Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Focal things and practices

Dr John Senior
I suppose there is a romantic in all of us in one way or another; we are all irreducible individuals. I am not, however, what I would call a romantic, at least not by training. Using such grand, generic terms, I would say rather that my intellectual formation was 'classical' in nature. If I was going to be more concrete, I'd call it Thomist, and if I was going to be as precise as possible, I'd call it neo-scholastic, All that said, I'm haunted by the image that that great teacher of literature John Senior uses to denounce the neo-scholastic project: St Thomas, he says, is to the neo-scholastics as farming implements are to a formerly colonised island whose colonisers are all dead and whose natives have forgotten the use of the implements and now hang them in the trees to worship them.

As a classicist, I learnt that habit is good, but experience proves the need to balance habit by frequent reinitiation. As a classicist, I hold that principles are indispensible, but experience proves the need to balance principles by frequently reconnecting with persons. Hard on principle but easy on people, rather than easy on principle but hard on people. He who stands by raw habit and nude principle has hung what he believes to be the truth in a tree and usually worships it with blood libations (sometimes his own, frequently that of others). I suppose the question that arises, however, is why do we ever lose contact with the real in the first place, either through habit (in the moral domain) or through principle (in the intellectual domain)? I'm sure Gabriel Marcel would convict me of having the spirit of abstraction.

Professor Albert Borgmann
With this rather romantically-drawn backdrop - given the themacity of the perpendicular pronoun - I have stumbled recently into reading Albert Borgmann, the American theorist of technology, and found therein at least one happy illumination of the problem I have just described. Borgmann is preoccupied among other things with the conditions of our material culture and what has happened to it in our perceptions. He is concerned that the pretexts which urge our immersion in technology are in fact narrowing and unfulfilling. Like habit and a kind of narrowly applied principle (this is my gloss), our technological context invites us to seize and instrumentalise the  things we see and almost unconsciously consume them, even when, most worryingly, they are not for sale. Thereby, however, we find the depth of things is reduced severely. What we need, says Borgmann, is to push technology to the periphery of our lives and challenge its omnipresence with what he calls focal things and practices: objects and activities which help us reconnect with those things we have lost contact with through usage. These gather our world together, revealing its various significations, while disclosing their own depths in the process.

If that all sounds woolly, the way I see it is that Borgmann is providing a reason why dinner round a table with good friends, laughing and enjoying each other's company, is more satisfying in all ways than an evening spent on Facebook. It suggests why even people who spend half their waking hours steeped in World of Warcraft think it's cool when someone can get the guitar out and pick a tune. It also correlates with Jacques Ellul's belief that the technological society begins as a way of thinking about things, rather than in material production. Perhaps habits and principles, taken in a narrow sense - taken in some self-sufficient sense - are ironically the incipit of a world understood without reference to its deeper self.

We are all users of technology; this very blog is a phenomenon of the technological culture. But this need not be a double bind. I'm free to blog as long as I don't forget the reality of the reader. I'm reminded of some lines by French novelist Georges Bernanos who, when someone said he was a 'realist' because he sat in cafes and wrote about what he observed, answered:
Georges Bernanos
I write at cafe tables because I cannot go long without faces and the human voice about which I believe I have tried to write honourably. [...] I write in cafes as I wrote once in railway carriages, so as not to be duped by creatures of my imagination, and, through a glance cast on some passer-by, to rediscover the true measure of joy and sorrow.    

Beyond habit and abstraction, there is then some tangible thing with which I am bound to reconnect. Failure to do so seemingly comes at the price of an ever intensifying dessication of the mind and soul.  Bernanos's words were addressed directly to that school of French literature that thought it was being 'naturalist' and 'realist' by trying to represent things as they are. By some sad paradox, they were disorting as they were representing. Somehow, the confidence of a certain mindset in seizing and possessing what is, can lead to a strange payback arising from the infidelity of the knowledge - the inadequation - such a process produces. Our principles are good, but our use of them can distort both them and us. Realism cannot be realism when it is obsessed only with what appears. G. K. Chesterton calls for for stereoscopy: the real only appears itself when viewed through mental binoculars, rather than through any reductive and voracious systematisation of the mind.

These things - and the inspiration of this blog - were brought home to me again recently standing beside an enchanted fjord (in the picture above and around us) when I found its beauty impressing itself upon me. It was not teaching me what it was in itself, as if it were undertaking some exercise in realism. It is not entirely clear what that mysterious fjord was up to But I think ultimately it was reminding me of the depths of all things and, likewise, inviting me to stand a little more humbly before them. Borgmann has not listed fjord-gazing as a focal activity, but something tells me he would not dismiss the suggestion.

1 comment:

  1. You nail "wonder" on the head, a thing which Senior and his friends Quinn and Nellick, and indeed Josef Pieper and James Schall S.J. prize so highly in becoming a "cultivated" and Catholic (in the most expansive, beautiful sense) mind.

    I feel this way about the Flint Hills here in Kansas, USA. I always imagine a scene I will write in some short story where a rather boorish scientist type will ask "if you think the Flint Hills are so wonderful and important, that they contain some deep meaning, then please, tell us what they are saying to us." To which the defender of the Flint Hills (or the Fjords in your example) will simply reply, "They are telling you to shut the hell up." :)