Thursday, 7 March 2013

Brown paper

Brown paper has the look and feel of tradition – a modern, industrial product that nonetheless reveals something of its material origins in wood pulp. It is a relatively functional ‘raw’ material, unrefined and undecorated, useful but disposable which has been familiar throughout the life-course of all currently living generations. In the traditional mode of wrapping, brown paper is the last material to be used on the outside to protect a parcel from the scuffs and rubs of the other packages it will share the space of transit with. But as the internet has brought more things to be delivered to our homes by couriers and postmen and women, its use has changed from being just a means of wrapping parcels. The plastic bag has become the preferred form of parcel wrapping when cardboard and plastic tape is not enough on its own but the material properties of brown paper mean that it is also well suited to the task of filling spaces in standardised cardboard boxes. Manufacturers often invest significantly in the packaging of the objects they sell with polystyrene shaped pieces to hold the object snugly inside precisely sized, rectangular cardboard boxes that are then sealed in plastic shrink-wrap. These manufacturers packagings are purpose-built using highgrade cardboard, often with see-through panels, and highly coloured and distinctively designed graphics. The packaging is functional in protecting the goods while at the same time showing them off and advertising their properties through images and text. The white fine-grade cardboard packaging that Apple’s gizmos are sold in is exemplary in the thought and the styling that goes into the careful folding of its manufacture. A rather more down market version of manufacturer packaging leaves out the rectangular box and uses two stiff plastic sheets welded together with a bulbous shape left for the object (these ‘blimp’ packs need scissors to open and are the type of packaging that most frequently leads to cut fingers; the plastic is sharp and unforgiving, especially once it is half open). But all these manufacturer’s packages have themselves to be protected when they are being mailed or couriered.

Retailers once used brown paper to wrap the goods you had bought. Large rolls of wrapping paper were kept on dispensers fitted to the wall or the counter with a metal blade resting on top against which to tear off a sheet of whatever size the shop assistant needed. Some retailers still use brown paper wrapping, especially luxury goods sellers who make a feature of the parcelling to indicate a nostalgic ‘craftiness’ quality in their goods. They may even use string to bind the parcel closed – though often as a supplement to sticky tape in a skeuomorphic transformation of the functional into the decorative. There is an acquired skill involved in the wrapping but most importantly there is a visible labour in specially wrapping the individual customer’s purchase. The investment of such human care and effort signals the value of the item – a value conferred by the seller and recognised by the buyer. The costly and time consuming work of wrapping is now usually reserved for glass and chinaware – sometimes wrapped in white paper, more often now in bubble wrap. Mind you, a second-hand bookshop I have used for many years, still makes a point of wrapping the books you’ve bought in brown paper parcels; it makes the book that might in another setting be valueless worth the price being paid. But most retailers have long ago opted for the plastic ‘carrier bag’, often with logos and brand names on the outside. Upmarket clothes shops show the value of their goods by selling them in a thick paper carrier bag with string or even material loops for handles – traditional materials once again indicating the value of the good and so the status of the consumer. A further indication of value is shown by carefully wrapping the garment in white tissue paper before it is reverently placed in the carrier.

The mail order companies are not concerned with getting their customers to walk down the high street showing off the brands of the goods and the shops they’ve been buying from. They have an enormous range of differently sized and shaped objects, often already wrapped in their manufacturers’ packaging, that need to be wrapped yet again for safe delivery. What are needed are clear labelling and a wrapping that will withstand being tossed about in a van or a sorting bin along with other packages, some of which are large and heavy. This is packaging not for selling or for seduction, but for function. It needs to be easy to do, to have sufficient cushioning inside to protect the object and be adaptable to a wide range of objects. Bubble wrap, which it seems originated as a form of three-dimensional wallpaper, has since the 1960s provided a plastic, ‘modern’ form of packaging that replaces the simple brown paper parcel and the wrapping of things in newsprint. Those brown paper parcels for posting, that survived well into the 1980s, demanded considerable skill on the part of the wrapper and were originally tied up with string, then later with sticky tape. The brown paper protected the object in the parcel against friction with other objects but was not much good for protecting items against impact. The cardboard box, especially one made with corrugated cardboard, provides much better impact resistance and has since the end of the nineteenth century been used to contain many types of items for transit. The cardboard box can be made to contain many similar items – boxes of detergent or biscuits, bottles of wine or of cleaning fluids – for transport between supplier and retailer. But unlike the wholesaler’s packaging, it is not multiple similarly shaped items but separate, different, individual items that need to be packaged and sent to homes from on-line shopping warehouses. The items from the same warehouse selling, say, electrical goods, come in all shapes and sizes, with different weights and dimensions. But the cardboard boxes for transit are made of a few standard sizes and in them things can move about, vulnerable to their own weight and vulnerable to any crushing impact on the box.

