Packaging Life: Cultures of the Everyday


Pramod K. Nayar

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    This book is a study of four aspects of everyday life and the ways in which these are ‘packaged’ for us.

    ‘Packaging’ refers to the processes that construct particular meanings in public culture's many genres—promotional material, news reports, advice columns, product literature—and in various media such as magazines, TV shows, newspapers and cinema. ‘Packaging’ is a method of constructing meanings, assigning values and building opinions around a particular issue, commodity, service or condition of life. On many occasions, these meanings and opinions translate into the sale of products and services, and thus, become integral to consumer culture.

    Packaging Life: Cultures of the Everyday is a study of the cultural politics of health, comfort, risk and mobilities. Cultural politics, as this book sees it, involves the construction of meanings and values through a strategic use of representations, narrative and rhetoric. Such representations mask the ideologies behind the meanings of products, events and conditions. In other words, products, services and conditions instantiate discourses and, therefore, politics. Packaging Life ‘unpacks’ these ideologies that insinuate as discourses—discourses of the family, perfectible bodies, fairness, style and sociability—that inform representations of risk, comfort, home, old age, lifestyle, disease, connectivity and cosmopolitanism.

    This book explores the ways in which aspects of everyday life such as health, housing, lifestyles and identities acquire meanings such as good health, cosmopolitan identities or luxurious lifestyles. Such constructions—or what this book calls packaging—encourage us to buy particular commodities, adopt certain lifestyles, assimilate specific political or social beliefs and develop significant anxieties. In other words, discourses morph into consumer cultural practices. To ‘unpack’ a discourse is to track the ideologically macadamized route a commodity, attitude, response or behaviour traverses within the informational landscape of images, rhetoric, narratives and representations.

    My rationale for examining the cultures and discourses of health, comfort, risk and mobilities is simply that they seemed to me 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. This book of course ought to have studied other forms of everyday life too: the packaging of sexuality, bodies, wisdom and sentiment among others. But if I did all that here, what would I do in my next book?

    And yes, the cutesy chapter titles are deliberate, and the product of my own perverse mind!

    Pramod K. Nayar


    I revived this book in late 2007 after some hiatus, partly on Elina Majumdar's encouragement; and so, I owe her a huge debt because, contrary to my fears at this revisiting of old haunts (a.k.a book ideas), I enjoyed researching and writing it (in between these two processes, I also did some thinking!). And, while I was writing about re-enchantment, taskmaster Elina also convinced me that there would be, must be, another soon after. Thank you, Elina of SAGE Publications.

    My work-in-progress (which sometimes is not progress) is usually haunted by frequent bouts of exhaustion which, I suspect, worry my parents and takes away the joy of seeing another of my books (‘one more’?). But they remain quietly, affectionately, prayerfully supportive, and for this I am very grateful—where else would I go?

    Nandini's enthusiasm for everything popular—FM Radio to Food Guides—is particularly useful because she directs me to sources I did not know existed. Her careful attention to product packaging has come in useful on too many occasions to number. For her unflagging energy born, no doubt, of a healthier diet than mine (here goes another ‘healthism’), affection and cheer, and her attempts to clear time and space for me to write, I am very grateful to N.

    Young Pranav's school projects—with their consequent (weekly) shopping expeditions for charts, chart-paper, pencils, crayons, match-sticks, odd-coloured ‘doughs’—and the chortle-interrupted together-viewing of Tom and Jerry, the awed together-reading of The Dark Knight Returns and the guffawed together-consumption of Asterix are necessary distractions for me. There is also now the added attraction of sharing interests with him—specifically the superhero comic book. For his ‘bundling’ presence—thank you, P. (And I do think ‘General Electric’ is the funniest name in Asterix, though ‘General Metric’ and his ‘metric system’ of warfare, Cumulonimbus, Makalos [Make-a-loss], Gluteus Maximus and Infirmofpurpos come pretty close).

    I must also thank my students, S. Vimala, Neeraja Sundaram and Deepthi Sebastian, for reading some of my chapters and offering suggestions and comments. Deepthi, in particular, deserves a special note of gratitude for tracking references and serving as a quick information-retrieval device for journal articles at the university (and delivering them by email at 7.35 every morning).

    I am grateful to the School of Media, Critical and Creative Arts, Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), the UK, and my friend Colin Harrison there, for inviting me as Visiting Professor in February–March 2008. I also thank the India Foundation, Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Center for International Programmes, University of Dayton (Ohio, USA), who collaborated in inviting me as Visiting Professor in 2008. Both visits gave me the much-needed access to libraries and resources that helped shape this book.

    My academic friends in India and abroad have been suppliers of materials and encouraging (if bewildered) witnesses to my erratic course of work. I must thank, with great pleasure, Colin at LJMU for being one of my staunchest supporters, and of course Nandana Dutta and Brinda Bose. More recently, I have been privileged with the friendship of Akhila Ramnarayan at the University of Dayton and Rita Kothari at the Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad. Sophia College's English department (the indomitable Shireen Vakil, the persuasive Sr Ananda Amritamahal and my friend Jihasa Vachcharajani) invited me to a seminar on Gender and Popular Culture in early January 2008 where my paper on men's magazines offered me the opportunity to think about ‘healthisms’—thank you Sophia (and I am glad that I overcame my reluctance to be a ‘conferencee’ and attended the seminar).

