Memoir

The professor and the word

On value in culture and economics

Every thinker thinks one thought. The researcher needs constantly new discoveries and inspirations, else science will bog down and fall into error. The thinker needs one thought only.

Martin Heidegger, What is Called Thinking?

 

I REMEMBER READING it by torchlight, or perhaps candlelight, which can’t be true. The decade of power cuts was over, and electricity bills were not yet the heavy draw on household spending they later became. The book was old. It had a cheap, black cover and thick, yellowing pages. The early chapters bored me. The later chapters I never looked at. But the middle chapters... I followed each twist and revision of thought, every subtle change in definition and formula. From Smith to Ricardo. From Ricardo to Marx. From Marx to the Valley of Death, marginalist economics with its subcutaneous, barely detectable, but oh-­so-­real political agenda.

Then I forgot all about it. What use was Eric Roll’s A History of Economic Thought in the world for which I intended myself – the theatre? It wasn’t even peripheral knowledge, useful as background reading for rehearsing a play of same (‘How do economists sound, do you think?’). The rate of profit in an age of capital substitution and its impact on price and competition theory. Top stuff. Not relevant to the problems of dramatic character, counter cross blocking and the correct use of the Fresnel lamp.

A hundred years later, perhaps a little less, when the theatre was done with me, or all but, I surfaced in another landscape – the academy – and found what I had abandoned waiting for me, as if it knew I would return. The exact same Word.

In the Roman Catholic Mass, in the Second Vatican liturgy that Pope John Paul II liked so much but his successor did not, supplicants offer a prayer before taking Communion. Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed. From an early age, I thought ‘What word? What word can heal?’ I very much wanted to know as I shuffled up for my redemptive wafer. But perhaps I know it after all. Or one of them. It is the Word that came to me when I was a stage-­struck politics and economics student in 1981, and was there again when I entered academic life as a professor – no monk, more mendicant – in 2012.

The Word was value, and for the last eight years I have carried it with me in honour, horror, curiosity, anguish and atonement. When it became clear that the word was infesting me, taking over my mind like an intellectual parasite, revealing things I would rather not see, I wanted to forswear it all over again. But I am of an age where there is no giving back, just as there is no going back. We are joined, the professor and the Word, until such time as I go to my grave and it floats free again, looking for another human host to inhabit in all its great, grave, other-worldly nobility.

 

WHEN I DROVE from Melbourne to Adelaide to take up my job at Flinders University it was in an elderly Toyota Starlet that had never made a journey of more than 100 kilometres in its life. We faced interstate relocation together, both under-­equipped. The first weeks were a succession of inductions of wilting intensity. My mind would spiral off thinking of the theatre I had just left, mainly, of gigs, shows, slots, workshops, opening nights – the full liturgy. I’d just won a Helpmann Award. Why would I want to become an academic? The phrase had a ferrous ring to it, like a set of manacles. My office was large, with bookshelves the length of airport runways. Outside, the wind blew through the frangipani trees. I developed a love-­hate relationship with a sulphur-­crested cockatoo who would sit in the branches, pin me with a fixed look and squawk mournfully whenever I reached for the phone.

Like a man who falls off a cliff then finds himself on an unseen ledge three feet below, I had landed safely but was not sufficiently aware of the fact. Best to say that I’d arrived in Adelaide like the Starlet: slightly used but serviceable. Theatre had not ‘fulfilled me’ – code for I hadn’t done that much in it. I was dicking around, looking for a life. So the Word found me: a likely rube, intelligent but not sufficiently so.

In The Value of Everything, the innovation economist Mariana Mazzucato describes the implications of the appearance of marginalist economics:

The marginal revolutionaries...used marginal utility and scarcity to determine prices and the size of the market. In their view, the supply and demand of scarce resources regulates value expressed in money... Competition ensures that the ‘marginal utility’ of the last item sold determines the price of that commodity. The size of the market in a particular commodity – the number of items that need to be sold before marginal utility no longer covers the costs of production – is explained by scarcity, and hence price, of the inputs into production. Price is a direct measure of value.

