SURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING:
Heterodox views. Reading may result in massive cognitive dissonance.
The date is November 29, 2016. Fresh off his election victory, Donald J. Trump sits down with Mitt Romney to have dinner and talk, undoubtedly, politics. A gaggle of journalists is invited to swarm the table and take pictures—no flash, of course. One frame out of hundreds—thousands, maybe—catches the photographers' attention and is put on the shortlist for publication. Fingers furiously type on Macbooks; first come the Tweets, then the articles; journalists know very well that a few seconds is the difference between Pagerank 1 and Pagerank 2, getting a million clicks and getting a thousand, Likes and Shares and crickets and silence, and, when you really boil it down, making ten thousand bucks and making ten.
- Nymag: Romney Swallows Pride, Frogs Legs at Dinner With Trump
- Buzzfeed: People Think Mitt Romney Looked Awkward As Hell At Dinner With Donald Trump
- GQ: Mitt Romney Enjoyed a Nice Dinner in His Personal Hell With Donald Trump
- (url includes "mitt-romney-dinner-internal-screaming")
The list goes on. Yes, quite a photograph, isn't it? The contrast between the grinning real estate baron and the poorly disguised grimace of the private equity millionaire. This was, for the latter, no less than a public humiliation, forced to eat his words after months denouncing the former's candidacy on the trail. But, dear readers, we are not here to retrace history, we are here to understand, as it were, the organizing principles behind this world in which we live, the subconscious significations that unveil a story truer than any headline, muffled dispatches from an insidious realm that news could only ever pretend to cover.
We are concerned, here, with politics.
Earlier this year, The Verge published an article about a new internet phenomenon: a stock market for memes.
The pricing on Nasdanq is determined by data scrapers that go through social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. The more popular a phrase is, the more value it has on the simulator.
Dismissing this odd outgrowth as frivolous fun and games–even if its creators genuinely believe it is–is as obtuse as claiming drinking water isn't necessary for human survival. I'm not claiming that the project itself is going to harm anyone (it probably isn't), but I am claiming that its philosophical implications reach far beyond its being a riotous in-joke for savvy internet denizens. How does that work? Let's think of it as an art project (if you object to this categorization, I advise unplugging your head from the 18th century). According to media scholar Marshall McLuhan:
[A]rt is... exact information of how to rearrange one’s psyche in order to anticipate the next blow from our own extended faculties.
In other words, art acts as that vague feeling in your body that cues you to dodge, block, or parry the next incoming punch from Technology, whose inevitable advancement "extends your faculties" beyond what you're familiar with or willing to get used to. Getting hit in the face is the metaphorical equivalent of becoming a memebot: reposting old news, unoriginal editorials, and beaten-to-death opinions on social media that convince no one. Who wins? Hint: Not you. Or your cause. Or your perceived opponents, for that matter, who are stuck playing the same game as you while the problem isn't "who wins" but the game itself, and the fact that it—in lieu of other, possibly better games—is the one being played, is the one you decide to play.
I'll go so far as to say that with the advent of the internet meme our society has finally arrived at a better symbolic representation of power than money. Now you probably have a gestalt for what a meme is...
But did you know the term was invented by none other than our beloved Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins? Yes, folks, the man had actual substance before he began his (in)famous crusades against theism. Long story short: If, from an evolutionary perspective, genetic fitness is a measure of trait propagation in the biosphere, then by analogy, memetic fitness is a measure of idea virality in the noösphere. A tattered itinerant with his sign and megaphone screaming about how you're all going to burn in Hell? Not very convincing. Sheryl Sandberg publicly sanctioning your previously secret unabashed ambition, or Donald "Make America Great Again" Trump claiming he has a time machine? Basically mind control.
Regardless of what you believe, my point is purely mechanical: Belief systems (ideologies) are memetic structures, and a meme is to an ideology what an atom is to matter. Speaking of atoms, try picturing one in your head. Did it look like this?
Cool. This isn't literally what an atom looks like, it's a meme that science artists have propagated through millions of introductory chemistry and physics textbooks (which is not a comment on its conceptual accuracy). But until relatively recently, we would never think of calling this thing a meme in the exact same sense as the above image macros are memes; we'd just call it a science visualization, or pictorial representation or something. Don't be mistaken, the pure concept "meme" can't actually be visualized because, again, it is an abstract description of ideological fabric. More interesting is that until the image macro, there has never been a purer representation of the meme concept as such (the atom picture is first and foremost an educational tool, unconscious, image macros qua image macros are pure biochemical warfare, conscious); they're even called memes. That's right: Internet memes propagated the meme meme.
Now, given that:
- Memes are idea currency
- Image macros are the purest visualization of said currency
It is not outlandish to suggest that Reddit's "MemeEconomy" is the purest visual representation we have of the ideological battleground. Furthermore, if we accept that power is an economy of ideas, memetics can help us study how ideologies—zeitgeists, egregores, etc.—rise and fall, and through this study, perhaps influence the process more conscientiously. Here, we will blend biology and sociology to examine how power functions in everyday life. In certain academic circles a "dominant meme" is known as "hegemonic ideology," and for this we switch from Dawkins to one of his European contemporaries, philosopher Michel Foucault. Guardian saint of questions like:
- What is power?
- What are its mechanics?
- Where can it be found?
- How has it changed over time?
This wasn't a purely theoretical exercise for Foucault, who through Nietzsche's concept of Genealogy1 excavated the ideological evolution of prison systems and human sexuality–and by means of doing so hoped to provide the grounds for dismantling what he perceived to be unhealthy power structures. Foucault and Dawkins worked in completely different paradigms but I think the essential character of their work bears a striking resemblance, as we shall in short order see. Let us now frame the term politics as, in addition to the stuff that enables the news to survive, the umbrella term for power flows in human society. Thus, politics and memetics are virtually inseparable. Better keep watch on that MemeEconomy; it's basically a prediction market for the internet's unconscious. The ideas of tomorrow, today.
