On the Value of Uselessness.


This recent exchange about the situation at Middlesex a couple of posts below made me think about the general discourse of usefulness that has been dominating almost all attempts to defend the value of philosophical education. Surely, it is important as a part of the university curriculum for many of the reasons often cited: critical thinking, wider intellectual horizons, logic and so on. I think that John (Proveti) wanted to point out that, when considered from the perspective of one’s contribution to the theoretical (and practical) advancement of humanity, books, teaching, and so on, are extremely useful and measurable affairs. So when one’s life work is disregarded, one has the right to be righteously indignant. All agreed. However, I wonder if in addition to the discourse of usefulness we should not also challenge the very assumption that its opposite – uselessness – is somehow not just valueless, but also morally corrupt (idle) and perverse (intellectual masturbation). Perhaps imitating various “art of art’s sake” we should proclaim “philosophy for philosophy’s sake” and disregard the discourse of usefulness for now. Why? Because the ultimate measurement of usefulness is always going to be money, even if it is not explicitly stated (“critical thinking” becomes “independent ability to make decisions” becomes “good for business” and so on). And philosophy is never going to be able to make enough money to compete with all the “useful sciences” – it seems…

18 thoughts on “On the Value of Uselessness.

  1. I don’t know why it would be granted the the “ultimate measure” of usefulness would be money. In fact it seems quite obviously not the case in many instances. Is a Van Gogh deemed the most useful painting in the world when it fetches the highest auction bid? Everyone naturally understands that it is not. Money works so well as a recursive measure because it is contrasted to REAL “use” (that is, it is useful only in contexts that are also defined by money itself.

    Questions about the usefulness of philosophy are actually most interesting when the usefulness that is being sought for is actually something of an autocritique, whereby a philosophy questions how is it that all of the wonderful conclusions it has come up with have anything to do with choices and actions within the world, and ultimately the happiness of the contemplating person who practices philosophy.

    Use is perhaps best understood as “makes things work” (and yes, money does make some things work). Philosophy makes things works, and art does as well. It though is quite worthy, and perhaps even philosophical to ask: What are the things that philosophy “makes work”? And if it is imagined that the ONLY thing that philosophy does is make philosophy work, perhaps it is better to look to all the material conditions that philosophy also “makes work” (all the professors, publishers, students, institutions, texts), and ask: Is it worthy of philosophy to exist really to make all THOSE things work, and very little else.

  2. I agree with most of what kvond says, and would add that ‘uselessness’ is precisely that, and might as well be buried like other lifeless phenomena, wherever and whenever they are found. And agree with him also that money does indeed make some things work, that art does, and that philosophy does. I do not thing that the ‘two tenets’ of OOO that John D. has just posted at his bleug have anything useful in them at all, and that they are as much of a problem for you philosophers as any crass administrators with their ‘pragmatism’ and the half-victories at middlesex. Every day, these two ‘celebrity thinkers of OOO’ seem sillier and sillier. I mean, what was the angle? They just don’t have anything new. It’s little more than the stripper’s song from ‘Gypsy’, ‘You Gotta Have a Gimmick, if you wanna get ahead’. If Bryant and Harman want to champion poor beleaguered philosophy depts., maybe they ought to consider the lyric of the gospel song I heard at the House of Blues in W. H’wood a few years ago “Sweep around yo’ own front door, befoh ya try to sweep around mine.” Nothing revealed their barrenness more than the oil spill though.

  3. Thanks, fellows – my post, of course, didn’t contain any argument as such, just an observation. I suppose I don’t know if I can identify “uselessness” with “lifelessness” and “use” as such with “making things work” – maybe we can clarify what exactly it means to “make things work”?

    I think whatever one’s views on certain philosophical positions, if they do “make things work” and it’s our only criterion, than is there a way to distinguish between any sort of ways of making things work? Say, populist rhetoric and fear-mongering certainly “make things work” (see the horrific events in Kyrgystan as the latest example) – are they then useful?

    As for money, I agree, of course, that it shouldn’t be considered as an ultimate measure of value, I was simply suggesting that it is being considered as such in the present capitalist situation.

    • Mikhail,

      In late-Wittgenstein there is the odd and interesting criticism of certain kinds of transcendent philosophy, that it is a like wheel that turns no gears, spinning in a circle, a bit like a Tibetan prayer wheel.

      While I disagree with the simplicity of his engineer’s critique, I think it is a useful analogy when talking about the value of philosophy. When we philosophize (whether its working out an argument in our own heads in rough sketch, or lecturing to a captive audience, or publishing texts, or…) these actions ARE actions, and I think it quite valuable as a diagnostic to take up the analogy as say, what GEARS are these actions turning, IN the world.

      And even more subtly, What gears are turning these own philosophical gears of action.

      This is a diagnostic because it directs our attention to the claims of the value of an action.

      And yes, fear-mongering DOES “make things work”. It turns certain gears x, y and z let’s say. But it also turns gears a, b and c which aren’t so great to have turned. If we decide that we really do want gears x, y and z turned, we can then look for ways that accomplish that but fail to also turn gears a, b and c. The quest of things that are more useful is really a quest to identify just what are the “making things work” powers of actions and dispositions.

