Holding On, and Letting Go: A Review of Holding On to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium
University of Alabama
Albert Borgmann, Holding on to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium , University of Chicago Press, 2000.
"Improved means to an unimproved end"-Thoreau had the knack of metaphor, reducing complex things to a compact phrase, as in his referring to "our inventions" as "pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things." And some one hundred thirty years later, philosopher Albert Borgmann expanded upon this theme: "In the common view, technological progress is seen as a more or less gradual and straightforward succession of lesser by better implements." Borgmann, it turns out, is more like Thoreau than this microcomparison might reveal, for buried inside the academic ("dry-as-dust") philosopher is both a Thoreau-like wordsmith and a Thoreau-like naturalist. Borgmann's first important work, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life soars when this former University of Illinois literary scholar turned University of Munich-trained German phenomenologist sees the world from the point of view of his adopted Montana. In the modern world, heat is regularly attained via a complex and distant power system activated by the flick of a switch at home. How different, and in surprising ways, how much better it was in the Montana of a hundred years ago, when a fire had to be built 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." "Not easy," Borgmann concludes, "because work, some skills, and attention were constantly required to build and sustain a fire" ( Borgmann 1984 , 41).
The unadorned family stove can be seen as the metaphorical center of Borgmann's philosophy, restoring two key aspects missing in modern life: the attention that a fire demands-and attention, for Borgmann, is what makes the world come alive, gives us the reality we are to hold on to-and the family unit and, by extension, human beings generally in real contact with one another. In other words, the wood-burning stove as a technological device that fully engages us in the world:
[The stove as] a focus , a hearth, a place that gathered the work and leisure of a family and gave the house a center. Its coldness marked the morning, and the spreading of its warmth the beginning of the day. It assigned to different family member's 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 the wood smoke, the exertion of sawing and carrying, the teaching of skills, and the fidelity to daily tasks (41-42).
From such daily interaction with real things and real people-"in entertainment, in meals, in the celebration of the great events of birth, marriage, and death" (42) (what might be called inexorable commitments to a demanding, unforgiving world)-Borgmann traces the very emergence of cultural life: "[I]n these wider horizons of social engagement we can see how the cultural and natural dimensions of the world open up" (42).
Borgmann's two great and interrelated themes are then well enunciated in this early work: the value for the individual in having a real, implacable world against which to strain (in the example above, a fireplace instead of a furnace) and the value for a society as a whole in being able to organize society itself around such efforts, as much as a celebration of our common effort than as a practical task-in this example, the fireplace as the site of the family's keenest sense of its own presence.
What excited Borgmann as far back as The Philosophy of Language in 1974 was the power of the wilderness-"ferocious animals, steep terrain, high elevations. Raging rivers, forbidding snowstorms" ( Borgmann 1974 , 195) - the "beauty" of the world that most clearly defines our limits, or what in Borgmann's normative account of the world, should be limits, even if we have the technological power to overcome them:
Technology kills the wilderness when it develops it through roads, lifts, motels, and camping areas. It keeps the wilderness at bay when, without affecting untouched areas permanently, it insulates us from the engagement with the many dimensions and features of the land, as it does through rides in jet boats or helicopters. Here we can see that technology with its seemingly infinite resourcefulness in procuring anything and everything does have a clear limit. It can procure something that engages us fully and in its own right only at the price of gutting or removing it. Thus the wilderness teaches us not only to accept technology but also to limit it (195).
What Borgmann most wants to sustain is human effort-the real ache of human muscle-and here he takes the rule of wilderness camping as his guide: that our having to "carry in whatever is needed" (195) ensures that our technology will not subdue, and, hence, destroy nature.
