You Are What You Make: Thoughts on Losing Touch with Our Physical Context

Today, I had an interview for a teaching position with a state university.  I think it went well, although what I had supposed would be a thirty minute interview became an hour and a half of tangential, anthropological nerd-chat with the chair of the Anthropology department.  Did I say too much? Was I too bubbly? Perhaps, perhaps not.  I left with the distinct impression that I had the job–comments about having the person in charge of forms and tax bits getting in touch with me, etc.

But it has set my subsequent thoughts on a certain path, and maybe that’s not all bad.  As part of my interview process, I had to complete a writing sample.  As any writer knows, second guessing after the fact is always a part of anything we compose.  The question went something like: The University is conducting budget cuts and is considering cutting ANTH 1102 (Intro).  Make an argument as to why that’s a bad plan.  Having to compose on the fly isn’t a weakness or a strength.  Sometimes, I feel as if I’ve struck gold.  Sometimes, I want to set everything on fire after rereading a draft.  My dashed off response fell somewhere in between those poles.

An introductory course provides students, irrespective of degree track or major, a sense of context and an opportunity to see the world in different ways.  Anthropology is the Story of Us. As a species, our origin isn’t a spontaneous event occurring in a vacuum.  Every triumph and struggle is written in the material record we leave behind.  It’s etched in our very bones and held in trust by oral traditions that have outlived any empire.  To deny students even an opportunity to access information with integrity, you leave them no option but to rely upon those in authority who have none.

As I said, my feelings about this little writing test are ambivalent, pulling one way and then the other.  But it brings me back to something I’ve said before, an idea that has been taking shape in recent months.


Behold! The Makers of Things and Doers of Stuff…

You are what you make.  What exactly do I mean by this? Well, first, I feel that human beings, while possessed of lovely, big brains and all the intellectual fireworks that go with them, are creatures of the physical world, too.  We are, after all, animals.  The physical manifestation of all that cerebral lightning is material culture.  We think of an idea for a weapon, a vessel, a structure, a piece of clothing, jewelry, food…whathaveyou.  And then, using technology available to us, we make it.

Jumping up another level in terms of cognitive function, if we don’t really like the means available to us, we may just make up something new by incorporating existing tools or improving upon designs, material processing or material selection.  The brain/mind becomes the ultimate metatool, and is still, by the way, the most complex computer known to us.  Bitchin’.  Again, significance?

We are each possessed of two selves–the one that dwells in a physical realm and is subject to its laws and the other that is one step removed, that processes and imagines, creating, at will, entire worlds that have no tangible existence.  I feel, in this statement, an echo of Platonic forms–the perfect bowl or dress or tuna casserole, an ideal concept that is not subject to physical laws, such as material variations or laws of physics.

I think that, each time we undertake to make something–whether its dinner, the bowls from which it will be eaten, or the dining room table upon which we eat it–we are reaffirming a connection to all the other makers of things and doers of stuff that came before us as well as other humans with whom we share Earth. We are bringing into being something that did not exist in the world before we made it.  Moreover, while some do still pursue this making and doing as a way to earn a living, it’s usually seen as an intentional but less necessary form of activity.


The Mass Produced and the Hyper-Specialized

Why am I rambling on about making stuff?  Who does that anymore? Well, that’s part of what has been shifting around in the back of my head all evening.  We live in a culture that is particularly industrialized.  Even our food is in the hands of large corporations, from factory farm to a shelf-stable waiting game–we are no longer largely in control of how our food is grown, what is done to it after it’s harvested, or even the act of preparation.  Because we’ve been encouraged to become worker ants in our particular field or form of employment.

Convenience food has moved in and we’ve been reassured that this boxed dinner is as “wholesome” as it is convenient.  But it’s not, is it? And there’s really no easy way to back out of this particular cultural elaboration of ultimate convenience, because we’ve lost the skills to feed ourselves without help from global corporations and fast food companies.  If you disagree with me, ask yourself when was the last time you cooked anything from scratch (or a very close approximation of it?)

Now, I do think that specialization is an important aspect of our ability as a species to thrive in growing numbers.  But I also think that, in the United States, especially, we’ve become creatures that live almost entirely in the mind.  We deal in information and services that rely on prefabricated components.  The portion of our population that brings  together raw elements into whole material forms that transcend the sum of their parts grows increasingly slim, and their actions are seen as “artistry” or “craftsmanship” rather than “I like to be not dead, so I made stuff using this other stuff.” There are consequences for this.


