stickers” instead of the “boomers” (terms he borrows from Wallace Stegner) as representing the best of what the West has to offer: a particularist tradition embodied in the humility and reverence expressed in the West’s religion, art, literature, and organic communities. It is this tradition—because it speaks the necessarily personal language of the local—that points toward the possibility of what John Paul II has called a civilization of love; it is opposed to a civilization whose ultimate values are not those of love but the cold, soulless values of technique and the machine. Of course, a civilization of love requires a civilization of homes. “Stickers” needed.

Life Is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition
Wendell Berry, Counterpoint, 2000, 153 pages, $21


This article originally appeared in the April 2001 issue of Crisis Magazine.


  • Jeremy Beer

    Jeremy Beer is a founding partner of American Philanthropic with ten years

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