    Talking popular culture with comrade-colleague Anna—my listening board, interlocutor, bibliographic researcher, library fellow-traveller and friend—is to open up several books simultaneously. This book, like the ones before it, is in irremediable debt to her intellect, reading and priceless affection (and for the gentle hints: ‘No, really Pramod, that sentence really does not work’).

    Mysore Jagadish of the American Library, Chennai, deserves special thanks for supplying me journal articles and books at incredible speed.

    Thanks to Anupam and the SAGE team for their editorial expertise and final sharpening and shaping of this book.

    Introduction: Packaging Life

    This book deals with the ways in which public culture constructs meanings around and about particular issues, concepts and conditions—especially those that constitute the framework within which we live, socialise, consume and are entertained and informed. It analyses how four select aspects of everyday life—health, risk, comfort and mobility—are ‘packaged’ in particular ways for us (there are of course many kinds of mobility, and so ‘mobilities’ might be a more apposite term). Life itself, this book argues via a scrutiny of these four components, gets ‘packaged’ through forms of representations in the media, in the rhetoric of ‘experts’ and in the hard-sell narrative of the manufacturing house.

    The book builds on a set of assumptions about cultural practices. Desires, experiences, ambitions, ideals and opinions in everyday life are always contaminated by the information, ideologies and images—representations—circulating around health, luxury or success. These representations are situated within larger contexts of enunciation; contexts that are permeated by relations of power and politics. These contexts of representation and enunciation are ‘discourses’.

    Discourse, in Hayden White's terms, ‘constitutes the objects it pretends only to describe realistically and objectively’ (White 1978: 2). Discourse, as a dictionary of cultural theory puts it succinctly, ‘is a means of producing and organizing meaning within a social context’ (Edgar and Sedgwick 2004: 117). More significantly, discourses are ‘signifying ways of systematically organizing human experience of the social world in language and thereby constituting modes of knowledge’ (Edgar and Sedgwick 2004: 117). Thus, discourse mediates the very experience of life. Proceeding from this definition, Packaging Life studies the discourses that enable, hinder and influence our experience of and views on health, comfort, risk and mobilities. It believes that the discourses emanating from the business house, the media and the expert, represent everyday life to us in specific ways, and our experience of these conditions, whether of risk or success, is at least partly inflected by our consumption of these representations.

    Public culture is the realm of social and cultural expressions in civil society. It is the space of cinema, advertisements, TV, celebrity culture, the woman's magazine, the Indian Premiere League (IPL) and sporting events, autobiographies of public figures, websites and webpages of institutions, tourist guides, museums, comic strips, and so on. It is a space where meanings are made, fought over, re-done, appropriated and subverted, and over which no control—state or corporate, to name but two—is total. It is the cultural ‘space’ of cinema that must be subject to critical scrutiny in Cultural Studies for the power relations that inform and mediate meaning-production.

    Claims and counter-claims over meanings are invariably debates about representation (that is, language). And representation is about narrative and the contexts in which narratives are produced, disseminated and received. Thus, the ‘meaning’ of an advert from an insurance company is produced within multiple discourses of risk, safety, prudence and planning. These discourses could be further refined into subcategories of biomedical, educational and financial risks, the rhetoric of safety for the family and discourses of ‘planning’.

    Take a topical example of this multi-layered discourse in public culture: obesity and health. We are inundated with discourses about health in this age of ‘healthism’. Newspaper reports about obesity, ads for low-fat food, medical and scientific information from nutrition specialists reprinted in magazines, advice in health columns in newspapers, insurance against risks and the rhetoric of care in hospitals treating fat-related cardiac problems are all discourses that ask us to:

    • buy a product (use sugar-free sweetener),
    • practice a particular regimen (add exercise to everyday schedules),
    • alter the lifestyle (delete fast foods) and/or
    • obtain a service (seek medical advice).

    What I propose to study, in such an instance, is the construction of obesity as a problem, issue and condition. I am interested in the meanings—biomedical, ethical, social, economic and aesthetic—constructed around obesity and obese individuals. This construction of meaning through various narratives and rhetorical strategies across various genres is what I am ‘packaging’.

    ‘Packaging’ is the discursive, representational, rhetorical and narrative dimension of public culture and, as this book demonstrates, of consumer culture. This meaning–consumer culture linkage requires some preliminary comments. Meaning, as theorists of consumer culture argue, is increasingly ‘provided by corporate entities seeking greater return on their investments’ and, therefore, they seek to govern the ‘public mind’—a process that results in ‘a mystical connection between consumers and purveyors, “consumer goods” and what Tim Duvall calls the “great chain of consumption”’ (Duvall 2003: 84–85). While Packaging Life subscribes to Duvall's argument about the public mind and its meaning-making being determined to a great extent by corporate interests and consumer goods suppliers, I also believe that ‘consumer’ culture involves more than a simple myth-making and its resultant consumption of goods and services. It involves, for instance, the development of particular views of the self, the body, success and health. While many of these views might be the regulating framework of consumption, it would be reductive to say all views and ideas eventually lead only to consumption. These ideas (could) also lead to different forms of socialization and domestic structures, public health policy and initiatives—and these are not solely about consumer culture. Thus, while it is mostly coterminous with ‘promotional culture’, ‘packaging’ differs from it in significant ways. I use the term as shorthand to signal the process through which meaning is ascribed to an object such as health or a car, and is accepted as such by the individual or community; a process that could alter, reinforce and generate forms of behaviour, social relations and domestic and public arrangements of people, space and time.

