12 January 2013
Originally posted in Facebook
|Andre Derain, "The Kitchen Table" (1922)|
What is it about the domestic hearth that it serves as the focal point in every home?
In a recent discussion in my elective course, Philosophy of Technology, my class tackled Albert Borgmann’s thought on “focal things and practices,” which was a critical appropriation of Heidegger’s seminal text on the “question concerning technology.”
Without Borgmann I would not have bothered to inquire into the etymology of the word “focus.” Originally it is the Latin word for “domestic hearth” (also related to the German "Herd," which means stove). Borgmann points to things and practices around which people tend to gather, thus becoming focal points.
So we ask again, What is it about the domestic hearth, what is it about the stove, or the kitchen for that matter, that family members tend to gather around it?
I read somewhere that most of the scenes in American TV sitcoms take place in the kitchen, or that next to the house itself, the biggest investment one makes is the kitchen. We can add to this the dining room itself, although the two are often adjacent for obvious practical reasons. But the hearth itself, the stove—it is a source of warmth (especially in cold countries) and food to sustain our lives.
Borgmann wants to show the importance of focal things and practices, things that we use and things that we do that bind us as communities, that make us gather to build common lives and make memories. So we might paraphrase a Catholic saying—the family that prepares food together and cooks food together and eats together, stays together.
Heidegger himself distinguished between “objects” and “things.” In his lecture, “The Thing,” Heidegger said that our modern technological existence is characterized by the flooding of objects. These objects hardly touch our lives, and often they become obsolete as soon as they are introduced into the market. However, so Heidegger claims, we only really need a few things to live a truly human life. Not only that, he asserts that dwelling can only happen as "a staying with things." Not only do we stay with things, things also stay with us.
If focus then has to do with something domestic, with our very dwelling on earth, then might we not see the contemporary maladies of lack of focus, disorientation, the lack of rootedness, the absence of serenity (Meister Eckhart’s Gelassenheit), the dispersion of the soul (which sometimes goes by the name of multitasking, the stressful kind that drives us to do many things at the same time but accomplish nothing), might we not see these as symptoms of our inability to dwell on earth?
In discussing the bridge that Heidegger gave as an example of a thing that gathers people (think of the beautiful bridges all over the world, of lovers who are drawn towards them), one of my students remarked how different the bridge was from an elevated road (what we call a “flyover” in the Philippines), and how even the brokenhearted may jump from a bridge but not from a “flyover.” Even in the darkest moments of our lives, we seem to be able to distinguish between a mere object and a thing that truly gathers.
The Filipino word itself for thing, “bagay,” speaks of gathering. We also use the word to speak of “belonging.” When we have something that does not belong to another or to a place (hence cannot be gathered with them), we say, “Hindi ‘yan nababagay dito.” It also speaks of what is “proper.” What is proper can be appropriated in the sense of owning, and what can be owned is something that belongs, that is, to a whole. The things that we gather are those that belong to us, and in gathering around them we, too, belong to one another.
The dignity—indeed the charm—of things is precisely what Kaschnitz points to when she wrote, amidst the rubble of war, the following:
“Let us not disown things. They sustained us. And they uplifted us. . . . Perhaps is the age really over in which things could exercise their old power and their old charms. Perhaps one will no longer have the time and the disposition to create them in such a way that they can be more than a necessity to us, more than a piece of short-lived equipment that can be replaced anytime. And it may be that by making things in this way our children will not be poorer, but richer, not narrower, but broader in spirit. But we, we who still saw the things go down in destruction, helplessly consumed by the flames, should neither disown nor forget them. For only when we become just to the one we lost do the gates of the inner world open themselves to us.”
What are the objects that crowd our existence and separate us from one another and from the world in which we live? What are the things that can gather us together, sustain us, uplift us, and allow us to dwell?
If, in the age of fast food, drive-thru’s, and 24/7 convenience stores, we find ourselves somehow lost or disoriented, if somehow we feel we live harassed lives—that is, without focus—perhaps we can rediscover something essential right in our homes, in our kitchen, before the warmth of the stove.
[Image above available in http://picturepost.blog.co.uk/2010/06/25/still-life-8864359/, accessed 12 January 2013.]