03 September 2012

What Really Matters? No, Really...

The extrinsic benefit discussion is hardly unique to music and musicians; rather, it seems that virtually every field of endeavor is falling all over itself to claim utility outside of its own domain. Some of these claims clearly have legs (as in youth sports programs fighting childhood obesity), others less so (as in youth sports programs teaching teamwork; seriously, did anyone learn anything other than nepotism, selfishness and nihilism on their pee-wee baseball team?). Either way, however, I do wonder sometimes if "what really matters" has not become a permanently moving target, forbidden as we so often are these days, whether by culture, politics, or finances, from being so bold as to locate anything in particular at the top of this food chain.

Without such an anchor, the result is an endless cycle of faux-altruism and self-denial. Science fiction "encourage[s] people to think about our world and what it might become?" Or does it offer them escape from these thoughts? Public radio is the "backbone" of our emergency alert systems? The thought of a major disaster leaving behind only the most devoted Current listeners to take the reins of human civilization is more frightening than the specter of such a disaster itself. And consider golf, the game most widely proclaimed to teach honesty which nonetheless makes a cheater of virtually everyone who goes near it.

I worry that in trying so hard to paper over the inherently self-interested nature of every human thought and action we threaten to maim our culture beyond recognition. There is a self-fulfilling, self-destructive aspect to all of this posturing, namely that by insisting on the primacy of our utility to a slippery, calculated conception of universal value over more idealistic concerns specific to our disciplines, we more or less prevent our work and ourselves from blossoming into something with clear intrinsic value. And to be sure, extrinsic values are always derived from intrinsic ones, period. The "anchor" is a constellation, not a monolith. Skimming the cream means severing the limb, and reverse engineering is playing with fire.