Unplugged

I’m back. In fact, I’ve been back for more than a week now. I’ve been back from several days spent in western North Carolina. It’s beautiful country out there, and, where I was staying, it was beautiful country without cell phone signal or Internet connection. It was a week-long digital sabbath, or, if you prefer, a week-long digital detox. It was a good week. I didn’t find myself. I didn’t discover the meaning of life. I had no epiphanies, and I didn’t necessarily feel more connected to nature. But it was a good week.

I know that reflection pieces on technology sabbaths, digital detoxes, unplugging, and disconnecting are a dime a dozen. Slightly less common are pieces critical of the disconnectionists, as Nathan Jurgenson has called them, but these aren’t hard to come by either. Others, like Evgeny Morozov, have contributed more nuanced evaluations. Not only has the topic been widely covered, if you’re reading this blog I’d guess that you’re likely to be more or less sympathetic to these practices, even if you harbor some reservations about how they are sometimes presented and implemented. All of that to say, I’ve hesitated to add yet another piece on the experience of disconnection, especially since I’d be (mostly) preaching to the choir. But … I’m going to try your patience and offer just a few thoughts for your consideration.

First, I think the week worked well because its purpose wasn’t to disconnect from the Internet or digital devices; being disconnected was simply a consequence of where I happened to be. I suspect that when one explicitly sets out to disconnect, the psychology of the experience works against you. You’re disconnecting in order to be disconnected because you assume or hope it will yield some beneficial consequences. The potential problem with this scenario is that “being connected” is still framing, and to some degree defining, your experience. When you’re disconnected, you’re likely to be thinking about your experience in terms of not being connected. Call it the disconnection paradox.

This might mean, for example, that you’re overly aware of what you’re missing out on, thus distracted from what you hoped to achieve by disconnecting. It might also lead to framing your experience negatively in terms of what you didn’t do–which isn’t ultimately very helpful–rather than positively in terms of what you accomplished. In the worst cases, it might also lead to little more than self-congratulatory or self-loathing status updates.

In my recent case, I didn’t set out to be disconnected. In fact, I was rather disappointed that I’d be unable to continue writing about some of the themes I’d been recently addressing. So while I was carrying on with my disconnected week, I didn’t think at all about being connected or disconnected; it was simply a matter of fact. And, upon reflection, I think this worked in my favor.

This observation does raise a practical problem, however. How can one disconnect, if so desired, while avoiding the disconnection paradox? Two things come to mind. As Morozov pointed out in his piece on the practice of disconnection, there’s little point in disconnecting if it amounts to coming up for breath before plunging back into the digital flood. Ultimately, then, the idea is to so order our digital practices that enforced periods of disconnection are unnecessary.

But what if, for whatever reason, this is not a realistic goal? At this point we run up against the limits of individual actions and need to think about how to effect structural and institutional changes. Alongside those longterm projects, I’d suggest that making the practice of disconnection regular and habitual will eventually overcome the disconnection paradox.

Second consideration, obvious though it may be: it matters what you do with the time that you gain. For my part, I was more physically active than I would be during the course of an ordinary week, much more so. I walked, often; I swam; and I did a good bit of paddling too. Not all of this activity was pleasurable as it transpired. Some of it was exhausting. I was often tired and sore. But I welcomed all of it because it relieved the accumulated stress and tension that I tend to carry around on my back, shoulders, neck, and jaw, much of it a product of sitting in front of a computer or with a book for extended periods of time. It was a good week because at the end of it, my body felt as good as it had in a long time, even if it was a bit battered and ragged.

The feeling reminded me of what the Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote about his stay in a monastery early in the late 1950s, a kind of modernity detox. Initially, he was agitated, then he was overwhelmed for a few days by the desire to sleep. Finally, he emerged “full of energy and limpid freshness.” Here is how he described the experience in A Time to Keep Silence:

“The explanation is simple enough: the desire for talk, movements and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo; after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment. Then the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries, broke loose and swamped everything. No demands, once I had emerged from that flood of sleep, were made upon my nervous energy: there were no automatic drains, such as conversation at meals, small talk, catching trains, or the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life. Even the major causes of guilt and anxiety had slid away into some distant limbo and not only failed to emerge in the small hours as tormentors but appeared to have lost their dragonish validity.”

