Jackson, MI. In this strange season during which so many of my conversations are mediated through pixels, I’ve been trying to reckon honestly with the goods and shortcomings of these digital tools. In the context of my profession as a teacher, I’m grateful that I can continue to convene my classes through Zoom. And yet I find myself exhausted by trying to facilitate genuine conversations through this medium, for reasons that L.M. Sacasas articulates well. I want to be both grateful for what these technologies enable me to do and yet also clear-eyed about their very real limits. In this endeavor, I’ve been helped by two metaphors: tinned fruit and a prosthetic hand. Both of these help us properly name and understand the substitute goods that digital technologies can make available to us. (And yes, I’m going to try to use Wendell Berry to come to terms with Zoom. I hope he never sees this essay or, if he does, is gracious enough to forgive me.)
The idea of digitally-mediated relationships as tinned fruits comes from Deanna Briody’s recent essay “Tinned Fruit in Times of Famine.” She draws on C.S. Lewis to describe the real—but limited—goods of the technologies we rely on to sustain relationships when we cannot gather in the flesh:
social media could, in certain contexts, be a sort of divine provision: manna in the wilderness, or perhaps a more appropriate metaphor, tinned fruit. Tinned fruit travels safely and keeps, even through a pandemic, and our hungry souls are grateful for it. But if the past weeks have shown us anything, it is that preserves and compote are not nearly as satisfying, nor as salutary, as a freshly picked anything. “Fruit has to be tinned if it is to be transported,” C. S. Lewis once wrote, “and has to lose thereby some of its good qualities. But one meets people who have actually learned to prefer the tinned fruit to the fresh.”
Ideally, as Briody argues, such tinned fruit will suffice to get us through this time of privation so that we can once again enjoy the authentic goods of embodied community. There is a danger, however, that “some of us will continue eating tinned fruit because, as Lewis prophesied, we have learned to prefer it to the fresh. This is cause for caution and wisdom.” It is indeed. And yet, judging from my students’ and my frustrations with the inadequacies of Zoom “conversations,” I remain hopeful that this season of deprivation will sharpen our appetite for authentic membership. Digital tools can ameliorate the loss of embodied communities, but they are not genuine replacements.
Briody’s reflections on tinned fruit reminded me of another, perhaps parallel, metaphor found in Wendell Berry’s Port William fiction. Readers of these stories may know the many autobiographical details that link Berry to Andy Catlett. Yet there is one glaring difference: Andy Catlett loses his right hand to a corn picker in 1974, while Berry still has the full use of both hands. I explore the significance of Andy’s missing hand at greater length in an essay (“Andy Catlett’s Missing Hand: Making Do as Wounded Members,” published in this book), but Andy’s prosthetic hand has particular relevance for this coronavirus season in which many of us have been dismembered. Andy’s “right hand had been the one with which he reached out to the world and attached himself to it,” so when he loses this hand, he is, as it were, socially isolated from his place and community.
Berry first describes Andy’s accident and the resulting communal, psychological, and theological consequences in his 1990 book Remembering. In his 2015 short story “Dismemberment,” Berry returns to the subject of Andy’s right hand, framing its significance in ways that indicate the parallel wound that Berry himself—and to some extent all of us—bears.
Andy comes to imagine “that the machine had taken his hand, or accepted it, as the price of admission into the rapidly mechanizing world that as a child he had not foreseen and as a man did not like, but which he would have to live in, understanding it and resisting it the best he could, for the rest of his life.” Insofar as we are dependent on digital tools for sustaining relationships with other people, indeed, insofar as we are deracinated by our participation in the mechanistic modern economy, we are similarly maimed. The changes society has made in response to the coronavirus have, in many ways, exacerbated preexisting tendencies toward isolation and loneliness. Thus Andy’s injury results in a situation many of us experience acutely during this season—a separation from his place and community:
His life had been deformed. His hand was gone, his right hand that had been his principal connection to the world, and the absence of it could not be repaired. The only remedy was to re-form his life around his loss, as a tree grows live wood over its scars. From the memory and a sort of foreknowledge of wholeness, after he had grown sick enough finally of his grieving over himself, he chose to heal.
This healing process is a slow one. In part, it entails Andy’s eventual realization of what his prosthetic hand can and cannot do. What Andy learns is the necessity of acknowledging his wound and the losses it entails, but also the work of gratitude for what remains. His prosthesis is not an adequate replacement for his hand, and yet it remains useful: “So long as he regarded it as merely a tool, as merely a hook or a claw or weak pliers, he used it readily and quietly enough. But when some need forced him to think of it as a substitute for his right hand, which now in its absence seemed to have been miraculous, he would be infuriated by the stiffness and numbness of it.” His prosthetic hand is a substitute—nothing more and nothing less. It can be useful when he acknowledges its limits and doesn’t try to pretend it’s a perfect replacement for his hand.