Also keep in mind (and we will return to this later) that just because something is powerful doesn't mean it's bad; if tomatoes with higher antioxidant levels taste and stave off infection better, then naturally I want that gene to dominate. And while we're on the topic of food...
We're going to be performing a textual discourse / memetic analysis on:
French chef-restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten's eponymous four- and three-star restaurant on the corner of Central Park. Where Trump and Romney were eating in the photo.
Let me propose that what journalists present to us is almost never what is of importance. Which is not to say that the journalistic endeavor is wholly frivolous, but that, in shoring up news to the public, what's outside the frame—literally and figuratively—tends to be much more interesting, if not because they haven't paved over it with their own interpretations, then for the sheer reason that it has to exist in order for the frame to exist; text and subtext go hand-in-hand. There is a reason why everything about this restaurant is the way it is, and it's up to us to dig it up. What can we extract from the particular dishes being served? What does its location reveal? What kind of clientele does it attract, what common values do its customers share? Whom does it employ? In short, what are its politics2? Looking closely at the restaurant organism and the ecosystem(s) it inhabits can tell us much about the American psyche.
So then. Itadakimasu!
mushroom consommé, tuna tartare, oyster with foam
mushroom consommé, tuna tartare, oyster with foam
In evolutionary theory there is a concept known as the Red Queen hypothesis. Given two species in competition with each other, say, lions and zebras, it follows that an adaptation that allows lions to run faster would become dominant, and because the slower zebras die out, the zebras in turn have to get faster to survive, triggering a sort of evolutionary arms race. Numerous natural relationships fit this pattern, the scariest of which is that between infectious bacteria and immunologists.
To parallel this intriguing phenomenon, it should not come as surprising to learn that the first restaurants to offer amuse-bouches, gratuitous bite-sized snacks not listed on the menu, surprised and delighted their customers in a way their competitors hadn't. Word would spread, business would bloom, and as nouvelle cuisine rose to prominence in postwar France, these bites transitioned from beneficial mutation to de rigueur standard. Any restaurant which aspired to fine dining was compelled to offer its own variations on this mandatory theme. I will say, however, that though I relished the development as a first-time feinschmecker, once I came to expect it, the element of surprise vanished and with it the subsequent delight.
Said the Red Queen to Alice, "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place."
The mushroom consommé was, as expected, thick, earthy, and umami; the oyster was ehm, oysterous, and the tartare provided a nice touch of foreshadowing for the fish dish to come. Eaten in reverse order mentioned.
aren't I pretty
aren't I pretty
Here we have one of the most exclusive ingredients in the world perched atop the carved shell of one of the most common, a symbolic representation of the dominance of the wealthy upper class over the proletarian mass. Proper digestion of this course, of course, involves identification with the sturgeon roe and not the egg. Observe that "roe" is much more euphonious than "egg," so although both serve the same biological function, the former's superiority makes itself apparent even on the sonic level.
I've already discussed caviar in previous posts; these were equal in definition, but the supply of a metal spoon instead of the traditional mother-of-pearl was an incontrovertible gaffe. Nevertheless there is a reason why this dish has tenure on the Jean-Georges repertoire, and the reason is that it is excellent. The caviar's salinity is tempered by the fluffy whipped cream on which it is snugly cushioned, which is then pierced by the buttery richness of the warm scrambled egg emulsion hidden beneath; scattered cayenne dust dances a counterpoint to the tritone harmony.
caramelized cauliflower, caper-raisin emulsion
caramelized cauliflower, caper-raisin emulsion
Look at the first photo again: Romney's eating this dish, which means he's opted for the tasting menu. Look closer: There are two of this on the table; someone's either a glutton or missing. Indeed, Reince Preibus finds himself entirely cropped out–not because he's powerful enough to remain hidden, but because he's not important enough to be shown. Even though it's quite probable the dinner's occurrence was conditioned on his presence.
Scallops, an opulent food in any Occidental discourse, here find themselves qualified by an adjective; the diner is led to believe that there's something special about these in particular, and it is common psychological knowledge that framing experiences in certain ways enhances their enjoyment. Furthermore, the epicure understands an additional qualification, namely that this "Bay" refers to the Nantucket Bay, whose scallops are known for their smaller size, tenderness, and sweetness. This is a good example of an ideology reinforcing itself—called reification—where by, before even taking a single bite, the gourmet congratulates himself on his erudition and thus generates an additional burst of happiness.
Note that even if the dish never comes, this happiness, like the bell-generated saliva of Pavlov's dog, cannot be taken away from him. Ever eaten at a Michelin-starred restaurant and wondered what the hell the hype was about? Secret: The food itself is only half of it, if that. It's about the diner—you—and if you don't get it, it's the same as your not getting a baffling art installation. So, study up!
Here the sweetness of the cauliflower (from Maillard caramelization) and sauce (from raisins) provide a tonal linkage to that of the scallops. The crunchy plant and the squishy mollusk perform an acrobatic duo on the stage of your tongue with the sauce as musical accompaniment.
Young Garlic Soup
avec cuisses de grenouille
avec cuisses de grenouille
I was quite amused to discover that a Seattle steakhouse teaches a class on proper dining etiquette, only (yes I'm being sarcastic) $175 per head. What is this "etiquette" stuff anyway, and why is it something people feel the need to cultivate?
First of all, it is obviously the case that each individual who has attended said class felt, at some level, a certain insecurity about, shall we say, their sophistication, an insecurity they were willing to pay—and this is important—at least $175, excluding tip, to, if not remedy, then at least stave off. The purpose of etiquette, then, is to fit in. Indeed it seems as if those who come from less entitled backgrounds must pay a price—money, effort—to conform themselves.
