Resisting Disposable Reality

Technology and consumerism coalesce to create disposable reality.  Let’s try that idea on for a moment by drawing together observations made about each by Albert Borgmann and William Cavanaugh respectively.

Writing about technological culture, Borgmann distinguished between devices characterized by a “commodious,” accessible surface and a hidden, opaque machinery below the surface on the one hand and what he calls focal things on the other.  Devices are in turn coupled with consumption and focal things are paired with focal practices.  Focal things and practices, according to Borgmann, “gather our world and radiate significance in ways that contrast with the diversion and distraction afforded by commodities.”  In short, we merely use devices while we engage with focal things.

With those distinctions in mind, Borgmann continues, “Generally, a focal thing is concrete and of commanding presence.”   A commanding presence or reality is later opposed to “a pliable or disposable reality.”  Further on still, Borgmann writes, “Material culture in the advanced industrial democracies spans a spectrum from commanding to disposable reality.  The former reality calls forth a life of engagement that is oriented within the physical and social world.  The latter induces a life of distraction that is isolated from the environment and from other people.”  On that last point, bear in mind that Borgmann is writing in the early 2000s before the onset of social media.  (Although, it is debatable whether or not his point still stands.)

Borgmann then addresses his analysis to human desire by noting that:

To the dissolution of commanding reality corresponds on the human side a peculiar restlessness.  Since every item of cyberpresence can be x-rayed, zoomed into, overlayed, and abandoned for another more promising site, human desire is at every point at once satiated, disappointed, and aroused to be once more gorged, left hungry, and spurred on.

Writing about contemporary consumerism, William T. Cavanaugh observes, “What really characterizes consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment.  People do not hoard money; they spend it.  People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things.”  Furthermore, Cavanaugh adds, “Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else; that’s why it is not simply buying but shopping that is the heart of consumerism.  Buying brings a temporary halt to the restlessness that typifies consumerism.”

Both Borgmann and Cavanaugh have identified an analogous pattern at the heart of both contemporary technology and the consumerist spirit:  both render reality essentially disposable.  Both also note how this disposable quality yields a restlessness or unsettledness that permeates our experience.  This experience of reality as essentially disposable and its attendant restlessness are characteristic of what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has termed, “liquid modernity.”

Interestingly, one of the focal things identified by Borgmann is the book with its corresponding focal practice, reading.  While Cavanaugh did not make this observation, it seems to me that the book as object is one of the few commodities that resists his analysis of contemporary consumerism.  That is to say that books tend to be purchased and kept.  There are exceptions, of course.  Many books turn out not to be worth keeping.  We trade some books at used books stores for others.  We also now sometimes sell certain books through services provided by Amazon.com and the like.  Nonetheless, I would venture to say that those who purchase books often do so with an eye to keeping them.  Where we would typically encounter detachment, with the book we find a measure of attachment.  In a sea of technological, consumerist flux the book is a fixed point. It is an object that is engaged and not merely used, it is possessed rather than readily disposed; and perhaps, in modest measure, it tacitly alleviates our restlessness.

Perhaps this then provides one angle of approach to the analysis of electronic books and e-readers.  Consider Matt Henderson’s recent observations regarding his children’s experience of “reading” Al Gore’s Our Choice, “Push Pop Press’s highly-anticipated first interactive book.”  Henderson introduced Our Choice to his two children whom he describes as technologically savvy readers.

I showed them Our Choice, and just observed. They quickly figured out the navigation, and discovered all the interactive features. But… they didn’t read the content. Fascinated, they skipped through the book, hunting for the next interactive element, to see how it works. They didn’t completely watch a single video.

When they finished, I asked them to tell me about the book. They described how they could blow on the screen and see the windmill turn, how they could run their fingers across the interactive map and see colors changing. How they could pinch to open and close images. But they couldn’t recall much of what the book was about. They couldn’t recall the message intended to be communicated in any of the info-graphics (though they could recall, in detail, how they worked.)

Run through Borgmann’s grid this seems to be an instance of contrast between a focal thing with its attendant practice and a device  with its attendant consumption. The Kindle comes off better in Henderson’s analysis, and in his children’s experience, and this makes sense since the Kindle’s interface lends itself more readily to focused engagement.  And yet, the Kindle fails to provide the physical presence of books we keep which seems to be not insignificant as we search for anchors in an environment of manufactured restlessness and disposable realities.  To borrow a line from T. S. Eliot, nostalgia for the book in this case is just our pursuit of a “still point of the turning world.”

