Efficiency, Contact, & Meaning

Several recent incidents have made me think about efficiency and the desire for efficiency that appears so widespread and unconditional. You must have witnessed this desire in different forms. Students have repeatedly asked me how they could read or learn faster. Businesses want increased efficiency, automating or outsourcing steps that could be automated or outsourced, reducing the number of steps, streamlining, shortening the amount of time allocated to tasks, and increasing the outcome for the same amount of work.

The desire for efficiency can and does spread into all areas of life: Books are replaced with 5-minute summaries; dating apps save time by calculating compatibility scores; “productivity” apps might start introducing us to ways in which we could catch up with a friend in 10 minutes or less; workout programs might require only 2 minutes of your day; and, even romantic trips could be carefully designed and optimized based on a wealth of data and research.

Something to note, in passing, is how these techniques of efficiency divide the human population into two sides. On the one side, we have the producers of the techniques: People who presumably read the books and summarize them in 5-minute segments; designers of those apps, who oversee and evaluate their function. In general, these are the people who, we believe, are still in touch with reality and its inefficient demands. On the other side, we have the consumers (or users) of the techniques, people who benefit from the summaries, the shortcuts, the optimized routes to fulfilling goals.

But aside from that divide, what are the consequences of this increased efficiency for our humanity? What does it mean for a human person to (want to) be efficient in every domain of their life? What is the human meaning, the human upshot, of achieving efficiency? There is only one question here, which I am trying to formulate in different ways. This is itself an exercise in inefficiency.

To begin, we must recognize that (a desire for) efficiency corresponds to (a desire for) reduced contact.

Let’s imagine efficiency with respect to the work of an experimental scientist. When she designs an experiment and sets it up so that future versions of the experiment are produced efficiently, she is aiming to produce those future versions without much contact with the material of the experiment–the apparatus, the computer code, etc. She wants to continue with the experiments, while reducing her level of involvement with the experimental apparatus over time. The expression, “getting a lot of milage out of the initial idea”, applies here.

To pick another example, let’s think about the place of efficiency at a tickets office, in the interaction between the customer and the sales staff. Here, again, increasing efficiency means reducing the contact between the two sides of the interaction–no small talk, no joking around, no indirect or obscure language. The exchange between the two sides has a clear goal. There is no reason to lengthen the route that leads to the fulfillment of that goal, in so far as the interaction between the customer and the sales staff is defined and reduced to their functional exchange. The way we think about function, the way we allow function to monopolize our (actual or potential) involvements, was critiqued by Gabriel Marcel:

The characteristic feature of our age seems to me to be what might be called the misplacement of the idea of function, taking function in its current sense which includes both the vital and the social functions. / The individual tends to appear both to himself and to others as an agglomeration of functions.

Gabriel Marcel, “On the Ontological Mystery,” trans. Manya Harari, in The Philosophy of Existentialism (New York: Citadel Press, 1956) (Quoted later in Marcel’s Tragic Wisdom & Beyond).

There are domains in our lives that, if we pay attention to them, demand increased contact. When we spend time with family or friends, when we explore creative projects, the idea of efficiency or function would be misplaced. Here, our aim should be increased contact, which in turn means an increase in our ability to pay attention and notice what is taking place.

Take camping, for example, or going to the beach. My friends who enjoy camping tell me that, once they arrive at a point close to their camping destination, they park their cars and walk the remainder of the way. Sometimes this could be because the roads aren’t appropriate for driving, but it also indicates the desire for increased contact with nature, with the earth, with the demands of the earth (Heidegger). We don’t want a camping site that can be easily reached with modern vehicles, which is to say we don’t want a site that overrules the demands of the earth.

In human relationships, we can similarly choose to open ourselves to the demands of the present, or we can choose to overrule those demands. We can choose to become subject to the (ethical) demands of what is taking place in a human encounter. But to notice those demands, we need contact, we need inefficiency. Imagine wanting to share a life event with a friend (a breakup, a first date, a job interview, a fight with your colleague), and having the following two responses from two different friends. One friend wants a summary of the event, while the other friend wants to hear as much as you’re willing to share with her. The inefficient friend wants to act according to the demands of a human relationship, whereas the efficient friend wants to overrule them.

What about work? What happens when we bring this kind of contact (inefficiency) to our work? Do we become bad workers? That’s a possibility, but something else happens when we bring contact to our work. We make our work more than work, we give it light and life.