One could say the British aristocracy, with their elaborate ceremonies for everything from setting the table to changing palace guards, represents the height of etiquette. They spend their entire childhoods being, as it were, properly tamed (indoctrinated) into the culture and customs of their social class, through a procession of boarding schools, preparatory academies, and conservatories in which they learn what one—one being their elite demographic—does and does not do (the reward for the latter being, of course, the stick). Knighting, tea time, changing of the guard, preparation of the dinner table: Such tedious, time-consuming routines are tedious and time-consuming not because they are bettered by these attributes, but because they signal they have time—the ultimate luxury—to waste; they exist to signal, in other words, that they are better than you.3
Ooh. Not so hot on etiquette now, are we? But on the other end of the spectrum, we have the peasants and plebeians who "boorishly" shove food in their mouths and talk while chewing4. The image of a pig mashing its face in gruel is, I am sure, an insult of perennial flavor in schoolhouse refectories; like so we socialize each other into accepted patterns of behavior. Even if you don't know which side of the table go your fork and knife, much less the difference between a steak knife and a fish knife (and where they go in turn), you can at least appreciate not having spittle flecked in your face throughout the meal's duration; and so neither are you immune to etiquette.
Alas: Be a good tourist; when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Gents who dine at Jean Georges are expected to wear suits. It is a formal environment, you see, the food is to be taken seriously5. The waiters have been meticulously trained and the people in the kitchen have basically devoted their lives to pursue culinary excellence, so the least you could do to dignify their efforts is to put on a jacket. Or so the meme goes.
Keep in mind, etiquette applies not only to you, but to the whole ecosystem that validates its presence. In the same way that it's polite for an orchestra to have an intermission, it's tactful to have a soup dish on your tasting menu; safe to say this coda signals the end of the beginning. Which is not to say that they get to skimp on it, it has to be as good as everything else, all the time, especially if they want that third star, y'know?
Young garlic is, if you can imagine, smaller, softer, less intense than Adult Garlic—perfect for a soup's base layer—and the sautéed frog legs, crunchy and salty and chewy, simply reassure you that this is, indeed, un restaurant français.
with Château Chalon sauce
with Château Chalon sauce
I had not heard of this fish prior to dining at JG, but according to SeafoodSource.com:
Found on menus in the whitest of white-tablecloth restaurants, turbot (pronounced tur-bet) is a favored flatfish for discerning chefs... Global supplies are limited, which accounts for the high price this fish commands.
I suppose no further explanation is needed to deify this flatfish into the pantheon of culinary delicacies. Additionally, I will begin pronouncing this "tur-BOW" because I suspect this is how Michel Foucault would've pronounced it, and if any waiter so much as raises an eyebrow at this, I will summarily launch into a lecture on the word's etymology. Just because, you see, just because.
Now as to the consumptive experience of this exalted pancake of a fish, you must understand that due to its large surface area, it is exceptional at absorbing whatever sauce in which it is floated. The flesh itself is so delicate that you barely need to chew before it dissolves into a splash. The effect is the same as cutting through a stick of warm butter with a knife, except with your teeth and the fact that it's a flatfish. Ultimately, however, it is the sauce which elevates this from fare to cuisine. No mere complement, this complex mixture of, among other reagents, vin jaune, chicken stock, lemon juice, carrots, and celery, poured for you at the table, successfully hides the tremendous labor of its alchemical balance behind a placid and uniform orange.
Needless to say only a trained saucier could truly appreciate the insane nuance of such concoctions. However, because trained diners are at least aware of the involved scrupulosity, they will spend several perfunctory spoonfuls contemplating its flavor instead of tilting the plate directly into their gullets like a funnel. As for me, I will simply say it was tasty. Small cubes of zucchini and tomato provide staccato juxtapositions in texture and flavor both.
Did you know that out of all marine crustaceans, the lobster is the one that's been the most... considered? Well, if you didn't, now you get to become part of that statistic. Becoming part of statistics is one of my favorite pastimes, by the way, so if we didn't have anything in common before, now we do!
Lobster was not always an object of indulgence, no, it started from the bottom—pun fully intended, thank you very much—the cockroach of the sea, eating whatever junk it could snare with its grubby little claws, scuttling about on its ten SKINNY insectoid legs, enjoying a healthy 18th-century reputation as the food of the impoverished, a plentiful moving living garbage fit only for cats and dogs and other such SUBHUMAN beasts, surviving nuclear strikes and whatnot.
And now it's here:
tartine; lemongrass and fenugreek broth with pea shoots
tartine; lemongrass and fenugreek broth with pea shoots
Now just because the MemeEconomy didn't exist in practice in postcolonial America (there was obviously no internet or Reddit) doesn't mean it didn't exist in essence. Fashions—in clothes, food: ideas, really—go in and out of style more or less continually; I'm sure the settlers of Massachusetts would be quite scandalized to learn of lobster's ascent to the realm of opulence, about as scandalized as, say, some contemporary gourmets feel upon learning of its blue-collar origins. Waiters nowadays are more than happy to expound about the creative genesis of each dish and where the ingredients are sourced from—Maine, where else!—but would receive, I am sure, a stern talking-to if not outright dismissal were they to inform a customer about lobster's ignoble history.
And this, my friends, is how power asserts itself. Power desires to be timeless, ahistorical, but it is not and can never be. The extent to which it achieves this end is the extent to which it becomes totalitarian, but, for the most part, empires rise and fall; one meme which in China enjoyed deep cultural significance and a thousand-plus year history, shark fin soup, recently experienced a violent overthrow. There is, of course, one ideology which has (thus far) succeeded beyond its wildest dreams...
