The Locus and Economy of Community (The Transfiguration of Place, Part II)

The globalized supermarket: Do you know any of these farmers?

The following is Part II of a talk I gave on April 2nd at the St. Emmelia Orthodox Homeschooling Conference at the Antiochian Village. The full talk is entitled “The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism.” Read Part I. There are six parts in all.

Let’s think about this effect for a moment: What if transportation became so expensive that you could no longer travel easily? What if you lived your whole life within about a mile of your house? What if your community really had an actual locus to it, that is, a place? What if you walked almost everywhere you went? What would life look like?

Because you would see them all the time, you would probably know almost everyone in your neighborhood. Because the streets would be filled with walking people, you would have a porch on the front of your house and probably not a patio in the back—a porch is a place of public connection, while the patio is for privacy. You would be more concerned with how your lawn looks, not just whether it’s mowed but whether it actually frames the life you want to live. You would have a garden in your yard, because a lot of the things you want to eat just wouldn’t be at the stores in your neighborhood. And those stores in your neighborhood would be less specialized and more geared toward the general basics of the home and garden.

I think it’s hard for us to imagine what this would be like because we’re so oriented toward constant mobility. Our societal watchwords are easier and faster. All our technological development seems to be pointed in that direction—things that make life easier and faster. The ATM is faster: I don’t have to go in and see a bank teller, and I can use it any time, day or night. Online bill-pay is easier: I don’t have to send an envelope to some far-off place, nor do I have to practice my penmanship. The superhighway is faster: I don’t have to drive through all those small towns with their stoplights. My smartphone is both easier and faster: I don’t have to look things up in a book, call an informed person on the phone or even be inconvenienced by sitting at a computer.

But all these technological wonders—which, it must be admitted, have also been used for much good—leave us both freed and also enslaved. Every time I use another “labor-saving device,” I am almost inevitably cut off from another person with whom I had an opportunity to have a relationship. Every time I prefer centralization over localization, I am de-localizing myself. Every time I login to Facebook, I am neither seeing actual faces nor reading a book. This is the nervous system of the simulacrum commonly called “globalization.”

The essence of globalization is supposedly interconnectedness, that all of us who were formerly cut off from one another now have the possibility of becoming networked. But if we think about what is actually happening here, we are not more connected but more isolated. We may have more connections, but they are much more anemic relationships. A man with a thousand friendships will have a hard time maintaining one good one, because he just won’t have the time. His interconnectedness actually limits or prevents real connection.

Or consider something like the supermarket. In that one building, there are products from all over the world. Probably tens of thousands of farmers contribute to the products in one supermarket, not to mention those who work in the packaging and shipping industries. With one full shopping cart, I could be contributing to the livelihood of thousands of people. And yet these days, I do not have to interact with even one. I can even use the self-check-out machines rather than letting an employee scan my bar-codes for me.

We hear about how we are now a “global community” and a “global economy,” but I wonder what exactly that means. In the grocery store, my money is distributed in miniscule amounts in tens of thousands of directions. On television and on the Internet, I read and watch about people suffering in far-off places. I have opinions about politics in North Africa and Wisconsin. My tax dollars go to people not only throughout my state and my country, but also the whole world. I know more about musicians from another country than I do in my own Pennsylvania borough. But I don’t know any of those people. It is almost impossible for me to have a relationship with any of them. Our web of economic and political interdependence is essentially anonymous. I don’t know them, and they don’t know me. Public life has become about policies and publicity, but there is little in the way of the palpable.

But why does that matter? Why shouldn’t I give my one thousandth of a cent to a produce farmer in South America and another thousandth to a Malaysian chair maker?

It is because we do not really depend on one another, at least, not very much. I have no sense of loyalty to them or responsibility for them. Our interdependence is so diffuse that there is almost no possibility that any of our hearts would be stirred to gratitude or to admiration for the work we do for each other. We cannot even look each other in the eye. And that is a spiritual problem.

On to Part III.


  1. That last comment rings all too true; on a college campus I don’t know how many times that during an interaction things come off more as rushed and awkward than genuine. Even when buying products at a store I feel that it’s become strange to ask the cashier “how they’re day” has been, and half-hearted when asked. But after the few seconds one can just put on their headphones and delve into their own digital world of music.

  2. Thank you for posting these two articles.

    So are you a fan of Front Porch Republic? I only found their website recently, but it seems to work the same theme from only the few minutes I’ve spent there.

    Personally, I find more and more who seem to agree that “social networking” is one of the more anti-social behaviors on the planet.

Comments are closed.