    To phrase it differently, ‘packaging’ as a term draws attention to the persuasive ways through which concepts, services, opinions and products are ‘sold’ to consumers and the audience. By ‘sold’ I do not mean only the commercial-financial element. ‘Sold’ also implies persuading people to have a particular opinion or develop a new value system. For the purposes of this book, ‘sold’ is the semantic scope of ‘commerce’ itself that is expanded to include cultural, socio-psychological and ideational elements, but always gesturing at the market dimension as well. What I am suggesting is: ‘Packaging’ partakes of the financial economy, but also of various other economies—psychological, mythic and socio-cultural. It is at once about selling a product or service, but also more than that—it generates values, ideas, beliefs, superstitions, myths, anxieties and panics that constitute a form of social knowledge and the contemporary cultural imaginary. ‘Packaging’ is my term for the narratives of commercially viable products as well as abstract ideas, of profit-motivated services as well as social causes, of saleable objects as well as ‘immaterial’ notions. ‘Packaging’ is the ornamentalized, glamourized or expertise-coated wrapping in which, among others, we:

    • encounter ideas about health and risk,
    • stare at imminent disasters and possible solutions,
    • experience anxieties,
    • evaluate products,
    • execute new forms of sociality and
    • conceive plans (and dreams) for political and social change.

    ‘Packaging’ is a multi-layered process that appropriates in various degrees and guises the tone, language, style, strategies and politics of scientism, commerce, social causes and ‘values’.

    This meaning-making process, or ‘packaging’, has ideological and political implications because it encodes particular notions of the family, the individual or ‘India and constructs’ ‘roles’ for individuals and collectives. Constructions of aged people, promotion of luxury as a desirable quality or emphasis on material success often call into question, reinforce or marginalize individuals or groups who do not fit into acceptable notions and categories of ‘youth’, ‘successful’ or ‘stylish’, and thus, construct power relations between people.

    Meaning-making that assigns roles, prescribes responsibilities and generates stereotypes (of men and women, age and leisure, success and comfort) are exercises in power and therefore of politics. Thus, promotional culture, which relies on such constructions of categories and notions, is a political matter. Further, the very act of constructing such categories in discourse is an exercise in power, for it catalogues, discerns or discriminates among individuals and groups. In other words, the discourses of promotional culture are always political. Packaging Life thus unpacks a bundle consisting of:

    • the commonly circulating discourses of health, risk or safety,
    • the material culture of cars, foods or phones,
    • the consumer culture that is often (but not always) the result of the first two and
    • the cultural codes that operate within these discourses so that they become effective.

    In earlier works, I had explored how various ‘genres’ of public culture such as cinema, the comic book, museums, tourism, mobile phones, housing, property and shopping and celebrity culture constructed particular kinds of meaning (Nayar 2006, 2008b, 2009b). Packaging Life extends these earlier works, examining the discursive constructions of health and illness, beauty and fitness, comfort and luxury, risk and moral threats, connectivity and cosmopolitanism within contemporary Indian (metropolitan) public culture and continually links them with a consumer culture.

    Packaging Life is alert to the cultural rhetorics of consumer culture where particular meanings often lead to, or induce a desire for, a particular product or action. Cultural rhetorics is the process of meaning-making through a highly strategic use of representations, and is more than a simple linguistic act, often referencing cultural contexts and appealing to and also ‘tweaking’ already circulating sentiments, beliefs, cultural norms and codes, value systems and traditions. Cultural codes, of course, are political, for they rely on specific notions of family, gender, class or leisure in order to reinforce, subvert or reject power relations between genders, classes, groups or communities.

    Public culture in this book is closely aligned with material and consumer culture, but is not restricted to either. Packaging Life is informed by the assumption that public culture depends mainly on narratives and discourses that generate meaning. A central component of public culture is the machinery that produces meaning in order to sell products and services. This is the structure of consumer culture, a feature of the public culture in most cultures across the world. The terms ‘consumer culture’ and ‘consumer society’ require a quick elaboration here.

    In the world of consumer culture, meaning and desire are cultivated in the consumer preliminary to the selling of a product or service. By consumer culture I mean the culture of commodities and commercialized services that we live with and in today. Consumer culture as a term is used to ‘emphasize that the world of goods and their principles of structuration are central to the understanding of contemporary society’ (Featherstone 1991: 84). This means paying attention to the cultural dimension of economy as well as the economic dimensions of cultural goods. Thus, we need to explore the ways in which films, soap operas, advertising and advice columns promote products whose sales are directly linked to economic profits. It also means that we study the profits garnered through the sale of films, albums, TV serial rights and sporting events. Consumption now plays a ‘systemic role,’ as David Clarke calls it (2003: 2), where it influences ways of thinking, political beliefs, religion, education, ideologies of emancipation, clothing and fashion, social groups and alliances—in short, practically all that constitutes a social order. Things—objects of consumption, from food to housing—of course signify and construct a sense of the self for the individual user. Objects become the means, in other words, of differentiating the individuals. But they also serve as modes of social integration because, as Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton point out, ‘The cultivation of individuality serves a larger goal of integration because the intention to differentiate oneself from others still needs other people to give it meaning’ (1981: 33). To borrow Jean Baudrillard's example, choosing one car over another may be an act of ‘personalization’ (or distinction), but ‘the most important thing about the fact of choosing is that it assigns you a place in the overall economic order’ (2008: 152).

