Coffee-Makers, Deprivations, Indulgence, Affordances

A few weeks ago I broke the quasi-bakelite handle of my stovetop coffee-maker. Rather, it broke by itself: as I poured the hot, steaming liquor into my mug the handle snapped and the coffee-maker crashed to the counter-top, spilling some coffee, but mercifully, not scalding or burning anyone. I have some affection for this venerable appliance; I could not bear to condemn it to the trash.  So I continued to use it, handling its burning hot metallic surface–now devoid of a handle–with a kitchen rag or a pair of oven gloves. Sometimes my handling is clumsy; sometimes it is expert. I fretted and worried about whether it was safe to continue to use the maker in such fashion. I took especial care to never pour coffee out while my little daughter was in the kitchen.

This coffee-maker is not the only one my family owns. As middle-class aspirants to the good life we own a second coffee-maker, this one with a smaller capacity. It is pressed into service when only one of us wants to make a coffee (like I just did a few minutes ago). This one still has its handle intact. When I first used it after breaking the larger one’s handle, I picked it up as I always did, with its safe, cool, bakelite grip.

As I did so, without relying on protective cloth or glove, without the acute care I need to exercise when using the handle-free counterpart, without the slight edge of anxiety that marks my efforts in that domain, with a sudden facility and ease I had not experienced in quite a while, I felt curiously exhilarated. A simple touch, a contact with, and employment of, an object made of plastic, a lowly handle, had served to remind me of several dimensions of my daily interaction with the physical world around me. It was also an acute reminder of the contextualized nature of deprivation and indulgence.

In a few short weeks, I had come to regard a previously unchallenging domain of physical exertion–pouring coffee–as one requiring just a little expertise, attention, and care. A task I could perform with little thought, with a conditioned dexterity, had become considerably less facile. The affordances of the coffee-maker had changed; it had changed my relationship to the space of the morning kitchen, my bodily awareness of myself in my only partially wakened state.

As I used the smaller coffee-maker, I was only using a previously utterly unremarkable object, one whose features had always been taken for granted.  But now it was distinctive; it provided a luxury the deprivation from which had made me more sensitive to its offerings. A coffee-maker with a functioning handle felt like a rare indulgence; I could simply approach the object, grip it with ease, and get to using it, not worrying in the least about cloth slipping, boiling hot coffee, scalding and burning me as it cascaded to the floor below.

A simple, short deprivation; an acute change in my embedding in my environment; an elevation of the ordinary to the sublime; new pleasures discovered; a quick lesson in the mediated relationship to the world through the physical objects that populate it.

All because a coffee-maker’s handle broke and I was too lazy to get a new one.

A Bodily Memory, Re-Evoked

Today, after a several-month-long gap thanks to my sabbatical leave, I am ensconced again in my university campus office. (I made the trip in today to meet a doctoral student and to attend to some bureaucratic matters.) My journey to campus–a half-hour walk as usual, preceded by dropping off my daughter at daycare–was uneventful, reminding me of the many times I have traversed the pleasant neighborhoods that intervene between my home and the college main entrance.

On arriving at campus, I went through a slightly modified arrival routine: because I had arrived early, the department office was still not open for business, so I made a trip to the library cafe to pick up a coffee that would ease me into the day’s work. That done, I headed to my office. As I unlocked the door, I noticed an old, familiar sensation return: the key to the lock does not fit exactly on the first insertion and requires just a tiny juggle. Which I provided. As I have many, many times before.

Till that point in time, my return to campus had been entirely unremarkable: its sights–the students, the quadrangle, the security guards, the buildings–and sounds–classes in session, students talking on cellphones in hallways–were familiar enough, as they should be for a place where I’ve now spent a fair percentage of the last twelve years. None of them stirred me though, in the way that the bodily sensation of the not-quite-fitting key did. It was a memory all right, but an embodied one, a feeling within me that had lain dormant and been evoked by the right kind of interaction with the environment ‘outside.’

Memories can evidently be of many kinds. Sometimes we see a familiar face and feel an emotion stir within us; we are thus able to summon up the appropriate facial responses when we meet an old friend. On other occasions, a sound may remind us of a time in our lives–one accompanied by a mood, a mental sensation; we are able to experience a musically accompanied nostalgia.