Some eighteen years later, Borgmann continued this exegesis in a thinner work with a grander, more beguiling title- Crossing the Postmodern Divide . Working in the spirit of many others (Jurgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Zygmunt Bauman-to name just three contemporaries, although Borgmann himself rarely places his writing in such a frame), Borgmann associates modernism with the efforts of Bacon, Descartes, and Locke to fuse "the domination of nature with the primacy of method and the sovereignty of the individual" ( Borgmann 1992 , 25). While careful to avoid being simplistically written off as a luddite or, far worse, as a reactionary opposed to the grand social agendum of modernism-the growth in equality for "women, blacks, Native Americans, homosexuals, and minorities generally" long associated with that great engine of modernism, the Enlightenment-Borgmann still relies heavily and most effectively on the pristine Western landscape as his eschatological frame of reference. Before the industrial revolution, travel in the U.S. was arduous: it took a day from New York City to reach the easternmost parts of New England, a week to reach the Appalachians, and six weeks to reach Lake Michigan. Our ancestors were (mercifully) limited by their material world: "Stone is brittle and heavy; timbers grows slowly; metals were hard to come by" - all barriers "shattered by coal, steam, and iron" (27).
We see Borgmann at his best when describing the discovery of railroad engineer J. L. Hallett, who replaced the original hand-planted, single-shot use of dynamite for digging through rock with a system of interlaced T-shaped tunnels capable of blowing away an entire side of a mountain with one huge, coordinated blast. Railroad construction across the American West is a pure example of "the domination of nature requir[ing] that distance and terrain, weather and season, be subdued" (32). With progress came a new form of public life where individuals were freed from the collective demands of cooperative family life and were instead able to participate, often as consumers, in a new form of largely anonymous public life. The effect of such change was to "remove or ease the burdens of life that formerly would direct us to our family and community for aid and solace, to give us individual mobility in the pursuit of our ends, and to procure for unencumbered enjoyment the riches of entertainment" (43).
"[G]oods saturation," Borgmann suggests, "augurs the twilight of modernism" (63), a warning one can trace back to Thoreau, among others. However, what makes Crossing the Postmodern Divide such a troubling book is not its fairly traditional account of modernism but its ambivalence about postmodernism, which Borgmann, in so staunchly positioning himself as an antimodernist, seems forced to see, not as an extension of modernity, not a new,more elaborate phase of capitalist exploitation of nature, but instead as a rejection of modernity parallel to his own-"on the whole [as] a striking departure from the modern project and a salutary response to the crisis of modernity"(5). The difficulty here is Borgmann's failure to contextualize historically his own impassioned critique of modernism, to see himself as working within a well-defined and decidedly modernist tradition of poets, writers, artists, social critics, and philosophers and others of the last two hundred years-from Rousseau and Wordsworth, Blake and Thoreau, to Sigmund Freud, Max Weber, and Herbert Marcuse-all "modern" figures (indeed, in the world of cultural studies, the modern figures) most deeply opposed to progress. Borgmann's view of modernism remains severely one-dimensional, with what can be argued as among modernism's great achievement -namely, the critique of progress-detached from its own historical roots in deep-seated, often deeply personal, contestation and resistance.
In seeking opposition to modernism, Borgmann is keen enough an observer to realize that much of what passes as postmodern is often better seen as the culmination, rather than a clear alternative, to the technological progress of the last five hundred years-that postmodernism more often than not represents three parallel forces all aimed at fulfilling modernism: one, the complete subduing of nature (or, more likely, the replacement of natural processes with simulated ones- what becomes the subject of his most recent book, Holding On to Reality ); two, the replacement of local economic barriers with a new global economy; and three, the overcoming of local prejudices by more fully liberating human beings from all possible constraints (both as consumers and political beings), including, one assumes, the traditional notion of the family itself. The title of his earlier work, Crossing the Postmodern Divide , therefore, is more than a little misleading in suggesting that Borgmann is welcoming the transition between modern and postmodern, when his opposition only becomes intensified to those three aspects of modernism that seem to fulfill themselves in postmodernity.
