The Public That Cannot Mourn Does Not Exist

The Convivial Society: Vol. 1, No. 10

“Concerning social memory in particular, we may note that images of the past commonly legitimate a present social order.  It is an implicit rule that participants in any social order must presuppose a shared memory.  To the extent that their memories of a society’s past diverge, to that extent its members can share neither experiences nor assumptions.”

— Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember

“Grim milestone.” I lost track weeks ago of how often I had encountered the phrase. Here in the U.S. we’ve passed one more such milestone: 100,000 COVID-19 deaths.

It is striking to me, just now, how little we’ve grieved the loss. I don’t mean to say that families and friends of the dead have not grieved their loss, rather that as a nation we seem to have done very little of it. Of late, there have been calls for some expression of national mourning, but it’s not clear if anything of the sort will materialize beyond the lowering of flags to half-staff for a few days. Tragically, like almost every other social reality, of course, these deaths have become just another front in the culture wars—a strike, I should acknowledge, against my earlier suggestion that the virus may resist the operations of hyperreality.

Curiously, we were approaching 100,000 deaths over the Memorial Day weekend, a national holiday given over to remembering our war dead. Of course, it’s not altogether clear to me that the day retains its ostensibly solemn nature for the majority of Americans. The market, after all, tolerates no liturgical calendars, religious or civic, that do not ultimately initiate us into the rites of consumption. So our lack of public mourning should not, perhaps, come as much of a surprise.

It is true that the COVID dead did not enlist to fight in some noble cause on our behalf, neither were they the victims of a galvanizing enemy attack. Thus their deaths lack the character of military service or sudden catastrophe that ordinarily calls forth public grieving. They died as private and often isolated individuals—fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and lovers—to be privately mourned, according to our ordinary practice. Except, of course, that under present circumstances, even these ordinary practices have been denied to the dead and loved ones.

Yet, because so many have died in such a brief time, the tragedy takes on an undoubtedly collective and public character. It demands acknowledgement and a reckoning, not simply a tallying. As I write this, however, it begins to feel almost as if we’re prepared to move on. We were shocked on the first day that 100 died and later 1,000, but we somehow acclimated to anywhere from 1,500 to more than 2,000 deaths a day for a few weeks. For some, it is clearly politically expedient to do so; for others, a certain fatigue appears to have set in. Moreover, the temporal imperatives of digital media are unresponsive to the specific quality of events.

Deeper still, I suspect that we’ve lost touch with a common repository of rites, rituals, gestures, language, and ceremonies through which we might acknowledge, commemorate, and perhaps even sublimate the death and suffering of our fellow citizens. Surprisingly, a society fixated on the possibilities of technical automation is nonetheless indifferent if not overtly hostile to what we might think of as the fruits of cultural automation, that is a stock of deeply engrained, reflexive scripts that help us navigate instances of profound loss or joy, relieving us of the paralyzing burdens of spontaneity. But it’s not exactly that a choices was made to cast these aside. Culture in this broad sense arises organically and begins disintegrating long before it is obvious to most except the keenest observers. Which is why it appears to happen, as Hemingway said of financial ruin, gradually, then suddenly.

Certain communities may retain such customary rites, of course, but the nation does not. Perhaps it never did, except to the exclusion of sizable minorities. To put this another way, we have no civil religion, only mannerist manifestations of such—rites merely simulated rather than inhabited, shot through with self-awareness, divisive rather than unifying, subject to charges of hypocrisy and bad faith. (This is not a brief for a civil religion, merely description.) Further, I suspect that the share of individuals covered by communities that retain binding and living forms of this sort is itself shrinking.

It is not only a matter of acknowledging and reckoning with grief, though this is important enough. It is also a question of meaning and judgement and how a society hangs together (or doesn’t).

Consider the language that does populate our public discourse. It is the “language” of quantification: numbers, statistics, models, data, economic indicators, and their attendant values—speed, efficiency, optimization. This language, this way of knowing the world, has its place, but ideally in the service of values and goods that cannot be accounted for numerically. It can be a valuable aide to thought and judgment, but it cannot substitute for either. Unfortunately, the language of quantification is often invoked to settle questions that are ultimately moral and political.

We do so, in part, because quantification carries the veneer of objectivity and thus the possibility of commanding assent from all “reasonable” people. In the absence of broadly shared moral frameworks, healthy political institutions, a common experience of the world, and adequate levels of social trust, we resort to the language of quantification as if it alone could resolve our disputes and resolve our deepest quandaries.

They can’t. But in the face of perpetual outrage cycles, nihilism, injustice, violence, apathy, and division, some instinctively turn to data theater, the performance of data analysis as if it settled matters and absolved individuals of the responsibility of judging and acting and assuming responsibility for their words and deeds.

But we must see these dynamics for what they are: desperate attempts to shore up a public that no longer exists as such. Media theorists, and Søren Kierkegaard, have long told us that “the public” is an effect of the media that generate it. As I’ve tried to argue at length elsewhere, we cannot expect business as usual in the aftermath of a profound transformation of our media ecosystem. (To be clear for the sake of readers who may be coming to the language of media ecology for the first time, when I speak of media here I am not talking merely about CBS, MSNBC, or the New York Times. I’m talking about the social consequences of orality, writing, print, electronic communication, and now digital technologies.)

Whatever you conjure in your imagination when you hear about “the public” or “the public sphere,” you are invariably imagining some unit that can be thought only because it is sustained by a particular media ecosystem. The public as we imagined it in the post-war era of mass electronic media no longer exists, or it exists only in zombie form. It wasn’t a fiction, exactly, but it was a construct not a given. Its consequences are still with us, of course. Its assumptions linger and its value and norms still hold sway with many, but its power is waning and its death throes are reverberating throughout society. You can lament this development or celebrate it. What we must not do is pretend that it is not happening.

If you would like to observe one of the most obvious manifestations of this dynamic, you need only consider Twitter’s recent decision to add a “fact-check” (it is not even that) to one of the president’s tweets as if this were somehow an adequate response to the problem they were ostensibly addressing. Now, better yet, try to imagine a solution that might generate consensus, one that would not accelerate the powerful disintegrating forces at work in our society. If you can think of one, you’re wiser and more imaginative than me, which, I readily grant, is not saying much.

It is not that digital media acts unilaterally as a causal force generating a new society ex nihilo. It is, as McLuhan noted long ago, that new media generate cultural retrievals, obsolescences, enhancements, and reversals. It reconfigures society by working on the pre-existing materials. And the consequences of this reconfiguration can be profound, felt at both the level of the individual psyche and the social fabric.