That’s mainstream economics in a nutshell, now as then. Like a cartoon character caught in a loop of eternal return, economics does not progress. It does not discover new things. It restates its predicates in ever-­greater detail, in a barren exchange of validity for precision. Knowing more and more about less and less, it compensates for these minatory reductions by inflating its disciplinary ego. Yet ‘no economist has a privileged insight into questions of right and wrong’, writes Nobel Prize-­winning economist Paul Romer, ‘none deserves a special say in fundamental decisions about how society should operate’. The economic historians Philip Mirowski and Eddie Nik-­Khah are blunter: ‘Why anyone would mistake this virtual system of billiard balls careening across the baize as capturing the white-­hot conviction of human rationality in human life is a question worthy of a few years hard work by competent intellectual historians; but that does not seem to be what we have been bequeathed.’

There were a thousand ways I could have lost out in those early days. Heaven-blessed, I avoided them all. What a new professor needs is a ‘research agenda’. This is the same as old-­fashioned research, only you make money out of it. The sums can be large or, in my case, small, but I soon learnt that every action, relationship and encounter in the modern academy bends towards money like a compass needle twitches to north. The phrase ‘value for money’, which previously I had applied to washing detergents and low-­end restaurants, now floated free on a numinous sea of universal application, the magnetic pole of a new worldview. In my middle ear I heard a bass, existential thrum, as of many things turning, all at once. It was money, scooting round the economy at a velocity that reflected the rate at which it changed hands – why hadn’t I noticed this sound before? Like the whine of an old-­fashioned TV set, once you did there was no unhearing it.

I was invited to join a team of researchers who were, quote, looking at the problem of value in arts and culture. Thus was born the project Laboratory Adelaide: The Value of Culture. There were five of us. In our intellectual pocket we had a novel mathematical device through which we were keen to extrude some culture; an algorithm, out of which we would produce, in true thaumaturgical rabbit-­from-­hat style, its value. My research fellow was digital humanities scholar Tully Barnett, and for the next few years I saw more of her than my family. She would explain the Laboratory Adelaide project to people thus: ‘Culture as in art, value as in worth,’ after I had waffled on for unfruitful minutes.

Together we assayed the desert plains of the cultural value research literature. I’d vaguely heard of this. Wasn’t I a culture person? And a researcher? We printed up the yards of articles from the internet, loaded the boatloads of books from the library. So many words! What did they all mean? And the grey literature. So aptly named! So colourless and dull! ‘Cultural Vitality: Interpretation and indicators.’ ‘Cultural Indicators: Measuring impact on culture.’ ‘Interplay Wellbeing Framework: A collaborative methodology.’ The systems, the methods, the measures, the indicators, the models, the paradigms, the heuristics, the frameworks. No sixteenth-­century Paracelsian, distilling their spagyric from the primal elements, was more nuanced in procedure, more dedicated to complexity for its own sake, than these report-­spawners. This universe of intellectual effort gun-sighted on the problem of value had only one drawback. It was totally fucking mad.

In June 2013, Laboratory Adelaide gave a presentation at the Adelaide Festival Centre titled The Real Worth of the Arts in Adelaide. (Who wouldn’t want to know that?) Showing that we had nothing hidden up our sleeves, we revealed our research had ‘proven’ using a ‘scientifically rigorous methodology’ that the value of the Adelaide Festival was $84,924,664 (ta-­da!). As we delivered our ‘findings’, the winter sun poured in through the Festival Centre’s chambered windows. I have some blurry photos of this day, dated, for some reason, May 2010, as if we were living some years behind the time we were supposed to be in. Backlight throws the room into gloom, so we look like shades from the Grecian underworld. Wearing a Hugo Boss suit my mother had purchased for me (her son, the professor), I have adopted a faux-­thoughtful expression, having no idea of the grim struggles faced by the Adelaide Festival board; of the grim struggles anyone faced, anywhere. Value to me was still just a word. Yet somewhere in my theatre-­addled consciousness I felt a shudder of dis-­ease, as of someone who realises, after years of apparently connubial bliss, that they might have married the wrong person.

