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Upheaval Interview: Matthew B. Crawford

A dialogue on embodied reality, self-governance, and technocracy with the mechanic-philosopher

Matthew B. Crawford is a philosopher. Actually he’s more like a modern Renaissance man: a self-taught auto-mechanic and one-time custom motorcycle shop owner, a repentant former D.C. think tanker, a best-selling author with an undergraduate education in physics and a University of Chicago Ph.D. in ancient political thought, and now a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. But to me he’s most remarkable for being one of the very small group of people I’d favorably describe as genuine contemporary philosophers, given how his work strives not only to make real strides in understanding the world as it is, but also – in the tradition of the true greats of the ancient world – to suggest a concrete way to live in that world.

Matt Crawford in VW Karmann Ghia

Every once in a while you come across a book that haunts the mind long after you read it. For me, one of those books was Crawford’s 2015 book The World Beyond Your Head. Like all of his work, it can be hard to describe: a meditation on attention, and distraction, and tradition, and 400-year old church organs, and skill, and discipline, and human excellence… Somehow moving seamlessly from terrible airport music to Kant and technological innovation and the embodiment problem facing AI development, and from Disney cartoons to a deconstruction of Enlightenment Liberalism, it is quite something. In the end it is an expression of Crawford’s distinctive underlying mission of “reclaiming the real” – and, with it, a lost capacity for true self-governance – in a world gone mad. For me the book was truly groundbreaking in its continuing relevance to understanding our current civilizational meta-crisis.

So when Crawford recently started a Substack project of his own, named Archedelia, I eagerly reached out to see if he’d be willing have a dialogue with me. He very kindly agreed. The below, which dives deep into everything from Gnostics to sex, safetyism, skill, and democracy, is the result.

I hope you enjoy it, and subscribe to Matt’s brilliant new Substack for more of his work.

ArchedeliaToward a political theory of the present.By Matthew B. Crawford

N.S. Lyons: While beginning on the draft introduction for this interview, I found myself somewhat stumped trying to concisely describe, for anyone unfamiliar, what it is that your work focuses on. Each separate work – of which your latest book Why We Drive is a great example – uses the particular to explore facets of essentially the same much wider subject of philosophical inquiry. And to gush just a little bit, I’ve come to believe this subject is an increasingly urgent project of philosophical reclamation today. But how to describe it, in a word or two? In the end I settled on “self-governance.” Maybe we can get more into why later. But would you agree? Or how would you describe the main theme or themes that you’re trying to get at?

Matt Crawford: I suppose that’s a good term for naming one of the main threads that runs through my work. There are uncanny new forms of tyranny that have developed in the last 30 years, but which have deeper roots in the history of the West. I sometimes wonder how difficult it may be for a young person to imagine how un-administered life was just a short time ago. And how easy. For example, material culture was not alienating and frustrating: stuff just worked. One reason, I am sure, is that there weren’t mysteries embedded in your things, a hidden social logic connecting your every action to the hive of surveillance and social management. Your refrigerator wasn’t smart. It didn’t give you a nudge for healthy habits, it just kept food cold. Your telephone didn’t want to integrate you with the hive, it just transmitted the voices of two people (and did so with great clarity). Things had straightforward functions that could be fulfilled relatively cheaply; they were tools that elicited action, rather than portals to hidden bureaucracies that foster passivity and dependence while soothingly repeating “your call is important to us.”

If you wanted some good or service, you could use this stuff called cash that you would simply hand over in exchange, without having to register yourself with a voracious machine logic, entirely extraneous to the exchange you are looking to complete, that reserves to itself the right address to you at any time, forever after, lest you miss out on some exciting opportunity.

Also, there wasn’t a pervasive moralism badgering you with abstractions (sustainability, social responsibility, whatever) while you are standing in the supermarket aisle, trying to decide which laundry soap to buy. It was just soap, you know?

