the new mlch

While eating, they normally conceal themselves or else close their eyes.
- Doctor Brodies Report.

In Borges’ short story, Doctor Brodie’s Report, then narrator describes the habits of the Mlch - a Yahoo like people who perform all their ‘physical acts’ in open view except for eating. They have the delicacy to conceal the tiniest hints of mastication, even though they are coarse enough to enjoy devouring raw corpses.

Restaurants, for the Mlch, would be as shocking as would be, for us, emporiums designed to let parents to copulate in front of stangers and their own children. But Borges’ story isn’t simply about inverting customs. It plays with an image of the private and the public that registers in myth – an image that sees these as two opposite poles. From that socially false but mythically re-enforced idea flows the libertarian notion of capitalism as a system of private enterprises. In reality, privacy is always defined by reference to a public; it is not in opposition to that public, nor is it even particularly concealed from the public. The mythical ideal of privacy is, in the social sphere, mere autism.

To trace the menu and its effects, as the crow-like LI has been doing – or delaying doing - is just a little attempt to get a few steps into how myth and history split, here, and why, and what havoc it has wrought – to reckon up the beauty and the casualties.

The burden of LI’s insanity, over the last decade, can be summed up as the coming of the Mlch – the leap from myth to history made by the governing class that has administered privatizations worldwide in an attempt to destroy privacy. For the nature of privacy does not reside in its incommunicability, or its surveyed and absolutely defended property lines, but in the fact that privacy is about who one chooses to share space with, who one chooses to share time with. Privacy is not defined by solitude; rather, solitude as private time is derived from privacy as shared time. Only after Friday joins Robinson Crusoe does privacy come into the picture.

This is what makes the appearance of the menu such an interesting little fold in the disembedding of the economic. The menu comes out of the great houses, where the cooking is done by the servants on a scale appropriate to the notables of the ancien regime, and into the public sphere, in restaurants. It comes out of the houses as, what? A marker of the re-organization of the social? an insensible change in the way intimacy is transacted? a way of closing off space in the public for the private? as a constitution of preferences? Hey, a lot depends on the menu here. Too much to bite off, so to speak. But I suppose what should concern me is the link between intimacy and taste – and the role of individuating payment, which was one of the first and most striking things about menus. The rule in the inn was that how much you paid for the food depended solely on how many people were at the table – you did not pay for what you ate. The rule, after the restaurant was established

(- which here is the history, quickly: According to Rebecca Stang’s The Invention of the Restaurant, the first restaurant to call itself a restaurant was opened on Rue Saint-Honore, Hotel d’Aligre in Paris by Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau in 1766. The restaurant was about restoration of the health – the eighteenth century doctor, when not worried about rotting smells and onanism, was worried about the effect of heavy foods, such as those served in auberge, on women and gens des lettres. Along with the restaurant came the menu, for in the restaurant, unlike the auberge, the diners’ physiques were individually addressed)

was that each paid for what each ate. And this, of course, is a concept that could only be welcomed by the budding political economist, since it made the eating of food correspond more rationally to the actual market. Or seemed to. However, it rather shocked Rousseau, who recounts going to a restaurant in the fourth of the Reveries chez la dame Vacassin, restauratrice – Rousseau calls it going to dine “en manière de pique-nique” – and who missed the old custom. Even though the restaurant as an invention serving the public health was, as Herve Dumez points out, inspired by Rousseauist themes - the same concern with breastfeeding, with being natural, with getting rid of traditional, unhealthy urban customs. In fact, the Mathurin’s restaurant, originally, emphasized broths – simple instead of healthy foods.

The framework of the establishment lent itself to the calm necessary for good digestion: for the first time, it would be possible to eat at a separate table, alone, en famille or with friends. One has here the three elements radically new of the restaurant: flexibility of the hours of dining, the choice, with the menu, and the mixture of a private intimacy made possible in a public place open to all. To which we should add a last point: the mixture of traditional cooking with innovation, simplicity (le bouillon) with sophistication. Quickly, but in the line of the maison de sante, the restaurant menus opened up to other dishes than simple soups: fruits and milk based desserts, notably rice pudding, inspired by the best seller, la Nouvelle Heloise.”

It should be pointed out that the idea that the inn simply offered common tables, here, is a myth. You could eat in your room, or you could eat at a table apart, depending on the capaciousness of the inn.

But LI has wandered into facts, here, taking us away from the bonds between taste, privacy, and intimacy. Hmm, that will be for another post.


Setholonius said…
mlch reminds me of Bunuel's Phantom of Liberty, with the family shitting around the table, excusing themselves occasionally for a sandwich in a small windowless room.
winn said…
this is a wonderful series of posts.
roger said…
Winn, what a sweet comment! Thank you.
roger said…
The above is a puzzling example of mindless spamming. I would, as per my custom, denouce the companies that the spambot links to - but the links are all to japanese commercial sites. The convergence between vandalism and commerce here is impressive. I imagine the spam bot just rubberstamps all blogs in blogspot. I would simply delete it, but before I do that, if somebody could tell me some way that I could vandalize back -- fuck with the sites the spam links to -- I'd appreciate it. I think that would be fun and educational.
roger said…
oops, I meant chinese