For example, consider the effect of digital media on memory. If collective memory is a crucial element of a cohesive, well-functioning society, if, as a Ivan Illich has observed, what we call different cultures are merely the manifestations of different means of remembering—then what are the consequences of the radical re-ordering of how we remember occasioned by digital media?

And what of a common experience of some abiding present? Media have always refracted the greater world to our senses, whether that was a medieval map of the cosmos, modern era travelogues of an explorer’s journey, television’s presentation of a distant war, or the experience of an election cycle on a digital media platform. What shape can a wider common world take when it is experienced through the lens of our algorithmically constituted, cyborg timelines?

What, too, of the heightened self-consciousness that digital media occasions, both at the personal and social level? If new cultural forms necessarily take root under the cover of a benign darkness, below the level of consciousness, how are they to emerge under the withering light of awareness that drenches everything in irony? “Everything that lives, not vegetative life alone,” Hannah Arendt observed, “emerges from darkness and, however strong its natural tendency to thrust itself into the light, it nevertheless needs the security of darkness to grow at all.” Elsewhere, she observed, “A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow. While it retains its visibility, it loses the quality of rising into sight from some darker ground which must remain hidden if it is not to lose its depth in a very real, non-subjective sense.”

To be clear, what is new is obviously not the divisions or the strife or the conflict. What is new, and here I might be mistaken in my estimation, is the absence of a cultural infrastructure, ordinarily taken for granted, by which the divisions, the strife, the conflict might be adjudicated, resolved, or even spoken about intelligibly—the absence, that is, of a sufficiently broad common world that can gather enough of us around it. And perhaps it is not right to say that this is new. It may be better simply to say that we are in such a period of cultural upheaval, and have been for some time, of which there have been many throughout human history. I will say, though, that what does seem somehow novel is how the agents of disintegration are such that it is hard to see how they do not simply keep acting in such a way as to be constantly eroding the foundations of a new more stable cultural order. Of course, I’m happy to admit that it may always have seemed so to those living through such times.

But perhaps that’s best left for another newsletter. I’ve delayed sending this one long enough, and, if you’ve made it this far, kept you long enough. I should add, too, that none of this should be read as the counsel of despair. Let us each look around us, right there in front of us … there are things to be done.

News and Resources

  • On “doomscrolling” and its antecedents: “Giving a lecture in Exeter on 19 November 1914, the minister G. M. Newcombe related an anecdote about a friend of his who spent half his day reading war news in The Times, finishing only when the Exeter evening paper arrived in the house. ‘Naturally,’ he said, everyone was ‘interested in the great crisis, but excessive newspaper reading had a tendency to throw some people off their balance.’”

  • Academic article on “The (in)credibility of algorithmic models to non-experts”: “Although model-professionals often work in close collaboration and over time develop practices to scrutinize a model, they often remain black boxes to all but a few specialists. This suggests that meaningful oversight of machine learning algorithms that transcend our cognitive capacity presents a formidable challenge for those not working with a model on a daily basis. It follows that transparency of algorithms to the general public seems problematic at best given that they may not have the expertise, the time, or inclination to engage with a model.”

  • On the rise of online “cults.” The digital city is stranger than many of us realize but still answers to rather primal longings: “Ms. Ong’s fans said that joining Step Chickens has helped them feel less isolated in the midst of widespread stay-at-home orders. ‘I think a lot of people want to be a part of something,’ said Sam Schmir, 20.”

  • Swiss documentary explores the history of chairs: “Chair Times: A History of Seating – From 1800 to Today.”

  • A bit different than the usual fare, but interesting read on “kid culture,” akin to what I’ve taken to calling the professionalization of childhood: “The best moments for us have been when there is no adult culture or kid culture, no fantasy world conjured by tired, bored grownups struggling to provide perpetual creative stimulation, and no pretend universe in which we are not really parents, but are instead hip single people sipping $14 kombucha mules on a Saturday night at this new bar. The best moments are when we can all do our thing, be it sidewalk chalk or discussing the downfall of US society or dancing in a tutu or reading poetry. The moments when we are part of a larger community, not subjugated to the singular, quasi-sacred project of the kid, nor trying to flee it, just two 37-year-olds and a five-year-old making our way through the world.”

  • Drew Austin on quarantine as “the future big tech wanted us to want”: “This was already the perceptual logic of the internet: a nonspatial, atemporal universe in which everything feels always already available for instrumental use, whether we want it to be or not. Before the lockdown, this could manifest as power over information. Now without much physical experience to contextualize it, this feels both overwhelming and insufficient, failing to adequately organize experience or meet our social needs on its own.”


Excerpt from Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather: Derek Jarman’s Paradise (h/t Austin Kleon):

Is gardening an art form? If it is it’s the kind of art I like, bedded in the material, nearly domestic, subject to happenstance and weather. Most of the winter had been very bleak. The smile was an aberration. The days were short and grey and riddled with bad news. I developed a habit of spending Sundays with seed catalogues and lists of old roses, plotting floral fireworks that wouldn’t go off for months. Such consolations are nothing new. In her diary of 1939, Virginia Woolf records hearing Hitler on the radio. Her husband Leonard was in the garden he’d painstakingly constructed at Monk’s House, their damp green cottage in Rodmell, East Sussex. “I shan’t come in,” he shouted. “I’m planting iris, and they will be flowering long after he is dead.”

— Ivan Illich quoting Merleau-Ponty in a short talk on “Computer Literacy and the Cybernetic Dream”:

[…] a danger Maurice MerleauPonty clearly foresaw almost thirty years ago. He then said - and I quote - that “cyberneticism has become an ideology. In this ideology human creations are derived from natural information processes, which in turn have been conceived on the model of man-as-a-computer.” In this mind-state, science dreams up and “constructs man and history on the basis of a few abstract indices” and for those who engage in this dreaming “man in reality becomes that manipulandum which he takes himself to be.”

— The opening stanzas of Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles”:

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place:
No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

The Conversation

I will shortly be trying a new experiment with the newsletter: an Ivan Illich reading group. I’m working out the details, but the main feature will be a synchronous discussion thread on Substack. I’ll be choosing a combination of shorter books and/or essays, which we’ll work our way through over the summer. Tools for Conviviality and Deschooling Society will almost certainly be on the list. This experiment was born out of my realization that Illich would be a useful guide as we navigate institutional failures and try to imagine how things might be done differently. I am, however, keeping this a paid subscribers only affair. Two main reasons: it limits the size of the group to more reasonable scale for something like this and my sense is that the closed setting may allow for more open conversation. We’ll be starting up in the next three weeks or so. Of course, feel free to join up, even if only for the short while that we run the reading group.



