The Experimental Guru

By Farzana Dudhwala

“This is an experimental event! The plan is to have a light supper and then watch “Kumaré”, the recent documentary about someone who sets himself up as a “false guru”. Some interesting ethnographic issues.” ­– Steve’s email invitation

This was all we had to go by: an ‘experimental’ event at Steve’s house. I’d read the email a while back and responded then, too. I only realised that I hadn’t read it properly when I got there. I’d told everyone that I was going to an ‘experimental taste’ evening. Having read the email again, I realised it didn’t say the experimental part of the evening had anything to do with the food (although I still think that Steve’s delicious citrus and chilli salmon dish could be seen as ‘experimental’ to those of us with less imaginative cookery skills). After we had finished eating (the salmon was preceded by a broccoli and stilton soup and followed by a fruit crumble with Cornish ice-cream), we moved to the next room where the show was about to start.

Vikram Gandhi

The starting scenes of the film had all the familiar sounds and sights of India. We were presented with vignettes of people talking about different gurus, and how some were more real than others. We were then introduced to Vikram Gandhi, the director and protagonist of the film, who had become disillusioned with the religious leaders he’d met. He was curious about the increasing trend in the West to seek spirituality in Eastern beliefs and decided to impersonate an Indian spiritual leader to find out more. Enter Sri Kumaré.

Sri Kumaré

Vikram Gandhi as his ideal self: Sri Kumaré

Vikram Gandhi as his ideal self: Sri Kumaré

Vikram took on the appearance of a stereotypical Indian guru – he let his beard and hair grow out for a few months, learned some yoga, and took off most of his clothes. He then set up a website and started advertising his new form of meditation and chanting. He ended up with 14 devout believers who zealously followed his principles of finding the ‘blue light’ and ‘oo-aa-ee’ chanting. When speaking about him, they proclaimed that he was a ‘true’ guru; unlike the others, he was the ‘real’ deal. They had faith in him and believed that he was the cause of actual and significant changes in their lives. But of course, all along, Sri Kumaré was just Vikram Gandhi in disguise: a self-proclaimed ‘false’-guru, and a ‘fake’ deal.

“A True Film about a False Prophet”

As the credits started to roll, the room erupted with differing opinions. Were the lessons Kumaré taught any less real or transformative for the participants now they knew he was a ‘fake’? Did it matter that Kumaré was not really a guru? To a few of his devotees it clearly did: after Vikram’s revelation, they walked straight out of the room. But surprisingly most of the followers embraced him and saw it as the ultimate culmination of their journey with him. They accepted his idea that ‘true meaning’ would be found inside themselves and not in, or through, a guru, and acknowledged that this was exemplified by their own transformations, which had taken place without Kumaré and without the help of any ‘true’ guru at all.

Still, I can see why some of the people walked out. They had put their faith in something that had turned out to be false. Yet if, as they claimed in the film, Kumaré had positively impacted their lives, then perhaps it’s not the deceit that they should have had a problem with, but the fact that Kumaré came clean at all. For me, it’s a bit like the placebo effect: I’ll happily keep taking a pill if it actually has the effect of curing my headache – just as long as you don’t ever tell me that it was only ever a sugar pill!

In our own lives, too, how many ‘false prophets’ have we come to believe in? Take yoga, for instance. Kumaré’s postures and chants were really not that different from the widespread belief in the benefits of doing the ‘cat’, ‘cow’, ‘crow’ and ‘eagle’ poses in yoga. What if someone walked into the yoga studio one day and waved her hands around proclaiming that it was all just a joke? That she’d made up her routines by imitating things she saw in a children’s comic strip, and that it had not been ‘real’ yoga at all? Would any of the benefits of these routines suddenly cease to exist? Would you walk out of the studio feeling like you had been taken for a ride, or would you embrace the woman for enabling you to feel more peaceful and tranquil using nothing more than a children’s comic?

