Please Be Useless: A Lecture on the First Day of Class

Welcome to this completely useless class.

I’m glad you could join me in taking this opportunity to be completely useless for three hours a week, not to mention time outside of class spent studying the useless material I’m about to present.

But first, let’s play one of the most useless academic games imaginable: “Define! That! Ambiguous! Term!” You might remember this from such games as “What is Science?” “What is Philosophy?” and, my personal favorite: “What is Good Writing?” I thought today we could go a little “meta” with this useless exercise and play “What does useless mean?” Ah ha! Perfectly useless!

Since the first day of class is always empty on the syllabus, and must be filled the way a jelly doughnut is, we better waste some time by first defining “useful,” and then, via logical deduction, we’ll know what “useless” means. As you’ll learn, trying to define something directly is a little too useful.

So, what is useful? Let’s not strain ourselves. First, be perfectly literal. What are some useful things? Think of things made outside the United States. Tools! Wonderful! The usefulness of tools has inspired me to initiate many a useless tangent. Though I find little use in tools personally (I’ve managed to lead a cultivated life without getting my hands dirty) tool use is an unmistakable sign of intelligence.

I once watched a raven bend a wire hanger into the shape of a swan and then proceed to use it as a visual aid. Since I couldn’t be sure in which tongue he was speaking (the audience was mostly composed of doves) I projected my own content onto the cackling, engendering an inter-penetration of texts (poly-avifaunal and hyper-sub-literate Derridean discourse) that afforded the cacophony a momentary coherency, an illusory congealing less gelatinous than gaseous.

This is all to say that tools (like me and my language, the crow and his crook) create value through a process of creative destruction, the way a simple decision to eat forbidden fruit might make salvation simultaneously less and more likely. Simultaneously at once, no less!

What use then is being useful if the tool you select creates an extension for the natural gift that owns everything? That’s why I say it is better to be useless. If you want everything, you should do nothing.

It’s very much akin to Chuang Tzu’s parable of the useless tree. Sure there is shade and aesthetic appreciation of nature and all that, but when it comes time pay the bills, the tree won’t run and hide, though neither will it reach for a wooden nickel. And that is fine. That is right. That good, beautiful, and true.

I am telling you be useless and everything will work out. Here I am also talking to America. That’s enough for today.

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