We will get to that. Focus on the food! Speaking as someone far too intimately experienced with the following, those who go through life always fixated on something other than what's in front of them have missed, entirely, the point. Thus a few notes on this dish are in order. Butter-poached lobster is a relatively recent discovery, by virtuoso chef Thomas Keller who began serving it in the nineties. Humanitarian concerns aside, it turns out that simmering the critter's shucked flesh in a vat of emulsified butter renders it softer, sweeter, and richer than the regular boil-the-damn-thing-in-a-pot-'til-it's-red. On top of a piece of bread, it becomes a tartine, an "open-faced sandwich" (chew on that oxymoron), which must be edible without making a mess; this requires syncing the consistency of the lobster flesh with that of the bread. Vongerichten further situates this in a creamy pool of Thai curry to fuse East and West.
onion compote, corn pancake with foie gras
onion compote, corn pancake with foie gras
In the society of fowl, squab occupies the position of aristocracy; they are the counts, dukes, and viziers. You can think of it as a better version of chicken, although their species is pigeon. Yes, the same species as those haggard gray things you find pecking around the streets for bread crumbs who represent, of course, the homeless. Squabs, on the other hand, are much cuter and more puffed-up and fed a regular and nutritious diet of grains and fruits for the one glorious month of their lives at which point they are promptly ZOINKED to be fed, in turn, you guessed it, to the human aristocracy: lawyers, bankers, politicians, and celebrities.
Imagine, if you will, what chicken would taste like if it were moist and marbled and tender like a high-caliber steak. Unlike steak, however, it is presented with its skin, which is probably the best part, here crusted with cumin-cinnamon seasoning, positively crackling with flavor and about as close as culinary comparisons can get to other forms of rapture (I'll leave the poetry to someone else). Foie gras on a corn pancake is an acceptable but not terribly inventive variation of foie gras on toast, which you can eat like a sandwich by folding the pancake onto the sautéed foie. Having waxed enough about foie in other posts, I will instead point out that its flavor perfectly exemplifies how the wealthy prefer to live: rich, decadent, buttery, and in total ignorance of the horrors left in their wake.
passionfruit, grape, lime
passionfruit, grape, lime
This is an assortment of ice-cold sorbets sitting atop crunchy pastry flakes sitting atop some kind of metallic object the purpose of which our descendants will almost inevitably waste titanic amounts of brainpower figuring out never arriving at the answer, and conclude by categorizing it into what was then colloquially called "Modern Art". But we know better, we know it's built to serve a specific set of desserts at Jean-Georges. Such conspicuous extravagance, depending on who you are, either certifies the lengths the restaurant will go to ensure its customers have a sublime experience or represents the derelict void which was once upon a time the human spirit.
Did I mention these were ice-cold? Underneath a protective layer of enamel, underneath the calcified dentin, within the cavernous space known as the pulp chamber of each tooth lies a complex network of nerves, each of which contains, at the tip, a bunch of sensory neurons called nociceptors which are responsible for signaling damage to the brain via a process called nociception, which manifests itself phenomenologically in the form of what French people call bread. Make no mistake, upon contact with my teeth, the sorbet instantaneously ignited each axon in a searing white-hot blaze of electricity, causing, in conjunction with the fruits' remarkable acidity, my body to recoil in reflexive, involuntary shock, causing, like the most horrific Rube Goldberg machine in the world, my chair to tip over causing me to fall flat on my back causing four dozen pairs of epicurean eyes to gawk in silence at the colossal embarrassment yours truly made of himself by failing to anticipate the altogether nuclear firepower sealed in each tiny mass of frozen fruit juice.
I lied, that last part didn't happen. But hey.
bateau, moelleux, nougat, mousse
bateau, moelleux, nougat, mousse
A common belief about tasting menu restaurants is that clients pay obscene amounts of money to sit for hours on end eating a procession of plates each containing an absolutely miniscule amount of food, leaving at the end fleeced, frustrated, and famished. With the arguable6 exception of the first quality, this has not been my experience, least of all at JG. By the time this quartet was delivered to the table, my stomach was about bursting at the seams, an accomplishment given my usual metabolic speed of 300mph.
But. To leave food on the table, so to speak, especially at a restaurant of this level, especially given the price of the meal, amounts more to heresy than travesty. So in it went.
Up left we have a cookie "boat" filled with dark chocolate and some not absolute zero raspberry sorbet. Up right, the classic French flourless molten chocolate lava cake (read: T H I C C) with some apple/vanilla ice cream, powdered sugar, and chocolate cookie crumble. Below, a milk chocolate nougat with candied fruits and nuts, and finally a fluffy white chocolate mousse beneath bits of its solid state.
The point where challenge becomes taunt. To write more than a few sentences about these chocolates and macarons would fail to reflect the silent (because to talk at all would be painful) state of the diner. The grapefruit jellies had a good balance of tart and sweet, though...
Not nearly as dry as the bagged stuff at your grocery store. They even snip it tableside for you. Fancy.
I consider passionfruit aptly named. Passion, lest we forget, comes from the Latin passio, "suffering," and suffering, let us remember, is borne for a purpose—e.g. the biblical Passion of Christ—which distinguishes it from the meaningless agony of pain. I have always felt like passionfruit possessed an uncanny, otherworldly flavor that shouldn't exist but does, or that we shouldn't be able to taste but can, somehow, and the brief moments its flesh rests on the tongue are as strange as if we could see ultraviolet or infrared. It has an absolute force that stills the mind, stills the thoughts, that says, nay, commands, "Look at me," and indeed no other option seems to exist, for to do otherwise—to even have the ability—would somehow render one other than human.
Tourists posing for pictures with sedated tigers in Thailand zoos. Lions paraded around circus rings. The feral magic of passionfruit contorted into the soft, blanched, and harmless state of a marshmallow. Is not the entire history of our species a sort of manifest destiny against Mother Nature, a demonstration of prowess which, on finding it has run out of things to conquer, refuses to fade and turns instead inwards against itself?
Does Vongerichten himself ever man the kitchen at his namesake flagship?