    We have consumption as a basis for a social system of mutual recognition, affiliation and alliances. To cite David Clarke once more, ‘In a fully fledged consumer society, consumption performs a role that keeps the entire social system ticking over. … A consumer society … sees this common, everyday activity elevated to new heights’ (2003: 13). It is such a ‘social order’—and ‘social order’ signifies power and politics—of consumption that this book assumes is characteristic of urban India today.

    Consumption is political because it is, of course, about profits for the manufacturer. But it is also political for the ways in which it shapes an individual's identity, social relations and group affiliations. Consumption becomes political because it is one way (anti-consumerism activists will say, ‘only’) of interfacing with the world. Jonathan Friedman captures the political dimension of consumption when he writes:

    [Consumption] expresses a romantic longing to become an other in an existential situation where whatever one becomes must eventually be disenchanted by the knowledge that all identity is an arrangement of man-made [sic] products, thus an artifice. No authentic identity is possible, so consumption must go on in quest of a fulfillment that can never be attained. (Friedman 1991: 158; Lee 1993)

    Thus, consumption is related to the sense of self and identity, which in turn influences social interaction, and is therefore a political matter.

    Consumer culture constructs both the subject and the object of consumption—the buyer-user and the commodity, respectively. As Roberta Sassatelli points out, historically, numerous actors and institutions have helped construct the consumer as a ‘social persona’, and to ‘consolidate the consumer culture as a culture both for consumers and of consumers: both a set of commodities for people to consume in certain ways, and a set of representations of people as consumers’ (Sassatelli 2007: 41). The ‘subject of consumption’ is ‘the individual who is imagined and acted upon by the imperative to consume’ (Miller and Rose 1997: 1). The ‘imperative’ that Miller and Rose identify is what this book unravels—or unpacks—as the ideological-political subtext of consumer culture. Take the home and its ‘packaging’, for instance.

    Homes are spaces of domestic consumption, and therefore, invoke questions of commerce and economics as much as the world of bazaar or the mall. The economies of the home involving food and clothing, women and labour, household technologies and the very idea of ‘home’—that subsume ideologies of gender, the family, parenting and consumption—constitute a realm of the political (for an excellent representative volume dealing with the ‘economies’ and politics of domestic consumption, see Jackson and Moores 1995; also see Nayar 2008b, Chapter 5). Thus, the number of advertisements showing the woman taking decision to change the cooking oil for the health of her family encodes a cultural politics of domestic consumption where gender roles are constructed and reinforced.

    Consumer culture's aim is to ‘use images, signs and symbolic goods which summon up dreams, desires and fantasies,’ which it then proceeds to fulfil by providing goods and services (Featherstone 1991: 27). It is this aspect—the ‘use [of] images, signs and symbolic goods’—the present book is interested in. I am interested in the ways in which a diverse variety of goods, services, opinions, behaviour and attitudes are ‘packaged’ for us to desire, acquire, imitate and use. That is, I am interested in the sales pitch, the rhetorical strategies and the informational culture embedding products, brands, aesthetics and services: from insurance to water filters, from Cartier watches to social networking, from clothing accessories to six-pack abs. Packaging Life is also interested in non-consumer (that is, non-profiteering) discourses in public culture where values, concerns and advice are offered on looks, fitness and safety.

    How does an Armani jacket, a Spanish villa or a Roman artefact become associated with luxury and, therefore, wealth, success and power? How is global warming marketed as a matter of risk and, therefore, of common concern? How does a youth rave party become iconic, for some, of the ‘collapse of Indian values’? How does a low-carb diet get projected as the best thing for men's health? How is the texture of shampooed hair promoted as a desirable quality in teens? And since when did social mobility become associated with cosmopolitan tastes in food and fashion? How does the structural nature of consumer culture—shopping, manufacturing, advertising—become political? How does consumerism get embedded in politics, debates about morality, a social panic or the theme of ‘family values’? How does the purely ‘formal’ consumption of goods connect with more abstract notions of morality or values? And, conversely, how are these ‘values’—what I term ‘cultural rhetorics’—deployed to sell us products and services?

    These are the kinds of questions that inform this book. The book is interested less in context-specific empirical work of consumption (such as shopper surveys, profits and manufacturing). Its interest lies in the discourses surrounding matters such as health, risk, mobility and comfort rather than in particular brand marketing strategies.

    While this runs the risk of homogenizing several discourses—some of them not overtly ‘consumerist’, such as alternative and ethical consumerisms in the Ethical Consumer magazine, or public-interest ads—into one, it also enables me to map a larger terrain. It helps me to see how notions such as cosmopolitanism or health have become associated not only with commodities, but also with attitudes and lifestyles. It facilitates a reading of a variety of social phenomena, from moral panics in society about youth culture alongside the culture of fitness as (a) the process of generating significant meanings, and (b) the propagation of particular ideologies within public culture.

    The methodology used here is almost exclusively discourse studies from within the Cultural Studies approach. The project is not to discover or trace moments of origin or cause–effect sequences within discourse or material culture. My interest lies in ‘resonances’. I seek commonalities, overlaps, intersections and multiplicities in themes, figures, images and ideas. I want to see how images and themes in genres as diverse and as specific (in terms of their technologies of representation) advertising, films, TV serials, magazine cultures, brochures, promotional material, official documentation resonate with each other. Thus, the focus is less on tracing origins of these discourses or material objects than on intersecting, overlapping and even conflicting cultural processes and discourses that construct images of say, health or risk and safety.

