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

The end of the world? In many ways, but maybe, you never know…

The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson, 2020)

EMPTY SUPERMARKET shelves. Flights banned. Cruise lines taking a holiday . . . That’ll pass.

But Parisian bars, cafes and restaurants totally closed? That’s the end of some world or another.

More than just locked restaurants across the globe, urban life closes down and, with it, many seeming certainties. How unconvivial could this get?

My new book, Meals Matter, develops a “radical economics” from John Locke, Brillat-Savarin and others. As the first copies are being printed, a major rethink feels even more necessary. As First Dog on the Moon says: “Things are crazy and scary and they were already crazy and scary before.”

Meals Matter laments the two-century dismissal of meals – the disparagement of domesticity, the corruption of the lively marketplace, and the denigration of the wider, political meal. For this last, I reclaim the name, “banquet”. Needless to say, going along with money’s demands, governments so abandoned their meal – the banquet – that it remains scarcely visible.

Along comes the coronavirus, and governments act financially. Save the stockmarket! This is meant to “save jobs” to maintain metaphorical “bread”, although cynics also know that businesses seek to “capitalise the gains and socialise the losses”.

The government “banquet” should be not just emergency provisioning, but a whole meal. After all, any good meal comprises not just nutrients, but also comfort, pleasure, companionship, beauty, health, learning….

The aristocratic and religious hierarchies embellished their banquets with fine architecture and arts, and employed musicians, dancers, clowns, and jesters to tell truths. They staged whole after-dinner operas.

After pulling down monarchies and theocracies, the people anticipated their own mighty, popular banquets. But capitalism rose up within and against democratic republics, preferring only one meal, that of the market, and that merely conceived as prices.

Without government employment, artists were expected to rely on the market, and private patronage.

Suddenly, performers are out of work. I can no longer attend Verdi’s Attila at the Opera House tonight, nor the Bowral music festival next weekend. With a pandemic shaking live music and theatre to the core, government support looks slim indeed.

New York Times columnist, Michelle Goldberg, just wrote:

it’s chilling to witness an entire way of life coming to a sudden horrible halt. So many of the pleasures and consolations that make dwelling in cramped quarters worth it, for those privileged enough to choose city life, have disappeared. Even if they all come back, we’ll always know they’re not permanent.

Things are changing. Social-distancing and self-isolation atomise face-to-face meals. Yet mass banquets reappear on balconies. Neighbours drop food off at front doors. The whole world comes together as never before.

Meals Matter Front flap 3

Just maybe those who survive the pandemic might have been reminded the hard way that meals matter far more than money. If dictatorships haven’t further edged out liberal democracies, the banqueters might appreciate that the political household depends on cooperative health care, decent educations, the performing arts….

You never know, perhaps even mainstream economists will soon disown their slogan, “greed is good.” Governments might re-nationalise airlines….

Michelle Goldberg also wrote: “Maybe when this ends, people will pour into the restaurants and bars like a war’s been won, and cities will flourish as people rush to rebuild their ruined social architecture.”

To help prepare, put in your orders for Meals Matter: A Radical Economics through Gastronomy.

 

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

 

An uncultivated continent?

IMAGINE IF Captain Phillip and his charges sailed from Botany Bay into Port Jackson today. Never fear, we would be secure. The Minister for Home Affairs would quickly round up the poorly-armed marines, would-be settlers, miserable convicts and people smugglers.

Before being whisked away, the intruders might note an astoundingly “uncultivated continent”, finding oil refineries, container terminals, waterfront mansions, soaring buildings and vast urban stretches. Around the coast, they might possibly have sighted some patches of agribusiness, somewhere amid the rest being burnt.

That was the strange, industrial Australia I tried to evoke in One Continuous Picnic, my gastronomic history, published in 1982. Back then, the place was feeding on cans, frozen packets and plastic. Fresh, local foods were widely assumed to be doomed. Indigenous culture was discarded. Little nuance was needed. A “land without peasants”.

My history mentioned instances of the colonists resorting to, and sometimes enjoying, native foods. I spent a couple of introductory pages on Aboriginal eating, apologising that the existing records would require another book (and subsequent appearances include Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, 2014).

My sole example was Western Desert people, rounded up for the British atomic tests. Relying on a paper by anthropologist Dr Richard Gould, I sketched their “complicated skills and culture which had sustained them perhaps 40,000 years in apparently inhospitable conditions”. I mentioned them, I said, to “highlight our own profoundly novel way of feeding”, contrasting their “respect for the immediate environment and the invaders’ indifference”.

In the mid-1990s, I learned about semi-permanent settlement and complex horticulture, when Marion Maddox and I wrote a book on the Hindmarsh Island affair, involving the Ngarrindjeri of the Murray Mouth.

Incidentally, such was the well-financed legal ferocity of that anti-Indigenous campaign, including Slapp writs (Strategic lawsuits against public participation), through which obsessed parties from Tony Abbott to Chris Kenny assisted John Howard into power, that, understandably, no publisher would touch our revelations.

I should not have spoken originally of an “uncultivated continent” to cover Indigenous supervision; but my main contrast was between Australia in 1982 and what I had discovered in Italy, where people still enjoyed good cooking, fresh markets, and handy gardens, orchards and vineyards.

Much more has been written about Australian food since, both about the successes before the First Fleet, and the at least partially improved prospects, but my book had established eating as historically insightful, and I stick to the broad case.

I’m sure my forthcoming Meals Matter will also turn out to be overly-simplified in important respects. Yet I believe, again, that gastronomy can correct prevailing political and economic theory. Many of us keep trying.