“An Excess of Speed Turns Into Repose”

“We must here accept a paradox , which is in fact admitted by everyone with the
greatest of ease, and even consumed as a proof of modernity. This paradox is that an
excess of speed turns into repose.” 
– Roland Barthes, “The Jet-Man”

The speed of motion through space is what Barthes had in mind. It was the image of the 1950s era jet-man — the pilot of a jet aircraft, who, while moving through the air at incredible speeds, sat motionless and at ease in his cockpit. Barthes was targeting as well the myth that, in the early years of the jet-age, took shape around the jet-man in his “anti-g suit” and “shiny helmet.” Today it all just sounds like campy science-fiction, these silver-suited men forming a quasi-priestly cadre of humanity mediating between space and earth. Perhaps it strikes us so, in part, because of the success of Barthes’ brand of demythologizing cultural critique. But that one line — “an excess of speed turns into repose” — has lodged itself in my mind and it has refused to budge until I do something with it.

Barthes called it a paradox and claimed that it was taken for granted in the modern age. Perhaps it is even better to see this paradox itself as the hope around which the myth of modernity coalesces. To see this we need to understand “speed” more broadly than the rate at which space is traversed. It includes as well the speed of activity (which does not necessarily involve motion across space) and the speed of information (as opposed to bodies). In each case it is assumed that once a certain threshold is crossed, “speed” will yield to repose. And, of course, it is technology of one form or another that drives the acceleration of motion, activity, or information.

But, as with the jet-man, it is in motion that repose finally comes to be found. The pilot is motionless while approaching the speed of sound. Repose is no longer understood to be the opposite of motion, nor is it what may be found at the far end of furious activity or at the culmination of rapid thought. Repose, the ideal state, is now found in the activity, in the motion, in the consumption of information.

If we accidentally stumble upon repose in the shape of the absence of motion, activity, or the processing of information, we are undone. We do not know what to do with ourselves in such instances. Repose of the sort which was formerly understood to be the goal of motion, activity, and thought now becomes a cursed and anxious state to be avoided at all costs. We are at rest only if we are in motion.

This means of course that motion, activity, and information processing have become and end in themselves rather than a means to some other end. As such, they can never cease or be interrupted. They are self-perpetuating. We pursue motion, activity, and information as if they will bring us to some longed-for state of contentment, fulfillment, or rest; but all the while we are denying or failing to recognize the real state of affairs. We are aiming at nothing so much as the maintenance of motion and activity. We have nowhere to go, but if we keep accelerating we hope not to notice.

The Tourist and the Pilgrim

Perhaps it is not the soul of the one whose photograph is taken that the camera steals, but rather the soul of the one who takes the picture. Or, what does it mean to be a tourist?

I thought about this often while spending two weeks out of the country being just that, a tourist. Sitting in front of one more cathedral, I think it was, having assaulted the structure with my camera and waiting to move on to the next target, I wondered whether someone had written something like a philosophy of tourism. I was certain someone must have; Alain de Botton surely. Every book I’ve ever imagined turned out already to have been written, often numerous times over.  I was sure this one was no exception. In any case, I didn’t plan to write that book. It was only a question occasioned by the nagging feeling that there was something fundamentally disordered about the experience we call tourism.

We know, of course, that there are many kinds of tourists ranging from the obnoxiously oblivious who seem to gleefully embrace the worst elements of the stereotype, to the ironically self-conscious who take pains to avoid appearing as a tourist at all. Most of us, as tourists that is, probably fall somewhere in between. For my part, I had little interest in pretending to be other than I was. And I certainly was not going to stop taking pictures in order to avoid appearing as a tourist.

In fact, I suffer from a severe case of camera eye. I would not claim to be an amateur photographer, as that might imply too high a level of photographic savvy, but I do enjoy taking pictures — many, many pictures. My wife tells me that she knows before I pull out the camera that I am about to do so because I get a certain look on my face that says, “That’s a good shot I’ve got to have.” I have no doubt that this is the case. I’ve frequently used the experience of walking around with a digital camera as an illustration of the way a technology can alter our experience merely by having it in hand. I use this example principally because I know its existential force all too well.