And then, there are remembrances like the one I experienced today: a particular bodily configuration, an action that orients me in a very particular way with external impresses, that summons up long-practiced and experienced responses to the world’s affordances.

We carry the traces of our physical relationships with the world with us: in the way we walk, run, use our hands, eat, drink, and sleep. Our bodily gestures and mannerisms are well-practiced ones, honed by hours, days, weeks, months of persistent, hands-on movements. Sometimes the external evocations go away–as they did in my case when I had no occasion to unlock my office door–and then, like today, they return. When they do, we suddenly come into contact with a past self, one wrapped up in my corporeal layers, ready to spring into action. Anyone riding a long-ago-learned bike after an extended hiatus is familiar with this sensation in the most visceral of ways.

We are not disembodied minds, but embodied ones.

The Author’s Offspring, the Finished Deal

A few days ago, I received my author copies of my latest book. Five paperbacks, neatly bundled up in a cardboard parcel bearing an impressive array of stamps and customs bills. I tore open the cardboard (with my bare hands, no less!) Inside, they were wrapped up in clear plastic, neatly and tightly stacked on each other. The plastic came off a little easier, and then, there they were, in my hands at long last. (I will pick up a couple of hardcover versions over the weekend from my co-author; they look extremely pretty to say the least, and have managed to surmount the aesthetic barrier raised by the provision of my photograph on the dust jacket.)

The physical affordance of a book–its look and feel, its weight and heft, its distinctive aroma of new paper and printers’ ink–are all too often commented on when people bemoan their loss in the face of the advancing juggernaut of the e-book and the handheld book reader.  I won’t get into that debate here; I’ve done so many times elsewhere.

Rather, I just want to make note of a peculiar and particular instance of the delights of the physical book, the one alluded to above, a kind of converse of the e-book phenomenon: the pleasure experienced by an author when the transformation of the electronic document into a paper-and-ink object is complete. The multiple, scattered word processor files–one for each chapter–with their standard fonts are taken over by the typesetter’s unitary object; the margins and pagination change; frontispieces appear; author biographies are inserted; the cataloging information page is added on; the copyright signs proclaim your relationship to the ‘work’; and lastly, the final piece of the puzzle, the–hopefully, tasteful and artful–covers are slapped on top and bottom (or front and back.)

Your babe is ready for its close-up but you are the one simpering.

When I look at the finished piece it’s hard to not marvel at the transformation of the once-so-familiar; those same pages, which had once made me almost nauseous during the endless copy-editing, proof-reading and revision cycles, now look decidedly more amenable to approach; they do not repel me as much as they did during those final days when the finish line seemed both proximate and agonizingly distant.

So distinct is this change that you are almost inclined to think the content might have changed too, that perhaps your writing might have even become better with all the cosmetic surgery its packaging has undergone. But there is no such relief; the writing remains resolutely the same.

And then lastly, there is the rueful acknowledgment that no matter how hard you try, blemishes creep in. For all my proof-reading I missed out on spelling errors, and readers have already sent in four corrections. Even more embarrassingly there is a ludicrous technical error late in the book. I can only blame it on exhaustion and ennui.

One copy gets given away today, complete with inscription, to a friend. The rest go on the shelves; they won’t be read by me, but perhaps someone else will step up.

The Physical Dimensions of Writing

Writing is a physical activity. This fact is quite well known to schoolchildren who write–with pencils and pens–diligently, and at length on their notebooks. (It must have been known too, to Georges Simenon, whose fingers must have needed dousing in ice water after his daily ritual of prolific pencil-fueled writing.) But it is even common knowledge to those among their cohort who now type on tablet and laptop keyboards; the wrists ache, the fingers are bruised. The exhaustion that results after a long spell of writing is not just that of brain cells wearily picking themselves off the cranial floor, but also that of limbs strained by the constant expression of the writer’s commands. And then, somehow, later in life, overcome by the over-intellectualizing of this particular mode of interaction with the world, the notion emerges that writing is all brain and no body, that a disembodied intelligence is at play, that writing enables an escape from physical confines of the body–which is true in a way, but not if taken literally.

Small wonder then, that writers are acutely conscious of their bodies when they write and keenly attuned and sensitive to the physical channels through which their words make their way to paper or screen. I’ve written here about my writing experiences with a fountain pen on paper; the modern counterparts of that implement, the word processor, the computer monitor, the keyboard, are just as deserving of attention.