These were just a handful of the many thoughts and discussions provoked by the experimental evening. Steve’s rather demure indication that Kumaré may give rise to ‘some interesting ethnographic issues’, it turns out, was a bit of an understatement.

Steve Woolgar’s experimental event took place on the 8th February 2013. Also in attendance were Lucy Bartlett, Marta Gasparin, Sara Jensen, Katrina Moore and Tanja Schneider.

First Impressions of STS at the SBS: “Business at the Business School”

By Sara Jensen

I was sitting at “The Winter Doctoral Conference” at Said Business School feeling both impressed and a bit perplexed. It was the first week of Hilary Term and I had just arrived from Denmark from a rather small Institute with not a lot of DPhil Students. Of course I knew that the Business School would have many DPhil students all in all, but I was still impressed with the setting of this Colloquium, which was after all ‘just’ an internal event. I looked at the nice and professional looking brochure to get an impression of the speakers of the day. And I must admit, that an impression was all I got, since I, with my humanistic background, did not understand a lot of the abstracts or topics of the day’s speakers.

One of the other DPhil students kindly introduced herself and asked me who I was, and I told her that I just had arrived and was visiting the Said for this semester. When I started to tell her briefly about my project and the words ‘ethnography’ and ‘STS’ came up, a kind of distant, though still polite, glance showed in her eyes. From the Institute of Information Science in Copenhagen, where I come from, I am used to this distant glance since a majority of the people there do more quantitative or statistically related studies – so her reaction was not unfamiliar to me at all. I think the perplexity that I felt during the conference had more to do with the feeling that the DPhil students here at Said were all very dedicated, busy and knew exactly what they were doing, and while drinking my coffee in the coffee break I was thinking: well yes, this was after all Oxford, so what could you expect…?

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Sara Jensen is a visiting PhD Student at the Institute of Information Science at Copenhagen University, Denmark.

New Seminar Series: The Politics and Practices of Food Governance

by Tanja Schneider

We invite you to join a seminar series on The Politics and Practices of Food Governance organised by the Oxford Food Governance Group and hosted at Green Templeton College, University of Oxford, in October and November 2012 to explore the contemporary politics of food production, marketing and consumption.

Oxford Food Governance group logoThe series will examine the multiple ways in which food is governed today and its implications for health, the environment and business. The series will pay particular attention to the role that non-governmental actors and citizen-consumers play in contemporary forms of local and global food governance. Based on seven invited talks, the series will address the question of whether food consumption can be considered an ‘invisible’ form of public and political engagement and asks what the potential limits of such an engagement are.

The OFG seminar series will provide scope for interdisciplinary engagement with research communities interested in food governance, within and beyond Oxford. The seminar series will serve as a seedbed for the development of a new network for information exchange and collaboration, ensuring the inclusion of multidisciplinary voices in the project’s network of stakeholders.

The Politics and Practices of Food Governance

Seminar Series – Michaelmas Term 2012
Barclay Room, Green Templeton College

17 October – Wednesday, Week 2 – 11.30am-1pm
Professor Charles Godfray, University of Oxford, UK
The challenge of feeding 9-10 billion people by mid-century: Is it a question of supply, demand or governance?

25 October- Thursday, Week 3 – 11.30am-1pm
Professor Alan Petersen, Monash University, Australia
Governing food anxieties: The role of emotion in mothers’ food practices

1 November – Thursday, Week 4 – 4.30-6pm at Said Business School
Professor Annemarie Mol, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Where is the eating body? On situating beyond anatomy

7 November – Wednesday, Week 5 – 11.30am-1pm
Dr David Barling, City University London, UK
Sustainability and governance of the food supply

14 November – Wednesday, Week 6 – 11.30am-1pm
Professor Julie Guthman, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA
Fat places? Re-thinking the obesogenic environment thesis and the implications for food governance

15 November – Thursday, Week 6 – 11.30am-1pm
Christel Schaldemose, Committee on Internal Markets and Consumer Protection, European Parliament, Belgium
Legislating for healthy food in a single European market

21 November – Wednesday, Week 7 – 11.30am-1pm
Dr Richard Milne, University of Sheffield, UK
Date labelling and the governance of food quality and safety

28 November – Wednesday, Week 8 – 11.30am-1pm
Dr Michael Guggenheim (TBC), Goldsmiths, University of London, UK
Experiments in sociological food governance

Please download and share the full programme.

