Poverties of Spirit, or, “They’re Not Poor, They Just Don’t Have Any Money.”

a big thanks to all the all the Invisible folks, nic, chloe, and kelvin; joey and emily for reading; and everyone who showed up for the TO Food & Trembling launch this weekend, and likewise to CanZine and the Broken Pencil peoples for having me as part of their Radical Reading Series. the former went awesomely, the latter pretty well, although suffering somewhat from the consequences of the previous night’s awesomeness.*

during the question period at CanZine i was asked about my disinclination to identify as a ‘foodie’ (that i touch upon here, but get into in a little more detail in the book itself), to which i gave a garbled but passable response about the rarefaction** of something so basic and central as food into a precious lifestyle category; my failure to participate in the book, blog (besides writing one, i mean), and television culture that i would argue makes up a big part of the modern foodie identity; and the annoyingness of the word itself. some hours and beers later it dawned on me that a much more pointed reply sat very close at hand, and i regret that i did not seize on it at the time:

food-wise, CanZine was boothed by the Toronto Underground Market; there was a Beau’s stand, some southeast asian street food, a chocolatier, and this bbq place, the name of which i fail to recall.  which is fine, because i don’t want it to appear as if i have a gripe with them in particular. from them i got what was effectively a little brisket sandwich, that was advertised as a “pulled beef po’ boy,” and it is precisely this sort of thing that i find obnoxious about foodie culture, the sort of acceleration of meaningless food faddishness.

i am not naive enough to blame this sort of thing entirely on “foodies,” these sorts of trends, in cooking, serving, marketing, have been a part of food culture(s) for ages, but this is very much an example of the present moment, and they are difficult to disentangle (one can make the parallel argument that it is just this kind of quibbling i am about to engage in that makes me a foodie, and in my defence all i can say is that i do not claim not to be a foodie, i merely am not interested in identifying as such, and i think self-identification is relevant here).

my problem is this: why is this a po’ boy? what makes this a po’ boy, as opposed to any other kind of sandwich? now it is difficult to get into this without opening up the whole can of worms of the question of authenticity, which especially where regional food is concerned is an irresolvable quagmire, that i happen to think should remain that way (who needs to clean up or sort out a swamp? swamps are thriving idiosyncratic ecosystems that are better explored than organized). what makes a po’ boy? seafood or no seafood? gravy? assorted meat ends, whatever happens to be at hand? the unique combination of crustiness and airiness of French bread baked in balmy, bawdy New Orleans?*** does it simply have to be from Louisiana? how much agency are we willing to grant the sandwich itself, as it moves northward and westward, popping up in different permutations on menus so removed from its ancestral home?

what is the difference that makes a difference, so to speak? how different from what origin or what collection of qualities must a sandwich before it ceases to qualify as a po’ boy?

rather than implicitly or explicitly evoking the “authentic po’ boy,” however, i think we can come at this another way. namely, what makes this sandwich a po’ boy? there seems to be nothing, really. mini bun, slaw, biscuit, pickle, pulled beef? is it only a po’ boy because the slider is played out? i really cannot discern any clear grounds for the identification, which seems to leave only an attempt to exploit the current modishness of the po’ boy, and this is annoying to me on two levels – 1) it strips the po’ boy of its context, its history, its specificity (specificities?), however fraught and varied that may be, and reduces it to a sort of empty signifier. one might ask “well, what has really been done to the po’ boy as a dish? does this make any difference to the po’ boys served across the south?” no. not really. but what it does is effectively say “what is special about the po’ boy? nothing! who cares!” and 2) it does a disservice to the sandwich actually on offer. why does this perfectly charming little brisket sandwich (and it was indeed a decent sandwich) need to be thusly (mis)represented? further, i think it is unfortunate that they felt compelled to ‘pull’ their brisket, seemingly because Pulled Pork Is The New Chipotle, when probably the most attractive feature of good brisket is its willingness to come apart in one’s mouth, to begin as an identifiable piece of meat that so readily cedes its integrity and gives way to a fatty, melty compromise, which transformation is lost when you get it pre-deconstituted.

so one is left asking why, why? and is met with either the mute senselessness of a world without order (postmodernism wins! i never thought i’d be so dismayed!) or the cynical retort that this is what sells, and that strikes me as dismal.

but then, is the argument i’m making all that different from the tiresome cynical naïf of a gourmande who demands authenticity in each of his/her exotic culinary encounters? i like to think so, but am willing to be called on it, if someone’s willing to put in the time.

which i happen to know you are not.

* ie: at 4am drinking Kronenberg Blanc (which tastes like peaches and is weird) out of a bottle you have accidentally broken the neck off of by trying to open it on a parking meter, then warming up a slice of pizza of indeterminate age on someone’s space heater. i woke up at noon to my friend ed playing, rather appropriately, “Still Crazy After All These Years” on an old electric organ.

** being unsure that “rarefy” was really the word i wanted to use here, i looked it up and apparently it technically refers to the process of making a gas less dense, which itself derives from the original meaning of “rare” which has to do with the constituent particles of a substance being few and far between, hence we have “rare” as the opposite of “dense,” but can see where the meaning of not often found comes from. the question, then, is whether either this meaning, or that of “pure or refined” really apply to what i’m talking about, with regards to foodie culture – on the one hand, yes, there is a certain elitism to it, but on the other we witness a great proliferation of …. stuff. the cultural substance of foodieism becomes cluttered and dense with discourses, products, publications, etc. but then most specializations, rare in their own way, tend to involve this sort of proliferation of microrelevancies. hm.

