On Technology & Human Subjectivity

I have begun to think about technology with due suspicion. Increasingly, technological development seems to do with the idea of producing, altering, or marketing human subjectivity.

Human subjectivity is being outpaced by technological advancement at a steadily increasing pace. Most of us don’t have a healthy relationship with our immediate world. The very goal of my devices seems to be to abstract me from my surroundings.

One seemingly irreversible change that bothers me a lot is the way seeing is giving way to recording. It’s an unfortunate example of the internal being brought to the sphere of the external, and of experience being reduced to its announcement.

The response cannot be Luddite rejection, of course. Not anymore — modern technology is too deeply integrated with our lives. We have to keep up, but we also have to think about technology with due suspicion. This wide-eyed celebration of convenience, efficiency and innovation just won’t do.

Brent Luvaas, Shooting Street Style in Indonesia: A Photo Essay

A review of — and a response to — Brent Luvaas’ Shooting Street Style in Indonesia: A Photo Essay.

Fashion is a means of self-expression, and the internet has helped both societies and individuals communicate/showcase (to entities existing outside of their in-groups) their distinct sartorial artefacts and the set of meanings attached to said artefacts. Street style blogs have emerged as a popular form of documenting commonplace, everyday fashion — strangely enough, though, by photographing people who stand out from the crowd and are then, on the internet, made to represent the popular dressing style of their geographic/cultural community.

Fashion is a form of visual storytelling that contains information about the history of a people. The socio-economic history of a culture is reflected in its popular fashion. To borrow examples from women’s fashion: first-wave feminism gave birth in Europe to androgynous silhouettes and raised hemlines; the Great Depression saw the Americans take a more conservative approach to fashion and opt for cheaper fabrics and simple/unglamorous silhouettes, while the period following it brought with it Dior’s “New Look”: cinched waists and full skirts that rebelled against the erstwhile plain fashion that economic poverty had forced upon the American people. These aesthetics emerged from a specific geographic location but spread throughout the world because the boundaries of cultures are porous and prone to incorporating meanings from outside into their own language. Fashion therefore tells us about how people respond sartorially to the events/ideologies of their times.

Street style blogs are of interest because
a) they document fashion as it exists outside of the hegemony of fashion houses, — and so, for the first time in history, the ordinary individual has been allowed to narrate the story of their times,
b) they are accessible to a wide variety of audience online, and
c) they hand over the power to document history and influence/create culture to anyone who would wish to take it.

Luvaas examines why, despite a deep penetration of the internet and a widespread interest in other kinds of fashion blogs, the street style of Indonesia remains largely undocumented online. He asks if street style is to be confined to the “streets”, and if “coolness” is an attribute that translates well across non-Western languages. His subjects are diverse and their class positions and religious affiliations are apparent from their style. He also talks about how individuals express themselves inside of the constraints imposed on them by citing the example of the hijab and how it has both informed and been informed by other articles of clothing.

Charles Correa, Museums: An Alternate Typology

A review of — and a response to — Charles Correa’s Museums: An Alternate Typology.

Charles Correa writes about the importance of context and the meaning it lends to an artefact. An Egyptian mud pot takes on a different meaning when bathed in halogen light at a museum. Context defines objects.

I will digress here and cite an example from art. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp took a porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt”, turned it upside down, and called it “Fountain”. The Fountain becomes art by two processes:
a) It is defined by context, and by its modes of production and reception. It is art simply because it has been installed and displayed in an art exhibition and it is art because the audience considers it so. Objects have no intrinsic character of their own.
b) It becomes art by “inversion”, which is an act of defamiliarisation: a method of abstracting an object from its purported function (or to at least signal that abstraction). Inverting a urinal doesn’t fool you into nonrecognition, but confronts you with both its original form and its otherness by strategies of abstraction and distantiation.

The questions Duchamp asked were different from the ones Correa asks and answers, but the process by which an object becomes an historical artefact seems to me to work in much the same way: divorced from its “natural context”, — the original environment for which it was crafted — and placed in a neutral, indifferent, generic space that is designed to house a wide variety of objects, it takes a different meaning than the one originally intended. To perceive it the way it was historically perceived, and to understand its original context, the museum in which it is kept must be faithful to the natural setting of the object and present it to us the way its original environment would have. Correa cites numerous examples of such relationships between the “container” and the “contained”, and says that both the architectural design of the museum and the manner in which objects are arranged within it — whether in chronological order, or grouped together on the basis of geographical location or material/techniques used — affect our perception of them. He talks about how the structure of the museum and its pathways construct a narrative around the displayed artefacts. Courtyards and terraces and open-to-sky spaces and hallways are metaphors for people/places because they evoke certain emotions in us which we then associate with the artefacts on display. And therefore, typology not only classifies objects according to their type/function, but also studies both the characteristics of physical structures and how we interact with said structures.