Refugees That Never Left Home

The Convivial Society: Dispatch, No. 3

“We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings.”

With these words Hannah Arendt gave expression to the refugee experience. She knew of what she spoke. A German Jew, Arendt fled her native country in the 1930s after a brief imprisonment at the hands of the Gestapo. She lived in Paris until France fell to the Nazis and she found herself a stateless person. She fled once more, this time making her way to New York in 1941, where she lived for the rest of her life.

I hope it does not disrespect her experience, or that of countless other refugees of her time or ours, to suggest that in her words I am finding a way to make sense of our life during a pandemic.

I suspect most of us have not fled our homeland under threat of violence or oppression, although perhaps your parents like mine did, but we have nonetheless lost the familiarity of daily life to the pandemic. In countless ways we have bid farewell to the condition formerly known as normal. Millions of our fellow citizens in the United States have, in fact, lost their occupation. And while we may not have lost our language in the literal sense that Arendt means, we, too, have lost the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, and the unaffected expression of feelings, whether because face coverings and social distancing protocols discourage the handshake, the hug, the kiss on the cheek or because these ancient tangible signs of warmth and affection cannot exist in the virtual spaces to which we have been lately exiled. What’s more our language, while still functioning, nonetheless fails us as we seek to make sense of our experience.

Even those who have thus far been spared the worst of the pandemic find themselves anxious, restless, and uneasy. Public health officials warn of a mental health epidemic that will follow on the heals of the viral epidemic and the social measures we have taken against it. Frustration and anger erupt throughout the country, explained in large measure by the failures of our political leadership but no doubt also stemming in many cases from profound loss, uncertainty, precarity, and a grief that does not yet know itself as such.

It is not that we have fled the world we knew, as Arendt and her fellow refugees did, it is rather that the world we knew has fled from us. So we have become the refugees that never left home, indeed, whose world was lost precisely while we stayed home. And while many hold out hope that a vaccine or a therapeutic or herd immunity or whatever other miracle we hope for will somehow let us bring that old world back, it seems increasingly clear that it will not return, not in its old familiar form anyway. Change cannot be undone, the thread of time cannot be rewound.

It is worth noting that Arendt spends a great deal of time in her short essay discussing the contrived optimism of the refugee class with which she was familiar. “Their optimism is the vain attempt to keep head above water,” she writes. “Behind this front of cheerfulness, they constantly struggle with despair of themselves.” So, too, we might confess, does our optimism sit uncomfortably close to despair.

I have no answer and much less a solution to offer you, but I think we do well to acknowledge our status as refugees from a world to which we will never return and about which we can now only tell stories. Such an acknowledgement seems to me a necessary first step toward whatever good we might yet make of our situation.

But there’s something else we might note. In the experience of crisis we are merely compressing and intensifying a condition that has been endemic to modern life—the experience of a world being lost, of recurring little apocalypses. “Freely men confess that this world's spent,” the seventeenth century poet John Donne lamented. “Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone.”

Much more recently, the novelist Jonathan Franzen, in his discussion of the work of Karl Kraus, another prophet of worlds lost, spoke truly when he wrote, “The experience of each succeeding generation is so different from that of the previous one that there will always be people to whom it seems that the key values have been lost and there can be no more posterity. As long as modernity lasts, all days will feel to someone like the last days of humanity.”

Maybe this is why nostalgia is native to modernity. There is always something lost: a place, a time, a self. The losses are not uncompensated, of course. They are the price we pay, under varying degrees of consent, for the dynamism of modernity, whose gifts, however unevenly distributed they may be, are not illusory, even if their costs are often veiled. This is the tale of creative destruction. It is the condition of a society characterized by what the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa has aptly called “social acceleration,” which now achieves a rate at which worlds are lost not just from one generation to the next but intra-generationally.

Don’t misunderstand me. This is not itself an exercise in nostalgia, expect insofar as it might be a “reflective nostalgia,” as the Russian-American philologist Svetlana Boym, has put it, which “tries to tease out the difference between the past and present to formulate the future.”

Perhaps, then, one of the chief virtues of our moment is that, by the speed and intensity of its effects, it has made plain to us the condition under which we have lived but which, unfolding at a more deliberate and uneven pace, escaped our notice except insofar as it registered as an inarticulate unease or unnamable emptiness.

And in this realization we may find the sources of a concerted effort to realize a more humane future, one in which the cost of our security and prosperity is neither the servitude of others nor what Arendt later went on to call a state of world alienation. World in this sense is not synonymous with the earth, but rather is Arendt’s way of talking about durable human culture, which grants human beings a stable and meaningful context within which to live and act. It is little wonder that Arendt the refugee came to see the state of worldlessness as one of the dangers characteristic of the modern era.

The displacements, the internal and sometimes external experience of exile, the recurring “little apocalypses,” were a theme also taken up by Arendt’s contemporary, the remarkable Simone Weil, especially in The Need for Roots, which Weil first wrote as a framework for rebuilding French society after the German occupation. In one of its best known passages, Weil wrote,

“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future. This participation is a natural one, in the sense that it is automatically brought about by place, conditions of birth, profession and social surroundings. Every human being needs to have multiple roots. It is necessary for him to draw well nigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.”

This paragraph opens the second major section of the work, which goes on to catalog the sources of uprootedness in modern society. It is easy to see, I think, the relationship between the condition of uprootedness Weil analyzed and the worldlessness Arendt feared, and, by extension, our own experience of displacement.

Weil wrote in order to clarify an opportunity, to plot a new path forward. The cataclysm that was the Second World War had created the space to reimagine society built upon a new, firmer foundation. Needless to say, such projects are hardly ever realized, but they should not for that reason be discounted or abandoned, especially to degree that they are grounded in some genuine insight about the human condition.

We, too, have an opportunity in the space created by the pandemic we still fail to fully understand and which we are far from mastering. Right now, our collective efforts and attention, when they are not ill-spent on culture war skirmishes and hyperreal spectacles, are focused on the work of finding medical remedies and developing strategies to make due in their absence. But many are now also positioning themselves to seize this opportunity to shape the future. But in whose interest and toward what sort of future?