A number of formal problems occur in mainstream economics that pertain, directly or indirectly, to the problem of value. These include ‘the prisoner’s dilemma’, which is used in Nashian game theory to model asymmetric distributions of information in situations of competitive market exchange; ‘the non-­identity problem’, which is used to consider the long-­term impact of investment decisions when those paying the cost of a good or service are different people from those who will experience its benefit; and ‘the diamond-­water paradox’, which is the problem that marginalist economics believed it had solved. Why do people pay so much more for diamonds, which are not a basic human need, than for water, without which they cannot live? For marginalists, the answer is that the value of a good is established by the price point of the last unit of its consumption (the ‘marginal’ one). Because there is so much water and so few diamonds, the utility – and thus value – of the former falls as it is satisfied by abundance, while the latter, always scarce, does not. The fly in the ointment is what non-­economists call ‘the real world’, the one in which our consumption needs are neither stable nor substitutable. For the marginalist solution to the diamond-­water paradox relies on this essential truth: that you do not ask people which they prefer when they are thirsty.

By 2015, Tully and I were the public face of Laboratory Adelaide, our first grants coming in. I was still directing theatre, and had a show with the state company. I was living in the Adelaide foothills, and in the evening, after rehearsals, I would catch a local train home, one that looked like it had been nicked from a Thomas the Tank Engine railway set. There was always a delay, and I would sit on one of the station’s hard, beautiful wooden benches and gaze at the photographs of railway workers who had given their lives in ‘the war to end all wars’. Then I would do a little people watching. ‘What do I see from this window,’ asks René Descartes, ‘but hats and coats, clothing ghosts or machines moved by springs? I judge these are real people not with my eyes, but by the power of my judging mind.’

The man with the bad hair and the trousers that look like they were made in 1976; the woman with the outsize phone juggling too many bags; school children in uniforms of heraldic sable, running around like greyhounds. Comings and goings and onboardings and leave-­takings. Adelaide is a small city in a remote region in a far-­away country. For a moment I think that it has somehow slipped the sullen perdition of the modern world. That these people are happy, and that they deserve to be; that their lives, in and of themselves, regardless of looks, talent, skill, intelligence, disposition or net worth, are of value. That this requires neither demonstration nor explanation. That it simply ‘is’, a spiritual fact of infinite extension that sweeps away all the differences we concoct to reward one person over another, one nation over another, one time over another. And at that moment the Word comes to me, much closer now, and I am slack-­jawed thinking of the consequences.

From 2016 to 2019, Tully and I were out and about ‘researching value’, the Laboratory Adelaide team furiously debating the chokehold of economics over its definition. Right on cue, the Australian cultural sector fell apart, displaying its messy, non-­methodic reality for all to see. In May 2015, George Brandis, the federal arts minister, unceremoniously grabbed 16 per cent of the annual budget of the Australia Council for the Arts to establish his own funding agency. The following year, the council abruptly shed 20 per cent of the arts organisations it was supporting. The year after that, the South Australian Coalition government ‘disestablished’ its own state arts agency, cutting staff by 80 per cent. In October 2019, the federal Department of Communications and the Arts was submerged into a confected Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. In the world beyond Australia, data analysis was confounded by the vote for Brexit in the UK and the election of Donald Trump as President of the US. For none of these sad, bad or irredeemably stupid actions was there much, or indeed any, sign of ‘evidence-­based decision-­making’. No exhaustively detailed cost-­benefit analyses or spreadsheets the size of North Africa laying out carefully computed, if largely spurious, ‘returns on investment’. The arguments determining the choices made, if they existed at all, had little connection with the logiques manqué handed to Laboratory Adelaide.

