It always feels awkward to find that a publisher has sent me a new book on sports. As someone who escaped the sort of small Texas town where high school football is a sacrament, I’m averse to following athletics of any kind, unless watching professional bowling on TV every so often counts, which it probably doesn’t. The only other exception that comes to mind is an abiding fascination with Muhammad Ali. (But at this stage, Ali is as much a minor figure in world history as he is a major one in the sweet science of fistics.)
So when a sports title arrives, I seldom look at it. But a book denouncing the entire athletic-industrial complex as a quasi-fascist form of social engineering and capitalist brainwashing? That stands out as a departure from the norm, anyway.
Marc Perelman’s Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague (Verso), published in France last year, appears in English on the cusp of the Summer Olympics. It happens that the first three of its 19 essays are devoted to the Olympics, with particular emphasis on the ones held in Berlin (1936) and Beijing (2008). Perelman sees the official rhetoric of international goodwill as so many flowers covering the chains of oppression. Everyone involved in the spectacle becomes complicit with the regimes hosting the event.
Even to a defiantly unathletic nerd, that seems like going overboard, and it's hardly unrepresentative of Perelman's perspective. The games are just episodes in the rise of “an unequaled social, political, and ideological power … spreading across the planet like a pandemic” -- so that “the everyday lies of billions of people” become “contaminated, consumed, infected by its constant assaults, its capacity for insidious infiltration, its innocent-seeming mischief.”
Quelle horreur! But it gets worse. The author is a professor of aesthetics at the Université Paris Ouest-Nanterre La Défense, as well as an architect. “Art, as the main product of the imagination or as visualized thought,” he writes in another essay, “and games as free enjoyment of the human body, are being tendentiously supplanted by sport in the role of the sole activity, the sole theater of permanently visualized invention and pleasure.”
If hyperbole were a footrace, Perelman could outrun Achilles. He also enjoys the gift of endurance. An appendix to the book reprints “Twenty Theses on Sport,” first published in 1975. The rest of the book consists of glosses and elaborations of its arguments. Perelman indicates that “Twenty Theses” was a collectively authored text, from the twilight of the far-left intellectual activity inspired by the events of May ’68. He makes a brief reference to how badly the French Communist Party took this intervention. (I wish he’d said more about that. It bears mentioning that L’Humanité, for many years the CP’s official organ, still prides itself on being one of the first newspapers to have a sports page.)
The critique that Perelman et al. framed in the mid-1970s was very simple: Organized athletics were just one more aspect of social alienation, serving only “to fill the masses’ minds with trivia to keep them from thinking about political struggle.” Perelman’s two essays on the structure and function of the modern stadium play variations on the stupefaction thesis. The first of them is devoted to restating -- a number of times, and in various registers -- the point that the crowd in a stadium gets so noisy during a game that you can’t hear yourself think. (Others have noticed this, of course, but without drawing out the dystopian implications, and certainly not at such length.) The second essay, presumably written some years later, offers sundry Baudrillard-esque reflections on the Jumbotron.
The 20 theses are succinct, but Perelman develops them, or at least expands them, at some length, often through a mode of description it is tempting to call “hysterico-phenomenological.” His first essay on the stadium is perhaps the best illustration of this method:
“The mass completes the living circuit specific to the place, and its surface (the spectators in the stands) become an outer ‘skin’ twitching and rippling with the whole range of emotions, blotched too with eruptions of neurosis. As with the visual, so with the aural: during the game, the energies of increasingly energized spectators are released in surges of sound, a mass wave-form surface like a sticky liquid, rising and falling in volume with the emotional state of the mass. The spectating mass in the stadium ‘builds’ itself into a profoundly unified ‘architected’ surface, in symbiosis with the concrete and steel frame whose vibrating and rippling skin it has become, with a liquid, slick sound-surface animated by a living emotional wave….”
Let me interrupt to say that this excerpt is in many ways typical of the whole book, given both its repetitiveness (for the ellipses, read “plenty more of the same”) and the evident strain on its metaphor’s coherence (the “sound-surface” is both slick and sticky).