“[T]he tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries”–indeed, and to that we might add the tremendous accumulation of stress and anxiety. The Internet, always-on connectivity, and digital devices have not of themselves caused the tiredness, stress, and anxiety, but they haven’t helped either. In certain cases they’ve aggravated the problem. And, I’d suggest, they have done so regardless of what, specifically, we have been doing. Rather the aggravation is in part a function of how our bodies engage with these tools. Whether we spend a day in front of a computer perusing cat videos, playing Minecraft, writing a research paper, or preparing financial reports makes little difference to our bodies. It is in each case a sedentary day, and these are, as we all know, less than ideal for our bodies. And, because so much of our well-being depends on our bodies, the consequences extend to the whole of our being.

I know countless critics since the dawn of industrial society have lamented the loss of regular physical activity, particularly activity that unfolded in “nature.” Long before the Internet, such complaints were raised about the factory and the cubicle. It is also true that many of these calls for robust physical activity have been laden with misguided assumptions about the nature of masculinity and worse. But none of this changes the stubborn, intractable fact that we are embodied creatures and the concrete physicality of our nature is subject to certain limits and thrives under certain conditions and not others.

One further point about my experience: some of it was moderately risky. Not extreme sports-risky or risky bordering on foolish, you understand. More like “watch where you step there might be a rattle snake” risky (I avoided one by two feet or so) or “take care not to slip off the narrow trail, that’s a 300 foot drop” risky (I took no such falls, happily). I’m not sure what I can claim for all of this, but I would be tempted to make a Merleau-Ponty-esque argument about the sort of engagement with our surroundings that navigating risk requires of us. I’d modestly suggest, on a strictly anecdotal basis, that there is something mentally and physically salubrious about safely navigating the experience of risk. While we’re at, it plug-in the “troubles” (read, sometimes risky, often demanding activities) that philosopher Albert Borgmann encourages us to accept in principle.

Of course, it must immediately be added that this is a first-world-problem par excellence. Around the globe there are people who have no choice but to constantly navigate all sorts of risks to their well-being, and not of the moderate variety either. It must then seem perverse to suggest that some of us might need to occasionally elect to encounter risk, but only carefully so. Indeed, but such might nonetheless be the case. Certainly, it is also true that all of us are at risk everyday when walking a city street, or driving a car, or flying in a plane, and so on. My only rejoinder is again to lean on my experience and suggest that the sort of physical activity I engaged in had the unexpected effect of calling on and honing aspects of my body and mind that are not ordinarily called into service by my typical day-to-day experience, and this was a good thing. The accustomed risks we thoughtlessly take, crossing a street say, precisely because they are a routinized part of our experience do not call forth the same mental and bodily resources.

A final thought. Advocating disconnection sometimes raises the charges of elitism–Sherry Turkle strolling down Cape Cod beaches and what not. I more or less get where this is coming from, I think. Disconnection is often construed as a luxury experience. Who gets to placidly stroll the beaches of Cape Cod anyway? And, indeed, it is an unfortunate feature of modernity’s unfolding that what we eliminate from our lives, often to make room for one technology or another, we then end up compensating for with another technology because we suddenly realized that what we eliminated might have been useful and health-giving.

It was Neil Postman, I believe, who observed that having eliminated walking by the adoption of the automobile and the design of our public spaces, we then invented a machine on which we could simulate walking in order to maintain a minimal level of fitness. Postman’s chief focus, if I remember the passage correctly, was to point out the prima facie absurdity of the case, but I would add an economic consideration: in this pattern of technological displacement and replacement, the replacement is always a commodity. No one previously paid to walk, but the treadmill and the gym membership are bought and sold. So it is now with disconnection, it is often packaged as a commodified experience that must be bought, and the costs of disconnection (monetary and otherwise) are for some too hight to bear. This is unfortunate if not simply tragic.

But it seems to me that the answer is not to dismiss the practice of disconnecting as such or efforts to engage more robustly with the wider world. If these practices are, even in small measure, steps toward human flourishing, then our task is to figure out how we can make them as widely available as possible.

