What You Get Is the World
The Convivial Society: Vol. 3, No. 21
Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture. In this installment, I’m thinking a bit about how modern society tends to deplete rather than renew us and what we might be able to do about this. I’m tying these thoughts back to what I wrote last time, but I think what follows will stand on its own.
I might be wrong about this, but it seems that over the last couple of years more and more people have been working their way to the conclusion that modern society is fundamentally broken—not just broken in a way that can be fixed with a little tinkering here and there, but somehow broken in its core assumptions, particularly its assumptions about what shape a good life should take. Again, maybe I’m wrong about this assessment, it is, after all, wholly unscientific.
This is not to say that everything is broken, of course, or that there is no good thing to be had from modern society. On the contrary, by historical standards modern society offers its members an embarrassment of riches. Nonetheless, it’s increasingly obvious that this is not the whole story. It would appear, for example, that these material benefits have come at an unbearably high cost to the non-human world. It is the case, too, that these goods have been unjustly distributed, both in the sense that Western society has benefited from depredations that have been visited upon the non-Western world and that, within Western society, too many have been unjustly excluded from sharing in the fruits of material prosperity.
But I want to go a bit further than these well-documented realities. It is also the case that the material prosperity so many of us enjoy comes at a cost to our well-being such that many are beginning to question whether we’ve not unwittingly assented to a devil’s bargain. Here I am thinking, for example, of the equally well-documented rise in rates of burnout, mental health disorder, and loneliness. More speculatively, I’d even suggest that we’ve somehow stumbled into a crisis of desire. Our techno-economic order takes the shape of a great engine of desire, training us to want what it offers and encouraging us to forget our deep desire for that which cannot be bought.
I may come back to that latter point about desire in the new year, but for now let me try to hone in on a relatively modest claim. When I think about the forces shaping modern society,1 I tend to characterize them as centrifugal rather than centripetal forces, which is to say that these forces tend to pull us apart rather than bring us together. When I consider the forces operating on the person, however, a different frame comes to mind. These I think of as forces which deplete rather than renew us. As I used to observe with some frequency, the arc of digital culture bends toward exhaustion.
What I mean by this is simple: when we think of the way our days are structured, the kinds of activities most readily on offer, the mode of relating to the world we are encouraged to adopt, etc.—in each case we are more likely to find ourselves spent rather than sustained. The default set of experiences on offer to us are more likely to leave us feeling drained and depleted rather than satisfied and renewed. In our consumption, we are consumed.
There are many ways to think about this. We are depleted by the pace and structure of contemporary life, particularly by how spatial and temporal boundaries that provided modest respites from the demands others could place on us have been eroded by the capacities of digital technology. Now we are always on and always available, our freneticism masquerading as flexibility. We are also depleted by our media ecosystem, which, if we let it, will overwhelm us with cognitive and emotional stimuli. We are depleted, too, by a techno-economic system that is bent on treating the human and the non-human alike as raw material, as sites of extraction.
All of this can be summed up briefly by observing that the human-built world is not built for humans. As the 20th-century French thinker Jacques Ellul noted, the operating principle of modern human society is technique, a relentless drive to optimize all things for efficiency. At no point is any care taken for the human as such. Even our games, diversions, and therapies can be best understood as what Ellul called human techniques, the bare minimum therapies necessary to keep the human component of the machine operational.
This picture is admittedly bleak, but what ultimately concerns me here is to think about what experiences might actually offer something like rest, renewal, or a modest measure of satisfaction. What practices can thrive outside of the bounds of economic rationality, optimization, and consumption? Is there a way to recalibrate the rhythms of our days and weeks and months and years so that they generate meaning and a measure of internal and communal harmony?
I suspect there are many good answers to those questions, and in the coming year I want to spend more time thinking and writing about what those might be. But just now I’m thinking about depletion and renewal mostly in light of my discussion of depth in the last installment discussing artificially generated images. If you’ve not read it, no worries (although, of course, you should). The line that sums up the key idea comes from a longtime tutor at St. John’s College who once observed that serious texts have a surface that arouses the desire to know them and the depth to satisfy that desire. “In place of occasional experiences of depth that renew and satisfy us,” I observed, “we are simply given an infinite surface upon which to skim indefinitely.” I had in view the sea of artificially generated images (and text) threatening to flood our feeds, but we can generalize the principle to describe much of our experience.
I initially intended to develop this line of thought a bit further in that last installment, but, as so often happens, the piece went off in another direction and I thought better of trying to squeeze this bit in. But I do find myself wanting to make the case more explicitly for the idea that there are depths worth discovering by the application of our patient, careful attention and that these depths can be rewarding and renewing.
Of course, I doubt many of you reading will need me to make this case for you. In fact, I’m sure many of you can make it better and more eloquently than I can. But I find it useful to return again and again to key ideas and principles. I, at least, can always use the reminder.
So one way to approach the matter is to simply ask ourselves what we get for our troubles if we should learn to attend to the world with care.
What we get, simply put, is nothing short of the world itself.
