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The Terror of Deep Time

The Terror of Deep Time

Back in the 1950s, sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote cogently about what he called “crackpot realism”—the use of rational, scientific, utilitarian means to pursue irrational, unscientific, or floridly delusional goals. It was a massive feature of American life in Mills’ time, and if anything, it’s become more common since then. Since it plays a central role in the corner of contemporary culture I want to discuss this week, I want to put a few moments into discussing where crackpot realism comes from, and how it wriggles its way into the apple barrel of modern life and rots the apples from skin to core.

Let’s start with the concept of the division of labor. One of the great distinctions between a modern industrial society and other modes of human social organization is that in the former, very few activities are taken from beginning to end by the same person. A woman in a hunter-gatherer community, as she is getting ready for the autumn tuber-digging season, chooses a piece of wood, cuts it, shapes it into a digging stick, carefully hardens the business end in hot coals, and then puts it to work getting tubers out of the ground. Once she carries the tubers back to camp, what’s more, she’s far more likely than not to take part in cleaning them, roasting them, and sharing them out to the members of the band.

A woman in a modern industrial society who wants to have potatoes for dinner, by contrast, may do no more of the total labor involved in that process than sticking a package in the microwave. Even if she has potatoes growing in a container garden out back, say, and serves up potatoes she grew, harvested, and cooked herself, odds are she didn’t make the gardening tools, the cookware, or the stove she uses.

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