So after finishing Theory of the Leisure Class, I took a detour into another of Veblen’s books, not on my list, The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts. I swore I wasn’t going to add more books to the list, but here I am adding not just a book but a Veblen book at that. I can read and understand a Veblen book about 5 pages at a time, so dense is his prose. Except I’m not adding it. I read about three chapters, thumbed through the whole thing, and became convinced that Veblen was never going to answer the one question I wanted answered: what the hell is the instinct of workmanship? And what is its relationship with the instinct of predation, or the paternal bent, or any of the other instincts you talk about?
The reason I wanted to know about the instinct of workmanship was because Veblen implies a couple of times that the instinct of predation, which is kind of a jerky thing to be, is counterbalanced to some extent by the instinct of workmanship, which sounds kind of nice, but he never really explains it in the book. In an earlier essay he talks about workmanship more directly, he basically said that workmanship is about efficiency, and he talks about it in the context of a small society where each member’s contribution staves off death, where the better you can do things, the more likely you will all not die. Eventually, proficiency increases along with tribe-size, and you get the introduction of predation, in which some people take larger shares of the wealth, which gives rise to the titular leisure class.
What he never really addresses is whether predation is necessarily going to happen (one assumes because it’s an instinct) or whether it’s possible to have a society that is only or overwhelmingly driven by workmanship? No invidious distinction, no wanton waste, just people getting it done and doing it right. But Veblen never says, and I’m left to wonder and continue sussing this out on my own.
And over the course of this adventure, as I’m attempting to understanding the nature of predation, and instincts in general, and whether Invidious Distinction is a bad thing or not, I have an exchange on this stuff with a fellow Veblen nerd (there are dozens of us!) and he said, “Well, this is where Darwin says: it’s to get the chicks.” Which was very funny and also very true, I supposed. But I didn’t know. Which leads to my next pick: Origin of Species.
It’s good timing for me to get into this, because Veblen was clearly highly influenced by Darwin, seem to me at least to be going out of his way to tie his social theories to an evolutionary framework. And of course Darwin is such a huge presence in our culture that I feel a great familiarity with him, even though I’ve never read him. And from what I’ve heard, his Origin of Species is a delight to read, clear and complete and persuasive. In reading the introduction to my volume, I learned that it was written for the general public, which makes me think that it will be pleasant and enjoyable, and not assume any particular scholarly background. I think Veblen was aiming his prose squarely at his colleagues, which is why it packed it so dense, but also why it is so snarky and condescending – one gathers he scorned by his peers and they returned the favor. With Darwin, I am anticipating a very polite and solicitous scholar. We’ll see if I’m right.
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