If you wanted to buy your girlfriend some lingerie, or you were a woman looking to buy lingerie for yourself, you weren’t confronted with giant images of obese people (of uncertain sex) in lingerie, as though the lingerie itself is serving merely as bait for the healthy male and the healthy female, to bring them in for some aversion therapy. The lingerie chain wasn’t serving a larger social mission – inclusivity, etc. It wasn’t integrated into a sprawling ministry of culture. Public space wasn’t saturated with anti-stereotypical images that seem crafted to counteract your own social perception.

Schools and therapists didn't encourage troubled children to seek affirmation by bringing themselves into greater alignment with the great leap forward, then refer them to doctors for sterilization.

There is now an ambient political conditioning that is so pervasive, it is hard to bring into focus as an object of scrutiny. It’s just the water we swim in. It often feels like the point of it is to “trouble” us, like modern art. That is, to unsettle us and undermine the sense of ease that comes naturally when the most basic things are settled. When the world is stable in that way, people feel a kind of confidence in reality, and in themselves. They feel at home. They can make things happen, because the world is basically intelligible and open to action. That can lead to pride of ownership. Such ownership is connected to the self-governance that you referred to.

In short, a mere thirty years ago it didn't feel like a society bent on controlling thought and altering the way we feel about things, whereas now it really does have this totalitarian quality. Sure, it was decadent and trivial and probably debasing in various ways, but it was also fun and sexy. For example, you could be gay without being expected to stand on a float in a parade and serve as the mascot for a flag-waving program pushed by the Fortune 500.

“The original and still-animating logic of modernity seems to be fundamentally totalitarian”

I recently gave a talk at a conference on “liberalism and its discontents.” At one point during the Q&A, I made the offhand comment that I would be happy enough if we could just go back to, say, 1985. One of the leading “post-liberals” was in the audience and I saw him make a sour face in response to this remark. I took it as a judgment that such a stance is not nearly radical enough. Now, like him, I find the roots of the present disorder deep in the historical and metaphysical origins of liberalism. But as a practical matter, I think it is also worthwhile to think about fairly recent historical moments when, sure, liberalism was germinating the seeds of its own destruction/consummation, but still supported a lifeworld that was recognizably human. These rememberings can offer a non-imaginary basis for reform. Maybe some accommodation with modernity, fully satisfying to nobody but more or less livable, is a good aspiration. “Non-totalitarian” is a fairly modest request, is it not?

Even as I type that, however, I can see that it looks like wishful thinking combined with some lingering hope to appear respectably modern. Because the original and still-animating logic of modernity seems to be fundamentally totalitarian, and it does seem doubtful that its progress could be arrested at some point short of the ugly consummation we are living through. Maybe we'll get into that later.

One of the reasons I’ve been drawn to your work is that I, like others, have recently noted what appears to be an increasingly strong current in our society toward a kind of Gnosticism – a belief that our messy physical reality isn’t the true reality, or even that it is fundamentally evil, and a kind of false prison, and that with the enlightenment of sufficient mental knowledge our trapped souls (or selves, in the modern case) can transcend our material bodies to some purer and more genuine existence. Since the theme of The Upheaval is basically to try to diagnose the maladies that have seemingly begun driving our civilization into various forms of self-destructive madness, I’m going to spend much of this interview sort of circling around how you’ve addressed essentially this same issue, and its consequences. Especially in my favorite of your books, The World Beyond Your Head. The title nods to the contrast with a world we fabricate inside our heads, and you specify that, “The philosophical project of this book is to reclaim the real, as against representations.” That was published in 2015. So I’m curious: how and when did you first recognize this detachment from reality as a problem serious enough that it deserved to be addressed? And, have your views on the issue and its importance changed at all in the years since then?

Yes, the concept of reality has become a real problem for us, if by “reality” we mean something not of our making, something indifferent to us, something entirely outside the self, something that can’t be interpreted away or made more conducive to our psychic comfort. But put your body in the ocean – in winter, on a day of gusty wind and chop and high swells – and reality comes flooding back. Nature is magnificent. It will also kick your ass, just as a matter of course.