This photographic compulsion led me to think of being a tourist as a spectrum of activity defined by the degree to which the eye dominates the experience. On one end, seeing is all; the other is multi-sensory. Perhaps it is toward the visual end that most tourists naturally gravitate. You go to see sights. You are told that you must see this, that, and the other thing. You haven’t really been to X if you haven’t seen Y. And so on it goes. It is, more often than not, sight that first mediates our experience of any place. Further, if what there is to see is new or strange or majestic or stunning, we will continue to equate being there with seeing. And wanting to render the ephemeral visual experience durable we will seek to capture it with photographs burdened all the while by the realization that our pictures will always disappoint.

Clearly, then, I tend toward this end of spectrum. But even I recognize that seeing is not the only way to experience a place, or even the best way. And so I try to listen and to smell. From time to time I will touch a building to feel the place. And, of course, there is the tasting. The camera captures none of this, and so there is nothing to do but to put it away and sit and observe, with all the senses, this place and these people and the dynamic reality we call culture that emerges from their interaction. To “take it all in” as is it is sometimes put.

But even at this multi-sensory end of the spectrum, there is something that did not quite sit right with me. I kept thinking that in the end it is all still driven by the impulse to consume, precisely to take in and take away. It was as those tribesmen feared; with the camera I was hunting for the soul of the place, somehow to disassociate it from the material space and absorb it into myself. And even when I set the camera aside and sought to capture the full sensory experience, the impulse was still the same. How can it be otherwise? The essence of tourism is not merely spatial; it is also temporal. A tourist is not simply someone who goes to a different place, but someone whose experience of that place will be temporary. The experience of tourism is always defined by the nearness of its end. And so always conscious that I can be in this place only so much longer, I try to hard to take it in, which is to say, to consume it.

In this mode, there is little thought for what one might give to the place or how one might spend themselves in the place/for the place, or for the people of the place. There is little thought for how the place might transform the traveler either. The place is assimilated to the self and it becomes another vehicle of self-expression and self-fulfillment.

While thinking about what a book on the philosophy of tourism might encompass and what historical antecedents it might survey, it seemed obvious that it would have to reckon with pilgrimage. Pilgrimage had already been on my mind. In fact, pilgrimage is never far from my mind as a resonant metaphor for the religious life.  But the idea of pilgrimage was nearer than usual after having serendipitously watched The Way just two days before embarking on my own less symbolically fraught journey.

The Way is a 2010 film written and directed by Emilio Estevez and starring Martin Sheen. The father and son pair play a father and son. Early in the film, Sheen’s character travels to France to recover the body of his son played by Estevez. Upon arriving in France, he discovers that his son died while having just begun the famed pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain where the body of the Apostle James is reportedly buried. This discovery propels Sheen’s character to undertake the same journey with the ashes of his son in tow. Along the way he is joined by an unlikely set of three fellow pilgrims and the film tells the story of their transformation on the way to Santiago de Compostela.

It is not a profound film, but that is the worst one can say about it I think. It is an earnest film that manages to blend lovely scenery and charming characters in its gesture toward the profound. Along their premodern pilgrim way, the characters flash their postmodern sensibilities by engaging in a running debate about what constitutes authentic pilgrimage. Does making the trek on a bicycle negate the authenticity of the journey? Does recourse to credit cards? The modern hiking gear?

As the film makes plain, many now undertake the pilgrimage with very different motives than their medieval predecessors thus raising the question of authenticity. We can imagine that those most eager to define the authentic pilgrim experience might formulate their concern as an effort to protect the purity of the pilgrimage against the tourist ethos that animates so many that are now on the way. The zeal for purity stems from a desire to shield the experience from the encroachment of commodification and the dynamic of consumerism.

In the end, the film seems to suggest that whatever one’s motives, the road will have its own way. None of the pilgrims whose paths the film follows receive what they expected or desired, but each is transformed. We might say that it is they who have been consumed by the journey. Thinking about the film, it occurred to me that the better, more interesting spectrum placed tourism on one end and pilgrimage on the other.

The way of the tourist is to consume; the way of the pilgrim is to be consumed.* To the tourist the journey is a means. The pilgrim understands that it is both a means and an end in itself. The tourist and the pilgrim experience time differently. For the former, time is the foe that gives consumption its urgency. For the latter, time is a gift in which the possibility of the journey is actualized. Or better, for the pilgrim time is already surrendered to the journey that, sooner or later, will come to its end. The tourist bends the place to the shape of the self. The pilgrim is bent to shape of the journey.

