On the Project: For an Ethics of Consumption

I cook. I also, occasionally, bake. At times, I use the Shan masala packets and at other times I experiment. Usually, I go and buy the ingredients myself from a bazaar. Water Pump, to be specific. Imtiaz and HyperStar are also close by, however I prefer to avoid them. Though the long queues and the throngs of people are important factors they are not the crucial ones. Nor is the question of money-funnily enough-something that I take into consideration because sometimes, on the rare occasions that I do go, wholesale goods in the supermarkets come cheaper. (Though it’s not like I have some iron clad principle of actively boycotting ‘super’-markets. I go when it suits me, I don’t when it doesn’t.)

It is the rhetoric of the sanitized space, where items and shops are arranged on an iron grid thus operationalizing the colonial gaze of surveillance, and the death of-to invoke Li Zhang on contesting spatialities in late-socialist China-renqi (ideal state of being in which human beings are harmoniously immersed in Nature) that which moves me. In words that make sense, it is the question of access which I consider. Who does, and by extension does not, have access to these ‘super’-markets, and on what basis? What is so ‘deviant’ or ‘wrong’ about these Other people that they are not allowed to enter? What kind of role do I then play by frequenting, or not, either the bazaar or ‘super’-markets?

One of the things which attracts me the most to these bazaars is the openness of it. Sure, there is no air conditioning, nor are the goods all neatly stacked and arranged. But that’s a small price to pay for not having my every movement being surveilled. Not having to go through checkpoints from door to door, and floor to floor. Not having my entry and exit marked. It’s uncomfortable how used to we have become to being subjected to the disciplining (optical) gaze.

Also, how many beggars do you see in a ‘super’-market? That space is sanitized not just from all the waste that may be littered or objects that might obscure the camera’s gaze, but also the literal removal (I use the word removal consciously here because if not on the space on which these malls are built, then the spaces around them are also sanitized) of dangerous, i.e. criminalized, bodies. Bodies which are quite literally-due to poor to destitute living conditions, and malnourished-diseased. Poor people-or poor looking people-are not allowed in ‘super’-markets. Even as a form of recreation and enjoyment they do not have access to these spaces.

In a bazaar of course, due to its openness, none of this does takes place. And so, what happens when the object-or subject-which disrupts our picturesque gaze is not removed? When the other person-and their suffering-is within hand’s reach. Forever serving as a reminder to my own privilege and comfort. What happens then? How do I see them? Do I see them?

You see, what I wish to understand is, what does it mean to regard another’s pain? [Sontag 2003]

However, I do not mean to romanticize the bazaar at all. As much as I like it that’s no reason for me to be uncritical of it. I have seen, and will continue to see, starving, destitute, and sick people. I have seen them being kicked, manhandled, and shouted at because “ye log bas yehi zaban samajhte hain”[1]. I have passed by them, ignored them, and denied the help, which I can provide, they have asked of me. I have done it-and seen it-too often now to believe that just because poor people-serving as a symbolic reminder of my own privilege[2]-will somehow magically make me, and others, so uncomfortable that we will reach out and help them. That’s not going to happen. To give an example,

On an outing

I pass by the pavement gleaming dirty white

I look down, briefly,

At the children, one and one, sleeping curled and close

With something red spilled on one’s side, while the other nearly falls off

From the cold hard pavement to the cold hard ground

People pass by, like me, with a glance, maybe half at times

And as the blaring light with the blinding horn resounds

The children sleep on clad in their frayed, soiled, torn rags

Hungry, most likely starved, malnourished and sick

And as I pass by, as others sidestep, the children to cross the street

The thought I have-had-is-was-“how long before someone kicks or yells?”

For the children to get up and clear off.

And it’s only now do I spare a thought for their plight

At the moment, they were just there occupying space

in the landscape

Like a rock, a house, a tree, a cat, a dog, or a piece of broken pottery might be

‘Their’ sight to me is an everyday thing

I know ‘they’ are different, but to me, one set of malnourished children

Are the same as any other

When I am simply walking by without stopping to help

And then using their pain, their suffering, to write poetry[3]

However, at the same time I do-quite strongly-believe that this culture of gated communities is very much detrimental for (and now I am going to use big words without concretizing them) the public good. And now on to the project itself. You see, it was important for me to give all this background because it is against this backdrop that I formulate my question and attempt to answer it. So, when is it okay to eat bourgeois food?

The answer (which comes even before the question, “what is bourgeois food?”) is never. In an ethical system[4] where sab ke liye kafi hona chaiye and no one has to go hungry the consumption of bourgeois food cannot be ethical because the resources and the processes involved in its production necessarily leave out people who can be helped.

