What we’re swallowing along with our food isn’t always on the ingredients list as the Findus horsemeat scandal proved. But these unexpected extras don’t all contain calories, in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, in collaboration with Sophie Finnes, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek touches on the politics of food in Late Capitalism. His suggestion is that as subjects of this system, food must be consumed on two levels: physically – for calories sustain our lives – and ideologically.
This means we participate in a mode of production that persuades us to buy food wildly misaligned with our nutritional requirements. This second stage creates a “weird perverted duty” to enjoy our food. It is not enough simply to take pleasure in food; instead, we must actively transform the process of eating into a performance in which getting energy plays second fiddle to an ideological “enjoyment.” In short, we define ourselves by what we consume – just like with any other aspect of Late Capitalism.
Zizek uses the example of the Kinder Egg, the food and toy part of which are both, objectively, a bit shit. If someone on the street offered us 20g of low quality chocolate and a piece of moulded plastic in any other situation, I for one would probably brush them off with a quick “I’ve already voted, thanks.” Wrapped in orange and white foil, however, and packaged as an essential childhood treat, parents, children, and the odd nostalgic student (which we can assume from their presence in the Guild shop) will throw money away on them.
But what is this nostalgia? My only memory of eating a Kinder Surprise is one of disappointment. Both parts left my four-year-old self unsatisfied and deprived of the massive sugar hit required to make the gruesome hybrid of human-head and a car an object of fun. This was not enough to prevent an identical demand from whichever unfortunate parent happened to be looking after me the following day, week or month. I was, even then, a good subject, playing my part in a cultural marketing narrative. And yes, I have in the past year wondered what it would be like eat one once again, momentarily recalling a childhood joy that I never experienced.
This seems to be a trend in food production – especially the marketing side of things – in our current moment: we continue to hark back to an un-experienced past. Take the patronising bullshit that defaces the side of Innocent Smoothie cartons, for instance. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good fruit pulp as much as the next guy but I don’t give a fucky-wuck how many guavas were “squished” to go into it. But clearly I’m one of the few. The underlying market point here is not, of course, the language of a self-parodic toddler, but the direct link between the homogenous liquid and its “natural” ingredients in an increasingly industrialised food culture. Once again, we are force fed nostalgia for a past that almost no one alive today could have experienced.
When we plant that allotment go to the organic family-farm butchers, what we’re really trying to do is find a connection with our food. Fads such as the Paleo-Diet attempt to emulate “hunter-gatherer” diets of our ancestors over 10,000 years ago are clearly clutching at the same idea that we have moved away from a “natural” relationship with our food. Of course, this is a relationship we can only create ideologically: even if you’re a Paleo-devotee chances are you’re not giving up your Barbour for the hide of a Mammoth and so you end up hunter-gathering by proxy.
I don’t think this is an inherently awful idea. After all, ensuring your eggs didn’t pop out from a chicken punched in the face every hour of its life by coughing up the extra pence for free-range is, on balance, a good thing. Self-conscious buying, then, is a good way (within the confines of a pretty shitty system) to define ourselves through the products we consume. My problem comes when the ostensible ideological meaning is in direct contrast to its real world effect.
Quinoa is the obvious example of this. Since the mid-2000s we (and by “we” I refer to my fellow non-meat-eaters, but also quite a few of you “normals”) have loved the tiny pebbles of tasteless cardboard that are apparently really high in protein and beneficial for the environment. The issue is not, as The Guardian suggested, that the Peruvian quinoa farmers can’t afford to eat it after the tripling of the international market price. No, it’s the fact that Peru is becoming reliant on the crop for export, creatin a monoculture which, in turn, irrevocably damages the land. Although this is not quite as disatorous as clearing the Amazon rainforest to feed our beef habit, it’s really not a good thing to happen. And, of course, depending so heavily on a single crop will mean that the farmers are fucked as soon as Yotam Ottolenghi introduce us to the next miracle grain.
This is ultimately to say that while we must not only be aware of the physical things we put into our bodies, it’s probably more important to take stock of the ideologies we swallow along with it.