Technologies of Family

February 18, 2005 | 26 comments
By

I experience flashes of poetry, but I was assigned an unreliable muse in the heretofore, alas. My moment of greatest poetic inspiration arrived when I was twelve or thirteen, on a trip across country in our fifteen-passenger Ford van. My mother devised a contest among us siblings to compose the best family cheer, and, motivated as I always have been by competition, I came up with these four immortal lines:

Get the baby, shut the door!
What’s for dinner? We want more!
Though we’re busy and sometimes mad,
The Frandsen family is really rad!

Needless to say, I won the competition.

I’ve been reading Ann Hulbert’s historical tome on popularized theories of modern parenting, Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice about Children. I’ve been trying to read it, that is: at 464 pages it’s perversely long, and since she suffers from the same glib prolixity that I do, I dislike her style rather violently in passages. Still, though, it’s been an interesting read, and it’s helped me realize anew how much of modern parenting practice and family ethos is timebound and local, despite persistent poles and problematics. So many of the things we did (my mother did, really) to make us feel like a family–family home evening, family prayer, family scripture study, family council, family devotional, family photo albums, family mission statements, family cheers, family hugs, family dinners, family vacations, family holiday rituals, family websites, family reunions, family letters, our family “school of the prophets,” family rules, and all the myriad items one finds in the “Random Sampler” section of the Ensign–are inextricably rooted in the technologies, social formations, and emotional structures of a modern world.

The point had been driven home for me several years ago, when I was asked to speak in sacrament meeting on “The Eternal Principle of Family Home Evening.” I was confounded by the assignment. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy facilitating FHE, I do so (almost) every week, and I think there’s great (and inspired) value in the church’s recent re-emphasis of the practice. But try as I might, I can’t imagine Adam and Eve, or Abraham and Sarah, or Mary and Joseph, implementing anything like FHE with their children in anything like the way we do it with ours. Because I’m cursed with an orderly mind, disliking unaccountable inconsistency, this bothered me: if family structure is eternal, why do we need so many supporting ideological and material apparatuses in the present day? FHE and all the other technologies of the modern LDS family–and here I use “technology” in the sense of the Greek techne, an applied skill or practice–seemed like so many manifestations of the “anxious family,” a category that has generated reams of recent academic-political-popular analysis of our artificial attempts to bolster a moribund social institution.

Recently I’ve been rethinking things, though. I think it’s a mistake to see the historical trajectory of the family as a tragic decline from a real, robust, naturalized social formation to a culturally residual, beleaguered, artificial, anxiety-ridden relic. The family has never existed as an utterly “natural” arrangement: in my particular area of expertise, the sixteenth century, for example, the family structure was buttressed with structural and cultural supports that included ideologies of blood-line and purity, patronymic and patrilineal technologies like family liveries and family names, and structural instruments like dowry, jointure and primogeniture. The sixteenth-century family was just as “artificial” as the twenty-first century LDS family, and although it was quite different in form and function, it nevertheless performed some of the same crucial work that my family did and does. Knowing this, I’m less bothered by the realization that FHE and its cognates aren’t eternal principles, because I can see how, as inspired programs (as I believe them to be), they adapt to the present day an institution God has chosen to bear the weight of the sacred sealing ordinance.

So I’m going to do my best to install in my family the parade of family technologies that my own mother so ably installed in hers. Maybe instead having my children recite a family cheer in the van, though, I’ll have my children write family sonnets to be published on our family blog. Any takers?

Tags:

26 Responses to Technologies of Family

  1. Jed on February 18, 2005 at 3:41 pm

    re. FHE as “eternal.” Some FHEs do seem to go on and on and ON. :)

    I don’t know why Mormons don’t apply the reading of “eternal” in Doctrine and Covenant 19 to other contexts. In the early verses, “eternal punishment” is God’s punishment, not endless punishment. The emphasis is on authorship not duration. In like manner, FHE is God’s program, not a timeless program. Mormons are always trying to substitute a Hebrew metaphysics with the Greek one.