Picking up a bit further along, we read that, in a stadium,“The voice of the mass, like an event horizon in space/time, is capable of modifying the place when at maximum intensity.” Here, again, we find an homage to Baudrillard -- in particular to his weakness for making scientific references in ways he didn’t quite understand. The influence of the hyperreal is transmitted by proxy, like a subatomic virus in the mainframe of an ionized genome.
The book's center of gravity, its enabling presupposition, can be found in the second of the 20 theses: “Sport as an institution is the product of a historical turning point. Sport appeared in England, the birthplace of the capitalist mode of production, at the beginning of the modern industrial epoch.”
This is not, strictly speaking, true. But Perelman is not someone to tolerate a beautiful theory being roughed up by a gang of rude facts. His discussions of the Olympics mention the ancient games one time, very much in passing. Elsewhere, he does allow for the existence of “old-world physical contests like Real Tennis, the many ancient regional variants of football, or the polo-like Central Asian game of buzkashi, played with a dead goat.” (Bukkasi is the national sport of Afghanistan, where the modern industrial epoch is not likely to be welcomed for some time yet, although it now seems to have a small following -- in modified form, sans goat -- in the United States.)
So organized games existed in ancient and feudal societies, and some of them do bear an unmistakable resemblance to the sort of thing now shown on ESPN. Yet “sports as an institution” remains essentially capitalist, because these other athletic endeavors don’t count. “Sports as an institution,” for Perelman, exists only by virtue of globalization, mass media, and the need for commodified leisure-time entertainment. Isn’t that a circular definition? Perhaps, but there’s a fine line, sometimes, between dialectics and tautology.
Another dimension of the argument is that sport “is a powerful factor of sexual repression” -- even though the calendar for the French national rugby team offers “a blend of sport and pornography (‘sporn’ for short) displayed in shameless homo-Greco-gigolo style.” At the same time, the modern stadium “engenders the possibility of an extreme confusion between collective orgasm and the individual’s feeling of dissolving, losing, melting his conscious self inside a macrocosm.”
Well, I don't know about that, but it sure makes the words “spork” and “Jumbotron” sound even more lewd than before.
Barbaric Sport ends with an open letter, signed by a number of intellectuals, calling for a moratorium on building new sports stadiums in Europe. They represent “an astonishing extravagance of public expenditure,” especially in the midst of an economic crisis: “The cost of building stadiums, then their permanent upkeep and the general maintenance of sites which most of the time are not in use, amounts to colossal financial losses that increasingly tear holes in state budgets.”
The complaint seemed valid -- and familiar. I’d heard broadly similar concerns expressed by my friend Dave Zirin, the sports editor for The Nation and at one point the leftist-columnist-in-residence at Sports Illustrated. When Dave talks about football or basketball, it almost makes me want to follow a team. He’d seen a prepublication copy of Perelman’s book, and I wondered what he’d thought of it.
“The kind of analysis that Perelman provides," he wrote back to me by e-mail, "is honestly just not very helpful in understanding the modern age of sports.” While I’d been distracted by the book’s hectoring tone and conceptual shakiness, Dave focused on its extremely one-sided picture of competitive athletics as monolithic, meaningless, and brain-numbing. He knew better.
“Sports has always had two traditions running through it,” Zirin said, “and we need to be able to understand and reckon with both. It's an institution that can produce a George Steinbrenner but also produce a Muhammad Ali. It's an institution that revels in sexist imagery, but it's also given us Title IX, radical legislation that has changed the quality of life for tens of millions of American women. It's an institution where there are teams called the Washington Redskins and it's an institution where racism has been challenged more visibly than perhaps in any other arena in U.S. society (Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Smith and Carlos.)”
As a contemporary instance, he gave the example of the Miami Heat: “This past year, they did what we are told athletes no longer do, and posed in their hoodies after the murder of Trayvon Martin. They used their hyper-exalted platform to try and shape their world. That should be recognized and celebrated.”
And finally, Dave addressed the most nagging problem with the book -- the aspect that had reminded me of how upset the Puritans were when James I issued a proclamation allowing (even encouraging) his subjects to play games on holidays and Sundays, once they were out of church:
“I don't think Perelman really appreciates that the number one reason people watch sports isn't because they are brain-dead sheep, but because they derive joy from the experience. And in our society, for far too many people, joy is in short supply.”
American literature is slowly going out of business. The publisher of The Collected Works of Langston Hughes and The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson is closing up shop.