Finally, it seemed to me that this was all about more than the literal trips we take for we are all, in a different sense, on the way. In our time of abandonment, home for most must now be a mythic place touched only by hope.** We are untethered, unencumbered, uprooted. Under these conditions we have only to decide whether we are on the way as tourists or as pilgrims.

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* The opposition of consuming to being consumed is borrowed from William Cavanaugh.
** Hope in Time of Abandonment is the title of a book by Jacques Ellul.

Opaque Surfaces and the Worlds They Hide

Thinking about the opacity of life.

All around us our devices present us with surfaces below which lie complexities few understand. Our technologies are increasingly opaque to us. But this is, from a certain perspective, not very different from much of the rest of our experience.

As I look up at the sky, it presents me with a surface which, during the day, hides from my view the vastness of the space that lies beyond it. Even at night, the starlit sky discloses only a glimmer of the magnitude of the universe.

As I look at the blade of grass and my hand that holds it, a surface presents itself beyond which lies another, atomic and sub-amtomic, universe whose infinitesimal scale is entirely concealed to my unaided senses.

How much of reality lies beyond these surfaces that present themselves to us as the perceived limits of lived experience? And yet there is one other surface that veils a world from view.

As I look into the eyes of the persons I encounter day in and day out, a surface once again presents itself in seemingly uncomplicated fashion. But beyond this surface too lies a complex and unfathomable universe. The mind, dare I say soul of every person is another world — vast, complex, mysterious, wondrous, and beyond the reach of my ordinary perception.

In the end, I suspect that of all these, it is my own consciousness that is most opaque to my perception and the most challenging to penetrate.

All our learning is finally an effort to see beyond these surfaces.

Gratitude as a Measure of Technology

Last Thanksgiving I posted a few lines from G. K. Chesterton on gratitude. Chesterton carries some weight around here; you’ll notice that another of his memorable observations serves as the tag line for this blog. Chesterton had his flaws, of course, but we would all do well to cultivate the kind of gratitude that pervaded his posture toward existence. His conversion, for example, was famously occasioned by an overwhelming sense of sheer gratitude for the resplendent gratuity of being and the realization that there must be some Being to which such gratitude should properly be directed. And Chesterton’s gratitude and mirth also infiltrated the thinking of another individual who looms large on this blog’s tag cloud, Marshall McLuhan.

And so, perhaps establishing something of a tradition, here again is Chesterton on gratitude:

  • “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
  • “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

Last year I paired Chesterton with a poem by Wendell Berry, this year I want to tie gratitude more directly to the question which lies at the heart of much of what I write here: How do we live well with technology?

Chesterton, as the latter quotation suggests, recognized that there was much more to be thankful for than the food on our table. He recognized that God’s gifts encompassed the whole of lived experience.  This led me to wonder what else we might add to that list of activities before which we ought to, and would gleefully, acknowledge a debt of gratitude; and more to the point, I wondered what technologies we might include in such a list. This in turn suggested the following thought: Might we measure the value of a technology by the degree to which we were grateful for it? Could gratitude, in other words, be the measure by which we evaluate our technologies?

Evaluating our technologies, placing them on the dock as the Brits might say, interrogating them (although perhaps not under “enhanced” techniques), these are necessary if we are to live well with our technologies. They are part of the work of attaining a critical distance from our technologies so that we may learn to use our tools toward human ends, rather than find ourselves being conformed to the logic of our technologies. But how do we do this? By what standard or measure do we evaluate our tools and what do we have to know about them in order apply whatever standard or measure we arrive at? Well, it’s complicated, but here is one way to approach the matter.

Gratitude — unlike, say, the “Like” button — is a complex response, and yet one that is not difficult to formulate. As a response it is deeper, more layered than mere approval or even enjoyment. Some of that for which I am grateful, I would scarcely label pleasant; and some of what I might not call unpleasant, would yet fail to trigger gratitude. In this way gratitude becomes a telling measure of what we value, what is meaningful, and what adds genuine value to our lives.