    My intention is to read representational strategies, rhetorical styles and discourses that serve up gadgets, services, views in particular ways in order to maximize impact and consumption. Thus, Packaging Life is an example of a Cultural Studies that is more interested in language, representation and rhetoric and treats them and the meanings they construct as political.

    Cultural Studies, especially the strand influenced by poststructuralism, believes that language and narrative—discourse—are signifying practices that construct meanings and identities for people, products, events and things. Discourse is the context in which material objects, people and events acquire meaning. It is the language and narrative shared amongst the manufacturer of the product, the producer of the advert and the potential buyer that constructs the meaning of that commodity. It is the narrative act of communication between the medical practitioner about the symptom and the ill-feeling patient that constructs the individual as ‘diseased’. Discourse, in short, is the mode through which we understand, interpret and share the world, as I have already emphasized in the inaugural moments of this introduction. Medicine constructs the sick/healthy body, the law the criminal or victim body.

    Religion fetishizes sin as a concept and practice and fashions an identity of the ‘sinner’. The marketer treats the individual as the buyer. All these are discourses with their own rhetorical and narrative modes. My ‘texts’, in keeping with the approach, are many and multi-modal—advertisements, TV, brochures, cinema, product literature, advise columns, magazines, newspapers, official documents and websites. This does run the risk of ignoring the conventions of every form—the use of audio or voice-over and the reduction of everything to the verbal—but, I believe, it facilitates the tracing of a map of the discourse in all its variations, undulations and blind-ends.

    Packaging Life is the study of four such discourses that are central to our lives today: health, risk, comfort and mobility. ‘Packaging’, from ‘pack’, is etymologically linked to both ‘bundle’ and ‘deliver’. I use the term in all its semantic dimensions. I use it to refer, therefore, to the bundling together of ideas and products into one rhetorical form, a narrative ‘bundle’ where ideologies of consumerism are entwined with those of self-care, where notions of fashion cosmopolitanism co-exist—share discursive and representational space—with a sense of local pride. I use it also to speak of the transportation—‘delivering’ of ideas and meanings through images in multiple media forms to the consumer, citizen, community and individual. ‘Packaging’ is a term I use to describe an act of communication—or narration—as the vehicle of meaning-production, delivery and reception where multiple ideologies, purposes, effects are bundled together. It also references, quite self-consciously, the ‘packaging’ of products for consumption.

    Adapting theories of consumer societies based on empirical studies of Euro-American cultures in order to ‘read’ Indian public culture runs the risk of an inappropriate ‘application’ without due attention to historical and other specificities. This is true despite the fact that India is now one of the largest consumer markets in the world (since 2006, it has topped the AT Kearney Global Retail Development Index, showing a 25 to 30 per cent growth rate in retailing),1 and its metropolitan cultures exhibit several of the hallmarks of First World consumer cultures—from malls to the dominance of brand cultures.

    But one of the several advantages ‘theory’ has, especially in Cultural Studies, is that it can work across geographical locations. Reading discourses, rhetorical strategies or representations for ideological subtexts of gender or class often demands an attention to language. Studies of representation are ‘theoretical’, but are, I believe, adaptable for reading cultural practices across different social and geographical contexts.

    This book locates consumer culture and its many representational modes within ‘political’ themes of class, gender and the new urbanisms. ‘Politics’, as this book sees it, is essentially about power, ideology and the control over people, ideas and behaviour, where ideology works mainly through suggestion, advice and opinion. In the case of consumer cultures, the sense of ‘politics’ leans towards signification and the power promotional materials (essentially, narratives) have over people's behaviour, the influence they exert over attitudes and beliefs, the ways in which meanings are constructed so as to sell products and services, and the effective languages of persuasion. It foregrounds the power of selling, just as it emphasizes the power of purchasing, where purchase and consumption represent not simply a matter of appropriate sartorial codes or aesthetics but the very basis of identity. It gestures at the gendered ideology of domesticity and the family that inform the rhetoric of insurance ads or health products' promotion. It sees mobility, success and ‘careerism’ as a near-prescriptive ideology that seeks to present particular goals and desires for the ‘new’ India.

    Like all Cultural Studies, this one is selective too—both in terms of its ‘sites’ as well as approaches. The study's scope remains the metropolitan settings of shopping malls, corporate hospitals, glossy (and expensive) magazines and predominantly English-language promotional materials. It ignores, therefore, rural marketing and the semi-urban sector. I am aware that this circumscribes the study of consumer packaging in India, but makes no claims of doing anything more. Moreover, it should be clear that I am interested in the consumer- or user-end of the consumption process, not with the production end. This is not to deny the importance of productive labour, economic policy and industrial capitalism in consumer cultures. But my focus is however on how these processes manifest.

    My first case study is the discourse of health in contemporary Indian public culture. ‘Packaging health’ is the process through which a low-calorie body signifying health becomes a product, an event, a desirable entity, a condition of life and an element of consumer culture. The ‘packaging’ of health in contemporary public culture generates, I argue, an ideology of ‘healthism’ and a culture of care and cure. Health is packaged, among other things, as a desirable and acquirable state of wellness, and one that is acquirable through the purchase and use of particular commodities and services—what I am calling a low-calorie edition of life itself.

