Postpandemic hopes

From Columbia University Press blog

Pandemic survivors will emerge into a profoundly changed world with more social media and online shopping, less commuting, the collapse of cash, improved health care, emptier cities, increased authoritarianism, globalism, nationalism… among any number of often contradictory early predictions.

His presidential aspirations abandoned, Senator Bernie Sanders declared, “many in our country are now beginning to rethink the basic assumptions underlying the American value system.”

“Decisions about dinner have for too long been written off as trivial and self-indulgent. I respond: when did human sustenance stop being fundamental?”

Weighty policy decisions have to be made, elections fought, gross inequality alleviated, taxes revamped, and budgets revived. The struggles entailed in finding the “new normal” might seem far too big and important for gastronomy. But decisions about dinner have for too long been written off as trivial and self-indulgent. I respond: when did human sustenance stop being fundamental?

Gastronomy could, and should, help as urgently as possible even where it might seem least equipped—the philosophical essentials, those “basic assumptions.” For me, gastronomy as the “diner’s sense of the world” is unparalleled for understanding liberal concepts of freedom, equality, democracy, family life, environmental care, political action, and more.

The supreme science, as Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin saw it, has lain largely undeveloped since he published Physiology of Taste in 1826. I suspect that gastronomy was belittled precisely because its radicalism was so compelling.

“I suspect that gastronomy was belittled precisely because its radicalism was so compelling.”

My new book, Meals Matter: A Radical Economics Through Gastronomy, charts how capitalism’s apologists, especially economists, upended political philosophy. Since the early nineteenth century, they have distorted socially aware Enlightenment liberalism into varieties of free enterprise and neoliberalism, which accord liberty to money.

Meals Matter shows economists proclaiming money’s unbreakable laws while trivializing eating and drinking. Commodity production, food processing, trade, and hospitality might rate financially as industries, but economists sidelined actual meal-sharing as “utility,” “externality,” “irrational,” “domestic work,” and “leisure.” Casting appetite aside, economists favored greed.

Such founding liberals as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau based their arguments on each person’s natural right to self-preservation, which meant attending to the “pleasure of the stomach,” to quote the then influential ancient philosopher Epicurus. The natural right became a social one, once individuals accepted that their best interests actually lay in collaboration.

Even the economists’ hero, Adam Smith, stressed that “we expect our dinner” through the “co-operation and assistance of great multitudes,” including the butcher, brewer, and baker (my emphasis).

In drafting the U.S. Declaration of Independence, meal-lover and Epicurean Thomas Jefferson enshrined equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The equivalent French trio became liberty, equality, and conviviality (my translation of fraternité).

“Even the economists’ hero, Adam Smith, stressed that “we expect our dinner” through the “co-operation and assistance of great multitudes,” including the butcher, brewer, and baker (my emphasis).”

Under capitalism, laissez-faire apologists so abstracted the concept of liberty from its gastronomic base that it could apply to profit-seeking corporations. Their legal and political “personhood” overlooked the undeniable fact that firms do not eat, let alone gain happiness by sharing with others.

Among key correctives, Meals Matter proposes that we stop speaking of a single “the economy,” when we rely on several: not just the market but also the original, domestic economy and the political economy. As well as exposing the vacuity of “greed is good” bluster, the pandemic has returned responsibilities from the market economy toward home life and government. COVID-19 reminds us that human beings thrive, and suffer, together, and within a further, natural economy, too.

Are political leaders likely to become more sympathetic to gastronomy? Could many soon agree with Meals Matter that real social benefits accrue from the thoughtful application of the ancient principle, “eat, drink, and be merry”?

“Many people have reawakened under lockdown to balcony gardening, home baking and preserving, and domestic meal-sharing.”

Tyrants will continue to appeal to higher authorities, whether religious, nativist, or moneyed, and even liberal politicians are likely to remain wary of mundane sensual pleasures. On the other hand, the liveliness of foodies, food activists, reborn farmers, and socially committed restaurateurs in recent years makes me more optimistic. Many people have reawakened under lockdown to balcony gardening, home baking and preserving, and domestic meal-sharing.

I also take hope that serious scholars have given up the old academic disdain for eating and drinking. My book’s four endorsers represent a gratifying spread of expertise—professors of politics, political economy, anthropology of food, and European history have, between them, detected “the potential to upend many orthodoxies” and “a passionate call to create a more convivial world.”

