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.

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,