The Integrity of Offline Practices

In Technology Matters, historian David Nye distinguished between the knowledge we might gain of a tool by “reading” it as if it were a text and the knowledge that would arise from using the tool. It is the distinction between conceptual knowledge and embodied knowledge or knowledge that we can articulate (e.g., what is the capital of Argentina)  and knowledge that we simply carry in our bodies (e.g., how to type).

To illustrate this distinction, Nye used the American axe as an example:

“The slightly bent form of an American axe handle, when grasped, becomes an extension of the arms. To know such a tool it is not enough merely to look at it: one must sense its balance, swing it, and feel its blade sink into a log. Anyone who has used an axe retains a sense of its heft, the arc of its swing, and its sound. As with a baseball bat or an axe, every tool is known through the body. We develop a feel for it. In contrast, when one is only looking at an axe, it becomes a text that can be analyzed and placed in a cultural context.”

This was well put and instructive. When I recently came across a short essay called “Axe worship” by Bella Bathurst that described the joys of chopping wood, I recalled the passage above from Nye and went on to read the essay with interest piqued.

Bathurst did not disappoint. The essay was just the right length for what it aimed to do and was written in just the right tone. It also included two paragraphs in particular that nicely captured the joy of wood chopping. Here’s the first:

“Personally, I just like chopping for its own sake. There’s something warming about the ritual of it and the sense of provision. Place, stand, breathe, swing, cut. Watching the wood. Watching the radial splits out from the centre, marking the place to bring the axe down, waiting for the faint exhalation of scent from the wood as it falls. Like cooking, it provides a sense of sufficiency and delight but, unlike cooking, log-chopping has a particular rhythm to it, like a form of active meditation. You do, very literally, get into the swing of it.”

And then there was this:

“The point and the pleasure of chopping logs is that it is just me and a stone-age tool. Standing there in the shed in a deep layer of sawdust and chippings, I can hear the birds and the river and the changing note of the blade as it strikes different ages and sizes of timber. I can sense the rhythm of my own work and the difference between old wood and new.”

This resonated with me. Unlike Bathurst, I don’t live in a place that necessitates the chopping of wood for fires to keep warm by. But I have exerted myself in other physical tasks which yielded not entirely dissimilar experiences. But even as Bathurst words were resonating, I was thinking to myself, “I bet Nathan Jurgenson would file this under “IRL Fetish.'”

(IRL – “in real life” – Fetish, you may remember, is Jurgenson’s name for what he takes to be the unseemly valorization of offline, non-digitally mediated activities. Sherry Turkle’s reflective stroll on the shores of Cape Cod was Jurgenson’s paradigmatic case.)

But then I realized something: Bathurst doesn’t mention digital technology at all. She did not frame her experience as an escape or respite from the tyranny of the digital. There was no angst about the hyper-connected life. It was simply a meditation on the joys of swinging an axe. So, then, can it be classified as an instance of “IRL Fetish” if it makes no mention of digital technology?

I wouldn’t think so. This sort of experience appears to be altogether un-preoccupied with the discontents of digital technology. It is not that we can claim that some thought of the digital world never entered Bathurst’s mind — how could we know anyway — but that even if it did (to note that this would make a good online essay for example) it appears to have done so unproblematically.

Bathurst’s account of her experience strikes me, in fact, as another example of a practice which offers, in Joseph Conrad’s words, “a chance to find yourself.” It is a practice in which we might become absorbed, and one that offers the particular pleasures of working against the resistance presented by the material world and the satisfaction that comes from having done so successfully toward some end.

These practices and the pleasures they yield have an integrity of their own that are not necessarily coupled with digital technology (although they may sometimes be justly contrasted to digital technology). What they offer are goods in themselves irrespective of their relationship (or non-relationship) to digital technologies. We should, in other words, engage in these sorts of practices for their own sake, not merely as antidotes or countermeasures to digital mediation.

Perhaps we do such practices and experiences a disservice, those of us who do highlight their significance in light of digital realities, when we discuss them only as such. Ironically, we may, in doing so, be granting digital technology undue prominence, as if these other practices were significant only as modes of resistance to digitally mediated life. Such is not the case.

Hilaire Belloc noted the following long before the advent of digital technology:

“… the most important cause of this feeling of satisfaction is that you are doing what the human race has done for thousands upon thousands of years … Whatever is buried right into our blood from immemorial habit, that we must be certain to do if we are to be fairly happy (of course no grown man or woman can really be very happy for long — but I mean reasonably happy), and, what is more important, decent and secure of our souls. Thus one should from time to time hunt animals, or at the very least shoot at a mark; one should always drink some kind of fermented liquor with one’s food – and especially deeply upon great feast-days; one should go out on the water from time to time; and one should dance on occasions; and one should sing in chorus. For all these things man has done since God put him in a garden and his eyes first became troubled with a soul. Similarly some teacher or ranter or other, whose name I forget, said lately one very wise thing at least, which was that every man should do a little work with his hands.”

Written today this may have “IRL Fetish” written all over it. Written, as it was, in the early 20th century, it is a reminder that advocating such practices and experiences need not necessarily be an act of escapism or fetishizing. It might simply be an honest recognition of what has long been uncontroversially true about human experience. Or, as Freud reportedly put it, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

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.

An Earthy, Festive Life

Feeling less than satisfied with life these days? Hilaire Belloc has some advice for you:

“… the most important cause of this feeling of satisfaction is that you are doing what the human race has done for thousands upon thousands of years … Whatever is buried right into our blood from immemorial habit, that we must be certain to do if we are to be fairly happy (of course no grown man or woman can really be very happy for long — but I mean reasonably happy), and, what is more important, decent and secure of our souls. Thus one should from time to time hunt animals, or at the very least shoot at a mark; one should always drink some kind of fermented liquor with one’s food – and especially deeply upon great feast-days; one should go out on the water from time to time; and one should dance on occasions; and one should sing in chorus. For all these things man has done since God put him in a garden and his eyes first became troubled with a soul. Similarly some teacher or ranter or other, whose name I forget, said lately one very wise thing at least, which was that every man should do a little work with his hands.”

I appreciate the allowance for those who are not terribly keen on hunting. Now the only question is what fermented liquor to have with breakfast.