One way to hint at my sensitivity to the physical dimension of writing on a computer is to note that a central reason why I will never buy a Mac is because I do not like its machines’–whether desktop or laptop–keyboards. Their keys do not afford my fingers the right kind of tactile response; they do not provide me the feedback that I subconsciously seek when I press down on them. I have had favorites in the past: the AT&T 4425 and IBM 3270 terminals were perhaps the  most deeply satisfying in terms of their immediate responsiveness, in their ‘give’ and in how they seemed to facilitate the rapid movement of my fingers over them. (I’m not a trained touch typist but over the years my fingers have, to some extent, internalized the locations of letter on keyboards and now move with some facility over them.)

These preferences mean that I very quickly disdain, or approve of, particular writing spaces or implements because of how they generate both a physical and mental space for writing. The ergonomic comfort of a chair and desk are obviously factors, but just as important is an ineffable sense of connectedness–in the right sort of way–to my writing machine and through it, to the visible word that is the result of my writing. Thus, because I do not like writing on laptop keyboards, and will only do so when absolutely forced to do so, I have hardly ever written in coffee-shops or on the  move. For better or worse, I’m desk-bound. (In the post just linked to, I noted this same physical aspect of writing.)

This physical dimension of writing is important for the writing process in the simplest of ways: to start writing, you must place your hands on the media through which you write. Put pen to paper or put fingers to keyboard.

Once contact is made, the game can begin.

Physical and Psychological Affordance

According to Wikipedia, ‘an affordance is a quality of an object, or an environment, which allows an individual to perform an action. For example, a knob affords twisting, and perhaps pushing, while a cord affords pulling.’ (A photograph of a tea set in the Wikipedia entry bears the caption, ‘The handles on this tea set provide an obvious affordance for holding.’) Later we learn that James J. Gibson introduced ‘affordance’ in his 1977 article “The Theory of Affordances”he ‘defined affordances as all “action possibilities” latent in the environment, objectively measurable and independent of the individual’s ability to recognize them, but always in relation to the actor and therefore dependent on their capabilities.’

I do not now remember where I first encountered the term–perhaps in my readings of embodied cognition literature  in graduate school, probably. It has always struck me as a marvelously evocative term, and one of those that almost immediately serves to illuminate the world in a different light. We are physical beings, minds and bodies united, caught up in a tightly coupled system of world and agent; the world provides us affordances for our particular modes of interactions with it; we modify the world, modifying its affordances and change in response; and so on. The dynamic, mutually determining nature of this interaction stood clarified. Thinking of the world as equipped with affordances helped me envision the evolutionary filtration of the environment better; those creatures with traits suitable for the environment’s affordances were evolutionary successful. Knobs and cords can only be twisted and pulled by those suitably equipped–mentally and physically–for doing so.  Babies learn to walk in an environment that provides them the means for doing so–level, firm surfaces–and not others. An affordance rich environment for walking, perhaps equipped with handles for grasping or helpful parents reaching out to provide support, facilitates the learning of walking. And so on.

But ‘affordance’ need not be restricted to understanding in purely physical terms. We can think of the world of psychological actors as providing psychological affordances too. An agent with a particular psychological makeup is plausibly understood as providing for certain modes of interaction with it: a hostile youngster, bristling with resentment and suspicion of authority restricts the space of possibilities for other agents to interact with him; the affordances he provides are minimal; others are more capacious in the affordances they provide. A psychological agent’s life can be viewed as a movement through a space of affordances; his trajectories through it are determined by his impingement on others and vice-versa; he finds his responses modified by those that the space allows or affords. As parents find out when they raise a child, theories of learning and rearing only go so far; the particular make-up of the pupil feed back to the parent and can modify the rearing strategy; the child has provided only some affordances that work with the child-rearing theory of choice. An inmate in jail is stuck in a very particular domain of psychological affordances; he will find his reactions modified accordingly.

Thinking of our exchanges with the world and other human beings in this light helps illuminate our dependence  and influence on them quite clearly; we are not solitary trailblazers; rather at every step, we are pressed on, and push back. What emerges at every point and at the end bears the impress of these rich relationships with our environment, both physical and psychological.