The Lifestream Stops

David Gelernter, 2013:

“And today, the most important function of the internet is to deliver the latest information, to tell us what’s happening right now. That’s why so many time-based structures have emerged in the cybersphere: to satisfy the need for the newest data. Whether tweet or timeline, all are time-ordered streams designed to tell you what’s new … But what happens if we merge all those blogs, feeds, chatstreams, and so forth? By adding together every timestream on the net — including the private lifestreams that are just beginning to emerge — into a single flood of data, we get the worldstream: a way to picture the cybersphere as a whole … What people really want is to tune in to information. Since many millions of separate lifestreams will exist in the cybersphere soon, our basic software will be the stream-browser: like today’s browsers, but designed to add, subtract, and navigate streams.”

E. M. Forster, 1909:

“Who is it?” she called. Her voice was irritable, for she had been interrupted often since the music began. She knew several thousand people, in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.

But when she listened into the receiver, her white face wrinkled into smiles, and she said:

“Very well. Let us talk, I will isolate myself. I do not expect anything important will happen for the next five minutes-for I can give you fully five minutes …”

She touched the isolation knob, so that no one else could speak to her. Then she touched the lighting apparatus, and the little room was plunged into darkness.

“Be quick!” She called, her irritation returning. “Be quick, Kuno; here I am in the dark wasting my time.”

[Conversation ensues and comes to an abrupt close.]

Vashti’s next move was to turn off the isolation switch, and all the accumulations of the last three minutes burst upon her. The room was filled with the noise of bells, and speaking-tubes. What was the new food like? Could she recommend it? Has she had any ideas lately? Might one tell her one”s own ideas? Would she make an engagement to visit the public nurseries at an early date? – say this day month.

To most of these questions she replied with irritation – a growing quality in that accelerated age. She said that the new food was horrible. That she could not visit the public nurseries through press of engagements. That she had no ideas of her own but had just been told one-that four stars and three in the middle were like a man: she doubted there was much in it.

When I read Gelernter’s piece and his world-stream metaphor (illustration below), I was reminded of Forster’s story and the image of Vashti, sitting in her chair, immersed in cacophonic real-time stream of information. Of course, the one obvious difference between Gelernter’s and Forster’s conceptions of the relentless stream of information into which one plunges is the nature of the interface. In Forster’s story, “The Machine Stops,” the interface is anchored to a particular place. It is an armchair in a bare, dark room from which characters in his story rarely move. Gelernter assumes the mobile interfaces we’ve grown accustomed to over the last several years.

In Forster’s story, the great threat the Machine poses to its users is that of radical disembodiment. Bodies have atrophied, physicality is a burden, and all the ways in which the body comes to know the world have been overwhelmed by a perpetual feeding of the mind with ever more derivative “ideas.” This is a fascinating aspect of the story. Forster anticipates the insights of later philosophers such as Merleau-Ponty and Hubert Dreyfus as well as the many researchers helping us understand embodied cognition. Take this passage for example:

You know that we have lost the sense of space. We say “space is annihilated”, but we have annihilated not space, but the sense thereof. We have lost a part of ourselves. I determined to recover it, and I began by walking up and down the platform of the railway outside my room. Up and down, until I was tired, and so did recapture the meaning of “Near” and “Far”. “Near” is a place to which I can get quickly on my feet, not a place to which the train or the air-ship will take me quickly. “Far” is a place to which I cannot get quickly on my feet; the vomitory is “far”, though I could be there in thirty-eight seconds by summoning the train. Man is the measure. That was my first lesson. Man”s feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong.

But how might Forster have conceived of his story if his interface had been mobile? Would his story still be a Cartesian nightmare? Or would he understand the danger to be posed to our sense of time rather than our sense of place? He might have worried not about the consequences of being anchored to one place, but rather being anchored to one time — a relentless, enduring present.

