"Material Rituals with the Other" reading notes

These are my reading notes after going through "Material Rituals with the Other", the thesis work by Joanne Jones created for her MSc in Nature Inspired Design from ENSCI - Les Ateliers. The thesis contained three parts: a traditional thesis discussing the history and potential future of kombucha as a biomaterial both physically and culturally; a community welcome guide from a speculative community centered on rituals of kombucha; and a guided audio meditation in the same spirit.

Like my other literature notes, these will serve as a hub note for future explorations and writing to branch out from.

Assorted thoughts after the thesis

I didn't have a single threaded thought after the thesis, but a collection of questions and thoughts:

  • p10 - Yuk Hui thoughts on digital objects made me think about George Oates. She advocates for the vibrancy of collections of digital objects and networks, and has some really interesting thoughts on how to maintain it in the face of real-world market pressures.
  • pp27-30, + appendix - It strikes me how much the conception of life that is outlined by this personal/communal-scale ecological production relies on containers involved in the process. I guess it's kind of like home cooking and meal prep: it's all about having the right bins, jars, etc. I want to think about how we design our spaces to support these tasks next to our everyday lives by crafting those containers well.
  • p12 - Filing away "Do we build an ark or let the ocean meet us at our doorsteps?"
  • pp14-17 - I'm not sure I see how humans can fully respect the agency of a material like kombucha while having aims at creation. Your critique of the silk pavilion makes sense, but I'm not sure what the counterexample would look like1. Is that allowing kombucha that doesn't meet the production goals to live without being discarded, or perhaps not imposing such stringent geometric or otherwise artificial guardrails on the material in the first place? I still feel a tension there I guess; it still feels like cultivation over co-individuation.
  • pp29-34 - All the history and theory of kombucha and fermentation as ritual were very helpful.
  • p37 - The mechanical properties of kombucha leather inspired me to order a SCOBY, that's exciting.
  • p33 - That is utterly wild to me that kombucha leather is essentially a modern material, I kind of always assumed it was an ancient thing appropriated into the west like yoga or kombucha tea itself.
  • p38 - I agree with your final thought in Part II, I'm just not sure how we cultivate new practices in society like this, where everyone is busy and tired all the time. The closest recent example I can think of is how a lot of middle-class people tried their hand at sourdough during the pandemic, but that required a world-stopping crisis to open up that space and time to try a new slow ritual.
  • p43 - while I agree with you and Katz on the importance of fermentation and other care-rich practices are revolutionary, I worry that it will always be limited to those wealthy enough to buy back their own time from the market unless there is community/government policy that explicitly designates these practices as tangibly valuable. I have similar concerns about the DIY movement that I've loved for so long.
  • pp 61-83 - Kombucha experiment names as track titles on the next EP.
  • pp 61-83 - Were these experiments attempting to find a way to increase the tensile strength of the leather by integrating other materials?

After the community guide: how do you prevent industrial kombucha farms?

You discuss the avoidance of exploitation a bit in the thesis, but the sketch of the speculative community raised new questions about it for me. The focus on ritual has me thinking about how for individual workers, industrialism (and post-industrialism, etc) has swapped out certain rituals from daily life for new ones, and why certain ones stayed while others were taken.

In reflection on your work, I see the other cultivating acts of daily life that operated on a sustainable scale but were consolidated and specialized to "not waste time". Raising livestock, cultivating cheese, vegetable farming all come to mind, which were professionalized into "farmer" and then specialized so much they are unrecognizable today. How do you avoid that consolidation and professionalization that occurred to even those most bucolic rituals of pre-industrial daily life?

With the Community Guide, it feels like you're demonstrating what it it would look like if a government (or smaller leadership like a voluntary commune) made explicit policy pointing to a set of rituals and saying "this is worth everyone's time" regardless of their role or job. And I realized that we don't really have the tools for that kind of policy the way we govern. There is almost no instance where time is allotted to everyone without specialization to perform cultivating rituals. The closest thing I guess is the loose protections of the 40-hour work week, outside of which our government says we can do what we want.

I think it would be interesting to see how a local government could incentivize certain cultivating behaviors by allocating subsidies or other benefits to encourage care-based personal practices like brewing, cultivating, growing, or crafting on a small scale for community use. Explicitly saying "having our citizens take this time and space for care" would be remarkable in my opinion.

Your outline of the expected rituals of this community gave a lot of other things to chew on, like the expectation of daily science as a meditative community duty, or a governing body enforcing and ritualizing a circular economy with the sip-and-pour part of the ceremony. But I need to think about those a bit more. I enjoyed the bold otherworldliness of this pamphlet.

On the meditation

Okay scientific spiritual ASMR! That was very interesting. I used the provided kombucha picture but by the end I was thinking about the pores in the wood in my window sills. I think doing this exercise for the wood that's all around the built environment would be a bit overwhelming. I've never connected how scientific observation requires an almost Zen-like unlearning beforehand, so I especially liked the simple observational questions about the kombucha.

Footnotes

  1. Although side note, loved this: "No matter how Oxman spins an answer..."