In July 2017, Flinders University began an eviscerating restructure that led to the forced redundancy of 15 per cent of its staff, the liquidation of its schools and departments, and a retooling of its research agenda along business-­friendly lines. In all this, there was no pretense the goal was more than an improved ranking in a higher-­education index. As the university exploded in vitriol and grief, the metrics were the only meaning to be had. Now we saw what we were up against, the team and I, and it was salutary. The challenge of valuing arts and culture we had blithely taken up in 2012 was a tiny redoubt in a vast trenchwork of ruined thinking that scarred the world at large, traducing the idea of value, treating it with cruelty and disrespect, so that the Word was a pitted façade of its former self.

During this time, I slept badly and moved slowly, like an animal driven out of cover and exposed on an open plain. A new feeling gripped my body, growing more intense as it pulsed out of me in raw, unstoppable waves. It was 24/7 rage, I came to realise, and at one point I thought it would do for me. In the past, I had looked for fame, acclaim, success – the usual blah artists are supposed to crave. Now I wanted to hide away where no one could find me, not even my own self. In the bone-­moon of an Adelaide winter dusk, the air cutting like ice, I wondered what my next move could be, having run out of moves, having no moves in me left to make.

 

‘THE PRISONER’S DILEMMA’ is a thought experiment in which two prisoners, separately incarcerated, face disincentives to make a decision that is best for them both – denying a joint crime and walking free – because they do not have access to what the other is thinking. The more prisoners there are, the harder it is to justify acting for the common good. Mirowski and Nik-­Khah’s book The Knowledge We Have Lost in Information follows the development of game theory in economics, for which the prisoner’s dilemma is a key heuristic, from the socialist-­calculation controversy of the 1940s to its post-­2000 ‘market design’ manifestations. If the marginalist ‘solution’ to the diamond-­water paradox strips the problem of value of its context, game theory diminishes its substance. Economic information is a ‘thin’ idea of knowledge (and of value), unable to cope with either contradiction (what if it is in my self-­interest to act un-­self-­interestedly even when it is against my self-­interest?), or, more vitally, with the notion that there may be more than one type of rationality at play in any given situation.

Game theory demonstrates the skanky beliefs by which ‘the market’ in mainstream economics is presumed to achieve optimal outcomes. The primary goal is ‘efficiency’ – but what if efficiency isn’t our only goal? What if distributional equity or resource sustainability are important? Or the need to behave honestly for its own sake? Some goals cannot be ordinally ranked. It isn’t ethical to lie and walk free then tell the truth. ‘Efficient’ markets that produce inequality, or cause environmental damage, are hard to redress if there is no notion of the common good in the first place. We know only a tiny part of what is in everyone’s interest based on knowing our self-­interest alone. Mirowski and Nik-­Khah ask, ‘How have we arrived at this impasse, with artificial ignorance ingrained at every turn? How can economists pride themselves as wizards of information, and yet be so woodenly obtuse?’

Reducing knowledge to information reduces wisdom to computation and detaches value as found in economics from its rich appearance in other disciplines. From philosophy (Kant’s Critique of Judgment; Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy; Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue). From anthropology (Clifford Geertz’s Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight; Georgina Born’s ethnographic studies of the BBC and the Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique). From sociology (Max Weber, one of the great architects of modern social science; TH Marshall, who coined the term ‘social citizenship’; and second-­gen Chicago Schoolers like Erving Goffman and Howard Becker).

These bodies of work contain ideas of value that are profound, powerful and accessible on a human level. They are beautiful, shimmering, bejewelled streams of scholarly responsiveness. Yet we have turned away from them to pseudo-mathematical euchologies whose lack of sense is matched only by their lack of shame.

 

AS MY DESCENT into the Parmenidean underworld continued, I discovered that value had an evil twin: a sense of worthlessness. For every ‘A’ that exists on the ontological plane there is a ‘not-­A’ that can be contemplated as a purgatory of self-­torment. A state of pure nothingness is not one that eternal beings (that’s us) can logically attain. Nevertheless, the sensation of failure, of being rejected, ejected, hated, humiliated, disregarded, dismissed, despised, thrown over or thrown away, as if, indeed, one does not exist, comes close to reducing the somebody we know ourselves to be to the nobody we fear we really are.

