The Stuff of Life: Materiality and the Self
The Convivial Society: Vol. 3, No. 13
Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture. In this installment you’ll find some reflections on the changing texture of material culture in digital society and the attendant consequences for how we experience the continuity of the self. I do plan to have an audio version out separately in the next few days, but Covid has come calling and that may have to wait a bit longer. We’ll see. Stay tuned!
Finally, paying subscribers can expect a separate note with details about the discussion thread this Friday with Jon Askonas about his latest piece in The New Atlantis, “Reality is Just a Game Now: And We Are All Losing.”
Not long ago, I visited my family in south Florida and learned that the couple who had lived across the street from my parents for nearly thirty years sold their house and moved out. I didn’t know the couple all that well. I moved away myself more than two decades ago. But I’ve visited frequently over the years, and I would occasionally see the husband working in the yard. He kept an immaculate lawn. Occasionally, we exchanged pleasantries. More often than not, we simply traded a friendly wave and a nod. But every time I saw him, a part of my past came back to me.
I played high school basketball, and, despite having no children of his own on the team, my neighbor showed up at every home game. He wasn’t there for me personally. He did have two kids younger than me at the school, maybe this was his way of showing his support. Maybe he just liked high school basketball. Although, in truth, had that been the case, the Miami high school basketball scene offered some better quality games. Whatever the reason, he was there, and he cheered our team on and always made a point of offering some encouraging words to me. So, in subsequent years, when our paths would briefly cross, I would recall his kindness and my mediocre basketball career (All-Dade County Honorable Mention, thank you very much).
Now he’s moved on, and I found myself oddly moved by his absence. In large part, I think this was because it seemed to weaken an already tenuous connection with a small slice of my past, which was sustained mostly by his presence. “He knew me when,” and the “when” in question went back deep into my adolescence. There are now vanishingly few people I’m in touch with beyond my immediate family about whom this is the case.
It got me thinking of how Hannah Arendt opened an essay she wrote about her friend W. H. Auden not long after the poet passed away. Arendt and Auden had an interesting history. They admired each other’s work, and, late in his life, Auden asked Arendt to marry him not long after her husband had died. Auden was seeking a measure of companionship it would seem, but Arendt declined. As I understand it, after Auden’s death, Arendt came not exactly to regret the decision but to feel a certain sadness about it. In any case, here are the opening lines of that essay:
“I met Auden late in his life and mine—at an age when the easy, knowledgeable intimacy of friendships formed in one’s youth can no longer be attained, because not enough life is left, or expected to be left, to share with another. Thus, we were very good friends but not intimate friends.”
What Arendt is describing resonates with my own experience, but I doubt (a hope-tinged doubt, to be sure) that it is a universal truth. Nonetheless, I think it reinforces something about my experience with my neighbor. I think I’d tentatively put it this way: enduring relationships anchor our identity or our sense of self.1
Put that way it doesn’t seem like an especially profound point. Indeed, it seems rather obvious. The self is not exactly fixed. It undoubtedly evolves over time, it is multi-faceted, and, critically, it escapes our full comprehension. All of this said, it seems to me that our experience of the self can range across a spectrum from more free-floating to more anchored. In these examples, people act as anchors. And, to be more precise, what we are being anchored to is some segment of our own past.
These are instances of social remembering. Our own recollection is tied to others with whom we have shared our life. So, for example, amongst a group of old friends a past scene might be gradually reconstructed as members of the group contribute their own particular perspectives—sometimes correcting one another, sometimes supplementing. We might think of it as a puzzle whose pieces are distributed amongst several people. All must be present, supplying their own pieces, in order for the whole to emerge. And when it does, each person receives a bit of themselves back as a gift.
But these anchors of the self might be material as well as social. Consider a certain class of object that uniquely mediates our relationship to the past. They are mementos, but of a specific kind. I’m thinking of objects that form the last tenuous tie to a particular moment or season. Without them, whole swaths of time would fall into oblivion. For example, when unpacking an old box, which I’d not sifted through for years, I happened across a few utterly trivial things of this sort. Utterly trivial except that they each opened a gateway to an event or relationship I had altogether forgotten about until the moment my hand picked them up. Without such objects, I’m sure the respective memories would recede once more, maybe forever. If I consider throwing away such an object, I struggle to do so. Not because I would miss the object, of course. I was blissfully unaware of its existence until I happened upon it. What I fear is losing some small slice of myself that would be almost certainly irretrievable without it. It is no small thing for someone to release a part of themselves in this way.
I began thinking along these lines recently when I revisited a section of Arendt’s The Human Condition, in which she made the following observation:
The things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and their objectivity lies in the fact that […] men, their ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table. In other words, against the subjectivity of men stands the objectivity of the man-made world rather than the sublime indifference of an untouched nature …
I’m interested in such things because I believe we need to think about technology quite broadly if we are to grasp its meaning and consequences. Already the word “technology,” and especially “tech,” signifies for many people a relatively narrow range of phenomena. The latest array of gadgets and devices, say. This is why Alan Kay once quipped that “technology” was anything invented after you were born. Rarely within this framing would something like a refrigerator or a pencil appear as “technology.” From this limited perspective, understanding technology tends to mean little more than noting the most immediate and obvious consequences of novel tools and devices. The majority of things that ought to count as “technology” are ignored and the more subtle, and possibly more significant consequences of technology are unaccounted for.