Bubble wrap is sometimes used as a spacing material but while it gives good impact protection it is not flexible in expanding and contracting to fill the space – the packer simply has the option of using more, often much more than is needed for cushioning. Some packers use a chain of large plastic bubbles or a filling of polystyrene shapes to provide both void filling and protection against crushing. The plastic shapes have to be burst for easy disposable and, like the polystyrene chips, are very unlikely to be recycled. Polystyrene chips can be a nightmare for the consumer; outdoors they can blow about and indoors they can stick with electrostatic attraction to clothes, furniture and carpets. But brown paper is cheap, can be recycled or reused and can be easily crumpled to fit irregular spaces by the packer. It can be stuffed loosely and haphazardly, allowing the material to take up creases in different directions so that it cushions in many ways with a ‘give’ that is not bouncy but can be quite firm, especially when the paper is stiff and sufficient is used. A crumpled sheet of newspaper is much more easily compressed as the object moves around in the box, it is messy to handle and its merit in being a recycling of a discarded material is countered by the visible trace of its former use. The new thing wrapped in old news. Newsprint, used or clean, is too soft and too much needs to be used, which means there is a lot more work in packing and unpacking and in the end, less cushioning if the parcel is dropped… or thrown.
So traditional brown paper wrapping paper has come back into its own as an internal pack material that is cheap, recyclable and effective. It is the relative stiffness of the paper that makes it so useful in packing objects into a box. The crumpled brown paper displays its functionality and unlike strings of plastic bubbles, presents the receiver with something easily returnable to a flat form that can be then recycled through the rubbish collection. And of course brown paper can be also be reused for packaging. When it was used for wrapping parcels, after receipt and unwrapping, it was frequently kept folded flat in a drawer ready to be brought back into use when another parcel had to be sent. Now the crumpled brown paper used to fill space and provide a cushion, can be refolded and stored more easily than bubble wrap. It is more recyclable, much easier than any plastic material to return to a pulp that can be reformed or rotted away (…though at the cost of releasing greenhouse gases). It can be re-used for wrapping but it can also be used for other purposes. Those might include; children’s drawings, lining drawers and cake tins, as protection for a table when painting… and maybe even, with some vinegar, mending broken crowns.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Phenomenology - What is it good for?

I've been using phenomenology for a few years now to provide me with a way into thinking about material culture. It comes somewhere between a method, a methodology and a theory but for me the good thing is that it problematises the empirical world, making it not reducible to being discoverable by a simple or single method. For example, I've used the phenomenology of perception in Merleau-Ponty's early work to think through how we perceive the material world and how we take it into account in how we act. For me, M-P's account of the whole body as engaged in perception rather than a series of individual senses, works very well for understanding material interaction - the interaction between human bodies and things. Rather than separate out the senses - sight, touch especially - M-P explains how what we see is from the body and how we move that body affects what we see. The distance of what we are looking at makes a difference too. If an object is brought close, within the reach of hands, its orientation to the body and its sense of touch and proprioception becomes part of the looking. And perception always involves the mind and its memory; what is seen and touched connects with what has been seen and touched before by that body.

More recently I've used some of Husserl's ideas about how we understand what other people perceive - apperception - to make sense of how we see the world and how our seeing images of it borrows from our understanding of how other people see the world. We can imagine what someone else is seeing, when we see them looking and when they tell us about it. When a still camera or a television camera shows us a scene we are not seeing it directly; it is reduced to two dimensions and has a frame that restricts what is available to view. But it is as if we have the opportunity to see something from someone else's point of view, that of the person who has pointed the camera and fired the shutter. We get something of the sense information that they get and have to go with it, give ourselves up to what we are shown, accept it as a view of the world. We imbue it with emotion and understanding that tunes in to what see. That is, if we don't turn away, move on or switch off - which is fine too. Sometimes we can be moved by what we are shown by someone else, sometimes it changes our view of the world that we see through our own eyes. Some of the fears about visual media (films, television, video games, computer screens) are that we can be taken over and influenced too much for our own good. But who knows what our own good is? Perhaps what we learn from an image or a screen is what we find abhorrent or disgusting, things that we are not exposed to in everyday life, things that we avoid but that we need to find abhorrent or disgusting.