Without an outside-the-self, it is impossible to feel gratitude. The gnostic tendency you describe seems rooted in resentment, and perhaps a failure of the type of courage that consists of openness to something not under our control. Reality is something to be defeated, escaped, or subsumed to the will. Obviously this is connected to the technological mindset.

You mention the body, and our aspiration to be free of it. This really gets to the core of things. The body is given, something not of one’s choosing, and it conditions our existence fundamentally. It is an affront to Kant’s ideal that the will should be “unconditioned” by necessities that impinge from outside it; the body is a source of “heteronomy” as against autonomy. Also, all of us came out of a woman and were nursed by her. Others provided food and shelter, and initiated us into some established language, without which we would be feral, not even recognizably human. We are born into relations of dependence and debt, prior to any act of consent. These basic facts have to be kept out of view to sustain the liberal picture of the self-sovereign, unencumbered, choosing self.

That also happens to be the picture of the self that is tacit in consumer capitalism. Freedomism is the idiom of marketing. It is a whole ideology that obscures from us the erosion of bodily and mental skills that comes with dependence on complex systems that promise greater safety and convenience – by relieving us of the burden of doing things for ourselves.

Central to the book (and I think your work in general) are what might be described as two very different conceptions of the self. One is what you’ve wonderfully described as the “situated self.” The situated self – and please correct me if I’ve got this wrong – accepts the intractable reality of things beyond our head as a kind of authority, and submits to the structure of that authority of things. It learns, through experience or practice, to more clearly perceive and adapt to the way of things, and thus “the self that acts in the world takes on a definite shape. It comes to be in a relation of fit to a world it has grasped.” This adaptation of the self to fit reality (of the physical world, but also of the human condition) can be seen as a form of maturation. From such experience, you write, “We find ourselves situated in a world that is not of our making, and this ‘situatedness’ is fundamental to what a human being is.” In opposition to the situated self, however, has arisen a new, modern, atomized conception of the self. If the situated self fits itself to the world, this atomized version seeks to fashion a world that fits the self. It seeks to achieve its “fullest self” by being freed from any restraints on the choices that flash forth from its pure will. Any conflicts or constraints imposed on choice by reality become intolerable, as by limiting the will they become literally existential threats to the self. Most readers here will recognize this version of the self as triumphant just about everywhere in our culture today. But how did we get here? Where did this new concept of the self come from? In other words, where would you say things first start to go wrong? And why has the triumph of this version of the self proven so seemingly irresistible for people today?

In the big epistemological picture that got established during the Enlightenment, we are said to encounter the world only through our mental representations of it. Life then imitates theory: ours is now a highly mediated existence in which, sure enough, we increasingly encounter the world through representations, often on a screen. But these are manufactured for us. Human experience has become a highly engineered and therefore manipulable thing. That would seem to be the attention economy in a nutshell.

The idea of “fit” that you mentioned is essentially what the ecological school of psychology calls “affordances.” (The catch phrase for this school is that “the mind is embodied and embedded [in the world].”) An affordance is some feature of the world that exists only in relation to an agent who has some particular mode of action, usually tied to features of its own body and way of life. And this goes a long way to determining how we perceive the world. For example, a flooded highway “shows up” for a migrating flock of geese as a place for landing, resting and drinking. How we perceive the world is conditioned by its affordances for action, and in the case of a human being, this depends in part on one’s skill set. So, in a sense, acquiring skill puts one in the world in a slightly different way.

Acquiring skill requires practice. For example to become a skilled musician involves an endless tedium of scales or paradiddles or whatever, subjecting one’s fingers to the discipline of frets or keys. One submits to the mechanical realities of the instrument, as well as to the inherited forms of some musical genre. It is the word “submit” that interests me, as it stands in direct opposition to the ideal of autonomy. To acquire skill as an embodied, encultured agent requires a process of formation that is at odds with our ideology of freedom. Once you see this, you see also how that ideology tends to short-circuit the development of genuine agency, which requires something more than making choices, as in shopping.