      As for whether money is being considered the ultimate value of usefulness in the “present capitalist situation”, I completely disagree. This is something people like to say in an off-hand way. As I mentioned, there is nothing much more “present” Capitalist than someone paying multiple millions of dollars for a Van Gogh painting at auction, and no one thinks that this makes the painting the most use-ful painting in the world. It is because there is a operating distinction REAL use (anything that makes things work) and monetary value (anything that makes things work in the context of money exchange) that money is able to operate in the first place, as a universal abstraction.

  4. Leaving the issue of money aside then (we clearly disagree but it does not seem to affect the main point), I take your reading of “usefulness” to be rather instrumental – it makes things work, it turns the gears – but not entirely so because there are “good” things and “bad” things being made to work, so we need some sort of guide to help up distinguish between good usefulness and bad usefulness – is that a fair summary?

    My original point (I think) was that usefulness itself generally becomes associated with some moral good and idleness/uselessness with some moral evil. To be idle (not professionally, but in general, say, between hours of work), to be unproductive of generally accepted value (whether value as understood by a larger society or value as understood by a very small circle of specialists) is evil. To justify its place in the university, philosophy must produce evidence of its usefulness, of its impact (immediate or long term) – no one can say “It’s just fun to take a philosophy class, I really thought it was a great experience” – they need some sort of “measurables” (to use Managerese)…

    • I can see why you would feel that my view of usefulness would tend toward instrumentalism (and also towards functionalism which you did not mention, but is a quadrant of this thinking), but its not really reductively the case because analysis never coalesces around the “agent” as an endpoint, that is he or she who uses instruments. Because agents themselves are also instruments, and never autonomous wholes, and are also cross-currented with instrumentalities/powers which permeate them it never really devolves into real instrumentalism, i.e. what use is this thing or action to “me” as the final value.

      I think you point this out though when you offer that such an instrumental view of “does it work” in another value bifurcation of “good” and “bad” workings. This is fair.

      And I can see what you are saying about uselessness and usefulness and good and evil. Notice though the shift from “bad” to “evil”. But an idleness (from one perspective) can be read functionally as quite productive. Sleep for instance (and dream) are quite “productive” make-it-work “actions” (Freud capitalized on this, but one need not go there at all, rest has its value). But always the analysis comes down to WHAT exactly is being made work, and then moving towards a consensus of whether that condition is preferable. Sleep restores, but sleep all day and night can paralyze. That is why there is a kind of – at least in my opinion – complexity measure of the Good. Its the floating, shifting line of the maximum intensity between parts, the line that hovers at the edge of chaos or dissolution on the one hand, and paralysis and stagnation on the other.

      Now people will disagree with just where an “action” is in that complexity/intensity scale. One person who daydreams all day (musing about theories), or even becomes a scribbler, might be viewed as an idler, while another view would argue that this action is potentiating all kinds of relationships (turning THOSE gears), which enriches the social field. The debate about which view is right I think is best done by identifying just what gears are being turned, and then discussing and pursuing consensus about which gears should be turned.

      If an idler is just musing about theories, or singing Britney Spears songs to himself, when a group is under emergency this might be regarded as non-essential and of less value. But such a person also might be fulfilling a deeper “use” even in emergency states of the group, for instance giving perspective, or relaxing everyone.

      As far as justifying a philosophy class, I do agree that there is the tendency to create some kind of “measurables” of its value, but clearly this is not solely the “use” of a philosophy class (or a poetry class for that matter). In fact the humanities regularly appeal to a deeper use of such activity, that it enriches development, enables greater capacity for other uses. This is not something very hard to argue for I suggest. To put it another way, utilitarianism has to accept that there are utilities which operate as utilities that enable other utilities.

      Or, even another way, there is a use for uselessness in context.

      • Well, goddammit, kvond, you’re sure not a dummy. Of course, once one has found that ‘bad usefulness’, it might be the same as ‘uselessness’, but take longer to determine it. Lots of good examples you’ve got up there too, I dig it. Run those fuckers out of business, that’s what I say. Definitions of ‘idleness’ all very stimulating. It may also be that once something is not just identified as useless, but really is useless, it dissipates to the point of disappearance, all the while translating degenerate truths with other objects, like and unlike itself, but caught in a fatal attraction.

      • But I wonder just what it is that has existed that would be that finally could be said to be “really is useless”? In the history of the world just what is the example of this? Under a plenitude of Being view, nothing is useless in this sense. There is only useful and more useful, I would think.

      • Is there such a things as “less useful” and if there is, then what is the zero degree of usefulness? uselessness? So in order to characterize some things as useful we must have a concept of what is useless (a concept of use as such). So there must be something that is “really useless” or at least there must be a possibility of such an activity existing, no?

      • “…or singing Britney Spears songs to himself”

        You must be watching me through a window or something. I don’t disagree you, or at least, it doesn’t seem like I have anything else to add here.