    As far as declentionist trajectory of the family, why does it have to be one or the other. Every assertion of decline hides over assertions of ascent that could be made but are not. It is both/and, not either/or.

  2. Kaimi on February 18, 2005 at 3:44 pm

    Really rad Rosalynde,

    I don’t know that I have any coherent thoughts on this topic at the moment, but I liked your description of technologies of the family.

    Of course, where does that leave the technophobes?

    :P

  3. Audrey Stone on February 18, 2005 at 5:27 pm

    I too, have wondered about the family unit throughout history, and perhaps I’m oversimplifying it, but I always felt that “Adam and Eve, or Abraham and Sarah, or Mary and Joseph” wouldn’t need the practices (technologies) of family binding, because there were already together. They lived, learned, worked, laughed, cried, worshipped, ate, and slept together. It seems the more modern the society, the more individual and disconnected we all become from one another, and that these forced family togetherness activities are in the most simple terms to help maintain those bonds neccessary for healthy human interdependence.

  4. Sheri Lynn on February 18, 2005 at 6:15 pm

    We aim for a Family Home Lifetime. Some families are lucky to salvage one Evening a week, I know.

  5. Arturo Toscanini on February 18, 2005 at 11:53 pm

    Rosalynde Welch: I think it’s a mistake to see the historical trajectory of the family as a tragic decline from a real, robust, naturalized social formation to a culturally residual, beleaguered, artificial, anxiety-ridden relic.

    As someone who feels as though he is following the historical trajectory that you describe (namely, the tragic decline from being real and robust to a residual, beleaguered, artifical, anxiety-ridden relic), I must say that you’re attempt to rob me of good company is more than a bit unnerving.

  6. Rosalynde Welch on February 19, 2005 at 2:50 pm

    Thanks for the responses, all, and sorry to have been an absent curator of the thread.

    Jed: that’s a great point about “eternal” denoting authorship, not temporality, and associating the former with Hebrew and the latter with Greek metaphysics. I’m quite sure that’s not what the bishopric had in mind when they assigned me the topic, but a very good point nonetheless! Still, though, it seems to me almost as preposterous to think of God as the author of FHE as to think of FHE as a transhistorical practice: I tend to think of FHE (and many Church programs/policies) as a very good human idea that was confirmed by inspiration of the Holy Ghost, rather than a blueprint revealed directly by God, like a temple. Is there a difference in provenance between Holy Ghost-mediated inspiration and God-authored revelation?

  7. Rosalynde Welch on February 19, 2005 at 3:01 pm

    Audrey, thanks for commenting! I think you make an excellent point about the conditions of modernity eroding familial interdependence. What’s interesting, though, is that Hulbert describes the very same phenomenon being lamented more than a hundred years ago, as industrialization was reaching full steam: parenting “experts” warned about the dangers of family fragmentation, the complexity of contemporary life against the bucolic simplicity of the past, the challenges of “individualism” that infants will face, etc–in short, many of the same themes that exercise us now. And going back even further, to the sixteenth-century, very few families experienced the kind of pre-lapsarian togetherness that I yearn for in mine: in upper class families, children were sent off to wet nurses and boarding schools, and fathers were at court and away at war; in lower class families, children were sent off to serve in the great houses at very young ages, etc etc. I’d guess that the kind of harmonious togetherness we yearn for with our families has never been a consistent condition in history–in some way, the “whole family” is always already lost. And yet across history we’ve never stopped wanting it, idealizing it.

    Could this persistent yearning be some sort of psychological structure imprinted in the neural pathways of the human psyche after the trauma of the Fall, when Adam and Eve were thrust prematurely from the nest of Eden?

