A tug of war between independence/originality and dependence/conventionality

glasscastle

What is one reviewing when the subject of the book is a memoir? Here is one answer, offered by Beth Kephart: “Reviewing becomes a warscape of its own when the reviewer of memoir chooses to forget that it is not the life itself we are asked to judge, but how that life has been swept up into words.”  (1)

From the perspective of language and narrative technique, then,  Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle (Scribner, 2005) first-person narrative reads well, it is fast-paced, the style is unadorned, the structure well-thought out, there is not one word out of place. It is a matter-of fact, emotionless rundown of one daughter’s life with her family from when she was 3 to when she reached her early twenties. Hence, the book’s continuing popularity on this basis is deserved and understandable.  If one had to quibble with the chronology, Part I, “A Woman on the Street” already gives many of the forthcoming events away, so its place in the life account is questionable, as it discloses crucial character traits of the daughter-author and her mother, preventing the reader from  discovering these facts on her/his own.

However, a memoir is not simply a “life that has been swept up into words”. Words carry meanings, but these are both denotative and connotative, they create sentences, similes, metaphors, they build allegories, parallels, links, comparisons to other lives. Why write a memoir if you do not react emotionally and intellectually to what happened to you, either at that particular moment, or many years afterwards? Therefore, this review asks for what reasons the author keeps her emotional gut reactions and intellectual musings in a straitjacket throughout the account by using a sort of documentary narration (clearly, in any documentary, certain images are foregrounded, just like in this memoir). Given the tremendous impact on the author’s life stemming from her parents’ choices, one would expect some emotional and intellectual response/feedback/closure by means of a charged, metaphor-laden description. In other words, writing as re-living in order to make sense of what happened.  If this emotionless narration happens by design, then the result is significant, because it forces the reader to come up with the emotional and intellectual reckoning for herself/himself. If this cold narration just happened, then it leaves unanswered the questions about the author’s stance on child raising, values of self-reliance and originality, and, above all, on love between parents and children.

The Walls family’s life can be summarized in one sentence, although there are countless other themes which are not dealt with here (religion and superstition, sexual abuse, alcoholism, theft, family falling apart).  The memoir describes the upbringing of children in a conscious homeless and nomadic existence by an alcoholic father/dreamer and incompetent mother/visual artist. The parents are complex figures: the mother is depicted as willfully inept care-giver.  Rose Mary Walls sees “adventure” in every obstacle that life places before the family; she is an “excitement addict”.  She paints, sculpts, and is not interested in cooking or cleaning. Her motto is “What does not kill you makes you stronger”. Granted, the children brace for and face any eventuality with resolve, because complaining would not stop the roof from leaking or bring food to the table;but this resolve is often inadequate for the task. The shocking fact revealed later on in the book is that the mother seems to own a pretty valuable plot of land in Texas, which she is unwilling to sell, since according to her, it’s not hard times yet. She expresses constant frustration at not being able to devote all her time to her art. Also, she wants to act unconventionally apparently because her mother forced her to follow all kinds of rules and guidelines. She believes that everyone has redeeming qualities. The father is described as a dreamer and his constant promises of a better life are thwarted by his alcoholism. He makes up for his lack of funds by giving children poetic “gifts”, such as letting them choose a star/planet to be their own. Rex Walls has one compulsion: to build a glass house for the family, and when he is sober, he works on the plans with his children. Needless to say, this construction never materializes. Rex instills his children with love of nature and animals. Both parents are avid readers and insist that their children have access to books wherever they live, and that they attend school. The mother and the father abhor conformity, conventionality, uniformity, dependence, rules. They value individuality, self-reliance, self-confidence, non-compliance, originality, independence.

Clearly, it would be too easy to criticize Rose Mary’s and Rex’s parenting. The children lived through some pretty traumatic events which could have been avoided, and at least three of the four of them have seemingly stable lives now. Nevertheless, the reader does not know whether they are happy and what, in their opinion, constitutes love and family.