Were I Forster, however, I wouldn’t change his focus on the body. For isn’t our body and the physicality of lived experience that the body perceives also our most meaningful measure of time? Do not our memories etch themselves in our bodies? Does not a feel for the passing years emerge from the transformation of our bodies? Philosopher Merleau-Ponty spoke of the “time of the body.” Consider Shaun Gallagher’s exploration of Merleau-Ponty’s perspective:

“Temporality is in some way a ‘dimension of our being’ … More specifically, it is a dimension of our situated existence. Merleau-Ponty explains this along the lines of the Heideggerian analysis of being-in- the-world. It is in my everyday dealings with things that the horizon of the day gets defined: it is in ‘this moment I spend working, with, behind it, the horizon of the day that has elapsed, and in front of it, the evening and night – that I make contact with time, and learn to know its course’ …”

Gallagher goes on to cite the following passage from Merleau-Ponty:

“I do not form a mental picture of my day, it weighs upon me with all its weight, it is still there, and though I may not recall any detail of it, I have the impending power to do so, I still ‘have it in hand.’ . . . Our future is not made up exclusively of guesswork and daydreams. Ahead of what I see and perceive . . . my world is carried forward by lines of intentionality which trace out in advance at least the style of what is to come.”

Then Gallagher adds, “Thus, Merleau-Ponty suggests, I feel time on my shoulders and in my fatigued muscles; I get physically tired from my work; I see how much more I have to do. Time is measured out first of all in my embodied actions as I ‘reckon with an environment’ in which ‘I seek support in my tools, and am at my task rather than confronting it.'”

That last distinction between being at my task rather than confronting it seems particularly significant, especially as it involves the support of tools. Our sense of time, like our sense of place, is not an unchangeable given. It shifts and alters through technological mediation. Melvin Kranzberg, in the first of his six laws of technology, reminds us, “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” Our technological mediation of space and time is never neutral; and while it may not be “bad” or “good” in some abstract sense, it can be more or less humane, more or less conducive to our well-being. If the future of the Internet is the worldstream, we should perhaps think twice before plunging.

Worldstream Gelernter

Suffering, Joy, and Incarnate Presence

“I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.” With this, John closed the third New Testament epistle that bears his name. The letter is nearly 1,900 years old, yet the sentiment is entirely recognizable. In fact, many of us have likely expressed similar sentiments; only for us it was more likely an electronic medium that we preferred to forego in favor of face to face communication. There are things better said in person; and, clearly, this is not an insight stumbled upon by digital-weary interlocutors of the 21st century.

Yet, John did pen his letter. There were things the medium would not convey well, but he said all that could be said with pen and ink. He recognized the limits of the medium and used it accordingly, but he did not disparage the medium for its limits. Pen and ink were no less authentic, no less real, nor were they deemed unnatural. They were simply inadequate given whatever it was that John wanted to communicate. For that, the fullness of embodied presence was deemed necessary. It was, I think, a practical application of a theological conviction which John had elsewhere memorably articulated.

In the first chapter of his Gospel, John wrote, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” It is a succinct statement of the doctrine of the incarnation, what Christians around the world celebrate at Christmas time. The work of God required the embodiment of divine presence. Words were not enough, and so the Word became flesh. He wept with those who mourned, he took the hand of those no others would touch, he broke bread and ate with outcasts, and he suffered. All of this required the fullness of embodied presence. John understood this, and it became a salient feature of his theology.

For my part, these thoughts have been passing in and out of mind inchoately and inarticulately since the Newtown shooting, and specifically as I thought about the responses to the shooting throughout our media environment. I was troubled by the urge to post some reaction to the shooting, but, initially, I don’t think I fully understood what troubled me. At first, it was the sense that I should say something, but I’ve come to believe that it was rather that I should say something.

Thinking about it as a matter of I saying something struck me as an unjustifiably self-indulgent. I still believe this to be part of the larger picture, but there was more. Thinking about it as a matter of I saying something pointed to the limitations of the media through which we have been accustomed to interacting with the world. As large as images loom on digital media, the word is still prominent. For the most part, if we are to interact with the world through digital media, we must use our words.

