I can’t get no satisfaction.
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try.
Thanks to Jeff Tangel
(The meal) began to feel a little like a ceremony. And there’s a sense
in which (it) had become just that, a thanksgiving or a secular seder,
for every item on our plates pointed somewhere else, almost sacramentally.
Michael Pollan. Omnivore’s Dilemma, p. 407-08
Alex Turner, who is a member of our board of editorial advisors, has thought a good deal about the social and psychological consequences of recent developments in technology and their consequences. He also happens to be the youngest son of Edith and Victor Turner, the
anthropologists who are in some respects the intellectual grandparents of the ideas we are exploring in this department of “EP,” and he commented recently that the ideas his parents developed in the course of their studies of kinship systems in traditional societies are strikingly similar in some ways to ideas social network analysts have been developing to describe and evaluate the “kinships” that form online. This, he notes, raises the question of whether, how and to what extent these new ways of interacting with others might provide opportunities to reinvent the rich array of relationships humans have always cultivated through face-to-face interactions.
It’s an interesting prospect, he says. Maybe crucial in a world increasingly dominated by electronic communication at the grassroots level. The problem, he notes, is that there is generally something unsatisfying about the interactions we experience online. This is an aspect of our new ways of “interacting” that psychologist Sherry Turkle explores in her recent book Alone Together. Alex compares it to eating tortilla chips: never satisfying, so you can’t stop. What we have, it seems, is lots and lots of communication—more all the time—but not a lot of, shall we say, communion. And this raises a few questions. One is, does this matter? Another is, if it does, what, if anything, can we do about it?
This comes up because the experience of dissatisfaction is deeply germane to the ideas about relationship and values we are exploring here.
Consider one of the classic occasions for forming relationships—sharing a meal.
If, as the members of our Values Roundtable point out in their article “Foundations of Conduct,” we go to our meals seeking spiritual as well as bodily sustenance—transcendent values such as community, meaning, and beauty as well as a full stomach—and if that psychological and spiritual payoff depends on ritual and other technologies of the imagination, as there are good reasons to suppose it does, then the minimizing or outright absence of these technologies in our “food systems”—from killing your food to eating in a food court or texting at the dinner table—constitutes a lost opportunity, which might help explain some of our current difficulties.
Deficient in the tools we need to make eating an occasion for dining, much less to make dining an occasion for communion, we go on stuffing ourselves—eating, we might say, “bread alone”. The result would then be not only obesity and other consequences, personal, social and environmental, of bad eating habits, but chronic dissatisfaction. And this way of experiencing food is only a prime instance, at the violent, shameful and beautiful center of our relationship with the world, of the exacerbation and perpetuation of desire on which, we are told, capitalism depends. Indeed, might it be that the demotion of ritual and the experience of ritual associated with the Reformation was an important, if generally under-remarked, aspect of the “Protestant ethic” (or sensibility) that Max Weber found to be integral to the rise of capitalism in the West?
Capitalism vs. ritual
Perhaps ritual deprivation and incompetence at handling and experiencing the technologies of the imagination generally, are as much a part of the cultural strategy for the promotion of a capitalist economy as is advertising, which, Alex points out, co-opts the techniques of ritual and the arts in the service of the culture of capitalism.
Such developments and deprivations, subjecting us to what Kathleen Norris has called “the tyranny of individual experience”, may well serve the interests of capitalism, with its insatiable demand for consumption and growth; its idealization of “hunger” as a trope for the desire that drives certain kinds of enterprise; and, as Naomi Klein has pointed out, its relish for destruction, which gives it something “profitable” to do. Like other great innovations, from the domestication of fire to the development of the Internet, this produces many benefits. But, like these other developments, it also poses dangers to both human and planetary health.
This is a fundamental problem, and it’s one we aren’t going to be able to invent our way out of. What it calls for is a new Sabbath, for ourselves and for the land. Time and space—and land—set aside for reflection centered around occasions of strong engagement with creation, from land management to dinner, organized and intensified by the technologies of the imagination.
In Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Titania, the queen of the fairies, tells us that when, as with us, “No night is now with hymn or carol blest…. The seasons alter…” (II:i, 102-107).
I see this as a four-hundred-year-old reflection on the role of ritual in humans’ relationship with their environment, a serious alert to a world facing the onset of anthropogenic climate change, and an assertion of ancient wisdom—the realization that the world depends on the people, and therefore, quite literally, on the rituals that shape their souls.
Thanks to Alex Turner, Les Thiele, Diana Lutz and Buffy Jordan for comments on drafts.