Starting this July, the University of Missouri Press will begin to phase out operations. The press, which was founded in 1958 by a University of Missouri English professor, William Peden, has published approximately 2,000 titles over the course of its history.
Eclectic in its reach, the press has an impressive catalogue that includes offerings in women’s studies, African-American studies, creative nonfiction, journalism, and American, British, and Latin American literary criticism. It serves its region with series such as the Missouri Biography Series and Missouri Heritage Readers Series, and American letters in general with series such as the Mark Twain and His Circle Series and the Southern Women Series.
The press’s catalogue is deep and rich, and holds gems for both the serious scholar and general interest reader. In addition to the seminal collections of Emerson and Hughes, my own recent favorites are Gail Pool’s Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (2007) and Ned Stuckey-French's The American Essay in the American Century (2011).
One of the measures of a great university is the strength of its press. Press strength is determined by its catalogue, and its catalogue by the choices of its editors and the impact of its authors. Still, not every prestige indicator is marked in this direction.
For example, the existence of a great university press is neither sufficient nor necessary for membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities.
Last year, University of Nebraska, which operates one of the best university presses in the country, was ousted from the AAU; and Georgia Institute of Technology, which does not run a press, was recently admitted. The University of Missouri will neither be ousted nor even punished by the AAU for closing its press. The AAU criteria favor competitive research financing, not competitive catalogues; faculty in the National Academies, not award-winning university press titles.
University presses are nonprofit enterprises. Though these presses may reach a level of financial self-sufficiency in their operation, they are by and large underwritten by their host universities. This is part of the investment of higher education.
Most of the monographs produced by scholars have a limited audience — and very few make their publishers any money. However, their publication is still an important aspect of scholarly activity and knowledge dissemination.
The University of Missouri system afforded its press a $400,000 annual subsidy.
To gain a perspective on this figure and the value of the press to the university, one only has to consider that the head basketball coach at Mizzou makes $1.35 million per year — and the head football coach makes $2.5 million per year.
Closer to the cost of subsidizing the press are the salaries of the assistant head football coach and the linebacker coach/defensive coordinator, who each make just over $340,000 per year.
How does one compare a football season to a publishing season? Is an 8-5 season more valuable than 30 books published? Is running a press worth losing an assistant coach or two?
In total, the University of Missouri employs over 17,500 individuals. Currently, the press employs 10 people though in 2009 it was nearly twice that number. The economic crash of 2008 forced many state universities such as the University of Missouri to reassess priorities and scale back.
Mizzou made their priorities clear: in 2010, the University of Missouri’s head football coach received a $650,000 raise.
Louisiana State University, another football powerhouse, slated its university press for closure in 2009. Somehow, this press survived the state budget crisis. However, given that it is nowhere near as popular as their football team, I’m sure that it sleeps with one eye open, waiting for the day that university officials have to decide between a subsidy for the press — and a pay raise for the coach.
University of Missouri administrators are said to be "hashing out ways to create a new and sustainable model to operate a university press." They also assure us that "any future press won’t look like the current operation."
"We believe the publication of scholarly work is important," said the president of University of Missouri. "We’re working very diligently on what” the new press “will look like."
While there is no indication where the University of Missouri administration will go with this, the options here are limited. The most obvious, however, is to go digital. And here there is some precedent.
Though Rice University closed its traditional press in 1996, it reopened in its wake an all-digital press in 2006. According to a 2010 interview with Eugene Levy, who helped finance the revived press during his term as provost at Rice, the all-digital press was costing Rice $150,000 to $200,000 per year. "This was intended as an experiment," said Levy.
Coming from the Andrew Hays Buchanan Professor of Astrophysics at Rice the word "experiment" gains even more gravitas.
Rice hoped to save money by not printing books. Comments Levy, "The hope was that, without the burden of having to maintain a print inventory, the press might sustain itself largely on revenues from print-on demand sales." What the university found out was that there "are base costs that are irreducible" — "and that printing is only one of them."
However, the decision was not without its detractors.
One of the board members — who wished to remain anonymous — commented that new models of academic publishing are not going to be derived from a sales model. "We’re moving to a different era of scholarly communication where it’s more accessible to more people, and where we don’t have to worry about commercial viability," said the anonymous board member. Humanities publishing is being killed by placing emphasis on commercial viability — "there is no commercial viability," added the board member.
