Eating the Supper of the Lamb in a Cool Whip Society

Albert Borgmann’s post-technological feast.

This article originally appeared in Books & Culture, January/February 2004 (Vol. 10, No. 1), pp. 26f.

Many Christian retreat centers of a certain age have a library, typically furnished with understuffed sofas and chairs whose donors threw in several boxes of books while they were loading the station wagon. A few years ago I was browsing the dusty shelves in such a room, compulsively trying to fill a time set aside for silent prayer and Bible study, but not finding much to hold my interest among the earnest 1960s-era paperbacks. Then I saw something unusual—a hardback, published by Doubleday, in the dingy condition of a book that had been bought a long time ago but never read.

The book’s author was the Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon, whose trilogy on the parables had recently been driving me back to the gospels with fresh curiosity. I sat down and didn’t get up again until several hours later, having read the book twice. It was the first Christian cookbook I’d ever read, The Supper of the Lamb.

Capon’s book is, quite literally, about a lamb supper, or more precisely, “Lamb for Eight Persons Four Times,” a series of meals to be made from one freshly butchered animal. But it is also a rollicking theological argument—with another Supper always on the horizon—for the well-set table as the epicenter of grace. Capon takes the side of cream over calorie-counting, wine over weight-watching, and feasting, fasting, and even “ferial” eating over the mechanized, Cool Whip-and-cake mix approach to food. (An incorrigibly playful writer, Capon revives the medieval distinction between “festal” and “ferial”—a feria being a weekday when no feast is celebrated—to contrast everyday cooking with Sunday brunch and Thanksgiving dinner. For Capon, as for the medievals, the more festal days the better.) An entire chapter is devoted to the experience of slicing an onion.

I’ve never actually made any of the recipes in The Supper of the Lamb. I have hopes of being alive to see my fortieth birthday, and Capon’s ancienne cuisine, heavy on butter and sherry, would give the American Heart Association a, well, you know. But I’ve hardly cooked a meal since without imagining Father Capon looking over my shoulder, commenting on my knife technique and urging me to have another glass of wine.

Why begin an essay on philosopher Albert Borgmann by singing the praises of The Supper of the Lamb? For several reasons, I suppose, the first being that while Borgmann is a philosopher, Capon is a writer, and if this essay actually moves any readers to carve out time for another book in their busy lives, they will have more fun reading Capon than Borgmann, and will absorb many of Borgmann’s essential insights at no extra charge. The second being that Capon’s book is back in print, thanks to the Modern Library, and the diligent can still find copies of a beautiful hardcover edition that was issued several years ago by Smithmark Publishing. The third being that I still haven’t gotten over the delight of discovering that one of Borgmann’s principal conversation partners in his imposingly titled 1984 book, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry, is none other than Robert Farrar Capon and his book The Supper of the Lamb.

Supper, it turns out, has a lot to do with Borgmann’s philosophical project. He has made his mark as a philosopher of technology, beginning with his programmatic 1984 book and continuing with 1992’s Crossing the Postmodern Divide and 1999’s Holding On to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium. Borgmann’s recurring theme is what he calls the “invisibility” of technology in contemporary culture: he wants us to see the ways in which it subordinates nearly every other cultural practice, from the dinner table to democracy, to its controlling assumptions.

We have trouble seeing technology’s dominant paradigm for what it is, Borgmann argues, not just for the banal reason that all paradigms are difficult to see when you are governed by them. Rather, technology has invisibility as one of its central characteristics. For technology is built on the concept of the device: a vanishingly small apparatus that procures for its users some desired commodity—a single good made available in whatever abundance is required. Technology at its most successful is designed to disappear.

To illustrate this point, Borgmann invites us to contrast the hearth, the source of heat in pre-technological homes, with the furnace, a technological device designed to procure the commodity of heat. A hearth was typically at the center of a home—the Latin for hearth is focus—and, true to its Latin name, was the center of various household activities. But furnaces are typically located as far out of the way as possible, and as they have become more advanced they have become, quite on purpose, ever more marginal to household life. An invisible hearth is a contradiction in terms, but an invisible furnace, quasi-magically delivering heat not just on demand, but even before we knew to demand it, while demanding nothing from us in return, would be a technological achievement. For all I know, Bill Gates may already have one.

