Review of Steven Poole’s You Aren’t What You Eat

Toward the end of Steven Poole’s You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up with Gastroculture, he deploys a C.S. Lewis quote that is probably familiar to many of us:

You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act — that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?

Writing specifically of the U.K., but presumably thinking of Americans as well, Poole writes: “We all live in that country now.” As a skeptic of what Poole calls “foodism,” I found his absolutely exhaustive skewering of food culture enjoyable — his debunking of the exaggerated claims of “organic” food, his bemusement at “molecular gastronomy,” and everything in between. He catches every detail, including the fact that certain food sensitivies can be “fashionable” (woe to the foodist who is glucose-tolerant!).

Naturally, this book has sparked some defensiveness in the foodist community — even The Girlfriend, an avid cook, felt she was under attack when I initially described the book’s premise to her. What I find interesting about the book, though, is that it doesn’t fall into the trap of pure yuppie-bating that you see in something like Stuff White People Like (nor, though this goes without saying for those familiar with Poole’s work, does it take the Palinesque route of fetishizing fast food and store-bought cookies).

Now Poole admittedly doesn’t have a program for truly authetic eating, because his book finally isn’t about eating, any more than the foodist trend is. It’s about class structure, about ideology (including a nod to Zizek’s “superego injunction to enjoy” on the final page), about a society that has reached “the apotheosis and dead end of individualistic consumerism.” It’s about a massive, multi-faceted cultural trend that commands us to devote as much time and attention to consumption as possible — and then to congratulate ourselves for our achievement and look down on those who fail to attain our high level.

That is to say, it isn’t about silly individuals who are doing pretentious things and should stop before they embarrass themselves further, but about a society whose demands are increasingly dehumanizing and sinister. And it makes this case while nonetheless being thoroughly entertaining. In short: highly recommended.

A tale of two reviews

In recent weeks, I’ve come to feel more and more that reading mainstream liberal publications like the New York Times or New York Review of Books may be actively making me stupider. A kind of breaking point came when I read the NYT review of the new Brigham Young biography and then, a week later, the L.A. Review of Books review. In the latter, I learned of interesting experiments with anti-capitalist economic relations in early Mormonism. In the former, I learned that the reviewer felt that the author was too even-handed — specifically, that he didn’t make it sufficiently clear how gross and weird polygamy is.

Runaway train, never coming back

In Jameson’s Late Marxism: Adorno, or The Persistence of the Dialectic, one reads the following:

But we must initially separate the figuration of the terms base and superstructure—only the initial shape of the problem—from the type of efficacy or causal law it is supposed to imply. Überbau and Basis, for example, which so often suggest to people a house and its foundations, seem in fact to have been railroad terminology and to have designated the rolling stock and the rails respectively, something which suddenly jolts us into a rather different picture of ideology and its effects. (pg. 46)

It certainly does! Why had I never heard this before?

The Holiday-Industrial Complex

In the article that I recommended yesterday, one of my favorite parts is a quote from Eve Sedgwick:

The depressing thing about the Christmas season—isn’t it?—is that it’s the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice. The Church says what the Church says. But the State says the same thing: maybe not (in some ways it hardly matters) in the language of theology, but in the language the State talks: legal holidays, long school hiatus, special postage stamps, and all. And the language of commerce more than chimes in, as consumer purchasing is organized ever more narrowly around the final weeks of the calendar year, the Dow Jones aquiver over Americans’ “holiday mood.” The media, in turn, fall in triumphally behind the Christmas phalanx: ad-swollen magazines have oozing turkeys on the cover, while for the news industry every question turns into the Christmas question—Will hostages be free for Christmas? What did that flash flood or mass murder (umpty-ump people killed and maimed) do to those families’ Christmas? And meanwhile, the pairing “families/Christmas” becomes increasingly tautological, as families more and more constitute themselves according to the schedule, and in the endlessly iterated image, of the holiday itself constituted in the image of ‘the’ family.

The thing hasn’t, finally, so much to do with propaganda for Christianity as with propaganda for Christmas itself.

Christmas is the American master-signifier, the quilting point at which everything comes together — and as such, it’s radically meaningless. Getting into the spirit of Christmas means nothing more than not resisting. The happiness and joy you’re supposed to feel is nothing but the joy of conforming. It’s pretty sinister, and I think it’s become more sinister within my lifetime as the one thing that religion traditionally brings to the table has become increasingly eclipsed: caring for the poor.

Continue reading “The Holiday-Industrial Complex”

Christmas contemporary

In recent years, I’ve noticed a strange trend in “Christian contemporary”-style Christmas music: they ramp up the emotions up to 1000%. All the originals jump very quickly to our profound gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice, while the classics are belted out with such intensity that one suspects that Harold the Angel personally came down from heaven and cured both the singer’s parents of cancer. Seldom has one observed such a passionate desire that God maintain a group of gentlemen in a state of merriness.

The message here is clear: we, the evangelical true believers, have access to the “true meaning of Christmas,” the much-invoked “reason for the season,” and we really, really, really believe in it in a way you non-believers just can never grasp.

This trend fits strangely with the annual “War on Christmas” rhetoric, however. By insisting that everyone make some token gesture of acknowledgement toward Christmas, aren’t the pro-Christmas insurgents pushing an agenda whose logical endpoint is the very secularization of Christmas they elsewhere deplore? After all, if Christmas is to be the hegemonic winter holiday, isn’t it natural for non-Christians to attempt to find some kind of point of contact that’s meaningful for them? Hence the “secular” carols invoking the fun decorations or the weird legend of Santa Claus or even — as seen in the great Jewish Christmas carols of the mid-century — the bare fact that it’s cold and snowy out.

Asking what all of that is supposed to have to do with Jesus is missing the point — you can’t have a holiday that’s simultaneously “all about Jesus” and a meaningful celebration for a broad range of people in a pluralistic society. One could say that the evangelicals don’t want to live in a pluralistic society, but I don’t think that’s quite right, either: part of the very structure of the movement is its drive to convert, even if it mostly winds up “converting” inactive members of other Christian groups. It needs the indifferent almost as much as it needs the imagined outside opposition.

The surface-level conflict between the drive toward making Christmas a simultaneously more partisan and more universal holiday disappears once you stop viewing it as a policy agenda and start viewing it as a representation of the sense of wounded superiority that serves as a motor for the entire evangelical movement.