*** this, as it happens, is my favourite of the arguments i’ve heard thus far for the singularity of the New Orleans po’ boy – that the baking styles of the French, adapted for use in the swampy subtropical climate of Louisiana produce a baguette of incomparable crispness of crust with lightness of interior. arguably as specious as any other claim to the authentic po’ boy, this at least has the attraction of accounting for local specificity in a believable-sounding way, by installing a sort of barometric terroir.


Biomining, Authenticity, and Late Capitalist Flexibility.

* * *

As we have seen in recent decades, not only have the demand for wholesome foods and the obsession with health and environmentalism not meant a return to “traditional” products and processes (although the image of tradition is successfully marketed) but it has accelerated, and will continue to accelerate, the improvement, the enculturization of nature drawing on tradition as a resource to be selectively improved. [. . .] Traditional taste poses a challenge not a threat to technoscience; the more one specifies what is missing from the new product, the more the civilizing process proceeds. Tomatoes aren’t what they used to be? But you don’t like bugs either? Let’s see what can be done. A company in Menlo Park is perfecting a bioengineered vanillin, one of the most complex of smells and tastes. Scientists are approaching museums armed with the PCR [polymerase chain reaction] technique, which enables them to take a small piece of DNA and amplify it millions of times. This recovered DNA could then, at least in principle, be reintroduced into contemporary products. If eighteenth-century tomatoes are your fancy, there is no reason a priori why one day a boutique biotech market aiming at the Berkley or Cambridge market couldn’t produce one that is consistently pesticide resistant, transportable, and delicious for you – and those just like you. In some, the new knowledges have already begun to modify labor practices and life processes in what Enlightenment botanists called nature’s second kingdom.

Paul Rabinow, “Artificiality and Enlightenment:
From Sociobiology to Biosociality” (2005)


* * *

to put this quote in context one needs to know that when writing of the “enculturalization of nature,” Rabinow is not talking about an ahistorical, universal given, but a Nature that has a history, and is itself involved in a particular configuring of our relationship to the world. “Nature,” as histories have shown, is, and continues to be a moving target; what Rabinow is trying to get at is that biotech, biomedicine, is stepping up the game. the question is whether this constitutes an unprecedented development, an epochal shift, or whether a continuity can be established between his postulated molecular-artisanal tomato and the tomatoes humans have been eating for centuries that are nonetheless the products of less streamlined (more “traditionally” horticultural and agricultural) genetic engineering practices?


it depends, i guess.

what immediately comes to mind for me is the suspicion, bordering on conviction, (that is bound up in, but not totally reducible to, precisely the discussion of artificiality/”authenticity” [nature] that Rabinow’s piece deals with) that however skillfully engineered, the genetically manipulated 18th century tomato will taste somehow wrong. you could say that this is just the residue of countless reminders of how bad factory-farmed tomatoes taste in relation to “real” tomatoes, but i don’t think that is the whole story. one need not produce a litany of cultural citations to establish that we have an ongoing anxiety about the limits of our creative powers; unfeeling robots, scheming clones, etc. the cinematic moment that replays itself incessantly in the background as i think about this is the Steak Scene from Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986). it’s a shame i can’t find a clip, because it would save some time, but if you don’t recall, it goes as follows (Jeff Goldblum has just run a test with his teleportation device, sending a cooked steak through so that they can compare it to another, unteleported. also present, Geena Davis.):


Seth Brundle: Now, I want you to try this… teleported half.
Ronnie: Oh, are you serious? A monkey just came apart in there.
Seth Brundle: Baboon. …Eat.
Ronnie: [eats it] Oh… Oh! oh, tastes funny.
[spits it out]
Seth Brundle: Funny? How?
Ronnie: It tastes um… synthetic.
Seth Brundle: [Seth smiles and takes the napkin] Mmm-hmm.
Ronnie: So, what have we proved?
Seth Brundle: The computer is giving us its interpretation… of a steak. It’s, uh translating it for us; it’s rethinking it, rather than *reproducing* it, and something is getting lost in the translation.
Ronnie: Me… I’m lost.
Seth Brundle: The flesh. It should make the computer, uh crazy. Like those old ladies pinching babies. But it doesn’t; not yet because I haven’t taught the computer to be made crazy by the… flesh. The poetry of the steak. So, I’m gonna start teaching it now.


the steak in this case is not a copy, or is it? a translation, a transportation? is it like a twist on the old Ship of Theseus: if one deconstructs a boat, and then rebuilds it with all the same parts, is it still the same boat? or the modern referent (like, 10 years ago, when this was considered entertainment), putting a phrase into Babelfish, then copy and pasting its translation, and translating it back, to marvel over the fundamental non-equivalencies of the given languages, the incapacities of the program to grasp the nuances of idiom, of syntax.


there has been considerable debate about how attainable a goal it is map and master the complexities of the chemical interactions that produce the “naturally occurring tastes” in many of our foods, but how much of this is a necessary check on progressive hubris, and how much entrenchedness of the idea that we are not meant to meddle in God’s/Nature’s works? is it humility or mythology that is speaking? for that unattainable qualia, the poetry of the steak, these occupy the same category as (we can argue over whether it is cohabitation with or derivation from) that other unattainable qualia, that possession or suffusion that divides the human from whatever it is that it needs to be distinguished from: the soul. if we are not ready to cede this ground to the spiritual, the property of “life” turns out to be as slippery as Nature, receding further and further into the abstract spaces of physical chemistry, and it is the rearticulation of this question (what is life?), or the reconfiguration of the terms in which it can be posed, let alone answered, that is argued by scientists and science studies wonks alike to be ongoing in contemporary molecular biology, genetics, genomics.

what is remarkable, in light of this, is how often we verge on a rhetoric of transcendence in our attempts to pin down this quality of the natural, the traditional, that we cannot but feel is imperilled in these projects of genetic comprehension and intervention. and that smacks in an interesting way, not of naturalism, folks, but vitalism. right?