Will we move forward with a renewed appreciation for our “need for roots,” as Weil put it, or for a durable and common world as Arendt would have it? Can we imagine communities, institutions, economic arrangements, political structures, cultural practices, and creative endeavors that generate a vibrant and stable world that is more conducive to human flourishing? I hope we have the opportunity to wrestle with these questions as a society. Failing that, I hope we find sufficient freedom and courage to strike out on our own and with whatever band of friends we can muster in new and better directions based on whatever wisdom we’ve gleaned from our little apocalypse. After all, our word apocalypse, coming to us via Latin from ancient Greek, literally means to reveal or unveil. May we have eyes to see.

Pandemics, Power, and Freedom

The Convivial Society: Vol. 1, No. 9

“I do think that if I had to choose one word to which hope can be tied it is hospitality. A practice of hospitality— recovering threshold, table, patience, listening, and from there generating seedbeds for virtue and friendship on the one hand — on the other hand radiating out for possible community, for rebirth of community.”

— Ivan Illich, interview (1996)

Let’s begin today by noting a Freudian typo in the sign below, which came to my attention via Twitter:

This sign illustrates an alarming current flashpoint in American culture, an instance of what I’ve begun to think of as “manufactured discontent.” It is, of course, a manifestation of mounting frustration with the restrictions that have been imposed to combat the coronavirus pandemic and an artifact of the American culture wars. Don’t worry, I’m not gearing up to enter the fray. I’ll only note that there is plenty of cause for frustration with the catastrophic failure of leadership at the highest levels of government. As Adam Elkus recently put it, “There is no plan in the way we ordinarily think of it. The plan is to simply rationalize people into accepting mass death and the failure of basic governmental functions.”

Back to the sign, which expresses one seemingly narrow but vocal strain of sentiment. I want to draw your attention to the curious use of quotations marks around the word free. It’s probably safe to assume that the author meant simply to emphasize the word, just as they emphasized the word brave by underlining it. But placing a word in quotation marks generally signals something very different. It tends to suggest a measure of irony. The writer and reader know something about how the word which is concealed by ordinary usage. In this instance, the inadvertent scare quotes would seem to suggest that the freedom so stridently asserted here is to some degree illusory.

In this sense, I see it as a revealing slip. It suggests that, unbeknownst to the author, the version of freedom that they are championing is no freedom at all. Without speaking for the author of the sign, whose precise views and circumstances I cannot know, I will simply say that the view of freedom that appears to undergird the sentiment is one which equates freedom with the right to do whatever one pleases with scant regard for the consequences. It is freedom reduced to autonomy in its literal sense, being a law unto oneself.

Albert Borgmann, whose concept of focal practices I discussed last time, also gave us the apt phrase “regardless power” to describe the kind of power granted by techno-scientific knowledge and deployed with little or no regard for consequences. Such regardless power takes no account of the integrity of an ecosystem or the intangible goods inherent in existing social structures. It does not stop to consider what it might be good to do; it knows no reason why one ought not to do what one can do. So, likewise, we might speak of regardless freedom, freedom exercised with little or no regard for those with whom we share the world.

Regardless power and regardless freedom are not unrelated. Their pedigree may be traced to the early modern period, and their relationship may be described as symbiotic or dialectical. The growing capacity for regardless power makes the idea of regardless freedom plausible. The ideal of regardless freedom fuels the demand for regardless power. If I believe that I have the right to do whatever I please, I will take up the technology that allows me to do so (or at least appears to). If I habitually relate to the world through technologies that place me in a seemingly Promethean position, then I will be tempted to assume that I can and ought to do whatever I please.

Interestingly, both Lewis Mumford and C. S. Lewis help us see the historical relation between regardless power and regardless freedom by drawing our attention to the practice of magic.

“Between fantasy and exact knowledge, between drama and technology,” Mumford wrote in Technics and Civilization, “there is an intermediate station: that of magic. It was in magic that the general conquest of the external environment was decisively instituted.” He added: “As children’s play anticipates crudely adult life, so did magic anticipate modern science and technology.”

“Magic,” he concluded, “was the bridge that united fantasy with technology: the dream of power with the engines of fulfillment.”

For his part, Lewis worried that “the fact that the scientist has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood.”

Reminding readers that the “high noon of magic” was not the middle ages but the early modern period, Lewis observes, “The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse.”

That impulse was akin to what I am here calling the pursuit of regardless freedom through the deployment of regardless power. Lewis put it this way:

“There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.”

And along those same lines we see a hint of the alternative conception of freedom, a variety of which held sway in most cultures of the pre-modern world. Its expression strikes modern ears as paradoxical or simply as a contradiction: freedom lay in conformity to some external standard or model. Given some account of the telos of human nature, freedom was merely a penultimate good necessary for the achievement of that telos. It was not an end in itself. Modernity, for a host of reasons, dispenses with any notion of such a telos or end. We do not tend to believe that there is some good toward which our natures are directed or that we are most free when we are striving to realize that good. Liberty of choice, from this perspective, was not itself the highest form of freedom. Certain “free choices” could, in fact, lead us into various forms of subjugation and self-destruction. One was only truly free when one chose rightly and in accord with a principle to which the will must submit.

Alasdair MacIntyre traced a similar development in the history of ethical theory. In his view, “Within [the traditional] teleological scheme there is a fundamental contrast between man-as-he-happens-to-be and man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature. Ethics is the science which is to enable men to understand how they make the transition from the former state to the latter.” Having dispensed with any coherent or broadly shared conception of an “essential nature,” modern ethical theory loses its way. Or, at least, it becomes unconvincing and moral argument implausible. MacIntyre tells a long and complex story to explain why public moral arguments tend to devolve into irresolvable shouting matches (he was writing in 1980, mind you). In short, without a common vision of what people are for ethics tends to appear as little more than personal preferences emotionally expressed. Under these conditions one can see how the temptations of regardless power and regardless freedom take shape.

It may seem that we’ve come a long way from where we started, so let us work our way back. If Americans have come to most acutely exemplify the temptations of both regardless power and regardless freedom, the cultural sources of the temptation are, nonetheless, older and broader. It is true, of course, that such attitudes do not equally characterize all Americans, much less all the cultures that fall within the parameters of western modernity. But there is something important to note here once we’ve synthesized the insights Borgmann, Lewis, Mumford, and MacIntrye have offered to us.