    With this aim in mind, I look at discourses that medicalize everyday lives through an informational culture of disease and health and the ideologically potent narratives of healthism. I explore the culture of care and cure that manifests in myths, ideas and advice about the perfectible body and an ideology of ‘care of the self’. Finally, I look at the business of managing health today. We live in a culture where wellness is the concern of, and therefore promoted by, insurance companies, biomedical research organizations, the medical fraternity, gyms and fitness centres, and even the state. In this age of managing wellness, we can see an increasing technologization of health in the form of scans, digital projects of medical research and even art forms that are located at the intersection of biomedicine, technology and arts. Managing health is also the concern of the state, and this often modulates into a condition where programmes, projects and campaigns acquire a distinct militaristic tone. The ‘biomilitary state’, as I term this, is an important element in the discourse of health today, and is studied in some detail here. Finally, I turn to social marketing where products and services seek to serve the purpose of social advocacy. This includes the creation of medical spectacles (including scandals) and even medical horror films that serve an important function in popularizing medical conditions and solutions.

    In the second chapter, I look at a more consumer-oriented and consumerist aspect of public culture: comfort and the ‘deluxe edition’ of life. The chapter analyzes a major shift—from comfort to luxury—within consumer culture in the late 20th century. I explore, first, the culture of comfort. Comfort is linked, in contemporary culture, with consumption. Products and services are, therefore, increasingly promoted as objects that add to one's physical, emotional and mental comfort. The packaging of comfort has two components. The culture of comfort, I argue, relies on a rhetoric of ‘Utility Plus’, or a culture of the supplement where something extra is needed to make a necessity a comfort. This supplement is both a necessary completion and an excess that renders the object comfort. Comfort, in other words, is the consequence of the supplement in consumer culture's discourses.

    I then turn to matters of styling, arguing that the ‘stylization of life’ (Featherstone 1991: 97) is an index of comfort and a mix of brand biography and self-branding. It is in stylization that the shift from comfort to luxury first makes its appearance. In the section on the culture of luxury, I first deal with the ‘de-moralization of luxury’, where indulgence is no more seen as immoral, but rather as an earned marker of success. I then move on to two particular modes of packaging luxury—as ornamentalism and re-enchantment. Under re-enchantment, I discuss specific features grouped under ‘sacralization’ wherein products and services—and their users—are ‘sacralized’, rendered special, unique and luxurious.

    The third chapter turns to the packaging of risk in contemporary culture and its role in constructing a bubble-wrapped edition of life. I propose that risk-packaging demands an act of imagination, offering us scenarios of disaster and threat. Risk culture depends on the availability of information about such impending, probable threats, and disseminates this information within a language of risk that de-mythifies risk.

    Risk cultures demand an emotional response from us, and ‘emotional imaging’ is a constituent of this packaging. Moral panics, the most visible outcome of this emotional response, are a commonplace condition, I argue, even as I study the ‘structure’ of a moral panic. The packaging of risk also includes expert cultures, where the solution to the imminent risk is provided by the expert. Finally, I turn to risk practices, modes of preventing and alleviating the conditions and events of risk—which include apportioning blame and risk aversion.

    In the last chapter, Packaging Life addresses a dominant form of public culture: the culture of mobility, or the high-speed edition of life. Mobility is repurposed as a significant trope and metaphor in addition to the physical act of transportation in the late 20th century. The chapter opens with a survey of the most prominent mode of mobility—connectivity. It explores, first, mobile phones and its resultant multiple mobilities, and second, social networking and mobile subjectivity.

    I then go on to consumption as a mode and condition of mobility, addressing the acts of mobile consumption—shopping—and the global circulation of consumer goods. The following section takes up ‘automobility’, where the purpose is not to examine automobiles as much as the discourses of automobility—from car ads to the convergence of automobility with entertainment. In the section on cultural mobilities, I address a crucial form of mobilities visible in cosmopolitan, globalized cities today—food cultures. The cultural rhetorics here, I argue, take recourse to the image of the global citizen. The last section deals with what I take to be the most spectacular form of mobility—cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitanism is now a much-desired dream of the metropolitan shopper, and constitutes a concrete ‘consumer orientation’ according to consumer research (Caldwell et al. 2006). Here, I locate a cosmopolitan ideal of products, services and experiences as instantiating a culture of mobility.

    Several other discourses and cultural phenomena, of course, need to be studied, which this book has left out. Sexuality, the sacred, sentiment, death and romance are proximate aspects of everyday life that come packaged to us in different ways. These discourses find expression in adverts, reportage, popular and mass cultural forms such as TV shows and magazines, and are presented to us in different ways, some in order to sell products or services, but often as mythic, imaginative or rhetorical forms.

    Packaging Life is an exercise in ‘unpacking’. It offers an interpretive scheme to decode four of the dominant discourses in contemporary Indian public culture by prising open the cultural politics embedded in consumer rhetoric, commentary, advice and expert talk. It thus shows the way to read obvious, legitimized and legitimizing, ‘naturalized’ discourses that control social relations and encode power. With this ‘unpacking’ it performs, hopefully, the anterior moment of political or dissident readings by showing how these discourses conceal power, and therefore, can be subverted or resisted from within through an alert reading practice.


