Delusion of Eating Exhibition and Essay

I wrote an essay for the Delusion of Eating exhibition catalogue entitled "People Eat so They Don't Die." You can read that essay after "the jump."

The opening of the exhibition happens October 7th from 6 - 9 p.m. at The Shelf on 57 E. Gay Street, Columbus, Ohio. The catalogue is limited to 75 copies and can be pre-ordered here. It includes writing by Eva Ball and Ian Ruffino (the curators), as well as Wes Flexner, Matt Morris, and myself. In addition to the writing, the catalogue has full color reproductions of the work in the show, including pieces by Grant LaValley, John Malta, Dan Olsen, Dina Sherman, and other Columbus-related artists.

The overview of the show goes as such:

"The Delusion of Eating exhibit presents a national array of artworks that eloquently use the marketed spectacle of eating as the material to explore how capitalism creates an isolating desire.Works include video, painting, photography, sculpture, performance, and text; all creating a discourse about our lives in the contemporary situation where ideologies about eating are shifting away from science-lab food products and into marketed desires for ‘natural’ ‘slow’ food stuffs, while for the majority of Americans these ‘local’ foods are out of the question due to geography and class."

The Delusion of Eating closes November 27, 2010. 
Lecture with the Curators: Thursday November 11 | 7 to 8pm
Delusion of Eating Performances: Friday, November 26 | 9 to 11pm

For more information go to the Vince Chocolate website or the Delusion of Eating’s Facebook.

 People Eat so They Don’t Die.

The United States of America has no national cuisine.[1] A national cuisine, typically found in more rooted civilizations, is a historically derived, indigenous mixture of complementary staples that serves as both a nutritional and cultural common ground.  The U.S.A., a nation in constant flux during its short history, lacks this institutional memory regarding food. Like the composition of its people, The States’ food is a plurality set on top a palimpsest of singular immigrant and native experiences.

Food, for “us,” is not a whole; it is a medley of parts that we believe to be manipulable. Due to this belief we eat a transitory mélange of comings and goings - tools that are utilized in an ad hoc manner to accomplish goals and further social position - “trends” if you will. We atomize and implement foodstuffs in terms of their nutrients, and, if we still can’t find what we desire in their nutrients, we synthesize our desires. Within our capitalist psychology of means and ends, of natural resources and finished products, we think of eating food as a gateway to making us thin, strong, energetic, healthy, sophisticated, and moral.

But food’s eternal (and only concrete) purpose - that of sustaining life - is rarely mentioned in our food marketing, dietary plans, or health food stores.
Not dying,” as an objective, is set subordinate to momentary, delusory desires for more time, more sex, and more power. To sublimate the need of “not dying” we add layers of socially negotiated meaning to weigh down the bare reality that we are finite beings, dependent on food to survive. When that reality is obscured it leaves open a space for cultural mirages and social pathologies to fill. These mirages, like the Atkins diet or “going raw,” further obscure our needs as biological organisms and invite the humans who are able to afford to do so to mentally disassociate themselves from both the natural world and the humans who are unable to afford to do so.

To lack even a semblance of a shared national cuisine outside of “fast-food” is fitting in an America without a shared national prosperity: the poorest 50% of our population owns just 2.5% of our national wealth.[2] In this way, our “national cuisine” mirrors our economy; a deregulated glut of profit-driven unlimited choice that gives some
an unlimited opportunity to display their values, vanity, and social position with all its attendant corollaries. Absent a national cuisine, the way in which we make these choices becomes tantamount to our “lifestyle” or identity. The abundance of meaning we attach to a bodily need that by all rights we should consider “just a fact of life” only serves to divide humans along the fault-lines of their method of addressing that need. In other words, in America we do not eat for our body to remain alive - we eat so that everyone may know our bodies are more “alive” than theirs. Food consumption – as wildly bosh as this should all seem – is a value system.

But to have a value judgment about whether one eats at Taco Bell or, as then Senator Obama was criticized for during the Democratic Presidential Primary season[3], eats arugula, isn’t sensible if viewed from the perspective that humans are just biological organisms with needed comestible inputs. However, food, as well as clothing and lodging, seems to relentlessly express values of class regardless - those biological necessities always become symbols of capital or the lack thereof. This layer of expression conceals rudimentary processes of life and transforms them into sites for telling trivialities – do you know the correct way to prepare an artichoke, do you have the right anorak for the occasion? A socioeconomic system that produces enough food options to make these judgments essential to navigate society is by necessity one that serves to further sever human connections, to isolate groups on wholly specious grounds of how they choose to satiate the needs of their body. In the deregulated glut of options in our “national cuisine” the undifferentiated Taco Bell consumer becomes working to lower-middle class, oblivious to their own welfare, blasé on labor issues, of low educational attainment - just place your own stereotype here (               ). And the politician who mentions arugula to a gathering of farmers in Iowa becomes a “wine-track” political figure instead of a “beer-track” one.[4]