No matter what the form and how diligent the work, a university press requires resources. Just as it takes resources to run a successful athletic program, so too
does it take an investment to run a university press.
And comparatively speaking, the costs are negligible: an editor makes less at Mizzou than an athletic trainer, and even the assistant baseball coaches make more than the press director.
Perhaps the solution is not to compare athletic salaries to press salaries but to treat university presses on the same level as athletic programs. Both are auxiliary operations subsidized by the university, and both play an important role in higher education.
Perhaps we need to measure the scholarly impact of the books published by the press in the same way we measure the impact of the gymnastics or baseball team winning a game or their division. Or think of the cultural capital and prestige generated by the press as akin to the bowl victories or NCAA titles.
And just as we don’t scrap athletics if one of our teams loses games or money, we shouldn’t scrap university presses if they don’t generate enough revenue to cover their operation.
While it may not be the most popular decision for the University of California Press to take one type of book off of their list, if it makes their press more viable in some way; it is akin to downsizing or closing down a sport to make an athletics program stronger.
Think of the $200,000 invested by Rice or the $400,000 at Mizzou as the cost of being a strong university — a cost that in the big picture is most likely a fraction of the cost of one athletic coach.
What does it mean when a university press fails? It means not that its authors are not successful or that its press was not run well. Rather it means that its university has abandoned part of its scholarly mission: namely, supporting the publication of books that are the lifeblood of its faculty — and academia itself.
“Given a good pitch and the right amount of capital,” George Orwell wrote in an early essay, "any educated person ought to be able to make a small secure living out of a bookshop.… [Y]ou start at a great advantage if you know anything about the insides of books.” It is “a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarized beyond a certain point.”
The work had its downsides, and Orwell’s candor made his assessment that much more credible. You should be prepared to accept extremely long hours, for example, and to deal with customers who are garrulous or insane or both. Worst of all, to work in a bookstore meant risking a distinct kind of burnout: “Seen in the mass, five or ten thousand at a time, books [become] boring and even slightly sickening.” But the entrepreneur who carves out a suitable niche will at least be immune to monopolistic forces: “The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.”
Good advice -- for 1936, anyway. Today, any educated person hoping to earn a small secure living (or a tiny, insecure one, for that matter) would do better to try almost anything else. Or so I took as a given until a couple of weeks ago, when Tony Sanfilippo, the marketing and sales director for Penn State University Press, sketched out his conceptual blueprint for an offline bookstore of the not-too-distant future. (“Offline bookstore” seems like the very 2010s sort of expression.) I don’t know if his plan will turn the tide, but it certainly deserves more consideration than it’s received so far.
Writing at The Digital Digest, one of the Association of American University Presses's blogs, Sanfilippo proposed a new model for bookselling that recognizes how much many of us miss the opportunity to browse and loiter somewhere in three dimensional space. Rather than fighting the trends that have undermined bookstores, he incorporates them into his design. And the product -- oddly enough – contains lost elements of 18th- and 19th-century book culture.
“Imagine you’re walking downtown,” he writes, “and you see a sign for a new business, That Book Place. Cool, you think to yourself, an idiot with money they apparently don’t need has opened a new bookstore in my community. I’m going to go check that out before it goes out of business. So you cross the street and walk in. In front is what you might expect, big stacks of The Hunger Games trilogy, a book of erotica for moms that appears to have something to do with the Pantone variations between PMS 400 and PMS 450, and a new cookbook teaching the virtues of artisanal water boiling.”
So far, so Borders (R.I.P.). Once past the bestsellers, you find an Espresso Book Machine, churning out volumes that customers have special-ordered. (In his post at Digital Digest, Sanfilippo indicates that three million titles are available for printing on demand, but in an e-mail note he tells me it’s actually seven million.)
That Book Place also has shelves and shelves carrying a mixture of new and used books, with price stickers giving the customer a variety of options. You can have a brand-new copy shipped to you the next day, or buy it used, or rent it, or get it as an e-book. If you take out a membership in the store, you can borrow a book for free, or get a copy without the Digital Rights Management (DRM) scheme that limits it to use on a specific kind of device.
