Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 23, “Focal Things and Practices”

culture-of-the-table
Note: This entry is part of a series where I am blogging chapter-by-chapter through the book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (TCCL) by Albert Borgmann. If you’re new, you may want to start at the Overview.

The previous chapter took Nature as an intuitive source of helpful challenges to the technological paradigm. But Borgmann’s insight, spelled out in his concept of “focal things and practices”, is that what is true about Nature can be explored in a more general fashion. Moreover, Borgmann actually thinks that technology, while it can be a challenge to what we find meaningful in life, for that very reason heightens its beauty. We therefore don’t need to be pessimistic about its survival; we just need to pay attention to how and where we can cultivate focal things and practices despite the challenge that goes along with such effort.

So, what is a focal thing or practice? First of all, what is ‘focus’? We can find two senses of it: the first is from the Latin word for ‘hearth’, where we can see a focus as that which gathers social reality and arranges it around itself. The other sense is later, meaning the “burning point of a lens or mirror”, in other words, where optical lines converge. As Borgmann says, “Figuratively they suggest that a focus gathers the relations of its context and radiates into its surroundings and informs them. To focus on something or to bring it into focus is to make it central, clear, and articulate” (197).

Examples of focal things are not hard to find, and extend beyond the wilderness: music, gardening, the culture of the table, and running constitute a few. We might intuitively understand that these are ‘focal’ in some sense, but we’d all have to agree that they are scattered and disparate, totally unlike the focal things of pre-technological times, like temples, which had a place of physical and cultural prominence (in addition to “focusing” the divinity of their surroundings into one structure).

For Heidegger, this role of the temple—gathering in and disclosing the givenness of its surroundings—is central to art and historical existence. Technology, on the other hand, is for him a metaphysical development that deals in pure conditionality—what might (or might not) be the case in whatever circumstance. Conditionality (potential realities based on lawlike extrapolations of variable states of affairs) is totally different from givenness (what truly is). Heidegger tried to recover this givenness, finding it in simple, concrete artifacts like an earthenware jug. A simple jug by its shape and purpose discloses what it means to hold as well as to give. It gathers together sky, earth, rain, and grape together in the wine it serves, revealing them to us, teaching us about refreshment and invoking the divine (via the tradition of libations, or something else).

While Borgmann is sympathetic to this way of thinking, he fears that we moderns have lost the ability to listen to earthenware jugs the same way we have discarded temples; outside of a very specific set of circumstances, a jug will just be a jug, and a temple a building. What is essential is to uncover the pattern of technology, to perceive its central emptiness, so that focal things regain a place in our ontology, where they had before been crowded out. Moreover, we need to go beyond focal things to practices, and to an engagement with society and politics, which of course is where things themselves exist. Essentially, we need through a cultivation of focal practices and political engagement to strip the gag from focal things and allow them to have a voice in deictic discourse.

Now to more examples. Nature was a good one! What about one that’s “closer to home”? Borgmann examines two in the course of the chapter: running and the culture of the table. He picks these in part because he believes that we have all experienced in some way or another the feeling of a run (or at least a brisk walk), and a simple good meal at home in the presence of good company, and that we will understand the contrast between them and sitting indoors for weeks, or grabbing a quick meal from a fast-food chain.

Unfortunately running outside and homemade meals are nowadays fleeting experiences. Philosophers, politicians, and technologists have not developed them as part of a wider discourse. Instead, practitioners (the runners themselves, for example) have been the ones who have been witnesses of the focal power of these practices. This is excellent, as far as Borgmann is concerned, for these people can actually speak deictically to us! Melville, Thoreau, Pirsig, and Maclean are all helpful. Even instruction manuals for hiking or backpacking can have strikingly deep philosophical reflection and insight.

For running, Borgmann chooses George Sheehan’s Running & Being to bear the torch. Running is different than driving. In both activities we can say we have ‘achieved’ something, but in driving it is the technological achievement of having extracted stored energy from the earth, which of course I had no particular hand in making happen. I can’t really take any credit for it even though I benefit. “I am a divided person; my achievement lies in the past, my enjoyment in the present. But in the runner, effort and joy are one; the split between means and ends, labor and leisure is healed” (202). Running engages the mind and body, which is different from “exercise”, which works the body while leaving the mind disengaged. Running on a treadmill is an efficient, disassociating kind of activity in which I use my body while doing the best I can not to be bored, often by watching TV or listening to music—a perfect example of a ‘divided person’. In outdoor running, mind and body are intimate with the world. We know the world more deeply by running through it than driving past it in an enclosed cage. Not only that, “serious running takes us to the limits of our being” (204) through encountering the pain of effort and working with our bodies.