This system of value judgment encourages rituals of consumption and the fetishization of certain items (kombucha, for instance, or a fine caviar or foreign dish) because these rituals of consumption are really rituals of showing. They are not for “the body” but for the body politic of all onlookers. It is easy to see that certain foodstuffs carry disproportionate meaning, that they loudly articulate class and life experience, moral convictions or the lack thereof. For example, in the Columbus of the mid-2000s, anarchists ate road-kill to express an anti-consumption, radical ecological ideology[5] in the time of Hummers and President Bush encouraging the nation to “all go shopping more.”[6]

It is less glaringly obvious that each item one ingests, whether it is road-kill or a filet mignon, conveys a signal of persona through an act that is, at its core, a biological necessity. That simply eating food can hold a superfluous and divisionary social meaning is exacerbated by the overabundance of food options available in a trade-based capitalist economy.* But there doesn’t have to be an "omnivore's dilemma" inherent in the surfeit of choice endemic in global capitalism - that dilemma, essentially posed by Michael Pollan as “what should we eat since we can eat everything?” takes a biological adaptation in the service of “not dying” and turns it into a moral, philosophical, economic, health, and political puzzle. This mode of thinking puts further stress on humans who are simply trying to eat so they don’t die, which in America is at least 40 million of our fellow citizens.[7]** “Food
,” the word, encompasses anything edible and that is just how the human body "thinks" about it as well - anything edible. We should accept this attitude in a conscious way – not placing derisive judgment on how others find a way to continue living - even if we have chosen to self-limit our own diet.

To dissemble the true nature of food - the fuel that deters death - by placing political, philosophical, ethical, social, cultural, and religious meaning on it, is symptomatic of the unfortunate human impulse to differentiate "the human" from "the animal." It's an impulse that has parallels across the human experience - constant intellectualizing, complicating, and moralizing to pad the brain from having to contemplate its own mortality and animal nature. Humans excel at scouring over each and every decision made – each item consumed, each partner loved, each item bought – and parsing illimitable meaning from them in a manner wholly separate from how we view other animals’ pursuits of those goals. We do not try to infer what it says about a cat that chooses to mate with a tabby instead of a calico. We do not consider the squirrel as signaling something essential about its value system with its choice of nuts. But when regarding other humans’ actions we are blinded by our created social meaning of food, clothing, lodging, and sex; we do not directly consider these as biological imperatives first, if we do at all. Why? This isn’t an argument against thinking; it is an argument against ignoring one thought that seems as if it should be paramount.

To believe that eating is not primarily deterring death is to add a false grid of constructed meaning to disassociate the human from the animal, our life from our eventual death. This is not to say eating cannot be joyful or socially meaningful – it can, should, and always will be. But the overflow of information humans divulge through eating is a red herring that diverts, by way of endless intellectualization, the ineffable confrontation each individual must make with their own mortality. And through this lens we see that the absent center of any impulse that becomes a site of constructed social difference is that we are animals, that we will die, that we eat and wear and fuck and live because we have to and that we do so without “real” meaning outside of species propagation. And that fact just hurts one’s head to countenance. But our determined day-to-day evasion of thinking of ourselves as biological organisms with needs that will die if they are not met is a telling indicator that beneath the properly socialized surface it’s all we’re really thinking about.

As Guy Debord writes of augmented survival in The
Society of the Spectacle,

“Economic growth has liberated societies from the natural pressures that forced them into an immediate struggle for survival; but they have not yet been liberated from their liberator.”

It would seem that true “liberation” would be found only in regarding ourselves not as an exceptional species or in relation to the social hierarchy of humans, but as something much more complex than that – our impulses unobscured.

[1] Sidney W. Mintz, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom. Chapter 8: “Eating American.”
Mintz thoroughly defends this point on the grounds of the U.S.A.’s geographical size, its youth as a nation, and its population being overwhelmingly composed of people from disparate cultures and countries.

[5] Bret Liebendorfer, “The Real Road kill Café,” Columbus Alive, March 16th, 2005.

While this quote is taken from a 2006 speech, the substance of President Bush’s remark was oft repeated during the fall-out of 9/11.

This Reuters article was among many a few months ago which shared the ostensibly shocking news that 1 in 8 of Americans are served by our "Food Stamp" EBT programs. I would put the number of people who have difficulty simply eating sufficiently at an amount far higher as many working poor do not qualify for our relatively meager social welfare programs – many of which have, as a precondition, a home address requirement that further blocks out a section of the extreme poor.

*Having experienced a pre-trade stage of economy could arguably be a historical pre-condition for developing a national cuisine – a less contentious foodway and social baseline.

** Pollan’s reversal of the food problem, from that of an inequitable distribution system that causes many in the world to starve or be malnourished into a crisis of surplus is a first-world moral folly, ironic in that it is delivered by a “liberal.” To phrase the grand political conundrum of food in this way - that all we can control is our personal choice – abnegates the traditional liberal position of using government as a benevolent tool - which it could easily be in matters of food production and consumption.

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