In effect, the bookstore becomes a combination lending library and product showroom. “The books in the store shouldn’t be the focus of the revenue,” writes Sanfilippo. “Instead, the revenue might come from membership fees, book rentals, and referral fees for drop shipped new copies or e-book sales.”
People who take out a membership in the store would become stakeholders in its success -- not just customers, but patrons. Under that arrangement, Sanfilippo says, “a publisher might have a reason to trust the store and those members with DR-free files.” And the flexibility of options for acquiring a book -- whether for keeps or to borrow -- might undercut the consumer practice of browsing at a brick-and-mortar store, then buying online.
As someone who’s purchased a fair number of books in print-on-demand editions, I’ll add that ordering one in a store sounds more appealing than doing so online. You’d get it faster, for one thing, with the bonus of being able to watch as the book is made.
Well into the 18th century, when you bought a new volume from a bookseller, it arrived from the publisher without a binding, to be prepared on the premises according to the customer’s specifications. You could ask to have blank pages interspersed throughout it, for example, for note-taking -- one casualty of progress worth regretting. Sanfilippo’s model takes us back to that arrangement, at least part of the way. The quality of on-demand printing is not up to handcraft standards, but it's certainly improved over time. (In the case of late 19th-century books, the on-demand copy is often more durable than the original.)
Sanfilippo's proposal also resembles the circulating or subscription libraries that flourished in the 19th century. You'd join the library for a fee that gave you access to the collection. But as we discussed his bookstore model by e-mail, Sanfilippo indicated the seed for it might have been planted by something his mother did as a child.
“The Chicago suburban subdivision I grew up in was supposed to have a library in it,” he wrote. “On the end of our block, the developer promised to build a library building for the community, but, after the last house sold, the developer skipped town and left a vacant lot. My mother and a few other parents in the neighborhood figured there had to be another way.”
And there was: “They petitioned and got a referendum on the ballot to start a library district -- a taxing body specifically for a library. They succeeded and that library still serves that community. But how do you then appropriate that kind of revenue stream for a bookstore?… A business that sells shares of itself to its customers is not unlike a group of parents that tax themselves, and in this instance, both are to ensure access to books and book culture within a community.”
In short, That Book Place might function best if were run as a nonprofit enterprise or a co-op -- perhaps both. It's no substitute for decently funded public libraries, of course, but try getting a tax for anything but a stadium passed these days. The arrangement Sanfilippo proposes might not work out for any number of reasons, and he admits as much. The hardware for in-store book production alone runs into six figures.
But that hardly seems like an insurmountable obstacle for people willing to experiment and able to take the risk. As experimental initiatives for public-minded institutions go, Sanfilippo's idea seems like a natural. And the return on investment might be of incalculable benefit.
My intention here is to say something about the microwave burrito, considered in its socio-cultural aspect. All in due course. But first, a quick detour into Germany in the 1840s, when Ludwig Feuerbach was undoubtedly the hot philosopher of the hour. A disciple declared that intellectual life had to pass through the “fiery brook” of Feuerbach’s thinking -- a pun on his name, which also meant "fiery brook."
I’d guess the play on words also involved a mildly sacrilegious joke about baptism. In his best-known work, The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach made the provocative and career-destroying argument that God was, in effect, humanity writ large. Religion was an alienated expression of our intellectual and emotional capacities, as stunted and deformed by existing social arrangements. We project our highest powers and aspirations into a higher being, then rationalize anything oppressive as the work of divine will. This was more subtle than just an argument about God's existence. It was, in effect, a statement that humanity didn't exist yet -- not fully, at least.
Feuerbach had been a student of Hegel, whose seemingly closed and orderly philosophical system proved such a comfort to the Prussian bureaucracy. You could make a pretty good career out of demonstrating just how tidy that system was, and how it meant that every institution that existed had its purpose. Feuerbach worked out his own ideas by pushing Hegel’s in a more radical direction, thereby effectively thinking himself out of a job. The academic blacklisting, combined with a certain literary flair, made Feuerbach the hero of young intellectuals in Germany, and The Essence of Christianity hit British bookstores in 1855 in a translation by one Marian Evans, later and much better known for the novels she published as George Eliot.