    1 Data from (accessed on 1 April 2009).

  • Conclusion: Unpacking

    This book has argued that our experience and perception of health, success, comfort and luxury, mobility and cosmopolitanism are mediated by intersecting, interpenetrating and even conflicting discourses circulating in the mass media. The persistent theme of the book has been the link of conditions of everyday life to consumer culture, especially in the informationalism, glamourization and managerialism that constitute the contemporary discourses of health, risk, comfort and mobilities. This is ‘packaging’, the process of meaning-making for particular ends. Packaging Life underscored the centrality of representation, narrative, image-making and rhetoric—‘packaging’—in enabling discourses to circulate.

    The semantic scope of the term ‘packaging’, as used throughout the book, works with its adjunct meanings and connotations: ‘bundle’ and ‘deliver’. I have used it to refer to the bundling together of ideas and products, where ideologies of consumerism are entwined with those of self-care or notions of cosmopolitan fashion are aligned with local pride. I have also used ‘packaging’ in its sense of ‘transportation’—the ‘delivery’ of ideas and meanings through images in multiple media forms to the consumer, citizen, community and individual. ‘Packaging’ is a term I use to describe a deliberate, organized act of communication—narration—and the vehicle of meaning production, delivery and reception, where multiple ideologies, purposes, effects are bundled together.

    Health comes to us packaged as a culture of care and cure when a ‘low calorie edition’ of life is projected as the most desirable form. This packaging generates a ‘healthism’ where a particular condition of the body is projected and promoted as desirable and acquirable. Healthism promotes, I demonstrated, an ideology where the care of the self was a personal responsibility, especially in the age of lifestyle diseases. Health is a state of the body whose norms, limits and deviations are ‘packaged’ for us, and whose ‘achievement’ becomes a consumer ideal.

    The chapter on comfort traced a shift from comfort to luxury. In the late 20th century, the chapter argued, the emphasis is on Utility Plus. ‘Stylization’ is central to this condition where the product and the self are both ‘branded’, and luxury becomes an intertextual narrative where brand- and self-narratives merge seamlessly, each feeding off the other. A de-moralization of luxury has occurred where indulgence is no more immoral, rather it is a constituent of a successful personhood. Products and services are ‘sacralized’ through a bestowing of singularization, including an antiquarianism, where objects are transported and valued across spatial and temporal zones to produce polychronic, ‘untimely’ and multi-spatial artefacts.

    The chapter on ‘packaging risk’ argued that everyday life is increasingly depicted as risk-filled—and, therefore, proposes a ‘bubble-wrapped edition’ of life. The discourse, of risk, I proposed, participates in a discourse of managerialism—but a managerialism that is not only about organizations and careers, but also about everyday life and the self The packaging of risk also includes, I demonstrated, expert cultures, where the solution to the imminent risk is provided by the expert.

    In the last chapter, I examined a dominant form of public culture: the culture of mobility. We live in a ‘culture of mobility’ marked, primarily, by connectivity as mobility—generating what I have termed the ‘high-speed edition’ of life. It explored the multiple mobilities of cell phones, social networking and mobile subjectivity and the apotheosis of mobility in the late 20th century: cosmopolitanism.

    If I were to summarize in a phrase, Packaging Life is a study of the culture of management—managing the self, identity, homes, impressions and styles, ideas, emotions, product-use and health. This managerialism is constructed subtly through narratives and representations. The book's emphasis is clear: everyday life is informed through and through by modes of representation in the mass media that ‘sell’ us products, services, ideas and opinions about thin bodies, luxurious villas, social justice, global warming and inspire, scare or ask us to manage bodies, finances, leisure, families, mind, emotions, in short, the components of our everyday experiences. ‘Selling’ and ‘consumption’ here are taken to mean more than just the merchandising and passive purchase-use of products and services. In this book, it is taken to mean the making-available of conceptual frameworks, belief systems and an envelope of opinions within which an individual or group's thinking, actions, responses and emotional states can occur and, more importantly, altered, sensitized, roused and driven in particular directions. These conceptual frameworks help us perceive the world, and are first made visible to us through narrative and rhetoric—language—in ads, political speeches, cinema, product biography and expert advice.

    The task the book sets for itself is to probe the ways in which our beliefs, opinions and products are packaged for us to consume, practice and trust in. The construction of conceptual frameworks (within representations) that influence the way we think, believe and see the world whether in the domain of health, risk, comfort or mobility demands an ‘unpacking’ that exposes the regulatory grid and cultural politics of these representations.

    The process of ‘unpacking’ serves an explicatory purpose, decoding representational practices that we have so far accepted as innocent, whether it is the rhetoric of the expert, the ravings of the hysterical ‘the end-is-near’ apocalyptist, the suaveness of the salesman or the glamorization of thin by ramp-walking models. To ‘unpack’ is to render transparent, and therefore, open to scrutiny, disbelief and, most importantly, interrogation, those processes of meaning-making that convince us to buy, believe, panic, diet and insure. To ‘unpack’ is to unfold the cultural politics that are secreted within entertainment, educational media, dollops of information and the expert discourse of medicine or climate. It is the name of the process of critical examination that tells us exactly how promotional material, information brochures and advice columns build on our fears, anxieties and desires in order to sell, convince, persuade and believe; in short, to consume. ‘Unpacking’ is the exegetical process of peeling aside the façade that makes consumers of us all—whether it is to scapegoat a community, buy a product or mimic a model.

    The decoding of representations, or what this book terms ‘unpacking’, is firmly positioned within the discourse studies component of Cultural Studies. None of the everyday structures of thought or action are unmediated or neutral; it is representation and meaning-making that make them appear so. And therefore, ‘to unpack’ is an imperative ifwe are to be alert to the cultural politics of public representations in cinema, the soap opera, the health column or the men's magazine.