Let me elaborate on the claim, first with an anecdote from my years in the classroom. When I taught five or six periods, it would usually take me two to three weeks to learn the names of most of my students. Invariably, there would be a handful of students who I would go on to have some trouble telling apart. Maybe they all were of a certain height or hair color or whatever. Long after I could confidently call on most students by name, these few students would remain indistinguishable to me. But, naturally, a few weeks later on their uniqueness would gradually become more fully apparent to me. And by the end of the semester, I always marveled at the fact that I had ever had any difficulty telling them apart.
So what happened? Neither my vision nor their appearance changed in any meaningful way during this time period. Yet my ability to perceive these students changed dramatically. Attending to them over a sufficient amount of time, persevering in my efforts to know them by name eventually disclosed the distinctness of their individuality to me. For my purposes here, the striking thing is that a layer of reality that was always present to my senses only became accessible to me over time through the persistent application of attention.
Consider, too, this paragraph from Jenny Odell’s 2019 book, How to Do Nothing. In it, Odell is discussing the practice of Deep Listening,2 which she illustrates by reference to her experience as an amateur birder.
“What amazed and humbled me about bird-watching was the way it changed the granularity of my perception, which had been pretty ‘low-res.’ At first, I just noticed birdsong more. Of course, it had been there all along, but now that I was paying attention to it, I realized that it was almost everywhere, all day, all the time. And then, one by one, I started learning each song and associating it with a bird, so that now when I walk into the Rose Garden, I inadvertently acknowledge them in my head as though they were people: ‘Hi, raven, robin, song sparrow, chickadee, goldfinch, towhee, hawk, nuthatch …’ and so on.”
Odell goes on to describe this process as “the diversification of what was previously ‘bird sounds’” into “discreet sounds that mean something to me.” As Odell puts it, this is a matter of something becoming meaningful to me, which is no small thing. But I find myself wanting to put it more starkly. I would describe this diversification as gaining access to a bit more of the world. Previously, I failed to perceive some part of the world, some aspect of reality—it did not register for me, I was blind to it, it might as well not have existed at all. But now I had received it as a gift for the meager trouble of caring enough to pay attention. It did not just become meaningful to me, it became real to me. As Iris Murdoch puts it, “reality” is “that which is revealed to the patient eye of love.” Or, elsewhere, “Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality.”
The pattern repeats itself endlessly. My friend who is a retired plant pathologist has gained, through years of attention and care, a deeper, fuller experience of local fauna than what I have earned and by that knowledge experiences a richer relationship to the city we share. Just as Odell initially heard only “bird song,” I see only “trees” or barely better. He sees oaks, maples, distinct varieties of pine, cypress, crape myrtle, and so on. To the amateur stargazer, the seeming scattershot of lighted pinpricks across the darkling sky form meaningful patterns and bind her to a fount of human culture and imagination. In both cases, the reward of attention is the disclosure of a multifaceted reality: the things themselves, the places they shape, the times they mark. By our attention we gain the world and the world becomes a home.
But it is not just nature, which confronts me with these orders of reality. In my previous post, I wrote about “The Harvesters” by Breughel. As with any great work, it will sustain my careful attention over time, disclosing more and more of itself and its meaning to me. And so, too, will a worthwhile book. I can revisit it time and again and find that the text has more to offer me, more wisdom and more pleasure. And this is to say nothing of how I myself change over time and thus become able to perceive more of the depth of the work. Or how attention over time discloses not just orders of reality but also temporal rhythms that allow us to inhabit rather than resist time: the time it takes Orion to traverse the winter sky or the moon to pass from new to full and back again, the time it takes a seed to sprout or a plant to flower. Or how the meaning of a text or of a field or of the night sky in winter cascades over time as my own history with each becomes a multiplier of meaning, and deep familiarity consoles me, shepherds my memory, and fills my heart. In short, how I find myself in each case renewed and not depleted.
But there is a catch. Something is demanded of us, and we can have no guarantee at the outset that we will, in fact, be compensated for our efforts. What is demanded of us initially, even before patience and careful attention, is, I think, humility. “Humility is not a peculiar habit of self-effacement,” as Murdoch observed, “it is selfless respect for reality and one of the most difficult and central of all virtues.”
Humility and a refusal of the myth of limitlessness. Because if there is anything that makes us complicit in propagating the exhausting, depleting, surface skimming way of life, it is the refusal to acknowledge our good and proper limits as mortal, embodied creatures.
As Wendell Berry has put it, “Our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning.” By this “fullness of relationship and meaning” I take Berry to mean something very close to what I’ve been characterizing as the renewing depths of reality. “Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries,” Berry went on to say, “is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible.” “A small place, as I know from my own experience,” he adds, “can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure—in addition to its difficulties—that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.”
What Berry writes of his “small place” can, I think, be applied to much else in the world which will also yield such fruits to us if only we will be patient in our attentive labors. And that is just another way of saying that in this way we might finally find a measure of renewal.
* Note to paid subscribers: early in the new year, I will send out a discussion thread inviting you to discuss what practices bring you renewal and rest. I look forward to hearing and learning from you.
As per usual, I have modern American society chiefly in mind. It is, after all, what I know most intimately. Many of you, however, do not live in the US, so, as they say, mileage may vary on these generalizations. I’d certainly be glad to hear reports from abroad.
Deep Listening is really just what we might also call attentive listening or listening rather than merely hearing.