The smell of shrimp

The academic and philosopher Timothy Morton first tackled food in his book, The Poetics of Spice. Here he returns to the Axial Age ideas about the relationship between desire and need

Tank _autumn 2016_20Illustration by Stine Deja  

It is horribly topical, isn’t it? The baby boomers – a marketing and PR concept – have eaten, heated, priced and voted the millennials – another marketing and PR term – out of everything that is good. (And as usual, Generation X – another marketing term, surprise surprise – does not get a look in: we really are, as Jacques Derrida would have quipped, Generation Under Erasure.)  

Yet the UK boomers’ decision to exit the European Union is indeed the chickens of PR – politics “enhanced” by consumerism – coming home to roost; Thatcher’s and Reagan’s not-so-subtle dog-whistle suggestions of a niced-up version of the 1950s, without rationing and beats and with some kind of subliminal (and not-so-subliminal) whites-only vibe – triumphing over rational thought. Consumerism, thy name is grandad. 

And yet again, we do keep palming consumerism off onto someone else: evil must be other people. Consumerism: a blunt instrument to describe a selfish mode you can choose to opt in or out of, like Europe. But it isn’t. The very idea that you can opt in and out of consumerism is exactly the kind of thing that consumerism wants you to think. Good old-fashioned ideology theory (from your grandfather’s generation; paging Louis Althusser) says just this: we are like supermarket shoppers, floating or surfing or browsing (or whatever metaphor you wish for being a flâneur, aka everyone at this point) above the identities on display like bars of “artisanal” chocolate, choosing them (rationally, according to a dominant theory of capitalist economics) with some kind of freedom, as one might choose a costume.  

“You horrible, sadistic bastards: you chose to do this to us.” That’s what the millennials are supposed to be shouting at the boomers, over the heads of the X-ers. And yet and at the same time: you stupid, hypnotised addicts. That is the other theory of consumerism – we are totally enslaved to it, especially when we think we are not (see above). In its fascinating confusion of active and passive, it is akin to sin. Consider the language of addiction: you have to resist that over which you are told you have no power. Lurking in the background is the horror of being passive, of being everything we think is evil about being (dreaded word) an object. You have too much free will, or too little. What is wrong with this picture? 

All of it – really all of it, no matter what angle you are coming from – is an artefact of what some call “Axial Age religion”: institutions that arose during the agricultural age, aka the Neolithic, aka what happened to humans across the Earth around 10,000BC, for instance in Mesopotamia, aka so-called “Western civilisation”. These religions share all kinds of things in common. For instance, they have a nasty tendency to outsource human powers, capacities and pleasures to a transcendental, non-material realm outside of physical, tangible reality, a domain inhabited perhaps by an invisible old man with a beard who mostly harbours unsavoury impulses towards you.  

The Fall: that’s something they have in common, too. Sometime “before” – before in some irreducible you-can’t-get-there-from-here sense – we humans were happy and healthy and our world was benevolent and abundant. We needed what we wanted and wanted what we needed. We said what we meant and meant what we said. We were perfect – which begs the question, how did we get here from there? Because here means we never quite mean what we say or say what we mean, and wanting and needing have drifted perilously apart. That is the Fall in a nutshell: at some point we did not desire, then for some reason desire was born. And desire is evil. And why? Because desire puts us in a loop. Desire is twisted. No wonder we have an obsession with gluten: it is like an itch we cannot stop scratching, this agricultural-age itch, so deeply connected to wheat. If only we could get rid of the one sinful thing that stops us from being totally present to ourselves, without a twist!  

For the wonderfully clinical Jacques Lacan, what I call “me” is in fact a wild goose chase in which “I” am perpetually chasing “myself” through a bewildering region of desirable things. Lacan: “I am not wherever I am the plaything of my thought; I think of what I am where I do not think to think”. It’s the drum-and-bass remix of Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”, with all kinds of extra beats and grace notes. I am Wyle-E Coyote and Roadrunner at the same time, or as David Byrne puts it in “Born Under Punches”, “I’m catching up with myself”. If I ever actually coincided with myself, I would disappear – what is called “me” is precisely this weird, strung-out sliding.  

Now think about the ancestor of this idea, a concept created at almost exactly the same time by two very different writers, philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach and gourmand Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Brillat-Savarin was the first really significant food writer, participating in the new culture of restaurants, which had been created by French chefs fleeing the Revolution. The first restaurant menus were (at that time, very long) lists of items from which one was to select. Thus one performed one’s skill at the newly formed myth that our identity is like a brand of chocolate and we get to display our prowess by selecting the “right” one, in the absence of a uniform standard of taste.  

In other words, “You are what you eat.” Brillat-Savarin writes, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are.” Feuerbach says almost the same thing, “Man” – apologies for the patriarchal noun – “is what he eats.”  

