Packaging Life – Cultures of the Everyday


Packaging Life

Cultures of the Everyday

Pramod k.Nayar

Sage Publications

Price: Rs. 565


When I saw the title of    Pramod.k. Nayar’s book, I was immediately reminded of the famous quote of the American poet T.S. Eliot:  “My life is measured out in coffee spoons.”  As I began reading  the book  it struck me   futility  is not the running thread, unlike  what the poet expresses  in his poem,The Love song of Alfred j. Prufrock.  The central theme is depicted  through  a picture on its cover—   an open   cardboard carton filled with  packing material  and its content , LIFE  boldly written in the centre. In the inside page we find   a  cute  receptacle (perhaps containing life in all its complexities)   neatly fastened with a bow.   The author says in the Preface,” Packaging Life: Cultures  of the Everyday is a study of the cultural politics  of health, comfort ,risk and mobilities.”  His    rationale for examining the cultures and discourses of health, comfort, risk and mobilities is simply that they seem   to him   the most dominant ones in print, visual and other media, and which constitute the most prominent frames within which consumer cultures of the everyday work today. In the  Introduction that follows the argument  put forth   is Life itself via a scrutiny of  these  four components, gets “packaged ’’ through forms of representation in the media, in the rhetoric of “experts” and in the hard-sell narrative of the manufacturing house.  

The gamut and   scope of   this   cultural   study and analysis is confined to metropolitan settings of shopping malls, corporate hospitals, glossy and expensive magazines and predominantly English language promotional materials. Interestingly the four  chapter   headings  are both amusing  and very contemporary  as well as thought provoking.  


The first chapter: Life, the Low-calorie Edition: Cultures of Health deals with The Medicalization of the Everyday, The Culture of Care and Cure and Managing Health, Promoting Wellness. There is information explosion about the importance one should attach to one’s health which is handed down through various sources in a neat package with an objective to create health awareness/ consciousness. So what do we do on our part?


Monitor our blood pressure,


Watch our calories


Record temperatures


Check for lumps, nodules, numbness,


Measure sugar levels and examine our teeth.


The process of monitoring too has been made simple through the various devices available like the insulin pens, blood pressure apparatus, thermometers, corn caps, glucometres and weighing scales.


The culture of care and cure has very specific essentials:


It involves a notion of the body as something that can be perfected and reconstructed.


It involves very definite notion of the care of the self.


The hype that is created by the media, new media and the advertisements that “promise” instant results in the reconstruction of health, attaining perfect body   are discussed threadbare with examples under this section. However it  doesn’t  condemn  social marketing  or the marketing of products and services that seek   to serve as social advocates saying it  is  not  entirely commercial  in its intentions even though large pharma  companies might have stakes in the sales of products and services.


The second chapter-Life, the Deluxe Edition, talks of   how comfort is an essential condition   of life and the various ways it is marketed to lure consumers into purchasing it.  The author rightly  observes that  consumer culture today rarely packages necessities,  even though, as reports tell us across the world that  there are people living on the threshold of life without the bare necessities (I think the statement  is applicable more so to India). It explores the packaging of comfort and luxury and the distinction between the two. Comfort is the cultural logic of mass manufacture, marketing and consumption, while luxury is the cultural logic of niche manufacture, marketing and consumption, says the author. Packaging the two is the deliberate creation of   fantasies of transformation and in the case of luxury   there is a magical air lent to the fantasies of transformation and Style is promoted as a key factor which determines consumer culture today.


The third Chapter   titled  Life, the Bubble –Wrapped Edition –Cultures of Risk  opens with  three news items  which  make you  sit up  and  wish to  guard yourself  from  risks  involved  in the life of man and machine at the same time you start wondering whether   it is a ploy employed by companies to sell their products!  The under mentioned are two examples:


With the monsoons arriving, you become more susceptible to water borne diseases. And we ensure that you get only the safest and purest water every time. Read through the following information areas and keep your family safe and healthy!


Write up on Eureka Forbes Water Purifiers


Your computer might be at risk. No anti-virus software or firewall is installed.

(Annoying) Message on desktop after PC is switched on.


The lengthy   passage in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1970(1916) where the character Yossarian worries about his health quoted in full captures the discourse of risk that haunts us. What the character seeks at the end of the passage is a bubble-wrapped life. It is no exaggeration at all because the bottom line for all product manufacturers and services offered   is to make maximum profits playing on the gullibility of the human mind .The redeeming features   are the subheadings   that follow which talk of Demythifying Risk and


Risk Aversion. 


In the final chapter Life, the High-speed Edition, Cultures of Mobility, Mobility is the dominant metaphor and it is the theme and politics of the late 20th.century.  A quote reproduced here in full beautifully sums up the facility provided by modern technology and its resultant “impersonality” in our everyday life.

                                                 Mobile Connections


“I can call you up from anywhere.”


“Eighteen countries,” he reminded me. Just in case, though he gave me his number in Tokyo and his office number in Tokyo. He  gave me his fax number “at home” and his home and office numbers in  Hong Kong. He gave me his fax numbers in both places, an 800 number for his voice mail, his mobile number, his mother’s fax number, his office fax number in London, and his E-mail address. He even gave me toll-free number for calling his voice mail from Japan.  Somehow, that left no room in my address book for his name.

–Pico Iyer (2000:113)


Mobility is used in its plural form to include automobiles, food in various aspects like Food Borders, Food Cosmopolitanisms, Food and Imaginative Geography, Food and Sensual Geagraphies. Cosmopolitanism  is further classified as Mundane Cosmopolitanism and Mobility and Vernacular Cosmopolitanism and the Mobilities of the Local.


Global  connectivity, increase in world travel  and  availability of  consumer products  and   wide food  choices  enables  one to become cosmopolitan  and this is characterized as mundane cosmopolitanism (Hebdige1990 )  and  “banal  cosmopolitanism”(Beck 2002). Whereas   the author  sees   “mundane cosmopolitanism”  as an instance of the great cultural “flows”, the swirl  and eddy of products around us:


Apart from  Hollywood movies, French fashion, European food  and  American sports it also includes  SRK  in the global celebrity arena, Hindi  movies in the U.S., Yoga exports and The “curry “ in U.K.


Vernacular cosmopolitanism as the term suggests is opposed to   society   that is elitist  in nature and it is   seen as something that  thwarts   another mobility: a resistant mobility  which is a counter mobility where local cultures, modes of production and marketing and consumer networks step in to prevent  the dissemination or even channels of circulation of global brands and signs and a few instances are cited  as proof of the statement. I  wish he had included instances of misuse of technology, especially  mobile phones and the internet and  its consequences in the Indian context.      


The  book concludes by  explaining   and counseling   the  reader/consumer  as what unpacking  means—To“ unpack” is to explore the possibilities  for emancipation, alternative thinking, radicalism and resistance within discourses and prevalent structures of signification by encouraging a dissident reading practice. To unpack, is therefore a political  act. Sane advice indeed which needs to be  essentially practised by the Indian consumer.


This  is an extremely  useful book  to students  of media  studies/media professionals   and   serves as an eye opener to other  professionals  as well, particularly  those in medical and  the business  of   Beauty.


N.Meera Raghavendra Rao

Freelance Journalist and Author


This review appeared in VIDURA, JAN-MARCH ISSUE.


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