From one perspective, the American failure to address the coronavirus crisis may be understood as a failure of moral and political deliberation. Before I elaborate that point, let me clear some ground and hopefully address some questions that you might already have. Of course … of course the situation in the United States is what it is because of a uniquely incompetent and indefensible federal response. Of course, even the most minimal improvements on that score might have mitigated the worst of what we have experienced. It is also the case that our political culture is now uniquely dysfunctional.

All of that said, however, it seems to me that we would still have problems related to the implementation of an appropriate response. This seems evident to me from the fact that around the globe a variety of measures have been tried, with varying degree of success, to combat the pandemic, and because the unprecedented nature of the crisis has seemed to place even reputable authorities at odds to some degree. Moreover, t is an open question whether the methods deployed in some of the countries which have been most successful could realistically be applied in the US. In short, the implementation of an appropriate response could never have been simply a matter of adhering to scientific consensus. First, because again that consensus is evolving, as, to its credit, it must. Second, because the response was necessarily also political and economic.

In other words, there was always going to be some debate about how to proceed. To think otherwise is to fall into the trap of believing that one can resolve essentially human problems by technical means. A great deal of the enthusiasm currently emanating from tech circles seems to reflect the persistence of misguided belief. Coronavirus pandemic got you down? There’s an app for that! Which is not to say that I am not grateful for the genuine if limited benefits technology now affords us.

The poles of our response, then, can be characterized as tending toward regardless freedom on the one end and regardless power on the other. Regardless power here connoting a willingness to submit all human considerations to techno-scientific expertise without consideration for the intractable and recalcitrant realities of human society. Or, to put it otherwise, the tendency to assume that there must be a technically correct method (or technique) by which to resolve the crisis, one which must be implemented at all costs without any regard for the full swath of human consequences.

Regardless freedom, of course, is exemplified by (what I must hope is) the rare belief that being required to wear a face covering in public spaces is a grievous assault on one’s liberty. It assumes that my liberty of action must not be constrained by any consideration beyond the realization of my own desires and my own self-interest narrowly conceived.

This opposition is made all the worse because the necessary moral-political debate cannot in fact happen, not under our present condition. Our present condition defined both by the consequences of the digital information sphere and the lack of a broadly shared moral framework within which meaningful debate can unfold.

I am not sanguine about the immediate future. I am not sanguine because I do not believe the worst of the epidemic is in any meaningful sense behind us and because I do not think that the state in which it has found us will spontaneously improve. I earnestly desire to be proved wrong on both counts. I admit that I saw an opening for qualified hopefulness several weeks ago. That window seems to be closing. I will note, though, that it seems that a majority of Americans, as far as I can judge some things, have resisted the extremes of regardless power and regardless freedom, and that’s no small thing.

In the end, the lesson that I am taking is an old one: societies, however rich or technically sophisticated, cannot be counted healthy and resilient without adequate reserves of intangible human resources, such as trust, solidarity, and virtue, and the institutions and communities that sustain them.

News and Resources

  • In “The Machine Pauses,” Stuart Whatley considers the work of E. M Forster, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Heidegger, and Ellul: “Will our means continue to dictate our ends? Will we continue to define progress as present gains accrued rather than as future costs averted? Past critics raised these questions during periods of relative peace and prosperity, in the calms between historical storms. Now that the machine has paused, we could do worse than to reprise that tradition of thought.”

    The title alludes to Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” of course, which Whatley discusses at the start of his essay. In case you missed it, back in April I wrote a Quarantine Reading Guide to Forster’s short story.

  • Tollef Graff Hugo discusses Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text and its focus on 12th century changes in the technology of reading and their consequences for reading and subjectivity: “The text is thus uprooted from the soil of the book, abstracted from the page, and instead begins to be increasingly experienced as something connected to the human subject. The text on the page can apparently look the same, but it is not the book, but rather the human subject that is slowly being regarded as the primary dwelling place for the text — and thereby of thoughts and meaning as such.”

    In the Vineyard of the Text is a humane and erudite little book of cultural and technical history. I hope this short essay prompts you to read it. (h/t @aaronzlewis for the link to the essay)

  • Woodrow Hartzog on coronavirus tracing apps and the future of surveillance: “Surveillance inertia is remarkably difficult to resist. Norms get set and practices and tools become entrenched. And who can say when this will wind down? We’re still dealing with the supposedly temporary surveillance authorized almost 20 years ago in the wake of after 9/11.”

  • Two pieces on digital media, misinformation, and COVID-19: “Battling the ‘pandemic of misinformation’” and “Virus Experts Aren’t Getting the Message Out.” Both outline the challenges of providing and disseminating accurate and helpful information in a digital media environment. Directly and indirectly the problem they address can be summed up as the failure of analog methods in a digital age, when the speed and scale of communication outpaces even the the spread of the virus. The story is complicated and the problems we face are not merely a matter of bad actors purposefully generating disinformation, although there’s plenty of that, too. Institutional failure and the demand for instantaneous information in the midst of deep uncertainty also play their role.

    Relatedly, Zeynep Tufekci explains how a united, resourceful, and determined population managed to effectively control an epidemic without lockdowns and in the face of government failure and ineptitude. Good on the people of Hong Kong.

  • Every notice the plague doctors and the city in quarantine in the famous frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan? Neither had I. Thomas Poole discusses the role of the plague in Hobbes’s political thought.

  • The story of teenage girl, who in the 1890’s discovered that her picture was being used to advertise Franklin Mills Flour. She and her mother sued the company and the case subsequently became a touchstone for privacy law. Interesting throughout, and includes this: “Cameras had existed in studios for over half a century, but until they became portable, only professional photographers knew how to operate them. Thanks to Kodak, by the turn of the 20th century, a third of American households had portable cameras. That caused alarm: The term ‘Kodak fiend’ was coined for unscrupulous peeping Toms who would lie in wait in trees or behind walls to snap pictures of unsuspecting passers-by.”


— From Peter Pomerantsev’s thoughtful reflections on the pandemic, time, history, and nostalgia:

“The Russian-American philologist Svetlana Boym contrasted two types of nostalgia. One she called ‘restorative’ nostalgia. This strives to rebuild lost homelands with ‘paranoiac determination,’ thinks of itself as ‘truth and tradition,’ obsesses over grand symbols, and ‘relinquish[es] critical thinking for emotional bonding. . . . Unreflective nostalgia can breed monsters.’ The other she called ‘reflective’ nostalgia: It looks at individual, often ironic stories from the past, and tries to tease out the difference between the past and present to formulate the future. The options of nostalgia are not merely to choose what one is nostalgic for, but how one is nostalgic. Can one go back to the past and then find a new direction out of it?”