In the middle of the night or in the early morning, I would take account of all I had done in my life only to find it marked down in a spiritual ledger as debt owed, an endless blood-­red river of accounts payable. Friends I had lost, let down or betrayed. Projects I had botched, aborted or never pursued. Love abandoned, unjustly unfelt or, again, betrayed. Things badly done, wrongly done or not done at all. People I had slighted, slandered, misrepresented or ignored. So many ways to fail: with biblical finality I saw I had achieved them all. A ghastly sweat would come over me then, my body weeping itself away in its quest to de-phenomenalise, to reach formlessness once more.

Yet these radical dis-­valuations, these maximal write-­downs of the asset-­self, were quite common, I found, talking to others. They weren’t unusual or bespoke. A sense of worthlessness lies within us all, an entropic darkness, goading us into a struggle for comparative advantage that is as banal as it barbarous, as purposeless as it is poisonous. What Hannah Forsyth calls ‘the moral economic market’ is the psychic competition that underpins the competition of goods and services. In this market, we give away that part of ourselves that is most inviolable, receiving instead the munted coin of material success, an unstable currency, prone to collapse. When it tanks, we tank with it, reduced to the emotional equivalent of junk status.

In the wake of the Flinders restructure, my reckonings of the soul increased. After I left the university in 2019, they became an object of attention in their own right. I came to see that the Word was not infesting me but testing me through a question that found its way to my innermost being as an archer’s arrow found King Harold’s eye. ‘What is value?’ became in time ‘What is of value?’ and eventually ‘What is my value?’ Believe me, and be warned by me, once you have asked this question you can never take it back.

When I was an oiky politics and economics undergraduate, we discussed the price of life. In 1982 it was £300,000. For insurance purposes. ‘Many would say that human life is priceless, that we should pay any amount of money to save a life,’ says Jonathan Gruber in his mega-­influential textbook, Public Finance and Public Policy. ‘This argument does not recognise that there are many possible uses for the limited government budget... By this logic, we would have to finance any government program that could save lives.’

Imagine that. (Pause here, please.)

The claim that economics can price, and thus value, human life isn’t completely true, however. It is economists who do this, and that’s a different story. One of the methods Gruber proposes is ‘contingent valuation’ – the same one that Laboratory Adelaide used to ‘prove’ the value of arts and culture. ‘The way to do this is to ask individuals what their lives are worth. This is obviously a difficult question to answer.’

Er, well, yes…

‘A common approach is to ask about the valuation of things that change the probability of dying... Contingent valuation studies have provided a very wide range of results for life values, ranging from $1 million to $28.8 million per life saved.’

Of course, Gruber doesn’t mean his life. The value of his life is in a different category to putting a cash price on everybody else’s. As Heidegger says, the death of another person is a loss from the world. Our own death is loss of the world itself. Gruber: ‘What at first seems to be a simple accounting exercise becomes complicated when resources cannot be valued in competitive markets.’

Thus, I came to the position I now hold. That we do not understand value at all. That value is just a word – not the Word – and we consciously evade its meaning, like a cry of pain in the dark that we choose not to hear, sometimes our own. We talk and talk and talk, but our arguments go nowhere because the problem of value is displaced from its groove of sense, the sacred relationship with the planet we inhabit and those who, animal and human, we share it with.

‘Why should I care?’ is a question I heard many times during the course of the Laboratory Adelaide project. It deserves an answer. But I don’t have one. We don’t care about things because they are of value. Things are of value because we care about them. Evaluation is the act of caring, collectively avowed. As we have moved from what political economist Wolfgang Streeck calls a ‘needs-­supplying’ to a ‘wants-­supplying’ economy, the acts of care that should underpin our avowed evaluations have fallen into disuse or been corrupted. ‘What keeps a disorderly, stalemated post-­capitalist interregnum society going,’ asks Streeck in Teutonic exasperation, ‘in the absence of collective regulation of economic crises, limiting inequality, securing confidence in currency and credit, protecting labour, land and money from overuse, and procuring legitimacy for free markets and private property through democratic control of greed and prevention of oligarchic conversion of economic into political power?’ The answer? Coping, hoping, doping and shopping.

