Monologists and Conversationalists

Industrial agriculture, built according to the single standard of productivity, has dealt with nature, including human nature, in the manner of a monologist or an orator. It has not asked for anything, or waited to hear any response. It has told nature what it wanted, and in various clever ways has taken what it wanted. And since it proposed no limit on its wants, exhaustion has been its inevitable and foreseeable result.  This, clearly, is a dictatorial or totalitarian form of behavior, and it is as totalitarian in its use of people as it is in its use of nature. Its connections to the world and to humans and the other creatures become more and more abstract, as its economy, its authority, and its power become more and more centralized.

On the other hand, an agriculture using nature, including human nature, as its measure would approach the world in the manner of a conversationalist. It would not impose its vision and its demands upon a world that it conceives of as a stockpile of raw material, inert and indifferent to any use that may be made of it. It would not proceed directly or soon to some supposedly ideal state of things. It would proceed directly and soon to serious thought about our condition and our predicament.   On all farms, farmers would undertake to know responsibly where they are and to “consult the genius of the place.” They would ask what nature would be doing there if no one were farming there. They would ask what nature would permit them to do there, and what they could do there with the least harm to the place and to their natural and human neighbors. And they would ask what nature would help them to do there. And after each asking, knowing that nature will respond, they would attend carefully to her response.

The use of the place would necessarily change, and the response of the place to that use would necessarily change the user. The conversation itself would thus assume a kind of creaturely life, binding the place and its inhabitants together, changing and growing to no end, no final accomplishment, that can be conceived or foreseen.

Wendell Berry, from “Nature as Measure” (1989)

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6 comments on “Monologists and Conversationalists

  1. I love Wendell Berry’s vision for farming and use of the land. That middle paragraph perfectly sums up my own feelings about how I want to live on my land.


  2. shoreacres says:

    As I began reading, it wasn’t long before I was reading that first paragraph in a new way, a way that surprised me by the ease with which it arose:

    “The President has dealt with Congress in the manner of a monologist or an orator. He has not asked for anything, or waited to hear any response. He has told Congress what he wanted, and in various clever ways has taken what he wanted. And since he proposes no limits on his wants, exhaustion has been the inevitable and foreseeable result. This, clearly, is a dictatorial or totalitarian form of behavior, and it is as totalitarian in its use of people as it is in its use of nature.”

    Now. I am not suggesting that the President is a dictator. On the other hand, I am concerned about the direction things are taking with the so-called “fiscal cliff” “negotiations”, and I’m especially distressed about the Presidential request for unlimited personal power to raise the debt ceiling as he sees fit. Everyone in that city needs a little wisdom. It’sbeen in short supply of late.

    As for Berry’s broader point, it reminded me of Abraham Kaplan’s wonderful concept of the duologue, introduced in the 50s, I believe. The best example he offered was of two tv sets, turned on and facing each other, blathering on ceaselessly. It’s not hard to find examples in human society – just turn on Fox News or MSNBC for an hour on any given night!


    • Bill says:

      I think I’d rather have a tooth pulled than to spend an hour watching a TV news channel.

      As I get older I think I get more and more cynical. So to me the whole “fiscal cliff” drama has a comic tone to it. We have a “crisis” like this every year or so it seems (most recently the so-called debt ceiling crisis of 2011). We’re all whipped into near hysteria by being told of the great calamities that will befall us unless the politicians do thus-and-so. It always ends the same way: more debt, more spending, more finger-pointing, more kicking the can down the road. It seems to me there is no real debt ceiling. In my lifetime it’s been increased more times than I’ve circled the sun. Some of the politicians who claim to be opposed to increasing debt now, voted to increase the “ceiling” repeatedly when their team was in power. To the best of my knowledge there has never been a single instance of the debt ceiling actually acting to contain debt. It’s been increased every single time it has been an issue and I don’t expect this one to be any different. There are so few members of Congress who stand on real principle that it always degenerates into a money grab. I’d like to think I’m wrong, and that this time the politicians will do the right thing, but I’m pretty sure this one will end the same way they always have.


      • shoreacres says:

        I think you just pin-pointed for me the reason talk of a “debt ceiling” makes me so nervous. In my life, it’s real. No money, no spending. It’s that easy. After a good bit of struggle, I’m within a few hundred dollars of being debt free. I live by a budget. I keep an emergency fund. I plan ahead for yearly expenses. It seems to me those smart folks running the country ought to be able to do what I do, despite the differences in scale.

        I once sent a letter to my representative, questioning why Congress seems incapable of producing a budget and making spending cuts. His response was straight out of facebook: “it’s complicated”. Phooey.


  3. Bill says:

    Exactly. Why call it a ceiling if it isn’t? At this point it’s little more than political theater.

    Very few politicians are willing to admit there is an elephant in the room. Mandatory spending (primarily Medicare and Social Security) now consumes over 100% of federal tax revenue. If we cut all discretionary spending to ZERO (defense, all federal agencies, all the other programs we tend to argue about) we’d still have a deficit. Yet instead of owning up to this unsustainable mess, both sides ignore it, or worse (as in the most recent election) accuse each other of planning to cut Medicare and/or Social Security, leading to indignant denials of any such intent, solemn promises not to do so, etc. And so it goes.


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