The New York Times (28 November 2012) published a piece by Guy Trebay the other day (“Guess Who Isn’t Coming to Dinner”) on the many ways in which the old fashioned dinner party has been endangered by neo-forms like meet-ups and text-powered last minute cancellations.
Otherwise known as flaking.
My mother-in-law, Joyce Garner, has a series of paintings which has been shown at her gallery, where my wife Angie Reed Garner, is gallery director, and where I’ve been spending the bulk of my days the last many months, working on my Pakistan/Conspiracy Theory/Public Sphere book and attempting to sell art. The series is called the Table Series, which explores the joys and stresses of life around the table, centered on food and drink, conversation and relationship…
(Celebration, Oil on Canvas, Joyce Garner)
Contemplating those canvases as I sit the gallery, I have wondered about the reasons why dinner gatherings seem to be increasingly difficult to put together. And I have to agree that a big part of the problem seems to be the ease with which people our age, lets call it 35 – 50, but I would guess even more so for younger people, let themselves cancel at the last minute, almost as if they are unaware that preparing for this sort of gathering, with a set and limited guest list, isn’t rather a big deal.
Yet I guess this is actually epiphenomenal. Yes, it is relatively easy to send a text at the last minute, saying you can’t make it, but ultimately I think people suffer from a kind of lack of comfort with the format. The let themselve “off the hook” because they feel that dinner and conversation doesn’t really constitute and evening of entertainment. This is, frankly, a combination of the fault of the hosts–who tend to unpracticed in putting people at ease, modeling free-flowing enjoyment, facilitating conversation–and all of us, who are forgetting what it means to open ourselves to talk, story-telling, mutually engaged exploration and so on, because of our life-long dependence on electronic media.
This is a loss of profound consequence. Yes, the more informal gatherings that happen in public spaces, meet-ups and music, are also of value and the form of sociality is inevitably going to change with technology and changing mores, but conversation, particularly the chance to explore politics, ideas, and culture with persons who are not intimately known is something that can only happen in relatively quite, extended, relaxed time-frames. A table. Comfortable chairs. Simple, good food. Wine and coffee. These are the midwives of such conversation and we are in danger of losing these things.
Or–with awareness, perhaps not.