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?