Like so many antimodernists, Borgmann seems trapped, not wanting his liberal credentials besmirched by too broad a critique of recent postmodern trends: and here he includes a sweeping, earnest but finally facile assertion of his commitment to completing "the Enlightenment revolution" as it applies to "fair equality of opportunity for women, blacks, Native Americans, homosexuals, and minorities generally" ( Crossing 26 ). What he fails to explain is how such a "progressive" social agendum is to be reconciled with a more basic and generally conservative view of the family (gathered around the stove) and community celebrations generally. While families and communities can adapt to shifting roles, it is finally the transforming power of new transgendering technologies, along with the new acceptance of transgendered roles, that offers the possibility or, depending on one's sensibility, poses the threat that gender itself (next to death, one of the last great boundaries of human culture) is about to yield to the transforming powers of new technologies. While we have not reached the point where men and women can easily swap genders biologically, there are certainly far fewer constraints in swapping roles, and now the income and increased social status of women as independent consumers readily gives them the means and social standing not just to raise children totally independent of fathers but to conceive them that way as well.
Postmodernism offers us, for the first time in human history, the real possibility of a vast social life without fathers. Yet rather than celebrate this as postmodern liberation, one feels that Borgmann is apt to include it as part of the hypermodernism that he clearly discounts as "devoted to the design of a technologically sophisticated and glamorously unreal universe, distinguished by its hyperreality, hyperactivity, and hyperintelligence" (6). Alas, the title Crossing the Postmodern Divide actually refers to the passage beyond the hype and virtuality of postmodernism to the next divide-that is, to a far more traditional post -postmodern world based on the "recovery of the world of eloquent things," a new (or old?) world of eloquence that includes reverence for both the wilderness and the family-a yearning for reality that Borgmann grounds, not in the modernist critique of modernism (hence not in Thoreau, or Blake, or Hegel, or the youthful Marx) but in some floating, ahistorical notion of critique that he labels "postmodern realism" and locates in the "emerging characteristics [of] focal realism, patient vigor, and communal celebration" (6).
"Communal celebrations" became a key refrain and integral part of the committed left's response to the solipsism of the twelve Reagan-Bush years, seen in Amitai Etzioni's promotion of communitarianism, Michael Lerner's founding of Tikkun in 1986 and its subsequent promotion of the "politics of meaning," and even the reconstructed reform Judaism that permeated the television series Northern Exposure of the early 1990s, with its central character of Joel Fleishman, a single New York doctor who finds himself living in and seeking and regularly finding real community in the Alaskan wilderness, and with nearly all of its early episodes ending with the whole town gathering (in John Ford fashion) in dialogue-free celebration. Meanwhile, Borgmann concludes Holding On to Reality with detailed descriptions of three such celebrations - all presumably from a personal trip he took to New York City in 1993, when he (1) joined with a half-million others on the Great Lawn of Central Park to hear a heroic performance by an aging Pavarotti, (2) stumbled across a street performance of the one-hit rock group Randy and the Rainbows, and (3) attended a performance of Lynn Redgrave's spirited and moving one-woman recounting of her father's Shakespearean career. The common thread in all three experiences is that each one happened in real time at a real place. In other words, you had to be there-and Borgmann was!
But Northern Exposure was, in retrospect, a Hollywood wish fulfilled, and one expects a philosopher like Borgmann to harbor and express some lingering concerns about the traditional anti-intellectual edge of community celebrations, or at least to point out what has changed so much from European culture of the first half of the twentieth century where so much anti-Semitism was fueled by the notion of Jews as outsiders, and more generally, as intellectuals, as people without roots, what George Steiner in his autobiography Errata called a people committed to "transience," befitting the Nazi term, Luftmensch , "creatures of the air," Steiner continues, "rootless (and thus to be made ash)" ( Steiner 1997 , 57). The issue here is the same one noted earlier and to which we will return at the end: confusion over Borgmann's understanding of the role of intellectuals and, more specifically, philosophy itself, in combating the modernist tradition of domination. Just what happens to intellectuals-and writers like Borgmann himself-in a world that values stability, ritual, and celebration more than insight, progress, and individualism?
