Useful uselessness

by Carl Dyke

Bookmark here. Something to connect to previous posts and conference papers about the usefulness of history being its uselessness. Found in Peter Manseau’s review of Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution:

All animals of a certain level of complexity, Bellah explains, engage in forms of “useful uselessness,” the developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik’s term for behaviors that do not contribute to short-term survival yet do ensure long-term flourishing. In the play of animals, we can see a number of interesting elements: The action of play has limited immediate function; it is done for its own sake; it seems to alter existing social hierarchies; it is done again and again; and it is done within a “relaxed field,” during periods of calm and safety. Put another way: Play is time within time. It suggests to its participants the existence of multiple realities—one in which survival is the only measure of success, and another in which a different logic seems to apply.

‘Useful uselessness’ is how I’ve been framing history, so I’ll need to track down Gopnik. Other links: Gramsci’s advocacy of ‘dead languages’, Hegel’s remark about history being too different than the present to offer useful lessons, Watzlawick et. al.’s critique of Freudian psychology to the effect that knowing the causal origins of a complex in one’s developmental history is of no use in resolving it since we cannot go back in time and change them.

Aren’t all of the humanities, at least as taught in Gen Ed to people who will not be following them into serious scholarship, this kind of useful uselessness? Wouldn’t it be good to be clear about this fact and be appropriately playful about them?

11 Comments to “Useful uselessness”

  1. “Useless” is a term too often deployed from a short-term perspective. I think of a remark attributed to advertising legend Carl Ally,

    “The creative person wants to be a know-it-all. He wants to know about all kinds of things: ancient history, nineteenth century mathematics, current manufacturing techniques, flower arranging, and hog futures. Because he never knows when these ideas might come together to form a new idea. It may happen six minutes later or six years down the road. But he has faith that it will happen.”

    In a world where economic value increasingly flows to those who see opportunities that others miss because they are too focused on the immediate task, history (and a lot of other miscellaneous knowledge) may be more useful than we imagine in terms of immediate supply and demand.

  2. Smafo, ha. I’d work with that. John, quite right, you start by deferring gratification and soon enough the gratification becomes intrinsic.

  3. “Deferring gratification,” that’s a bit grim. Not quite on point either. It can be fun encountering new ideas or information for the first time. That form of gratification is immediate but small. The “Wow!” moments come when things that you thought were unconnected suddenly snap together and the world changes around you. One of the cool things about getting older is having more bits and pieces to play with.

  4. Sorry – not exactly on point, you’re right – I was sort of letting your comment say what it already said very well and adding another node to the concept network, if you will.

    Deferred gratification may seem grim, but as I observe my students year to year it’s got to be part of the answer. They turn up their noses at what I and my colleagues are teaching just like babies turn away from strained peas – they can’t make the connection between a momentary unpleasantness and a more durable nutrition. It’s quite possible that the students have lost a more primordial disposition to delight in all new encounters, but as my analogy suggests it may be rather that there are all sorts of encounters not immediately pleasurable but ultimately beneficial, and therefore to get their benefits we have to learn the disposition to defer gratification, eventually transforming the deferral into a gratification in its own right (I believe Freud and Derrida both said this in their own ways).

    For guys like you and me, ‘good students’ from way back, the construction of this disposition came early enough that we think of its second nature as nature itself. So Bourdieu argues, to drop another name. In more deprived times this disposition was more generally shared, and academe was respected if not loved for its version of it. Now we have to sell our wares to students, parents, taxpayers and legislators who expect their gratifications to be more immediate.

  5. I’m wondering if useful uselessness is not really different to useless usefulness. In fact, the more I look at them (and especially if I say them out loud), the more they seem similar.

    Aren’t most non-scientific topics that have no practical use, useful uselessness? In what way are they useful? Knowledge, pure and simple. But are they also useless usefulness? Here I see a glimmer of a difference between the two terms: Can usefulness ever be useless, and is that not an oxymoron?

    The above musings do seem to have a point. They show an example of useful uselessness, which in this case is a definition – or at least a clarification – of the term.

  6. @Carl You’re right. I hadn’t been thinking of frustrated students wondering “Why do I have to learn that?” Been there, done that.


    For me “useless usefulness” translates as “wrong tool.” I need a screwdriver. All I have is a hammer.

  7. Yeah. I’m thinking it might help to add a context dimension to the analysis. A tool or a skill may be useful in one context or another, at one time or another. The screwdriver is the wrong tool for this job right now, but the right tool for another job later. Similarly a clarified term.

    We can therefore also add a prudential dimension. Given a likelihood of future tasks requiring screwdrivers or clarified terms, and their possible unavailability or relative expense to acquire at that time, it might be prudent to put one in the toolbox now. However, foreseeable need for a fiduzalator may be less, making its present cost and ongoing weight in the toolbox less appealing. And not everyone lives a life in which screwdrivers come up reliably enough to justify the investment.

  8. Carl, you said that “One of the cool things about getting older is having more bits and pieces to play with.” That, surely, is an example of useless usefulness, when we don’t remember where the bits and pieces are that were there a moment ago. So is getting older really useful?

    I had to google “fiduzalator” btw, only to find that there is no such tool. In the context of your post, though, it was useful uselessness.

  9. I don’t agree with all of what Gary Gutting says in this NYTimes piece, but I do think this statement is true: “Good teaching does not make a course’s subject more interesting; it gives the students more interests — and so makes them more interesting.”

    I think the argument to the novice has to be something like, “be receptive to this, because it will make you more comfortable with learning in the short term, and help you develop certain interests (NOT skills) that will enrich you in the long term.” But if you look at the comments to Gutting’s piece, you’ll see a lot of resentment directed towards these arguments, no matter how carefully framed, because it stands apart from our usual obsession with knowledge as “marketable skills.”

  10. Thanks Dave, I’ll read that once I get my grades in tomorrow. I’m on board with your point – the way I often put it is that I teach so that people will be in on more jokes. And of course you know the old joke about the humanities being chiefly valuable as preparation for cocktail party banter.

    I keep thinking of Bourdieu’s crack about intellectuals being the class fraction with an interest in disinterest. I think if we’re going to talk about things and people being interesting we have to be aware of the pun and what it has to tell us about how we allocate our priorities and resources. I don’t think the students are simply wrong to be disinterested in what we’re teaching them, so I do think we have to think harder about what’s interesting about uninteresting things. Maybe skills isn’t the best answer; I’ll have to come back to the train of thought after I read the article.

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