“I don’t like people who have their itineraries and ideas so clearly sorted out that they say, ‘Today I’ll make three visits, I’ll write four letters, and I’ll finish that book I started.’ My soul is so open to every kind of idea, taste and sentiment; it so avidly receives everything that presents itself!… And why would it turn down the pleasures that are scattered along life’s difficult path? They are so few and far between, so thin on the ground, that you’d need to be mad not to stop, and even turn away from your path, and pick up all of those that lie within reach. There’s no more attractive pleasure, in my view, than following one’s ideas wherever they lead, as the hunter pursues his game, without even trying to keep to any set route.”
Trailer for Spike Lee’s new film, which is coming to Netflix on June 12. Lee’s films cycle on and off Netflix. Currently streaming: She’s Gotta Have It (1986), School Daze (1988), Malcolm X (1992), which I think is his masterpiece, Get on the Bus (1996), and Inside Man (2006). Also streaming: Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man show Rodney King, directed by Lee.
I recently came across a paean to grinding your coffee by hand on Gear Patrol by Tyler Chin. It caught my eye because Chin uses the same manual tool I use every day, a relatively inexpensive ceramic burr grinder from Hario.
Like Chin, I’ve flirted with the idea of buying an electric burr grinder but never moved on one, partly for some of the same reasons Chin puts forward in favor of good ol’ fashioned hand-powered pulverizing.1
For starters, hand grinding elicits a different kind of engagement than an electric grinder does. As Chin writes,
hand grinding my beans brings me closer to the hands that farmed them. I try to buy coffee from roasters that are sustainably and ethically sourcing their beans. Coffee farming is a labor-intensive job, sometimes with minimal profit. As cheesy as it sounds, I feel a connection to the farmers who spend their days making sure the rest of the world stays caffeinated.
Chin may worry this sounds cheesy, but he’s actually getting at something rather profound, something Michael Sacasas discussed in a recent edition of his excellent newsletter The Convivial Society — that is, philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann’s distinction between focal things and devices. Borgmann explains the distinction in greater detail in his 1984 book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, but Sacasas offers a good précis.
He starts by explaining what Borgmann means by “devices”:
In Borgmann’s view devices are characterized by how they combine a heightened availability of the commodity they offer with a machinery that is increasingly hidden from view. Basically, they make things easier while simultaneously making them harder to understand. Devices excel at making what they offer “instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, and easy.”
An electric burr grinder is a device in the Borgmannian sense. It’s easy to use and produces ground coffee quickly, but its operations are at least partially obscured behind plastic.
By contrast, focal things, Sacasas explains, “ask something of you. Borgmann speaks of their having a commanding presence. They don’t easily yield to our desire for ease and convenience. A radio and a musical instrument both produce music, but only one asks something of you in return.” A manual burr grinder, for example, asks you to grind, which, while not too strenuous for most able-bodied people, is an inconvenience, just as it’s usually “easier” to turn on the radio to hear music than it is to play an instrument and make it yourself.
A good way to think about the difference between devices and focal things, Sacasas suggests, is “the ideal device renders us altogether passive while the ideal focal thing renders us wholly engaged.”
But what about the connection Chin feels to the farmers of his coffee? Can a manual burr grinder produce that? Yeah, maybe. As Sacasas writes, quoting Borgmann,
a focal thing … “is inseparable from its context, namely, its world, and from our commerce with the thing and its world, namely, engagement.” In other words, focal things draw us into a web of practices and relations. Immediately thereafter, Borgmann adds, “The experience of a thing is always and also a bodily and social engagement with the thing’s world.”
Put differently, to use a focal thing like a manual burr grinder is to feel not only a direct, physical connection to the coffee you’re grinding, but a connection to the web of practices and relations of its production as well. The farmers who grew the coffee handled it, now you’re handling it.
If that weren’t enough, manual grinders also have the virtue of being less obtrusive. As Chin notes, “Electric coffee grinders are much more efficient, but they also take up much more counter space.”