  8. Rosalynde Welch on February 19, 2005 at 3:06 pm

    Arturo, so sorry to have left you stranded in the island of residuality, beleagueredness, artifice, and anxiety without the company of the nuclear family! If it’s any comfort, celebrity-status Italian-expatriate radio-based opera conductors are likely to join you there soon. :)

  9. Arturo Toscanini on February 19, 2005 at 4:47 pm

    Oh Rosalynde, it was always so much more than just opera and radio. But even so, I suppose you’d prefer Wilhelm Furtwängler?

  10. Rosalynde Welch on February 19, 2005 at 6:33 pm

    Oh no, Arturo, it could only be Gustav Mahler at the NYPO for me, of course.

  11. Arturo Toscanini on February 19, 2005 at 6:43 pm

    Ouch.

  12. Rosalynde Welch on February 19, 2005 at 6:45 pm

    Is this a comment on my middlebrow taste in classical music? Or on my callous rejection of Herr Furtwangler? :)

  13. Adam Greenwood on February 20, 2005 at 9:41 am

    Not to be crude, but though it is sweet to think of eternal marriage as God’s marriage, marriage he has sanctified, at the crudest level I’m happy that it lasts forever. Let’s not trouble ourselves to redefine everything.

  14. Shawn Bailey on February 20, 2005 at 2:11 pm

    Interesting to me:
    (1) the implicit comparison between a somewhat idealized ancient family and the contemporary or early modern family. Do we infer from this idealization that formal programs that encourage family togetherness and teaching within the family (Rosalynde’s family techne) were not necessary or could not have existed in the ancient world? I am not arguing that FHE did in fact exist in the ancient world. But can we even imagine that FHE or something like it was part of the gospel revealed to Adam and Eve in the beginning (see Moses 5:58-59)? I imagine that the basic demands of sustaining life have always required family members to spend considerable time apart (for example, I imagine some in Adam’s family cultivating, others herding, others tending to shelter and clothing, others teaching and nurturing children, etc.). I submit that something formal that brought the family together regularly for scripture study, coordination of calendars, and delicious treats (even if not rice crispy squares) could have been part of the gospel from the beginning.

    (2) the relationship between eternal principles and “inspired programs.” Here the family and its central role in the Plan is an eternal principle, while FHE is an inspired (although not necessarily eternal in the no-beginning-or-end sense) program. I think of other things in terms of this basic paradigm. For example, that our bodies are temples that we should treat accordingly I call an eternal principle. The particulars of revealed dietary laws (compare levitical law and the word of wisdom) are inspired but mutable “programs.” Probably not a new insight to most, but interesting all the same.

    (3) the statement that family never existed as an utterly natural arrangement. This rings true to me. To argue otherwise sounds like primitivism that is naive but perhaps sometimes irresistable (this is an interesting theme traced through the history of western culture by Jaques Barzun in From Dawn to Decadence). Consider G.K. Chesterton’s thoughts about the unique challenge and opportunity family affords: unlike a club we join to pursue our interests, the family continually forces us to encounter and love people we did not choose to associate with. This insight makes me think some form of family techne would have been useful from the very beginning. Imagine a presentation in felt cut-outs about being one’s brother’s keeper.

  15. Arturo Toscanini on February 20, 2005 at 2:26 pm

    Rosalynde Welch: Is this a comment on my middlebrow taste in classical music? Or on my callous rejection of Herr Furtwangler? :)

    Neither, sweet cheeks.

  16. RoAnn on February 20, 2005 at 8:55 pm

    As I recall, Wilfried Decoo mentioned in a comment on another thread that for many Europeans the FHE concept that the missionaries teach doesn’t resonate in the quite the same way that it does with many Americans, because most evenings their families are together in the home. Having lived in European and Latin American countires, I immediately agreed with his comment. All many converts need to add is the concept of one evening involving a more formal gathering which includes a lesson. In many LDS homes throughout the world, several generations live together, eat at least one meal a day together, and spend a lot of time in each other’s company.
    Certainly for most of us Americans, all the things you mentioned as support structure for families in the modern world help us feel connected in our daily lives even if we live thousands of miles apart.