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Borgmann’s comments are drawn from Power Failure.

Cavanaugh’s comments are drawn from Being Consumed.

Henderson’s comments via Alan Jacobs.

“The Past Is Never Dead”

In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, religious violence tore across Europe.  The Wars of Religion, culminating with the Thirty Years’ War, left the continent scarred and exhausted.  Out of ashes of war the secular nation state arose to establish a new political order which privatized religion and enshrined reason and tolerance as the currency of the public sphere ensuring an end to irrational violence.

That is one of the more familiar historical narratives that we tell ourselves.  It is sweeping and elegant in its scope and compelling in its explanatory power.  There’s only one problem according to William Cavanaugh:  it’s not true.  Cavanaugh lays out his case in his most recent book, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford UP, 2009).  Needless to say, he has his work cut out for him.  The narrative he seeks to deconstruct is deeply entrenched and we’ve staked a lot on it.  His point, to be clear, is not that religion has never been implicated in violence.  As he puts it elsewhere, “Given certain conditions, Christianity, Islam, and other faiths can and do contribute to violence.”  Rather, he is contesting the particular historical narrative whereby the secular nation state arises in response to religious violence in order to secure peace for society by marginalizing religious practice and discourse.

To begin with, Cavanaugh demonstrates that the very concept of religion is problematic and thus renders any neat parsing of violence into either religious or secular categories tenuous at best.  Moreover, the nation state precedes the so called wars of religion and is best seen as a contributing cause, not an effect of the wars.  The historical realities of the wars resist the simplistic “Wars of Religion” schema anyway.  For example, during the  Thirty Years’ War, Catholics were at times fighting other Catholics and sometimes in league with Protestants.  The Thirty Years’ War as it turns out was a scramble by competing dynasties and rising national governments to fill the power vacuum created by the collapse of the medieval political order.  Furthermore, Cavanaugh suggests that the state co-opted and assumed for itself many of  the qualities of the church creating, as one reviewer put it, “its own sacred space, with its own rituals, hymns, and theology, and its own universal mission.”  In the end, the secular nation state, particularly in its 20th century totalitarian apotheosis, hardly appears as the champion of reason, peace, and tolerance.  The nation state secured its status by monopolizing the use of coercive force.  In doing so, however, it clearly did not put an end to violence.

Cavanaugh presents a counter-intuitive thesis and he takes care to make his case.  It is a case he has been working out since 1995 when, as a graduate student, he published “‘A fire strong enough to consume the house:’ The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the Nation State.” In the intervening years he has honed and strengthened his argument which finds mature expression in the The Myth of Religious Violence.

Whether one ultimately agrees with Cavanaugh’s thesis or not, his work highlights two important considerations regarding historical narratives.  First, historical reality is usually more complex than the stories we tell, and the complexity matters.  We are living through a cultural moment when historical awareness is a rare commodity, so perhaps we shouldn’t complain too much about shallow historical knowledge when the alternative may be no historical knowledge.  But that said, much of what does pass for historical knowledge too frequently is filtered through Hollywood, the entertainment industry, or the talk-show circuit, and for all these subtlety must necessarily be sacrificed to the demands of the medium.  The big picture sometimes is painted at the expense of important details, so much so that the big picture is rendered misleading.

Perhaps most days of the week, this is not a terribly important consideration.  But it can become very significant under certain circumstances.  When a historical narrative is hotly contested and passionately defended it is usually because the real battle is over the present.  Consider heated debates about the Christian or secular origins of the American constitutional order, or arguments over the causes of the American Civil War and Southern identity.  Leaving the terrain of American history, consider the Armenian genocide, the Japanese atrocities at Nanking, or the the tangled history of the Balkans.  In each case the real issue is clearly not the accuracy of our historical memory so much as it is the perceived implications for the present.  In other words, we fight for our vision for the present on the battlefield of the past.  This raises a host of other questions related to the status of arguments from history, philosophies of history, and historiography.  These sorts of questions, however, are rarely raised at rallies or on television — it would be hard to fit them on a placard or in a 10 second sound bite.

A debate about the origins of the modern nation state is likewise about more than historical accuracy.  Critics of religion and the place of religion in public life, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris for example, have made the historical narrative we began with a key component of their case — religion kills, the secular state saves.  Cavanaugh has offered the compelling rejoinder.

Either way it appears Faulkner was right:  “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”

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You can listen to a lecture and link to a number of essays by Cavanaugh here.