Chesterton’s point, of course, is that there is for most of us very much indeed for which we ought to be grateful. One might be tempted to say that finally there is very little for which we ought not be grateful. Gratitude was for Chesterton more a way of experiencing life than a discreet response to a list of items and experiences. But gratitude does admit distinction. We are justified in ranking that for which we are grateful. It is coherent to ask what one is most grateful for even if it makes less sense to ask what one is least grateful for.

So with all of this in mind, then, we might ask two questions of technology: Am I grateful for it? and, In what relationship does it stand to the things for which I am most grateful?

The first of these questions is the most straightforward. But answering it, and following through on the implications of our answers may prove instructive. So, for example, from where I sit I can see my refrigerator. We are so used to its presence in our houses that we take it for granted and we may not immediately think of it when we think of technologies in our lives. But, of course, it is a technology and I find that I am indeed grateful for it. But if this is not to be a superficial exercise, I should also ask why I am grateful for it. In this case, and perhaps most cases relating to particular technologies, it is not necessarily for the thing itself that I am grateful, but for what it enables; namely, the preservation of food that I both need and find enjoyable. This signals something about the value of our tools: it is often derivative. I may be thankful for the presence of a friend whether or not that friend is at that moment “useful” to me. But it is rarely the mere presence of a technology for which we are grateful.

I might also ask if I could do without the technology as a measure of my gratitude for it. As for the refrigerator, I would have to say, not without great difficulty. Now, having affirmed my gratitude for the refrigerator, I should also ask what makes the refrigerator possible? This becomes a lesson in the complexity of technological systems. Refrigerators are not of much use without electricity and so, when I think about my gratitude for the refrigerator, I have to consider all that makes the power grid possible. Taking these connected factors into consideration might temper or complicate my gratitude or it might extend my gratitude further still.

But, staying in the kitchen, what about the microwave? If I ask myself, “Am I grateful for the microwave?” I find that I am hesitant to say “yes.” I realize that the microwave is often very convenient and it has saved me time and effort on countless occasions. Yet, I am not quite grateful for it and this is the thing about gratitude, either you feel it or you don’t. Admittedly, it is possible in principle for someone to lack gratitude when by every objective measure they ought to be grateful. But – narcissists, misanthropes, and teenagers aside – how common is this really? I can’t bring myself to say I am grateful for the microwave even though I can say I am grateful for the refrigerator. That signals something, no?

Why the hesitation? The microwave, for one thing, is not quite necessary in the same way as the refrigerator. It would take a few adjustments, but I could do without the microwave well enough. And what does the microwave secure that is unique to it and not a conventional oven? Efficiency, speed, convenience? For whatever reason, these fail to elicit gratitude from me. Now, let me quickly add, gratitude is sensitive to context. A single mother of four who works throughout the day and then comes home and has to prepare dinner for her tribe may readily profess her deep gratitude for the microwave. No argument here. This reminds us of the complexities of technology, human context is a part of the equation when evaluating a technology and that is a dynamic and unstable variable. Rarely can we take a technology as a discreet object and evaluate it apart from the uses to which it is put in the context of particular lives and concrete realities.

When we consider digital technologies, things get even more difficult to parse since we are no longer dealing with singular items with a narrow range of functions. The Internet and the growing number of devices through which we access it, infiltrate so many dimensions of lived experience that it may be difficult to apply the standard of gratitude meaningfully. When thinking of digital technologies, then, it may be better to examine the sets of practices that gather around particular platforms and applications rather than the devices in themselves.

And since digital technologies diffuse into the fabric of everyday life, this also leads us to the second question, in what relationship does a technology stand to the things for which I am most grateful? In many cases, we might have little cause to be grateful for a technology in itself. It is rather for the role the technology plays within the complex dynamic of everyday experience that we may or may not be grateful for it. The single mother, for example, may be most grateful for time spent with her children. In which case the microwave, which theoretically reduces her time in the kitchen, frees her up to spend more of her precious time with her children. I realize that in real life the distribution of time is rarely quite so simple, but the basic principle seems sound enough — a technology’s value is heightened if it stands in positive relation to that for which we are most grateful. Under different circumstances, the microwave may in fact undermine that for which we are most grateful by, for example, atomizing and dispersing members of the family rather than drawing them around the work of preparing a meal and sharing it together. The question of gratitude then is a context sensitive measure of value.