Moreover, grinding coffee by hand makes available time for contemplation, which, if indispensable in the best of times, is doubly so nowadays. As Chin writes:
Hand grinding takes me at most a couple minutes — despite the strain, which makes it feel much longer — but in that time I can think about the day that lies ahead of me. I’m not making big batches of coffee, so the size of the Skerton is perfect for my daily grind. I’ve had my current model for almost two years now, but if it were to break, I wouldn’t hesitate about buying another one.
I feel exactly the same way. I’ve had my little Hario grinder for over a decade now; if it ever broke, I’d get another one.
As its title suggests, the essay is about why Berry isn’t going to switch from writing with pencil and paper to writing on a computer. I’m less interested in Berry’s position on computers per se than I am in the criteria he uses to decide if a new tool is worth adopting. Here’s his list in full:
The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such
as that of the body.
It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as
It should come from a small, privately-owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.
I find this list useful for thinking about whether to “upgrade” all sorts of things. Of course, if one were to evaluate an electric burr grinder in light of these criteria as opposed to a manual burr grinder, it would fail most of them. An electric burr grinder is more expensive (#1), bigger (#2), uses more energy (#4), isn’t body powered (#5), and is harder to repair (#6). I’ll concede, however, that it might produce better ground coffee (#3). Still, like Chin, I am going to stick with my manual burr grinder. If nothing else, in addition to all the reasons touched upon above, it has the salubrious effect of limiting my coffee consumption to that which I grind myself. Ne quid nimis.
“For every projection you make—I know it would be fruitless to ask you to forswear the projective temptation altogether—make a promise. Tell us not just what will happen but what you plan to do to bring about a better world, or a better university, or just a better neighborhood. Utter some words you will need to stand by. Because only then will you be answerable to the future that you so confidently predict.”
Branko Milanovic reads the bios of “several contemporary economists” and is struck by their “bareness”: “The lives sounded like CVs. Actually, there was hardly any difference between their CVs and their lives (to the extent that I could tell).”
The lives (i.e. CVs) typically went like this. He/she graduated from a very prestigious university as the best in their class; had many offers from equally prestigious universities; became an assistant professor at X, tenured at Y; wrote a seminal paper on Z when he/she was W. Served on one or two government panels. Moved to another prestigious university. Wrote another seminal paper. Then wrote a book. And then…this went on and on. You could create a single template, and just input the name of the author, and the titles of the papers, and perhaps only slight differences in age for each of them.
Surely there are some generic conventions at play here — indeed, Milanovic could be describing his own academic bio in the paragraph above — but is the boringness of so many academic bios indicative of some special paucity of life among the contemporary professoriate?
If so, Milanovic wonders about the implications:
[H]ow can people who had lived such boring lives, mostly in one or two countries, with the knowledge of at most two languages, having read only the literature in one language, having travelled only from one campus to another, and perhaps from one hiking resort to another, have meaningful things to say about social sciences with all their fights, corruption, struggles, wars, betrayals and cheating. Had they been physicists or chemists, it would not matter. You do not have to lead an interesting life in order to understand how atoms move, but perhaps you do need it to understand what moves humans (cf. Vico).
I think Milanovic has point, but again, part of this is genre. Academic bios elide all kinds of interesting stuff. That’s what makes them academic bios. Remember, too, that Milanovic is talking about economists. Yet I also wonder if the template he skewers has a normative function. There is a danger, it seems to me, of trying to live a life that might lead to one of these conventional bios, rather than a life that flows from other concerns. If you’ve ever warily asked yourself, “How would X look on my CV?,” where X is something that’s maybe just slightly unusual, and which is a question academics (particularly junior academics) are encouraged to ask themselves, you’ve submitted to the subtle tyranny of the boring academic bio.
I imagine such self-disciplining happens in other professions, too.
One school of thought says, as per Flaubert, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” But another school of thought — the school I increasingly find myself admiring, if not fully a part of — wonders if something about Flaubert’s formula doesn’t add up, or is at least a kind of privilege. “Orderly and boring lives are a privilege of rich and orderly societies,” asserts Milanovic.