Even so, chances are that Feuerbach would be completely forgotten if not for a few pages jotted down in his notebook by Karl Marx under the title “Theses on Feuerbach.” (Marx had also made that "fiery brook" quip.) The eleventh and final thesis – “The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it” – has been used by generations of young activists to try to get their professors to do more than pontificate about social problems. Feuerbach himself became active for a while, when the wave of revolutions sweeping through Europe in 1848 hit Germany. But he was a reclusive man by temperament and after a while largely withdrew from public life, let alone politics.
The microwave burrito, as you may have surmised, is only incidentally linked to German philosophy. Still, we're getting there. For it was in 1850 that Feuerbach’s former student Jacob Moleschott published a book called The Theory of Nutrition, which he sent to the philosopher in hopes of drumming up some publicity. (It’s always touching, the way friends will volunteer to let you review their books.)
The essay that Feuerbach wrote on Moleschott was strange, but it contained a turn of phrase that outlived both of them -- one that is, in fact, known to everyone. Here is the crucial passage:
"Foodstuffs become blood; blood becomes heart and brain, the stuff of thought and attitudes. Human fare is the basis of human education and attitudes. If you want to improve the people give it, instead of homilies against sin, better food. Man is what he eats."
You are what you eat. The motto that inspired a thousand infomercials was coined in an essay completely forgotten by everyone except Feuerbach scholars, who are not exactly thick on the ground. They have interpreted it in a surprising range of ways. It can be taken as a serious continuation of Feuerbach’s earlier work. Or as a satire, possibly inspired by reading the comedies of Aristophanes. Or as evidence that the poor man was losing it – philosophically, at least, if not mentally. He was depressed about the failure of the revolution, that much is clear. He suggested that it was a consequence of diet: Germans ate too much cabbage and potatoes, which provided insufficient protein for the brain. Progress demanded that they consume more beans.
Forget economic determinism; this is nutritional determinism. “Sustenance,” he writes in another passage, “is the beginning of consciousness. The first condition for bringing something to your head and your heart is bringing something to your stomach.” A fair point, no matter how seriously or jokingly Feuerbach meant it (a bit of both, I imagine). The recent abundance of interdisciplinary scholarship on food suggests that he was something of a prophet. If his work from the 1840s transformed theology into philosophical anthropology, the late phase of Feuerbach’s work might serve to ground the humanities in food studies.
He makes no appearance in Harvey Levenstein’s Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat (University of Chicago Press), where the endnotes tend to cite things like “Colonic Irrigation and the Theory of Autointoxication” from the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology. But it raises Feuerbachian questions, even so. If we are what we eat, then what does it mean when we become afraid of something we might have eaten happily the day before?
Levenstein, a professor emeritus at McMaster University in Ontario, writes in straightforward narrative prose about the waves of anxiety about food that have swept across the United States from the 1890s until the present day, from the menace posed by fresh fruit and vegetables (since flies landed on them in open-air markets) to lipophobia (with any consumption of high-fat foods regarded as a form of suicidal behavior). It's a well-researched but also very diverting book, with a large cast of public benefactors and corrupt operators. Not that you can always tell them apart.
In passing, the author mentions a chemically disinfected pulpy meat byproduct called “pink slime,” often incorporated into hamburger, among other comestibles. When Fear of Food arrived in galleys a few months ago, you didn't hear much about pink slime. In March, a scientist who once worked at the Department of Agriculture told an interviewer on network television that up to 70 percent of the ground beef in American supermarkets contained pink slime. Social media did the rest, forcing at least one company to shut down three plants and another to file for bankruptcy protection. A press release from the American Meat Institute has just announced “the addition of a new summit on Lean Finely Textured Beef” at a major food-marketing trade show next month. ("Lean Finely Textured Beef" is the term AMI would prefer everyone use instead of "pink slime." I will venture to guess that is not going to happen.)
The publication of Fear of Food had nothing whatever to do with the public gorge becoming suddenly buoyant. But neither is it purely a matter of synchronicity. “The agricultural revolution allowed humans to grow foods that they knew were safe,” writes Levinson, “but the market economy that accompanied it brought new worries: unscrupulous middlemen could increase their profits by adulterating food with dangerous substances. The new ways of producing, preserving, and transporting foods that arose in the nineteenth century heightened these fears by widening the gap between those who produced foods and those who consumed them.”