  5. Now, now, kvond, you’re just being pedantic, which I have little use for and causes immediate symptoms of flippancy in my person. You have to have vast familiarity and certain knowledge of all objects AS THEY EXIST WITHOUT YOU, both ‘translated’ and ‘untranslated’ even if quite as poorly fornicated as some of the object managers, before you can convince ME to bother with definitions that exist only under a ‘plenitude of being view’.

    But, as a stopgap measure, I might offer that the ‘dumb’ is useless…

    • Hmmm. I’m not sure if “flippancy in one’s person” is useless, but it does seem a bit incoherent.

      In any case if you can provide a real example (and not a category) of something that has existed or does exist in the universe which you would regard as completely and categorically “useless” I would be happy to hear it.

      I’m not sure what “dumb” you are thinking of, but nothing is completely dumb.

      As for pedantry, it is merely shorthand for long answers which no doubt this forum would be less than glad to have to support.

  6. “In any case if you can provide a real example (and not a category) of something that has existed or does exist in the universe which you would regard as completely and categorically “useless” I would be happy to hear it.”

    I would more than hep-py to make you hep-py…you asked for it, kiddo!

    Okay, here goes: I just wrote about it at John’s. Zizek’s connoisseurship of his friend Mladen Dolar’s exquisite taste in obscure music is completely and categorically USELESS! In his effort to impress obscure professors in upstate sinecures, he has even taken digs at Michelangelo’s ‘having been taken out of context of time and place’–I mean, not JUST taking a dig at the 9th Symphony. THIS–from someone who confesses to loving to watch ‘The Sound of Music’ (a horrifying confession that I thought a total parvenu like Zizek would know wouldn’t be forgotten by the smart ones), and whose ‘quirky’ yet hideous taste has spawned in her acolytes thorougly ‘bad-useful’ reviews (insofar as they stimulated many comments, including yours truly’s deleted ones) of ‘Sex in the City 2’, which dumb bleug reviews would never have been undertaken without the auspices of Zizek, whom YOU YOURSELF have referred to as ‘First Bleuger’ (I leave it to you to fix the spelling to your liking, I will not pander to Zizekism…).

    We have spared telling you that ‘Sex in the City 2’ is indisputably ‘useless’ out of pure gentlemanly politeness, because we do not think that you ought to have to get caught in that quagmire of molasses.

    However, if this does not suit your undoubtedly severe rigours, we do apologize profusely, as we do this as a volunteer service for our bleug hostl, who chafes at the bit at musical idiocy, but cannot pull all the stops out quite like I can, ‘because I’m not in the business…’

    • Well, let’s see…

      Zizek’s connoisseurship has now served as an example of uselessness, proving after all that it has a use. We can now thank Zizek for providing us this most useful thing.

      QED

      I’ll leave out your other no doubt germane and poignant cultural examples.

      Cheers.

  7. Well, this whole exchange was pretty useless – or was it useful in its uselessness?

    This whole deal reminded me of the discussion of difference and objects as engines of difference (difference that makes a difference) – we have to have a notion of identity/sameness to identify difference (otherwise, there’s no difference). The same way with “use” – if everything is useful, the idea of useful is indeterminate.

    • Not at all. It would be like saying in order to have a sense of difference you would need to have something in the world that is REALLY completely and UTTERLY different. Instead, things are different in some ways, and the same in others. Because “use” is relational, things are useful in some ways, and useless in OTHER ways, but nothing is completely useless.

      For instance, for some, this thread has been useless. For me, quite useful, and I thank Mikhail for it.

      • “It would be like saying in order to have a sense of difference you would need to have something in the world that is REALLY completely and UTTERLY different.”

        That’s true, you wouldn’t have to.

        “Instead, things are different in some ways, and the same in others.”

        No, there are things that are REALLY completely and UTTERLY different, but you can decide that there are not if you like, I could supply examples but not worth it for either of us, and neither really cares what the other things. I am not going to convince some Saugrenutio no matter what, since they’re all ornamental (whether or not decorative) anyway, just like most philosophers and courtiers, so if one of us is in the dark, big deal. Bound to be useful to somebody or some thing if at least one of us stays in the dark, or neither of us does.

        So. The one thing we have discovered is that, if nothing is ‘completely useless’, it does not follow also that nothing is ‘completely useful’, or if it does, that doesn’t matter either, because it’s equally true that there really is nothing that is ‘completely useful’. So, if someone also thinks that ‘one does follow from the other’, he can prove this in a dissertation. But just because there is nothing completely useful or useless does not mean that there are not things that are REALLY and UTTERLY different. This can be discovered the hard way.

        Pedantry is not necessarily shorthand, of course, although few pedants like to think of themselves as such. Pedants are aware of their academic shortcomings, and therefore call pedantry something else when it is revealed.

  8. “Well, this whole exchange was pretty useless – or was it useful in its uselessness? ”

    It was neither, but you demonstrated that Mikhail was right: “So there must be something that is “really useless” or at least there must be a possibility of such an activity existing, no?”

    You did prove inadvertently that kvond was wrong and that, if there are ‘more useful’ and ‘less useful’, there are ‘more useless’ and ‘less useless’ and perhaps even just ‘useless’. You proved it with your cultivated provincial tastelessness and your belief in the greater sincerity of the degraded and despised to that of the exalted and heroic.

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