Standing by Words

Slacktivist has a fine post on the impropriety of using “farm” to refer to industrial dairy operations. Why does this matter? The difference is huge:

One distinction between a “farm” and an industrial food production facility is this capacity to absorb and employ the manure that’s produced there. At a farm, this manure is a valuable resource that enriches and restores the health of the farm. At an industrial facility, it becomes a toxic industrial waste.

Fred reminds us that the image of the farmer that we readily call to mind is frequently in sharp contrast with the reality of commercial food production. His post refers to an article on dairy production as “Wendell Berry-esque,” noting that “one of the things Wendell Berry teaches us is that the abuse of the land requires a corresponding abuse of the language.” As it happens I have lately been thumbing through Berry’s Standing by Words, a copy of which I bought with “conference currency” last week, and Fred’s post gives me a chance to reflect on it a little myself.[1]

For Berry, when we take seriously belonging to a particular and identifiable community, we are forced to confront the real meanings of our institutions and actions, rather than deal with abstract constructions. We are forced to balance the internal meaning of language with the external, the extent to which it accounts for the larger community outside of us. For example, and apropos Fred’s own reflections, Berry argues that the industrialization of the dairy leaves the external ledger “not fully renderable” by divorcing production from the farm community. The introduction of the “yield per cow” confounds language that links farming to any kind of moral behavior. As Berry writes,

And so we are astonished to discover, at the end of this process, that they have complacently allowed the dollar to stand as representative of all value. What announced itself as a statement about animal agriculture has become, by way of several obscure changes of subject, a crudely simplified statement about industrial economics. This is not, in any respectable sense, language, or thought, or even computation.

Berry argues that the language of objectivity prevents us from communicating using shared history, work, and geography, stripping us of a moral bond to the places and people in our lives. We are left with language that no longer provides a platform for action that means anything: “we cannot stand by our words because we cannot utter words that can be stood by.” Reading memos written by managers of Three Mile Island, for example, he is struck by the vagueness of their language, the distance between the abstract phrasing of “incidents” and the real, personal catastrophe that was at hand.

On one hand, I’m wary of watering down Berry’s clear and impassioned ecological arguments by extending his reasoning to other situations. On the other hand, Berry is straightforward that the ecological must also be understood as social (and, for him, it’s ultimately religious). So by arguing that our relationships with the landscape are embodied in our language, his case is far broader than “the environment.” It is about the way in which we understand all our relationships—political, economic, social—and the precision with which we represent them with language.

I have been thinking about this in terms of a number of things this week: What we mean when we argue that we’re simply speaking common sense, the way language is misrepresented, and, as I work on some paper revisions, the way we change our language to conform to criticisms that we don’t understand or actively doubt. (Drek this week also notes how the fracturing of scientific disciplines makes this kind of communication especially tough—Berry himself is none too kind to the language of academics, either.) I read Standing by Words as a call for clarity in each of these situations, and also as a condemnation of our failures, especially the intentional ones, to represent our meanings and our intentions with honesty.

1 I actually bought just the title essay, published as more of a pamphlet. Amazon lists the full Standing by Words as a longer collection of essays, and I see that Fred himself referred to it a couple of weeks ago.)