  17. RoAnn on February 20, 2005 at 9:15 pm

    Correction to Comment #16: I should of written “many” of the things Rosalynde mentioned in her original post. Obviously many others she listed only apply to familes whose members are in close proximity, if not in the same house. (I am new to blogging, and in the future I definitely need to review what I have written more carefully before I press “Make comment!”)

  18. Jed on February 21, 2005 at 2:06 pm

    Rosalynde says: “I tend to think of FHE (and many Church programs/policies) as a very good human idea that was confirmed by inspiration of the Holy Ghost, rather than a blueprint revealed directly by God, like a temple.”

    There is something about the human idea/blueprint dichotomy that doesn’t quite square to my experience working in the church. A “good human idea” seems to discount the role of inspiration in the origins of ideas, and the “blueprint” idea seems to undersell the roll of human imagination, will, talent, and serendipity. I see God working in the details with anyone who asks, seeks, and knocks, but that involvement need not imply the absence of human floundering.

    This is not to say, of course, that FHE does not rely on contingency. The seismic changes in economic production, population migration, and labor redivision in America between 1880 and 1920 were enough to create a need for the program. As you imply, we probably don’t get FHE in pre-industrial, argriaran society where parent and child work side by side.

  19. Rosalynde Welch on February 21, 2005 at 2:28 pm

    Shawn, thanks for the thoughtful comment. About an “FHE equivalent” for Adam and Eve–that is, an ideological mechanism (and I don’t use this term pejoratively–ideological mechanisms can be very useful, and accomplish great good!) that did in the ancient world what things like FHE do today–yes, I’m quite sure there were cultural and structural buttresses to the family organization from the beginning. I went back and looked at Moses 5, which you referenced, and I was struck by the priority and prestige of the father-son connection and the emphasis on male fertility, a “patriarchal” ideology in the technical sense. Although there are of course references to Eve and her daughters conceiving, there’s a greater emphasis on fathers “begetting” their sons: Christ, of course, is the “Only Begotten” of the Father, and Satan recommends himself by insisting that he is also a “son of God.” Later the litanies of “so-and-so begat so-and-so” underscore the ideological primacy of male fertility, and of patrilineal transfer of power, blood, and covenant: clearly this would have worked to encourage fathers’ investment in their children, and to buttress the family group structure that is modeled and replicated so clearly in Moses 5.

    This seems to me radically different from today’s families, where the emphasis is so overwhelmingly on female fertility and parenting–women’s responsibility to bear children, to raise and nurture the children, etc. In the absence of technically and explicitly “patriarchal” and patrilineal mechanisms–all sons and daughters are equally valued, today, not just the first begotten, and family resources like blood and wealth are not transmitted through patrilineal primogeniture–we have developed other ideological and structural ways to buttress the family group.

  20. Rosalynde Welch on February 21, 2005 at 2:35 pm

    RoAnn, thanks for commenting! That’s a great point about cross-cultural contrasts, and in many ways I think transcultural differences can help us understand transhistorical difference.

    Jed, I’m glad you followed up. You’re right, the distinction I made is crude–particularly because it can seem to discount one and privilege the other. Still, though, the “human idea confirmed by inspiration of the Holy Ghost” actually does reflect my experience in church work, and I think it reflects the model in D&C 9, to study it out in our minds and then wait for confirmation by the Spirit. And this, I think, is qualitatively different from, say, the experience Joseph had in revealing D&C 57, where explicit and detailed information was transmitted to him.

