Immigration and Community

“Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community” is a fantastic essay by Wendell Berry (thanks to Cathy Legg for pointing me to it). It was published in 1992, which is amazing because that is only four years after I moved to this country with my family. Meaning: many of the issues I am only now starting to be conscious of, others such as Berry have been addressing since I was a teenager. It is a nice experience, central to feeling part of a community, to know that the problems one identifies with are not unique to oneself or one’s generation. Reading Berry’s essay I felt this very strongly, even though I don’t fully agree with it.

The central insight of Berry’s essay is what I will call the primacy of the community. Berry argues that the public domain in America has become identified with the market forces of capitalism, and this has resulted in a kind of bleaching of substantively shared values from the public domain. He writes:

The indispensible form that can intervene between public and private interests is that of community. The concerns of public and private, republic and citizen, necessary as they are, are not adequate for the shaping of human life. Community alone, as principle and as fact, can raise the standards of local health (ecological, economic, social, and spiritual) without which the other two interests will destroy one another. (Pg. 119)

In the essay Berry uses the examples of sex and freedom to show, very convincingly to my mind, how there are forms of objective values and shared modes of life which are lost when the pubic domain is identified with a view-from-nowhere type of disembodied neutrality.

Of course, this point is not new with Berry. It is the communitarian response to the Enlightenment idea of an abstract, neutral public space. It is the kind of Aristotelian, Wittgensteinain, Heidegerrean view defended by thinkers such as Anscombe, McIntyre, Charles Taylor and Michael Sandel. Berry does a great job of connecting this kind of view to the American cultural situation.

Still, in an important way I don’t identify with Berry. The difference concerns a point which has involved a great deal of embarrassment and self-flagellation on my part in my life, but at this point there is no getting away from it.

For Berry, the contrast to the value-less public domain is the local. Right after the passage I quoted above, he continues:

By community, I mean the commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so. To put it another way, community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy and local nature. (Community, of course, is an idea that can extend itself beyond the local, but it only does so metaphorically. The idea of a national or global community is meaningless apart from the realization of local communities.)

Part of the power of Berry’s essay comes from the sense that here is a writer who seems to be strongly connected to his local community, a farm life in Kentucky. This sense of locality comes out vividly in his interview with Bill Moyers (here).

For Berry, there is, in my words, the localthe non-local and the objective. As he sees it, the main confusion of modernity is identifying the non-local with the objective, and so rendering the local into the domain of subjectivity or backwardness. Instead, Berry suggests that for human life objectivity can never be separated from the local. To put it in a way Berry doesn’t, to ignore this is to confuse the objectivity of animate beings with that of inanimate objects, as if the objectivity of human beings can be read of their properties just like we can do so with rocks and electrons. Much of modern philosophy is an attempt to find the essential human properties such that this “reading off” can take place: the disembodied soul, sense-data, the rational will, etc.

But what happens if a person doesn’t have a local in this sense? Berry assumes that since the local is essential to human beings and their interaction, that every person has some local to which they belong, the way the Eskimos belong to Alaska, or the way Berry belongs to some land in Kentucky (he is cautious, wisely, to say his local is not the state of Kentucky).

Motivated by a similar thought, I often sought to find my local in my Indian background, in the culture and modes of life of my family. This is intuitive, since, as Berry highlights, the family is central to this kind of a conception of community. But unlike, Berry, who when he sought the local through his family hit upon the farm land of Kentucky on which he was raised, and on which his children and grandchildren were raised, when I – as someone who immigrated in childhood – sought the local in my life, there was no community in Berry’s sense to fall back on. Berry’s sense of community is a synthesis of family, culture, neighbors and kin, and land, where each of these is inseparably connected to each other. But in my case, as in that of immigrants, these did in fact become separated. I realized intuitively since I was about 11, which is when I moved from India to America, that, due to the move to America, there was a kind of schism in my life which was irreconcilable: for it is the schism of my family culture from its land, and so a schism in my community (in Berry’s sense of that term).

Berry is critical of capitalism from the perspective of the native. It is fascinating to read an articulate, highly educated white man in the role of a native, but there is no denying it: the power of Berry’s writing comes from the fact that he writes as a native in a way that is genuine and true to his life. From this perspective, Berry sees capitalism as the outside force which is disrupting his community’s way of life. So the only choice for him is to double down on his community and resist the face-less imperialist march of the market.

However, a child of immigration in the modern sense is someone who grew up in capitalism in the sense of never being connected to pre-capitalist land (this is certainly true not only of immigrants). Even as a white person, Berry can speak as a native because there is a land that he is native to (though, that obviously raises all sorts of questions regarding Native-Americans). But even as a brown person, there is no land that I am native to in that sense. Berry traces a lineage between himself and his parents – a continuity to their shared land. I have no such lineage with my parents. The land they were part of for 45 years before immigrating is one which I mainly relate to through family remembrances which take place in the suburbs of New York City.