— From Ross Andersen’s “The vanishing groves” (2012):

“It is hard to resist cliché when conveying the antiquity of the bristlecone pine. The oldest of the living bristlecones were just saplings when the pyramids were raised. The most ancient, called Methuselah, is estimated to be more than 4,800 years old; with luck, it will soon enter its sixth millennium as a living, reproducing organism. Because we conceive of time in terms of experience, a life spanning millennia can seem alien or even eternal to the human mind. It is hard to grasp what it would be like to see hundreds of generations flow out from under you in the stream of time, hard to imagine how rich and varied the mind might become if seasoned by five thousand years of experience and culture.”

— I was reminded this week of an essay, also from 2012 as it turns out, on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi and their resistance to Nazism, which ultimately cost them their lives. It was the last paragraph below that caught my attention then and of which I was recently reminded:

“One truth we can affirm: Hitler had no greater, more courageous, and more admirable enemies than Hans von Dohnanyi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Both men and those closest to them deserve to be remembered and honored. Dohnanyi summed up their work and spirit with apt simplicity when he said that they were ‘on the path that a decent person inevitably takes.’ So few traveled that path—anywhere.”

The path that “a decent person inevitably takes.” Alas.

The Conversation

I’m happy to pass along a link to the first thing I’ve had in print in awhile, “The Analog City and the Digital City: How online life breaks the old political order.”

If you’ve been following the newsletter for awhile, you’ll remember that I gave a talk in D.C. back in November. This is the re-worked text of that talk in the latest issue of The New Atlantis. This was an effort on my part to think about the consequences of digital communication on political culture along some media-ecological lines. It was, of course, conceived, written, and revised pre-COVID. In the next week or two, I think I might revisit what I argued in light of the present state of affairs to see what I might put differently. In any case, click through, give it a read, and share your thoughts/criticisms as you see fit. As always I am grateful to Ari Schulman and his team at The New Atlantis for their encouragement and gracious editing.

Lastly, I thought I’d mention to more recent subscribers that last December I shuttered my old site, The Frailest Thing, where I wrote about technology and society for ten years. I gathered the best of that writing, as far as I could judge it, into an e-book that is available here: The Frailest Thing: Ten Years of Thinking About the Meaning of Technology. You can click through and read some generous words of endorsement from folks I very much admire. You’ll note too, that not unlike the newsletter, you are able to download the work at no cost, and please feel free to do so, but you are also able to pay for it should you be so inclined. At the very least, I would be grateful if you found it worth sharing with others.

Also, I will note (with a measure of satisfaction because I’m not above such things) that we are just shy of 2,500 readers. So, naturally, feel free and encouraged to share this newsletter. You’ll not be surprised to learn there’s a button for that:

Share The Convivial Society

I trust, as we now say, that this finds you and your family in good health.



Baking Bread, Finding Meaning

The Convivial Society: Vol. 1, No. 8

“A society committed to the institutionalization of values identifies the production of goods and services with the demand for such. Education which makes you need the product is included in the price of the product. School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is. In such a society marginal value has become constantly self-transcendent. It forces the few largest consumers to compete for the power to deplete the earth, to fill their own swelling bellies, to discipline smaller consumers, and to deactivate those who still find satisfaction in making do with what they have. The ethos of nonsatiety is thus at the root of physical depredation, social polarization, and psychological passivity. ”

— Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (1971)

At my wife’s request, I’ve been searching for baker’s yeast for the past month or so, but to no avail. Around where I live, it’s impossible to find in stores. You can find it on eBay it seems, but it’s exorbitantly priced. I presume this comes as no surprise to you, of course. We all know that baking home-made bread has become one of the most common pastimes during our season of quarantine. Consequently, yeast flew off the shelves as early as mid-March during the first waves of panic shopping. The leading suppliers estimate that it might be another month before the shelves are restocked.

I’ve found the seemingly spontaneous and widespread instinct to bake in a time of crisis interesting and a bit heartening. It speaks of a desire to engage in practices that generate genuine satisfaction and consolation, practices that elicit half-forgotten pleasures. I’ve been suggesting over the past few weeks that the present crisis grants us with certain opportunities to better order our personal and collective affairs should we be willing to rise to the occasion. And among these may be the opportunity to examine the practices that have structured our experience and the tools, devices, and objects that have sustained these practices.

So perhaps we might put it this way. Our question this time is not why is Zoom so fatiguing, but rather why is baking so satisfying?

(Detail from Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, c. 1658.)

At the expense of coming off as a one-trick pony, I think the answers to each arise from the same source: a deeper understanding of our embodied and social nature.

A caveat or two before moving on. I’m sure we don’t all find satisfaction in baking. Maybe you hate to bake, pandemic or no pandemic. Baking here is just an initial stand in for a whole range of practices. Also, I get it. People are dying. People are hungry. People are out of work. Isn’t it a bit indulgent to discuss baking and such in an unironically serious manner? My reply here is essentially the same as the reasons I gave last month for going on with this newsletter at all. In short, life goes on and will go on, so the work continues however it can. No crisis can command all of our attention, nor should it. And, what’s more, there is a future to think of. It’s uncertain, but, for that very reason, open and full of promise and peril in equal measure, even if just now the peril is most evident. If so, then we do well to take the opportunity to “think what we are doing,” as Hannah Arendt urged us to do.

So now, about those practices.

Let’s start with a little detour into the work of the contemporary philosopher Albert Borgmann. Borgmann is best known among philosophers of technology, and his classic work in the field is Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, which first appeared in 1984. I’ve mentioned Borgmann in the newsletter a time or two. About a year ago when I wrote about Fortnite and the good life, I cited Borgmann’s view that we required not only a formally and substantively just society, but also a good society. According to Borgmann, “the just society remains incomplete and is easily dispirited without a fairly explicit and definite vision of the good life.”

Borgmann also makes an incisive observation about the relationship between liberal democracy and technology: "[Liberal democracy] needs technology because the latter promises to furnish the neutral opportunities necessary to establish a just society and to leave the question of the good life open. It fears technology because technology may in fact deliver more than it has promised, namely, a definite vision of the good society and, more important yet, one which is 'good' in a dubious sense."

We’re getting into the weeds here, but it’s an important point. Borgmann is arguing that, on the one hand, technology ostensibly sustains the neutrality toward the good life presumed by liberal democracy while simultaneously smuggling in a definite vision of the good life and one which is not so “good” after all, either for the democratic order or for people qua human beings.