  21. Naomi Frandsen on February 21, 2005 at 8:47 pm

    Rosalynde, how could you forget surprise dinners, Saturday morning chores, Daddy’s in-car spelling/geography/science bees, family musical numbers (ad naseam, to use my recently corrected Latin), family Christmas programs, and family gleeking contests (okay, most of those were carried on by just a few members)? Maybe some of those ideological family apparatuses can stop this generation :). But I wanted to mention, as someone that has always completely and even uncritically participated in and perpetuated those kinds of family activities, that a lot of what you mentioned has to do with (1) ritualizing regular family functions, such as eating, working, socializing, and (2) constructing some kind of family identity. Particularly a lot of the family technes that you listed were documentary practices–photo albums, letters, e-mails, websites. Do we somehow have more of a need to construct and reflect and then reflect back upon our family identity? Do you think this is new to the 19th and 20th and 21st centuries? Perhaps this is linked to urbanization–the closer we start living together, the more we need to differentiate ourselves as a discrete unit from our neighbors (this is just a thought). And it seems that families have this ritualizing/technoligizing impulse to greater and lesser degrees: I have a roommate whose family technes are very different from the ones I remember, to the degree that I sometimes wondered if they have any sort of family identity at all! (I’ve since concluded that they certainly do, and they might look equally askance upon the things we did as a young family) And one last question–I wonder what happens to those technes during the inter-generation period as kids become parents and the family structure begins evolving–do they falter? Do they intensify? Obviously they evolve to fit distance and time (e-mails rather than dinner-table conversation).

  22. Gabrielle Turner on February 21, 2005 at 11:47 pm

    I’m not smart enough to add any meaningful comment to this thread, although I find it very interesting.
    I just wanted to make a couple of small corrections. :-)

    First, you could not have composed the cheer in the 15-seat van, because the cheer contest took place while we still lived in our old house. I concretely remember chanting the cheer in our old family room. Also, we didn’t get the van until 1990, I believe, and “rad” is definitely an 80’s word!
    And, if my memory serves me correctly, the cheer was written before Benjamin was born, and we were all referring to the twins as “the babies.” I believe you originally wrote the cheer to say, “Get the *babies,* shut the door.” Although it sounds exactly the same if you say “Get the baby, shut the door,” because of the consecutive “s” sounds.

    You know I love you and love your posts. I’m just a stickler for accuracy. :-) And maybe still just a bit bitter that MY cheer didn’t win!!

  23. Rosalynde Welch on February 22, 2005 at 12:03 am

    LOL, Gabrielle! Yes, I think you’re exactly right: it was in the red-brown Volkswagen Vanagon, and it was “babies.” I have a terribly faulty memory. What was your cheer, by the way?

    And Naomi, yes, I left out all sorts of family rituals–in fact, I only chose those that I could formulate as “family _____” for the sake of boring rhetorical uniformity! But the family gleeking contest… this bears the distinct mark of Brigham, and he didn’t really move into a leadership position among the siblings until after I was already gone. I never would have left out a family gleeking contest if I’d been part of it!

  24. David Rodger on February 22, 2005 at 1:01 am

    Having spent much of my childhood living with my uncle and aunt, on a farm far away from civilization in a third world country, EVERY evening was spent sitting around talking and reading.

    I imagine that is how it was for most people; the rich of course, may have had their soirees and balls, etc. but the aristocracy was such a small number of total humanity, that most would have “hung around” the home. Let alone the fact that artificial illumination was expensive, and most people would have been around for talk in the early evening.

    I’ll bet Jacob never had to worry about: T-ball, gymnastics classes, little league, piano lessons, early morning seminary, mutual, soccer, basketball, flute, saxophone, flag twirling, McDonald’s,
    roadshow practice, etc.

    Even so, his sons weren’t always of one mind.

  25. Brian G on February 22, 2005 at 9:21 pm

    Gabrielle, you’re my favorite Frandsen. Solidarity.

  26. Tony on August 27, 2005 at 10:16 pm

    A family cheer contest? I think I’m gonna puke…

    And I’m also insanely jealous…in my seven-child family, such cheering in the car would have been met with a “Would you kids shut up! You’re gonna give me a nervous breakdown!” from my chain-smoking-with-the-window-up mother or a “I’m reach back there and crack you one…” from my father.

    Cheer on, Frandsens, and stay rad.