Given its use of celebration as a concluding harmonic tonic, it should come as no surprise that Borgmann's latest work, Holding On to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium continues the dual thesis of the two earlier works: that both individuals and society as a whole thrive through actual strain against the (or a ) real world. "Whatever is touched by information technology," he argues, "detaches itself from its foundation and retains a bond to its origin that is no more substantial than the Hope diamond's tie to the mine where it was found" (5). In such a sentence we see Borgmann at his best-keen observer and accomplished stylist, qualities that make his work accessible and of great potential value to the general reader:
An expanse of smooth gravel is a sign that you are close to a river. Cottonwoods tell you where the river bank is. An assembly of twigs in a tree points to osprey. The presence of ospreys shows that there are trout in the river. In the original economy of signs, one thing points to another in a settled order of reference and presence. A gravel bar seen from a distance refers you to the river. It is a sign. When you have reached and begun to walk on the smooth and colored stones, the gravel has become present in its own right. It is a thing. And so with the trees, the nest, the raptors, and the fish ( Borgmann 1999 , 1).
Here is less phenomenological analysis than phenomenological observations, and those of a poet as much as a professional philosopher. And even when not describing his beloved Western landscape, Borgmann can surprise with the clarity and brevity of a great stylist-here deflating the claims of hypertext fiction in three superbly worded, understated sentences:
To design such a path [through a hypertext novel like Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden ] through extensive labor is time doubtfully spent. To be suspended in pointless loitering is certainly a new kind of experience. But the praise that has been heaped on the condition is entirely parasitic on its opposition to traditional fiction. (210)
In Holding On to Reality , Borgmann is putting himself forward less as a philosopher than as an observer, even a poet, of presence, or what he calls in one subsection, "the unsurpassable eloquence of reality" (22). The wilderness of his adopted American West haunts Borgmann and defines his opposition to modernity, as in his repetition of Bill McKibben's claim that the defining criterion of the wilderness is that it is the last place on earth where one can't buy anything. "Being out in the wilderness," continues Borgmann, "restores one's sanity and serenity" (27), mainly by putting one back in touch, not with Times Square, but with what is ancient and true. "Alone in the forest," Borgmann quotes Jack Turner, "time is less 'dense,' less filled with information; space is very 'close'; smell and hearing and touch reassert themselves. It is keenly sensual. In a true wilderness we are like that much of the time, even in broad daylight. Alert, careful, literally, 'full of care.' Not because of principles or practice, but because of something very old" (27).
As I wrote this review over New Year's weekend 2000-2001, however, the consulting firm repackaged as Accenture has launched a series of television ads, with the punchline, "Celebrating the Future," to celebrate its new corporate identity. One ad opens with a close-up of someone watching the Times Square New Year's Eve countdown on a handheld computer with a voice exclaiming the excitement of the moment, as the camera slowly pulls back to reveal that the person holding the computer is a rockclimber suspended precariously in a tent on a sheer cliff in the midst of miles and miles of absolutely barren alpine wilderness. The message here seems to be that with the right planning and the right technology almost anything is possible, including bridging the two most disparate conditions: seemingly complete isolation, hanging from a sheer mountain cliff, and the hordes in Times Square. Whereas Accenture wants to offer us a world of total possibility, ultimate personal freedom, Borgmann prefers to remind us of our limits.
And as with the two previous books, Borgmann's argument is most compelling when clothed in personal and often Western anecdotes. The more formal part of the work entails a reconstruction of semiotic theory, dividing the information universe into three large and seemingly distinct planetary systems: the world of natural information, or information about reality (as in clouds warning of a change in the weather); the world of cultural information, or information for reality (as in maps); and the world of technological information, or information as reality (as in a musical CD where the direct experience of the signs themselves is seen by most to be so rich as to overshadow the original experience). It is clear here where Borgmann is heading-to a critique of virtual reality akin to the one mounted by Mark Slouka in War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-tech Assault on Reality . The world that completely and effortlessly conforms to our desire is fundamentally less moral, less enhancing of character-building than the primal world of wilderness camping, where (as Borgmann wrote some twenty-five years earlier) one has to "carry in whatever is needed," (6) ensuring that there is no comfort, no pleasure, without effort! "[T]he good life," Borgmann concludes, "requires an adjustment among the three kinds of information and a balance of signs and things" (6), or as he states more boldly in a later chapter, "Information is about to overflow and suffocate reality" (213).