The Glass Castle raises at least two thought-provoking problems: one deals with the question of teaching “value” to children, and the other with having self-reliance.  If there is “value” in a clear starry night in Arizona, how does one reconcile it with the fact that in New York one cannot see such sky? What is the consequence of this for the child who chooses a star as a gift from her father? Or, what is the “value” of a plot of land full of underground oil deposits, if this plot is not sold, keeping children hungry and cold? In other words, “values” have significance beyond the strictly pragmatic implication: they carry psychological and emotional baggage, perhaps for the rest of one’s life.

The other concern, that of self-reliance, is a much more complicated matter, deeply ingrained in the American culture and politics. The belief in the individual’s strength to live a life of self-reliance and personal independence runs deep in the American psyche. In the memoir, though, self-reliance borders at times on selfishness. The mother believes that letting her 3-year old cook on her own strengthens her character and self-reliance. On this particular occasion, cooking leads to a fire and then terrible burns. Not only there are scars but also there is a possible pyromania developing in the child (stealing matches, starting fires, etc.). Undoubtedly, no parent is omniscient, and the consequences of events are truly unpredictable. So the question remains: what does “taking care of” mean and does not taking care of someone teach them independence? At what cost? Does suffering really lead to self-reliance and does it really teach abnegation and strength? What effects does telling children that they are special have on their individuality? Is not following sewing rules and then abandon the disastrous product a truly learning experience?

From another perspective, how do you help a person who does not want help, who thinks self-reliance is what keeps them going? Being homeless and unemployed: is this a lifestyle of dreamers or social and psychological misfits (sometimes bordering on mentally unstable)? The Wells use public libraries, hospitals, schools (but they are never on food stamps nor receive unemployment benefits, they don’t “accept handouts from anyone”): theirs is a half-hearted independence from services which society offers. Yes, Jeannette is ashamed of her parents in front of other people, but not when directly facing them. All in all, the memoir underscores the fact that there are no definitive wrong and right answers to raising children, but it also illustrates that love between parents and children is a very tender flower, easily bruised and repaired with difficulty, if ever.

In conclusion, these are some of the ideas raised by the book. If memoir writing is a cathartic undertaking, the author did not let us know how successfully she cleansed herself from her previous life, of the traumas and inadequacies which populated her development. Above all, how will she raise her children, if she has any?

___________

(1) Beth Kephart, “What does it mean to review a memoir?” http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-memoir-reviews-20151112-story.html

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McDonald’s, or the irrationality of rationality

mcdon

For anyone interested in the intricacies of contemporary society from the perspective of such an ubiquitous  institution as the fast food outlet McDonald’s, George Ritzer’s The McDonaldization of Society (Pine Forge Press, 2000) is a must read. This is not a treatise against fast food outlets, nor is it a simple acceptance of them. The book  endeavours to account for the hold fast food outlets (and other institutions) have on society as well as provide possible ways out of this hold. The slender volume fulfills the former aim more successfully than the latter.

Ritzer suggests that there are four main dimensions which underpin McDonald’s business acumen: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control through nonhuman technology. Efficiency basically means “the optimum method for getting from one point to another” (p. 12). Calculability subsumes such notions as “the quantitative aspects of … portion size, cost… and services”, where “quantity has become equivalent to quality” (p. 12). Predictability is “the assurance that products and services will be the same over time and in all locales” for both clients and workers (p. 13).  Control through nonhuman technology includes, among others, quickly moving customer lines at the counter, limited menus, few options, uncomfortable seats, in addition to precise directives for the workers to behave and to accomplish their roles. The four dimensions then form what Ritzer termed McDonaldization, a process found in all human for-profit institutions. He gives specific examples as this process relates to universities, hospitals, sports and other recreational activities,

Clearly, and very generally, there are advantages and disadvantages to these four dimensions: advantages point to profit-making and customer satisfaction to a certain extent; disadvantages to workers’ and customers’ personal preferences, food safety and quality. Ritzer’s critique is based on the fact that it is impossible to go back to “the world, if it ever existed, of home-cooked meals, traditional restaurant dinners, high-quality foods, meals loaded with surprises, and restaurants run by chefs free to express their creativity.” (p. 18). For him, it is more valid to critically analyze McDonaldization from the perspective of the future. Although he admits that McDonaldization is both enabling and constraining, his stance in the book focuses on the constraints this type of business system brings to human society.