    ‘Packaging’, as this book has demonstrated, encodes particular notions of the family, the individual or ‘India’, even as it constructs ‘roles’ for individuals and collectives. It maps abstract values such as ‘comfort’ or ‘luxury’ onto classes and economic groups, onto particular spaces (urban culture) and practices (clubbing, global cuisine consumption), and thus, engages in politically significant cultural rhetorics that organizes individuals and groups into income brackets, consumer types and vote banks. It smuggles ideologies of gender roles, class, success and wealth into advice, reportage, entertainment and education. Forms of representation in public culture blur or cement over the ideological grids of capitalism, consumerism, exploitation or oppression. ‘Packaging’ is the glamorous representation that must be ‘unpacked’ for the politics of popular forms.

    Constructions—a term to indicate meaning-making and representations—of aged people, the promotion of luxury as a desirable quality, or the emphasis on material success often call into question, reinforce or marginalize individuals or groups that do not fit into acceptable notions and categories of ‘youth’, ‘successful’ or ‘stylish’, and thus, construct power relations between people. All discourses are about power, and are hence, political in the sense that they seek/hope to influence people's actions. This could be the consciousness-raising campaigns against global warming, the sympathetic-consideration of a medical condition, the promotion of lifestyle changes via alternative medicine or the whipping up of moral panics around the supposed corruption of Indian youth. Thus, meanings and representations have a concrete interventionary role in people's thinking and actions—whether in the purchase of a product or the political opinions about immigrants. The promotional culture of consumerism relies on the construction of categories and notions, and is therefore, an exercise in power, for it catalogues, discerns or discriminates among individuals and groups. Promotional culture, or ‘packaging’, appropriates prevalent ‘cultural rhetorics’ in order to persuade its audience. Cultural rhetorics is political for the underlying cultural codes rely on specific notions of family, gender, class or leisure in order to reinforce, subvert or reject power relations between genders, classes, groups or communities. The woman ‘responsible’ for the health of her family is deemed, as the chapter on risk showed, for instance, to possess a ‘domestic autonomy’ that allows her to determine the health of her family and thus, choose the right forms of consumption. Gender evidently informs the cultural politics of domestic consumption. When the Idea adverts with Abhishek Bachchan erase all caste, family, spatial and class locations and substitutes these affiliations with numbers (the mobile phone numbers), it indulges in a political fantasy of the re-formation of identities. What needs to be ‘unpacked’ in this advert is the packaged naturalization of difference into an illusion of equality.

    ‘Unpacking’ is the careful teasing out of these discourses so that we never again look at everyday life and its discourses—the VLCC ad, the helpful insurance salesman or the invitation to luxury—as ‘innocent’. ‘Unpacking’ is the generation of dissident reading practices so that we learn to scrutinize these rhetorical forms of promotional, advice or expert cultures for what they conceal. Unpacking cultural politics is a Cultural Studies project. The task for Cultural Studies, especially of the discourse-studies kind embodied in Packaging Life (and which it packages!), is this unpacking of the political subtexts of narratives about risk, health, comfort and mobilities in Indian public culture in multiple media and genres. These narratives are embedded—or, more accurately, constitute the very stuff of—promotional, expert, entertainment and advice culture. Cultural Studies reiterates the need for a politically alert reading, and Packaging Life's ‘unpacking’ calls attention to the question of power—in formations of gender relations, class marking, urban spacing or media representations—of finance, ideas, social organization, domestic conditions and individual choices within these four discourses.

    Such an ‘unpacking’ has to proceed from a specific assumption from within Cultural Studies: that acts of representation are political, that narratives are embedded in discourses that have social manifestations, and that rhetoric possesses considerable cultural power and effects on the individual, collective and social imagination. The task of this ‘unpacking’ is to see how such representations codify particular practices of discrimination, support, emancipation or oppression as natural and legitimize power relations among groups and between individuals.

    ‘Unpacking’ is the process of unravelling the ‘delivery’ mechanisms and ‘bundled’ ideologies of public culture's representations. It is to offer an interpretive framework for reading those cultural practices and representations that have always been taken to be, or masquerade as, natural, transparent and obvious. To ‘unpack’ is to tease out the multiple ways of coding power relations within discourses in order to alert us to the endless potential of rhetorical and representational strategies for controlling, altering and surveilling social relations and the cultural imaginary. 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.


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    About the Author

    Pramod K. Nayar was Smuts Visiting Fellow in Commonwealth Studies, University of Cambridge (2000–2001), the UK, the Charles Wallace India Trust-British Council Fellow, University of Kent at Canterbury, the UK (2001) and Fulbright Senior Fellow, Cornell University, USA (2005–06). Some of his most recent books include Seeing Stars: Spectacle, Society and Celebrity Culture (SAGE 2009), An Introduction to Cultural Studies (2008), Postcolonial Literature: An Introduction (2008), English Writing and India, 1600–1920: Colonizing Aesthetics (2008), Reading Culture: Theory, Praxis, Politics (SAGE 2006) and Virtual Worlds: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cybertechnology (SAGE 2004) besides books on the 1857 ‘Mutiny’, English Literature and Literary Theory. Forthcoming are book-length works on cyberculture and new media, a popular history of the Raj and postcolonialism.

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