Notes on Uselessness

James Tadd Adcox's debut novel Does Not Love was released this fall by Curbside Splendor.  ACM is pleased to host Adcox on his blog tour, and now, without further ado: 


Notes on Uselessness




For the last several years I have been attending a Quaker worship service each week. Here’s how it works: You go into a room with some other people. There are a lot of seats more or less in a circle. You sit down, and you’re quiet. You can close your eyes if you want. You don’t have to, but most people do. You wait. Sometimes the whole hour goes like that, with everyone waiting in silence. Sometimes, before the hour is over, someone stands and says something. There are no ministers in Quaker worship, or rather, everyone is potentially a minister. You are only supposed to stand up and speak if you feel compelled to do so by God, or the divine, or what-have-you (Quakers don’t all necessarily agree on the terms here). After someone stands and speaks and sits back down, there’s quiet again, and maybe in a little while someone else will feel compelled to speak, or maybe they won’t, and the rest of the hour will pass in silence.

            I have never stood. I have never felt compelled to. I’m not sure what that would feel like, to be compelled. The best description I’ve heard is that you stand and speak when it becomes more painful not to speak than it would be to speak. That seems like a pretty good guideline.

            All of which is to say that last night, I was reading a book about the history of silence in religion, and I thought about what it would be like, to apply Quaker principles to writing. To sit in quiet, or rather stillness, until I felt compelled to write something. To wait patiently, without anxiety, not worrying whether I write anything at all. Why write something if it’s not worth writing? If it doesn’t need to be written? Why write unless it’s more painful not to write than it would be to write?




But then something in me rebels against this idea. The writing I’m concerned about primarily is fiction and poetry, which is to say, art. I am not sure what art is, if it is not superfluous. In fact, the more I consider the question, the more it appears to me that what is worthwhile about art is how honestly, flagrantly, superfluous it is. How simple art is in its superfluousness.

            Almost everything we find around us is useful, a means. We are taught to think of things in terms of means. We ask, what’s the return on investment? We ask, is that quantifiable? We ask, how many clicks, how much screen time? And of course art can be useful: it can be used to sell detergent or to convey a certain message. But that doesn’t exhaust art, and in fact doesn’t really get at what art is, at all. There is something fundamental to art that is wholly outside of whatever uses it might be put to.

            I read a book several years ago about PR. The book’s thesis was that PR is necessary because consumers are too savvy to be swayed by advertising any more. The book said that advertising is now an art form. What it meant by this was that advertising is no longer necessary. Candles, the book said, were once necessary as a form of light. Now we have electric light, so candles have become aesthetic: people use them when they want to be “romantic.” You might say that likewise, painting was once necessary, because it was the only way we had to know what people looked like after they were dead; the photograph made painting into an art form, or at any rate made it nothing other than an art form.

            The book’s point was that advertising is now useless, just like candles are useless now, and paintings are useless. As things become useless they pass into the realm of art. But art isn’t restricted to technologies or mediums that have been superseded. Obviously a photograph can be art. But it is art to the degree that it is useless.

            On some level, art is a refusal of usefulness. A refusal to be useful, or to accept that usefulness is the only yardstick of value. Every work of art engages in this to some degree. Even those works of art with a message are not wholly reducible to their message; some part of them holds out, refuses to be message and nothing more.




What is this superfluousness of art, that constitutes its refusal? Because its refusal and its superfluousness are the same. What value or importance can superfluousness have? As should be obvious from what we have already said, this cannot be a value based on use.

            I would assert that this superfluousness or refusal is what moves art from the category of ordinary objects into the category of objects capable of being loved. In this refusal, once put into interaction with an audience or a reader, art acquires a seeming subjectivity of its own. There is a sense we get, of course, that a work of art has certain opinions, or expresses certain views on the world, but that is not quite what I mean. Beyond whatever opinions it may express, a work of art seems to have a white-hot core of being that we cannot reduce to a set of propositions or uses. This is its refusal.

            Love is premised on an inability to view the beloved as a means. To whatever degree we view the beloved as a means, we do not love him, or her, or it. The contrary holds as well: to whatever degree we value the beloved but are incapable of seeing him, her, it, as a means, to just that degree do we love.

            It is possible, when one is in love with another, that one is nonetheless engaged in a relationship of exchange. The theologian Rienhold Neibuhr posits that in any reciprocal loving relationship, an exchange is always taking place, one that must in a healthy relationship be more-or-less equal. However, the lovers cannot be aware of this; they cannot, say, keep a tally of what one has done and what the other has done, and make sure that it evens out—to do this would destroy the relationship of love, would make it something quite different. It would transform the beloved, for each, into a means. Quantification, the sort of exact quantification that does not admit of superfluousness or refusal, is the enemy of love. Something must remain unquantified for love to exist.