Ritzer uses Max Weber’s theory of rationalization, claiming that McDonaldization is an amplification and an extension of this theory. (p. 23) According to Weber, formal rationality is a process by which optimum means to a given end are shaped by rules, regulations, and larger social structures, often resulting in irrational outcomes (among the examples given are ClubMed and the Holocaust). The means constrain humans to act according to a predetermined set of procedures and allow for little or no choice. However, humans are rarely content with being constrained: they prefer to make their own choices, so the irrationality of rationality closes them in an iron cage of scientific management. Ritzer describes McDonaldization in detail as it is clearly followed in automotive assembly lines, Levittown type of construction, shopping centers, and McDonald’s. The bulk of the bulk is devoted to an exemplification and critique of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control through nonhuman technology., especially focusing on the following settings: higher education, entertainment industry (amusement parks, sport TV programs, etc.), health care, fast food industry, food industry. Chapter 7, “The Irrationality of Rationality”, evaluates the design flaws of rationality from the perspective of the loss of magic and mystery, inefficiency, illusion of good value at a good price, false friendliness, environmental hazards, homogeneization, dehumanization. The next chapter goes beyond present-day practices and looks toward the future by giving McDonaldization  “an inexorable quality, multiplying and extending continuously” (p. 146), from birth of an individual to death and beyond.  The last two chapters show the driving forces pushing McDonaldization along: “It pays, we value it, it fits” (p. 168) and a practical guide to dealing with this inexorable process, listing some of the suggestions for breaking the imposed “rules”, such as valuing quality (not quantity), B&Bs (rather than hotel chains), slow food, local produce and products, avoiding routines, do things for yourself, never buy artificial products, etc. In one of the last paragraphs, Ritzer justifies the writing of this book as follows:

      Although I have emphasized the irresistibility of McDonaldization throughout this       book, my fondest hope is that I am wrong. Indeed, a major motivation behind this book is to alert readers to the dangers of McDonaldization and to motivate them to act to stem its tide. I hope that people can resist McDonaldization and create instead a more reasonable, more human world. (p. 232)

In conclusion, Ritzer’s account and critique of McDonaldization point to the cage of every “modern” human being. His attempt to stem the tide of rationalization may work for a while, but then it is inevitable that profit wins over any other consideration. What is more disheartening is the fact that both McDonaldization (the irrationality of rationality) in conjunction with the absurd  rush for technological innovation at all cost deny a less forceful development of the future human being. The book evaluates the notions that many have had about the modern world, such as fear of unpredictability (and the concomitant drive to organization: ClubMed web site claims that it “organizes unforgettable events”), the burden is on the user (customers, patients, students do work formerly done by paid employees as part of efficiency). While Ritzer delves into activities and institutions such as home cooking, shopping, higher education, health care, entertainment (all-inclusive trips, TV programs, sports, political debates),  his analysis does not touch upon the workings of politics (exemplified by state/national governments – although he analyzes the irrational dealings of the tax offices), nor the advances in the military. It seems that governments and the military complex are either immune to McDonaldization and/or support it wholeheartedly for the citizens of the world. Another question which remains unanswered for me is this: Can search for a more equitable, peaceful and tranquil human life be McDonaldized? If the answer is yes, there is no escaping the rationality cage; if not, whose duty is to keep searching?

 

 

Food and (Italian) science fiction, or where are the transhumanist sources of energy?