Recents events have exposed the fact — if it was ever really hidden — that maybe we aren’t living in as rich or as orderly a society as we might have once liked to think we were. Paths that once seemed straight have become more obviously crooked. If the perfectly neat and tidy academic bio was always a sort of humblebrag by those who made it to the top, the résuméic equivalent of a millionaire wearing jeans, now it seems fanciful in its lifelessness.
Let us turn instead to unconventional, unacademic bios and advice for inspiration, as I have long found myself doing.
Sinclair Lewis argues that aspiring writers should “become a doctor or a grocer, a mail-flying aviator or a carpenter, a farmer or a bacteriologist, a priest or a Communist agitator” in addition to seeking to become a writer. Decades later, Werner Herzog would proffer advice to aspiring filmmakers, encouraging them to “work as a bouncer in a sex-club, a warden in a lunatic asylum or in a slaughterhouse. Walk on foot, learn languages, learn a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema.” This, needless to say, isn’t the advice given to aspiring academics. If, for example, you’re an academic who dabbles as a dominatrix, you might be blackballed.
Writer Charles Bukowski famously worked a number of odd jobs while cranking out poems and stories. Composer Philip Glass worked as a taxi driver, plumber, gallery assistant, and furniture mover until he was 41. Before becoming a bestselling author, Louis L’Amour was “a longshoreman, a lumberjack, an elephant handler, a fruit picker and an officer on a tank destroyer in World War II. He had also circled the world on a freighter, sailed a dhow on the Red Sea, been shipwrecked in the West Indies and been stranded in the Mojave Desert, and had won 51 of 59 fights as a professional boxer.” Compare these biographical sketches, which I draw energy from, to the one Milanovic puts forward above, which puts me to sleep.
Similarly, before he was an actor, James Garner worked as “telephone installer, oilfield roughneck, chauffeur, dishwasher, janitor, lifeguard, grocery clerk, salesman and, fatefully, gas station attendant.” Kris Kristofferson was a “Rhodes scholar, a U.S. Army Airborne Ranger, a boxer, [and] a professional helicopter pilot” before becoming a songwriter and actor. Viggo Mortensen’s “previous careers included driving a truck, delivering flowers, and loading ships in Denmark. For years he lived from gig to gig, check to check, mostly broke. It probably didn’t help that, on a whim, he left L. A. and moved to Idaho. He supported his acting career for years by bartending and waiting tables.” These were jobs these guys did before they made it big, yes, but they weren’t merely that; they were constitutive of who they were/are later as people and artists.
Even if an academic once worked as, say, a bartender, and I imagine a lot of academics have done some bartending, it’s not something you expect to see listed in their bio, which is a shame. Something like bartending, as Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner write in Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969), “can be taken as evidence … that the teacher has been in contact with reality at some point in his life.” “One of the common sources of difficulty with teachers,” they continue, “can be found in the fact that most of them simply move from one side of the desk (as students) to the other side (as ‘teachers’) and they have not had much contact with the ways things are outside of school rooms.” Putting aside the eternal debate over whether the classroom is part of the “real world,” I’ll simply say this: rather than omit bartending stints from their bios, academics should be encouraged to include them.
The above are all examples taken from this blog, and admittedly white and masculinist ones at that. But there are many more such cases. And there has never been a better time to draw inspiration from them, whatever your career. Don’t worry if your story is messy, I say. Shun the boilerplate bio, and the conformity it hints at. Embrace the idiosyncratic and vibrant path you surely are already on, and let your bio be a testament to as much. In the end, those are the ones people like to read, not CVs.
I wrote about Killing Them Softly (dir. Andrew Dominik, 2012) for Decider, a Brad Pitt film you’ve probably never even heard of, but that I think makes for a timely (re-)watch post coronavirus.
Here’s a taste:
If you’re one of those people who, in times of turmoil, craves art equal in gravity to the moment, consider adding it to your Netflix list. Though it offers little in the way of escapism, the point it makes about America — namely, that we’re a country where consequences are unevenly distributed — is more relevant than ever.