My students and I have similarly had to work out the limits of the digital technologies through which we hold our discussions. Zoom is not a simple replacement for a classroom. Significantly, I think, part of the grace of this semester is that our Zoom conversations continue discussions that began in a classroom. By the time our school moved to online instruction, we had already developed a sense of camaraderie—I already knew my students’ names and some of their habitual questions and interests, and we already had our running jokes. When I grade their papers, I am not scoring anonymous texts; when I listen and reply to an inch-square, two-dimensional image of a face, I am imagining what I know of the person behind that image. In both cases, I am able to respond to the ideas of people I know. All that would be, I fear, almost impossible to develop online. To take a phrase from Andy, we are able to “splice out” our classroom community through Zoom and other tools, but these tools are hard-pressed to create such a community.
Coming to terms with the limits of his prosthesis enables Andy to be patient with himself and others and to openly acknowledge his dependence on the help of his neighbors and family. Even as his missing hand divides him from his community, it makes him more dependent on their help than ever. A similar dynamic, I think, takes place when our conversations are filtered through the digital ether; we need to be patient with the technical glitches, the loss of meaning, the dog barking in someone’s house. The success of a class is more dependent than ever on the efforts of others to attend and contribute to our discussion.
Even as Andy becomes more adept with his replacement hand, he remains uncomfortable with it. This discomfort reminds him of what is wrong both in his society and in his soul. As the narrator explains, Andy has come to see his various prosthetic devices as symbolizing the “inescapable dependence of the life of the country and his neighborhood upon mechanical devices.” Berry goes on to develop this metaphor in ways that clearly apply not only to Andy and Berry, but also to all of us who live in a modern economy:
The prosthetic device also he learned to use as undeliberately almost as if it were flesh of his flesh. But he maintained a discomfort, at once reflexive and principled, with this mechanical extension of himself, as he maintained much the same discomfort with the increasing and equally inescapable dependence of the life of the country and his neighborhood upon mechanical devices.
And so the absence of his right hand has remained with him as a reminder. His most real hand, in a way, is the missing one, signifying to him not only his continuing need for ways and devices to splice out his right arm, but also his and his country’s dependence upon the structure of industrial commodities and technologies that imposed itself upon, and contradicted in every way, the sustaining structures of the natural world and its human memberships. And so he is continually reminded of his incompleteness within himself, within the terms and demands of his time and its history, but also within the constraints and limits of his kind, his native imperfection as a human being, his failure to be as attentive, responsible, grateful, loving, and happy as he ought to be.
His awkward claw is an enduring reminder that his participation in a mechanized, industrial economy divides him from his community, but it also reminds Andy of “his native imperfection as a human being”: even if he had two good hands, even if he lived in an idyllic society, his own failures and sins would separate him from his place and community.
Perhaps the awkwardness of Zoom, then, can remind us that even when the technology works, the conversations it enables remain thin substitutes for the real thing. As Richard Gibson writes about the experience of tele-teaching, “We are all becoming aware of just how much is communicated without words in a classroom. We are waking up to how many dimensions a conversation has, and how many of those are beyond simulation.” During this season let us use Zoom well, and yet let us maintain a discomfort with it. Let us livestream church, and yet let this mode of gathering remain strange and unsatisfying. After all, as FPR writers have often noted, we can publish essays about Wendell Berry on a website, and yet this ought to remain strange and uncomfortable. It is our fate, it seems, to be complicit in what we oppose, yet even hypocrisy (at least in some forms) is a reminder of the ideal goods for which we yearn. While the futurists and transhumanists and purveyors of educational technologies would have us voluntarily cut off our arms so we can enjoy their fancy new prostheses, our priority should be to avoid dismembering ourselves. While the manufacturers of Fancy Tinned Fruit with added Vitamins™ want us to crave their products, our priority should be to arrange our economies in such a way that we can regularly partake of fresh fruit.
And perhaps when we are able once again to gather in a classroom, a sanctuary, or a front porch for embodied conversation, this season dominated—for some of us at least—by digitally-mediated conversations can serve as a reminder that even these good communities are partial and flawed. Even they are substitutes for that eternal wholeness for which we hope. Indeed, Andy finds courage to bumble on with his prosthetic hand because he is granted a vision of an eschatological membership. This vision, he says, “was much the same as Hannah Coulter’s vision of Heaven”: “‘Port William with all its loved ones come home alive.’” This eschatological vision of wholeness, of love triumphant, enables him to make do with his substitute hand. May this hope also sustain us now during this season of tinned fruit, and may it remind us not to be fully satisfied with any earthly communities.