Monday, December 22, 2014

The National Eating Disorder

Picture yourself-- OK, I'm picturing myself, but I'd like to think that other people think these things as well-- walking down the streets of Paris, on a perfect June day. You see the cafes, the roofs of the grand boulevards. And then you see a McDonald's, and a braying American couple walking out, and you think “fucking Americans,” whether with contempt if you're not an American, or shame if you are.

Or you're at the grocery store, and you see an overweight woman in cheap clothes buying a bag of Doritos, wearing worn-out sweatpants, with two screaming children, and you think what white trash she must be.

Or you see a hippie guy buying organic spelt cookies, and you think how unbelievably oversensitive and snotty he must be.

The point is this, that our moral judgments are, perhaps, at their bluntest when it comes to eating. Food, for most people, other than those (lucky or unlucky, I don't know) few who can simply view it as fuel, isn't just food. And that goes double for my people, who seem to have the weirdest goddamn relationship to the things they eat.

As many chefs, journalists, and others make a point that for so many people in the developed world, food is a way to forget the pains and difficulties and boredom of normal life, the adult version of a security blanket. You don't think about your shit job, your failing relationship, the way your savings account never seems to grow when your mouth is stuffed with junk food, dopamine firing through one's synapses, eyes aglow in a computer screen, an ideal target for the legions of predatory marketers working in the service of the processed food industry.

And when it's not metabolic therapy, it's quite often a stance, implicit or explicit, about your beliefs about health, about what constitutes normal, about your perceived cultural status. It starts from birth-- parents nag their children about “starving kids in Africa,” and grows from there.

There is the health obsession, the belief that food is a sort of medicine. People assume that they can extend their lives by consuming enough green tea or goji berries. They go on restrictive and hermetic diets that divide all food into balms and poisons. They devote themselves to food-oriented approaches to life, whether paleo or raw vegan or gluten-free, that seem to promise deliverance through right eating.

Or there is the attempt to seek culture through food, to travel one's taste buds, to find the most authentic and local cuisine, to source rare items and fuss over their terroir, to chase down new restaurants-- the chef trained at El Bulli! they fly their sashimi in from Tsukiji every day!-- and revel in the sheer refinement and enlightenment of one's tastes.

There are romantics, who look to communal feasts in Italy, to meat curing barns in France, to fishing villages in Japan as an idealistic escape route, to imagine a (patently false) time when all food was simple and homemade and ineffably lovely.

Running opposed, there are the hypermoderns, perhaps best embodied by that Dane Cook of the food world, Guy Fieri, who attempt to revel in processed sugar and saturated fat, claiming that they get it, and that their tastes are that much more "real."

And more recently, in the vein of Michael Pollan, there is the politicization of the menu, the search for ever more sustainable food. A great many vegetarians will demonstrate the evidence for the inefficiency of meat consumption and the environmental and social disasters wreaked by the meat industry. In their wake, anti-vegetarians will denounce these arguments as self-righteous and ill-informed. In the pages of Slate and the Huffington Post, columnist after columnist holds the fork and spoon as tools of revolution on par with the stars and stripes over the Delaware River, the hammer and sickle over the Kremlin.

What ties all of these perspectives together is that they posit one's own hedonism as ideology, and attempt to transform consumer choice into an intellectual position, and attempt to show one's own consumer choices as the most “correct.”

As Pierre Bourdieu pointed out in Distinction, the taste positions of the ruling class are overwhelmingly deemed the standard against which all else is measured, thereby giving anything that runs counter, at best, a certain populist appeal. Bourdieu mostly concentrated on film and music, but the argument could readily be extended to food. After all, there's a reason that when we talk about refinement, the word we use is “taste.”

I've been guilty of all of these tendencies myself, and I've been guilty of making all the presumptions I mentioned my introduction, and I've been guilty of eating because it's an act of self-medication-- I daresay most anyone who reads this will have been guilty of all these things as well. I don't want to declaim for or against any of the aforementioned positions-- I have my opinions, but those really aren't relevant to the discussion at hand.