In the pandemic-­y, catastrophe-­strewn world in which I now live, value has become not a problem to be understood, but a thing to buy. Our sense of value, our third eye, is degraded and made pander to endless, pointless, purchasing choices, diversity without true dialogue, multiplicity without real meaning. No doubt mainstream economics is the enabler of this desuetude, carving away great hunks of our shared soul and repackaging them as individual market exchanges. But it is symptom, not cause. If we valued value differently, economics would be different also. The question is not (only) how to change economics. The question is how to change ourselves.

 

THE ‘NON-­IDENTITY problem’ hails from population ethics and finds its way into the problem of value along its most mysterious and crucial axis: the abscissa of time. At its simplest, it’s about how we value people who aren’t there – people who don’t exist yet, and may never exist. But by our actions we determine a) that certain people will exist and b) the kind of life they can have. By the same token, looking back in time, we did not exist for people who once did, so how on earth did they value us?

‘Did we know each other when we were both kids?’ my son, then five years old, asked his mother one day. His child’s mind took the phenomenon of time and bent it round on itself, like an Escher staircase, walking up it to a moment in history that isn’t there. But if being is absolute and eternal, as Parmenides argued, then nothing can be thought of that isn’t already in existence, if only as a thought. Like a metaphysical bootlace, the non-­identity problem links all points on the matrix of creation: the actual to the actual; the possible to the actual; the possible to the possible. Thinking thus brings a heightened experience of time, as we look forward not only to those people who will be, but to those who can be – the sum of our possibilities to whom we owe if not allegiance, then at least consideration. Similarly, for the human beings who were, we are a thought that became an act that became us. By this measure, time is no longer defined from a single, privileged point of perception (the present) but is coterminous with the deep sea of creative possibility itself.

For economists, by contrast, time is empty, linear and progressive, divided by clear marks of apprehension presumed to correspond to objective qualities, like an old-­fashioned school ruler. There is ‘the past’, which is gone, and thus irrecoverable; ‘the future’, which is either a confidence interval on a probability curve (and therefore a risk) or indeterminate (and therefore unknowable); and ‘the now’, which is a narcissistic bloat of ungovernable material desires held in check by the free market and its sub-­Darwinian struggle for [insert individualistic and destructive KPI here].

In mainstream economics, there are two major conceptions of time: ‘discounted utility’ (DU) and the ‘social discount rate’ (SDR). DU privileges ‘the now’ as the main focus of evaluation, and works by ‘discounting’ flows of value the further into the future they go, as an increasing cost to the present. SDR is more balanced, and includes the benefits from these future flows as a reduction in the cost to the present (thus discounting the discount). In both cases, quantification and monetisation – the loveless, laugh-­less duo of contemporary evaluation methodologies – are the means by which time is brought to heel and made to serve immediate needs. In its lack of imagination, mainstream economics does the opposite to time that my son did. It cuts it up like a dead body on a mortuary slab, so that it will never regain the life it once had.

The problem that the problem of value faces today is escaping from economics, while economics faces the problem of escaping from itself. Or returning to itself, for it is a remarkable fact about this hobbled discipline that the further back into its history you go, the more sense it makes. I remember the passionate love I had for it. The nobility of classical and Keynesian theory, before economics lost touch with the ethical intelligence that alone can provide it with the capacity to tackle problems of scale. Surely needed now, in our polarised, confusion-­rich moment. Why did Laboratory Adelaide’s contingency-­value method fail to convince government economists of the value of arts and culture? Not because it wasn’t true, but because it wasn’t real. The problems facing those techno-­authoritarian dimwits, living in an over-­credentialised fug of Milton Friedman bunkum – what Robert Skidelsky calls ‘the Treasury view’ – lay in an entirely different direction. In lack of economic growth, which they brought on by destroying South Australia’s manufacturing sector. In stagnant wages, which they brought on by weakening its labour unions. In rising inequality, which they brought on by undermining progressive taxation. In ballooning private debt, which they brought on by cutting public services. In non-­investing corporations and sociopathic CEOs, which they brought on by exchanging the sovereign rights of democratic government for international trade agreements whose sole intention is to weaken those rights. Compared to this, ‘the problem of value in arts and culture’ is a flea’s flea, worth a minute’s thought, maybe less. Just fund some culture and be done with it, you stupid fucks! Stop avoiding the problems that economics has really got.

