Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Luxury of Education

Is education necessary? Alison Wolf asked asked a similar question when she wrote "Does education matter?". Here I want to approach it from a different angle. I've been reading "The accursed share" by Georges Bataille and it is making me think about luxury. I've also been thinking about my dad, who spent much of his life reading and thinking and creating... and how important I believe it is to do that (what a good use of a life!). But at the same time, it is a glorious and wonderful indulgence.

Bataille is interested in indulgence and excess. At the core of his work is one of the most intelligent and profound commentaries on sexual life - 'Eroticism' is an extraordinary book. But beyond sex, Bataille turns his attention to economics, and influenced by Marcel Mauss's idea of "The Potlatch" which he expressed in the 'Essai sur la Don' ("The Gift"), Bataille argues that economics is upside-down. Classical economic theory turns about the principle of necessity. Bataille argues that in fact the world turns on moments of outrageous squandering of wealth, and that our inability to see this 'squandering principle' rests with a misplaced ethic which runs through classical economics which results in a misplaced focus on the commodity.

Of the squandering that stands out most clearly, there is of course the 'catastrophic expenditure' of war. Bataille analyses the Aztec civilization and the prime role of human sacrifice in that culture. Stomach-churning stuff. He considers the "Three luxuries of nature: Eating, Death and Sexual reproduction". Bataille is particularly concerned with the role of technology, and the fact that
"the revivals of development that are due to human activity, that are maintained or made possible by new techniques, always have a double effect: initially, they use a portion of the surplus energy, but then they produce a larger and larger surplus. This surplus eventually contributes to making growth difficult, for growth no longer suffices to use it up. At a certain point, the advantage of extension is neutralized by the contrary advantage, that of luxury; the former remains operative, but in a dissapointing - uncertain, often powerless - way."
This argument seems to me to be very reminiscent of the arguments about technology put forward by Ivan Illich. Illich too worried about 'surpluses', but (perhaps he was more tied to Catholicism than Bataille was), he argued against surpluses: he said the solution to the energy crisis could not be more energy, but less - we already had an energy glut! (and a speed glut, and a health glut and an education glut!). Bataille is on the same page, but comes to a different conclusion.
"I insist on the fact that there is generally no growth but only a luxurious squandering of energy in every form! The history of life on earth is mainly the effect of a wild exhuberance; the dominant event is the development of luxury, the production of increasingly burdensome forms of life."
But at the point of technological advancement in creating more and more surplus is that some sumptious way must be found to spend it all...
"at this point, immense squanderings are about to take place: after a century of populating and of industrial peace, the temporary limit of development being encountered, the two world wars organized the greatest orgies of wealth - and of human beings - that history has recorded. Yet these orgies coincide with an appreciable rise in the general standard of living: the majority of the population  benefits from more and more unproductive services" 

He goes on to argue that the mantra to 'raise living standards' is the only response of classical economics to dealing with the surplus of energy that must be spent. But
"a curse obviously weighs on human life insofar as it does not have the strength to control a vertiginous movement. It must be stated that the lifting of such a curse depends on man and only on man. But it cannot be lifted if the movement from which it emanates does not appear clearly in consciousness."
Reading this, I wonder about the burgeoning education industry. Bataille would see education as a sumptuous extravagance.  Individuals are increasingly having to spend their own money on education, but do appear willing to do so. Might the waste and the luxury have a purpose in Bataille's system? Is it the kind of 'necessary squandering' of surplus energy? Would it help us avoid war?

Whilst we've spent the last year or so arguing about the cost of education (and the lack of state support for it), at the same time we have seen that student numbers may not collapse as we thought they might. This needs explaining. Also we have seen another form of squandering in the squandering of talent through budget cuts, which was the inevitable result of the previous squandering of resources in propping up the bank industry.

Wherever we look, we see waste. Yet we see it negatively as the shadow image of classical economics. Bataille is making me think we need to look at waste again, and to examine its functioning in the deep processes of human existance.

1 comment:

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