If you extend this a bit further, the idea of acquiring skill shades into that of formation altogether. For example, consider the old-fashioned phrase “it will make a man out of you.”  Becoming a man is a challenge, the kind of thing one can fail at. One has to “man up” in certain situations. It involves meeting expectations placed on you by others; playing a role that is not defined by you. This is how one wins recognition as a man. The content of these expectations will vary from one society to another.

We offer an adolescent liberation from this burden of becoming, this task imposed from outside, when we seek to comfort and affirm him in a state of “gender fluidity.” It seems compassionate. And certainly we need to have room for gender-atypical people. They contribute to the wonderful variety of humankind. But to offer or even promote this disburdening to still-forming children, as a point of political vanity for adults, is sure to cause arrested development on a large scale.

To grasp what is lost, one has to have some sense of the joy of being a man or being a woman; of sexual difference as a gift, but also of gender as an accomplishment. If you acquire these arts of being male or female according to inherited cultural forms, you become something less blob-like – something with a more definite shape in the world, perhaps even something shapely. The possible result is being sexy. There is no better feeling! I want to evangelize this, in our radically anti-sexy times.

I want to dig a bit deeper into the idea of the new self as being fundamentally unable to handle conflict and frustration. You note how even a few decades ago it was still accepted that maturing into a psychologically stable adult required surfacing, articulating, and coming to terms with internal and external limits and conflicts. To fail at this was to remain infantile. But that at some point new thinking made achieving a self that is never in conflict with the world the be-all and end-all of “well-being.” And that today this manifests as a great aversion to conflict, whether interpersonal or with the physical world. You demonstrate this with some really vivid examples from children’s television. This includes Sesame Street episodes from the 1970s in which characters were still shown getting mad and having conflicts with each other, even in the form of simple conflicting statements about the world (e.g. “that’s not a fruit, it’s a vegetable!” said as a reprimand to a child). Notably, these archived episodes now come with a warning that they are “not suitable for viewing by children” today. Similarly, you describe how Disney cartoons used to feature comic struggles in and with messy and dangerous physical reality (projectiles, traps, roadrunners, etc.), while now the central conceit of a popular Disney children’s cartoon is literally a computer that appears out of nowhere when requested and provides a range of choices to magically overcome any obstacle encountered. Choosing replaces doing. You point to this fantasy of complete autonomy as leading to a form of impotence and fragility – a sustained personal infantilization. The reason this fascinates me is that, since you published the book, this infantilization seems to have migrated extremely rapidly from the personal to the communal level, and led to this paradoxical phenomenon where groups (and governments) will act exceptionally confrontationally to police and eliminate any potential “inter-self” conflicts. Whole topics of discussion have become off-limits, as if their disappearance will resolve the underlying conflicts themselves. I wonder if you have any thoughts on this, including if you’ve observed the same worsening of the phenomenon, and how and why it might have happened. And why it’s happened so recently (over only a few decades, as you’ve shown). What was the societal inflexion point?

It is hard to identify a decisive moment of inflection, but we really do seem to be in an accelerating reality crisis. The problem with reality is that it is a kind of authority, and for centuries the West has been in the grip of a “liberationist” determination to do away with the concept of authority. This takes various forms: attacks on tradition, on God, on the concept of nature, on the figure of the father, on the givens of the body and the existence of insuperable limits such as mortality.