You tell me. Given the state of his operations, I think it's a safe bet to call him more a chef d'affaires than a chef de cuisine. Which is not to say that Jean-Georges the restaurant is all the poorer for it; by all indications it has a capable team and executive chef. Each course, with the notable exception of the sorbet platter, held its own. Yes—worth trying out, especially if you haven't had a Michelin-starred tasting menu before, and even if you never plan on doing so again. And yes—this is the restaurant I recommend, even if I like the food better at other places (I do), because one does not, for example, dive into James Joyce without first reading oh, I dunno, Hemingway or Golding or Conrad or something.
I'll tell you this. If you are not in the kitchen creating, you are, at the end of the day, doing nothing more than ticking a checklist of fine dining tropes; it's replication without genesis, the definition of memebotting. Caviar, check. Squab, check. Foie gras, check. Et cetera. Food rich in technique but poor in soul will not by a soul's deathbed be missed.
'Lo and behold, Trump International Tower. Smack dab in the middle of Manhattan, the primest real estate in the city! Those groovy rectangles I've overlaid with MS Paint indicate where Jean-Georges is located.
A proper Foucauldian could claim I am perpetuating unsavory ideologies by dining at Jean-Georges, especially now that we know who's really calling the shots. Every dollar spent is a vote for the continued existence of, yes, Donald Trump, whom by dining at JG we've implicitly acknowledged has provided value7. Other beneficiaries include, more immediately, this restaurant and its cuisine, and more abstractly, the cultural institution of fine dining (the ecosystem of suppliers, farmers, silverware manufacturers, ratings agencies, food journalists, bloggers, etc.). The consumption of a single meal does indeed keep all these memes in circulation.
Nevertheless it would be inaccurate to claim these ideas are all equally supported by every dollar. For all we know, 90-per-¢ of it could go towards the restaurant's operating costs, and of the other 10%, maybe 8% is reinvested into Trump's business empire and only 2%, if that, is used to further his political ends. Compare with donating directly to his election campaign. Given one still finds this objectionable8, and there are, as we've shown in the paragraph above, a million angles one could take with this, consider that Foucault himself was a beneficiary of the capitalism he spent his youth critiquing and enjoyed the full assortment of bourgeois extravagance afforded to a public intellectual (read: celebrity) of his noblesse oblige.
Okay okay, appeal to authority is a 101-level no-no, I know, so perhaps a stronger rebuttal from Current Affairs:
The reason Marie Antoinette needed beheading was not that she wished cake on the poor, but that she never actually gave them any.
The most invidious ideology in the world goes something like: "I don't have a toy, so Adam shouldn't have one either. His must be taken away in order for things to be fair." This poisonous belief is why we have things like the "This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things" meme, and is the exact sort of frontier justice screamed for by the amygdala, codename Hammurabi.
Not that anyone I know (personally or virtually) spends their time griping about how fine dining is ruining the world, so this whole thing is probably a giant straw man I started whacking to defend my fragile paper-thin eggshell of an ego against the slightest most ad hoc of possible slights or, worse, for said eggshell to vainly pretend like it's worthy of having enemies in the first place (and thus retreating ad infinitum further into itself by
virtue vice of its own self-consciousness). Makes for entertaining writing though, wouldn't you say? I imagine those who would object to fine dining wouldn't object to it per se so much as the characteristics it engenders and thereby reifies in those most susceptible to its lures, namely narcissism, conspicuous consumption, elitism, and status signaling, all of which to I before the kangaroos plead guilty. Yelp check-ins and Instagram pictures do not however a sophisticate make, nor do selfies with famous paintings or famous people. Quality exists independent of its adoration.
Or does it? No, I think it doesn't. I think the history of artistic accomplishment is rife with the very traits polite society politely reprimands. I think you cannot have a rose without its thorns. And even if your customers and fans appreciate not a whit of your talent, it is their existence that permits your existence.
Shall we talk about money now?
Makes the world go round.
What is this stuff? And if it is not power, how does it relate? Oh, boy. Better brace yourself, because this next part is NOT going to sit well with a lot of people. Money–or at least what it has become–is a form of violence. It is a way to coerce people to do things against their will. Consider that physical violence, except to a small percentage of the population (sadists, psychopaths, etc.), is usually instrumental, that is, an instrument or tool used to achieve certain ends (rather than, except for cited population, an end in itself). Chimpanzees use it to reinforce status hierarchies. Governments go to war to advance policy objectives. But recognize that physical violence is only one means of achieving said ends; if you could control people without needing to hit them, why bother? Ideological control is much more effective; you need money to survive and you know it.
For the vast majority, there is no fundamental difference between a fulfilling career and indentured servitude, which becomes obvious enough when you ask people whether they'd still do their day jobs if they weren't being paid. Whether you're an average American college graduate with $37,000 of debt or a migrant
slave worker in Saudi Arabia—the latter situation being of course magnitudes viler, but that's besides the point—is a simple mutatis mutandis. Whether you're a fast food cashier, a Silicon Valley programmer, or, yes, a basketball superstar, you are more or less being played to line someone else's pockets, and the best you can do, the so-called psychologically normative option, is to rationalize away with feel-good Facebook updates and ersatz meaning–"Don't know what to believe? Try our company culture on for size! Here's a list of its ten tenets to get you rolling"–the fact that you are being rented.
The landlords, those in control of capital, thus hold the ideological reins. Nothing drives this home more than the frankly nightmarish extent to which money influences the lowercase-p politics (government and administration) we all know and love. Lobbying, pork barrel spending, campaign financing, backhand deals; you don't get to play unless you have the funds. Physical violence propagates genes; money propagates memes. And in the final analysis, money has become the zero virus, the meme of memes, physical-virtual substrate of human civilization, metaphor upon which the MemeEconomy is necessarily based. The meme that propagates itself and which seeks only its own propagation. Metastatic cancer. Capital has acquired the subversive Midas touch of turning everything within its reach into a commodity and has demonstrated a quasi-conscious ability to co-opt any variety of masks (corporate social responsibility, workplace equality, social progressivism, cancer research) to perpetuate its reign, operating with the kind of algorithmic indifference only an artificial intelligence could feign9.