In my experience in academia, the inability to do this was a source of alienation. I felt strange and alone for wanting to give life to my work, for wanting my work to reflect life, to be connected with life (not necessarily my life). My desire for inefficiency was linked to a desire to experience a kind of fullness in my work, a kind of presence which I think irritated others, especially others who were interested in “getting things done” so they could update their CVs and move on to other things (watching sports, drinking beer, socializing, etc.). Such a functional approach to work empties it from joy.

Life in a world centered on function is liable to despair because in reality this world is empty, it rings hollow; and if it resists this temptation it is only to the extent that there comes into play from within it and in its favour certain hidden forces which are beyond its power to conceive or to recognize. (ibid.)

You might be surprised to know how many academics, how many “professors,” have almost no interest in talking about their subject-matters, their official field of expertise, the keywords associated with their names. And I think this is because they have taken the efficient route in relation to their work, which means they have tried to remove their work from themselves, from their lives. Their work is no longer a part of their inner life, it has been expelled. Do we not always expel the thing in relation to which we want to be efficient?

Thinkers like Carl Jung, Gabriel Marcel, and James Hillman have argued that our attitude toward another person or object isn’t just outward attitude. The care for something outside of us isn’t just an outward care. It is, at the same time, an inward care. You demonstrate care for something (a friend, a pet, a work of art, etc.), while at the same time exercising care for aspects of yourself that correspond–and have a similar nature–to what you are paying attention to. On a camping trip, we subject ourselves to the demands of the earth, while also affirming our connection to it; in human relationships, we can subject ourselves to the ethical demands of our bonds; and, in work, we can subject ourselves to the inner/outer demands that affirm the ties between us and our work–the ties that preserve fullness and meaning.

Reading Groups, Like-Mindedness, & Participation

Intellect finds itself, not only in solitary activity, but also–perhaps primarily–in group settings. Even in adulthood, there are aspects of our intellect that remain invisible to us until we engage in the right conversation, or in the right playful mood, when we share the present moment with someone. If you have intellectual inclinations, you probably know the pleasure of conversation, including the simple pleasure of discussing a book in a group. This pleasure and the ways we could care for it (and, thus, preserve it) are what I am exploring in this post.

Someone might say: It’s not enough to have a group, it must be a group of “like-minded” people. Let us pause on this term, because it is relevant to our topic (if you want to have a filter, e.g., “only like-minded people!”, then it’s better to understand the filter). How should we think about like-mindedness? What does it mean when someone says: “I’d love to discuss this book, but only with like-minded individuals.” We think of others as like-minded, not because they agree with us on various topics, but because they see the point of those topics; we enjoy talking about a book with another person, not because they read, interpret, and enjoy the book in the same way as us, but because they see the point in reading the book. Shared attention is at the core of our enjoyment, our ability to bond, to play together, and to create together. The aim isn’t to agree about an object (about what it is), but to experience paying attention to it together (that it is).

Recall the expression, “Actions speak louder than words.” The first two words suffice for our purpose: “Actions speak.” Now think about the act of gathering to talk about a book. This act expresses the importance of reading, the incompleteness of reading (which is related to recognizing the significance of talking about it with others). The conversation brings a different life into our reading, just as our reading can bring life into our conversations.

Having in mind the pleasure (the magic!) of group discussions, we could consider better and worse ways of taking part in discussions. I don’t think we need many rules and guidelines. What we need is an open-ended list of ideas about what has worked so far and what hasn’t worked. For my part, with over ten years of participating in various reading groups (journal clubs, book clubs, etc.), I can offer the following ideas.

Premature Criticism

When discussing a book or an essay, it would be better not to start by pointing out and fixating on a “fatal flaw” early on during the discussion. More generally, it would be better to not start with reasons why we should not read the book. Pointing out a fatal flaw might be the most obvious thing to do, and it might be the objective and the correct to do, but the disadvantage of this move is that it kills the discussion (i.e., it doesn’t allow the discussion to take life). It negates what you expressed in the act of attending the group meeting. It usually doesn’t make sense to come to a group meeting only to say, “We shouldn’t be here.” Of course, if you have done so in the past, you shouldn’t feel bad. I have seen senior academics do it at their own seminars (with the reading material that they themselves had assigned). The temptation to focus on (what you perceive to be) the “fatal flaw” of a text can be very strong. It provides a feeling of correctness (“my judgment is right!”) and safety (“my judgment is right!”). And it is a quick-and-easy way of reaching an agreement with others.