Some years back, in Toronto, during one scrumptious supper, while the banqueters (mostly Italians and Italian Canadians)  were enjoying their tasty food, they all joined the discussion about what menu they would like to imagine for the next day’s meal. The Italian cultural attaché, one of the diners, exclaimed: “Italians are the only people who, while eating, think of the next meal!”. Whether this is true or not, food is a universal concern, although Italians, given their historical, regional, cultural, and character traits, seem to be overly obsessed with what, how, when, where, why they eat. So it is no surprise that food and science meet in Italian speculative fiction, although not as often as could perhaps be anticipated. This is why a lot of my expectations surfaced as soon as the publication of the volume Ma gli androidi mangiano spaghetti elettrici?  was made public.  The book is edited by Francesco Grasso, Marco Minicangeli, Massimo Mongai, and published as a companion to activities planned for the World Expo held in Milano in 2015. It contains 18 short stories by sci-fi known and less-known writers (among whom 4 women), and an afterword which attempts to tackle the question “Why do women not read and not write science fiction?”. The contents of this collection receive a more academic review in a forthcoming specialized publication, so the following muse on two considerations (out of many) which arose from having thought about food, science fiction, and transhumanism.

 

ma gli andr

 

Cyborgs and electric spaghetti?       

Although the title is a catchy transparent spoof on Philip K Dick’s Do androids dream of electric sheep? (this ploy was also used in an academic article entitled “Do androids eat electric sheep?” by Josh Toth), the stories do not involve androids and the protagonists do not eat or prepare electric spaghetti. (Caveat emptor.) Every contribution has to do with food: either in the form of seeds, insects, reclaimed produce after a cataclysmic disaster, humans as choice fodder for aliens, and many others. But it is still food for biological beings (human and otherwise).

If food provides energy (food apparently provides much more than that as the scientific literature on food informs us: see for ex., the Works Cited section below), it is legitimate to ask what would the sources of energy be for augmented humans? We need speculative fiction to give us imaginative answers to this. Energy provided to biological beings is surely different from that required by mechanical/nano-bio-cyborgian embodiments (the Borgs “regenerate”). Augmentation-prone transhumanists have so far avoided to deal with this topic, and it is highly surprising since the energy sources and the ways of their ingestion/ injection / imbibing/etc. are crucial for the augmented body. Senescence-abolishing transhumanists, though, will soon have a crowd-sourced cookbook (https://mariakonovalenko.wordpress.com/tag/longevity-cookbook/).

Transhumanists and gastronomy

Perhaps silence about food in transhumanist circles stems from the trouble with the visionary separation already anticipated by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in his Manifesto della cucina futurista (1930). Marinetti, a clever self-promoting artist, bon-vivant and iconoclast of traditional ways of doing things, envisaged two types of food: 1) Pills to satisfy the working classes’ need for energy during their couple of working hours a day and 2) Special banquets  with newly invented courses. It’s a pity that every commentator concentrated on the second suggestion, rather than elaborating on the first. Suffice it to say then that according to the Manifesto of Futurist Cooking, food is either to be swallowed without regard for any sensory input, or enjoyed with almost a sensory overload. There are no half-measures, no in-between compromises. This may be the reason for the transhumanist gastronomic and ironic quandary: in the augmented beings, every feeling, sense, cognitive capabilities are ameliorated, so how can they accept eating pills/getting their energy from electric pulses, which presumably do not give any sensory pleasure at all?  Or will they, and how will this be accomplished?

In conclusion, it is hoped that future sci-fi and/or real nourishment will not be devoid of sensory pleasure, unless augmented beings lose that part of humanity which craves and is able to enjoy the energy consumption, whatever form it will take.

 

Works Cited

Belasco, Warren. Food. The Key concepts. Berg, 2008.

Jurafsky, Dan. The Language of Food. A Linguist Reads the Menu. W.W. Norton, 2014.

Marinetti, Tommaso Filippo. The Futurist cookbook. Translated by Suzanne Brill. Edited with an introduction by Lesley Chamberlain.  Bedford Arts Publishers, 1989.