How do we value the future, then, which we cannot know, or the past, which we do not remember? How do we value people who aren’t there? Funnily enough, I know the answer to this question. In a way, I have spent my life answering it. For it is exactly the problem that confronts the theatre.

In the theatre we begin thus. Imagine someone – anyone, any gender, any age, place or time. They may exist or have once existed. Or they may not exist. Yet. The only stipulation is that you can imagine them.

Heidegger says we must ‘notice the way we walk’. In the theatre, we say this too, but not in the way he meant it. We literally notice the way people walk.

How does your person walk? How do they sound? How do they raise their hand when making a discrete gesture of recognition? How do they stare when they are wounded but trying not to show it? How do they laugh? How do they pick up their knife and fork when they sit down to eat? Ask questions like this, one after the other. Keep finding answers. If the answers aren’t there, make them up. Sooner than you think, you will have in front of you a whole human being.

Then: copy these actions, shaping them with your own body. Practise and practise, until you have captured them perfectly. 

Who are they, this person? Listen to me carefully: it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are of value. How will you know this? Because as you learn about them, they will learn about you, in a swift and astonishing transmigration of souls. As you copy them, they copy you. Your thoughts become their thoughts. Your past becomes their past. 

Eventually, they know you better than anyone, and understand you entirely. To change you, they see, would be to reduce you. So, they accept you for who you are, and want only good things for you.

And you must do the same for them. Care about them, and for the same reason.

In the theatre, this imaginative practice is a job of work, a daily emotional labour. To penetrate the life of another person, whether ‘real’ or ‘fictitious’ – on stage, there is no difference – is to find them in oneself. In this task, the fatal error is to confuse preference with value. Maybe your person is hard to like. That’s your problem. You won’t feel them caring for you unless you care for them, and you must strive with every faculty you possess to achieve this. When you do – that feeling – that’s value, the beginning of it, the sliver of human empathy from which evaluation can meaningfully proceed.

Now that you see it is possible to care for anyone, you see it is possible to care for people who aren’t there. For the people in the past who, though they did not know us, cared enough to bring us into the world. For the people in the future, whose fate we hold in our hands by the actions we avow today.

The problem of value is not one of calculation, but of imagination.

 

WHEN I WAS at school, I studied Latin, and I was fascinated by its declensions, the case system. Especially the vocative case, which does not exist in English and is used to call out to someone, to hail them to our voice:

O, Australia. O, ancient southern land.
What have we done to you? What have we done?

I had a dream. The earth was on fire. Walls of flame as far as the eye could see, everything burning. I was with a friend who I hadn’t seen for many years. In his hand, he held a book, and I could just see its single-­word title. For a moment, I thought it might be value. But it was not. It was justice, and it glowed brightly in the miasmic blaze we casually walked through.

These words, these Platonic forms. They arise from the remote reaches of a ghostly land that is always with us, yet we never see. The co-­present marmoreal realm of pure ideas. Truth. Beauty. Justice. Love. Value. They call out to us, these words, to find them in our fallen world, the rubble of appearances, to approach yet never attain the crystalline understanding they offer.

But their call is not a harsh one, not one we can fail. It is like the soft murmur of a lover in the still of a long night, whereby we feel the full reality of another person by our side, hear them talk, fall quiet and, eventually, sleep. Knowing they are unique and irreplaceable, and that the solution to ‘the problem of value’ is near us, always, if we will but reach out to touch this miracle so.

 

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