Food-body-entanglements, or tasting as an ethnographic experiment

by Nadine Levin and Tanja Schneider

Well, how to start or rather when to start summarizing a tasting experiment that some of us conducted inspired by a recent article on ‘Mixing methods, tasting fingers: notes on an ethnographic experiment’ by Anna Mann and colleagues at the University of Amsterdam? At that point in time when we all met in a colleague’s kitchen? Or while doing the food shopping? Or when making the shopping list? Or when reading the article and attempting to find out more about the experimental set up of the original study?

The Amsterdam ExperimentPresumably once we sit at the table? As tasting only happens when food enters the mouth, or does it? Our colleagues in Amsterdam tell us that we might want to reconsider this as tasting happens in other bodily parts such as the fingers. We were intrigued by this and the ethnographic experiment they described. Wanting to know by tasting fingers ourselves we came up with the idea to ‘replicate’ their experiment.

So, two of us checked what our colleagues in Amsterdam cooked and decided on a menu inspired by the dishes mentioned in the original article. We didn’t have (and didn’t ask for) a detailed menu or shopping list but that allowed us to introduce some variations (based on our tastes?).

Our list read as follows:

Pakwan: what is called Bhajias
(onion + cauliflower + aubergine+ spinach + chillies+ bicarbonate of soda)

Pappad

Vegetable oil (I litre) + olive oil
Red onions one kg at least + tomatoes one kg
Garlic + ginger (one small)
Spices: coriander + garam masala + turmeric + mustard seeds

Mains

Salad (Kuchumber salad) (lemon+ cucumber + tomatoes + baby mushroom + onion)
Dal (red lentil)
Spinach and tofu (3 packet big spinach + 2 packet)
Baigan Bharta (aubergine) 4 big aubergines
Dahi Raita (yogurt dish) yogurt + cucumber
Rice (Basmati)
Paratha malabar / Chapati (frozen)
Pickles + chutneys

Dessert: (bought ready made)
Gulab Jamun
Rasmalai

+ chick pea flour
+ lots and lots of napkins

While doing the shopping in two places Tahmid and Tesco’s along Oxford’s Cowley Road, we couldn’t help but wonder whether tasting (with fingers and otherwise) does take place in other timescapes? For instance, when doing the food shopping. Touching, gazing at and smelling the food and imagining what it might taste like. Or in the process of cooking the dishes? Fingers were washed or weren’t and everyone seemed happy to get their hands dirty and helping to chop vegetables and taking on related tasks such as setting the table or cleaning frying pans that needed to be used again. Did we taste the food already at those stages? Would it be useful to focus on how these pre-eating experiences contribute to tasting?

Once we all sat down at the dinner table to start eating with our fingers, each of us seemed preoccupied with coordinating food and fingers. Those of us who had eaten rice, daal and similar dished with their fingers before told us how their experience of using cutlery had seemed strange when they first had to use it. Or how not being able to eat with your fingers – as cutlery had been the norm at home – had caused awkward moments, if they had to use their fingers for eating during certain social gatherings in the village.

Tasting without cutlery, but with tableAt the end of the evening, as we paused around the dinner table digesting our food before we finished the evening with dessert, we began a discussion on how we should best engage with Tasting Fingers article. As we opened up about our experiences, the most pressing topic was how we should best engage with this type of open-ended, experimental scholarship. Should we respond critically, or should we use the article as an encouragement to think creatively? Should we focus on those aspects of the article that we did not like and respond in a “scientific revolutions” style refutation, or should we build upon our experiences to suggest future directions for ethnographic cooking “experiments”?