This latest work may disappoint some in trying to provide a more rigorous methodological framework for what is essentially a moral position. Many will find Borgmann's discussion of semiotics and information theory unconvincing and overly schematic-sections such as the one on Descartes and analytic algebra in Part Two (which ignores Vico's rejection of this work in favor of the sensuous state of Euclidean forms), and the multiple chapters on binary representation that introduce Part Three. The one exception here is the one fascinating, non-Western anecdote-the extended discussion of the Freiburg Minster in Chapter 10-a fascinating discussion even if its connection with the book's larger argument about the nature of monuments as embodiments of "cultural information" is never fully clarified.
While it may seem faint praise to deem Borgmann a Missoulan philosopher, or perhaps more accurately, a Missoulan spirit, it is hard to deny the power of his writing and general observations when grounded in his own local experiences, as in his discussion of the legendary Missoulan outfitter, Smoke Elser and the new world of GPS (global positioning systems). These new hand-held devices, about to become ubiquitous in automobiles, can enable the rawest tenderfoot to find his position within fifty feet in the Bob Marshall Wilderness that Elser has spent his entire life scouting. "Soon," laments Borgmann, "it will take deliberate recklessness to lose cattle without a trace or to get lost on a wilderness trip. The last dark and dangerous recesses of the world and the remaining burdens on how to become intimate with the land will appear to have become things of the past" ( Holding On 217). Borgmann then goes on to critique the Grizzly Discovery Center at the west entrance to Yellowstone, as the imposition of corporate culture on the wilderness, much in the spirit of a New Yorker cartoon that offered a landscape rendering for a new nature reserve: with carefully marked off, nearly equal areas for parking, concessions, a gift shop, an observation tower, and (oh yes) nature.
Here is territory covered by novelist-philosopher Walker Percy in the essay "The Loss of the Creature" where Percy focuses on the near impossibility of a typical tourist ever being able to see the Grand Canyon other than it has been "appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer's mind" (395). The real canyon, Percy laments, can only be recovered by the tourist willing to avoid all paths carefully laid out by the Park Service and confront the canyon entirely on her own. The New Yorker 's fiction editor and baseball maven Roger Angell stumbled across a similar matter, in describing the determination of Hall-of-Fame catcher Carlton Fisk to avoid ever seeing a replay of his 1975 World Series homerun, from what many consider the greatest baseball game ever played, between the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox-a game that ended in the bottom of the twelfth with the camera fixed on Fisk as he seems to will his long fly ball fair, with a syncopated wave of his two arms. Fisk's reasoning for not watching a replay is that he wants to protect his own personal sense of the real event from being overwhelmed by the virtual reconstruction of the moment that is regularly replayed for sports fans.
"We are essentially bodily creatures," writes Borgmann in Holding On to Reality , "that have evolved over many hundreds of thousands of years to be mindful of the world not just through our intellect or our senses but through our very muscles and bones" (220) - a sentiment that echoes the great insight of Christopher Lasch, whose own 1991 True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics as well as his 1993 review of Borgmann's Crossing the Postmodern Divide ( Commonweal November 1992), which praises Borgmann as a realist in defense of "the 'eloquence' of things," were composed in the midst of his own struggle with cancer, that most visible reminder of our limits in the postmodern world.
Academic books, even those dealing with such pressing issues and even those from the University of Chicago, often play to small markets, and it is difficult to see Borgmann's work overcoming that trend, while, within academic circles, the very breadth of his work is likely to limit its appeal. Perhaps the biggest constraint at work here is the fact that he is basically retelling a single story-that of the morality of limits-a story no doubt worth telling and retelling but also one that has been and continues to be told by many others. While Borgmann excels over many academics both stylistically and with a sustaining vision of the American West, he has many compelling, popular rivals here, even among the subcategory of non-locals-from Thoreau in the last century to Joseph Wood Krutch early in the mid-twentieth century and Edward Abbey at its close.
