Wendell Berry on Being More than a Consumer

One of the key skills needed for vocational discernment is the ability to know who or what one is besides being just a consumer.

Counterpoint Press, 2019

Over the last couple of months I have been slowly savoring Wendell Berry’s latest collection of essays and short fiction, The Art of Loading Brush. Many of us who think carefully about vocation and teaching vocational discernment love Berry’s writing, and this collection reminded me why. He explicitly discusses vocation in the context of creating life-giving local economies, and in thinking through his argument I found a useful way of talking to students about vocation: making a distinction between being a consumer and being a producer, and the value of thinking of oneself as something more than just a consumer.

Berry’s essays manage to be convincing in a literary sort of way, combining erudition and home-spun wisdom to help readers gently realize things they probably should have known all along. The essays in The Art of Loading Brush are no exception. One essay, “Leaving the Future Behind: a Letter to a Scientific Friend” does just this in arguing in favor of focusing on present goods and ills to realize present meaning and growth, rather than trusting in unknown and unknowable future goods and solutions to problems. In characteristic style, Berry also touches on the consequences of such a turn from the future for our idea of vocation and how we help young people find meaning in their lives and work. 

Berry writes:

“Vocation” and “calling,” are the names of the obsolete idea that for all persons there are specific kinds of work to which they are summoned by God or by their natural gifts or talents.

Wendell Berry, The Art of Loading Brush

He goes on to write that the kind of specific work covered by the term vocation does not matter, but only that it is “whole in the sense that its tasks can be started and completed by the same person.” This is the crux of his criticism of economic policies focused solely on “job creation.” The “jobs” created by such policies tend to be those Berry characterizes as “any work whatever that one can earn money by doing, for the completion and quality of which one is not responsible, and which one would prefer not to do.” Jobs are for making money, while vocations are for making a life, a community, and a home.

Berry continues:

The primary vocation probably is the call to go home, to go where one’s gifts and one’s work can be offered to one’s family and neighbors, to one’s home place—to “what is actually loved and known.”

Wendell Berry, The Art of Loading Brush

As Jack Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro argue in their excellent Wendell Berry and the Heart of Higher Education, we can read Berry in moments like these as not advocating that students literally return to the places of their birth to make their own lives there, but rather asserting that it is more satisfying and sustainable for people in general to invest in whatever place they come to call home. Home in this sense is defined by “actually loving and knowing” a place and its people. Loving and knowing, moreover, are not economically quantifiable values. Indeed, this points to perhaps the most important orienting problem of Berry’s work: his distinction between industrialism and agriculturalism, or the exploitative attitude and the nutritive. {For more on the importance of place, see “The Calling of Place.”}

Jack Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro on how Wendell Berry can help universities

In his seminal essay “The Unsettling of America,” Berry argues that the style of economy originating in Europe in the Industrial Revolution and its subsequent colonialist enterprises can be distinguished from the historically normative style of economy based on agricultural values, and that these lead to two different mindsets or attitudes toward human life in general. The industrial or exploitative attitude seeks to extract as much value as efficiently as possible from natural and human resources, while the agrarian or nutritive attitude seeks to maintain the productivity of the entire system, including preserving and renewing the sources of its continued sustenance. 

University of Kentucky Press, 2017.

The significance for vocation is that industrialism sees humans as fundamentally transactional and economic creatures, while agrarianism sees humans as fellow creatures among many others within a vastly interrelated network of causes and concerns—not just economic or transactional ones. Berry’s real distinction between vocation and jobs is that focusing only on having a job is an industrial way of thinking, while focusing on vocation is agrarian. Industrialism is exploitative and only focused on growing the system itself, without much regard for the fortunes of its individual members. Agrarianism meanwhile focuses on the entire system running well for all its constituent parts, specifically by regarding the fortunes of its individual members. Industrial relationships are thus characterized by the binary of production and consumption, while agrarian relationships are characterized by a rich interplay of mutual benefit.

American culture in the twenty-first century still focuses on consuming that which has been produced by someone somewhere else as the primary vehicle for living a life. The way our economy works, in a nuts-and-bolts way, relies on consumer spending, and our cultural practices tend to match that. Especially for young people, one builds one’s identity first and foremost through one’s choices of which cultural products one consumes. Music, television, movies, fashion, the way one inhabits social media, and one’s ideological views are all major contributors to one’s sense of self, and all rely on identifying oneself primarily by the things one likes to consume, and how one displays to others that one has consumed them. {For more on this idea, see “Personal Branding.”}

In most cases, one does not have any personal relationship with those who produce these cultural products, so the relationship ends up being basically industrial rather than agrarian. Building one’s identity primarily through consumer choices—by primarily knowing and loving only products designed to be smooth and easy for large amounts of people to know and love—makes it difficult to know and love things not so designed. Unfortunately, the latter make up the real, tangible world of people and places we live in. One of the key skills needed for vocational discernment is the ability to know who or what one is besides being just a consumer.

This does not necessarily mean that vocational discernment should aim to get students to become producers in their own right, as opposed to consumers. This would be to play into the same system that works on the paradigm of production and consumption. Someone, somewhere, needs to produce the media dominating streaming services and social platforms for all of us to consume. Striving to simply be on the other side of that dichotomy is still to work at reproducing the system Berry criticizes.

Instead, the focus should simply be on understanding the ways in which one is more than a consumer, and how to find more of one’s identity in the people and places one loves than the media and stuff one loves to consume. Some students may conclude that they really are primarily producers, and form an identity around creative work, but in thinking about what makes a person more than just a consumer they hopefully will come to understand themselves as producers who engage with whatever else their audiences are besides just consumers of their products. Likewise, if some conclude they are not really producers in a creative sense, then they will hopefully come to understand how their choices of consumption can engage with whatever else the producers of the goods they consume are besides just providers of economic utility.

I’ve read enough Wendell Berry to have a sense of what else he thinks people are besides consumers, but I have no idea what else my students might conclude they are. Nevertheless, it now seems obvious I should have been asking them to think about it all along.

{For more on Wendell Berry and vocation, see Jeff Brown’s reflections from March 2018.}

Matthew Duperon is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Susquehanna University. He studies and teaches comparative religious ethics, specializing in early Chinese religious thought and American Pragmatism. Matthew is a member of the 2019 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration seminar. For other posts by Matthew Duperon, click here.

Author: Matthew Duperon

I am Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Susquehanna University, a small liberal arts university in Selinsgrove, PA. I study and teach comparative religious ethics, specializing in early Chinese religious thought and American Pragmatism. I live with my wife and four children in the beautiful Susquehanna River Valley.

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