And that gap widened still more in the 20th century as doctors, scientists, corporations, regulatory agencies, and advertisers intervened, along with the occasional huckster or food-fadist. Public alarm over contamination or adulteration can be well-founded. (The recall of 143 million pounds of beef from a particularly vile feedlot a few years ago is a case in point.) But the waves of concern also manifest what, in an earlier book, Levinstein called “the paradox of plenty”: Americans are “a people surrounded by abundance who are unable to enjoy it.” That is something of an overstatement, though the portrait is recognizable. We must like to worry because we’re so good at it.
The incredible range of foodstuffs, and the conflicting health claims about what to eat and what to avoid, create “a kind of gastro-anomie,” writes Levenstein, “a condition in which people have no sense of dietary norms or rules.” That diagnosis seems to fit. The United States is a country where you can buy both soda with no calories and pizza with a crust stuffed with extra cheese. What’s more, you can buy them at the same place, at the same time. That's about as anomic as it gets. A public scare or dietary fad at least imposes a kind of temporary norm, thereby keeping the chaos at bay. And so, Levenstein implies, we’ll keep having them.
Which brings us, at long last, to the microwave burrito. If someone had to come up with a foodstuff to epitomize “gastro-anomie,” I'm pretty sure this one would do the trick. Certainly Levenstein’s point about the distance and disconnection between producer and consumer would apply. It seems entirely possible that the burrito remains untouched by human hands throughout the long journey from its creation to your grocer's freezer.
The packaging insists that it is healthy – the one I am looking at does, anyway. For one thing it has little or no cholesterol. Feuerbach recommended eating beans, as you may recall, so that's covered. He also quoted Moleschott as saying that there was no human thought without phosphorus. The nutritional information does not say just much of the minimum daily requirement of phosphorus is met. But it has lots of protein, despite being meatless. The primary selling point, of course, is that it's convenient. I often have one for lunch or dinner while writing this column, for precisely that reason. You throw it on a plate, nuke it, pay almost no attention while eating, then forget it.
“As is the food, so is the being," interrupts Feuerbach at this point. "As is the being, so is the food. Everyone eats only what is in accord with his individuality or nature, his age, his sex, his social position and profession, his worth. Every class is what it eats according to its essential uniqueness and vice versa.”
I find the remark troubling. Who wants to think of a burrito in the microwave as the deepest foundation, and fullest expression, of his innermost being? Plus, it tastes better salted. "As of this writing," Levenstein notes, "we are told that salt, historically regarded as absolutely essential to human existence, is swinging the grim reaper's scythe." A convenient meal is hurtling me towards nothingness! Then again, it contains no Lean Finely Textured Beef, which is a comfort.
An old rule of etiquette -- still endorsed by Miss Manners, at last report -- says not to talk about politics or religion while in mixed company, or among strangers. Civility demands keeping the passions in check, and nothing inflames them like those two topics. By extension, one should also avoid discussing Thomas Kinkade, who died over the weekend. His paintings of lighthouses, cozy cottages, and nostalgia-tinged city streets inspire adoration or disgust, but very little in between.
Kinkade was the single best-known artist working in the United States over the past two decades, and almost certainly the best-paid. At the peak of his career in the late 1990s and early ‘00s, he was earning more than $7 million per year. Besides paintings and prints, the Kinkade brand (he used the term himself) includes towels, mugs, clocks, calendars, and La-Z-Boy recliners. His claim that one American home in 20 contains some Kinkadean product or other seems inflated, though not altogether impossible.
Even stating these seemingly inoffensive facts will offend some readers -- either for calling Kinkade an artist (which makes people in the art world unhappy) or for failing to say that he dedicated his life to the Lord, not the dollar. I am in no position to judge that claim, but clearly it will be necessary to watch my step from this point on. Expressing a personal opinion of Kinkade in this column is of little interest to me (suffice it to say I’m more of a Gerhard Richter man), but the intensity of response to his work certainly is.
In a culture supersaturated with imagery, we tune much of it out just to get by. Kinkade’s images are exceptional. They elicit not just a verbal but a somatic response: a heartwarming feeling or visceral loathing. Why? How?
