Poetic Faith, Week Two: Practice, Practice, Practice (Theory)

This week has been very hot and humid in eastern PA, so I’ve been working in Lafayette’s Skillman Library (or, to borrow the great Michael Suarez’s phrasing, the Skillman) instead of my office. This is my second summer with no AC in my office. By choice. I realized a few years ago that my office is no fun to be in during the summer because of my window AC unit. It’s essentially glued in by campus staff in May and ripped out in November, and while it’s there, I can’t let any of the fresh air in without cranking up a motor that sounds like I’m getting ready to fly to another campus. Last year, I decided the lesser of two evils would be to leave out the window unit, enjoy the breeze on most days, and head to a central-air space on the bad days. I had to tell my department secretary about five times last year that I did NOT want an AC unit installed, and a manager from Plant Operations even came in to tell me I was crazy not to have it installed. He tried to explain that with a southern exposure I didn’t get any breeze anyway. (I wanted to tell him to tell that to my papers that went flying around the room when the wind picked up.) But I got what I wanted, I saved my department a little bit of money (since we get charged by our own college for each AC installation and removal), and I can enjoy 19th-century air conditioning in my 19th-century building.

But shouldn’t I be talking about what I’m reading? As you’ll see, this all relates. I’ve been focusing this week on practice theory. It’s a curious topic, not so much a defined field as a shared set of concerns that arose first in anthropology and sociology departments and have spread elsewhere (most notably in philosophy). Even die-hard theory-heads may not have heard of it, since there isn’t a school that’s known for it or a charismatic leader of the field. Charles Taylor, whose A Secular Age I discussed last week, has engaged in talking about practice. So have Pierre Bourdieu, Michel de Certeau, Alistair McIntyre…rather a motley crew, if an impressive one. But none of these figures would be identified as a practice theorist the way that Bourdieu would be labeled a poststructuralist, McIntyre a virtue theorist, or Taylor a postsecularist (all those labels are contestable, by the way). Practice theory seems to be more of a technique than a full-blown theory, and it tends to be grounded strongly in empirical observation as a corrective to idealized frameworks of understanding human behavior.

So what is it, already? Practice theory begins with the assumption that the most basic social unit is the practice, a routinized behavior (studying, using an air conditioner, and having an argument are all practices in this sense). Rather than starting with the individual, the family, the state, or some relatively static unit, practice theory emphasizes patterns of action that incorporate bodily and mental actions, environments (natural or constructed), objects, norms, expectations—there’s something for everyone in practice theory. The reasoning for using these complicated, dynamic nodes as the baseline for study is that human society inheres in practice: if people aren’t doing something together, they’re not actually social. This doesn’t mean that solitary activities such as reading or using a kitchen appliance aren’t practices; it means that the solitary actions themselves participate in a social framework that includes learned behaviors, manufactured goods, and other means for human action to affect the actions of others.

Practices often appear to be highly stable and therefore available to describe. Studying, for example, involves sitting down and giving focused attention to a text or material with the goal of learning something about it, and often how to do something with it. We know it when we see it, like Potter Stewart’s famous definition of obscenity. But practices have histories as well as multiple conditions that have made them the way they are, and that makes the most widespread practices highly repeatable as well as subject to endless improvisation and, potentially, revision. What if we studied at a standing desk, or even a fancy treadmill desk? Does not sitting down change something fundamentally about the practice of studying? What if the goal changes? What if you stare at the same page for an hour and nothing soaks in? It’s probably all still studying, but not quite in the same way. Practice theory allows for talking about the larger concept of studying meaningfully while allowing attention to these variations and their importance. Since practices are always made up of more than one element, the singular and the plural coincide productively, if not always easily.

What got me on to all of this? Last summer I took the American Antiquarian Society’s Summer Seminar in the History of the Book. The year’s theme was “Books in the World of Objects,” and much of our reading and discussion revolved around thing theory, a diffuse but more-unified-than-practice-theory study of the nature of objects and their relationships with humans and the larger world. Some thing theorists argue that objects have their own agency, even moral properties, while more moderate thing theorists view objects as extensions of human agency and intention. I came across practice theory among the footnotes of our readings in that seminar, and I’ve been especially interested in the work of British sociologist Elizabeth Shove and her collaborators who have focused their version of practice theory on finding a clearer space for understanding the role of objects within practices. While avoiding both the “things are alive!” argument and the reductive comfort of technological determinism (we do what we do because the machines make us do it), this style of practice theory makes human interaction with things—especially manufactured things—much more dynamic, bringing attention to ways in which humans adapt themselves to their things while also altering those things in the process.

I find this an especially compelling way to think about reading as a practice. Books change us and we change books (there’s much more to say about other forms of reading media, but I’m sticking to books for the moment). Books enable and limit conversations among people; some books are perfect for reading at the beach, others demand an attentive posture and serious quiet—in one setting, also a pen or pencil; in another, such implements should be nowhere near the book, as in a rare books library.

When we read, we’re engaging with text as well as the thing—the book—in which the text is delivered. A pocket-size hymnbook will give a very different experience of getting to know the works of Isaac Watts than a finely illustrated, large-format gift book of great hymns would. If you were to take that small hymnbook into a church and read it during the service, that would give you another way to shape your experience. If you’re in a church where it’s expected that you will sing from the book and you choose to read quietly, your action becomes a form of resistance; if you’re in a church where the music is happening up front and the congregation listens attentively, your silent reading fits right in. However, if you read your hymnbook during the sermon, that silent reading again pushes against the norms of the practice. If you’re suddenly reminded of a text from something the preacher says, or he alludes to or quotes a hymn you want to read more of, you may turn to it, even if you are technically supposed to be listening at the moment. Here is where the give-and-take of practice starts to become especially apparent. Every context and behavior involving that hymnbook, or its gift-book counterpart, can be understood as participating in the practice of reading, yet it’s also clear that each of these is distinctive in some way.

When we talk about reading, then, we’re not talking about one thing; we’re talking about a huge range of things that encompass architecture, posture, shared bodily space, voice, hand positions and motions, routes traveled along and between pages, and so on. Practice theory provides a framework for seeing all of that, for talking about it and thinking about how individual moments—what Shove calls “practices-as-performances”—participate in much larger patterns (“practices-as-entities”) that emerge, stabilize, evolve, and fade. The reading of hymnbooks is one such pattern that my next book, The Hymnal Before the Notes, is aimed at describing. Practice theory is helping me put into focus more fully what the beginning, middle, and end are of the story I wish to tell, as well as what are some of the most intriguing turning points as well as which enduring trends stand out across the many individual cases I’m investigating. Literary critics haven’t done much with practice theory, nor have book historians. One area where this kind of thinking has had prior influence, however, is in the approach generally known as lived religion in religious studies: the empirical analysis of how actual people practice their religion rather than turning to doctrine or institutional (meaning leaders’) history. My next blog post will discuss some of the reading I’ve been doing along those lines, some of which will relate to last week’s themes of secularism and belief, some of which will highlight why I find practice theory so interesting and promising.

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