We know, however, that our words often fail us and prove inadequate in the face of the most profound human experiences, whether tragic, ecstatic, or sublime. And yet it is in those moments, perhaps especially in those moments, that we feel the need to exist (for lack of a better word), either to comfort or to share or to participate. But the medium best suited for doing so is the body, and it is the body that is, of necessity, abstracted from so much of our digital interaction with the world. With our bodies we may communicate without speaking. It is a communication by being and perhaps also doing, rather than by speaking.

Of course, embodied presence may seem, by comparison to its more disembodied counterparts, both less effectual and more fraught with risk. Embodied presence enjoys none of the amplification that technologies of communication afford. It cannot, after all, reach beyond the immediate place and time.  And it is vulnerable presence. Embodied presence involves us with others, often in unmanageable, messy ways that are uncomfortable and awkward. But that awkwardness is also a measure of the power latent in embodied presence.

Embodied presence also liberates us from the need to prematurely reach for rational explanation and solutions — for an answer. If I can only speak, then the use of words will require me to search for sense. Silence can contemplate the mysterious, the absurd, and the act of grace, but words must search for reasons and fixes. This is, in its proper time, not an entirely futile endeavor; but its time is usually not in the aftermath. In the aftermath of the tragic, when silence and “being with” and touch may be the only appropriate responses, then only embodied presence will do. Its consolations are irreducible. This, I think, is part of the meaning of the Incarnation: the embrace of the fullness of our humanity.

Words and the media that convey them, of course, have their place, and they are necessary and sometimes good and beautiful besides. But words are often incomplete, insufficient. We cannot content ourselves with being the “disincarnate users” of electronic media that McLuhan worried about, nor can we allow the assumptions and priorities of disincarnate media to constrain our understanding of what it means to be human in this world.

At the close of the second epistle that bears his name, John also wrote, “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink.” But in this case, he added one further clause. “Instead,” he continued, “I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” Joy completed. Whatever it might mean for our joy to be completed, it is a function of embodied presence with all of its attendant risks and limitations.

May your joy be complete.

Technology and Perception: That By Which We See Remains Unseen

“Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.”
– C. S. Lewis

I wrote recently about the manner in which ubiquitous realities tend to fade from view. They are, paradoxically, too pervasive to be noticed. And I suggested (although, of course, this was nothing like an original observation) that it is these very realities, hiding in front of our noses as the cliché has it, which most profoundly shape our experience. I made note of this phenomenon in order to say that very often these ever-present, unnoticed realities are technological realities.

I want to return to these thoughts and, with a little help from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, unpack at least one of the ways in which certain technologies fade from view while simultaneously shaping our perception. In doing so I’ll also draw on a helpful article by Philip Brey, “Technology and Embodiment in Ihde and Merleau-Ponty.”

The purpose of Brey’s article is to supplement and shore up certain categories developed by the philosopher of technology, Don Ihde. To do so, Brey traces certain illustrations used by Ihde back to their source in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception.

Ihde sought to create a taxonomy that categorized a limited set of ways humans interacted with technology, and among his categories was one he termed “embodiment relations.” Ihde defined embodiment relations as those in which a technology mediates an individual’s perception of the world and gives a series of examples including glasses, telescopes, hearing aids, and a blind man’s cane. An interesting feature of each of these technologies is that they “withdraw” from view when their use becomes habitual. Ihde lists other examples, however, which Brey finds problematic as exemplars of the category. These include the hammer and a feathered hat.

(The example of the feather hat is drawn from Merleau-Ponty. As a lady wearing a feathered hat makes her way about, she interacts with her surroundings in light of this feature that amounts to an extension of her body.)

In both cases, Brey believes the example is less about perception (although it can be involved) and more about action. Consequently, Brey offers some further distinctions to better get at the kinds of relations Ihde was attempting to classify. He begins by dividing embodiment relations into relations that mediate perception and those that mediate motor skills.

Brey goes on to make further distinctions among the kinds of embodiment relations that mediate motor skills. Some of these involve navigational skills and tend to be of the sort that “enlarge” one’s body. The feathered hat fits into this category as do other items such as a worn backpack that require the user to incorporate the object into one’s body schema in such a way that we pre-consciously navigate as if the object were a part of our body. Then there are embodiment relations which mediate motor skills in interaction with the environment. The hammer fits into this category. These objects become part of our body schema in order to extend our action in the world.