That's right, my dear, fellow humans, we are all living in the Matrix. Tell me which is preferable: to "wake up" and feel the cold iron behind which you are imprisoned, or to spend your internment slumbering unaware of your cog nature. McLuhan:
We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.
everyone has a price.
everyone has a price.
Greed, the unrelenting desire for money, is, then, a form of masochism because it entails an eagerness to subjugate one's self to capital control, and freedom, for one individual, always comes at another's expense. This is not a universal axiom, this is an emergent rule manifested by our economic regime. Think about the concept of "fuck you money." Rare is the being who hasn't drooled over the number he (thinks he) would need to check out of his cell. One million? Three million? Thirty? What would you do with it? Jet around the world, skip nightclub lines, buy a boat? Remember this and remember well. Innumerable individuals, many economically precarious, stake their livelihoods in service to your excess, receiving in return only scraps and a thank you. Every "fuck you" your newfound wealth permits you to utter implicitly endorses hierarchical dominance, implicitly rejects the statement "We are in this together, you and I."
Do not imagine that just because you didn't contribute money to the Trump campaign, you too are not implicated in perpetuating, let us not mince words, evil. Nota bene: Every gallon in the tank fuels warfare and insurgency in the Middle East, every iPhone child labor in African mines and Chinese factory suicides. The causal chain begins with consumer demand. But it
feels is okay because everyone else I know is doing it too and I just have to keep up with the Joneses and hey let's be honest, how can I even live without these? And that is precisely the point. Let's not even get started with:
Charity [n]: popular, market-friendly way of sustaining, excusing and concealing slavery, and easing class-guilt, by giving away a small portion of money, or by teaching the working class how to cook
-Darren Allen, The Apocalypedia
You say, "Money isn't 'violence' you blithering dolt, it's the medium of exchange, coins, pieces of paper, bits of data, the lowest common denominator by which value can possibly be communicated. It's Gini coefficients, indifference curves, taxes and tariffs, LIBOR, interest and exchange and discount rates, real life, not some stupid internet meme."
Hmm. Whatever shall we do with you. First of all, these qualities are not mutually exclusive. It is quite clear that money performs functions that mimic patterns we find in evolutionary theory, and if you want yet another example, the complexity of its management and distribution as evidenced by the slew of terms I listed suggests that it itself has undergone several mutational cycles and become thereby a different species than the rice grains and peppercorns of yore. Secondly, most econometric tools possess neither validity nor essence when applied to the prehistoric tribes from which commodity money arose, but what we can induce from such elementary versions is a set of core philosophical principles that govern their function: store of value, medium and common denominator of exchange.
Shall we translate one such learning onto the present? "By definition, when a good is traded for money, each party in the exchange has decided that they value what they received more than what they traded away." This is absolutely correct, but it does not follow that this means everyone is always already and forever getting what they want. The problem arises when, for example, the trade is, on one side, the depression, stress, alienation, and burnout that comes from working three different jobs six days a week on minimum wage, just enough money to stay in your apartment and feed your family for another couple weeks, and, on the other, being evicted to the pavement. The problem, in other words, is when people are forced to choose between a rock and a hard place, when the window of possible decisions is cracked and filthy, and it is like this how economic theory has a convenient way of ignoring social reality, and it is like this how our philosophical conception of violence becomes now an essential function of the species of money we now call capital.
"So you think we should just get rid of it all, huh. Erase everyone's debt on earth, forever."
No, The Walking Dead style anarchy is not what I want, and contrary to the blatantly nihilistic tendencies which are understandably likelier to develop in those less able to bear constant systematic oppression and those subject to more layers of its pressure, "interesting times" are always, always more fun to read about than live through. And so we are stuck between the Scylla of today and the Charibdis of tomorrow, running, as it were, just to keep in the same place on the (an)hedonic hamster wheel.
Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.
-Winston Churchill (purported)
Is Capitalism the worst form of economics, except for all the others? It is certainly the case that (what's purported itself as) Communism has thus far resulted in mass graves and abysmal quality of life wherever it's been tried. I'm not going to blow hot air pretending like I have the answers, but I will insist that history is not a controlled environment, and that there is no such thing as A/B testing Everett branches. Even if it were lab-testable, no significant (predictive) conclusions could be drawn from the pitifully small sample size of governance systems for which we have data, and good luck coming up with a remotely viable methodology for variable control. There is nothing quite so futile as pontificating about geopolitics and the "best" underpinnings of economic systems as if these were things any single individual could hope to begin to have an iota of understanding. BUUUUUT I'll toss my coin in and say what the Netherlands has going on is pretty chill.
Now to the leftists and hippie communes who argue that medieval man and hunter-gatherer societies enjoyed much higher qualities of life, instead of responding with the typical "But would you switch places with them, given the choice?" (which they're almost required to confirm if they want to remain philosophically consistent), I'll propose that such a framework fails insofar as it appropriates contemporary standards of judging well-being and happiness to historical societies for which we have zero phenomenological empathy. For all you know, you could be living the dream life of a person in the future whose world is in post-apocalyptic ruin. How's that for a thought experiment?
So: We've become fundamentally separate from the certainty we neurologically crave, and conceiving of the world as a violent political power struggle full of physical, spiritual, and ideological oppression whose only goal is to maintain some sort of perverse homeostasis in which it remains eternally violent is also, to put it mildly, bad for the psyche. Furthermore, it is not necessarily the case that abolishing money and living in small communities would erase or void the violence, power struggles, and status hoarding, which by all evidence seem like properties endemic to biological existence.