            Of course something—the vast majority of things, in fact—always remains unquantified. This is not a question of the pettiness of love. It is a question of the pettiness of ourselves.



(Cover of Does Not Love by Jame Tadd Adcox, image courtesy of Curbside Splendor)




It has been pointed out before that the relationship of love is at once universal and wholly, concretely particular. The object of one’s love seems to have some sort of absolute necessity, such that, for the lover, it can be difficult to imagine a life of any sort without the beloved. And yet the beloved is individual, particular in time and space, and so cannot possibly be necessary in the way that the lover imagines. More to the point: while there is a feeling of absolute necessity to the love once it has occurred, it is wholly contingent before it occurs. The experience of love creates its own necessity.

            Prior to the experience of love, the beloved has no importance, it would not matter to the lover whether the beloved never existed; once love has occurred, the thought that the beloved might never have existed, or that the beloved might one day no longer exist, seems impossible and impossibly painful. Imagine asking someone who is not in love about love: “Love” might be important to them, which is to say that it might be important to them that they be in love with someone, at some point in the future; but imagine asking them if it is important to them that, at some future point, they be in love with this person, in particular? How could it possibly matter to a person who is not in love what particular person they will later be in love with? How could it even matter to them (assuming they have not yet met their future beloved) whether such-and-such unknown person had existed? Perhaps the would-be lover would offer a pragmatic response, along the lines of, “Oh, yes, he (or she) would be a good match, we come from similar backgrounds, have similar beliefs about the world”—the would-be lover might, as many of us do, even have a list of qualities in mind to describe the sort of person they would like to one day be in love with—but such pragmatic considerations miss the point. Until the lover loves, the beloved does not matter, the beloved as beloved is wholly contingent. Once the lover loves, the opposite is true: reality becomes impossible to imagine without the beloved.

            In this the lover’s attitude towards the beloved is much the same as one’s attitude towards one’s own life: non-existence, for the living, is at once impossible, and yet, somehow, an impossibility that registers as painful.




Art is a thing that creates its own necessity. Before the book Moby Dick existed it did not matter whether the book Moby Dick ever would have existed: once it has existed (if you prefer: once it has been read) it is impossible to imagine existence without it.

            The reader, of course, is free to select another book or work of art to substitute, if he or she does not find Moby Dick particularly compelling. The point is that the world got on perfectly fine without Crime and Punishment or Hamlet or Ran, and would continue to do so had they never come into being; yet now, for certain of us, the world is unimaginable without them.

            Notice the difference between such books and Origin of Species, or Principitia Mathematica. These are books that made certain changes in the world, changes that we can point to. Perhaps the full impact of such books cannot be known, their changes resounding, spreading throughout society; but in broad outline we can say, “Well, Origin of Species introduced the theory of evolution, which has fundamentally changed our understanding of biology, has changed how scientists go about investigating the world, and so on”; or “Principitia Mathematica helped to develop modern concepts of logic, without which, among other things, the computer might not have existed.” It even seems likely that, as some historians believe, such ideas these are the product of their time, overdetermined by a variety of historical factors, rather than the product of any individual. Certainly it’s the case that the theory of evolution would have come into being with or without Darwin; Alfred Russel Wallace had written his own account of the theory, contemporary with Darwin’s, and Darwin had to rush his own account into print to receive credit for it. If this is true, it only further supports the case that such books have a necessity that comes from outside themselves.

            What changes does a Moby Dick make in the world? What changes does Crime and Punishment? Some minor changes, certainly, as any object in the world changes it in some way; but what changes can you point to that explain the feeling we get, when we encounter a great work of art, that the world ought not exist without it?




I have just received in the mail Matthea Harvey’s new book, If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? and already I am beginning to have difficulty imagining a world that could exist without this book. Such a world seems slightly, ever so slightly, unjust. Yesterday I did not feel this way; yesterday I did not yet know that If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? existed, or rather, I knew it existed as a name of a book but I did not know the book itself. Today I am ever so slightly in love with this book, which is to say, the idea of its possible nonexistence has become ever so slightly unimaginable. 



James Tadd Adcox is the author of a novel, Does Not Love, and a collection of stories, The Map of the System of Human Knowledge. He lives in Chicago.