In thinking carefully about our engagement with the material, we decided to focus our discussion on several “amendments” we could make to the cooking/eating experience. For a start, we wondered about the advantages of calling the experience an “experiment”. While the article illuminated the advantages and drawbacks of referring to ethnographic cooking in this way, we wished it had included more details about the process of eating/cooking. We found that the article lacked many of the intricacies or logistics—the recipes, the timings, the spatial configuration, the expertise of the participants—but we found that these had a significant impact on our experiences of the night.

Pride in choppingRoasting aubergines the Australian-Indian wayCrossing cucumbers

Firstly, we found it challenging to coordinate the cooking and eating, such that all members of the group could be present when the tasting began. The challenges of cooking Indian dishes are not small: the food was delicious, but it required constant monitoring and checking, in particular by the two of us who were “experts” in Indian cuisine. Although the article discussed the importance of “expertise” in relation to how some people knew how to taste with their fingers while others did not, we found that the greatest impact of expertise was actually on the time demands of cooking (to those who knew how to cook Indian food). In other words, those of us who were experts had the “burden” of orchestrating the event, in terms of cooking the food and also instructing others how to “properly” taste it.

Secondly, when it came to a discussion about whether tasting was more “natural” for the two of us who were “experts” on Indian cuisine, it became clear that (as the article mentioned briefly in its conclusion) tasting with fingers is situated in particular contexts. One of our experts, who had been brought up in India, had been taught as a young girl to eat with a fork rather than fingers as a mark of “distinction” in her family. As such, she felt—despite her familiarity with Indian food—that the experience of tasting with fingers was strange. In contrast, one of us who had no experience with eating with hands finished her food the fastest, and showed (arguably) the greatest skill and ease with eating in this style. In this way, we began to question our assumptions about the nature of tasting with the fingers, and the contexts in which it is familiar or appropriate.

Thirdly, we wondered about the advantages and disadvantages of engaging with Indian food as a medium, and whether this was a necessary aspect of the eating/cooking experiment. In particular, we were unsure whether it was necessary to cook “strange” or “exotic” food in order to reconfigure the experience of tasting. How would the experiment have been different, for example, if we had gone to a pub in Oxford and tried eating British cuisine with our fingers? How would it have been different to eat roast chicken and potatoes using only fingers, by contrast with, say, eating hamburger and chips? Isn’t fish and chips most usually eaten without utensils? Would this have produced an experiment that was more uniquely “British” in some way, and which brought out some of the intricacies or tensions in British sociality and expertise? Perhaps the very enactment of the “Britishishness” of certain foods is tied up with the conventions we draw upon in deciding which utesnils are “appropriate”? To push ourselves further, we wondered if we even needed to eat with our fingers in order to reconfigure the experience of taste. Would it be possible to carry out the experiment with utensils, simply by being mindful of the how engaging with food through the medium of a fork/knife/spoon affects our perception of taste?

The two of us who had the happy benefit of “inheriting” the leftovers from this event experienced a further sense of the temporal dimension of taste. The following evening, some of the considerable uneaten quantities of the food were reheated and set out for consumption, with the two participants this time reverting to the use of conventional utensils: knives and forks. Both post-experimenters reported profound disappointment. The vibrant tangy taste sensations of the previous night seemed to have all but disappeared. Could this be because they had now switched from fingers back to conventional utensils? Could it be that the conviviality and novelty of the previous night was lacking? The same food in different “circumstances”, or might we prefer to say that the food itself had been differently enacted?

In conclusion to the “eating and tasting experiment”, we greatly enjoyed coming together to discuss the mundane, everyday experience of cooking, eating, and tasting food. While most ethnographic material cannot be easily recreated by non-experts in the field, this “experiment”—because it deals with the mundane dimensions of food in everyday life—affords us the opportunity to exchange information and experiences across bodies, geographical locations, and disciplines. As such, in the spirit of challenging ourselves to engage with the original Tasting Fingers article in a critically constructive way, we would invite other members of the STS community to recreate the experiment with the above points in mind. As you go about experiencing taste, we would enjoy hearing your experiences with how you selected your cuisine/location/tasting panel/methods, and how this reconfigured/influenced taste.