If I take a phenomenological approach to the world I don't look for the 'objective' or 'scientific' account of what it contains, I follow the line of experience. Phenomenology is the most detailed account of the operation of consciousness that we have. It directs our attention to how consciousness works and how it makes the world present to us continuously. Husserl's early writing is particularly difficult and the procedure for doing phenomenological philosophy seems strange, mystical even. A bit like a meditative process of looking inwards, focussing the mind on its capacities and 'letting go' of the constantly intruding thoughts from the hurly burly of the outside world. He calls this process the epoché, bracketing, or the phenomenological reduction. It involves putting aside the 'natural standpoint' to notice how things are are given to consciousness and how consciousness takes them up. 'Things' here are both things in the world such as objects, animals and people and things in the mind such as memories, ideas, fantasies. Now, I can't buy into Husserl's epoché, it just doesn't seem possible to me. This is because if the natural standpoint is bracketed out, I can't see what can be left. The building blocks for sensory understanding is the experience we have of the world; what we know nothing of we cannot see or make sense of. There may be sensations but this does not mean that consciousness is able to do anything with them. What happens when we are exposed to unfamiliar experience is that we do our best to make sense of it by comparison with what we have experienced before. We draw on the accumulated knowledge of living in the world to understand what comes into consciousness; we can't separate out this prior experience from a 'pure' or experience of the essence of things. And if we do, or attempt it, we are looking for a spiritual type of inner experience, the sort that comes with meditation. Husserl's early phenomenology is known as transcendental phenomenology, not because he was writing about a mystical procedure - he is clear that he want to make phenomenology systematic and scientific - but because he wants to transcend the pre-determined nature of the ordinary flow of consciousness in the natural standpoint. But what gives meaning to what comes into consciousness is precisely the accumulation of what has flowed through that consciousness previously, including scientific knowledge, prejudice, stereotypes and imagined possibilities.

So, why bother with phenomenology? Well, I come at it backwards, via Merleau-Ponty, some things that are there in the work of Barthes and Derrida, some reading of Heidegger as an approach to the material world as well as other references including the work of Alfred Schutz and the writing of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann that impressed me as an undergraduate. It is only now that I am grappling with Husserl and although I find 'transcendental phenomenology' unconvincing I am still interested. This is because in his later work he develops the idea of the life-world, the everyday, habitual location of the flow of experience and the possibility of a phenomenology of it. If in his early work he is looking inward into the subject to study consciousness, his later work begins to look outward from the subject's consciousness and tries to grasp how it engages with the life-world. Here is where empathy, an emotional intuition of the experience of other people, is important for making the moral world of societies. What is more, I think there is critical potential in phenomenology, the possibility of challenging the 'status quo', the taken for granted, that-is-how-it-was-and-ever-shall-be, nature of habitual experience. I think phenomenology can be a route to persuading people that that their own experience should be the basis of judging what is right and wrong, what is good for them and for those around them. We've been dominated by 'experts', those who 'know best' for too long. Too often they are not the scientists but those who insist on trusting scientific and systematic knowledge which they select, take up and use for their own particular ends. Phenomenology can help us question the claims of others as well as question what we take for granted; we need to continually check our orientation to the life-world, to ensure that we are acting in our own best interests... that almost always means thinking of the best interests of others!

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Blogging elsewhere...

I've been blogging elsewhere so I thought I should add some links... I have interests in the sociology of culture around materiality, critical theory, visual media and television.

There was one on 'material interaction' - something I've been writing about for some time - that I did for Science Omega:
Why should sociology care about material interaction?

And another one on television that also went out on Science Omega:
What is Television Good For?

More recently I did one for Social Science Space:
A Sociology of Financialisation?

I've noticed a theme as I set out the titles... they are all questions that I am heroically trying to answer in a thousand words! 

Here's my University webpage with stuff about other books and research interests... I suspect eventually the blog will take over from the over-formalised university webpage:
Tim Dant profile

Thursday, 4 October 2012

SCAM - or Soc Cult?

What to call this blog? I want to write about the sociology of culture... but that sounds a bit too earnest. 'Soc Cult' was a possibility - the abbreviation is popular for courses on the sociology of culture. But SCAM was what two courses that I've taught has been called; the acronym stands for Sociology of Culture and Media. But it caught on as a label because both staff and students through it was a bit of a 'scam' to study for a degree course by watching television and talking about newspapers. So SCAM it is...

I've been teaching and writing about the sociology of culture for many years and have followed various themes. I began with a PhD on the sociology of knowledge and read quite a bit of Karl Mannheim's work including his essays on the sociology of culture. When I was a graduate student, Mannheim's interests seemed a bit distant; he was into sculpture and intergenerational history and the connections between classes and belief systems. What I was interested in was what was then still 'new media' - television, pop music, movies, magazines and videos. Cultural studies and media studies have taken on some of the approaches of the study of literature including its critical theory to study the modern channels of cultural stuff. But what has always interested me is how cultural products always connect back to the society that they emerge from and that uses them. Societies make culture for themselves.

