Saturday, August 15, 2009

Of Food, Foucault And Fulfillment

A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to read Michael Pollan's latest essay in the New York Times. Entitled 'Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,' the piece is consistent with his books in that it addresses America's (and the world's) changing relationship with food. Pollan is an accomplished writer, and he uses the prism of food to tie together several themes - feminism, the complex shifts in women's roles in society, wellness and culture.

He contends that while we are increasingly interested in looking at and learning about food, we are also increasingly reluctant to actually cook it. Television programming, the military-industrial complex, and pressures of work have united to transform cooking into a spectacle, a show or a sport. Consequently, food is exoticized, dishes transformed into feats that we can marvel at, but never quite accomplish.

The contradictions he describes are compelling, to say the least - we are eating more, but cooking less. As consumers, we know more about food than our predecessors, but we persist in consuming the unhealthiest junk money can buy. We can now access spices, vegetables and meats from across the world, but continue to depend on processed and artificial ingredients. These contradictions have profound implications for our physical and psychological health. Physical, because of the all too obvious link between our diet and our bodies. Psychological, because food connects with us at an almost primordial level - it is an essential part of who we are.

Pollan is essentially interested in reiterating the cultural and social value of cooking. He juxtaposes cooking and work, but only briefly, by stating that the sheer physicality of cooking makes it a powerful counterpoint to the indeterminacy of our work. That is a strong assertion, and one that I feel the need to explore further.

Today, more of us work longer hours than ever before. We can tread newer and more divergent career paths. Conventional occupations are now vying with emergent and dynamic fields - fashion, art, media and environmental policy being just a few examples that come to mind. We have also been able to transcend the limitations of geography, and can potentially study and work in almost any corner of the world. But why is it that inspite of being confronted by a veritable occupational cornucopia, many of us continue to remain deeply dissatisfied with our work? Why does so much of what we do, as Pollan puts it, lack 'definition?'

The answers are complex - and since I can broadly be described as a specific type of consultant, I will limit my analysis to my field of work.

Some of this work-related indeterminacy is a function of the raw materials we now work with - data and information have long replaced machinery and tool kits. The shift from manual labor to 'knowledge work' has in some ways been empowering, in that it implies the utilization of intellect, skill and even wisdom. Unfortunately, as our jobs become increasingly specific and narrowly defined, we forfeit access to the 'bigger picture.' We solve pieces of problems, and the opportunity to cohere information into a larger pattern is lost.

Another part of the problem lies in the ambiguity of information itself. How is it to be interpreted? How will we decide between competing interpretations? How will the audience (in this case, the client) respond to this interpretation? How will the interpretation then be processed and disseminated to the entire network of decision-makers i.e. the client's organization? Who translates the interpretation into action? Given the convoluted route that information takes, it is not surprising that a consultant's knowledge and expertise sometimes have little or no bearing on a client's actions or on the outcomes of these actions.

Moreover, a great deal of consulting work lacks context. Some of us are fortunate enough to be able to gather primary data, even though that is itself sometimes derived from highly stilted situations (if you don't believe me, attend a focus group discussion). In most cases, however, data arrives at our work-stations, having been 'cleaned' of discrepancies and anomalies. We have little or no basis for understanding why the information says what it does. And in this wired world, we also sacrifice the physical context which our work spaces should provide. We spend days in front of computers, pounding away at the keyboard and taking occasional breaks for lunch or coffee.

A number of great thinkers have articulated ideas similar to these, often to the point of reducing them to philosophical and sociological cliche. One can actually reel off the laundry list: the great urban/ rural divide? Check. The nobility and inherent honesty of manual labour? Check. Capitalist oppression? Check.

But there is one writer that I am interested in discussing here: the French philosopher Foucault. One of Foucault's more prescient observations was his prediction that organizational power would become perfected in the simple, repetitive motions of an employee. 'Work' would involve pushing a button, or punching a keyboard. In it's complete departure from physicality and organicity, new-age work would become a mechanism for control, the ultimate power play.

Isn't this a bit shrill? Most definitely. But it is also, in part, true. We sit at idenikit cubicles, more or less in thrall of our laptops and Crackberries. We analyze information but do not always have a say in how it is used. We acquire knowledge - but it is highly specific and rarely applicable outside of a narrow domain. How can we possibly expect to feel fulfilled, when we are, in fact, powerless?

