In the history of ideas, utility looms large. You’re probably familiar with “utilitarianism,” the greatest good for the greatest number, an idea used not only as an ethical theory but as a means of making the United Kingdom dramatically more democratic.
In my studies, the concept of utility occurs in far more instances than just “utilitarianism.” When Descartes speaks of mastering nature or Bacon speaks of the relief of man’s estate, the idea is that knowledge should serve practical ends, advancing science and technology. That’s utility, placed against theoretical ends such as a more humanistic or religious set of inquiries. In Xenophon, if I remember correctly, someone asks Socrates if sickness can ever be good. Socrates replies with whether it is better to be at a battle or be sick so that one avoids the fighting.
It seems “Is this useful?” is a low but powerful response to claims on behalf of noble or religious causes. I’d go further. Genuinely wise people do not sound like they’ve only read books and have never talked to another human being. You need to know the low in order to engage the high; the practical is how one can even conceive the theoretical. With the right perspective, questions about utility are really questions about whether we are rational animals, knowing creatures who love to learn. If knowledge is good for us, it makes itself useful, no?
“Utilities” begins with a state of self-neglect. One can’t even be useful to oneself. [I feel like] today doesn’t like me isn’t much of an excuse for anything. Our narrator refuses to engage the “taste” in the air, the smell of the sink, or the car that might not be able to move.
I’ve been in states of mind like this for so long that when I’m happier—like I am now—it’s hard to for me to recognize that I have these terrible habits which I’d better get rid of. Some things change when I’m happier—there’s more cleaning and cleanliness, more organization and accomplishment, far more sensitivity. But creating a situation where there is a pronounced tendency for bad habits to fall away and good habits to replace them? Nowadays I believe that requires a Batcave, Alfred, and the whole computing power of Wayne Enterprises, if not the demonic resurrection pit of Ra’s Al Ghul. I don’t know if there are revelatory moments which, primarily of themselves, facilitate processes of change. I do know that structure and support help.
All the same, I not only feel happier now, but I feel like I’m taking better care without having full knowledge of what I’m doing. Which brings me to the problem these lines contain: I just wish I were a toothbrush or a solder gun / Make me something somebody can use. I want to feel useful, but that often depends on other another person seeing me as useful, like they see “a toothbrush” or “solder gun.” This is no way to become more useful or build self-esteem, we solemnly nod, yet every single one of us can testify it works to a degree. It’s as if there is a moment which will cause things to steadily get better. That moment involves being loved, and our fantasies about being love or in love aren’t complete nonsense. Not being loved really hurts, to say the least.
How emotionally independent can we possibly be? The second and third stanzas of “Utilities” describe a movement, as it sounds like the narrator pokes around in his basement (the corners of the basements of the world) and then leaves the house and goes outside (got a face full of ominous weather / smirking smile of a high pressure ridge). In the basement, he’s musing about wishes, as if he were rummaging through the basement looking through family memories, i.e. photos lying yellow and curled. Outside, he’s speaking the language of failed relationships: Got more faults than the state of California / And the heart is a badly built bridge. There are multiple sources of love and multiple types of wishes and desires concerning those sources. The feeling I get, listening to this, is that our narrator is overwhelmed. There are too many wishes, too many boxes of photos, too many abandoned electronics, too many faults. It sounds intuitive to say that he could really use some help getting started, even if the other person brings an additional basement full of old photos and useless electronics. “Utilities” ends with a plea; it doesn’t end with redemption, just the hint things could get better. The narrator got up and saw the miserable condition he lives in. He went outside and acknowledged his faults. We hope Make this something somebody can use is something he not only applies to his situation, but can apply to himself. (Clever: “this,” replacing “me,” means the song itself, if found useful, proves his utility.) One thing I’ve learned in my years is that one cannot possibly have too much support.
“Utilities” does ask for love. There’s no getting around the urgency of this request, voiced earlier in the song: Make me something somebody can use. While I feel supported right now, I don’t expressly have that kind of love in my life, and I think I should speak to why I might be happier, more useful, and yet not feel as needed.
When I was preparing to teach Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Ethics of Ambiguity” last week, I stared at this passage quite a bit:
Man, Sartre tells us, is “a being who makes himself a lack of being in order that there might be being.” That means, first of all, that his passion is not inflicted upon him from without. He chooses it. It is his very being and, as such, does not imply the idea of unhappiness. If this choice is considered as useless, it is because there exists no absolute value before the passion of man, outside of it, in relation to which one might distinguish the useless from the useful. The word “useful” has not yet received a meaning on the level of description where Being and Nothingness is situated. It can be defined only in the human world established by man’s projects and the ends he sets up.
I thought “a being who makes himself a lack of being in order that there might be being” was solid for introducing the students to Existentialism. You choose some “lack of being” in order to reconstitute your being. I think I used the example of giving up what you’re really into in middle school (guns) so that you can find social approval (someone to date).
What I didn’t talk about but made a bunch of notes on was how this implies a point prior both to happiness and utility. You’re trying to figure out what your happiness would consist in; you’re not unhappy or happy. And to speak of utility in relation to being sounds really out of place. Useful with regard to what?
So am I happier because I am in touch with the truth of my being? Please. I think I’m happier because I got a gold rank in Teamfight Tactics, League of Legends’ autochess mode. I do believe that our desire to be useful, though, is not necessarily fundamental. If questions about utility are about the value of knowledge, then there’s an infinite number of ways to be happy. One need only know them.