Liturgies Brought to Life: An Ode to Burgers and Blockbuster
Imagine for a moment a time-worn tavern of a bygone era, folded among low-rise neighborhood shops. The exterior is unassuming and inside, a modest aesthetic: narrow space, natural wood, bar stools with cracking leather cushions, and empty walls (save for the pared-down menu scrawled on chalkboard).
Patrons wait at a two-top for table service that never comes—they have to put in their orders with the barkeep. Only one kind of hamburger is on the menu, and they only make it precisely one way, as the barkeep constantly has to inform first-time guests. Zero substitutions, modifications, or specified gradations of done-ness will be considered by the chef. “Still want it?” the barkeep often has to ask. And when the burger is ready, it’s served—almost like an afterthought—couched in a square of butcher paper. (This is a real place, by the way, and the burger is the best I’ve ever tasted.)
Now, consider a different burger joint. This one just a few miles away from the first. Modern building. Blonde wood bar. Aluminum chairs tucked under clean white tables uniformly dotting the interior, supplied with aluminum mesh containers meant to hold a variety of novelty dipping sauces. Patrons are furnished with tiny clipboards and miniature pencils and extensive directions, tasked with jotting notes and ticking boxes as they fully customize their burger through a series of categories and an exhaustive list of proteins, buns, toppings, hipster aiolis, and internal cooking temperatures. Each guest is entirely at the helm of their dish, fully autonomous, picking their preferences from among the endless combinations. (This is also a real place, but the burgers here are frustratingly average.)
The old-timey tavern features an obviously outdated format, restricting customer agency and requiring a sort of submission to authority, while the gastro-pub feels more at home in the 21st century, accommodating a variety of tastes and letting its diners decide. I’ve long wondered if the different procedures somehow shape my assessment of the burgers themselves. Or, to raise the stakes a little, I wonder if they somehow shape me.
Before I try to answer, consider another experience. Let’s dial the clock back a decade and a half and summon images of the local video store. The brick-and-mortar Blockbuster Video, perhaps—cornerstone of the nearby strip mall. Bicycles parked out front. Inside, a couple of quirky employees with matching khakis, and a dozen or so patrons from the neighborhood, scanning aisles and reading blurbs on the back of DVD slipcovers. Some require the employee’s help to track down a certain movie; some settle for their second or third choice upon discovering their hoped-for film was already checked out; others still decide to scoot across town to the other video store, hoping its "New Release section" isn’t similarly drained. (I miss Blockbuster.)
Now, bring to mind the process of renting a movie today. From the comfort of a couch, firing up a laptop or streaming device. Scrolling down pages in Netflix, clicking around Amazon Prime, sifting through Hulu and HBO GO, perhaps even paying a few dollars to download a new release available on iTunes. Multiple libraries, thousands of options, all compacted into a personal kiosk. Scroll and click and binge and repeat—without getting in a car, without seeing another person, without running the risk of tracking down an already-checked-out movie—multiple nights a week. (This routine often leaves me feeling empty and irritable.)
Less than a decade separates these two very different experiences, venturing to the video store and streaming from home. The first is physical and filled with potential obstructions, forcing customers into community, subjecting us to long lines as well as the risk and randomness of a shared inventory—and, sometimes, the rush of having to return a nearly overdue rental. The second is all about accommodating the autonomous self, flattening time and space, empowering the user to endlessly scroll and acquire exactly what we want with just a few clicks and in just a few minutes and, at most, costing just a few dollars.
But what does this, like the burger joint story, even matter? Am I just being a nostalgic curmudgeon? Pining for the liberating sensation that accompanies a stringently controlled menu while feeling debilitated upon taking advantage of a convenient digital movie rental platform: who shall resolve this tangle?
Enter the idea of the cultural jig, coined by Matthew Crawford in his book The World Beyond Your Head and recently alerted to me by Comment Magazine’s Winter 2016 issue. A jig, Crawford writes, is a “device or procedure that guides repeated action by constraining the environment in such a way as to make the action go smoothly, the same each time.” Metal and wood workers use a jig to get a precise cut over and over without having to think about it.
A cultural jig, then, is a kind of environmental constraint for the masses (like an institution or a prevailing practice), giving a certain (moral) shape to a people. Crawford notes that the “project of liberation led us to dismantle inherited cultural jigs that once imposed a certain coherence (for better or worse) on individual lives.” The consequence of our chipping away at these constraints, at the erosion of cultural jigs, has been “to ratchet up the burden of self-regulation.”
Back to burgers and Blockbuster. The uncompromising tavern and the physical video store were my jigs. They functioned as constraining rituals, limiting practices to remind me in my gut that I am finite, from the dust, requiring sleep and Sabbath and skin over my bones. They weren’t a straitjacket, but a trellis—guardrails, guiding me toward growth. Jigs like these are, oddly enough, freeing, with their regulation not allowing the burden of self-rule (the reflex that tells me I am in control, that I know best!) to take root.
Engaging in the restrictive rhythm of bumping up against cultural jigs, like dining at a throwback burger joint or a flinging myself into a sparsely stocked video store, is sort of like giving ear to an annoying gym buddy tasked with holding me accountable to work out the muscle group that makes me into a more dependent and trusting sort of creature. It’s the parent who says no dessert until I finish my vegetables.
The consequences of losing these jigs, the cheap replacements attempting to plug up the vacuum left behind in their wake, are the build-your-own-burger bar and the present day movie streaming service. There’s no limit to bump up against, there’s only license: free rein to choose from the options before me, slowly and subtly forcing me to rely on myself and thereby encouraging me to outreach the liberty I’ve been given. The unregulated, repeated embrace of the customized clipboards and the scroll and binge software will more often than not leave my heart flabby -- or worse. It will sneakily squeeze it into an anxious, impatient, insatiable mold. The seemingly innocuous habits made available to me in the absence of the jig often seem preferable to what was offered in the past, but they get me dangerously used to the feeling that I’m infinite.
It’s possible I’ve inflated trivial examples with stakes that are too high. Re-jigging my life by frequenting restaurants with small seasonal menus and deleting my Netflix account won’t suddenly alchemize me into a virtuous person. However, these experiences do clue me in to the paradox that freedom is often bound up with healthy rhythms, requiring a degree of submission, patience, restraint, and trust, while rhythms built upon autonomy, convenience, and unlimited choice often result in a spiritual hangover.
I’m a creature, not Creator, designed with limits in mind, protected by jigs from being left to my own devices, helped more by fixed guides than free rein as I try to progress in the project of becoming more human. So now I’m auditing the presence (and absence) of nourishing limits in my life. I'm on the lookout for new jigs, so to speak: creative ways to trust the chef, more opportunities to settle for the non-"New Release." All the while I'm armed with a fresh perception that some bumps and grooves exist not to hold me back, but to guide me through.