PS: Some of us discovered after our experiment that eating with your fingers is discussed quite controversially across a range of online media:

This leaves us wondering whether we would have approached our experiment differently, if we had been aware of these media debates before our tasting experiment. It seems that more than taste is at stake in these debates about eating with your hands versus eating with utensils. Or at least another facet of taste, well beyond sensory aspects, reminding us of the considerable symbolic power of food which has been vividly documented by anthropologists and sociologists of food in the past and present.

Contributors/participants: Michele Acuto, Teresa Davis, Amy Hinterberger, Chandrika Parmar, Natalie Porter, Anna Sparrman, Steve Woolgar and Malte Ziewitz.

This session was part of the ongoing reading group Encountering Science and Technology Studies: Situated Seminars. Rather than discussing readings in the confines and comfort of a seminar room, we immerse ourselves in locations that speak to the issues at hand.

Waste flow: A lunchtime seminar with Myra Hird

by Michele Acuto

This week’s on “Waste Flow” lunch time talk at Saïd Business School was presented by Myra Hird from Queen’s University, where Myra has been heading a research project on Canada’s waste flow. As she reminded the us, Canada is today the largest producer of waste per capita, and now faces serious challenges as this refuse is mostly landfilled when not exported to other countries.

Myra’s talk presented us with a series of considerations on the definitional complexities of waste, the technology of landfilling and leachate management as well as the twin forgetting/remembering process at work in the everyday social construction of waste. Drawing on sociological and anthropological literature, snapshots from around the world like the infamous “flying toilets” phenomenon in slums, field research at Canadian landfills in Kingston and, not least, Futurama and Fight Club clips, Myra begun by teasing out the challenges of defining what is “waste” and what is “wasting”. Associated with both tangible as well as intangible resources, wasteful consumption has become a daily obligation of society. Yet, as the the phenomenon of ‘garbology’ tells and as Myra reminded us, trash is also an epistemological resource charged with meanings, identities and multiple values, both economic and cultural.

The talk proceeded on to some closer observation on the construction of landfills and Myra’s work in collaboration with Queen’s Civil Engineering professor Kerry Rowe. Focusing on leachate, that heterogenous material product of the guaranteed failure of landfilling, which spoke to the uniqueness of the uniqueness of the mix of garbage contained in each landfill, as well as to the inherent impossibility of fully controlling and containing waste. This was the inspiration not only for considerations on engineering landfills and liner systems but also on a broader consideration that Myra presented us with: waste management in developed countries like Canada is today a practice of domestication and forgetting aimed at containing and determining something that, as waste, is inherently undetermined.

These considerations then led to the last section of the Talk, where Myra moved on to the ethical issues embedded in this visions of ‘mastery’ of waste as opposed to ‘remembering acts’ aimed at countering the removal of waste from everyday experience and at making waste management, as much as landfills, public. This theme sparked a lively discussion in the dozen or so participants to the talk, which begun by a variety of considerations on the aboriginal dimension of of the Waste Flow project and proceeded on to a the challenges of experiencing waste against forgetting. Along with the difficulties of bringing in an aboriginal sphere into research, and the often autobiographic bases of waste research, the Q&A raised issues about the capacity of ‘staying’ with garbage to remove the ‘waste’ quality of refuse (as with the plastic bottle that ‘comes back to life’) as well as with the use of waste to produce something new like in the case of upcycling.

The final challenges for research in waste emerged then in the question of dealing with the holistic nature of waste not only as the popularized household garbage, but also less tangible and yet crucial elements like carbon emissions, or even the unavoidable if not necessary presence of useful natural waste like oxygen. As the talk and the discussion ultimately demonstrated, waste is indeed a largely indeterminate and complex participant to our everyday experiences. And as expected, the group did produce a relevant amount of waste by consuming an healthy quantity of sandwiches, juice and packaged water during the seminar. Myra, at least, had brought her own recyclable water-bottle.