These clarifications and distinctions are helpful, and Brey is right to distinguish between embodiment relations geared toward perception and those geared toward action. But he is also right to point out that even those tools that are geared toward action involve perception to some degree. While a hammer is used primarily to mediate action, it also mediates perception. For example, a hammer strike reveals something about the surface struck.

Yet Brey believes that in this class of embodiment relations the perceptual function is “subordinate” to the motor function. This is probably a sound conclusion, but it does not seem to take into account a more subtle way in which perception comes into play. Elsewhere, I’ve written about the manner in which technology in-hand affects our perception of the world not only by offering sensory feedback, but also by shaping our interpretive acts of perception, our seeing-as. I won’t rehash that argument here; instead I want to focus on the withdrawing character of technologies through which we perceive.

The sorts of tools that mediate perception ordinarily do so while they themselves recede from view. Summarizing Ihde’s discussion of embodiment relations, Brey offers the following description of the phenomenon:

“In embodiment relations, the embodied technology does not, or hardly, become itself an object of perception. Rather, it ‘withdraws’ and serves as a (partially) transparent means through which one perceives one’s environment, thus engendering a partial symbiosis of oneself and it.”

Consider the eye as a paradigmatic example. We see all things through it, but we never see it (unless, of course, in a mirror). This is a function of what Michael Polanyi has called the “from-to” character of perception. Our intentionality is directed from our body outward to the world. “The bodily processes hide,” Mark Johnson explains, “in order to make possible our fluid, automatic experiencing of the world.”

The technologies that we take into an embodied relation do not ordinarily achieve quite so complete a withdrawal, but they do ordinarily fade from our awareness as objects in themselves. Contact lenses, for example, or the blind man’s cane. In fact, almost any tool of which we become expert users tends to withdraw as an object in its own right in order to facilitate our perception or our action.

In short essay titled “Meditation in a Toolshed,” C. S. Lewis offeres an excellent illustration of this dynamic. Granted, he was offering an illustration of different phenomenon, but I think it fits here as well. Lewis described entering into a dark toolshed and seeing before him a shaft of light coming in through a crack above the door. At that moment Lewis “was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.” But then he stepped into the beam:

“Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.”

Notice his emphasis on the manner in which the beam itself disappears from view when one sees through it. That through which we perceive ceases to be an object that we perceive. Returning to where we began then, we might say that one manner in which a technology becomes too pervasive too be noticed is by becoming that by which we perceive the world or some aspect of it.

It is easiest to recognize the dynamic at work in objects that are specifically designed to enhance our physical senses — eyeglasses, for example. But the principle may be expanded further (even if the mechanics shift) to include other less obvious ways we perceive through technology. The whole of Marshall McLuhan’s work, in fact, could be seen as an attempt to understand how all technology is media technology that alters perception. In other words, all technology mediates reality in some fashion, but the mediating function withdraws from view because it is that through which we perceive the content. It is the beam of light into which we step to perceive some other thing and, as with the beam, it remains unseen even while it enables and shapes our seeing.

Love and the Beauty of Our Lowly Bodies

“They want to get out of themselves and escape from the man. That is madness: instead of changing into angels, they change into beasts; instead of raising themselves, they lower themselves.”
– Michel de Montaigne 

Wim Wenders’ beautifully wrought Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin, 1987) depicts a world populated by human beings and angels.  We cannot ordinarily see or hear them, although children seem to be more attuned to their presence.  They see us and hear our thoughts.  They were here before us and they awaited our coming.  Now they watch and bear witness.  They, however, cannot touch or feel, taste or smell.  They have no weight.  In a particularly touching scene, Cassiel (Otto Sander), one of two angels through whose eyes we experience the film, is unable to prevent a suicide.  Driven by curiosity or empathy or more likely both, Cassiel imitates the fall but his weightless plummet can do him no harm.