The more advanced the device, the more invisibly and effortlessly the commodity is supplied. The furnace’s commodity is heat. The airplane’s commodity is mobility. The stereo system’s commodity is music. And the commodity procured by the web of devices encompassing the supermarket, the freezer, the frozen burrito, and the microwave is, in a lot of American homes, supper.

The promise of technology, Borgmann has shown with considerable philosophical precision, is liberation or, as he also calls it, “disburdenment.” The hearth was a dangerous and fickle presence in the household that had to be tended by persons skilled in building the fire, stoking the fire, covering the fire at night, and so forth. Not for nothing did the Romans venerate Hestia as a goddess. But with the advent of the furnace, we were disburdened from the need to procure heat with our own hands and skill. We are so disburdened, in fact, that few of us could “tend” our furnace if we had to. Furnaces, like airplanes, stereo systems, and microwaves, are complicated and opaque devices that are serviced by specialists. Even technological food itself can be complicated and opaque, as Borgmann illustrates in his latest book, Power Failure, with this list of ingredients:

Water, hydrogenated coconut and palm kernel oils, corn syrup, sugar, sodium caseinate, dextrose, polysorbate 60, natural and artificial flavors, sorbitan monostearate, xanthan gum and guar gum. Artificial color.

These are the ingredients for Cool Whip, the device that provides the commodity of “nondairy whipped topping” for consumers, thus disburdening them of having to whip cream and count its fat grams for their diets. “All of these attractive features,” Borgmann writes, “can be gathered under the notion of availability. … Nearly everything that surrounds a citizen of [advanced industrial society] exhibits the opaque and commodious availability of Cool Whip and rests on a sophisticated and unintelligible machinery.”

So disburdenment comes at a price, that of “disengagement.” We are surrounded by devices we can only purchase, not tend, which produce commodities we can only consume, not create. The more technology we can afford, the more perfectly disburdened—and disengaged—we become.

This is the point where the critics of technology start sharpening their knives. What is this freedom we have purchased for ourselves? Is it not a kind of slavery to our devices? Are we not dangerously disengaged?

Borgmann certainly wants to question the device paradigm, and his editors at Brazos have pointed up its ominous implications with the title Power Failure (accompanied by a menacing cover illustration of skeletal transmission towers, one of them in the shape of a cross). Indeed, that title seems prescient after the northeastern power outage of August 2003 that reminded millions of Americans how device-dependent we have become, and how dependent are all of our devices, from refrigerators to urban transit systems, upon electricity, the technological commodity par excellence.

But Borgmann is subtler than that title might imply. He understands, first of all, that the liberation that technology has delivered is in many respects real. An urban technophile can read Borgmann without the nagging sense, which has always dogged my reading of Wendell Berry, that the moral force of the author’s anti-technological vision is undercut by internal contradictions. Berry, famously, does not own a computer, but he seems untroubled by the machine-readable bar codes on the back of his own books. And if I, unlike Berry, have no patrimony in rural Kentucky to retire to and tend with my hands, what do I do? A poet, not a philosopher, Berry has little to say about these problems. Borgmann, on the other hand, is happy to acknowledge that on its own terms, technology does deliver much of what it promises.

Borgmann also rejects what he calls “the unwarranted optimism of the pessimists”—the strange glee with which some critics of technological culture, including religious ones, predict the wholesale collapse of the technological edifice, whether under intrinsic pressures like those that temporarily brought down the power grid or extrinsic limits posed by the resources and sinks of our natural environment. No, Borgmann argues, the culture of technology is smarter than that. While he acknowledges the havoc that technology has wrought on the environment, he also notes the growing speed with which technologically advanced economies have been moving to address these deficiencies. These economies have too much invested in technology to allow it to fail, and the track record, pace the critics, is on the whole in favor of technological solutions to technology’s problems.

And yet Borgmann urgently believes that the robust success of technology, compounded by its unique ubiquity and invisibility, is toxic to individuals, families, and nations. Over the past 20 years he has explored the ways that the device paradigm, taken as the definitive paradigm for human flourishing, in fact undermines human lives and societies. Even in 1984 it was clear that Borgmann, a Catholic, wrote from a specifically Christian point of view; Power Failure is his most explicit attempt yet to make plain how the culture of technology challenges Christianity at its very roots.