“We really do seem to be in an accelerating reality crisis”

In the Freudian schema, an infant initially feels little sense of differentiation from his mother. She seems to be omnipotent, and his cries magically elicit a quick response to his wants and needs. He has little sense of the world of objects as being independent of his will. Freud calls this infantile narcissism, a universal stage of development. The father stands outside the dyad of mother and child, and is experienced as a threat. Sometimes he makes his own demands on mother. The father stands for objective reality, which does not love you simply for being you, as your mommy does. One has to earn a father’s love. This is done by accomplishing something in the shared world, the world of exchange. To do that, you have to conform yourself to its demands. You have to learn to view yourself as an object for others, that is, you have to achieve what Hegel called “objective self-consciousness.” Howard S. Schwartz has laid out this logic very nicely in his book The Revolt of the Primitive.

I think an important escalation in our war on reality came in the 1950s, and could be described as an inversion of the Freudian insight. (I was not aware of this episode when I wrote The World Beyond Your Head.) Freud was a tragic thinker; he thought there was an ineliminable conflict between self and world. What it means to be a grown-up is that you just deal with it. “Repression” comes at a high cost for the individual, but is necessary for civilization. He was not a revolutionary, that is, one who wants to reconcile self and world by transforming the world in the image of the self. But in the 1930s, one wing of the psychoanalytic movement splintered off and became politicized, as “Freudo-Marxists.” For these revolutionists (Wilhelm Reich is the central figure), merely political revolution would leave untouched the deep sources of “authoritarianism,” which (they agreed with Freud) lay with the father. What was needed was a society-wide program to “destroy the ancient mystique of the father.”

In America, these ideas were broadcast in The Authoritarian Personality (1950), the most influential work of sociology in the 1950s. It and other books from the same school provided an intellectual framework for the sexual revolution (which obviously had causes beyond the realm of ideas as well). It was a revolt against the father and all his works. This cultural patricide cleared the way for the rise of what Schwartz calls “the pristine self,” who is essentially the infant who seeks to remain secure in Mother’s love and regards reality as a threat to his self-affirmations. This is the creature we call the snowflake. People who stand for hard, external, shared reality in some way, for example by trying to uphold shared standards, are evil oppressors. You can’t understand the social justice warrior without knowing that she is also a snowflake. Why did I shift pronouns to “she” just now? Because the figure of the daughter is the hero of this revolution, which is also a sexual holy war. She is the one who is most wounded by Father, and has the authority of the victim to call him out. The revolution has been a smashing success. Fathers have little moral standing as fathers, defer to their teenage daughters, and are likely to call themselves parents rather than fathers. (Ask me how I know.)

If authority is always a mere mask for power; if it is always exercised selfishly rather than for the good of another; if (as Thomas Hobbes said) no distinction can be made between king and tyrant, then likewise there can be no distinction between a stern, loving father and an abusive father. (It may be worth noting that one of the ur-documents of liberalism, Locke’s First Treatise of Government, is an argument against patriarchy.)

May authority be abused, or mistaken? Of course it may, and often is. The liberatory (Protestant?) turn against authority is at once political and epistemic. It is a negative project.  But the entanglement of politics and epistemology can also point one toward a positive insight: the world isn’t fully self-revealing. We have to be initiated into seeing it through the mediating authority of an inherited language and culture, which become available to us through loving acts of care by our parents and teachers, acting as authorities.

The problem with being cut loose from the tradition is that, left to our own devices, we have no ground to stand on against the kind of tyranny that seeks to make us acquiescent by manipulating our sense of reality. This isn’t done out of malevolence. Rather, the problem is idealism, or ideological politics – a system of abstractions that coheres beautifully and claims to have a complete grasp of reality. Recalcitrant elements of existence that don’t fit the system are regarded as morally evil and must be either reformed or destroyed. Short of that, it can be made illegal to notice them. They can also be covered over with virtuous lies, for the sake of bringing the ideal to reality.

“Recalcitrant elements of existence that don’t fit the system are regarded as morally evil and must be either reformed or destroyed”

It looks like this long trajectory is coming to a head. Public life is governed by extravagant untruths, and these enjoy deference wherever people feel subject to the gaze of a tutelary entity that speaks in angry tones of compassion.  It is Nurse Ratched triumphant.

