The Comfort of Baking

If you have tried looking for yeast at the grocery store in the last couple of weeks, you may have noticed that it’s almost impossible to find. It turns out there is simple explanation for this, of course: baking home made bread has become one of the most common pastimes during our season of quarantine.

We’ve made the case in this newsletter that this difficult time has revealed to us something important about the nature of our relationship to time and place, it also has something to tell us about the nature of our practices. The impulse to bake is just one case in point of what seem like a larger trend toward a distinct class of activities we are now rediscovering.

They are the sorts of activities which the philosopher Albert Borgmann has called focal practices.

In his work, Borgmann sought to understand the underlying pattern exhibited by modern technologies. He arrived at the concept of the device paradigm, which led him to distinguish between “focal things” and “devices.” These two kinds of objects were chiefly distinguished by the kind of engagement they demanded of their users.

Let’s take a brief look at what Borgmann had to say about focal things and the focal practices they generate. It will help us make some helpful observations about why we may find ourselves oddly comforted by the baking of bread or by the long walks we’re taking or the gardens we may now find ourselves tending.

Borgmann arrived at the device paradigm by first formulating the notion of availability. Availability is a characteristic of technology which answers to technology’s promise of liberation and enrichment. Something is technologically available, Bormann explains, “if it has been rendered instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, and easy.” At the heart of the device paradigm is the promise of increasing availability. While devices tend toward technological availability, focal things offer goods that tend not to be instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, or easy.

Furthermore, a focal thing “is inseparable from its context, namely, its world, and from our commerce with the thing and its world, namely, engagement.” Immediately thereafter, Borgmann adds, “The experience of a thing is always and also a bodily and social engagement with the thing’s world.”

Here’s a classic example Borgmann uses to help us better understand the distinctions and categories he is employing.

Borgmann invites us to consider how warmth might be made available to a home. Before central heating, warmth might be provided by a stove or fireplace. This older way of providing warmth, Borgmann reminds us, “was not instantaneous because in the morning a fire first had to be built in the stove or fireplace. And before it could be built, trees had to be felled, logs had to be sawed and split, the wood had to be hauled and stacked.”

Borgmann continues:

“Warmth was not ubiquitous because some rooms remained unheated, and none was heated evenly …. It was not entirely safe because one could get burned or set the house on fire. It was not easy because work, some skills, and attention were constantly required to build and sustain a fire.”

The contrasts at each of these points with central heating are obvious. Central heating illustrates the device paradigm by the manner in which it secures the technological availability of warmth. It conceals the machinery, the means we might say, while perfecting what Borgmann calls the commodity or the end product. Commodity is Borgmann’s word for “what a device is there for,” it is the end that the means are intended to secure.

“A commodity is truly available,” Borgmann writes, “when it can be enjoyed as a mere end, unencumbered by means.” Flipping a switch on a thermostat clearly illustrates this sort of commodious availability, particularly when contrasted with earlier methods of providing warmth.

Borgmann is not making an argument against central heating, but he is suggesting that the greater comfort and ease promised by devices does not necessarily translate into greater satisfaction or happiness. There is a point, in other words, at which the gains made by devices stop yielding meaningful satisfaction.

As we noted earlier, Borgmann’s analysis gives us two clues as to why this might be the case: bodily and social engagement.

“Physical engagement is not simply physical contact,” Borgmann explains, “but the experience of the world through the manifold sensibility of the body.” He then adds, “sensibility is sharpened and strengthened in skill … Skill, in turn, is bound up with social engagement.”

Devices which make things easier, faster, more efficient tend to also make these things less physically demanding or involving. They also tend to be socially isolating.

Consider again the example of the wood-burning stove or fireplace as a means of warmth. The more intense physical engagement may be obvious, but Borgmann invites us to consider the social dimensions as well:

“It was a focus, a hearth, a place that gathered the work and leisure of a family and gave the house its center. Its coldness marked the morning, and the spreading of its warmth the beginning of the day. It assigned to the different family members tasks that defined their place in the household. The mother built the fire, the children kept the firebox filled, and the father cut the firewood. It provided for the entire family a regular and bodily engagement with the rhythm of the seasons that was woven together of the threat of cold and the solace of warmth, the smell of wood smoke, the exertion of sawing and of carrying, the teaching of skills, and the fidelity to daily tasks.”

Borgmann’s vision of a richer, more fulfilling life secures its greater depth by taking seriously both our embodied and social status. This vision goes against the grain of modernity’s account of the human person which is grounded in a Cartesian dismissal of the body and a Lockean conception of the autonomous individuality. To the degree that this is an inadequate account of the human person, a technological and social order that is premised upon it will always undermine the possibility of human flourishing.

Borgmann has drawn our attention to what may be an important source of our discontent with the contemporary techno-social order, which we are now discovering in a roundabout way under present circumstances. We might put it this way: we were not created to be solitary users or mere consumers.

There is a measure of satisfaction and joy in practices that involve and challenge us physically, especially if they also bind us together socially. Like baking bread or tending a garden, they are precisely the sort of practices that many of us are now rediscovering. And it’s not at all surprising that we should crave such practices in an anxious and scattering time.


Study Center Resources

Our main offering through the summer months will be an online reading group that will be reading through Dante’s Divine Comedy beginning with the Inferno. Starting Wednesday May 6th, the group will meet weekly from noon to 1:00 p.m on Zoom. We will be using Robert and Jean Hollander’s translation, which you will want to order soon if you’ve not done so already. If you would like to join this group, please contact associate director Mike Sacasas, who will be leading the group and coordinating our meetings. You can reach him at mike@christianstudycenter.org.

We are also pleased to announce that this coming Monday, April 27th, our coffee shop, Pascal’s, will be opening up in a limited take-out only capacity. For more details watch Pascal’s website.


Recommended Reading

— Alan Jacobs on “thinking during Covidtide”:

“We are unlikely to act well until we think well; we are unlikely to think well until our will has undergone the proper discipline; and that discipline begins with proper instruction.”

— Wilfred McClay encourages readers to revive place in the Christian imagination:

“So, in the present moment, should we be gardeners? Or pilgrims? Hold the world tightly, or lightly? Make our place richly and firmly in the here and now, or see it all as shadow and prelude? I’m tempted to say yes to both, and leave it at that. Because we desperately need to do both, and both are required of us, however much they may seem to be in opposition. But I will venture this further thought. The disorientation that has come of the loss of the sense of place in ‘postmodernity’—a term that itself seems an illustration of the problem since it is not even a straightforward affirmation of anything in particular—seems to point us in a particular direction. It calls for a particular emphasis, for the time being, upon the recovery of place, as a way of reaffirming our creatureliness, our finitude, and our dependency on God, and our gratitude for what we have been given, for the preciousness of our attachments.”

— Monastic wisdom in the age of quarantine:

“When we are busy with our daily routines and tasks—and most of us would admit that we are too busy—it is easy to feel as if we are in control and that the life we are pursuing bestows ultimate meaning. Yet our pursuit of meaning through power and wealth leaves us spiritually impoverished as we scurry about, consumed by the busyness of life ….

“Father Casagram suggested that the spiritual discipline of lectio divina is worth cultivating during this time of quarantine. Lectio divina is a form of contemplative reading mandated in the Rule of St. Benedict that involves spending time in silence, away from all distractions, meditatively reading a short passage from Scripture or a classic of Christian spirituality. Finding the time for such discipline is difficult when we are preoccupied with our regular duties, and although we are not moving about physically as much during quarantine, we still find ourselves distracted in seemingly innumerable ways.”