Another example of a focal practice is the “culture of the table”, i.e., cultivating homemade meals accompanied by conversation in the presence of others. Because of our technological capabilities or our human uniqueness, we often stand over or against the world; coming into immediate contact with the world is therefore something special, and this happens in a meal: “Truly human eating is the union of the primal and the cosmic. In the simplicity of bread and wine, of meat and vegetable, the world is gathered” (204). The great meal is a focal event which gathers the family and the gifts of nature and delivers them to us in the flow of our unique culinary traditions, recollecting our ancestral research into food and our particular branch of humanity’s customs. Technological eating is divided into form and function; in a festive family meal, eating once again engages us fully.

Borgmann acknowledges that in the course of any meal there is an element of sheer consumption. In the great meal, that is only part of the structure, however; there is also a moment of reflection (or prayer), a sequence of courses, memorable conversation, all clothed with the desire to respect one another and the event via the discipline of table manners. Activities are embodied in persons—the dish and cook, the vegetable and gardener, etc… This meal is not characterized by consumption and anonymity. It could even be called religious, or sacred (and many special traditional meals have that character explicitly).

In our technological setting, the great meal is necessarily understood differently than in a pre-technological one; for us, rather than it being the necessary way of things, it can become something more: a place of calm, of memory. A place where there is respite from the striving for consumption and a restoration of the depth of the world.

Engaging in focal practices like running or cultivating homemade meals is clearly possible for all of us to do (even if only because our technological society has given us that opportunity!). Everyone can run or make a meal from scratch. So why don’t we, as a society? Well, first of all, our labor—that which we spend most of our time doing—is exhausting. When we return home from it, it’s easy to say “yes” to the least burdensome diversion that approaches us (e.g., TV). And so ultimately the rule of technology, which we have been examining all these chapters, is stronger than any ad hoc willpower we might possess. The whole framework of our world validates my desire to simply kick back in the easy chair and watch a movie, beer in hand. If we care about running or making meals from scratch, the only thing that will suffice is turning them into an actual practice, not a series of one-off events we hope will be the norm. Borgmann says, “…without a practice, an engaging action or event can momentarily light up our life, but it cannot order and orient it focally… Through a practice we are able to accomplish what remains unattainable when aimed at in a series of individual decisions and acts” (207).

How are focal practices established? In pre-technological societies, they were often done so with some mythic purpose or backstory, showing how this particular practice enacts something we all know or desire to be true cosmically, for example as in the Eucharist, a practice established to commemorate not just a specific event but the cosmic reality that event signified: God giving himself for the world. Practices were established in the face of some obvious antagonist, like chaos (thinking, “if we but keep this practice it will keep chaos and disorder at bay”). Our antagonist today is the deadening effect of technology, but this antagonist is hard to see. It is the backdrop, the stage setting, not easily visible as a character itself. Unless we have seen its patterns and felt its debilitating effect on our lives, it will be hard to find energy to found focal practices in opposition to it. But if we have observed the “persuasiveness and consistency of its pattern”, we will be encouraged to engage in focal practices that restore depth and integrity to our lives.

Practices, in their recurring and faithful nature, protect focal things from being subverted by technology and from being lost because of our own frailty or natural inconsistency. Practices remind us that focal goods, far from being delivered automatically whenever we engage in the practice, are hard-won, and all the more satisfying for remaining in the practice despite difficulty or long seasons without apparent advancement. And as Alisdair MacIntyre says, a practice always contains the notion of the goods it obtains, so the technological split between means and ends is healed—the focal practice and focal good cannot be disentangled as with a machine and its product.

In sum, focal practices are essential to counteract the pattern of technology and to guard focal things from extinction. They come into being through either our explicit resolution or an implicit nurturing that becomes a solid custom. Our focal practices today will differ from those of our pre-technological ancestors. Theirs were social, public, and enshrined in buildings, public offices, roles, clothing, etc… Ours are more humble, homely, scattered, and often more private. This is a limitation of focal practices that we need to examine if, as Borgmann thinks, they can be the ground for a more widespread reform of technology that reaches into the public sphere. And so we set the stage for the next chapter, which will begin to tie together the notion of focal practices with the “good life”, and how that pushes inevitably into politics.

[Photo: breakfast at our table, by Jessica Lipps]

Author: Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan is a Director of Engineering at Sauce Labs, leading a team of open source developers to improve the web and mobile testing ecosystem. He has worked as a programmer in tech startups for over a decade, but is also passionate about academic discussion. Jonathan has master's degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively. Living in San Francisco, he's an avid rock climber, yogi, musician, and writer on topics he considers vital, like the relationship of technology to what it means to be human. Visit jonathanlipps.com for more.

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