For the record, I think Borgmann is basically right about this. The techno-political/economic configurations of society are never, in fact, neutral. Some implicitly normative view of the good life is always in play, and it is often tacitly conveyed by the practices which structure our personal and social lives. And, returning to where we started, these practices are typically mediated by technology. This is why I like to say that technology is the material infrastructure of our moral and political lives.

So given the critical nature of our practices and the tools/devices/artifacts that sustain them, much of Borgmann’s work goes on to establish a framework by which we might not simply describe but also evaluate the various kids of practices that arise from our use of technology.

So from the heights of political theory, Borgmann descends into an analysis of seemingly quotidian and unremarkable activities, such as … baking bread. Or: playing a musical instrument, lighting a fire, hiking, gardening, etc.

You’ll need to read more than what I’m about to give you—it’s a long multi-part case Borgmann lays out— but here the gist of it. Borgmann deploys a series of distinctions upon which he builds his argument. Central to our purposes is the distinction between what he calls focal things and devices. This is not, I should note, a distinction between the technological and the non-technological. It is an intra-technological distinction. Focal things can be technological, but they are distinguished from devices by their specific characteristics.

In short, they are distinguished by the sort of engagement they elicit from those who take them up. In Borgmann’s view devices are characterized by how they combine a heightened availability of the commodity they offer with a machinery that is increasingly hidden from view. Basically, they make things easier while simultaneously making them harder to understand. Devices excel at making what they offer “instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, and easy.”

Focal things, not so much. Focal things ask something of you. Borgmann speaks of their having a commanding presence. They don’t easily yield to our desire for ease and convenience. A radio and a musical instrument both produce music, but only one asks something of you in return. I don’t think Borgmann puts it quite this way, but it helps to consider how we refer to those who take up a device as consumers or users and how those labels don’t really fit when we’re talking about those who take up a focal thing, such as a musical instrument. We might also add the ideal device renders us altogether passive while the ideal focal thing renders us wholly engaged to the point of making us inattentive to the wider world around us while we are thus engaged. The use of focal things cultivates skill and mastery. Focal things threaten to make artists out of us!

Moreover, a focal thing, Borgmann explains, “is inseparable from its context, namely, its world, and from our commerce with the thing and its world, namely, engagement.” In other words, focal things draw us into a web practices and relations. Immediately thereafter, Borgmann adds, “The experience of a thing is always and also a bodily and social engagement with the thing’s world.”

Finally we’re drawing near to the point. The satisfying and enriching quality of focal things/practices is a result of the particular kind of bodily and social engagement they elicit. That bread you’re baking involves you in the work of creating something tangible through a non-trivial exertion of labor. You have to wait for it. To get right you have to work at it. You can get better at it and develop sense of mastery. May be you bake together with a loved one, or you give it away and feel the joy of serving another with work of your hands. Etc.

“Physical engagement is not simply physical contact,” Borgmann explains, “but the experience of the world through the manifold sensibility of the body.” He then adds, “sensibility is sharpened and strengthened in skill … Skill, in turn, is bound up with social engagement.”

Devices which make things easier, faster, more efficient tend to also make these things less physically demanding or involving. They can also be socially isolating, or perhaps it is better to say that they generate a substantively diminished social experience.

Consider one of Borgmann’s better known case studies: the example of the wood-burning stove or fireplace as a means of warmth. The more intense physical engagement may be obvious, but Borgmann invites us to consider the social dimensions as well:

“It was a focus, a hearth, a place that gathered the work and leisure of a family and gave the house its center. Its coldness marked the morning, and the spreading of its warmth the beginning of the day. It assigned to the different family members tasks that defined their place in the household. The mother built the fire, the children kept the firebox filled, and the father cut the firewood. It provided for the entire family a regular and bodily engagement with the rhythm of the seasons that was woven together of the threat of cold and the solace of warmth, the smell of wood smoke, the exertion of sawing and of carrying, the teaching of skills, and the fidelity to daily tasks.”

Sure this involves more time and labor than most of us are interested in lending to the task of staying warm in the winter, but Borgmann would have us see that there is a measure of satisfaction and solidarity that is born out of this work, too.

Borgmann’s vision of a richer, more fulfilling life secures its greater depth by taking seriously both our embodied and social status. This vision goes against the grain of modernity’s account of the human person, which is grounded in a Cartesian dismissal of the body and a Lockean conception of the autonomous individual. To the degree that this is an inadequate account of the human person, a technological and social order that is premised upon it will always undermine the possibility of human flourishing.

And, of course, the point is not that we should all have a hearth to keep us warm just as it is not that we should all bake to be fulfilled. The point is also not that all of our activities involve focal things and focal practices. The point, I think, is there is a wide range of such practices and it is good that we make some room for their presence in our lives.

There is a measure of satisfaction and joy in practices that involve and challenge us physically, especially if they also bind us together socially. Like baking bread or tending a garden, they are precisely the sort of practices that many of us are now rediscovering. And it’s not at all surprising that we should crave such practices in an anxious and scattering time.

There may also be a larger point here. These practices are rewarding precisely to the degree that they require us to leave something of ourselves behind as it were—blood, sweat, and tears, perhaps. Or simply our time, our attention, our pride. The lesson they teach us is that something like satisfaction, joy, or, dare we say, a sense of purpose are likely to found down a path marked by surrender and sacrifice. A path wherein we do not merely consume but rather find the self consumed, and, paradoxically, returned to us whole.

To close, I’ll note that one reason we might have paid less attention to focal things and focal practices is that, as Borgmann explains, their value is hard to quantify: “Focal things,” he writes, “engage us in so many and subtle ways that no quantification can capture them.”

One of the implicit values of our techno-social world with its commitment to neutrality is that we learn to value only what we can quantify, generating a presumably objective measure. So it seems that it took the collapse of the regime of quantifiable productivity to recover the value of focal practices and the communities they foster.


(Image credit: @BLCKSMTHdesign/@jennyjaffe)

News and Resources

  • While I was writing a philosophy of embodiment post on Zoom fatigue, Evan Selinger was taking a more existential approach. As per usual, always read Selinger’s work:

    “The thing is that if we focus too much on technical issues, we’ll be tempted to make a big mistake. We’ll look for superficial life hacks (like trying to space out calls, hide yourself on Zoom so you don’t have to see your own face, and take breaks to move around) to fix an existential situation that tinkering can’t remedy. A root cause of our collective tiredness is the painful awareness that life can’t go back to normal.”

