By Saurabh Bhattacharya June 2011 How valid is it to assess everything on the basis of utility? And what kind of world will it create? A few months ago, I was teaching history of the World War II to a class of 14-year-olds. While most of the class was plodding through the lesson, I noticed one girl making no effort to be involved. When I confronted her with her lack of interest, her response was: “Why should I pay attention to history? How is it going to be useful for me in my life?” The question made me wonder. As a teacher of English literature and history, it is my job to educate students on both these subjects, but do these subjects have any practical utility in real life – unless, of course, one wants to be a high school teacher of English and history? The benchmark of use The problem of utility is not restricted to education alone. In today’s uber-pragmatic world, everything – and everyone – must be whetted against the benchmark of use. By ‘use’, though, I must clarify that I mean material use, a form of utility that is tangible, practical. Naturally, that is not the only way one can define utility, but it is the most common way. When my student asks me what use a lesson in history is going to be in her life, she does not refer to the use of an abstract knowledge that should, over time, help provide her with a holistic perspective on the world around her. Yet such usefulness is not tangible, empirical or result-driven. It is impossible for it to be labelled under materialistic usefulness, and so a pariah in today’s utilitarian worldview. A good friend who is now a high-flying executive producer in Mumbai once told me: “The only way to be successful in life is to have useful connections”. Admittedly, he made this statement in a depressive phase. He kept true to his principle and went about cultivating ‘connections’ assiduously till he reached his present position. His case is not unique. Most of us have, at some point or other, gauged our friendships (the politically-correct word for ‘connections’) according to what we can get from them. I am culpable of doing this as much as my friend. During my early days in newspaper journalism, I went out for long drinking sessions with the senior editorial team every night. My hedonism paid off when I was promoted, within six months, from trainee sub-editor to senior sub-editor. Did my capability as an editor play a role? No doubt it did, but my promotion was significantly hastened by my using my ‘connections’. After years in journalismand sales, Saurabh Bhattacharyanow works in Sydney asa high-school English teacherwhile pursuing an honours degree in philosophy An utilitarian world Is such a way of living wrong? I think it would be a fallacy to pass a morally absolute judgement on something that is, I suspect, basic human nature. Most of the decisions we make in our daily life – what to wear, what movie to watch, where to eat – are governed by the paradigm of material utility. One could argue that there is nothing useful in watching a movie or reading a book save being entertained, but that reinforces my point: in our minds, we have given the medium of art the job of entertaining. If a film does not entertain, it has not functioned properly and thus has served no useful purpose. I recently watched Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, a searing study of a ballerina’s descent into madness in pursuit of perfection. I commended the film fulsomely in my Facebook account – and immediately got embroiled in a major online debate on the film’s ‘relevance’ and use for today’s audience. The critic of the film, a fellow-teacher and a very intelligent friend (not a ‘connection’!), insisted that the movie had ‘no point’. Why make such a film, he argued? What earthly purpose does it serve? My friend is absolutely right in saying that Black Swan serves no pragmatic purpose. Come to think of it, what is the relevance of Hamlet? What purpose does Raja Ravi Varma’s work serve? What is the use of Bhimsen Joshi’s khayal or Shovana Narayan’s kathak? None whatsoever. A person can live a completely comfortable, and successful, life without knowing anything about them. Creativity flies in the face of utility. However, in an increasingly utilitarian world, such a flight is destined to be short-lived – unless we, as a people, begin to look at everything beyond their use-by date. The question that follows from the above is this: is there any point in trying to preserve things that have no pragmatic use? Therein lies the rub. Let us imagine a world where everything that has no practical utility – every piece of creative work, every historical record, each bit of natural beauty – has been systematically decimated. Would you want to live in such a world? In fact, would you be able to thrive as a complete human being in a fully use-driven universe? My guess is, no. Why? Because in such a universe, we human beings, the purveyors of all that is useful, the enjoyers of all things pragmatic, we ourselves would have become use-less, and hence subject to extinction.
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