Human and Non-human Animals

by Natalie Porter

This week’s situated seminar on human and nonhuman animals took place at the Oxford Museum of Natural History, where we discussed John Berger’s “Why Look at Animals?” (1980), and Gail Davies’ “What is a Humanized Mouse?” Body & Society (forthcoming).

Museum of Natural History, OxfordAmy Hinterberger explained to us that the museum has been an important site for both entrenching and dismantling nature-culture, human-animal distinctions. Established in 1855, the museum sought to promote the study of natural history in a curriculum weighted toward the humanities. Thirty years later, the Pitt Rivers ethnological collection was erected in an adjacent building. Proximate yet distinct, these spaces reflected a nineteenth century emphasis on separating the domain of God (nature) from that of man (anthropology).

But this separation has proven difficult to uphold, and as early as 1860 the museum became a venue for reformulating the relationship between humans, animals and the divine. Here, in a debate on Darwinian evolution, Thomas Huxley famously told Bishop Samuel Wilberforce that he had:

No need to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather, but that he would be ashamed of having for an ancestor a man of restless and versatile interest who distracts the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digression and skilled appeals to religious prejudice.

One hundred and fifty years later our relationship to nonhuman animals remains open to critical reflection and reformulation. In Berger’s piece we find nostalgia for an “unspeaking companionship” between humans and animals, which he suggests has been lost in zoological displays. Berger promotes anthropomorphism as a means to recapture proximity between species, and to bring animals back from the margins. Davies considers anthropomorphism of a different kind. In her investigation of human-animal chimeras, humanization is less about recuperating lost relationships than establishing new ones. The humanized mouse is a species remade, an experimental object that reproduces the human immune system for biomedical research and drug testing.

Why only look at animals?Our discussion touched on themes of likeness and unlikeness, space and context, and species mixing at different scales. Davies shows how translational medicine maximizes overlaps between species to create opportunities on multiple scales. Humanized mice promise everything from personalized medical therapies to global research collaborations. This seems a departure from nonmedical sectors (sanitation, agriculture), where human-animal differences are maximized for productive ends.

Given this diversity, we questioned the utility of Berger’s anthropomorphism as a way to bring animals back from the margins. How do discourses of human rights and animal rights map onto each other? And how might placing animals in the role of ‘victim’ occlude their capacity to resist and respond? Indeed, anthropomorphism suggests an asymmetry in getting to know the other. Are there other ways of engaging with animals that do not involve recourse to humanity? Yes, but we should be wary of efforts to capture any pure or untrammeled animal aura. After all, are dolphins in petting pools less authentic than their ocean-dwelling relatives? Should meerkats be indifferent to human observation?

Questions surrounding the terms of engagement between species resonate with efforts to define relationships between observer and observed. Here, examples from artificial intelligence may prove instructive. In the same way that humans have been distinguished from animals by their capacity for language, the threshold of AI hinges on a machine’s ability to create discourse. But does an emphasis on communication again risk asymmetry, wherein estimations of proximity are conditioned by human perceptions of the other?

Finally, we asked how useful human-animal distinctions are with regard to chimeras, where species mixing occurs at the cellular scale. Humanization here manifests in biology rather than behavior. Likeness and unlikeness is mediated not by language or ancestry, but rather by cellular lineage and design. What does this mean, then, for the separation between natural history and anthropology? Will the humanized mouse end up next to the strokeable pony, or alongside the ethnological artifact?

This session was part of the ongoing reading group Encountering Science and Technology Studies: Situated Seminars. Rather than discussing readings in the confines and comfort of a seminar room, we immerse ourselves in locations that speak to the issues at hand. For upcoming sessions, please check the programme.