Foucault also insists that no one actually wields this power - it manifestly obeys its' own logic. Is this possible? I'd like to cite the all-too-recent credit crunch as an example to insist that yes, it is. An international economic crisis was triggered by banks who re-packaged debt, transforming it into an asset which was then re-packaged and re-sold to hedge funds, several times over. In effect, a few bankers were able to use jargon and creative accounting to create a trillion dollar bubble of notional wealth. This bubble eventually burst to disastrous effect, leaving behind a trail of all too tangible consequences. In the aftermath, experts and analysts are still untangling balance sheets. There is no answer to the simple question of who owes what to whom.

No one person, or even institution, was responsible for the crisis. Credit swaps and loans leveraged multiple times were so removed from the reality of what an asset constitutes, that they have since been exposed as fraud. In effect, the system created its own logic and its own momentum.

Over the last few months, writers and commentators have asserted that the credit crisis has precipitated a collective soul-searching. Pollan's call to return to the kitchen is part of this search. When institutions as old and venerable as banks are revealed to be little more than greedy wheeler-dealers, when financial commitments can be re-engineered till they bear no resemblance to themselves, it's natural to want to return a more 'real,' or 'tangible' realm. Cooking is one route. So are creativity, sport, relationships, connections.

And how do we grapple with persistently dissatisfying work? The most obvious answer is to change what it is that we do - to do work that means more to us, or is a more direct route to the things that mean more to us, whether those are money, power or influence. Another is to exercise some creativity, to build connections in the doing of work. It is also, occasionally, possible to re-trace links between the part and the whole. Where do we fit in? What are the implications of what we do? But if we simply cannot change how we work, maybe we can change how we consume - eat whole foods, shop locally, enjoy experiences rather than objects. Ultimately, what we need is to create moorings, to find the objects, tasks, routines, people or principles that anchor us to something greater than ourselves.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

For The Love Of Pointy Eared Men

I watched Star Trek in a near empty movie theater last week. The sparse audience was chiefly constituted of young men in glasses (which of course means that they were science geeks), Star Trek nostalgists, and the odd cinema-goer starved of Bollywood fare.

JJ Abram's movie is a rollicking, thrill-a-minute potboiler. The effects are spectacular, the cast looks fantastic, all the characters have personality, and there is even an alien rolling his eyes at James Tiberius Kirk on the 'pull.' And we find out that Iowa continues to exists largely unchanged, which begs the question - does America still subsidize its corn?

But Commander Spock is, by far, the coolth-factor in this movie. Zachary Quinto hits all the right notes as a Vulcan grappling with his recalcitrant half-human self. Leonard Nimoy sheds a softer light on the character, effectively conveying the empathy, dignity, and capacity for sacrifice that exemplify Spock.

I'm something of a lapsed Trekkie. I watched parts of the original series, absolutely loved 'The Next Generation,' but gave up with Deep Space Nine. Amongst all the memorable personalities and races featured on the show, I have always been most fascinated by those characters that combine a highly developed intellect with a rather underdeveloped capacity to feel and emote. Namely, Spock and Data.

Star Trek has always served up a healthy dose of pop-philosophy and sub-vocal moral commentary along with entertainment. Almost every episode brought with it a moment of reckoning for one or more characters. Not surprisingly, some of these situations seemed more than a little contrived. But Spock and Data, navigating the fault lines of intellect and emotion, never disappointed. Their struggles always seemed more authentic, and their choices consequently had more gravitas.

Spock was simply wonderful, while Data was interesting. Perhaps this had to do with the interplay they shared with their captains. Spock was the perfect foil to the loud and brash Kirk. Kirk was corporeal, while Spock was cerebral. He was the more complex, the more nuanced, and therefore, the more compelling of the two.

Data, on the other hand, had to contend with the intellectual Jean Luc Picard. They were in many ways kindred spirits, points along the same continuum. William Riker, the impulsive and short-tempered first officer, was meant to offset the two, but the contrast was less striking.

Within the community of women Trekkies, there are those who prefer their Spocks to their Kirks. It's interesting to think that these preferences somehow mirror those of women who prefer Legolas to Aragorn or Elves to Men. It might have something to do with a love of the enigmatic or the unattainable. I personally think it might have something to do with a love of pointy eared men.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Tamagotchi Murder

When I was in the 7th standard (or grade, if you prefer), a phenomenon called Tamagotchi was sweeping my school. Tamagotchis were virtual pets, supposedly fluffy and cute, and lived in little pink devices you could clip onto your sash/belt/backpack/whatever.

Essentially, you were supposed to tend to their needs - feed them, bathe them, hug them, and make sure they lived happy virtual lives. Ostensibly, this bizarre exercise taught you about responsibility, caring, and even loss (tamagotchis, unfortunately, were mortal).