Pautasso, Guido Andrea. Cucina futurista. Manifesti, menu, documenti. Carte d’artisti 158.Milano, Abscondita, 2015

Poulain, Jean-Pierre. Alimentazione, cultura e società. Il Mulino, 2008, trad. Aldo Pasquali.

Riva, Franco. Filosofia del cibo. Castelvecchi, 2015.

Food and Transhumanism*

trans

Although transhumanism, an international philosophical and social movement, has been growing steadily in the past twenty years, there are no formal, programmatic statements regarding this ideology and nutrition. In the 9 forward-looking proposals that comprise the Transhumanist Declaration, food has found no place. Paradoxically, this lack of specific and systematic mention of the role, nature, and importance of food in transhumanism is both understandable and appalling at the same time. One side of this paradox is understandable on account of at least two reasons: 1. Food has not been recognized (and it still is not in certain circles) as an academic field worthy of thorough scientific, social, and philosophical scrutiny. Most of the signatories of the Transhumanist Declaration were, in one way or another, part of the academia, and therefore the topic of nutrition fell easily through their ideological sieve.  2. All the x-human philosophies (such as posthumanism and metahumanism) propose a positive, if not optimistic view of the future and this presupposes a taken-for-granted, steady, and general availability of nutrition to everyone. This assumption needs more than a fleeting look, however.   The appalling aspect of the lack of mention of food stems from the fact that all that transhumanism stands for, expressed so clearly in the second sentence of the first point in the Transhumanist Declaration, relies on the continuous, balanced, meaningful intake of nutriments: “We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth”. Clearly, the human body is the main object of the possibilities of enhancement, and therefore, the view of the body underpins all the transhumanist developments. The idea of morphological freedom guides all the transhumanist scientific research. Transhumanism aims at enhancing and therefore going beyond the existing, biologically determined, human capacities. To obtain night vision, to breathe like a dolphin, to learn all the languages of the world instantaneously, requires some type of prostheses, implants, DNA manipulation, and these, in turn, require additional energy for the body. It may be that a specific enhancement will need particular sets of energy-boosting elements, and therefore transhumanism cannot predict what these may be, especially when the body is seen as an individual work of art (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zoltan-istvan/transhumanist-art-is-brin_b_5447758.html). An enhancement which is eloquent in its absence is that no transhumanist wants to have two stomachs or additional taste buds, or to predispose his/her stomach to digest what is so far not digestible by humans, although here science fiction has something to say on the subject (photosynthesis tweaked for humans, nano implants capable of producing the desired energy, etc.).

 

And yet, without the expressed, concrete and profound discussion regarding food and nutrition (whether it be called fuel, energy, or otherwise), all the transhumanist scientifically-based developments remain abstractions without concrete support. What is at stake are not single opinions regarding the desirability or safety of GMOs, or replacement choices of beef (such as worm meat or lab-grown substances from beef muscle cells), but the interaction and interdependence between the individual and society. True to the postmodern attitude of celebrating the self as a “free” individual actor, transhumanism also boasts that its philosophical and conceptual bases have roots in humanism, hence in the belief of positive social results of scientific advancements. But this tension between the individual and society has unforeseen consequences for the role and meaning of food (not only in the sense of eating alone as opposed to eating in company). This tension is illustrated by a whole gamut of concepts, experiences, feelings which comprise the triangle suggested by Warren Belasco (in his Food. The Key Concepts. Oxford: Berg, 2008). This triangle has at its points (consumer’s) identity,  (maters of) convenience, and  (sense of) responsibility. Furthermore, creating ad hoc solutions such as a Longevity Cookbook does not answer the individual nutritional requirements once the varied and possible enhancements will take place. The question, therefore, to be answered is the following: Will the enhanced individual be able to sustain her/his/its body on her/his/its own or will it need societal help?

 

*This is a continuation of my research presented at the international conference entitled “Gastronomy, Culture, and the Arts. A Scholarly Exchange of Epic Portions” , University of Toronto at Mississauga, 12 March 2016.