So this puts me, along with many others of all races, in an interesting position: a proponent of community, as against the Enlightenment conception of a displaced universality, who nonetheless lacks a community in that sense.

There is an intellectual analogue to the physical land which characterizes Berry’s community. We might call this the intellectual dimension of one’s community. It is in this sense that Anscombe, McIntyre and others travel back to Aristotle as a way of reclaiming the intellectual dimension of their community. The same with Dreyfus and Kelly with the Homeric Greeks. This is possible because, in a rather broad sense, these thinkers identify their land with the West in general. But what happens when a person does not, and cannot, identify with any piece of land (or hemisphere)? What can that person go back to?

In academic philosophy, there is an analogue to the private-public dichotomy that Berry is trying to avoid. Modern Western philosophy is put in the category of the public, and one’s culture is put in the role of the private. This is the sense in which a white person might say that he “just loves Indian food”, as if to indicate that thereby he is respecting my private culture. If one wants to resist this private-public dichotomy, one is supposed to find some alternative which can be put in place as the private grounding of a localized objectivity. For Anscombe that is the Catholic tradition. What is it supposed to be for me? Not surprisingly, Indian philosophy is thurst into just this role for an Indian-American. But that presupposes that for me India is the land of my community, as if I relate to Shankara just the way Anscombe relates to Aquinas. Hardly. Anscombe’s relation to Aquinas is mediated through her sense of belonging to a tradition, where for her, as for Berry, that is not meant as a choice one makes, but as a reckoning of the ground of one’s being. Something that one is thrown into.

What am I thrown into in that sense? Choas. Confusion. Displacement. I didn’t grow up in a clearly defined tradition that is locally grounded. I grew up rather amidst the chaos of the shifting structures of the world, on the borders of community rather than firmly from within a clearly delineated community (which isn’t to say that I didn’t have a loving upbringing; I did). This is one reason I identify as much with Du Bois as with someone like Vivekananda, with his clear articulation of a Hindu way of life (a paradigmatic example of localized objectivity).

My identification with India as a land is a flickering light which even I cannot predict sometimes when it shines brightly or when it turns off: it comes and goes depending on the nuances of situation I am in. If I am to identify with India, and with Indian philosophy, it can be only through an identification of the space I was thrown into. This means that I can never quite relate to India as my community in Berry’s sense. But I can recover the parts of me that go back to India, and with which I so deeply want to identify, only through my sense of being an essentially mixed person.

At the end of the essay Berry distinguishes two senses of pluralism. One is a non-local pluralism which aims to bring diverse cultures together under a market framework, where the price of admission is transformation of the local culture to fit into the aims of the broader framework. Berry rights bemoans this mode of pluralism. In its place, he advocates a “pluralism of local cultures”. On this view, a pluralist society isn’t one which has a general pluralistic culture, but rather one which fosters the growth of diverse, local communities such that the local communities can engage with each with openness and curiosity. It is a pluralism not imposed from on high by a standard of what the cosmopolitan believes, but a pluralism fostered from within each local community, and so where cosmopolitanism is just another name for local communities living in solidarity.

However, neither of these two conceptions of pluralism accommodate the person who identifies neither with the Enlightenment, top-down approach nor with a local community. What is to become of such person?

As far as I can see, there is only one option: such a person has to work at creating a non-local pluralism from the bottom up. He cannot begin with a local community, for that is not the mode of being he is thrown into. Nor can be accept an already constructed universal framework into which cultures can be plugged in as some many shades of color, for it ignores his lived experience of the day to day difficulties of straddling multiple cultures at once.

Human beings are cultural animals. And like a spider spins a web, so too humans create culture as a way of making sense of and situating themselves in space and time. And if there isn’t a cultural grounding already available to one, all one is do is contribute, bit by little bit, to a new, pluralistic web which in time can become a community for a new way of being.

It is a project well beyond any one generation, or century, and, in the big picture, the most one can do in a given lifetime is take a few steps in its direction. But it is the shared orientation towards a goal, rather than reaching it or taking big steps towards it, that is the heart of a community.

6 thoughts on “Immigration and Community

  1. anon

    Congrats! You’re globalized! The wave of the future. Types like Berry are losers and there are fewer and fewer of them.

    I would suggest watching a lot of niche TV, or, better, surfing the internet to find a particular trend you like, then starting to follow people on Twitter who hashtag it. That can be your ‘local’.

