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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Cents and Sense (p. 137)

From chapter "Economics"

It doesn’t make much sense for me to raise chickens. Why should I go to the trouble of incubating chicks, keeping them in my bathtub, dumpster diving for food, and conversing with coyotes, when I can go to Albertson’s and buy a package of drumsticks for less than a buck a pound?

Not much that we do in our personal lives makes much economic sense, just as most things we do for money make no sense in personal terms. It makes little economic sense for me to write this book: my pay will probably hover around a buck an hour (enough, at least, to buy a pound of chicken). From a fiscal standpoint, I’d be better off working at McDonald’s. High jumping didn’t pay. Friendships don’t pay. It makes no economic sense to make love: it takes time, uses calories, and costs money if you use condoms or pills.

I suppose if we stretch the definition, making love can be made to fit into certain economic categories: my friend tells me the price for sex on East Sprague here in Spokane is fifty bucks for a lay, forty bucks for a blow, and a hundred for the woman to do whatever you want for an hour. It could be argued that by moving swiftly from lovemaking to buying sex I am blurring distinctions that shouldn’t be blurred. But that’s what happens to any process when we turn it into an economic exchange, whether we’re talking about a trick on East Sprague, a pound of chicken at Albertson’s, or a book at Hastings or Borders. The complex and often murky processes—lovemaking in the first place; the gathering, raising, or killing of food (as well as more broadly our relations with other species) in the second; and in the third the process of exploring and articulating what it means to be alive and human—have been telescoped into commodities that can be quantified and transferred. I’d like three books, two packages of chicken McNuggets, and a blow to go, please. That which it is possible to reduce to a commodity and sell, is. That which can’t, is either (by definition) devalued, ignored, or simply destroyed.

Let’s get back to East Sprague, and to what must be lost in transition from intimate to commercial. Love is certainly lost, but what else? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps the transition merely demystifies—removes the shroud of projection, of unnecessary and cumbersome mystery—to reveal what, at base, is really there: friction on skin, stimulation of nerve endings, lubrication, seminal emission. Nothing else. Perhaps our economics reduces it as surely and cleanly as does our science to what is reproducible and quantifiable in any laboratory to what is real: we have time of erection, cubic centimeters and chemical content of semen, chemical content of the woman’s lubrication (if you pay fifty). With the right equipment we could track the chemicals in the man’s brain as he comes, and those in the woman’s brain as she thinks of something else.

Here’s the problem: in this tidy world of economic categories, there’s no room for love, joy, mystery, for the sometimes confused and confusing,96 sometimes clear and clarifying, sometimes beautiful, sometimes magical suction of body on body, skin on skin, soul on soul. The process of lovers entangling and moving together figures little in the exchanges on East Sprague.

But I suppose even within the context of a relationship we could twist sexuality to make it fit within economic categories: I give pleasure in order to receive an equal amount of pleasure. It’s an economic exchange as surely as if money changed hands, with the currency now caresses. But as was the case for the two friends sucking on straws, this description of economic selfishness does not describe the process as I experience it. My experience—and this is true not just about sexuality—is quite the opposite of what our economic philosophy would suggest. The purpose—and this, too, is true for all of life—is in the giving, sharing, and receiving wrapped inextricably into a single thread.

Our economics, as is true of our science, represents the triumph of product over process, and form over content. It is the triumph of selective deafness and blindness over conscience and relationship. I don’t care how miserable was the chickens life nor how poisonous the hormones, just give me cheap and juicy drumsticks. I don’t care that the prostitute is probably poor and was sexually abused as a child, nor that the encounter will be devoid of emotional content, just get me off. My shoes were made in an Indonesian sweatshop? I don’t have the money to buy socially and ecologically friendly shoes that cost twice as much. It doesn’t matter that the production of my toilet paper came at the expense of clearcut mountainsides, sedimented streams, and rivers poisoned with dioxin; I cannot afford, once again, to buy the unbleached and recycled stuff that goes for fifty cents a roll.