Cassiel along with Damiel (Bruno Ganz) watch over East Berlin in the 1980’s, and through their witness to the lives of the human beings they are tasked to watch we are invited to pay lavish attention to the details of embodied life with all its attendant joys and sorrows.  Jeffrey Overstreet describes what he calls the “movie’s leisurely, telepathic stroll” which “takes us out of our pell-mell experience of life and all its worries, and it restores to us the balanced view of each moment, reacquainting us with the childlike joy of physical sensation and the holy contemplation of meaning in each tactile detail.”

The theme of childhood runs throughout the film which opens with a voiceover of Peter Handke’s “Song of Childhood”:

“When the child was a child
It walked with its arms swinging,
wanted the brook to be a river,
the river to be a torrent,
and this puddle to be the sea.”

And so on it goes. At first thought, the theme suggests, perhaps, an innocence shared by children and angels. On second, wonderment. Wonder that leads to desire. Damiel expresses the correlation between desire and the body when he longs “to be excited not only by the mind but, at last, by a meal, by the line of a neck.” Earlier when comparing notes, as it were, with Cassiel, he reports:

“A woman on the street folded her umbrella while it rained and let herself get drenched. A schoolboy who described to his teacher how a fern grows out of the earth, and the astonished teacher. A blind woman who groped for her watch, feeling my presence…. It’s great to live only by the spirit, to testify day by day, for eternity, to the spiritual side of people.”

But this patient observation, this wonder yields desire:

“But sometimes I get fed up with my spiritual existence. Instead of forever hovering above I’d like to feel there’s some weight to me. To end my eternity, and bind me to earth. At each step, at each gust of wind, I’d like to be able to say: ‘Now! Now! and Now!’ And no longer say: ‘Since always’ and ‘Forever.’ To sit in the empty seat at a card table, and be greeted, if only by a nod…. Whenever we did participate, it was only a pretence. Wrestling with one of them, we allowed a hip to be dislocated, in pretence only. We pretended to catch a fish. We pretended to be seated at the tables. And to drink and eat…. Not that I want to plant a tree or give birth to a child right away. But it would be quite something to come home after a long day, like Philip Marlowe, and feed the cat. To have a fever. To have blackened fingers from the newspaper…. To feel your skeleton moving along as you walk. Finally to “suspect”, instead of forever knowing all. To be able to say ‘Ah!’ and ‘Oh!’ and ‘Hey!’ instead of ‘Yes’ and ‘Amen’.”

Damiel desires the desires that can only be realized in the body. Again Overstreet:  “There is a woman, a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) in a traveling circus, who captures his attention. But this infatuation is more than most you’ll see in onscreen romances. Damiel is truly moved by her entire person: her innermost thoughts, doubts, struggles, and courage. But it’s not merely platonic appeal: she’s a beauty, no doubt about it.”  And so Damiel, with the unlikely help of Peter Falk (playing himself) falls. But his is not the usual sort of angelic fall. It is not a Luciferian fall away from God in rebellion, it is a fall into embodiment (quite literally depicted in the film).  It is not a fall occasioned by resistance to limits, but one that seeks to embrace them. Eric Mader-Lin’s reflections on the theme of falling in Wings of Desire is worth quoting at length:

In this dialogue, in its contrast between the two kinds of yearning, human and angelic, the film affirms a new kind of spirituality, one that is paradoxically both material and spiritual, an affirmation of the necessary and permanent tension between the two: the meaninglessness of the one without the other.

One of the motifs through which Wenders develops this tension is that of falling. We’ve always imagined that transcending the limits of our earthbound lives meant rising up: all that is banal or merely mortal would be left behind if we could only take flight ….

The angel Damiel, in his growing desire to fall into humanity, becomes more and more fascinated with Marion. We see her through his eyes and hear her thoughts through his ears. Eventually Damiel truly falls from his angelic state and comes together with Marion. What does it mean that the film’s last scene shows Marion again practicing trapeze while Damiel, erstwhile angel, holds the rope that anchors her to earth? She didn’t need to renounce her art after all. A new balance between heaven and earth has been established, a balance which, this time, is effected through the love between man and woman.”

Damiel’s fall into enbodiment prompted by desire is an evocative reminder of the beauty and love proper to the life of body. And from time to time we do good to remind ourselves of such things, particularly in an age that in its rhetoric and practice too often disparages the humble body and its limitations.