You are what you eat: that is consumerism in a nutshell. And it is exactly Lacan’s formula, reduced to a handy bite-size version. Which means that it is the basis for Althusser’s ideology theory. Which means that the dominant way in which humanistic scholarship defines and explores consumerism is an artefact of the dark side of consumerism, the one in which we humans get to decide what reality is, without interference from other life forms! What’s wrong with this picture?  

I have avoided talking directly about food and eating for several years, because all theories of consumerism, including many anarchist and Marxist ones, are retweets of agricultural-age religious stories about departing from some safe, Shire-like land of need towards a perilous ocean of desire – or extreme versions, like the Althusserian ones, about how this safe, Shire-like land is impossible, how myths about this land are precisely what we tell ourselves as we drown in the ocean of desire. We departed from good, self-consistent being towards a realm of scary and evil appearances.  

Or we never had that blandness and substance, it is appearance all the way down; we get to construct the reality we suffer from (Althusser’s theory sounds exactly like New Age self-hatred when you put it this way). You just cannot talk about food without running into these blind alleys. 

If you really want to bring the future into the present, you have to go through the consumerism tunnel and emerge on the other side.  

What is annoying about how we talk about food is exactly what is annoying about Axial Age religions and the agricultural, social and philosophical structures they bankroll. We need to take desire and pleasure seriously. The way we think about an ecological future is totally mediated by the necessities of petroculture, with its languages of scarcity and efficiency, so keyed to religion. We think the future will be a super-duper version of oil culture without the mess of oil itself, but with society in full-on oil mode, all efficient and pure. But being able to power everything using the sun and the wind means being able to have a disco in every room of your house without harming life forms (or far, far fewer, in any case). The genuine ecological future means more pleasure, not less.  

Which means that consumerism is not bad because it opens up desire; it is bad because it does not open up desire enough! Which means that – and I am sorry to be the devil, I cannot help it – there are some ecological chemicals hidden away within consumerism, some experiential chemicals that will help us figure out what that ecological future will be like.  

What are those chemicals? They have to do with “You are what you eat”, the pithy, first-time-lucky mantra of consumerism, aka the reflective, Romantic, aesthetic kind that was an avant-garde style when it started (think Baudelaire and De Quincey) but is now something we all play. This mode dominates because it is saying something true about how we relate to things, and even about what things are!  

It is saying the same thing as Kant was saying at that time: you cannot access things in themselves, you can only access data about those things. You cannot access yourself directly, you can only access the menu items you select: you are what you eat. Kant says this is as true about raindrops as it is about you yourself: when they fall on your head you do not access them directly, you access highly mediated data about them (round, wet, small, cold). But this means something astounding, as anyone who has read Kant on art will assert. It means that while you are styling yourself via a certain kind of food, you are relating to a very specific, very lusciously vivid thing that is not you, for no particular reason (the pope did not order you to like shrimp). You eat what you are. It means you relate, on a daily basis, to non-human beings in non-coercive, non-conceptual ways, so you already have a taste of what ecological coexistence could mean, in the most unlikely place – your consumerism.  

A Sydney taxi driver set me straight. He was an Iranian exile, fleeing persecution because of his (agricultural-age) faith. “Shrimp on the barbie, that’s my idea of God.” At first I thought, What a cute postmodern statement. Then I wondered, Was he in a way serious? Is the smell of frying shrimp (which I am not expecting you to like, too; you might be a vegetarian or you might want a burger), is that sensual shrimp data that sucks me in and makes my mouth water (or not), is that sensation actually not a much better kind of God than an invisible old man with a beard in the sky who mostly wants to kill you?  

It is the poison and the cure at the same time. Consumerism is agricultural-age theism privatised and globalised, everyone searching for experiences via objects to provide spiritual highs. It is the closest we have come to the taboos hidden away in the VIP lounges of these religions: the knowledge that all this God stuff is not exactly it, the superpowers you have outsourced are to be found within yourself. In a mad historical irony, consumerism comes closest to undoing the spell of the Neolithic, the spell that convinces us we are different from all other life forms, severed forever from the symbiotic real, caught in a wilderness of our own desire with no exit.  

All we have to do is pursue this a little further. Objects are not just blank screens for (human) desire projection – they are pungent with all kinds of qualities, like shrimp. Free will is massively overrated. The idea that we humans are skin-encapsulated egos floating free of our physical being (there is that symbiotic real again) is a dangerous illusion sustained by old concepts of the soul and modern concepts of consumer choice. We need a whole new theory of action that doesn’t depend on ultimately religious concepts of active and passive. Need is just how some desires look when they have been cropped and airbrushed to eliminate the non-human. Reality is not a bland lump of whatever, but wonderfully twisted and weird. You eat what you are. When I hear the word religion, I reach for my shrimp on the barbie. §

Tank _autumn 2016_21Illustration by Stine Deja