The reason this process of infantilization strikes me as particularly ominous is because you expertly lay out many of the connected causes and consequences, and unfortunately they all seem to lead toward the same place. From my reading of your work, the process goes something like this: maximizing choice as the highest good, the modern liberal self cannot tolerate conflict or friction with the world or with others; any structure of authority, any assertion of what is true, how something should be done, or life lived, has become an imposition and a kind of unconsented-to oppression; the locus for judging what is true is relocated from empirical contact with the outside world to a radical isolation inside the self, which in a way then becomes radically responsible for its assertions, and the individual and the culture become characterized by “the dogmatic inarticulacy of subjectivism”; cut off from any authority, the isolated individual (if he can be called that) must under these conditions “take shelter” wherever he can when determining truth, “and there is safety in numbers” – i.e. conformity with the collective mob; but the masses of the mob crave validation that their feelings and intuitions are genuine and normal, and so the “expert” of the egalitarian self, who is capable of providing such assurance, “becomes the new priest, salving our souls with the offer of statistical communion.” Meanwhile – and I think this is the core worry I’m trying to grasp at in this dialogue – the whole frame of what governance is changes dramatically: the individual, being infantile, no longer appears capable of self-government, of sovereign decision-making, truth seeking, or skilled problem-solving; instead the individuals of the new self seem to necessarily demand the priestly caste of the expert, whose confident revelations of truth entitle them to guide the blind masses, nudging and herding them into the statistically safest and most self-comfort-maximizing choices; the whole of the political becomes a social-engineering systems problem. So, for me, the disturbing question is: does the rise of the modern, inward-oriented liberal self lead inevitably to totalistic technocracy and the collapse of any form of democratic/republican self-government? I’ve unfortunately come to suspect something like this to be the case. Do you have any optimism with which to soothe me? Have I got this wrong?

I accept your synopsis of one of the main threads in The World Beyond Your Head. I would add that the essay of your own that you linked to is important and clarifying. You string together thoughts from C.S. Lewis and Tolkien that crystallize our situation. We must reproduce here the central nugget in your essay where it all comes together:

“For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue,” Lewis writes. “For magic and [today’s] applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious…”

But because in this “objective” view there is nothing whatsoever to separate man from the material of the natural world – nothing that man permanently is – man himself becomes material available to be manipulated and reshaped at will, just as the natural world can be manipulated and reshaped. And while it “is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere ‘natural object’ and his own judgements of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will,” Lewis warns that indeed, “if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be…”

In such a world, in which techniques of technological control must come to be applied to man just as they are applied to tree or iron, it is not “Mankind” as a whole that will gain such power. Rather, inevitably, “the power of Man to make himself what he pleases” means in truth “the power of some men to make other men what they please.”

And if, “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument,” then ultimately:

“Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundred men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.”

The grand modern project of liberation, which is ultimately liberation from an authoritative reality independent of the will, combines with a materialist view that subsumes man himself to the realm of natural causation. Together, these twin movements of modernity lead to a condition opposite of the one dreamed of: total domination of some men by other men, a form of tyranny working at a deeper level of the human person than any dreamt of by despots of the past.

Is there a way out? I have come around to the intuition that grounds Lewis’s thought. There is a created order, which we are not the authors of. Crucially, this order is good. That it because its author is good, and he made it out of love. If you are fortunate enough to be hit with this experience (it comes as a surprise gift), it is like dropping acid. Under its influence, you feel like you have gained perceptual access to the most fundamental layer, which was always there waiting to be noticed.

“Is there a way out? I have come around to the intuition that grounds Lewis’s thought. There is a created order, which we are not the authors of. Crucially, this order is good.”

You’ve recently launched a Substack, Archedelia, as a new project, and published some great essays there already. How would you describe the idea behind Archedelia and the questions you’re aiming to explore there?

I think our conversation here gives your readers a good indication, though we have been talking at a higher level of abstraction than I usually do. Thank you for a very rich set of provocations!