12 January 2016

The deceptions of ‘finished products’

There are no finished products.  There are only works in progress.  Outside of comprehensive doctrines that is, and even these get broken and get to ‘have to be re-made’ due to multiple interpretations.  And yet, products, brands, taglines and logos are frequently thought of as ‘done’ deals, perfect constructions that eliminate the need to revisit, re-assess and re-design. 

Take cars.  Has the perfect vehicle been invented?  No.  The perfect computer, the perfect malt drink, the perfect suit, the perfect building?  Even if something seems perfect, is the ‘made to last forever’ quality that would warrant the ‘perfect’ tag always (or ever) satisfied?  No.  “God!” did someone say?  Well, let’s not get into that kind of discussion, shall we? Let’s just ask “Which god and as described by whom?” and leave it at that.

However imperfect the perfect-claim may be, we still have what are called ‘finished products’, which are of course at best approximations and certainly not the real deal.  It’s harmless, really.  We like ideal types and like to do something that makes it possible for us to say ‘There! Don’t it! Finally! Just perfect!’  It’s innocent at some level.  So let’s stay with ‘perfect’. 

The issue is about what goes on before we get to ‘perfect’.  This is not a new story, true.  Even as the Taj Mahal is celebrated, there are always those (annoying?) voices that ask uncomfortable questions.

‘Who really built it?  Shah Jahan? Really? He laid the bricks, one by one, did he?  He was mason, laborer, painter, architect and engineer, was he?’

Annoying as these questions are they are rarely answered and even if answered the grandness of ‘perfection’ and adulators of the same ensure that question and answer are footnoted in the narrative or omitted out altogether.  So we have to say it again and again.  From time to time.  We have to say it because not saying makes us partners in the crime of erasing important contributive elements of the story. 

What’s an automobile built out of?  We hear about German cars, Japanese cars and the odd Made-in-the-USA car too.  That’s about the location of the owner(s), mostly.  Some of them are not even assembled in the particular country.  But even if they were, if you think about all the parts that go into what is finally purchased, it’s not a one-country story.  Phil MacMichael, Professor of Development Sociology, Cornell University speaks of the global automobile.  Take a car apart and trace back each to where it was made or who made it and you can an international community of workers working separately and unknown to one another so that someone in some country they might never know would drive off in a ‘German’ car.  Or a Japanese car.  Or the odd Made-in-the-USA car. 

It’s the same with say the beef patty in a McDonald’s hamburger.  Those who bite into one of those buns is not going to chew on, say, an All American Cow.  Break down the creature into constituent parts such as feed, vaccinations and pasture and you have what Phil would call a global steer. 

Things have histories.  And those histories are pretty dismal.  Think of a polished and glittering gem that dazzles and is priced at several million Yuan.  We admire such things.  We wish we could have them.  We talk about them.  What is it that we talk about least?  We don’t talk about all the hands that made it what it is.

We can take a walk back and thereby unravel a fascinating (and sad) story.  Who watches over it as it sits on a beautifully crafted stand in a well-made showcase?  Who made the showcase? Who cut the glass? Who made the stand? What were those stories, we could ask ourselves.  Who cut it, who turned rough into precious?  Who brought it from mine to gem-cutting factory?  Indeed, who went into the bowels of the earth to bring up a container full of gravel and mud? Who did the panning? What kind of eyes detected in what to other eyes may have looked like another inconspicuous pebble a priceless gem?  What were those hands like which drew it up from the mud?  What lives are lived by the owners of these eyes and hands? Do we ask, ever?   

We are surrounded by precious stones.  The head of a top corporate entity can be described as a precious stone.  An outstanding cricketer, a brilliant chess player, a violinist who can make the instrument weep and make those listening to it follow suit, a teacher, an engineer and a bridge, an architect and a mansion, a city planner and a city, a playwright and a theatre production, a copywriter and an advertisement: these are all gems.  They all have stories behind them.  They are all made of people.  There are eyes and hands. 

We don’t have to dwell on these at every turn, but it certainly helps put things in perspective and in generating some humility to do so now and then.  Nothing is perfect but what is called that name are made of many (im)perfections.  Precious stones, all of them, even if un-cut or un-acknowledged.    

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer and can be reached at malindasenevi@gmail.com