"What a horrible, pessimistic post. I can't believe I read this. I can't believe you've done this."
As cheesy as this sounds, I do hold myself to certain ethical standards as a writer, one of which is my responsibility to you, my readers, not to point out the physical impossibility of your walking on clouds and then laugh as you plummet, but to grant you magic–or the possibility of magic–such that you can fly anew with intention and purpose.
Continuing where we left off, what are we, indeed, to do in this world of dew, this world of dew? Feeling helpless, lost, dazed, confused? Blown around like a tumbleweed by the winds of fate? Rachel Cusk has a few words for you, few words for you:
For a long time, I said, I believed that it was only through absolute passivity that you could learn to see what was really there. But my decision to create a disturbance by renovating my house had awoken a different reality, as though I had disturbed a beast sleeping in its lair. I had started to become, in effect, angry. I had started to desire power, because what I now realised was that other people had had it all along, that what I called fate was merely the reverberation of their will, a tale scripted not by some universal storyteller but by people who would elude justice for as long as their actions were met with resignation rather than outrage.
By now the notion of "not being involved in politics" should seem at best quaint and at worst atrociously unsound, like the old hypothesis that the earth was at the center of the universe. Food is political. Sex is political. Grammar is political. Living is a political action; continuing to live as you do is an implicit endorsement of everything entailed by your lifestyle, and just because you don't know about something doesn't mean you're not supporting it. "But," you interject, "If everything is political, then the term becomes so general as to be meaningless." Not so. By viewing the world through this lens of politics, you invoke the network of connotations you associate with that term, including the stuff that happens on Capitol Hill, your personal experiences navigating the corporate ladder, maybe some tricky drama with friendships and breakups, and hopefully some new branches you've built by reading this post. This lens, I argue, is like a pair of glasses that corrects for myopia and not the rose-tinted kind that believes everything is just and fine and dandy. Because it isn't. And yes, the clarity of your new vision should make you feel diseased (dis-eased; robbed of ease). But if you understand this particular discomfort to be a prerequisite of true agency and freedom10, it becomes, slowly, oddly, preferable, like an acquired taste. Bear with it. Or as the French would say (say it with me): "Courage!"
You don't have to be a doormat. Or a rag doll. If human destiny is political struggle, then accept the fact that if you do not exert your will, you will be, in some sense, at the mercy of another's. If human, that other might not even be aware of the violence they impose, and if machine or system, won't even have the capacity of knowing. That we are stuck in saṃsāra does not preclude our striving for an existence whose power structures are, if ultimately inescapable, at least maximally preferable. This will not come without consciousness of, you guessed it, existing power structures. Acting blindly is therefore the antithesis of real progress, and violence11, for all that word evokes, is not inherently bad, as when used in retaliation to preserve one's life or protect those one cares about; one small step is all it takes to extend this beyond people to dreams and ideals.
Though it certainly helps, money is not the only way to exercise power or have a voice. In fact, social action of any kind that shapes, or has the potential to shape, someone else's models of the world accomplishes the same ends. This could be a conversation... but what a boring example that is, huh? How about flipping a half-full water bottle such that it lands on its bottom? Someone watching you might get the idea that they can do it too, and some of those people might go on to try it out. A game is created: How many times can you land a bottle flip in a row? It's just difficult enough for people to recognize it takes some skill while easy enough–there's virtually no learning curve–that anyone could just pick it up and give it a go. The satisfying THUNK of bottle-on-table produces a small hit of dopamine. Observers' mirror neurons process this and start firing. And from the mimetic impulse, a memetic phenomenon.
I can't tell you how to make something go viral, but I can tell you something you already know, which is that people have a tremendous desire to win arguments and change others' worldviews. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Facebook comment sections and the Twitter platform as a whole. Let me tell you something you might know: Pathos precedes Logos both in argument and in origin.
Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.
Someone whose feelings are hurt, or who perceives their identity is threatened, will not respond to your "logic" and "facts"; the amygdala developed before Broca's area, proto-humans felt fear and anger long before they started talking to each other. If you want someone to adopt your ideology, make them laugh, make them cry, make them angry, make them feel. You cannot have discourse with someone whose
mind is already made up lenses you do not sufficiently understand, so either you do the interpretive labor of talking to them on terms they can follow OR you build common ground from which maieutic investigation can proceed. Such as internet memes. Yes, building bridges with noggins on vastly different wavelengths from your own requires a much greater level of abstraction, and yes, I am suggesting image macros are a rhetorical weapon that hits at that subconscious level. Everyone knows what money is, and now everyone knows what memes are12. So spread them. Because the meme is the grand arbiter of power in human society. Because memespreading is tilling the soil of the mind to prepare ideology for growth. And because it's a helluva lot more fun than stirring yourself up into a tirade.
You stammer, finally grasping the totality of the situation, "Might we be so entrenched in ideology that any act at all is doomed to fail regardless of how much archaeology we back it up with? Does capital now move so quickly that any plan for 'real change' can only ever be grounded on a conveyor belt, obsolete by time of conception? Is it even possible, in other words, to be, in essence, alive?" These scary questions sampled from the platter of contemporary political theory are questions to which I have no answers. But maybe we can outline a provisional approach. Foucault:
What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn't everyone's life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?