Republished from Columbia University Press blog…

How our “consolation of profit” thesis helps understand restaurants, megachurches, and Trump

MARION MADDOX AND I have just published a paper, “The consolation of profit”,* in New Formations, a journal of contemporary culture and politics.

Perhaps the quickest introduction is bottled water. Why do people pay for something they can get out of the tap?

Marion and Michael 3
At Max Walloschke, Hannover

Certainly, the hefty marketing promises health and status. But to those familiar explanations, we add another: the insistent hawking itself arouses a reasonable expectation that sellers are so desperate for profit that they will risk no other complication. If it’s outside the market economy, can it really be safe?

The “consolation of profit” arose from attempts to understand consumer anxiety when Jennifer Hillier and I ran the Uraidla Aristologist restaurant more according to our own earnest ideas than the Market’s.

 

Along with a funny name, the Aristologist had no piped music, no Coca-Cola, no smoking (except in a special room or outside), and otherwise signalled more than mere profit-seeking. The precipitating incident was a sweet, young couple looking at the menu, and asking if they might repair instead to a nearby restaurant. Our food would be “too spicy”, they explained, although, in reality, this would have applied more to the other place.

A more likely explanation was that the Aristologist might seem to require savoir-faire, an unfamiliar wine, reflection on the experience, or any number of other interactions.

McDonald’s redoubles the assurances. Their so-called “restaurants” advertise utterly predictable food – “Do you want fries with that?” – and stilted interactions – “Have a nice day”. The hammering of cheapness backs the warranty: no any other demand.

As a religious studies scholar, Marion added the second case-study. Why have megachurches been on the rise, when mainline churches have generally declined? Megachurches have replaced old liturgies with the forms of rock concerts and television tonight shows. Theirs is “Jesus lite”.

The “consolation of profit” thesis adds that, whereas a tight, more traditional congregation might threaten personal, social or deep theological challenges, these “growth churches” preach a simple message, “we want your money.” The merchandising in the foyer, donation buttons on web-pages, repeated onstage appeals shout out the safety of profit-seeking. The upfront demand for money could risk no challenge.

Our third case study asks how could anyone vote for such a shallow charlatan as Donald Trump? Together with lies and racism, his heavily-funded election campaign came with the “consolation of profit”. Trump never pretended to be anything more than a super-salesman with advertising slogans in place of policies.

This self-professed artist of “the deal” grew up in the congregation of prosperity gospel preacher, Dr Norman Vincent Peale, author of a string of business self-help titles, most famously, The Power of Positive Thinking (1952). Peale officiated at Trump’s first wedding.

Voting for the celebrity money-maker guarded against any untoward governmental decisions. Selling himself as the greatest, Trump offered no “deep state” threats. Denouncing elite expertise, he ostentatiously ruled through Fox News tweets.

With the pandemic, the Symons-Maddox thesis sees a hard-selling, anti-intellectual braggart struggling with an unanticipated crisis. “We’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it”; “I like this stuff. I really get it,” etc, shows he has nothing to sell but himself.

How enduring the consolation proves against obvious lack of social commitment, we’ll find out in November.

*Michael Symons and Marion Maddox (2020), “The consolation of profit,” New Formations 99: 110-126

99: Cultures of Compensation

How to buy Meals Matter

9780231196024PURCHASE THE BOOK THROUGH YOUR favourite seller, especially in the U.S. and now U.K., or through Columbia University Press.* Sadly, airfreight costs having shot up, the Australia/NZ distributors (Footprint) expects them by sea in June/July. Meanwhile, several outlets offer free sample pages, and sell whole e-books.

*Here is the Columbia link to use the friendly promo code CUP30 for a 30% discount. Before delivery, the Columbia site quotes $35.00 US and £30.00. Including postage to Australia, the total came to $57.39 AUD.Meals Matter - Author with first copy

Still my only copy

Seen a negative review of Honeyland?

Publicity photo for Honeyland

ONE EXCEPTIONALLY CLEAR day, when living in Tuscany, I spotted the Duomo in Florence, 23 kms away.

This was from the village of Bacchereto in the hills above Prato, where four of us (all expatriates) opened the Cantina di Toia restaurant for the Tesi family.

From Bacchereto, we often popped into Florence, so that I was surprised when a neighbour asked, as we stood admiring the cupola in the distance: “What’s it like?”

Old enough to have a teenage daughter, she had never visited her regional capital, a 40-minute drive away.

This was admittedly some decades ago, when traditional village life, even in sophisticated central Italy, still surprised an outsider like me.