For if technology disburdens us, it also effectively erases the sense of creaturely contingency that compelled earlier generations to seek salvation. Indeed, technology not only promises to do away with our vestigial sense of creatureliness, it promises to bestow on us divinity itself. The head of Philips Design, part of the massive consumer electronics firm, recently informed the Economist that “consumers want to be omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent, with the maximum comfort and freedom and with the minimum effort”—and said the firm was developing products accordingly. Note that this formula encompasses all the classical attributes of divinity with none of that nasty Christian business of suffering on behalf of one’s creatures. Why would an omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, maximally comfortable, minimally encumbered being need a savior?

At the same time as it purports to set us free from our creatureliness, technology also hollows out the rest of creation. Before technology, human life was structured around what Borgmann, echoing the Latin for hearth again, calls “focal things,” things that addressed us with a “commanding presence” of their own and called forth from us skill and disciplines that both humbled and ennobled the human condition. But now the tools of “careful power”—the practices that enabled us to come alongside creation’s own inherent power, in the form of a hearth, say, or a horse—have been replaced by the tools of “regardless power,” the buttons, knobs, and switches that require no skill and give us the impression that the world simply awaits our command.

So how do we live if we sense that being our own divinity might turn out to be a lonely job after all? Or if we have, despite technology’s ubiquity, been arrested at some time or another by the commanding presence of creation in its own right, or discovered that the best technological facsimiles cannot deliver the same satisfactions as our own poorly executed attempts at music, art, or, for that matter, supper? When Borgmann turns to this question, his words are strangely familiar. “Our morally crucial circumstances,” he writes, “are the exact mirror image of those that made for martyrs”:

Where theirs were overt, ours are concealed; where theirs were mortal to their bodies, ours are lethal to the soul; and where theirs tore them out of their normal life, ours channel our lives within the unquestioned banks of the technological culture.

With the exception of the very last words, this could have been written by one of the Desert Fathers, who saw danger in the growing affluence and security of the Constantinian era—itself a period of relative technological achievement.

If post-technological people are to experience salvation, it seems, we will have to choose suffering, rather than having suffering thrust upon us. Not that we entirely reject technology’s ability to relieve burdens for ourselves, let alone for others. As Borgmann puts it in Power Failure, there is “suffering that we reject in principle.” We rightly seek technological remedies for cancer and car accidents, though we also can accept these events, when they happen to us, as an opportunity for grace. But there are encumbrances that we do not reject even in principle: “When it comes to the trouble of cooking a meal and gathering my loved ones around the table, we accept it not only in practice but also in principle because eating, shorn of its real preparation and personal involvements, has lost its sacramental horizon.”

What Borgmann is proposing here the Desert Fathers would have called ascesis—the willingness to embrace suffering and the mundane demands of the encumbered life, the willingness to forfeit comfort. In an era of pervasive technology, there will be no faith, no reverence, and ultimately no true fulfillment without ascesis, voluntary withdrawal from technology’s effortless pleasures. Even our most technologically immersed contemporaries sense this—woe to the suitor having dinner with his beloved, or the vice president making a presentation to her CEO, who stops to answer a cell phone call.

But Borgmann is no ascetic as that word has come to be understood. His ascesis is on behalf of celebration—the suffering that enables the feast to go on. In his 1984 book, Borgmann, echoing George Sheehan’s Running and Being, extolled the virtues of “the great run”—the exhilarating encounter with road and sky that comes only at the price of personal engagement and risk, the painstaking development of character and skill adequate to the road ahead. And he invoked Capon’s celebration of “the long session,” the great feast, lovingly and carefully prepared by a skilled cook, which gathers up life around a table.

“Amazingly,” Borgmann says in Power Failure, “the world of personal engagements and engaging things is still right around us, as a close possibility if not as an actual practice.” For Christians, the Word has not yet been absorbed into information; the Table still offers more than Cool Whip.

Technology may have obscured or even eclipsed these occasions to celebrate, to re-engage with the world in its messy glory, but all it would take to recover them is ascesis, the choice to embrace suffering rather than evade it, the willingness to imitate the real, incarnate Lord of the world instead of waiting for devices to elevate us to a heedless divinity. All that is needed for the supper is a lamb.