The Hunger for Reality

Is philosophy an appetite?  What does it mean to have a hunger for reality?  This week, we’re reading Albert Borgman, technological theorist and savey cultural expositor.  His philosophy of “focal practices” and the “device paradigm” have become part of the canon of late 20th century technology studies.  In an interview quoted below, Borgmann reflects on the desire “of real people to engage real things” against the onslaught on information technologies:

“Getting a reading of contemporary culture is a fine and difficult art. You have to begin with observations and hunches. You see a park being recovered from neglect and danger, a theater being restored to its former glory, old apartment buildings being rehabilitated. You see people returning to the streets, entertained by street musicians at the corner or an opera singer on a stage in the park. You see people working for the preservation of a mountain range or a stand of trees for no other reason than that these things should be celebrated rather than turned into something that is useful and has a market price.

It is the luminous and consoling reality, of course, that people try to retrieve. Spending sleepless nights at the bedside of children mortally sick with diphtheria or scarlet fever was very real once, but it is not a reality we want to have back. (How to define reality more precisely is a complex issue to which Katherine has made notable contributions.) On occasion your intuitions about the growing thirst for reality are unexpectedly confirmed by asides of perceptive authors who in writing about something else entirely cannot help noticing how insubstantial and unreal our world has become. I am thinking of writers like Joe Klein and Sven Birkerts.

At length, however, social and cultural theorists have to test and temper their observations against the findings of social scientists. The splendor of reality and people’s response to it arenot exactly social science categories. The Census Bureau in fact often aggregates categories in a way that makes a distinction between engagement in reality and indulgence in consumption impossible. But the the Census does provide evidence that people want out of their technological and mediated cocoons. So do the writings of Juliet B. Schor, Robert Wuthnow, John P. Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey, among others. The revival of urbanism and the vigor of environmentalism are the best indications that people are seeking the engagement of real persons and the commanding presence of reality.”

Full interview here

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