The Laws of Physics Believe in You

Some of these consequences involve forces of nature, like gravity or fire. We have become so distanced from a way of being that accepts on a visceral level how the world functions, that we no longer see ourselves as part of that world.  Individuals can study laws of force, of thermodynamics, or other science-y sounding bits.  But until they see those laws played out in the corporeal realm, what they have is not really understanding.  They’ve memorized concepts.

As children, we’re supposed to test these inherent principals of our world (within reason and within earshot of a caregiver) and discover the Laws of Ouch and That Didn’t Work the Way I Thought It Would.  In many places, however, parents now overprotect their offspring, so that this critical period of childhood empirical research is hampered or entirely prevented–much to the detriment of the adults those children will become.

How many children are prevented from making a mess, making mistakes, and making real connections about how the world functions with and around them? These children complete their sentence in the school system, where “learning” is often conflated with “rote memorization” and “following the rules.”

They are then vomited out into the world, and if they conform to this culture’s concepts of success, they mortgage their future with school loans to attain a degree they won’t actually use and don’t really understand, and then they get a job in which they make nothing, build nothing, and have no stake in actual creation, but which earns money to buy lots of things.  At the end of the day, they don’t understand how their computer works or where their food comes from or that referring to Africa as a country is as insulting as it is wrong.


Just to Make a Point

Another consequence of being protected from learning is that they do not understand how the laws of physics really work, that the material of their automobile is “plastic” in the sense that its molecules become highly malleable when sufficient force is applied at speed, or how disease spreads.  They have become, in effect, lumps of motile flesh with central processing units that house many facts and figures, but cannot correlate or collate data.

They cannot connect one event to another, and they certainly don’t perceive that, as physical beings, there are physical consequences to such a life.  If they are ever put in a position where they no longer have resources processed for them, they will perish, learn very quickly or become dependent upon those who do understand these things and retain the skills to create food, clothing or products.

I know that sounds fantastic and far-fetched.  To a large extent, you may take it as the “logical, but ridiculous, conclusion.” In terms of what it means in real time, I think that when we become disconnected from our physical selves and cease to practice skills that require us to pay attention to how materials react to the world, we also become distanced from communities of humans who are still on speaking terms with their bodies.


When Human Beings Are Reduced to Unsavory Ideas

We cease to understand them or their needs, because those situations aren’t really real to us. They become concepts, to be discussed in non-real terms.  So, much like a disagreement on the internet, this can quickly escalate into harsh language and overblown or parroted rhetoric–because the topic of your conversation isn’t actual to you.  Consider the suggestion that we “Bomb the Middle East until it’s nothing but a glass parking lot.” or “Build a wall along our border to keep those ‘Mexicans’ from taking our jobs and living off illegally obtained welfare.”

The first statement is so far-fetched and unfeeling as to be both laughable and deeply disturbing.  The second…well, that’s a lame idea (that we actually did, anyway) based on false data and a total lack of understanding of how welfare works and a completely bigoted generalization that everyone who comes across the Mexican border is Mexican or has any options that don’t include immediate death, watching their child suffer, or a slow death from a number of social and economic factors at play in the places they are trying to leave.

It doesn’t happen overnight, or even within the span of a single generation, this placing of a safety zone around our intellectual selves until it swaddles us like cotton batting from the rest of our species. Perhaps it happens a little at a time–one convenience product, one mechanization, one lapse in the reportage of the evening news at a time–but sure enough, we have become isolated from much of the world and even from the concept of how to function within it.  imageIf our surroundings do not accommodate our maladaptive loss of physical skill sets, what recourse do we have? If we are what we make, what can we claim to be when we make nothing?







5 thoughts on “You Are What You Make: Thoughts on Losing Touch with Our Physical Context

  1. First of all, I think you would make such an interesting teacher – your online teacher rating will be SO high.
    Second, Your written response was true and critically relevant to Anthropology itself. ( Hmmm, does college coursework in Anthropology somehow become ironic if it’s an online course?? It has to take a creative teacher to teach an online course. )
    Thirdly, each generation seems to handle the internet differently. I see what you’re saying as true but I also see family and friends gardening just to garden. Personally, I have suspicions about all of the precooked, prepackaged food that is SO convenient to buy. To me, all of that food started and then about the time of the next generation of kids – autism started to become widespread. I know of no scientific data or stories or facts to relate the two things. I just see a correlation and I have no proof that big Farming has the public’s health as a priority. Watch Food Inc and see how some makers add Ammonia to ground hamburger…what?!? All of that was to say that I will cook from scratch. Someone I read or heard said cook like your grandmother did. I’m NOT making crusts and I do have Pillsbury crescents in my fridge so I do the best I can.
    What we are is what we make. That made me think of my “remains”. From an Anthropological stand point, that is a great way to determine what you/we each will choose to do with our lives. If we had to leave an artifact behind for everything we did with our lives, from an anthropological dig point of view, what would you do? I’d make art somehow.
    There are so many aspects of life that you pull into a piece that it’s hard to not write a lot in response and not necessarily in a clean order.
    Will you be grading this on a curve??? lol Good Luck. If you actually converse as you write – you’re IN.

