The Simple Life and the Focal Life

Russell Arben Fox has a very interesting post on what it might mean to live the simple life in our technology- and consumption-driven culture. I admit that I’ve been pretty put off by the agrarianism of people like Wendell Berry if, for no other reason, than it seems like they advocate a way of life that most of us couldn’t live even if we wanted to!

As it happens, though, I just finished reading Albert Borgmann’s Power Failure this weekend, and I think Borgmann offers a more constructive approach than the agrarian nostalgia of Berry (or the radical pessimism of someone like Jacques Ellul).

Borgmann says that technology is the characteristic feature of our world. By this he means that the paradigm of the “device” is the predominant way in which we relate to the world. The device has two components, machinery and commodity. Basically this means that the device serves, through an elaborate piece of scientific engineering, to make something (an experience, a product) available for effortless consumption. It is our way of bending reality to our will, and a way that detaches us from a concrete encounter with reality.

For instance, I can pop a frozen dinner in the microwave and virtually instantaneously have a hot meal without understanding what goes into the food, how it was made, or how the microwave cooks it (in any but the most rudimentary terms). The meal is immediately procurable without any significant amount of understanding or engagement on my part.

The technological mode, Borgmann thinks, holds sway over our politics in that effortless consumption is considered the end toward which policy should aim. This outlook is shared by the left and the right; the left is wary of criticizing our choices for fear of violating the value-neutrality of the public square, and the right sees the free market as the instrument which maximizes freedom and prosperity, but which does not discriminate between better and worse choices.

Borgmann is no Luddite; he freely admits that technology has brought us real blessings in extending lifespans, improving health and saving us from hunger and backbreaking labor. What he thinks we need, however, is to recover a space for what he calls “focal things” and “focal practices,” which technology threatens to occlude.

A focal thing is something that calls forth our attention and engagement rather than being immediately available for our use. Focal things are real in their own right, rather than being commodities produced for our effortless consumption. And a focal practice is the activity whereby we engage with this reality. Paradigm instances of focal things for Borgmann are wilderness, musical instruments, the written word and the communal meal. The corresponding focal practices might be hiking, learning to play music, reading to each other and preparing the meal. These all require an active understanding and engagement with the underlying reality and the development of certain skills and virtues.

Technology threatens focal practices because it attempts to make everything available and pliable at the push of a button or flip of a switch. It’s much easier to turn on the CD player and hear a flawless performance than to practice my own halting efforts at learning to play an instrument. But Borgmann thinks that focal practices are precisely what give life its meaning – a life reduced to an endless variety of consumption is unbearably banal.

The connection to theology is obvious – a technological world seeks to reduce everything to an object of control and consumption, leaving no room for contingency and grace. Borgmann highlights the reading of Scripture and the celebration of the Eucharist as the most important focal practices for Christians – they orient us to a transcendent reality that is beyond our methods of technological control. God comes to us on his own terms, not ours.

For Borgmann the recovery of focal practices has a personal and a public dimension. Everytime we pick up a book or a musical instrument instead of turning on the TV, or gather the family around a home-cooked meal instead of stopping by Mickey D’s on the way home from the office, we are enlarging the space where we actively engage with a reality that has its own rules and nature rather than being a sheer commodity. And communally we need to make space for the kinds of public celebrations and non-instrumental activities that go beyond the routine of production and consumption. Everything from public parks, to community symphonies, to street theatre, to athletic events can be occassions for shared focal practices.

Beyond this, though, it would require challenging a politics that takes expansion of the GDP or raising our “standard of living” as its highest end. This is a politics that would be more communitarian than conventionally liberal or conservative. But Borgmann argues, cogently I think, that the liberal claim of a value-neutral public square actually conceals the hegemony of technolgical assumptions.

I think Borgmann’s notion of focal practices provides a useful way of drawing distinctions between empowering and enervating uses of technology. Obviously, no one wants to go back to pre-modern standards of dental care or hygiene. On the other hand, if life is reduced to passive consumption of commodified goods and experiences (represented, in extremis, by a hypothetical virtual reality that we could plug ourselves into to have whatever experience we wanted), then it seems that we will have become Nietzschean “last men” after all.

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5 thoughts on “The Simple Life and the Focal Life

  1. Lee–

    Thanks for the link, and the excellent comment. We’d have to discuss Berry further to see whether and how much we actually disagree about agrarianism, but I suspect that we’re probably pretty close in our basic beliefs, at least philosophically. (For me, as I hope my post made clear, Berry is an important representative of one component of our engagement with modern life, not necessarily an excellent guide to navigating modernity itself.)

    I’m not familiar with Borgmann, but after reading your post I’m going to have to become so. He sounds like a fascinating writer. On the basis of what your wrote, he seems to have been heavily influence by Heidegger; one can draw close parallels between what he calls “focal things” (which “call forth our attention and engagement”) and “commodities,” and what Heidegger called things “present-at-hand” (that is, things with a presence which calls to our own, with which we must interact as things with their own place) and things “ready-to-hand” (things which have faded into the background of mere use, without any present weight). The more technology invades the everyday, the more the things which gave once our engagement with the everyday a sense of weight or meaning–a “space” of focal significance, one might say–become reduced to commondities, simply (and thus unconsciously) used up. Heidegger wasn’t necessarily a Luddite, though he often talked like one. I’m not one either, but I do think that a respect for the problem of preserving focal spaces requires some pretty serious thought about what we are technologically enabled to treat as disposable, and what we aren’t.

    Beautiful concluding thoughts on community vs. commodification. I’m going to have to read your blog more often!

  2. Hi Russell –

    Thanks for the comment – I didn’t mean to imply that you were a Berry-ite; your reflections on the issue acted more as a stimulus to my own thoughts that had been spurred by my recent reading of Borgmann.

    I do believe that Borgmann is heavily indebted to Heidegger for his analysis (Borgmann teaches philosophy at the University of Minnesota I think); I guess I read someone like Berry as wanting to turn his back on modernity, whereas Borgmann thinks we have to “pass through” modernity and come out to something on the other side. His book “Crossing the Postmodern Divide” addresses this explicitly as he contrasts two different ways of being “postmodern.”

  3. Lee,

    Great post, and thanks for the links and book recommendation.

    I’m currently reading Berry’s novel “Jayber Crow” and I’m a bit under his spell at the moment.

    But when I turn to the hard work of taking steps to align my life (almost as far-removed from agrarian simplicity as possible) with my convictions in this regard, Borgmann looks to be a valuable resource (in addition to you and other sympathetic bloggers).

    Keep up the good work.

  4. Thanks, Andy. And I don’t mean to sound too down on Berry – for starters I’ve only read one book of his and a handful of essays. And I do think he says things we need to hear. It’s just that to me he always comes across as someone a little too eager to throw out the baby with the bath water. I guess I’m just more attached to modernity, warts and all.

    Anyway, what are you doing commenting here while your own blog is languishing?!? 😉 I’m looking forward to seeing it take shape.

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