Part of being alive, if we entertain briefly the idea that living and existing are two constitutionally different beasts, is, in my opinion, having the ability to create new things (paintings, philosophies, business models), as opposed to replicating existing pieces; reposting memes is not original. Let's run with this and see where it takes us. There is a level of granularity at which everything is always original, where the next plastic cup on the factory line is nevertheless an object that has never before existed, or how if you make a copy of an image on your computer that copy occupies a different space on your hard drive, or the mere fact that everything is gaining and losing atoms at every successive moment in time and can thus always only ever be new. There is also a formal level of abstraction (reduction?) at which everything is unoriginal, such as the idea that a plastic cup is a plastic cup, every book a collection of words, every human a featherless biped (with opposable thumbs), every thing a mere collection of atoms (or math formulas). So it gets quite blurry.13
Furthermore, what constitutes "new" seems to be a matter of perspective, because to someone who had never encountered an amuse-bouche before, it would seem, indeed, surprising and original, but to the collective group of those most fine of diners, this knowledge is simply passé. Each summertime romance paperback is certainly not pushing "the boundaries of literature." And to get back to your questions, there might indeed be a level at which we're all just replicating memes forever, "originality, change, progress" being at best comforting illusions. If this is the functional definition we live under–not a choice, in the same way the gourmet collective can't choose to forget what an amuse-bouche is–which by all indications it seems to be, we are, I am afraid, screwed. And it sucks. And as this rollercoaster accelerates towards the final arc of its run, there seems to be no choice but to keep watching.
But there is one choice, I suppose...
"Would you like some popcorn with that?"
Praeludium and Allegro
by Fritz Kreisler
I just have to mention that I, using the idea of family/ancestral genealogy, independently developed (or like to think so) the concept of belief genealogy prior to encountering Nietzsche or Foucault in any meaningful fashion, as you will see in Random Thought #31 which erupted from my head over a year ago (should I date these things?). The reason I bring this up is just to brag. (here's where you go 🙄 and click on –> ↩
A proper Foucauldian analysis would be a mind-boggling operation whose complexity rivals that of the Vietnam War. Let me remind my dear readers that this is a blog post, not a Master's thesis. Sources will not be cited. Ideas will be reduced to ghosts of their proper selves. Nuance will be tossed into the wind like a paper plane off the Cliffs of Moher. And we're going to have a lot of fun! (okay that last one is a maybe.) Regarding methodology, I agree with Foucault that power, as a thing-in-itself, does not exist; it is an emergent property of a relationship, and such social facts, let us call them, obtain, in my ontology, validity through (either explicit or implicit) mutual recognition (requires at least two conscious, sane humans). In contrast to Foucault, my applications of the power concept tend memetic/ideological while his (biopower, disciplinary power) tend federal/corporeal. ↩
Japan probably better represents "the height of etiquette" and is my go-to gestalt for etiquette culture. They have rituals for everything from season changes to sumo matches to imbibing liquor to bathing in hot springs. Cherry blossom viewings. Tea ceremonies. An intricate hierarchical system of greeting whose complexity (based on age, gender, and ad hoc relationship dynamics) matches that of Tokyo's subway network. Dedicated ramen website whose rating system goes to THREE SIGNIFICANT DIGITS. And, uh, seppuku. ↩
Eating certain dishes such as nigiri with your hands instead of utensils has become an insider twist on the common rule "never eat with your hands"; the trick is to know when it is okay (sometimes), when it is recommended (rarely), and when it is taboo (mostly). Ethiopian injera and Indian thali platters are two recommended forms of finger food. ↩
Consider whether my writing is more fun, or more horrifying, taken ironically or sincerely. Consider also whether both are possible; whether all is possible. ↩
Money can't buy taste, but it can get you into (or let you purchase) places that let you pretend like you have it to people who can't tell the difference. There is a prima facie valid argument—liberals please bear with me for a moment—that goes like, "That tweet is obviously Trump pandering to a demographic, he doesn't actually eat that junk. I mean, there he is at Jean-Georges." Yes, okay, fair. Now consider the fact he insists on having his steaks well-done and boom goes your case. For those wondering: The reason you don't get your steak well-done is that overcooking it evaporates all the fat, the part that gives it flavor, the part whose quality determines the grade of the cut; "well-done" (such irony), the finest Wagyu and the meanest Standard become one and the same: a dry, charred stone. ↩
One could on utilitarian grounds propose, contributed to a worthy purpose, a dollar amount or equivalent impact that would offset any (perceived) harm caused by whatever tiny contribution a JG meal makes to the Trump industry. Those more binary deontologists are, on the other hand, naturally beyond reproach. ↩
"It's not politics. It's just business." ↩
Broadly defined. To give these terms a properly rigorous philosophical treatment would require another long piece. But you don't need any of that to make of them what you will; you already have your own gestalts, which I really will insist are good enough (mine: root access to social reality). ↩
You can replace "violence" with "negotiation" if you prefer, but I feel a bunch of suits mulling over contract minutiae in air-conditioned offices doesn't capture either the bestial ferocity or subliminal manipulation characteristic of ideological battle. "Coercion" and "abuse" and a whole host of other words exist if you wish to spice it up with a bit of moral flavor. ↩
But if you don't recognize all of the memes in my mishmash (second image in this post), you are not, sorry to say, one of the cool kids. Sucks to be square! ↩
I imagine a script where the protagonist internalizes "Everyone is unique! Everyone is special!" early in childhood, goes on to live the most boilerplate cookie-cutter resemblance of a life, then realizes one day in middle age that the whole thing was a sham and that his life was no more unique than a part on an assembly line before collapsing in existential anguish. The producer, unhappy with this because it hits a little too close for him, asks me to rewrite the whole thing. V2: The protagonist internalizes early on that his life mission is to transcend the limitations of art, spends the entire time trying then mastering existing paradigms then creating from them several of his own, lauded all the while for his challenging direction and philosophical brilliance, then realizing one day in middle age that the whole thing was a sham and that he created nothing of true genesis before collapsing in existential anguish. ↩
April Fool's Day 2017 was a significant date in world history.
Adult Swim released the Season 3 Premiere of its hit series Rick and Morty This piece of art emerged from Reddit:
You can read about it here* and you should, you really, really should, because it represents the apotheosis of the MemeEconomy and I didn't even think such a thing was possible. Everything I wrote up there was an attempt to describe exactly this.
*Or here (for the technical guts).
Words long. And concerns itself with power.
How could I resist?