We could say that culture to some degree reflects the society that it comes from; it gives some clues about its values, interests, they way lives are lived, what sociologists and anthropologists call the 'mores', the accepted ways of doing things. But it is not a simple mirror on a society, reflecting it as it is; it at least distorts what is going on and sometimes originates or extends a new idea or perspective. Nonetheless, I often found when I was teaching sociology in seminars that as I moved between small groups discussing, say, Marx's analysis of class relationships, I would get to the next group and they would be talking about something they had seen on television the night before. Perhaps they'd got stuck with what 'embourgeoisement' meant in the question on the board so they'd turned to social chat while waiting for me. But I liked to start with the television programme - perhaps a soap opera like Coronation Street - and work from the storyline back to the topic of class and embourgeoisement. It worked surprisingly well for a very wide variety of sociological topics and it got me interested in television and how it is related to society.

Television is a fascinating medium because it draws in all sorts of other media; novels get adapted for television, plays can be shown just as they are played on the stage or scripts can become screenplays that are filmed like a movie. Music can be shown as it is performed and whole cinema films can be fitted into the schedules on the small screen. What makes television famously different from most other media is that it can be live; we can watch Mo Farah win the 10,000 metres at the Olympics as it happens. We can join in the excitement of the crowd who are watching because none of us knows who will win the race until it happens. And when it does we can jump for joy simultaneously with all those people in the stadium, tens, hundreds or thousands of miles away from us. But unlike those who are actually there, we can watch it again and again because as well as 'live', television can do 'recorded'. Of course television has become so powerful a medium that it actually turns up at live events so that those at the back can also watch in close-up on a big screen - and the screen can give them the action replay too. At sports events and pop festivals - anywhere where there is a big crowd - television has become part of the live experience, amplifying the visual and capturing it for a second, later viewing, perhaps at a slower pace or from a different camera angle.

When television shows sports events it reflects something that is of interest and concern to lots of people in society (though far from everyone). An event like the Olympics is global and interests people in many different countries but interestingly the way in which it is shared through television still retains a national society perspective. Each country likes to send its own television crew to record the event in a way that will be of greatest interest to the viewers back home, with an emphasis on their team. Nonetheless, there are values and mores displayed in sports events that, for the most part, cross national boundaries - it is a part of the Olympic ethic, for example, that excellence in performance will be the dominating factor. But more than that, participants are not only expected to do their best as but also to be a 'good sport', to be graceful in defeat, to applaud the winner and to leave other issues - such as politics and economics - aside. In the reporting of 2012 Olympics there was great emphasis on women's achievements in a variety of sports and the Paralympics have attracted more interest and attention than ever before. It is reasonable to conclude that there has been a shift over successive Olympics in the way that women and those with bodily impairments are seen and valued by their society; the television reflects these changes to everyone who watches, including those who just catch a few moments on news or magazine programmes.

So television can reflect social values, mores and the morality of what is good and bad. It is a supreme means for distributing these ideas because it is not dependent on much in the way of prior knowledge - you don't have to be literate to get most of the messages. Television is not only a live medium, it is very good at remembering. The 'golden oldie' radio show that rediscovers the music that was popular a few years ago has provided a staple format for whole programmes that recall periods of recent television history; comedians and comedy shows, soap operas and variety shows as well as pop music. The television corporations have built up wonderful archives of previously broadcast material of every description that can be cut up and re-edited into new programmes. The past is also reconstructed to become a visual experience in costume dramas and 'reality' history programmes like BBC's Victorian Farm. These reflections of the past provide a comparison with contemporary life, showing how lives were lived, showing, the moral order as it was, such as, for example, the boundaries between women's and mens roles Of course we should be cautious about the exactitude of representations of both past and future society - things are always more complex than they appear on the small screen.

Television as it is broadcast has become a repository for ideas and values, a way that the members of a society remind themselves about what is important. And what is most import is how they live together, how they treat each other, what is acceptable and what isn't. Television isn't real - even the so-called 'reality' shows are constructed out of what is concocted in front of a camera and deemed worth showing - it is an imaginary experience that the audience consumes as two-dimensional moving images with synchronised sound through an electronic device. I think of television as being a 'moral imaginary', a continually changing and modifying repository of ideas, values, ways of being and doing, attitudes and emotions that is available to all those who wish to tune in. For all its flaws and limitations, television is a potent channel of communicating between all those in a society who can never meet each other face to face, just what it is that they share and that makes them a society. 

Tim Dant is Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University, UK, and is the author of Television and the Moral Imaginary: Society through the Small Screen, London, Palgrave, 2012.