If I were to compare this blog to a sort of grown-up version of a tamagotchi, then by all measures, I have failed it miserably. I have allowed it to shrivel up and die. But, months after my most recent post, I am back, attempting to make amends.

Was it writer's block? I don't think so. It was more of a real reluctance to actually think about, and process issues of any consequence. The papers were too full of too much bad news, and I figured that as someone working full-time, I could dispense with thought post 7 PM. And so I became vigorously thought-free, at least on weekdays.

But since the election results came through last weekend, I find myself more reconciled to politics and public affairs. Also, I worry very much that my brain will turn into pudding with all the intensive inactivity.

Politically, it seems that the best-laid calculations and formulae, the backroom manouevering, wheeling and dealing have come to nought. All the agendas, the tired rhetoric and empty promises that should have worked, didn't. I'd like to think that it's because the Indian voter has matured, and in doing so, has evolved far, far beyond Indian politicians.

A stable government at the center promises growth and reform, not to mention credibility. That's cause for some cheer. But it's also disappointing, not to mention alarming, to think that on curent form, there are few real alternatives to the Congress. The BJP has become alarmingly shrill, the SP shameless power-brokers, the BSP a sort of living monument to Mayawati's obsession with herself, the Left misguided and isolated. Most of the other players have lacked either the agenda, or the heft to differentiate themselves from the 300 or so 'parties' in the fray.

So I am probably as interested in the changes all these entities now pursue, as in the performance of the government itself. Because although the country has voted resoundingly for development, it would be nice to know that in the future, that's something everyone can offer. 

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities

It's been more than 2 weeks since I last posted. In my defense, I've been in and out of Bombay, traveling on work. The places I visited - Goa and Ahmedabad - couldn't have posed more of a contrast. (I'm just going to refer to the latter as Amdavad from this point on because that's easier to type.)

I had my apprehensions about Goa, given that it featured in travel advisories around the time I was visiting. It's probably best if I admit that I'm no Goa purist - I stayed at Baga, ate at all the recommended (and therefore highly predictable) restaurants, and visited the conventional tourist spots. But the tried and tested route paid rich dividends - I had a great time, managed to unwind for the first time in weeks, ate carbs and dessert, and packed in a reasonable amount of work as well.

I'm not sure whether it was luck or some kind of mysterious Goan alchemy that ensured things played out so perfectly. And much as I hate to subscribe to cliches, it did really seem that life there unfolded at a gentler, quieter pace. Smiles were ready, conversations friendly.

For the first time in years, I found myself resenting Bombay. I've grumbled about the city before - the traffic, the crowds, the lack of restaurants, pubs and clubs as compared to London or New York. But now I find my gripes are much more about the toll this city takes on my well being. Every day seems like a struggle against urban elements - distances, noise, encroachments on personal space, stress, the sense that time is always in short supply. Combine that with a fragile or almost non-existent security apparatus, and you find yourself wondering whether it's finally time to retreat to some semi-urban or rural idyll.

As opposed to Goa, I had little or no time to explore Amdavad. I was driven from point A to point B, and then back to my hotel. My only 'outing' was to a relative's home for dinner and a short drive afterwards. Perhaps I shouldn't even be writing about the city, but it's a chance I'm willing to take. 

My overwhelming impression was that of one of Bombay's western suburbs - patchy development, lots of malls, traffic. My problem with Amdavad is chiefly aesthetic - spacious single storied homes have been abandoned for apartment blocks and concrete monstrosities. Although older housing societies and complexes are elegant and well planned, it's hard to believe that the city houses India's most prestigious schools of architecture and design (not to mention business and physics!).

Another gripe concerns constrained dining/entertainment options. Of course restaurants and night markets exist, but menus are severely limited by the ban on alcohol and the reluctance to serve non-vegetarian food. Personally speaking, I hardly ever drink, and am a staunch vegetarian. But I'll be the first to admit that both diners and restaurants evolve only when they can experiment - either with a wine list, or cuisines, or anything that's off the beaten track. And while Amdavad serves up some great thalis and Gujrati specialties, there's little other incentive to eat out. Amdavad helped me appreciate Bombay's diversity. I realized that I don't want to be part of a growing city with pretensions - I want to live in one that's already a metropolis and is only getting bigger.

The question really is one of growth and evolution - where does Bombay go from here? Does the infrastructure get worse, further impacting the quality of life? Or does the city surge ahead, becoming a business and cultural hub? My dream for Bombay is that it becomes a truly global city with its' own idiosyncracies. But what frightens me sometimes is the gnawing sense, after 26/11, that no matter what, I will need to seek my future elsewhere. As of now, Amdavad is not an option.
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