Altogether, I’m suggesting that the question of gratitude in relation to technology functions as a lens that focuses our perception. When we consider all for which we are most thankful, we are considering those things which make life worth living. Most often these involve health, loving relationships, and meaningful experiences of beauty and joy.  It is these things which ought to structure our life and order our choices. Considering technologies in light of gratitude, then, is a way of disciplining our use of technology for the sake of those things which truly enhance the quality of our lives.

Take a look around you. Ask yourself if you are grateful for the devices and tools that gather around you. Ask yourself whether these devices and tools enhance and augment your relationship to those things for which you are most grateful. And then, in light of how you respond to those two questions, ask yourself if the amount of time, attention, and money you invest in your tools and devices is reasonably proportional to the gratitude they elicit or the manner in which they relate to that for which you are most grateful.

I’m not suggesting this is the only, or even the best, way to go about evaluating our technologies and their place in our lives. But I do think it is a useful way of approaching the issue and I know that it has helped me identify imbalances in need of correction. Ultimately, it is just a way of aligning our practice with our priorities, a simple thing that our technologies have an uncanny way of complicating.

So be grateful and extend that gratitude to technology when it is warranted, but don’t allow any technology to undermine your experience of those things for which you are most grateful.

The Most Dangerous Gift

More  advice from Belloc:

“Look you, good people all, in your little passage through the daylight, get to see as many hills and buildings and rivers, fields, books, men, horses, ships, and precious stones as you can possibly manage to do. Or else stay in one village and marry in it and die there. For one of these two fates is the best fate for every man. Either to be what I have been, a wanderer with all the bitterness of it, or to stay home and hear in one’s garden the voice of God.”

This is, initially at least, a curious piece of advice, recommending as it does two seemingly opposite forms of life as being, one or the other, the very best. But something about it rings true. If I contemplate each possibility, I can feel the lure of both; each in their own way make their claim upon my imagination. Although, I suspect that by confessing to find the latter homebound life at all compelling I likely find myself in a very slim minority. We have a much easier time sympathizing with the “pilgrim soul” and the wayfarer. Americans infuse the road with the mystique the English attach to their gardens. (Although the English have had their fair share of adventures on the sea and abroad.) In Bellloc’s formulation what unites both possibilities is the purposeful abandon of each, the thoroughgoing commitment each path entails — and, I believe, the disclosures made possible by this sort of commitment. It is easy to see the possibilities for disclosure that attend the wayfarer’s life, but harder for us to imagine what might be disclosed by a lifetime in one place. I’m tempted to say that one discloses the world while the other discloses the self, but I don’t think this is right. Both disclose the world and the self in their own way. Few have written about a life committed to a place as well as Wendell Berry, and so I will borrow his words:

“… our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible … A small place, as I know from my own experience, 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.”

Perhaps the best life refuses the choice, it takes its adventure but makes it home again. “There and back again,” Odysseus, and all that. But those stories remind us that you never come home again, really. So perhaps then we must choose. But none of us chooses anymore, not in this sense anyway. We make countless small choices, some significant to be sure, but never one overarching choice.  We do not strike out with purpose to be a pilgrim soul, nor do we strike deep to anchor ourselves to home that we might cultivate our own inexhaustible fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure. Consequently, the world does not disclose itself to us nor do we know ourselves truly. Aiming at both, we achieve neither.

What we have sought to maximize is choice, not experience. Perhaps we’ve confused the one for the other; but they are not identical, and they may be antithetical. Maximizing choice is another way of refusing commitment and refusing commitment is another way of guarding our hearts, sealing them off from experience and its joys and sorrows. Or perhaps, we have refused commitment because we cannot bear the responsibility it entails. But without commitment there may be only endless alienation.

And so we are neither pilgrim souls nor those who hear the voice of God in our garden. We are wanders in the worst way, led about not by wonder but by anxiety and the lure of small, safe, and ephemeral satisfactions and by choices others have made for us which we have not been brave enough to challenge.

Elsewhere Wendell Berry has written, “We live the given life, not the planned.” It is a measure of our disorder that we are likely to read “given” as “fated” rather than in relation to “gift.” But it is also true, as Chesterton remarked, that “the most dangerous thing in the world is to be alive.” Our temptation it seems is to refuse the gift because of the attendant dangers. This may in the end be a safe life, but it certainly will not be a good one.

Commit.