If you stumble upon a flaw (fatal or otherwise), if you cannot help but notice it, I’d suggest mentioning it briefly at the outset and then putting it aside, postponing it until the second half of the meeting. It is better to begin with sympathy, because sympathy facilitates contact with the text, and it facilitates contact between the people in the group. Beginning with a sympathetic attitude allows people in the group to express their thoughts more freely, to continue to act as-if the book is worth our time. Critical responses can come later, once the discussion is firmly established.

So, rather than focusing on a flaw, it would be better to start with addressing some basic questions, e.g., Why is this book/essay written? What are the central ideas in it? What are its questions?

Premature Substitution

Another tendency that should also be avoided is premature substitution. This is comparable to the premature pointing out of a fatal flaw, because it suggests that this text shouldn’t be read. Substitution begins with an expression like, “This reminded me a lot of X…,” and it is followed by a discussion of X only. The original text is left behind. For example, you might be discussing an autobiographical work about depression, say, Mary Cregan’s book, the Scar. At the beginning of the group discussion someone might bring in Freud’s essay, Mourning & Melancholia. They start with, “Reading the Scar reminded me a lot of Freud,” and then they go on to talk about Freud for ten minutes. Relating the Freud discussion to the text at hand is difficult, mainly because we haven’t had enough time to establish a shared understanding of the first text. By contrast, Freud is a strong point of reference (it generate discussion easily and capture the conversation).

Sometimes, we might substitute the target book/essay with something else, because we feel more competent discussing that something else. Again, this is common practice in academia, and I think should be avoided. We don’t gather in a reading group for mutual displays of competence. We gather to experience wonder, the limits of our thinking, something that is more akin to incompetence than competence.

The Beginner’s Advantage

You might think: What if I don’t have an understanding of the text? What if my understanding isn’t clear enough, sophisticated enough, impressive enough? What if I am a beginner?

If you’re in the position of a beginner, then one of your contribution to the group could be to formulate questions. Clear, simple, basic questions. These are an extremely important contribution to the group discussion. The questions guides the discussion and allow the “advanced” readers to share their understanding. The beginner could then ask follow-up questions, or ask for clarification. It’s important to keep in mind that the relatively advanced readers tend to lose touch with basic questions. And these are the more important questions. They are the questions that motivate our thinking in the first place. Without basic questions–without the beginner’s advantage–the advanced readers will stay trapped in technicality and detail. The beginner’s contribution is necessary.

Confusion can be more useful than clarity, in so far as confusion moves the discussion. The clarity that ends the conversation and invites only silence isn’t worth much. If you are confused, your work is to express that confusion in terms of basic questions.

… the ultimate act is existence itself, ipsum esse.

Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica)

Concluding Remarks

A while ago, I asked Steve Donoghue if he had any advice on organizing book clubs. His response: Don’t forget that a book club is about the people in the group, not about the book.

Steve’s response, I think, is an overcorrection. And it attempts to correct the more common mistake in favor of the opposite mistake. I think a book club, or any similar group discussion, is about both (the target of discussion and the people). In other words, it is about the synthesis of a past (a text) and a present (us). It’s about the meeting between the people and the book. There are the concerns of the people in the group, and there are the materials in the book. But there are also points of contact between the two. We found several instances, during our Jung discussions, where a personal anecdote could be described in Jungian terms. So, the opposition between the book and the people discussing the book isn’t necessary. It’s not the only possible relation. It’s possible to find a synthesis, based on the overlap between the interests and the material.

To sum up, there are ways of participating in a group discussion that facilitate and increase possibilities, play, and connection. There are also traps to identify and (gently) avoid, including premature negative judgments and substitutions. The beginner’s mindset is an advantage to the group and it has to receive support and recognition. Confusion is also useful, especially if it leads to clearly formulated questions.

Let me end with a few announcement. (1) This month, till the end of November, our Theory Reading Group will be going through Ernesto Laclau’s book, On Populist Reason. (2) I am also starting a parallel group dedicated to works of fiction, beginning with The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (by Carson McCullers). (3) There is also a new Writers’ Group, starting this month. You can join any and all of these groups at any time. For more detail check out the Online Events page.