Buildings have rhythms of their own and “flow” physically much the way music moves through time: the variations in physical structure — lend to it by the techniques using which various parts of the structure are constructed — seem to make it flow organically or appear disjointed or evoke emotions (or even memories of other physical structures found in nature). The spaces and the lighting create a certain atmosphere which, in a well-designed museum, comes very close to the natural context of the object and adds to the experience of the spectator. He uses this argument to point out the need for alternate museum typologies.

A.K. Ramanujan, Is there an Indian way of thinking?: An informal essay

A review of — and a response to — A.K. Ramanujan’s Is there an Indian way of thinking?: An informal essay.

What we like, what we talk about, and how we think are all factors of where we come from and what social position we occupy. There is no us outside of the social formations we inhabit. Ramanujan addresses this in his essay.

He talks about context-sensitive and context-free cultures. Indian thinking, which is a product of the former, is influenced by morals and ethics that are context-dependent, whereas the Western way of thinking is informed by morals and ethics that are more absolute in nature and unaffected by context.

He starts by asking the question “Is there an Indian way of thinking” in four different ways, emphasising a different word each time as well as giving two answers to every question. The first question places the emphasis on “is” and questions the very existence of such a thing as an Indian way of thinking. The answers: (a) there was such a thing but not any more, and (b) India never changes, so the Indian way of thinking still exists. The emphasis in the second question is on “an”, and so he asks if there is one unique way of Indian thinking or many such things. The answers, in this case: (a) each community in this country — and there are many, divided by language, caste and class — has a unique world view and, therefore, a distinct way of thinking, and (b) there exists “unity in diversity” here and so all Indian thought is the same. The third question shifts the focus to the word “Indian”, and Ramanujan says that (a) there is nothing inherently Indian about this way of thinking and that it’s also found in other societies that have reached a similar state of development, and (b) the Indian way influences everything that enters the country and makes it its own. The fourth question puts the emphasis on “thinking”, and Ramanujan doesn’t offer any arguments here.

Ramanujan then talks about his father, a man of both mathematics and astrology, and uses his example to explore the utter lack of cognitive dissonance that should have otherwise risen from pursuing two mutually antagonistic activities.

He goes on to talk about modernisation and says that even though it may seem like modernisation attempts to do away with context, borrowings from other cultures get converted before being assimilated into the host culture. Each culture comes with its own inherent bias.

Krishnendu Ray, The Migrant’s Table: Meals And Memories In Bengali-American Households

A summary of — and a response to — an excerpt from Krishnendu Ray’s Migrant’s Table: Meals And Memories In Bengali-American Households.

Summary

Ray examines the culinary habits of Bengalis living in India, of Bengalis who have immigrated to the US, and of Americans, to explore their ethnic identities. He talks about the concept of “ethnic food” and the regional and temporal variations in its meaning, and then goes on to question the way we look at ethnicity. Through anecdotes, he explores how a people’s culinary habits at once unite them — by creating in-groups or communities that have similar gustatory preferences — and separate them from other groups with different culinary histories. The anecdotes highlight the differences among these various groups by two processes: (a) by pointing out how little they know about what other people eat everyday, how they prepare their food, and their relationship with food, and (b) by talking about their own responses to foreign food.

He touches upon how the name of a food a group eats could confuse an outsider who might interpret it literally, unaware of said group’s cultural history. Miscommunications and stereotypes often emerge from such interactions. He then examines how immigrants have changed their own habits, handed down through the ages, and thereby forged a cultural identity for themselves that’s distinct from both that of their ancestors as well as that of the undisplaced people they’re surrounded with. He chooses to focus on Bengali migrants and talks about how they’ve responded to American culture: by either incorporating it into their own culinary heritage or rejecting it completely, and how that’s either an act of embracing everything American or an act of yearning for home. There are also personal accounts of American women married to Bengali men, and their reaction to Indian cuisine. Through that new cultural lens, Ray also looks at Bengal’s imitation of “Western” food, and what these Western women thought of it.

Response

Inside of a culture, culinary habits are pervasive and have restricting cultural myths built around them. Our cultural moorings define what we eat, how we eat it, and what eating means to us. Menus could be extremely elaborate, incorporating a wide variety of ingredients and flavours, or they could be simple and easy to prepare.

When people are exposed to a new culture, they may either reject its food or make it their own by tweaking it. Ray presents anecdotes from both a Western and an Indian perspective, and this makes the cultural differences more prominent.

In these times of globalisation, when we are exposed to other cultures and their foods, the text remains relevant to most of us. Being open to other people’s habits and experiencing their way of doing things can only add to our own knowledge, adding to it a breadth that only interacting with other groups can. Even if we ultimately end up rejecting someone else’s culinary habits completely, we would at least know what exactly it is that we are rejecting. On the other hand, incorporating parts of it into our own collective history would only enhance it, because history, by definition, only exists when it changes.