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  2. Cathy Legg

    Very belatedly – thanks for engaging with this Bharath! I was fascinated to see what you made of it. In particular I really liked the point you made, “there is no denying it: the power of Berry’s writing comes from the fact that he writes as a native in a way that is genuine and true to his life”!
    You say that your family immigration experience ruptured your inheritance of contact with a land. I gew up in a suburb – I suppose that is another form of disenfranchisement from Nature. I think it is possible to find a new piece of land to bond with, though. I have experienced this and it has become important in my life.
    I think ultimately what Berry is saying is that human beings are not just cultural animals – we are natural animals too, and we won’t be fully happy if we don’t honour that part of ourselves and find a way for it to continue to live, within the context of human life. This is an empirical claim, I suppose. It will be worked out over the next thousands of years as the species pushes against transhumanism, and it will be fascinating (in a ghoulish kind of way) to see if our organism will accept it, or ‘crack up’.

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  3. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    Great point about humans being natural animals in addition to being cultural animals. Though, as you mention at the end of your comment, there is clearly a deep sense in which we as a species are pushing at the limits of this naturalness. As we become more and more technological beings in the coming centuries, we will still be cultural animals, but at least some portion of the population might lose the sense of being natural animals. Berry seems to miss this, as he equates the connection to land as a fundamental feature of all human beings, and all senses of community. This is true for many people, but not all.

    This changes the debate from how Berry sets it up. He sets it up as community versus disembodied rationality, but it might be better put as: community rooted in a land versus community not rooted in that way. This opens up a possibility Berry doesn’t seem to recognize: someone who is not rooted in a land, and yet who is critical of the disembodied model, and so someone is who seeking a kind of technological, cybernetic community, where connections through technology take over the role that land plays in Berry’s sense of community. I see my own future in something like that, where cell phones and blogging, etc. are but still very elementary modes of such interaction.

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  4. Cathy Legg

    Yes but there is an empirical claim there about whether if as a species we turn our back on our natural ‘root’, we will survive, or wither and die like the famous vine branch. Berry claims that we literally won’t survive and he might be right. War, suicide, cancer, environmental destruction – all these challenges are nipping at the heels of the human species. The only way to find out is to live through the next few thousand years. Berry sees attuning ourselves to the rhythms and cycles of nature as one of the few ways that we can make wise decisions across that kind of time-scale, given our all-too obvious epistemic limitations as individual thinkers. This is part of what I find so valuable about his writings.

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  5. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    There is a real question of how we can survive as a species. We are pulling against our natural root to nature, and can very well topple it over in mass destruction. And as a proponent of the local, Berry has lots of great things to say about sustainability. Essential things. But those things he says are wrapped in the broader framework of embracing the local, which I see as a dead end.

    What is pushing us away from our natural root isn’t just short-sightedness or selfishness. It is the appeal of a community without the hierarchies and the sense of the other which seem, and often are, intrinsic to the local. The capitalist modern society Berry is skeptical of is a better structure so far for embracing pluralism on the mass scale that our population has reached. But, as he rightly points out, this modern structure has huge problems. The local lifestyle he leads can bring to light those problems, but I don’t see how it can incorporate the mass of people who left their local because it stopped working for them. It is just not feasible for everyone.

    To make it feasible, new frameworks are needed for connecting the thin sense of the the global and the thick sense of the local into a thick sense of the global. Berry, like many critics of the Enlightenment structures, is a prophet of the doom of the thin sense of the global we are living in. If it stays thin, we don’t have the social mechanisms in place to avert the problems which are coming. But we also can’t get the thick mode of interaction just by going back to even an enlightened sense of the local. Only a new sense of a broader, more inclusive community can salvage both the thin global and the thick local.

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  6. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    This explains one appeal, among others, of communism, feminism, environmentalism and other seemingly disparate movements. They are attempts to get past the thin global without going back to a thick local. They promise the thick global. A sense of solidarity and communal purpose at a global level which feels lost in the thin global. The trouble is that there is nothing uniting these movements. Their attack of the thin global comes across as an attack on the idea of the global itself, and so as themselves contributing to the fractures of the thin global. We need new intellectual and life frameworks which can avoid the pitfalls of these nascent attempts of a thick global, to harness their insights while moving beyond their shared drawbacks.

    Religious fundamentalism also promises the thick global. That is its main appeal. Often critics of it talk about it as exemplary of the local gone awry, as if it was a thing of the past trying to hold back the enlightened thin global. To the contrary, it, like fascism, is a 20th and 21st century reaction to the limits of the thin global. What the thin global has not been able to provide, these systems have taken on and seek to provide within their extremist framework.

    Task for present: move beyond thin global, embrace what is good about thick local, while avoiding false attempts at thick global like fundamentalism and fascism, while integrating what is good about attempts at thick global like communism and feminism. How to achive this? More and more I think it is not a matter of figuring it out as much as just living intentionally into such a future with inspiration, good will and a flexible intellect as guides. Creating the right kind of soil for the sapling to become a tree is a contribution itself, and at a given time, might even be the best thing one can do. Rather than hoping to create, through brute intellectual will, the tree fully grown.

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