Something so simple as a biological imperative becomes so fraught with complexity and ethical turpitude, and oftentimes the more cogent we try to make our habits and our aesthetic tastes, the more ethically and intellectually ambiguous they become, because now we have a claim to defend.

It's not like we have an option not to do so, because regardless of whether or not we choose to make such explicit decisions, those around us choose to, and view our acts from their positions. Hold your steak knife close, dear reader, lest you be identified as an enemy, and feel the need to defend your honor.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Atomic Number 10, Atomic Weight 20.18

When Primo Levi wrote The Periodic Table, his 1975 collection of stories and autobiographical pieces, his task was to employ chemical elements as central themes-- of the 106 elements known to the scientific community at the time, he selected 21 to act either as metaphors (argon for the destroyed Jewish community of Emilia-Romagna) or real-life materials that feature in the narrative (nickel as a trace metal he was employed to extract from mine).

He did better than most. There are some elements-- iron, gold, sulfur, arsenic-- that have imageistic value and metaphorical weight in everyday speech, but most remain obscure. When was the last time you saw a piece of rhodium, or even heard about it? A high school chemistry test? Ever? There's a reason that screenwriters can make up the names of elements in sci-fi movies, and we as the audience will accept them at face value.

But one of the few elements that does retain symbolic value is neon, and it's something of an odd man out. It's an invisible and stubbornly nonreactive gas, and it was isolated and discovered barely more than a century ago. And yet in its human uses, it has become so ubiquitous, and has come to be a byword for so many things.

In 1913, the world saw its first neon advertisement in Paris, and it rapidly spread around the world, the electric equivalent of the tropical lianas that spread and wrap themselves around every structure they come into contact with. As the world rushed to banish darkness (and its brother phenomenon, silence) from urban space, the neon light became the symbol of brightness, speed, and modernity. America got its first neon light in 1923. Within ten years, Times Square looked like this.

And with its universality came inevitable doubt and pessimism. There were nostalgics, like Tanizaki Junichiro, who wrote In Praise of Shadows in 1933 as a eulogy for tenebrous, traditional Japanese aesthetics. And there were the dissenters, like Nelson Algren who published his short story collection The Neon Wilderness in 1947, or a young John Kennedy Toole, who wrote The Neon Bible in 1954.

And then, as lighting evolved, neon seemed far sleazier, tawdrier, and more garish. It became the aesthetic token of Las Vegas, and of Taxi Driver-era Times Square. Rather than conveying an optimistic modernity, it became a symbol of decadence and false aspirations, a reputation it still has to a certain degree. In my adopted city of Bangkok, there is an inverse relationship between the reputation of a neighborhood and the preponderance of neon. It's concentrated in the semen-drenched quarters of Nana, Patpong, and Ratchada, and in the backpacker ghetto of Khaosan. The “karaoke” bars and other outposts of sleaze of course have neon signs, and rainbow-toned neon is almost as universal an indicator as a cigar store Indian.

With the sudden love affair with “vintage modern” aesthetics in the '90s, neon became itself subject to the fantasies of the nostalgics. Faux-vintage neon signs were put up, and surviving signs from the mid-century were bought up from decrepit steakhouses and meth-riddled motels across the country and artfully renovated for kitsch purposes. In certain circles, the buzz and glow of neon no longer signified excess and decrepitude, but the flickering imagery of a David Lynch film. And in saying that, I should note that it reflects both sides of Lynch's aesthetics, both the moronically grinning and cherry-cheeked facade of Hollywood's representations of America, and the vileness and filth that lurks underneath.

This doesn't mean that neon lighting or neon color schemes have been in any way “rehabilitated.” The grotesquely grinning clown of Circus Circus still stands tall on the Las Vegas Strip, and when you see a book cover with a neon color scheme-- Pynchon's Inherent Vice comes to me out of the blue as a perfect example-- you can predict the number of femmes fatales and brooding jazz trumpeters. For all intents and purposes, it has become the aesthetic signifier of the last century.

And so it seems to me that neon as we know it, a transfigured image coursing through a tube, entails all the hope and anxiety, the violence and optimism of that century, a time in our history when we really believed that utopian age would be an era of the machine.