Living in a former watermill near Radda-in-Chianti (SI) through the previous year had been eye-opening. One afternoon, we returned down the rocky, ancient Roman road to to find the locals trailing what looked like long streamers down the stream and under the bridge.

They were running water through pig intestines to prepare them for sausage and salami casings – an old trick, presumably thousands of years old.

The groundedness of village life, especially its food, contrasted with the “One Continuous Picnic” back home (becoming the title of my gastronomic history of Australia). Industrial food had to be portable, like a picnic, as well as profitable.

I was reminded of this seeing Honeyland the other evening. The New York Times’ usually reliable reviewer, A.O. Scott, rated the movie his best for 2019. It scores 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Award successes have included Oscar nominations for both “Best Documentary Feature” and “Best International Feature Film”.

Honeyland is a North Macedonian documentary about a woman who survives with her aged mother in a ruined stone village by collecting wild honey from hives in rocks and tree trunks. That’s the good bit. (For I  would have walked out of the cinema, if not for sitting next to the family beekeeper.)

I have not found one review less than enthusiastic, and so how to explain my reaction?

Film critics are taken with the blend of hardship and beauty. What did they expect? They learn Hatidze’s father had prevented her marrying to retain a daughter for help in old age. As if many women are not still having to do that!

Reviewers also seem pathetically grateful for the environmental message. Breaking into the tranquillity of the deserted landscape, a family of seasonal herders arrive in their clattering old truck and caravan. With seven rowdy children, they prove unbelievably brutal and ignorant. Count the bee stings!

The family decide to bring in some hives for short-term exploitation. Rather than follow our heroine’s wisdom (only take half the honey, and leave half for the bees to survive the winter), they rip the bees off, so the commercial hives then have to rob from the wild ones. The men chainsaw a tree trunk in search of a wild hive’s bounty.

Besides the striking landscape, and Hatidze’s charming steadiness, the movie is slow, simplistic, and, I have to add, nasty. The makers worked to become the “invisible observers” of “direct cinema”, editing out any sign of camera awareness. Likewise, they never intervened in fights and disasters, so that we could think we witness the unvarnished truth.

According to co-director Tamara Kotevska, their bee-handler “wanted to tell her story because she realized she was the last generation to live this way”.

On the other hand: “Hussein’s family represents the capitalist world, of wanting to take as many resources as you can so you, personally, will thrive – not thinking about how this will impact the next generation.” The family went along with the filming, Kotevaska suggested, for the company provided by the small crew’s frequent visits.

As an outsider, I felt like I was intruding on them. You feel ashamed in some situations; you don’t know if you have a right to be there for their family argument. But you keep shooting.

The big-city intruders did not even speak the same language as those they filmed. The two women and nomadic family are remnants of the Ottoman Turkish era in a bewildering succession of rulers and migrations that make up the Republic of North Macedonia (which only gained independence in 1991, and that name in February 2019).

Along with that, the “documentary” is, I fear, something of a con. How amazing to introduce us to, as claimed unequivocally in the movie’s logline, “the last female wild beekeeper in Europe”.

Wasn’t it fortuitous that they just happened to be filming when the seasonal visitors just happened to decide to bring in some hives…

The Honeyland director explained fabrication:

We started editing while we were still shooting … We were able to say: “Alright, what are we missing here? We’re missing scenes of the relationship with the children.” So we would go, find more times, focus on the relationship with them, or their conflicts at home. Different aspects.

Perhaps I was expecting too much, and perhaps I became suspicious too quickly, but take a look yourself. (For all the critical acclaim, it is yet to gross $1m.)

Bees have also starred recently in: Queen of the Sun: What are the bees telling us? (2010); More than Honey (2012); Il Tempo delle api (2017); Tell it to the Bees (2019); and, last but not least, The Wonders [Le Meraviglie] (2014).

The Wonders rates 96% RT approval, and won the 2014 Palme D’Or at Cannes. This time, I’m with the positive responses.

Italian writer-director Alice Rohrwacher follows the family of a former German hippy now beekeeping in Tuscany. Family life buzzes around the bees, and vice versa, and meets cruel modernity. But this time it’s fiction, which enables the audience to get involved, while keeping its distance. The movie is somewhat autobiographical, too, because Rohrwacher and her actor-sister Alba Rohrwacher grew up in such a family.

