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Choose, or Lose

October 18, 2012

Daniel Akst in WSJ Books:

In ‘The Dollmaker,’ Harriette Arnow’s powerful 1954 novel of Southern migration during World War II, the characters refer to their Appalachian hamlet as “the settlement,” and settled is just how it feels, its residents and ways unchanging until the global cataclysm that unsettles everything.

Arnow’s fictional settlement embodies much of Robert Goodin’s thinking on what it means to settle, be settled, settle up, settle down and most of all, settle on. Mr. Goodin’s “On Settling” is a brief and gentle meditation on a subject that is larger and more controversial than it may at first seem.

To many of us, “settling” is a dispiriting concept that implies giving up on our dreams and making do with second-best. But to Mr. Goodin settling is a crucial counterweight to the restlessness of contemporary culture and to our obsessive worry that some other grass is always greener. The essence of settling, he says, is “fixity.” He concedes that nothing is forever but argues that a settled matter or arrangement implies a state of resolution and constancy, the conditions in which trust and stability can flourish.

Technology, of course, undermines fixity. Inventions overturn settled patterns of behavior and, by increasing prosperity, give people an unsettling array of choices. Cellphones let people put off making fixed plans until the last minute, lest other options be foreclosed. Writing with a computer makes endless revision easy, and the fixity of texts themselves is undermined by the sweep of the digital revolution.

Yet foreclosing some options, Mr. Goodin says, is precisely what must be done if any decision is to be reached or any particular choice embraced. The alternative is a life full of potential but empty of everything else—one symbolized by Buridan’s proverbial ass who, confronted with two piles of hay, starves to death for want of a reason to choose between them. [More]

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 7, 2013 1:51 PM

    Interesting piece – thanks.

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