The problems that confronts Borgmann is that just where the story of the morality of limits becomes most interesting, he becomes weakest philosophically, with the lack of a keen dialectical sense of just what it is that we may be losing with the revival of traditional or neotraditional communities, what new revanchist dangers we may be courting by privileging communal celebrations over individual critique. What is most lacking in Borgmann is a dialectical tension, the turning back on one's own position, that one associates with the great texts on limits-works such as Max Weber's essay "Science As a Vocation" and Hans-Georg Gadamer's essay "On the Natural Inclination Toward Philosophy" (collected in the volume Reason in the Age of Science MIT P, 1993). Gadamer, for example, traces the desire for knowledge, both in science and in philosophy, to Plato's notion of wonder ( thaumazein ): the distinctly human process of thinking, therefore, begins, not in ritual and celebration, but at "a point where something strikes us as alien because it runs counter to habitual expectation" ( Gadamer 1993 , 143) - wonder, which Gadamer argues, "come[s] to me above all in the face of the alien and the strange" (145). Here Gadamer thus stresses what Borgmann seems to downplay, that it is philosophy itself, in the form of deep thinking, as much as an embattled nature, that is threatened by runaway technology: "Self-knowledge alone is capable of saving a freedom threatened not only by all rulers but much more by the domination and dependence that issue from everything we control" (150).
What one most misses in Borgmann is this sensitivity to the ongoing dialectic tension between knowledge, control, and feeling. What we miss is a sense of the complex, mythic nature of the opposing but complementary human stories of progress and decline that one finds in Descartes's great adversary and perhaps the greatest of the antimodernists, Giambattista Vico. Like Borgmann, Vico is a poet-philosopher who praises the importance of ritual, someone who locates the essence of humanity, not in Cartesian reason, but in "three human customs" found in all peoples, from the most civilized to the most "barbaric": "all have some religion, all contract solemn marriage, all bury their dead" ( Vico 1968 , §333). "[F]rom these three institutions humanity began among them all, and therefore they must be most devoutly guarded by them all, so that the world should not again become a bestial wilderness" (§ 333).
Yet what makes Vico such an important (albeit unacknowledged) progenitor of Borgmann is Vico's constant sense that it is progress itself, especially an overreliance on the intellect at the expense of body and the imagination, that remains the major source of bestiality in the modern age. The danger for Vico is "that ultimate civil disease" of skepticism and "false eloquence," a world where people have "fallen into the custom of each man thinking only of his own private interests and have reached the extreme of delicacy, or better of pride, in which like wild animals they bristle and lash out at the slightest displeasure"-the danger of people living in a world that won't immediately and easily conform to their desires:
Thus no matter how great the throng and press of their bodies, they live like wild beasts in a deep solitude of spirit and will, scarcely any two being able to agree since each follows his own pleasure or caprice. By reason of all this, providence decrees that, through obstinate factions and desperate civil wars, they shall turn their cities into forests and the forests into dens and lairs of men. In this way, through long centuries of barbarism, rust will consume the misbegotten subtleties of malicious wits that have turned them into beasts made more inhuman by the barbarism of reflection than the first men had been made by the barbarism of sense (§ 1106).
In Vico's world, unlike Borgmann's, there is no possibility of escaping barbarism: the only escape from the modern-day barbarism of the reflection is an atavistic return to the barbarism of sense-a world where we may feel more deeply but, alas, know less. It is a trade-off that both Vico and Borgmann seem willing to make-as both in their own ways celebrate the return to the communal fire-only what Borgmann describes in terms of "holding on" Vico would be more likely to describe as its opposite, letting go. For Vico it is finally not reality that we embrace or drop, but alternating, complementary modes of knowing the world-by concrete feeling or by abstract ideas, and here it is Vico who is the better advisor, in helping us to interpret the fine print of the contract we all make with the modern (postmodern) world that, even when fully vetted, most of us would still willingly sign.
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