  • You can also read Selinger on “The Lasting Privacy and Civil Liberties Impacts of Responses to COVID-19”:

    “By emphasising efficacy as a first-order concern for determining whether to run a new surveillance programme or use new surveillance features during the crisis, we’re making the case that evidence-based considerations are fundamental. These considerations include the fact that transaction costs and opportunity costs matter: the easier it is to surveil, the more tempting it becomes; and, investing resources in expanding and accessing surveillance infrastructure weakens the prospects for dismantling it. Also, surveillance and mission creep go hand-in-hand: over time, the mandate for using data or a data-collecting instrument for a specific purpose can change and become more expansive. And the more accustomed people become to using a technology, the harder it can be to break them of the habit.”

  • “How human-centered tech can beat COVID-19 through contact tracing”: “Thus, contact tracing hinges on deeply human exchanges. There is no app for that. Digital technologies do have a role to play. They will be crucial to successful contact tracing programs. But they must be intentionally built to assist, rather than replace the people in the health care loop vital to success.”

  • “An ESPN Commercial Hints at Advertising’s Deepfake Future”: “Unable to film new commercials during the coronavirus pandemic, advertising agencies are turning to technologies that can seamlessly alter old footage, sometimes putting viewers in a position of doubting what they are seeing.”

    Sed contra: “not everything is a deepfake”: “Malicious deepfakes are made with the intent to deceive …. Political satire has existed for hundreds of years. It's basically a foundation of American democracy itself. Gifs like this won't be democracy’s undoing—we have bigger problems than that.”

    Respondeo dicendum: Our problems are intertwined and various factors can combine to erode the conditions upon which a functioning democracy depends. Intent to deceive is rarely the point. Better to understand deepfakes as power plays. Thus Arendt in Origins of Totalitarianism: “Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

  • From Douglas Rushkoff: “The primary purpose of the internet had changed from supporting a knowledge economy to growing an attention economy. Instead of helping us leverage time to our intellectual advantage, the internet was converted to an “always on” medium, configured to the advantage of those who wanted to market to us or track our activities.”

  • Physicist Alan Lightman on what we might learn from the present crisis: “Habits of mind and lifestyle do not change easily. Without noticing, we slowly slip into the routines of our lives, like becoming so accustomed to living on a noisy street that we cannot remember our previous neighborhood and a time of silence. Some powerful force must strike to awaken us from our slumber. Now we have been struck. We have a chance to notice: We have been living too fast. We have sold our inner selves to the devil of speed, efficiency, money, hyper-connectivity, ‘progress.’”

  • On the ethical challenges posed by immunity passports.

  • Erratum: In the last newsletter, I mentioned a scene on Epcot’s old Horizons ride depicting a laser-powered automated deforestation machine of the future. I later realized that I was mistaken. The scene I was recalling was in fact part of an updated Futurama ride created by General Motors for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. See below at about the 3:45 mark.


— Via Austin Kleon, some lovely reflections on the virtues of wondering from the poet Mary Ruefle:

“I would rather wonder than know. It makes it more and more difficult to be alive on earth in these times, when your inclination is to wonder rather than to know.

I suppose the example that comes to mind is: it used to be if you were having dinner with people and someone said, “Who’s the fastest animal on earth?” An amazing conversation would ensue. And now someone pops their phone out and looks up the answer. And it breaks my heart….

I think wondering is a way of inhabiting and lingering. There seems to be more dwelling. To dwell, inhabit, and linger. I’m interested in those things. And you can do that when you don’t know.

We tend to, as human beings, our impulse is, once we know, once we have the answer, we move on. So we’re constantly moving from one thing to the other. I would rather inhabit the question, or dwell. For me, that is the place I want to live in.

This requires a more extended discussion to tease out the distinctions between wonder and knowing, as well as the various forms wonder may take. That said, Ruefle is on to something important. Her reflections recall the ancient Socratic dictum, “Philosophy begins in wonder.” Wonder here being akin to puzzlement or perplexity. In one sense, thinking then moves to overcome such puzzlement or perplexity. In which case, what does it matter whether we arrive at the answer through an internet search or by some other, possibly more laborious means? I’d suggest it matters a great deal depending on the nature of the question and the sort of answer that one is seeking, because, of course, we are shaped by the means we employ even as we use them to pursue our ends.

It’s worth remembering, too, that for Socrates philosophy not only begins in wonder/puzzlement, it also often ends in the same. That is, you never quite resolve the question you began with, you only grow in your awareness of how much, in fact, you do not know. And, this conclusion is itself a kind of beginning, the beginning of the path toward wisdom some would say.

Hannah Arendt is useful in this regard for distinguishing between the pursuit of truth and the work of thinking whose aim is meaning. “To expect truth to come from thinking signifies that we mistake the need to think with the urge to know,” Arendt writes in The Life of the Mind. “Thinking can and must be employed in the attempt to know, but in the exercise of this function it is never itself; it is but the handmaiden of an altogether different enterprise.” Relatedly,

“By posing the unanswerable questions of meaning, men establish themselves as question-asking beings. Behind all the cognitive questions for which men find answers, there lurk the unanswerable ones that seem entirely idle and have always been denounced as such. It is more than likely that men, if they were ever to lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions, would lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”

— From Christpopher Beha’s review of a new book on the the life and work of Søren Kierkegaard:

“It is almost a truism now that we are each called to take up our own life as a creative project, to make of it what we will, but our culture treats this project as a kind of performance, to be judged by others according to appearances. Kierkegaard’s concept of inwardness gives us this task in a very different form. No amount of likes or clicks can tell us whether we are living the life to which we have actually been called. In fact, the process of submitting our lives for public approval can only ever undermine our efforts. So much about contemporary society—not just the public curation of social media, but the consumer culture that presents us an endless stream of choices, none of which ultimately matter—is designed to distract from the truth of our existential situation. Kierkegaard tells us to hold this truth always in mind, to move toward, not away from, the anxiety and despair that must naturally follow from recognizing it.

The Conversation

I owe some of you an email reply, and hopefully you’ll get that soon. I’m always glad to hear from you all, even if I am a bit slow to respond at times.

Comments are open again. I’m curious to read about your experience with focal practices that you have found sustaining and satisfying, or perhaps what luck you’ve had in the black market for yeast.

I’ve seen the joke a few times now on Twitter about how we used to end our emails with simple sign offs such as “Best” or “Regards” but now we return to 19th century form: “May this letter find you and your family in good health, etc., etc.”

Well, may it be so,


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