The fact of the matter is, in a capitalist system[5] there can be no ethical consumption. Not possible. The problem is a systemic one. It permeates all strata of society and there is simply no escaping it, but, and this is crucial, in different forms, with different effects under different circumstances. That is why, the question, in order to be answerable-and to preserve my own sanity-must be tweaked. The question that we must ask is one of degrees and scales. To what degree, or on what scale, is my consumption of a certain form of food ethical? What can I do to minimize the impact of my unethical consumption? What can I do to resist, and give back?

Now that the answer to the question of when it is okay to eat bourgeois food has been answered, we can backtrack and ask, what constitutes bourgie food?

The way that I have understood bourgie food is by examining it through five aspects. First, the ingredients. The ingredients used in a dish, except for one or two items which are cheap or of equal monetary value relative to the other ingredients, must be included in the Consumer Price Index (CPI[6]) and the Sensitive Price Indicator (SPI[7]) for it to not be bourgie.

Second, human labour. Does the person who is making my Black Diamond ice cream also have the means to consume it? If not, then this food is most definitely bourgie. And I am not talking of the manager, or the owner. The actual person who makes it with their own hands.

Third, technology. Does my baking a cake in an oven as opposed to a pateli (and I have done both) make it bourgie? Or even if I do have the ingredients to make the dish do I have the technology, and the skills, to make it? The question of technology is difficult to answer because on one level it is a question of access and on another it is question of use. To answer the first question, no and yes. The cake tasted pretty much the same whether I baked it in an oven or a pateli, so on this account it’s not bourgie. However, there are certain cakes which you cannot bake in a pateli (I tried; wasn’t tasty) therefore the use of an oven allows for a wider range of possibilities. As for the second question, it then relates to the question of labour, and access.

Fourth, ecology. Even if the dish is not expensive, the technology is widely available and accessible, and those who make the food can also consume it, does it mean that we should? Maybe not. While we may live in the age of the Anthropocene, it is by no means celebratory. We must jettison narratives which center and prioritize the wants of human being over everything else, see ourselves not as stewards or despoilers of Earth, and realize that we do not in fact stick out of the landscape, but are a-very small -part of it.

Fifth, uses. There are certain (let’s use a fun word) commodities which no matter how much commodified, commercialized, or made a spectacle of, cannot possibly be bourgie in and of themselves. Not going to happen. Mineral water, canned air, and organic pools are all good examples of this. Would drinking mineral water as opposed to drinking tap water make it a bourgie drink? Not at all. You can use mineral water to flush your toilet and to wash your ass (wouldn’t be surprised if it actually happens, just very angry) and it still won’t be bourgie. The use of it will be. But water, air, and land in and of themselves cannot be bourgie. They sustain Life. Are consumed by all living entities, and are needed by them.

Thus, when evaluating whether a certain dish is bourgie or not I would anchor my assessment based on these five points. However, the linchpin of the definition of bourgie food is: excess. In all five of these, especially the fifth one, it this element of excess which shall guide my judgement. As Sidney Mintz put it,

“What may seems slightly offensive to modern bourgeois morality is its [eating subtleties] literalness. The egalitarian view is that invidious consumption ought not to be explicit, perhaps because it casts so bright a light upon the nonegalitarian motives of the consumer. When hierarchy is firm and acknowledged-when rights of kings are considered rights by commoners-the excess of nobility are not regarded as excesses.” [Mintz 1985, pg.101]

And this brings me back full circle to the ethical system which I envision. A system in which sab ke liye kafi hai and no one should go hungry for want of water, food or air. It is also because of the concept of excess that I feel that posing the question as one of degrees and scales is much more beneficial in yielding a more nuanced answer. For then I shall be able to identify the threshold of when a dish transforms into bourgie food.

However, I am wary of the answer I have reached thus far. We must not be comfortable with our presuppositions. As Foucault, invoking Maurice Merleau Ponty’s philosophical task, advises us that we must always be engaged in a project of critical evaluation. We must not let ourselves be lulled into a comfortable sleep such that we wake up with shock, fear and disbelief to the ‘abnormality’ and ‘inhumanness’ of the situation only to be comfortable with its ‘abnormality’ and ‘inhumanness’ in another context. [Foucault 1979]

[1] I refuse to italicize or translate Roman Urdu into English. If papers can be peppered with French phrases, then I can return the favour.

[2] Talk of objectification on a whole new level. Even in their misery they exist for me.

[3] At the back of my head I could hear, Rafeef Ziadah saying, “today my body was TV massacred/that had to fit into sound bites and word limits”. I feel that Ziadah might accuse me of the same thing.

[4] The working definition of ethics simply being, a moral framework which shapes a person’s each and every decision and action.

[5] The working definition of capitalism used is simply, a system where the labourer is alienated from their labour and the profit and resources are concentrated in the hands of a few at the expense of the many.

[6]A list of goods which are most “commonly” used/consumed.

[7] A list of goods which is computed on weekly basis to assess the price movement of essential commodities at short intervals.