I came to Alice Rohrwacher’s work through her mysterious Happy as Lazzaro [Lazzaro Felice] (2018), which, again, pits tradition against modernity. This one shows nastiness even more thoroughly than Honeyland, but this movie-making is a joy.

The North Macedonian documentarians wanted their manipulative literalness and invasive exploitation to be invisible. By contrast, the creative sophistication of Rohrwacher puts the badness of late modernity up on the screen, and its wonders.

Publicity poster for The Wonders

 

The cone of corporate creepiness

Plums in cone 2
Zwetschgenpflaume in market cone

STALLHOLDERS AT THE weekly Lister Meile street market here in Hannover (Germany) sell fruit and vegetables in brown paper cones. At the last market, we picked up highly seasonal plums. As the photo shows, they are a type of damson.

We knew that Zwetschgenpflaume had just arrived on the market, because they featured on the specials board the night before at restaurant 11A Küche mit Garten (11A Kitchen with Garden). The name derives from its address, being in the square that translates as Kitchen Garden.

(Horror alert: creepiness coming).

My mobile phone has taken to opening with a YouTube suggestion, and when we returned from the market, it proposed a demonstration of how to use the plums.

Plum video 2
Renias Backwelt demonstrates how to use Zwetschgenpflaume

How did it know? I can think of three possibilities: that it was coincidental, that google tracked us at the market and the plums are in season, or that google had eavesdropped, and heard the word.

That was so creepy that, as soon as I showed Marion the video running, I turned it off. To be correct, I thought I turned it off, because it disappeared from my phone and started on a television in the next room. We’d last turned on the tv the previous evening, making our way through dvds of the wondrous 1982 series of Heimat.

plum-video-1.jpg
The finished product (taken from Renias Backwelt)

Adding to the horror, Mozilla had only just sent a blog item about how you can’t believe even baking videos any more, with a link to Sydney dessert-influencer Ann Reardon showing how so-called “content farms” are crueling the internet.

A “content farm”, such as So Yummy, creates low-grade “how to” videos to game the algorithms and drag in advertising dollars. That reduces the income of more serious posters, such as “Renias Backwelt” (Renia’s Baking World) with her plums, or Ann with “How to Cook That”. While I cannot imagine who would make Ann’s novelty dessert items, including a Prince Harry chocolate sculpture that took her three days to make, So Yummy has more than 100 million views a month with videos that merely look like cooking videos with their boring bits speeded up. As Ann demonstrates, So Yummy’s cooking instructions are way post-fact. The recipes she attempts don’t merely fail, they plainly would never work.

Incidentally, I have retained quotes around “content farms” as maligning farms; they are content production lines.

The monolith at the top of surveillance capitalism, Google owns YouTube and so much more, but does it really listen in through microphones in homes, cafes, offices and therapists’ rooms?

The next day, I received another Mozilla post:

“Hi Michael,

“If you have a voice assistant in your home or on your phone, have you ever been concerned that someone from the company could listen to your voice recordings?

“Recent news coverage confirms that suspicion.”

According to the quoted sources (Mozilla Foundation, “What can you trust on the internet?“), eavesdropping is now banned in the EU, but I still worry.

Returning to humour might distract from the creepiness. The secret agent comedy series Get Smart had a device called the “cone of silence” – those inside the bubble couldn’t hear; those outside could.

Or I might also cheer us up by turning to a second highly seasonal German phenomenon on the streets the past day or two: the two-century-old tradition of the Schultüte (school cone). A Schultüte is sometimes also called a Zuckertüte (sugar cone), because it is a large cone, almost as big as a small child, that contains sweets, toys and school items.

School cone

The cone marks an important rite of passage – a child’s first day at school. Parents have made or purchased a cone, filled it with the items, and hung it on a tree at the school. The child carries it home to open at a family party.

We saw children carrying them home yesterday, and I snapped an illustration of one, in a line-up of first-day-of-school children’s books, each showing cones, in the window of the nearby library.

 

My new book: A radical economics

ACCOMPANYING Marion for a few academic weeks in Hannover, Germany, I have just sent off the final revisions to a manuscript that’s kept me busy for many years, being something of a magnum opus, well, that’s my story.

Snap at Max Walloschke
At Max Walloschke restaurant, Hannover

More later, but the title is Meals Matter: A Radical Economics through Gastronomy.

Columbia University Press brings it out in “Spring 2020”, which means (for readers outside such latitudes) in the first half of the year.

Many writers accept that mainstream economics needs replacing.