There’s no accounting for taste, as another old saw runs. But for a number of contributors to Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall -- edited by Alexis L. Boylan and published last year by Duke University Press -- accounting for the late artist’s appeal is not difficult at all. The Painter of Light (he trademarked the phrase) was, in the title of Micki McElya’s essay, “Painter of the Right.” The world Kinkade portrays is, if not prelapsarian, at least pre-1960s: “unmarked by the civil rights movement, feminism, gay liberation, or the Vietnam War,” writes McElya, “suggesting instead the mythical, simpler youths and ‘Good War’ of the ‘Greatest Generation.’ ”
Seth Ferman makes an overlapping argument in “God is in the Retails: Thomas Kinkade and Market Piety.” The paintings and the incredible array of products reproducing them express the desire for a world untouched by corrosive modernity -- but that’s just the half of it. They also serve a kind of sacramental purpose: communion via commodity.
“Kinkade fuses elements of Christian orthodoxy and capitalist ideology into a single faith,” Ferman writes, “what I call market piety, a veritable theology that believes free-market consumerism to be numinous…. Through Kinkade the consumption of art becomes a religiously meaningful way to transcend the difficulties of modern life (which ironically includes consumerism), making his hybrid market piety into an inconspicuous yet pervasive cultural identity for many of his collectors.”
His bucolic landscapes, then, are so many battlefields: the sites of culture-war skirmishing between “red” and “blue” sensibilities, fought out in an especially fierce way. A painting called "Hometown Memories I: Walking to Church on a Rainy Sunday Evening," taunts the presumed cultural elite with its very title, and to reliable effect. In her essay “Purchasing Paradise: Nostalgic Longing and the Painter of Light,” Andrea Wolk Rager writes that "Hometown Memories" “does not make demands of the viewer,” as serious art presumably does. “Instead, it lures you, almost imperceptibly, into a world where memory, placid and pleasant, has been supplied for you. The warm glow, the feeling of comfortably enclosing space, and the sense of welcoming solace complete the process of soporific pacification.”
That description stops just short of using the word “pablum,” which reflects Wolk Rager’s emphasis on the psychoanalytic understanding of nostalgia as a desire to return to the security and bliss of infantile fusion with the mother. The spaces depicted in Kinkade’s work “are often wet and warm, slick with spring rain and soft with diffused light. The images are dominated by curving lines and framing devices that seem to close in around a protected center. One is given the sense of being cushioned and cradled and lulled.”
A womb with a view, then. By this point, any Kinkade enthusiasts still reading will probably consider the book to be an assault, and not just on the painter but on themselves. Interpretation can be an aggressive act. But not all of the essays are interrogations, and I want to recommend one in particular as a counterstatement.
In “Thomas Kinkade’s Heaven on Earth,” the performance artist Jeffrey Vallance writes about curating “the first-ever contemporary art world exhibition of the works of Thomas Kinkade” in 2004, conducted simultaneously at the gallery of California State University at Fullerton and the Grand Central Arts Center at Santa Ana, nearby. If looking at Kinkade’s paintings through Freudo-Marxian goggles seems perverse to his admirers, showing them in a museum setting horrified the art world.
“Some people will never forgive me,” Vallance writes. “They fear his existence. He threatens everything they stand for, and he makes them nauseous.” There were pickets and black armbands. Someone threatened to slash the paintings. It cannot have helped that the exhibit included one artifact each from the extensive line of tie-in products, including the official Kinkade Visa card, “displayed in a vitrine resting on a velvet pillow.”
Sometimes art is provocative, and sometimes a provocation is an art. “Many erroneously thought that I would do the show in an ironic way,” the curator writes. “For me, irony is far too simplistic and expected. To do the show seriously was the challenge. As I often say, ‘The only irony is there is no irony.’ ”
Kinkade aficionados loved the exhibit, while the art critics were overwhelmed. “Many reviewers of the show followed a similar pattern,” Vallance recalls. “Most writers pretty much admitted that they loathed Kinkade and came expecting to hate the show – like gawkers at a train wreck. But then something happened. When they came to see the actual show, the kitsch was laid on so thick that something snapped in their brains. They experienced transcendence and ended up liking the show.”
And like it or not, any painter who can compel other artists to wear black armbands in protest of his work has already called dibs on posterity.