    1. First, thank you for your kind and thought-provoking response. I love that my rant spurred you to think about things relevant to your own life.

      I think “gardening just to garden” hits on the essence of my point that we regard the use of physical skill sets as less than essential to life. It’s an art, an intentionally practiced craft, not a means of survival. I do believe that some aspects of our current milieu are wonderful. They make being and staying alive much easier, and I certainly don’t suggest that we can turn back the clock of social evolution. At the same time, I think that many of us live in the finely distinguished shadings between total generalists and hyper-specialized hive humans. My distress is piqued when I meet individuals who don’t understand how bacteria works, how a million people can live without clean water, or that they do, and that when a need arises why going out and just buying a product is neither possible nor ultimately beneficial. I’m currently typing blind on my phone, so I’ll close this comment for now. Please excuse any typos. WordPress isn’t showing me what I type.

      1. I get what you were aiming at completely. Science is what gave me insight to the growth instinct of plants from the beans against a clear plastic cup in Kindergarten to the many poliwogs I caught and brought home with the moss from our nearby creek. That became my mini science lab to watch the growth process, get a sense of timing in nature and gain a sense of earth not being dirt but so many things to different animals and humans. There was a clip of Neil deGrasse Tyson answering a 6 yr old’s question – it was a deep question and I forget what it was because at the end of what he said to the boy, he related the free play of kids OUTSIDE to problem solving of scientists or astronauts. If children observe nature and learn habits, patterns etc, that knowledge could very well be the impetus of an answer he must find. Technology on the other hand has us moving through life at light speed and convenience is seen as more valuable than health. We’re lazy and we want what we want. Deprivation or frugality is an excellent teacher but most people won’t choose to be that way, especially when we have dollar stores and a whole meal in 15 minutes and homework and work. I think that accumulating goods has been an affect of convenience and saving time but it’s like an old bait and switch con gone mad over a total country – America. We’re pretty much in the downward spiral. Our Golden Age has long gone. I remember learning how the Romans or Greeks believed that there would be a time of luxury when they could use their time to advance intellectually and philosophically. I thought it was an incredibly sound and progressive stance to take on their societies future. It never happened.
        Now to tie all of this together –
        You know how space relates to our galaxy and our galaxy to our solar system and our solar system to our world ( earths’ lungs are the rain forests, earth’s barrier reefs act as an organ does within our bodies, etc etc? I wonder if we are meant to advance but deeper and deeper within ourselves – NOT outward as humans have been doing since that age (Enlightenment Age?) when the Hagia Sophia portrayed our advancement in the form of light or the famous building that also symbolized man’s expansion beyond himself and above himself in the design of the Pantheon in Rome. ??? Perhaps for us now it is a contracting time to bring the outside in, what is above is below until like the aliens in Cocoon – we no longer need our bodies and we can have sex by crashing into each other after zooming around like jets. LOL That last part was just to go where no one has gone before. Ultimately, living in big cities doesn’t give us the connection to nature unless we search it out. I have no idea where things are headed but the website called the Fourth Turning puts a Circle of Life spin on humanity thats not depressing. There are no answers. xo, J

  2. Congrats, dear Erin…
    I firmly second your statements concerning the importance of Education, beyond our inmediate surroundings, and tossing aside the consumist ideology which you fully presented through eloquent examples… Anthropology teaches us to see far beyond our eyes… but at the same time it is an ethnocentric Science, at least in its origins, which probably could explain why our eyes are not exactly fully open when it comes to certain differences.
    Sending love and best wishes. Happy week ahead. Aquileana 😉

  3. As for the two selves, the two worlds can be united or bridged, the tasty tuna casserole as example. The laws of physics are, to the best of our knowledge, correct, and to ignore them is childish. Some of us study anthropology – and I liked your response too – others study physics or play basketball or music, but our awareness of “reality” seems to have little bearing on the tuna casserole.

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