This book identifies the root cause of the problem, and explains what needs to be done, through Brillat-Savarin’s unduly neglected science of gastronomy.

Max postcard
Max Walloschke retired from wrestling and opened a Gaststätte in 1952

Cultural density clash

See original imageParis has relatively high cultural density. Even modest cafes, bistros and restaurants are meant to be run correctly, I argued the other day.

Crowded, pedestrian-friendly streets and stair-filled buildings help keep people slim. I can add that significant social solidarity – more dining together – protects not only against sugar-snacking, but also against competitive individualism, which provokes mental harm and binge eating.

Such observations provide a contrast with Australia, which might have let more sunlight in when it was the land of the “fair go”,  when lucky country inhabitants would say, “she’ll be right, mate”, when the cuisine was “one continuous picnic”, and when waiters were notoriously slack. But a loose Australia was left comparatively exposed to a hazardous new regime.

Paris is the capital of a relatively tight French republic that demonstrates that any future Australian republic cannot merely banish the monarch, but has to put real power into the hands of the people through a strong state. Here in France, for both good and ill, people gather relatively keenly behind the tricolour, and take seriously “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (“liberty, equality, conviviality”).

Australians have an embarrassing flag, carrying four Christian crosses that signify colonialism, theocracy and beer-swilling. It’s symbolic of a less committed polity, which has its attractions, but which leaves Australia a wide-open marketing opportunity. In recent decades, we have had insufficient cultural bulk to resist the neoliberal agenda of let-profit-rule. Certainly, French food is being corporatised, too, but less thoroughly than in Australia, where business pressures intensify relatively uncontested just about everywhere – through the internet, on the sport-grounds, in privatised émigré gulags, and across the arts, where the common good is being replaced by the sponsor’s. If audiences don’t flock, then the “market” has spoken.

That is more or less the complaint in an article, “Culture crisis: The arts funding cuts are just a symptom of a broader malaise in Australia”, in the latest Monthly.

Writer and critic Alison Croggon is worried principally by attacks on a more elevated culture – “the yarts” – but she makes a similar comparison.

“The past three years have seen an unremitting ideological war on knowledge, inquiry and, significantly, cultural memory,” she writes, citing cuts to scientific bodies, universities, research programs, museums, archives, galleries, the ABC, National Library’s Trove, and, of her special concern, grants to small arts companies, and individual practitioners.

Right from the start, Prime Minister Turnbull announced a ruthlessly neoliberal agenda, promising “a thoroughly Liberal Government committed to freedom, the individual and the market.” That’s liberty for business, and hostility to égalité and fraternité. He wants a nation “that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative”, which the context makes clear means financially creative, even financially disruptive, as he later added.

While Turnbull’s government might flounder with set-pieces, his Ministers have gone to town using administrative methods to prosecute the culture war against Australia Council recipients and the like.

As Croggon explodes:

The forces of convention have slammed down again. Just as the arts funding debacle is seeing a new conservatism rise on our main stages, so too our critical culture has returned to its default chitchat.

She then reveals: “I’m writing this at La Chartreuse, a former monastery in the south of France… In the 17th century, this room belonged to monks. Now that La Chartreuse is the headquarters of Le centre national des écritures du spectacle (National Centre for Theatre Writers), or CNES, it’s occupied by artists.”

See original imageShe couldn’t imagine a similar institution in Australia – “a centre with comparable resources, devoted solely to the development of writing for theatre … The imagination stops dead. It is simply an impossible thought.”

I have figures to demonstrate France’s more financially assertive collectivity. According to a survey for 2014, general government spending as a proportion of GDP in France was 57.3%, which ranked second highest of 29 OECD countries. Australian expenditure of 36.2% was second lowest. We were even worse than the U.S., also in the bottom bunch, on 38.0%. A huge chunk of the Australian budget goes, through outsourcing, not to socially or culturally useful spending but to corporations.

More specific figures for public funding on the arts are harder to locate, so I gave up after clicking on a Canadian report from 2005, quoting older British data. For what they’re worth, France then spent £37.8 per head on the arts (or 0.26% of GDP), while Australia spent £16.4 per head (or 0.14% of GDP).

Croggon bemoans the collapse of critical, let alone angry, arts in Australia and, along with those, the decline in arts criticism in newspapers and apparently now even in blogs. If that’s the case, we need to protect and enhance serious criticism around the dinner-table. We also need conversations about a republic that puts the people more in charge of their fate through a sizeable, non-capitalist state.