Monday, August 22, 2005

Some Fetishized Onions and a Side of Fries

I have been trying to create rules regarding my food-spending habits, most of them revolving around the three days I work in an office (all snacks come from home; I may buy one bubble tea a week only if I bring my lunch two days a week; all dinner I cook must be made in great enough quantity that I'll have leftovers for lunch). This morning, waking up after a weekend of little sleep, I considered bringing leftovers for my lunch as per my own regulations, but felt clear that what I needed for the middle of my day was Panera's onion soup.

Panera's onion soup in particular--though I would not say Panera's onion soup is by any stretch unique or extraordinary, I looked forward to it ever more eagerly as I left the office for lunch. I was flooded with relief (when you've reached a certain level of exhaustion, emotions regarding onion soup flood you just as easily as stronger emotions do) that whatever urban area I might move to or visit in the next few years, I would be able to satisfy the desire for Panera's onion soup. Rather than disgusting me, that thought made me feel oddly socially connected--I could know myself as a member of society through my knowledge of Panera's onion soup, recognize as members of my own community others who consumed food at Panera, who desired to do so. While I recognize the economic biases inherent in such an emotion, and the irony inherent in the fact that I ate said onion soup alone while reading (Peter Kramer's Listening to Prozac) and not interacting with other members of this society of Panera-eaters, it seems to me that branding, whatever else it does, also comes to function as a positive symbol of a culture to those within it. It helps us to identify both where we are and our associations with that place, within and without ourselves.

Does the fetishism of commodities, then, arise in part out of a need for tribalism? Whatever else Marx has to say about it (and obviously he's right in innumerable ways), there is a manner in which one's knowledge of and desire for certain foods (products, events, etc.) can serve as a marker along the lines of, say, a bear-claw necklace. And thus capitalism, for all its focus on individual accomplishment at the expense of all else, serves to tie individuals to a larger idea of what they belong to. It builds a sense of what our social world is. We seek out those markers in one another, seek shared knowledge and in particular shared knowledge that we consider culturally bound, connected to our origins. We seek this knowledge in part because it means we can find members of our own tribe in a crowd.

Now, isn't that also communism, the need to recognize ourselves as part of a larger whole and looking for any kind of markers that will allow that?

Yes. Yes, it is. Since I read Ann Coulter I've had a harder time falling for the notion that opposites at their extreme are the same, but perhaps there is a form-content division to be had here. As the Cold War perhaps proves, philosophies that are both opposing one another and oppositional in themselves (capitalism and communism can respectively define themselves as Not Communism and Not Capitalism) can take on similar forms in opposing one another. In some ways, they must do so in order to engage in conflict. Does that form effect its content, force the contents to become more similar to one another? Unquestionably, but I don't know how much.

We already knew that to desire "a side of fries" rather than "a plate of chips" proved something about us, something in which (for the most part) we take an odd pride. I would argue further that knowing the taste of McDonald's fries versus Wendy's fries, the knowledge that Wendy's fries will taste the same at a Wendy's anywhere in the nation, is a sign not only of conventionalism and fetishism but also tribalism. Or rather, that conventionalism is more tribal, and thus perhaps more necessary, than those of us ambivalent about capitalism have led ourselves to believe.

Brevity's the soul of wit and all that, and I actually am in the office and thus should get back to work. Look for a series of posts--some following this shorter trend, some not--inspired by Work Thoughts in the next few weeks.


At 2:32 PM, Anonymous R-boogie said...


I've got some thoughts about this, they're coming soon. I'm blogging in the second degree. Weird.


At 12:11 AM, Blogger meridity said...

I belong to a tribe of really snarky and witty people. I just happen to be the tribal idiot (my skills at snarkyness and wit leave a little something to be desired, but I'm working on that, I swear!)


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