For this reason, when talking about technology I often begin by expanding the scope of the term to the point where we can realize that what we’re really talking about might be more properly designated the human-built world or simply material culture. Only then might we begin to see that technology’s consequences are often elusive and difficult to measure. This itself testifies to the broadest conception of technology as that which not only empowers us to act in the world but also changes how we perceive the world, such that, in this case, we have difficulty reckoning with or even seeing what our instruments cannot register and quantify.
From this broader perspective we can begin to look not only for discrete and quantifiable effects, but for more evasive patterns, changes to what we might call the texture2 of our experience or its meaning. I’m especially taken by the idea of exploring how material culture changes the texture of our experience because the phrase itself points us toward a more tactile mode of exploration. It suggests that the self and its relation to the world is not merely a mental phenomenon. It has a sensual, embodied, and material dimension, and changes, even subtle ones, to the texture our experience can have profound consequences.
It is in this vein that I read Arendt’s discussion of the role played by the “things of the world,” by which she means precisely the human-built world, in, as she put it, “stabilizing human life” and, as I’ve been putting it, anchoring identity. (Although, I wonder if, staying with the nautical imagery, what we are offered are not anchors but navigational beacons that help us map the self across time.)
The specific question raised for me is this: what happens when the things of this world begin to recede from the material realm? When more and more of the “things” we take up during the course of our day are digitized or virtual realities, which leave few if any traces in the world? Arendt’s claim suggests that we might expect a destabilization of the self as its anchors in material culture slip. Do I begin to lose the always tenuous experience of personal integrity across time, integrity understood literally rather than as a synonym for upright virtuous character? If so, how might the second order effects ripple through society, particularly in its political dimensions?
The examples I have in mind of this receding of materiality arise, not surprisingly, from the most prosaic quarters of daily life. As a bookish person, for example, I think about how the distinct material shape of the book not only encodes a text but also becomes a reservoir of my personal history. I remember where I was when I read it. Or I recall who gave it to me or to whom I have lent it. In other words, the presence of the book on a shelf recalls its contents to mind at a glance and also intertwines an assortment of memories into the backdrop of my day-to-day life. At the very least, it becomes an always available potential portal into my past. I don’t mean to be romantic about any of this. In fact, I think this is all decidedly unromantic, having to do chiefly with the meaning and significance of the stuff that daily surrounds us.
The digitized book by contrast may have its own advantages, but by being the single undifferentiated interface for every book it loses its function as a mooring for the self. It’s not that the e-reader has no materiality of its own—of course it does. Perhaps the best way of conceptualizing this is to say that the device over-consolidates the materiality of reading in a way that smooths out the texture of our experience. Consider how this pattern of over-consolidation and subsequent smoothing of the texture of material culture recurs throughout digital society. The smartphone is a good example. An array of distinct physical objects—cash, maps, analog music players, cameras, calendars, etc.—become one thing. The texture of our experience is flattened out as a result.
Digitization isn’t the only force driving this transformation of material culture. The preponderance of disposable consumer goods has played its role as well. Indulge me in yet another personal reminiscence. I remember as a child visiting two of my father’s elderly aunts and an uncle, who all lived together. The uncle, if I remember correctly, was born in the late 1890s. I remember even as a child feeling as if I was stepping into a very different world when I visited their home. In retrospect, I think what I was registering was a more textured experience of material culture. The home preserved a world before the era of ubiquitous plastics and disposable consumer goods, and, to my childish eyes, stories I knew little about seemed to hover in the air. Today, disposability is the currency of the realm and the trash heaps growing mostly out of sight of the consumer class bear witness to this still relatively new material culture.
The late Zygmunt Bauman offered an enduringly apt term for this general state of affairs when he wrote about “liquid modernity.” “What was some time ago dubbed (erroneously) ‘post-modernity’ and what I've chosen to call, more to the point, ‘liquid modernity,’” Bauman explained, “is the growing conviction that change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty.” This liquidity characterizes not only the functions of capital, the status of institutions, and the social roles we inhabit. Under the conditions of disposable reality and digitization, it characterizes material culture as well, dissolving the world of things which bind us together in a common world.
“The existence of a public realm,” Arendt observed, “and the world's subsequent transformation into a community of things which gathers men together and relates them to each other depends entirely on permanence.” Under the conditions of liquid modernity, in the human and material realms, such permanence is unattainable, and we are living with the psychic and social consequences.
As I was writing this essay and revisiting Zygmunt Bauman’s work, I was reminded of these relevant paragraphs:
“De Singly rightly suggests that in theorizing about present identities, the metaphors of ‘roots’ and ‘uprooting’ (or, let me add, the related trope of ‘disembedding’), all implying the one-off nature of the individual’s emancipation from the community of birth as well as the finality and irrevocability of the act, are better abandoned and replaced by the tropes of dropping and weighing an anchor.
Unlike ‘uprooting’ and ‘disembedding,’ there is nothing irrevocable, let alone ultimate, in weighing anchor. While roots torn out of the soil in which they were growing are likely to desiccate and die, anchors are drawn up only to be dropped again elsewhere …. All in all, the anchor metaphor captures what the metaphor of ‘uprooting’ misses or keeps silent about: the intertwining of continuity and discontinuity in the history of all or at least a growing number of contemporary identities ….”
This post is heavy on metaphors, but sometimes metaphors are the only way of getting at reality.