Sharpening a pencil

A moment before typing these words I was sharpening a pencil. It’s a classic yellow wood-barrel, #2 Dixon Ticonderoga. In the hand, the pencil is strangely light and stiff. In contrast, the brass sharpener (an M+R 602) pulls my hand down with an unexpected load.

As I turn the pencil in the sharpener, I feel its wood barrel resist the blade. I barely notice the tactile sensations as the inconsistent wood grain catches and skips. Instead, I directly feel the chunks of wood and graphite being shaved off.

This haptic experience is not itself isolatable. I have a rich, integrated multimodal experience. I seamlessly experience the seen pencil as the felt pencil. The felt skips of the wood over the blade are simultaneously heard. The pencil makes a distinctive sound as its wood and graphite are shaved off, and that sound is experienced as the sound of the pencil.

Curiously, there’s a distinctive smell emitted as I sharpen. I am not sure if it’s from the wood particles, the graphite particles, or other additives. While this olfactory experience is less integrated with the rest, it still introspectively strikes me as if what I’m smelling is the freshly sharpened pencil.

As I sharpen, the pencil feels present. I experience it (and the sharpener, wood shavings, etc.) as in the same space as me. I experience myself as coupled to the pencil. It introspectively strikes me as if I’m seeing it through my eyes. I experience the seen twists of the pencil as caused by my action. I roll my fingers, grasping the pencil, and feel as if this voluntary action manipulates the pencil I’m perceiving.

In some sense, what I’m doing is utterly mundane. At the same time, this experience is phenomenologically rich. There’s not only something it’s like for me as I sharpen the pencil, there’s much it’s like for me. The experience involves a nuanced phenomenology. I come to both cause and perceive a complex physical event. I become in touch with the world in a way that also puts me in touch with my own body, my own corporal nature. While it’s easy to focus on the pencil, always just on the edge of awareness are the physical mechanisms through which I engage and perceive the pencil — my soft skin against the hard wood, my contracting muscles turning the barrel and bracing the brass, my moving eyes scanning in front of me.

Scrolling through my newsfeed

This rich, lived, sensorimotor experience contrasts with the dull, disembodied experience of scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed.

At least as it usually happens, as I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed, I loss track of what’s happening around me here and now. My sense for the space and time in which I, my body, resides slips away. My stream of phenomenal consciousness becomes consumed by what’s represented on my phone’s screen. I lose track of how the feel feels in my hand, how my finger tip feels gliding over the glass screen. I also lose track of the room, and of the space between my eyes and the phone.

There is a new world created for me, a virtual world which I access through my phone. Well, that world may be the real world — I might be, for example, looking at photos of friends or reading the latest news about my city. Still, the way I engage that world is virtual, or disconnected. Unlike what happens as I sharpen my pencil, I don’t feel as if I’m accessing that world (the world) through my bodily senses. I experience the world as a step or two removed from me.

Of course, in this case, I probably experience the world as a step or two removed because it is a step or two removed. My friend’s cat, in a picture displayed on my phone’s screen, is not the same as my friend’s cat!

Laboured engagement

What’s noteworthy is how easy it is to lose track of this phenomenological difference. If you spend too much of your life engrossed in your phone’s screen, you forget what it’s like to engage the world yourself. Plugged into cheap headphones with eyes down, you’re left with only the experience your brain can generate based on impoverished, compressed input. If you suddenly wake up, and, say, sharpen a pencil, you’re apt to be surprised by the rich experiences you’ve been missing.

There are other examples, as well. Spend too much time ordering processed, cheap takeout, and you forget what it’s like to cook and eat. What’s left after processing, time, and packaging sap your food of odour and taste is a thin gustatory experience of simple sugars and salts. In contrast, as I cook a pot of steel-cut oats soaking in milk over a gas flame, I experience a rich aroma released as I stir. The steaming oats, fleshly poured into my bowl, have rich textures and flavours.

While the food example may seem unrelated to scrolling through Facebook, it’s not. Embodied engagement with the world is laboured engagement. It takes work to sharpen a pencil. It takes work to prepare food with your hands. Standing immersed in an active forest or busy city, it takes work to listen and look around. Facebook, like junk takeout, can be absorbed with little effort. By settling for passive stimulation, we rob ourselves of much of what it is to be human. We lessen our need to engage, manipulate, sense, and process the world. In doing so, we lose touch with our bodies and miss out on the vivid, lived experience of being in the world. We exchange it for a sterile simulacrum of life.