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.
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